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LADY OF VALOR
Warrior Series Book 3
Widowed by the Crusades, Emmalyn of Fallonmour is a proud young beauty determined to control her own destiny, even if she must defy a dangerous warrior known in battle as "Blackheart" -- the man sent to guard her castle on the order of the king.

 

. . . Prologue . . .

The Holy Land. September 1, 1192

The dead man lay there, motionless and sprawled on the dirt floor of the tent where he had crumpled moments before. A bleeding wound at his side spread out like spilled wine, staining his Crusader's surcoat and the ground beneath him a deep crimson-black. Left arm outstretched, his now unmoving fingers were curled into the hard-packed earth mere inches from the boot of an English footsoldier.

Cabal--Blackheart, as he was better known these more than two years on campaign--stood in the dim illumination of a sputtering candle that had been upset during the struggle and considered that clawing, desperate hand with sober reflection, like a man awakened from the depths of a black and heavy dream.

Outside the tent, darkness had settled over the desert, cooling the vast sea of scorching sand but doing little to calm the bloodlust of the Crusaders camped there. The bonfire that King Richard's army had lit hours before would burn long into the night, as would the men's drunken voices, raised in celebration of the day's small victory.

Camped for more than a sennight and wanting for action, the soldiers had raided a village that afternoon, taking with it scores of Muslim lives. Never mind that the numbers included women and children; they were all soulless heathens according to the Church. As such, they had been afforded less regard in their slaughter than would the lowliest vermin. But the dead were the fortunate ones. They were spared the horrors suffered on those left living as prisoners of the Cross.

Staring down at the dead officer, Cabal ran a hand over his grimy, dark-bearded face, and blew out a weary sigh. Damnation. What manner of beasts had they become in God's name? Worse, he wondered, could it actually be starting to matter to him?

Before a long-forsaken conscience could rouse to needle him further, Cabal's ear was drawn toward the approaching sound of footsteps scuffing in the sand outside the tent. The flap was thrown open and a laughing soldier ducked inside, bleary-eyed, stinking of sweat and overmuch wine. "Sir Garrett, ye selfish bastard! Do ye mean to keep the chit all to yerself?" The mercenary drew in a choking gasp, stumbling back on his heels. "God's wounds, what happened--"

When he made to advance, Cabal held him off with a dismissive flick of his hand. Crouching beside the fallen nobleman, he reached out for a jeweled dagger that lay next to him, slick with its owner's blood. "I came upon the struggle too late," he offered blandly. "There was no saving him."

"She killed him! The damned Saracen whore killed him!"

"She was no whore, Rannulf. Only a child." Cabal could scarcely contain the edge of disgust in his voice. "No more than ten summers if she was a day."

"Child or nay, the filthy bitch will suffer--"

The soldier's sputtered exclamation broke off as Cabal rose to his full height and faced him, forced to incline his head under the cramped slope of the tent's ceiling. "The girl is gone."

The mercenary frowned, looking past Cabal to a severed length of rope that lay on the earthen floor. Sir Garrett of Fallonmour had leashed the thick braided cord about the young Saracen's neck when he plucked her from a crowd of screaming villagers that day, intent on keeping her for his own base amusement. Though Rannulf seemed hesitant to voice his doubts about the prisoner's escape, his expression was suspicious, questioning.

Cabal answered frankly. "I set her free."

"Set her free? So she can stab another man in the back? The murdering little wench should be run down and gutted!"

"Any man who goes after the girl or any other peasant in retaliation for this will answer to me."

Rannulf gaped at him in disbelief. "God's blood, Blackheart! Ye fought beside Sir Garrett for nigh on two years. Why, to hear ye now, that peasant slut's life meant more to you than his!"

Cabal met and held the incredulous stare without responding. Garrett of Fallonmour was certainly no friend of his, but then Cabal did not place much value on anyone's life, not even his own. He took a small amount of satisfaction in seeing that bleak understanding register fully in the other man's eyes.

"Jesu," the mercenary whispered suddenly, as if just now realizing the breadth of his folly. Few dared challenge the man whose reputation deemed him among the worst of King Richard's savage henchmen. Face fading to an unhealthy pallor, Rannulf swallowed hard. "Sir Cabal, please. I assure ye, I meant no offense--"

Casually, Cabal wiped Garrett's blood-stained blade on the edge of his surcoat, biding his time in contemplative silence while Rannulf spewed a fretful string of apologies. Better that the mercenary's immediate worry for his own neck blind him to the disturbing truth behind Cabal's actions regarding Garrett's innocent young hostage. A truth that Cabal himself was only recently coming to realize . . .

Though his heart was every bit as black as a desert night, it had, of late, begun to beat.

Damnation, how he needed to feel the crush of battle! Too much idle time was making him soft. Weakening him. His feet itched to be on the march again; his muscles craved combat. If Richard and the Saracen leader did not resolve their standoff soon and get on with the business of war, Cabal reckoned he would likely go mad with the waiting.

"Clean up this bloody mess," he growled to Rannulf. The harsh command sent the soldier to his knees on the tent floor, scurrying to pick up the smoldering candle and right the up-ended table. "See to disposing of the body as well. Doubtless the king has no desire to see one of his noble vassals left behind for sport among the infidels. Not even this one."

Cabal tossed Garrett's dagger to the floor, then turned and quit the tent. Outside, the smoke-filled night air was thick with the sounds of conversation and drunken laughter. Flames from the camp bonfire climbed high into the moonless sky, illuminating hundreds of faces that watched surreptitiously as the king's most feared warrior strode through their midst on his way to the royal pavilion at the end of the avenue.

Four men-at-arms stood outside the massive, striped silk tent that sheltered King Richard, England's finest son. Though the king had been ensconced within most of the day for solitary contemplation and meetings with his officers, his guards granted Cabal immediate entry, same as they would any high-ranking vassal. One of them swept aside the square of silk that served as the tent door, allowing Cabal to pass beneath. That he had earned this brand of respect out of fear more than status irked him somewhere in the far corners of his mind, but Cabal pushed the feeling away as he came into the tent and bowed before the presence of Coeur de Lion.

"Ah, Cabal. I thought perhaps you might have been Fallonmour, come at last to join us. His tardiness for this conference is beginning to try my patience." The king had assembled five of his officers inside, the noblemen all seated before him around a large, ornately carved table that was strewn with countless maps and papers. His legendary royal temper beginning to flare, Richard barked, "Will someone go fetch the impudent bastard or must I do it myself?"

Only Cabal dared speak in the moment of panic that followed. "That will not be possible, my lord." He met Richard's puzzled stare, his blunt statement also gaining the attention of the two servants who had scrambled toward the tent's exit. "There was an incident with one of the prisoners in the camp a short while ago," Cabal explained. "Fallonmour was killed."

The king remained silent amid the aghast exclamations of his officers, his tawny brows arched only slightly in reaction to the news. "Well," he said to Cabal, "that Fallonmour survived more than a week past his arrival in Palestine is a credit to your skill more than his value to me as a soldier. I wager he'd have been dead long before this, had you not been there to guard his back."

Cabal stared, but took no esteem in a compliment that was merely stated fact. Though he had despised Garrett for his carelessness in battle and faulty leadership of his regiment, as was his duty, Cabal had delivered him from the killing end of a Saracen blade on more than one occasion. But not tonight, and the thought plagued him anew.

"Come in, then," the king offered, indicating a vacant x-chair beside the gathered noblemen. "It should please you to know that I have reached a decision regarding the infidels' proposed treaty."

Cabal seated himself at the table with the others, unaffected by the cool glances of the officers as he, a baseborn mercenary, took his place amongst their titled ranks. He accepted a cup of wine passed to him by one of the king's servants then watched over the rim as Coeur de Lion rose from his chair and began to pace slowly behind the desk.

"I have decided to accept the terms of Saladin's agreement," he stated without preamble, his distaste for the resolution made clear in his constricted tone of voice. "I leave to meet with him in the morn."

The king's vassals did nothing to conceal their relief, each of them rushing forth with congratulations, offering words of support for the decision to end the strife. Interested only in being on to the next battle alongside his king, Cabal remained stoic, drinking his wine in emotionless silence as Richard explained the details of the settlement, then gave orders for the officers to inform their regiments.

"Prepare the ships to sail for England in the coming weeks," he instructed. "I, however, will needs take an alternate route from the rest of you. It seems my advisors fear I might be set upon if I travel in the open. I tell you, 'tis damned inconvenient when one's enemies lie in wait within and without the realm. Not to mention among one's own blood kin." Alluding to the known treachery and scheming of his younger brother, Prince John, the king's wry humor lacked its usual bravado.

"What of Fallonmour's holdings now, Your Grace?" inquired one of the assembled men, his concerned tone scarcely masking the glint of avarice in his eyes. "'Tis far too valuable an estate to leave in the hands of Sir Garrett's new widow--or his brother, Hugh de Wardeaux."

"Indeed." The king's broad, leonine brow furrowed in consideration. "I know not of the widow Fallonmour's politics, but Hugh has made no secret of his loyalties to John. 'Tis one more alliance I can ill afford to ignore." Richard met Cabal's confirming nod, then retrieved a quill and a blank square of parchment from his desktop and began writing. "Until I am back in London and have the leisure of deciding upon a worthy vassal to install as lord, I think it best to place Fallonmour under the wardship of someone I can trust."

Cabal lounged negligently in his chair, watching with mild interest as five sets of eager eyes rooted on the king, five noblemen waiting like vultures for a chance to increase their wealth upon the sudden death of one of their own. Idly, he wondered which would get the boon, at the same time thankful that his pledge in service to the Crown had removed him from such meaningless concerns.

As of its own accord, his hand stole to the center of his chest, where the solid weight of that obligation rested so insidiously against his skin. A cold reminder of who he was, and what he would never be.

The king ceased writing midway down the page and glanced up at his officers, seeming to assess the lot of them each in turn. His cool, careful gaze traveled over their expectant faces as if visually measuring their honor, questioning it. "There is only one man here whom I would trust to selflessly guard my interests at Fallonmour," he said. "One man I would install without worry that he might harbor his own designs for the place." Coeur de Lion's commanding stare came to rest pointedly on Cabal. "I will send him."

. . . Chapter One . . .

England. June, 1193

That particular day dawned much the same as the hundreds that had come before it, still, Lady Emmalyn of Fallonmour felt an odd quickening in her veins--a queer sense of hopeful anticipation that roused her before the sun's first rays lit her chamber. Something was in the air; she could feel it.

Would today be the day?

Excited to find out, she washed and dressed quickly, then quit her chamber and descended the stairwell that spiraled through the heart of the castle. She moved hastily and on light feet, knowing she would have only this short while to claim for her own. Before long, the entire keep would wake and her daily duties as castellan would begin anew.

Among the first to seek Emmalyn out this morn would surely be the seneschal, entrusted to oversee Fallonmour upon Garrett's departure three years past. The dour old servant had informed her last eve of his intent to go down to the village at first light for the weighing of the newly sheared wool and an assessment of the fields' bounty. While Emmalyn fully intended to cooperate with the accounting, she disliked the man's tactics, and particularly his harsh treatment of her folk.

She would accompany him to the fields, she had told him firmly, but they would go when she was ready. At present, she had other, more pressing priorities to attend outside the keep.

Fallonmour awaited a new arrival.

Emmalyn crossed the bailey, anxious with anticipation by the time she reached the stables. The head groom, a large, graying bear of a man, was already at work, tools in hand. He greeted Emmalyn with a wide smile when she entered the outbuilding.

"How does she fare this morn, Thomas?"

"Well, milady. Only a matter of a day or two now, I reckon."

"A day or two?" Emmalyn couldn't help but sigh her disappointment. "'Tis the very answer you gave me last week, Thomas. Will she never have this foal?"

The old stable master chuckled. "The first is often late in coming, milady. No cause to fret just now. Minerva will let us know when 'tis time."

Emmalyn looked into her mare's soft brown eyes and smiled. "Did you hear that, Minnie? You're going to be a mother soon." The bay blinked her frond-like black lashes and nuzzled Emmalyn's outstretched palm. Then she nipped her. Gently, but enough to make Emmalyn yelp in surprise.

"'Tis all right," she assured Thomas when he dropped his tools and hastened to her side.

He bent to retrieve something from a bucket on the floor then cleared his throat. In his hand were an apple and a small knife. Sheepishly, he held them out to her. "Apologies, milady, but I fear I've spoiled the beast of late. She looks fer a treat every morn now--gets downright surly if denied it overlong. I beg pardon, if ye be displeased."

"You have a kind, giving heart, Thomas. You needn't ever apologize for that. Besides," she relented on a soft laugh, "it seems I am as much to blame as you for Minnie's poor behavior. While you have been spoiling her with apples in the mornings, I have been doing the same after supper each afternoon. 'Tis a wonder she hasn't tired of them by now."

Emmalyn had scarcely sliced off the first crisp wedge when the mare nudged forward and stole it from her fingers. While Minerva munched contentedly, Emmalyn stroked the rough silk of the horse's large head and neck. "I reckon she is due some special treatment, is she not? After all, 'tis not every day Fallonmour hosts a royal birth."

She could hardly contain her pride over the prospect. Minerva's foal was sired by Queen Eleanor's finest stallion, the breeding a gift from Her Majesty on the dowager queen's last visit to Fallonmour, and something Emmalyn prized dearly. At her side, Thomas beamed his assent then picked up his tools and returned to his tasks with the other horses.

"Milady!"

From the bailey came a pre-adolescent bark of alarm. The mare started, tossing her head and whinnying, eyes wide. The shout startled Emmalyn as well. She whirled toward the heavy pound of running feet as they neared the stables. One of her fostering pages skidded to a halt in the doorway, breathless.

"Milady, come quickly!"

"What is it, Jason?" she scolded. "You frightened poor Minerva nigh to death--"

"Arlo sent me, milady! You must come at once--he's in the south field! Hurry!"

At the mention of the seneschal's name, Emmalyn bristled. It did not surprise her that Arlo would waste no time in defying her instructions, but what troubled her more was the urgency in Jason's voice. Doubtless Arlo had threatened the boy with some form of bodily harm if he did not carry out the order to fetch her at once. Or perhaps the seneschal had taken it upon himself to terrorize the villeins in the name of commerce. "I've had about enough of Arlo and his bullying ways. Where is he now, Jason? The south field, you say?"

The page shook his head fiercely. "Nay, milady, 'tis not Arlo in the south field, but a rider! He approaches Fallonmour as we speak!"

"A rider?"

"A knight, milady, wearing the white cross of a Crusader!"

Instantly, Emmalyn felt her confidence falter. She drew in a deep, strengthening breath and made sure her voice remained steady, even if it was little more than a whisper. "A Crusader? Are you certain?"

"Aye! Riding a great black steed and heading for the castle! Milady, think you 'tis Lord Garrett, returned at last?"

Garrett.

Could it be? After three years without a word from him, had he now come home? Although King Richard had been captured by one of his enemies upon leaving the Holy Land, news of his army's return had been circulating for many months now. Inasmuch, Emmalyn had been expecting to see Garrett ride through Fallonmour's gates, preparing herself for the eventuality of her husband's homecoming and how it would affect life as she had come to know it in his absence. But she wasn't prepared. She knew that now, feeling her stomach tighten and twist with every passing moment. She struggled to appear calm. "Tell Arlo to assemble the folk in the hall, Jason. I'll be along in a moment."

Emmalyn turned back to Minerva's soulful gaze and idly stroked the mare's neck. Already her hands were shaking. Mercy, but she had to collect her thoughts. Collect her nerve. Perhaps the war had changed her husband. Gentled him. Perhaps things between them would be different now.

She was different. No longer the child he had married, but a woman of twenty summers. She had managed Fallonmour and its holdings during the more than three years he had been away, acting as castellan and negotiating with tradesmen, even fending off a raid on the village last autumn. So why should the thought of facing one man--her husband--still terrify her so?

Beside her, Thomas's voice was a low, soothing drawl. "Courage, milady."

Emmalyn nodded, but her smile was weak. If the stable master only knew how much she needed his gentle words of support. If he only knew what strength it would take for her to face Garrett again, to return to her role as his wife. But no one knew; Garrett had been careful enough to make sure that the scars she bore were inside, where no one could see them. Not that they were any less ugly; surely no less painful.

Straightening her shoulders despite the weight of her dread, Emmalyn marched out of the stable and across the bailey toward the keep. Castlefolk tending their work glanced at her as she passed them, everyone clearly made aware of the approaching Crusader and watching for her reaction to the news. But Emmalyn kept her chin high, her gait purposeful.

To mask some of her own internal disquiet, as she neared the keep she called out orders to a knot of people standing idle in the bailey. "Nell, shoo those chickens back into the roost. Alfred, see to it that straw and fresh water are brought to the stables. And Jane, find Cook. Tell him to warm the venison and lamprey from last eve and use the fresh beans I brought in from the garden yesterday. Bring bread, too, but not the dark--fetch the lightest loaf you can find. Make sure there is wine on the dais, but it mustn't have any grit, so strain it twice before you decant it."

Emmalyn did not slow her pace until she had ducked under the cool shade of the pentice, an arched gateway that led from the bailey to the keep. She stood there a moment, thankful to be away from watchful eyes while she summoned a steady breath.

Dieu, but how quickly Garrett's expectations came back to her, even after all this time. All of the demands he placed on her, from the way he wanted his meals prepared to the way he required her to dress in his presence. She'd had three years to make her life her own, to come out of the shadow Garrett had cast over her. Three years of freedom, yet she felt her hard-won confidence slipping away even before he darkened Fallonmour's threshold.

Could it be so easy to fall back into that life now? Could he control her that effortlessly? Nay! She could not allow anyone to do that to her again. Not now. Not ever.

Knowing Garrett would expect her to greet him dressed in her finest gown, her disobedient hair braided and modestly covered, Emmalyn mounted the keep stairwell, taking a small amount of rebellious pleasure in her current state of drab attire.

She'd had no use for richly-toned silks or embroidered slippers in recent days, favoring instead the russet wool tunic she wore now and her practical leather boots. There was no bejeweled girdle circling her hips, only a utilitarian belt adorned with nothing more than a sheathed dagger and ring of jangling keys. Her blond hair she usually plaited, simply to keep it out of her way while she worked, but in her haste to dress this morning she had left it unbound. Its weighty mass tumbled over her shoulders and down her back in a tangle of unruly curls that was sure to set Garrett's teeth on edge.

But she willed herself not to let the thought of his displeasure sway her as she passed her chamber door and climbed the rest of the way up to the tower roof. Two of Fallonmour's knights stood at the farthest parapet, shielding their eyes from the rising sun as they looked to the far hill.

"It has been too long since I last saw Lord Garrett," said one man to the other. "I vow he looks bigger now, does he not?"

"Aye, and hale, too. See how bold he sits in the saddle!"

Emmalyn came up beside them nearly without their notice. She peered over the ledge at the approaching knight and dread coiled in her belly. The men were right; he did look larger than even she had recalled.

Gone was the rounded slope of Garrett's shoulders; now they looked nearly the width of his steed's broad back. The long red surcoat he wore was faded and torn, a tattered rag that did little to conceal the muscular bulk of the man it clothed. Indeed, from where she stood, Emmalyn could see the power in his thighs, the proud set of his spine as he guided his horse at an easy gait over the plain. There was an air of calm about him now, a self-assuredness and almost regal bearing that even this fair distance could not disguise.

Though she fought it, curiosity began to stir in Emmalyn's mind, a subtle interest that made her study him more closely.

The black destrier she had given Garrett as a wedding gift--a beast he could never tame and had always despised for its willfulness--now cantered cooperatively beneath him, completely mastered. Horse and rider made an admittedly impressive picture, a striking image of the home-coming hero, but something was not quite right. With a mingling of wonder and suspicion, Emmalyn watched the firm but respectful way he handled the stallion. The way he made no move to dominate it, yet managed absolute control.

And then she knew.

"'Tis not him," she said with quiet, utter certainty.

"Milady?"

Emmalyn had turned away from the wall-walk to head back for the keep, but stopped when she heard the guard's puzzled question. "He rides my lord's mount," she confirmed, "but that man is not my husband."

. . . end excerpt . . .