Excerpt

THE SECOND KNIGHT

Prologue

Chauvere Castle, Nottinghamshire, England, January 1194

Winter dawn broke to a grinding crash of stone against stone. Startled voices mingled with the grating, shuddering thuds that echoed in the tower’s death-still bedchamber.

Lady Alyss leaped to her feet. He couldn’t be using a catapult. Jesu! She raced to the window and pulled aside the shutter. Cold dampness bathed her burning cheeks as she peered out. Nothing was visible in the fog-drenched darkness. Heart in throat, she listened.

Silence.

Then thunder trembled and rolled as a section of bailey wall collapsed. The sound of crumbling rock rose, a heavy counterpoint to the winter mist that carried it. Shouts and an occasional scream floated upward. Alyss rested her head against the wall, squeezed shut her eyes. Her world crumbed with the stone. Dear God, why now?

For an instant, she felt lost. There was no one to turn to. Then she sucked in a breath and pulled herself together. She was responsible now. She would do what she must. But there was such little time to do it.

She ran to the bed, brushed her father’s now-cold fingers. With a shuddering sigh, she gently placed the gnarled hand at his side and smoothed the arm of his shirt. Her own trembling hand came away to fist in frustration. He was pain-free at last. She should thank the Holy Mother for that. But she wasn’t grateful, she was angry. How could the siege have turned into attack?

Where was Evie? She should be here by now. Trust the 13-year-old’s stubbornness to delay them. It didn’t matter what her sister wanted, she had to go now. Alyss paced the floor, her usual cool calm forgotten in the blaze of danger. How long would it take Sir Godfrey to bring back her brother? Henry’s place was here, not in Germany, waiting to escort the king home.

She strode back across the chamber, frustrated at the sound of fighting. This wasn’t the first time their greedy new neighbor, Jasper of Windom, had come to demand Alyss’s hand in marriage. Always before, he’d been willing to bargain and bluff. Then three days ago, he arrived with his soldiers. But why attack just now? Surely he hadn’t learned of her father’s final seizure last night. No one knew but Sir Baldwin and she. And Father Hubert, of course.

No matter the reason. The most immediate problem was her sister. Evelynn must get to safety. Alyss glanced up as the girl slipped through the door, followed by the priest. Evie clutched a traveling bag to her still-flat chest, her eyes wide and wary as she stared at the figure of Lord Ulrich.

“How is Papa?” she whispered. “Has he awakened yet?” She slid to Alyss’s side and touched their father’s hand. “He’s so cold.”

What to tell her? That question had plagued Alyss since it became obvious their father would not awaken. Not this time. During the night his condition had worsened and now…. Praise God he didn’t live to see Sir Jasper’s triumph.

If Evie knew Lord Ulrich was dead, she would refuse to leave. This was no time for argument, and Evelynn loved to argue. The girl had to get out while she could.

Taking a deep breath, Alyss made her decision. “No, my dear, Papa is sleeping.” She struggled to keep her voice calm as she pushed Evie toward the hidden door. “You must hurry.”

“But I can’t leave when he is so ill.”

“You must. You know he worried about your safety, and he won’t like it if we disobey him.” Alyss tucked a long, glossy brown curl under the cap that covered Evie’s head. The rough black wool was part of the clothing Alyss had borrowed from the cook’s son.

She glanced toward the wall where Father Hubert waited beside one of her mother’s beautifully worked long tapestries, his sharp blue eyes taking in the scene. She heard his sniff of disapproval as he glared at the girl dressed in boy’s clothing.

How had she heard that sniff? Realization hit her. The shouts from outside had stopped. She held her breath.

“Alyss?” came Evie’s hoarse whisper, “is it over?”