A Loyal Heart – Jody Hedlund

Ludlow Castle, Eastern Marches June, in the year of our Lord 1392 “The inner bailey wall to the south is down, my lady, and the castle will soon be overrun.” The soldier faltered in the doorway of my chambers, his armor slick with the blood of battle. The news of the collapse didn’t surprise me. After all, I’d spent the past night, like everyone else, anxiously listening to the steady ring of picks as sappers chipped away the last of the stone under the wall. From the moment Lord Pitt’s sappers started digging the underground passageway beneath the walled fortifications several days ago, I’d known it was only a matter of time before they broke into the castle. I just never expected it to be so quickly. While I’d hoped the tunnel would weaken and collapse on the sappers in order to halt their progress, they’d moved with remarkable speed and without any mishaps, clearly well commanded. I’d ordered my captain of the guard to do whatever he could to stop the digging, but he’d been too busy fending off siege engines and invaders scaling the walls. The soldier’s knees began to buckle, but he grabbed onto the doorframe to hold himself erect. Only then did I see the trail of crimson running from between his gorget around his neck and his pauldron. I yanked at the top sheet of my bed, made a slit with my sword, and ripped off a piece of linen. “You are losing too much blood,” I said, crossing to the soldier. “Stuff this under your armor against the wound to staunch the flow.” My own shoulder piece flapped as I pressed the material into the defenseless spot of the soldier’s armor. Cecil had begun helping me don my armor the moment I received word the sappers had dragged brush and a fatty hog carcass into their underground passageway. A short while later, I watched out my high window as a torch man crawled inside to light the brush and hog. He’d barely made it out before the explosion rocked the castle. My padding and chain mail were in place. But Cecil had only managed to assemble half my armor —the cuisse covering my thighs along with my breastplate and pauldrons. Now, we had no time to finish. “You can’t tend the wounded, Olivia,” Cecil admonished. His slender face with his pointed black goatee radiated with rare urgency. “You need to escape through the west exit. Now. While Lord Pitt’s soldiers are distracted in the throes of battle.


” Though I’d planned to join the fighting to defend the keep, Cecil was right. This might be my only chance to sneak my sister away. I nodded curtly and stalked to my helmet where it lay on the end of my bed. “We shall disguise Izzy as one of the servants.” Cecil bowed his head, revealing the shiny bald circle surrounded by thinning black hair. With bronzed skin, his Moorish ancestry was difficult to ignore. But his diminutive stature as well as gnarled limbs disguised the threat of his strength and cunning. To anyone else, Cecil appeared to be nothing more than an old, crippled slave. But he was not only my personal trainer. He was my fiercest protector, my wisest advisor, and my most trusted friend. He was the only one who could address me, the Earl of Ulster’s daughter, without my title of Lady Olivia. No one else dared such informality. Tucking my helmet under my arm, I grabbed my weapon belt which contained the sword Cecil had crafted especially for me, lightweight yet powerful. I didn’t have time for the gauntlets for my hands or the sabatons to cover my leather boots. “Return to the captain,” I said to the soldier waiting in the doorway. “Instruct him to distract the enemy in the inner bailey and hold them off as long as possible so that I might take Lady Isabelle to safety.” He bowed his subservience before spinning and stumbling back the same direction he’d come, his armor clanking with each labored step. I would need every second the knights could give me. As if sensing the same, Cecil was already hobbling across my chamber to the boudoir that led to the inner door connecting my chambers to Izzy’s. As I entered the private room I used for bathing and dressing, I inhaled the sweetness of lavender and roses scattered among my many garments to keep them from taking on the scent of the damp and musty castle walls. I followed Cecil past the massive walnut armoire and matching dressing table and past the locked chest that held all my jewelry. Did I have time to take a few of the most precious items? Perhaps the jewels that had belonged to my mother—the only links I had left to the gentle and kind woman who had died shortly after Izzy’s birth nearly fifteen years ago, when I’d been only three. Father had married twice thereafter. His second wife had borne him a long-coveted son but she died a year later. His childless third wife, the current Countess of Ulster, had mothered Charles as if he were her own.

The countess was cold and formal and treated Izzy and me like foreign guests. In spite of her lack of warmth, I did appreciate her devotion to my half-brother, especially because at six years of age, he was sickly and in need of constant attention which she willingly gave him. At least they were safe at Wigmore Castle, my father’s principal seat of residence. “My mother’s jewels,” I called to Cecil, stopping next to the chest. “I shall take the most precious.” Cecil shook his head as I’d suspected he would. “We don’t have time.” I pictured several pieces of my mother’s jewels. My favorite was the circular gold brooch studded with emeralds, the one my mother had often worn to pin her cloak closed. She’d told me the vibrant green was the same shade as my eyes and just as beautiful, the only aspect of my appearance I’d inherited from her. Everything else about me resembled Father—my determined temperament, red hair, fair skin, and striking features. Still, my numerous suitors would have vied for me even if I’d been as ugly as a mule. Along with my father’s wealth and land, he was one of the most powerful magnates of the Marches which made me a prized catch among the nobility. During the past year of playing the courtship game, I’d known as well as Father where my future lay. With Lionel Lacy. Ahead, Cecil was entering Izzy’s chambers and calling sharp instructions to her maidservant. My attention dropped to my jewelry chest again. At the very least, I should save the bracelet Lionel had recently given me. The Lacys were another powerful Marcher family. Uniting the families in marriage would strengthen Father’s power and wealth. During Father’s last visit to Ludlow, he’d confided in me that he was making arrangements with the Marquess of Clearwater for my betrothal to Lionel. As the oldest son, Lionel would one day inherit his father’s title of marquess as well as his wealth and holdings. Through the marriage, I would gain a new status as the future Marchioness of Clearwater, would spend time at the king’s court, and would likely become one of the queen’s ladiesin-waiting. I’d be in a place to hear valuable information as well as influence the other ladies, maybe even the queen herself. Such connections would put me in a position to help my father in any way he needed and show him my worth as a daughter.

Certainly Father would want me to save as many of our valuable jewels as possible. Moreover, it would only take an extra minute to retrieve the chest key from its hiding place. I spun on my heels and returned to my chambers, ignoring the slapping footsteps and shouts in the hallway. Father would be sorely disappointed when he learned I’d allowed Ludlow Castle to fall to Lord Pitt, one of his grievous, longtime enemies. I’d been able to send Father a quickly scrawled note just before Lord Pitt’s troops had arrived and laid siege to the castle. For the past week, I’d prayed he received my note and would make haste to aid me with his army of retainers. However, my hopes had dwindled with each passing day, especially as Lord Pitt’s men relentlessly broke down our defenses. I crossed to the corner, knelt, and began brushing away the rushes to reveal the wood planks underneath. My fingers made quick work of prying up the loose board and finding the key underneath. The battle cries and clamor stealing in the open window seemed louder, almost as if they were coming from inside the castle now. I had to hurry or we might lose our chance to escape. Without bothering to replace the board, I returned to the boudoir and knelt in front of the chest. Before I could wiggle the key into the lock, Cecil reappeared dragging Izzy with him. She clutched her gown closed where apparently the servant had been in the process of unlacing it. Izzy’s light blue eyes were wild with fright, and her blond hair a disheveled tangle under the servant’s head covering. “They’re here,” Cecil hissed. “Hide in the armoires.” Without a moment’s hesitation, I grabbed Izzy and swung open the heavy armoire door. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Cecil shuffle into my chambers. I wanted to shout after him to find a place to hide too. I didn’t want him to take any risks with the invading army. But such admonitions would go unheeded. Cecil was more stubborn than I was. I’d have to trust he’d find a way to keep himself safe. Although he was no longer the young Moorish warrior he’d once been, he was still skilled beyond most.

“Climb behind the gowns.” I shoved Izzy into the heavy garments. She whimpered, her skin ashen. My sister contained everything good and fair in this world and was like our mother in every way that I was not. “Do not make a sound and do not come out,” I ordered as I closed the door. “Not for any reason.” The bang of my chamber door and clanking footfalls was followed by shouts. Without further thought, I yanked my helmet over my head and unsheathed my sword. I had no time to climb into the armoire opposite Izzy’s. Instead, I sidled next to it into the dark shadows of the windowless room. If anyone peeked into the boudoir, I’d be mostly out of sight. And if they came into the small dressing room to search more thoroughly, I’d slit their throats before they had the chance to discover Izzy’s hiding place. “Where are they?” came a sharp voice from my chamber. The heavy footsteps on the rushes told me there were several soldiers searching the room. I was surprised they’d infiltrated the castle and found my chambers so rapidly. Whoever was leading the campaign was obviously informed and efficient. Even if I was in great danger, I could still appreciate a well-executed attack. “The Earl of Ulster’s daughters have already made their escape,” Cecil said with the slight accent of his native language. A moment of silence ensued, and I could envision the intruders scanning the room and seeing signs of my recent presence. I closed my eyes and prayed they wouldn’t notice the remains of my morning meal on the bedside table. “Continue to search,” the sharp voice finally barked. “Check everywhere. Leave no door unopened.” The footsteps resumed and began to cross to the boudoir. I slid my fingers more securely around the hilt of my sword.

The handle was perfectly shaped to fit my slender fingers. And thanks to Cecil’s drills, I could wield it as expertly as any knight. The only problem was that I’d never fought in a real battle, and my breath hitched slightly at the prospect of taking up my weapon with the intent to cause bodily injury. “The earl’s daughters left earlier this morning.” Cecil spoke more adamantly. I didn’t have to be in the room to know he was reaching for the knife hidden at the small of his back. My lungs constricted at the realization that Cecil would fight to the death to keep the knights from entering the boudoir and discovering our presence. At one time Cecil may have had the capability of defending himself against overwhelming odds. But not anymore. He’d put up a vicious fight, but he wouldn’t be able to single-handedly defeat this group. I wouldn’t stand idly by while he sacrificed his life. I didn’t care if he raged at me later for disobeying his instructions. I could do nothing less than come to his aid. The moment the knight advancing toward the boudoir gave a cry of pain, I sprang from my hiding spot. The clank of metal against metal told me Cecil had unsheathed his sword an instant after throwing his knife. He’d injured one and was now engaged in combat. As I careened into my bedchamber, my pulse stuttered for an instant at the realization that I was about to enter combat. But as my sights connected with Cecil dodging one sword while slashing at two others, my ire and frustration shoved aside the nervousness. I sprang at the broader and taller of the knights who had his back to me and angled my sword toward the unprotected spot at the joints of the armor—the slit in his cuisse. My sword jabbed into his upper thigh, but before I could thrust it deep, the knight spun and his blade came down on my gauntlet with such force that I jerked away and retreated several steps. I fumbled with my weapon and almost dropped it. In the meantime, the knight brought his sword around in an arc toward my unprotected lower legs. If not for the quick reflexes Cecil had drilled into me, my opponent would have severed my limbs. As it was, I jumped in the air tucking my legs underneath my body, more nimble than usual since I was only wearing half my armor. The knight’s blade slashed at air, but just as rapidly came back around aiming at my unprotected neck.

I leapt onto my bed, grateful the thick curtains had been pulled aside. I balanced on the bed frame and deflected the blow intended to slice open my jugular vein. Then I passed forward and aimed for his armpit. He pivoted before I could connect, and my sword clanked across his gardbrace. I prepared to shed his next move so I could again attack one of the weak spots in his armor. But as he spun to face me, he paused. Through the slits in his helmet, dark midnight blue eyes studied me. In a sweeping glance, he took me in from my helmet to my unprotected hands and down to my slim fitting leather boots. Behind him, Cecil fought the other two as nimbly as a man half his age. But I could see he was tiring, which meant I had to do something to end this skirmish. Once more, I swung my sword at my opponent, hoping this time to catch him off guard. Instead of parrying with me, he ducked and then grabbed the wrist of my fighting hand. He twisted with such force that an involuntary cry escaped me. I had no choice but to drop my weapon. In the same instant, he jerked me off the bed. I stumbled to the floor and lunged for my sword. But as I bent, he wrapped his thick arm around my neck and brought me up in a headlock. His grip was so tight at my neck I could hardly breathe. Even so, I slipped my hand to the dagger I wore strapped to my side underneath my chain mail. In an instant, I had my knife out and jabbed it backward, hoping my aim was correct and that the blade would plunge into the narrow breathing space in his helmet and sink into his neck. But the knight had quicker reflexes than even Cecil. Before I knew what was happening, he’d disarmed me and pressed my knife against my throat. The blade bit my skin in the first nip of death.

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