Starless – Kathryn Le Veque

WİLLİAM MARSHAL HAD told them that Lady Cadelyn had a female bodyguard, he suspected who the woman was. “You are the bodyguard The Marshal told us of,” Kress de Rhydian said to the woman. “Susanna de Tiegh, is it?” Susanna nodded. “Aye, my lord.” “Where are you from?” “My father was Baron Coverdale of Aysgarth Castle in Cumbria.” “I have heard of it,” Kress said, his gaze lingering on her. “But you… a lady bodyguard? How did this come about?” Susanna met his gaze steadily and Kress found himself looking into fine features and eyes the color of a sapphire. She wasn’t unattractive in the least, but her hair was uncombed and her dress slovenly. She almost had a masculine way about her, tough and seasoned in a world of men who would not accept that from a woman. Any woman. If Kress could guess, the woman had to be closed to thirty years of age, and obviously unmarried. No husband would permit his wife to assume duties that Susanna had assumed, and if he did, then he would be a poor excuse of a man. She was quite an oddity. “My father had two children, twins,” Susanna said, breaking into his train of thought. “My brother and I were inseparable.

Anything he did, I did, and that included fostering. We both went to Exelby Castle to foster years ago, but I did not want to learn what fine ladies learn. I wanted to do what my brother was doing. Lord de Geld, the lord of Exelby, was not a very firm man. He let me do as I wished, against the advice of the knights. As it turned out, I was better than most of their recruits.” She was making a statement of fact, without gloating in her manner, but the distaste the men felt at the thought of a woman thinking she could possibly be as skilled as they were was evident. Achilles de Dere, part of Kress’ contingent and seated next to her, spoke up. “Then Exelby must have had a good many weak men parading as warriors,” he said, doubt in his voice. “Were you knighted?” Susanna turned to look at him, a warrior who was a good deal younger than his bald head would suggest.

“Nay,” she said, lifting an eyebrow. “Were you?” Kress fought of a grin at her saucy reply but he could see that Achilles found nothing humorous about it. “By men better than anything you have ever stood against,” he growled. “A woman who does not know her place in life is an insult to every man who has ever lifted a sword.” To her credit, Susanna didn’t openly react to his of ense. She kept her composure. “I would be happy to demonstrate just how much of an insult I am,” she said. “Say the word and I shall meet you with my sword wherever, and whenever, you wish.” Achilles’ eyes narrowed. “I would not lower myself to such a thing.

” Susanna shrugged. “As you wish, my lord,” she said, returning her attention to Kress. “Do all of your men fade from such a challenge? Mayhap they are not up to the task of escorting Lady Cadelyn to her betrothed. That task requires men of courage.” Before Kress could reply, Achilles was going for his sword and Susanna, seeing his movement in her periphery, vaulted from the bench and ended up several feet away, her skirts up around her waistline to reveal that she was wearing leather breeches and a broadsword strapped to her waist underneath. Her hand was on the hilt of her sword and the gemstone eyes were fixed on her opponent. (And with that, the stage was set…) CHAPTER ONE ET TU MORIERIS IN GLADIO (You shall die by the sword) The Horse’s Arse Tavern Skipton, North Yorkshire Three Months Later “ARE YOU WELL? Do you need anything to make you more comfortable?” The words sounded rather anxious, coming from Achilles as he spoke to Susanna. She was dressed just like him, wearing clothing that suggested she was far more a warrior and far less a lady. Over her heavy mail coat she wore a tunic with the blue and black shield of the House of de Winter, while Achilles wore the yellow and green split shield of the Earl of Pembroke, William Marshal. It was one of the most recognizable standards in all of England.

But to his concerned words, she eyed him impatiently. “I do not need anything,” she assured him. “If I do, I will ask.” “Are you certain? Can I get you food and drink?” “Aye, you can get me food and drink. But, Achilles?” “Aye?” “Stop hovering or I will kill you.” He broke into a weak grin. “Do you flirt with me, Sparks? You know how talk of killing arouses me. Say it again.” Sparks. That was something he’d been calling her because of something she’d said to him recently, a term of endearment that made her cheeks flush every time she heard it.

But in seeing that her threat had backfired, she shook her head at him. “God’s Bones, you are an uncouth man,” she muttered. He started laughing. “But that is what you like about me,” he said. “Admit it. That is what has drawn you to me and has you begging for a lock of my hair.” Considering he was bald, that was a ridiculous statement. Susanna looked at him sharply, frowning as he grinned and pointed to his shiny head. He looked so comical, and so adorable, that she couldn’t help but laugh at him. But she turned her head quickly so he couldn’t see.

“Imbecile,” she muttered. Achilles snorted, greatly humored. Their small party had just finished a long day of travel, a journey that had started in a small village south of Chester and would end at Susanna’s ancestral home of Aysgarth Castle in Yorkshire. On this night, they’d ended up in a rather large, one-storied inn on the edge of the village of Burnley, one with mossy stone walls on the exterior and a leaning dirt floor in the common room that had a rather vertiginous feel. But none of that mattered to Achilles. All that mattered was that Susanna had a warm, comfortable place to stay for the night. He was concerned for her. But it wasn’t concern that she appreciated, for Susanna wasn’t like a normal woman. She was as tough as the steel broadsword she carried. When it came to fine manners or polite responses, they were rather lost on her.

Living in a world of men, she tended to behave like one. “Food and drink are coming.” The third knight in their party joined the table, sitting heavily as he pulled off his leather gauntlets. Sir Alexander de Sherrington, a handsome man with black hair and a trim black beard looked straight at Susanna. “I secured a room for you so that you may rest tonight in comfort. How are you feeling after today’s journey?” Susanna showed more patience with Alexander than she had shown with Achilles. “I am well,” she said. “Truly, you two needn’t worry so much. I am perfectly fine.” Seated at her right, Achilles snorted.

“If you are, then you have healing powers none of the rest of us have,” he said. “Three weeks ago, you took a sword to your belly. No man – or woman – is perfectly fine from that a mere few weeks later.” Susanna looked at him, feeling a little more tolerance because he wasn’t trying to antagonize her. He was quite serious and his concern was very sweet, even if it was difficult for her to both admit it and accept it. She’d never been fond of a man in her life until Achilles came along. The man had started out as her mortal enemy but, as of late, that wasn’t the case. Still, the mere fact that he was starting to show some affection for her was quite alien. She had no real idea how to show it in return. “I am much better than I was,” she said.

“You really needn’t worry so much.” He looked at her. “Would you truly prefer if I did not care?” “I am simply saying you need not worry. If something is wrong, I will tell you.” He curled his lip. “Ungrateful wench. Do you not know when someone is trying to show you kindness?” “You have been doing it since I became injured.” His eyebrows lifted as if that statement had somehow grossly insulted him. “And you are opposed to this?” Across the table, Alexander could see something brewing. But, then again, something was always brewing between the pair.

For two people who were attracted to one another, he’d never seen anything so awkward in his entire life. They liked one another; it was clear that they liked one another. But neither one of them had the ability to really show it. It was going to be a long night. The food and drink began to come. The innkeeper and his daughter, a freckled lass with hair the texture of straw, delivered bowls of ricque-manger, or eggs and apples fried in butter, a big trencher of vegetables that had been boiled in wine, and plenty of bread and butter. Achilles made sure Susanna was served before he even considered taking a bite of his own food. “We should be at Aysgarth Castle tomorrow,” he said, mouth full of eggs and apples. “I shall find someone this night to take a message on ahead. When was the last time you saw your brother?” Susanna was buttering her bread.

“It has been two years,” she said. “Serving William Marshal, I can only go where he sends me. For the past several years, I was the stationed in Norfolk, as you know. I was commanded to stay close to a certain Welsh princess.” The name of the Welsh princess was not to be spoken aloud, not these days. Not when she and her knight had fled into hiding. It was a secret the knights were sworn to protect. They had only just come from that particular assignment, now returning to normal after a harrowing adventure involving the princess and a faction that had threatened her. But it had been more than that; so much more than that. It had been part of Susanna’s life for a very long time.

“And you did your job well,” Achilles said as he shoved food into his mouth. “But during that time, you left your assignment to return to Aysgarth from time to time, did you not?” Susanna nodded. “The Marshal had me return home on occasion to see what my brother was doing,” she said. “He wants to make sure Samuel is not doing something he should not be doing. Or allied with someone he should not be allied with. As Baron Coverdale, he has a considerable army and my brother has not sworn allegiance to the king, nor has he sworn allegiance to the king’s enemies. My brother is an enigma that makes The Marshal nervous.” “Then returning home to recuperate will also find you educating yourself on your brother’s recent activities,” Alexander said quietly, his gaze intense over the tabletop. “Now that the Welsh princess has married a man who can take great care of her, you are no longer needed by her side. That must feel strange after having been with her for so long.

” “Strange, indeed.” “Do you miss her?” “I probably should not, but she was not only my assignment, she was my friend as well.” “Then this will be a time of change for you as you return to your brother’s home and assume a new assignment.” “Only until The Marshal decides to send me elsewhere.” They all knew that was the case, as men and women who served the Earl of Pembroke were pawns in his great political and military game. It was simply their way of life and they accepted that. The conversation soon lagged as the food was consumed at an alarming rate by the knights while Susanna thought back to the task she’d been charged with for almost ten years. It was still difficult to believe it was all over. The Welsh princess they were speaking of, Cadelyn of Vendotia, had been a rarity. With royal blood on both sides of her family, she had been afforded special protection from William Marshal.

Cadelyn had been betrothed to an English earl, but she’d ended up falling in love with one of the knights in the escort assigned to take her to her wedding. Susanna had never seen the woman happier, even if she had married a warrior who was known as an Executioner Knight. Chewing on her bread, Susanna looked at the men she was seated with. They, too, were Executioner Knights. There were three men who carried that reputation officially, four of them unofficially. Maxton of Loxbeare had been the leader, but he’d married well and was now holding the southern end of the Welsh Marches from the property he’d acquired from his wife. Susanna had never met him, but she’d heard plenty about him. The second man, Kress de Rhydian, had been part of Cadelyn of Vendotia’s escort and was now in Scotland where he’d taken his wife into hiding from her Welsh enemies. The third man was Achilles. He was more of a follower than a leader, but he was the perfect follower.

Bright, with precise instincts and flawless obedience, he had a youthful edginess to him that was quite dangerous. Tall, broad, and handsome, he was a very big man with an uncontrollable temper when aroused, and oddly pious when the mood struck him. There was something of a mystery in everything about him. Lastly, there was Alexander, or “Sherry” as everyone called him. He was the unofficial fourth member of the Executioner Knights. Alexander had worked with the Executioner Knights in The Levant, a tremendously skilled assassin that mostly preferred working alone. Even so, they didn’t come any greater or any smarter than Alexander de Sherrington, and his camaraderie with Maxton and Kress and Achilles was unbreakable. Susanna found it utterly fascinating to be around men with such reputations. Their very presence smacked of power. She’d seen them in action, most notably in the fight that had left her with a wound in her belly, as Achilles had mentioned.

It had been a fight that had allowed Cadelyn and Kress to escape to safety from the Welsh who had been pursuing Cadelyn, but it had been a bloody skirmish. Susanna was only now able to move around with some ease. Truth be told, she was far more exhausted and in pain than she let on, but she was trying desperately not to cause trouble. Achilles and Alexander were escorting her back to her brother’s castle so she could recuperate fully there and she didn’t want to be a burden. So, she kept her mouth shut as they’d ridden for hours and hours over the past three days, feeling agonizing pain in her gut and in her back from her healing wound. Even now, as she ate her bread and her eggs, all she wanted to do was lie down and rest. It was genuinely becoming too much for her. But she didn’t want to tell them. She wanted them to think she was as strong as they were. “Where will you be returning once you leave me off at Aysgarth?” she asked simply to make conversation.

“Will you be returning directly to London?” Achilles’ mouth was full of food so Alexander answered. “We are returning to Chester,” he said. “We are to meet Bric MacRohan and Christopher de Lohr and return with them to London. Unfortunately, we must all report to William Marshal and explain the disaster that was the betrothal between Cadelyn of Vendotia and the Earl of Ellesmere. I have repeated what to tell the man over in my head a thousand times but I fear that I will need de Lohr there to support my position that one of my knights ran off with the lady.” Susanna knew that; after the fiasco of the failed betrothal, there was the not-so-small matter of reporting all of that to William Marshal. Christopher de Lohr, the powerful Earl of Hereford and Worcester, had been peripherally involved in the situation and, even now, remained with Ellesmere, along with another Marshal knight, Bric MacRohan, to help the earl regain control of his earldom after a threat perpetrated by the same Welsh who had threatened Cadelyn. It was all quite complicated, and quite tense, but de Lohr would have to face The Marshal sooner or later, as would they all. It was something no one was looking forward to. “It was not your fault that Cadelyn and Kress fell in love,” Susanna said after a moment.

“You cannot take the blame for it.” “But it was my escort. I was the commander.” “Can you command emotions away, then?” Alexander wasn’t going to let her console him on this matter. “The fact remains that a knight under my command absconded with a woman meant for Tatius de Shera,” he said. “That was my fault. But what was not my fault was the fact that the earl’s brothers were conspiring with Welsh rebels to take Tatius’ earldom from him and use Cadelyn to inspire their rebellion. They had the entire de Shera army convinced that Tatius was a weak and ineffective earl, and now that the brothers are dead, Tatius has a good deal of rebuilding to do. De Lohr and MacRohan are helping him do that.” “Will they help you rebuild trust with The Marshal when you tell him what has happened?” Alexander smiled thinly.

“Mayhap. But I shall face The Marshal’s wrath without fear. This was my command and my responsibility.” Susanna’s thoughts lingered on everything that had happened over the past several weeks. It seemed like a lifetime ago, yet it seemed as if it were only yesterday. So much had happened in a very short amount of time. Maybe when she was stronger, she would be more willing to reflect on the situation that had brought her to this point in her life but, at the moment, her fatigue had the better of her. Taking a final drink of her wine, she gathered her saddlebags and her broadsword, and stood up wearily. “I would like to rest,” she confessed. “Which chamber is mine?” Alexander pointed down a darkened corridor that branched off from the common room.

“Down there,” he said. “Last door on your left.” “Where will you and Achilles be?” “In the chamber directly across from you.” As Susanna turned to leave the table, Achilles was on his feet. “I will escort you.” She paused. “That is not necessary.” He gave her a look that suggested he was going with or without her permission, so she pursed her lips wryly and turned to follow Alexander’s direction. At least, that was her intention until the door to the inn slammed back on its hinges and men began to filter in. Knights bearing blue and yellow tunics were entering the smoky room.

They were loud and brash, pushing patrons out of the way as they searched for a suitable table. It wasn’t an idea situation. Too many knights from different factions in one small room created something of a tense situation and this was no exception. Achilles didn’t recognize their standards right away, but there was a crowd of them and they were aggressive, which didn’t bode well in any case. At the sight, Achilles sighed heavily. “Go to your chamber,” he said quietly. “Hurry, now. Do not let them see you.” Susanna was eyeing the knights. “I will not leave you and Sherry alone,” she said.

“Who are they?” “I am not sure. Do you recognize them?” “The standard is familiar, but I cannot place them. Retrieve Sherry and let us retreat to our chambers at the same time. You have eaten your meal. It is time to retire.” Achilles counted seven knights. He turned to look at Alexander only to see the man staring at the newcomers as a hunter would sight prey. Alexander’s intense black eyes had a way of striking fear in the hearts of men and seeing that the man was already highly attuned to what was going on, Achilles returned his attention to Susanna. “Do as I say,” he said quietly. “Go to your chamber.

I will gather Sherry.” Susanna nodded, her focus on the knights as she headed towards the darkened corridor where her rented room was located. But entering the mouth of the corridor was as far as she got before she heard the knights as they began to bang on the table, demanding food and drink. Something told her not to go any further. Sinking back into the shadows, she watched the common room from her vantage point. Mostly, she was watching Achilles and Alexander, wondering if Achilles was really going to force Alexander to leave the table and not particularly surprised when Achilles simply sat down next to Alexander, watching the knights across the room. Frustrated, she shook her head at the pair, men who were fearless in all things. In fact, she knew that Achilles rather enjoyed a fight. If there was one to be had, he was always in the middle of it. Perhaps he wasn’t looking for a fight tonight, but he wasn’t going out of his way to avoid one, either.

Worse still, he was staring at the knights much in the same way Alexander was. Waiting for someone to make the first move. Quickly, Susanna made her way down to the end of the corridor and to the room indicated by Achilles. Opening the door, there was already a fire in the hearth. The chamber was tiny, with a tiny bed, but it was enough for her needs. She slung her saddlebags onto the bed and unsheathed her broadsword, which was rather plain by most standards. Most knights carried adornment of some kind, gold at the very least, but Susanna had a sword that was perfect in every way even if it was rather bland. And it was sharp enough to split hairs. Sword in hand, she returned to her place in the shadowed corridor, watching the room and realizing that in the time she’d been gone, the knights had noticed the two Pembroke knights as they sat over near the hearth. It was enough attention that the innkeeper was already trying to clear out the room.

This was not going to end well. It started with the knights making rude comments about William Marshal as Achilles and Alexander sat there and calmly drank their ale. Food arrived for the loud men and they were illmannered about it, going so far as to pass around the serving wench, trying to kiss her as she resisted. When they grew bored of that, they began to insult everyone around them, driving patrons out into the night simply to get away from them. The innkeeper didn’t dare ask them to behave. The man had taken his daughter, and the abused serving wench, and disappeared into the kitchen, leaving his patrons to fend for themselves. Then came the moment Susanna had been dreading. The dark-eyed knight who had been making the most noise finally stood up from the table, cup of ale in his hand. His eyes were on Achilles and Alexander as he spoke to his men. “Some men should stay in their own village,” he said loudly.

“Would you not concur?” His men rumbled loudly in agreement and he continued. “If a man does not stay where he belongs, then is it not correct to assume that he is looking for trouble?” More agreement, more rumbling, and some laughter. That caused the dark-eyed knight to turn towards Achilles and Alexander. He meandered towards their table casually. “Is that what you are doing here?” he asked them. “Looking for trouble?” Susanna held her breath. Achilles wasn’t one to hold his tongue and she waited for him to launch himself over the table. That was his usual reaction to a challenge. To her surprise, however, he looked away as Alexander replied. “No trouble,” he said.

“We will not bother you if you will not bother us.”

.

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