The Black Thorne's Rose (The Author's Cut Edition) by Susan King - Read Online
The Black Thorne's Rose (The Author's Cut Edition)
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Summary

Stripped of her castle and lands, gently bred Lady Emlyn refuses marriage to a cruel lord and flees to the safety of the greenwood—where she soon falls for a bold forest outlaw, the Black Thorne, who courts danger in King John’s England.

Swept up in a game of passion and daring deception, Emlyn learns too late that the mysterious outlaw and the ruthless lord she despises are one and the same man.

Now, for both Thorne and Emlyn, the greatest risk of all exists in the truth... and love.

REVIEWS:
"Excellent... filled with mythical legends, mystery and mayhem... an extremely powerful story." ~Rendezvous
"A glorious romance…an exciting new talent." ~Romantic Times Book Club
"Magnificent... Susan King’s talent is a gift from the gods!" ~Virginia Henley

OTHER TITLES by Susan King

THE BORDER ROGUES, in series order
The Raven's Wish
The Raven's Moon
The Heather Moon

THE CELTIC NIGHTS, in series order
The Stone Maiden
The Swan Maiden
The Sword Maiden
Laird of the Wind
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ISBN: 9781614170198
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The Black Thorne's Rose (The Author's Cut Edition) - Susan King

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The Black Thorne's Rose

The Author's Cut Edition

by

Susan King

National Bestselling Author

Published by: ePublishing Works!

www.epublishingworks.com

ISBN: 978-1-61417-019-8

This is an author's cut edition of The Black Thorne's Rose, newly edited and updated by the author in 2011. This edition is found exclusively in eBook form.

By payment of required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this eBook. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented without the express written permission of copyright owner.

Please Note

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

The reverse engineering, uploading, and/or distributing of this eBook via the internet or via any other means without the permission of the copyright owner is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author's rights is appreciated.

Copyright © 1994, 2011, 2012, 2014 by Susan King. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.

Cover by Kim Killion www.thekilliongroupinc.com

eBook design by eBook Prep www.ebookprep.com

Dedication

This is for David with love

Prologue

England

Summer, 1207

Five horsemen rode relentlessly over the moonlit surface of the earthen road, cloaks billowing like black wings, sword hilts and mail armor glimmering. As they reached the mouth of the forest, the pounding meter of their approach penetrated the silence.

A young man in a leather hauberk, long dark hair pluming behind him, rode at the center of the group. Carried by the brutal pace, he leaned forward, pulling against the ropes that anchored him to the saddle and bound his hands behind him.

The riders plunged into the gloom of the forest, hardly slowing at each curve in the road. A canopy of foliage obscured the moonlight, hiding the swift progress of the others who ran through the trees ahead of the horsemen, unseen and unheard. A man and two children slipped between the oaks that edged the path, pausing to watch as the riders galloped closer. One of them reached out a hand and gestured to the white dog that ran with them.

Reacting to a whispered command, the dog leaped forward and ran down a wooded slope, an eldritch blur in the milky light. Landing on the path in front of the approaching horses, it growled viciously.

The leader's horse shied violently and knocked sidelong into the others. Panicked, the guards strove to restrain their nervous mounts. The prisoner twisted to look as he struggled to keep his precarious seat. Large as a wolf, the white dog prowled the width of the earthen path ahead of them.

Destroy that animal, the leader snapped. Three swords scraped from their scabbards. The fourth guard aimed a loaded crossbow at the pacing dog. A shrill whistle sounded from beyond the path, and the dog bounded into a hedge just as the quarrel slammed into the earth.

Unseen behind the jostling cluster of horses, a man hunkered down and moved swiftly towards the prisoner. The keen edge of a dagger glinted in his hand, and with a few quick, precise slashes, he severed the captive's constraining thongs. Feeling the release, the prisoner turned, but saw only the quiver of a nearby thicket.

As the leader motioned the group forward, the horses moved along the path without their earlier momentum. With his freed hands clasped behind him, the prisoner kicked at his horse's side. The mount sidestepped, falling behind the others.

The road narrowed to pass between the jutting roots of two huge oak trees whose branches intertwined overhead. As the men rode beneath the natural arch, the prisoner reached up to grip a low tree limb. Placing his feet on the saddle, he launched upward and disappeared into the dark foliage. Unaware, his guards rode ahead, until one glanced back, yelled, and wheeled, followed by the others. Above their heads, the fugitive slipped still higher into his aerie.

That were a hound from the hill, a demon fairy beast that appeared back there, one man said as the group slowed beneath the overhanging branches.

Or an enchanted wolf, another agreed. I vow, this Black Thorne is in league with forest spirits.

Spirits or none, Lord Whitehawke will have our heads if we lose the Thorne again, another guard grumbled.

Aye, he's Whitehawke's prize, the captain said. So we must find him. Gerard, Richard—search that way. He gestured into the forest. Use the crossbows, and shoot high. He's likely in the trees.

Richard snorted. It is madness to pursue the Black Thorne into this wood at night. We are far south of our own territory.

Other demons might wait in such a place, Gerard added.

Whining piss-ants, the captain snapped. Find him!

Moonlit beams penetrated the deep forest tangle, creating eerie shapes. Peering into the shadows from the safety of the path, the guards moved stealthily in different directions, swords and crossbows ready. Each man made a quick sign of the cross on helmet or hauberk. Soon they rejoined near the forest entrance, circling their horses and arguing.

High in the oak tree, the one called Black Thorne began to descend, dropping silently to the forest floor. Where the tree edged a glade, he went motionless. Across the moonlit circle, the white hound watched him intently, a low growl humming in its throat.

For an instant he thought the guards were right after all: this was no common animal, but rather a hound from the hill, one of the white dogs said to accompany fairies. He considered this because a fairy—tiny, perfect, formed of gold and silver cobwebs—stood next to the hound.

She moved forward across the circle. In a pale cloud around her shoulders, delicate strands of hair glistened and silvered in streams of moonlight. She walked with a slight bounce.

He blinked, breathed again. No magical creature, but a child, a girl. Small for her age, perhaps twelve, she was dressed in a long tunic and wrapped boots. Padding beside her, the dog was higher than her waist.

Thorne stood slowly, a lean shadow blended with the curve of the tree. The girl paused to look at him with frank curiosity, her eyes large and luminous. The hound growled again, and she rested a hand on its head. Hold, Cadgil. It is a friend.

The dog quieted, looked away, then tensed and bared its teeth once again. From beyond the glade, Thorne heard a faint sound. Reaching out, he grasped the girl's shoulder.

Into the tree! he whispered, lifting her to a low branch. Quick as an elf, she scampered higher. He leaped up after her to crouch on a thick branch.

The dog paced beneath the tree, and the child leaned down. Cadgil! Go—find Wat! she whispered. The dog ran in a direction opposite to the noises now growing around them.

The whistle and thunk of arrows filled the clearing. A branch above Thorne trembled as an arrow burst through the leaves. As the girl cried out softly, he caught hold of her small hand and pulled her down beside him to share the wide branch.

A barrage of arrows whizzed and exploded through the trees. Thorne covered the girl's head with one arm to shield the child from harm; he also needed to hide that pale, bright head from view. Though her shoulders quivered, she made no sound. A bolt whined through the thick foliage directly over their heads, chunking into wood, spitting leaves. They ducked, curled together like a roosting hen with a chick beneath the wing.

Silence filled the glade. When no new shots came, Thorne raised his head to scan each shadow in the glade.

Below the tree, through the leaves, he could see two mounted guards on the forest path. As he held the child close, a prayer he had not recited since childhood came to him. He watched while the guards spoke, then turned their mounts and rode out of the forest.

He leaned his head back in relief, only to straighten when new voices drifted up from the glade.

Wait! The girl scrambled out of the tree so fast that Thorne, clambering down after her, felt like an old man. As he reached the ground, he saw the white dog, tail wagging. Two people crossed the glade toward them: a tall blonde youth, perhaps fifteen, so like the child that they must be siblings, and a burly man in a mail hauberk.

Mother of God, ye're safe! the man said in hushed tones, touching the girl's shoulder. Her brother laid a hand on her head in silent concern.

Turning, the man nodded. We are in your debt, sir.

I am in yours, Thorne said. I would be a prisoner still, but for the hound and the man who cut my bonds. Are you he?

Aye. Walter of Lyddell, sir. If you be the one they call the Black Thorne, I have a message for you.

The outlaw nodded, his dark hair, glossy in moonlight and worn long in the Saxon style, swinging softly. I am he.

Listen then. Baron de Ashbourne urges you to return north and continue your efforts, he said. Say naught of this night, but know that others are with you against Lord Whitehawke's cruelty. The older man paused. The guards were taking you to the king's dungeon at Windsor, lad. It is a foul pit where madmen are made.

My thanks, Walter. Tell the baron that I appreciate his help and his trust in me. He glanced at the girl and her brother. These two—your children?

The baron's. They tagged after me, though I did not know until too late. I trow the pup would listen only to them.

My thanks, all of you, he murmured. I shall never forget it. Before God, I pledge my life to each of you.

Walter clapped Thorne's shoulder. We must go. Beyond the glade waits a horse, saddled and tied to a hazel tree. You will find a bow and quiver as well.

God keep you, sir, the girl said. Thorne glanced down at her delicate face. Moonlight turned her eyes to silver as she gazed at him with equal curiosity and concern.

The air was split by the click of a crossbow quarrel sliding into place. Walter took the girl's arm and pulled her away, diving into bracken along with the boy and the dog. Thorne headed for the waiting horse. The arrow shot, when it came, burst into an empty glade.

Thorne ran, his long muscular frame moving with fluid strength. Shouts penetrated the thicket behind him as the guards crashed through the undergrowth. The air filled with the whine of sailing arrows, cracking into wood and earth. He raced on, ducking branches and leaping over bracken to reach the horse.

Yanking the reins free, he launched into the saddle and guided the horse toward a track that sloped down to the wider path. A bow and full quiver hung from the saddle, but he did not take time to use them.

Arrows whipped past in a stinging, vicious hail. One nicked his jaw and another struck into his leather hauberk below the shoulder blade. Reaching back, he pulled at the shaft as he rode, and despite agony, broke off the arrow with a brutal crack.

Hoofbeats thundered behind him, but the destrier was fast and steady, and Thorne was an excellent rider and free of the extra weight of armor. Soon he was well ahead of the guards on the ancient road. By dawn, he had lost his pursuers in the mist, and took a drover's track over the mountains.

Although the arrow had pierced deep into his back, he pressed on for two days, increasingly weak, until he reached the northern moors. There, by a cluster of standing stones, he fell from his horse and collapsed at the base of an ancient monolith as if it were his headstone.

Chapter 1

England

April, 1215

A trick of the wind took her last arrow. Released from the bowstring and caught on a breeze, the shaft traced a high arc and flew past its target. As it disappeared into a stand of leafy trees near the forest path, Emlyn de Ashbourne sighed and shouldered her bow. Drawing her green cloak close against the chill, she pulled up her hood to cover her flaxen braids and set off toward the path.

Several of her practice shots had gone awry today, more from inexperience than breezes. There were only four gray-feathered arrows left in the leather quiver suspended from her belt, of the dozen she had taken with her. She had best retrieve them if she wanted to continue shooting.

Emlyn moved quickly beneath the thick forest canopy, surrounded by the rustle of leaves in the spring air and sunshine. She was glad that she took the risk that day of slipping out to the greenwood after these months of stale confinement.

But in a forest near here, last autumn, her brother Guy, baron of Ashbourne, had been arrested by King John's men. Cautioned by the castle seneschal who feared for their safety, Emlyn and her three younger siblings had not gone beyond the walls of Ashbourne Castle all winter. Even now, no one knew where Guy was kept, or whether he remained alive.

Archery, which her brother Guy had begun to teach her before his capture, had been forgotten until this afternoon. Emlyn had not fared well, her stance and pull stiff, her fingers like wood on the waxed hempen string. Today, with no intention to hunt, she had come here hoping to practice in the open.

Not accurate enough with the short lady's bow to bring down small swift animals or birds—though God knew any game was needed at Ashbourne these days—she nevertheless had been intrigued since childhood by the weapon's graceful speed and the challenging skill it demanded. Target shooting in the bailey always drew Emlyn to loudly cheer the men as they aimed at bales of hay, and at straw effigies dressed to resemble French soldiers or, lately, King John.

Glancing around for her lost arrow as she walked, Emlyn neared the forest path, where the dense tree cover began to thin. Startled by a sudden metallic jingling sound, she quickly hid behind a broad oak, her heart pounding.

By God's feet and bones! The angry oath, spoken in a male voice, carried in the clear air. Emlyn set down her bow and cautiously peered out.

A few yards away on the path, a man in full chain mail armor sat upon a large black warhorse, angled away from her. The graceful curves of the man's voluminous blue cloak covered the animal's hindquarters. From the high saddle cantle hung a white shield with a painted design.

While the green and white device of a hawk and a branch was unfamiliar to her, Emlyn knew that such a shield, together with the fine horse trappings, could only belong to a knight of rank. He might be a king's man, she realized. Wat had warned her of such danger in the forest. She ducked out of sight.

The horse slowly circled on the path. Emlyn wondered why the knight seemed wary, his sword drawn and held ready. The forest silence was punctuated by the footfalls of the horse, the jingle of armor, and an occasional burst of curses.

Alarmed, thinking there were others nearby, she was anxious to retreat into deeper cover, and took a step back. Underfoot a dry branch snapped loudly.

Immediately, the knight turned his head and saw her between the trees. He spun the great black stallion and launched forward. You there! Hold! he roared.

Emlyn stopped. He reined in the huge horse at the path edge, a few paces in front of her. She looked up at the destrier's great dark head, then across the expanse of its powerful chest and shoulders, to the long mail-encased leg of the knight.

And saw her missing arrow protruding from his thigh.

She stared at the quivering shaft as it stuck out at an awkward angle from his upper leg. Sticky blood had painted a circle of deep carmine around the embedded point. Her eyes rose in slow agony to the knight's face.

Beneath dark, straight brows, his eyes blazed with the same steely glint as his armor. Come out of the wood, he ordered, his deep voice reverberating in the crisp air.

Emlyn stared at the arrow in a panicked haze. Taking a breath, she stepped toward the horse, her heart racing. The knight towered above her as she stood there.

He shoved his sword back into its scabbard. Maiden, I must remove this bolt from my leg. I will require your aid.

Aid, not reprimand? She looked up in surprise. Framed by his chain mail hood, his features were well shaped, though grim and hard beneath dark stubble. He lifted a brow expectantly.

Aye, she said, but I cannot reach it from down here.

My armor is heavy, he replied sternly. If I dismount I will not easily get up again with an injured leg. Remove the weapon you shall, girl, and now. He pointed to a wide tree stump. Stand over there.

Emlyn obeyed, wondering if everyone did this man's bidding due to his manner. But it was true she had just shot him. She stood on the stump and waited as he guided the horse closer.

Take hold of the arrow, he directed, and she curled her fingers around the shaft. Removing his gauntlet, he slid his hand beneath hers to press down on his leg. His touch was cool against her skin. When I say, you shall pull fast and hard.

But, I— she faltered, biting her lip.

I would have to do it myself, were you not here.

Nodding, she tightened her grip and heard the knight inhale, ready. She glanced up to find him watching her, a keen sharp light in his gray eyes.

Pull! he commanded. She did so, mightily. His long exhalation suppressed a groan as the arrowhead ripped backward through the fleshy hole it had made. Warm blood flowed.

Emlyn saw then that the wide point would not come through the chain mail and the legging cloth as easily as it had gone in. She carefully worked the barb free from the net of metal rings, aware of the knight's grim silence.

When she drew the arrow completely out, she pressed the heel of her hand against fresh bleeding with a linen square taken from inside her sleeve. Then the knight took it and began to staunch the flow himself. He frowned, his eyelashes sooty crescents, his lips tight with pain.

In her left hand, Emlyn held the bloodied arrow uncertainly. She could not very well wipe the point clean and drop it into the quiver concealed beneath her cloak.

Reaching down, the knight took the arrow from her grasp to examine the shaft. There are no marks of ownership here. This is a hunting arrow, with a wide barb for small game. He looked at Emlyn. Tell me what you know of this attack. Where is the knave who bowshot me?

Attack? She bit nervously at her bottom lip.

There was no follow to the bowshot, no brigands that I saw, nor poachers either. He leaned forward, his gray eyes cool as frost over stone. With his free hand, he took her shoulder in strong fingers. Why are you alone in this greenwood, girl?

Although her first impulse was to break free of his grasp and flee, reason—and years in a nunnery—advised her to confess. But when she opened her mouth, only an airy sound came out, as if a mouse squeaked. She was terrified of his reaction to the truth. Ruthless knights such as this one had seized Guy. This man might harm her and even kill her for the offense she had just committed.

Balancing the shaft lightly between two fingers, the knight held the reins loosely in the same hand. With the other hand he still grasped Emlyn's shoulder. Speak! Did you come with your father or brother to shoot the king's deer?

Nay, sire. This is a timber wood belonging to Ashbourne Castle. A hedge and ditch keep the deer out.

He glanced where she gestured. Visible through the trees, a thick hedge rounded the outer part of the forest. When properly cared for, the barrier discouraged larger animals, especially deer, from entering the wood to eat tree sprouts and strip bark from trees grown for lumber.

Because the king recently ordered all hedges lowered, she said, the hedge has just been trimmed. The rest has collapsed from winter storms. The deer will roam freely here soon, with naught to keep them out of the timber wood, thanks to King John. This path is an old one, hardly used, that leads to the castle.

A timber wood, he said dryly. And no other here but you.

Emlyn took a breath and decided to speak the truth. Her heart beat wildly as she rushed out a confession. It was neither an outlaw nor poacher who shot you, my lord. It was my own arrow from my own hand. She tensed, ready to flee, but his grip on her shoulder was strong enough to hurt if she pulled away.

Silence, then his laugh sounded out. What quarrel have you with me? Black Thorne the outlaw is long dead, they say, and no other dares attack my family. He leaned forward to speak emphatically. Protect not your family, your heart's-beau, or your husband. Where is the knave who bowshot me! His voice lowered threateningly. Play not with me. I am short of temper with pain and my need to be elsewhere!

Emlyn cringed at the force of his anger. The torsion of her movement opened her cloak, revealing the quiver. Four identical arrows rattled within.

He stared at that, then at her. So.

Aye, my lord, she said, miserable.

Why attack me? His tone was near a growl.

I intended no injury, sir. It was an accident. I was just practicing the bow. He watched her in silence. A wind took my arrow. I aimed at the bole of a beech tree, she added lamely. Still he said nothing, but his grip eased. In sooth, my lord, I am no goodly archer.

He grunted, let go of her shoulder. That you are not.

She nodded. Alas, by Our Lady, I crave your pardon. It is not meet to injure a man so.

Not meet indeed. The knight blew out a breath and his dark brows pinched in a frown. Well, I give you pardon, and I promise not to spit and roast you. Though it crossed my mind, I assure you. He held her arrow. Be gone from here.

Accepting the returned shaft, Emlyn stepped off the tree stump and glanced up at the knight. Above dark stubble, his eyes were gray steel. Even pain and anger did not mar his elegantly sculpted face. Remembering that he was bleeding and in pain, Emlyn wondered if he had far to ride.

One thing else, he called. I would know the name of my assassin.

Before she could reply, a shout rent the forest. The knight turned to call an answer, while hoofbeats thudded on the forest path. Emlyn felt eager to flee; she should never have strayed so far from home, alone and unprotected.

Go, then, the knight said, as if sensing her urgency. And leave the arrow shooting to others more capable from now on. Turning his mount, he rode toward the approaching horseman.

Earlier, she had felt remorseful. Now the knight's parting words filled her with anger. Making a face, she walked off to pick up her bow and headed back to Ashbourne. Once inside that enclosure, she would be safe from bowshot young knights. But she would not be safe from Tibbie's wrath unless she returned home soon.

* * *

Arriving breathlessly in the foyer of the great hall, Emlyn pulled aside the red curtain that covered the hall entrance and peered inside. By the Rood, she thought, I have missed supper and am surely caught.

Inside the hall, a few servants worked together to push back the planked tables and benches following the late afternoon meal. A girl swept at the rushes, while another stacked used bread trenchers to be distributed in the village for the poor. A long table, its oaken surface clean, had been placed near the huge stone hearth in the far wall, where flames crackled.

Ah, Lady Emlyn, there ye be! The husky, warm voice boomed across the length of the room. Emlyn winced. She had not noticed Tibbie in her hasty surveillance.

The short, squat woman crossed the room like a rolling thundercloud, skirts boiling around her legs. Resigned, Emlyn waited. Aye, Tibbie?

Here, let me take yer cloak, m'lady— Tibbie stretched out an arm while Emlyn fumbled with the bronze pin that secured her mantle.

Tugging, the nurse gasped. Yer cape is soaked!

Emlyn shrugged out of the garment. It is barely damp.

Damp and muddy, with leaf bits and suchlike. Tibbie picked out twigs and leaves and fixed a baleful eye on Emlyn. Ye've been outside the walls with no guard, nor even a dog to protect ye, I wot."

Aye so, Emlyn sighed, knowing no secret survived for long around Tibbie.

Tossing the cloak over her arm, Tibbie folded her hands over her stomach and stared at Emlyn. Neither of them was tall, though while Emlyn was delicately built, Tibbie was twice as wide, tough as brass and oak.

I had to get away for a while, Emlyn said. And so I left. I only went to the timber wood.

And what would happen if ye'd met the king's men there? Wat says they're always about now, and could come for us at any time, God save us. Tibbie sketched a hasty cross over her wide bosom.

A shiver of dread went through Emlyn as she remembered the knight in the forest. She recalled the look in his eyes when she had put her hand around the arrow embedded in his thigh. Now the fear came rushing back.

Tibbie and Wat, the castle's seneschal, were fiercely protective of Emlyn and the de Ashbourne children, especially following Guy's arrest while out hunting. The winter had been fraught with tension, which grew worse once the king demanded an exorbitant fee. A fine, his messenger had called it.

As chatelaine, Emlyn had done her best to care for the children and the household. She had managed to send some silver marks to the king, though it drained the coffers, but coin was her only hope of seeing Guy again. She had tried to keep her thoughts on God and turn her anger to forgiveness, but that was exceedingly difficult.

Her parents and older siblings were gone by God's will or another's, but the three little ones were safe in her care. After her brother Guy's capture, Emlyn had vowed that she would never leave the children, and that their lives would be free from the stresses she had known. As their sole guardian, she would do her utmost to make sure of that pledge.

Tibbie went on. And what, she asked pointedly, was ye doing in the forest alone? Why did ye not bring even Cadgil?

I was practicing, Emlyn said. And Cadgil is getting old.

Tish-tosh! Never the bow and arrow? Tibbie glowered. Ye've been tempted with those things since ye was a child, and met that accursed outlaw. Else ye're a biddable maid.

Oh, Tib, Emlyn sighed. Being biddable was her downfall. Guy himself taught me archery. Many ladies hunt with bows.

Pah! The fine ladies that traipse about with hunting parties are after bigger game than rabbits! They hunt for rich lords. Had ye not spent years in a convent, ye'd know that.

Emlyn looked away. Tibbie was too close to the truth—hunting a lord was exactly what she had inadvertently done.

Taking a quick breath, Tibbie rushed on. Why would ye slip away from those that would protect ye from that wicked king—God forgive me, he's a one—to go out shooting at wee creatures? Better to be at yer prayers for Baron Guy, God save him. Another fingered cross hit the air. Then she sighed. But truly, I cannot blame ye.

Emlyn blinked. Tib?

No wonder ye flee this place, with all our troubles now. Tell me, did ye catch good game for the table? Did ye fetch back a hare or a squirrel?

Not quite. Emlyn cringed as she thought again of the knight—dusky eyes, warm hands, sharp words, bloody wound.

Lord knows we need extra fare for the table now, with too few men to hunt for game here. The king's fines have taken almost all we have. The barrels of salted meat are near empty.

Emlyn sighed, for it was true. Despite a bustling household with servants and craftsmen at work in keep, kitchens, stable, brewhouse, and smithy, supplies were dwindling. And the reassuring presence of a castle garrison was conspicuously absent.

Only a few armed men walked the parapet now. When her brother Guy had been taken, most of their men-at-arms had gone elsewhere by king's order. Few men were available for hunting, and the lack of soldiers also meant that Ashbourne Castle could not withstand for long any attack from outside.

We are surviving just fine, Emlyn said defiantly. Somehow I will pay the rest of Guy's inheritance fee. And this year our sheep's wool will fetch a good price.

Not enough for that grasping king, Tibbie grumbled.

Then he must accept another payment in part.

Hmph, Tibbie commented.

Thank heavens, Emlyn thought, for the help and wisdom of Walter de Lyddell, Rogier de Ashbourne's seneschal, who had remained with them. With his guidance, the castle household had a semblance of normalcy. Emlyn wanted to shield her little siblings from the current predicament; the children were her responsibility, entrusted to her and Guy when Rogier had died.

The twins must be well occupied. All seems peaceful, she said to Tibbie, looking around, realizing there was silence.

"Oh, quiet might mean a child is plotting the most wicked of troubles. Ye and Guy, bless him—the