Sword for His Lady(4)

By: Mary Wine

His mood lightened. Actions always were the better means to judging a matter or a person. In fact, now he was intrigued. His first wife had been a woman who enjoyed court. Isabel was busy running her land. By the condition of her land, she was not lazy.

Yes, that was indeed intriguing.

“Why are you smirking?” Ambrose demanded.

“Richard told me to meet the lady and decide if she raised my…interest,” Ramon explained. “I am thinking I am going to enjoy this particular royal dictate.”

* * *

The ground shook.

Isabel looked up and found herself staring into the eyes of the three other women working at the stillroom table with her. Their eyes were wide and seeking, looking at her to assure them there was nothing to fear from the horses approaching.

Isabel wanted to soothe their concerns, but she could not. The times were uncertain and the sound of approaching riders was not welcome; she had no household knights to defend those looking to her for protection.

Inheriting her husband’s land had lifted the burden of being under the rule of another from her shoulders, but in its place was the responsibility of protecting everyone who lived on her land.

Truly, she had never thought freedom might come with such burdens.

“Likely knights on their way to join the king,” she offered to those watching her. “They will pass through.”

She dusted her hands across the apron she wore to protect her over robe and went toward the front of the keep. The hallways were dim, in spite of it being full daylight, because they were long and the sun’s rays didn’t penetrate beyond a few feet.

It was chilly too. The stone that the keep was constructed from hadn’t yet lost the bite of winter. It lingered in the center of the passageway, urging her forward to the inviting spring weather.

But the view from the keep’s steps was not pleasant. The rumbling sound grew without the thick walls to muffle it. Thistle Keep was placed on high ground, which gave her an unobstructed view of the road.

Isabel’s throat tightened.

Twin columns of mounted knights were riding toward her. The sunlight flashed off the surface of their armor; even their horses wore metal faceplates. They were clearly full knights, men who were seasoned by battle and hardened by rigorous training. She struggled to maintain her poise. The harvest had been poor the last two years, and King Richard was focused on gathering supplies for his Crusade. Behind the knights there were more mounted men and even more on foot. There were archers in their ranks as well, confirming that this was not some random group of pillaging raiders. They were an army. The columns stretched out too far into the distance to be anything that might be considered good. These men rode with a purpose, and what concerned her were the wagons with them. Wagons they would likely expect to fill with food.

She needed everything she had to provide for her people. There was nothing to spare.

The dust rose as they drew closer, and she could make out the crest on the flags the lead knights flew. A raptor with a baron’s coronet in blue against a white background.

A baron. That meant even more trouble. A baron was a noble and only answered to the king.

“What do they want?” Mildred asked from behind her.

“They will pass through,” Isabel said quickly, not caring for how much her words sounded like a prayer. A desperate one at that. She straightened her back, forbidding herself to be afraid.

There was no time for childish emotions. She was the lady of the keep and duty was calling her.

Mildred scoffed at her, but Isabel raised her chin and refused to lower it. Dust teased her nose as the knights pulled their stallions to a halt in front of her. The animals pawed at the ground and shook their heads while the armor their riders wore shifted, filling the air with the sound of metal clanking against metal.

“I seek the Lady Isabel of Camoys.”

A chill raced down her spine but Isabel maintained her position. The knight who had spoken lifted one gauntlet-covered hand to raise his visor. His hair was dark and his eyes the color of midnight. He peered at her, his gaze as hard as his breastplate.

“I am Isabel.” She fought the urge to twist her fingers in the fabric of her over robe. Thistle Hill did not even have men training to become knights because the king had summoned all of them for his Crusade. No boy over the age of twelve was left, unless she counted those wearing sackcloth in the church. That left only her courage to protect the people looking to her as their lady.

Maybe she should have ordered the keep barred instead of coming out to face the riders. Dread twisted through her belly. It was not just her fate that hung on her decisions, it was every soul who lived on her land. Barring the door would have left all their food unprotected. She stepped forward.

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