Letia de Burgh is as beautiful as she is capable. Famed for her warrior skills, she can command Seton Castle’s defenses as skillfully as any man can.
When Maud and Stephen’s battles throw England into anarchy, she must protect her home and people. She sacrifices all when her husband devises a plan to save Seton Castle from ruin when he dies.
‘Twas a simple plan with few steps to follow: Capture her enemy, seduce him, bear his child and save her people. Falling in love was not in the plan.
Raik of Raptor Castle must never know who had seduced him.
Seton Castle, Northumbria, August 1144
The agony of Hell's fires could torture me no more than what I now suffer. My dear husband asks that I do an unthinkable, sinful thing...
Letia de Burgh forced her thoughts to a dark corner of her mind. She must deal with more pressing worries now.
An army swarmed outside the walls of Seton Castle.
The faint light heralding the sun's rise revealed their leader, who kept well beyond the range of Seton's archers. Julian of Chatton was there as he had been every morning for a sennight. The gold and purple trappings on the massive destrier were so impressive it made the rider appear thin and insignificant.
"Why won't this Hell hound leave us at peace?"
Letia scowled and pounded her fist against her thigh. From the great height of the barbican guarding the castle's entrance, she signaled her archers to release a volley over the merlons. As Julian's warriors raised their shields, the high-flying arrows sang as if swarms of giant bees rained down on them. Amidst the heavy thumps of arrows striking shields, the cries of warriors split the air as arrowheads found soft flesh. She nodded, satisfied with her archers' aims.
"De Burgh! Raise the portcullis," Julian's gravelly voice bellowed. "I will enter. Seton belongs to me."
Before anyone could detect it was a woman who commanded such deadly arrows into their ranks, Warin's most trusted advisor Leofwan grasped Letia's shoulder to urge her back out of sight. "His greed knows no bounds. He hopes the strain of constant sieges will speed Baron de Burgh from this world," he muttered in disgust.
"My husband may be into his fiftieth year, but he still has the body of a strong warrior."
"Aye, Lady. But does he have the sound heart of one?" His face filled with sadness.
She ignored the question.
He knew the answer.
"This, this witless ass has no right to Seton!" She spluttered and thrust a finger toward the man below.
"Before his death, King Henry denied he was a royal bastard." She stopped pacing and snorted,
"Henry should know. He was quick enough to claim his true bastards. All twenty-four of them."
He grunted. "Aye. ' Tis what angered Julian the most."
Letia picked up her bow, drew an arrow from her quiver and stood behind a merlon. Peering out the embrasure to her left, she waited for a perfect shot. Impatient, her left hand flexed on her bow's grip, her right tapped the arrow against her leg.
Attired as a young warrior, she normally had no need to hide. But Julian's instincts were much like a lean wolf long deprived of a mate. Whenever she showed herself, his eyes narrowed and his nose twitched as if he sniffed the air.
"How I would love to send an arrow into his black heart!"
"Ah, Beloved. You are a fierce warrior on my behalf."
Hearing her husband's deep voice, Letia propped her bow and arrow against the stone merlon. As she turned, she tried to mask her fear for him with a cheerful expression.
Warin de Burgh leaned heavily on his squire's arm as he stepped through the upper doorway of the barbican tower. Straightening, he squared his shoulders. Despite his pale face, he looked as sturdy and vital as the massive oak tree on the knoll behind the army.
"My lord, surely you have not rested long enough." As she caressed his handsome cheek, liking the rough feel of his unshaven jaw, she noted the flash of pain in his blue eyes that he tried to hide with a wink.
"Long enough," he said with a reassuring smile. "Now, that nithing Julian must see me else he will grow overbold."
He turned to his squire waiting at his elbow, his master's helmet cradled in the crook of his arm. Taking it, Warin settled it over his long, dark-brown hair.
"The helmet will make me more readily visible. ' Tis a shame I have never favored a beard." He arched a dark brow at Letia. "Do you think it would have made my appearance more threatening?"
"You are fearful enough, my lord. The fool's knees would collapse if he had to meet you in open combat."
Letia smiled and studied her husband. Thankfully, the helmet hid the silver streaks that had grown wider at his temples this past fortnight. His blue eyes were sharp and alert, his nose straight - all but for that slight mark halfway down its length. His lips were firm and unyielding. Not like when he was alone with her. Then they were soft and tilted a bit at the corners.
Warin flashed a grin and nodded. "Let us send this whelp on his way."
At spaced intervals along the wall, slingers stood behind the archers at the same merlons. Beside them, piles of stones stood close to baskets of arrows. At Warin's signal, the archers released their arrows. While they speeded their way to their targets, the slingers sidestepped to the low embrasure to fire their slings. Using an underhand release, they fired their stones into the mass of warriors.
As the sun raced across the sky, Warin's face grew drawn and pinched, his movements slowed. Even so, he remained quick to take the measure of the enemy and direct his men to squelch any attempts to break into the castle.
Letia thanked the good Lord that Julian's men were inept at handling siege engines. For that matter, they were no more experienced at scaling ladders. Able warriors were scarce and Julian was far too stingy with his coins to hire experienced knights.
Her left arm and shoulder quivered with the strain of firing so many arrows. Though Julian ventured closer, she thought to resort to her sling instead. He thrust his fur-trimmed, green cloak back over his shoulders and removed his helmet as he waited in the midst of his favored men. A stiff breeze blew long, black hair from his face and snapped the cloak behind him.
Letia pictured the expression on his thin face. It would not be pleasant, for he had been surprised at Seton's skillful resistance. His brown eyes would be squinted in anger, his nostrils pinched and his lips pressed together.
She grinned, anticipating the special greeting she would lob toward that hated presence below. She signaled the two slingers to her left and to her right to load their sling with their special missile.
"It is time the sweet-smelling peacock prancing below has a bath!"
She swung her empty sling back and forth, accustoming the muscles of her right arm to their new position. She nodded to the lad waiting beside her. The squire had more mischief in one lone fingertip than most boys had in their whole body. It was he who suggested a fitting tribute for their enemy.
The clever squire positioned a missile in her sling's leather cradle, then stepped away giving her ample room. She nodded to the two grinning men on either side of her, rocking their own readied slings. She swung her own in short arcs then stepped up to the embrasure.
"A present, lout! Wear it in good health," she hollered.
With one quick swing of her arm backward, she slammed it forward. Her finger and thumb holding the knot of the release cord opened at the right moment, and her gift to Julian flew through the air.
She ducked behind the merlon, thwarting an arrow flying past her. After releasing their slings, the two men beside her also jumped back to safety. Letia peeked around the merlon and noted horses near bumping into each other and men shouting curses while they swiped their hands over their faces, their clothing.
She grinned. Never had she seen such a lovely sight. Only God could have guided their aims.
The curling hair Julian was so proud of, no longer floated in the breeze.
It dripped. Plastered to his head.
The young men in the barracks had happily contributed toward the squire's special weapon-three sheep bladders filled with piss and sewn closed.
Julian shook his sword at the barbican and took a deep breath to yell in a hoarse, precise voice, "When I find the lout who thought of this, I will lock him in a cage to swing from a hook on my barbican wall. He will be left to the elements and raptors till there is naught but gleaming bones!"
Truly, she could hardly blame him. He screeched again and all but foamed at the mouth, so agitated he could barely keep to his saddle.
His mount shied then bolted. The great stead galloped through the warriors, scattering them. It headed straight for the gap between his army and the castle walls bristling with warriors.
Letia watched in amazement as the horse reared, twisted its massive body and raced back over the uneven ground normally covered by the drawbridge. Seton's archers laughed so hard their aim was not as it should be. Fortunately, for the castle, unhappily for Julian, his body bristled with arrows enough to take him from the field.
She looked over her shoulder to grin at Warin. Instead, she caught her breath. Her wide smile fled as she clamped her lower lip between her teeth. Leofwan and the squire supported Warin as his knees buckled.
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