Captured in a border skirmish, highborn Lady Stefanie Falkon arrives to Wolf's Lair, the castle of Grayson, Lord Wolfe, her new master. Gray, a warrior out of duty to his king, believes in order and planning, and designing new innovations to help his people.
With her headstrong ways, Stefanie soon turns Gray’s organized world to chaos, disrupting his work, his duty, and his goals. Despite her initial loathing of Gray, she comes to recognize he isn’t the monster she’s made him out to be. In turn Gray learns to depend on the unusual and intelligent woman he reluctantly acquired.
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The day was as gray as the stone Lady Stefanie Falkon leaned upon. From atop the castle’s turret, she watched the smoke of the battle and heard the rumble of its thunder. A fitting day for war.
“My lady, please come away from the tower. We must get you to safety.” Mina’s gaze pleaded with her. Fright etched the lines in Mina’s face deeper and sharper than they appeared yesterday. “Please, my lady Stefanie.”
“Yes, Mina.” Stefanie turned her gaze once again toward the battle. She noticed it was closer, and with a sigh she left her lookout. Battle would scar the territory again, but she could see why men fought over it. The land was beautiful—at least it might be if allowed to remain at peace for any length of time, but it lay in that undefined border area both kingdoms claimed. She marveled at the people of this land, passed back and forth between countries, yet ever willing to plow their furrows and plant their meager plots in the hope that this year they might harvest their crops without fear. Her admiration grew when she considered that these brave people married and started families amidst the turmoil they endured. She was unsure whether she would have that kind of courage. “I suppose flight is out of the question now.”
“Yes, my lady. But we have a safe room. You will be protected there.”
But for how long? came the thought from deep within the place that held her fear.
Following the old woman, Stefanie climbed down the spiraling stairs toward the lower level of the castle. The musty smell of rooms that long needed cleaning struck her nostrils and almost made her wish to return to the turret, to the air scented with the slightly sulfurous, smoky, almost indescribable scent of the battle. It was preferable to the fetid, imprisoned air she would soon breathe while she awaited the outcome of the mêlée. And if her side lost, what air would she breathe then?
No, she wouldn’t think of that. Couldn’t.
The castle was a strong one, able to withstand many long sieges, but the attack had come so suddenly, so unexpectedly, only a small contingent of soldiers guarded its fortifications. Most of its men already fought in the field. No, the castle wouldn’t withstand the attack this time, that is to say, the castle would survive, but in whose hands? She knew the answer, although she didn’t wish to acknowledge it.
“In here, princess.” The old woman opened a wooden door that led to a small chamber under the staircase. At the back of the room was yet another door. Two large men stood in front of the second portal, fully armed. They bowed when they saw her. When the guards rose, Stefanie saw the emptiness in their gazes, the expressions of men who knew they were fulfilling their duty, resigned to the fate that most probably awaited them. They were her uncle’s men, chosen specifically for her protection.
Without a word, one of the guards opened the inner door, revealing an even smaller room, wherein stood some candles, water, and food.
“If you please, princess,” the guard said, waiting for her to enter.
The sigh rose deep from her chest. She stepped into the room, then turned again. “Mina, aren’t you coming with me?”
“No, my lady. My place is out here, but do not worry about me. I’m old, and I’ve survived this before.” The woman gave a tired smile and handed her a large iron key. “I’m only sorry you must experience it now.”
As the guard shut the door behind her, Stefanie didn’t protest for there was no one to protest to. She inserted the key within the latch and turned it. With a loud click, she heard the door lock, and she touched the wood. It was hard and rough beneath her fingers. But would it be enough?
The windowless room lacked all cheer. The dismal pall of a single candle heightened the gloominess, but she supposed it was prudent to save some of the tapers for later, in case she needed them. She sat down on a rug spread over a crude mat of rushes. How far had she come only to fail now?
The fear absent earlier hit her with the force of a blow. Her breathing became shallow and rapid, and a cry rose to her throat, choking her as she swallowed it. It tasted bitter and burned as it returned to her chest.
“Where’s your courage, Stefanie?” she heard herself ask as if from a distance, and she almost had to laugh at the absurdity of it. Here she sat, a princess from the House of Falkon, hiding in fear and talking to herself. She was no simple woman; she was highly educated, highly respected, rising to levels normally not achieved by any woman.
Her uncle hadn’t wanted to entrust her with this assignment, claiming the area was unstable. With a rueful smile, she also remembered her relentless wheedling until her uncle caved in to her wishes and had sent her to this outpost of the realm to discern if the rumors and rumblings reaching the capital were true.
Well, she now knew the reasons and the source of the disquiet, and she had the proof that the area indeed was in unrest. Unfortunately, she also knew she would never make that report. Her first assignment would be her last.
Stefanie pushed her hand through the shorter tendrils that had come loose from the bands that held back the rest of her hair. I should’ve listened to my uncle this time, she thought with a final, fleeting wave of self-pity. Then she pulled forward a strand of the hair she had just pushed back and twirled the ends in her fingers. There wasn’t much else she could do except wait. Brooding was pointless.
A good warrior would try to sleep now. She stretched out on the mat beneath her. Of course, I'm not a warrior. Nevertheless, she closed her eyes, and in spite of the uneasiness in her mind, sleep stole upon her.
Stefanie awoke with a start, her heart pounding, her breath coming in uneven bursts. Her eyes blinked rapidly, trying to focus on anything, seeing nothing, until she realized the candle had burned out, and she lay in darkness. A thin line of light from under the door teased her vision, but offered no real relief to the blackness. At least it was some comfort knowing her eyes still functioned properly.
When she sat upright, she lost her sense of disorientation. She knew where she was, and why she was there, but she was still unsure what had woken her so abruptly. The next sound she heard cleared up that mystery as well.
The battle had reached the outer room. As if she could see it, she knew the great broadsword of one guard had prevented a blow to its owner. Other sounds of the fight were clearer now. The crashes and clanks resonated throughout her little chamber. She bit her lip to keep from crying out while she listened intently to the course of the skirmish. At first it was clear that her two guards had the superior skill and strength to defeat the opposition, but with time, their grunts came more frequently than those of the attackers, for two could not hold up under the sheer number of the enemy.
At last silence replaced the sound of one sword, then the other, and the room echoed with the low moans of the injured and the grunts and gasps of men tired by their efforts.
A voice rich in timbre filled the air. “Well done, men. A hard battle neatly won. Clean up in here, and get those men some help.”
Stefanie shivered at the freshness and strength in that voice. How could the enemy leader sound so vibrant after the battle? That voice resonated in her mind, filling her thoughts with images she preferred to ignore. Any moment now the door would burst open, violating her sanctuary, and she would be delivered into the hands of this man. Would he show her mercy? Not likely, not a man with a voice like that—a voice of thunder. She hardly dared to breathe.
But no one came. Soon the noises died down, the room grew still, but she couldn’t bring herself to light a new candle in the dark. The castle had fallen. Although neither of her guards had betrayed her presence, her discovery was inevitable. Fear prevented any movement. Until they found her, she would remain on the pallet, hugging her knees to herself and clenching her teeth together so she wouldn’t scream.
About the Author
Gabi Stevens (aka Gabi Anderson) lives in Albuquerque, NM, where she dreams up new stories to tell.
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