The lone rider paused when at last he reached the edge of the craggy mountainside, cocking his head to listen for approaching hooves; his crystalline gray eyes closely surveying his trusted battle horse. The animal cocked his ear and shifted restlessly, exhaling heavily. Recognizing the behavior, the Man at Arms deftly swung his mount around and raced back toward his waiting men.
Stefan was the first to see his brother’s fast approach and he dug his heels into his horse’s flanks, riding to meet him. “Alaric?”
The older man’s lips tightened but his eyes gleamed, “Goron’s men made better time than we expected.”
Stefan nodded, his blue eyes serious. “I will tell Harrik to set the catapults.”
Alaric moved to his archers. “Men - ready your crossbows and set the balls aflame; Goron’s army is approaching the rise!”
The sound of clinking metal and the smell of fire filled the air as weapons were dragged out and prepared. Alaric breathed in the familiar acrid smell and blood rushed his veins with adrenaline and wretched excitement as it always did just before battle. He loved the fight, the skill and power it took to lead his men to victory.
This time the outcome was substantially more important and he felt the pressure. St. James had hired him on nigh a month previous and twas his first chance to truly prove himself…and prove himself he would. Goron’s men were ruthless and fierce but rather dull-witted. He knew by the lax way that they had been setting up camp with little protection they would not expect, nor be prepared for his ambush.
A slow rumble rolled towards them as the Army began to crawl up the steep incline, the horses’ hooves knocking loudly on the rough rocks. His arm flew up in a silent signal and he heard the satisfying slice of swords being drawn.
The first twenty men cleared the climb into the open and a barrage of arrows whistled by his head, cleanly killing each atop his horse. Enraged by the deaths of their comrades, Goron’s men charged foolishly ahead, taking little heed of Alaric’s prime positioning. Most were taken down at the top of the mountainside; the rest of the small army slain when the two groups met.
Nigh an hour later Alaric stared into the horizon, watching as the sun finally rose into the sky. The whole battle had been fought and won in less time than it took to ride there.
Stefan approached, a big smile on his dirty face. “Victorious again, Alaric! Goron will surely leave Rothlan alone now,” he clapped his brother heartily on the back.
Alaric’s eyes were alight and charged like lightning. “I am counting on it.” A ghost of a smile hovered about his mouth.
It pleased Stefan to see any good humor on his older sibling’s face these many months and he nodded, “Only eighteen wounded and no deaths. This will be a triumphant homecoming.”
The brothers shared a look of relief as they headed back to their horses. “Mount up, men! We ride home to Rothlan.” Alaric said proudly.
Bernice St. James looked to her daughter sitting silently in the carriage seat across from her and she pressed her lips together. “I am sorry we had to cut our trip short, Arianna, but Henry said twas a threat of war,” her voice wavered as it always did when she spoke of violence.
Arianna fought the urge to smile. She loved her mother. In fact, the two were very close, but Bernice was a worrier, about consequential and non-consequential things.
“Mother, Papa said he was sending out a scouting sector—just to be safe. Tis really no ‘war’.”
Bernice smiled and patted her hand, “I know. But you know how I worry—especially with Ryland and Erik there.”
Arianna nodded at the mention of her twin brothers. “They are likely not in any danger. Do not worry yourself over the rest of our trip; I have missed them all too.”
She had to smile as she thought of her reckless and handsome older brothers. They were both fair, like herself, with blonde hair and light skin; but the twins had deep twinkling hazel eyes like their mother, while Arianna had inherited her father’s unique shade of blue. God’s breath, she did miss them terribly! Their constant ribbing, their overprotectiveness, their humor… As she thought on it, she found she was very much looking forward to returning home.
Five hours later, the familiar outline of Rothlan was visible and she inhaled as they drew up to the castle, peace overtaking her. Rushing into the enormous finally decorated keep, she squealed happily as she spotted her father and ran into his waiting arms.
She was his adored little girl and Henry squeezed her tight. “Ah, little Ari, it has been too long!” He pulled back to survey her beautiful face, one hand cupping her cheek. His smile was tender, his blue eyes soft, “I missed you, my sweet.”
She hugged him again, “And I, you. Papa. Where are Ryland and Erik?” She looked around as she stepped back, expecting to see their familiar frames.
“Last word, they should be returning within a fortnight.”
Arianna looked deeply into her father’s eyes so similar to her own. “Was this—a safe journey for them?”
Henry looked over her shoulder briefly and then nodded. “I believe so. I have a new man leading the men.”
She frowned, “I thought you were to put Harrik in charge.”
He shrugged, “Yes, Harrik is skilled; but this one…” a smile crossed his old bearded face. “They call him Blackheart. He used to lead Bingham’s army with extraordinary success. He is formidable.”
Arianna’s face was guarded, “As long as he brings my brothers home…”
He nodded, “He will.” His voice hardened, “He damn well better.”
Bernice caught sight of them and waved from her spot already seated before the large stone hearth. “Henry! Do be a dear and come greet your wife. I would come to you but I am much too tired from all this traveling.”
Henry tweaked his daughter’s silky blonde hair. “I better go see your mother. I am so glad you are finally home, sweet.”
She nodded, “I think I am going to go wash up before the evening meal.” Her hand lingered on his forearm. “Papa?”
His eyes turned back to her.
“Mayhap you should not tell mother tis a new Man at Arms. She is going to worry enough when you tell her the twins are not back.”
He thought a minute, “Mayhap I will introduce them when he returns and her boys are home safe.”
Arianna climbed the winding stairs slowly, her mind just now processing how stiff her body had become on the long journey. Oh, twould be wonderful to sleep on her nice soft feather tick this night! Her feet dragged as she walked down the long hallway to her chamber. Heavens she was tired.
Mayhap she would just take a little respite before her bath… Arianna’s eyes were closed before her head hit the pillow.
The men were making good time. Alaric calculated they had less than two days before they reached the castle. He knew in part their speed was due to their exuberance; he had not seen so much smiling or good-natured ribbing from a dirty, bloody, post-battle brood in all his life.
The twin sons of Lord St. James in particular had caught his attention. It had been hard to tell them apart but now that Erik wore a large bandage on his arm, twas easy. Erik had been brave on the field and had handled his injury well; but twas the constant roast his brother Ryland treated him to that kept Alaric’s interest. It reminded him of the relationship he used to have with Stefan when he was younger, more carefree… Before he knew the truth.
Ryland came up next to him, a twinkle in his hazel eyes. “You have certainly started something.”
Alaric glanced to the younger man, “Pray tell?”
Ryland smiled, “The men are talking like a gaggle of women. Wagering, actually.”
Alaric’s dark brow cocked, “Oh?”
“Regarding your surname.”
He paused and the older man’s back stiffened. How could any of them know his surname?
“Blackheart is a unique moniker,” he clarified and Alaric relaxed inside. “They want to know who you slaughtered and how many there were.”
Alaric considered him, “How much did you put in, St. James?”
Ryland’s eyes flared in mock innocence. “Why, Blackheart! I am suitably shocked and dismayed. I do not bet.”
Alaric could not stop his lips from quirking up, “Tis too bad. I guess I have to share the correct answer with Erik.”
Ryland’s face sobered, “Very well, I will cut you in for three hundred.”
A low whistle escaped the darker man. “And that would be how much of what you wagered, a tenth?”
Ryland grimaced uncomfortably, “It appears my calculations were off. Five would be a tenth.”
There was a laugh inside Alaric’s head that did not make it out. God’s teeth, their family had an endless surplus of money! Twas the highest monthly wage he had ever been offered and this pup had just bet almost a third of it on lighthearted trivia! Covering his disgust with a quiet sigh, he pretended to consider the offer a moment.
“Agreed,” he held out his hand and shook with St. James. “Zero.”
There was a hesitation from the younger man. “Excuse me?”
Unbidden, a small chuckle broke from Alaric. “The number you seek is zero. I did not kill anyone to attain my title.”
Ryland frowned and then laughed, “Gor! What did you do? It must have been sadistically delicious. Tell me.”
The eager admiration and respect was obvious in the younger man’s eyes and Alaric felt an odd twinge in his gut. “Just know I am not a man to be trifled with,” he pulled his horse away, scanned the area and whistled sharply, signaling the troops to slow.
“Let us set up camp for the night,” he called out and unceremoniously swung from his horse.
It did not escape his attention that the twins laid their rolls close to his that night. So far so good. All the men seemed to trust him; and soon St. James himself would as well. Then he might just have a solid future and a place to call home.
The halls were decorated in fine style, the St. James family crest floating high on the bright green and black banners suspended from the high stone ceilings. The men were not expected home yet, but Bernice believed in being prepared. The cooks were all on notice, ready at any time to create a welcome feast and the housekeepers made rounds to the soldiers’ quarters, making certain coals were set for quick lighting fires.
Arianna looked around the impeccable warmth of her home and hoped they would arrive this eve. The castle was more alive when all the men were home. To occupy her hands as well as her thoughts she sought out Sally, the head seamstress.
The little brunette smiled at her appearance, exposing small crows feet around her dark eyes. “Mistress Arianna, good to see you!”
She returned the expression, “You as well, Sally. I was wondering -”
“You would not be looking for some busy work, would you?” the elder lady raised a brow hopefully.
Arianna nodded sheepishly. “Tis boring around here with my brothers gone,” she said as she plopped herself into an empty chair.
Sally stood to sort through a pile of clothes on the enormous sewing table. “I know, M’Lady. Men are wonderfully alive in a disruptive and attentive way. I miss my William as well. Ah, here!” she pulled out a lovely dark blue pair of trousers. “Yer brother Erik brought these to me nigh two weeks past. Had another run-in with the dogs.”
The two women laughed, knowing full well he was lying. Whenever Erik got into a fight, or ruined his clothing in an overly passionate tryst, which was quite frequent, he always blamed it on the dogs.
“What I would like to know,” Sally continued, “is why he always dresses so nicely for those mutts.” Her grin turned wicked. “And why they always tear at his pants.”
Arianna’s chuckles wound down to a sigh, “These are a perfect project. Have you anything else?”
The seamstress took another minute and then handed over a pile of shirts with a set of threads and a needle. “Now should your father see you with any of this labor, you tell him—”
“You did not come to me for help, I sought you out,” Arianna finished. “I know, Sally. Do not worry yourself over it.”
Arianna whiled away the afternoon sewing; pausing when she began Erik’s breeches, wondering when he would be back. She had much to talk with him about. Twas word going around that he had begun an involvement with the kitchen maid, Janet. She was a nice girl, but too trusting. She would not understand Erik’s need to seek out other girls; and truth to tell, Arianna did not understand it herself.
She had never been “involved” with a boy, most being too intimidated by her brothers and father to even try, so she did not quite know what they did together that was so interesting… but damned if her brothers did not find it as exciting as battle. Erik needed to be told that Janet truly liked him and could get hurt—Arianna knew that much about a woman’s heart. He would do the right thing; her brothers always did.
A piercing horn split into her thoughts and Arianna’s head snapped up. Twas their call to open the gates. They must be back! The material fell to the floor as she stood and rushed from the room, a huge smile breaking on her face.
Her uncle Edward was the first to enter, his ruddy face bright with pride. “Greetins all!” he hailed, raising a beefy arm.
Everyone in the keep gave a collective sigh knowing things must have gone well.
“Uncle Edward,” she smiled as he approached, “I am pleased to see you are still in one piece.”
“Come here, lass, give us a hug,” the burly man crushed her briefly in his strong embrace before catching sight of his sister. “Bernie! Come say hello!”
Within minutes the rest of the men were pouring into the large hall, their animated voices echoing loudly off the stone walls.
Ryland was the first to spot her, his dark eyes sparkling to life. “Ari! What are you doing back so soon?” His long legs carried him to her swiftly and she was exuberantly swung off her feet.
Giggling like a child, she slapped at his shoulder, grateful to see his happy boyish face. “Ryland, put me down! You will hurt yourself.”
“Nah, you weigh only a stone,” he smiled.
“She weighs less than that I would wager.”
Arianna’s head whipped around at the familiar voice. “Erik!”
She was tossed between the brothers like naught but a sack of feathers. “What caused your early return, little sister?”
She was gently put back on her feet. “Mother found out about the scouting mission—”
“And worked herself into a lather?” Ryland guessed, doing a perfect imitation of their mother’s worried face as Erik laughed.
“Well, yes.” Arianna admitted with a smile. “So we came back a little early and—” her eyes strayed to Erik’s arm. “What happened?” her hands immediately moved to examine his wound.
Her brother pulled his arm from her. “Tis fine, really. We took down Goron’s army in an ambush,” his eyes glowed. “Twas spectacular.”
She frowned, “But you are hurt.”
His eyes strayed over her head as she again reached for him. “Do not make a scene about it, alright? Mother is coming.”
Arianna turned to see her mother rushing forward, worry lines already forming on her face.
“Mother, hurry!” Ryland called, throwing an evil smirk at his brother. “Erik hurt himself on the battlefield!”
“Oh my dear!” she cried, suitably horrified by his bandage. “Whatever happened to you? You will never go out there again! Here now, come with me…” she started to usher Erik away over his protests.
“I am fine, mother. Really! Ryland hit his head. Tis him you should worry about!” he stalled for time.
Ryland’s face sobered as his mother turned to him, her fingers swiftly searching his head and finding the small bump. “Mother–” he started.
“Now do not argue too! You are both coming with me or I will box your ears! My poor babies!” she cooed.
Arianna laughed as her two large brothers were forced away by their diminutive mother. “See you at the feast!” she called after them gaily. Smiling to herself, she turned her gaze back to the main foyer to watch all the happy faces as loved ones were reunited.
Her eyes took in the small number of injuries with satisfied surprise. So they had ambushed the other army? Twas a rather bold move for a new Man at Arms; and they had come out victorious. Her father would be pleased.
Catching his eye across the room, she smiled as he waved her over. Arianna made her way through the thick crowd of talking people, catching partial phrases as she went.
“—tis absolutely fearless—”
“—completely by surprise they did not suspect a—”
“—and Blackheart took out both men at once!”
Until finally her father’s voice broke through. “Arianna my dear! Come, I want to introduce you to someone.”
Ducking under a passing man’s arm, she smiled as she reached her father’s side and was pulled against his sturdy frame.
“Sweetheart, this is Alaric of Grathfom, my new Man at Arms. Alaric, my daughter Arianna.”
“Nice to meet—” Arianna’s voice caught as she turned to the man at her father’s right, momentarily stunned into silence.
He was… devastating. There was simply no other word to describe him. Tall and dark with strong angular features, thick glossy black hair and intense light eyes; he was the most beautiful man she had ever seen; if one could call such a specimen of manhood beautiful.
Her breath quickened, making her voice airy as she finished, “—you. Nice to meet you.”
His eyes took her in and then seemed to narrow almost imperceptibly. “The honor is mine, M’Lady.”
His voice bore the barest hint of sarcasm and Arianna suspected he was not honored at all.
He looked to her father. “Excuse me, M’Lord,” and without sparing her another glance he simply walked away.
Not used to such a dismissal, especially from the opposite sex, Arianna frowned. What was that about?
“Is he not remarkable? Not one man fallen. Absolutely remarkable.”
She glanced up to her father’s beaming face and felt her breathing return to normal.
“Remarkable… Yes, you could definitely say that.”
Alaric glanced over to the St. James head table and his frown deepened. Why did she keep looking over here? Refocusing on his plate, he dug into another hunk of venison and pushed her from his mind. Twas no concern of his if St. James had a ravishing daughter with Jeanine’s coloring.
“What is the problem, Alaric?”
He glanced up to see his brother observing him intently, “What?”
Stefan leaned back in his chair, drinking deeply from his mead. “You have been glaring at old Henry’s family for the better part of the meal. What gives?”
Alaric considered his younger brother—his half brother, he reminded himself. “The girl—”
“His daughter Arianna?” Stefan clarified.
“Yes. She…” he paused, “she reminds me of—”
“Jeanine,” his brother finished for him. “Tis her light hair…” he said in explanation.
“And her size,” Alaric added.
“And her age,” Stefan finished. “Jeanine was eighteen when you two wed, yes?”
The older man’s smile was thin. “As when we divorced, yes,” he grimaced as though tasting something bitter. “No matter, I do not like looking over and seeing her there.”
Stefan surreptitiously glanced to her, “It does not help I suppose that she continues to look over here?”
Alaric rolled his eyes, “She will stop. I am finished. I believe I will go bathe and retire for the night.” He stood, “Good night Stefan.”
Stefan watched his brother leave and then turned his eyes back to the lovely St. James girl. She was welcome to stare at him as much a she liked.
Arianna watched the new Man at Arms exit the hall and her attention finally turned to her meal, which was now cold. She simply could not stop herself from staring at him. He made her whole body come alive with sensation! He had returned the glance a few times, but she could see the displeasure on his face when he did so. It made her frown. Why should he be unhappy that she merely looked his way? He did not know her.
“Why the serious face, Ari?” Erik’s voice broke into her thoughts.
Not one to lie, she made direct eye contact and leaned forward over the table. “Your new leader does not seem to care for me.”
Erik was clearly surprised by her comment. “How could you know? Did you not just meet him an hour past?”
Arianna nodded, “Yes, but he frowned at me just now from his table. And when we were introduced earlier, he did not even smile before excusing himself.”
Her brother nodded in understanding, a grin forming on his face. “Oh, that…” He waved his hand, “Tis not you. He never seems to smile. And he usually looks like he is frowning. Do not take it personally.”
Her brows drew together, “What kind of person never smiles?”
He shrugged, “One they call Blackheart,” he wolfed down another chunk of meat and washed it down with mead, watching her. “He is a good man deep down though, sister. Do not let the frown scare you off. You would like him. He has the most gruesome battle stories and he knows lots of stuff for being only seven and twenty.”
His admiration was obvious. “Well, Erik, you are only nineteen. So you have plenty of time to catch up.”
“Gor, I hope so,” he smiled. “He is going to train me with a broadsword when my arm heals.”
Arianna smiled, “Tis very good, Erik.” Twas very good. And maybe he was right and gorgeous Alaric had not meant to frown at her. For some reason, the thought gave her more pleasure than it should and she dug into her meal with renewed hunger.
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