Sir Bannor the Bold raced through the shadowy stone corridors of the castle, his brow pouring sweat and his heart hammering like a war drum in his chest. He dashed around a corner, then ducked into the alcove of a recessed window, fighting to still the hoarse rasp of his breathing long enough to listen for his pursuers.
For a blessed moment, there was silence. Then came the relentless patter of their feet, the savage cries portending his doom.
His trembling hand went instinctively to the hilt of his broadsword before he remembered the weapon would be useless against them. He was defenseless.
If any of the men who had fought by his side against the French for the past fourteen years had seen the shudder of dread that wracked his massive body in that moment, they would have surely doubted their own senses. They had seen him scale a castle wall with his bare hands, dodging the steaming gouts of boiling oil that rained down like hellfire from the heavens above. They had seen him leap off his warhorse and race through a deadly rain of arrows to heave a fallen man over his shoulder and carry him to safety. They'd seen him rip the blade of a French sword from his own thigh with nary a flinch of pain, then use it to dispose of the man who had stabbed him. Much to King Edward's delight, his enemies had been known to toss down their arms and surrender at the merest whisper of his name on the battlefield.
But never before had he faced an adversary so formidable, so utterly lacking in mercy and Christian compassion.
As they stampeded past his hiding place, he shrank against the wall, his lips moving soundlessly in a prayer for deliverance to the God who had always fought so valiantly by his side.
But in the month since the treaty with the French had been signed, even God seemed to have abandoned him. The triumphant howl that assaulted his ears might have come from Lucifer himself.
They had spotted him! Too panicked to consider the consequences, he bolted, darting back the way he had come.
The devils were almost on him now, so close on his heels he could feel their hot breath scorching the back of his doublet.
He scrambled up the winding stairs, hoping to reach the sanctuary of the north tower before they brought him down and began to tear him apart like a pack of snarling mongrels. The wooden door loomed before him. He lunged for its iron latch and shoved, praying his sweaty grip would hold. Something groped at his ankle. For one bone-chilling instant, he feared he was lost. Then the door swung open.
He lurched across the threshold, shaking off the grip of the thing that had seized him, and slammed the door behind him. Only when the crossbar had thudded securely into its iron brackets did he dare to collapse against the door and suck in a great, shuddering breath. The enraged howls and demands for his surrender escalated, then subsided into ominous silence.
"Please, Lord," he muttered, not yet willing to give up on his old ally. "Not that. Anything but that."
He had once endured four months in a Calais dungeon, chained to a dank stone wall with only lice and rats for company. When his captors had fed him rancid gruel, he'd choked down every bite and asked for second helpings. After they had stretched him on the rack, he'd confounded them by enjoying a most satisfying nap. When they had branded his flesh with a glowing iron, he'd bit back his howls of pain and laughed in their faces. But not even his most diabolical enemy had managed to devise a torture so cruel, so likely to break a man's will and make him beg for mercy than...
Bannor groaned in mortal agony.
It came again--the dulcet lisp of an angel. "Papa? Won't you come out and pway wif us?"
Bannor swore beneath his breath. 'Twas just like that shrewd imp Desmond to send his six-year-old sister to bargain for a truce. None of his children were as fair or as sweet as wee Mary Margaret.
Or was it Margaret Mary? Bannor struggled to remember what his daughter looked like, but could summon nothing beyond a vague impression of misty blue eyes and golden ringlets. According to Father Humphries, the castle priest, she had the look of her mother about her. Bannor was shamed to realize that he'd been absent from the castle for so much of his marriage to his second wife that he couldn't remember precisely what she had looked like either.
"Go away, honeypot," he whispered to the door. "Papa doesn't want to play anymore." He despised the pleading note in his voice, but was helpless to banish it.
"We only want you to be our pony. I pwomise we won't tie you up again."
"Or pour pepper in your helm," piped up another hopeful voice.
"Or set your whiskers afire," trilled another.
As Bannor stroked the singed remnants of his beard, the chorus of entreaties reached a crescendo with Mary Margaret's "Pwease, Papa!"
Bannor steeled himself against the plaintive refrain. "Begone with you," he thundered. "Papa has matters of import he must attend to."
"Of more import than us, no doubt. Piss on the bugger, I say."
Bannor's lips tightened as he recognized the sullen snarl of his eldest son and heir. Thirteen year old Desmond had a mouth like a privy. Bannor itched to grab the lad by the scruff of his grimy neck and rebuke him for his insolence. But that would mean opening the door.
Desmond's voice brightened. "I know! Let's use the bellows to pump Cook's flaming pudding full of lamp oil!"
The crestfallen groans shifted to whoops of delight as he and his loyal minions went scampering down the stairs like a brood of Satan's imps.
As their footsteps faded, Bannor slumped against the door, undone by the indignity of it all. He, Lord Bannor the Bold, master of Elsinore, pride of the English and terror of the French, was a prisoner in his own castle, held captive by an army of bratlings.
He shook his head, but only succeeded in releasing a cloud of pepper from his hair. When his fit of sneezing had subsided, he drew himself up to his full height and rested his hand on the hilt of his sword, the set of his jaw grim enough to chill a foe's blood to ice. 'Twas not in his nature to surrender without a fight. Determined to find a way to prove to his rebellious offspring that they had chosen the wrong man with whom to do battle, he marched to the window, wrenched open the wooden shutter, and roared for his steward.
Charming the Prince