Since the morning he woke to find his precious daughter gone with only the remains of their latest argument left behind, King Lior has been praying she’d come home. For four years now, he’s prayed and searched, sending his best knights to find Evangeline, only to hear nothing. Until the day their missive arrives with three words: we’ve found her. He sends one right back with orders to bring her home.
But that order isn’t easily achieved. Evangeline, now a lowly servant, has no plans to return. Though the knights claim her father still loves her, she knows the truth: he’d cast her aside as quickly as everyone else if he knew how far she’d truly fallen. She can’t go home. Not with her scars. Or her failures. Or her son.
Only, the knights won’t leave without her. And just as she starts to wonder if maybe they might be right, the choice is taken from her altogether.
Sir Darrek thought the hardest part of his quest would be finding Evangeline. He had no idea how difficult it would be to get her home.
Sobs wracked his body as King Lior fell on his knees, the missive clutched to his chest as if it hadn’t already imprinted its message on his heart.
We’ve found her.
Four years of searching. Four years of waiting. Four years of hoping she was even still alive. He’d never once been bested in battle, yet three hastily written words had brought him to his knees.
His reply was as short as his knight’s letter had been. Three simple words.
Bring her home.
There were tapestries on the walls. The windows. The cottage’s door. Enough to keep out the light and prying eyes, but not the screams. No amount of tapestries could dampen the screams. They came, again and again, piercing the night air and shredding Darrek’s heart.
“Put down your sword. You can’t go in there.”
Darrek gritted his teeth against the quiet words of the man who’d become more of a father to him than his had ever been. Manning’s hand on his arm might have been gentle, but Darrek knew the strength behind it.
He gripped his sword tighter. “I can’t take it anymore.”
“Stay with the plan.”
The sound came again, through the trees to their makeshift campsite. Terror-filled, like that of a child, instead of a grown woman. Darrek wanted to block his ears, but even if he did, he’d still hear it. In his head. Etched in his soul. It was too much. They’d come to rescue Lady Evangeline, not listen to her scream. “What if I can’t?”
“Then you should leave.”
“Without her?” Unthinkable. She was the reason they were here.
“Lord Cavendish is a dangerous man, as well you know. Until we find out precisely what the relationship is between him and Lady Evangeline, we wait. I won’t lose good knights to poor preparation.”
Wait and watch. Day in, day out. Wait and watch. The years of searching, empty leads, disappointment, and frustration had nothing on this. Sit. Wait. Watch. While Lady Evangeline screamed herself hoarse.
They’d thought the sound was an animal being attacked the first time they’d heard it—and kept their swords close to their sides all night. Three nights later, when it had come again, they’d been closer to the castle and recognized it as that of a woman. It had sickened Darrek that night too, though he’d not known yet whose screams they were.
“What if it’s not a nightmare?” Darrek asked. “What if she’s in pain? What if she’s being attacked?”
“Craig would have told us if she was.”
For the first time in his life, Darrek felt a spark of jealousy toward a squire. A spark growing quickly into a wildfire. Oh, to be small and inconsequential enough to be all but invisible sneaking about the castle grounds. Darrek, with his height and bulk, would have been spotted the instant he walked through the gate, but a barely teenaged boy? No one paid him any attention.
While Craig walked about freely, gathering information, Darrek and the other knights hid in the forest. Waited for their chance. A chance Darrek was starting to think would never come.
Curse common sense.
Darrek had been the one to spot Lady Evangeline when they neared Cavendish Castle five days ago. They’d searched the castle twice before—the week she’d gone missing and then two years later—but found neither her nor any sign she’d been there. They likely wouldn’t have found her this time either, if not for Adam’s hunger for meat and the rabbit he and Darrek had chased. It had led them to a cottage tucked into the edge of the forest and so covered in vines and leaves that it blended in with the trees.
The large lock on the door had been the first hint of the treasure within. The two guards who’d scurried over to unlock it before hurriedly moving aside, the second. Darrek and Adam had whispered wonderings over who might live there for several minutes before the door opened and a girl stepped out. It had been their first glimpse of hope in almost two years.
She might have been garbed in the clothes of a peasant and far changed from the girl he’d once known, but there was no mistaking those features. Red hair. Blue eyes. A beauty, just like her mother.
The guards had moved several more steps back, eyeing the girl as if she were a wild animal about to rip out their hearts instead of the cowed woman shuffling along with her gaze on the ground. It had taken every bit of Darrek’s self-control—and Adam’s vice of a grip on his arm—to stay hidden in the trees and not throw her onto the closest horse and take her home. The image of her had wavered then, tears marring his view as he imagined that day. Lady Evangeline’s homecoming. He’d had to clear his throat before whispering.
Nervousness had tempered the thrill of their find. They knew how hard a mistake was to live with. None of their small group wanted to be the one who made it. And yet, they’d never stopped looking, riding the length and breadth of the country, and even across seas, certain their king’s youngest daughter had to be somewhere. Sooner or later, someone had to find her.
If only it had been somewhere other than here.
Anywhere but here.
Manning’s voice was louder this time, breaking through Darrek’s frustration. He turned to see not only his mentor but all three of the other knights’ gazes focused solely on him. Wary. They’d fight him, if they had to.
“You must wait. There is nothing we can do tonight.”
Darrek lay his sword back on the grass beside the threadbare blanket he called his bed and pulled on a thick brown cloak. Manning was right. He couldn’t save Lady Evangeline. Not tonight. There was too much they still didn’t know. But that didn’t mean there was nothing he could do.
“I’m going to her.”
The men’s protests were instant. Darrek brushed them aside and tucked one knife into his belt and another into his boot. He couldn’t rescue Evangeline, not from Cavendish or the nightmares that plagued her, but he had no intention of letting her face them alone.
“Darrek,” Manning tried one more time.
Darrek paused, turning back slightly to look at Manning. “I have to—”
“Be careful. Cavendish won’t show mercy if he finds you, and neither will his guards.”
Darrek nodded once, before moving away. His steps were quick but certain as he walked through the darkness to the tiny cottage. He’d take every care possible, but he would get to Evangeline.
Screams filled his ears again. He wondered, not for the first time, how the forest patrols and the men guarding the castle each night could so easily ignore the agony of the woman just outside it. Were they truly so heartless? Or did they, like so many others within Cavendish Castle, believe her to be cursed? Crazy, even. Darrek had laughed when Craig relayed that rumor. The Evangeline Darrek remembered might have driven men crazy with her beauty, but she was far from touched herself.
Of course, the Evangeline he knew had also been missing for four years. And now screamed like a demon fought for her soul.
He slowed as the cottage came into view, careful to keep his steps light and his mind alert. His breath fogged the air, mingling with the sound of another childlike scream. Darrek rubbed his chest and forced out another breath.
Think. Focus. Breathe. Getting himself captured wouldn’t help Evangeline.
The screams played with his mind as his gaze silently tracked the area around the cottage, searching for guards. According to Craig’s reports, the patrols stayed clear of the cottage once it was locked each night, but Darrek had been a knight for too long not to be wary. He forced himself to stay still for a minute before creeping forward.
The lock on the door was heavy, solid, and tightly closed. As expected. He wouldn’t be entering through there without far more noise than even the screams could cover. But—he walked around the cottage—there. A window. It would be a squeeze, but he’d do it. For Evangeline. He’d do anything for the daughter of his king. Darrek hesitated only a moment, considering Evangeline’s honor, before climbing through. The girl was in pain. Propriety be hanged. He almost hoped there was a guard inside just so he’d have someone to fight.
Eyes already adjusted to the dim light, it was a simple task to find the woman he sought. She lay curled in a blanket on the floor of the one-roomed cottage, every muscle tensed as she screamed. Two other people were in the room, though neither of them were guards. One was an older woman dressed in the same simple garb as Evangeline. The other, a young, sleeping child she carefully stood in front of. He didn’t blame her—not for that, not for the glare she set on him. Certainly not for the iron pot she grabbed in lieu of a weapon.
Darrek held up his hands. “Please. I’m not here to hurt any of you. I only want to help.”
When the woman didn’t throw the pot at his head, he lowered his hands and slowly moved to Evangeline’s side, kneeling beside her. A gentle but firm shake of her shoulder did nothing to wake her. He tried again. “Evangeline.”
“I don’t know who you are or what you’re doing here in the middle of the night, but she won’t wake. She never does when the terrors come. Not until morning, when she’s limp from the fight.”
Darrek looked up, surprised to see the woman had sat down. The pot was still in her hand, and she was still hiding the child, but she seemed more wary than threatened by him. Had she decided to trust him after all? He nodded to her before trying again to shake Evangeline out of the nightmare. The woman was right. Evangeline wasn’t waking. Was it like this every time the terrors came? What fears held her so tightly in their clutches? “Evangeline,” he said again, more force behind his words this time. “Evangeline.” Again and again he said her name, shaking her shoulder. “Evangeline!”
Her screams lessened, but now her whole body shook. Darrek wanted to pick her up and cradle her in his arms, like one would an upset child, rocking her against his shoulder until she calmed. But she was no child. More, she was the daughter of his king. He’d already come into her room in the middle of the night—something he hoped her father would understand, given the circumstances. He didn’t need to compound that by embracing her. Even if the older maid could vouch for his honor.
He reached for Evangeline’s hand instead, stroking his thumb up and down the back of it.
Lord Almighty, give her peace.
Lord Most High, calm her heart. Banish the terrors and fill her mind with beauty.
“Shh… Sleep, lass.”
A tear ran down her cheek, caught for a moment in the moonlight before disappearing into her hair. Darrek held her hand tighter, his whispered prayers becoming a jumble of more sentiments than sense. If only they’d found her sooner. Might they have been able to save her from the terrors that claimed her mind?
“Shh…” he said again. “Sleep now. No harm will come to you tonight. You’re safe here.”
His voice caught as her screams turned to whimpers.
“There’s a good lass.”
It was a wonder they’d found her at all and even more that they’d recognized her. They’d been searching for a flighty teenager. This was a woman, not only in looks but in temperament. It was Evangeline, yet so different from the one he’d known.
The girl he’d last seen was slim, always ready with a smile, confident to the point of being arrogant, and certain of her effect on men and women alike. The men were drawn to her, the women envious.
This woman—and she definitely had the body of a woman—was quiet. Cowed, almost. It wasn’t just the clothes—the brown and white servant garb she donned each day. It was the way her shoulders drooped forward when she stood. The wariness in her eyes. A shuffle of a walk where once she strode. Even her hair, once the vibrant red of fiery autumn leaves, now seemed dull. Trailing her this past week had brought an ache to his chest and an overwhelming longing time and time again to swoop her into his arms and carry her away from this place.
He’d foolishly admitted as much to the other knights two days ago. Adam and Landon had laughed, joking that he was a besotted romantic who’d been deprived of the fairer sex for too long to fall so hard for a woman like her. Even Spencer, always ready with a word of affirmation, had tried to stifle a grin. Only Manning had seemed to understand, nodding quietly as he whittled a piece of wood by the fire. It wasn’t a romantic love at all but a fierce sense of loyalty. Of protection. She was hurt, and he wanted to save her. He had to save her. This was why they’d come. Why they’d given up four years of their lives.
“You’ve a gift, sir,” came the quiet voice of the older woman. “Who are you?”
“A friend,” Darrek said quietly. He daren’t give his true name, not so near the castle of his king’s greatest enemy, not until he knew who his friends were. The woman nodded, not seeming to mind. Would she be friend? Foe? Would she tell her master he’d been here tonight? She hadn’t gone running yet, so perhaps not. Perhaps, she might even become an ally, if she cared as much about Evangeline as it seemed.
“Well, friend. I thank you.” She smiled at him before closing her eyes. “Perhaps we’ll get some sleep this night after all. I can’t say I wouldn’t welcome it.”
Darrek sent a nod of his own back to her. If he’d been the one whose sleep was interrupted by a screaming roommate several nights a week, he’d likely welcome anyone who calmed the screams also.
Evangeline was quiet, her breathing steady, her muscles lax in sleep again. He should go. With a final prayer, Darrek eased his hand out of hers. She whimpered. He stood, gently shaking his feet to bring back circulation. Her whimpers turned to cries. He bent back down to take her hand again. She instantly stopped.
“Maybe ye should stay,” came the sleepy voice of Evangeline’s fellow maid.
“’Twouldn’t be right.” Much as he wanted to.
“I’m a light sleeper, friend. There’s not much trouble you could get into with the boy and me in here. Still, ’tis your choice. Do what you think best.”
His choice. Almighty, would it be right? He was a knight, honor bound to King Lior. He’d already crossed the line of impropriety simply by coming into her room. Would he eradicate it altogether if he stayed?
Darrek eased his hand out of Evangeline’s again, testing. Again, she whimpered. He couldn’t leave her, not like this.
He sat beside her pallet, stretching his legs out across the stone floor, careful not to touch any part of Evangeline other than her hand.
Leaning back against the wall, he tipped his head to the ceiling and settled in to pray.
“Friend, you must wake.”
A shake of his shoulder had Darrek instantly alert, if completely disorientated. Where was he? Inside a house, given the tapestry-lined walls and stone floor. But whose house?
“You have to leave. Now.”
Darrek looked from the loudly whispering woman to the hand clasped within his, following it up an arm to—
Evangeline. He’d come to help Evangeline. He must have fallen asleep. The room was still dark but, based upon the panicked expression of the woman still shaking his shoulder, he guessed it to be close to morning. In a half hour or less, the servants would all be up and the nearby castle buzzing with preparations for the new day.
“She won’t take kindly to your presence. Nor will the master if he finds you here. Go, now, before they wake.”
She pushed at his shoulder, urging him to move. Darrek needed no more incentive. Taking one last look at the soundly sleeping Evangeline, he rose and walked to the window by which he’d entered, peering out to see whether any guards were there before climbing through it. Before he could run to the shelter of the forest, the older woman placed a hand on his shoulder. He turned in time to see a tear dripping its way down her weathered face.
“I don’t know who you are, friend, or what kind of miracle worker you be, but I thank you.”
With a touch of her hand to her heart, she waved him away.
She’d closed the window on him before he could extend any gratitude of his own. Perhaps that was for the best. Checking again for guards, Darrek crept across the grass back to the forest and his fellow knights. He whistled, letting whoever was taking the last watch know it was him coming, lest he find an arrow in his arm, or worse, gut. He was unsurprised to see Manning waiting for him.
“You stayed all night.”
Darrek rubbed a hand across his bleary eyes. How much sleep had he gotten? Two hours? Three? Fewer? It felt like fewer. His mind might have been on high alert, but his body could have done with a few more hours. He pulled a log over to where Manning sat against a tree and lowered himself onto it. No point in waking the others with their talking. And, no doubt, talk they would. His mentor wouldn’t let this go unexplained.
“Do you think that wise?”
“Not wise, no. But necessary.”
“Would King Lior think the same?”
“I would like to think so. She was asleep the whole time.”
Manning ran his knife over the stick in his hand, scraping a thin layer of wood off it before repeating the process twice more. Darrek was only too happy to stay silent as the older man ruminated. He hadn’t meant to stay all night, but neither would he apologize for having done so. Evangeline had needed him, even if she hadn’t known he was there.
“You weren’t seen?” Manning asked.
“Not by Lady Evangeline.”
“By someone else, then?”
“The maid who shared her room. I fell asleep. She was the one who woke me.”
But her kindness might have been an act. Even now she could be going straight to Cavendish’s side to report him. As if he’d come to the same realization, Manning’s whittling stopped. He might as well have been a statue as he sat there on that log. The sky lightened from black to dark indigo to violet. Birds took up their call. Darrek waited.
Manning nodded toward the other knights.
“I expect you ready to break camp in one hour. We have work to do—first and foremost, finding information, which can only be done inside the walls.”
“Inside? We’ll be noticed. Even in peasants’ clothing, we stand out.”
“Precisely. I aim for the boys to cause a stir. Although they’ll not be dressed as peasants this time.”
A grin tipped the side of Darrek’s mouth. He and Manning had discussed another plan one night while the others had slept. The perfect distraction—and means of sourcing information—should they require it. Apparently, that time had come. “Spencer is going to hate it.”
“Aye,” Manning said with a slight smile of his own. “But it’ll work.” He nodded toward the sleeping knights. “Get some sleep. Lord only knows what we’ll face come daylight.”
“You think the maid will talk?”
“I have no doubt. But will she report you to Cavendish? Only the Almighty knows.”
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A troupe of entertainers had arrived at the castle and set up tents near the front gate. It had been all any of the servants could talk about. Entertainers wouldn’t normally have caused such a stir, especially when a wealthy lord and his retinue were expected in several days. Only these entertainers were a very small troupe, and all of them particularly handsome.
Or so the gossip went.
Eva threw a handful of flour on the table, followed by the dough she’d been tasked with kneading, and tried to block out the noise. It was mindless work, making bread. Peaceful, in the mornings when she started before anyone else. Not so much late in the afternoon when the kitchens sweltered with the heat of too many pots, too many people, and too many unfounded opinions. The chatter was endless, grating on Eva’s tired nerves. Perhaps it might not have been so bad, if she’d been part of the conversations. But no one spoke to Eva. They only spoke about her.
Today, every conversation had been about the three men.
She hadn’t seen them herself yet, nor was she likely to, but it seemed every other servant in the castle had.
A washer woman had been the first to come back with the tale, bustling into the kitchen to tell her friend about one of the men coming to her rescue when she tripped on a rock walking back from the river. According to her, he was the strongest, most handsome, and most chivalrous man she’d ever seen. Which, of course, had every hapless, romance-minded maid in the keep finding a reason to wander the troupe’s way to judge for themselves. As if they’d never had a troupe of traveling entertainers visit before.
The healer’s apprentice suddenly needed more herbs despite Eva bearing witness to the fact that she’d gone into the forest yesterday and come back with two baskets full. The apprentice returned an hour later with no herbs but plenty of matrimonial illusions.
Two kitchen maids went out next in search of mushrooms. They too came back empty-handed. Convenient given that they needed their hands to giggle behind.
A housemaid was next to come back with a story, telling anyone close enough to listen that she’d claimed the tall, blond one who looked far more like a knight than a jester. As if saying such a thing would stop any other maids from wanting him. The girl should have kept her mouth shut. Making such a bold claim would only lead to fighting and foolery.
Not long after that, a squire ran into the kitchen to request lunch for the stablemaster and told a story of his own about the men’s horses. This sent three more twittering maids running to fill water buckets, which they’d none-too-subtly kicked over ten seconds before.
And they thought Eva was the crazy one.
There were three men, according to the gossip. The tall blond and two with light brown hair. A jester, a bard dressed like the blue-faced sprites he spun tales of, and a minstrel. All three big men, muscled and strong. And all the handsomest men in the land.
Of course, to many of these women, that could have simply meant that the men had all their limbs, teeth, and faculties intact. Give or take a few teeth.
Eva pushed back her red hair with her arm, careful not to brush flour into it. Handsome men. On the castle grounds. Once, that would have excited her too. She would have been first to primp her hair and tie her belt a little tighter around her waist to show off her figure to the best advantage. They would have noticed her too. She would have made sure of it. Now, she was more than happy to stay in the shadows. Intent even, in doing so. It had been a long time since she’d wanted to show off her figure to anyone. A long time since she’d had a figure to show off.
She might have even wondered, once, if they’d come to rescue her. Wondered if they weren’t entertainers at all, but rather her father’s knights disguised, come to save her from a life of drudgery. She shook her head and let out a bitter laugh. Foolish thought. She’d given up that hope around the same time she’d lost her figure.
Eva pounded the dough into the table, reminding herself for the millionth time that this had been her choice. She’d been the one to walk away. This wasn’t what she’d been thinking when she did it, but there was no going back now. The time for second thoughts had been four years ago. These days, her regrets were as well known to her as her shortened name. And almost as comfortable.
Two more minutes of kneading and the dough was ready. Eva rolled it into a neat ball and placed it in a tin. Her arms shook as she pulled another mass of dough out of the bowl and began the process all over again. How was it possible that a body could ache so? It was as if her bones had melted into nothing and all that held her up was her stubbornness. Nineteen years. It was all the life she could lay claim to. She might as well have been ninety, the way her joints creaked.
Shuffling tired feet, she took a step backward, yelping when her foot hit something that hadn’t been there before. Half turning, half falling, she caught herself just in time to spot her little boy, hands tucked behind his back. Wiping her hands on a piece of cloth, she crouched down.
“Arthur, what are you doing here? I thought you were helping Maeve make the beds.”
One hand came out from behind his back. He opened his fist to show her a crumpled flower.
“You brought me a flower?”
“It’s beautiful. Thank you.”
She took the yellow flower—likely a weed—and held it between her thumb and forefinger. It was pretty, even if it was missing several petals. And a stem. One day Arthur would realize that flowers were far easier to hold when they still had their stems attached. Of course, he was only three. Plenty of time to learn how to woo a lady. Until then, she remained his one and only love. And he hers.
Arthur’s other hand came out, this one holding a tattered piece of cloth that might have been white at one point. Long, long ago. Where had he gotten that piece of fabric? Eva wanted to know but thought it better not to ask. She’d hate to find out someone’s undergarments were missing a square of fabric from them. Tattered as it was.
She smiled. “It’s…nice.”
He frowned before pointing to the flour-coated table she was kneading on. His head tilted, eyes asking the questions his mouth wouldn’t form.
“You want to help?”
He nodded. Eva cringed inside. That piece of cloth could do nothing except make people ill. Perhaps if it had been dry, she might have taken it from him to place beside hers, but Arthur’s hands must have been wet when he picked up the dirty cloth because they were also muddy and needed to be washed.
“Thank you, kind sir.” Arthur smiled at the salutation. “But I still need that flour. It stops the dough from sticking to the table. But, let’s see—” She brushed back a piece of straw-colored hair from Arthur’s eyes, trying to think of something he could help with that wouldn’t add too much more work to her already full day. “Would you like to help me get more water?” The kitchens could always use more water. Especially since the maids kept forgetting to fill their buckets today. Distracted as they all were. “Or I’m certain Maeve would love to see you.”
Arthur shook his head.
“You don’t want to help?”
He shook his head again.
“You don’t think Maeve wants to see you?” She should have learned by now only to ask Arthur one question at a time.
This time he nodded, to Eva’s relief, before pointing toward the castle gate.
Ah. Maeve had gone into the forest, beyond their cottage garden. It wasn’t safe for Arthur, so she’d sent him to the kitchens. At least, that’s what Eva assumed had happened. Widowed almost twenty years ago and still holding her husband tightly in her heart, Maeve didn’t seem the type to be trying to catch the attention of a group of men likely half her age.
Young men. Handsome. Strong.
Eva hated how quickly her mind switched back to them. Her days of swooning over a man were long past. No good man would ever look at her as anything more than a ruined servant girl, and thinking any differently was only torture.
But what if they were her father’s knights disguised as entertainers? Raedonleith was only two days’ journey away. It wasn’t inconceivable that they might have come. But why now?
If they had come for her, they might as well go home. She wasn’t leaving. Even if she’d wanted to, she couldn’t. Not without Arthur—and he didn’t have the option. Not while his father lived.
Eva smiled at Arthur, dabbing him on the nose with her floury finger. He was a good boy, if exasperating at times. Not mischievous, or bad, just there. Always there. Wanting to help. Trying to help, even when that caused more work for Eva. She wanted to give him the chance—it was what a good mother would have done—but she already struggled to get all her work done before the sun set each day. Arthur’s help could add hours to it, and the truth was, she just didn’t have the energy.
“Maybe you could play until she gets back?”
With a sad nod, the boy walked over to the corner of the kitchen. Back to his stool. Back to the sticks and rocks he played with day in day out while she worked to keep him safe. She’d had dolls and jewels and balls to play with when she was a child. Arthur had rocks and two small somewhat-sword-shaped sticks. But no one his age to play with. No one to laugh with. So little reason to smile. It broke Eva’s heart. Over and over again. If the Almighty was real, he’d made a mistake with her.
She turned back to the table, one hand landing on the dough while the other swiped at the tears she refused to let fall.
Perhaps the entertainers were knights, and perhaps they were strong. Perhaps, by some miracle, the men would look more than once at one or two of the besotted maids and take them far away from the life they’d fallen into. But one of those maids wouldn’t be her. Bread, brooms, dust, and chamber pots. That was her lot. She’d be a fool to wish for anything more.
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