Fallstowe Castle, England
With one step, it would all be over.
Sybilla Foxe swayed with the stiff breeze that shoved its way between the battlements where she stood more than one hundred feet above the ground.
Beneath her, six hundred of King Edward’s finest were readying to make war against her, their torches and bale-fires blooming in the night, the creaking of wooden beams and the clanging of metal wafting up to her as discordant notes from a demonic orchestra. The conductor of the affair had only just arrived in an ornate carriage, driven to the fore of the company and rocking to a stop. As of yet, no one had emerged.
To either side of Sybilla—indeed, around the whole of the castle’s impressive topmost perimeter—Fallstowe’s soldiers crouched behind the protective stone merlons of the castle’s tallest turret, their own torches snuffed. They were one with the shadows cast by the bone-white moon, round and glaring down on them.
Save for Sybilla, who stood in an embrasure, her arms outstretched so that her palms held her fast within the teeth of the battlement. She knew that her silhouette would be visible to anyone with a keen eye who looked in just the right spot. The wind came again, pushing her, buffeting Sybilla so that her spine bowed, her palms scraped against the stone. She was like the mainsail of a ship filled with a seaborne tempest, her rigging straining where it was lashed to landlocked Fallstowe. Her hair blew forward around both sides of her face, catching in the seam of her mouth. If she but loosed her stays, the wind would rip her away from the turret into the night, wildly, silently, without remorse.
Sybilla closed her eyes and tilted her face up. Now she was the carved figurehead on the bow of the ship, so free and fearless. She could feel the grit beneath her slippers rolling as her feet slid almost imperceptibly nearer the abyss.
With one step, it could all be over . . .
The wind relented, and Sybilla sagged back between the merlons. Disappointment prickled along her jaw, causing her chin to tremble, her eyes to sting. She forced her reluctant arms to fold, stepping backward and down from the battlement and onto a mantlet, the large wooden shield ready to be put into service at a moment’s notice. Sybilla turned calmly to face her most faithful friend—Fallstowe’s aged steward—properly.
In that instant, the air before Sybilla’s face went white hot and flames flashed before her eyes with a blinding
. A solid-sounding
echoed in the soles of her feet and both Sybilla and Graves looked down at the flaming arrow stuck in the thick wood of the mantlet, a hand’s-breadth before her right foot. A parchment was tied to its shaft.
Sybilla looked up at Fallstowe’s steward in the same instant that he, too, raised his eyes.
“Shall I fetch that for you?”
Sybilla forced herself to swallow. She had been closer to death than she’d realized.
Without waiting for her answer, Graves reached out one long, thin arm and jerked the now sputtering missile free before snapping the shaft in half and tossing the glowing ash of the fletching to the stones. The only sounds atop the turret were the wind, the barely discernible rustle of armor covering the backs of impatient soldiers, and the scratching of Graves’s fingernails against stiff parchment.
Sybilla could scarcely hear them above the blood pounding in her ears.
At last Graves handed the missive to her. Sybilla held the curled ends in her hands, turning the page toward the bright moonlight. The page was covered with thin, scrawling characters, undecipherable in the night, but the ornate preface as well as the thick, heavy seal under her thumb were clear enough that Sybilla understood without reading the royal proclamation.
Edward I had come for her. The king meant to take Fallstowe, this night.
As if she had not already ascertained that fact by the six hundred armed men arriving by moonlight to camp beyond her moat.
She sighed and dropped the hand holding the missive to her side. “Thank you, Oliver,” she muttered. Certainly Edward would have come for her eventually, but the king had no doubt been prompted to act by the message recently sent by Sybilla’s newly acquired brother-in-law, Oliver Bellecote.
Sybilla hoped her younger sister, Cecily, was enjoying her wedding night more than was Sybilla.
Only a handful of months ago, the king himself had warned the youngest of the Foxe sisters, Alys, at his own court. Alys was now safely ensconced at bucolic Gillwick, with her husband, Piers.
It will come down to you, Sybilla
. She heard the phrase in her mind, spoken to her so many times by her mother. She could still picture Amicia vividly, lying in the bed that was now Sybilla’s, her useless right side both bolstered and half-hidden by pillows.
And it will end with you.
Sybilla wondered who the king had sent to lead the siege against her, and she called to mind the ornate carriage she’d seen arrive below. She turned her face toward the battlements again, just as another flaming arrow whooshed over the crenellation and sank into the wood at her feet.
Sybilla gasped this time, and she felt her brows draw together as she saw another parchment tied to this arrow’s staff. She was becoming slightly irritated with this particular method of correspondence. The murmur of soldiers’ armor was more insistent this time, and Sybilla knew they were anxious to act.
“My lady?” Her general rose from his position, obviously waiting for her to give the signal to return fire. His drawing hand hung at his hip, the exposed fingers in his glove catching the ivory moonlight as they clenched and unfurled.
“Hold, Wigmund,” Sybilla cautioned him.
“It nearly struck you,” the knight argued. “’Tis obvious the thieves are aware of your presence—they think to avoid a fight should they fell you in advance.”
“I know your men are eager. You will likely gain the battle you crave before the dawn has stepped both feet onto the earth.” Sybilla looked back down at the arrow. “But I am as yet untouched. Hold.”
“Madam?” Graves asked solicitously.
“I’ll get it,” Sybilla said, hitching her skirts up slightly into the crease of her hips in order to crouch down on the massive wooden shield. She untied the parchment, leaving the flames to flicker their little light while she unfurled the message and held it near the dying flame.
Shall we negotiate?
Instinctively, Sybilla looked to the battlements, although from her crouched position she could see nothing but sky. Negotiate? She could see no points on which either side was willing or able to concede. The only information that might save Sybilla, and which the king couldn’t already know, was what she had sworn to her mother while Amicia lay dying. And
she would never, ever tell.
Fallstowe might be taken, the Foxe family would be no more, Amicia’s name would be synonymous with deception and scandal, but the greatest secret of all would be buried in a grave.
Most likely Sybilla’s.
As if to emphasize the inevitability of her fate, another flaming arrow lofted over the battlements, this time pinning the hem of Sybilla’s gown to the wooden platform.
The roar of armor shook the night as soldiers rose like a black wave to the battlements, even as Wigmund bellowed “Place!” and was answered by the echoes of his lieutenants repeating the order around the whole of Fallstowe Castle. The air trembled with a whiny reverberation, the audible tautness of hundreds of bowstrings.
Graves cleared his throat. “Won’t you come away from the edge now, Madam?”
But instead of fear, Sybilla began to feel the familiar rumblings of anger. “
I said hold!
” Sybilla shouted up at Wigmund. “Hold your men!”
The general glared at her but relayed the command. He did not order the men to stand down, and Sybilla had not expected him to. She knew they would be pushed only so far, with or without her word.
Still, once they fired on soldiers of the king, their fates were sealed.
Sybilla tossed the earlier plea for negotiations aside and, without unpinning the still-flaming arrow from her gown, removed the latest message.
“That pompous ass,” Sybilla growled, her fury spreading like thick ice on a deep lake. “Wigmund,” she called out calmly as she jerked the extinguished arrow free from the wood.
“Bring your bow. Wrap and dip a fletching—I want to be certain it is seen.”
Sybilla turned the dead arrow in one hand, using her other hand to place the most recent missive on the flat shield. With the coaled end of the arrow she scratched a short, crude message, and then tossed her makeshift writing utensil aside.
When she looked up, Fallstowe’s general stood above her, his longbow in one hand and a single arrow in the other, its end bulbous and dripping with pitch.
Sybilla stood in one swift motion, still anchored to the wooden shield by the flickering arrow, the parchment crumpled in her hand. She seized the projectile Wigmund offered and then glanced at the general out of the corner of her eye as she tied her message to the arrow.
“I haven’t the strength to draw a longbow, good sir; I shall have the one across your back.”
If the general was surprised that Fallstowe’s lady intended to send the message herself, he hid it well, ducking his head to remove his shorter weapon and holding it toward Sybilla. Before she took it, she bent at the waist and yanked the flaming arrow from her hem, quickly touching it to the primed fletching in her hand. Then she grabbed the bow and turned to the battlements once more.
“I shall be the only one to fire,” she advised her general, and was satisfied as the command to hold made its way around the turret and away into the night.
Sybilla stepped into the embrasure and knocked her arrow, the bubbling pitch hissing, the heat from the flames rising up to warm her face. She knew she had only seconds before she was spotted. She quickly raised her elbows and lowered her weapon until she had sighted in on her target.
The carriage. A lone archer stood with his back leaning against the ornate conveyance, bow in one hand, arms crossed over his chest, as he conversed casually with another soldier. He paid Fallstowe no mind.
She drew the bow, her muscles quivering with effort. With no archer’s glove to protect her, the flesh of the first two fingers of her right hand felt cut to the bone by the bowstring. Her shoulders and chest strained, but she no longer felt like stepping off the ledge into oblivion. In fact, she felt rather better.
Below, the archer’s face turned upward, and she heard his faint shout of surprised alarm.
One more fight then, for posterity’s sake.
Sybilla felt her lips curve into a smile, then she let her arrow fly.