It was over.
Lady Allanys Woodford shrugged off the hands of her keening maidservant and strode from the hall into the courtyard of her keep as dawn began to cast some light into the sky. Men died around her, or wept and pleaded, praying for it to come. Nearly all of the dead and wounded wore her green and blue colors. Among them prowled the intruders, a motley pack of brigands, their faces blackened with soot and dirt to hide them from the sight of her guards. They had planned this well. Their numbers were overwhelming, and there had been no time to send for aid before they had scaled the walls, slain the watchers, and unbarred the gates from the inside. As she watched, one of the brigands spat on the ground and lifted his sword, ready to end the life of one of her men who lay bleeding on the cobblestones.
“No!” Her voice was loud enough to give the man pause, as well as turn the heads of everyone in the courtyard, above the din. The sword-wielder only laughed and lifted his blade anew.
“Hold,” echoed a man’s voice, as a knot of riders entered through the gates. The command came from the one at their head, who swung down from his horse, his face an expressionless mask. If he took joy from the success of his outlaw band, he gave no outward sign of it. He fancied himself a lord already, and a knight, and affected the demeanor of both, so he thought.
“Lady Woodford, I wish the circumstances were more pleasant.” She drew herself up tall and held herself still as he approached.
“Garrett of Lothston. I wish you were swinging from the gibbet you deserve,” she replied coolly. The outlaw shook his head.
“We do not always get that which we desire, my lady. You know my terms. Surrender the castle and wed me or, ere the sun sets, nothing will live within these walls,” he said, the words empty of emotion. At his side, one of his less serious companions laughed.
“Tender kisses or un-tender mercies for the lady, the choice is hers!” he crowed, cueing a roar of laughter from the other riders.
“You offer a choice that is no choice, Lothston. Do you swear, by the old gods and the new, if I wed you that my people will be spared? Their wounds will be seen to, and they will not be turned out of these walls?” she asked.
“I swear it,” he agreed readily. She wished that she could weep, or die, but neither was an option.
“Then I accept your terms, and will be your wife.” He stepped forward, his face still curiously expressionless, and took her arm, before turning to his men.
“Roust the septon from wherever he is hiding and bring him to the hall. We’ll have a wedding and bedding tonight.”
As the cheers rang out from the outlaw band, echoing across the bailey, she let herself close her eyes.
In a decade, Allanys Lothston had steeled herself to the sight of the garish tourney shield hung where once her father’s had held pride of place in the great hall. Sweet kisses and staring skulls were her husband’s great joke on the highborn of the Stormlands, and the way he dishonored her anew each day, and yet as distasteful as all lords found him, none had lifted a hand to aid her in all the time since. His men had lounged about the keep for years, until he had paid most of them off with incomes from her properties, sending them back to their outlaw ways in other parts of the kingdom. Half the year, he would spend at tourneys and melees, all to spit in the eye of those he felt had denied him or mocked him before he could call himself a lord. The other half he would spend at home, watching her manage the people and the lands so that he could pretend it was all his work, and filling her belly with another child as often as possible.
Tonight, the children were being tutored by the septon, and he would keep them in the sept all night, until she came for them. Garrett’s men, those few that remained, were being feasted in the guard’s keep, celebrating his most recent tourney victory. Her kitchen folk would see to it that they were well and truly drunk on sweetsleep-laced wine. In the shadow of the walls, her loyal men, survivors with long memories, were painting their faces black with ashes below lazy mercenary guards dozing at their posts.
At the high table, the servants brought pitchers of wine from across the sea – fine Volantene red and Myrish white. She leaned in close to her husband, her hand on his arm.
“What will you drink, husband? The choice is yours.”
It did not matter which he chose. Into each pitcher has been poured a crystal vial of colorless liquid, brought as far as the wines themselves.
He did not know it yet, and perhaps never would, but it was over.