They stopped at the edge of the dining hall, a massive room with long wooden tables and benches for the soldiers and another smaller dining area set on a raised dais. Each table held the silent combination of Quinn’s forces and Falcon Fire’s army. They regarded each other with thinly veiled mistrust, tinged with nearly palpable hostility.
Quinn sighed softly. Yet more battles he must fight, and this in his own home.
Marcus bowed. “With your permission, I will eat with the men this eventide.”
“Go.” Quinn waved him away, eyes gliding over the high vaulted ceiling. Wooden beams crossed from one wall to the other with several huge iron candelabras hanging down. Shields, swords and tapestries graced the stone walls depicting years of tradition. He rested his hand lightly on the hilt of his sword, pushing aside the small tingle of excitement at joining this tradition. He was a warrior, and warriors showed no emotion. To do so was to show weakness.
And Quinn the Avenger possessed no weaknesses.
“Rise,” he commanded. His men gained their feet immediately, silent and alert. The soldiers of Falcon Fire glanced at each other, then turned to look at a gray-haired knight standing near the lord’s table. He nodded and they stood, a low rumble issuing from them.
Quinn strode through the ranks, past each table and each man, meeting every one eye to eye, before stepping onto the dais. He looked down at the aging knight, recognizing him as Lady Stirling’s defender. He motioned the man forward. “How are you called?” he asked loudly.
“Sir John.” The man half-bowed, though he did not take his eyes from Quinn.
“You are the captain of the guard here?”
“Join me.” Quinn offered his hand to the older man who looked at it warily before finally grasping it. They stood together, forearms clasped for a long moment, before the man moved up beside Quinn. “Will you swear fealty to me? And through me, to William, King of England?” He kept his voice low, so only John could hear.
The knight studied him hard for a long silent moment, then nodded. “Aye. I shall.”
“And will your men?”
“‘Tis enough for now,” Quinn murmured, pleased. ‘Twas actually more than he anticipated. Not for the first time he wondered who led these men since Lord Robert’s imprisonment two years prior. Most keeps of this size and riches would have been dominated long ago. Add the rumors of unfound gold and a beautiful woman to the pot and the feat became astounding. He looked at the assembled group and nodded. “Knights of Falcon Fire, join with me and my men tonight in a feast of celebration and renewal.” He looked behind him and found a goblet of honey colored liquid and raised the pewter vessel in the air. “I marry your Lady Stirling in three days time. A new lord and a new beginning. For us all.”
Silence reigned until one young man, ears tipped with red stepped forward, mug clutched to his black and red tunic. “To Lady Stirling and Lord Quinn.” He raised the cup and glared at his fellow knights. One by one they repeated the toast until it came full circle, reaching Quinn once more.
He downed his drink, nearly choking on the harsh taste of the stout ale, but managed to finish it all. The assembled knights did the same and he turned, slamming his mug to the oak tabletop. “Food!” he demanded, walking to the high-backed chair. “More drink.” He winced as he ordered the vile liquid, his head already swimming from the potent brew. This English mead contained none of the subtle textures and flavors of the good French wine he preferred.
Servants poured in from every direction, placing platters of cold meats, cheeses and breads before the men. Sir John slid into the seat on Quinn’s right. “You’ve won their admiration for your ability to hold down the mead, if naught else. ‘Tis brewed more strongly here than other regions of the country. Argyle, our brewmaster, likes to keep it in the barrels a bit longer.”
“Why did you join me?” Quinn asked, reaching for a round of bread, hoping to rid his mouth of the lingering bitterness from the mead.
“For my Lady Stirling. Whether she will admit it or not, Falcon Fire needs a man who can protect this land.”
“And you think I am this man?”
John shrugged. “‘Tis what I wagered on.” He sliced a thin piece of meat, wrapped a hunk of cheese in it and bit into the concoction, chewing with gusto. He swallowed and waved a hand encompassing the men in the hall. “‘Tis what they wager on, as well.”
“This keep has been without a lord for over two years. I do not believe a land so rich in resources has been left alone by sheer coincidence.” Quinn tore another chunk off the bread and leaned back in his chair, studying the older man closely.
“Nay. ‘Tis not been easy. Several men have tried to take Falcon Fire. Tried and failed.”
“Did your forces repel them?”
“Aye, but only with a bit of help.” Another slice of venison, another bit of cheese. And no further explanation.
“What sort of help?” Quinn grew frustrated. The man seemed more inclined to eat than discuss the miraculous state of the keep after two years of neglect and war. Apparently, he would have to be blunt. “I’ve heard tale of a certain knight in these parts. One known for his sense of justice. Is he the one who has aided you?”
A hush descended on the warriors, followed quickly by the scrape of wood on stone as benches were pushed back and the men sprang to their feet. Quinn followed the tilt of their heads to the arch separating the dining hall and the entry. His betrothed, gowned in a dress of deep red, moved toward him, smiling at each table she passed, dipping an occasional curtsy. The slow, measured pace of her gait allowed him to drink his fill of her, from the demure rounded neckline of her bodice that showed only a hint of creamy skin, to the nipped in waist and gently sloping hips. The skirt of her gown brushed against the floor, but he caught an occasional glimpse of her small feet encased in matching red slippers. At last she stood defiantly before him, ire etched on her delicate face. Her golden eyes sparkled with agitation as she pursed her full lips and jutted her pointed chin at him with mulish intent.
“In England, ‘tis considered rude to begin the evening meal without the presence of the entire household.” Stirling’s dulcet tones held an underlying thread of hammered iron.
Quinn rose and half-bowed, offering her his hand. She eyed him warily before placing her hand in his. He curled his fingers around hers and assisted her onto the dais. He looked over the sea of men watching and nodded sharply. “Eat.”
He waited until they complied, returning to their meals with guarded silence. “Your pardon, demoiselle. I believed you to be indisposed. After all, you did run away rather quickly during my bath.” He held her chair for her, then pulled it closer to his after she sat.
Her cheeks reddened and she glared at him under her lashes. “I did no such thing, Sir Norman. This keep does not run itself. I have many more important duties than to see to your bath.” She scooted the chair away again.
He raised a silent brow, which he noticed did not faze her in the least. His betrothed possessed a nerve greater than that of many warriors he’d fought with and against. He could not decide if the character flaw was intriguing or irritating.
“What duties occupy you now, Stirling?” he queried and noted the slight stiffening of her shoulders. “Stirling?” he prompted.
“‘Tis unseemly for you to address me by my given name, Sir.” She sipped from her own glass of mead, her eyes challenging him over the rim.
“In three days time, ‘twill not matter. As my wife, you will officially regain your title of Lady.”
She set her cup down carefully, folded her hands in her lap and drew in a deep breath. He sensed the battle was just beginning. “I have decided to decline William’s offer of marriage to you.”