June 8, 1224 AD
The six guests rose before the dawn, as planned. No one suspected their foul purpose. By design, they had drunk far less than it appeared. While it seemed they slept soundly, in actuality they gauged the pulse of the castle. Before light, they would execute the gatekeeper and guards then open the gate to Timothy O’Neill’s army. Aye, they were mercenaries. Why not? They could be bought; their reward might be in land grants if the invading force were successful. To take Dahlquin would be a prize indeed. Remote enough the king might not rush to its defense. What a message it would send to the rest of the Irish kings. This could be a stepping-stone eventually taking the whole kingdom, or merely a good place to start one’s own realm. Or work out the details of a truce, keep Dahlquin, and be absorbed back into the old regime. There were many possibilities if the only loyalty was self-interest.
With silence and stealth, three of the mercenaries made their way through the grounds. Approaching the gatehouse was harder than they anticipated. Lord Hubert was a careful and thorough man. More sentries to be silenced than expected, still Hubert expected the assault from without, not treachery within his very walls.
The other three assassins slunk to the residential tower. Quite a bit of wine and flattery tricked a disgruntled laundress into revealing the locations of the bedchambers of the lord, lady and their daughter. With the Dahlquin nobility murdered, taking the castle would be much easier to take. Dare they dream of a smooth takeover? Invade the castle, declare themselves the lords, and demand allegiance. Give the new subjects a chance to live by swearing their fealty to the new overlord: Timothy O’Neill. This plan had so many inherent possibilities.
Returning from the chapel, Donegal’s mind was full of doubt, should he have stayed with Eloise, sending Alexander to join Eoin? Thoroughly he checked in with all the posts through the castle on his way. All was quiet as it should be; nonsense, he chided himself, Eloise was fine. When he heard a foot fall behind him, Donegal turned half expecting to see Alexander, dice in hand, begging to trade duty. Donegal’s mouth was covered, his head yanked back. As the assailant behind cut his throat, another held his legs firmly. Eoin, his mind screamed, he could picture his cousin, alert; feel his own failure to duty, Uncle… Donegal struggled in vain as his lifeblood pumped furiously from his body. Panic overrode any pain, until weakness, darkness, cold and the final humiliation of evacuation ended his days.
The residential tower was very quiet again; Donegal’s body was left sitting as if asleep, his padded gambeson absorbing the thick, spent blood, but not the stench of filth. Tiny pairs of eyes watched the body, unafraid of the retreating men. Rats drawn by the smell inched greedily from the hidden depths, cautious only of a cat’s return; or one of the dogs.
But the hounds slept soundly in Dahlquin this night. Perhaps Lord Hubert had grown soft or relaxed his guard. Maybe he was overconfident in the Dahlquin image of invincibility and tenacity the assassins thought as Eoin was murdered outside Lady Eloise’s very door. With the two guards dead, one assassin slipped into her bedchamber. It was dark but not silent. Snoring rattled the furnishings, making his hair stand on end. No more guards, no hounds. Barely enough light glowed from the hearth to illuminate two sleeping figures on the floor: Nursemaids, perhaps? The bed was empty. Unslept in. Sir Byron quietly felt around anyway, for any form. Only a book. He scanned the room thoroughly. Armed as he was it was impossible to be absolutely silent, one of the sleepers roused.
“My lady, dear, is that you? Elo-” the name remained unfinished, the woman was sliced near in half. The commotion woke the other sleeper. The red-haired assassin grabbed for the man’s head in the dark. A scuffle ensued; muted voices, finally John felt a large hand cover his mouth and part of his nose. A dagger pressed cold and sharp on his throat. Was it wet, John pondered? Blood? His?
“Where is she?” hissed Byron’s angry voice.
John could smell blood, lots of it. Whose? His wife’s? They were here together, in the lady’s room; sleeping on a pallet upon the floor waiting for her. His wife had been the Lady’s nursemaid since infancy.
“Where is she?” Byron’s voice grated in John’s ear. John was bleeding and overwhelmed. The stranger threatening, the oppressing odor, and the unconscious game he played not to believe it was his own wife’s death he smelled.
“The lady,” the Byron demanded.
“Eloise? Not here?” John finally croaked through the pressure of a blade already severing the outer layer of flesh. John felt his own death as imminent. How clear and indisputable: His wife and now him. He knew it, to his amazement, accepted it, and shouldering the full responsibility of a man, made no effort to alter it. He would die.
The knight felt the futility of it too. Byron would get no information from this dredge. Worthless filth. Keeping back of the man to avoid the blood, he slit John’s throat to the spine. Angered, he kicked the bodies, as if this would somehow reveal where his prime target was. Curse the bitch. No wonder it had been so easy. She and her notorious hounds from hell weren’t even here. What next, assist his partners with the lord and lady? Maybe Eloise was with either of them, or they would know where she was.
A small dog yapped in the adjoining chamber. The squire was to assassinate Lady Anne while the two knights killed the father and heir. Instead of the sleeping lady, he found only a small hairy dog biting viciously at his ankles. Kicking at the relentless dog he rummaged quickly through the empty bed, Sylvester continued to bark and bite. The squire heard a deep, rumbling growl, but there was no source. The witch’s chamber was haunted, the squire thought.
Hounds from hell were abundant in Dahlquin. Lord Hubert usually had any number of dogs with him. The Lady Anne preferred small companion dogs, but even these were alert, could bark a warning, and put a good bite on an unprotected finger.
There was no one in Lady Anne’s bedchamber this night. This was uncommon among the nobility. . It was Sylvester’s growls and yaps that alerted Lord Hubert’s dogs, which in turn woke Hubert, Anne and Sir Reginald.
“No one here, either?’ hissed Byron as he slipped into Anne’s chamber.
It was Lord Hubert who must be killed first, the heir and then the witch. But where were the women?
Hubert and Reginald reacted immediately, without thinking or speaking. Neither man had fully undressed; they had fallen into the uncomfortable sleep of men with unresolved problems on their minds. Anne slept restlessly as well. It was the ill luck of the other assassin, Sir Davydd, to face Hubert and Reginald, armed and waiting. But it was the hounds that took the day.
The savage dogs got the assassin by hand and throat. No chain mail covered his face, making an easy target. The table was overturned, ewer and bowl crashed to the floor. A chair slid across the room, propelled by man and dogs, wedging beneath the bed. Reginald was closest to the door adjoining Anne’s chamber, the carnage of red headed man and flailing dogs separated him from Hubert on the other side. Anne sat petrified on the bed.
“Where are the guards?” Anne wailed, incredulous with the howls and destruction before her?
As Byron came to assist his brother, Sir Reginald descended upon him with an elbow to the face, feet swept out from under him, the traitor thudded to the stone floor. Taken alive to answer questions and suffer a proper death later. Seeing this, the squire turned and ran to take his chances with the gatehouse.
By the time Lord Hubert could call off the dogs, Davydd was but a torso mangled and mauled. He would answer to no one but the Devil. Hubert hated a mess in his bedchamber. As a knight and lord, battle was a way of life and he thrived on it. But in his bedchamber where he, his wife and child took their refuge, this was defilement. Even as these thoughts ran through his head, he was in flight to the bedchambers of his women. Anne’s room lay undisturbed save for the ranting Sylvester. That little excuse for a dog helped save his life. Hubert didn’t appreciate the debt to a dog no bigger than a flea on a real Dahlquin hound. Later.
His worst nightmare awaited him in his daughter’s chamber. The stench of blood and death hit him as he entered the door. Foul it was when a body was laid open. No time for emotion, he methodically analyzed the scene. Bed mussed, but unslept in. The nursemaid, hacked almost in two, lay cruelly strewn across the floor. And who was the other? Definitely not his daughter: A man, aye, John. Look again, fool, maybe your mind refuses to see what is truly present, he scolded himself. There were only two bodies. And Eloise was not one of them. No sign of a real struggle, no dogs, either. Eloise was not here or taken hostage. Relief and fear.
“Hubert,” Anne said, a Psalter in her hand, “Eloise is in the chapel.”
Again Hubert scanned the chamber.
“Light. We need light,” Hubert said, taking a candle to the embers in the hearth.
Reginald entered dragging Byron bound and gagged behind him. Hubert’s hounds snarled, snapping at the captive. Sylvester sniffed at the dead bodies on the floor.
“What, are you sure she isn’t here?” Hubert asked suppressing panic.
“Aye, the chapel,” Anne continued, “she left her Psalter on the bed, a sign to Nurse or I. Before God, oh Hubert,” she wailed as the brunt of the shock set in. Not knowing what to do next, she clutched the Psalter to her breast as if it would miraculously make her daughter appear. The lady gave a thought to run to the chapel, a thought to attend to Nurse and John; but she knew from the stench that it was no use.
“Murder! Guards! The guests be traitors!” Reginald shouted stepping into the corridor. “Stop the guests! Guards!”
Eoin and Donegal were quickly discovered, dead; others were summoned from their posts. No trace of Eloise or her dogs, except the sign she was in the chapel.