Rose of Hope By Màiri Norris

A guide to the Old English, **Old Norman and ***Old Norse words used in this story.


burh—walled, fortified community or walled fortress
Rose of Hope
Rose of Hope By Màiri Norris
burhfolc or burhmann—the peasant class belonging to a burh búrlands—land occupied by peasants, including ceorls [freemen] burnstów—a bathing chamber Cantware Burh—Canterbury, Kent ceorl—a freeman, and member of the peasant class who owned and worked his own land, but owed a percentage of his crops/earnings to the nobleman who protected him Ceteham—Chatham, Kent [as named in the Domesday Book] cifesboren—Saxon oath Cilterne—Chiltern Hills cladersticca—a baby rattle Cymry—Wales cyrtel—female undergarment, loose, floor and wrist length deorling—an endearment; dear one; darling dish-thegn—a steward/under-steward to a lord; one in charge of running a noble household and administering slaves/servants Eastseaxe—Essex eorl—the approximate of the title ‘earl’ in later years gástes—ghosts or spirits of the dead hadseax—a short knife, usu. around seven to nine inches long; used as an eating knife or as a hand weapon by men-at-arms; among the nobility, often artfully crafted of steel, silver and gems; noblemen generally kept the blade in a boot sheath, while noblewomen carried it in a sheath attached to their girdle, along with the keys to the household hearth companion—Old English: ‘gesitha’; a nobleman’s household troops, loyal to him for life; hearth companions were men-at-arms, but often performed many other tasks for the nobleman, including certain household duties, and that of policing his burh and búrlands in times of peace; a nobleman might hire men-at-arms or soliders on a temporary basis who were not hearth companions; king’s thegns were hearth companions to the royal household hylsung—a Saxon drum with a deep reverberation; none today know its size, shape or how it was played ieldramodor—grandmother king’s thegn—the highest level of thegn, holding office in the royal household; in authority, subject only to the king himself; holds his land directly from the king or, may inherit them langseax—a long knife or short sword, usu. around twenty to twenty-four inches long léasere—Saxon oath nefa—grandson nefene—granddaughter Santlache—Senlac Ridge, two leagues [six miles] outside of Hastings, England, the site where William the Conqueror defeated the English King Harold Godwineson on October 14, 1066 scop—minstral Sea of Germania—North Sea seax—general term for a single-edged Saxon blade syrce—female over-garment, knee and elbow length, voluminous, gathered at the waist and secured by a girdle or rope thegn—a high ranking member of the landed aristocracy, usu. wealthy; a nobleman or lord; (thegns were of the title of eorl or higher); after the Conquest, this title was phased out, to be replaced by ‘baron’; by the time of this story, only a few Saxon thegns still held title, and these were of families who had supported William the Conqueror’s claim to the English throne Walha—Welshmen (who named themselves Brythoniaid, Brythons/Britons) Wulfsingas—”people of Wulfsin” [imaginary family]; the wealthy, noble Wulfsingas family traces its origins back more than 150 years, to the days of King Æthelstan, the Glorious (AD 924-939) “…ingas”—suffix meaning “people of” Wulfsinraed—home of Ysane Wulfsingas (meaning “wisdom of Wulfsin”) *seven-day—a week *twelvemonth—a year **”Dex Aie”—”God aid us” (Old Norman); Norman battle cry heard at the great battle of Hastings in 1066 **eschecs—the game of chess **Nourmaundie—Normandy, France (Old Norman) **Sanguelac—”Blood Lake” (Old Norman); the name given to Senlac Ridge after the great battle ***björr—(Old Norse); a strong Viking liquor As a guide to the Old English and Old Norman words used in this story, please see the glossary at the front of the book. CHAPTER ONE Waltham Forest, Northeast Eastseaxe, a few leagues west of the Sea of Germania, Angelcynn [a remote corner of the kingdom] Wulfsinraed Burh 1078 - The Month of Digging, Raking and Sowing - Early Spring In the shadowed hour before dawn, Ysane Wulfsingas waited for execution upon the parapet atop the wall surrounding her home. Fire blistered along her veins, though she shivered with icy tremors. Her cyrtel clung to her, the undergarment’s damp folds sticking to her chilled skin. ’Twas an irritant worse than the abrasions of her bindings. She shuffled from one foot to the other to ease the cramps that stabbed her lower limbs. ’Twas painful to stand after three days chained to the wall in the holding pit. Fog drifted among the dark trees in the middle distance. It swirled above the winter grasses and around the knees of the ceorls, eerily silent, who gathered in the clearing across from her to observe the final moments of her life. Below her feet, the dark, cold waters in the river channel rushed swift and deep on their ceaseless journey to the sea. How placidly the river flowed in summer—sweet memory!—with the verdant green of lily pads clustered here and there along the banks. But this day, in the burgeoning spring, its banks nigh overflowed with runoff from early rains and melting snows. Soft mists of powdery gray rose above the rapid current. Filled with debris, it rushed and gurgled merrily along, as if in mockery of her demise. Fool. Inanimate things cannot mock. She shuddered. The thought of her body, caught up in that roiling flood, nigh sent her to her knees. Her foot slipped to one side as she sought to maintain her balance. Her executioner, his grip bruising, snatched her upper arm. A hearth companion of her husband, he hovered so close she could brush the hardened leather of his jerkin with her fingers. He raised his short, single-edged hadseax in his other hand, the gesture one of menace. “Here now, lady, ’tis too late to try to run. Naught can stop justice from taking its course.” She made no answer. There was no need. Justice had already been served where ’twas due, and by her own hand. She watched for the movement from Sir Ruald that would signal the moment her life would cease. By his decree, her death was not to be mourned. This was her punishment, for she had murdered her husband. The sun was nigh to rising. Thick clouds hung low, the air bitter and moisture-laden. First light was shadowy, drear and gray, like her heart. Fear should rule the haze of my thoughts, for death wins me at last. But that endless flow, a numb and dark unknown, yawns as a sweet release. Ah, how hushed is the morn, almost as if creation itself awaits the end. She inhaled, to savor the salt tang of the sea that drifted in faint counterpoint to the more earthy scent of the river. Her gaze roamed one last time over the land of her birth, to the slight incline that touched the toes of the distant chalk ridges of the Cilterne and the indentations of small meadows that opened, unlooked for, in the vastness of the forest. A little hiccup of sorrow escaped her lips. Never again would she see the sunlight turn the woods to emerald and bring to vivid life the meadows overrun with wildflowers of varied hues. She wanted to weep, but the heartache ran too deep. She glanced toward the village that straddled the river downstream. One last, lone man jogged through the village gate and up the road to join the spectators waiting for the sunrise. Among them, her hearth companions stood fettered. Her soul cried at their bleeding, battered forms. For their loyalty, they also were sentenced to die this day, tossed into the violent flood to be smashed by debris until the black water stole the breath of life from their lungs. Oh, I cannot bear it! They deserve this not. Her eyelids drifted shut. Images, hard and fleeting chased across their shadowed landscape. Cynric, why have you abandoned me to meet my fate alone? I mourn your loss. Walk you still in this mortal plain, or have you too, been deprived of life? Angelet, what evil fortune decreed your doom? How I miss you. Oh, that monstrous night. Has it truly been but three days since life crashed round me in ragged shards, ripping bloody strips from my soul? ’Tis as if I have lived a lifetime of pain. Would those last moments before Renouf’s assault could be relived, how differently would I have behaved. Yet, what is done, cannot be undone. At least in death there is peace. She opened her eyes to meet the glee in Leda’s expression. The slave, at least rejoiced. Domnall, held by two burly hearth companions at river’s edge, met her gaze. Even bound as he was, they feared his strength. He regarded her through eyes dark with a plea for forgiveness. She found the strength to smile. ’Twas all she could give to ease his remorse, for he was not to blame for this fiasco. His jaw tightened and his bloodied lips pursed, but he nodded. At the back of the crowd, a motion caught her notice. Her brows furrowed as she sought to make sense of what she saw, for the movements were furtive, and hauntingly familiar. But the mists swirled and the movement was lost. Ruald stepped forward, garbed in full mail as if for battle. The great fool! He postures a stance before the gathered ceorls as imperious as a king. In the growing light, his eyes glittered. His mouth curved in triumph. A breeze heralded the sun’s rebirth. It soughed through the trees, stirred the ends of her hair and teased the hem of her cyrtel, its caress a final, precious sensation of farewell. Its fingers shifted the fog. A single beam of light broke through the clouds. With it came the signal. ’Twas time. Ruald’s fisted hand lifted high, held for a space of three stuttering heartbeats, and sliced downward to his side. She stiffened as her executioner stepped close behind her. I am about to die. Now. How will it feel? Will it hurt? How long before the blackness comes? I thought myself beyond fear, but I am afraid. I am so afraid. Oh, please, let it be quick! She gritted her teeth. Ruald will break me not! The soldier grasped a hank of hair at the base of her skull and yanked, exposing her throat. She yelped at the sting and felt herself quiver, as would ale in a moving cask. Through her peripheral vision, she saw the blade of his hadseax lift, its razor-honed edge catching the light. A shaft of pure terror hitched her breath in her throat and she started to pant. She felt suffocated. I cannot breathe! I cannot breathe! Desperate to hold at bay the fear, to behold with her last sight a thing of beauty, she riveted her vision on a lone seagull as it winged through the brightening blue expanse overhead, its mournful cry piercing the hush and echoing the grief in her heart. CHAPTER TWO Three days earlier, the middle of the night “She did what?” Captain Fallard D’Auvrecher barely remembered to moderate his query to a growled whisper. He and his men sheltered in the bottom of a ravine in the forest, a league north of Wulfsinraed burh, the island fortress they planned to attack, but in the clear, quiet night, sound would carry. Their presence must remain secret for a short while longer. “’Tis truth, Captain.” The messenger was insistent. “The news was all the villagers spoke of this day. ’Tis said the lady murdered her husband, Thegn Sebfeld. Now his brother, Sir Ruald has cast her into a holding pit and ordered her execution for dawn, three days hence. Her loyal hearth companions die with her. Sir Ruald announces himself the new lord.” “This is a tale of much intrigue, Captain. Methinks it may change our plans,” said Trifine, his First. Fallard agreed. “He risks much with this action. Tell the rest. Why did the Lady Ysane do this thing?” “’Tis said Sir Renouf killed her babe in a sotted rage, before her eyes. She slew him then, with his own sword.” Fallard detected in the messenger’s tone both admiration at her audacity, and shock that a mere woman dared raise her hand in violence against her husband. He concurred with the admiration, for he had first hand knowledge of the lady’s character. Known for her gentleness and goodness, only the greatest of provocations would drive her to murder. Across from him Jehan, his Second, snorted his disgust. “The man is a greater fool than his brother does he think to hold Wulfsinraed for himself and escape censure.” “Does he accomplish his intent,” Trifine said, “William will offer more than censure. Most like, his insolence will cost his head.” Fallard’s brow puckered. “I cannot allow the lady to be executed. I have plans for her, an objective supported by the king. We must hope she succumbs not to the injurious conditions in the pit before Sir Ruald can follow through with his plan.” Though preserving her life was of no great import to their primary task, Fallard wanted the Lady Ysane to live, for he wished to take her to wife. When he had first arrived in the area with his troops some nine days earlier, he had spied on the burh with Trifine. During their surveillance, the lady came forth from the hall, a basket on her arm, to walk to the village with her cousin, Lady Roana. The reports of her beauty and grace were not exaggerated. Dainty and petite as elven-kin, she wore a cyrtel of white linen, and overtop it, a voluminous syrce of green velvet gathered, in the Saxon manner, by a corded belt at her waist. A white headrail with a gold circlet framed her face and encompassed her upper torso in its soft folds. She reminded him of the white roses in his mother’s garden, heady and refined. His body had responded predictably to idle thoughts of her in his bed, but he curbed the distraction of misplaced lust. He had waited all his warrior’s life to wed such a woman. He could wait a few days longer to slake his desire. The headrail hid her hair from his prying eyes, but Trifine, who possessed a rare talent for ferreting out information both useful and obscure, informed him ’twas waist-length, soft as a hare’s belly fur and much the same flaxen color of said fur. Fallard had no wish to learn how his First gained this information. Scudding clouds played hide and seek with the moon then fled to the west, flooding the ravine with light. “Captain?” Fallard started at Trifine’s quiet hail. Preoccupation had not been a personal shortcoming until the day he had laid eyes on the Lady Ysane. He masked his disgruntlement. “We will speak of this later. We need more information, but will continue the discussion of strategy with what we know, and adjust it as needful.” Mirth, underlain by his customary blasé mien, sparked in Trifine’s voice. “Think you, you will have need of my special skill?” The corners of Fallard’s eyes crinkled in answering amusement. “Mayhap, you should tighten your bowstring, in case.” Knights disdained to use a bow, a mere footsoldier’s weapon. But his First was a longbow archer of unsurpassed skill, a true artist who learned from his father, who was taught by the wild Walha of Cymry. He had never been bested in any competition, a fact that startled, and betimes angered, his competitors. It amused him others scorned him for his expertise. In Trifine’s view of the world, mastery of any weapon was a worthy goal for a knight. Fallard had reason to appreciate Trifine’s ability, and over the twelvemonths of their association, it had become something of a jest between them. But if this new information they had received was accurate, Fallard might well need his First’s exceptional prowess at dawn in three days. “I had thought not to enjoy this task,” Trifine mused, “but daily it grows of greater interest. But a pox on Ruald for his delay of our attack. I had thought to be in the arms of the fair Roana by the morrow’s eve.” This time Fallard’s amusement reached his lips. His First had emitted a long, low whistle beneath his breath and declared himself in love, on first sight, with Lady Ysane’s beautiful cousin. “Know you, she will not have you,” Jehan said. Low chuckles from the men around them accompanied the comment. Trifine’s silver hair glinted in the moonlight as he angled his head. “So say you, my friend. But I say ’twill be with her as it is with me. ’Tis said she is a widow, and thus have her desires been fired. She has learned of pleasure, and will wish for a man’s intimate embrace. I will have her, willing, within a seven-day of our victory.” “We must first achieve that victory,” Fallard said, before any could take up the wager. He dropped his chin onto his chest, pulled his shoulders back in a hard stretch to relieve weary muscles, then rotated the left shoulder. “As you say, Trifine, this news changes more than our plan to attack on the morrow. It changes the manner, as well, for ’tis my thought we must now revert to greater stealth.” “You believe Ruald will kill her if we launch a direct assault, as planned?” “Aye, and her hearth companions, to prevent the possibility they may gain their freedom and fight against him. ’Tis my wish that each of those men pledge their loyalty to me. If we set them free and rescue their lady, and take the burh from Sir Ruald, who is held in dislike by ceorls and soldiers alike, mayhap those pledges will come willingly. You are our tactician, Trifine. What say you?” The muted sounds of night seemed to grow louder as Trifine mused. A nightjar called. The evening breeze soughed softly, and the men shuffled as they took the moment to resettle themselves. Fallard absently scratched an inconveniently located itch and considered events. The king had sent him to Wulfsinraed with orders to take the burh from its wealthy lord, Baron Renouf of Sebfeld, whose family was among the members of Saxon nobility that had actively supported William’s claim to the throne in opposition to Harold Godwineson. But the foolish baron had enraged the king, and more severely than Wulfsinraed’s former lord, Eorl Kenrick Wulfsingas, whom William had banished three twelvemonths earlier for his role in the revolt led by Ralf, Eorl of East Anglia, and Roger, Eorl of Hereford. William gained proof of Kenrick’s treason through a betrayal by Renouf. William then rewarded Renouf with the barony of Wulfsinraed through marriage to the younger Wulfsingas daughter. But William’s recent discovery that the man he had placed in power at Wulfsinraed to serve him was in fact, as disloyal as Eorl Kenrick had made him determined to place a trusted Norman as lord of the burh. With a personal force of fifteen mounted knights, and seven times that many of William’s foot soldiers, Fallard had a small army with which to carry out his sovereign’s command. His spies, posing as Saxon merchants, learned the lay of the land and the particulars he needed. ’Twas determined the fortress could be taken, and swiftly, for Renouf spent much of his time half-sotted, a state apparently aided and abetted by his brother, and his rule was more lax than was wise. No one checked those who passed through the gates into the courtyard. Renouf’s negligent arrogance was Fallard’s good fortune. The original plan called for a number of his men to enter the burh one at a time, wearing the clothing of merchants and ceorls. At a prearranged signal, they would attack from within, securing the double gates even as the bulk of troops launched their assault from without. Howbeit, Fallard now feared that should something go wrong, if the alarm went up before the men inside could secure the gates, the rest of the troops would be shut out. Ruald, like his brother Renouf, had a reputation for hasty, unpleasant decisions regarding the life and death of others. He would torture and kill Fallard’s men and eliminate any others who might turn against him, including the Lady of Wulfsinraed and her warriors. There would be naught Fallard could do to prevent it. But if they waited until morn three days hence and attacked while the imminent executions captured every man’s focus, those at risk would be out in the open and much easier to defend. The factor of surprise would also be that much greater. “What is your assessment, Trifine?” “Three days, Captain. We wait.” “For what?” “On the third morn from now, we move into place. We stop the executions. We take the burh.” “I see. So easily achieved.” “Aye. I’ll give you more when I know more.” “I like this plan. ’Tis simple, and straightforward. I could not have thought of it myself.” Fallard bothered not to hide his sarcasm. The gleam of his First’s teeth in the moonlight displayed his appreciation for the jest. “Aye, it is simple, and simple oft succeeds best.” Fallard ordered those men not on watch to get some rest. The small group dispersed. Jehan went off to make his rounds of the guards. Nearby, Fallard’s squire, Roul, and Fauques, squire to Trifine, lay curled in sleep. Trifine laid out his bedroll and stretched out. “Fauques dreams of glory in battle. Ah, but I envy the ease of his sleep. Fallard?” “Mmmm?” “You continue to hold out on me, my friend.” “You still wish to know how the ripe plum of Wulfsinraed came to be dropped into my undeserving hands.” “Mayhap, not so undeserving, but there were others who expected the king’s choice to fall on them.” “True enough.” Fallard watched as a small shadow floated overhead, blinking out starlight as it flew. A nighthawk, mayhap. “You will say next you will not sleep, do I fail to explain.” A chuckle floated from the darkness. “Aye, I might say that, but ’twould be not truth. I am merely curious. ’Tis not like you to keep matters so close, at least not with me. Yet, I would not trespass. Do but tell me to mind my own counsel, and I will ask not again.” “’Tis no great secret. I had in my possession that which swayed William’s decision.” He pillowed his head with his hands. “There is a debt of honor I owe the lady of Wulfsinraed through her father, Eorl Kenrick Wulfsingas, with whom I once spent much time. To discharge that debt, I approached our sovereign to request the right to lead this venture. “Never before have I presumed to set price upon duty. But I admit I covet the gift of becoming honorial lord to Wulfsinraed, as I covet its mistress. I considered the asking worth the risk of aggravating William’s temper. He demanded my reason. I spoke eloquently of the matter.” His muffled snort was rueful. “He was not pleased. He meant to offer the demesne to another, but my debt was not small and he was caught between two horns, his own personal code of knightly honor, and his expectation that his knights abide by the same code. Imagine, if you will, our liege-lord, reclined in his chair, left eyebrow cocked and unamused speculation in his glance.” “Phew. Methinks mayhap, you sweated beneath that regard, Fallard.” Fallard grunted. “Aye, I squirmed upon his hook, and let him see. I know not how long he regarded me in silence, but methinks my discomforture helped to ease his ire. I have been with him since I gained my spurs at Sanguelac, and have since fought with him, side by side, in many battles. He knows the mettle of my loyalty in this time when allegiance comes with a cost. Still, it strained his composure mightily to have his options whittled to but one. Half a dozen expressions crossed his face, none of them reassuring to my eyes, and the last a scowl worthy of Grendel. But then he sighed, and consented.” Fallard felt again the swell of accomplishment. “Soon the burh, its wealth, and its woman will be mine. I anticipate it with much pleasure.” Silence hung over the ravine, then Trifine wriggled, seeking a more comfortable position. “And I count the hours until I have a thick, downy pallet upon which to lay my weary flesh.” His captain’s answer was a soft snore. CHAPTER THREE At noontide the following day Fallard, dressed in a black cloak with a cowl pulled low to shield his distinctively shaven head, entered the village with one of the spies. Gossip was rife, and while publicly, all decried the lady’s evil deed and upheld the sentence of death, the whispered conversations overheard led Fallard to believe Thegn Sebfeld had earned his fate and none were sorry for his passing. It seemed the rumors of his character were true. He had been a man both mean and malicious, and a violent drunkard. He had abused the trust of his people and his lady wife. His companion led Fallard to the alehouse, a long, low structure built in typical Saxon style with a deeply slanted thatch roof. They entered through a painted door of faded blue hue. Smoke joined the smell of various brews to swirl around the room before drifting through the smoke-hole in the ceiling. They settled with their backs to the wall at a battered wooden table in a corner nook. A tired serving girl with a broom in one hand stared at them in wary curiosity. “We have bread, cheese, roast boar and venison stew. The stew is hot and fresh. The boar is not.” Fallard exchanged a wry glance with his companion. “We will have stew and small beers.” ’Twas quiet in the house, the kind of surly hush that accompanied fear and rancor. The only patrons were burh craftsmen who hurried to finish their meals. The tenor of their conversations was low-keyed and burned with suppressed ire. A man at the table next to them, clearly the worse for drink even at the early hour, leaned forward, his rough voice barely above a whisper. “By what right, I ask, does Sir Ruald hold trial for the Lady Ysane and sentence her to death? ’Tis the true crime, that. The lady is a gentle soul, and already carried a burden of sorrow before that brigand Renouf killed her sweet babe. I say, did there must be a trial, she should have been sent to the shire court. They would have meted true justice, aye, a fine of wergild mayhap, though Thegn Renouf was worth naught. Bah! ’Tis a mockery.” His face crumpled. Fallard thought he might weep, but he lifted his tankard, took several chugs and mumbled to the remaining contents. Fallard understood his confusion. Why would Ruald risk ordering her death when as the wife of a nobleman, she should have been sent to William? The knight held no title and little authority. ’Twas a situation, he mused, when the old maxim came to mind—the weak must suffer the domination of the strong. Ruald’s warriors had overwhelmed those of the burh’s first marshal. He now had complete control. Had Fallard not been sent to deal with Renouf—and Ruald as well, did the man but know it—the king would never have known the truth of these events. ’Twas even possible William might have granted Ruald the barony. The serving maid returned, this time without the broom, and slapped their bowls and tankards in front of them. Fallard listened to what could be heard of the conversations around him as he ate. “The burhfolc hate both the Sebfeld brothers,” said the man at his side. Fallard nodded. “Aye, and ’twould seem Sir Ruald wasted no time proclaiming himself their new lord. Heard you the comments about the lady?” “That he seeks vengeance against her more because she spurned his suit to wed her, than as a punishment for his brother’s death? It seems a petty action.” “He is a petty man. For too long, the people have borne the contempt and vicious backlash of both men’s foul tempers. ’Tis time it stopped.” He set his tankard down. “We are finished here.” He dropped coin on the table, nodded to the barman and wended his way through the sullen crowd toward the door. He tensed, his hand settling on the hilt of his sword beneath the cloak, as the portal swung open to admit several of Ruald’s warriors. Conversation ceased and tension rose. Head down, cowl lowered to hide his face, he slid to the side and waited. But the soldiers were interested in naught but getting warm and drunk by the fire. They gave notice to none. A short while later, Fallard met Trifine inside the dense cover of a copse bordering the burh. His First had more news. “Captain, one of the spies has befriended a young woman, the daughter of a ceorl. The maid spoke freely. Her family has a strong dislike of the Sebfeld brothers. Even better for us, her family is in debt to the Lady Ysane for the life of one of the children. They bear her much respect and affection.” “’Tis truth, she won the devotion of her people long ago, which may prove useful.” “You have further thoughts to flesh out the plan?” “Aye, but they are not without risk. Ruald may be a brutal leader, but there is no great love for Normans among these people. Will they accept our rule? ’Tis a question yet to be answered.” He went silent, his thoughts considering all angles, then decision made, he met Trifine’s expectant gaze. He uttered a soft snort. He and Trifine had fought together too long. His First already knew what he would say, but he said it, anyway. “Order the spy to approach the girl. I wish to know if the burhfolc will refuse to take up arms against us when we launch our attack. Let it be known I offer my oath to try to save the Lady Ysane, to be a fair and careful lord, and if all goes as planned, offer respect and an honorable marriage to the lady.” “And if the people can be convinced?” “Then warn the village elders of what is to come and explain the role they are to play.” “Exactly what I was thinking.” Fallard’s derisive grunt floated over his shoulder as he headed back to camp. *** Back at the ravine the following eve, Fallard met with Trifine and Jehan to finalize plans. Roul brought them bread, cheese, and a skin of ale. “Your mail and weapons are cleaned and oiled for the morrow, sir, and your bedroll laid out.” “Well and good, Roul, but there will be little sleep for any this night. Go now. Find your own bedroll and get what rest you can.” “Aye, sir. Think you there will be a great battle?” Roul sounded as if he hoped for naught less than Armaggeddon. Jehan cuffed the back of his head, knocking him to his knees. “A bloodthirsty beggar you are, lad. Have you not yet learned ’tis better to avoid battle if it may be prevented? Would it please you did the river run red from our play?” Grinning, Roul clambered to his feet. “I would be pleased for a fight, sir, but mayhap, without so much blood.” “Go to bed, Roul.” Fallard said. “’Tis my thought your wish may be granted, but I suggest you think on the merits of peace as you seek sleep.” As the squire moved off, Jehan looked at Fallard. “The elders agreed, but dare we trust their word?” “Methinks much depends on their devotion to the lady,” Trifine mumbled through a mouthful of bread, “and their willingness to lay aside whatever hatred and distrust they may harbor toward a Norman lord. I say we chance it. Mayhap, if we show confidence in their decision, ’twill work further to our advantage.” Fallard made a face and spit. “This cheese is too far past its prime. One might as well chew twigs. I agree, Trifine. ’Tis worth the risk. Jehan, what more have you heard?” “The executions are expected to take no more than a short span of the morn. With the exception of a few sentries on the north wall, the people have been ordered to assemble in the clearing opposite the gates ere dawn. Not even the children are excused. ’Twould seem Sir Ruald suspects no interference. He appears confident that with all the burhfolc under the eyes of his hearth companions, there is no reason to secure the gates. I believe the surprise will be complete.” Fallard swallowed the last of his ale. “I have learned ’tis unlikely Ruald is aware of the king’s knowledge of his treachery. For this reason, I expect he will issue no special security orders. The burh will be all but defenseless, but timing will be critical, especially for you, Trifine.” “I know it. My bow is ready, as is my arm, but one last thought. What if the fog is too heavy? I cannot hit what I cannot see.” Fallard stared as the first star of the even blinked into view in the deepening dusk. “’Tis of no import. Ruald’s action in forcing all to witness these events speaks to a wish to intimidate, and to reinforce his authority. If needful, he will wait till the sun’s rising banishes the mist. We move at mid-watch. Silent passage. Pass the word.” *** “’Tis truly a plum full ripened, and ready to be picked,” Fallard murmured. He stood concealed with his men at the edge of the forest north of Wulfsinraed, watching the unfolding of the dawn. Beneath his helm, his face was stiff with pre-battle tension. The lady’s execution was to be the first, and was set for sunrise. ’Twas nigh that, now. “Captain?” Roul peered up at him. On Fallard’s other side Varin, his company blacksmith and best hand-to-hand fighter, spoke in a rumble that seemed to rise from deep beneath the earth into his chest. “’Tis naught, lad. Your captain merely clears his throat.” Fallard felt his tension ease. His sword hilt rested, solid and comforting in his hand. All was in place and his men were ready. They would not fail. Awaiting Trifine’s unmistakable signal, he focused his gaze on the soldier, backlit by torches, stationed behind Lady Ysane. Here lay a minute element of risk. In order to sight the guard with his bow, Trifine’s sharp eyes must penetrate the misty shadows that lingered in these last moments ere the clouded sunrise. If his shot went wide or fell short, the lady’s life would be forfeit. Fallard shook off the possibility. Trifine never missed. Once the executioner was down, the village elders would join the ceorls in a ‘panic’ designed to create as much chaos as possible. Under cover of that confusion, the assault would begin with his archers dealing with the sentries on the wall. At the same time, Fallard and his men would split. Most of them, led by Jehan, would attack the armed men in the clearing while Fallard led the smaller group through the tunnel between the open gates to take control of the burh. At all costs, they must prevent Ruald from reaching the courtyard and closing those gates. The corners of his eyes crinkled. If the plan proved successful, Roul would get his wish. Wulfsinraed Burh would be taken quickly, and with but a little bloodshed. “Soon, now,” Varin said. Dawn was breaking even as he spoke. Fallard flexed gauntleted fists and slid his sword from its fleece-lined sheath, the silent action repeated by a hundred arms to either side of him. Tension spiraled in a subtle escalation. Movement at the rear of the motionless crowd in the clearing drew his attention. Hidden in clear sight among those who were gathered, Trifine threw back the edge of his cloak. In the space of little more than an eye’s blink, he raised his great bow, notched an arrow and sighted. There came a discernible lightening of the gray skies. One bright ray of sunlight pierced the gloom. Ruald’s hand lifted and dropped. The faint twang of Trifine’s bow sounded twice in rapid succession. Fallard’s gaze flicked back to the wall. From his position, he could not see if Trifine’s arrow reached its mark, but seconds later, the liquid splash of the soldier’s body plunging into the river was drowned by his battle cry. His men echoed the yell as they swarmed from the trees. The bloodcurdling screams of “Dex Aie” froze the response of Sir Ruald and his troops for those critical first seconds that gave Fallard and his men immediate advantage. The onslaught of arrows against the handful of soldiers manning the walls wiped out that opposition. Pandemonium reigned. Wails of terror filled the air as burhfolc scattered. Warriors shouted in rage as they leapt to the defense. Agonized cries mingled with the clash of swords. Spears and axes punched through chain mail to rend the vulnerable flesh beneath. The fighting was intense, for the hearth companions were well trained, but the surprise was shockingly complete and the skirmish brief. Sir Ruald’s troops were overwhelmed. Some dropped their swords and surrendered, suing for mercy. Fallard’s group poured through the tunnel into the courtyard, but as expected, found no one to fight except a handful of Sir Ruald’s men who broke away from the fracas outside and followed them through the gate. Jehan’s contingent overpowered the last of the soldiers in the clearing, taking Sir Ruald prisoner even as the soles of his boots thudded on the wooden planking of the bridge. The clamor of battle ceased as abruptly as it had begun. Fallard’s gaze swept the courtyard, seeking hidden opponents. There were none. His men took up position at the gates. Shortly after, Trifine was at his side, shadowed by his squire, Fauques. “We have a number of wounded, but none severely, and no dead among our people. There are three and twenty dead among the burh guard. Wulfsinraed is secure, Captain.” “It went well,” Fallard replied, surveying the bodies littering the courtyard. “The plan was sound.” “Aye, Captain.” The blue ice of Trifine’s eyes glittered. This was his victory as well. Fallard clasped his First’s shoulder and squeezed. “See to the clean up and check on the burhfolc. Make certain the surviving soldiers who fought us are shaved.” “What of the rest?” “Nay. They chose not to take weapon against us. I will not dishonor their decision with humiliation.” As Trifine moved away, Fallard removed his helm and gauntlets and handed them, with his sword to Roul. Turning, he looked up, his eyes searching for and quickly finding the diminutive figure of the Lady of Wulfsinraed. He strode toward the stone steps leading to the top of the wall. ’Twas time to claim his most precious prize. CHAPTER FOUR The seagull soared from Ysane’s line of sight. Her eyelids dropped. Her bound hands clenched as she waited for the cold death-kiss of the blade. For what does he wait? Oh faith, be done with it! A sound, as of a barely perceived whisper, sighed past her head. Her executioner released his grip on her hair with a howl. She heard his hadseax clatter against the stone of the parapet as he staggered away. Her eyes shot open and she watched his hand grasp at the arrow lodged at an odd upward angle through the flesh of his shoulder. She struggled to make sense of the sight even as a second brief pfft heralded a soft but solid thud. The guard grunted and bent forward as both hands grabbed at the shaft protruding from his midsection. Sluggish recognition came then. That baffling, furtive movement she had seen earlier at the back of the crowd of burfolc was a man throwing aside the edge of his cloak to bend a longbow. The entire tableau seemed to freeze as the guard stared at the blood seeping between his fingers. Then he gaped at her, the astonished knowledge of his own death clouding his brown eyes. He collapsed like a drained wineskin and toppled over the edge into the river below. Hope burst upon her from fathomless inner depths, as brilliant light would illumine dark halls. Mayhap, she was not to die this day, though how or why that might be, she knew not. She had believed she longed for death’s final caress. Instead, came springing a surge of joy and relief that she might not feel upon her spirit that black and endless touch. She started as the still peace of the morn exploded in noise and mayhem. Fierce cries mingled with shrieks of pain and shock. She cocked her head to gaze upon the scene, slow to comprehend the sight of warriors battling to the death. Doubt floated in her tangled thoughts. ’Tis the tumult of battle, but it cannot be real. We have seen no war since ere my birth. Nay! ’Tis truly happening. My home is attacked, yet by it I may be saved. Strange that my executioner has suffered the fate meant for me. But I must move from this place or I may follow him. Would that be not the ultimate irony? Bound feet shuffling, she managed a half turn away from the dangerous edge, but the movement unbalanced her. Shivering uncontrollably, she swayed toward the gulf below as a man with hair like deepest shadow and shoulders broad as the hills appeared on the wall. He raced in her direction. She beheld him as if in a dream, a tall man garbed in black from head to toe, even to the blackened chain metal of his hauberk. Naught broke the unrelieved pitch save a scarlet sash around his waist. Within its folds, she glimpsed twin gold lions passant, the insignia of the House of Normandy. Little shocks pulsed through her frame, vying with the bedeviling shivers. Norman! He is Norman. The enemy is come. A dark knight sprints toward me. How very odd that he…oh! I am falling! Her knees buckled, but determined intent blazed from the knight’s eyes. He vaulted onto the parapet. *** Fallard swept his arms around the Lady of Wulfsinraed and drew close her slight, quivering form. His jaw tightened. Saint’s teeth! That was too close. But a moment longer and I would have lost her to the river. He cradled her to his chest, startled at the intense heat that radiated from beneath her tattered cyrtel. He raked her features with his eyes. Dusted beneath a gaze unnaturally bright were dark smudges. A large bruise marred the left side of her face, and more ringed her slender throat. Her face was drawn and flushed. She is afire, aye, blazing with fever. Will she understand my words? “My lady, surrender. I have won you fairly, and with honor.” He awaited her response. She blinked, a languid movement of the lids over eyes the color of the emerald moss that grew beneath the forest canopy. She inhaled, slowly, deeply, of the cool air of the freshening morn. *** His voice was deep as the realms of the sea-gods. In that moment, in the feverish imagining that ruled her thoughts, he seemed a fantasy emerging from a vision of mists, destined to rescue her from death. Handsome as the gods, he was a lover who held her with an embrace both powerful and gentle. He appeared the epitome of all of her youthful, maidenly reveries, so ruthlessly crushed by her husband. He was but a fancy, naught more than imagination. Could she not say what she would to a dream-warrior, and ’twould make no difference? She burned as her look met his, and whispered her answer. “My lord, I surrender in truth. Do with me as you will.” His smile was triumphant and altogether male. “Aye, lady,” he said. “That is how it will be.” *** Fallard doubted the lady knew whereof she spoke, yet the words were said. He would not allow her to recall them later. He turned to take in the scene in the courtyard below as a misty rain, its touch soft on his face, cooled the fierce battle heat from his body. Trifine oversaw the incarceration of Ruald of Sebfeld and the surviving rebels to the upper floor of the gatehouse. They would be interrogated before transport on the morrow to London for trial. William’s footsoldiers would provide escort, while Sir Gyffard, their commander, would carry to the king any particulars pertinent to William’s battle strategies against the rebels. Except for his men, none but a few retainers of Wulfsinraed Hall remained in the courtyard. As planned, the villagers had fled to their homes once the attack began. As he regarded each countenance staring up at him, he spoke loudly, in the Saxon dialect, that all might hear and understand. “I am Fallard D’Auvrecher, Baron of Wulfsinraed! In the name of William, King of England, who has granted to me honorial rights, I claim Wulfsinraed Burh and all its fiefs and burhfolc. I grant mercy to all who foreswear to take up arms against me, and offer their oath of fealty to me and to the rightful king. Oppose me, and you will explain your reasons to William. Oppose me not and you will learn I am a fair man, and will protect and provide for you well.” He waited. A breathless silence descended. No one moved. He set Ysane on her feet. Bracing her sagging figure upright against him with one arm about her waist, he pulled his boot dagger to slice through the bonds securing her hands and feet. He gently massaged her strained shoulders and bruised, chafed wrists. The pain of returning circulation brought forth from her a low moan. “Easy, my lady.” His words reached only her. “’Twill ache for but a moment.” He returned his look to those who watched his actions. Reflected in their eyes he discerned apprehension, relief and uncertainty…all at once. He understood, but he could show no weakness, no hesitation in his intent. They must choose, and now, this very moment. His eyes narrowed as if he still peered through the visor of his helm. He hardened his voice to brisk command. “Answer me! What say you? Will you have me as lord, or must I impose upon you all a journey to King William? Before you decide, know this—you will find him not so forgiving as I.” A lone man, a nondescript elder of average height and build stepped forward. A shock of thick white hair hung below his shoulders. His pale, lined face was furrowed with the same anxiety as the rest. “I am Ethelmar, my lord, dish-thegn of Wulfsinraed.” He swallowed visibly and glanced around at his companions, who bobbed their heads. He took a breath, faced Fallard, straightened his shoulders and lifted his chin. His voice was firm and carried clearly. “My lord, we accept.” *** Ysane felt her dream man shift his hold, and a sudden slackness came to his grasp, though his support faltered not. He relaxes. Ethelmar’s words must hearten him. I must remember to commend my dish-thegn. She leaned more fully into the dark knight’s embrace, enthralled by his power and strength. He lifted her once again into his arms. She sighed. He is Norman, my enemy, and the conqueror of my home, as his king conquered my people, yet in his arms I feel safe, as I have not felt in too long. He will rule here. I know him not, nor aught of him. If there is softness or indulgence in him, it shows not. All know that Normans are barbarians and love most to hurt and humiliate those they enslave. Yet, this one offers tolerance, and his judgments seem honorable. How can this be? ’Twas a strangely difficult thing to do—her strength seemed to have deserted her—but she raised a trembling hand toward his face. He glanced down. She laid her palm upon his cheek and stared into eyes as darkly blue as the midnight sky, and imagined she found in their depths an unexpected tenderness. She smiled. What a wonderfully pleasant dream this is. I hope never to wake. The last thought that slipped through her mind ere the fever fully claimed her was regret this could be only fantasy, for strange as may be, she sensed she and her people would have been secure in this illusory enemy’s care. CHAPTER FIVE Fallard’s knights were busy with the tasks he had set them. A chosen few, scattered strategically about the courtyard and the wall, remained alert against renewed violence. Pride in his men swelled. Handpicked, they were the best a captain could hope for, no matter the task. At the lady’s sweet smile and gentle hand upon his cheek, he felt an unusual hitch in the region of his heart. He ignored it. He had no time for sentiment, even his own. Still, he descended the steps with great care, for he now bore a burden beyond price and the stone was grown slick from the misty rain. He called for a healer. Through the skill of Trifine and his own timely intervention, the lady had escaped execution, but in her fragile state, she was not out of danger. He had seen fever ravage the bodies of stout warriors until there was no strength left to fight a slow descent into death. He reached the bottom and found himself besieged by folk from the hall. “My thegn, how is the Lady Ysane?” “Is the lady ill, my lord?” “Please, my thegn, let us help our lady.” Fallard tried to push through, but there were too many. His men observed the scene uneasily and pressed close, fearing treachery, for he was vulnerable with Ysane in his arms. But he discerned only concern on the faces of the retainers, though one and all they seemed unaware they hindered his efforts at progress towards the warm, dry conditions their lady required. “Here now, give way, give way!” The shout came from nearby, behind and to his right. “What are you thinking, then? Give the man room to move. Return to your duties, all of you. I will send word of the lady when there is aught to be known. Go on now!” The crowd around Fallard dispersed, scrambling rather as ants when a stone was dropped on their anthill. Flanked by two of his knights, a tall, solidly built man, mayhap of five and forty twelvemonths and garbed in the armor of a hearth companion, strode into his range of vision. His face showed evidence of a brutal beating and though he held himself in pride, his gait was stiff and he limped. But beneath the bruises was a body still strong and capable. Fallard eyed his approach. Faded hair of a once fiery hue, shoulder length in the Saxon style, was streaked with silver. Several days’ growth of beard concealed his jaw. Craggy lines around his eyes and mouth bespoke of a temperament prone to joviality. He stopped in front of Fallard, hands on hips. His laughing hazel eyes twinkled with lively curiosity as he took Fallard’s measure. Fallard returned the frank perusal, liking what he saw, instinctively recognizing the man’s honor and worth. He remembered the fettered hearth companions in the clearing, their expressions mirroring frustrated anger and honest grief. This man had been among them. During the brief fighting in the courtyard, ere he lost track of him in the melee, the big warrior had been cornered against the wall, battling two of Ruald’s men. Offering Fallard a bow before accompanying him across the courtyard, he said, “My lord D’Auvrecher, I am Sir Domnall of Cullanis, First Marshal of Wulfsinraed. Happy am I at the events of this day.” He pounded Fallard’s shoulder. “’Twas a pure pleasure to see the likes of your lads as they burst from the forest. ’Twas worth every gentle bruise offered by Ruald’s men to see their faces in that moment.” He threw back his head and laughed in hearty appreciation of his own jest. “Aye, and had I not seen with my own eyes that archer of yours take out the guard about to slit my lady’s throat—in shadow and mist, that be, and from such a distance—I would have believed not the tale.” His voice carried awed admiration. “What a shot! Wurth, our scop, will write the story and ’twill be remembered for generations to come.” He stopped. One large hand settled on Fallard’s forearm as his voice lowered and the mirth fled his gaze. “’Twas a very close thing, my lord, aye, ’Twas. Me and my fine lads, we are grateful for our lives, and for that of our lady. Do you accept, I will be the first to kneel to swear my oath, and my men right behind.” “That is acceptable, Sir Domnall,” Fallard said, a little taken aback by his enthusiasm. “I will wish to speak much with you, but now I would have you work with my men to restore order. Report to Trifine, my First. He is the archer whose aim we all admire.” Domnall nodded and turned away. “Oh, and Sir Domnall. A full inventory must be taken to update the king’s records, and mine, as well. I want a list of the names of every person who speaks the Norman tongue, and every one who can read or write.” “Aye, I will see to it, though they number but few. You will wish to speak with Tenney, the burh hoarder and Aldfrid, our reeve.” He paused. “My lord, you understand I must ask, will my lady be well?” His glance touched on Ysane. “She is fevered, and weak, but my hope is high she will survive her ordeal.” Domnall saluted and walked away, apparently reassured, calling to his men to accompany him. He began to whistle a rousing ballad as he headed in Trifine’s direction. The two who had escorted Domnall looked a question at Fallard. “Watch him, and his men for now, but otherwise leave them be to get on with their duties.” He started again for the hall, almost reaching the steps when he spotted his Second hovering. “Jehan? Take five and ten men and retrieve the horses and supplies from the forest.” “Aye, Captain.” ’Twas now raining steadily if not hard, and Fallard bent his shoulders over Ysane as he climbed the steps leading to the oaken doors of the hall. Knights stood guard on either side of the great portals, which were carved with a pattern of roses, vines and leaping stags and painted in colors of earth and sky. Waiting at the threshold were three women and the under-steward, Ethelmar. Their eyes were locked upon their lady. Ethelmar tore his gaze from Ysane. “If you will follow, my lord, I will direct you to my lady’s bower.” They passed into what would have been, in long days past, a large, rectangular mead-hall. As they proceeded toward an open arch at the far right corner, the steward gestured towards the eldest of the three who accompanied him, a short, rotund female with thin, straggly gray hair. “This is Luilda, my lord. She is our healer, and highly skilled.” Fallard glanced curiously at Luilda. Her hair was the only thin thing about her, for she was so round she rolled when she walked like a sailor new come to land. Her full face shone as if waxed. She carried a large reed basket covered with a linen cloth. She threw him a brief, sour glance and nodded. “This,” and now Ethelmar pointed to a very comely younger woman, the same lady Trifine coveted, “is the Lady Roana. She is youngest daughter to my lady’s mother’s sister. She is widowed. Her family is dead and she now resides at Wulfsinraed.” Lady Roana offered him a graceful bow without pausing. “My lord.” Fallard thought her older than Ysane, mayhap by five or six twelvemonths. “The maid,” Ethelmar continued, nodding to the last of the women, a timid-appearing girl and very young, “is Lynnet, my lady’s handmaiden. She will help you with aught my lady might need.” The girl’s hands were knotted against her abdomen and she kept her head bent so low Fallard hoped she would walk not into a wall. She wore no headrail and her hair was shorn, indicating her slave status and explaining her servile posture. He observed in passing the wary expressions of others who loitered, but he heeded more the luxury of the room they traversed. He had been told Wulfsinraed was a wealthy demesne, but if the hall was indication, Fallard had won for himself not only a title, but a greater wealth to match than he had imagined. Whitewashed walls of stone rose two stories to a cross-timbered ceiling, black with age and the smoke of countless fires. Four columns carved and painted in the same rose and stag design as decorated the exterior doors, supported the roof. Tapestries of vibrant colors lined the walls between curtained sleeping alcoves. Three circular fire pits were centrally arranged in a triangular formation. Bright gold and blue flames leaped and writhed within, dispelling the chill, the smoke spiraling out through vent holes in the ceiling. Set within their midst were cross-legged chairs and carved benches. Against the back wall behind the pits was what appeared to be a newly constructed platform raising the long family table above the others. An iron candleholder hung suspended above each end, fat beeswax candles perched on their frames. Flanking the platform and the fire pits were rows of mead-tables. All were set as if for a feast. A heavy scowl darkened his features. Sir Ruald had intended to follow the morn’s grim work with a lavish celebration to break the fast. For the space of several breaths, Fallard heartily wished he had killed the man. They approached the arched doorway. Through it was a small antechamber. Inside was a door that opened to what was clearly a burnstów, or bathing chamber. Beyond it ran a corridor. Fallard could not see around the curving wall to where it led, but realized they were entering the hall’s southwest tower. To his right was a straight staircase. Reading his glance, Ethelmar said. “This is the lord’s tower. Those stairs lead to the hoarding room above the kitchen. The left corridor takes you to the guest bowers and the back garden. ‘Ware the steps, my lord.” The under-steward’s warning was needful as they ascended the staircase that curved between the tower’s inner and outer walls. ’Twas so narrow Fallard had to turn sideways and press his back to the inner wall so as not to scrape the lady’s feet. Open shutters in the regularly spaced window embrasures shed light into the cramped space. They arrived at the landing of a bower, beyond which the stairwell continued winding to the tower’s third level. Ethelmar entered the comfortable chamber. Fallard followed and stepped toward the bed, a huge affair enclosed at the top and on three sides by a solid, carved wood frame. Lady Roana dragged aside a richly embroidered coverlet. Fallard leaned through the green velvet bed draperies, looped back to each side of the bedframe, to lay his burden upon a thick pallet. He moved away, halting against the opposite wall nigh a warmly glowing brazier. Roana and Lynnet set to work removing Ysane’s filthy cyrtel while Luilda laid out her supplies. “My lord?” Ethelmar spoke quietly at his elbow. “I assure you Lady Ysane will receive the best of care. If you will come with me, I will pour for you a mug of our finest ale.” Fallard turned to stare at him. Understanding dawned. The corners of his eyes crinkled as his respect for the man increased. The plucky steward had risked dismissal—or worse—to offer his new lord a not-so-subtle reminder that ’twas not his place to be present while the women cared for their mistress. His humor faded as he turned back to Luilda. “Will she live?” The healer threw him an indecipherable glance. “I will do all I can, but the outcome will be in the hands of our Lord.” Fallard nodded and followed the steward from the room. They pressed against the inner wall to allow two serving girls carrying water, bathing linens, and other supplies to pass them. Both girls, eyes wide, seemed to be trying to burrow into the wall to avoid him. He decided not to reassure them. ’Twas no bad thing to have one’s subjects fear one at the onset of one’s rule. He stepped into the hall as the great doors opened to admit Trifine. His First’s glance found him and he hurried forward. “Captain, Sir Ruald and his men are secure.” He grinned. “I fear our guests are not happy with their new accommodations, nay, not at all. They are rather vocal about it, in fact.” Trifine sounded as if naught in a long time had pleased him more. “Has Jehan returned?” Fallard asked. He suppressed a groan of appreciation as he savored the drink supplied him by Ethelmar. Not even the king had ale so fine. “Aye, he rode into the courtyard but moments ago. Captain, the stablemaster is a queer one, but the horseflesh is prime.” “I begin to appreciate how superb everything is at Wulfsinraed.” Fallard finished the ale in two gulps, complimented the steward on its excellence, and stepped outside with Trifine, pausing at the top of the steps. The rain had slowed to a fine drizzle. “I will hold the ceremony for the Oath of Fealty in the hall after noontide. See that all attend, unless too ill or infirm. I want the name of any who refuses, or is accounted missing. Oh, and forget not to make one final offer to Sir Ruald’s men. Explain their life may well be forfeit do they refuse. In the meantime, find a place to house our men.” “Aye, Captain.” The First Marshal came out the door to the gatehouse. Seeing Fallard, he called out. “My lord, how fares my lady?” “The lady fares as well as can be, Domnall. If you are finished with your tasks, I would have you accompany me on a preliminary tour of the burh.” “Certainly. Where would you begin?” “On the wall. I wish to see the full layout from above.” Domnall turned and spoke to a hearth companion behind him. The man nodded and hurried toward the tunnel. Over the next hour, Fallard walked the circumference of the wall with Domnall. “The fortress is old,” the first marshall said. “Eorl Wulfsin of Cuthendun, King’s Thegn, also known as Wulfsin the Wanderer, kept extensive records of the work. The scrolls can still be read. They are held in the hoarding room. Wulfsin was granted these lands by Æthelstan, called ‘Glorious’.” Fallard started in surprise. “Æthelstan! But that was nigh on to....” “Aye,” Domnall interrupted, chuckling. “Fifty and one hundred twelvemonths. According to Wulfsin’s records, he became a mariner in his youth and traveled much, even so far as the lands of the Romans and the Greeks. He saw there great stone structures that had survived for centuries. He determined to build for himself the same, for wooden burhs were too easily burned, their people enslaved or scattered. He wished for greater protection for his legacy. He found this island and recognized in its configuration a natural defensive formation. His sons, hearth companions and many ceorls labored nigh seven twelvemonths to build the wall.” Fallard admired forward thinking men, and Wulfsin of Cuthendun had been one such. To hold this small fortress of stone in a land of wooden burhs was a mighty accolade. Though not large, Wulfsinraed Burh was truly an island fortification. To the west, the river forked as it coursed around the base of a solid promontory vaguely resembling the bow of a ship. As the two branches split, they bent away from each other to curve in a lazy, irregular oval, then curled back again to meet in a gentle churning of waters downriver, forming in their midst the narrow islet upon which the stronghold was built. An ancient road, paved by hands centuries in the grave, wove its way west–to–east alongside the river, through the village and on toward the sea. The design of the burh was efficient in its simplicity. There was but one entrance, facing north. To breach it, an enemy must cross a dangerously exposed wooden bridge, penetrate a fortified outer gate, traverse a short, arched tunnel beneath the north guard tower, and finally, advance through the heavy inner gate. The wall, wide enough for two men to walk abreast alongside the parapet, meandered to closely follow the contours of the island. The parapet, chest high, was unbroken, in contrast to its commonly crenellated counterparts in Nourmaundie. Four squat guard towers jutted up, one at each compass point to overlook the land. Inside the wall, the practice field, where the hearth companions spent many hours rehearsing the art of war, took up much of the open area on the eastern side. The hall, with its round, three-level towers at each corner, sat roughly at the island’s center. An orchard comprised much of the western side. Nigh the practice field, butting up against the southeast section of the wall, was a large structure Domnall said was the barracks for the burh’s military garrison. A number of smaller structures, partially underground, rested snug along the hall’s east wall, between the curves of the towers. Fallard pointed to them. “Those are the holding pits?” “Aye. That far one yonder is the isolation pit where my Lady Ysane was imprisoned these past three days, though my men and I were locked in the gatehouse.” A shudder of commiseration vibrated through Fallard. He had once been imprisoned for several seven-days in an underground cell without light. He still harbored a horror of such places. “The gatehouse is a far more comfortable lodging than yon underground cells.” Domnall said. He paused. “Mayhap, you would like Sir Ruald moved to the cell where he kept my lady?” An unholy light of hope shone from the first marshal’s hazel eyes. “Nay, Domnall. ’Tis my preference to keep them all together for the nonce. But your suggestion carries much merit in my mind. Were I not sending the rebels to the king on the morrow, I would heed it.” He pointed to a large structure east of the gatehouse. Jehan and several other men were exiting the building. “That is the stable?” “Aye, and you will find none finer. The stable-master is Tuck, called ‘Cross-eyed’.” Domnall grinned. ’Tis a wonder the man can even walk without falling over himself. Still, ’tis possible Tuck is the best man with horses in all of this land.” Fallard looked north and east, upon the lands now his. Out in the búrlands—the far-flung fields that awaited spring planting, and the farmhouses that dotted them—ceorls were beginning to plow. Behind the sturdy wooden wall surrounding the village were well-kept thatch-roofed cottages, a bake house and the alehouse he had visited while reconnoitering. Narrow daub and wattle fences between the cottages enclosed small gardens. Even in the soaking drizzle, the scene was colorful. Doors, and the plaster on the walls were painted a gay, if winter-faded, rainbow of hues. The first vibrant blooms of spring paraded beneath windows covered by flaps of scraped and oiled hide. The only jarring note to the otherwise bucolic scene was the gallows set to the north of the village gate, which at the time of his arrival at the burh had been occupied by a newly hung corpse—an outlaw guilty of theft and murder, according to Trifine. At the far end of the village, river water churned white down the millrace beneath the millwheel. Burhfolc, dressed in woolen clothing as colorful as their homes, crossed back and forth over the bridge and hurried along the footpaths beside the river. They went about their daily business as if naught had changed. It occurred to him that mayhap, for them, it had not. One master or another made little difference to the grind of survival, though these folk seemed much better off than most. He felt a vast peace grow within his soul. Wulfsinraed was more than he had envisioned, and he had dreamed much. Domnall cleared his throat, then pointed beyond the village. “Follow the road some few leagues further and you will come to the shores of the Sea of Germania.” “’Tis so close? I had not thought.” They rounded the eastern curve of the wall, and after a rambling walk, came to a halt just beyond the south guard tower. “These are unlike aught I have seen,” Fallard said, stopping at the head of a cross passage to the third level of the lord’s tower. The upper level of both this tower, and the northwest tower on the opposite side of the hall, were connected with the top of the wall by buttresses of arched stone, which supported slender crosswalks of wood. “They were added by Thegn Vane, based on drawings left by Wulfsin.” “They are a fine innovation, a military advantage worthy of passing on to others who build their holdings across this land.” He pointed to a walled-in area filled with plantings behind the hall. “I was told there is a garden. I assume this is it?” “In truth, there are two, my lord, a herb garden over there, outside the kitchen and this one. To hear her tell it, my lady grows the finest roses in all Angelcynn. I know not, of course. Save for their colors, all flowers are alike to me. Yet, I am willing to take her word for it, for she should know. She is much like her roses, strong and hardy, blooming through storm or shine.” “You are willing to take her word for most things, are you not, Domnall of Cullanis?” “Aye. That I am. Lady Ysane is the gentlest and most honorable of woman. Forgive plain speaking, my lord, but Lord Renouf was unworthy of her. He gave her naught but contempt and strove to break her spirit.” Hazel eyes suddenly hard, Domnall looked into the distance, his jaw tight. “Lady Ysane is strong, but when he murdered Angelet, her wee babe, we feared he might have succeeded.” “’Tis certain then, Renouf killed the babe?” “Oh, aye. The lady would never have taken the man’s own sword to his sorry hide had he not.” “How old was the babe?” “Barely come into her third month of life.” Fallard cursed. “How was it done, this murder?” Domnall shrugged, but the movement ill disguised his anger. “Lord Renouf was sotted. ’Twas naught unusual. He was a brute, but the drink made him worse and then ’twould be but a wee thing to set him to use his fists against my lady. “That night, we heard him scream at her to stop the babe’s weeping, but she could not, for the babe was ill. I slipped up the stairs to be close should I be needed. I had interrupted before to keep the blackguard from killing her. He never remembered when he woke afterwards. “My lady begged the lord to let her take Angelet away, so her fretfulness would not disturb him. But the lord refused, and my lady knew better than to disobey.” Domnall shook his head. “’Tis still unclear exactly what happened. We think the lord grabbed the babe from her mother’s arms and threw her against the wall so hard it broke her poor wee skull.” Domnall stopped his report at a growled imprecation from Fallard, who had turned away from him. “My lord?” Fallard faced the first marshal. Domnall stepped back, his look abruptly wary. Fallard spoke through gritted teeth. “So the lout murdered his own babe, and brutally used a vulnerable woman.” He understood discipline and the use of force. Founded upon violence, his profession was one of savage and bloody action. But he despised cowards, and ’twas his belief a man who used his greater strength to brutalize the helpless and innocent was the worst of all that ilk. ’Twas not his way to raise his hand against such, nor would he allow it of his men, though ’twas not uncommon behavior among warriors. But for the sake of the Lady Ysane, the rage that swept through him at Domnall’s words sent a red haze spiraling through his vision, making him long for an enemy to fight, nay, many enemies at once. He wanted to kill someone. Specifically, he wanted to kill Renouf of Sebfeld, slowly, with his own hands. But Ysane, lady of Wulfsinraed and by all accounts a most gentle soul, had already done the deed, avenging her babe’s death. He felt not a moment’s need to punish her for the act. A fierce desire—mystifying in its intensity, for he had never experienced its like—to protect her from further violence consumed him. He mastered his rage. “Tell me the rest.” Domnall relaxed. “Well now, the lady began to scream like as if she faced all the demons of hell. Two of my men came, for her cries were worse than ever before, and then they ceased. We feared for her life. We broke through the door, but Sir Ruald appeared and shouldered his way past. We found the lady standing over her lord, who lay on his face. His sword was plunged fair deep in his back, my lady’s fair hands still enwrapped about the hilt. Methinks rage and grief must have gifted her with strength beyond her norm, for ’twas known she could bare lift Lord Renouf’s blade. Of course, the lord was so thoroughly sotted he could protect not himself.” Fallard humphed. Domnall’s last comment was thick with satisfaction. His sympathies lie entirely with the Lady Ysane. Good. His instincts are correct. Does he prove trustworthy, he will make a fine addition to my command. “What happened then?” “My lady stood as silent as death. Her gown was ripped, and red marks ringed her neck. Methinks when he killed the babe she attacked him, and he tried to strangle her. In their struggle, he fell. ’Tis my thought that is when she stabbed him. “Sir Ruald grabbed her. He cursed her and screamed she had murdered his brother. He hit her. I was too far away to stop him. She fell like a stone dropped from a tower. She never spoke another word, not from that night to this morn, at least none that I heard, but I had little chance to hear much of aught, after that. “Sir Ruald ordered the ‘mess’ by the wall cleaned up, as if the poor, broken babe was no more than a bowl of spilt stew. He ordered the lady taken to the pits to await the trial he would hold the following morn. I tried to convince him to lock her in the gatehouse, where ’twas at least dry and warm. He refused. I fear those of us still loyal to the Lady Ysane got into a wee bit of a scrap with Sir Ruald and the lord’s men. ’Tis unfortunate there were more of them than of us, but we gave a good accounting of ourselves, that we did. Still, it ended with the lot of us locked up, and awaiting Sir Ruald’s trial.” Domnall sighed and leaned against the parapet, his eyes focused inward. “The next morn the oaf held court as if he were king. He sat in the lord’s chair, and declared since he was his brother’s only kin, Renouf’s death made him the new lord. I was brought in as oath-keeper for my lady, but was allowed no word in her defense. I was forced to listen while his brother’s hearth companions lied, saying as how the lady had killed her babe by dropping the lass on her head. They testified she was so afeard she would be blamed she picked up her husband’s sword and murdered him while he was too sotted to defend himself, to make it look like he had done the deed. Then Ruald explained how I led my men to rebel against their new lord, meaning himself, and argued that since both murder and rebellion were offences deserving of death, we were to be executed by drowning in three days. “Through it all, my lady never moved nor spoke. Not that he gave her chance, nor did we ever hear her weep. She sat staring into naught. You know the rest. Oh, one last thing. None knows where the babe was buried.” Astonished, Fallard stared at him. “Ruald denied the babe a Christian burial and interred not her body in the crypts? A pox on the man!” “He ordered a hearth companion to bury her in the forest where none would ever find the grave. He commanded it that way, as you may know, to bring further hurt to the Lady Ysane. I have not heard that the companion ever told where he laid the lass ere he was killed in the fight for the burh.” Fallard cursed again. If she survived, Ysane would not even be able to mourn her babe at the child’s grave. “By this eve, I want you, and anyone else who can testify regarding what happened to relate to Tenney all you know so he may transcribe it. The document will go to King William when Sir Ruald and his men are taken to London, and this time, the trial that is held will be official. I will request that William himself officiate.” “I would be pleased to see to that small chore.” The telling of the tale had brought them around to the western guard tower. Domnall stopped and pointed into the distance. “Follow the road that direction and two leagues beyond lies the Crossroads of Fallewydde. The river runs through it. There is a bridge and further down, in summer, a ferry.” Fallard nodded. “I know the place, but we skirted it as we came. ’Twas necessary to stay clear of the roads so as to travel unmarked until we arrived here, though at this time of year we noted few travelers.” “’Twas my thought you must have done so, for no whisper of your presence came to us. Still, the force you brought is large. ’Tis difficult to understand how you came so far with none the wiser.” Fallard allowed his expression to speak for him. The slight frown on Domnall’s face cleared. “Ah. I understand. Those who came upon you lived not to tell of it. Well, that is the way of things in war.” “We took care to insure there were not so many. Those unlucky few we did encounter were outlaws, and unwisely chose to fight.” Domnall nodded and inclined his head in the direction of Fallewydde. “In summer, the site becomes a merry place where merchants stop for a time to set up booths to sell their wares. Many needful things—and many things of strange nature—may be had from the market at Fallewydde that cannot be found elsewhere. By grant of the king, faires are held every summer, and many sorts of travelers from nigh and far come to enjoy themselves with food and drink, and with dance and song.” Wistfulness flickered briefly in Domnall’s eyes. “In my younger days, the king himself would come, and then the merry-making would be especially boisterous, and the lasses, ah, but they were fine! Did he find a willing lass to occupy his time with lively pursuits, a man might spend a seven-day at the faire and leave having seen little of it.” A shade of regret crept into his voice. “The faires have been not the same since the coming of King William. Too many have been lost in the fighting, and the roads are not so safe for travel as they once were.” Fallard glanced at him. “William works to improve that situation.” “Aye, I know it. My words were meant not as criticism, only a statement of fact.” Fallard pointed with his chin to an edifice abutting the wall below them. Beyond it, filling most of the space in the western side of the island, were the orchards. “What building is that? It looks like a chapel.” “’Tis, but ’tis rarely used since Lord Renouf came.” Domnall eyed him. “My lord, there is a door in the back of the nave that leads into the crypts.” The crypts were another half-buried structure that stretched along the southwest wall. They were similar to the holding pits, but more extensive. “There is an underground corridor, then, between the chapel and the crypts?” “Aye, a short one. ’Tis a secret of which but a handful know. Both entrances are concealed. You must ask Father Gregory to show you the door on the chapel side. Lord Renouf was not a religious man. He forced Father Gregory to give up his post, when the man had been priest for nigh onto twenty twelvemonths and thought to live out his life here. For Lord’s Day services once a month, and weddings and such, the priest over at Ashbyrn Hall presided. He was not a good father, being a man who would do aught he was asked—for a price.” “Hmmm. I believe that situation is one I will rectify. When Father Gregory left, where did he go?” “Not far. He has a cottage in the forest behind the mill.” “If he wishes to return, see he is restored to his service at once. Where is Ashbyrn Hall?” “Ashbyrn is one of Wulfsinraed’s fiefs. It lies but seven leagues to the northwest.” “What about the other fiefs, how far are they from Wulfsinraed?” “All lie within a seven-day’s travel, my laird, even Blackbridge burh which sits on the outskirts of London. Most of Wulfsinraed’s revenues for wool production come from Blackbridge. Those revenues are profitable.” “I am aware. That is all for now. I thank you, Sir Domnall. Return to your duties.” CHAPTER SIX Fallard left the wall through the west guard tower. He hurried back toward the hall along the cobbled stone of an old road that wound through the trees of the orchard. He needed to see Ysane again, to hear from Luilda some hope she might live. He crossed the courtyard with swinging strides, nodding to those he passed and sending a brown hen that got in his way squawking in panic. As he reached the steps to the hall, there came a trumpet blast and shout from the main guard tower announcing the arrival of friendly travelers. “Thegn D’Auvrecher!” He tamped down frustration at the delay and acknowledged the guard, one of Domnall’s men. “Who comes?” “A small party from the west, my thegn. The pennons proclaim Thegn Randel from Randel Hall.” Trifine was suddenly at Fallard’s elbow. “’Tis likely he knows naught of the changes made here this day, Fallard.” Fallard, his eyes searching for Domnall, found the first marshal already hurrying toward him. “Sir Domnall, what will be the likely response of this party to today’s events?” The three men moved as one up the steps. Fallard wanted to meet the incoming party with the advantage of high ground. He swept the wall and courtyard with a rapid glance. His men were already in place. Domnall took note. “You stand ready for battle, my lord. You are aware Randel Hall is one of your fiefs?” Fallard nodded. “Tell me, quickly, of Thegn Randel.” “He is a fair man. He will hear you out and most likely, approve of you despite the unfortunate fact you are Norman.” Fallard threw him a glance and he chuckled. “Lord Randel and Lord Kenrick were friends, though their beliefs differed greatly on English response to Norman rule. He believes naught can reverse the past and counsels acceptance of William’s rule. He held no liking and less respect for Lord Renouf and Sir Ruald, though he dared not show it, but I knew. Methinks you need worry not for swordplay.” “My thegn,” the guard called again. “Thegn Randel has his lady with him. He requests entrance.” “Admit them.” Fallard hid his relief at the lady’s presence. He wanted no more trouble and ’twas less likely the man would start any with his wife by his side. He waited, expression impassive, as the group crossed the bridge into the tunnel. But ere the first of the horses entered the courtyard, their leader—Thegn Randel, Fallard assumed—lifted his hand and the entire party came to an abrupt halt. Randel had seen Fallard and Trifine in their Norman mail flanking Domnall. Randel’s hand gripped his sword hilt, though he drew it not. His men urged their horses into a protective stance around the lady, who looked more startled than frightened. The rain had started up again. Droplets slid down Fallard’s forehead into his eyes. He blinked them away. Water dripping into a barrel beside the steps breached the tense silence as Fallard waited for Randel’s next move. The man facing him was nigh his own age, tall and lean, his coloring fair. Garbed only in light mail, he still looked every inch the capable warrior. His beard was shaved close to his skin and his hair was shoulder length. Fallard saw naught of the hatred in Randel’s eyes he had too oft encountered. Instead, those eyes rapidly assessed the situation. Fallard recognized the exact moment Randel realized his small troupe was in a dangerous pass, one from which he would be unable to fight his way clear. Fallard took the initiative. His voice rang out. “Well come, Thegn Randel, to Wulfsinraed. I am Fallard D’Auvrecher, the new lord. Please hasten to bring your fair lady out of this unpleasant weather and into the warm comfort of the hall.” Randel’s questioning look fastened on Domnall, and from the corner of his eye, Fallard saw the first marshal answer with a slight nod. Randel’s gaze returned to Fallard, then he turned in the saddle and spoke to his knights. His hand moved from his sword, but his wariness remained unabated as he slowly led the way into the courtyard. Young lads from the stable came running as Randel dismounted and aided his wife from her palfrey. Setting her hand on his arm, he approached the steps, his warriors grouped closely behind. Domnall opened the hall doors and stepped back to allow Fallard to enter, followed by Randel, his lady and his guard. Trifine and Domnall then entered with more of Fallard’s men following behind, two of whom stationed themselves either side of the doors. Fallard waited while servants took the couple’s mantles and hung them on pegs. He stepped to meet Randel, his hand outstretched. He wished not to fight again this day. Indeed, he wished not to fight this man at all. ’Twas his thought, did Thegn Randel’s trust be won, he would become an ally. Randel clasped Fallard’s wrist, his grip firm, his regard steady. “My lord D’Auvrecher, as you have clearly been told, I am Randel of Randel Hall.” Turning his head to indicate the trim woman by his side, he said, “I would have you meet my wife, the Lady Lewena.” “Well met, lady,” Fallard said, bowing. Randel’s wife was tall, and very beautiful, as dark as her lord was fair, and of an age nigh to that of Fallard and her lord. It pleased Fallard to see caution and curiosity, but no fear in her eyes. Aye. These two might indeed become worthy friends. “I would offer repast to you and your lady, Thegn Randel, do you wish it.” “My thanks, but nay. We broke our fast ere leaving camp this morn. But I would covet a cup of something warm, as would my wife.” Fallard caught the eye of Ethelmar, who nodded and hurried through a wide door into the kitchen. Leading the way to the cozy seating in the space between the blazing fire pits, Fallard waited for the lady to be made comfortable before seating himself. Roul appeared with the servants to bring warm mulled wine in a silver carafe, the scent of which warmed the bones by smell alone. The various knights and hearth companions seated themselves at the mead-tables, still set to await the feast that would never come. Randel’s men placed themselves facing their lord and lady. The pewter tankards before them were quickly filled with ale. They spoke not, but seemed glad enough to wrap their hands around the heat emanating from the metal. Randel shifted in his chair, removed his riding gloves and accepted the chased silver chalice a serving maid offered. As did his men, he encircled its welcome warmth with his hands. He gulped half its contents, releasing a little sigh of relish, ere turning to Fallard. His apprehension well hidden, he said, “I find myself at a disadvantage, my Lord D’Auvrecher. We received a message from Sir Ruald but three days past. My wife and I journeyed to Wulfsinraed expecting to offer condolences to Lady Ysane and Sir Ruald on the death of Thegn Sebfeld. Instead, we find Norman knights holding court in their place. You will understand our…hesitation when we arrived.” Roul passed a fragrant chalice to Fallard and stationed himself at his left elbow. Fallard stretched his legs toward the warmth of the fire, noting as he did so the chalice in his hand was solid silver, not plate. The astonishing wealth of Wulfsinraed was evident at every turn. He made Randel wait as he savored the wine, then said, “Much has changed here since that message was sent. Tell me, what word received you concerning the death of Thegn Sebfeld?” He wanted to give naught away, to allow Randel to yield information, though ’twas clear from the Lady Lewena’s presence Ruald’s message offered little of the true story. “Only that Thegn Sebfeld had received unfortunate injuries resulting in his death,” Randel said. “The message requested we attend Sir Ruald, who declared himself the new lord, but also asked we arrive not until the morrow. Howbeit, we made excellent time, better than expected. When last eve the weather turned foul I decided, for my wife’s sake, to continue on to the hall. Under the circumstances, ’twas my thought Ruald would find no fault with an appearance somewhat earlier than requested.” He paused to take a swallow of the wine. “If I may presume to ask, my lord D’Auvrecher, what has happened to Sir Ruald, and where is the Lady Ysane? I pray no harm has befallen them?” Though his soft words were a question, there was no mistaking the challenge in his tone. Fallard met and held his scrutiny, but said naught. The silence deepened. “Please, my lord, how fares the Lady Ysane?” For the first time, Lady Lewena spoke. Her voice was deeper than that of most women, but as gentle as a summer breeze, and grave with concern. “The Lady Ysane lies in her bower, gravely ill,” Fallard said, then added hastily, as they both tensed and glared at him, “though not by my hand. Please, be at ease. I will tell you what I know.” He signaled to the servants to bring more wine, then related recent events. As the story progressed, Randel’s expression grew ever more wrathful, while that of his lady was stunned with horror. When Fallard told of the murder of the babe, of Lady Ysane’s imprisonment and the intent to execute her at first light this very morn, his account was interrupted by a sharp cry from Lady Lewena. Her face had gone white, the blood leached from even her lips. Distress shone deep in her beautiful dark eyes. Randel clasped his wife’s hand. He barely waited for Fallard to finish ere he spoke, his tones limned with outrage. “Renouf! That worthless scum! Ever did he act the coward and the knave, and now his brother, no better. It seems clear now he wished us not to arrive until his villainous deeds were accomplished. But what fool is he that he thought to set himself up as the new lord, when he knows only King William may appoint him thus?” “Sir Ruald is well thought of at court. ’Tis my thought he believed that did he become the sitting lord by the time news of Renouf’s death reached the king, William would appoint him. Ruald concocted a tissue of lies regarding all that occurred, and with none to speak the wiser, he must have assumed William would grant his request. ’Tis unfortunate for Ruald both he and Renouf were unaware—and to my knowledge, Ruald remains yet unaware—the king knew of their involvement with the Saxon insurrections in this part of the land. That is why I am here.” Randel’s eyes narrowed. “I feared as much. King William has kept his word to leave to themselves those who honor their oath to him. He would have sent not his knights to Wulfsinraed without certain knowledge of treason.” He gazed into the fire for a long moment, then sighed. “I suspected the brothers were behind the rebellion in this region, but could gain no proof. I warned Renouf once he would be punished beyond bearing were William to learn he was involved. He but laughed and said even if there was aught to learn, the king would never be able to prove it.” He glanced at Fallard, the intelligence in his eyes sharp. “Does Sir Ruald yet live?” “Aye. I hold him and his men for transport to London.” Fallard held Randel’s clear gaze and decided some measure of trust would go not awry. “He will face trial for his part in the rebellion, and for the attempted murder of Lady Ysane and those hearth companions loyal to her. He usurped William’s authority in these matters, rendering his actions treason. His execution is all but certain.” Randel winced. “Aye, ’tis the usual penalty, though not the only one. Yet, with the attempted murder of the wife of a noble added to the charge, he will be fortunate to suffer the quicker death of beheading. I understand not the false wisdom of continuing the rebellion. In the twelvemonths since Santlache, it has become a matter of certitude that naught can stop the advance of Norman rule over England. William rules with a fist of steel and has too thoroughly consolidated his control. I believe his throne is now unassailable.” He looked at Fallard. “I am as loyal to my country as any man. I fought with King Harold at the ridge of Santlache, that you call in your tongue Sanguelac, and even for a time after William’s coronation. But I am no fool, and only lackwits fight a battle already long lost. Mayhap, were it only myself, I might have considered it, but I would risk not my beloved wife and children on what I know to be a dullard’s folly.” “It pleases me to hear your thoughts on this matter, Thegn Randel.” Lady Lewena’s quiet voice interrupted. “My lord, the Lady Ysane is a dear friend. Might I attend to her?” Fallard motioned to the steward, hovering out of earshot. “Ethelmar, escort Lady Lewena to the bower of Lady Ysane…and Ethelmar, I would have a report of how the lady fares.” He watched as the steward disappeared up the tower stairs with his guest, then turned his attention back to Randel who, with his wife absent, spoke more openly now of his concern. “May I ask your intentions, Lord D’Auvrecher, now you are lord? What plan you for my wife and my men?” “I am neither Renouf nor Ruald, Thegn Randel. ’Tis my intent to rule Wulfsinraed and its fiefs with honor, offering fair treatment to my people. You and your party are free to come and go as you please.” Briefly, the two men shared a solemn gaze, then Randel smiled, his features relaxing for the first time since his arrival. “I would be honored to call you ‘friend’, my Lord D’Auvrecher, if you are satisfied I am worthy of your trust.” “Aye, Randel, and my name is Fallard. ’Twould please me did you use it.” CHAPTER SEVEN Within the confines of Wulfsinraed’s gatehouse Sir Ruald of Sebfeld huddled, shivering, a scratchy woolen blanket wrapped close. The covering was too flimsy to provide true warmth, but ’twas better than naught. ‘Twas truth, he would not have been so generous had the Normans been in his place. Around him were the most loyal of his men, stretched out on the hard wood of the floor, their backs to the wall. Ruald was uncomfortable and hungry despite the stale bread and ale he had been served, but he was not unhappy. He could be languishing in the miserable conditions of the holding pits, and indeed, was surprised he was not. Also, as he had hoped—and aye, counted on—the Foolish One had contrived to be among those bringing their meal, such as ’twas. He had used the Foolish One, as he had oft times used her in other, more pleasant ways, to pass a message to another who remained free outside the wall, whose loyalty was given to him. In the dancing shadows formed by the single flickering tallow candle in its sconce by the oaken door, Ruald smiled. The jealousy of the Foolish One would be her undoing, but she was no longer his concern. His use for her was over for the nonce, and he cared little how she fared. All that mattered now was that his message was received. Together with Renouf, he had planned for this eventuality. If all went well, in but a brace of days he would again be a free man. Then the hated Normans, usurpers, one and all, would feel the razor’s edge of his vengeance. Soon, very soon, the woman who had humiliated and scorned him would be dead, as he had meant her to die that morn. Wulfsinraed and its riches would still be his. He had but to be patient for a short while longer. *** ’Twas very late. Fallard, his breath congealing in foggy puffs, stood alone on the south wall, looking out upon the ebon smudge that marked the thick growth of forest. In but a few hours, the new dawn would break. The previous day’s clouds had dispersed and the night was cold, clear and very still. Below him, the river burbled to itself like a contented babe. To the southwest, the contours of a lake broke the ragged silhouette of the trees, its waters glistening darkly beneath the pallid moonlight. How lonely is this place, and how empty this land, so far from every place I deem civilized. Not a single pinpoint of light glimmers in all the far-flung landscape that stretches like a silent, static ocean before my eyes. One could nigh be tempted to believe not another human lives in all the land. Even the brilliance of the stars seems muted, as if their very distance is increased from the earth. Aye, the lives of those who dwell here would be closely intertwined, else the isolation would weigh too heavily. Fallard leaned against the cold stone of the parapet, and placed his gloved palm against its solid, level top. No Norman battlement this, with the familiar crenellated configuration, but a solid defense, nonetheless. He inhaled deeply of the pure night air, washed clean of dust by the rain and smelling of wet earth, and drew his cloak closer around his shoulders. From the corner of his eye, he caught a flash of barely perceived movement in the sky across from his position. Keen eyes searching, he found the source, a shadow deeper than the darkness in which it moved. ’Twas a large bird, a hunter, possibly an owl. The creature swept another circle through the air above the clearing on the far side of the river, then abruptly dove into the shadows above the ground. It hesitated briefly, then leapt skyward, its powerful wings carrying it aloft once more. There was not enough light to discern if it had made a kill. It winged into the darkness and he saw it not again. Pulling away from the chill of the wall, he saw the warmth of his gloved hand had melted a clear print in the frost that rimmed the parapet. By morn, the print would be filled in again. Absently, he rubbed his left shoulder. The old wound was bothersome this night. His mind returned to his contemplation of all that had transpired in recent days. Who could have foreseen his good fortune? Events could have worked no better to his advantage had he planned them all himself. He thought of the nigh miraculous ease with which he had taken the fortress, and of the timely—and for him, exceptionally convenient—death of his enemy, Renouf of Sebfeld. He had once heard a Saxon scop sing of ‘advantageous happenstance’, and had wondered exactly what it meant. Now, he thought he knew. If the events leading to the burh’s fall were not advantageous happenings, he could think not what might be. He rejoiced that Wulfsinraed needed no rebuilding. Most of the burhs and manors granted to William’s new barons were constructed of wood. Though sturdy enough, the king’s standing order required them all to be rebuilt of stone. ’Twould be many, many twelvemonths ere that work was finished. But Wulfsinraed’s stone hall and wall had been well maintained, and the few places he had noted that needed repair were of a minor nature and easily restored. He delighted in the oaths of fealty sworn to him earlier this day by the men and women who were now his people, on his land, to lead and defend. Those oaths had been tendered first by Thegn Randel and Domnall of Cullanis, both men whom he believed would become good and trustworthy friends. Most of the rebels locked with Sir Ruald in the gatehouse had also chosen to swear fealty, though for the nonce, they would be watched, their true loyalty in question until they proved themselves. Come the morn, I must remember to have messengers sent to the fiefs. I will that their stewards, both Saxon and Norman, appear before me to swear their oaths. I will insist the wives and eldest sons make their appearance, as well. A man is less likely to be difficult, does he come accompanied by his family. Fallard had re-affirmed his earlier decision that those who chose to remain with Sir Ruald—though truly, there were now less than two score—would set out for London early this morrow, escorted by the majority of William’s foot soldiers. The rest of William’s men, along with Fallard’s own knights, would remain at Wulfsinraed until the loyalty of the burh troops could be determined. William will be pleased. The common body of an insurrection rarely survives when its noble head is removed, as has now happened with Renouf dead and Ruald a prisoner. My actions here this day will insure one less trouble for my king. Abruptly, he laughed, the sound startlingly loud in the crystal night air. Glancing around, he saw several sentries turn to look his way, and his smile broadened. Did they think him a lackwit, or mayhap he had drunk too much ale with his sup? But he was jubilant, for now within his hand lay all his heart had ever desired. Though the wealth of Wulfsinraed pleased him, ’twas merely an unexpected benefit to an already overflowing bounty. His inheritance from his godmother had supplied him with all the wealth he needed. Now, he had enough not only for himself, but for all who were his responsibility. As if so much were not enough, he was now a baron. Would that not swell the pride of his father’s heart? Though as clearly as if she stood before him, he heard his mother remind him what God had given, so He could take away and he must take heed not to become vainglorious. Aye, she was wise, his mother. He must pen a missive to his family, apprising them of his good fortune, and the hopes he held in his heart for Wulfsinraed and the Lady Ysane. Ah…the Lady Ysane, his beautiful white rose. As it had since the moment he first saw her, Fallard’s body quickened at thought of the lovely mistress of Wulfsinraed. She still lived, though she fought through the darkness and flame of a raging fever. Attended to by the women of her bower and Lady Lewena, she seemed too delicate a flower to survive the harsh treatment life had chosen to bestow. Yet still she lived! She was a fighter, his rose, and he would do all he could to aid her in her battle. An errant breeze stirred the hem of his cloak, and with it came the sense of a presence behind him. He whirled, his sword ready in his hand ere he completed the turn. He relaxed. Trifine ’twas who approached him on silent feet, moonlight glinting off his close-cropped silver hair. His First came alongside him as he sheathed his blade. “The hearth companions have begun to call you ‘Black Ghost’,” he said, so quietly none but Fallard would hear. “They wonder what kind of lord would stand in solitude on the wall and laugh aloud in the darkest hours of the night. They fear you daft, or mayhap fey, Fallard.” “And what think you, my friend?” The white of his teeth showed clearly as Trifine grinned. “I know you are daft, but I have long since ceased to be concerned.” He set his gaze upon the dark forest before them. The two stood in companionable silence, the ease of long association between them. Trifine shifted his feet. “All went well today.” “Aye, far better than expected.” “Domnall of Cullanis and Thegn Randel will be dependable allies, mayhap even friends.” “That is also my thought.” “Lady Roana sends word Lady Ysane is resting. The fever seems to have abated somewhat for the night, though Luilda can say not what the morrow will bring.” “That is well.” “The Lady Roana is very fair of face and figure, and soft of voice.” “That she is.” “I am told that like her cousin, she is good and gentle of manner.” “So I have also heard.” “She has no kin but the Lady Ysane, and no home but Wulfsinraed, and ’twould seem, no prospects for a home and family of her own, as women are wont to desire.” Fallard waited, the crinkling at the corners of his eyes the only sign of his amusement. He had been expecting this since he had seen the look on Trifine’s face the moment his First laid eyes on the fair Roana. “Methinks Wulfsinraed is a good place for a man weary of wandering and warfare to put down roots,” Trifine ventured. “I will argue not with that.” “You would give your blessing to a betrothal between us?” “If the lady is willing, aye.” Silence descended again. Then…”When plan you to wed the Lady Ysane?” “As soon as she is well enough to stand.” Trifine nodded. “I believe that will be as long as my betrothal to Lady Roana will last, before we marry.” This time, Fallard hid neither his grin nor his laughter. He placed a hand on Trifine’s shoulder. “That is agreeable,” he said simply. Trifine lifted his face to a star-bejeweled sky and inhaled sharply, his chest puffing out. He patted his lean ribs with his palms. “’Tis a fine clear night, my captain, but methinks I am for bed.” “I shall retire with you, my friend. I have stared at the dark long enough.” Together they traversed the crosswalk back to the comfort of the hall. *** Despite the lateness, or mayhap earliness, of the hour he had sought his bed the night before, Fallard was in the courtyard shortly after dawn to see to the dispatching of the prisoners with William’s troops. The courtyard bustled with activity as men made ready for the long journey. The rebels were gathered together in a line in front of the gatehouse. A length of rope tethered each man’s ankles, and each was bound at his wrists by another length to the waist of the man in front of him. Ruald of Sebfeld was fettered at the center of them all. Trifine met Fallard on the steps. “You take no chances, Captain.” “’Tis truth. I wish William’s prize to arrive in London in one piece. I have given orders to Sir Gyffard that at no time, and under no circumstances except death are the prisoners to be released from their bonds. They are to march, eat, sleep and even relieve themselves as one man. There are to be no exceptions, and they are to remain surrounded at all times by the king’s men.” “Sir Gyffard believes your precautions excessive.” Trifine’s quiet voice held amusement. He mimicked the young commander’s disgruntled tone. “The force guarding the prisoners is no piddling handful, sir, but a small army of battle-hardened warriors. ’Tis believed the rebels have no force in this region capable of successfully attacking such superior numbers.” “Normally I would agree,” Fallard said, “but though I can name no certain cause for it, I am uneasy. Renouf of Sebfeld was a powerful and influential man. Though not a trained knight, as is Ruald, the tactics he employed against our forces were both cunning and militarily sound, and cannot be discounted.” “Aye, and together, Renouf and Ruald commanded the allegiance of hundreds of Saxon rebels, all of whom followed their leaders without question.” “Also true. By now, word of Renouf’s death and Ruald’s intent to take his place and lead the fight will have spread far. Within but a few more days, word will have raced through the land like a wind-swept fire that Ruald is taken prisoner and on his way to face William. The rebel forces will be anxious to free him ere he arrives. On foot, a large force such as the king’s men, moving slowly with bound and shuffling prisoners, will likely travel for at least two seven-days, and mayhap, three if the weather turns bad, ere arriving in London. That amount of time will offer the rebels nigh unlimited possibilities for rescue attempts.” “But?” “But still and all, the greater source of my apprehension lies not with the rebels, but Ruald himself. Though he sought to conceal it, he could hide not the look in his eyes as he was brought from the gatehouse to take his place among his men. ’Tis as if he is aware of that to which no one else is privy. He is too sure of himself. He is up to some secret mischief, and whatever ’tis will bode ill for Norman lives.” “How could he have schemed while in his cell, Fallard? He was closely guarded by our own knights.” “Tis possible he and Renouf laid plans in advance for this contingency. A person, or persons unknown may have already put them into effect. But mayhap, I worry for naught. Sir Gyffard may think my orders excessive, but I am assured all possible precautions will be taken. He is young, but ambitious and experienced, and he will obey. He will be not complacent.” Fallard sighed. “I only hope ’twill be enough.” CHAPTER EIGHT After Sir Gyffard’s troops had followed the ancient Roman road west to be swallowed up by the forest, Fallard decided to explore the holding pits. Jehan had already explained their layout and he was eager to see for himself. He walked around the circular wall of the northeast tower and briefly inspected the sparsely furnished pit guardroom. He turned to the structures sunk deep in the earth alongside the hall. One entered down a short flight of stone steps and through a stout wooden door. There were five pits in all, the middle one, the interrogation pit, twice the size of the others. He unlocked the door to peer inside, but even with the entry open ’twas too dark to see clearly. “My lord!” Roul rushed across the courtyard, carrying a lit torch. A grin stretched his freckled face. “Sir Domnall said you might have need of this.” “You will give Sir Domnall my thanks.” His eyes straying to the cell door, Roul asked, his tone hopeful, “Might you be needing aught else first, Captain?” Fallard took in his squire’s eager expression. He could well remember his own fascination with prisons as a young boy. Roul wanted badly to see inside one of these, but ’twas not his place to ask. There is a lesson to be learned here for the boy. “Hold the torch then,” he said, “and follow me, but not too closely. I would prefer not to become a second source of light.” Roul’s eyes flashed and he fairly danced. A sharply curtailed giggle was his only vocal response. Fallard entered the chamber, his head barely clearing the ceiling. Instruments of torture flashed in the light, entirely too well maintained for his liking. Here too was a fire pit, but ’twas attached to the back wall and its purpose was not for providing warmth. He circled the room, noting several sets of manacles affixed both high on the wall and close to the floor so a man might be fettered either standing or sitting. The metal on the inner surfaces were left rough to abrade the skin as the prisoner moved. Various knives, brands, sharpened iron hooks, and stakes designed for applying the maximum amount of pain lay neatly arranged on a long table, including one instrument Fallard recognized as the razor sharp, crescent shaped blade required to perform the ancient Norse execution known as a ‘blood eagle’. He turned away, needing to see no more. He had been told that during Renouf’s tenure, more than one hapless man had disappeared into this chamber, never to be seen alive again, and many claimed to have heard muffled cries arising from the depths at such times. Whether the stories were true remained a matter for conjecture, but ’twas his intent most of the instruments in the room would be removed and put to other, more productive use. The manacles and corded leather whip would stay, for he approved of their use. A slave or other malefactor punished by moderate whipping usually recovered, and was soon able to return to his or her duties. As a discipline, proper whipping was proven successful in insuring loyalty and obedience without incurring hatred. But he would order the inner surfaces of the manacles rasped. He saw no good purpose in ripping the skin of a man’s wrists and ankles when his back was already lashed. As he prepared to leave the chamber, he glanced at Roul. The squire’s face was sickly green in the torchlight, his eyes nigh bulging as he stared at the instruments scattered about the room. He caught Fallard watching him, and swallowed hard. “Shall I explain the uses of these items?” The sweep of Fallard’s hand indicated the implements. He already knew the answer. Roul’s ‘nay’ was high-pitched and he tried valiantly to hide the gulps betraying his nausea. The boy’s response pleased Fallard. When confronted with the reality of what lay here, the youngster found the prospect of torture not so exciting as he had expected. Aye, ’twas a good lesson, one the lad would never forget, and mayhap ’twould one day temper the nature of the man he would become. They climbed from the chamber and Fallard took the torch. “Return to Sir Domnall. Remember to give him thanks for the light. Make yourself available for any duties for which he has need until the nooning meal, then return to me in the hall.” “Aye, my lord.” Roul gulped one final time. His freckles popped out with stark clarity. He needed no persuasion to leave. The corners of Fallard’s eyes crinkled as he watched his squire try to maintain his dignity by walking away very fast instead of running, as he clearly wished. Fallard tromped to the farthest cell—the one designated the isolation pit by Domnall, the cell where Ysane had been kept—and went inside. The unexpected stench hit him first. When he reached the bottom, he could stand not upright, for the roof of this cell was considerably lower than the others. Here, the darkness and damp reigned supreme. Anger at Ruald tore through him anew. ’Twas a cramped space, much of it taken up by the steps. The walls and floor were icy and covered with filthy, rotting matting. Moisture dripped from the ceiling and skimmed down the walls to pool under the straw. A set of manacles dangled from the wall of the narrow cleft created by the steps. There was naught else in the cell, not even a bower pot. Ruald had not even left her that. He now understood how Ysane had become ill. Domnall told him Ruald had allowed her but one thin blanket, and no light. The guards had fed her once a day, but of that, she had eaten naught. When he thought of all that was done to her, Fallard marveled again she still lived, but he wondered if her mind remained intact. A shadow darkened the sunlight streaming through the door and a serving boy peeked hesitantly into the cell. “Thegn D’Auvrecher, be ye here?” “I am here.” Fallard moved close to the steps where he could be seen. “My thegn, ye must come, and quickly. ’Tis the Lady Ysane. Ethelmar says she breathes her last!” Moments later Fallard arrived in the lord’s bower to find its inhabitants weeping and wailing, and he thought the lady already dead. A strange hurt pierced him and squeezed like a fist around the region of his heart. It unsettled him. He had expected regret if she died, but no pang of sorrow. He knew not the lady. How then could there be any touch of grief at her death? He moved to the bed, and bent more closely over Ysane’s still, recumbent form. A sudden fluttering of her bodice caused him to jerk upright. By the saints, she still breathed! Not yet was she beyond the reach of the living. But when he touched her forehead, he groaned. She burned alive. His eyes met those of the healer, who shook her head. He straightened and stared at the weeping women, noting with disgust that even Ethelmar was teary-eyed. Well, by the teeth of the saints, he would not yet consign her to oblivion. Until Ysane ceased to draw breath once and for all, he would fight to keep her alive. A memory surfaced then of one of the innumerable battles Fallard had fought in his youth. A knight, not one he knew well, but a comrade in arms, had received a minor wound. The wound festered, and the man became so fevered no amount of poultices, decoctions or laving with cool water had any effect. Their captain ordered the man stripped and carried to a nearby stream, where he was submerged in the shallows nigh the bank. ’Twas the fall of the year, and the fevered man screamed like a crazed thing at the painful touch of the icy water. He fought to heave himself out, but by the simple expediency of wading out and sitting on him, one of his comrades held him there. After a remarkably short time, the fever cooled and the man was dried, wrapped in blankets and laid nigh a crackling fire. At mid-morn the next day, he awakened, weak and weary, but hungry and in his right mind. From that day, his strength returned and his wound quickly healed. Would the same work to help Ysane? He turned to Ethelmar. “Cease this caterwauling! Go to the burnstów! I want the bath filled with cold water immediately. Has the hall a cellar where ice is kept?” “Aye, my lord. The larder lies within the buttery, and ice is kept there throughout most of the twelvemonth.” “Then have ice brought to the burnstów and added to the bath.” “My lord?” Ethelmar stared at Fallard as if he had lost his mind. “Do it man, at once!” “A-aye, my lord, at once.” The under-steward ran from the room calling for every serving boy in the hall. Lady Lewena came to stand before him. Hope cleared her tears. “My lord, what do you do? Have you somewhat in mind?” “I also would know,” Luilda said. Roana pressed forward. “And I!” Lynnet ceased her sniffling and stared at him with the same expectancy. Briefly, Fallard told them of the experience with the wounded soldier. Almost ere he could finish the tale, Lady Lewena was pushing him from the room while Luilda and Lady Roana moved to the bed with a renewed sense of purpose. Moments later Lady Lewena recalled him. “She is ready.” He lifted Ysane, wrapped in a blanket, and carried her below to the burnstów. Under the direction of Ethelmar the serving boys dumped ice into the round wooden tub and poured water over it. “That is enough ice,” Fallard instructed. “’Tis not the plan to freeze her, but to quench the fire that claims her.” Lady Lewena cleared the room of all but herself, Roana and Luilda. They removed the blanket and Fallard lowered Ysane into the tub. As had the knight, she immediately cried out and began to fight, but Fallard easily held her. Leaning close to her ear, he talked, putting all the authority he could muster into his words. He looked up at the hopeful faces around him. “We shall see.” CHAPTER NINE Ysane burned in a furnace of fiery heat. She writhed to escape the flames, but unseen bonds held her fast. Murmurings wove like wraiths in and out of her consciousness and voices called to her, but she could make no sense of their meaning. Nightmares of horror followed as she sought to flee the terrible heat, figures of blood that mocked her pain and screamed in demented laughter. Pain slashed at her very soul. Despair overcame her. There was nowhere in her tormented dreams to run from the flames, no hiding place to shelter from the pain except endless night. She was so weary. The night called, but though she feared it, she felt herself succumb, for she had no strength left to fight. Closer the darkness came. It beckoned, cool and silent, offering the only hope of escape. The fetters that bound her slipped. ’Twould be so easy to cease her struggles and slide into that blessed peace. All she had to do was let go. “Ysane, hear me! I know you understand. You will cease not your struggle. Obey me! Do not yield. Come, little rose, heed my voice. Fight.” From beyond the heat and darkness came the voice. This one was unlike the others, so filled with sadness and despair. ’Twas quiet and deep, and possessed of calm authority. It coaxed and commanded with relentless power, and called her back into the flame, but she could not bear the heat. Desperate, she tried to block it and keep moving toward the cool and empty darkness, but the voice would not be denied. “A coward you are not, Ysane. You must fight. I know you are weary and in pain. I know you desire to yield. But I am here, and here I will stay until you overcome. I will fight with you, and I will fight for you. Stay with me! I give you freely of my strength, and I have plenty to spare. Only hear, and obey. Draw away from the night. Fight!” Insistent, the voice droned on. It drew her, offering no quarter, no surcease. Deep within herself, she sighed, resigned. She could fight neither the authority of the voice, nor the flame, but the voice was by far the stronger. Slowly, reluctantly, she turned from the cool blackness. She knew as she turned the darkness would not be offered again. She would burn forever. “Aye, that is good. Return from the darkness, little rose. You are not alone.” As the heat again enveloped her, she did as the voice bade and drew from it strength. Suddenly, from nowhere and everywhere, coolness cocooned her. It swathed her in blessed relief. The flames subsided. The nightmares fled away. Blistering heat yielded to mere warmth, and the pain eased to bearable levels. She relaxed. Weary beyond words, she slipped into the familiar darkness of sleep. *** Kneeling beside the tub where Ysane lay immersed, Fallard inhaled, the ragged sound surprising him. In his life as a warrior, he had watched helplessly as many had slipped away into eternity. While he grieved for those he called friends, and regretted the loss of others, he never truly mourned for those who were no more to him than comrades-in-arms. In battle, death was inevitable, and most oft it came when least expected. ’Twas the way of things, and one accepted it. But the struggle for life waged by this one small woman touched him as no other had done. Rarely had he felt himself so grateful for a reprieve from death, and the relief was enormous when beneath his hands, Ysane’s skin cooled as the deadly fever eased. Only when her restless struggles calmed had the fear—aye, and it had been fear, he realized in wonder—within his own soul quieted, as well. He had no time to examine this unprecedented reaction, but he wondered at its portent. Why should the life of this woman matter to him more than that of any other? Oh, aye, he wanted her, and still hoped to make her his wife. She would be a fine asset to his new life, a possession of great worth. But he had wanted many women, and enjoyed some of them, yet when desire was satisfied, and passion’s need slaked, he had walked away, forgetting them, and felt no regrets. He had expected this one to be no different beyond that she would be privileged to bear his name and bring forth the fruit of his seed. Never had any woman gained a hold on him beyond the moment. Yet, with no effort of her own, this woman had already roused a flood of powerful feelings within him over which he had little control. The fine planes of his face gathered into a frown as he stared at her in wonder and not a little pique. He was unaccustomed to such loss of control, and disliked it intensely. To a warrior, aught out of the ordinary reeked of danger. He must ponder this, and decide how best to rid himself of the menace. He wanted no such complications in his life. Mayhap, he would wed her not after all, but send her to William. The king would quickly find a knight worthy of her lineage. He would wait until he found a less disturbing woman to wed. Even as he thought it, he was honest enough to admit he deceived himself. He would send her not away. He wanted her too much. But he was alert now to the danger she presented. He had but to guard against it, and had no expectations of difficulty in that purpose. She slept now, unaware of the turmoil she engendered within him. He glanced at the women on the other side of the tub, all of them weeping openly again, this time in relief. His tone was uncharacteristically harsh as he spoke. “Cease the tears. She has survived the crisis. She will live.” He drew off her sopping cyrtel and dropped it on the burnstów floor. He lifted her from the tub, waited while Luilda lovingly tucked the blanket around her, and then carried her back to her bed, giving her into the hands of the women. *** Over the next several days, the folk of Wulfsinraed moved on tiptoe as they made the transition to a new lord. Some made tentative gestures of amity towards Fallard and his men, and no overt incidents of antagonism were reported. Fallard considered their wariness understandable, especially when he learned that with the exception of a handful of the hearth companions, none of them had ever met a Norman, though all of them had heard tales of the barbarism of their enemy. They knew not what to expect. Fallard kept his promise to treat them well and fairly. As a result, their acceptance of his tolerant lordship came as easily as he had once dared hope. Only two, the healer Luilda and a beautiful and voluptuous young slave whose cropped auburn locks were still luxuriously thick, regarded him with aught less than a cautious welcome. The healer hid not her antagonism, but the slave, when she knew he observed, smiled and postured. Yet, he caught her more than once assessing him with hatred in her amber eyes. Her name was Leda, and ’twas his thought she would bear watching. “Have you noticed the lovely Leda, Fallard?” Beside him one eve at sup, Trifine posed the question. “’Tis difficult not to notice a female so striking.” “Know you she was Ruald’s mistress?” Fallard’s hand halted midway to his mouth. He swiveled his head to stare at his First. “I knew this not, but it surprises me not. She is easily the most beautiful of the slaves. A man like Ruald would use her before all others.” His eyes narrowed as he sought the girl out where she flitted among his soldiers, flirting more than serving. “Was she among the women who supplied food to the prisoners?” “Aye.” Fallard uttered a mild oath. He watched her in silence as he finished his meal, then said, “’Tis possible she is responsible for that triumphant gleam in Ruald’s eye. She could have carried a message for him to someone outside the wall. I want a watch set upon her at once.” “I anticipated your wish. ’Tis already done.” Fallard grunted. At that moment, the woman under discussion looked up from where she bent over Jehan. She met Fallard’s eyes as she whispered something that had his Second bursting into laughter. Her look was one of deliberate challenge. She straightened, and holding his gaze, she ran the tip of her tongue over lush lips in a blatant come-hither action. Fallard chose to allow a hint of interest to show in his expression, all the while he hoped Sir Gyffard was keeping more than a wary eye out. *** “I know not what will come of this action, but it seems things can be no worse than they were before, and Randel says mayhap, it will be better.” “But he is Norman, Lady Randel. All know they are but savages and heathens.” “Savage, mayhap, Luilda, but not heathen. They are Christian, after all.” “Bah! You endow them with kindness they deserve not, Roana. ’Tis no part of Christianity to invade another’s homeland and enslave its people.” “None of which is of any account, Luilda. They are here, and there is none strong enough to remove them. My lord D’Auvrecher and Sir Trifine are warriors strong and of much shrewdness. Their men are well trained and powerful. ’Tis certain we cannot fight them, and I fear for those who try.” “Why should we? Randel likes him, and I believe he even begins to trust him. Lord D’Auvrecher’s behavior has been that of a man fair and honorable. His care for Ysane has certainly been naught like that of Renouf or Ruald. I say he should be offered chance to prove himself capable of decent lordship.” “Think you him capable of decency, my lady? He is Norman!” “Luilda, think! Renouf, a Saxon lord, beat our lady without mercy, murdered the sweet Angelet in a sotted fury and mistreated our people. Ruald, a Saxon knight, was but moments from executing our lady and our faithful hearth companions in a manner both cruel and demeaning, and for naught but their loyalty to Ysane and the House of Wulfsinraed. His brutality was thwarted by a Norman troop. Were Lord D’Auvrecher as they, think you he would have done any less to Ruald and his men when they took up arms against him? Nay! In truth, as king’s thegn over Wulfsinraed, ’twas within his right to execute them all, and were he an unprincipled savage, he would have. Instead, he offered them chance to swear fealty to him and those who did were given their freedom. The others he sent to King William, ’tis true, but only after they refused to yield. Lewena is right. Lord D’Auvrecher is a better man than either of the Sebfeld brothers, and I for one prefer his lordship to theirs, regardless his Norman blood.” “But Roana, how know we not this Norman lord merely bides his time, and when we have lowered our guard, he will strike?” “To what purpose, Luilda? Your words make no sense, my dear.” “Aye, they do not, and Randel will concur. Come, let us agree, as leaders of our people, to make not this new lord’s responsibilities more difficult by failing to offer support. If, in future, he shows himself unworthy of our confidence, we may speak of this again. Roana, what say you?” “I will agree.” “Luilda?” “I must think on it.” “Would you rather a rule by one such as Ruald or Renouf? Randel says….” “I care not what says Thegn Randel! I would rather a Saxon with honor.” Silence. A heavy sigh. “I will accept this Norman be there no other choice, but think not I will trust him as easily as the two of you seem wont.” “’Tis not a matter of trust, but rather of watching as events play out. Luilda, surely you must admit.…” Ysane lay quiet beneath her bedcovers as the quarrel raged between three of the women she loved most. But when had the lady of Randel Hall come to call? She remembered not her arrival. She opened her eyes, surprised by the effort it required, and took stock of her surroundings. She lay in her own bed. The light of day sifted through cracks in the bed draperies. Why was she abed? Who was this ‘Lord D’Auvrecher’ of whom they spoke, and what was he doing in her home so that her friends argued of him so fiercely? She stirred, wanting answers. With arms that trembled with weakness, she pushed the covers away. The voices came to an abrupt halt, then fabric rustled as the bed draperies were pulled back and Lewena’s face appeared, followed in quick succession by that of Luilda, Roana and the quiet Lynnet. “My dear! How wonderful that you awaken.” Lewena’s joy bubbled through her gentle voice like honey through good mead. “Aye, ’tis very good,” Roana said, smiling. “How feel you?” “How think you she feels, Roana?” Luilda’s gruff tones softened. “Weak as a newborn babe, I vow. ’Tis about time you woke, my lady. I began to think even my impressive healing skills would help you not.” Ysane smiled at Luilda’s nonsense as she met each happy gaze, but the amusement quickly melted away. “I understand not this grave concern I hear in your voices. What has happened? Why am I abed in the day hours?” A subtle tension passed over Lewena’s face before her expression went still. The same hush washed over the others. Ysane felt as if a door had closed. Lewena smiled, but Ysane thought it forced. Her friend leaned closer. “You remember naught of that which has gone before this day?” A sensation of chill touched Ysane and she shivered. Immediately, Luilda’s hand reached to rest upon her forehead. “You are no longer fevered. Mayhap, the breeze is too chill. Roana, close the shutters, please.” “Nay!” Ysane fought to rise but the weakness defeated her. “Leave the shutters be. I prefer the light.” “Very well. Tell us what you remember.” Ysane focused on obeying Lewena’s request. A memory surfaced, and another. Her hands clenched upon the covers. A deluge of remembrance came. Pain jagged, but she thrust it away, fearing she would lose her very self in the resulting storm. She recalled the death of Angelet, the murder of her husband, Cynric’s abandonment and the moment nigh her execution. She would have wept, but sweeping above the granite visions of pain came the image of eyes the color of the midnight sky, filled with tenderness, and the strength of gentle arms raising her into their embrace and carrying her to safety. A gasp escaped her and Lynnet’s fingers gripped her own in a sympathetic clasp. She closed her hand upon them. “I died not!” She heard the wonder in her own voice. Relieved laughter broke from the four women watching her. Roana’s eyes were moist. “Oh aye, Ysane, you most definitely are not dead.” “I remember a battle, a skirmish waged here, at Wulfsinraed. Was that real?” “Aye. ’Twas a Norman troop, come to remove Renouf from power.” “Normans. Aye. They won. They stopped the executions. There was a knight, tall and strong. He saved me. Was that also real?” “’Twas,” Lewena said. “He rules Wulfsinraed now. He is Fallard D’Auvrecher, king’s man. He asks often after you. Methinks he is already smitten with you, though he knows it not.” Heat coursed into Ysane’s cheeks. “Is my memory correct in thinking him handsome?” “Methinks her memory has fully returned,” Luilda declared to the room at large, her eyes rolled to the ceiling. “He is Norman,” Ysane said. “Methinks it matters not,” Lewena said. “Wulfsinraed is his now, granted to him by King William. We have seen the king’s honorial proclamation, signed by his own hand and witnessed, among others, by his brother Odo. We will have him as our lord, will we or nill we. But ’tis my thought this may be a good thing for all. He is certainly no Renouf, and I believe he will be a fine and just protector. Our nation needs many such as he in this unsettled time.” Ysane’s eyelids grew heavy. The voices of her friends began to recede and her memory of their words faded. “She is still very weak.” Luilda reached to pull the covers to her chin. “She will sleep much these next days.” “Then let us leave her to it,” Lewena said. “’Twill do her naught but good.” The bed draperies dropped back into place, returning Ysane to the dark, cozy sanctuary in which she sheltered. One last thought drifted through her mind before sleep claimed her. Mercy! He was real! CHAPTER TEN Ysane awakened the third morn after her double brush with death and grew stronger with each passing day. Fallard refrained from seeing her, visiting her chamber but once a day, and only when she slept, which was most of the time. He chose to wait to confront her until certain she was well and strong. She must come to terms with the knowledge that after barely surviving one marriage, she was to be thrust immediately into another, and this time, with a total stranger considered an enemy. He thought it no surprise Lady Lewena, rather than Lady Roana, kept him informed of her progress. Roana was now rarely to be seen without Trifine either by her side or somewhere close by. Trifine had won his bet. The two were already deeply enamored. Trifine wore his heart on his sleeve and made no effort to hide it. He bore with a forbearing grin the good-natured and oft ribald ribbing of his fellow knights. Fallard heard their comments and determined none would ever have similar opportunity to ridicule him in such a way, amiably or otherwise. His desire for Ysane had little to do with emotion, and everything to do with his pride and his lust. While the lady recovered, he spent his time building his friendship with Thegn Randel and learning of his new home and responsibilities, while trying not to think overmuch on the woman who was to be his wife. ’Twas most bothersome he had so little success with the latter. No woman had ever so thoroughly occupied his thoughts against his will. Even worse was the ridiculous tendency of his feet to wander in the direction of her bower when he wished to go elsewhere. During this quiet period of settling in, Fallard hunted and hawked with Randel and rode the far limits of his lands with Domnall or Second Marshal Harold. He set up new training courses on the practice field for the burh’s hearth companions and gave the task of the training to Domnall and Jehan, though he oft times joined in the practice and critiqued the men’s efforts himself. One day, he questioned Ethelmar about the hall’s northeast tower, which had a separate exterior door that opened onto the practice field. “’Tis the former barracks, my lord. After the old wood-framed mead hall was torn down and rebuilt in stone, and the towers added, that particular tower became the quarters for the burh’s military garrison. But by the time the hall was altered from community use to the private home of the thegn, the complement had grown so large they were moved to rooms adjacent to the east wall, which are much larger.” “Aye, I saw them.” “The northeast tower now houses only Domnall and a few other hearth companions of higher rank.” “It is musty and damp,” Fallard said. “I want it aired out and new shutters added. From now until I say otherwise, it shall house only Domnall, my knights and our squires. Second Marshal Harold shall be quartered with his men.” “As you say, my lord.” “Is there yet enough room in the garrison to house more troops?” “Aye. The structure is little more than half utilized.” “See to my orders then, Ethelmar.” The under-steward bowed and hurried away. Fallard allowed himself a moment of sheer exultation. ’Twas his intent to raise the number of knights loyal to him to five and twenty, and to bring in two score more hearth companions to replace those who were lost. There would be plenty of room to house them all. One even after sup, he consulted with Tenney the hoarder, a man who stuttered when nervous, and who had only in the past twelvemonth bought his freedom from slavery. Aldfrid, the burh reeve was with them. They met in the hoarding room, a warm, spacious chamber above the kitchen filled with chests and stacks of scrolls, parchments and ledgers. A locked shelf filled with books stood in one corner. Fallard had already explored the precious manuscripts and chosen a treatise on ancient warfare to read. Tenney cleared his throat. “W-w-word has come from the thegns and barons of all of the f-f-fiefs except B-Blackbridge, my lord.” He sipped his ale as daintily as a maid, then blushed and choked when he caught Fallard’s amused gaze upon him. “T-t-they will ar-r-rive within the s-s-seven-d-day to offer their oaths of l-l-loyalty.” Fallard stretched his lips into a smile to reassure the man, but the hoarder blanched, took another sip and choked harder. He dropped his gaze to stare at the ledger. Tenney fears me, though Ethelmar is certain he is a faithful and honest hoarder. I will review his records to be sure, but in the meantime, I must find a way to ease his mind. His fear increases his speech difficulty. But mayhap, ’twill but take time for him to learn I am not an ogre about to eat him and throw his bones on the midden heap. “And what of Blackbridge? My steward there is half Norman, is he not?” Aldfrid answered for Tenney, who still recovered from his choking fit. “Aye. Lord du Theil’s father was once a counselor to King William, but long ago when the king was but a duke. Blackbridge is the furthest away of your fiefs. It will take some time to receive the baron’s response to your message.” They sat for several hours at a long, narrow, heavy table with tally sticks and the current rent ledgers for each fief before them, discussing burh matters. Finally, Fallard stretched and yawned. “Well and good. Is there aught else of special consequence I should know before we retire?” “Th-there is one thing, m-my lord.” Tenney found his breath and his courage and raised his eyes to Fallard. “‘Tis not a c-certainty, and I w-w-wish not to s-s-speak of it beyond making m-mention of it, but ’tis possible t-t-two of the stewards may be inv-v-volved in some f-felonious activity. As of yet, I c-c-cannot determine its n-nature.” “How soon before you are certain?” “I will w-wish to speak with b-both men when they ar-r-rive.” “They are not likely to tell you if they are stealing from me, Tenney.” For once, complete confidence erased nigh all trace of stammering from Tenney’s words. “Nay, b-but still I will know. Then I will inform you immediately of what I l-learn.” Fallard mused over the hoarder’s peculiar infirmity. “Well and good. I accept your assurance.” Tenney’s eyes lit up. He bobbed his head and for the first time in his lord’s presence, he smiled. “Th-thank you, my lord.” At morn two days later, though by now he held confidence Ethelmar had preparations well in hand, Fallard inspected the guest bowers. He appreciated the unexpected cleanliness he found. As one who had chosen constant warfare as his way of life, he had discovered early on that a warrior had two choices. He either learned to live with the stench of blood, gore and death upon one’s person, or he searched for ways to be clean. He preferred the latter. As he finished his exploration, he stepped into the narrow passage outside the bowers. A stealthy movement at the far end raised the fine hairs on the back of his neck. He swiveled, all senses alert. In the muted light glowing through the arched windows that lined the corridor and overlooked Ysane’s garden, an elfin shape, fully veiled and garbed all in black came into view. It sidled from a bower and headed for the stairs. He started to call out, but the figure stopped before he could speak and turned to face him. Small hands with slender fingers lifted the veil. Large eyes of faded green, yet which sparkled still with humor and wit, peered at him through the patchwork of light and shadow. Very old the woman was, and in appearance very frail. There was that about her that seemed familiar, though Fallard could say not why. She offered him a gamin smile. With a voice that crackled softly like baked oatcakes between the teeth, she said, “The new thegn you are. I know of you. Marlee has told me all. Good fortune smiles upon my nefene.” Then she was gone, moving with surprising speed and agility for one so aged. Fallard raced after her, but she was already out of sight by the time he reached the base of the stairs. He shook himself. Had she really been there? Who was she, and why had he never seen her before? Every person who belonged to the burh was supposed to have come before him to swear fealty. Spotting the steward crossing the hall, he called out. “Ethelmar, who was that woman?” The under-steward’s expression blanked. “Woman, my lord?” Fallard reined in his impatience. “Aye, the old one in black who came down the stairs ahead of me. Who is she?” Understanding dawned, replacing the bafflement on Ethelmar’s face. He crossed to stand before Fallard. “You must refer to Lady Hildeth. She is the old Thegn Kenrick’s mother. Her bower lies in the top two levels of the northwest tower, above that of the Lady Roana, though she rarely leaves it. Her maid is Marlee, who is almost as old as the lady herself, and has been the Lady Hildeth’s personal companion since childhood.” Ethelmar drew himself up as if about to declare a matter of importance. “You should know, my lord, the Lady Hildeth is not always right in her mind. Some days, she seems as rational as I, but others, she is childlike, remembering only that which happened long ago. She is harmless, but during such times she is easily confused, and believes the Lady Ysane is her dead daughter-by-law, Edeva, and that the old lord, her son, still lives.” “I see.” Ysane’s grandmother…so that is why she looked familiar. Fallard suppressed a scowl. Why was he not told of this before? He liked not surprises. They could get a man killed. But his ignorance of the Lady Hildeth was not entirely the steward’s fault. Fallard had never asked for information about Lady Ysane’s relatives. He rectified that error. “Has the lady other kin living in the hall?” “Nay, my lord, none at Wulfsinraed. But she has an elder sister, the Lady Gemma, wed to Arnulf du Theil, thegn of Blackbridge Burh, your fief north of London.” Fallard blinked. “The thegn of Blackbridge is Lady Ysane’s brother-by-law?” He had known the man’s name, but not his relation to Ysane. “Aye, and a fine man he is. His father, though Norman, was close friend to Thegn Kenrick. Gemma and Arnulf were betrothed as children through that friendship. Their children are Sigan, Alma and Kinna. Lady Ysane also has another nephew, Faucon. He is the son of her brother, Kennard, and his wife, Meldred. My lady loves the boy deeply. Kennard is dead. He was killed some twelvemonths ago during a stag hunt. Meldred and Faucon live with Arnulf and Gemma at Blackbridge. My lady has other, more distant kin, but apart from Lady Roana, none of them live close and she sees them but rarely.” “Is there anyone else living in the burh who has not yet offered their oath or been brought to my attention?” “Nay, my lord.” Fallard nodded and started to turn away when Ethelmar called him back. “Umm, my lord, I had almost forgotten. There is another of whom you should know. He is Cynric Master Carver.” Head cocked to the side, Fallard regarded the under-steward. “And why is it the master carver has yet to come before me to swear fealty?” His voice carried a soft but distinct edge. “Has he some special reason for his disobedience?” Ethelmar coughed and looked away, but answered readily enough. “Nay, ’tis naught of that. Cynric is…well, a solitary man, not one to take well with being around other folk. He lives alone in a cottage in the woods some distance south of the burh, and rarely makes an appearance here.” “If he is the master carver, why then does he not live inside the burh, or at least in the village, like the other craftsmen?” “’Twas part of his agreement with Thegn Kenrick, my lord. Cynric refused the position of master carver if he was allowed not to live where he wished. Thegn Renouf changed not their pact. When carving was needed, a message was sent to Cynric’s cottage, giving detailed instructions. When the master carver finished the work, he brought it to the clearing and left it.” “Is this Cynric a ceorl, a freeholder, then?” “Nay. He is…he belongs at Wulfsinraed.” Unblinking, Fallard stared at the under-steward. Something here was wrong, and all his instincts clamored. If the man belonged to the burh, he had no right to deny his lord’s command. Who was he that first Kenrick, and then Renouf, would allow it? He waited until Ethelmar’s gaze dropped and the man began to fidget, then his questions came hard and fast, offering no quarter. “Why then did Thegn Kenrick agree to such a pact? Why allow this Cynric to live in the forest at his leisure? Why did he not discipline the man and put him to work? I understand this not, Ethelmar, and I distrust what I do not understand. I want this man Cynric brought to me immediately. He will swear fealty or he will be locked into the gatehouse until he does.” Unmistakable alarm blazed from Ethelmar’s eyes. He stammered a reply in a language Fallard recognized not, then seemed to catch himself. He took several quick, deep breaths, and tried again, even as the nape of Fallard’s neck tickled. What was going on here? “My lord D’Auvrecher, I beg you to understand, ’tis not as it seems. Cynric means no disrespect. ’Tis that he…he is a strange one. ’Tis believed he is the eldest son of Thegn Kenrick, but not of Lady Edeva, if you take my meaning. Cynric was brought here as a boy of four twelvemonths and presented to Thegn Kenrick to be taught a trade, but none knows from whence he came. He lived in the village for many twelvemonths as apprentice to the miller. At first, many remarked on his resemblance to Thegn Kenrick, but the lord never made claim to him and eventually the talk died down.” Ethelmar grew quiet, clearly not wanting to remark further, but Fallard was determined to learn the truth. “Go on. I want the right of this. What happened?” “Well, my lord, no one rightly knows, exactly. The miller is a fair man, but hard, and ’tis certain the boy was unhappy in his life and took to heart the rumors about his possible relation to the old lord. Late one eve, when Cynric was one and ten summers, he appeared in the hall demanding the truth of his paternity. All thought Thegn Kenrick would set the boy in his place but instead, he put everyone else out of the hall, even the Lady Edeva. “What was said between them was never told, but ’tis known there followed a terrible argument, for their angry voices could be heard clear to the wall. Suddenly, the doors crashed open and the boy dashed out, his face red, they say, with wrath. He ran out the gates, followed by the old lord who yelled at him to come back, and disappeared into the forest. “’Twas grown dark by that time and the lord could follow not. But he took horse and went out after the boy the very next morn. He was gone for all of one day and most of the next, but when he returned, he had the lad with him.” Ethelmar’s voice took on a shade of pity and regret as he continued. “Something happened out there in the forest. None knows for sure, but ’tis said Cynric was savaged by an animal, mayhap a boar or a wolf. He had a terrible wound on his face, below his right ear and stretching almost to his mouth. He lay fevered and nigh death for days, but survived. Once well enough to leave his bed, he and the lord held another long talk, and at the end of it, Cynric walked back into the forest. “Thegn Kenrick sent men to help him build a cottage, and after that, made sure the boy had food and other needful things. The boy became…solitary. Time passed and most forgot him, for he came never to the burh or the village, and none from the village sought him out. I can say not how he survived, but most likely, the thegn quietly took care of it. “Then one day Cynric saved the life of the Lady Ysane, when she was but a wee one of four summers. She wandered away from her parents while they were, umm…together while enjoying a meal in a forest meadow. They thought she slept. Cynric heard the shouts of those who searched for her and used his woodman’s skills to track her. With his bow, he killed a starving wolf about to attack the child. After that, Thegn Kenrick announced Cynric as the new master carver, but the young man would remain in his cottage in the forest and work would be sent to him there. “There is naught much else to tell of him, my lord, except that with Thegn Kenrick and Sir Kennard he fought on the fields at Santlache. Thegn Kenrick came home and told how he would have died in the battle had not the lad been with him, so ’tis apparent Cynric in some way saved the thegn’s life. “’Tis also known he and the Lady Ysane became close, some say, as brother and sister, though he is her elder by many twelvemonths. ’Tis no secret she loves him dearly, though ’tis believed she knows not he may be her brother. But after her wedding to Lord Renouf, when word came of Thegn Kenrick’s death in the land of Normandy, Cynric disappeared. ’Tis said he has been glimpsed, in the forest, but once or twice since then, and the last time was nigh to a twelvemonth ago. “Many believe he died in some far off place, though none would say so much to Lady Ysane. It nigh broke her heart when he left, without so much as a word. Methinks she has seen him not in these past three twelvemonths. But ’tis my belief that were Cynric nigh, he would never have allowed either Lord Renouf or Sir Ruald to hurt my lady, for he loves her and named himself her protector. His absence, more than aught tells me he is far away, if not dead.” “I thank you, Ethelmar. You are correct. This is information I had need to know.” CHAPTER ELEVEN As the under-steward went on about his business, Fallard strode into the anteroom leading to the lord’s bower, reflecting on all he had learned. Almost, his wayward feet carried him to the second floor chamber, where Ysane lay sequestered. He caught himself in time. Muttering under his breath, he followed the curving corridor instead and reached the windowed hall that fronted the lower level guest bowers, and came to the door that opened onto Ysane’s garden. He had seen everything of his new holding but the crypts and the chapel. It had been his intent to wait to visit the latter until Father Gregory arrived, but now he had a notion to go there alone. He wanted to think about this Cynric. The possibility had occurred to him as Ethelmar spoke that the man might be the missing link between Ruald and the rebels. ’Twould certainly fit the facts as he now knew them, especially the timing. If Cynric were in truth nigh to the burh, but keeping well out of sight, he could easily spy for the rebels. None who saw him would remark him. He could literally come and go as he pleased and raise no suspicions. He stepped out into the garden. ’Twas a private space, completely enclosed by high stone fences that stretched on either side from the hall to the wall. One of these formed the base for the soaring arch supporting the south crosswalk. Winding pathways of crushed shell meandered through orderly flowerbeds with their winter-dormant plants, leading to east and west gates. He followed one path to the west door. Renouf had wanted no one in the garden except those he allowed, and he had ordered the gates locked at all times. He, alone, had kept the only keys. Fallard had them, now. He chose the proper one and went through, re-locking the portal behind him. A few yards outside, the path was intersected at right angles by another walkway that passed through another gate set in a waist-wall, which joined the smokehouse and the buttery with the kitchen, creating within its confines a protected area where a vegetable and herb garden was laid out for the kitchen’s use. Fallard continued beyond that second path and came to the cobbled roadway through the orchard. A brisk walk under bright spring sunlight brought him to the chapel. To his left, close to the underground structure housing the crypts, he saw Roul and Fauques stalking through the trees, intent on some youthful adventure to enliven their many duties. The corners of his eyes crinkled. As always, his irrepressible, mischievous squire led the way, the more cautious, serious-minded Fauques trailing behind. The two were nigh inseparable. Willow trees, their naked limbs lifted high in graceful arcs like waterfalls of slender rope, lined the waist wall of the chapel, the branches of one hoary old grandfather draped over the gate. Stone-slab benches were positioned here and there between the trunks, offering rest to weary feet. Halfway to the doors the shell path split to encircle a round flowerbed. In the midst of the bed lay a primitive grinding stone. Here, as everywhere else in the burh, the mortared walls, shutters and doors were carved and painted. The dry vine of ivy crept up the face of the walls, waiting for springtime ere shedding its facade of death and returning to green, vibrant life. In summer, this courtyard would become a place of serene tranquility, a retreat, well come, from the harsh realities of daily life. He winced when the iron hinges on the chapel door screeched from disuse. ’Twas very dark inside, and after the soft light without, it took a moment for his eyes to adjust. Stretched before him was the central aisle of the nave, lined by columns of stone that supported the vaulted ceiling. Shutters, closed for the winter, flanked triangular windows. Empty candle sconces hung on the walls between them. Dust lay over everything and the musty smell of neglect filled his nostrils. Fallard opened several of the shutters to allow light and fresh air inside. The wall behind the altar was graced with a high round window with more of the thick glazing he’d seen in the hall. In a deep alcove below it stood a life-size Madonna. Carved from some hard wood, the icon was painted in rich, vivid colors that were beginning to fade with time. Fallard approached the altar and knelt in genuflection, then rose to admire the chalice of gold and a silver crucifix upon the faded blue altar cloth. Starting there, he sought the door opening to the crypt. He found it not. An anteroom on the right led to the priest’s bower. The chamber, sparsely furnished with a narrow bed with a chest at its foot and a small stand with a bowl and ewer, was empty. Here too, dust covered everything, and though Fallard poked and prodded, pushed and pulled, he found naught that suggested a hidden opening. Back in the chapel, he sneezed his way through an investigation of the floors and the walls throughout, but still he found no sign of a door. He was about to give up and return to the hall when a quiet voice startled him, once again, into almost pulling his sword. “May I be of service, my son?” Then, ere Fallard could answer, “You need not your weapon in this holy place. Of a certainty, I am no threat.” The white-haired man standing in the door of the chapel, back-lit by sunlight, wore the vestments common to priests. His face was in shadow. Though he appeared elderly, his movements were that of a younger man as he moved into the building. The priest approached him, a warm smile on his lined, sun-browned face. His eyes, the color of dark ale, were kind and alight with humor. Fallard did not smile. “Father Gregory, I presume?” “Aye, and you would be Thegn D’Auvrecher, the new lord. I believe I have you to thank for returning me to my flock.” “By restoring your service, I but did what was right. I was aware not you had returned. When did you come?” “But this moment. I visited in the village this morn, and arrived at the hall a short time ago. I saw you come this way, and followed.” Fallard gestured to the priest’s bower. “I checked your quarters. You will have needs. Bring them to Ethelmar and I will see they are supplied.” He glanced around, then continued. “I can find not the door that leads to the crypts. Show me where ’tis.” Father Gregory grinned. “Certainly. None who know of it have ever found the door without aid. ’Twas meant to be difficult to find, so you should feel not badly.” Fallard, uncomfortable with the priest’s teasing manner, replied more brusquely than was his wont. “I do not. I wish merely to know where ’tis.” “Of course. Forgive me.” He led Fallard behind the altar to stop in front of the Madonna, then pressed the tip of his index finger against an almost invisible seam in the wooden folds of cloth that covered the right upper arm. The area depressed and he tugged on the arm at the same time. The entire statue moved with a slight grating sound, bringing with it a puff of dead, damp air. Behind it yawned a dark aperture. The priest’s eyes danced as he looked at Fallard, the lines of his face emphasized by his smile. “I would say, ‘After you, my lord’, but neither of us has a torch. When next you come, I will have a light available and we will explore together.” “Mayhap. The door on the far side, ’tis also hidden?” “Aye. The corridor that links the chapel to the crypts runs nigh to the burh wall. ’Twas originally meant as a hiding place, a shelter for the family should the burh be overrun. ’Tis not wide, but there are recesses, alcoves where supplies may be kept, and a number of shallow sleeping niches are carved directly into the wall.” He hesitated for a moment, staring intently at Fallard, all amusement quelled. “At this end of the corridor there is an access tunnel that bisects the base of the wall. It ends in a secret door, a small postern gate. On the outside, the gate is cleverly disguised. Even one who knows where ’tis would be unable to guess its exact location merely by looking. Once one passes through the gate, one must immediately climb down a rocky abutment to the water. The river’s verge is narrow there, a mere grassy ledge not much more than a toehold, as ’tis all round the island. ’Tis not a dangerous climb or crossing at most times, but when there has been much rain in the mountains, or as now, when the snow is melting, the ford can be treacherous. “I count on one hand the number of those who know of the existence of the corridor and gate. Myself, Domnall of Cullanis, the Lady Ysane, her sister Gemma and Gemma’s husband, Lord du Theil. Oh, and one more, Lady Hildeth. You have met her?” “Not to speak to.” “Ah, I understand. ’Tis possible in her lucid moments she still remembers, for she once knew. Now you know.” “Add Trifine, my First, and Jehan, my Second to that list.” “As you wish, my lord. Renouf of Sebfeld knew not of it, nor his brother, Sir Ruald. ’Twas the Lady Ysane’s ruling to keep the knowledge from them.” “I would call that decision wise. Has the corridor ever been used for the purpose it was designed?” “Nay. The burh has never been overrun. The corridor does, howbeit, have a tragic history.” Fallard, who had been standing at the opening to the hole, staring down into the darkness and wishing for a light, turned back to the priest, his curiosity piqued. “Why?” “It seems that long ago, in the days of Marcel, the third thegn, the lord’s two young sons went missing. An extensive search was made for the children, but they were never found. ’Twas believed at the time they were abducted, though no ransom was ever demanded. The lord and his wife were devastated, for the boys were their only offspring. Some twelvemonths later, the lady gave birth to a third child, a boy, Vane, but ’tis said they never ceased grieving for the two little ones. “Many twelvemonths later, after the death of Marcel and his wife, Thegn Vane read of the corridor in his father’s papers and sought for it. When he made his way inside, he found the remains of his young brothers, wrapped in each other’s arms. To this day, none knows how the boys learned of the corridor or how they made their way inside, but ’twas clear once they were in, they could learn no way out. “No search of the corridor seems to have been made at the time of their disappearance. ’Twould seem none who knew of it thought it even possible they might have gone there. Lord Marcel had never explored it, nor spoken of it to any but his marshal, for he harbored an intense dislike for underground places and deemed it necessary only to be aware it existed.” Fallard stared. “I offer my gratitude for that most enlightening bit of Wulfsinraed history.” Father Gregory’s lips twitched, and he pushed the Madonna back into place. With a nigh indiscernible click, the door was once more locked. Fallard turned away. “I must return to the hall. One thing further. Tell me what you know of Cynric Master Carver.” “Very little, my lord. He is said to be the illegitimate son of Thegn Kenrick, but none knows, for certain. He saved the life of the Lady Ysane on two occasions that are known, and the two grew extremely close. But he has been missing these past three twelvemonths.” “On two occasions ‘that are known’?” “Aye. There may be more. She was ever a curious, adventurous child, and oft in some difficulty of her own making. Early on, the lad assumed the role of her protector, mayhap, because he knows she is truly his sister. ’Tis certain he has great love for her, and she for him.” “Is it possible he may be in league with the rebels, and fighting with them?” Father Gregory started, as if the thought had never occurred to him. “Why, I…I suppose it could be possible, my lord, but I must say I can hardly think why. Cynric dislikes Normans, but no more so than any other Saxon.” He shook his head. “Nay, ’twould be most unlikely, to my thought.” “Know you where he is, or have you heard aught of him since he disappeared?” “I know not where he is. I have heard he returned on occasion and met with Thegn Renouf, but he could have stayed not long. Nor does it seem he met with any other, or sought out my lady, which was a shame. He would have helped her against Lord Renouf, had he known what was happening.” “Well and good, but do you hear aught of him, aught at all, you will inform me.” “Certainly. My lord, about Lady Ysane…?” “Aye?” “Ere following you here, I visited the lady. She is…fragile, my lord. She has yet to fully grieve for the loss of her daughter, or to come to terms with the killing of Lord Renouf. ’Tis my understanding you intend to wed her as soon as she is well?” “That is correct. Does this present a difficulty for you, Father?” “Nay, not at all. From our time together this morn and all I have heard, methinks you will make a good husband for our lady. ’Tis that she is a very special woman. She is the rose of Wulfsinraed. I have known her all her life, and she is both honorable and good. But she was brutalized by her former husband, her gentleness abused, and ’twould …displease me, and many others, were she to be hurt again.” Fallard’s eyes narrowed and his voice softened to a bare whisper. His hand moved again to the hilt of his sword. “I take not well to threats, not even from priests.” “Nay, not a threat but mayhap, a…suggestion.” “Then note I take not kindly to threats or suggestions, be they offered from friends, enemies or clergy. But I will take into account the love and concern you bear for Lady Ysane, and instead of banishing you again, I will state the lady has naught to fear from me. No more will be said on the subject. Is that understood?” The good priest, apparently not at all discomfited by Fallard’s less than subtle warning, looked deep into his baron’s eyes and replied with blithe serenity, “I believe we understand one another quite well, my lord. Good day.” He nodded and went into his bower, leaving Fallard staring after him, thinking mayhap he had found yet another who might become a loyal friend. The corners of his eyes crinkled. One could never have too many. CHAPTER TWELVE Late afternoon sunshine beamed, with the delicate softness of early spring, through the deep window embrasure of the sitting room above the lord’s chamber. ’Twas that languid time of year when a confused nature could not decide to awaken fully or drift back into slumber. A handful of trees had burst into flower nigh overnight, though most remained budded. Here and there, daffodils pushed up sword-like leaves. An industrious robin hopped among the drooping snowdrops, searching for early worms. The warmth radiating through the open shutters enfolded Ysane. It felt so good, so healing, as if the blanket wrapped round her had been heated before a roaring fire. She had been so afraid, and so cold inside herself, for so long, as one already in the grave. She had almost forgotten what it was to be safe, and cozy and…safe. At least, Roana and Lewena assured her she was, despite that man. Who, merciful heavens, was real. She wished she could remember more of what she had said to him, but ’twas as all so very hazy, as if it had been only a dream. Wiggling her bottom, she settled herself more comfortably on the thick cushion on which she curled inside the embrasure. The splayed opening had been her favorite perch for embroidering and daydreaming as a child, though it had been forbidden, given her mother had been in horror of finding one of her children in a broken heap on the ground three levels below. She shrugged off the folds of the blanket and mounded it round her hips and legs, leaving her upper body exposed to the sun. She closed her eyes and rested her head against the wall. The light bathed her arms and lay softly upon her face and throat, its warmth seeping through her cyrtel as if seeking a way to her heart as well as her skin. She lay basking in peace for some time, until a sprite of cool air cavorted through the window, reminding her the spring day was but a forerunner of summer. Once the sun had set, winter’s chill would return. Her eyelids lifted and she watched with lazy fascination the dust motes dancing within the light. They sparked like the mysterious fireflies of late summer eves. She sighed, inhaling deeply and long. Summer was her favorite time of year, but she had come to believe winter would never end. It had been so bitterly cold, more so than she could ever remember. But mayhap, that was only because of the horror her life had become. As yet, no one had spoken to her of all that had happened. Her women tended her, waited upon her, even coddled and cosseted her. But they refused to speak to her of aught except to tell her all was well, and she must rest and not worry, though she confided it troubled her more they would give her no news than if they did. The women gossiped and chattered of the everyday goings-on of the hall, but naught more. She recalled Angelet was dead. A bout of anguished weeping had overcome her unawares one morn, and she wept until it seemed all the tears reserved for a lengthy lifetime were shed in those handful of moments. She supposed such occasions would plague her until time drew over her its merciful veil. There had been no opportunity to fully grieve the daughter who had been so brutally robbed of her tiny life. For now, both the knowledge and the pain were imprisoned, even as she herself had been, buried deep beneath the tight control she held on her soul. One day, when she was sure it would not consume her, she would allow the grief to slip fully free of its bonds. That time was not yet. Until then, her heart would remain as empty as her arms. She knew too, Renouf was dead. She remembered killing him, recalled how that act of rage and grief had felt to her hands, and the shock to her arms and shoulders when his own sword had pierced his body. With what ease it had cleaved his hateful flesh, slipping between his ribs into his heart, as if it rejoiced in the task. That she felt not the slightest remorse for her act of murder should have bothered her. Father Gregory would say vengeance was not hers to take, being the province of the Almighty. Her mother would have been horrified, would have told her no lady would ever take up a weapon in such a way, especially not against her own husband, no matter the provocation. Her father and Kennard would have argued ’twas their responsibility, not hers to punish Renouf for his evil deed. Only Cynric would have understood, would not have faulted her, but he, like so many she loved, was gone. She knew Domnall and her loyal hearth companions had escaped the terrible fate Ruald had planned for them. Oft, as she lay upon her bed, their voices, including Domnall’s familiar and well-loved tones had carried audibly to her from out on the wall. She had also recognized his voice. The one she had thought naught but a dream. A powerful knight he was, a dark savior. The authority of his commands had called her back from the endless void. She owed him a life-debt for that, too. A shout from far below floated up to her window, demanding her attention. ’Twas Domnall. From her position, she could see across the western length of the island to the wood shake roof of the chapel. Among the trees of the orchard, about halfway between chapel and hall, her first marshal approached a man all in black. Abruptly she sat forward and leaned deeper into the embrasure, striving to see the other man more clearly. As the two met, her heart seemed to skip a beat. Her hand found her throat. ’Twas him, the man of her dreams. She sank against the wall, heart pounding. Vague visions of the fighting in her courtyard arose, spawning an uneasy tremor that wove its tickling way from her nape to the base of her spine. The enemy warriors had fought like mad men, easily overcoming Ruald’s hearth companions, and this man was their leader. A Norman knight! Until now, she had never encountered one of the fabled warriors, but he certainly fit the fierce descriptions. The enemy he was, yet, Domnall hailed him as a well-met friend. Unabashed curiosity drove her to spy. The men spoke together and walked toward the hall, the dark knight’s swinging strides carrying him so swiftly along that Domnall, tall as he was, had perforce to hurry to keep up. The man moved with the confidence of a conqueror. Oh, that she were a robin, flittering above them in the trees, listening to their speech! They reached the end of the orchard and started toward the courtyard, Domnall gesturing as he spoke. They were close enough now she could hear their voices, but could make out none of their words. Domnall must have been recounting an amusing tale because the dark knight abruptly threw back his head and laughed aloud. As he did so, his lifted eyes caught sight of her there in the embrasure, eagerly spying upon him. He stopped dead, held her gaze for several heartbeats, and then his eyes flickered leisurely over her, taking in her unbound hair, bare arms and the soft curves beneath her thin shift. His smile deepened. Within the dark depths of his gaze lay a wealth of male possession and desire, and a glint of something else she could name not. Embarrassment, and a thrill of unnamed longing mingled with fear, flashed from her head to her toes. If ‘twere possible to explode in flame from the fire of a blush, she would have burned to a cinder in moments. Mortified at being caught watching, and worse, wearing naught but her cyrtel, she flung herself out of the embrasure and from his sight. Nigh tripping over the blanket swathing her lower limbs, she tore it loose and ran to the pitcher that stood on the small table beside her loom. She splashed cool water on her face, surprised it did not sizzle. Closing her eyes, she stood waiting for her breath to calm. Who was he, this dark knight, that he dared look upon her so boldly, and why, oh why, did Domnall allow it? The marshal should have drawn his sword and run the knave through for his haughty presumption, yet Domnall had but grinned in male collusion! ’Twas madness! Whirling, she headed for the door, intent on returning to her bower. She would dress and go to the hall to confront the blackguard, regardless of what her women would say. She never made it. The beaten iron latch lifted even as her fingertips touched it, the portal slowly opening. She knew who ’twas even ere she saw him. He must have run the whole way to reach her sitting room so quickly, yet her breathing was far more ragged than his. The chamber seemed to come alive with his entrance, even the air seeming to spark, as if he brought with him the invisible energy of a storm. She backed away, the movement involuntary as he stepped into the bower, shutting the door to close them in—alone. She dashed for the blanket she had let fall to the floor, and wrapped it round herself like a shield ere turning back to face him. Faith, but he was big! The top of her head would fall well short of his chin. He had to duck to miss hitting the lintel, and the chain mail covering his massive shoulders scraped the doorframe on either side. Solidly built, his weight would be at least twice that of hers. Beneath his black tunic and braies, there would be naught but hard muscle. His forehead was high, his features cleanly sculptured. A firm, squared chin jutted. Even in this early hour of the nooning ’twas already darkened by the shadow of his beard. Above a straight nose, night dark eyes that carried a hint of deep blue regarded her steadily from beneath black hair. The back of his head must have been completely shaven at one time, for the hair on his pate and above his ears was much longer than the fuzz on the rest of his head. To her Saxon eyes, accustomed to men with facial hair and shoulder length locks, ’twas a strange sight, but not unattractive. It did, howbeit, increase the sense of covert menace and leashed power that clung to him as a cape. He stared at her as she stared back. She was amazed to discover he did not truly frighten her. Most odd, that was, especially after Renouf, and besides, all lived in fear of the Normans. The stories of their arrogant, conquering ways were rampant, even in this distant corner of the kingdom. This mighty knight in particular should inspire terror in her heart. But she had survived Renouf’s worst, and she would not cower. She did as her father would expect and asked the first question that came to her mind. Then she wondered belatedly if her imperious attitude would anger him, for there was naught obsequious in her tone. Foolishly, mayhap, she spoke as the Lady of Wulfsinraed, her words a brittle challenge. “This is my home. Who are you, and what do you here?” No change came over his expression, though amusement glinted in his eyes. He answered her not, but padded slowly toward her. She stiffened, taut as the strings of her dulcimer. As he passed through the sunlight projected across the bower from the window embrasure, the beam struck glints of the same blue fire from his tousled hair that glowed in the depths of his eyes. Except for his skin, the hue of old oak, he seemed black from the short spikes on his head to his dusty leather boots. The word ‘predator’ flashed through her mind. Unwilling to offer him excuse to touch her, she waited, still as a leaf on a windless day, as he circled her slowly, exuding raw, virile power. Her breath stuttered through scarcely parted lips, but her chin lifted as he halted directly in front of her, the fabric of his tunic bare inches from her nose. ’Twas disconcerting to discover how far back she had to bend her head to peer into his eyes. His voice a basso rumble, he said, in perfect, if accented English, “It pleases me to find you well.” He reached to caress her cheek but she was not yet ready for the touch of a man’s hand, and despite herself, flinched away. While he alarmed her not as she had feared Renouf, the sheer, towering bulk of him intimidated. A dark brow lifted a fraction, but he allowed his hand to drop. She swallowed, grateful the predator seemed more intrigued than hungry. Does he know how breathtakingly handsome he is? The ancient heathen god Adonis would slink away in shame beside this Norman. She mentally shook her head at the irrelevant thought. Gathering her courage, she straightened her spine and glared at him. “I asked a question. Will you answer, my lord?” *** Fallard, for his part, perused the lovely planes of Ysane’s face, his gaze lingering on clear green eyes grown wide with uncertainty ere it fastened on full, sweetly curved lips. Adorable—and enticing—she was, with her sun-kissed hair curling about her beautiful face, defying him in little more than a blanket. He badly wanted to kiss her. But he was unwilling to rush her. She faced him with the courage of an ancient warrior-maiden, but looked as if even his gentlest touch might splinter her as a hammer shattered ice. Aye, the good father was right. She was still fragile. Too well, he remembered the discolorations and scars of misuse that flawed the lissome curves of her body during her immersion in the ice water bath. Still, it pleased him mightily she cowered not from him, though she waited, taut as the strings of the dulcimer nigh the door. She was such a tiny thing, his white rose. He could easily lift her—or break her, did he so choose—with one hand. He had half expected to find her weeping in a corner after what she had endured with that whoreson Renouf. In truth, he would have blamed her not. He gave her one last, intent look from the corners of his eyes ere he turned away. She blinked rapidly and swallowed, as a quiver seemed to start at her crown and shiver all the way to her bare feet. He sensed the slackening of tautly held muscles. He moved with silent tread around the chamber, his curiosity high. Upon being informed by Ethelmar this chamber was a haven for her because Renouf had disliked it and rarely intruded, he had chosen to wait to explore it until she was present. ’Twas a comfortable space. A half-finished tapestry on the loom awaited the return of its lady’s fingers, an oak skein winder with multiple arms resting on the floor beside it. On the wall behind the loom, wooden pegs held brilliantly colored skeins of yarn. Below the skeins was propped the spindle. Piles of clothing and bedding needing mending lay on the table against the far wall. Unfinished embroidery in hoops draped off the stools where their owners had left them. Beside the dulcimer was a bench upon which lay a vellum manuscript. He bent to scan it and chuckled beneath his breath. ’Twas a humorous tune concerning a very confused unicorn. He stopped at a small table. Before him lay a prize of great worth, a rare and magnificent copy of the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, penned by Bede. He recognized both the book and its value, and reverently fingered the edges. He heard Ysane’s breath catch. The glance he threw over his shoulder revealed alarm on her face. He understood why, but decided to allow her to fret for a time. She must learn to trust him, and now was a good time to begin. At his look, her expression blanked. Considering what he knew of Renouf of Sebfeld, that, too, made sense. He bent to study the open pages, admiring the rich silver of the beautifully illumined first letters, then turned his head again to peek at his soon-to-be bride. She nibbled her lower lip, but looked disinterestedly around the room. “From where came this treasure?” She started. Her eyes jerked to his, then darted away again. “That dusty old tome? It belonged to my father.” Nonchalance dripped from every syllable. “‘Dusty old tome’, you say? Then, the book has no importance to you?” “Oh, well, I…I said not that, exactly.” “No indeed, and I am quite certain you meant it not, exactly. Never lie to me, Ysane. Learn that now, and we will do well together.” He perused the book again. “You are aware of what you have here, are you not?” “Aye.” “Then tell me of it.” He carefully turned a page. She huffed a little sigh. “’Tis a copy, a gift to my father from Stigand, who was then Archbishop of Cantware Burh. Father counted it his greatest prize.” “’Tis a very fine copy. I wish to read it.” “You are lettered?” He slanted her another look. Her astonishment was a reaction to which he was accustomed, for in truth, ’twas a most unusual accomplishment, but he had found it a useful, and pleasurable, skill. “Aye. I can read, and write, in four languages.” “Four! Why, even the monks at Bedhalh Abbey are not lettered in so many.” Her eyes narrowed. “Do you jest with me?” The corners of his eyes crinkled. “Nay.” He gestured to the book. “Shall I read a portion of this to you?” “I read it some twelvemonths ago.” Now he was the one startled. He looked full at her. “Who taught you?” “My Ieldramodor and my father. Oh, and Father Gregory, who taught me Latin.” “I am impressed, my lady. I know of only two other females who have the skill to read, or to speak any language other than their own.” “In my family, only Ieldramodor, myself and my sister, Gemma, are learned in this way, and Father was, of course. Methinks it amused him we wished to learn. I also speak and read somewhat of your language, as does Gemma, for her husband is Norman.” “I must remember that.” Aye, he would have to take care with his words if she was nigh when he conversed with his men. “Tell me more of this book.” “As I said, it belonged to my father. It had been—put away—for a while, and I was examining it for signs of damage. You answered not my questions.” “Put away where?” “In a safe place. One leaves not an item of value lying around for anyone to steal.” “A safe place where?” “’Tis of no importance now.” “Ysane, I play not with words. You have a hidden coffer to hold items of great value. I would know where it is.” She glared at him, but he did not even blink. She glanced away. “There is a secret niche in the burnstów wall.” “You will show it to me on the morrow. You are not, at the present moment, involved in reading this book?” She swallowed. “Nay.” “That is well. Then you will mind not if I take it? It has been my desire for many twelvemonths to study this volume.” *** Ysane fidgeted. If she let him take the book, would she ever see it again, or would he steal it away for himself as all Normans were said to do with valuable objects? But how could she keep a man so big and powerful from taking what he wanted…and what had he meant by that comment they would do well together? When she answered him not, he looked straight at her. She dropped her lashes. She wished him not to see the sheen of tears in her eyes. “Fear not, my lady,” he said, surprising her with the gentleness of his tone as he straightened to his full height. “I know well the value of this book, both to you, and of itself. I will take with it the greatest care, and when I am finished, I will return it. Is that acceptable to you?” She nodded. “’Tis acceptable.” She could hide not the relief she felt as she swallowed her tears. She believed him, though she knew not why. She understood not any of the feelings he engendered, except mayhap confusion. The man would drive any woman to question her sanity. With care, he closed the book and picked it up. Turning toward the door, he spoke over his shoulder. “Since you seem well enough, I expect you to join me in the hall for sup. We have guests.” “My lord!” He paused, but turned not around. “My lord…what of Ruald?” “Ruald is gone, Ysane. You need never fear him again.” With that, he was out the door ere she remembered he had still not answered her questions. CHAPTER THIRTEEN Two hours later, with Roana fussing over an imaginary wrinkle in her syrce and Lynnet working overlong to dress her hair, Ysane was nigh to pitching both her cousin and her maidservant out the window. Her self-control was sorely tried, for though her women clearly knew more than she of some happening to come in the hall, none would tell her aught. It concerned that man, of this, she was certain. But she had learned the hard way to hide from Renouf any sign of her own displeasure, so the smooth mask she habitually wore, as befitted a lady of her station, remained firmly in place. She inhaled and asked yet again to be told what was going on, trying to keep her tone stern but low in pitch. “This is foolishness, Roana. I am mistress of Wulfsinraed. ’Tis my right to know what is happening.” A sudden thought had her whirling on her seat so abruptly Lynnet, in the process of securing one final section of braid with a pin, dropped it and perforce had to drop to her knees to search for it. Panic surged. She fought for control, and gained it. “Tell me not this knight, this Norman warrior, means to take me to wife.” Roana, who had behaved most strangely since Ysane’s recovery—Ysane would have sworn she was a woman in love had she not known better—sighed, and then appeared to take pity. Refusing to meet Ysane’s eyes, she said, “Cousin. Dear cousin. You know I would answer any question you asked, were I allowed.” Ysane stared at Roana’s downcast face while chills shivered her spine. Roana’s evasive answer was all the response she needed. The dark knight ruled her home. Thought he now to rule her? “So he does mean to wed me. Well, I am not the first to find myself in this position. Many a widow of an overthrown lord, if still young enough to bear children, has been taken to wife by a conquering thegn, whether the lady wished it or nay. I am no naïve child, Roana. There are many ways to force a marriage upon an unwilling participant despite that the laws of the Church forbid it.” “Oh, Ysane. Methinks ’twill not be so bad. He is a good man, truly. At least, he will be kind.” Lynnet found the stray hairpin and finished her hair, then reached for the headrail and affixed it into place with a braided circlet of pearls. Ysane, struggling to control her distress, begged one last question. “Roana, is it truly his intent to force me to wed him? Please, dear friend, I must know. What plan has he for me?” But Roana only shook her head. “I am sorry, Ysane, but he forbade us. I can say naught more, and truly, I know little more than I have already said. You must speak to him yourself. But I will tell you this, if ’twill ease your mind. I believe you need not fear him. Come now, Lady Lewena waits. We are already late.” Unable to repress a shudder, Ysane moved to the door. Her chaotic thoughts seized on Father Gregory, the one slender thread of hope left. She could bear not the thought of another man touching her in intimacy, not even the handsome knight. Faith, but she had had enough of men and marriage to last a lifetime, and would never again choose that unhappy state. If the dark knight brought in the good father to wed them, she would find a way to let him know she was coerced. The good father would never force her to wed against her will. Finding some comfort in the thought, and steadfastly refusing to acknowledge there were other priests who would turn a blind eye for a bribe of enough gold, she made her way downstairs. Roana and Lynnet followed. As she approached the threshold to the hall, she paused to gather harrowed thoughts and draw breath to calm shaken nerves. A quick glance revealed that while the tables were fully occupied, no food had yet been served. But ale flowed freely, and with it, a great deal of laughter and chatter. She had heard the low roar all the way up in her bower. It seemed whatever changes were made in her absence, her people clearly approved. She noted none of the fearful glances and subdued demeanor evident in her servants that had characterized Renouf’s lordship. Rather than fearing and hating the terrible Norman knights, her people seemed more grateful than angry or sullen. Some of the tension within her heart melted away. Mayhap, ’twas but her own fear that exaggerated the danger. Then her gaze settled on the eating platform and her apprehension returned full force. She saw him immediately, but then, he was very hard to miss. As if he owned it, the dark knight lounged in the thegn’s elaborately carved chair at the center of the table. He laughed at some jest made by Thegn Randel, who was seated to his right. Her lips tightened. He had certainly made himself comfortable in her home. Beside Randel sat his lady wife. Lewena, who spoke to a knight with a pate of silver hair seated diagonally across the table, noticed Ysane’s arrival first. She smiled in encouragement, her countenance filled with gentle assurance. Ysane fought not to scowl. Even her dear friend appeared enamored of the towering new lord and his companions. She started forward. Domnall, seated at the end of the table opposite where she stood, caught her movement and glanced up. His grin as he stood was so big Ysane thought ’twould split his face. Her relief and pleasure in seeing his laughing eyes was so great she nigh smiled. Domnall had bounced her on his knee as a wee babe, helped her take her first halting steps and taught her to ride. He had been a father to her in ways her own sire, so oft away while serving the needs of kings, could never have been. She loved him, and if there was any man besides Cynric left in the world she still trusted, ’twas her first marshal. She became aware the hall had fallen quiet, and knew by a faint tingling at her nape the dark knight—and everyone else—watched her. Her own people smiled in welcome, but there were scattered among them many men whose faces she recognized not. They were his men, and to a man, their expressions seemed appreciative of the sight she made, but guarded. She blanked her expression, lifted her chin, straightened her shoulders and entered the room. *** Fallard knew exactly when Ysane finally arrived. Even before the crowded hall grew still, he sensed her presence. He had been moments from going after her, for he would not allow her to disobey his command to attend the meal. He turned his head and felt his heart slam in an unaccustomed beat, while his breath caught in his throat. The woman in the doorway was truly a rose of the sweetest bloom. She caught his glance with disdainful green eyes, and then floated toward him, graceful as the sway of willow fronds, the scarlet skirts of her cyrtel swirling around her slippered feet. The folds of a syrce of deep rose pink were caught up in a golden girdle at her waist. Both the syrce and the cyrtel beneath it were embroidered at neck, hem and wrists with threads of gold. Her shoulders and flaxen hair were veiled with a sheer headrail of the same deep red as her cyrtel. She was magnificent. As she approached the empty chair beside him, Fallard stood. Ysane stopped in front of him. Her voice pitched low so only he would hear, she said, “Sir, I would know your plans for me and my people. Fallard’s eyes narrowed. “You are late, my lady. Sit down. We are all hungry, if you are not. We will discuss your fate at eve’s end.” There was that in his voice to assure her discomfort if she argued. She chose, this time, to acquiesce. Conversation started up again around them. He saw her blanch at sight of the chased pewter platter, the kind meant for sharing between a husband and wife—or lovers—instead of her own small silver plate, set between them. His lips twitched. She fumed, but she would not let him see. Her gaze remained firmly on her hands, clasped in her lap. Servants streamed from the kitchen, bearing bowls filled with sweet, dried apples from last harvest’s crop, sliced and baked with cinnamon and drizzled with cream. “My lady, your meal.” Roul plunked a healthy serving of apples on her side of the platter. She made no move to eat, though Fallard knew she hungered. He bent so his whisper tickled her ear, and caught the faint scent of roses. She must have bathed in rose water. He had perforce to compel a stern note into his words, when what he wanted was to sweep her into his arms and dash up the stairs to her chamber, there to make passionate love to her the long night through. “’Tis your choice to starve, Ysane, but your display of ill humor is childish, and casts a pall I will tolerate not at my table. You may be as angry with me as you choose, but you will keep it hidden behind a pleasant smile until we are alone.” Her head jerked up, her eyes snapping her displeasure. “Your table! I beg your pardon.” She would have said more, and he knew she thought to remind him this was her table, her home, and she would do as she pleased. But she recoiled from the quiet threat in his gaze, the words dying in her throat, for while he kept his face a study in smiling attentiveness, his let his eyes blaze with a fury hotter than her own. She paled. “That is better,” he said, ignoring the hurt in her eyes. “Your kinswoman speaks to you. You will give her the courtesy of an answer.” *** Ysane gaped at him, not understanding. “What say you?” From close at hand came Roana’s soft voice, penetrating the web of anger and apprehension that enmeshed her. She turned to acknowledge her cousin. “Forgive me, Roana. You spoke to me?” “Ysane, my dear, will you eat not? You must keep up your strength, or I fear you will again become ill.” Ysane licked her lips, her mouth abruptly dry. Everyone at the table stared at her. Thegn Randel, on the other side of him—Ysane refused to even think his name—watched her with open curiosity. Beyond him, Lewena’s eyes flashed with sympathy. “Ysane?” Her cousin’s repetition of her name snared her focus. For the first time, Ysane became aware that directly across from her sat the knight with the silver pate she had noted before, talking with Lewena. He had beautiful eyes, large and thickly lashed, their color the pale, luminescent blue of ice on the lake in winter. The expression within them was one of kind, if lively amusement. On the bench beside him, so close they touched, sat Roana, a frown marring her lovely face. Ysane gaped at her unaware, startled beyond words to see her kinswoman’s hand wrapped around the knight’s arm. Roana leaned towards him in intimate mien as if—as if he were a lover. Her demeanor of the past few days abruptly made sense. Roana was in love with the Norman stranger. How can this be? She cannot love him! She has known him but days. But ’twas Domnall who surprised her most. His expression of disapproval cast hurt like a dart into her heart. She had been a child the last time she had seen that look in his eyes. Heat flooded to the roots of her hair. She felt betrayed, yet, was aware that never in all her adult life had she indulged in such unseemly behavior. Mercy! Has the whole world become deranged while I was ill? I feel as if I drown. “Will you have ale?” The dark knight watched her as he handed her his own tankard. “I dislike ale.” She had her own beautifully gilded goblet of blue Byzantine glass from which she drank wine or mead, never ale. Still, she took the cup he offered and swallowed in an effort to cool her burning face. A curse on the man! Even Renouf’s rough crudity had never caused her to lose her self-possession, and that, in front of guests. Fighting for control, she blinked to clear away tears and school her features into a semblance of serenity. She forced a smile to her lips. “Roana, I am fine. Be not concerned. See? I eat.” She shoved bites of apple into her mouth and smiled all around, silently willing everyone to return their attention to their own meals. She had barely begun ere Roul ladled the next course, baked chicken with cabbage and leeks, onto the platter. The knight’s deep voice whispered nigh her ear. “That was well done.” She choked, but he dug into his share of the food and returned to conversation with Thegn Randel. The chatter around her continued as small cauldrons of the meal’s heavy course, steaming beef stew thick with winter vegetables, were set down at regular intervals along the center of the tables. Individual bread trenchers, piping hot, were set before each person to hold the stew. Crocks full of creamy yellow butter and honey appeared, and tankards were refilled. She was still eating a slice of succulent chicken breast ere it occurred to her that at no time during her confrontations with the dark knight did the old terror consume her. She had always feared Renouf. His tempers were paralyzing in their savagery. All cowered when his rage rent the air. The first and only time she had spoken to him in anger, before she knew to hold her tongue, he had backhanded her across the chamber. She had awakened to find Lynnet weeping by her side, her handmaiden sobbing her fear Ysane would never rise again. The dark knight beside her had been furious with her. He had power to kill her with one blow, and there was naught to stay his actions but his own will. Yet, not once had he raised a hand, nor even his voice in threat of violence. The worst he offered was a wrathful glare. From its sheath within her girdle, she withdrew her personal eating knife, a short-bladed hadseax with an ivory handle inlaid with gold and emeralds. “That is a beautiful blade.” The dark knight caressed the handle, his fingertips caressing hers in the process. She jerked away, ignoring the amused brow he raised. “’Twas a gift from Father to celebrate my six and tenth summer. I treasure it. I was forced to hide it from Renouf, to use instead a knife with no value to my heart, for he would have taken it. It pleases me to use it again.” Strange that I have no fear this man will take it from me. “You loved your father?” “Aye.” An odd look, almost of introspection, crossed his face before he picked up a spoon to eat his stew. “Why asked you that of me, that I loved my father?” “I knew him.” Ysane nigh stopped breathing. She waited for explanation, but he ate without further comment. “Sir, you cannot leave it at that. How did you know my father?” His look was sardonic. “I cannot leave it?” She subsided, setting the revelation aside to explore later—and she would return to it. As she stabbed her blade with more force than necessary into a bite of savory beef, she noticed Roana and the silver-haired knight smiling into each other’s eyes. A rosy blush adorned her cousin’s cheeks, while in her honey gold eyes shone a soft adoration. For his part, the knight’s demeanor toward Roana was one of tender affection and attentiveness. They will marry! The realization was stunning. “Ysane, my dear,” said Roana, noticing her scrutiny. “I wish you to meet Trifine. He is the knight whose arrows saved you.” “His skill saved us all,” Domnall said, leveling his gaze on Ysane. “I, for one, admit to a certain relief, and aye, gratitude.” He grinned and raised his tankard to Trifine. “’Tis much better to be alive than dead, I say, despite the aches in my old bones.” From the depths of fevered memory came a blurred image of the oddly familiar movement Ysane had spotted in the clearing ere her executioner staggered away with a feathered shaft in his shoulder. “’Twas you?” It came out but a whisper. Trifine grinned, rose and offered a brief bow before reseating himself. “’Twas my pleasure, lady.” Ysane shook her head. “I saw you, though I understood not what you were about. Methinks no other saw you until too late. I believed I was dreaming, or that mayhap, I had already died.” She beamed, the first genuine smile to cross her face that eve. “Well met, Sir Trifine. I am in your debt.” “Trifine is my First,” the dark knight interjected. “I know of no one else who could have made that shot. He is the finest archer in all of England.” “Only England?” Trifine’s eyes danced. “He is also humble, my First.” Domnall guffawed. Faith! Ysane’s smile dimmed. She now owed a life-debt to the dark knight twice, for the silver-haired knight would only have saved her life at his order. CHAPTER FOURTEEN “Your consideration, my lady.” Ysane recoiled as the dark knight rested his hand upon her arm. His grip tightened. She could not have pulled away, but unlike Renouf, he hurt her not. He stood, pulling her up with him. “What do you do,” she whispered, even as her earlier pleading words to Roana in her bedchamber haunted her. “You need do naught but be silent.” He turned to the gathered throng and raised his tankard and his voice. “Attend, all of you!” The hall grew still as voices and music ceased. The hair on Ysane’s nape stood on end. She braced as if for a blow. Fallard looked at her, as if gauging some expected reaction, then turned to the people. “Know you all that from this moment, Lady Ysane is my betrothed wife. We will wed two days from the day all the stewards have arrived to offer fealty. A celebration is called for. Let it begin!” The hall erupted in thunderous applause. Wurth, the burh scop, began a wild and very loud ditty about true love’s perilous course. Tankards were lifted amid whoops of approval. Ysane could not have moved had her life depended on it. She stood as if frozen in place, her mind frenzied. Randel, Lewena, even Domnall watched her, and in their eyes lay both compassion, and approval. What has he done? Oh, I feared this. Why does no one protest? Where are my defenders? Must I again be forced against my will? ’Tis truth, he has turned them all against me. As before, ’twill be again. “Be seated, Ysane.” The hand that had lifted her to her feet now urged her to sit. She had no will to object. She sat. As if by magic her own blue goblet, filled with cool mead, appeared before her face. “Drink this.” She drank. The sweet beverage nigh choked her. “Drink more,” the dark knight said. “I have no wish to see you swoon.” She rounded on him. Her blood pounded in her ears and she seemed to see him as if from far away. “Did I faint, ’twould be your fault. You forbade my women to speak about aught to me. Faith! You should have warned me.” She set down her goblet before her trembling hand dropped it. Her voice rose. “I should have said you nay the moment you spoke. Thought you I would agree to this without a word, as a child offered a treat? I do not wish to marry again. I will not wed you!” “Lower your voice.” His dark eyes roamed her heaving bosom before rising to her face. “Had I told you, would you have come to sup?” “Nay! I would have locked myself in my chamber and starved first.” “I knew this. ’Tis why I forbade you should be told. Had you disobeyed I would have come for you, and broken down the door if needful, and brought you to sup over my shoulder. I wished to spare you that…and aye, Ysane, we will wed.” “Ysane, please.” Roana’s tone was placatory, but her eyes were concerned. “Be not afraid. ’Tis a good thing. He will care well for you, and you will be safe with him, as I,” and she turned to offer a sweet smile to the silver-haired knight, “will be safe and happy with Trifine.” Ysane could not answer. Her thoughts were a jumble. In but one short declaration for which she was woefully unprepared, her life was once again wrenched from her hands and taken by another. She closed her eyes. She knew not whether to weep or scream. “My lady?” Ysane turned to find Gertruda, the youngest of the kitchen maids, standing behind her, face beaming. The girl removed the empty trencher to replace it with a clean plate upon which rested a goodly-sized chunk of ripe yellow cheese and two huff pies filled with spiced, honeyed blackberries. ’Twas Ysane’s favorite sweet, but she feared she would spew it forth did she try to eat. Roul offered her more mead. She bit her lower lip to stop its cowardly trembling and shook her head. “Cook made the pies especially for you, lady,” Gertruda said, her head bobbing in encouragement. “’Tis to celebrate your betrothal and return to health.” Did all but I know of this farce? The maid turned away, but not before she surreptitiously stuck out her tongue at Roul, who drew himself up and plastered a haughty expression upon his face. Ysane watched Gertruda’s display in disbelief. The girl had come to Wulfsinraed after Renouf had become thegn. He bought her from a peddler, ostensibly to protect her from the man’s beatings. But Gertruda was very young, pure, and exceedingly comely and ’twas not long ere Renouf had taken her, unwilling, to his bed. Once tired of her charms, he had made her available to his men. Ysane had never known the girl to smile, much less willingly initiate converse with a male, not even with one so untried as the young Roul. Renouf’s men had been of a kind with their master. Life among them had been a misery for the servants and slaves, with their crude suggestions and wandering hands. The men had used them shamefully, forcing them into dark corners against their will. She had tried to protect them, but Renouf had approved not her interference. She bore the scars that proved his displeasure. Like a stone dropped in a well, she felt the ripples of a deep, profound shudder. Her eyes swept the hall. The dark knight’s men kept their hands to themselves. If they made unseemly advances, naught in the girls’ responses bespoke of it. Ysane’s rage at the dark knight’s presumption dissipated as rapidly as the mists of the morn at the touch of the sun’s first heat. “’Tis a refreshing change, is it not?” Roana remarked on what Ysane had but now noticed. “I no longer fear leaving my chamber.” Nodding mutely, Ysane stared in wonder at the man beside her. He in turn studied the emotions that must be clearly visible on her face, for she felt too dazed to hide them. “Methinks mayhap, Captain, the lady realizes you are not quite the brute you pretend to be,” said Trifine, whose arm was now loosely draped over Roana’s shoulders. His hand caressed her shoulder. He smiled at Ysane with the lazy merriment she was beginning to associate with him. His words triggered another fiery blush, for she was guilty of thinking the dark knight a cad, if not a brute. “Does she think I am no Renouf, Trifine, she would be correct,” Fallard replied. “She should also be grateful,” he added, as his gaze collided with her own. “I abuse not the helpless, Ysane, nor do I allow it of my men.” “Renouf’s men, they…hurt…my women.” The words were barely breathed. “I was helpless to intervene. I could protect them not. I was their mistress. They looked to me, but my efforts were of no avail.” To her dismay, tears sprang, unbidden. She bent her head to focus on her hands, tight clasped in her lap. “Even Roana and I feared them.” “My lady, I am aware. So long as I remain lord here, you and your women, even your lowliest slaves, are safe, and need have no fear. No one will touch them unless ’tis the woman’s choice, else the man will answer to me, and they know the consequence.” Gratitude for her women’s sake rose in a great wave to engulf Ysane. More tears blurred her vision and she turned away with a sound of distress. Oh mercy! I must weep not before this man. Why do I go on so? It must be the last dregs of weakness from the fever that affects me so this night. Abruptly, she was so weary all she wanted was to race to her bower to hide, but she dared not. “Your care for your women is no shame,” the knight said. “Indeed, ’tis most honorable. Here now. You are weary, not yet recovered from your ordeal. I would have you return to your bower to rest. I will come to speak with you ere I retire.” Ysane kept her face lowered as she rose, unwilling to risk further kindness from him lest she altogether lose her composure. “I believe rest would be beneficial, my lord.” She winced at how small her voice sounded, husky with unshed tears. “Take with you your pie.” His voice was gentle. “Even if you eat it not now, mayhap you will desire it later. At the least, you must show cook you appreciate her kind gesture.” “Of course.” Roana rose as well. “I will go with her.” “As will I,” Lady Lewena echoed. *** As the three women crossed the hall toward the tower stairs, Fallard saw the slave Lynnet hurriedly rise from her table and follow her mistress. Silence descended as the four men left alone stared at one other. “Well,” Trifine said. “Methinks the spark does seem to have vanished from the eve.” His usually insouciant tones carried a distinct touch of dismay. “Indeed it has,” Thegn Randel agreed. Even Roul looked downcast. From his place at the table, Domnall snorted into his tankard, then raised his voice in a call for more ale. *** Several hours later Fallard, weary to his bones, mounted the first winding treads of the lord’s tower. He nigh leapt back down when a dark figure stepped from behind the upward curve of the wall to block his way. The sharp, succinct oath that exploded from his lips was the only indication of his irritation when he recognized the shape before him as that of a woman shrouded in a hooded cloak. “Foolish girl! Know you how close you came to being skewered upon my sword?” He slammed the half-drawn weapon back into its scabbard. A low, breathy laugh answered him as the woman swayed closer. His nostrils were assailed with a cloying scent of violets. “Nay, my lord, I knew you would stay your hand in time.” “Who are you? Speak!” Fallard’s senses remained heightened. He considered women of little threat to a trained knight, but as he had once learned to his cost in his younger, less disciplined days, not no threat at all. He bore a reminder upon his back of that youthful miscalculation. Stepping into the moonlight that flooded through the window embrasure beside her, the girl pulled back the hood of the cloak she wore. Moonbeams captured the dark red highlights in her short cap of hair even as the flickering rushlight from the iron wall sconces lit strands of shining gold. Had the interwoven play of gold and silver light been upon Ysane, he would have been enchanted, but not with this one, for he knew her now—Leda, the slave who had shared the bed of Ruald the rebel. He was taller than she even standing a step below her. He wondered at her game as she spread her fingers upon his chest. Her right hand, hidden within her cloak, moved with seeming stealth. His response was swift as he snared the arm and brought the hand to light. He trusted her not, and thought her foolish enough to try to stab him here, on the dark reaches of the stairs. She gasped at his roughness, then laughed again. Her voice was low and seductive, promising delights unimagined. “For shame, my lord. I had not thought you a man who would lift a bruising hand against a woman.” “You are harmed not, Leda. Step aside and be on your way.” “You know my name. I am pleased. But nay, my lord. I know ’tis your intent to seek out the Lady Ysane, but she sleeps, and left word she wishes to be not disturbed. Since she has chosen to deny you her bed this night, mayhap you would seek your pleasure with one who knows far better than she how to bring to you the ecstasy you must crave, lusty dragon that you are.” So saying, she dropped her cloak. Fallard stepped hastily away, barely remembering in time he was on a stairwell. Anger coursed, for her game was now known, and ’twas more ancient than any other ever played, for beneath the cloak she was nude. She leaned toward him again, the slide of her hair against her cheek deliberately enticing. The overly sweet smell of violets touched him again. He wondered how a slave came by the expensive scent. Mayhap, Ruald had favored it. His narrowed gaze swept over her in the pallid light. Lushly made, she was, and beautiful, and no doubt, to another man desirable for sport, but Fallard felt little stirring in either mind or flesh. This woman, for all her allure, held no appeal, though he could deny not that ere he had seen Ysane, Leda would have been a temptation he might not have spurned. Nor was she the only woman within the hall to offer him her charms. But he had discovered, at first to his chagrin, that no woman could stir his passions as did his little white rose. Until Ysane was in his arms, he would seek no other, nor did he wish for another. Briefly, he wondered at Leda’s purpose. Did she seek to displace Ysane, with hopes of becoming the new lady of Wulfsinraed, or did she simply seek to gain new place for herself in the household such as she had held before? Or mayhap, there was a more sinister edge to her game, for he forgot not there remained an undiscovered link, as he believed, between Ruald and the rebel forces. Was Leda that link within the hall, as he had supposed before, and in possible collusion with Cynric, the master carver, without? He had set a man to watch her, but naught had come of the observation. She was reported as sullen and lazy, and considered herself hard put upon at being forced to return to slave’s work after her favor with Ruald. But she had done naught to further raise his suspicions—until now. Bending to gather up her cloak, Fallard wrapped it round the figure before him. “I would have you seek your pleasures elsewhere, Leda.” She pouted. “But my lord, ’tis you I crave, and no other can offer what I can give.” With a gesture appropriate to a harlot, she reached to lay hand where he disdained she should touch, forcing him to move down yet another step and slap her palm away. “Nay! Find another to warm your bed, for ’twill never be I.” He lifted her and set her aside with a brusque movement, and strode up the steps beyond her, then surprised her by glancing back. For the space of a moment, rage transformed her lovely face into wrathful lines and her amber eyes glittered with hate. But the spasm passed so swiftly Fallard could but wonder had he truly seen it. He approached the door to Ysane’s bower unsettled from his encounter with Leda and paused. He needed his temper fully under control, for he knew not what response he might expect from his lady when he made known the full extent of her new, and very unwanted, status. He knocked, expecting Ysane to call for his entrance. Instead, the door opened but wide enough for him to see that Lynnet stood there, finger to her lips. The maid pulled the door open further and pointed to the bed, where Ysane lay curled, asleep. So. Leda had lied not about that. “She waited long for you, my thegn,” Lynnet whispered. “But she grew sleepy and said she would lie down. Methinks she thought to bestir herself ere you came. Shall I wake her?” “Nay. I will rouse her. Did she ask not to be disturbed?” “Nay, my thegn.” Lynnet’s voice held surprise. “She expected you.” “All is right, then. Go downstairs and wait. I will inform you when to return to help her prepare for sleeping.” The girl bobbed a curtsey and slipped out the door, pulling it to behind her. The latch gave a quiet snick as it closed. Fallard walked to the bed and stood looking at the lady he would wed. Curled into a ball like a rumpled kitten, she remained fully dressed, the coverlet bunched in her arms, one end stretched across her feet. Light from the open brazier illumined her sleep-flushed face and drew shadows of molten gold from her hair, which had been released from its tight braids. The soft tresses had slipped over her shoulder to drape across her like a fleece. Her brows were pulled together in a tiny frown. He wondered if she dreamed. Her lips were slightly parted. He bent nigh her face, inhaling the enchanting scent of rose. Then he straightened, and ’twas all he could do to laugh not aloud. His little rose—so delicate, so dainty, so-very-much-the-lady—was snoring, the sound faint, but unmistakable. At that moment, he would have given every silver penny of his new wealth to slide onto the bed beside her and make her his own in every way. Instead, he shook her gently. “My lady, awaken.” He shook her again when she responded not. He was about to put a bit more effort into it when her eyes, blurry with sleep, popped open. She stared at him, her gaze empty of awareness yet dark with fear. She jerked back, loosing a sharp, pained cry, then tried to lunge past him, but the coverlet caught her up and she fell, instead, into his arms. She fought him like a woman crazed, and Fallard was hard put to defend himself without hurting her. “Ysane!” He tried to hold her still but she seemed crazed. “Ysane, hear me!” He wrapped the coverlet about her and cuddled her close against his chest, smothering the wild flaying of her limbs. Abruptly, she went still, her frantic breathing muffled against the fabric of his tunic. She shuddered and went limp. A few hectic heartbeats passed, and he heard her say, her voice almost normal, “’Tis all right. You may release me now.” He gave her about two inches of space, watchful of her mood. In her struggles, her hair had fallen forward. The tangled mass veiled her face. Fallard pushed the tousled strands behind her ears, where it fell in chaotic waves to her waist. He slid one hand beneath her chin and lifted her face. Her eyes had lost the wild glitter, but now shone with wary tension. “In future,” he said, “I must remember never to wake you unless I wear full mail.” The veriest ghost of a smile touched the corners of her mouth, and lightened her tense features at his teasing. She tried to pull away, but he would release her not. “I wish to know what that was about,” he said. Within her cocoon, Ysane gave a little shrug and answered in one word. “Renouf.” CHAPTER FIFTEEN This time, when Ysane pulled away, he let her go. She moved without her usual grace as she straightened her clothing, and tried without success to restore some semblance of order to her hair. Abandoning the task as impossible without a comb, she walked to a small table and poured herself a cup of water from a carafe, downing the cool liquid with avid thirst. The open window embrasure beckoned. She went to stand in front of it, closing her eyes to the blackness without, though she was aware less of the clean, simple darkness of night than of the shadow of bleak horror that still haunted her soul. The nightmare had been of Angelet’s last moments, and was not the first she had endured. Nor would it be the last. Her back to the dark knight, she said, “What shall I tell you, my lord, of my life of shame with Renouf? Where shall I begin?” She gave a laugh filled with poignant diffidence. “The man was a beast who drank pleasure from inflicting pain on others, as a thirsty man would guzzle ale for his parched throat. I have seen him derive a satisfaction from their torment that at times came nigh to spiritual rapture. At such moments, I believed he could no more live without the suffering he inflicted than a babe without its mother’s milk.” She faced him, the movement slow and stiff as if it pained her. “Can you understand when I tell you he thrived on the agony of those he tortured, that when a soul he tormented finally died from the agony, he would exist for days in a sort of ecstasy? My people lived in hopeless terror of him, though I suppose I must be honest and state he ever tortured but one of the burhfolc. The others who died in that terrible room in the pits were outlaws. Even then, they should have been strangled or hung in the legal manner, not…butchered.” She shuddered again, the tremor jolting her entire body. “And what of you, my lady?” Both his voice and expression were blank, and gratitude buoyed her. Had he shown pity, she could have borne it not. “Of me, my lord? What then? Shall I speak of the beatings, when he used both fists and feet? Of his care to scar not my face, because he enjoyed that other men desired my beauty, when only he could have me? Shall I list for you the bruises, the broken bones, the lashes upon my bare back, or the times I was smashed so hard against the wall my women believed I would never wake? “Or mayhap, you wish an accounting of the humiliations he heaped upon me, of the vile lies he told of me, of how he cursed and reviled me to my people. Have you yet been told of the mistress he kept for my shame? He brought her to our bower, and forced me to sleep with Roana until he learned the whore’s presence pleased me because it kept him away from me. Have you yet met the bastard children he sired, through rape, in his time here? “Or would you prefer I speak of the evils he committed in my name, such as the day he severed the hand of one of my kitchen slaves. The girl was accused of stealing a silver salver. He ordered all to attend. Once the screaming was over, he ended the assembly by assuring everyone the atrocity was done at my order. Yet, I would rather she stole every silver piece in the burh, than be so ill abused. The salver was later found behind a cupboard, where it had fallen without notice.” Ysane looked down, surprised to note her hands were systematically crushing the linen of her skirts. “There is more. Wish you to hear it? How he forced women to prostitute themselves to survive when as their lord, he should have seen to their needs? How children were beaten to death for minor infractions, and entire families banished with naught but the clothes on their backs because of some imagined disrespect? Mayhap you would hear from my own lips how he….” Her voice broke. Nay, she would speak not ever, to him or any other, of the debasements Renouf heaped upon her in their marriage bower. None would ever know the fullness of her degradation. She glanced at him. Silent and still, he watched her, his eyes never leaving her face, their depths giving away naught of his thoughts. She swallowed, licked dry lips and continued. “He murdered my innocent babe because she cried, and tried to strangle me when I fought him. He tripped over a stool and fell to his face. My hatred gave me strength. I took his sword and pierced his foul, drunken heart.” She paused, staring into the live coals in the brazier. “I was most surprised his blood ran red as any other man’s. I was certain ’twould be the color of burning brimstone.” She straightened and looked him in the eye. “At that moment, I determined no man—no man—would ever hurt me or those I cared for again. You may command my home, my people, my body, and even my loyalty, but you will never command my heart. Hear me, Sir Fallard D’Auvrecher, knight of the Bastard Conqueror. If ’tis your intention to force me into marriage, know that if ever you lay a hand upon me or any person I love with cruelty, I will find a way to slay you. I have killed once. I can do so again. I swear this. On my father’s grave, I swear it!” *** Fallard sat through Ysane’s increasingly passionate tirade, curbing any outward expression of his tumultuous mix of emotions, offering no response to her challenge. He already knew much of what she spoke. The lady who stood so courageously before him had been pitilessly misused, and he would do no further damage to her pride with a display of unwanted pity, nor yet would he give her reason to fear his rage. She called Renouf a beast, but the word was far from an accurate description, for no mere beast behaved as had Thegn Sebfeld. Fallard’s life had been given to warfare. He was in no wise unaware of the bestial nature that dwelled within the hearts of men, or of the atrocities of which they were capable. In the heat of battle, he had violently slaughtered many men, and had been called upon to execute others. But given what he had heard from Domnall, Renouf of Sebfeld had been a man far worse than most. Fallard could no longer accept the king’s insistence that Ysane had been party to treason with her husband, for she had hated and feared Renouf so deeply that despite the gentleness of her nature, she was driven to an act of great violence, one that must have nigh shriveled her tender soul. She was innocent, and deserved not the punishment she was awarded, not with Renouf or his villain of a brother. He would send a message to William this very day to that end, and he would take care to insure her life with him offered no further misery. Her eyes upon him blazed with emerald flame. He must choose his words carefully now. At very least, he could assure her none of her people held her to blame for the things her husband had done, despite the lies the whoreson told. He caught and held her scorching stare. “Never!” Her fire ebbed, to be replaced with cautious bemusement. “What say you?” “Never will I scorn you so. ’Tis a man’s duty, aye, and his privilege to give honor to his wife, to protect and care for her. A husband who fails in that duty, who seeks to heap scorn upon her, is both coward and fool, for in the doing, ’tis not she who bears the humiliation, but himself. In seeking her degradation, he debases only himself, and displays to all her innocence and his dishonor.” Wonder flooded her wary countenance as her lips parted. Fallard’s glance touched their full, sweet contours and he shifted in abrupt discomfort. He rose and walked to the brazier to stir up the blaze, then added more fuel. The coals caught and heat began to permeate the chamber. Satisfied the fire would burn well, he pulled two chairs closer to the warmth, turning the larger one—the one that was now his—to face hers. He held out his hand. “Come.” He thought she would refuse, but she obeyed, her movements graceful again as the winging of a bird. With but a slight hesitation, she surrendered her hand. Both of them flinched at the tingling burst of awareness and warmth the touch created. Eyelids flaring, Ysane snatched away her hand. Fallard ignored the sensation and her response. “Be seated.” He waited for her to settle, then from beneath his tunic, he pulled a scroll, creased and stained. He untied the document and unrolled it. “Read you my language?” “Well enough.” He handed the parchment to her. “Then you may study the document for yourself.” Her hands shook, but she took the scroll. She read it from beginning to end without speaking, then rolled it up and handed it back. “Now you know,” he said, as matter-of-factly as if he were commenting on the fine weather. Her gaze bleak, she stared at him. “I have been given no choice, then?” Fallard turned not from the accusation that blazed forth from her. What expects she to see in my eyes? Triumph, mayhap, or worse, pity? This is difficult for her, a proud and determined daughter of a king’s thegn, wealthy in her own right. Wulfsinraed is the home of her people from generations, and by Saxon law, should be hers, with the authority to rule in the manner she thinks best. It would have been hers, but for Norman rule. ’Tis a hard and bitter lump to swallow. Methinks I would bear not the indignity half so well. Fallard allowed no hint of his thoughts to show on his countenance as he answered. She deserved that respect. “None at all. William believes you guilty of treason. Understand this. I bear the authority of the king in this matter. Do you choose to fight, or do I prove you guilty of the charges against you, I am ordered to escort you forthwith to Kensington Abbey, to be locked away for the rest of your life. “Should I find you innocent, you will wed with me, or you will be compelled to leave Wulfsinraed forever, and be given to another, a man of William’s choosing. I know of his second choice, lady, and I fear you would have little liking for him, less even, mayhap, than you have of me.” *** Vexed almost beyond endurance, Ysane jerked her head to the side, her eyes roaming the bower, looking anywhere, everywhere, but at him. “’Tis not fair!” She jumped to her feet and paced the chamber, her strides hard, the very set of her body defiant. “’Twas none of my doing my father and Renouf rebelled, yet still William punishes me! Was it not enough I must see my father banished, to die in a strange land far from home and kin, or that I be made to endure three twelvemonths of Renouf’s bestiality, or behold the murder of my daughter?” She closed her eyes and threw back her head, hands clenched against her temples. “Where is justice? I had thought, if perforce I should ever gain my freedom, never to wed again, for I have no wish to have my life, my person and my liberty once more at the mercy of a man! I wish but to live in peace, in my own home.” Oh, for mercy! How can I deal with this now, with grief for Angelet filling my soul nigh to bursting? Only slowly did she master the maelstrom of emotion. She opened her eyes once more and sighing, moved to stand in front of the dark knight, only inches from his chair. Defeat burned in every taut line of her stance. She knew it, but was too weary to hide it. Mayhap, the man before her would be kind. He watched her, and she wondered at his thoughts. She sat and held her hands close to the brazier. She had not realized how cold they were. “I fear to force William’s hand against me a second time.” Her eyes lifted to his. “Answer me this, my lord, and I would have the truth, if you know it. When William forced me to wed Renouf, knew he the man’s true nature?” Fallard shook his head. “I know not. ’Tis possible. ’Tis certain he believed Renouf would remain loyal, or he would never have awarded him Wulfsinraed. William can be ruthless when he thinks it justified, but he is weary of war and rebellion, and wishes for peace in his domain. To that end, he believes the sacrifice of a village worth the good of the whole kingdom, and the death of an individual worth the lives of a thousand others. ’Tis possible he wished to use Renouf to make an example of Wulfsinraed to other rebellious fiefs, and that he hoped, in so doing, to quell further insurrections. ’Twould not be the first time he has used such tactics.” “And what of you, Thegn D’Auvrecher? Are you also in agreement with this policy of sacrificing the few for the greater good of the kingdom?” *** Fallard sought an honest answer, for he demanded truth from her and determined to give the same. “I know the tactic works, my lady. But I am not king, and I know not to what lengths I might go if such were the only way to achieve peace. I do know I would wish not for my kingdom to be ever torn with bloodshed and strife.” He paused, his eyes idly tracking a tiny spider working its way across the floor at his feet. In his heart, he condoned not all his sovereign had done. He had been displeased by the action William had taken against the rebellious northlands some three twelvemonths after his coronation. The king had ordered nigh annihilation not only of the population, but also a calculated desolation of the land itself so complete that ’twould be long ere aught grew there again. He was grateful he had been not one of the captains whom William had ordered to put entire villages to sword and fire, commanding that all that breathed therein be slaughtered, even the animals. He had wondered, more than once, if he would have obeyed such an order, but hoped he would not, though his own life might have been forfeit had he refused. He believed not the innocent should be made to suffer for the guilty, yet uncounted thousands of innocents who died not in the fighting, later died of starvation and disease in the months that followed. The harrowing was a black stain on William’s reign, and one that might never be erased. He raised his head and said with slow deliberation, “If ’twas my decision, I could wish that measures of such nature would be not necessary. I would seek first to use any and all other less drastic means of persuasion.” Ysane nodded, apparently satisfied with his response. Her tone subdued, she said, “From your announcement earlier, I conclude you have reached a verdict regarding the question of my supposed treason.” “You are guiltless. We will wed. The time between now and then will be set aside for preparations for the ceremony and the feasting to follow. You have a syrce of green velvet. ’Twould please me if you would wear it for the ceremony.” She started at the abrupt change of subject. “You have looked in my clothing chests?” She sounded uncertain if she should be offended or amused. Fallard grunted. “Nay. ’Twas your sire’s mother who suggested it, though I admit I once saw you wear it, before the battle. She said with much fervor the color intensified the fire of your eyes and enhanced the purity of your skin.” He shrugged. “I but concurred.” She blinked at him. “My Ieldramodor—my father’s mother—spoke to you? But, she speaks to no one but Marlee, her maid and to me, since my father’s death.” “I assure you, I speak no lie. I came upon her that first day in the guest bowers, but I saw her not again until two days ago. I was exploring the storage recess behind the hoarding room and she appeared as if conjured from the air. Gave me quite a start.” The corners of his eyes crinkled. “She asked if I was to wed you, and when I told her I was, she said ’twas a good thing, and then mentioned the emerald gown before slipping out the door. She seems to have taken a liking to me, or at least, she dislikes me not.” Ysane stared at him from the storm-clouded depths of those big eyes, so brilliant a green, then shook her head. “I believe it not. How is it you charm the very folk closest to me, who owe me their allegiance?” Fallard leaned to close the distance between them and took her face between his hands. He waited. When she quivered, but pulled not away, he bent to brush her lips with his in a caress as soft as the touch of a butterfly’s wings. “’Tis my intent the allegiance of all shall be to us, not only to me. I offer you my word, Ysane Kenrick-daughter, as a knight of William, I will never lift a hand against you. I will honor you, and respect your wishes as far as ’tis possible, and I will insure all others do the same. I will do all in my power to protect you and keep you safe. You need have no fear of me, lady. I will hurt you not. I will allow you time to grieve for your daughter, and if you wish, time to grow accustomed to me ere I take you to my bed. Know this, too. Ever will I speak truth to you, and that no matter the cost. Do these provisions seem acceptable to you?” She looked startled, as well she might, and even as he spoke the words, Fallard wanted to take back certain among them. What do I do, promising I will bed her not until she is ready? What if she is never ready? Fool that I am, I have given my word and now can take it not back. Mayhap, I have condemned myself to suffer overlong as a monk. The little siren has bewitched me. Now ’twill be a fight to woo her to my hand. “You are gracious beyond my expectations, my lord. Aye, your words are acceptable.” Of a certainty, she would believe so. ’Tis to her advantage. I am a fool, but mayhap, this one concession will not rebound upon me for ill. Mayhap, she will take it as a symbol of my regard, and hold me not to it. And mayhap, I am a lackwit. “Then we should do well together,” he said. “My name is Fallard, Ysane. I would hear it from your lips.” “Very well…Fallard.” “There now, that was not so very difficult, was it?” He smiled and drew her into his lap. She was such a little thing. He lifted her as easily as he would a child. He traced the length of her nose, the shape of her chin, the elegant curve of a brow, then bent to kiss her. “Nay, please!” She stiffened. Her lashes fluttered as she ducked her head. Fallard groaned inwardly and drew back. “Your wish is my command, Ysane.” He set her from him, and hid his frown when her face nigh crumpled, awash with relief. He silently cursed Renouf, the fool’s vow he had made, the firelight that burnished her skin and the sweet scent of roses wafting from her skin. He all but leapt from the chair, needing distance between them, for he was rather too much distracted by the sweetness of her smile and the feel of her pliant form against his own hard frame. Aye, and such tempting softness it all was—soft lips, soft hair, soft skin, and soft curves. As a virile man who had lived too long without a woman’s touch, he was sorely tried. He paced to the other side of the room, lest he forget himself and frighten her anew with his rampaging desire. He opened the shutters to let in the night breeze. ’Twas entirely too warm in the chamber. “By the by….” His lust under his control once more, he turned back to her. “Has the Lady Roana spoken yet of her wedding to my First?” Her expression answered his question. He allowed a grin. “They are to speak their vows at the same ceremony with us. Does that please you?” CHAPTER SIXTEEN Ysane wondered how many more surprises she must endure ere the day was out, though his promise to force her not to his bed was an oath she found much to her liking. Nor was a wedding between her kinswoman and the silver-haired knight unexpected, given Roana’s oddly affectionate behavior with the man—and his with her. “This wedding you speak of. ’Tis in accordance with Roana’s wishes?” “’Tis in accordance with both of their desires. I do recall my First mentioning something about ‘love at first glance’.” “Then I wish her all joy, and aye, ’tis pleasing she will stand at my side to speak her vows.” And I will speak with her first, for I will not have her coerced. Fallard cocked his head to one side. There was that in his eyes that made her wince. Already, he comes to know me, and learns to recognize when I hide that which I want him not to know. A pox on the man! I must take more care. “Methinks I sense reservation behind your agreement, Ysane. Have I told you not I will never lie to you, that you may always trust my words?” She searched his face, his eyes, wanting to believe, yet the old fear still held her in thrall. A few sweet words, no matter how well spoken, could erase not the torment of twelvemonths. “I believe you. At least with my mind, I believe you mean what you say.” ’Twas truth. She did. “But I must ask…I mean, I would pray your patience, that you would find it…that you…oh, that you would be willing to give my heart time to catch up with my mind.” His grin was infectious. Despite herself, she responded with a timorous smile of her own. “You may have all the time you need, little rose, so long as you do learn I may be trusted to keep my word.” “Then I will try, Fallard.” “That is all I ask.” *** Fallard could resist not the impulse to bring her softness back into his arms. At first, she stiffened, and seemed to withdraw, and he thought to release her, but she yielded. As his strength swept round her, she trembled, but he cradled her as gently as he could. She offered neither resistance nor encouragement as he brushed his lips upon hers. The kiss began tentatively, lightly as mist. But as her lips moved, the embrace flamed, suddenly, wildly. In an instant, all intent to go carefully with her dissolved beneath an avalanche of heated craving. She moaned in protest, and her hands sought to push him away. But even as he fought to free her while he still could, her struggles again ceased, and she went still, then leaned into his strength. Triumph, hot as his desire, blazed through him and his arms tightened, gathering her more closely against him as he plundered her soft lips with a fierce and startling hunger he had never before known. His hand slid beneath her hair to cradle her head and hold her more securely for his deepening assault on her senses. Her arms slid around his neck. She clung to him, and rose up on her toes to better accommodate the fit of her body to his. Dazed, he realized she kissed him back with a fervent need that matched his own. He opened his eyes to find hers closed. He doubted she knew even what she did. Her countenance blazed with a hunger he shared. He shuddered at the sight. This unexpected fire between them, it overwhelmed them both. He was losing control. He was going to take her, now, and he knew she would welcome him. As the thought crystallized, a violent trembling that ripped from head to toe wracked his body. He forced his mouth from hers. She gave a little soft cry of denial. Her fingers clutched in the tufts of his hair as she tried to recapture his head and pull him back. But he would take her not like this, in rampant lust, as if she were no more than a common harlot. He caught her small hands and encased them within his own. They trembled within his grasp, as would a spider’s web in a strong breeze. Faith and the saints! Never in his life had he lost control with a woman as he had done now with Ysane. What spell did she weave upon him to unman him so? Her breath came in shallow pants. ’Twas truth, his own did the same. Her eyes opened, but their vivid green was dazzled, and her expression slack, for she remained lost in the throes of her own yearning. He stared at her sweet lips, open and swollen now from his bruising caress. How it happened, he knew not, but he had found with this woman a harmony unexpected, an affinity to be cherished and nourished with all the care and wisdom garnered from the violent insanity that had for so long been his life. ’Twas something akin, mayhap, to that sweet sharing of life his warrior father had found with his gentle mother, though she too, had been a stolen bride. “Ysane,” he whispered, then glared at nothing when he heard how low and husky was his own voice. But she had not even heard him. He shook his head, seeking clarity. “Little rose!” This time, his voice conveyed determination. He stepped away, then gently shook her. Cupping her chin with his fingers, he called her name a second time. She stared at him in dawning realization. Abruptly, the sensual haze holding her in thrall vanished and she groaned again, but this time, seemingly in shame. Her face flamed scarlet, and she tore her gaze from his, cringing away and seeking to break free of his hold. He would allow it not. “Nay!” Echoes of the unforeseen depths of the passion they shared still throbbed in his tone, but he cared not. “Nay, my rose, look at me. Look…at…me!” Once he captured her gaze, he held it secure. “Ysane, I will suffer you not to hide from what has passed between us. You are…disquieted, I know. It caught me off guard, as well. Saint’s toes!” He swept his hand back and forth through his pate of hair. “It nigh swept me away. Never has such a torrent overtaken me, my lady. Neither of us expected such fire to erupt, but see you not what a priceless gift we are given? There is no shame to be found within its embrace. Know you not that great passion can become a strong foundation for the building of a good and lasting marriage? Few are offered such a gift, and I will allow it not to be scorned.” His voice softened then, for there was in her face both fear and uncertainty. She held herself stiffly, and he knew she recalled the cruelty of her husband. “Fear this not, Ysane. ’Tis a thing of goodness. Have I not already pledged I will hurt you not, nor give you cause for shame? Imagine if you will, was there no such harmony between us. Is it not better to desire a husband’s touch than to fear it, or to find it loathsome, and a burden?” *** Ysane fought to give credence to his words. With an instinct as old as the first woman, she understood he was right. The potency of the passion that exploded within her when his mouth settled upon hers had astonished her. It subsumed every thought and had submerged beneath a torrent of glorious sensation all awareness save that of his taste, his scent, and the fire of his touch. Never had she thought, nay, or even dreamed it could be so sweet, so pleasurable, for in Renouf’s bed she had endured only pain and humiliation. Aye, she had abhorred her husband’s hands upon her body, at times so repulsed it had taken all her strength not to vomit her hate upon him. He would have killed her if she had. But ’twas truth what Fallard said. Desiring, even craving the touch of the man who wed her was far better. “Ysane?” He still waited her answer. She nodded. “Aye, my lord. ’Tis better. ’Tis much better.” She felt within him a release of tension at her assent. His smile was gentle. “You have the look of an affrighted hare. Am I then such a wolf in your eyes, little rose?” She started. How strange was it that his words so conformed to her own thoughts earlier, when first he confronted her. She could think of no immediate response. Oh, but of a certain he would know how intimidating he was, especially to a woman without the strength to defend herself should he choose to hurt her. She would offer a measure of trust, but concluded maintaining some distance between them would go not amiss. ’Twould do no harm, and mayhap ’twould protect her heart should her decision be not wise. When she made no response, he said, “Then I will repeat it, Ysane. I will hurt you not.” He spoke the words with resolute clarity, as if he had read her thoughts. “Mayhap, if I say it oft enough, you will begin to believe. With time, I will also prove you may safely trust in my care for you.” She was abruptly weary. He must have seen it, for his big hand was tender as he brushed back the hair from around her face. “’Tis time for you to sleep.” His kiss brushed her forehead, and though her skin tingled with his touch, there came no great burst of the fire that had blazed before. “Good night, little rose. I command you to dream only of sweet things, and to rest well.” With those words, he left her, calling for Lynnet. *** “Ysane!” Fallard’s whisper accompanied the jarring of his elbow against his betrothed’s ribs the next morn as she knelt for prayers during second service. She looked around, startled, for the two of them were the only ones still on their knees. Fallard slipped a hand beneath her elbow and helped her regain her feet. She flushed, and he suspected that instead of praying, her mind had been as occupied as his own with all that had passed between them the eve before. The service over, Fallard led her to the door and paused to wrap her woolen mantle about her shoulders. Lady Roana and Trifine, Thegn and Lady Randel, Roul and Fauques and the men of the night guard, who would seek their pallets after noontide meal, followed in their wake as they left the chapel. Fallard reached for her hand, seeking to tangle her fingers through his own. ’Twas in his mind he wanted all to see his white rose had accepted her fate. She resisted not his gesture, and they walked hand-in-hand toward the hall, Fallard matching his pace to hers. He found that the simple act of cradling her small fingers within his own filled him with an unanticipated contentment. But then, nigh all of his responses to the woman by his side surprised him, and left him feeling distinctly nonplussed. Had he been told a seven-day earlier he would so quickly harbor a desire to protect and cherish a woman—any woman—more strongly than his urge to bed her, he would have guffawed in their face, or at the least allowed the corners of his eyes to crinkle. No woman but his mother and sisters had ever claimed such a hold upon him, and he would have bet none ever would. Not that he was unhappy with the idea, disturbing though ’twas. Fallard stole a glance at her serene countenance and his shoulders lifted in a resigned shrug. She was to be his wife. If that included a few stronger-than-usual feelings beyond the bower, he certainly would complain not. ’Twould make living the rest of his life with her a great deal more pleasant. He gave her hand an easy squeeze. “All this morn you have been preoccupied, Ysane. Dare I ask if some of your musings give consideration to the man at your side?” *** Ysane smiled at Fallard, taking in the sight of his long, muscular legs swinging in tempered strides. ’Twas an oddly stirring sight. She tore her thoughts from his intriguing, and rather exciting musculature. She was aware of his focus on her and had wondered at his thoughts. How unsurprisingly brash and decidedly male was his assumption her thoughts were of him. That they were indeed, all of him had no bearing on the matter. “You may dare, Fallard,” she said, “but that is guarantee not you will receive an answer.” The corners of his eyes crinkled. “You dare to tease me, my rose? Methinks you test your courage beyond your ken. Come. Admit it. You have discovered your betrothed husband is a more companionable soul than you expected.” He bent close so none but she would hear. “You find yourself attracted to me, and for more than bed sport. I am witty, charming and well-favored, am I not?” A distinct flavor of laughter underlined his words, yet she sensed her answer mattered. “Should I admit to those things, my lord, I fear your conceit will know no bounds.” “Ah, but my mother says that be already so. How then, might it grow worse?” Ysane gaped at him, and spoke ere she thought. “Your mother? You have family?” His eyebrows soared toward his hairline at her incredulous tone. “Thought you I sprang fully formed from my father’s head as the goddess of old?” Heat scorched her face as she clapped her hand over her mouth. “Forgive me. I meant that not as it seemed. One thinks not of the enemy as having family of their own.” “Remain I your enemy then, in your eyes.” “Nay. ’Tis but what all Saxons believe. Normans are monsters and beasts who care naught for any but themselves, know you not?” “Aye, so I have heard it said, though not to my face.” Ysane breathed a laugh and wondered at the ease of his conversation with her, for Trifine had remarked him a man of little speech, and so he had seemed. The soothing warmth of his hand, along with the unexpected attentiveness and kindness he displayed—not to mention that glorious, heart-rending, soul-stirring kiss, the only one he allowed since that night—played havoc with her decision to remain aloof. What was this tenuous but honeyed thread that stretched between them? With every moment she passed in his company, the attraction she felt for him seemed to grow stronger. A link was forming between them, more rapidly than she would have believed, a bond she understood not. It seemed to weave, moment by moment, more closely around them and draw them ever nearer. The potential depth of that bond terrified her, for she feared lowering her guard. But she could deny not a wary anticipation of where such an attachment might next lead. She gave a little shake of her head to clear her thoughts, and allowed her eyes to take note of the world around her. ’Twas mid-morn, and the day was overcast and drear. A fitful breeze sent dead leaves skittering across the ground and rattled the branches of the trees in the orchard. It whispered through dry grasses and sent chill fingers to stir beneath her mantle. She shivered. How she longed for the warmth of summer. Her betrothed noticed, and urged her closer to the heat of his body. “I would know of what you think.” “Only that the spring rains will soon drench the land. Always do my people rejoice at the renewing of the year, with its hope of bounty to come. ’Twill be not long ere the whole land is in bloom, and the meadows will abound with color. How gloriously wonderful ’tis to be alive to see it! But a handful of days past, I believed I would not.” She glanced up into midnight eyes, their deep blue depths glowing, and stumbled, shaken by the expression within them. Aye, a smile like that could go far, too quickly, in winning her trust. He dropped her hand and slid his arm around her waist to steady her. Almost, she lost the train of her thought, and her heart tripped in its beat. The easy strength in the arm about her made her feel breathless, as if she had run all the way from the chapel. I must remain wary. He charms without effort, but I must forget never he is a man of violence, and war. Who can know what might provoke a fury beyond his control? He gently squeezed her waist. “What more?” “Oh, ’tis only I am grateful winter is nigh over, and our people have survived and prospered through it. Renouf was evil, but a good overlord of the land. The estate, if naught else, thrived beneath his hand.” “’Tis my intent, Ysane, to do no less.” “I would not expect otherwise, my lord.” “Fallard.” She started to speak, but was forestalled when a shout rang out from the closest sentry on the wall. At nigh the same moment, the trumpets rang their clear notes announcing the arrival of friends. “Thegn D’Auvrecher! Riders approach from the west. The pennons are those of Ashbyrn, Falconhome and Sandmere.” “Ah. More of my stewards arrive. Let us greet them, my lady.” His pace increased until Ysane was all but running. “My thegn,” the guard called again. “They seem to have met with trouble. Several of the men appear wounded, one holds to an arrow point in his side, and another lies draped across his horse!” CHAPTER SEVENTEEN Anger spiked in Fallard at the words, for it meant whatever had happened, at least one man was dead. This was an unwelcome and unexpected circumstance, and he abruptly wished he had not ordered the men to bring their families. He could but hope none of the women or children had been harmed. Yet, an attack upon such a large and well-guarded company as he knew this one to be was all but unheard of. Though ’twas true thieves roamed the woods, their groups were small, poorly armed and rarely trained for fighting. ’Twould be foolhardy, nay suicide, were they to assail a party of experienced warriors. But the rebels? Aye, a large enough force might dare. He and Ysane reached the courtyard even as the sharp clip clop of hooves rang out against the timbers of the bridge. The first of the new arrivals rode in. Fallard issued orders to Ethelmar, who had appeared at his elbow. “Have the wounded moved into the hall, and find Luilda. See she has aid with her linens and medicinals. Prepare refreshments. Our guests will be cold and in need of sustenance. Roul, attend Ethelmar.” Trifine give a similar order to Fauques. Among the group of stewards filing into the courtyard were six women and two young boys. Fallard heaved a silent sigh they bore no sign of injury. A striking older woman of mayhap fifty twelvemonths, who looked remarkably calm for having been caught in the midst of a skirmish, rode in front beside a warrior who appeared about ten twelvemonths her senior. The guard had missed not his guess. As a whole, the group looked road worn and weary, the men’s clothing spattered with dirt and bloodstains. One of the pennons was shredded. At least two men, Saxon hearth companions by their mail, leaned precariously in their saddles, bloody bandages marking their wounds. A third man, plainly unconscious, was supported by the arms of a burly Norman knight who rode in the saddle behind him. From the riders, cries for assistance were raised. The courtyard swarmed with activity. Ysane pulled at his arm, but his focus was fully on the task before him. When she persisted, he frowned at her, impatience written in his stance and the lines of his face. “My lord, you should know! That one is Thegn Noll of Ashbyrn,” she said, pointing to the older man who rode at the head of the company. He was a short, slender man who sat his horse like a king and clearly held control of the group. She pointed to two other men, much younger than Lord Noll. “That one is Thegn Royse of Sandmere Manor and the other is Baron William D’Orsay of Falconhome.” Fallard threw her a grateful look. Though he was familiar with the names, the order of passage had been disarranged by the battle they had fought. ’Twas impossible to discern which pennons the individual men had ridden beneath and he could have guessed not, for the two Saxons wore clothing and mail similar to that of Lord D’Orsay. “My thanks,” he whispered. She nodded and hurried toward the steps of the hall, calling for Ethelmar as she went. Fallard reached Thegn Noll and grabbed the reins of his courser as the older man slid from the saddle. A wary hostility shone in Noll’s gaze as he helped his wife dismount, but his words were genial enough. “’Tis good to arrive at Wulfsinraed, and safely. You are Thegn D’Auvrecher?” “I am, and you are Thegn Noll. What has happened here?” “We were attacked shortly after leaving the Crossroads at Fallewydde. We had spent the night there, and left ere first light. Lady Norma—that is Lord D’Orsay’s wife—is increasing. She is late in her second month, and has been ill upon the journey. ’Twas decided bringing her here quickly was preferable to spending longer on the road, so we rode gently but steadily, wishing to arrive ere mid-morn.” Fallard winced at the words, wishing even more strongly he had not ordered the women and children to attend. ’Twas not well done of him, though it had seemed the course of wisdom at the time. Noll shook his head and sighed, his arm settling lightly around the waist of his wife. “They were upon us ere we knew it. ’Tis good fortune we were prepared for trouble, and able to fight them off, but not without hurt.” As the man explained how they were set upon, Fallard listened with one ear while he watched to see his orders were carried out. Lads from the stable took charge of the horses while serving boys unloaded baggage. The wounded men were aided into the hall. Luilda hurried through the tunnel as fast as her legs would carry her and disappeared into the hall behind them. Domnall and Trifine greeted the other two lords, while Jehan and Second Marshal Harold took charge of their men. Fallard escorted Thegn Noll and his lady to the hall, followed more slowly by the others. “How many were in the attacking party?” “At least five and twenty, more than our number.” “So many! What sense gained you of their purpose, were they thieves?” “Nay, my lord, I believe it not, though ’tis my thought they would have us believe so. Their clothing was ragged, as would be that of thieves, but they fought like warriors. Our men were hard pressed to gain the advantage. As you have seen, one of D’Orsay’s knights was slain.” They passed into the hall. To the left in the corner, the three wounded men were already laid out on pallets. Luilda directed helpers in treating the two less injured, even as she worked diligently and with rapid assurance over a third. Fallard led Thegn Noll and his wife to the eating platform, where jugs of mead and ale and flagons of hot mulled wine were already set out on the table, as were trenchers and goblets in preparation for the coming meal. “Be seated, and warm yourselves,” Fallard said, motioning the servants to attend them. He strode to the wounded men. With practiced eye, he noted the two less seriously hurt would recover if the wounds festered not. But the third was a belly wound, of all wounds among the most dreaded, for if the bowels were nicked or cut, the whole body would go putrid, followed by slow, painful death. D’Orsay and Royse, to whom the wounded men were sworn, joined him. “My lord D’Auvrecher,” Royse said. D’Orsay nodded to Fallard. Fallard acknowledged their greeting, noting the same wariness in their eyes as had shone in the eyes of Noll. He wondered at the reason, if ’twas simply because he was their new overlord—and to Noll and Royse, a Norman, and therefore an unknown quality—or if somewhat else lay behind it. Royse spoke again, addressing Luilda, and referring to the man with the stomach wound. “Will he live?” “I believe so, my lord. It appears not his bowels were cut, and the wound is not so deep as it appears. I have cleansed it, and will stitch it closed and apply a healing poultice. Then we must wait.” “’Tis good,” Royse said. “He is a fine man and a capable warrior.” “We shall leave her to work.” Fallard issued the subtle command, gesturing the men toward the eating platform. The ladies were seated, Ysane, Roana and Lewena in earnest conversation with the wives. Domnall, Trifine and Randel accompanied Noll. The young sons of D’Orsay and Royse stood with them. As Fallard approached, Trifine caught his eye, his head giving an almost imperceptible nod in the direction of the doors. As his First excused himself and headed that way, Fallard lifted his hand. “I am certain you are all weary from the battle, and a chance to bathe and rest would come not amiss.” He gestured to Ethelmar. “If ’tis your choice, my under-steward will see you to your bowers. All that you may need will be provided. If you prefer not to attend the noontide meal, ’twill be brought to you.” “Our thanks, my lord. Your generosity is appreciated.” Noll spoke for them all. As the three families moved toward the anteroom that led to the guest bowers, Fallard sought out Ysane. “The wounded men?” Her brow was furrowed with concern. “Luilda believes they will live.” “Ah, our Lord is merciful! ’Tis bad enough one has died, but Fallard, this should not have happened. What new trouble is this?” “I know not, but Trifine has news and wishes to speak with me. If you will excuse me, my lady?” Trifine waited for him on the wall, away from the guards. Whatever his First had to say, he wanted it not overheard. “Fallard,” Trifine said without preamble, “Lord D’Orsay spoke of aught he thought most strange. He said beneath their rags, many among those who attacked them wore tunics bearing King William’s crest. Thegns Noll and Royse agreed, for they and their men glimpsed the same, but said ’twas if the attackers wished them to see, all the while pretending to be thieves. They said not so outright, but ’tis clear they believe the men were soldiers, king’s men in disguise. They are angry. Methinks they suspect betrayal, though how that could be with D’Orsay among them, I know not.” “That explains the hostility,” Fallard said. “So ’twould seem.” “Pass the word, then, and double the guard. Order the men to especial watchfulness, and to pay close attention to aught the stewards’ men have to say. I want possible trouble nipped ere it can take form. I will speak more on this to the lords.” He turned to leave but Trifine stopped him. “Tell we also Domnall’s men?” He held Fallard’s gaze. Understanding passed between them, even as Fallard nodded. “If they may be trusted not, now is the time to learn it, when we are prepared to deal with it.” He paused, and then continued, his tone thoughtful. “Strike you not as odd, my friend, if the attackers were truly William’s men, and meant not for that fact to be known, that so many would be so careless as to allow the crest to be seen?” “Think you, then, as do the stewards, the revealing of the crest was deliberate?” “I do.” “Then you also think the men were Saxon rebels, seeking to stir up further trouble.” “Trouble for me, in particular, but what concerns me most is where rebels in this area would lay hands on tunics worn by William’s soldiers. ’Tis not as though our troops are plenteous in this out of the way region.” Trifine sucked in a quick breath. “Ruald! You think he has escaped and seeks to use your stewards to dislodge your hold on Wulfsinraed. But Fallard, how? Sir Gyffard’s troop was more than three score and ten. There is no party of rebels in this region with enough trained men to attack so large a company.” “So it has been thought, but what other explanation may there be? I know William. He acts not with devious and dishonorable methods. Even when his orders are brutal, he fights honestly and in the open. If he wanted the stewards of Wulfsinraed dead, he would simply send troops to all of their halls and take them by force. He would also have no reason to attack a Norman steward, unless that man be suspected of treason, and D’Orsay is known in court as loyal beyond question.” He slammed his fist into his palm. “Would that I could have traveled with Sir Gyffard, mayhap this could have been avoided. I warned him of the possibility, but he believed as you, that no trouble would be offered to so large a company.” He stood silent for a time, head down as his gaze focused on naught but what he saw within his own mind, then he peered at his First, a faint scowl pulling at his brows. “So be it. We will deal with what comes. Trifine, I suspect a large force of Saxons, led by their leader Ruald, may now be on its way to recapture Wulfsinraed. If I am right, the lives of the other stewards may be in danger, and utter fool that I am, I ordered them to bring their families. We must provide protection. Find Domnall, Jehan and Harold. Bring them at once to the hall. I will lay this before D’Orsay, Noll and Royse. I will need their help in riding escort to the others, and for that, I must gain their trust.” CHAPTER EIGHTEEN Three hours later, Fallard stood on the eating platform with Trifine, Jehan, Domnall, Harold and the stewards ranged about him. The remnants of the midday repast had been cleared from the table, which was now littered with half empty goblets of ale and maps of the region. Fallard’s gaze traveled around the group, meeting the eyes of each of the stewards. They had already sworn fealty. He awaited their observations. D’Orsay leaned over a map, both palms flat on the table. He spoke without looking up. “Your arguments are most persuasive, Lord D’Auvrecher. Unless evidence to the contrary emerges, I accept your explanation for the attack.” He straightened and met Fallard’s gaze. “As for ordering the attendance of our families, these are difficult times and any journey bears its hazards. For what value it may offer here, I would have ordered the same.” “As would I,” said Noll. “And none among us trusted Renouf, or his brother. The man possessed a quality of guileful self-interest. ’Tis my belief he would do aught, betray aught if he believed it to his advantage. I also acknowledge Sir Ruald would make such an attempt as you have laid out, were he in a position to do so.” Royse agreed. “When shall we begin these forays to protect the parties of stewards still due to arrive?” Fallard nodded in the direction of Trifine. “As soon as my First is able to organize the patrols. We will need five companies. Thegn Royse, you and Lord D’Orsay, along with Trifine and Domnall, will each lead a patrol. Domnall’s knowledge of the area and the roads each party must take in their journey is extensive. You will coordinate with him the direction your companies will take. Because more stewards come from the west, I will lead a second patrol to meet any parties arriving from that direction. “I will set trackers to locate Sir Ruald, if indeed, he has escaped and comes this way. Do we find their force is smaller than we believe, a company will be sent to waylay them before they reach Wulfsinraed. Otherwise, we will prepare to meet them here. “Thegn Noll, with Jehan and Harold will be responsible for the defense of the burh and the hall. The number of men needed for the patrols will leave the burh but lightly defended, so until all parties have safely arrived, or the attacking force is found and destroyed, the gates will be opened only for a short period, thrice daily, and only for the burhfolc and stewards. Every face is to be scanned, every wagon, barrel and crate searched, going in or out. No person not belonging to this demesne is to be allowed within the gates without permission from Noll, Jehan or Harold, and they are to be searched, as well.” Trifine spoke up. “What of the village and outlying farms, Captain? Think you they will be in harm’s way?” “Ruald is cunning. ’Tis my thought he will see no value in putting to sword those who would serve him, and who offer no threat should he gain his desire to retake the burh. But ’tis better to be prudent. Harold, pass the word that any man wishing to bring his family to reside within the safety of the wall is welcome. The burh may become overly crowded, but I will deny no man the right to protection. Order each one to bring only whatever supplies and shelter he and his family need, including food, warm clothing and shelter.” The meeting broke up and the men dispersed to their tasks. Fallard sought out Ysane. He found her, with the other ladies, working on needlework in her sitting room. Beckoning to her, he led her down one level to the lord’s bower, but failed to close the door behind them. He took her face in his hands, glad she made no effort to withdraw. He said no word, but drank in the sweetness of her face. When he spoke, his voice was heavy with regret. “I must take my leave of you now, my lady. I rue this time that should be given to merrymaking must be disrupted by strife.” “’Tis no fault of your own, my lord. You must do what must be done, and such things wait not for a more convenient time.” He pulled her close. “Have I told you, little rose, how very beautiful you are, and how fortunate I hold myself that you, with your eyes like rain-washed lily pads and your lips as lovely as a new-budded flower, belong to me?” Amazed at his own speech, for he was not given to poetry, and had been accused by the women of his acquaintance of utilizing a nigh criminal paucity of words, he nevertheless forged on. His voice deepened to a husky whisper. “My dreams brim with visions of your soft form clasped tight in my arms, and my waking hours are captured by the memory of the feel of your lips beneath mine. Never for a moment do I cease longing for the night we can be alone, as wedded. Tell me, my rose, dread you still that time? Do you, in truth, hope for my death in battle? If you could by some chance be free of me forever, would you make that choice?” She stood as if mesmerized beneath the sweet spell of his words. He held her gaze, waiting. *** Ysane kept him not long in suspense, for she grew more certain each hour that she feared not to become his wife. As yet, she knew not her heart’s full inclination. Nor did she know how she might fare in his bed, though it seemed her body would welcome him despite the horrors dealt by Renouf. Of desire, she had no experience, while trust, a thing both fragile and tenuous, could be offered, but not coerced. Once broken, ’twas difficult to mend. Renouf had taught her some men were beasts, but those of her family had tutored her in love. Thus, she pondered still if this man stood worthy of her increasing faith in him. She marveled that her fear and loathing of a man’s touch grew so quickly dim and distant when in his embrace. She could not give him all that she saw in his eyes he wanted, and knew not if ever she would. So she gave him what she could. “You have shown me, my lord, a man might be strong as Hercules, and powerful as the great Charlemagne, yet still be gentle as a lamb. I have seen you offer mercy to those who deserved death, and kindness to those to whom you owed no debt. You have given to me courtesy, and have treated me with honor, wooing me with gentle persuasion, when you might have taken me with cruel force, and emptied your mind of concern for me afterwards. None could have stopped you had you done so. Renouf protected none but himself, yet even now, you ride in honor to defend with your life the people you have sworn to protect.” She clasped her hands at his nape, and rested her head against his broad chest. “Nay, my lord, I wish not for your death. I wish that you travel with Godspeed, and beneath His protection, for I would have you return, whole and unharmed. We have a wedding to attend, and vows to speak, and I…,” and here she faltered as a flaming blush once again fired her face. “I dread not our wedding night, my lord.” At her final words, he groaned and crushed her slight form against him as if he would imprint the feel of her forever upon his skin. He lifted her face and took her lips in a soul-searing kiss, staking his claim. *** Fallard had held his breath as Ysane revealed so much of her heart. He cradled her sweet flesh close, sharply aware of the enticing curves beneath her syrce. His kiss grew deeper, more insistent. A voice suffused with mirth intruded. “Forgive me for interrupting your um, farewells, Fallard,” Trifine said from the door. “The first patrols are ready to leave. Roul came up here to assist with your mail, but now he skulks in the hall like a cat with its fur rubbed the wrong way, waiting for you to finish your lovemaking.” Fallard scowled as he tore his mouth from Ysane’s, and the words he snapped at Trifine were snarled. “Know you not how to knock?” He launched invisible daggers at his First even as he cradled Ysane’s heated face close against his chest. “You left the door open,” Trifine remarked with cheerful disregard, not at all put out by his captain’s aggravation. He made no effort to hide his amusement or his enjoyment of Ysane’s pinkened face. “Next time I will not only close it, but bar it, as well. Mayhap, that will keep disrespectful Firsts in their place.” “’Twould do little good. I would only have to beat on it and yell all the louder.” “Enough! What must a man do to find privacy with his betrothed? Go tell Roul to get up here, and Trifine?” “Aye, Captain?” “Come not back.” Trifine’s laughter echoed all the way down the stairs. Fallard set Ysane from him. He turned toward the stand on which he kept his hauberk, although for the nonce he still slept with his men in the northeast tower. “Forgive my First, little rose. What he lacks in finesse, he makes up for in tactlessness. Will you stay while I don my mail?” “I will.” She sat on a stool by the door. Roul flew through the portal, coming to an abrupt halt when he caught sight of Ysane. He flushed. “My lady.” “Where have you been, boy, I have not all the day.” Fallard growled the complaint, but his hand ruffled his squire’s tousled hair. “Is Tonnerre ready?” He pulled his padded gambeson over his linen shirt, then lifted the heavy, blackened hauberk, bent forward and with Roul’s help, slipped it over his head. “Who is Tonnerre?” Ysane said. “My destrier. My courser is Foudre.” “Ah, of course. Thunder and lightning. Appropriate.” “You have seen them, have you not, when I took them for exercise?” She nodded. “Aye, I have seen them, and beauties they are. But Tonnerre is like the blackest of shadows and to my eyes, roughly the size of a small hill.” Fallard chuckled at her description. “Tonnerre is chomping for a run, he is,” Roul said. He grasped the hem of the hauberk and pulled it down to Fallard’s knees. “Tuck saddled him, himself. All the other stable hands are afeard of him.” The supple leather hood, mail coif and ventail went on next, followed by black leather arm greaves and the flexible gauntlets. “Think you we will catch the knaves today, my lord?” Roul rambled on without ever giving Fallard time to answer, but Fallard was accustomed to his squire’s chatter and made no demur. “I would wager we find them right away. They will have no chance against us, aye, that they will not. Cowards they are, jumping out like toads from the dark. Afeard to face us like men!” He handed over the leather sword belt. Fallard buckled it on over the hauberk, then wrapped the scarlet girdle with William’s crest around the belt. Ere sheathing his great sword, Fallard brought it to Ysane. His pride in the weapon, a blade bequeathed to him by a favored uncle, was strong. He showed her the silvered cross-guard inlaid with obsidian gemstones. Black leather worn smooth from long use covered the grip, butting up against the silvered pommel. “See you this.” His gauntleted finger followed the elegant tracery of letters forged deep into the thickness of the blade’s length. “‘F A L L A R D’. ’Twas gifted to me at my accolade by Rollant, my father’s elder brother.” Once she admired his weapon to his satisfaction, Fallard slipped it into the protective fleece inside the black wooden scabbard. Roul held the black and silver conical helm as Fallard reached for his dark-shafted lance. He slung his shield, of a teardrop shape with a painted ebon and silver starburst design, damaged by the dents and slashes of battle and nigh as tall as himself, over his shoulder. “Go out to the yard, boy, and give the saddlebags a last check. Make sure you have forgotten naught,” he said to Roul, who grinned again and skipped away to do his bidding. He faced Ysane, who caught her breath. He noted the gleam of approving wonder in her eyes and could avoid not a strut as he sauntered toward her, the tinkle of his spurs accompanying the low thud of his boots against the floor. Hah! ’Twas a good thing to know his little rose thought him a fine figure of a man. He would carry her admiring expression with him into battle, and ’twould give him the courage of a dozen knights. “How long will you be gone?” ’Twas the age-old question of those whose role was to stay behind and wait. “’Twill depend on how quickly we find the parties of the stewards, or those who attacked the first group.” He refrained from stating his belief they were Saxon rebels, or that he suspected Ruald had escaped. “No more than two or three days, methinks. But within that time, I may return with some of the stewards.” He took her arm. “Walk with me.” Together they descended to the courtyard, where Ysane joined the other women already gathered on the steps. The tunnel between the gates was overflowing with people, carts and animals. The villagers and the ceorls from the farms were beginning to stream inside the walls, getting underfoot of the mounted men, who yelled at them to watch out lest they be trampled by restless hooves. Fallard stared in disbelief at the chaos, then started to laugh. “What a ridiculous sight.” He caught Ysane in his arms, careful not to hold her too tightly lest the rough metal of his hauberk press through her syrce and cause her hurt. He kissed her once again, heedless of all who saw. “Take care,” he whispered. He strode down the steps, drew himself up onto Tonnerre’s back and donned the helmet Roul handed him. Guiding the great destrier to the head of the mounted patrols, he yelled loudly enough to gain the attention of all. “If you wish not to be trampled, move out of the way.” Those on foot scrambled to obey, mothers grabbing children and fathers hauling on supplies, and within moments, the pavement was clear. Fallard raised his arm. “We ride! Good fortune to us all.” With an imperceptible movement of his legs , he set Tonnerre to a slow trot. As he crossed the bridge and turned west, he noted Ysane’s arrival on the wall above through his peripheral vision. As he urged Tonnerre into an easy gallop, he looked not behind, but knew the beautiful green eyes of his rose rested upon him. He drew back his shoulders and held his head high, his spine as straight as his lance. *** Ysane tightened her cloak about her shoulders and watched the empty road long after the patrol was swallowed within the trees. An ancient thoroughfare it was, built by the Romans, and still serviceable after the countless twelvemonths since they had passed away. Master builders, those Romans had been, but hardly more so than the Normans. They, too, were grand builders, and like the great conquerors ere them, they built in stone, to last the ages. Normans! Conquerors and enemies of her people. Some would expect her to hate and fear them, and fight them to the death. Some would advise she flee marriage to the one who claimed her, while others would whisper she seduce him, and when he slept from the exhaustion of their play, slip a knife into his heart. But not all of his kind were brutes or cruel masters. Fallard was honorable and just, and even his men were respectful of her people. She thought of the sight he made in full armor. A thrill, part fear and part admiration, had swept through her as she took him in from mail-coifed head to black leather boots and gilded spurs. By the saints! He was terrifying, but he was also magnificent. He mounted the massive Tonnerre as easily as if he wore no mail and the horse, no more than a pony. ’Twas no wonder the fierce warriors were so feared. Even Domnall, the greatest fighter she had ever known, had met his match with Fallard on the practice field. She waited on the wall, looking west, until the sun sank low enough to throw its bright rays beneath the cloud layer, forcing her to shade her eyes. The air grew too cool for comfort even in her warm cloak. “Ysane?” She turned. Roana stood there, her lovely face troubled. Ysane held out her arms and her cousin came into them. They clasped each other closely, finding comfort in the embrace of deep friendship underscored by the close family tie. Ysane understood Roana’s unspoken need. Trifine was gone too, leading one of the patrols. So newly had they come to care for the men so recently thrust into their lives, that neither knew how to feel the emotions roiling within. After a time, arm-in-arm, they went down to sup in the hall, where lights blazed and warmth beckoned. They were the mistresses of Wulfsinraed, and guests awaited them. CHAPTER NINETEEN Ysane looked out over the courtyard the next morn, trying to decide where she wished to go. Almost ere she finished dressing, Ethelmar had arrived at her bower to firmly evict her, giving orders for the chamber to receive a thorough scrubbing, from wooden floors to raftered ceiling. Her dish-thegn had everyone in the place cleaning. Even Tenney the hoarder was involved, temporarily called from his records. He was in the hall, helping to take down the tapestries. Ysane had no need to enter the kitchen to hear the same lively diligence being pursued there. The voices of Alyce and Alewyn, the bubbly, skinny twin sisters who were her cooks, carried clearly into the hall as they directed the kitchen slaves in scouring everything that could be scrubbed. The frenetic industry had her hunting a refuge, since no one would allow her to help, for Fallard had left word she was to rest. She could not mind the order. Her dreams the night before had been unsettling, and she had awakened tired and dispirited. Her head ached. Even her sitting room was no haven. The chamber was crowded with servants mending bedding while the ladies bent over their embroidery. The room had taken on the aspect of a cage, overflowing with chattering, fluttering birds. So she fled outside, only to discover ’twas no better than within. In the cottages of the burh craftsmen that adjoined the wall west of the gates, the activity was hectic. From the stables to the carpenter’s stall, no one, except mayhap the smithy, seemed exempt. The day was certainly made for such work. ’Twas warm and sunny with a clear turquoise sky, the color so deep ’twas easy to imagine it as an upside down lake, rippling over her head between the horizons. She stopped beside Jehan, who stood at the foot of the steps. He directed the squires, among them the methodical Fauques and lighthearted Roul, in their task of shoveling dung from the courtyard. With the unplanned influx of families from outside, plus their livestock, the pavement of cobbled stone had become mired in manure and mud. The boys shoveled it into buckets, carried it to the river and dumped it into the swift-moving waters. They returned with buckets full of clean water to sluice the stones. Despite the ache that buffeted her head, she chuckled. Roul laughed, chattered non-stop and teased the other boys, regarding the chore a game, but he splashed more of the odiferous mess upon himself than in the buckets. Like it or nay, his destiny this eve was a thorough dunking in a clean bath. Fauques merely cast forbearing glances at his friend’s antics and carried out his task with painstaking care. So very different they were, yet, each balanced the other. She turned to Jehan. “Has every soul in the burh had been taken by the fever of cleaning? When the men return, they will not recognize this place.” She was not entirely jesting. Jehan chuckled. “Ethelmar and I decided ’twould be better if no one had too much time to think.” With a grin and a wink, his brown eyes laughing, he strode off toward the stable. Well. That explained the madness. Following the curve of the tower, Ysane was drawn to the activity in the center of the practice field. Harold must have every off-duty warrior involved in training. The clash and clang of mock battle mingled with the grunts of hard-hitting, sweating men. The grounds surrounding the field were crowded with makeshift shelters. Ieldramodor had once told her that long ago, ere the village moved outside the walls, those grounds had been cobblestoned lanes lined with workshops, storehouses, an alehouse and bake house, with snug cottages clustered among them. She wished she could have seen it back then, filled as ’twould have been with life and movement, with laughter, shouts and mothers calling to their offspring. Mayhap, it might have looked a little as it did now. She turned in the opposite direction. Skirting the courtyard and the busy squires, she passed beneath the high arch that supported the crosswalk overhead only to discover the orchard too, was chock full of humanity. Everywhere, people laughed, argued and chatted. Women cooked over open fires while small children ran and played, enjoying the unexpected holiday. Animals of every description barked, clucked, brayed, mooed or bleated. Her headache spiked. She ran back to the hall. Weaving adroitly through the army of workers, she slipped into the southwest anteroom and worked her way around servants whitewashing the walls to reach the door to the garden. She shoved it open and fled through. Leaning against it, she sighed in relief, face upraised to the sunlight, and impatiently pushed an errant braid of her hair beneath her headrail. The high walls that enclosed the garden blocked the sight, and at least some of the noise, of the chaos without. At once, she relaxed as the peace washed over her. She loved her garden, even in winter when except for the scattered beds of winter pansies and Christ Mass roses flanked by boxwood hedges, stem and branch lay barren. ’Twas her sanctuary, and even more so than her sitting room. She knew every bush and flower by name, talked to them and knew all the little quirks of their growth. She had hidden her passion from Renouf, pretending to loathe the work. Had he known, he would have forbidden her access. He had strutted about, preening like a peacock whenever guests had raved over the garden’s beauty as if he, and he alone, were responsible. The design of the layout with its crushed shell pathways, benches, shade trees and flowerbeds was entirely her creation. Soon, the weather would permit her to be on her knees, pruning her roses—she loved the white ones best—and working fallen leaves and other detritus into the soil in preparation for planting. As she moved along the paths, she noted where winter weeds needed pulling and caked mud must be scrubbed from the sundial. The small pond that centered the garden would need the winter scum cleared. Ignoring the ache in her temples, she sought to note and mentally catalogue aught amiss. Thus, when a spot of dull red caught her attention in a place where no color should be, nigh the base of one of the walls, she halted her meandering steps. Bending to investigate, she felt herself blanch with shock as she pulled the small object from where it lay half buried beneath the soil. Ere she could take guard, bloody images of Angelet’s death, juxtaposed against her infant daughter’s beautiful green eyes and happy coos, slammed into her with the force of a blow. A low moan escaped her lips. She stared in disbelief at the cladersticca lying on her palm. Domnall had carved the rattle ere her daughter’s birth, filling it with small stones and painting it with lovely runic designs. The short time it had spent buried in earth had already dulled the bright colors. But what mystery is this? How did the toy come to be here, in the garden? Oh, Angelet! Still so nigh the surface of her heart, the grief, fierce and searing, overwhelmed her. She collapsed as a flower torn by its roots, sobbing without control. The anguish of twelvemonths, inflamed by the events of recent days buffeted her, rending her soul. She wept so violently breathing became difficult and she gasped for air, while tears to rival a rainstorm scorched her cheeks. Her father’s death, the absence of Cynric, the murder of her precious babe, the arrival of the Normans and all the terror, rage, and misery of the three interminable twelvemonths with Renouf, now rose to suffocate her. Encompassed with sorrow, she was but dimly aware of the arms that surrounded her and pulled her face from the cold ground, cradling her in the warmth of a tender embrace. “Ysane, my dear, oh my sweet, dear cousin, please weep not so. You will make yourself ill again.” Roana’s usually clear voice was husky as she clasped Ysane’s head to her bosom, rocked her like a child and murmured words of solace, as if seeking some way, any way, to allay the terrible grief. “’Tis all right, my dear, ’twill be all right.” She removed Ysane’s headrail and stroked her hair. Slowly, the tempest subsided. Ysane peered through blurred vision into her kinswoman’s caring face. “Oh Roana, what a treasure you are,” she whispered as her cousin swiped at her tears with a linen cloth. “You have ever been a tower of strength, dear friend, even since we were children. How can I ever repay you?” Roana helped her sit up, handing her the cloth to blow her nose. She shook her head. “My dear, who considers repayment when no debt has been accrued? Are we not sisters in our hearts? If we succor not each other in time of need, then who will? Come now. Try to stand. The ground is cold, and I would not have you become ill.” “How did you know I had need of you?” They rose and Roana helped Ysane brush dirt and dry leaves from her clothing. “I was in the window embrasure overlooking the garden. I saw you fall. Lewena is there, as well. Will you not reassure her?” Ysane looked up. Lewena watched from the window above. Ysane found the strength to smile, instead of lapsing back into tears at the compassion filling her friend’s eyes. Lewena inclined her head in return and turned back to the sitting room. “Shall we walk?” Roana moved ahead of Ysane on the path. “Methinks the roses will be especially beautiful this year, with all the moisture we had over the winter months.” Ysane, still gripping the tiny rattle, slipped it into a fold of her cyrtel. She had to fight to control the tremor that still shook her voice. “Aye, ’tis likely. They’ve done so well the past few seasons, the white, in particular.” She slanted a glance at her cousin. Roana sought to distract her with mention of her roses. Any other time, the ploy would have worked. Mayhap, it still might. She sniffed and swept out her hand to indicate the dormant bed they passed. “Never have I seen the white ones grow so large, so very full. Ieldramodor’s suggestion to rub crushed garlic on the leaves and stems worked wonders for killing those pesky blackflies that invaded last summer.” “How large will your lavender plots be this year?” A rather soggy giggle bubbled to Ysane’s lips, surprising her. Roana loved the pale purple tint and sweet scent of the tiny blossoms, and enjoyed infusing her bath water with lavender oil. But lavender had so many other uses, from cooking and apothecary needs to freshening floor rushes and deterring moths from feasting on wool. Ysane never seemed to grow enough to use purely for toiletry purposes, so for Roana’s use, she asked Domnall to buy it from the monks at Bedhalh Abbey west of Fallewydde. They grew fields of it. “Hmmm....” She drew out her response as if ‘twere not a question to which she had already given thought. “I suppose I must increase their size by no small amount, since I have a greedy cousin who constantly pesters me for lavender oil, and it does seem of especial importance now, since that same lady has a man to impress with how sweet she smells.” Roana laughed and hugged her. “You are too good to me, Ysane. I swear I will give all my rose oil to you, since I am not the only lady who has a special nose she wants to tickle. Think you I have seen not Fallard lean close to you and sniff your hair when he thought no one looked? The man seeks most diligently to show it not, but he grows as besotted with you as Trifine is with me!” Heat suffused Ysane’s cheeks. “Roana! Now you are being silly. Fallard wants me, I admit, but besotted? ’Tis not possible. Why, we but met a few days ago. That is hardly enough time to become enamored.” “Oh, indeed…and how long was it, think you, before I fell in love with Trifine? My dear, I needed but one look at that beautiful man, heard only the barest of words from his gentle lips, and knew him the mate of my soul. ’Tis oh-so-sweet to my heart he so quickly felt the same. If so harmonious a bonding may overtake the two of us with such instancy, why then can it not with Fallard, and aye, even with you, as well? “Think you I have seen not how his eyes stray constantly to you, and he hovers when you are nigh? You forget I was there when he carried you from the wall after the battle, and how he fought for your life when you lay dying from the fever. Why, ’twas but only a day hence I saw him knock one of the guards to the ground and threaten to expel him from the burh for carelessly insulting you. No man behaves in such a way if he cares little or naught for a woman.” Ysane ceased her rambling to stare into her cousin’s golden-brown eyes. Wonder filled her at Roana’s words. “Roana, think you truly…?” “Aye, I do. But what of you, Ysane? My lord D’Auvrecher is a mighty warrior and a wise leader, but he is a man less open with his affections than Trifine. Yet, that means not he is incapable of both powerful and gentle feeling. Are you able, my dear, to let go of the evil of Renouf and grasp hold of the tenderness Fallard offers? Will you ever trust him as he deserves?” “I know not. Oh, everything is happening so quickly—too quickly. ’Tis so short a time, really, since he came to my sitting room, and we first conversed. The man has turned all my thoughts on their head! “He is Norman, Roana. He has taken for himself all my father meant should be mine. I should hate and fear him for those things. Yet, I hate him not, and am astounded to discover at no time have I truly feared him. I seem to…to know he would never hurt me, at least not with purpose, as Renouf loved to do. I have seen how my people respond to him. ’Tis as if a brisk, clean wind has swept through the hall, blowing away the bitter evil and leaving behind a fresh, new day.” She blew a sharp exhalation, and shook her head. “I admit at first I felt no small measure of betrayal at how easily he swayed the loyalty of those I thought should be true to me, even you and Domnall. I was hurt at how easily he gathered the affection of the whole burh in his hands.” Her eyebrows puckered in chagrin. “Quite put out, I fear.” Roana’s laughter rang through the garden. “And I fear that confession is no surprise to anyone, my dear. When you came to sup that eve, you were so filled with indignation and fury ’tis a wonder the tapestries took not fire as you walked past. Yet, as you say, Fallard did little more than remind you of your role as the lady of the hall. Renouf would have…well, we both know what Renouf would have done.” “But I would never have behaved so with Renouf, and that is my whole point. I understood from the beginning, without knowing how, that Fallard would hurt me not.” She lifted her head and looked toward the wall, where the sentries strolled and called to each other. Her eyes followed a kestrel as it hovered, almost motionless, upon the airs, seeking movement far below that might reveal its next meal. For a moment, her thoughts were very far away. “There is one other thing I would ask,” Roana said, “and if you choose, you may remind me ’tis no concern of mine, and I will ask no more.” Her voice trailed away and a curious blush colored her fair skin. “Well?” “Ysane, has he kissed you, yet? Oh, I mean, not little pecks on the cheek or a simple meeting of the lips, but really kissed you, with passion as a man who hungers for a woman and desires to make love with her?” Memories of the passionate embraces she had shared with Fallard rose to send the same color rioting over her own face that had but moments before suffused Roana’s countenance. Her cousin saw the telltale confirmation, and she laughed again in sheer delight. “Forgive me, kinswoman, if I have been indelicate, but ’tis obvious he has. Did you enjoy it?” “Roana!” “Oh, go not all prim and prudish now. You must tell me. Did you kiss him back? Did his embrace make you want to melt right into his skin? Did you thrill at his slightest touch? Did his kiss fill your soul with joy and pleasure, and leave you yearning for more? I freely admit Trifine’s kisses are like fire, setting me aflame, yet they bear such sweetness I sometimes fear I will swoon. I wait with anticipation to discover where further they might lead. Did you experience no such wonderful feelings when Fallard kissed you?” “I, well, I….” “You did! I knew it. “Oh, very well, aye. I felt much the same as you describe. ’Twas most astonishing. I never thought such a feeling would be mine. A simple glance from his eyes, so fierce, so proud, and I can deny him naught. Had you asked me that question but a seven-day ago, would I ever associate pleasure with a man’s touch, I believe I might have laughed in bitterness, or else been so humiliated I would have run away. Forgive me, dear friend, but even you know not the depths of my husband’s corruption, or his debasements. Had I ever dared to think beyond his cruelty, even then I would have guessed not what goodness might be found in the caress of a man’s hand. I verily believed I would want naught but to live free of any man, but of that, I am no longer certain.” Her shoulders lifted in a little shrug. “How that may be, I know not. The shame of my life with Renouf can be not wiped out so easily or so quickly…or can it? How is it possible I thrill to the touch of Fallard’s lips upon mine, his arms holding me so tightly, when but days past the very thought of such an intimacy caused a sickness of horror in my belly, and shuddering fear to weaken my soul? What powerful magic has my lord used against me? What enchantment has he wrapped round my heart? Roana, how can this be?” “What power of magic, you ask? What spell has he woven? Oh, Ysane, my kinswoman and dearest friend, ’tis no strange enchantment. Yet, all at the same, ’tis the greatest wonder of all. ’Tis the magic of love, and the power of hope.” CHAPTER TWENTY From her chair at table that eve, Ysane studied her guests and her people as they sat at sup. The hall fairly gleamed from the day’s endeavors, and seemed much brighter with even’s last light shining through pristine window glazing and reflecting off newly whitewashed walls. The pleasing glow would not last long. Already the smoke from the torches, candles and the fire pits roiled toward the ceiling and into the shadows created by the flickering flames. High-spirited conversation, and spirits of a different sort flowed freely, needing from her but a word for the first, or a glance to a servant for the second to keep both circulating. Four more parties of stewards from fiefs to the south and west, and Verdonport Hall from the coast, were escorted in after the nooning, though none by Fallard. They relaxed at their meal, relieved to have arrived safely after hearing of the earlier attack. Like the others, these were a mix of Saxon thegns and Norman barons, though now the Norman stewards sadly outnumbered her people. King William was steadily replacing the Saxon leadership throughout the land. Few were left in any position of power and of those, all were sworn to him from before Santlache. Still, she feared, soon none would be left at all. Ysane held herself aloof as she reflected on the morn’s encounter with her kinswoman, whose words gave her much upon which to think. Awakening ere dawn, restless and unsettled as sheep catching the howl of wolves drifting down the wind, she had felt as if the very ground itself shifted beneath her feet, ready to open and swallow her. But the bout of weeping in the garden had plumbed inner depths, providing a catharsis. After, she felt a sense of renewal, of restoration, as if she had been given back not only her life, but even her very soul. Grief was not allayed, for her daughter’s brutal death was too nigh to set aside. But for the first time in too long, she had hope for the future, and a life to anticipate that might, if carefully nurtured, be very good. If only she could talk to Cynric again, her heart might yet survive. Had her brother returned to his home in the forest? Mayhap, on the morrow, she could slip away and visit his cottage. ’Twas unlikely any rebels were near the burh and the short journey into the forest should be safe. If he remained absent, mayhap, she would find something he left behind to explain why he had abandoned her in the time of her greatest need. She refused to consider he might be dead. For now, the simple gladness at the ease and lack of fear with which her people openly enjoyed the meal was as a further balm for healing. How different this meal was from what it had been such a short time before. With the men Fallard left behind there was no riotous, drunken revelry, and no lecherous hands to pinch and squeeze where they belonged not. The serving children, their features relaxed and smiling, did their work without strain of wondering when the slightest mistake might result in a massive hand cruelly smashing them to the floor, mayhap, breaking a bone. Oh, there was laughter aplenty, and much conversation, but ’twas good-natured, lacking the raucous, brutish quality from before. Aye, the new lord of the burh was Norman, but if Wulfsinraed must have a new lord, then better it be Fallard D’Auvrecher. In so short a time, he had proven himself a better man and a more capable leader, and certainly more honorable than Renouf, true Saxon though her husband had been. There was no doubt which her people preferred. Her brows tugged together. All, mayhap, except one. Since Ruald was escorted away in bonds, the slave Leda smiled only to gain favor. Ethelmar informed her the girl was surly, vicious to a fault, and must be constantly prodded to do her work. The others disliked her. Mayhap she truly grieved, and missed Ruald. Certainly, she missed the prestige she had enjoyed as the woman who held the favor of the lord’s brother. As if aware of Ysane’s thoughts, Leda turned to stare straight at her. Ysane’s breath caught at the contempt and hatred that blazed from the girl’s amber eyes. Startled, she stared back. The other woman sneered, but then her eyes fell and she flounced off to the kitchen. If she is miserable and makes others unhappy as well, mayhap, she should be sold. I will speak to her in the morn. “Are you not well, my lady?” Jehan bent to her from his place on the bench beside her chair. “You eat not, I notice.” “Nay, Jehan,” she said, letting her delight in the eve show in her smile. “In truth, I have been so preoccupied with the differences in my hall I fear I have quite forgotten to eat.” To prove her words, she speared a piece of smoked, honeyed ham and ate it with relish. But Jehan’s thoughtful gaze left her not. He spoke again, so low only she would hear. “That woman, the slave, I saw how she looked at you. She was disrespectful. I would chastise her, if you like.” Ysane shook her head. The intensity of the encounter with Leda had shaken her, but the problem was a simple one, and as mistress of the hall, entirely hers. “My thanks, Jehan, but I will deal with it.” “Well and good. But I am available, Lady Ysane, should you have need of my services. I will suffer you not to come to harm, nor am I pleased to stand aside and allow you to be so disparaged by a slave.” Served by Jehan’s squire, Ysane took a bite of carrot flavored with mint and ginger, and cocked her head at the Second. “Sir Jehan, did my lord D’Auvrecher set you to watch over me in his absence?” The faintest hint of color drifted over Jehan’s sculpted cheekbones. He offered her a sheepish grin. “Was I so transparent, then, my lady? Forgive me, I meant no offense.” Ysane managed to refrain from laughing. The Second appeared quite comically disgruntled with himself, and concerned she might have been insulted by his words. “Oh, nay, Jehan. In truth, I am flattered, and not surprised my lord would leave you so onerous a duty. Fear not, sir knight. You have been most gallant.” Jehan’s brows puckered, as if wondering if she jested. But he must have decided to take her words as they seemed, for he smiled at her instead. Across from them, Lady Matty, wife to Thegn Noll, finished a honeyed almond. “Lady Ysane, I noticed the unfinished tapestry on your loom, this morn. The colors are quite striking, but the piece is not yet far enough along to discern the design. What is the scene?” Ysane smiled. “’Tis an after sup scene of a country hall, much as you find anywhere. I thought the children might be gathered around the scop as he entertained. The ladies will be at their embroidery and the men talking around the fire, or playing at dice. The dogs will gnaw on supper bones. ’Twill be an uncomplicated scene, but one I hope to instill with all the peace and beauty of a simple life.” Matty nodded. “’Tis my understanding you wove many of the tapestries in the hall. They are exquisite, my child. The weaving of the threads is not so difficult to learn, but the talent of bringing a scene to life, as if at any moment the figures might step out of the frame and speak, that is a gift, and one you seem to have in abundance. Noll and I must come around to visit again in a few months. I find myself desirous of viewing the new tapestry in its entirety.” “I would be most pleased for you and your lord to visit, and I hope you will do so oft, and stay long enough we might come to know each other better.” “Then ’tis a certainty we will come.” The hall doors opened, catching Ysane’s eye. A guard stepped inside. His searching eyes found Jehan. Coming to the Second’s side, he whispered a quick word. Jehan stood and turned to Ysane. “My lady, a messenger has arrived. Since the captain is not here, mayhap, you should hear his words.” A tremor of unease jolted Ysane, but she stood and gestured to all at the table. “If you will excuse us? Please continue to enjoy your meal. I am certain we will return shortly.” Jehan also beckoned to Thegn Noll, who arose and followed them outside. The guard led them to the gatehouse. Slumped before the fire pit, his hands wrapped round a tankard of warm ale, sat a man in the garb of King William’s foot soldiers. He glanced up when they entered, and with obvious effort, came to his feet, but so quickly, he stumbled, knocking over his stool. “Sir Jehan! My lord, my lady. I bear an urgent message from Sir Gyffard.” “Sit down, man,” Jehan ordered. “You are nigh to falling over. What you have to say may be said while seated, and it can wait another moment or two. Catch your breath.” “My thanks, sir.” He retrieved his seat, and pulled it closer to the hearth. Jehan was right, Ysane observed. The poor man reeled with exhaustion. Bloodshot eyes blinked blearily from a gaunt face. Now and anon, shivers shook his ragged frame, and the hands holding the tankard trembled. His head hung low, bearded chin as slumped as his shoulders. Bloody scratches on face and hands, and mail smeared with stains of blood, dirt, and moss stains offered mute testimony of battle hard fought, and a need to hide close to the ground and in thorny thickets. He had been hunted. While the soldier recovered, the guard brought stools for Ysane and Noll. Jehan seated himself on the flat hearth. The guard who summoned them spoke. “Would you have a spot of ale, my lords, my lady?” Jehan and Noll nodded but Ysane declined. Her suspicion the messenger had been forced to hide from pursuers during his race to the hall was proven correct when the man finally lifted his head and began to relate his message. His tired eyes focused on Jehan. “I am Ligart, sir. I bear a message from Sir Gyffard for Captain D’Auvrecher. I would have arrived yester eve, but I was followed, and ’twas necessary to hide for a time to give the searchers opportunity to move on. I have been told why Captain D’Auvrecher is away, and I fear my message has a direct bearing on that cause.” He gulped another swallow of ale and continued. “Three days ago, our force was waylaid by a great host of Saxons. Though we remained alert for trouble, as Sir Gyffard ordered, they took us by surprise. They outnumbered us two to one. In the chaos, Sir Ruald and most of his men were freed, and escaped with the rebel host. Sir Gyffard believes that force is headed for Wulfsinraed.” Ysane’s indrawn breath hissed loudly in the pause, as the bumps of a chill passed over her arms. She caught her elbows with her hands, hugging herself. She had thought Ruald safely on his way to London, but now! She feared not only for Fallard. If Arnulf, her brother-by-law, had obeyed Fallard’s summons, then he, her sister Gemma and their son, Sigan, would be out there somewhere, unaware of their danger. Ruald was free. His rage would be terrible, all his thoughts bent on revenge. He would kill her family if he could. “My lady!” The messenger spoke again, misunderstanding her fear. “I left on my mission very soon after the battle, and traveled as fast as I was able. ’Twould have taken some time for the Saxon force to reassemble and prepare to march. They are a large force, on foot, and unable to move quickly through the forest. Though I spent a goodly length of time in hiding, ’tis my belief they remain a night and full day behind, mayhap many hours more.” Jehan also spoke to reassure her. “We are safe here, my lady, fear not. Captain D’Auvrecher was well aware when he left that a large force of rebels might be on its way. I assure you, he will take care, and there will be protection for the traveling parties.” “He knew Sir Gyffard’s men were attacked and Sir Ruald was freed?” “Nay, he suspected only, my lady,” Noll corrected, “and there is yet another consideration. The attack on our party could have had—should have had—more disastrous results. ’Twas as if those who assaulted us were less intent on killing, than simple harassment. If, as is believed, they were rebels, ’tis unlikely they would risk having the countryside rise against them by indiscriminately killing Saxon noblemen and their families. My lord D’Auvrecher’s force would be more than capable of dealing with them, should they happen upon them. “But methinks the group that attacked us had but one goal, and that to cause us to suspect betrayal from Lord D’Auvrecher and King William. Believing that goal achieved, then surely by now they would be in hiding, awaiting the larger force.” Jehan nodded in agreement with Noll’s assessment, and Ysane felt some of her first fear subside. “Continue your message, Ligart,” Jehan said. “I would know all you may tell.” “Aye, sir. We were set upon nigh the end of the day, at a place in the road so narrow our numbers were forced to string out. We had already passed a number of such places and were prepared, thinking them likely spots for ambush. Though we passed each of those unscathed, we yet remained alert, and that, Sir Gyffard believes, was one reason we were not more badly taken. But he also believes the rebels were more interested in setting free the prisoners than in killing the king’s men.” “Why would Sir Gyffard come to that conclusion?” “Well, sir, the Saxons dropped on us like flies from the trees above the road, and attacked from the sides and both ends of the line. But the largest number assaulted the middle of the line where the prisoners were secured. There were bowmen among them, but those shot only at guards nigh to the prisoners. They succeeded in splitting our party in half. They separated and overwhelmed the soldiers close to the prisoners so those men had no choice but to defend their own lives, leaving them unable to prevent the prisoners from being released. “Once Sir Ruald and the rest were free, the rebels melted back into the trees. Sir Gyffard rallied the force and sent men in pursuit, but those men returned quickly with naught to report. The Saxons vanished as if they had never been. “Sir Gyffard decided to take the dead and wounded and head southwest, but he feared the Saxons would double back and seek to attack Wulfsinraed under the leadership of Sir Ruald. He sent me to warn Captain D’Auvrecher of that possibility. ’Twas his thought to rouse the garrison at Witham, and did they agree to come, bring them back with him.” “What is Sir Gyffard’s estimate of the number of men who may be coming this way?” “As I said, sir, their numbers were double ours, mayhap more. Sir Gyffard believed their number nigh to two hundred, with the possibility of gathering more along the way.” “Two hundred!” Noll cried. “‘Why, that is impossible. There is no such force of rebels in this part of the land.” “Aye, so all believed.” Jehan’s tone was heavy. “But it seems all were wrong.” “Sir Jehan,” said Noll, “after what has been said here this eve, think you ’tis possible the attack on our party was a means of luring troops away from the burh?” “Hmmm, so while they were away, chasing shadows, the larger force could arrive without warning and launch an attack of their own, thus attempting to take the burh ere the defenders could return? Aye, methinks ’tis a possibility most likely. Had Captain Fallard believed the attackers were mere thieves, or thought them William’s men, he would have feared not for the burh itself, and thus would not have taken enough precautions to secure it. ’Tis most fortunate our captain is no fool.” “Then I may say, Sir Jehan,” Ligart said, “that most relieved I will be to learn the final words of my message have already been somewhat acted upon.” “And those words were?” Jehan looked as if he knew them already. “Prepare for a battle, sir, or mayhap, a siege.” CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE Ysane returned to the hall to reassure her guests, and inform the various stewards Jehan and Noll wanted to meet with them immediately after the meal. Jehan left orders for the messenger to be fed, given wash water and a quiet pallet for him to sleep, then commanded the burh guard be further increased. ’Twas the Second’s intent, as he explained to Ysane, that as each of the escort companies returned to the burh with parties of stewards, the arriving troops would be reassigned to sentry duty. The troops in the burh, more rested, would be ordered to take their place. Come the morn, he would send riders to search for all the escort companies and urge them to make all possible haste. In particular, he would send a man to find Fallard, and pass on the message. He thought he knew where Fallard’s company might be found. “The escort companies are aware of the danger and will be able to avoid the rebels.” Ysane murmured. “But what if the stewards run into them? None can be certain of aught when a man like Ruald is involved.” “Worry not, lady. All but two of the steward’s parties will arrive from a direction different than that from which the rebels will come.” “Aye. Of that I am aware, and ’tis that which alarms me, Sir Jehan. The group led my brother-by-law is one of which you speak, which has yet to arrive from the south and west. The other is a Norman steward. If Ruald finds them, they will die.” *** Ysane awoke from the depths of sleep to darkness broken only by the faint light of coals still warm in the brazier. Eyes closed, she tried to pinpoint what had roused her. A sound pierced the night, a familiar noise. ’Twas her bower door squeaking on iron hinges as it was slowly pushed open. Heart pounding, she sought to control her breathing as she opened her eyes a slit and tried to decide if she should scream the walls down. A slight form slipped into the room and started toward the bed. “Ieldramodor!” She gasped in relief even as the figure paused beside her. Her grandmother had not visited her during the night in many months. “Oh mercy, you frightened me. What are you doing here?” “You would begrudge a visit to my favorite nefene?” Lady Hildeth’s retort was sharp. “Of course not, deorling, but must it be when everyone else sleeps?” “You know I can never rest at night, so what better time to come see you? I would have done so ere now, but ’twas difficult to get to you. That cifesboren Renouf kept me locked up as if I were a thief and refused to allow me nigh you. Not that I do not know what you are about. Your life has been rather busy, of late. Know you, I missed that insanity about your execution? Believe me, child, had I known what mischief that léasere Ruald was up to, I would have sneaked into his bower and cut out his heart! But no one ever tells me aught!” Ysane did not bother to mention Lady Hildeth would not have remembered had she been told. “I know, but ’tis all right, since I was rescued quite in the nick of time.” “Aye, and that story, little one, is as romantic as any of those ridiculous stories the scops tell. The powerful knight, fearsome in his armor, strides into the courtyard where he fights his way through a cordon of soldiers to reach his lady fair, to sweep her into his arms. Indeed, ’tis a fair tale, and more exciting than any poem or song, because ’tis true. I have heard he plans to wed you, nefene, and soon. I wished you to know I have met the man, and I approve.” “But Ieldramodor, he is Norman.” “Ha! Think you that matters after Renouf and Ruald? He is a man of honor, and he will be kind to you, and it hurts not he is also handsome and strong. I would see you wedded to such a man, regardless his clan, rather than to a Saxon like that léasere Renouf. He will give me fine, strong grandchildren. Has he bedded you, yet?” “Ieldramodor! Do you and Roana think of naught else?” Lady Hildeth laughed, the sound a girlish giggle one would expect from a woman decades her junior. “And why should I not? My Lyolf was a lusty man, as surely must be your Fallard. I quite enjoyed his attentions. Mark my words. Marriage is far more bearable if one does. But mayhap, after Renouf, you know that not. Still, I say you true, your marriage bed will be far better with Sir D’Auvrecher than before. So then, answer my question. What think you of his caresses child, was he gentle with you?” “Nay! I mean, he has come not yet to my bed. He gave me his word he would not, till I have grown more accustomed to him.” “Honorable indeed, nefene! Have you any notion what a remarkable promise that is? Why, the man is a mighty warrior, a lord, a conqueror and a consort of the king. Such men ask not, they take as they please! Ah, but this grows more romantic than I had thought. Has he become enamored of you? I can think of naught else to explain his restraint.” Ysane sighed. “Roana believes he is, but I know not.” “Have you feelings for him?” “Aye, but I understand them not. I fear him not, which inspires endless astonishment, but I see his goodness, and find I enjoy his company. I would see him safe, and I willingly wed him, but beyond that, I know not.” “Has he at least kissed you?” “Aye.” “Did you kiss him back?” “Roana asked me the same thing!” Lady Hildeth snorted, rather inelegantly. “That girl has more intelligence than I credited to her. Marlee says she has gotten herself betrothed to one of those fine young knights who rode in with your lord. Seems ’tis the silver-haired boy with the laughing eyes, or did I hear not correctly?” “Sir Trifine is no boy, Ieldramodor, but aye, he is the one Roana loves and plans to wed, and you are right, he has kind eyes, and is full of mirth. Methinks he will be a good husband to my kinswoman.” “Aye, and you should know any man below the age of forty twelvemonths is a boy in my eyes. When is the wedding to take place? Marlee was to tell me, but she has grown so old she remembers naught that anyone tells her.” “’Twas supposed to be four days from now, but with all that is happening, I can say not for certain.” “Ah! That was the other thing I wished to know. What is happening? The villagers and ceorls are inside the wall, as they have not been for almost as long as I remember, and today the gates were closed. Are we at war? Has that young bastard William finally crossed the Small Sea and attacked Angelcynn as everyone said he would?” “Ieldramodor! King William is not a bastard. Well, he is, actually, but not that kind. He is our king now, remember you not? But nay, to answer your question, we are not at war, at least, not the whole country. ’Tis that there are some Saxons who still fight King William, and their battle has brought them here, to Wulfsinraed. They hope to take over the hall from my lord and use the burh as a base for their rebellion.” Lady Hildeth was silent for a moment. When she spoke again, the sadness in her voice was deep as the ocean. “But is that not why they took my son away, because they thought he rebelled against Harold? As if he would do such a thing. Kenrick loved Harold. He would have died for the king! Where is my son, where have they taken him? I have seen him not for so long. Oh, how I miss him so.” Quite suddenly, she was weeping. Ysane pulled her grandmother into her arms. She cupped the fragile skin of the elder’s face and kissed her wet cheek, holding her as she wept. “Oh, Ieldramodor, ’tis all right, deorling, ’twill be all right. I am here, I will care for you.” Another shadow loomed across the room and Ysane looked up to find Marlee beside the bed. “Here, my lady, I will return her to her room. She will sleep now.” “Thank you, Marlee. You are so good to her.” “Aye, but I love her, you know.” “I know. Marlee?” “My lady?” “Will you make sure she is at the wedding?” “I will.” “I want you there, too.” “My lady, you would have to tie me down to keep me away.” *** The following day was busier for the burhfolc than even the cleaning day. Lynnet woke Ysane before sunrise and she hurried to wash and dress. Preparing for a siege took a great deal of work, especially when one had but a single day to accomplish it. She was not so busy, howbeit, as not to realize more than a seven-day had passed since Sir Fallard D’Auvercher, knight extraordinaire had charged headlong into her life, bringing with him a seeming reversal of her fortunes. Still, a certain dubiety continued to cloud her thinking regarding the man and his intentions. The rapidly unfolding events since that day had left her little time to sort through the tangle of inner contention. The intimacies they had shared further confused her thoughts. She had always prided herself on an ability to maintain a certain sensibility in how she viewed life. ’Twas not her nature to vacillate wildly between one emotion and another. She believed ’twas that very prudence, that balance between thought and feeling that had enabled her to withdraw and hide deep within herself to survive the depredations of Renouf. He had not liked that she fought him, not with her body, but with her will. But Fallard’s caresses had been…enlightening, had shaken her to her core and awakened a depth of sensation previously unrealized. It frightened her and conversely, left her yearning for more. If only she could learn if Cynric was back. If she could but speak with him, he, of all others would find a way to help her resolve her doubts. But the day had only begun, with no time now to visit his cottage, even if Jehan allowed it. With the siege preparations and the possibility of enemies arriving outside the gates at any moment, all hope of slipping away had vanished with the news brought by last eve’s messenger. She could but hope if her brother was nigh, he would stay far from the rebel force. He was capable of it. He could hide from anyone, if he wished. Even her. Thrusting the whole gnarled question of Cynric and the new lord of Wulfsinraed into the back of her thoughts, Ysane focused on the task before her. ’Twas still very early. She sat in the hoarding room, tallying the lists of supplies. With her were Tenney, Ethelmar, and Wigmaer, the assistant hoarder, a clear-eyed, russet-haired man of medium stature. Wigmaer was also burh scribe and interpreter of the occasionally ambiguous system of law by which her people lived—at least, as much as was still possible under Norman rule. In the course of their rushed scrutiny, Ysane confirmed they had ample stocks of everything from ale to candles, cheese and dried fruit. But being the back end of winter, they were perilously short on flour and honey, two of the food staples. The beehives were within the wall, though there could be no renewal of supplies until spring had fully come. Did they run out, they would simply have to make do. But the mill was now beyond their reach. Lack of bread would become a serious problem did the siege last for any appreciable length of time. “Twill be necessary to confiscate every kernel of wheat, rye and barley that may be found among the people, Ethelmar, and ration the supply.” “Aye, my lady. I will see to it.” “My lady?” The tentative voice broke into the murmured conversation at the table. Four heads swiveled to look toward the grizzled warrior standing in the doorway. Ysane flashed a smile. “What is it, Sir Harold?” Despite his age, Harold’s experience qualified him to serve as Second-Marshal of the hearth companions. But ’twas a measure of the chaotic nature of the day that he had come to the hoarding room at all. Normally, a boy would have been sent to find her, but they were all in the forest, gathering branches and kindling with the men who were chopping trees to haul within the walls. The extra timber would be needed for defense purposes, the additional cooking fires of the burhfolc, and if the siege lasted more than a few seven-days, for making more charcoal. “Another messenger has arrived, my lady. He hails from Blackbridge.” Joy surged, even as disappointment warred with Ysane’s thankfulness that her family was not in danger on the road. She had seen not her sister since her marriage to Renouf, and had anticipated her family’s presence at her wedding. “Arnulf sends a message? That means he journeys not. Saints be praised, I have been so worried. Oh, but I hope there is naught wrong. Harold, does the messenger seem anxious or upset?” “Nay, my lady. Shall I bring him here or will you come?” “Take him to the kitchen and have Alewyn feed him. He is most likely tired and hungry. I will come.” Harold nodded his shaggy gray head and headed back down the stairs. Ysane rose. “We have almost finished, have we not, Tenney?” “Aye, m-m-my lady, and we are in excellent position to withstand a m-m-moderately long s-s-siege, even without enough flour. With great care, we could last s-s-six-months, though ’twould be not easy.” “Well and good. When you are through here, I would that you and Wigmaer find Sir Jehan or Thegn Noll. I am certain they have a use for more willing hands. Ethelmar, accompany me.” She hurried down the stairs and across the hall, noting as she went the other ladies, even Lady Norma, whose sickness of the morn was severe, were preparing stacks of bandages. Under Luilda’s direction, medicaments of many kinds were concocted and organized. The smell of crushed herbs and dried medicinal plants was sharp in the hall. Ysane stopped long enough to insure the servants were hauling out the extra cauldrons from the kitchen storage chamber for use in pouring boiling water from the wall. Jehan had also ordered every extra barrel, vat, bucket and pail filled with sand or water drawn from the river to fight fires ignited by burning arrows. He sent off-duty sentries to the armory in the south tower to fetch extra weaponry to stockpile inside a large wooden box in the stable. The burh’s hunters searched for whatever game could be found in the course of a day to supplement the meat reserves. The men and older boys who lived outside the wall had returned to their homes to scrounge every remaining vestige of food, clothing and any other serviceable supplies to bring behind the walls, thus preventing their use by the attacking force. Ethelmar edged behind her as she stepped into the kitchen. She dodged busy servants to greet Arnulf’s messenger, who set down the roasted chicken leg he devoured. He took a swig of ale, wiped his hands on his tunic and bowed. “My lady, I am Victor. I am come from my lord du Theil with a message begging my lord D’Auvrecher’s consent to wait a few seven-days ere he and Lady Gemma travel to Wulfsinraed.” “I see. Why does my lord du Theil wish for this delay in following his liege-lord’s command?” “’Tis for the sake of his lady wife. She is heavy with their fourth child, and ’twould be difficult and dangerous for her to travel such a long journey.” “Gemma is increasing?” The words fairly exploded from Ysane’s mouth. She glared at Ethelmar as if he were to blame for the failure to inform her of her sister’s condition, then turned back to the messenger. “‘Heavy’ with child, you say? Why is this the first I have heard of it? I should have been told long ago. When is the babe due?” The poor man flinched visibly beneath her onslaught. His gaze on the floor, he dutifully answered. “I believe my lady Gemma is due to give birth within a few more seven-days. Forgive me, my lady, but I can say not why no message of her condition has been sent.” Ysane recalled herself and softened her tone. “Nay, Victor, be at ease. I was but surprised, and ’tis no fault of yours.” Nay, not his, but she knew where it lay. Renouf had intercepted her sister’s letters though he swore to her none had come. It had pleased him to try to convince her Gemma no longer cared enough to keep in touch. She offered the messenger her most conciliatory smile. “In truth, I am most pleased at the news. Continue with the message.” Amusement twitched her lips when Victor could hide not his sigh of relief. Sometimes, being a messenger was aught but a simple responsibility. One never knew what might be the response to proffered news. “With the problems my lady Gemma endured in the birth of little Kinna, the last babe, my lord wished not to travel with her now. He begged I explain this time of her breeding has also been fraught with trouble, and the midwife insisted she take to her bed until the birth. My lord fears even without the added difficulties, the journey would be of so long and hard a duration she might be forced to give birth on the road, putting both her and the babe in greater danger. “For the nonce, my lord du Theil offers his solemn oath of fealty in writing—I have here the document.” He removed a scroll from inside his tunic and handed it to Ysane. Though the message was addressed to Fallard, she unrolled it. Mayhap, there was that within the message that required immediate attention. Her betrothed would understand her presumption. She hoped. Regardless, she would also take it to Jehan for his disposition. ’Twas quickly evident that in the message Fallard had sent to the various fiefs, he must have made no mention of her or his intent to wed her. Arnulf asked only that Fallard seek out his wife’s sister, and learn from her he was an honorable man and his word worthy of trust. By his lord’s leave, as soon as ’twas safe for them all to travel, he would see to the arrangements, and would come with all speed in obedience to the command. Ysane looked up from the scroll to find the messenger’s eyes upon her, as were those of Ethelmar and, less overtly, the entire kitchen staff, who nevertheless managed to continue their work without hesitation. “Sit down, Victor, and finish your meal. My lord D’Auvrecher will have an answer for you after he returns, but I fear it may be some time ere you will be able to convey it.” “Aye, my lady.” Abruptly, the man grinned. “A long time has it been since I was privy to a good fight. With your leave, I will join the preparations.” Ysane inclined her head, but her gaze rose to the ceiling as she turned away. What was it with men that they so loved to battle? Never would she understand. She disliked conflict, though she could hold her own in domestic disputes. Which reminded her, she still had to seek the slave Leda. She had determined the girl would eat not until she obeyed. Did she fail then to learn her lesson, Ysane would order her sold. As the day progressed, the siege preparations acquired a grim intensity as everyone sought to accomplish as much as possible ere time ran out. Complicating the effort was the arrival of more parties of stewards, one of which was led by Fallard. Ysane, rushing to get the new guests settled and with Ethelmar’s aid, finding work for them to do, never knew he had returned, ere he was gone again. He stayed but long enough to order a change of mounts, receive a hasty progress report on siege preparations and learn from Jehan that Ysane’s family was safe at home. He informed his Second and Domnall, who had returned an hour earlier, that his scouts reported the rebels were close and would reach the burh shortly after dark. Then he and his men mounted up and galloped back down the road to the west, hoping against hope they were not too late to aid the last steward’s party. Almost immediately after he left, Domnall found Ysane where she stood by the northeast tower, watching Harold arbitrate yet another argument between nervous burhfolc. He told her that to his knowledge, no escort had yet met up with the party of the last steward. This group was from Funta Burh, and would be riding in only a little ahead of the rebels, had they not already fallen prey to that enemy. Domnall judged them in especial danger because Funta’s steward and his family were Norman. When he mentioned Fallard had come and gone, she nigh shrieked. “My lord was here, and none saw fit to inform me?” Domnall winced. “My regrets, my lady. My only excuse is the chaos of the hour. Forgive me.” Ysane closed her eyes and held to the tattered threads of her temper, which had grown more tenuous with each passing hour. The situation was plagued enough without the lady of the hall losing control. But there had been precious little communication from Fallard as he and his men had ranged farther away west, seeking stewards and any sign of the rebels. The last message conveyed had been that morn, but it had told them naught beyond the fact no progress had been made in the search. “There is naught to forgive, Domnall,” she said. “We are all harried. I trust my lord remains well?” “Aye. They are all well,” Trifine said before the first marshal could answer. The silver knight came beside her into the shadow cast by the tower. His ice blue eyes took on a silver sheen to match his hair. Ysane stared. No wonder Roana lost her heart to him. The knight is nigh as handsome as Fallard, while his disposition is less severe, a perfect foil for my cousin’s quiet and gentle spirit. Distracted by a man at arms who wished to speak with him, Domnall took his leave. The First accompanied Ysane as she rounded the tower, heading for the multitude of shelters that ringed the practice field. One of the burhfolc labored to deliver her first babe. Ysane sought to learn how the birth progressed, and if the midwife had need of help. There was no one available to send, so she would tend to the matter herself. The First ambled along beside her, humming beneath his breath. Of them all, he was the least perturbed by the rising tension. Initially annoyed, Ysane now drew strength from his untroubled mien. As if he read her thoughts, he said, “Have faith, my lady. They will return safely. The captain is the most capable leader I have known, mayhap, more even than the king, though I would say not so to that worthy!” He laughed. “’Tis likely they will return well ere dark, for if they find not the Funta party by then, ’tis certain those unfortunates have already fallen prey to the Saxons.” He paused. “Were you informed the enemy is expected to arrive in full force by late this eve?” Ysane stopped. “The enemy, Trifine? Forget you they are my people, and have true cause to fight?” She sighed. “Aye, Domnall told me.” He watched her through eyes in which compassion lurked. “Then have no fear, Ysane. All that could be done this day is nigh to completion. Soon, all will be safe behind the wall. We may yet hope the…rebel force will be quickly defeated, and without overmuch harm done to them. Have faith, my lady. The captain will come. You will see.” He sketched a salute and headed for the gatehouse, only to swerve toward the hall at a call from Roana. Ysane watched him walk away, grateful for his presence, yet wishing he was Fallard. She lifted her face to the sky, prayed for strength and courage, and a merciful end to the strife. She gathered her skirts and went to find the laboring mother. CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO “In all my days, I have never seen the wall so crowded with soldiers.” Wrapped in her cloak, Ysane stood at one of the embrasures in the west guard tower. “’Tis a formidable sight, but one greatly comforting.” ’Twas the time of gathering shadows ere full dark, and her eyes moved restlessly, searching the twilit road below, as did Trifine, Roul and Fauques for some sign of those they awaited. But in the deepening gloom, the only movement as far as the eye could see was the whispering river in its surging courses. Not even a bird sailed the skies. “Have faith, Ysane.” Trifine said again. “He will come. Trust him.” “Aye, my lady,” Roul said, conviction ringing. “No man may defeat my lord. He will come.” She nodded but made no answer. Fear had knotted her stomach during the past hour, as daylight slowly faded and no sign came, but eased the tiniest bit with the First’s words. The alarm she felt was not for her people, for they were ready. Preparations for whatever would come were as complete as time had allowed. Trifine understood. This she knew. His quiet words were indication enough he was aware of the dissension raging within her, the conflict that still sliced like daggers at her soul. Ah, but I am a hypocrite! I pray for the safety of my enemy and the defeat of my own kind, and sit in my hall and insist on respect as lady of a Norman burh. She lifted cold hands to her cheeks. What would her father think if he knew her heart? But she knew the answer to that question, or so she believed, and shut her eyes against the disgust that would have flashed from his moss green eyes, the anger that would contort the lined face she had loved. Likely, he would have locked her away in her bower for her betrayal. Yet, she could no more control the yearning for the safety of the dark knight than she could still the beating of her heart. Her eyes flew wide when a sentry cried out. He stood upon the parapet, his body precariously balanced, pointing into the growing shades. “There! They come! Sound the alert!” Even as the anxious watchers caught the first thundering reverberations of hooves pounding at full gallop, the clarion call of the alarm rang out. Ere the echoes died, they were answered from the other three towers. There rose shouts from the gates as men made ready to open them at the second signal. The sentry called again. “Aye, ’tis them! They have the steward’s party with them. Sound the call to open the gates!” He jumped down from the parapet, for the oncoming riders could now be clearly seen. “See you! I told you they would come!” Roul almost danced in his excitement as he and Fauques hammered each other on the back. Fauques’ usually serious face was split in a great smile. Once again, the trumpet sounded, this time the signal for friendly arrivals, and was instantly answered with the far-off grinding of wood and heavy chain metal as the first of the great gates was hauled aloft. “Look you there, behind them. The enemy comes!” Alarm filled the guard’s voice. “Saint’s bones, but they’ve left it close.” He paused, then cried in disbelief, “’tis impossible. The rebels are astride. Look there, the rebels are not on foot, as we thought. Resound the alarm! Hurry, hurry!” Ysane’s heart pounded in tandem with the frantic rhythm of the warning call and the hooves of the racing company as they drew nigh. Her breath caught in her throat as the dark shadows of the rebels thundered from beneath the trees in determined pursuit. Aye, the guard was right, the rebels were astride. But Saxon soldiers rarely rode. The troops of her people had fought afoot for as long as the ancient stories told. Neither group carried torches. Mayhap, Fallard had counted on reaching the gates ere full dark, or simply knew there would be lights at the gates to guide them home. They had but to reach them. But where was he? As the party swept by, she could see his tall figure nowhere among those who rode. Why did he not lead them? Ah, please heaven, say not he had fallen, when she had only begun to realize his importance to her future, and aye, to the safety and future of her people. As the last of the company pelted past in the fading light, she found him. He rode with the rear guard, offering to those in front his own body as a shield against the enemy who bore down upon them—aye, and in her mind, now they were the enemy. But all of the men in the rear rode with their shields slung across their backs, the tapering lower end of the great bucklers offering some limited protection to the hindquarters of their steeds. “’Twill be close,” Trifine said, his voice calm. “The enemy gains ground.” He might have been discussing the newest poem narrated by the scop. “But look you, Ysane. There are fewer rebels than of our people. The larger force must still be hours away. ’Tis my guess the riders are Ruald with some of his men. He is a trained knight, and most likely learned from us the value of fighting on horseback. Where he has obtained the animals, I cannot guess, but because of them Fallard must fight a running defense. He is most certainly enjoying the fray.” He grinned and ducked the slap Ysane aimed at him. “Worry not, my lady. They will claim him not.” Fauques and Roul, openly capering now, echoed his words. Trifine’s confidence seemed unshakable. Thinking him more arrogant than assured, for the pursuers too closely followed the pursued, Ysane threw him an impatient glance and raced back along the wall toward the north guard tower and gatehouse. Somehow, she avoided colliding with the shouting soldiers. From all around came the pings of arrows being released as the burh troops gave what protection they could to the fleeing party in the darkening eve. The rebel riders held their shields angled toward the wall as they drew nigh the troops on the wall. Some few moved close to the shielded men, guiding their horses with only their knees, using that protection for returning fire. But at the speed they moved, and with the limited light, their aim was sketchy at best. Strong fingers closed with a compelling grip around her elbow as Trifine caught up with her, halting her headlong dash. “Ysane, you must leave the wall. Now!” They had come to one of the stairways that led to the ground below. She understood his concern when an arrow whizzed by one of the hearth companions in front of her, and then a handful more arced over the wall, thankfully finding no targets. Trifine shook her. “Go, lady! And stay close to the base of the wall.” He tore away at top speed in the direction of the north tower, heeding not his own advice. Ysane threw one last, agonized glance at the rapidly receding band of riders pounding toward the gates. The pursuers were not so many as she had first thought, and even as she watched, one horse fell to an arrow from the wall, spilling its rider. But the rest rode with a keen clarity of purpose that even she recognized. Their goal was to catch or kill the man who held her future, and mayhap her heart, in his hand. Please let him be safe. She threw herself down the stairs in obedience to Trifine’s command. They will make the gates. They must! Oh mercy, let them reach safety. From among the shelters in the orchard, seemingly oblivious to the danger that might arc over the wall, the burhfolc of Wulfsinraed were on the move. It looked as if a host of dancing fairies surged around Ysane as more and more torches were lit and held high to light the way. They swarmed as one toward the gates, anxious to learn all that happened. A loud commotion of sword upon sword was heard around the bridge, cut off by the thunderous thud of the outer gate as it was quick-released to plummet into place. A resounding roar of rage rose from without the wall. Ysane was but two-thirds of the way back to the gatehouse, hurrying past the craftsmens’ cottages, when she heard shouts from ahead, picked up and wafted back to those still scurrying behind. “They have reached the courtyard, all of them. The lord D’Auvrecher was the last inside. The gates are shut. They are safe!” As the word reached her, Ysane sobbed, her breath coming in gasps as she tried to run faster. But the press around her slowed her pace. By the time she drew nigh the courtyard, the light from so many torches made it seem bright as day. But such a crush of people milled she could make no headway to the gates. Everyone seemed to talk wildly or cry out at once. She sought to push her way through the throng, but there were too many. Had they recognized her, they would have made way, but she was only one woman among a teeming crowd. At last, she spotted the unmistakable figure of Varin on the wall. She screamed his name above the clamor, then jumped up and down and waved. He saw her. A fierce smile curved across his face. A singular colossus of a man whose Norse ancestors were said to be berserkers, those fiercest of all Viking warriors, he was broad as he was tall, as strong as a bull and as ugly, battle-scarred and rough. Two of his teeth were missing, while his nose jutted at an insane angle from where ’twas broken long before. He terrified strong warriors in battle, but with those he deemed his friends, he was a gentle giant. He barreled his way to her through the crowd, not particularly careful who he had to seize and throw aside in the process. When he reached her side, he swept her up in a fearsome grip, ignoring her protests. “Varin! Put me down!” But he shielded her with his bulk, and carried her to the hall steps where he set her down as if she were fragile as the petals of one of her beloved roses. Somewhat breathless, Ysane stared up at him. The top of her head barely reached the middle of his massive chest. “I thank you, Varin.” In the torchlight, he grinned at her from his great height, his heart in his eyes. He bowed with strange grace, and hastened back to his post. Ysane felt rather overwhelmed. In the few short moments he had borne her, the odd knight had left her feeling…cherished. None but Cynric, and most recently Fallard, had ever made her feel that way. There was no mistaking what she saw in his eyes, but with a woman’s instinct, she sensed he would want it neither known nor acknowledged. Varin would be a loyal friend, should ever she need one. She looked around, taking stock. In her absence, Lady Matty had assumed charge and the initial mayhem around the gates had flowed into ordered activity. There was little left for her to do. She threw a grateful glance at the older woman, who was instructing boys where to take the last of the baggage. Matty grinned back. Inside the hall, she found the young son of Lord Belleme, Funta’s steward, Roul and Fauques with him, seated at the one of the hearths with warm drinks. The other stewards’ boys gathered round, listening with awe as between bites of buttered bread, the lad told the tale of their flight. To her eyes, he seemed none the worse for wear. Servants swarmed the tables, preparing for sup. Ysane caught up with her dish-thegn as he hurried from the kitchen. “Ethelmar! What happened at the gates?” He paused. “My lady! The rear guard fought to stave off the rebel riders from crossing the bridge ere the outer gate could be closed, thus allowing the steward’s party to fly to safety ahead of them. Though ’twas most heroic, they lost two men, one of our hearth companions, and the other a knight from the steward’s guard. Several were wounded, including Lord Belleme. He insisted on joining the melee and received a lance wound in his shoulder for his efforts. Should you wonder, the roar you may have heard came from Ruald. ’Twas the sound of his fury when his quarry escaped and the burh defenses were successfully raised against him.” “Where are all the men?” Ere he could answer Trifine was at her side. “They are on the wall, watching to see what Ruald will do next.” “Oh! Of course.” Trifine leaned close. “Did I not tell you all would be well, to have faith in Fallard?” But Ysane was still unnerved, her heart only beginning to slow from its frightened gait. Her terror of Ruald and fear for Fallard remained too close. She snapped at Trifine without thinking. “Nay! Your words are presumptuous, sir knight. You invite catastrophe from on high with your arrogance. Did your eyes fail to see what a nigh thing ‘twas, how nigh to death our people came? How can you be so flippant at such a time?” Ethelmar, awaiting her instructions, visibly cringed. The First’s eyebrows, so light they would have been nigh invisible if not highlighted by skin darkened from the sun, launched upwards, then his eyes narrowed at her tone. Yet, his words conveyed a quiet respect. “Nay, my lady, ’twas not arrogance that fueled my words, nor presumption. You forget the long twelvemonths I have served with my captain, who is also my closest friend. Allow it that I know him, and his capabilities, far better than you. I assure you I would not have uttered such statements were I uncertain of their verity.” Stricken, Ysane fought back a sudden need to weep. How could she have struck at the silver knight with such unmerited spite? She had behaved in the manner of a harpy. Trifine’s rebuke was gentle, but well deserved. “You are weary,” he said. “Mayhap you are in need of a cup of ale.” She shook her head. She hated ale. Trifine glanced at Ethelmar as he grasped her elbow. The under-steward hastened away. Trifine led her to her chair at the center of the fire pits. Too mortified even to beg his forgiveness, Ysane lowered her gaze and kept her chilled hands clasped in her lap. Lost in the maelstrom of conflicting emotions that seethed within, she at first did not recognize the new voice that joined in hushed conversation with Trifine. Ethelmar returned with a jug of mead and her favorite goblet of Byzantine glass. She looked up as a dark figure stepped to her side and knelt on one knee beside her chair. He intercepted the full goblet, nodding at Ethelmar, who left on his own business with a relieved sigh. Ysane stared into the midnight eyes of the man responsible for the baffling feelings that tore at her, and made her feel as twisted as the hall kittens left her tapestry yarn. Amusement, concern, and masculine complacency all mingled in his regard. “Trifine is concerned about you, my rose. I was in but little danger, but he believes you unduly frightened for my safety this day. Is that truth?” He looked manifestly pleased by the idea. ’Twas too much. She flashed. “Odious man! Blithering oaf! How dare you mock my distress? I was fearful for your safety, for the safety of all. But how like a man to swagger so, even when but by God’s good favor does he remain well and among the living.” She opened her mouth to lash at him further, but instead, surprising them both, she burst into tears, further shaming herself before him. CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE Below his breath, Fallard swore. He was bone tired, famished and though the wound was minor, in considerable pain from a sword slash. The blow had caught him in the open slit of the hem of his hauberk, on the outside of his thigh a few inches above his right knee. A female’s tears seemed beyond the scope of his skills. Yet, in but a few days, this woman would be his wife, which meant her tears were his responsibility. He sighed. Mayhap, it would be not difficult to reassure her. His father seemed to find it easy enough with his mother. Surely, he was capable of no less. “Ysane, little rose, weep not. I am safe. Everyone is safe.” He felt silly saying the words, since they were so obvious to all. But Ysane was no simpleton. He was sure that once she thought on the truth of his statement, she would cease her weeping. Instead, his attempt at comfort resulted in worsening sobs. His brows drew together. He recalled similar scenes at home. It had always seemed so simple for his father. Why could Ysane be not sensible like his mother? Glancing around, he saw no one paid them heed. He was on his own. He rose and lifted her from the chair, grimacing against the pain that sheared from hip to ankle. Slim arms crept over his shoulders to hold tight behind his neck. A wet face snuggled itself against the whisker-rough skin beneath his chin. His muscles flexed in involuntary possession. Ah, but she felt good in his arms. She sniffled as they climbed the stairs to her bower. Then she squirmed in his arms. He suddenly realized the hard chain metal of his hauberk pressed uncomfortably against the soft mound of her breast and the sweet curve of her hip. Fatigue and pain, along with her need for consolation were forgotten as desire slammed through him with the intensity of a lightning bolt, so powerful it nigh knocked him back down the stairwell. ’Twas but a few days ere the wedding? Hah! ’Twas more like forever…and what if then she denied him, as he had so foolishly given her right? Growling beneath his breath, he reached the bower. He paused beside the bed, but instead of laying her there, as he had intended, he decided to sit with her while he comforted her. Given his need, ’twas safer. But no sooner did he carefully lower them into the chair, than did her bottom wriggle in his lap, and he knew sitting down was an even worse idea than the bed. He glanced at the linen bandage around his leg. The wound bled again. He stifled a groan at what ’twould cost him to stand. Cursing himself for a fool, he shut his eyes, gritted his teeth and rose to his feet. He felt something give at the site of his wound and knew he had torn the flesh further. The resulting pain and dizziness caused him to stumble. He steadied himself. ’Twould not do to fall with his little rose in his arms. “Fallard? What do you do?” The little voice beneath his ear sounded mystified. “The saints may know. I know not,” he muttered. He kept his eyes screwed tightly shut. The whole chamber had taken to moving itself in a sickening fashion. “Well then, put me down.” Fallard’s spirits rose slightly. At least the cascade of tears seemed to have dried. Deciding her advice was the wisest thing he had heard since he walked into the hall to find her, he did as she said. But when he released her, she slid, with excruciating leisure, down his front, then steadied herself by leaning against him as she gained her feet. The breath that hissed through his teeth had naught to do with his pain, but it caught her attention. “Fallard, what is wrong?” “Naught. ’Tis naught at all.” “Do not be absurd. Of a certain, something is wrong. You act quite strangely.” Fallard opened his eyes, his gaze delving into hers. Was she truly still such an innocent, after three twelvemonths with her worthless mongrel of a husband? She gazed back, concern blazing from moss green eyes, and abruptly Fallard smiled like the dunce he had earlier called himself. Mayhap, she was still an innocent in some respects. She truly seemed not to comprehend what she did to him. By heaven, mayhap, there were sweet things he could still teach her about loving. Feeling better than he had in days, despite an unexpected wave of nausea, he caught her forearms and pushed her into the vacated chair. “Tell me why you cried.” But she answered him not. Her silence accompanied the horror in her eyes as she stared at his thigh. He followed her glance and frowned. Blood coursed slowly from the soaked bandage and dripped past his boots to the floor. His braies and hose were dark with it. “Fallard, you are wounded!” She jumped to her feet, nigh bowling him over. “By the saints, why did you not tell me you were hurt? You carried me—you carried me—up all those stairs. Oh, you foolish man! Sit down now.” She grabbed his belt at the sides of his waist, pulled him around and shoved him into the chair, noticing not the grimace that twisted his face. “I will fetch Luilda. Do not dare to move while I am away. The wound will need cleaning and fresh bandaging, and mayhap, stitching, as well. Do you hunger? But of course, you do. When did you last eat? I will bring ale and food, and water to wash with, too. Then you must get into bed. ’Tis likely you have slept not since you left. Why is it men must always be told these simple things?” Ere he could explain he still had an inspection to make and orders to give to insure the burh was secure for the night, she was out the door. He heard her calling down the length of the stairs for the steward and the healer. He thought about getting up and going outside ere anyone could catch him, but when he made the effort, pain surged in swelling waves. Nausea cramped his belly and he clenched his jaw against the need to vomit. He frowned. Were the candles sputtering out? The edges of his vision seemed to grow dark. Mayhap, my rose is right. It might be wiser to wait till the wound is re-bandaged. Sweat trickled from his forehead as he leaned back in the chair. Later, he had no notion of how long, a frantic shriek snapped his head up. It took a moment to focus. His rose stood at the door, staring at him. She whirled, the motion making his head swim even worse, and screeched, “Luilda! Ethelmar!” Ethelmar must have already been nigh up the stairs from her earlier calls, for he popped into the room like a hare startled from a bramble. Luilda, puffing at the exertion, came not far behind. How very strange. Ysane seemed to grow smaller as she gave orders to the elderly steward. “Ethelmar, get Domnall and Trifine, and hurry. Oh, and bring Varin. We will need his strength.” Varin? Why do they need the Viking? From a long, long way away, Fallard watched the little under-steward dash out the door as quickly as his elderly legs would carry him. Then the bedchamber politely bowed, turned itself upside down and snuffed out all the torches. *** Trifine, being the closest of the three men when Ethelmar ran from the hall shouting for them, arrived in the bower only minutes later, Roul and Fauques nigh tripping over his heels. He found Luilda trying to unwrap the bandage from around Fallard’s thigh while Ysane attempted to lift his head and shoulders from where he had fallen, unconscious, over the arm of the chair. Ysane glared at him when he caught her shoulders and gently shoved her aside. “Let me help, my lady. I was aware not he was this badly hurt.” “’Tis not the wound, sir knight, but the blood loss,” Luilda said. She swiped at the nasty cut. “’Tis extensive. The wound should have been seen to straightway he arrived at the hall, and he should have stayed off his feet afterwards.” Her round face was troubled when she looked up at them from where she knelt beside the chair. “’Tis not good. His strength will be sapped. ’Twill make it harder for him to fight off any fever that might take him.” Domnall charged into the chamber, demanding an explanation, Varin close behind. Trifine moved out of the way. The first marshal took one look and a soft oath escaped his lips. Towering behind, Varin echoed the sentiment. A puffing Ethelmar came to a trembling halt inside the door. “He must be undressed and moved to the bed,” Luilda said. “’Twill be easier to treat him there.” Getting the weighty hauberk off took considerable effort. Roul, his freckled skin more ashen than that of his captain, tried to help but only got in the way. Varin, with gentle patience, lifted the lad and set him by the door, running his massive palm over his hair while he whispered something in his ear. The stricken look eased on Roul’s face and he nodded. Varin hefted Fallard bodily from the chair while Trifine and Domnall wrestled the mail up above his hips. Then they had to sit him back down to peel it over his head. As Ysane had known, Varin’s great strength served them well. Fallard was no lightweight, but when they got him to his feet, Varin elbowed the others aside, lifted him with ease and transferred him to the soft mattress. Fallard groaned in insensible pain during the effort. By the time he was settled, Ysane’s lower lip was bruised from the pressure of her teeth. The men got him undressed to his breechcloth, then pulled the linen bedcovering to his waist while leaving the injured thigh exposed. Luilda cleaned, stitched and covered the wound with a medicinal poultice while he remained unaware, then replaced the blood-soaked bandage. Ysane spent that time with a warm, damp rag, cleaning away the sweat and dirt from the icy skin of his face and upper body. He never moved. Faith, but surely this is but a minor wound. ’Tis not possible he might…nay! I will not even think the word. As she worked, she noted the numerous scars, most of them insignificant, that marked the portion of his arms and torso she could see. But one that formed a long, thin, white line that ran from below his right ear and down across his throat and chest appeared the most serious. Had it been but a little deeper, ’twould have severed his jugular. Another marred his left shoulder, a ghastly cicatrix that could only have been rendered by a blow from a battleaxe. The fearful scar was jagged, and remained red and puckered, as if it had happened recently. At first sight of it, Ysane’s stomach went queasy at thought of the appalling pain it must have inflicted. Now she understood why he unconsciously favored the shoulder, and betimes held his right hand against it while stretching his left arm back as far as it would go. The scars around the wound must tighten the muscles. “There.” Luilda stood and began to mix herbs into a small tankard of ale. “’Tis all I can do, my lady. Should he awaken and begin to thrash around, bid me come. If he wakens and seems lucid, bid him drink this.” She handed the potion to Ysane, who sniffed it and made a face. “’Twill ease his pain and help him sleep. The rest of you, begone. He must rest.” She shooed them out and followed them with one final glance at Fallard. Ysane found herself alone with him, ensconced in the chair Domnall had moved over by the bed. Only the torches in the wall sconces and a handful of candles remained lit and the room was cozy and warm. Time passed. She knew Luilda had returned to her care of the rest of the wounded, who lay secluded now behind hanging linens in the corner of the hall. The men had returned to the wall. Meantime, sup was in full progress for those not on watch. The rich smell of roasted meat wafted up the stairs to drift into the open door. Ysane listened to the echo of many voices, more subdued than usual. But in her heart, the world outside the bedchamber might slip away, never to return, and she would care not. All that mattered was Fallard, and that he continue to breathe. She watched him, her gaze never leaving his face. He remained insensible beneath warm furs, his skin ashen beneath the bronzing of the sun. The sight of his big, powerful body, laid so low by a minor wound, left her feeling decidedly off balance. ’Twas a state to which the man seemed perpetually capable of reducing her, and that without even trying. How can he have come to mean so much to me, and in so short a time? It seems not possible. A quiet knock heralded Father Gregory. She smiled at her old friend, finding much pleasure in his appearance as he crossed to stare down at the sleeping knight. The elderly priest looked wearier than she had ever seen him, but then, he was no longer young, and he had been unusually busy since his return to his duties. He had officiated over many burials and two baptisms, one of which resulted from a birth that had come earlier than its proper time. Both babes and their mothers did well enough, though the early child, if it survived, would require extra care for some while. More difficult for him had been the necessity of comforting the grieving families of those who had died, and offering continual encouragement to all in the face of rising fear. He kept his voice low. “Luilda tells me the wound is not serious, but that blood loss might make his recovery more difficult.” “Aye. ’Tis an ugly sight, with much bruising, but if he becomes not fevered he should soon be back on his feet.” He peered at her. “You have not yet eaten.” She frowned, hardly comprehending. She had given little thought to food since she had broken her fast ere nooning. “I hunger not, Father.” “Mayhap, but you know well enough, my daughter, that is no fit excuse. I will see that a meal is brought. Besides, I am hungry. I will take my sup with you, if you mind not.” “You have no need to ask.” At least he had not urged her to leave Fallard’s side. She had already refused that suggestion. He returned more quickly than she expected. Setting a stool nigh her chair, he then pulled a small chest between them. He gathered up two candles and placed them on the chest. With a care that bespoke stiff joints, he sat. The crackle of the flames in the brazier and the rumble of talk in the hall were the only sounds. Lost in her thoughts, she traced with her eyes the thick lashes unmoving against Fallard’s well-defined cheekbones, and the firm chin that lost none of its determined aggression even in sleep. The dark knight had saved her life with his timely, if unforeseen appearance. He had then proceeded to turn her world upside down and shake it with the force of his masculine charm. Even lying unconscious, he presented a threat to her peace of mind as overwhelming as the floods that betimes raged on the river. Mayhap, Roana was right, and the best course for her to follow now was to turn her back on the past and work for the best possible future. With Fallard, that future might well be more satisfying than she could ever have hoped. A maid appeared at the door with their meal, and Ysane looked away from Fallard to find Father Gregory watching her. Heat washed her cheeks. How much of her thoughts had shown on her face? Judging from the speculation in his eloquent eyes, a great deal, but the smile he proffered put her at ease. The comfortable silence continued while they satisfied rumbling stomachs with smoked pheasant, bacon stew flavored with walnuts and winter greens, and a warm, round loaf of crusty bread with butter and sweet wine cakes. Ysane ate with an appetite far heartier than she had expected, Father Gregory nodding in approval when she finished almost everything on her trencher. “He is a fine man, Ysane,” the priest said, nodding toward Fallard as he laid aside his eating hadseax and leaned away from the chest. “I like him. Even more importantly, I trust him. Norman he may be, but he lives by a code of honor exceeding that of many Englishmen I could name. I am pleased such a man desires you to wife. He will treat you well, and protect you with his life.” Ysane reached for her goblet of mead, savoring its fruity, honeyed sweetness. “Ysane.” She looked up to an expression so serious her heart seemed to skip a beat. Her gaze shot away. She did not wish to discuss the subject of which he was about to speak. “It has been too long since you have been to confession.” “You know why, Father.” She would not look at him. “Aye. But I am here now, and there is time.” Ysane fought to control the tremble in her voice. “I know what you want Father, but I am not ready. Mayhap, I will never be. I know how you view the taking of life, but Renouf deserved what I did. I truly believe if…if I had taken not his life, he would have killed not only Angelet but me, as well. I could not let him walk away free after what he did to my daughter. If presented again, right this moment, with the same decision, even knowing there would be none to rescue me from execution, I would make the same choice with no hesitation. “Renouf was warped and vicious, a pox that blighted all he touched, and all who came within his reach. ’Twas but a matter of time ere someone destroyed him, put an end to his cruelty and depravity. It so happened I…that I was that one. I can ask not for forgiveness for an action for which I have no remorse.” “I believe I can understand that, my daughter, yet still you must come to terms with having committed murder. The penalty for your husband’s crime was not yours to exact.” “Then whose, Father? Ruald? Cynric? One of the burhfolc? You know as well as I had he lived, he would have paid not. My daughter and I would both be dead and Renouf would live still to ensnare more innocents in his foul webs. I would know, how could my action be considered more of a crime than his? Why must I be the one held to blame? Does the Church see my life, simply because I am a woman, of so little value I should meekly allow my husband to destroy it, while making no effort to defend myself? Nay! If ’tis so, I accept it not. Besides, what I did will keep countless other innocents safe. Where is the sin in that?” “’Tis not the act of self-defense you must confess, Ysane, and speak to me not of a husband’s rights, or your own, for under Norman law, you have few. You know that, none better. But I speak now of the fact you took vengeance from the hand of God and executed it with your own. That was not your right, not against any man. That is where your blame falls.” He leaned forward, his gaze intent. “Your sin was against both God and your husband, and your reasons make no difference. “You are fortunate beyond your reckoning, my daughter, that King William sits on the throne and mitigating circumstances will insure he will bring no charges against you for the murder of Renouf of Sebfeld, one of his appointed nobles. Neither does anyone here hold you to blame. Despite that, God still awaits your repentance, for no man can lay aside your crime against Him.” The silence stretched. Ysane stared into the shadows where the light from the candles reached not, seeing within them the horror of that night, still so fresh in her thoughts. She turned her gaze back to the waiting man beside her. “You were not there, Father. You saw not what was done. You can know not. ’Twas as if a fever took me, and my hands acted without the guidance of my mind.” She shook her head as if in denial. “I was willing to pay the penalty for my crime. I fought not, nor did I seek escape or to defend myself when Ruald held his illegal trial and passed the sentence he had no right to give. I accepted the judgment. I faced my punishment. “Does not the fact I was given reprieve, unlooked for, indicate God, if not man, holds me unaccountable? If death for my crime was His intent, why then do I still live? Nay. I am sorry, Father, but I can do not as you ask. I regret not what I did, and I will play not the hypocrite and say I do. Besides, who is to say? Mayhap, ’twas the Almighty who chose to use me as His instrument to inflict His punishment, His revenge upon Renouf.” Father Gregory sighed. “Mayhap, you are right, but ’tis you for whom I am concerned, Ysane. Yours is a kind and gentle soul for whom the act of murder can bring only suffering. The knowledge of what you have done may eat at your soul in bitterness and eventually, I fear, in regret. I wish to spare you that. I fear you will know not peace until you rid yourself of the hate and anger that fill your heart, and seek God’s forgiveness. But He is patient, child, and He will wait, as will I. Should the time come that you need me, I will be here. But now, I must go. There are others who have need of my services.” He rose and at her bidding, extinguished all the candles except the ones on the chest, then left her to her thoughts. CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR Over the course of the next several hours, Roana and then Lewena came to keep company with her in her vigil. Both encouraged her to allow them to take her place while she rested, but she would not. Roul crept in to crouch beside her, agony in his young eyes. Ysane slipped an arm around his shoulders and lightly bussed his temple. He flushed, tried to smile and fled. Lynnet came to assist her in preparing for bed but Ysane sent the maid, unhappy, to her own pallet, instead. Shortly thereafter, Ethelmar brought a message from Trifine. The rebel force had arrived. It seemed some ransacked the village while others set up camp in the trees across from the gates. Naught was expected of them ere morn. Everyone was urged to rest while they could. Ysane refused her dish-thegn’s plea for her to join Roana in her bower to sleep. “I will be fine, Ethelmar. I will stay here, and keep watch. Luilda will come again before she retires, and do I need aught, she will see to it. See you now, I will check him again, so you may relay word of his condition.” So saying, she knelt on the thick sheepskin rug beside the bed and set her palm on Fallard’s forehead, relieved to find it still cool. He slept in apparent comfort. Lifting the covers over his knee, she checked the bandage and found no further evidence of bleeding. Once her faithful dish-thegn left to take word of the lord’s condition to Trifine, Ysane made herself comfortable as she prepared to watch through the night. But the trepidations of the day had left her wearier than she knew. Despite her intent, her eyelids grew heavy, and soon she slept, still curled on the rug, head and shoulders draped across the edge of the bed. *** The hall settled into the silence of deep night. The dark hours passed slowly and in the lord’s bower, the brazier burned low, as did the candles in their puddles of melted wax. The room grew cold. Ysane awoke not as Ethelmar tiptoed into the chamber, built up the fire in the brazier, and tucked a woolen blanket, followed by a warm fur, around his shivering mistress. He bent to drop a kiss against her hair, snuffed what was left of the candles and retired to his own welcome pallet in a hall alcove. *** The first lightening of the skyline ushered in the new day. The muffled sound of a horse passing water inside the stable carried in the still, cold air. From the shelters, multiple snuffles, grunts and snores wafted in and out like waves on the seashore. The fretful cry of a babe comingled with the low, sweet sound of its mother’s crooning. The faint brightening at the horizon slowly lifted and sent pulsing streaks of pale amber and blush ever higher into the sky. From its perch on a cottage roof, a rooster lifted its head from beneath its wing and looked blearily about. It ruffled feathers fluffed against the cold, then huffed out its chest and crowed in celebration of the arrival of morn. As if the cock’s jarring utterance was a signal, the air was soon filled with birdsong and more crowing from across the burh. The sentries on the wall took their cue and called the changing of the guard, grateful their watch had remained quiet. Low voices, some grumpy, most sleepy, heralded the awakening of servants. Wulfsinraed was rousing. Within the curved walls of the lord’s bower, tapestries covered the shuttered window embrasures. All remained dark and quiet. On instinct, Fallard woke with the dawn, as was his habit. Abruptly tense and alert to possible danger, he lay still for several moments, eyes closed, trying to think where he was. He searched the darkness with the heightened senses of a trained warrior, but found naught threatening. Then he remembered and relaxed. Experimentally, he moved his right knee and discovered that while ’twas sore and rather more stiff than he liked, it hurt not as it had the night before. That, and the absence of fever, bode well for quick recovery. He started to move his hand out from under the covers only to run into an obstacle. Focusing on the spot, he saw a shadow, deeper than the surrounding darkness, crouched beside the bed. He tensed again, and fought to stay further betraying movement as childhood tales of monsters stalking sleepers mingled with adult memories of far worse fiends—those of his own kind—creeping upon him in the dark. As the sound of steady, slow breathing registered in his mind, he kept from throwing himself at the unmoving object. The dark shadow crouching nigh him was no threat, imaginary or human. Drawing his hand upwards until ’twas free, he reached out. Questing fingertips encountered first the softness of fur, and then the soft nap of finely woven wool. Searching beneath, his touch met with downy-textured strands. ’Twas Ysane’s hair, but he knew by then the sleeping figure was his white rose, for the muted rosewater scent of her teased his nostrils. Her head lay inches from his chest, her face turned away, toward his feet. One slender arm, the flesh cold, curled over his chest. Trying not to awaken her, he played with the loose tresses, his fingers twining gently through them. Ysane. His rose, his betrothed and he believed, the fulfillment of his hopes. Much to his surprise, the respect and affection he felt for her increased daily and oft times, it seemed, even with the hours. Except for his mother and sisters—whom, naively, he realized now, he had believed were unique in the world—he had thought one woman little different than any other. But the tales told by Ysane’s people had affected him. They spoke of her warmth, kindness and generosity. In tones tinged with sadness, they remembered her laughter, like the sparkling of light on the river’s surface, now silent, but which had once rung freely throughout the burh. With unabashed pride, they recounted her unfailing courage as time and again she risked brutal beatings to intercede between them and her husband’s merciless wrath. Not only were they loyal to the death, they truly loved her as well. They admired her fortitude and extolled her intelligence with ungrudging devotion. As he stared into the blind dark above him, his hand now resting lightly on her fair head, Fallard wondered at Ysane’s motive in watching over him through the night. Was it but duty that held her there, or could his rose be discovering feelings for him? Yet, in the end, what did it matter? He would have her, regardless. A life spent in warfare had rapidly relieved him of the illusions of youth. He was a warrior. Of necessity, he gave little thought to others. He had come to Wulfsinraed and taken for himself, and by force, all that had rightfully belonged to her, believing it his duty and his destiny. Indifferent to such foolish concerns as her feelings or how his actions might impact her life, his behavior toward her was that of conqueror. Her country was in chaos, and her people maimed and murdered, their lands and homes stolen. The conquest changed the familiar patterns of their lives irrevocably. Ysane’s own father lay dead in a grave in Nourmaundie, the direct result of the Norman king’s command, and there was yet another fact he had still to tell her about her father’s death that would not endear him to her. All things considered, she should hate and despise him. By her own admission, she would wed him only because William forced her hand. Mayhap, she believed her silent vigil to be merely the proper thing as his betrothed. He now knew ’twould be her nature to do such. As the lightening of the day outside brought about a slight lessening of the shadows within the bower, Fallard pondered thoughts he had never before entertained. Truly, he would previously have scorned them as unworthy of any warrior, much less a knight of his caliber. But somewhere in the privacy of his heart, he found the courage to admit that as he wished Ysane to be more than a mere vessel wherein his seed might grow, he also wanted more than duty from her. Aye, more even than the wifely devotion and faithfulness he would demand. He desired her affection…and was it possible he wanted even more? He thought of the ardor for her that had plagued him during the days he had spent escorting stewards and searching for rebels. Yet, beyond plain lust, his desires had also centered on simple things he would previously have deemed frivolous, such as the feel of Ysane’s small, soft hand resting trustingly in his own, like a sleeping bird. As he had cantered along the dusty road, he recalled the resounding lilt of her voice and determined to be the first to make the hall ring with her laughter once again. Searching through the cool forest for sign of the enemy, he was distracted by thoughts of the fire in her eyes as she conquered her fear and faced him down, tiny little thing though she was. The breeze seemed to tease him with her sweet scent, no matter where he went. An escalating wish to walk his lands with her, to listen as she told him of her life ere she met him, had interfered with his ability to focus on the job at hand. Setting aside thoughts of her had been increasingly difficult, even to the point of putting his mission and the lives of his men in jeopardy. Abruptly, his ire rose. Never had he dealt with such a problem with himself, though other men had been punished at his command for failing to stay alert to their surroundings. Must he now also have himself whipped for the same offense? By the robe of St. Martin, ’twas not wise for a man to suffer a woman, even the one who would become his wife, such control! Truth be told, he had offered his share of mockery to the men in his command who allowed sentiments so unbecoming of a knight to show openly—including, most recently, his own First. He frowned at his unaccustomed soul-searching and was spared the shame of further unmanly musings by the sudden alteration in Ysane’s breathing. She had awakened. He lifted his hand from her hair even as her head turned so she faced him. It had grown light enough in the chamber he could begin to discern her features. Smoky eyes, their color still indistinct, blinked sleepily at him. When her soft palm found his forehead, finding it cool, she smiled. The motion of her sweetly curved lips sent a shaft of pure elation, mingled with lust, stabbing into hitherto unknown and unexplored depths of sentiment. By the wolf’s head! What was happening to him? The lust he understood—what man would not want beneath him the warm, lovely, sweet-scented female lying so close? But that he should gain such pleasure simply from her smile! He must snatch back the self-control she had stolen. She represented a danger no warrior could allow. “Good morrow, Fallard.” Her voice was husky with sleep, and added to his discomfort. She sat up. “’Tis good to find you clear of the fever.” Fallard answered more gruffly than was his intent, for he was embarrassed and disgruntled by thoughts he considered mawkish. “Have you been crouching there all night? Saints above, woman, but that was foolish. ’Tis a wonder you have caught not your death of ague.” She stiffened as annoyance, and what might be hurt, flashed briefly across her countenance. She threw off the blanket and fur and rose to her feet. “’Tis my earnest hope you are not always so grumpy upon awakening, my lord.” Her sweet mouth pursed as she perused him. “’Tis oft difficult enough to face the trials of a new day without being pummeled by unhappy words ere one leaves one’s own bed.” As she lifted the bedcover by his leg to check the bandage, Fallard caught her wrist with a grip less than gentle. She gave a pained yelp and tried to pull away. Feeling shame, yet another unaccustomed sense, for he rarely regretted aught he said or did, Fallard eased his grip and caressed the soft skin beneath his fingers, though he released her not. Unable to so abase himself as to apologize, he let the skin around his eyes crinkle. “You will discover soon enough what I am like in the morn, my little rose. Events have briefly delayed our troth, but naught will prevent our marriage within the seven-day.” “You still intend to wed me so soon? How can that be possible under these circumstances?” Was she hoping somehow their union might be delayed, or even put off indefinitely? A powerful flicker of unease at the thought made him less gentle than he would otherwise have been. The hand on her wrist tightened as he pulled her down so her face was nigh his own. Midnight eyes bored into green with resolute intent as his voice cracked sharp as a whip. “Perish any hope for delay, my lady. Unless I am dead, the wedding will go forward as planned. I care not if every Saxon rebel in the land cries ravening at the gates.” Her lips tightened, but she said naught more. Satisfied the bandaging showed but traces of oozing fluid, she straightened and tried again to pull her hand free from his hold. His grip loosened fractionally, but still he released her not. “Come, my lady rose, will you offer not a kiss to a knight wounded in your defense?” He thought to soften her heart with mention of his pain, but she twisted her arm abruptly in such a way he was forced to let go or risk hurting her. She backed away and went to the window, pulling up the tapestry and opening the shutters to let the now bright sunshine into the bower. Air, bracing and cold swirled into the room, dispelling the stuffy, smoky atmosphere. He watched her every move as she opened one of her clothing chests and fished inside to pull out a clean cyrtel and a brown syrce, then went to the door. “I will find Luilda. ’Tis certain she will tell you to stay in bed this day for your wound’s sake, but I doubt my lord will heed her wisdom.” She stalked out. “Ysane, I would have you aid me,” he called after her, throwing off the covers, but if she heard him, she ignored his command. Vexed, but unable to move quickly enough to catch her, he spent the next several minutes attempting, with varying degrees of success, to limp unaided around the chamber. He balanced against the bed frame and carefully flexed his swollen knee, trying to work out the stiffness. So, she stayed out of duty. It did not occur to him the offense he felt was closer to hurt, and out of proportion to even his own perception of events. *** Ysane spied a serving maid as she crossed the nigh empty hall. She motioned for fresh water for her early ablutions to be brought to Roana’s bower, and wondered if her kinswoman was still abed. Roana did sometimes sleep late, especially if her rest was disturbed as it had been last eve. Opening the door, she peeked inside, and drew a relieved breath when her cousin looked up at her from where she sat embroidering by the window. “Fair morn, Ysane,” Roana said. She smiled in welcome. “I trust my lord is well this morn, and free of fever?” “Aye, that he is, and in fine form, as well. He is fractious as a hungry babe.” Roana chuckled and set aside her embroidery. “Did you sleep at all, my kinswoman?” “Nay, I did not,” Ysane said, shortly and quite untruthfully. She relented. “At the least, it feels I did not.” “’Twould appear my lord is not the only one in a less than good humor. What has he done to upset you?” Unsurprised at Roana’s perception, Ysane almost gave vent to her fury, but remembered her private vow to keep her emotions under control. She shrugged. “’Twould seem Fallard is not at his best in the morn, that is all.” She nodded to herself in approval at the quiet restraint of her tone. Good. She would be coaxed not into losing her temper again. “Hmmm. Mean you he snapped like a dragon with a sore throat, or in this case, a sore knee, almost as soon as he awoke.” The words were a stick poking the anthill of Ysane’s annoyance. Forgetting her vow, she flung around to face her cousin. “That oaf! That…that…that….” She broke off her sputtering, unable to think of another word that matched her infuriated thoughts. “He thinks to make a fool of me. He thinks I am naught more than a, a thing he owns. He called me foolish, and then he tried to seduce me. As if that were not enough, he accused me of trying to break my troth with him. “I watched over him through the night, worried he might become fevered, and he mocked my concern. I know he will be foolish today and refuse to heed Luilda’s advice to stay off his feet. There is little doubt he will pull the stitches from his wound, stamping around all over the burh, and he….” She broke off, glaring at Roana who laughed aloud at her tirade. “Oh, my dear, forgive me, but you sound so much like my mother,” Roana said between chuckles. “How well I remember how she used to fuss about my father in much the same way. She loved him, more than her own life. Methinks he loved her too, as much as he was able. Men are so different than we women, you know. ’Tis much harder for them to say what they feel, or even to admit they feel aught. Ah, ’tis so unmanly to suffer the softer feelings. Men must ever be strong, and brave and unyielding as iron, and I admit, ever the one who must be right in any argument. ’Tis our role to teach them ’tis no dishonor to concede to sentiments they believe should be only of womanly bent.” Her anger subsiding, Ysane sighed as a tentative knock sounded. Lynnet stuck her head in the door, and seeing them, brought in the wash water. “Mayhap you are right, Roana. ’Tis certain Fallard is more proud and stubborn than most. But never has anyone tried my composure as that man!” She eyed her maid. “Leave the water, Lynnet. Go. Find Luilda. I would have her tend the wound of our lord ere he takes himself out of the hall for the day.” “Luilda is already with him, my lady. As I came here, I heard him roar at her to take her poultices and potions away, and leave him be. He said to tie up the bandage and get out so he could dress, and that he would go to his duties whether she approved or nay.” “He roared?” “Fallard roared?” Both women spoke at once, then stared at each other and giggled. They looked at Lynnet. The three of them burst into laughter, though Lynnet hid hers behind her hand. “Fallard does not roar,” Ysane said. “’Tis truth I have never heard him raise his voice in anger.” “Nor have I,” Roana said, her golden eyes laughing. “You seem to have an unhappy effect upon him, Ysane.” Laughter tinkled through the chamber once again, but the moment of shared feminine understanding was shattered by a cry from the hall. Ysane ran into the antechamber outside Roana’s bower to peek into the hall where one of the hearth companions called loudly enough for all to hear. “The rebels are massing ere the gates. Sir Trifine orders that all are to stay within the hall until he gives word ’tis safe. Does anyone know how fares the lord D’Auvrecher?” She ducked out of sight as she heard Fallard answer. “I am well, Rufus. What other word bring you?” Hidden behind the doorway arch, she watched as he strode toward the man, his gait rapid and sure, and preceded him out the door, listening all the while to the soldier’s rapid briefing. Roul skipped at his heels, happy and ungainly as a pup. What does it cost him to move without limp, or other sign of pain? “You were correct, of course,” Roana whispered behind her. “But you understand why, do you not?” Ysane whirled to face her cousin. A smile softened her countenance. “Aye. I could say ’twas mere pride, but while that may be true, ’tis so much more. He is lord of Wulfsinraed now, and he must lead as he was born to do, as he knows he must. ’Tis his responsibility to protect us from the danger outside the wall. He can show no weakness before his men. Trifine, Domnall and Jehan are fine, trustworthy warriors, but they are not Fallard. His people look to him, and though I fear for his safety, and worry should he further damage his wound, I would not have him do otherwise.” Roana smiled and hugged her. “A wise woman knows when to let her man be,” she said simply. “Come, my dear, let us see you properly dressed. You also have a role to play this day.” CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE “Now that Ruald has lost his one chance to get inside the gates without losing an unacceptable number of his men to fighting,” Fallard said, “siege is his only recourse, though he must know he will be unable to sustain it for long. William’s patrols will eventually learn of the situation and reinforcements will be sent to rout him. He will now search for options—in particular, for another way inside the wall—but methinks he will soon yield the day. ’Tis my thought he will not linger more than two seven-days, before he decides to withdraw and regroup to try again at a more favorable time.” He was on the wall, sitting with his back to the parapet and his leg stretched out as he had been all the morn—though he would not have admitted it to Ysane—and manfully eating the meaty stew ordered by Luilda to replenish his blood loss. The sun was warm, the breezes soft and he was actually quite comfortable as he discussed with Trifine the ramifications of an immediate, all-out assault on the rebel force ere they could become entrenched. Ruald’s troops, more than expected and a sizable threat, had spread themselves out in the tree line across from the gates and were setting up for a protracted stay. Protected by a shield-wall, his archers had spent the morn loosing burning arrows over the wall and into the outer gate, more as a simple harrassment than with any real hope of success. Long ago, Wulfsin had foreseen that threat to the gate. Into the roof above it, he built thread-narrow openings by which water or sand might be poured to douse fires. The blazing missiles were snuffed ere they could take hold, as were those that reached the courtyard. Abruptly, Fallard sat back from the map spread out between them. “I believe we would see victory should we attack directly, but our loss of life would be heavy. I will choose not this option unless we have no other choice. On the other hand, Wulfsinraed can withstand a siege, but I begrudge the waste of time.” His eyes rose to his First. He tapped his lips with his forefinger while he considered his thought. “There is a way to end the siege now, and I have decided to employ it.” Trifine’s eyes lit. “What is this plan? Might it have aught to do with Sir Gyffard?” Fallard’s gaze locked with that of his First. “It occurs to me Ruald is unaware Sir Gyffard has promised to return, with or without reinforcements from Witham. The commander yet abides at the garrison, and I suspect Ruald believes he will soon hie to London with his tail tucked firmly between his legs. By the time he learns differently, ’twill be too late.” “Aye, and I had wondered how we might make use of that fact.” “’Tis my thought the commander feels his honor is stained by his loss of the prisoners. He will wish to wipe that blot from his record, and we will use that to our advantage. An attack will be coordinated between his troops and Wulfsinraed before he arrives. I will order a messenger through the postern gate to intercept him.” Trifine stiffened and frowned. “Postern gate? What postern gate? I know of no such exit. You keep much close to your chest these days, Fallard. ’Tis not like you.” His First sounded miffed, and the corners of Fallard’s eyes crinkled. ’Twas not oft he unearthed information before Trifine discovered it, but when he did, he enjoyed his friend’s pique. “The gate is hidden in the southwest wall above the abutment where the river forks. Remind me to show it to you and Jehan, lest I forget. ’Twas remiss of me not to do so sooner, but we have all been somewhat…busy, of late.” Trifine glared at him. “The plan, Fallard.” He laughed outright, then said, “the orders I will send are two-fold. Ruald’s soldiers outnumber the combined forces of the burh and Sir Gyffard without the Witham company. Does Sir Gyffard arrive unaccompanied by them, he is to hold a league out from Wulfsinraed. After nightfall, he is to send half of his men in silent passage through the forest south of the burh to the far side of the village. An hour before break of day, the other half will mount up and slowly continue on to the burh, as if expecting no challenge. At dawn, our men will make a foray from the gates, while the commander’s troops ride in fast from east and west to attack in a pincer movement. If Ruald discovers not the division of Sir Gyffard’s men, the element of surprise should once again play in our favor, and methinks ’twill even the odds. But even does he guess our plan, twill still be effective. What think you?” “Agreed.” Trifine cocked his head, his look reflective. “You have an uncommon wealth of good luck, Fallard. Who could have foreseen Sir Gyffard’s foresight? Ruald will know not the commander’s purpose in returning or what his response might be to the rebel presence.” His grin widened. “’Twill be enough to cause gnashing of teeth with our insurrectionist friend. I find myself glad I am not one of his scouts.” Fallard snorted. “Do the scouts have the sense of a cow, they will not return to offer the news. The second aspect of the plan is thus. Does Sir Gyffard come with the Witham troops, I will order that he hold at the tree line, in full view of the rebels, and appear to make camp—a peculiarity I hope will give rise to some measure of consternation, for he will have enough men that Ruald would expect him to make a run for the gates. At sound of the dawn trumpet, the gates will be opened and the burh troops will rush the Saxon line. Sir Gyffard is then to come in with pennons flying.” “’Tis good, this plan. ’Twill succeed.” The messenger was duly sent. Three days later he returned and came through the postern gate as soon as ’twas dark enough to reach it unobserved. ’Twas well after sup and Fallard was in the hall, talking with Domnall. He beckoned him over. “What have you to report?” “Captain D’Auvrecher, Sir Gyffard travels to Wulfsinraed with the extra troops from the Witham garrison. He will arrive by mid watch this night. He will hold ready at the treeline, as ordered, for the daybreak attack. He has captured several of Sir Ruald’s scouts, but believes those still free will find it difficult to reach Wulfsinraed to give warning to Sir Ruald much in advance of his arrival, as indeed, I have only just come.” “Well and good,” Fallard said. “Take your rest, now.” He grinned as he looked at Domnall. “It begins.” The situation unfolded much as he had outlined, with one exception. In the pallid light of a half-phase moon, little could be seen of Ruald’s activities, but he appeared baffled by Sir Gyffard’s peculiar decision to halt and camp on the road at the tree line rather than attempt to reach the safety of the burh. Torchlight in the enemy camp revealed what appeared to be a rather haphazard attempt to ready for battle. Come the dawn, the reason for the disorganized effort became quickly apparent. It seemed many of his men had no inclination to fight. They had come prepared for an easy conquest of a lightly defended burh, not a full-scale battle against mounted knights and armed soldiers equaling their number. They took no chances. By the time ’twas light enough to see, more than half the rebel force had, to all appearances, deserted the camp. Fallard watched from the wall as the ground shook beneath the thundering hooves of the Norman contingent tearing like a storm wind from the forest, while his men charged through the gates, trumpets blaring, like a horde of howling Norsemen. Ruald ran for his horse, apparently screaming orders to retreat. The remaining rebels lost no time in obeying. They dropped everything and ran. In the short time it took for Sir Gyffard and Sir Aalot, the commander of the Witham garrison, to join the Wulfsinraed contingent, the Saxon camp was deserted. Except for a man found lying, bloodied and insensible, inside Ruald’s tent, not a single rebel remained. Sir Gyffard ordered his men to chase them, though he admitted to Fallard he had little hope of tracking those who knew this forest as well as their own homes. He also gave orders to gather whatever supplies the rebels left behind. The people of the burh would make good use of the bounty. The unconscious man found in Ruald’s tent was brought to the hall for treatment. When he woke, Fallard questioned him, but the man had perforce to use hand signals to tell of the powerful, gauntleted fist that broke his jaw, knocked out several teeth and left the skin shredded from the sharp metal studding the glove. Fallard eventually gathered he was a scout, and Sir Ruald had liked not the news he bore of the approaching unit from Witham. He claimed himself a simple man who had lived a peaceful life ere being recruited—against his will, as he hastened to indicate—into the rebel force, but he clearly expected a slow and agonizing death by torture. Upon Fallard’s assurance such was not to be the case so long as he abandoned the insurrection, he wept, and signed his willingness to kneel before this Norman lord and swear any fealty required. *** The hall was more crowded for sup than Ysane could remember. Between her people, the stewards and their complements and the off-duty troops of Sir Gyffard and Sir Aalot, there was barely room for the serving maids and lads to move about. Alewyn and Alyce were run ragged trying to keep up with demands. Everyone, inside the hall and without, waited for the scouts to return to give word the rebels were truly departed and ’twas safe to go home. In the meantime, a small celebration would settle nerves. At one point ere sup, Ethelmar had confessed for her ears alone to an unseemly eagerness to run far away and hide until ’twas over. She threatened to boil him in rosewater did he try. The comical grimace on his face was the last she had seen of him. The hall’s youngsters mingled freely with the children of the stewards and the squires, Fauques and Roul among them, who were granted temporary release from service to make merry. From what she could see, they were having a fine time. When she would have called a servant to remove what she thought was a smuggled jug of mead at their table, Fallard, seeing her frown and where she looked, placed a hand on her arm and shook his head. Almost shouting to be heard over the din, he said, “Let them enjoy it. I have it on good authority the mead is watered.” She leaned close to Fallard’s ear to make herself heard. “Have we enough sleeping space in the garrison for all these men, Fallard?” The corners of his eyes crinkled. “What says Ethelmar about the problem?” “He shrugged and said, ‘most will end up draped over each other on the floor, so it matters not’. But I would have them sleep in comfort.” Fallard’s grin reached his mouth. “Worry not. In their sotted minds, they will dream they rest on soft mattresses with a warm maid in their arms.” A blush heated her cheeks and she grimaced, picking at the honey-glazed beef, her appetite dampened. The noise level alone was enough to give one an aching head, but someone had ordered every torch and light in the hall lit, plus the extra candles, and the fire pits were roaring with blazes that leaped halfway to the ceiling. More than one person sitting at the nearer tables had found themselves batting at sparks that settled in clothing or worse, in hair. With all the extra people in the room, the heat was becoming unbearable. ’Twas difficult to breathe, much less see in the dense haze. She jumped when Fallard pushed back her headrail. The firm texture of his lips ran a caress over the rim of her ear. “Shall I order the windows opened?” The husky timbre in his deep tones played havoc with her already heightened nerves. Little shocks skittered all over her skin. ’Twas all she could do to keep her own voice steady. “Aye, else I fear we shall all suffocate.” His low chuckle revealed he knew well enough what his touch had done to her. He snared a boy returning from the kitchen with yet another dish, and gave the order. Soon, cool night air flowed through the windows as shutters were opened and tapestries lifted aside, dispersing the worst of the smoke. Fallard had turned to speak with Thegn Noll, upon whom he had bestowed the honor of sitting at his right hand. Ysane waited for a momentary lull in their conversation and then placed a hand lightly on his arm to capture his attention. Startled, she drew back her hand, for even through the cloth of his tunic, the flesh beneath her fingers burned with heat and little tremors ran through the muscled flesh. He turned to her and she gasped, able to see him better now the hall was clearer. The dark gaze directed at her glittered with more than candlelight, and his cheeks bore a blush roses would envy. “You are ill,” she whispered. “Why said you naught?” “And have everyone from here to London learn the new lord of Wulfsinraed is so weak the smallest wound prevents him from celebrating a victory with his people?” “That is foolishness, my lord. There is naught of weakness in dealing with fever. Your wound, small though it may be, may grow putrid if not treated. Please, allow me to return with you to our quarters. Luilda must see to you, lest worse than fever befall you.” The lines of his face tightened and granite edged his voice. “This discussion is over. I will leave not this table until the proper time.” “We shall see about that,” she shot back. Ere he could stop her, she called to his First, who shared his plate with Roana. “Trifine, I would speak with you, if you please.” Moments later, Trifine bent between them to better hear her words, but Fallard caught his arm. “’Tis naught, Trifine. Return to your seat.” Trifine’s eyes darted from one to the other. “What goes, if I may be so bold as to ask?” His lady and his captain spoke at the same time. “My lord is ill and refuses to retire so he might be treated and rest.” “My lady makes a war out of a skirmish, and against my command, I might add.” Trifine laughed. Fallard’s expression darkened. Ysane stiffened. “I fail to see the humor of this situation.” “As do I,” Fallard said. “Ah, but ’tis one most common,” Trifine said, with more cheer than tact. “But one not oft found among lovers.” Fallard snorted. Ysane humphed. “You make no sense, Trifine. I seek aid in getting your captain to bed. Instead, you play the jester.” “But see you not?” Mastering his mirth, Trifine put the question to them both. “You are not yet wed, but already you behave as husband and wife. ’Tis a scene most encouraging to this knight, for it augurs well for your future together.” Fallard turned away, muttering about fools masquerading as Firsts. He gave his attention to Thegn Noll, ignoring them. Ysane lifted her chin. “Will you, or nil you aid in getting Fallard to his bed?” Trifine shivered. “Hear now, lady. Your tone may freeze me solid, and where then will you be?” Her shoulders slumped and she dropped the attempt at hauteur. “Trifine, please! He is ill.” “My lady, forgive me. I should have spoken sooner. I am aware of the captain’s…indisposition. Please believe ’tis not so serious as you suppose. Ere he came to sup, the healer cleaned his wound and packed it with a healing poultice. She also gave him a potion to aid in fighting the fever. He knows he must rest, but ’tis also his responsibility as lord to host this eve’s festivities. When ’tis time, he will excuse himself and go to his bed.” Her ire notched even higher with the explanation. “And why did no one speak of this when ’twas first mentioned? ’Twould have saved us this entire ridiculous conversation.” The twinkle increased in the First’s eyes. “Ah, but then what mirth I would have missed!” He grinned at her thunderous expression. “Be at ease, my lady. I but tease. In truth, the captain’s slight was not deliberate. You must understand. He has long been a commander. He states his position, ’tis accepted. He issues an order, ’tis instantly obeyed. He lies under no compulsion to explain himself—except mayhap, to the king. You will soon be his wife, and for the nonce, he sees you in much the same light he sees us all, as one who requires his leadership, and who must obey without question at all times. ’Tis after all, no more than is expected of women, and especially wives, as you know. “He is not a hard man. But unlike myself,” and Trifine winked outrageously, his ice blue eyes sparkling, “he has not experience with how easily a woman’s gentle humors might be bruised. Give him time, my lady. He will learn,” and here he grinned again, “eventually, how best to deal with you so both are content.” Ere Ysane could respond, Fallard interrupted. “If you are quite finished playing the sage with my woman, Trifine, you may return to your seat.” Eyebrow hiking, Trifine looked Fallard straight in the eye. “Jealousy becomes you not, my captain, but since my own lady eagerly awaits the return of my company,” and he nodded to Roana, whose golden gaze watched them all, “I gladly heed your command.” *** Fallard narrowed his eyes, but said naught further. In truth, he was feeling much worse than he would admit. His head pounded and his thigh ached abominably, but he would fall face first into the food on his plate ere he allowed a woman to dictate his actions. He was lord of this burh, and she must learn to accept that fact. To signal his displeasure, he ignored Ysane as the meal progressed, but soon realized his betrothed failed to notice. She conversed with Lady Benigna, who lived with her husband, Thegn Marcel at Atheldun Manor, a small but important fief a few leagues to the north on the border with East Anglia. The slight lowering of his brows and tightening of his lips at Ysane’s inattention would have sent most of his knights running for cover. But she, blithely unaware of the lesson he sought to teach her, chattered on with Lady Benigna. Are all women as contrary as this one? He thought of his mother’s quiet obedience, and then glancing at Roana, laughing softly at some witticism of his First, he decided both those gentlewomen were more proper examples of seemly behavior than Ysane. ’Twas the only thing he had learned of his betrothed he wished to change. She was most stubborn, and seemed incapable of bowing gently to his will, as was a woman’s place. He would be easy with her, for now. ’Twas not his desire to daunt her with stern demands, for he remembered well her earlier declaration that no man would again rule her. She would hardly have learned from Renouf how to properly respond to a husband. Then too, her mother had died when she was quite young and thus was she deprived of the benefit of that fair lady’s teaching. Mayhap, he would speak with Lady Roana. She was widowed, and some twelvemonths older than Ysane. Mayhap, her experience of life had bestowed greater wisdom than Ysane had yet acquired. He sat back in his chair and nodded to himself. Aye, he would have Lady Roana advise Ysane on her proper role as his wife. His betrothed was not dull-witted. As soon as she realized her deficiency in this area, she would immediately seek to remedy the flaw. Satisfied the problem was all but resolved, Fallard turned to Ysane with a smile. He would now demonstrate he could be magnanimous to her fault. He was also quite ready to admit ’twas time for them both to retire. He wanted Ysane to seek out Luilda and obtain something to ease the ache in his head. “My lady, we shall retire now,” he announced, still smiling, breaking into her chatter with Lady Benigna and Lady Yvette, wife to Lord Alphonse of Thyrruck Burh, who sat across from her. Mischief cavorted in the moss green gaze as Ysane smiled into his eyes. “Certainly, my lord. Methinks ’twill do much good to rest your leg. Good eve to you.” Mayhap if by this time, Fallard had not felt as if some wicked imp had stolen all his strength, he might have put up more of a fight. As it was, he decided this one small battle was worth not the cost of winning. There would be future battles he would win—when he felt up to fighting them. Giving over host duties to Noll, he took his leave. “My lord, will you slow your pace?” He stopped, surprised to realize Ysane had trotted up behind him. She grabbed his elbow. “You go the wrong direction, sir.” Fallard stared down at her. “What say you? My pallet lies in the northeast tower. Besides, intended you not to keep further company with the ladies?” “They will do well without me, my lord, and your bed, as you should know by now, is in the lord’s tower. I will accompany you there and see to your comfort, then I will retire to Roana’s chamber.” The corners of his eyes crinkled. Even his lips curved. Mayhap, she had not so much to learn as he thought, despite her little jest. He set his arm about her shoulders and leaned on her more than was needful, and allowed her to walk him to the stairs. Once they reached the bower, Ysane made to slip from beneath his arm, but his hold tightened. Gathering her against him, he raised his hand to her headrail, and removed the circlet that held it in place. “My lord, what do you do? ’Tis not seemly.” Her voice came to him as a squeak. “Why would that be?” His voice was at its most persuasive as the sheer headrail slipped to the floor. “We are almost married.” “‘Almost’ is not the same as wed. Now that you are better, ’tis unseemly enough I have accompanied you here. You must know I can stay not. I must return downstairs, and quickly, lest our guests wonder at our delay.” Fallard chuckled, marveling at how the candlelight mingled in bronze reflection with the moss green of her eyes, and picked out glowing highlights in her hair. “My sweet rose,” he whispered as he nestled her even closer. He breathed in her sweet scent. “Our guests will wonder not. They will know precisely what causes our ‘delay’, and they will be pleased for us.” So saying, he captured her lips in a heady kiss. Slow, long and thorough, it smashed through barriers and plundered depths he knew she thought safe from onslaught. When he lifted his head, so lost was she to the splendor of his touch she could but stare back at him in amaze. She was not even yet aware he had removed the pins from her hair so it cascaded about her shoulders, or that he delighted in filling his hands with the luxurious riot. Gently he set her head to his chest. She lay trusting against him, her arms round his waist. He smiled into eyes gone soft as the night, at lips red as the roses that would soon bloom in her garden. ’Tis fortunate my head throbs harder than before, for did I fare better, I might be less willing to let her go. He lifted her face to place upon her mouth a kiss of tender manner. “Aye, lady, we shall do well together,” he whispered into the delicate curve of her ear. “We shall do very well, indeed. Go. Find Luilda and send her to me with a headache potion.” He set her from him, despite the protest of his body. “I will see you in the morn, little rose, but ’twill be early, so sleep well. I have plans, and I would have you accompany me.” His breath hissed as she licked her lips and nodded. “Aye, Fallard. I will send Luilda. I…look forward to our time together on the morrow.” As she turned to leave, he could resist not a gentle smack on her bottom. She squealed, her palms reaching to cover the offended spot as she whirled. But even as Fallard belatedly berated himself for breaking her mood, her eyes lit, and she giggled, and ran lightly from the chamber. *** Downstairs, Ysane sought out Luilda. “My lady!” The healer stared at her in dismay. “Your hair! Your headrail…why have you removed it? Your guests! What will they think?” “My what?” Ysane reached to touch the veil that should have framed her face. The blush that rarely left her when Fallard was nigh, scorched from chest to hairline. The villain! He had removed not only her veil, but loosened her hair to fall in waves down her back, and she had not even realized. “Never mind, lady.” Luilda pushed an errant tress behind her ear. “I can guess well enough where the veil may be found. What is it you wish?” Ysane gave the healer Fallard’s message and slipped to Roana’s bower, thinking all the while that if his kiss had such power, she had best take much care when alone with him, at least until after the wedding. *** Up the stairs and around the corner from the lord’s bower, Lady Hildeth and Marlee waited for Ysane to leave in search of Luilda. Lady Hildeth giggled behind her hand. Only moments before, they had crept unashamedly to the door of the bower and peaked around the doorframe, immediately elated at the sight that met their eyes. “Did you see them, Marlee?” Lady Hildeth’s tone was bright with gleeful delight. “Is it not delicious?” “Aye, my lady, ’tis most exciting.” “What a marvelously lusty man. That kiss was surely as passionate as any my Lyolf gifted to me. Think you she enjoyed it?” “I am certain of it,” Marlee said, her countenance beaming. “Saw you her face? ’Twas as dreamy as that of any girl lost in the throes of first love. Aye, fireflies surely danced in her eyes.” “Good, good. So I thought, also. Then ’tis certain. We shall hear again the laughter of a new babe in this drafty old hall, and none too soon, think you not?” Marlee’s reply was indistinguishable as the two ecstatic old women crept down the staircase into the anteroom. CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX A whispering buzz, very like that of a fly, dragged Ysane from deep slumber. She mumbled under her breath and sleepily brought her hand from under the furs to wave away the annoying insect, but as she sank back into sweet sleep, a tickling began on the tip of her nose. Faith. The little beast tiptoes across my face. Again, she swatted it away, only to feel it return. Still lost in the groggy half-world of somnolence, she remembered that the awakening of the insect world was one of the few things about spring she hated. She had once waked to a butterfly perched on her forehead, it’s gauzy wings pulsing, and another time to a spider crawling along her forearm, the touch of its eight tiny legs making her giggle until she woke enough to be properly horrified. She had squealed, then. The tickling came again. A peek from beneath an eyelid assured her ’twas not even full light, and her bed was warm and cozy. She groaned, low in her throat, not yet ready to face the day. Lynnet would arrive soon to light the brazier. Then she would get up. She relaxed. Mayhap, the insect had flown away. But the tickle came again, more annoying than ever. Mercy, but what a persistent fly ’twas! Or was it a fly? What if ’twas a bee? Such insects frequently got into the hall and betimes stung people. Her lids flying wide, Ysane’s eyes crossed as she tried to focus on her nose. Bafflement held her in its grip. ’Twas no insect hovering, but the soft tip of a dove feather. A feather? Feathers crawled not on one’s nose. “Ysane! Wake up, my rose, ’tis time to rise!” The chamber abruptly swung into focus. A bare few inches from her face were the laughing midnight eyes of Fallard D’Auvrecher. Grinning from ear to ear like the naughtiest of little boys ever caught in an act of pure mischief, he whispered, “’Tis about time!” He spoke so low she understood him more by reading his lips than hearing his words. “Never have I known one so hard to wake. Arise and dress, sleepy rose. There is much to do today.” Ere she could answer, or even decide if she wanted to laugh at his antics or be offended at his improper presence in Roana’s private chamber, he was gone. Well, he had done it. She was awake now. She might as well get up. His silliness caught up with her sleep-drugged mind and she started to giggle, catching her hand over her mouth. She did not want to wake Roana, who slept buried to her nose beneath the furs. She crawled from the bed, shivering in the chill air. A delighted, almost childlike excitement filled her as she mused on adventuring with Fallard. She flew about, washing and dressing as quietly as possible. Tiptoeing to the door, she grimaced as the hinges squeaked, but a glance assured Roana remained undisturbed. Faith! Did every hinge in the hall need to be oiled? She must remember to mention it to Ethelmar. In the anteroom, she yelped as Fallard loomed above her. “Will you hasten? The day speeds away.” He still whispered, though now they were in the hall, stealth seemed unnecessary. Ethelmar had been right in his guess. Snores, from soft, fluttering stutters and mousy squeaks to stentorian roars that nigh shook the rafters, vibrated through the huge chamber as she and Fallard stepped around and over unconscious bodies. Flat out on the floor, or draped across tables or each other, every man of them was oblivious to the world. ’Twas a good thing the rebels had chosen not to attack this morn. They would have been overcome ere they knew what had happened. They reached the doors without mishap. Fallard drew her mantle over her shoulders. He caught her hand and stepped with her into a morn of breathtaking beauty. ’Twas already light enough to see, though the sun’s rays were only beginning to peak over the treetops. The air was chill, but not cold, soft as a babe’s skin and as fresh as if ‘twere the first morn of the world. Above them, the azure of the sky rivaled the head of a blue tit. Birds dipped and wheeled for sheer joy across the heaven, filling it with diverse melodies. Roul came running with an unlit torch, Fauques a close shadow. Fallard accepted the light. “Does Trifine have no need of Fauques, the two of you may have the day to do as you please. I have no wish to see you till sup.” The eyes of both squires lit in glee at this rare treat, ere they raced off to find Trifine. “Think you Trifine will yield the day to Fauques?” The corners of Fallard’s eyes crinkled. “Aye. He will discern my wish in the matter.” Ysane chuckled. Still holding her hand, Fallard pulled her down the steps and hurried across the courtyard. “Fallard, your knee!” “My leg is fine, little rose. Luilda tended it and wrapped it well. ’Tis sore, but truly pains me not.” He threw her a laughing glance. “Trust me. Does it hurt, I will rest.” She sighed. Her father had responded exactly so to her mother’s protests when he was injured. They scampered like children around the kitchen outbuildings and wended their way through the shelters, calling soft ‘good morrows’ to those few already up and about. Then she saw where they were headed…not the chapel as she had thought. Fallard drew her into the trees of the orchard and off the cobbled roadway. She slowed her pace and tugged against his hand, feeling the hair on her nape lift. There was but one destination in that direction, and ’twas a place of sorrow. To go there was to face a painful reality, to ask a question that must be answered. As of yet, none had spoken of it and she had shied away from the asking. Dread rose and she tugged harder. He glanced back to ask her purpose, but seeing her face, he stopped. He tilted his head in query, one eyebrow rising. “Why are we going to the crypts?” “Because I want to explore,” he said, “and I want you to explain what I see. You will also show me the secret door to the corridor and how it works.” “But did you not send forth a messenger to Sir Gyffard through the corridor?” “Aye, but I had Domnall deal with the sending, as I had not time.” Still, she hung back. “Fallard, I wish not to enter there.” Her voice wobbled despite her effort at control. “Mayhap not, but it needs be done. There is a reason, beyond my desire to see the secret door, and methinks you know it.” She stood her ground, but the inflection of her voice rose. “I wish not to enter the crypts!” “But ’tis my wish that you do. I will be with you, little rose.” He hesitated. “If ’tis truly impossible for you, I will force you not, yet you must face this, and methinks ’tis time.” He waited, the kindness in his midnight eyes snaring her breath. Her heart fell even more in favor with him that he rushed her not. Day by day, he brushed away more of her defenses as she came to know him better, and to care for him more deeply. She drew a wavering gasp and nodded. The corners of his eyes crinkled. “’Tis well. Your courage will aid you, and I will be with you. You need not face it alone.” They wandered through the orchard, more slowly now, until they reached the entrance of the chamber where generations of Wulfsingas lay in eternal rest. With an effort, she relaxed muscles locked so tight they hurt as she waited for him to unlock the double doors, painted and carved with the elaborate twining-rose-and-stag theme, the Wulfsinraed crest. Eyes alight, he glanced at her. “Hold this a moment.” She held the torch while he lit the tallow with his flint and steel, then reclaimed the light. “Since I have the torch, I will lead. Are you ready?” She straightened her spine and tried to smile, but feared the attempt fell dismally short. But despite the dread that threatened to swallow her whole, she could not help but be swayed by the boyish exuberance that bubbled under Fallard’s concern. Had she not witnessed it, this playful manner was a side of the new lord of Wulfsinraed she would not have believed existed. Always, he was the fearsome warrior, the forbidding captain, the stern master of the hall, the daunting man who rarely lowered his guard. She looked into his hopeful gaze, liking very much this lighthearted Fallard, this glimpse into the boy he must once have been. She wished not to see this guise fade, banished by her own fearful gloom. No matter how difficult, she would trust him in this. He propped the doors against the walls with rocks provided for that purpose. Cold, musty air puffed out around them, smelling of spices, dust, age and beneath it all, the faint odor of corruption. He caught her hand again and with torch held high, they stepped across the threshold. Stone steps opened out at the bottom into a small vestibule adorned with naught but a stool beneath a carved wooden cross hanging on one wall, and two extra torches in iron holders on the other. He stopped and crooked a finger beneath her chin. “You are certain?” “Aye.” Something flared in his eyes and he smiled. Beyond the vestibule, a wide hall opened out. It stretched farther than their torchlight could penetrate. To either side, the flickering flame touched on row after row of deep crypts, two in number in each row, one atop the other. Within each crypt rested stone coffins, their lids swathed with shrouds of embroidered fabric, once colorful but now decaying into the very dust that covered them. She fell in behind as he moved to the right, toward the lower of the first set of crypts, where two coffins lay together. Upon the lid of the outer one lay a jeweled langseax, while ranged about it were a sword, helm and shield. He pointed to letters etched into the stone above the recess. “I cannot read this. What say the words?” “’Tis an ancient dialect, but one my father’s fathers have preserved through the twelvemonths. The first line at the top says this is the resting place of Eorl Wulfsin of Cuthendun, the Wanderer, King’s Thegn of Wulfsinraed. Below that it reads, “Elfleda, beloved consort of Wulfsin.” “Wulfsin and his wife! The wandering warrior and long ago builder of all that is now mine.” Fallard flashed a look at her, his gaze grown solemn. “’Tis a humbling thing to stand beside this man. ’Tis as if I feel the weight of all the long twelvemonths since his time, closing upon me. Feel you the same?” “Aye, I feel it. I can say not I like it.” He stepped closer to the crypt, knelt on his uninjured knee, bowed his head and began to speak in the Norman tongue. She leaned close to hear. As the words translated themselves in her mind, she caught her breath and began to tremble. This dark knight, this Norman warrior so powerful, so strong, so stern, offered a vow to the ancient lord of Wulfsinraed. “Wulfsin of Cuthendun. I, Fallard D’Auvrecher of Clécy, do vow upon your memory to do all in my power to be accounted worthy of this gift of your legacy. I swear to protect Wulfsinraed and give diligent care to its betterment. I also, upon my soul, do vow with all my strength to protect, cherish and provide for Ysane, Wulfsingas-daughter, with whose care I have been entrusted. May my life be forfeit, do I fail in either endeavor.” A sudden rush of fresh air from outside fluttered Ysane’s headrail as he finished his oath. She started, and shivered, glancing around at the shadows. Was that a whisper, floating softly upon the breeze? Nay! ’Twas but her imagination. Wulfsin was long dead. He could answer not Fallard’s pledge, but could he know, she thought he surely would approve. Fallard stepped back. She failed to move quickly enough out of his way. “Ouch!” “Forgive me, my rose!” He danced to remove his heavy boot from her small foot, wincing at the stab of pain to his wound, then grinned at her. She stared back, uncaring her heart must shine from her eyes. No man, not one of her old swains, not even the betrothed husband of her youth, had ever sworn for her such an oath. He went still, watching her expression. His hand lifted to touch her cheek, but then his eyes narrowed to focus on something over her shoulder. “Hold this,” he said as he thrust the torch into her hands. *** Fallard caught the flash of movement from outside the door. The skin on his nape tingled. He wore not his sword, believing it unneeded inside the wall, but pulled a knife from its sheath inside his boot. “Stay here,” he ordered. “Fallard, what do you do?” But he was already halfway up the steps, moving with the stealth of a warrior prepared for sudden battle. At the entrance, he abruptly dropped and dived low through the blind opening onto the grounds of the orchard, careful not to land on his bad leg. As easily as a cat, he came to his feet in a crouch several feet away, knife at the ready. With a single flicker, his eyes took in the entire area. Naught was visible that should not be there. Yet, he had seen movement. He stepped to peer around the side of the crypt, ready for aught. As far as the chapel, there was naught to be seen. He spun in a rapid circle, certain of his perception. The movement had been too high against the doorframe to be an animal, and was similar to the drawing back of a head from around the jamb of the door. He still felt the tingle that had so oft in the past saved his life. From somewhere, someone watched. Whoever ’twas remained hidden from his sight. He decided never to leave the hall without his sword, at least not until they caught the traitor. He had been a fool to do so this morn, but he had thought them safe enough inside the wall. He would make not that mistake again, and was grateful he had survived to learn from it. Too oft, such errors cost a warrior his life. “Thegn D’Auvrecher! Is all well?” He looked up to see a young hearth companion staring curiously at him from the wall walk. “Saw you aught move nigh these doors?” The sentry shook his head. “Nay, my thegn, but I fear my gaze was more upon the woods.” Which is where it belongs. Good man. “Look you now all around, as far as the hall and the chapel. See you aught, even an animal?” From his high position, the guard searched the grounds with keen eyes, but turned back to Fallard. “There is none anywhere nigh you. Aside from those in the shelters, I see naught out of place but a pig rooting in the kitchen garden. Someone has left the gate open.” “That pig is likely to become supper do Alewyn or Alyce catch him there,” he called. The guard laughed and saluted as he turned away. The touch at his nape that signaled the presence of a hidden watcher faded. He forced himself to relax as he returned his knife to its sheath. Had he imagined it? He was not a superstitious man, but mayhap his awe at standing nigh to Wulfsin the Wanderer had influenced his perceptions more than he knew. Returning to the crypts, he found a nervous Ysane waiting for him nigh the bottom of the stairs. Her eyes were big as trenchers. “What was it, Fallard, what saw you?” “Naught but imagination, ’twould seem.” He noted the taut, pale lines of her face and kept the tenor of his voice light. “Not even the sentry saw aught. Come. Be not afraid. ’Tis but this place. In here, ’tis easy to imagine that which is not real.” “You limp,” she said. “’Tis naught.” Her lips tightened, but she made no further comment. He took back the torch and resumed the exploration of the burial niches. Favored articles of each entombed individual had been placed into the alcoves with them. Goblets and other eating utensils of precious metals, oft studded with gemstones, lay beside musical instruments, and in one case, a decaying book. This last pulled him as an insect to light. He stepped close, trying to read the exquisitely wrought title on the leather cover. The language was runic, and unfamiliar, and it helped not that thick dust obscured much of the writing. He was reluctant to touch it, fearing the entire book might crumble beneath his questing fingers. Taking a risk, he blew gently, removing the worst of the dust. “None today can read the runes,” Ysane said from beside him, sadness in her voice. “’Tis a great pity, that. But ’tis written in the records left by Wulfsin that the book is a chronicle of the deeds of one Creoda Icelingas, a true king of Mercia. Little is known of him, for he was one of the first of the Mercian kings in this land. ’Tis difficult to be sure, for much of that period is lost in time. The scops sing that he was close descendent of King Icel, who first brought the Angle people across the sea to their new home here, to what is called Angelcynn in the old tongue of my people.” Fallard lifted the torch between them to stare at her face, for her voice was hushed, and filled with the same reverential wonderment he himself felt. The sense of a history ancient beyond their ken swept them both with its powerful brush. They came to several crypts in which the openings were sealed with a wall of stone, upon which the word ‘Forbidden’ was scribed. “Why are these tombs sealed in this way?” “’Tis told they died of a terrible disease that spread quickly to others, some sort of pox unknown to the healers. ’Twas believed at the time their bodies should be burned, but the family could bear not such a pagan end to the ones they loved, so they were sealed into the wall. ’Twould seem the sealing was sound, for afterwards the strange illness went away and came not again.” He shuddered. When he was young, there were rumors of the same sort of affliction in lands east of his own. ’Twas said now and anon, whole villages were found dead, the ugly marks on the peoples’ skin the only clue as to their untimely end. He believed not, as did many, that ’twas a curse of the devil and the villagers had practiced black magic. Still, when this happened the bodies, and everything associated with the village, even the fields, were burned. Betimes, survivors were also found wandering dazed and lost close by. More oft than not, they were killed where they stood and burned, too. Shaking off the unwelcome sense of horror engendered by the sealed tombs, he moved on. He found the crypt where lay Vane, the fourth thegn, under whose guidance many of the most recent changes in the burh had been made. His wife lay beside him, and above them were the coffins of Vane’s young brothers who had perished in the hidden corridor beyond where he and Ysane now stood. The burial niches went on for quite some distance, until he noticed the curvature of the walls. They were approaching the far end of the crypts, where the outside wall curved around to follow the perimeter of the island. Here, the shrouds covering the coffins were newer, less decayed. These were the more recent of the hall’s deceased. Ysane stopped beside a row of crypts on the right side. She grew very still, almost as if she no longer breathed. Moments passed. She seemed turned as if to stone, staring at the coffins. Only her eyes moved, searching, he knew, for that which was not there, but should have been. Her pallor increased. “Who are they?” Fallard had already read the names, but wanted her to speak. Finally, she blinked a single time, and her lips moved. “These are my grandfather, Thegn Lyolf, my mother, Lady Edeva, and my brother, Sir Kennard. I miss them.” He waited. She said no more, and he knew then she would not, though she must be greatly perplexed, and hurting. He took the initiative. She must face a grievous truth, though it would increase her sorrow. He would help her all he could. “There is a thing of which I would speak, since we are here.” Her lips tightened and her face grew taut. Her head turned and she looked at him with moss green eyes gone blank. ’Twas as if an inner shutter had slammed shut. “Ysane, I see not here the body of your daughter. Know you what happened to her after that night?” As he had expected, a spasm of pain twisted across her features, wiping away the emptiness. She stepped back from him and turned away, her body grown stiff as if by sheer will she could hold back the truth. “Little rose, forgive me. I regret the necessity, but ’tis important. Your child should be here, but she is not. ’Tis my thought you know naught of her, since that night.” He thought she would not respond. As if returning from a place far away, she said, “None have spoken to me of…of what happened, and nay, I have asked not.” “Then ’tis time you were told. Are you willing to bear it?” She nodded, but stiffly, as if movement pained her. “The day I took Wulfsinraed from Ruald, I went on the wall with the first marshal to take measure of the burh. In the course of our walk, the events leading up to that day were discussed. I asked for a full account. According to Domnall, Ruald ordered one of his men to take the babe into the forest and bury her where none would find her place of rest. After, the man was killed in the fighting without ever revealing the burial site. I questioned Ruald’s men, but if they knew, they told not. I sent my own men to seek any sign, but they found naught. I am sorry, my rose, but none now knows where lies Angelet’s grave.” A keening, as of an animal in pain, escaped her lips. Tears slid in slow course along her cheeks from eyes shut tight upon receipt of his words. She reached blindly, finding the stone above the middle crypt where lay the carving of the name, and ran her fingertips over the letters. Kennard. “Mayhap,” he said, “her name can be carved here with that of your brother, or better, above the alcove where one day I will lie, and you with me. A short explanation for her body’s absence may be added, something simple.” She nodded. From inside her girdle she withdrew a piece of linen to wipe her eyes. “’Tis good to know,” she said, in between bouts of sniffing. “’Twas a question I have wished to ask, but….” She shrugged. “I almost feared to know. ’Twas my hope Ruald had found the decency to place her here, yet I knew he was capable of aught. I feared, when none spoke of it, mayhap he had…not buried her at all, that he had done to my daughter that which he had planned for me.” “Put her into the river, you mean.” “Aye, or worse.” She turned to him and he wrapped his arms about her, holding her close, seeking to comfort. “Ysane, I made it my purpose to ask, and learned the man who buried her was not an evil man. ’Twas told to Domnall by one who knew him well that he was angered and grieved by her death. Methinks we may be certain he treated her with respect.” “Yet she lies unblessed,” she said, grief quivering in her tone. “Nay. You must see Father Gregory. I have spoken with him of this. He will tell you in detail, if you wish to hear it, of the ceremony of blessing he made for Angelet, how in light of her baptism and innocence, he entrusted her to the loving mercy of God, who alone knows where she lies.” “He spoke not of this to me. Why?” “Because I asked that he not, until you were ready, and he agreed.” She turned her face into his tunic, and wept. He let her cry, his hand gentle upon her head, until she found an end to tears. As her body quaked in his arms, the strangest feeling overcame him. For the first time in his warrior’s life, he wished ‘twere possible to take into himself another’s pain, and bear it for them. ’Twas similar to the awkward sympathy he experienced when he soothed his sisters as they cried—and what man was ever easy around a woman’s tears? But ’twas different, too. He felt less ill at ease, less anxious for her to hurry through the storm. Somehow, it mattered that he not only comfort her, but find a way to alleviate her sorrow. Still, what could mere man do to relieve the pain of a lost child? He decided the best thing was to keep her busy and mayhap, focused on himself, and the life they would make together. “Come, let us complete our purpose here,” he said then, taking the linen and drying her face. “Or do you desire to return to the hall? I give you leave, if that is your wish. The secret of the tunnel may be learned another time.” “Nay. Methinks it best if we continue. Fallard?” “Aye, my rose?” “I thank you.” He slipped a hand around her nape beneath her headrail and deposited a kiss on each downcast eyelid, still damp with her tears. Then he kissed her lips with gentle caress. He caught hold of her hand once again, his touch warm against the chill of her skin. As they moved further down the hall, they passed only empty crypts where one day he, Ysane, and their descendents would be interred. He hoped that time was far, far away. She had earlier read aloud the names above the recesses, but now she grew silent as the charnel reek of new death became more noticeable. He saw a brand new shroud covering a long coffin, and ’twas from here the unholy smell emanated. Renouf! His grip on her hand tightened as they covered their faces with their cloaks. Beyond the vault where lay her former husband, were numerous further empty crypts. There was room here for many more generations of Wulfsin’s descendents. “Would it please you, my rose, did I remove Renouf’s body and send it to rest with his family?” “Aye, ’twould please me greatly. He belongs not here with my kin, though he was thegn. But I fear ’twould be seen a great insult to them, though ’tis said Ruald’s intent was the same.” “Then it shall be done. Let insult fall where it may. Think no more on it.” “My lord,” Ysane began. She did not look at him. “Go on. Fear not to ask me aught.” “My father. He should have been buried here, with my mother. ’Tis where he belongs, for he was born here, and he was true thegn in a long line of Wulfsingas. He loved Wulfsinraed, and he loved his family. We never had chance to mourn his passing. I…I understand he…that is, his punishment was banishment, and that King William meant he should never come home, even in death. But I would not have him forgotten in the place of his birth, in the twelvemonths to come. I have given much thought to what might be done to preserve his memory, if such ’twould be acceptable to you. Mayhap, such could also be done for Angelet.” Now she glanced at him, as if seeking to read in his face what his response might be. She seemed to gather her courage. “You are familiar, my lord, with the Viking custom of runestones?” “I am. You wish to raise one for your father and daughter?” “If ’twould not further anger the king, then aye, I would. Gemma and I have spoken of it for our father and we agree ’tis right to do, but we could do naught while Renouf lived. Renouf said…well, I will repeat not what he said, but he refused to consider it.” He smiled deep within his soul. He had wished for somewhat he could do to ease her grief. Her request was within his power to grant and would certainly aid his cause. “Since ’tis but a memorial for the family, I can see no reason why William would find it an offense. After we are wed, I will see to it, and for Angelet, as well. Mayhap, the ceremony of placement can wait until your sister arrives. Ethelmar did tell me of the message from Blackbridge. The messenger will return home after our wedding with my answer. I will include information about the placing of the runestones ere he leaves.” She tried to hide her relief, but ’twas not difficult to read that although this was a small thing, and of little import to him, ’twas of great importance to her. “I offer my thanks, Fallard, and from Gemma, too, you may be certain. Aye, and ’twill be a good thing to wait for the ceremony until Gemma can be present, unless that should be a long time.” “Then allow it to be part of my ‘gift of the morn’ to you, little rose, for the morn after our wedding night. You may seek out the master mason whenever you please to tell him what you require, or I will do so.” “’Twould please me to see to it, my lord. May I also ask what answer you gave to Arnulf’s message?” He let a smile curve. “I told him he and his lady wife should travel not to Wulfsinraed at this time, and that I accept his written oath of fealty as if ‘twere tendered personally by him on bended knee. Happens, I also mentioned we might be traveling to London ere the twelvemonth is out, and do we do so, we will surely seek the hospitality of Blackbridge Manor along the way. ’Tis a certainty I will be pleased to meet the rest of your family, Ysane.” She said no more, but her eyes glowed with her pleasure. CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN They came at last to the end of the long hall. Facing them was what appeared to be a solid retaining wall of rock, built to hold back the earth surrounding the underground section of the crypts. Fallard stepped close with the torch and examined it from one side to the other, from top to bottom, but nowhere could he see sign of a portal. He turned to Ysane. “Truly, there is a door to the hidden corridor here?” He was impressed despite himself. “Aye. Look you here.” Stepping to the left wall, she reached inside the last of the empty crypts and ran her fingers over a section of rock a little higher than her head. “Bring the torch.” Leaning behind her, he looked where she touched. “Here. See you these runes at the head of the tomb?” The runic carvings were very old, but deeply incised and clear. Taking his hand, she traced his fingertips across the runes and then down several inches to where the symbol of an ancient cross inside a circle was etched into the stone. She set his fingertips against the crossbar of the cross. “Push now.” He pushed. The circle depressed beneath his fingers, then the whole thing popped out into Ysane’s waiting hands. ’Twas as a sort of covering, or cap, and behind where it had been yawned a cavity large enough to admit his fist. “Place your hand inside the opening. What feel you?” “There is some sort of lever or rod inside.” Feeling further, he said, “There is a loop at the end.” “Slip your fingers in the loop and pull, hard.” He did, then gave a start at a low, grating sound. A long piece of iron rod was now visible, sticking out from inside the cavity. The loop at its end was formed by a piece of the rod bent back upon itself. “Look you,” she said, pointing. Lifting the torch, he saw that a narrow edging—a kind of lip of rock—had appeared in what he had assumed was merely one of many jagged cracks in the wall. She reached in front of him, slipped her fingers behind the lip and pulled. The grating sound returned as a low door began to open. Behind it was impenetrable darkness. He was intrigued. The door, though thick, was not so heavy as he had expected, for ’twas made of thin, hard wood, finished in cracking resin and faced with stone. “’Tis in truth, quite simple,” she said, as he sought the mechanism behind the lock. “See how wide the edge of the door is, and this slot in it? Now watch.” Reaching up, she grasped the curved end-piece of the iron rod and gave a little push. From an aperture inside the doorframe, the far end of the iron rod poked out. She showed him where it fit into the corresponding slot in the edge of the door. “When the door is closed, and the rod pushed into place, the door is held tightly shut. Of course, for any who knew the door to be here, but knew not the lock’s secret, ’twould be simple enough to break through. The lock was meant not to secure the door, only to hide it.” “Why has no one found the cavity? It seems anyone touching the cross would trigger the opening.” “But why would anyone think to touch the cross? Every crypt has the same runes and image of the cross in the exact same place. ’Tis part of the secret that only this cross, in this crypt opens to the cavity with the rod inside. One would first have to know there was a hidden door, even ere they knew to look for the key.” “Aye, that is true enough.” “Come now come into the hidden corridor, and I will show you how to open it from the other side.” They stepped inside and she showed him the opening device. ’Twas simple, but ’twas also located high above the head of a child. He understood then how Marcel’s young sons would have found it difficult to reach, even had they known how to operate it. He suddenly turned to look through the open doorway. Unease touched him again. The same niggling tingle he felt before caused him to duck back into the crypt hallway. As before there was naught to be seen, yet he felt the watcher. He prowled further, stood still and listened with all his senses, seeking to reach beyond the curving wall. Not a breath of sound disturbed the black shadows, nor did he see aught. He shook himself. He was not a man to be easily deceived by such things, but mayhap, he was influenced by knowledge of the ancient death all around. Of a certain, he disliked dark, closed places, and to be locked into this dark hole was not a way he would choose to die. He stepped back into the corridor. “You are certain it can still be easily opened from this side?” He wanted to be sure there was no way they could be locked in, though the sentry would know they had been inside the crypts and would eventually effect their rescue. “Oh, aye. My father kept it in excellent condition, though ’twas never spoken of to Renouf or Ruald, and I never risked coming here. Father Gregory knows, as does Domnall, and Cynric, my most dear friend, whom I told many twelvemonths ago.” “Cynric knows?” She cocked her head at him. The sudden suspicion in his voice seemed to spark her curiosity. “What know you of Cynric?” “Only what Ethelred and Domnall could tell me.” “Oh, of course. ’Tis your right to know, but fear not. ’Twas safe to tell Cynric, for he is loyal to Wulfsinraed.” He kept his opinion about that to himself. Quickly then, they explored the corridor with its sleeping and storage alcoves. ’Twas wide enough for three to walk abreast, but much lower than the outer hallway, for unlike the crypts it lay fully below ground. He felt the tickle as his hair brushed the ceiling. Nigh to the steps leading to the hidden door behind the Madonna, Ysane showed him the access tunnel through the wall where opened the postern gate, and explained how to unlock it. The tunnel was narrow and cramped. He liked not at all the feeling of stuffiness within, and found it difficult to breathe. They left at the tunnel and returned along the corridor to the crypts. He crowded close behind Ysane while trying not to hurry her. His mind shouted they were alone and there was naught to fear, but by the time they stepped out, ’twas all he could do not to whirl about to face the invisible—and nonexistent—enemies his instinct warned were following. He said naught of his relief to be out of the passage. ’Twas unseemly for a warrior of his stature to be so unnerved, especially when his little white rose seemed bothered not at all, despite her time in the holding pit. They locked the hidden door, the cover with the cross slipping with a firm push back into its place. Stepping away, he shook his head in admiration. “The creator of this door was a master craftsman. Even now, when I know where to look, I can see naught. Nor does the cover over the cavity appear to be aught but a carving in the rock. Most skillful.” She smiled. “It had to be, for the hidden corridor was meant to be the last escape for the people of the hall if ever the burh was overrun. It has never been needed for that purpose, but one thegn was said to have used it to hide treasure, while another, long ago, was said to have used it as a temple to worship a pagan god.” He glanced at her, but she was looking back towards the crypts. If she knew of the passage’s sad history, she mentioned it not. He took her hand. “Shall we go?” They ran until they reached the outer doors. He closed and locked them, then snuffed the torch on the ground. “Now that I am satisfied I know all that is needful about the crypts, the best part of what I have planned for this day is before us.” She breathed deeply of the pure air. “I am glad to free of that place. I always feel, when I leave, as if I have been down there forever, even when it has been but a little while. May I hope the rest of your plan will be carried out in a more pleasing location?” “I believe you will think so. Come, little rose. Let us waste not the time.” *** The day was well in hand. After the chill, lifeless atmosphere below ground, the air smelled wonderful, crisp and clean. The warmth of the early sun cheered body and soul. The sentry wandered along the wall, whistling as he kept his watch. Sparrows and robins flitted among the branches above them, while a skinny dormouse, its golden fur ragged after its long hibernation, clung to a nearby branch. The tiny animal’s big black eyes watched Ysane closely as it nibbled on a leaf bud. She lifted her face to the sun. Ah, ’twas a fine day and the sorrow of the crypts was behind them. Though the nights remained frosty, the days heralded spring. Nature had decided to awaken. Beside her, Fallard stopped to look around, as if searching for something. “What is it you seek, my lord?” He paused as if to debate his answer, then said, “I am certain I saw someone spying on us from the door while we were inside, but the only place he might have hidden that neither I, nor the sentry could see him was behind one of those large apple trees yonder. Whoever ’twas must have run more swiftly than a deer to reach that hiding place ere I went to look. He is gone now, but I dearly wish I had caught him.” “Mayhap ’twas but a child of the burhfolc. They are small and easily hidden.” She pointed. “Look you! They are going home!” The burhfolc of Wulfsinraed were taking down their shelters, packing their belongings and heading out the gates, returning to their cottages and farms. “Aye, I expected it. ’Tis spring! They have fields to plow, grain to grind and hedges to trim. There is repair work caused by winter storms that must be finished and the various herds and flocks to be tended. They have a thousand tasks that require attention. ’Tis good the siege ended quickly. The last of Sir Gyffard’s scouts came in ere sup last eve and reported no sign of the rebels. A watch has been placed on the roads and in the forest, to give warning, should they return.” “Think you that be likely?” “Someday, mayhap. Not soon. Ruald knows now he can win not any battle he might begin here. He and his men have scattered for the nonce, and I suspect they will stay scattered, for when William hears of this, ’tis likely he will send more men to help patrol this region. ’Tis much easier for the rebels not to be found if they are banded not together.” “So we will have extra guests for a while.” “I fear so, but I have ordered Sir Gyffard and Sir Aalot to schedule the king’s troops for daily searches. They will be absent more oft than not. It should prove but little imposition.” She smiled. “’Tis actually quite nice to have guests, and Sir Gyffard’s men are no more rowdy than your own. Methinks Wulfsinraed can handle them. There is one thing…if you would mind not, I would ask that you speak to Sir Aalot. I noted at sup last eve his men respect not my women, and they have been through enough with Renouf and Ruald.” His face softened. He ran the back of his fingers in a slow caress down her cheek. “’Tis admirable you truly care for your people. Aye. I will speak to Sir Aalot, this very day.” She held her breath as they stood looking at each other. ’Twas as if the whole sparkling world held none but they two. “You look at me as if I am the most generous of men. ’Tis not difficult to do as you ask.” “You are generous, and you are also good, Fallard. ’Tis no hardship to admit such.” And methinks Roana is right. I am learning to care for him. She started as a voice called. “Good morrow!” Father Gregory came through the chapel gate and waved. He nodded toward the departing burhfolc. “I go to help, wherever I might be needed with those returning home.” They chatted together as they walked to the hall, taking care where they stepped. The horde of animals kept inside the wall these past days made that care urgent. The good father left them to mingle with the folks passing through the outer gates. Ysane followed Fallard through the gate in the waist wall that led to the kitchen. The door was propped open to let in the smells and sounds of springtime. They entered the cavernous space. “Thegn Fallard!” Alewyn laid aside her work. “All is ready, as you requested.” She stepped around a kitchen maid industriously chopping onions and carrots, and came to a small table. She smiled as she handed a basket covered by a linen square to Fallard. “My thanks, Alewyn.” “Aught for you and my lady. Go now, both of you and enjoy this lovely day.” As they passed into the hall, Ysane grinned as the cook called to the spit boy to mind his business. Saw he not the lamb was crisping too quickly on one side? Fallard handed her the basket. “Wait here. I will return ere you can miss me.” He strode through the anteroom to the lord’s bower, reappearing as quickly as he had promised. She frowned, for he had made one change to his apparel. He now wore his sword. Ere she could comment on the weapon, he stopped in front of her. “Well, did you?” She stared at him. “Did I what?” His rare smile was back, and more filled with devilry than ever. “Did you miss me?” Her scowl melted away and she ‘tsked’ at him ere breaking into a giggle. “Witless man. What think you?” “Methinks you did. Methinks you cannot bear to be without me.” “Witless and vain! Surely ’twould horrify William to hear of such ignoble traits in one of his boldest and most fearless knights.” “Ah, but only for you, my love.” He bent to press a gentle kiss on her lips so quickly she had no time to pull away, even had she desired to do so. He called me ‘my love’! Why would he say such? He loves me not. Does he? But how can he, when he but barely knows me? But then, I suppose I must ask the same question of myself. CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT Ysane felt like a salmon trying to swim upstream as Fallard helped her cut across the steady course of people intent on going home. Since she knew every one by name, it took more than twice as long as it should have to cross the courtyard, because many stopped to speak with her. Among them was the young wife who had recently given birth. The couple was eager to show off their new girl child, whom they had christened Ertha. Ysane sniffed and her eyes blinked rapidly as she rocked the babe in her arms. “You are brave, little rose,” Fallard said a few moments later as they approached the stable. “In the way of women, you also are a warrior.” She smiled at him, though her lips trembled. The stable was busy, for the king’s men prepared to ride patrol. Tuck met her at the door with Freyja, her dainty bay palfrey, and Foudre, Fallard’s silver-gray courser, already saddled and ready to ride. Handing Alewyn’s basket to Tuck, Fallard lifted her onto Freyja and helped her adjust her skirts. But ere mounting his own steed, he walked away. Surrounded as he was by busy men, she could see not what he did, but he returned quickly. Basket tied securely to his pommel, he led the way out to join the diminishing crowd passing through the tunnel. “I spoke with Sir Aalot,” he said, as they guided their horses across the bridge. “If I see his men improve not their manners, I will deploy them on ceaseless patrols so they have strength to do naught but eat and sleep.” “’Twill be a relief to my women, Fallard. I thank you.” She glanced up as from atop the wall, first Varin, and then Domnall and Jehan called out and waved as they passed by. Domnall said something to Jehan that brought a shout of laughter from that one and they both looked straight at Fallard, still grinning. She could guess the gist of what had been said. Fallard’s lips tightened and one eyebrow shot up. He scowled, commanding them wordlessly to mind their thoughts, but his action only drew further amusement. She hid a smile. She liked having her honor defended, even if but with friends. Moving onto the grassy verge, they trotted past the creeping column. They came to the bridge at village center and crossed, heedful of the children running free. “The damage done here by the rebels fires my anger,” Fallard muttered, looking around. “But at least they burned not the village. The destruction done is slight in comparison.” “Aye, ’tis. Worry not, my lord. Naught of what was done will be hard to repair. The people will soon have it right again.” They cleared the village and set a plodding, but steady pace along a narrow track that led across the south clearing and into the forest. Following the track beneath ash trees in full bloom and heavy growth oaks and beeches, their tops tangled together, the horses picked their way through tiny saplings new grown in the path or over small branches fallen in the way. The crackling crunch of long-dead leaves beneath lumbering hooves intermingled with the rustle of thick growths of new bracken fronds, curled up on their stems like bright green caterpillars. Though Fallard occasionally glanced behind to smile from midnight eyes, the quiet ride through the sun-dappled wood was broken only by scattered bird song and the soft sough of a fragrant breeze through the tops of the trees. Her heart beat faster, for the track they followed led nigh to Cynric’s cottage. She determined to stop to search for sign of his return. They rode for some time ere she reined in beside a barely discernible track that went off at a tangent, angling toward the nearby lake. The path was so infrequently used, ’twas easy to miss. “Fallard? If you will, this track leads to Cynric’s cottage. I wish to go there, if only to check that the cottage is in good repair for his return.” His gaze was keen as he halted beside her. “I was heading for the lake, at any rate. This track seems to take us in that direction.” “The front of Cynric’s home faces the water, though ’tis set back among the trees.” “Then we will go there. From what I have seen of the lake, one area of the shore is little different than any other for what I have in mind.” He gestured for her to precede him. After another few minutes of riding, they reached the cottage. She expected to find it as empty as it had been the few times she had managed to slip away from the burh—one of which times she had been caught by Renouf and beaten for refusing to say where she had been—but was ecstatic to discover signs of recent habitation. Beside the door sat an old water barrel that had been empty the last time she had come. ’Twas now nigh to full. A recently tanned wolf’s hide hung drying upon a wooden frame. ’Twas very quiet. “Fallard, he is home!” She stood in the stirrups to look all around. Her belly seemed filled with flutters and her heart grew lighter than in many a long month. She searched the area, hoping to see a tall figure. “Cynric, where are you? ’Tis Ysane. Cynric!” Her calls echoed across the lake, but no answer came. He caught at her reins. “Hush, Ysane! This silence disturbs me.” She threw him a laughing glance ere she slipped off Freyja and ran to the cottage door. “There is no cause. ’Tis only Cynric.” “Ysane, wait!” He uttered an oath ere he dismounted to chase after her. She reached the entrance, threw open the door and stood on the threshold, allowing her eyes to adjust. He caught up and grabbed her arm ere she could enter, then shoved her behind him. Startled, she looked at him. He was angry, and had unsheathed his sword. “What is it you do? Cynric is no threat. He is my dearest friend. Furthermore, he is my brother. Never would he hurt me.” “Little fool, ’tis not Cynric I fear.” He growled the words, though by now ’twas plain no one was inside the hut. Pulling her in behind him, he walked to the fire pit and held his hand above the banked ashes. “The pit is warm, but not hot. It has been some hours since ’twas tended.” “Fallard, I understand not. What is it you seek?” “Has it occurred not to you, my lady, that ’tis little likely the current occupant is your friend? ’Tis more likely that ’tis one or more of the rebels, or thieves, in which case we would be in danger.” She felt herself blanch, and her heart dropped into her toes. “Mercy! I thought not of such a thing.” Nay, she had not, for she had seen in the signs of occupation only what she wanted to see, and that one thought had eclipsed all else. Fallard was right, though his truth was hurtful. Cynric had been gone for twelvemonths, though there were whispers among the servants that during that time, he had made brief appearances to meet with Renouf ere vanishing again. She had credited not the rumors as true, believing her brother would never come so nigh without finding a way to see her. Fallard prowled the cabin, sword still in hand, poking into food and supply containers and peering into the chest and small wardrobe. “Whoever stays here now, I believe he has not been here long.” He ran his hands over the carved woodwork of the few items of furniture. She came to stand beside him, appreciating, as she always did, the workmanship. “Cynric does exquisite work, does he not?” “Aye, and I would have him back as master carver, if that is his wish. But I fear he may be gone for good.” The hurt of his words slashed like a cut from his sword. He turned to look at her, then sheathed his blade and framed her face with his hands. “Of course, ’tis also possible I am mistaken. Cynric may indeed have come home. He may be hunting for the nonce. Mayhap, you will not believe this, but ’tis a fact I have been wrong, once or twice.” She giggled, but two fat tears trickled to drip off her chin onto her bodice. He groaned and wrapped his arms tightly about her, then kissed the tracks of those tears. He unwrapped her headrail, looping it round her waist and pushing the linen rope of her circlet inside his tunic. Then he kissed the soft hair at the top of her head. “Come, my rose. We should take our leave ere whoever lives here returns. If ’tis Cynric, he will know we were here, and he will find us, if that is his wish. If ’tis another, ’tis best they find us not at all.” She sniffed, blotted her wet cheeks with her sleeve, and followed him to the door. Hand on the hilt of his sword he waited, listening. Birds sang and frolicked in the trees and insects buzzed, giving no indication they sensed aught beyond the presence of the two humans they had already deemed no threat. The horses grazed on the leaves of the lowest beech branches. Sunlight reflected off the waters of the lake, while the lapping of wavelets against the shore gave drowsy suggestion of lingering there for an after noontide nap. “The birds sing again,” he said, but clearly, he was still not at ease. “’Twas my intention we would eat our nooning meal at the shore of the lake, but that does not now seem a safe prospect.” “So, what do we do?” He seemed at a loss. “Mayhap, we should return to the north side of the river and seek a cool glade to enjoy our meal.” He set her upon Freyja, then mounted Foudre. “The scouts reported no sign of rebel presence in that direction, though the few that came this way also reported naught. ’Tis clear they missed this cottage. I will have words with them this eve.” “Fallard?” He turned at her hesitant query. “I know a place where we might go. ’Tis quiet and cool, and there is water, and soft grass and ferns where we might sit, though I cannot say ’tis any safer than here.” He cocked his head, regarding her. “Show me this place. Mayhap, it will serve our need.” *** Fallard allowed Ysane to pass him and take the lead. She touched her heels to Freyja’s flanks and headed back along the track that had brought them to the cottage. When they reached the main trail she turned left, riding back toward the burh, but then nigh immediately urged the horse into the undergrowth on the far side. She guided Freyja deeper into the dim light of the forest. Fallard remained watchful behind her and his hand strayed not far from his sword. He could say not why, for there was no familiar niggle at his nape to warn him of watchers, but the disquiet that struck him so strongly at the cottage remained with him. A desire to grab Freyja’s reins and return Ysane to safety behind the wall was strong upon him, but his wish to give her a carefree interlude from the pressures and concerns of the burh kept him at her heels. Mayhap, the tension he felt was due only to the finding of signs of life at the cottage. But nay, that was not full truth. He had sensed the unsettling touch ere then, but had dismissed it as an over-abundance of caution. He dismissed it not now, though it seemed to grow no worse as they wandered further into the depths of the wood. Ysane came to an abrupt halt. He stopped beside her. She pointed a little ahead. “There.” His eyes searched her face, for there was that in her tone that spoke of a muted joy. He aided her from the saddle, allowing her to slide into his arms. He kissed her again, but without hurry, coaxing a response that intensified as the embrace deepened. He shifted, and lifted her to better adjust her body to his height. Her palms rose to press against his chest, but in surrender. She seemed to go boneless. When he raised his head, her face had gone slack, but her eyes, nigh hidden beneath her lashes, gleamed with green fire. He broke away as a tremor passed through him. The unprecedented emotions of tenderness and compassion that wracked his soul and left his thoughts perplexed, were escalating and converging to an unknown conclusion. But they were not the only feelings he had for her. Never before had he wanted a woman with the potent craving he felt for Ysane. Her slightest touch to his skin, the graceful sway of her hips, the fragrance of rose combined with the heady scent of woman, and even the look of yearning unaware he sometimes surprised in her moss green eyes…all of these fired his blood to a fierce crescendo that left him scrambling to maintain his control. Alone with her now, ’twould be easy to let desire fly free like a falcon. He sensed she would welcome his advances once he seduced her past the initial resistance that remained from Renouf’s crude carnality. Aye, he knew when a woman wanted him, and she was hungry, nay, starved for his touch. But apart from the need to maintain a watchful vigil in the face of an undetermined threat, he coped with an unaccustomed reluctance to violate the sweet sense of innocence that clung to her. It begged understanding how he could perceive her as innocent considering the twelvemonths she had spent in Renouf’s bed, yet ’twas so. Mayhap, ’twas because she had experienced naught from her husband of caring, or even of simple consideration. ’Twas evident Renouf had never made effort to teach her pleasure, that the brute had offered her naught but pain and lust. Whatever the reason, and though he raged anew at Renouf’s twisted cruelty and wished again the man were yet alive so he could kill him, he rejoiced in the virtue he found in her. ’Twould give him endless pleasure on their wedding night to approach her as the veriest virgin, to award her the gentle wooing rightfully due any fair maid. Aye, he would wait until after their vows, when he could lay her, not on hard, cold ground, but on soft, fragrant linens in the comfort of their bower. There he would teach her the art of love as it should be taught to one who was unaware of its many and varied delights. She would never have reason to fear or despise his bed, or seek refuge from his embrace. Thus, so he vowed. *** The slave Leda flitted like a shadow from tree to tree. Her hand tightly gripped a set of keys she had stolen long ago. She was returning, heart in her mouth, to the crypts, using as a diversion the emptying of the burh by the burhfolc. The corners of her mouth turned down in derision. Let them return to their homes. They were naught! When Ruald held lordship of Wulfsinraed, she would be his lady, and those who treated her now with contempt would pay. She thought of her lover’s prowess in bed, and smiled as she remembered the promises he vowed. She glanced back at the hall as she hid from the patrolling sentry on the wall behind the thick bole of an apple tree. Aye, ’twould all be hers, and soon. She at last had information of great value to offer Ruald. Her attempt, through seduction, to learn all she could from the hated Norman knight had failed, but her vigilant spying in other areas had at last reaped reward. ’Twas difficult at first, to stay clear of those set to watch her, but the events of recent days had worked in her favor. None watched her now, and she had but to return to the crypts and discover the fullness of the secret revealed to her earlier this morn, when she had followed the Norman and his whore. Almost, the dark knight had caught her watching. But she had hidden inside the crypts, where no light fell, to escape his sharp eyes. Though it frightened her to return alone into that dark place of death, she summoned her courage. Ruald would reward her handsomely for the knowledge she would bring. Looking around, she saw none who paid her attention. When the sentry walked the opposite direction, she sidled the last few feet to the doors. ’Twas but the work of a moment to unlock them and glide inside, setting a rock in place to prevent them from closing entirely. If the guard happened to look, he would never notice the slight crack, nor detect from his height on the wall that the lock hung open on the hasp. Once inside, she climbed with care down the steps ere stopping to light the torch she had hidden beneath her mantle. Her breath came a little easier when the firelight drove back the cloying darkness. Skipping past the dark openings on either side of the hall, she held her breath and kept her gaze ahead, especially as she passed where lay Renouf. Slender fingertips reached for the mark of the cross on the wall of the last empty vault and depressed. It required three attempts to find the exact spot, but moments later she was inside the corridor. Here, the blackness was deeper, and it closed in upon her as if a living thing, though she held the torch high. Terror rose from where it lurked beneath the surface, cascading through mind and soul as she imagined the unseen gástes of the dead all about her, wrathful at her illicit invasion, reaching out invisible hands, seeking to offer her harm. Shuddering with horror, she closed her eyes and shrank against the dank wall. Her breath caught in her throat, and she felt as if hands wrapped it round and squeezed. She gagged, fighting panic, and the desire to flee like a terrified mouse back to the light. Afterwards, she never remembered how the fight was won, but she mastered her terror. Licking dry lips, she lifted her head and forced herself to move into the depths of the passage. Some time later, she returned to the blessed light of the outer doors, gasping and trembling at her freedom. She had discovered the secret, not only of the door into the corridor, but had fathomed that of the Madonna-door and the postern gate, as well. Once again, she used her talents to flit unseen back to the hall. The other workers were so busy preparing for the upcoming wedding none even noticed her. The nobles looked through her. Racing up the stairs to her private place among the stored odds and ends in the top chamber of the southeast tower, where few but she ever went, she retrieved from its hiding place the wooden box containing the things Ruald had left. These items allowed her to send messages to others who were safe outside the burh. Slowly, and with much labor, she drew on a scrap of vellum, using the strange symbols Ruald had taught her—not likenesses of words, he had said, but images that meant certain thoughts. She stored the keys and message materials, and returned the box to its hiding place. The note safely within her girdle, she moved through the hall, carrying a basket filled with clothing in need of a wash. Any who took notice would assume she was busy with one of a multitude of tasks. Outside again, she wrapped her mantle close, raised the hood to screen her face, and mingled with the last of the burhfolc. Soon she reached the secret place where information was exchanged. Waiting until certain none had followed her, she opened the concealed aperture, and checked inside to find that a message awaited her. She retrieved it, wrapped it her girdle, and replaced it with her own. The timing was perfect, for the messenger came but twice a seven-day. This night was his next scheduled check, and he would find what she had left. Ruald would have her note within two days. She exulted in the knowledge. Soon Wulfsinraed and its riches would be hers forever. She smiled as she made her way back to the hall. In her private place, she scanned the new missive. Glee filled her soul as it had done the day she had waited for her enemy’s execution, for it was short. “Kill her.” CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE His curiosity piqued, Fallard followed Ysane through dense undergrowth and over fallen logs to a small glade within a rampant growth of trees. She stopped at its edge. “This is a place of enchantment for me,” she said. “I found it long ago, as a small child. ’Twas on the day I first met Cynric. Were it not for him, I would have been meat for a wolf. I was but four summers, and had wandered from my parents. He tracked me, and discovered I played here for some time. My delay in this place allowed him to catch up with me in time to save me. Later, he brought me back here many times, and I would ask him to tell me again of that day. He was my hero, you see.” She smiled in remembrance. “In time, it became a retreat for when I wished to be solitary. I have missed coming here, for I dared only twice while Renouf lived. None but Cynric knows of it…and now, you.” The look of candid trust she turned on him shook him. What had he done to earn her favor thus, but steal her home, force her to unwanted marriage and overthrow her life? Even as he slipped an arm round her waist, he fought the tender protectiveness that made him want to lock her somewhere utterly safe, forever secure, so she could share that look with no one else but him. As her husband, ’twould be his responsibility to offer her kindness and to protect her, but the ‘tender’ part! It grew rapidly and seemed to burst upon him in unexpected moments. Already once this day had he yielded to its lure. Worse, it mattered less each time. She caught his hand that rested at her waist. “Come and see. I have always believed faeries dance here when the dusk of even comes down, though I have never stayed late enough to keep watch.” He stepped through the trees around the glade. A strange, sweet calm befell him, as if he had tread through an invisible doorway into another place, far beyond the world, where peace ruled. It seemed to him even the ache in his leg eased. He felt himself smiling foolishly, without reason. Mayhap her words were true, for ’twas as if the little glade had indeed been sprinkled with faerie dust. Its primitive beauty was arresting. Encompassed by the lichen-encrusted trunks of ancient oak, yew, beech and scattered alders, it lay in sunny splendor. He might have stepped back into the depths of time. He heard the water ere he saw it. Hidden on the far side of the glade within a tiny copse of alder and drooping willows, it gushed forth from an underground spring to froth over a low fall of rock into a dark pool. He cupped his hand beneath the fall and almost yelped at its icy touch, but when he drank, the taste was pure and refreshing. ’Twas a shadowed spot, and cool, for the sun’s rays would touch upon it only at noontide. A spray-dampened rock, flat as a table, and large enough for one to sit comfortably—or two to cuddle close—nestled beside the falls as if set there by a giant hand. The water in the pool flowed into a streamlet that hurried away, seeming to laugh in joy, beyond his sight. Around the pool, swathes of new grass vied with patches of moss and infant fern in displays of lush green varying from light to dark. No weeds grew here, no vetch, nor brambles or briars. The place is spellbinding. I understand why it draws her. He silently laughed at his fancy. Ysane curled up on the flat rock by the little falls, her chin resting on upraised knees around which her arms were clasped. Her eyes focused on the pool. An expression of utter bliss erased the lines on her face, marks wrought by grief and care. He watched her in silence, wondering at her thoughts. Abruptly, he felt left out, shunted aside, as if she had withdrawn to some secret place. He liked not the feeling, and started to speak, but she looked up and smiled. ’Twas the loveliest smile he had ever seen, and it enchanted him more surely than the glade. She scooted over on the rock and held out her hand, inviting him to join her. He wasted no time accepting her offer. The rock was hard, the occasional splash of spray from the falls cold, and there was barely room for the two of them upon it. He minded none of it. He drew her to his side. She snuggled close to rest her head on his shoulder as if ’twas the most natural thing in the world. Though the light was dim within the copse, he felt the magic around them grow, almost as if ‘twere visible to the eye. “I came here as often as I could,” she said. “I would sit on this rock and dream of beautiful princesses and wonderful halls, and the things I read in my father’s books about faraway lands.” “And did you ever daydream of a knight who would steal away your heart?” He blinked at his own question, startled all over again that he would think such, much less speak it. He was no poet, nor was sentiment high in his view of life. Yet, his rose was inspiration for many new thoughts and frivolous ideas such as the more romance-minded of his men betimes espoused around the fires at night. Never had he indulged in fatuous fantasies, nor could he think why ’twas happening now. He was not unaware females enjoyed such nonsense. ’Twas rather he had never met one he deemed worth the effort of wooing. ’Twas far more convenient to find a willing wench and when both of them were satisfied, kiss her farewell and be on his way. But with Ysane, he would promise aught to gain from her a smile. “’Tis possible knights might have figured in my dreams, now and anon.” She blushed crimson and ducked her head. “But if they did, none compared with…reality.” My rose deems me of more value than her dream knights! He suddenly felt taller than the hills in the far distance, as mighty and invincible as the warrior-gods of the ancient lays. ’Twas too bad there were no more dragons, for he would slay them all with a single thrust of his sword, impervious to their fire, and lay their heads before her feet. ’Twas all he could do not to kiss her until she surrendered to him, body, mind and heart. Ah, I do want her love, fool that I am! She drew a sharp breath as if she sensed the change in him. “We are to be wed on the day after the morrow.” She sounded winded, as if she had run some distance. Her next words were spoken so quietly he barely heard them above the falls. “Would you think it shameless, my brave knight, or too brazen of me did I ask for but one kiss?” His heart slammed in his chest. He shut his eyes, fearing she might flee in terror. He knew raw passion blazed within his look. She placed her palm against his chest. “You are so warm, and your heart thunders. It calls to me.” He needed no more encouragement. He swooped, and she flowed into his embrace. In that moment, he knew himself for what he was, a cynical warrior with hard, unrefined edges, and he saw her as his wounded, hurting lady. But he vowed, despite his ignorance, to do his best to care for her. Lost with her in the magic, he wandered for timeless ages—or mayhap, ’twas only moments—in a world of shared glory. *** Ysane’s eyes flew open as a loud, extended growl broke into their sensual world. Fallard started to laugh against her mouth, his chest heaving beneath her palm. She brought her hand to her stomach. Oh, how embarrassing! She should have broken her fast ere leaving the hall, but Fallard had given her no time. Her hunger made itself known with yet another rolling rumble. He chuckled. “Poor little rose, I have starved you. I cannot allow such neglect to continue.” He released her, but slowly, and rose to his feet. “Wait but a moment, my lady.” She sat back, the heels of her palms resting on either side of her hips. He left the copse to walk to where the tethered horses waited, their tails switching in lazy flicks at imagined flies, and returned with a blanket and the basket with their meal. She was glad to see he limped not at all. While he spread the blanket upon the grassy verge of the pond, she rummaged among the food. “Alewyn has packed a feast for us.” She unwrapped one delicious item after another. “There is enough here to feed a score, and all of them warriors.” She spread slices of smoked ham with boiled, spiced eggs upon trenchers. Rich oat bread, blackberry jam, soft yellow cheese and sweet honey-nut cakes followed. Dried peaches and a carafe of mulled wine completed the repast. They ate without speaking. Some time later, Fallard offered her a bite of cheese. “I have tasted finer foods, and more excellently prepared at William’s court, yet none were so delightful as this.” “Methinks ’tis the company, more than the food.” She slathered jam on a slice of bread and offered it to him. When he bent to take a bite, she feigned shoving it into his face and he jerked away, eyes widening, then chuckled at the jest. He poured more wine into their tankards and lifted his high, offering a toast. “To Alewyn, Alyce, and the good cooks of the world! May their….” He hesitated, thinking, and Ysane jumped in. “May their sauces never burn.” “Aye, and may their meat never spoil.” “And their knives be always be sharp.” “And most of all, may their garlic never reek!” She laughed, the sound ringing across the glade, and then wondered at the secret little smile Fallard flashed at her. “What? Why do you smile in that way?” His expression was guileless. “Whatever do you mean, little rose? I but enjoy our foolishness.” “Nay, ’tis more. Tell me!” He leaned to lick jam from the corner of her mouth, then stole a fast kiss from her lips. “’Tis but that I made you laugh.” “You….” Her heart lurched. Why would my laughter matter to him? Does he begin to care for me, even but a little? With breathtaking suddenness, the first bright shards of golden sunlight pierced the shadows and dazzled her shade-accustomed eyes as the sun sailed high, nearing zenith. Yet, it seemed less bright than the glow of joy in her heart. She watched Fallard, enjoying his surprise as the rays cascaded through the small open space above them, turning the laughing waters of the falls and the dancing ripples on the pond into a glittering fountain, and filling the spray with shimmering, dancing rainbows. Now ’twas seen the water in the pool was hip deep and crystal clear. Pebbles littered the white sand at the bottom. Among the green of the surrounding ferns small, white flowers gleamed like patches of leftover snow. Warmth flooded the copse with the light. A single dragonfly darted over the pond, hung suspended for a heartbeat, then swooped to light on the less ruffled surface nigh the water’s edge. “‘Magic’, indeed,” Fallard breathed, his voice bemused. His midnight gaze fell upon her. “’Tis not to be wondered you believe the fairie folk linger here.” He cocked his head. “Does not the thought of magical beings frighten you?” “After Renouf? Nay. Fairies are good folk, despite what some believe.” She gestured around them. “Once, long ago, a wolf came. ’Twas summer, and hot, and of a certain the water drew it. ’Twas very young, and a male. I sat upon the rock and it loped into the glade. It came to the pool and stopped on the other side, its yellow gaze upon me. I moved not. Methinks mayhap, I even breathed not, though my heart pounded so hard with mingled fear and excitement the beast must surely have heard. It seemed to decide I was neither meat nor threat, for it advanced to the water’s edge. It drank its fill, though it never took its eyes from me, not for a moment. It lifted its head, water dripping from its jaws, and then with one leap, ’twas gone. “There have been other visitors through the twelvemonths. I learned if I sat quietly, and very still, betimes animals would come. Squirrels, hares, birds, badgers and deer, and small, timid things like moles and dormice. Once even a fox, but the wolf was the best.” *** Fallard’s eyelids were heavy. Lulled by wine, the warmth of the sun and the quiet, and caught up in the sweet music of Ysane’s voice that rivaled in beauty the hypnotic song of the falls, he relaxed, half asleep. He started, returning to full wakefulness when she ceased to speak. She watched him, the light in her eyes both wary and hopeful. “This is the closest I have seen you to drunkenness.” He knew what she asked, though ’twas said in a round about manner. He hastened to reassure her. Clapping his hand upon his heart, he rolled his eyes to the heavens and sighed. “Ah, your bright eyes see too much, little rose. You have discerned my greatest shame, the disgrace and disrepute I bring upon myself, and my family. Most ignoble of rogues am I, and for which I live in continual remorse. Aye, even among my men, I am a source for jest. Oh, the indignity! Yet, though I be always stricken by contrition, ’tis truth I can help myself not. I know not how I have lived for so long with such guilt at my deplorable behavior.” He glanced at her, seeking appreciation of his playacting. Truthfully, he thought his performance better than some scops. She eyed him, clearly perplexed. He groaned and slapped his hand over his eyes. “How kind she is, my white rose! She pretends to notice not my fault. She is generous, but must face the truth, for she is to be my wife, and must learn to bear the disgrace that is mine.” He peeked through his fingers and tried not to grin at the comical befuddlement on her face. “’Tis a sorry secret indeed, my rose, but should you ask, my men will tell you of it quickly enough, even as they laugh themselves ill. “Though it pains me to speak of it—for I fear you may decide ’tis too much to ask that you should marry such a disreputable knight—’tis only fair you should know. Even a mild overindulgence of spirits sends this knight to the kingdom of slumber. Ah, but ’tis a source of much hilarity with my men, that I can hold not my drink. Why, I am ashamed to admit that once, after one of King William’s famous banquets, Trifine likened me to a kitten, drunk on its mother’s milk, yet I consumed a bare three tankards of ale. He perforce had to use his elbow to keep me from falling asleep and sliding beneath the table in dishonor. Therefore, though ’tis a disgrace I can hardly bear, moderation in drink has become for me a common practice.” ’Twas the lengthiest speech he had indulged in for longer than he remembered, and certainly the most ridiculous, but he cared not, for by this time, Ysane had her hand over her mouth, her gaze alive with mirth. Gladness, gratitude, and no little relief brimmed in her eyes, for his words assured her she need never fear him should he become sotted. “’Tis an amusing picture I hold in my mind, Fallard, that of you curled up tight as a kitten on a pallet, sleeping off an excess of spirits.” “See you! Even you, my dearly betrothed, find my unhappy secret amusing!” Again, her laughter peeled through the woods. “Oh! ’Tis most lovely to my mind, sir knight, that the man I will wed in so short a time is one with whom I might laugh and…and be with like a child, betimes. I find I am much in favor of our union. ’Tis my thought we will share a good life together.” “’Tis my thought, as well, Ysane. From the first moment I saw you, ’twas my intent and my determination.” “When first you saw me?” “Aye. ’Twas the moment I named you my rose. Your syrce was the same green as the stem of a rose, and with it you wore a cyrtel and veil as white as their petals. ’Twas told to me your eyes were the color of the moss in the forest and your hair the hue of the finest flax. A comparison with the flower was inevitable, but indeed, I am not the first. Others name you thus.” Her eyes flew wide. “Truly?” “Aye, ‘truly’! Young Alderan the swineherd, for one, has been overheard waxing poetic on the similarities between you and the flowers of your garden, though ’tis not meet for a serf to speak thus of his mistress. But ’twould seem so many speak of you thus, ’twould be necessary to whip half the population of the burh for the same offense. Surely, you have heard the songs of Wurth, your scop, though mayhap, comparisons with flowers are to be expected of a poet. But for Varin, my knight, of whom I would never have expected it, and Domnall and Father Gregory and….” “Hush! Oh, stop!” She blushed with the depth of a crimson bloom. “I believe you not! You laugh at me.” “But I do not,” he insisted, while he did smile at her blushes. “Surely not Father Gregory.” “Aye, the good priest. He spoke personally of you thus. He said, ‘the Lady Ysane is a special woman. She is the rose of Wulfsinraed’.” She hid her face in her hands, but he could see she was pleased. He pulled her hands away and kissed each flaming cheek. “Why should they not speak thusly? They care for you, lady. They are blind not to your goodness and beauty, even if you are. They speak only from their hearts, and their words are meant as praise they consider your due. Who am I to disagree with so many? That day when first I looked upon you, you seemed so very young, and so beautiful. How could I not be drawn to you as a ship lost in fog is drawn to a beacon flashing upon the shore? You were with Roana, walking to the village. You had baskets on your arms.” “Oh, it must have been our day to attend to the ailing and the needy. ’Tis one of our tasks as mistresses of the hall, though ’tis no true ‘duty’, but a joy. Twice each seven-day, we meet with Luilda and others of the women who can spare the time. We cook and clean, and help Luilda as we are able with her healing tasks, and bring food and other needful things. Now and anon, all that is required is companionship, so we bring our embroidery and visit. ’Tis a worthy task, and one that Renouf forbade not, for ’twould have reflected badly upon him.” She raised her face to the sun, then cocked her head. “You know much of me, my lord, but I know little of you. Would you tell of yourself? How many summers have you? I have noted the number of knights in your personal service, so you must have wealth of your own. Have you lands, as well? What of your family, and your home? You have mentioned your mother and brothers. Are there sisters? And what of your father, does he yet live?” He reached for another honey cake, flicking crumbs from the blanket. “’Tis but an ordinary tale, my life,” he said between bites. “I have six and twenty summers. Wealth was gifted to me by my godmother, enough to live well, but not to buy my own lands. ’Twas one reason I applied to William for the honour of Wulfsinraed, though I did not then perceive the wealth of the demesne. My father is Comte Karles de Peverel. My mother is called Eloise. My family home lies among the hills around Clécy, which is nigh Caen, a city much beloved by King William. My father distinguished himself in William’s eyes when he fought for him and King Henry in a battle nigh Caen. That battle was at Val-ès-Dunes, against a number of rogue barons who wished to unseat William from the Duchy. Father was instrumental in the declaration of a Truce of God some months later. He has continued in William’s service since that time, though now his age keeps him close to home. “Clécy lies close to the coast of la Manche, the sea channel that separates our two lands. You would like my home, methinks, for ’tis a place of great beauty along the River Orne. Mayhap one day we will journey there. “As for the rest, I have two sisters, both younger than I, Melisent and Odelina, and two brothers, Amery and Emeric.” Here he stopped to smile at her. “We three were born all at once, in the fall of 1052. Amery is eldest, then Emeric, and I am youngest, by some few minutes. “Mother swore no difficulty in knowing which of us was which, even when we tried to confuse her. But when we were small, our father complained he could tell us not apart, for we all looked alike. But he spent much time in service to Duke William and was not home to learn our differences. So mother chose a simple method to aid him. In our early days, when he was home, we all wore a color that was ours, alone. Amery’s color was blue, Emeric chose green, and I, black.” “Black! Of course! So that is the reason. Know you my hearth companions name you ‘the black gast’? They say you oft move among them as if a spirit, unseen and unheard. Methinks they are all in awe of you.” He grimaced. “That is foolish. I am no spirit, and ’tis no difficult task to learn to move with stealth. Domnall is as proficient as I in the knack. Mayhap I will choose certain ones among them and teach them.” He gave a grunt of distaste. “I have no wish to be thought a ghost! “As for the black, when we were young, we hated wearing only ‘our’ colors. ’Twas common to switch colors for a day, except mother always knew. But as we grew, she taught us ’twas an unkind jest to mislead others. We began to wear our colors at all times, though I admit, our decision was much influenced by the switch Father used to persuade us when we failed to obey her. “Later, ’twas simpler, as first vavasseur—a squire, in your tongue—to Comte Isore Riviere, an honorable man, and then as knight to King William, to continue with that single color. Now, ’tis habit. Other knights wear brighter colors. We are a gaudy bunch, when many of us are together.” “Where are they today, your brothers and sisters?” “Amery and his wife live in the south wing of our manor. He will one day inherit the title and the estate. Emeric gave earnest consideration to the clergy, but ere he made his final decision he became deeply enamored of the daughter of the lord of a neighboring estate. He wed her, and they now live quietly in a lesser capacity as steward to one of our family fiefs, much as does your brother-by-law at Blackbridge. My sisters are also wed. I have numerous young kin who will demand your time and attention when you meet them.” “You are fortunate, Fallard, that your kin still live. How long since you have seen them?” “Too long. Some three twelvemonths ago, William set me in charge of transporting prisoners of the rebellion of the barons to his holdings in Nourmaundie. Once they were secure, I was free to go home. ’Twas the first time in six twelvemonths I had been there, and ’twas a good, long visit of some seven-days.” CHAPTER THIRTY Fallard was staring across the pond at the antics of a pair of squirrels as he spoke of his journey home, and at first noticed not the sudden silence of his companion. ’Twas the quality of the silence that drew him. He glanced at Ysane. She had grown pale as one ill, and sat utterly unmoving. She stared at him in something akin to horror. His brows furrowed. “My rose?” “What…what was that you said?” Uncomprehending, he cocked his head at her. “What part? That I had a good visit?” “Nay. That part about…about t-transporting prisoners of the rebellion to Normandy.” “Aye, there were a great many of them, and ’twas my responsibility to see they….” Too late, he halted. By the saints! He had been so relaxed with her he had chattered like a child and foolishly let slip a piece of information he had not intended for her to know, not yet. She looked as if she had gone into shock, as well she might. He kept his tone gentle. “I wish to know what you are thinking, little rose.” “My father. ’Twas you! You were the captain who took him from his home, imprisoned him in that foreign place where he died alone and in pain, and all the while you enjoyed your own home and family, while we grieved. ’Twas you, was it not?” “Ysane….” But accusation rang in her voice. “Admit it, my lord! ’Twas you.” His heart counted five slow beats ere he answered. “Aye. Kenrick Wulfsingas was among the prisoners I took to Nourmaundie.” Trembling, her chest heaving, she squirmed away from his side and stood to face him. “Was it your intent to wed with me without telling of this?” She gave a little sob and looked away. “Mercy! I am to wed the man who stole my father from me.” He counted heartbeats again, holding to his patience and his temper with a fierce grip. Here was the last secret he had yet to explain, but ’twas not the time he would have chosen to reveal it. He caught her hands and would not let her go, though she tugged to free herself. “You will sit down, and be silent.” He waited until she complied, though she would not look at him. “Ere I answer you, say me this. Now you know, what good has it done for you to learn this information?” Her head jerked around. The glint of tears gleamed, turning moss green eyes into emerald brilliance. “Good! Good? You ask if the learning of this is a thing I find ‘good’? How think you that, my lord? What strange path leads to that end?” “I said not that ’twas good, Ysane, and that is my point. You have endured much in the past twelvemonths, and I sought not to add to your pain. ’Twas my belief this knowledge would but bring you torment, and for that reason, I chose to withhold it until such time I deemed you able to bear it with less misgiving.” “Ah. I see now. You had but my best interests in mind.” “Think as you will, but ’tis truth I did think it best. Ysane, ’twas not my choice to transport those prisoners. ’Twas my given duty. I have never yet failed to obey my king. I am sorry, truly sorry, your father chose the path of rebellion against his liege-lord, but ’twas his choice! If in the end, William had lost his battle, things would be different. Most likely, your father would still live, you would have wed your betrothed, and naught of the past three twelvemonths would be as it is. “But William won, my lady, as he has always done—always! There were consequences to the barons’ defeat, and one of those was the price your father had perforce to pay.” “Speak not to me of consequences, Fallard D’Auvrecher!” She flung the words at him as if she wished they were knives. “You could have offered mercy. William could have granted clemency. My father was not a young man. You knew he would survive not his imprisonment, and so far from home.” “Aye, I knew. ’Twas not meant that he should. His banishment was for life. Think you of the words you speak, Ysane! Your father freely gave his oath of fealty to King William, and then he willfully broke it. ’Twas an act of dishonor he chose of his own will. Well he knew that forfeiture of all he held dear would be the price of failure. Think you not he counted the cost ere he made that choice? What would he say to you, stood he here now, in front of you? Would he weep, and argue he had been sorely used? Methinks not.” He reined his anger. “I became acquainted, somewhat, with Kenrick Wulfsingas during that journey to his imprisonment. I found him thoughtful, a man of conscience and strong loyalties. He held no rancor against me, or even against William. He understood, as every man of war must, that ’twas the consequence—aye, Ysane, the consequence, like you the word or not—of defeat, and of the breaking of his oath.” He sighed. “Would it ease your heart to know he was well during the journey, that he ate heartily and laughed, and that he and I played eschecs on many a night, as he had played with William ere leaving London? Indeed, ’twas his proficiency at the game that led William, on a whim, to exile him instead of putting him to death.” “You…and the king, played chess with my father?” She looked dumbfounded. “Aye, and he won most of our games.” She stared at him, unblinking. Finally, she looked beyond him, at that which only she could see. Her lips curved in a painful hint of a smile. “He would have. He was a master player, oft times defeating King Harold, and before him, King Edward.” “We also spoke of you.” He lifted her chin. “Your father was deeply concerned for your welfare. His only regret in the decision he made was in fearing you would be forced to pay for his mistake. But he knew not of Renouf, and he had great hopes you would marry your betrothed and be happy. When last I spoke to him, ere he was taken away, he asked that if ever I came to this part of the land, I find you and speak of his love for you. ’Twas his wish you be told of that love, and he was especially anxious you worry not for him. ‘Who knows,’ he said once. ‘Mayhap I will yet come home at some later time.’ He expected not to die in Nourmaundie. He expected to live. ’Twas the fault of no one he survived not the fever. A great many others of my people also died from that same illness.” Fallard urged her into his arms. She resisted him not, though she held herself as one of stone. “His request concerning you was the other reason I asked to lead the attack against Renouf of Sebfeld. I swore an oath to Kenrick Wulfsingas I would do all in my power to see to your care, did I ever come here. I had a debt to pay, to you. It pleased William not, but he had, perforce, to agree. “Aye, I will hide not my desire. I did wish to rule Wulfsinraed, and to wed with you. With all your father spoke concerning you, ’twas my belief we would do well together as husband and wife. But you must believe I came to respect and admire him. Had the decision been mine, he would have returned home. Yet ’twas none of my doing, and your father understood that. I can only hope one day, you will also.” They sat silent while the sun slid toward the west. The light faded. The shadows returned inside the tiny copse ere Ysane spoke again. “’Tis truth, what you say. Once defeated, father would have fought not his fate, nor bemoaned it. Indeed, he could have reached safety ere William’s soldiers arrived to take him away. He chose rather to face with dignity and courage the outcome of his actions, though I begged him with tears to flee. “Methinks you came to know somewhat of the man my father was. Despite his decision to revoke his sworn oath to William, he was a man of honor. I remember well his arguments with Thegn Randel. He made not that decision lightly, Fallard, without thought, or for glory or praise. He said he could ignore not the atrocities William committed against our people in the north of this land. Had those awful things occurred ere he gave his oath he would never have made it. In the end, ’twas that black evil that swayed him toward his choice. “’Twould have been convenient had his conscience allowed him to ignore it, for he knew ’twas not right to break his oath. But when the choice lay between two wrongs, and still he must needs choose, then the consequence of one, the lesser wrong, became an arrow to his heart, while the other, the greater wrong, an arrow to his soul.” She raised her gaze to him. “For him, which would have been the more fatal, think you?” “Ysane, I understand your father’s dilemma. For an honorable man, the choice would have been clear. It seems Kenrick Wulfsingas willingly accepted the arrow to the heart, and though it cost his life, he died at peace with himself, his conscience clear. No man can ask for more when his life’s journey reaches its end.” He held her close to his chest, his chin resting on the top of her head. “I am honored, little rose, to have known Kenrick Wulfsingas, and am much pleased to seek a life with his daughter, for she is in her way a woman of like kind with her sire.” A shiver passed over her as a playful zephyr caressed them. At once, he reached for her mantle to wrap round her. “You are cold.” “’Tis only because ’tis still spring. In summer, the glade is wonderfully warm. I used to bathe in the pool oft times. ’Tis deep enough, and when the sun is high overhead, warm enough. Cynric insured I would not be disturbed. But it has been twelvemonths since the last time.” Instant heat sizzled through Fallard’s veins, coalescing into desire so strong he feared he would lose control. Images of Ysane rising from the pool with water sluicing from her unbound hair and down her wet skin burned through his thought like the strange lights that betimes streaked across the night sky. He set her away from him and stepped outside the little copse into the glade, needing a diversion to his thoughts. Aye, he had been dangerously distracted, for too long, from that which occurred in the forest around them. Rather than succumb to the desire that thrummed within him from head to toe, he paced across the glade and focused all his senses on aught of his earlier unease. It struck him again, stronger this time. Someone, or something, still waited. He knew it, felt it, but could put no finger on what it might be. As he swung round to call to Ysane they were leaving, a faint ping sounded behind him and something brushed his jaw. Ere his mind fully registered an arrow had missed his throat by a hair’s breadth, he was already running, yelling at her to take cover. He heard the twang that accompanied the release of a second shaft, followed rapidly by a third off to his right. He flung himself hard in the opposite direction. A grunt sounded behind him. He looked to where Ysane should be and drew a sigh of relief when he saw her hugging the earth, just outside the copse. Her eyes were wide as she sought him out. Praise be! She had obeyed, and she was safe. He half-rolled, half-crawled behind the sheltering boll of an oak and sought to quiet his mind. His sword was useless against a bow, but a warrior might use other weapons to defeat a hidden enemy. For endless seconds the startled silence in the glade remained unbroken. As he prepared to make a dash to another tree—he had to try to get behind the assailant, if he could—he registered soft footfalls coming his direction. Whoever ’twas made no effort at stealth, and he believed the other thought he was down. The footsteps came to a stop on the other side of the tree trunk, some few feet away. He had time only to wonder if the man had lost sight of him or simply waited for him to move ere shooting him down, when Ysane’s scream echoed across the glade. He was on his feet in a flash, barreling around the tree toward her, arrows and swords notwithstanding, only to slide to an astonished halt as he watched his little rose fling herself, weeping and laughing at the same time, into the waiting arms of a tall, bronzed man in woodman’s garb. A longbow and quiver of arrows lay on the ground beside him where he had dropped them to catch her. The stranger lifted her high and swung her around in a circle, once, twice, thrice, ere setting her back on her feet and catching her once again in his arms. She rained ecstatic kisses all over his face. CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE I will kill him! Fallard’s entire body stiffened, as rigid as the steel of his blade. Inside his gut, something squeezed. His lips compressed over a snarl that shocked him in its intensity. She freely offers kisses and laughter to this stranger, but I must work to coax from her even one smile. He shook off the new and unpleasant sensation to glance around the glade, wondering what had happened to their assailant. He thought he could guess, remembering the release of a third arrow. Waiting with diminishing patience to be remembered by the two who still stood altogether too close for his liking, he decided there was but one person this newcomer could be. “Fallard!” Ysane’s face was radiant. “Come and greet Cynric.” The stranger turned to face him, his arm around Ysane’s waist. He saw at once the rumors were correct. Without doubt, Cynric Master Carver was the son of Kenrick Wulfsingas. Mayhap, five twelvemonths Fallard’s senior, he bore the stamp of his paternity in moss green eyes, in the lines of his face and in the same unconscious stance of authority and self-assurance that had characterized Kenrick. Though his hair was darker, honey-brown rather than flaxen, he also bore a striking resemblance to Ysane. A jagged scar wound its way down his right cheek, from his ear almost to the corner of his mouth. Despite the disfigurement, Fallard thought his sisters would consider him handsome with his powerful shoulders and strong, stout limbs. But there was somewhat else he could not descry, a certain look, as if his features were a thin overlay of another face he knew, but could remember not. His previous unease returned full force. Cynric reminded him of someone he knew and distrusted, but recognition hovered just beyond his grasp. Thus, his greeting was not so genial as it might otherwise have been. Laughing, Ysane hurried to him, her hands wrapped around Cynric’s arm, tugging him along. ’Twas as if she feared did she let him go, he would vanish once again from her sight. The love that radiated from her expression set twinges of annoyance to flickering. Why did she look not at him that way? Abruptly realizing he was jealous of Ysane’s brother, Fallard cursed beneath his breath. Jealousy was a childish and unworthy emotion, and one that unfailingly brought more grief than ’twas worth. Why then, do I still wish to pummel this man with my fists, if not run him through with my sword? “Fallard, ’tis my great joy to acquaint you with my dearest friend, Cynric.” She introduces him not as her brother. Why? “Well met, Cynric.” He waited, but Cynric did not respond nor extend his hand in greeting. Moss green eyes stared coolly back at him, barely disguising the hatred within. “He is Norman, Ysane.” Cynric spat the word as if discovering a nettle in his mouth, his tone as unforgiving as the ice in his look. Fallard’s eyes narrowed. This was a dangerous man, one to whom he would never turn his back. But for the sake of Ysane, he would strive to be pleasant. “Cynric, please.” Distress underscored Ysane’s pleading. “Will you set not aside your dislike for Normans, so at least to welcome this one? He is my betrothed. We are to be wed on the day after the morrow.” “Aye, so have I heard.” Cynric’s disapproval rumbled clearly. “Though ’twas told to me you were already wed. Is my arrival too late then, to forbid the marriage?” He shook his head. “I can say not this news pleases me, little one.” Ysane still stood close within the circle of his arm. The odd familiarity in Cynric’s profile as he looked down at her nagged at Fallard like a splinter in the finger. To forestall Ysane’s answer he said, “There was another, who thought to kill us. Was it you who stopped him?” A sneer pulled at Cynric’s mouth. “He followed you all morn, while I stalked him. He lies yonder, beyond that elm. But think not I shot him for your sake. Had he killed you, I would have rejoiced. I interfered only when he aimed at Ysane.” The man was honest. Fallard would give him that. Ysane stepped in, seeking, as was her way to lighten the tension. “We have finished with our noontide meal, Cynric, but there is plenty left to share. Will you join us?” Fallard thought he would refuse, but an odd expression crossed his face, one mayhap, of calculation. “I will share your repast, if only for your sake.” “First, I would see this man who hunted us,” Fallard said. Cynric grunted and walked to where the body lay. An arrow was embedded in the man’s chest. “Saxon,” Fallard commented, unsurprised. “I wonder was he one of Ruald’s men.” Cynric stared at him, unblinking, then said, “There are none of Ruald of Sebfeld’s men nigh here.” “And you know this, how?” “I tracked them when they left. They have scattered. Most moved south and west, and a few east.” His earlier suspicion returned to Fallard. “How long have you been back, Cynric?” “Long enough to know Ruald sought to take Wulfsinraed from you.” “Did you join in that endeavor?” “Fallard!” Ysane’s voice was sharp, but he ignored her outburst. “Did you?” Cynric hesitated. “Ruald was quickly routed.” Fallard held his gaze, and saw naught of dissembling there. Cynric had sidestepped his question, offering a true answer that was yet no answer at all. As if trying to halt his inquisition, Ysane caught Cynric’s arm and gestured to the man lying on the forest floor. “Cynric, I would know this arrow anywhere, that ’twas yours.” Fallard glanced at her. He decided, for the nonce, to allow the subject of Cynric’s loyalty to drop. His little rose seemed not unduly upset at the sight of the dead man. Her words directed his gaze to the arrow shaft, where he noted the unique pattern of the fletching. Like Cynric himself, ’twas familiar, but he could place not where he had seen it. Surprised, howbeit, that Ysane recognized it, Fallard said, “You can distinguish between his arrows and those of other men?” “Aye, he taught me his pattern long ago,” she said as Cynric knelt to remove the arrow from the body. She watched as he wiped the tip in a patch of moss. “Fallard, we must take this man to the burh when we are finished here. ’Tis only Christian to see he is properly laid to rest.” “I will see to it, Ysane,” Cynric said, ere Fallard could answer. “A Saxon warrior should be buried by his own kind.” He looked to Fallard. “I welcome no aid from a Norman.” Back in the copse some while later, while Cynric helped himself to the leftover food Ysane handed him from the basket, Fallard asked her what else he had taught her. “Oh, many things, like how to find food in the forest, and what is safe to eat and what is not. How to know a storm is coming. How to recognize types of animal droppings, and whether or not they are fresh.” “What say you?” Fallard said, laughing. “Why would he teach you such a thing?” “For my safety. If I came across boar or wolf droppings and saw they were recently dropped, I would know the animal might still be close, and to leave the area at once and go somewhere safe.” “What else did you learn?” “How to find my way home, did I become lost. How to swim like a trout and climb trees as easily as a squirrel.” “Well, at least swimming is a worthy achievement, considering the proximity of the river and the lake.” “And why would you think climbing trees is not?” “You are a lady, Ysane. What would be the purpose?” “To learn about bird’s nests. To play games with squirrels. To pick hazelnuts. To hide. And I was not a lady when he taught me.” “Hide? Hide from what?” “From the eyes of men who might hurt me.” Fallard shot a look at Cynric, who shrugged and returned it with aloof disdain. He finished the cheese and bread he munched. “’Twas not always possible to be there to protect her when she came to meet me, so I taught her to protect herself.” “She should not have been in the forest alone, for any reason.” “Fallard!” Ysane’s manner remained conciliatory. “It has always been Cynric’s choice not to mingle with others. Father respected that, as did I. I never came to harm.” But Fallard was angered and stared hard at Cynric. “So you thought it better to put her life at risk to come into the forest to meet with you, rather than go to her in the burh, where she would be safe? It seems you truly had not her best welfare in mind, but only your own desires. Know this, Saxon! I will allow her not to come into the forest alone. If you wish to see her, you will come to the hall.” Cynric shot to his feet, his own anger quickened. “You know naught, Norman, and I owe you no explanations. Dare not to dictate to me!” Fallard also rose. “Where Ysane’s safety is concerned, I will state that which I please. She is to be my wife, and I will not have her life put at further risk. If you wish to see her, you will come to the hall as would any decent man.” In one blurred movement, Cynric pulled his langseax and crouched as if to do battle. The flesh bulged through the criss-crossed ties binding his leather bracer to his bow arm as his hand clenched the hilt. Fallard’s hand gripped his sword, though he had not yet withdrawn it from its sheath. “Nay!” Ysane, watching the exchange in growing anger and horror, leapt between them, facing her brother. “Nay, Cynric, you must not! You will cease this stupid argument, this moment.” She glared at him and then whirled so she could see them both. “My lord D’Auvrecher, remove your hand from your sword and say no more about my safety. Cynric has never allowed harm to come to me, and that will change not now. Cynric, put away your seax, unless you are prepared to use it on me. Please, both of you, be at peace for my sake, if no other. I…I care for you both. ’Twould distress me greatly did you harm each other. Please. Be at peace.” Cynric snarled, but slowly relaxed. He replaced the war knife in its sheath. Fallard eased his hand from his sword, but took not his eyes from the other man. Ysane seemed to deflate. “Aye. That is better. Cynric, I have missed you dearly these past twelvemonths, and I am glad beyond words to see you alive and well. But I would know where you have been, and why you left without a word to me. It hurt me, dear friend. I felt so abandoned.” Shame, or something very nigh it, crossed Cynric’s expression, but ’twas gone so quickly Fallard could be not certain. “I journeyed on pilgrimage, little one. I…made the decision rather suddenly. I left a message for you. Say you now you received it not?” “Nay, I received no message. You were gone, and none could tell me where. But you have been absent for three twelvemonths. Did you journey for that entire time?” “Aye. That I did. ’Twas necessary, at times, to stay long enough in different places to earn enough coin to continue. The shrine I visited, ’twas in another land, across the sea.” Fallard held out his hand, and Ysane came to him. Cynric lied, and from the look on her face, she knew it. If rumor among the burhfolc was correct, her brother had met with Renouf more than once during the past twelvemonths. “Let us be seated,” he said. He made himself comfortable on a fallen log at the edge of the copse. Ysane sank gracefully to sit at his side. Cynric’s gazed moved between them ere he seated himself upon the grass. “What is the name of this saint, and in which land is the shrine found?” Fallard said, breaking into the silence. “Not that ’tis your place to know, Norman, but I traveled to Germania, to the shrine of St. Bonafice in Fulda.” “I understand this not, Cynric. Why would you do this?” Ysane said. “You have never been a man devout in the way of the Church. Always have you followed in the path of the ancient ones.” Fallard, a man of deep and enduring faith, felt his eyebrows rise nigh to his hairline at these words. It must be true then, what he had heard, that some Saxons still clung to old beliefs and the old gods even while professing the true faith. But Cynric gainsaid her. “Mayhap, I am not pious in the way of most of our people, yet that means not I am pagan. God’s truth, I was told ’tis possible there is a connection between…my bloodline…and that of St. Bonifice. I wished to travel to Germania to seek the truth, or the lie, of that connection.” He seemed suddenly uncertain. “Ysane, as was my wish, we have spoken naught of this ere now, but… what know you of me, of my childhood?” “Mean you, do I know you are my brother, and that through our father’s line there is indeed a connection to the saint?” Fallard watched Ysane closely, but she revealed no dismay or reluctance at the admission. So, that is the reason for the ambiguity of her introduction. “Aye, you take my meaning. So, our father told you. Did he also say I am his bastard, and that when I confronted him with the knowledge, he rejected me as both son and heir? Did he tell you that was the day I left the hall and went to live in the forest, because I could bear not the looks of scorn and worse, of pity the burhfolc bestowed upon me, for they knew the truth, even ere I? Though I am eldest, and even when Kennard, his only other son was killed, father still refused to acknowledge me. Did he tell you he would rather leave Wulfsinraed to the husband of his daughter than to his only surviving son?” Cynric’s words were scornful, but Fallard heard the bitterness and old hurt that flowed like vinegar within them. “He told me you were born of a true love,” Ysane said. “True love!” Cynric scoffed. “If ’twas such great love he held for my mother, why did he marry her not, or if he could not, why would he not acknowledge me? He knew who I was when she had me sent here at her death.” “I can answer that not, Cynric, for I know not the answer. When father admitted to what I guessed, that you were my brother, though of different mother, I did ask, but he would say naught. He said only that he had given you a good home with him at Wulfsinraed, and had planned you should learn a trade that would keep you well through your life, but you chose to accept not his plans.” “Bah! I would have accepted aught from him had he been willing to acknowledge me! I would not even have fought him over possession of Wulfsinraed.” Cynric sighed, his face set in resentful lines. “I loved him. All I wanted was his approval, and acceptance as his son. He refused to yield me that, aye, even that. We searched each other’s hearts that day, and we both knew ’twas so, but he would say not the words.” Ysane reached to grab hold of his hand, but he tugged it away. “I am sorry,” she said. “As much as I loved our father, I am not unaware he could be a hard and stubborn man, though he softened, grew wiser mayhap, and more honorable in his later times. You know this. There must have been good reason why he would confess not your kinship. But I would ask him even now why he refused your request, if I could. But do you know ’tis too late?” “Aye. I know he is dead. I know he died far from home and kin, and ’tis the fault of the Norman king.” “’Twas his own doing, as well,” Ysane argued. Fallard, watching but not interfering, realized Ysane had accepted the reasoning he had earlier given. Ysane continued. “He knew ’twas unwise to fight King William. He but reaped the consequences of his choices, as do we all.” Cynric’s face grew dark and he glowered fiercely. “I never thought I would hear you, Ysane, defending the Norman invaders. You hated them as much as did our father, as much as I.” His scorn fell harshly into the air. “But mayhap, you have forgotten the Saxon deaths in the north lands and at Santlache, and the wounds our father and brother received there. Or mayhap, you have grown so besotted with this Norman dog you have forgotten where your true loyalties lie!” “That is enough!” Ysane cried, even as both men surged once more to their feet. She grabbed Fallard’s arm to stay him when he would reach for her brother. “Hear me, Cynric! Where was your loyalty to me when my Saxon husband beat me, again and again, once even nigh to death? What did you do while Renouf humiliated me, kept me prisoner in my own home, kept friends and family from my side? What grand passion kept you away so long? Think you my heart fared not ill with the length of your absence?” All the hurt of his abandonment quivered in her voice. “Were the sights of Germania so wonderful they kept you away while Renouf tyrannized our people? Were the women of Fulda so warm in your bed they held you even while he murdered my daughter? Where were you, Cynric, when the Saxon Ruald imprisoned me for three days in the pits, when he ordered my throat slit, and that my body be dumped into the river to be lost forever in the sea, and that none were to mourn my death? Was the shrine of St. Bonifice so glorious it held you there when I needed you most, while Saxons were my greatest enemies?” She sobbed out the last words. “I loved you. I have always loved you. I needed you. Where were you?” CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO In the stark silence that followed her impassioned cries, broken only by the falling water behind them, Fallard watched them both, taken aback by the intensity of all that passed between them. Moments after Ysane began to speak, Cynric went still, his lips pressed so tightly together they all but disappeared. So pale was his complexion the fierce brightness in his eyes appeared as green fire beneath the lock of hair that had fallen over his forehead. When the halting words finally came, he sounded half-strangled. “Of what do you speak? Renouf was a hard man, but good. He would never have harmed you. I would never have left you with him if there were chance of such a thing. Nor is Ruald cruel. Why would you say such things?” “Because they are true. Every word. I know not how you knew Renouf, but ’tis clear you knew him not so well as you thought. He was adept at hiding his true self, but I was married to him, Cynric, for three of the most terrible twelvemonths of my life. He was not a good man. He was evil, sly and cruel, and he hurt me. He hurt our people, too. If you believe naught else, believe that. They can tell you much, though I could tell you more.” “Renouf hurt you? You say he killed your daughter, my…my…I had a niece from you, and Renouf killed her?” He seemed dazed, stricken at the thought. “She was but ten seven-days from my womb, but he hated her. She was not the male-child he wanted, so he killed her.” “What was her name, this niece of mine?” “I…I named her Angelet.” “Angelet. And Ruald? Why did he put you in the pits? Ysane, this you say makes no sense. Why did Ruald not face Renouf with this monstrous deed? Why would he have demanded your death?” Her voice rose, become shrill. “You know not?” Fallard narrowed his eyes. She believes him not. Yet, methinks in this he speaks the truth. Cynric ran a hand through his hair, then began to pace. “I know naught of this. Tell me.” “Renouf was sotted. He murdered Angelet because she cried, then he tried to strangle me. We fought. He tripped and fell. I picked up his sword, stabbed him in the back, and he died.” Cynric’s already pale face grew white as the tiny flowers in the copse. He ceased his pacing, his body rigid. “You killed Renouf? By the saints!” His eyes flickered to Fallard. “’Twas told to me you killed Renouf in the battle to take the hall. I thought you forced Ysane to wed soon after you took the burh. What say you of this matter?” “That your informant lied,” Fallard said quietly. “’Tis truth I led the battle that resulted in Ruald’s capture, but ’twas three days earlier Ysane killed Renouf. ’Twas my First who shot her executioner even as he raised his knife to slit her throat. Ruald left her alone in the pit, one wrist chained to the wall like an animal. He gave her little water and less food, and provided her with naught but a blanket. She grew ill and nigh died from the resulting fever. Had Ruald had his way, she would be dead. “As for our marriage, that comes the day after the morrow. Aye, William commands the wedding, but methinks you see for yourself Ysane is not averse to our union.” He looked deep into Ysane’s glistening eyes as she nestled against him. She laid her head against his shoulder, at peace within the circle of his arms. She turned to Cynric. “’Tis truth, brother. I wish to take my lord D’Auvrecher to husband. He has been good to me, and to our people. I will be content to be his wife.” Cynric drew back his shoulders and pulled himself to his full height. He opened his mouth, but no words came. He swallowed. “I am sorry, little one. At your birth, I gave my oath to God I would protect you. Always, that task has been my first charge. When I left three twelvemonths ago, ’twas with assurance that in my absence you would be sheltered, provided for and safeguarded. ’Twould seem despite my best efforts, I failed you.” He held out his hand and Ysane clasped it. He drew nigh and kissed her forehead. “There is that which I must do, but I will return. I give you my promise.” “But I would have you here for my wedding. ’Tis but another day to wait. Please, Cynric.” “Forgive me, Ysane, but I can bear not to watch a ceremony that would be an abomination in my eyes. Mayhap one day…” He finished not the thought. “But I will leave you not again, as I did ere. Seek me at the cottage—with an escort,” he added, “at the end of a seven-day.” His gaze fell hard on Fallard. “Though ’twould seem the most arrant of follies after what has passed, I place my sister in your hands, and hope ’tis not yet another misstep on my part. I hold you accountable for her welfare. Understand this. You will answer to me if aught that is ill touches her.” Fallard nodded, accepting the charge as his due. Cynric picked up his bow and quiver and strode away without a backward glance. Ysane wrapped her arms around her middle. “I have only now found him again. If he comes not back….” The sun had journeyed far to the west and the shadows in the little copse were deep and chill. She turned to him. “Take me home, Fallard.” *** Sir Ruald of Sebfeld was angry. No matter how many folds of leather covered the top of his tent, droplets of cold rain from the torrent outside still managed to find their way through, turning the ground into a sodden mudpack. Neither did the discomfort of his damp pallet improve his disposition, nor the hunger incurred by his discarding of the distasteful muck that had been served him as a meal by his mewling squire. After one taste, he had snarled and turned the bowl upside down over his squire’s head and rubbed the sticky mess in, then with a kick to his backside, sent the sniveling brat in search of something fit to eat. A smirk curved his mouth. The boy might never be able to wash all that muck out of his hair. But if the lad returned not soon with a more worthy supper, he determined to have his hide, not dirty it. Moving his stool to avoid another drip, he pulled his damp cloak more tightly about his shoulders. He cursed, the exceptionally vile oath doing naught to appease the intensity of his frustration. He should be master of Wulfsinraed, enjoying the warm, dry hall and the multitude of other pleasures due the lord of a wealthy demesne. Aye, at this very moment he could be reveling in the highly entertaining and imaginative favors of the beautiful Foolish One. Her sturdy, voluptuous figure was a succulent morsel with whom a man could romp with all the vigorous lust he could summon. Instead, he was forced to endure conditions unfit for any but a serf. He ground his teeth. Three twelvemonths he had worked! Three twelvemonths of scheming, planning and hard-wrought patience had been required to bring that coveted lordship into the very palm of his hand, only to have it torn from his grasp by the unforeseen appearance of that loutish Norman lackey of King William. Now, all was in jeopardy. Aye, the plot he had put into effect so long before had reached fruition with the death of his brother. Renouf’s murder by the Lady Ysane was the meticulously crafted culmination of twelvemonths of sly whispers in his brother’s ears regarding her worthlessness as a wife and her denigration of him in producing a useless daughter. Plying Renouf with more, and still more wine had been an easy task. As each day passed and his brother became more deeply enslaved to the drink, he grew more violent. And then there was Ysane—sweet, lovely Ysane. He had known that beneath her insipid exterior of meekness and wifely obeisance beat a heart of wildfire that could, with the right incentive, be ignited into a defensive conflagration. So he inflamed Renouf’s abusiveness with the fancied injustices he whispered in his brother’s sotted mind. At the same time, he nurtured Ysane’s protective fire, knowing his brother’s explosive temper, ever fueled by imagined indignations, was bound to lead him to commit some atrocity that would force his young wife to defend herself or the babe. It had been but a matter of time. He had counted on Ysane’s defense taking lethal form, and it had. That the child also died in the process was an unexpected but welcome boon, for it had been his intent at first, once his brother was out of the way, to marry Ysane himself. He wanted his own heir off her, though her pallid coloring and petite, delicate form was not to his liking. She bruised too easily, and he was well aware of the distaste Renouf’s crude brutality had engendered in some of their more important peers. Though he had persuaded Renouf she was incapable of bearing sons, he knew she was as likely to give birth to a male as any other woman. Even her murder of Renouf would have posed no obstacle. He would simply have ‘pardoned’ her. Considering his brother’s obsession with inflicting torment, few, if any, at Wulfsinraed would hold her to blame. But she rejected his proposal, spitting in his face even while chained in the filth of the pit. No mere woman so denigrated Ruald of Sebfeld! Her death would have paid for that slight, but now his soul writhed in fury that both she and D’Auvrecher still lived. Bah! His hands fisted in futile rage where they rested on his knees. Wulfsinraed had been his! Then had come the dark knight to spoil it all. How had D’Auvrecher taken him so completely by surprise, and at the very moment of his triumph? A large contingent of troops—with horses, no less—should have been noted long ere they reached the burh. The fiasco had left him running for his life and desperate for a new plan. For the hundredth time, he railed at the incompetence of his men. Killing one scout and breaking another’s jaw had soothed him not at all, and he still wondered at the absence of several others. The fools had likely either deserted or gotten themselves killed by D’Auvrecher’s men. He threw back his head and howled his rage. The cup he picked up went sailing across the tent to land in a rapidly enlarging mud puddle. Dirty water splashed everywhere. Outside, the muffled hum of low conversation from other shelters ceased until naught but the endless, cursed rain could be heard. He smiled in grim satisfaction at the fear he aroused among his men. A raindrop hit his nose. He cursed and moved, yet again, and forced himself to calm. He needed to think clearly, for as angered as he was by events, of more importance to his thought was why the Normans had come. He could deduce but one sensible answer. Somehow, the bastard king had learned of Renouf’s treason. But did William know also of his own role in that betrayal, or was he still welcome in the king’s court? To gain answer to this critical piece of information, he had sent his half-brother to London with instructions to find his contact there. He expected his return any day. He truly did not believe his involvement was known. Until very recently, he had been careful to keep his part in the rebellion beneath the surface, for if Renouf’s perfidy was ever discovered, he intended not to be taken down with him. Had matters come to it, he would have denounced Renouf without a qualm, while shielding his own duplicity behind his brother’s cloak. He closed his eyes and looked within himself for the control he required. Aye, the loss of Wulfsinraed was intolerable. But mayhap, all was not yet hopeless. He had not come so far only to cry defeat. Once, all he desired had come into his hand. ’Twas still possible to regain it, but he must be both patient and cunning. The most recent message left by the Foolish One softened the blow of his forced retirement from the siege field. With the information now at his disposal, he had but to wait for the right moment to strike. Once in possession of Wulfsinraed, ’twould matter not if his brother returned with news that William suspected him. The right whispers in the king’s ears could turn the usurper’s suspicions away from him and focus it on one of his favored knights, while he would simply ‘prove’ his loyalty by killing all who opposed him, and presenting their slain bodies to the king as ‘rebels’. He had himself under control by the time his sodden, shivering squire returned with a goodly bowl of venison stew and a fresh loaf of bread. The lad cringed at his smile as he waved him to his unhappy pallet. It pleased him that not once during the lengthy, miserable night that followed did the boy close his eyes. Aye, for he well knew if he did, he might never open them again. CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE Wulfsinraed Hall 1078 - Late in the Month of Feasting - Spring Ysane stood in the hall before the great doors, waiting for Fallard. ’Twas time to walk to the chapel for their wedding, but the groom was late. Surrounded by her women, she felt smothered with their last-moment adjustments to her clothing and whispered advice concerning everything from the imminent ceremony to the wedding night. Outwardly, she knew she appeared the essence of self-possession, the lady of the hall in all dignity. But her toe tapped in rapid succession beneath her gown, and inner turmoil scattered her thoughts to the four winds and roiled heavily in her stomach. Did I unwittingly swallow a score of diving, playful dragonflies while breaking my fast? Though the early meal of oat and honey pottage with dry, toasted bread had been bland, she had still shuddered at the thought of food. But experience had taught her the wisdom of eating something ere being wed. During the ceremony with Renouf, she had crumpled like a dry leaf, humiliating them both and later earning her the first taste of her new husband’s dark temper. Where is Fallard? Mayhap he has changed his mind and wishes not to wed. The thought depressed her until she discounted it as foolish. She supposed the ambivalence of her feelings should be not surprising. Through the seven-days since his arrival, her regard for him had altered from rage and distrust to tender feelings of a surpassing sweetness. She anticipated this marriage with a gladness that bemused her. Still, it remained that the king and her betrothed had given her no choice, and a tiny part of her quailed. ’Twas all too real that in but a short while, she would be wife to a formidable foe of her people. She clutched to her heart his promise to give her time to grow accustomed to him as a husband, for ’twas all that now kept her trembling knees from collapsing disgracefully beneath her. Fallard’s First, in full mail except for his helm, with a sash of gold and his best sword around his waist, stood close by, as did the two excited squires, Roul and Fauques. But Trifine’s focus was Roana, and he had eyes only for her. The dragonflies in Ysane’s stomach calmed their wild play, just a little, in her joy for her cousin. Roana was enchanting in layers of saffron linen of the finest weave, soft as clouds, overlaid by gold-threaded, heavily embroidered cinnamon silk, a rare and costly fabric, that transformed her golden brown eyes to burnished bronze. She gazed adoringly at Trifine. The true love that bound her cousin and the First thrilled her heart. A hush fell, silencing the hall. Ysane glanced to her left as the women shuffled aside to make way for Marlee, followed by Lady Hildeth, supported on Fallard’s arm. Ysane inhaled at the sight of her betrothed. As was Trifine, he was resplendent in full mail, excepting only his helm. Embroidered upon the black tunic overlaying his hauberk were shields of banded sapphire, crimson and gold on a pure white field. Within the blue bands were woven rings of golden hue, and in the yellow, leaping stags of brown, while in the red were white roses—the colors and crest of Wulfsinraed. He looked magnificent, and she was quite unashamedly dazzled. Her sire’s mother stepped in front of her. Lady Hildeth looked her up and down with faded green eyes twinkling with lively sentience, and then embraced her. Ysane tried to gather her wits. “Ieldramodor, ’tis past time you came down. Everyone was waiting upon you. I thought ’twas certain you meant to sleep through my wedding.” “And I should miss the most auspicious event of the twelvemonth? Methinks not,” Lady Hildeth shot back. “’Tis not every day one’s nefene is wed. This most handsome young man of yours,” and she gestured to Fallard, “makes me wish I was young again, and could challenge you for him. Methinks mayhap, he is nigh the equal of my own beloved Lyolf.” She kissed Ysane and whispered, “Your father would be proud, child, Norman or nay.” “Aye, Ieldramodor, I know it.” She glanced at Fallard and was snared by his unblinking stare. Lady Hildeth turned to Fallard, her movements quick as a bird’s. “What are we waiting for, nefa? The day progresses and I would see you wed ere ’tis over!” Silence greeted her words. “My lord D’Auvrecher!” *** Fallard blinked at the insistent voice calling his name. He had not the slightest notion of aught that had transpired since the moment he stepped from the tower anteroom and laid eyes on his bride. As a young child, he had spent many summers with his father’s brother, Rollant, in his manor on the River Medway in the village of Medestan in the south of this land. He was taught to speak, and then read the language of the Saxon people so that he could glory in the telling of the old poems and sagas of epic battles with men and monsters. Now he remembered Hygd, the wise and stunningly beautiful queen of King Hygelac, uncle to the mighty warrior Beowulf. It seemed to him Lady Ysane could take her place as a peer among that exalted throng. Adorned in the syrce of emerald velvet over a pale green silken cyrtel, she was a vision to inspire scops for generations to come. The syrce, gathered at her waist with a silver fringed girdle, was banded at neck, sleeve and hem in intricate designs wrought with silver embroidery. A shimmering, ankle-length headrail shot through with filaments of silver thread lay like a mantle of frosted snow around her head and shoulders. Sparkling through the gossamer veil, slender ropes of silver and pearls wound through her hair, gathering and binding the flaxen strands in a graceful series of braids and coils. A circlet of multiple silver chains anchored the headdress and draped across her forehead, delicate as a spun silver web. Yet in all this costly material beauty, ’twas the look in her clear, moss green eyes, catching the reflection of the silver threads, that stole his breath. She stared at him as though enchanted. Her sweet lips, pink as roses and glistening where the tip of her tongue had moistened them, drew his dazzled gaze, and hunger woke in him for a taste of them, more tempting than any morsel of sweetened fruit. She drifted toward him as one in a trance. The natural bloom of delicate color in her cheeks increased to a lovely blush and then retreated, leaving her pale as mist. Saint’s teeth, but she is beautiful, my white rose, and she is mine! Long ago in battle, an enemy had used Fallard’s head to halt the hefty swing of the blunt end of his lance. Despite the protection of his mail coif and helm, it had been days ere he had ceased feeling addled. He felt no less dazed now, and strove to remember where he was and what he did. What was it about this woman that always tumbled him off-balance? “Do you plan to marry the lady, my lord, or stand here looking at her all day?” The mirthful question from Domnall goaded him back to awareness. He met the first marshal’s laughing eyes, then Trifine’s bemused glance. Bowing to Ysane, he took his place beside her, gently chafing her icy hand as he placed it over his arm. Triumph heavy in his voice, he said, “By all means! We shall proceed. Most anxious am I to tie this sweet knot as tightly as may be.” He draped Ysane’s green velvet mantle over her shoulders while Trifine did the same for his love. Lady Hildeth, with Varin’s gentle grip on her arm and Marlee beside her, fell in behind Trifine and Roanna as the procession moved from the hall into brilliant sunshine. Ahead of them all, marched proud Roul and Fauques, dressed in their finest, carrying their lords’ helms and bearing aloft the lances from which their lords’ crested pennons streamed. Fallard lips twitched. For once, his squire’s ebullience was muted as he struggled to maintain a dignified mien, while Fauques looked more like he led a funerary procession. A deafening shout of welcome assaulted the sky from the throats of Wulfsinraed’s populace. Along with the king’s troops, they lined both sides of the old cobbled road from the hall to the chapel. Startled birds squawked at the noise and swerved, changing course in mid-flight as they winged rapidly away for regions less threatening. *** The march between the columns of her happy people did naught to dispel the sense of unreality that enwrapped Ysane more completely than her veil. With a smile as frozen as winter’s ice she answered unending felicitations of goodwill and blushed at the sometimes bawdy, but always well-intended wishes that she and Fallard be blessed with multiple offspring. Trifine and Roana were showered with the same. Panic rose. Breathing became difficult as her heart pounded with the rhythm of a runaway stallion. She felt so cold, like a maid of ice, despite the hot blood that ebbed and waned in her face. Faith! Will I disgrace myself yet again by swooning ere we reach the chapel? This is foolishness! I want this marriage. She clenched Fallard’s arm with a death grip and started when he leaned close. “Shall I carry you, my rose?” Concern shone from his midnight eyes. When she did not answer, the shouts of the crowd morphed into thunderous whoops of amusement and exuberant, good-natured laughter as he gathered her into his arms and kissed her. The caress proceeded so thoroughly that when he lifted his head, heat of an intensity to melt wax replaced the chill of her skin and she well knew her face had acquired the color of her roses. He touched his forehead to hers and whispered, “Think you that you can manage on your own two feet?” Unsure whether she wished to slap him or kiss him again, Ysane settled for a sigh of gratitude that he had shattered her panic. As Fallard steadied her on her feet, she somehow found a hesitant smile. “I will be fine now.” “We should like to get on with this day’s activities, if you please, nefa.” Lady Hildeth’s imperious voice rang out from behind them, bringing on more gales of laughter from the people. They made their way to the chapel gate, the men bending to avoid the lowest branches of the old willow. Father Gregory, eyes alight with gladness, awaited them at the chapel door. They bent their heads in unison as the priest raised his hands in prayerful blessing, then preceded them through the mass of stewards, knights and hearth companions waiting on either side of the nave. Sir Gyffard, Sir Aalot and Sir Harold stood among them. Curious, Ysane glanced around. Lewena had been in charge of preparing the chapel and this was her first time to see it. ’Twas beautiful. Clean, and with newly whitewashed walls, it smelled like spring. Cut branches of blossoming laurel and flowering pear were scattered about the space. A gentle breeze wafted through the open windows, entwining the spicy fragrance of the first with the softer scent of the latter. Ribbons of rainbow hue looped around the chapel’s carved support columns and formed swags between them. Soft white linen, gold-embroidered with Wulfsinraed’s stag and roses standard, lay draped over the altar. The flames of many candles flickered over the crucifix, drawing out the light intrinsic within the gold. As Fallard halted with her before the altar, she glanced to see Jehan come behind and turn his back to them as he faced those gathered, while Domnall took identical stance in the train of Trifine and Roana. The swords of both were raised as if for battle in the ancient Saxon tradition of guarding the backs of the grooms. The sight teased another smile from her. She had asked her betrothed for this specific practice to be included in the ceremony. Fallard had approved. “I have no expectation of violence,” he said, “but I deem the custom wise. It leaves no place for unhappy surprises.” Father Gregory cleared his throat. Fallard caught her hand and pulled her closer and still closer until the heat that radiated from him felt to her like that of a torch against her side. The ceremony was a simple one with straightforward vows. “My lord D’Auvrecher,” Father Gregory intoned. “Choose you this woman, Ysane Wulfsingas, Kendrick-daughter, to take to wife?” Fallard, his midnight eyes blazing, held her gaze. His voice rang clearly so all might hear, “I do choose you, Ysane, daughter of Kenrick Wulfsingas, as my wife. I receive you as mine, so you become my wife and I your husband.” Ysane’s heart tripped as she repeated the words from her own feminine perspective. Trifine and Roana then declared the oath to each other. Ysane watched in delight as Trifine slipped a band of gold upon the hand of his bride, but her breath caught in her throat when Fallard placed upon her finger the ring of Lady Edeva, held by Lady Hildeth since her mother’s death. ’Twas a thing of beauty, her mother’s ring, a heavy circlet of silver strands woven into an ancient design. Passed down through the wives of the thegns since the time of Elfleda, beloved wife to Wulfsin, upon whose graceful finger it had first rested, ’twas told the women who wore it would always know joy, aye, even in the very face of sorrow. For the first time, Ysane understood the prophecy. Though she sorrowed still in the loss of her father and daughter, ’twas joy unlooked for to become wife to Fallard D’Auvrecher. “Kneel, my children,” Father Gregory said. He prayed a final blessing upon their union and the service was done. He led them to the chapel door and drew them outside to the waist wall gate. With Fallard and Ysane on one side and Trifine and Roana on his other, he caught the free wrists of the two knights in his hands and raised them on high, declaring the couples wed. The wild cheers that greeted this announcement surpassed the previous shouts. Led by Wurth, Wulfsinraed’s musical troupe struck up a lively tune and in the flash of a mode, the whole mass of folk were dancing and singing. Ysane squealed as Varin whisked her from Fallard’s side, exhibiting an agile grace as he danced her away. Sir Harold stole Roana from Trifine, but neither groom had opportunity to complain for they found themselves joining the convivial activity as two of the steward’s wives pulled them into the throng. A succession of partners danced the newly wedded couples back to the hall. By the time they reached the steps and were reunited, Ysane bubbled with breathless laughter and even Fallard wore a tolerant grin. Now jealously guarding her, he swept her into the hall, which was decorated to the rafters with green boughs and colorful spring blooms. Ysane caught Ethelmar’s eye. Face beaming, her dish-thegn quickly approached. He bowed. “My heartiest congratulations, my lord, my lady. This is a happy day for us all.” “Thank you, Ethelmar,” she said. “Is all in readiness, even for those without?” “Aye, my lady. Naught is left but to enjoy the celebration.” The hall tables nigh bowed beneath the most substantial meal the burh had seen in many a twelvemonth, but those for whom there was no room inside found they were not forgotten. Every extra stool and bench available was on the practice field, and where those ended, there was no lack of furs spread upon the ground. Huge, temporary fire pits were set up wherein sides of beef, whole sheep and boars, racks of sausages and trout and spits of fowl roasted. The meats blended their delicious, sizzling odors with that of baking breads, roasting and boiling vegetables, stews and custards, and cakes made with fruits and berries garnished with nuts, cream and honey. Fallard escorted her to the lord’s table. He seated her and then bent to drop a kiss on her forehead. “I have feasted in William’s halls, wife,” he said, approval and admiration in his gaze, “but found there no rival for the spread I see here. You have done well in the supervision of this day’s festivities. I am proud of you, Ysane.” Something relaxed in that small corner of her soul that had earlier quailed in trepidation. In that moment, looking into the appreciative eyes of her new husband, she understood. This was no mistake, and no farce. She would be safe within this man’s hand, and more, she would find contentment. With a small, convulsive movement, she caught his arm. “Fallard.” He inclined his head to her. “Aye, my rose?” “This is a good thing, our marriage. I…I am….” She stopped, unable to find the right words. “I know.” Fire ignited in his gaze. He kissed her then, long and slow, as if they were alone in their chamber. She was only vaguely aware of the rumble of approval that rose from those around them. When he raised his head, there was that in his face that proclaimed his impatience in waiting for the time they could properly leave the celebrations. He turned to speak with Trifine, who sat at his right hand. The rest of that day passed in a haze she was later to remember only as a series of significant moments of piercing clarity, mingled with blurred periods of unmitigated gaiety, feasting, music and song. One crystal moment was the exchange of wedding gifts between the two couples. “I, Ysane, do gift to you, my husband, this jeweled hadseax belonging to my brother, Kennard.” She bowed before Fallard. The look on his face assured her he knew the precious value of the gift. He rose. “I, Fallard, do gift to you, my wife, this drawing of the memory-stone I have commissioned for your father. As you see, the front side remains unmarked. The runes are not yet engraved, for I have need from you the words you wish carved there. But see you, the other two surfaces are complete. This one holds a likeness of Kenrick Wulfsingas drawn from the memory of myself and of others who knew him. Do you find it also meets your remembrance?” Ysane could only nod. ’Twas a likeness of her father so lifelike, ’twas almost as if he stood before her. “The other depicts the giant stag, which symbolizes the lords of Wulfsinraed, as it leaps above the rose bush, which signifies the ladies of the hall. I leave to you the decision of the time and place of the raising of the stone.” Ysane blinked as moisture filled her eyes. “I have chosen, my lord, to place this stone outside the wall of the crypts, nigh the crypt where lies my mother, and where father would have lain had he died at home. ’Tis my decision to wait not for the arrival of my sister, Gemma, for none can say when that might be. Thus, I declare the ceremony of the raising will be held the day after the next new moon, providing the carving may be completed by then. ’Tis also my hope Cynric will have returned, and attend if he should so choose.” She wished she had not added that last when Fallard’s eyes darkened and his lips compressed. It angered him Cynric had refused to stay for the wedding, thus bringing further hurt to her heart. But he said naught and the mood quickly passed. The meal was nigh its end when Fallard suddenly stood and called for silence as he banged his empty mead tankard on the table. “Hear me, one and all! I am pleased at the joining of my First with the woman of his heart. ’Tis my wish they live long within my hall. To that end, be it known this day I gift to Trifine of Falaise and his bride, Roana of Wulfsinraed the two lower chambers of the southeast tower, once held by Ruald the rebel, as their new home. Their belongings have already been moved. New furnishings have been provided in the bower, including a matching set of fruitwood chests commissioned by my knights.” A roar of masculine approval interrupted him. He waited for the uproar to die down. “At my wife’s behest, a private burnstów has been created for their use on the lower floor.” Fallard waggled his eyebrows at Trifine, who lifted his tankard with a nod and a grin. “To lady Roana, from my lady Ysane, goes a pair of pillows of fine purple linen embroidered with a border of lavender flowers, along with the promise of all the real lavender her heart may desire.” Laughter rang through the hall at his words. All knew Roana’s passion for the flower. “To Trifine, who is a fair musician, she gifts a silver flute.” Giggles and guffaws followed Fallard’s understatement, for Trifine, had he wished, could have been a master scop. He played many instruments, and his voice was mellow and fine. ’Twas not uncommon for him to sing with Wurth after sup. Not once in the hours of revelry that followed did Fallard allow Ysane to be removed from his side. Though many tried, his arm anchored her against his chest. Many were the soft, sweet kisses he stole on the sly, though he showed himself not adverse to a few deeper, more possessive assaults, all of which were met with cheers and roars of advice from the men on the best ways to ‘kiss her right’. She found no protest with his attentions, for she enjoyed the gentle possession of his touch. She liked the taste of his kisses. The shivers of pleasure he stirred as he nibbled her earlobe, and trailed little caresses down to the pulse that beat at her throat, left her dazed. It helped not at all she also consumed more mead than was her wont, and the mellow haze in her mind grew more pleasant with the passage of time. When the last of the light faded from the window glazing, Wurth began a popular singing saga of epic proportions. After the first few stanzas to establish the cadence, he nodded to the man sitting at the table nearest him, who took up the refrain. The entire poem was then sung to the hand harp’s melody as each person in the room sang two or three lines, while another of the musicians kept time with the deep rhythm of the hylsung. The story was so long the continuing lines passed around the hall thrice ere ’twas finished. The riddling game followed as each woman in the room tried to remember a riddle to ask their male neighbor. The game took on hilarious proportions as men too amply supplied with wine or mead tried to puzzle out the answer. Hoping Fallard was unfamiliar with the riddle she selected, Ysane assumed her most severe riddling face and with voice drenched in dark mystery intoned: “I am by nature solitary, scarred by spear and wounded by sword, weary of battle. I frequently see the face of war, and fight hateful enemies; yet I hold no hope of help being brought to me in the battle, ere I am eventually done to death. In the stronghold of the city sharp-edged swords, skillfully forged in the flame by smiths, bite deeply into me. I can but await a more fearsome encounter; ’tis not for me to discover in the city any of those healers who heal grievous wounds with roots and herbs. The scars from sword wounds gape wider and wider, death blows are dealt me by day and by night. What am I?” She sat back, smiling, and waited for Fallard’s answer. ’Twas her best and favorite riddle. The first time it had been told to her, the answer had eluded her for nigh a seven-day. But Fallard was the smartest man she had ever met, next to her father and mayhap, Cynric and Domnall, and she could but hope it kept him guessing for longer than the time it took to speak it. CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR Fallard kept his face expressionless as he debated how long to keep his beautiful wife waiting. That she wanted him not to guess the answer immediately was obvious in her bright, hopeful countenance, but he had figured it within the first stanza. She chose the riddle, he decided, because of its martial nature, thinking it a meet test for him as a soldier. Mayhap, had he not lived by the sword for most of his life it might have come as more of a challenge. But by its very subject, the answer suggested itself to a warrior in its first words. “Well?” Her eyes took on a glitter of impish triumph. She believed him stumped. “What say you, husband?” He wanted to please her, so he looked away from her expectant stare and allowed a tiny frown to groove the skin between his eyes. He opened his mouth, still uncertain of what he would say, but was interrupted by the rustle of many skirts. Women surrounded them. Low, feminine laughter further down the table alerted him others encircled Roana. A long, slow smile spread over his face as a fire ignited in nether parts. ’Twas time for the new brides to retire to their bowers. He kept his face impassive as Ysane realized the women’s purpose. She was rushed away, looking somewhat as she had earlier in the day on the path to the chapel, when he had feared she would fall at his feet like a wilted lily pad. Yet, his heart pounded like the hylsung when it seemed to him her look was not one of trepidation, but of the simple hesitancy of any woman newly wed. Can it be she fears not our night together so much as I expected? He had little time to ponder the question. The clamor of male voices, which had subsided somewhat, swelled again to a ferocious roar. Raucous laughter accompanied the women’s departure, while the ladies, giggling and chattering, exhibited all the panache of a swarm of demented minnows. They swept his wife into one burnstów, and Roana into the other, followed by the decidedly loud drop of the bars over the doors. ’Twas all he could do to pretend disinterest in the proceedings inside the bathing chamber while he waited for Ysane to be whisked up the stairs. He glanced at his First. Trifine, his smile distinctly feral, watched the opposite burnstów where Roana had been sequestered. *** Inside the burnstów, Ysane was divested of her wedding finery and urged by the happy women into the waiting hot bath. Lewena scrubbed her with rose scented soap until she protested. “Lewena, cease! I bathed already this morn and have no need of yet another scrubbing. I will have no skin left if you continue.” Lynnet’s willing hands lifted her from the bath and dried her with soft, warm linens. Lewena laughed softly. “Ah, but think how lovely will be your scent, my dear. Fallard will likely lose his head at first whiff, does he not lose his mind at first sight of you in this.” ‘This’ was a sleeping gown of the softest, sheerest wool Ysane had ever seen. She had only time to blush at its transparency, note the exquisite embroidery at cuffs and hem and wonder from where the delicate garment had come when she was swathed in a cloak and ushered from the chamber to the lord’s bower, where Lewena usurped Lynnet’s role. While the rest of the women insured the chamber was tidy and the coals in the brazier burned hot while the wine remained cool in its flagon, she plied the brush through Ysane’s tresses with relaxing strokes. With cries of congratulations and final words of advice, the women dispersed. Ysane felt her heart melt as Lynnet and Luilda offered her glances filled with hopeful concern as they too, glided away, leaving Ysane alone in the silence with her friend. With a final stroke, Lewena laid aside the brush, then sat opposite Ysane on the bed, the covers of which were sprinkled with dried white rose petals, softened in water. She met Ysane’s gaze straight on. “Roana asked that I speak with you ere I left you alone this eve, but I would have done so regardless.” She paused. “Are you alright, my dear? None of us knows how bad things were between you and Renouf, but those of us closest to you know ’twas a nightmare. That time is not so far past its memories cannot now be looming above you, as threatening as some dreadful sword. Only say the word, dear child, and I will ask Randel to speak to Lord D’Auvrecher in your behalf. He will do so gladly, you know, and I believe Fallard will hear him.” The kindness of Lewena’s caring words, which were but reflections of the love of her cousin and her women, flowed through Ysane like warm honey, warming her and banishing, for once and for all, the mad dragonflies. How blessed she was to count such discerning and compassionate women among her closest friends. She smiled, the curve of her lips coming far more easily than she had expected. “Your concern warms my heart and calms my soul, and I thank you for it, my friend. But I am fine, Lewena, verily, more so than I could have believed possible but a few seven-days past. Fallard is a good man and already I care much for him. He will hurt me not. I know this. He has promised I might set the pace of our…marriage, and I believe he will keep his word. I have naught to fear.” She drew a sighing breath. “I can say not yet how fully I will welcome him this night, but who can know? As quickly and easily as his touch stirs my blood, mayhap, this night will indeed see the consummation of our vows.” This she blurted with a breathless little laugh, even as the hot blood flooded her cheeks. “But whatever happens, ’twill be what I wish, and naught further. What more can a mere woman ask?” “My dear friend.” Lewena’s face reflected her happy relief. “I also think Fallard to be a man worthy of trust, and this promise he has made to you will hold him, though it may try him sorely to keep it if you cannot yet give yourself to him.” Lewena searched her face and nodded as if in answer to an unheard question. “Aye. You will be fine. Well then,” she said, hopping up from her perch. “I will be on my way. I am certain Fallard is quite ready to be alone with you. Come here and get into bed. Quickly, now! The men arrive.” Indeed, the shouts and footsteps on the stairs grew loud, approaching the very door. Lewena helped her adjust the bedcovers, then moved gracefully to the side. The men entered, Fallard on their shoulders. Ysane clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle a giggle as Fallard maneuvered desperately to avoid having his brains rattled from a hard knock on the header. ’Twas a nigh thing, but somehow, he managed it. Lewena circled behind the men and slipped out to return to the hall. *** Divested of both mail and clothing with amazing rapidity, Fallard clenched his jaw as he waited for the boisterous company to leave. He had given strict orders regarding this first-night bedding ritual, taking no chances Ysane’s receptiveness to his attentions might be jeopardized by either fear or embarrassment. But in the frenzy, the command to leave on his braies was either lost or ignored. Jehan set about clearing the bower with satisfying speed—with Domnall according Trifine the same favor across the hall. A straggler or two were dealt with courtesy of Varin, whose grin of approval stretched wide as his great shoulders. When all was clear, Jehan quitted the room with a broad wink ere pulling the door closed. Stealing a glance beneath his lashes at his bride, Fallard hid a grimace. Ysane sat huddled against the back wall of the bed, surrounded in rose petals, the covers pulled as high beneath her chin as she could manage. She stared fixedly at her lap. Uncertain of her humor, Fallard picked through the garments scattered across the floor. He found his braies and covered his nudity ere stepping to the door to drop the bar. At least, they would be sure unwelcome intruders disturbed not their night, whatever came of it. He poured wine into the goblets, and in accordance with Saxon custom, dropped into each a small piece of honey-suffused bread, hoping his attention to her people’s customs would help ease her thoughts. When he looked up, he found her gaping at his bare chest. He went very still, watching but saying naught, allowing her to steer the moment in whatever direction she wished. He fervently hoped her wishes coincided with his. It seemed she wanted to take him in, to learn something of him with her glance, for her eyes roved over him, taking his measure in minute detail. Expecting a blush to tint her complexion, he waited. But when finally her eyes completed their perusal and met his, there was no bashful batting of lashes. She met his gaze with a forthright honesty that thrilled him as she let him see her frank appreciation. “You never guessed the riddle,” she said. Fallard’s brows bunched in momentary confusion ere he burst out laughing. That was the last thing he had expected her to say. He had forgotten the silly game. The scent of roses lingering softly in the air tantalized his senses as he strode to the bed. He rested one knee on the thick mattress as he handed her the wine. He quoted the last part of the riddle. “‘…Death blows are dealt me by day and by night. What am I?’ Answer—a shield.” She dropped the sheet and his desire burst into a conflagration. ’Twas answered by the inferno that burned in orbs of moss green. He held himself in strictest control as he waited for her, his wife and the cupbearer of the hall, to begin the toast. She sipped, as was proper to demonstrate the drink poison-free, then raised the goblet and said softly, “Westu hál, Fallard, worulda woruld!” “Be hale, Ysane, to the age of ages,” he whispered back, and leaned to kiss the silken skin in the hollow of her throat. He felt her quiver as the rim of his chalice chimed in metallic agreement against hers. They drank, the crimson, liquid fire in their throats a potent echo of the inner blaze that intensified with each passing moment. CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE Unlike Ithancester and other port towns on the southeastern English coast of the Sea of Germania, Ljotness was neither of any great age nor particularly prosperous. An insignificant hamlet even during the Danelaw, the natural beauty of its surroundings and an exceptionally fine harbor were its only favorable features. The jarl that founded the village had cared naught for the abstract of beauty, for it added neither power to his person nor coin to his purse, and both had been of paramount importance. To his mind, its only advantage was the anchorage for his trade ships. Most of its inhabitants jested that within another hundred twelvemonths, Ljotness would no longer exist except mayhap, as a handful of tumbled, rotting ruins. But on this gray eve late in the month of feasting, 1078, winter had returned to Ljotness with a roaring fury. Set above the low cliffs that overlooked the sea half a league north of the hamlet, the alehouse of Fat Guda, the jovial alemaster, the product of an unlikely love match between a Norse father and a Brython-descended mother, was enjoying a brief spell of exceptional profit. The previous eve, every traveler for leagues around had rushed to reach the aging inn ere the storm put a temporary end to all journeying. Though the gale had now spent the worst of its fury, the house was still filled nigh to the smoke-blackened rafters that creaked beneath the buffeting of the wind. No one was in a hurry to brave the intense cold and ice. From his stool beside one end of the rectangular central fire pit, his back against a table, Sir Ruald of Sebfeld felt rather than heard the booming crash of the storm-lashed surf against the cliffs. The sensation increased the chill in his bones. Why did Guda not build within Ljotness? At least there, the harbor would provide some protection from the elements. The man is a fool. One day the wind will blow this place to his Hel, and ’tis to be hoped, him with it. He stretched out his legs and planted his boots on the hearth, wishing ’twas possible to crawl into the fire. He hated winter. He could never get his feet warm. He quaffed a hearty swallow of spiced wine, savoring the warmth the hot liquid carried to his belly, while from beneath dark lashes his gray-green eyes roamed the long hall’s inhabitants, searching for any who might pose a threat. Soldiers, traders, pilgrims and seafarers, Norman, Saxon, and various other nationalities—even two longboats of Norse traders eyed warily by the rest of the crowd but welcome in Guda’s establishment—all had found their way to the alehouse since the gale had commenced the previous night. The house provided shelter, and in the peculiar but age-old tradition of hospitality among strangers stranded together in a situation dangerous to them all, they had managed to keep the peace. How long that truce would hold under the onslaught of beer, ale, björr and spiced wine being guzzled down multiple throats remained to be seen. The rolls of fat around Guda’s neck and middle jiggled from his laughter, as he pulled draught after draught. Ruald wondered if his supplies could withstand the steady inroads being made by the raucous crowd. He, on the other hand, laughed not. He had arrived some three days earlier and secured the house’s only private chamber—more of a storage room than a sleeping bower, but one took what one could get—when the only guests were a traveling monk and an aging sailor hoping to be hired on the next ship arriving in port. The stale odor of spilled beverages mingled unpleasantly with the reek of too many unwashed bodies and the smells of burned roast venison, cabbage and wood smoke. Despite the effluvia, he preferred the greater warmth of the hall to the bower. There was no fire pit in his chamber, and his coverings for his pallet were limited to a fur and his cloak. Only when the inevitable drunken scuffling began would he retire to his pallet. The outer door suddenly slammed open and ice-ridden air surged into the room. Angry shouts were thrown at the culprit even though he was inside within moments. Ruald, at first paying little attention to the newcomer, abruptly tensed when the stranger’s movements struck him as familiar. He felt the weight of a coldly furious stare upon him, then the man threw back the hood of his fur. The hair on the back of his neck rose in response to the challenge. Cursing beneath his breath, he quelled his first instinct to rise and pull the langseax at his waist. What was his half-brother doing here? He knew better than to be seen in public with Ruald. The success of their ventures depended on the secrecy of their relationship. Yet, now his brother stalked—there was no other word for it—openly toward him, wending his way between packed bodies, coming to a halt less than a foot away. The banked rage in the moss green eyes glaring down at him was an icy flame his brother bothered not to hide. He kept his face blank and his hands where they could be seen. What has happened to bring Cynric to this pass? “I have spoken with Ysane,” Cynric announced, making no move of greeting. To all outward appearances, he might have been denouncing the weather. Ruald silently cursed again and fought to hide the tremor that shook him to his boots. The seething fury in Cynric’s eyes belied the calm of his voice. His brother was not a man to take lightly, especially as now, when he was enraged. Those who underestimated him did not live long enough to make that mistake a second time. “Why did you do not as ordered and come straight here from William’s court? You were supposed to stay clear of Wulfsinraed. Know you not they would hang you for treason did they lay hand on you?” He held his breath. Cynric was never supposed to have known the truth of all that had occurred at the burh. He had told him the Norman knight killed Renouf and forced Ysane to wed him. But he had also assured him Ysane remained unharmed and in time, the dark knight would be slain and she would be set free. Those two goals were among the many that kept his brother willingly beneath his thumb. He meant to kill both D’Auvrecher and Ysane, of course. Once those two were out of the way, he would be in control of Wulfsinraed through Cynric. Afterward, his half brother was also destined to meet with an unfortunately fatal accident. Until then, he needed him. But did Cynric ever suspect his intent, his life might well be forfeit. His brother was a renowned warrior. In his heart, he suspected he would not win a fight to the death between them. Cynric doffed his fur, hailed a harried, sweating serving woman to order a half-pint of ale and sat on the hearth in front of him. “So say you. But most strange ’twas, brother. I came upon Ysane and her Norman while a Saxon archer did his utmost to kill them both. The man was one of yours. Did his orders include killing my sister, as well?” “Cynric, my brother! ’Tis distressing you would even consider such a thing.” Even to himself, he sounded truly aghast. He sat straight, planted his feet firmly on the dirt of the floor and leaned forward to look Cynric in the eye. “What purpose could there be to kill the beautiful Ysane? She was our brother’s sweet wife, a loving, gentle creature of such beguiling beauty even a barbarian would hesitate to slay her. I have no quarrel with her. You know this. Oh, aye, I admit I left behind the archer to kill the Norman, but why should that be of concern to you, since you wish to slay him yourself?” He let his gaze turn sly and lowered his voice. “You have reason to hate the usurpers as much as any man, and have certainly proved your loyalty to the Saxon cause these past twelvemonths. How many of the enemy have died at your hand, brother? Two score, three? More? Surely then, you can have no quarrel with ridding Wulfsinraed and your sister of the Norman filth. Is that not our ultimate goal in all we have done? So then, why does my order to slay D’Auvrecher meet with such disapproval from you?” The gaze Cynric leveled on him slipped from icy to searing in the space of a heartbeat. He knew that look from of old. Without his volition, his hand slid toward the long-bladed hadseax in his boot. “Touch that knife and you die here and now, brother.” Moments passed, each seeming as long as an age, as the two stared each other down, waiting for the other to make the first move. Around them floated the guffaws, shouts, moans and garbled conversation of men as yet unaware that imminent death crouched in their midst. “Yer brew, master! I say…do ye want it, or nay? I got no time to be waitin’ on ye to make up yer mind.” The serving woman’s weary voice intruded into the tension as she roughly shoved a tankard into Cynric’s hand, sloshing it so drops of the dark, golden-brown liquid soaked into the wool of his tunic. He glanced up into her eyes. She paused, went a trifle pale and scurried away. Ruald sat back, his relaxed posture a pretense he knew Cynric would discern. Cynric sipped his ale and grimaced. “What is this?” Ruald forced a grin. The stuff had a powerful kick. He gestured toward Guda. “’Tis the Viking’s idea of ale. It requires slow downing does a man wish to keep sense in his head.” He controlled the tremors that twitched his muscles, preparing him for battle as he watched his brother’s face. He still knew not if his brother would attack. Sibling or not, he would entertain no qualms about slitting Cynric’s throat if too much drink further inflamed his ire. That was assuming Cynric did not kill him, first. “Thought you Ysane would tell me not, Ruald?” Cynric’s voice was so soft Ruald barely made out the words. “What did she tell you, my brother? How can I answer this…this accusation you seem to make, do I know not what was said? Tell me her words, and I will say you if there was truth to them.” Cynric leaned forward, a bitter light behind the rage in his eyes. “She told me a tale of perfidy, brother, of treachery most foul, of lies and attempted murder perpetrated by those I was foolish enough to trust because the blood of their mother also flows in my veins. But why should I waste my time repeating what you already know? Came I here to kill you, Ruald, and well you know why. Offer you a single argument in your own defense?” Ruald attempted an expression of pained incredulity, but behind the mask, his mind outraced the wind. His eyes never left his brother. All his plans for his future, nay, his very life depended on his next words and how well he was able to plant the seed of doubt in his brother’s mind. “Cynric! Brother! You wrong me, as heaven stands to my witness!” He raised the hand holding the tankard high as if entreating the Almighty to arrive posthaste and verify his claim. His voice all but quivered with mournful indignation. “I have done naught to my dear sister-by-law but try to rescue her from the living death of being a Norman’s plaything. Verily, I can imagine not what absurd tale she may have told, but I can only think the horror of Norman rule in her home and in her bed must have overcome her gentle mind. Thus I say again—if I must needs defend myself to my own kin—be so just as to explain why.” His words rang with sincerity. Cynric’s gaze meshed fiercely with his. “How did Renouf really die, Ruald?” Though he allowed naught of it to show, relief flooded him at Cynric’s question, and in that instant, he was back on balance. The seed was indeed planted. He knew his brother as an honorable man and with it, all too predictable. He would not kill without just cause. Though he scorned what he considered a useless and dangerous sentiment, he had counted on that honor, and now would play it to the hilt. “I told you. Renouf died fighting the Normans.” “Then why would Ysane tell me Renouf murdered her child and she killed him because of it?” Ruald, who had but a moment before taken a swallow of his wine, gasped and spewed it back out, choking as he leaned forward. “She said what?” He widened his eyes, drew the back of his hand across his mouth and tried to catch his breath, judging his reaction as exactly the right touch, especially when a moment later he raised his head and caught a flicker of uncertainty in his brother’s eyes. “You believed her?” he said then. “Saint’s bones man, even a léasere would have difficulty believing such a story, and you are no fool. Ysane had no child. She is barren, my brother. You know this. I have already explained Renouf’s kindness in putting her not aside or seeking an annulment of the marriage, which was his right since she could provide him no heir…and think! Not only is our Ysane a tenderhearted and gentle female incapable of profane violence, her very size argues against the possibility she could kill a man as large and powerful as our brother. See you not the inconsistencies in her tale?” “I see the contradiction in yours! How call you Ysane barren when she bore our brother a child?” “She bore no child! I swear it. She is barren.” “Ysane has never been given to lies, Ruald. She claims to have borne a girl child. She swears Renouf killed the babe, that he was drunk at the time. Even you can deny not our brother oft became unwittingly cruel when he was sotted.” “Cynric, all women lie, or at least offer half-truths when ’tis to their advantage. Surely, you have learned this basic truth of the female mind. Deception is woven through their very nature, though ’tis understandable, of course. How else might they gain their desires in a world filled with men who are much stronger than they, who can be forced not to yield unless through small deceits and play-acting or mayhap, through the bed of the bower?” “What then would be her desire in telling that particular ‘untruth’, as you deem it?” Certain now of the success of his ploy, Ruald allowed a querying frown. “Where did this conversation take place?” “In the forest south of the burh,” Cynric answered, without elaboration. “The forest, you say. Was this at the same time you killed my hapless archer, who was but following my orders to kill the Norman?” “Aye. Only, I killed him because his arrow pointed not at the knight, but at Ysane.” “Not by my order, if that be true. So, D’Auvrecher was present at the telling of this tale. I thought as much. He corroborated it, I assume. Tell me brother, what was our dear Ysane’s behavior towards the Norman? Was there aught in her words or manner of a desire for rescue from an unhappy union? Did she seem anxious or afeared in his presence? Was there sign she desired release from her marriage to him?” Cynric stared wordlessly at him, tiny lines forming between his eyes as he frowned, but he said naught. “I understand. Your rage was hot and immediate, and you stopped not to consider your sister’s bearing toward her new husband.” Cynric snorted. “They were not yet wed, though ’tis my understanding they are by now. She asked me to stay for the ceremony.” “Well now, that is something I knew not. You know ’twas my understanding D’Auvrecher intended to force the marriage, as soon as my men and I were taken out of the way. But mayhap, somewhat happened to prevent it. Still, you have answered not my question.” “Ysane seemed to have no desire to stop the wedding.” “Ah, now we come to it,” Ruald said, and his tone became more wheedling. “Methinks it likely there was more to her desire than that. Methinks mayhap, she has decided she wishes this union. Mayhap she has even fallen beneath the scoundrel’s spell, eh, my brother? The minds of women are weak, as you know, and their humors difficult to understand. Mayhap, our little Ysane has fallen in love with her Norman knight. See you not, Cynric, what she has done? She knows you well, and she protected her lover from your wrath in the only way she knew how. ’Tis what any woman in love might do.” Still Cynric said naught. He pressed his advantage. “You are wondering, could Ysane have changed in the twelvemonths since you last saw her? Your head whirls and confusion reigns. You no longer know what to think. You are torn between I, the brother you have always respected, and the sister you love. But consider, brother. I have also never lied to you. This you know.” He placed his hand on Cynric’s shoulder and met his brother’s wary gaze. “Take it not so strongly to heart. ’Tis the way of women, to protect those they love, and aye, she is very much a woman, and we know a woman’s humors change as oft as her clothing. ’Tis certain she disliked being dishonest, but a woman’s heart speaks more loudly than her honor. Forgive her, Cynric, and set it aside. She will come round and see where her true loyalties lie, when the time is right.” Cynric looked hard at him, then. “And if she verily loves the Norman, what then? Must we still destroy him? I would not have her hurt.” “Bah! ’Tis no difficulty. When we take back Wulfsinraed, we will simply give them a choice. They may swear fealty to you, ceding right of lordship, and live in peace at the burh, or they may leave and go where they will. There is wealth enough to share so they may live elsewhere in comfort. Mayhap, you may even make him thegn over one of the fiefs. Come, Cynric, what say you? Throw we away our plans when we are so close to achieving our goal or do we, who are brothers, battle to the death here and now for the sake of a Norman dog?” “I will fight you not at this time, brother, but think not I will let this go so easily. Only because there is merit in your words do I choose to walk away without battle. I will yet find the truth of this matter, and if it be you who lie, prepare for death. But let us lay it aside for the nonce.” Cynric took a long draught of the stout ale. “Tell me, by what reasoning say you we are ‘close’ to achieving the retaking of Wulfsinraed? I have seen naught in recent days to lead me to see fact in your words.” “First tell me what you learned at William’s court, then I will tell you what you should know.” “D’Auvrecher sent word to William of all that happened at Wulfsinraed the day of the battle, though none to whom I spoke was privy to those details.” Ruald kept hidden his sigh of relief. Had anyone at court told Cynric the story of that day, ’twould have seemed a confirmation that Ysane’s tale was true. He glanced around at their companions. No one paid them any attention, and none were close enough to hear his next words over the din. Still, he lowered his voice, and indicated Cynric should do the same. “What else?” “D’Auvrecher sent proof of Renouf’s involvement with our group, but none of yours. ’Twould seem the knight suspects you, but knows naught for a certainty. Nor does William know, so far as I was able to learn, of our work against the stewards or of the failed siege, though ’twould be my guess word of those later events has now been sent. William will learn of it shortly, has he not already.” “Good. That is good, brother. There is still time. We may yet salvage the rebellion if we act quickly and are able to persuade William I had naught to do with aught that has taken place. Here is my plan, then. I have new information, knowledge that gives us the advantage, recently gained from our friend in the hall. With this aid, we can win Wulfsinraed without siege and mayhap, even without much battle. We have but to wait for the re-gathering of our troops, which I have already ordered. Messengers were sent three days ago to the scattered units. They were commanded to make their way with all speed to the usual place, and I expect most of them will arrive within two seven-days hence. “Once they are assembled, we will begin preparations. I plan to make my move early in the month of reaping. Throughout the summer, to keep the enemy off-guard and unaware of our plans, bands of our warriors will be sent into areas east, north and west of London to harass the Norman holdings and patrols. I will expect you to lead one of those bands, from time to time. “’Tis my intent to make it known to the bastard usurper that our raiders are rebels forced from Wulfsinraed lands. We know William ordered D’Auvrecher to destroy all insurrectionists in the area, or else, safely deliver them to him. ’Twill darken his thoughts—and stir his suspicions—that his favored knight accomplished neither, but rather pushed them south to harass his barons’ holdings nigh London. I know somewhat of how the king thinks. He will demand D’Auvrecher complete his task. He will order the dark knight to bring his troops to London to aid in the apprehension of our troops. “But when we sight the king’s messenger on the road to Wulfsinraed, our warriors will be recalled. D’Auvrecher will journey to London, and we will take the burh while its defenses are light. Once it lies within our hands, you, as the eldest son and rightful heir of the true thegn, will declare your oath of fealty to the usurper. This is where your birth will aid us, my brother, for William, being also a natural son, is known to favor such over those of licit stock. He will deny you not the heritage of your blood, and since he knows naught of your true loyalties, he will have no reason to suspect your oath. ’Twill be simple enough for him to grant the black knight another demesne, elsewhere. Ysane may go with him or stay at home in Wulfsinraed, as she pleases.” Cynric stirred as if uneasy. “Your plan, though simple, is rife with difficulties of which you seem unaware. Mayhap, you should share this new information, Ruald. What exactly have you learned?” “I choose to keep that little secret to myself for the nonce. You understand, of course. The less anyone knows, the better our chance of success. I have everything well in hand.” *** Cynric frowned into his ale. He had spent much of his life, but especially the past three twelvemonths, accepting that Renouf and Ruald were the only ones who ‘needed’ to know certain information. They were, after all, the leaders of the rebellion in this remote region, and leaders told not all they knew. Now he wondered if that was wise. Still, if the information Ruald had gained was what he suspected, Ruald could never be allowed to know he knew of it, for he had no reason to withhold the knowledge and every reason to offer it. ’Twould seem to his brother an act of disloyalty, if not outright treason, that he kept it hidden. He still understood not, himself, why he had chosen not to disclose the secret postern door, since ’twould be to his clear advantage. Mayhap, the burh would already be his had he done so. But was he a fool to believe once Wulfsinraed was regained, Ruald would simply walk away and leave the burh to him? But why should he not? Ruald, as Renouf had once been, was already lord of his own fine burh, away to the west. Now Renouf’s holdings, which included the family manor, fell to Ruald as next in line to inherit at his father’s death. Beyond that, Cynric was willing to share the great wealth of Wulfsinraed as needed with his brother and sister, and Ruald knew that, as well. Ruald had conceded Wulfsinraed belonged to him by right as firstborn son, despite his natural birth. Kennard was dead and though under Saxon law females could inherit, male heirs, oft even natural sons, took precedence. Certainly, under Norman law, males inherited first. The only obstacle to his succession was Fallard D’Auvrecher. Could D’Auvrecher be persuaded to step down, and Ruald seemed confident he would, he could finally take his rightful place in the home of his fathers. Did King William take exception, there were enough loyal Saxons left in the land to carry on the fight to free England from Norman repression, which he intended to continue, regardless. Until now, he had no reason to doubt the veracity of his brother’s claims. ’Twas Ysane’s admittedly wild tale that gave him cause to question. He had come here, believing her words, prepared to kill the only family he had left except for her. Mayhap, ’twas wise to step back and take another look at the situation, from both sides. He believed not Ysane sought his harm, but neither had Ruald given him reason to doubt. This was a tangle that needs must be unraveled ere he took action that could not be recalled. “Yer cups be empty, masters. Will ye have another?” A serving woman, this one younger and prettier than the first, bent so low in front of them the front of her garment gapped away, presenting them with a goodly view of her not inconsiderable charms. Ruald leered at her, instant lust in his stormy eyes. Cynric threw aside the cloud of doubt and grinned. A long time ’twas, since a woman had warmed either of their beds. This one seemed eager to please either of them or both. Though ’twould give him a niggle of satisfaction to take the girl’s favor from Ruald, forcing him to seek comfort elsewhere, Cynric caught her gaze and inclined his head toward his brother. As he slipped out the door into the frozen night, and headed for his pallet in the warm stable where his only company would be a handful of horses and the stable lads, the last he saw of his brother was Ruald dragging the woman behind him toward a sleeping chamber. CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX ’Twas an unpleasant discovery when the folk of Wulfsinraed awoke the morn after the wedding to find that a fickle spring, so warmly clement the day previous, had fled before the face of a furious winter’s final blast. During the night, temperatures had plummeted. Dark, full-bellied clouds, scudding nigh low enough to touch, unleashed snow flurries and stinging ice pellets of freezing rain. These were flung every which way by a howling wind that sifted through every crack and cranny in the walls of the hall. Those unfortunate enough to be out in the teeth of the blast wished they were not. Even inside the sentry posts in the guard towers, where the fire pits were at full blaze, the guards stomped and clapped their hands together in a futile attempt to keep warm. They complained, as soldiers have done throughout time, of the ill luck that saw them on duty during such weather. “I said it, I did!” One old hearth companion yelled the words to a fellow companion-in-misery over the shriek of the wind. The gusts whipped the flames of the pit into wild gyrations and blew sparks from one side of the tower to the other. “Did I not? Only yester morn, I said there was too much of a chill in the air for good. The birds flocked in a frenzy of feeding, they did. ’Twas an omen of bad weather a-coming. But did anyone listen? Nay! I said it, and I was right.” “Aye, old man,” one of Sir Aalot’s knights growled, “you said it, and said it till we are all weary of hearing it. It can do no good to keep saying it, now can it, when there is naught one can do about it?” One of Fallard’s knights tried to wrap his cloak more tightly about himself as he stepped to the all too open window embrasure to look outside, but the wind frustrated his efforts, whipping the edges of his cloak from fingertips nigh frozen even though encased in fur-lined leather gloves. “Bah!” He groaned, unable to see further than his extended hand, which he thrust back inside his cloak. “Neither man nor beast is fool enough to be out in this, save us. The end of this night’s duty will be more welcome than any I have seen since that blizzard we had ere Midwinter’s Day yester year last. There had better be warm ale, hot food and hotter fires waiting for us in the barracks. My nose has got so cold ’twill be a miracle if it breaks not off to fall on the floor.” Inside the hall, conditions were little better. Ethelmar, who awoke shivering beneath the single fur that had been sufficiently warm cover the night before, realized immediately what had happened. He was old enough to remember ’twas not the first time winter had sneaked back when least expected, when by all proper rules of nature it should have gone for good. Mumbling over the stiffness of his aged bones, he delved in the chest at the foot of his narrow alcove for his heaviest woolen clothing and slid unhappily out of his pallet. He pulled on braies, shirt, tunic, thick hose and boots with fingers that seemed to creak in the icy air almost as loudly as the heavy doors under the flailing wind. Bundling a cloak over it all, he roused the shivering slaves from their pallets and set them to work coaxing the embers in the fire pits into roaring flames. Some he sent with kindling and buckets of coal to the individual guest bowers to re-stoke the braziers. They had to get heat into the hall, and quickly. The temperature was so low ’twas dangerous. In the kitchen, slightly warmer than the rest of the hall because the fires were kept burning low all night in preparation for the morn’s cooking, Alewyn and Alyce were also awake and rousing their lads and maids. When the lords and their ladies woke, the lords—and some of the ladies—would be bellowing for hot food and drink and would take not kindly to having to wait. Ethelmar stood amid the three fire pits, his feet on the furs with their shielding warmth. He was giving orders to several stout, fur-wrapped young men to go to the village to check on things there, especially the older folks and solitary widows, when his warmly-dressed lord appeared from the kitchen. Ethelmar’s jaw dropped. “Thegn D’Auvrecher!” He had no notion the lord had even left his bower. What did he do in the kitchen? On cold morns, Thegn Renouf had never left his pallet ere the hall was warmed, and even Thegn Kenrick had rarely ventured out in cold such as this until after break of day. “What do you do, my lord, rising so early and in this chill? Return you to the comfort of your bed until we have the hall warmed up a bit more.” “Nay, Ethelmar,” Fallard replied, though he grimaced as he drew his thick cloak of black fur more closely over his shoulders. “’Tis nigh daylight and I want to see for myself what conditions this storm has wrought. There may needs be changes made to the day’s plans, and there may be those who are in need of our aid.” “Aye, my lord, I have only this moment sent lads to take stock in the village. But ’tis a morn to rival the cold of a witch’s eye, and I fear even for the sentries on the wall.” “Good man!” Fallard approved as Ethelmar hurried to help him with the doors. “I will want somewhat hot when I return,” he added through clenched teeth as the force of the gale slammed into his face. The doors slammed shut behind him. Ethelmar shivered again and hurried to the kitchen. *** Saint’s bones, but it was cold! Fallard maneuvered down the icy steps and trudged through the storm toward the stairs leading to the north guard tower. He hoped he could find the stairs. Though ’twas not far nigh to sun’s rising, ’twas still dark in the courtyard. But he saw little sense in carrying a torch, for out in the open, the wind would never allow it to stay lit. He glanced up and was relieved to see through the folds of his hood the faint glow of lights within the tower. They looked like blurry, crazily gyrating fireflies through the driving ice and snow flurries, but provided him the guide he needed. Faith! Nourmaundie was never like this. In all the twelvemonths he had lived in this land, he had never quite grown accustomed to the difference in climate. Here in the south ’twas not so bad, though more damp and wetter than home, but he had once gone on a covert winter foray in Northumbria for William and by the time he returned, he had been certain he would never thaw again. This morn, felt like that. He gripped tightly with gloved fingers the wooden railing along the wall, needing its support as his boots slithered on the thick sheet of ice that covered the steps. Despite his care, he slipped once and went down, grunting as his knees made unpleasantly forceful impact with the stone. Grit would need to be spread over everything once the storm was over, or half his troops would be laid up with broken bones. His unannounced and headlong advent into the guard tower, bundled head to foot in the black, ice-blanketed fur cloak, had the guards leaping from their huddled positions around the fire, trying with cold-stiffened fingers to pull their swords and prepare for assault. They stared at him in shocked disbelief. Fiercely dancing light from the pit reflected off scores of tiny icicles clinging to the hairs of his cloak. He suspected he appeared to the startled sentries, some of whom had been raised from childhood on tales of ice demons, as darkness on fire. He might have been an ice-apparition for the way they ogled him. If ‘twere not so cursed cold, he would have laughed at their expressions. ’Twould seem none but his own man was accustomed to their captain visiting them under such conditions. Good. Though his knights already knew his habit, from this moment the rest of the men would also know there was no condition under which he might not appear. ’Twould be a lesson well learned. Soldiers who expected the unexpected were men far less easily surprised by an enemy. Because of it, they lived longer. “Captain!” His own knight, grinning at the amaze of the others, saluted him and called him over, offering Fallard his stool. A horn tankard, its rough sides warm from the hot liquid within, was thrust into his grateful hands. “My thanks, Hugue. Everyone still resides among the living, then?” He spoke loudly, though he knew the question to be rhetorical. These were men accustomed to hardship, who took care of their own, and if anyone making a foray out onto the walls had returned not in good time, he would have been sought for until found. Still, Fallard wanted to hear for himself the answer. “Aye, Captain.” Another man, one of the hearth companions, answered. “But I mind not admitting to gladness our shift is nigh over. ’Twould be good did more wood be brought up for the fires ere break of day. ’Twill be needed.” “I thought as much. I will order it so.” Fallard might have spoken more with them, but the noise level was too high for ease in conversation so he sat, huddled with the rest as close to the pit as he could get until he finished his ale. “’Tis my thought to check the stables,” he said as he stood. “Hugue, choose a man to accompany you to the chapel. I want to know Father Gregory is hale. On your return, check the cottages between here and there. Also, send two others to rouse the garrison at the east tower. We may need them do we find trouble. The rest of you, stay alert. The ice is dangerous underfoot. Pass the word to stay together. No one goes anywhere alone until the storm is over.” Trifine and Jehan met him at the foot of the stairs, also unsurprised to find him up and about ahead of them. “The troops in the knight’s quarters are roused, Captain,” Jehan shouted. “They help in the hall. What else needs be done?” Fallard headed for the stables, both men following. He glanced back and yelled, “Aught that will see me back in my warm bed and my wife’s arms at the soonest possible moment.” Faith, but he hated the necessity of leaving Ysane’s side. She needed him. The abuse she had endured the past three twelvemonths had left its mark. Despite the sweet trust with which she honored him, it had taken the best part of the night—and more gentleness and patience on his part than he had known he had—to overcome her resistance. At one point, he had reiterated his offer to wait until she could better accept his touch, but she had insisted with tears they continue. ’Twas not her fault, but it had tried him sorely. He fervently hoped they would have an easier time of it from this point on, now she knew he would not hurt or humiliate her. Trifine’s bark of commiserating laughter at his words sounded over the gale. He turned to glare at his First. He had not meant his words to be amusing, but Jehan’s grin was also wide. He suddenly saw the humor and threw back his head to howl at nature’s jest. Jehan grabbed his arm and dragged him toward the stable door. “Mirth is best enjoyed inside! ’Tis warmer there. But what a way to end one’s first night with one’s new bride. Though you both waived the ‘hiding’, ’twould have been kinder of nature to wait a day or two ere dragging you so early from the womanly warmth in your beds.” His less than sympathetic guffaws were louder than the wind, earning him annoyed but good-natured cuffs from his comrades. Feeling his way along the stable wall, Fallard reached the double doors at the entrance. He lifted the latch to open one side but had to fight the wind. Jehan was the last inside. The door slammed shut behind him with a mighty crack that should have splintered it. They halted, for ’twas darker inside than ’twas without. At least the thick walls blocked the fearsome force of the wind. ’Twas much quieter too, though the chill remained intense. They stepped deeper into the building, searching for those on duty. Around them, the horses, some already spooked by the storm, shifted and stamped uneasily. “Ho, the stables!” Trifine called, when no one came to meet them. A small shape loomed out of the shadows in front of them and all three tensed, but the figure resolved into a stableboy carrying a low-burning torch. The youngster squawked in fear at sight of their massive figures, made frighteningly bizarre and far larger by the furs that bundled them and the shadows formed by his torch. He turned to run. Fallard caught a fold of the heavy blanket the boy had wrapped around himself and pulled, hauling the youngster into his arms. “Hold! Have no fear, ’tis only your lord, come to see to your safety.” “My…my thegn?” Fallard’s brows scrunched together. The incredulous disbelief at his presence was further proof the previous master of the burh had exhibited little interest in the welfare of his people and had rarely, if ever come among them except to torment. “Come, give me your name, lad.” He wrapped a gloved hand around the boy’s scruff and dragged him, gently enough, towards the back of the stables. Beyond the stalls on either side, the reflected light from a fire could now be seen. From further along the row came a loud, nickering snort. The corners of his eyes crinkled. Tonnerre had heard his voice and called a greeting. He would see to the animal as soon as he finished his business with the stablemaster. “I am called Geat, my thegn.” His captive suddenly found words to inform him. “Well then, Geat,” he said, keeping the tenor of his voice conversational, “go and wake your master and tell him I want to look around.” He released the boy, who threw an uncertain glance at them as he scampered behind a chest high partition that angled out from the back wall, the firelight emanating from behind it. The three waiting men listened to a muffled commotion that held undertones of urgency, followed by several unidentifiable thumps. “My thegn D’Auvrecher, good morn, good morn!” The short, squat figure of the stablemaster spoke in a sleep-fogged voice as he rounded the end of the wall. “How may I be of service?” At first sight, Cross-Eyed Tuck appeared an unlikely horseman. A small, bandy-legged man, he was endowed with huge, bulging brown eyes that displayed a disconcerting tendency to cross themselves uncontrollably at inopportune moments, causing him to blink like a madman. He managed to project a constant air of incompetent befuddlement, but the mien was deceptive. Fallard had learned since his subduing of the burh that the stablemaster could ride, handle and care for horses with an uncanny knack other men could envy, but never match. He had heard it said by those closest to Tuck he could ‘faerie’ horses, whisper enchantments to them so they would docilely do whatever he required, or follow him anywhere. The wildest stallions transformed into tame kittens beneath his weight. The most skittish mares became fearless as destriers at his touch. The most intractable all but bowed in obeisance to his commands. Some thought him bewitched, and feared him. None understood him. Fallard cared not if he stood on his head and gibbered, so long as the horses were in good hands, and Tuck’s were the best. “Good morn to you, Tuck! Aware are you there is a blizzard blowing?” “A what, my lord? A blizzard, you say? Wait but a moment, if you please.” As the three men leaned as one to peer around the corner of the stalls in overt curiosity, he ran to the doors, carefully inched open the right portal and stuck his head out, appeared to sniff a time or two, then returned. “Nay, my lord, that is no blizzard. ’Tis naught but a bit of a blow, though I mind not saying as how I am glad to be inside, despite it.” Fallard caught the look that passed between Trifine and Jehan and chuckled. “Tuck is from the northlands,” he explained. “’Twould seem up there, this be but a breeze. Tuck, ease my mind and show me around the stable. We Normans dislike this kind of gentle wind. Makes us nervous.” For the next several minutes, torches in hand, they followed Tuck around. Fallard stopped to let Tonnerre nuzzle him in welcome, feeding the destrier two of the sweet, dried apples he had stolen from the kitchen ere coming outside. He then moved to Foudre’s stall where he spoke quietly to the courser, who pranced and whinnied softly ere playfully nudging him off his feet into a pile of hay. At the sight, Jehan guffawed. “He loves you, Captain.” Fallard scrambled to his feet and brushed himself off, grateful the straw was clean. “I will get you for that someday,” he promised the big stallion. He felt the tremor of Foudre’s flesh as he ran his hand in a caress down the courser’s neck. “Aye, aye, you can have some too, though your manners are atrocious.” He pulled the last two apples from where Foudre snuffled inside the folds of his cloak and fed them to the beast. He turned to Tuck. “All is well here. We go to the village now.” CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN Satisfied no harm had come to the animals—or the people—in the stables, Fallard sent Tuck back to bed and ventured out into the ‘bit of a blow’. The sky had grown considerably lighter while they were inside and the wind had lessened its fury. ’Twas now light enough to see a figure hurrying toward them. Fallard recognized the man as Grimbol, the burh fowler and one of the huntsmen. “Thegn D’Auvrecher!” He huffed the words as soon as he came close. His face was a mask of concern. “There has been an accident in the village. We have need of all the men who may be spared.” “What has happened?” The man’s panted breaths appeared nigh solid in the bitter air. “’Tis Ceorl the cowherd and his family. The roof of his house caved in. We cannot reach them.” A spasm of pain crossed his pale face and Fallard recalled Ceorl was Grimbol’s best friend. “Ceorl has a wife and nine children. The oldest is but four and ten summers. The youngest is an infant.” “Saint’s toes!” Trifine breathed. Fallard feared he knew which house had collapsed. There was an old wattle-walled cottage, a large structure built along the lines of a hall, on the far side of the village. He had already marked the cottage as needing major repairs or mayhap, replacement, as soon as time and weather permitted. He hoped ’twas not too late. “Grimbol, return to the village. Tell them help comes, and to gather all the extra clothing that may be found. Jehan, apprise Ethelmar. We will need hot food and drink, blankets and buckets of hot water. Wake the stewards. Drag them out of bed, if you must, and send someone as escort for Luilda…and watch out for the ice on the steps,” he shouted after his Second as Jehan dashed for the hall. Jehan waved acknowledgement without turning or breaking his stride. Turning to Trifine, he opened his mouth, but his First was ahead of him. “I know. I will hurry them,” he said, and ran for the east tower and the garrison there. Fallard sprinted toward the wall stairs, taking care on the slippery ground. In the gray light, there was not as much snow as he had expected to see, barely enough to cover his booted toes, but beneath it, the ice was thick. Hauling himself to the guard tower for a second time, he bounded inside. “You there.” He gestured to a man he recognized as belonging to Wulfsinraed’s hearth companions, but whose name he did not yet know. “Sound the alert! There has been an accident in the village. You and you, come with me, but ‘ware the ice! ’Twill do no good should you be added to the injured list.” He led the men toward the tunnel, still standing open from Grimbol’s passage. The gate guards saluted. “What has happened, my thegn? Grimbol had no time to say.” “A house has collapsed.” He threw the words as he passed. The brassy peal of the alert, loud enough to be heard above a still vigorous wind, blared over their heads as they passed onto the bridge. Behind him came a sharp exclamation followed by several ominous thuds. Glancing back, he saw that one of the men had slipped on the treacherous ice and fallen, but apart from sporting a sheepish expression on his cold-reddened face, he was already scrambling to his feet with a hand from his companion. Fallard raced through the village gate and felt his heart sink. The damaged home was the very one he feared, set back from the river, across from the mill. The family was poor, with little coin for upkeep. He had been told they but moved into the place within the past twelvemonth, grateful to receive a dwelling spacious enough to hold their large family in what was, for them, real comfort. He felt his expression wax grim as he approached. Men already worked to clear debris, but the house had been a construction of considerable age and when the roof gave way, it had pulled in much of the walls along with it. Those inside were buried deep. He glanced at the lightening sky. At least we will not be forced to dig through this broken shell in the dark, but methinks ’twill be a miracle if any still live. ’Tis great fortune the whole place does not burn. Mayhap the weight of snow and ice smothered the fires in the pit. As he drew nigh, a shout went up. One of the men had found something. “’Tis one of the children,” the man cried as with care he lifted away bits and pieces in an effort to prevent more debris from cascading down. “Methinks he lives!” A cheer went up as hope, grown dim as the men worked but found no sign of life, was renewed. Moments later, a boy of mayhap four summers was lifted free of the rubble. “‘Aye, he lives, but not for long do we not warm him. Faith! He feels colder than the snow.” The man who found him handed him to another, then cried, “There are more here! Several others slept with the boy.” One by one, the children were brought out, their rescuers swaddling them in blankets and cradling them to their breasts. “Take them to the hall,” Fallard said. “They are prepared for the injured.” “Aye, my thegn!” Though hampered by the hazardous conditions, the men redoubled their efforts as he and his companions joined them. Silence descended as they worked. A short time later, he glanced up at a shout to see the off-duty garrison, with the stewards and their men among them, headed their way at a shambling run. Relief surged. If any more of the family yet lived, they would be out from under the wreckage in a trice. *** Ysane shifted beneath the mound of blankets and furs, then groaned and pushed back the edges. The unnatural brightness blazing through the cracks in the shutters made her squint. What discourteous soul raised the tapestries from over the windows and dropped the sun inside the room? Blinking, she reached out to the space beside her, but her questing hand encountered only cold bedding. Disappointed, she sat up, alone in the big bed, then shivered as the unusually cold air in the bower ran sharp fingers down her bare skin. She peered through her lashes in an effort to blank out some of the brilliance, and wondered what time it was. My head hurts, and I am tired. Have I slept very late? She jumped when Roana’s quiet voice answered her, increasing the pounding in her head. “Aye, Ysane, you have slept late. You even slept through the sounding of the alert, but you must awaken now and pay attention.” I must have said that thought aloud! ’Tis difficult to focus through the pain. The wine. It had to be the wine. Yester day, for the first time in her life she had overindulged, then foolishly had another glass after coming to bed. Why else would the light be so painfully radiant? Her ears caught the rustle of clothing drawing nigh, but she sensed rather than saw Roana hold out a goblet. Fighting nausea, she shook her head, but Roana grabbed her hand and forced the cup into her hand. “Luilda said to drink it all, first thing upon waking.” She groaned again, but drank. Luilda was usually right. The bitter draught went down and sat uneasily on her stomach, but did not come not back up as she expected. Even better, the nausea began to ease and within minutes, she could actually see her cousin’s face, only to decide she wished she could not. Roana’s expression was bleak, and the tracks of tears marked her cheeks. She rocked back and forth on the stool. “Roana, what is wrong? Why do you weep?” A sudden, terrible thought brought her fully awake. “Oh mercy, tell me not aught has happened to Trifine?” “Nay, ’tis not that. But my dear, there has been a tragedy in the village. Two children are dead.” Chill bumps chased across her skin. “Tragedy? The village? Roana, make sense. What has happened?” “’Twas the blizzard. The wind was so strong. It tore the roof off the cottage and collapsed the building onto the family. They were buried, Trifine says. The men were able to dig them out, but ’twas too late for two of the little ones, and Luilda is uncertain a third will survive his injuries.” The correlation between the brilliance of the daylight and the cold of the room caught up with her tired brain, dulled from too much spirits and too little sleep. The light is a reflection off of ice and snow! But ’twas so lovely and warm when we retired last eve. We all thought spring had come to stay. How is it there was a blizzard in the night, and, oh mercy, how can two children lie dead? Then something else Roana said registered. “Said you the warning trumpet sounded?” “Aye. You slept through it.” “Why then did no one wake me?” She had never before missed an alert. She had been needed and had not been there to help. She threw off the covers and shuddered as the cold radiated through the sheepskin on the floor to assault her bare feet. The chill on the room was severe, despite the heat from the brazier, which led to her next realization. She wore naught. She grabbed a cover of white fox furs and wrapped it round herself. “My lord D’Auvrecher ordered you not be disturbed,” Roana said. “He said you needed your sleep. He cares much for you, Ysane.” Despite the devotion she shared with Roana Ysane flushed, a deep, betraying blush that rose from her chest to flood her face all the way to her hairline. She burned from it, but oh, the sweet magic and staggering pleasure of the joyous discoveries she found in the night in her husband’s strong arms. Even in the sober light of day, the enthralling delights Fallard had shown her bore no relation to the selfish, hurtful mating that characterized Renouf’s bedplay. Renouf had raped, and preferred and enjoyed it that way. Fallard, while lusty, was a lover, tender and considerate. He had given her little chance to sleep, but his thoughtfulness extended to ordering her rest be not disturbed. He could not have known when he left the hall that such trouble would be waiting. “Roana, deorling, you find me truly at a loss. Help me dress, please, and tell me exactly what has happened, from the beginning.” *** “I am the resurrection and the life….” The burh was in mourning. Despite the warmth of her fur-lined cloak, Ysane shivered as she listened to the words of comfort intoned in Latin by Father Gregory. She understood the words, though few others present did. Tears coursed unhindered down her cheeks and she licked the salty substance from dry lips as her eyes rested on the two pathetically small bundles being lowered into the frozen earth. As her heart ached for those who grieved, she tried not to think of how her own sweet babe had been given no such decency as a Christian burial. Nigh to her, Ceorl’s face remained blank, stoic. His unbroken arm curved around his wife’s bowed, bruised shoulders as her body shook beneath broken wails. Further away another woman, this one elderly, wept also, but her sobs were silent. Beyond her, waited two sober lads and their father, whose expression was harsh with the effort to control his sorrow. The fierce storm that descended so unexpectedly upon the land two nights previously had stolen four precious lives from their little community. Two were the children of Ceorl and his wife Sreda, and included the youngest babe-in-arms, whose tiny body had been unharmed by the fallen roof but had been unable to withstand the cold. Another was the husband of the softly weeping elderly woman. He had awakened during the night and gone into the storm to check on their animals, but had apparently slipped on the ice, hit his head on a fence post and knocked himself out. Death found him swiftly. The last of the dead was the sister of one of the burh ceorls. A widow, she had lived with her widowed brother, caring for his home and his two unmarried sons. The night of the storm she was on her way home from another farm some little distance away, where she had been tending to that farmer’s sick wife. She left ere nightfall, nigh the start of the storm, had somehow become disoriented and wandered deeper into the forest. Her body had not been found until this morn. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done….” Beside her, Ysane felt the tension of Fallard’s impotent rage at Renouf as the shovelfuls of dirt fell into the graves. At least two of the deaths, those of the children, could have been avoided had Renouf performed his duties as lord. Under the system of civil land management established by King William, ’twas the responsibility of the lord to insure his people received adequate food, clothing and shelter. The latter meant seeing to needed repairs of homes. Yet, her husband felt he could not place all blame for the collapse of Ceorl’s cottage at the feet of Renouf. He had known the house was in dire need of repair, but had deemed it structurally sound enough to wait until more pressing needs had been met. That none could have foreseen the deadly force of a late winter storm did not, in his mind, mitigate his accountability. She wept a little for him, too. Though it might be too late for the children, a new cottage, sturdy, spacious and comfortable was to be built for Ceorl. In the meantime, he and his surviving family members would be sheltered with others. “…through the mercy of God rest in peace.” The benediction echoed through the trees where the village had long ago chosen to locate the burial ground. ’Twas over, the dead laid to rest. Life for those remaining must now go on. It eased her heart there would be many willing hands among her people to care for the survivor’s needs as the seven-days passed. She walked back through the village, Fallard’s arm draped over her shoulders. Her husband had done more than his part in the difficult digging for the graves. Now he smelled of sweat, wood smoke and cold air, a combination she liked very much. Cuddling closer, she took in the damage the storm had wrought to nature. Bedraggled blossoms drooped, the blooms already browning in the sunlight where they lay loose on the ground. Branches broken by the weight of ice littered the scene, while further on an entire tree had been felled. As the sun rose higher and its warmth increased, sharp snapping sounds, accompanied by the tinkle of shattering chains of ice, announced further limb breakage. In yards here and there, animals killed in the storm—a few chickens, a suckling pig and a young goat—lay where they fell. Soon their frozen bodies would be butchered to preserve what meat could be saved. ’Twas hoped spring would now return and with it, warmer air to melt the ice. Already three of Wulfsinraed’s inhabitants were laid up with broken bones, and none had yet been out to the far-outlying farms to assess damages. There might yet be more deaths to mourn. But not all the storm wrought was destruction. The glitter of light off the ice dazzled the eyes with the brilliant, broken prism of the rainbow, while soft puffs of breeze wrought music like that of tiny bells as ice rattled against ice on tree and bush. The entire landscape sparkled as if sprinkled with fairie dust. Had no one died to blight it, the exquisite wintry scene would have been unsurpassed in splendor. The river flowed black and sluggish between the crusts of ice that rimmed its banks. As they approached the bridge, Fallard took her elbow to guide her across the span, still slippery despite the grit sprinkled liberally across its surface. He saw her safely to the hall, but left her at the doors. “I ride with a troop this morn to take stock of damage in the outlying farms and make lists of needed supplies. We will return as soon as may be.” He possessed her lips in a bruising kiss that spoke eloquently of the feelings he kept locked inside. “Take care, Fallard. All of you.” “That we will. You may count upon it.” She watched him astride Tonnerre, one gloved hand grasping the saddle pommel. The fingers of his other hand raked impatiently through his hair—which was beginning to grow long enough to fall over his forehead—as he called last minute instructions. He glanced at her. She sent a smile that triggered from him a teasing leer. A blush burned and she escaped into the hall, her heart happy that her husband found her pleasing, despite the sorrow of the day. The stewards and their families were preparing to return to their homes. They wanted to leave before the ice melted and turned the roads into an impassable quagmire. All but Thegn Randel and Lady Lewena were anxious to learn what damage the storm had wrought to their holdings. But Randel Hall had been left in capable hands and its thegn deemed his return could wait another day. He rode out with Fallard. Sir Aalot and Sir Gyffard had already left for Witham with their men, the horses picking their wary way along slick paths. That very morn, the two commanders had received new orders. Sir Aalot was to return to Witham and regular patrols, while Sir Gyffard was called back to duties in London. Fallard had told her as soon as repairs of storm damage were well in hand, he would be sending out patrols under leadership of Jehan and Domnall, despite Cynric’s assurance all the rebels had fled. He and Trifine would take their turn leading the patrols after a reasonable time spent at home with their new wives. She made her way around chests, satchels and piles of other baggage, sidestepping busy servants, and maids on various missions for their ladies. She reached the kitchen in time to hear Alyce berate one of the slaves whose carelessness with boiling water had resulted in an ugly burn to another girl’s arm. She took note of the sullen expression of the young miscreant and decided to have Ethelmar discipline her when work in the kitchen was less hectic. The girl was given to whining and had been reprimanded more than once for laziness. Now, another had been hurt due to her negligence. Mayhap, a touch of the whip would serve to remind her of her good fortune in living at Wulfsinraed, for in many another burh, her heedless action would have resulted in a far more severe punishment than a simple tongue-lashing. Alyce and Alewyn were kinder taskmasters than most. “Oh, my lady, ’tis glad I am to see you,” Alyce said as she returned to the dough she kneaded. “There is a matter needing your attention.” “What is it, Alyce?” “My lady, I am nigh ashamed to mention it, but ’tis in regard to the Lady Eufemma.” Oh mercy, what complaint has the woman this time? How I wish a whip could be taken to her back! Lady Eufemma was wife to Lord Estienne of Romleygh Hall, the closest, best appointed and most prosperous of Wulfsinraed’s fiefs. Normans both, and nigh as wealthy as King Philip, with whom the baron was close friends, they believed supremely in the superiority of their noble lineage. Lady Eufemma was most at home in the Court of France, and though Philip himself had commanded their move to England, she hated her new home with a high passion. She made no secret of the contempt she held for everything English—including the remnants of Saxon nobility. Her sneering regard toward Ysane had so angered Fallard he had taken Lord Estienne aside and ordered an end to it. During her stay at Wulfsinraed, Lady Eufemma had driven Ysane nigh to distraction with constant harping on the inadequacies of Wulfsinraed Hall, and how much better she would be at managing the place. She found unending fault with the food and the comforts—or the lack thereof, as she had asserted—and complained incessantly over the dearth of suitable entertainment and the discomfort of their bower. This despite they had been given the most luxuriously and comfortably furnished of the guest chambers. Even the weather was bitterly berated by the couple. When Ysane was forced to intervene when the lady beat one of the hall’s servants for no more reason than to ease her own frustration, she confessed her displeasure to Fallard. He admitted the baron was as disagreeable as his wife. ’Twas his belief their discontent was due to their resentment at being relegated to a stewardship, rather than being appointed Wulfsinraed’s masters. They had never forgiven King William, whom they detested and considered an upstart usurper of common birth, for appointing them to a social position lower than that which they believed their due. Lord Estienne had made more than one appeal to King Philip in an attempt to change their situation, but Philip had matters of far more import in hand and had finally warned them never to bother him again on the subject. She sighed at this new umbrage from the ill-natured lady. “Tell me, Alyce.” “Yester morn, the Lady Eufemma sent her maid to demand roast lamb pies of a special nature be prepared for their travel this day. My lady, the reciept for the pies was of a difficult nature, and took the best part of the day to complete. This morn, the Lady Eufemma required a taste. I fear she was most displeased, and she did throw the entire dish of pies to the floor and demand I make more. But even were there time, I could make no more, for one of the ingredients was pennyroyal, and I used the last of our winter supply in the pies she destroyed. What shall I tell her? ’Tis my thought she will make trouble for my people if I can satisfy not her desire.” Ysane hid her vexation behind a stiff smile. “Worry not, Alyce. I will deal with Lady Eufemma. Since she has wasted the special dish prepared for her, she may eat of the same traveling repast prepared for everyone else. If she finds that not to her liking, she may go hungry! Now then, have you need of aid in finishing the day’s travel meals for the other stewards, or is all complete?” “Oh, my lady, my most fervant thanks, but ’tis finished, except for the last of the honey cakes, which bake even now. All is in readiness.” “As usual, Alyce, you and Alewyn have surpassed yourselves. ’Tis why I ordered a simple meal for sup. You have worked hard these past days and deserve an easier time of it this eve.” Alyce smiled as she covered the bread loaves with a cloth and reached for another to clean her hands. “Aye, my lady, a simple sup ’twill be.” CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT By late noontide, all the guests but Lord Randel and Lady Lewena had departed. Ysane regarded the newly quiet hall with relief. The enjoyment in having visitors without the callous brutishness of Renouf and Ruald to ruin those visits had been wonderful. But having all of the stewards present under her roof at one time, for so many days, and under such arduous conditions had begun to pall. She wandered the hall, offering encouragement to the slaves cleaning the guest bowers. She gave advice to servants restoring order to storage cupboards and chests rummaged by visiting maids, and listened in sympathy while Luilda ranted that someone had been among her potions and herbs in the buttery. A goodly portion of the afternoon she spent closeted in the hoarding room with Tenney, Ethelmar and Alewyn, making lists of provisions needed to replace depleted stocks of everything from foodstuffs and linens to gaming pieces. Several sets of the hall’s various dice and board games were missing pieces, a situation not uncommon after a lengthy stay by so many visitors. Nor was missing linen. For reasons Ysane had never understood, some guests seemed to find her bathing and bed linens too desirable to leave behind. But Tenney’s news dismayed her. “M-m-my lady,” he said, “’tis my s-s-sorrow to report the special Hnefatafl board is missing. I have servants s-s-searching the hall for it even n-n-now, but methinks it will be not found.” “Oh, no. Not the one from the joint court of the brother-kings?” “Aye, l-l-lady, that is the one. ’Twas used by the s-s-stewards last even and was in its place this morn. ’Twas accounted m-m-missing shortly before we began our t-t-tally.” Ysane sincerely hoped ’twas simply misplaced. The set with its gameboard of rosewood, exquisitely carved jet and ivory game pieces, and double king pieces of silver was a priceless treasure, for it had been crafted for use in the joint court of Sigeheard and Swaefred, brother-kings who shared the rule of Eastseaxe in ages past. That any of her friends or stewards might have stolen the irreplaceable game was unthinkable. The morn’s final disagreeable encounter with the Lady Eufemma crossed her mind. ’Twould take no effort of the imagination to consider Lady Eufemma might covet the set, and simply account it as her right to take such a precious item as recompense for what she perceived as ‘slights’ offered during her visit. ’Twas but a guess though, and without proof. “You do right to search for it, Tenney,” she said, “but do you find it not, you must fret not. If ’tis gone, ’tis gone, and there are other sets.” She rose, unobtrusively stretching stiff muscles, glad the preparation of the lists was finished. The first of the twelvemonth’s peddlers would soon arrive at the hall and now she was ready. “I thank you all,” she said. “You may return to your regular duties.” She wandered back to the bower she now shared with her husband. Opening his private chest, she fiddled absently with the items inside, finding comfort in touching his things. Fallard! Such a short time had passed since he rode into her life, and so much had happened. She yearned to slip away, far from the hustle and noise of the burh, to a quiet and private place where she could think undisturbed, not only on her life with her new husband, but on an unwelcome and disturbing thought. Cynric had lied to her. She sat in her chair before the brazier, her hands idle in her lap while her focus turned inward. It intensified her hurt to learn he had been nigh these past twelvemonths, but had made no effort to see her. Oh, mayhap ’twas true he had done pilgrimage to Germania, as he claimed. But such a journey, even supposing he had stopped now and anon, long enough to earn coin for continued travels, should have taken no more than a few months. Where had he been the rest of that time? She was certain she knew. In truth, her heart had suspected for a long time, all the while her mind prayed she was wrong. But the time frame involved was too coincidental. She knew him so well, knew his long hatred for the Norman usurpers. The knowledge terrified her for his sake…and what of Fallard, so fiercely loyal to William? What would her husband do, did he learn her brother fought with the rebels? Weariness descended like a fog, overwhelming and chill. She flung aside her slippers and syrce, dropped to the bed, and cuddled into a fur. She slept so quickly she remembered not even closing her eyes. *** She woke to darkness and languorous warmth all along the length of her back. The slow, lingering caress of a calloused hand traced across the curve of her hip beneath her cyrtel. The hand shifted at the same moment lips brushed feathery kisses back and forth along her shoulder blade. Shuddering with the joy his touch evoked, she caught her breath as Fallard’s arm slid round her waist to ease her closer. Soon after, she dissolved beneath an onslaught of shimmering, coruscating sensation. When she woke the second time, she was alone again, and the light of early morn filtered through the window embrasures. She lazed beneath warm coverings in a sated languor, allowing her thoughts to drift, unwilling to awaken fully. Time passed. She neither knew nor cared how much. No one came to disturb her. Only when hunger raised an insistent head did she open her eyes to peer at the canopy above her. Oh, aye. She had missed sup the eve before. ’Twas no wonder she hungered. She stretched in lethargic content. What sweet, mysterious enchantment Fallard wrought with her in the depths of the night. He taught that which she had never guessed, nor even known existed…so unlike the times with Renouf. Nay! Not merely unlike, but opposite in every way. Are these feelings I share with Fallard the true love of man with woman? They bear little resemblance to the songs of the scops. They are deeper, earthier, and far more satisfying than the sentiments of which the songs speak, however lovely those might be. Idly tracing the embroidery on the canopy with her gaze, she lay still, musing on love. Cynric had said her parents loved each other deeply, though she remembered not the words ever being spoken in her hearing and had never truly considered their relationship. She recalled her mother’s death from a wasting disease when she was but three and ten summers, but ere that, there were memories of laughter and singing, of merry times in the hall that made it seem bright even on cloudy days. But the joy in her father’s eyes had dimmed the day her mother died. ’Twas a long time ere laughter had come again to the hall. Aye. It did seem love had ruled her parent’s life, for her father would not have grieved so did he not care for his wife. Pity for his pain rose to choke her, and swift tears trickled from the corners of her eyes to lose themselves in her hair. How blindly selfish she had been, not to have seen that before. She had missed her mother, but never more so than now. She was mistress of the hall, but there was none to whom she could turn to discover the truth of what she felt. Already she cared enough for Fallard she would never betray him, and pleasing him gave her joy. She craved his company by her side, missing him even when he was but out of doors. He teased her, made her laugh and feel almost carefree, when there had been no mirth in her life for so very long. Certainly too, her body now loved him. But cared she enough for him that his life, his future, his happiness mattered more to her than her own? Would she give her life for his? The scops always held that ideal as the highest proof of love. Mayhap, only time would tell. The furious barking of a dog drifted to her window, reminding her ’twas past time to be up and about. A scratch on the door heralded Lynnet’s curious little face as she peeped inside. “Come, Lynnet. I have lingered abed too long.” She washed, and dressed in a faded blue work cyrtel. Lynnet braided her hair and pinned it in a coil at her nape, then tucked it beneath her oldest headrail. Ready for the day, she stepped onto the landing. She was late for the breaking of fast in the hall, but did she go to the kitchen, Alyce would see she had bread and cheese. Softly humming The Maid of Sud Tun, a merry tune of misguided love Wurth had first sung for her some days earlier, asking if ‘twere fit for use in the hall, she lifted her left foot off the landing to take the first step down. There was no warning. A hand between her shoulder blades shoved. Caught off balance, she could not stop her body’s plunge down the curving stairs. With an instinctive and desperate effort, she twisted in midair, using the last bit of purchase she still had with her right toes against the stone tread to pitch herself into the window embrasure several steps further down. A whisper as of swishing skirts rushed past. She slammed with a vicious jolt well inside the aperture, crying out when various parts of her body collided with and scraped against unyielding stone. Intense pain stole thought and breath. ’Twas several moments ere it subsided enough she could move. Mercy, but it hurt, especially her ribs, which had struck the sharp edge. She cautiously flexed different parts of her body, testing for pain indicating injury worse than bruises. It seemed there were no broken bones, but moisture crawled down her face from a throbbing cheekbone. It felt like the tickling feet of a caterpillar, but when she touched the tender spot, her fingertips came away red. Her forehead ached, too. Nay, everything hurt. “My lady!” Lynnet’s voice shrieked above her, nigh startling her out of the embrasure. “Oh, my lady, what has happened?” Her maid knelt beside her, dropping the bundle of bedding she was taking to be washed. “Lie still, lady, please!” She turned to call down the stairs. “Help! Help, my lady has fallen!” “Lynnet, please, scream not so loudly.” The maid’s cries made her head throb worse. She blinked against dizziness. Between gulps to halt rising nausea, she said, “I am fine, truly.” But her words came out as pained gasps and a weeping Lynnet ignored her command and called again for help. She gasped as she forced herself to sit up and lean against the embrasure wall. Relieved to see only minor scrapes and scratches on exposed skin, she tried to reassure her maid. “I am merely bruised. The damage is slight.” Though her ribcage ached abominably with every breath, she tried to stand, only to abandon the effort when Varin appeared, roaring threats like an avenging angel at whoever or whatever had hurt his lady. Directly behind him came Ingram, one of her hearth companions. The two men had become unlikely but fast friends. “Move not, my lady,” Varin ordered as he bent to check her injuries. “What happened, Lynnet?” “She fell, Sir Varin. God be thanked she landed in the window, but she must be terribly bruised. Methinks she should not try to walk.” “I am perfectly fine,” Ysane whispered, “and I am capable of speaking for myself.” No one paid her the slightest attention. “I agree,” Varin said in reply to Lynnet. A chorus of ‘ayes’ echoed down the stairwell, which bulged with people, all exclaiming in concern. “Has Captain D’Auvrecher been sent for?” Ethelmar, who only that moment had somehow shoved his way through the crowd, nodded. “’Tis already done.” “Varin, I really am alright,” Ysane insisted. “I can walk. I need but the support of your arm.” “Nonsense, my lady. Relax. I will see you safely back to your bower.” So saying, and with an anxious Ingram offering him unneeded advice, Varin lifted her from the embrasure. She could not prevent a sharp intake of breath. Varin winced, though he carried her as if she were made of eggshell and ’twas his greatest task in life to see she did not crack. He summoned a smile. “’Tis fortunate Ingram and I happened to be in the hall when your maid screamed. We were discussing a sword tactic new to him,” he said, as if ’twas something of great import for her to know. With Lynnet leading the way and the entire throng on the stairs following, he returned her to the bower and deposited her on the bed. A commotion ensued outside the door and Fallard’s voice could be heard. “Get out of my way,” he bellowed, all but shaking the rafters. She met Varin’s glance. “Oh, dear.” He grinned in rueful commiseration as her husband charged into the bower, trailed by Thegn Randel. Both men were bare-chested and sweating from enjoying a last sparring bout ere Randel returned home. Fallard loomed over her, stark fear blazing from his midnight eyes. “Ysane, my love. Ysane!” Ysane smiled in sudden delight at his words, then wished she had not. Smiling hurt, too. “Varin!” Fallard grabbed his knight’s arm. “What goes here? How badly is she hurt? Where is Luilda? Answers! I want answers!” *** Fallard was beside himself. The slave sent to the practice field to find him was very young, very excited and unsure of exactly what he was supposed to say. As a result his message was garbled, and all Fallard could clearly make out was ‘screaming’, ‘Lady Ysane’ and ‘stairs’. Terror such as he had known but once before in his life, when one of his brothers had fallen from a tree and he thought him dead, flooded his soul. Throwing his sword at Roul’s feet, he sprinted to the hall. “Captain, methinks my lady will be fine,” Varin said, but he ignored him. “Ysane, what has happened?” He ran his hands with practiced care along her limbs, his fear but slightly assuaged that she seemed awake, alert and none the worse for her accident. “Are you hurt, little rose, are you in pain?” But she stared at him with a look akin to disbelief. “You called me ‘my love’,” she said. “I heard you. Oh, Fallard, please kiss me.” Instantly, he forgot she was injured, forgot her pain, forgot everything as he absorbed the invitation glowing in moss green eyes. His head lowered to the soft pink of her parted lips and what little was left of the thread of his thoughts was lost. He was but a breath from the life-affirming taste of her, the need to feel she still lived. “I beg your pardon, Captain.” Eyeing him with frank disapproval, Varin shoved away from the bedside, breaking the moment. Fallard flushed. What is this I do? She is hurt, and I wish to make love to her? He struggled to bring under control emotions made unruly by his fear. “Ysane, tell me true. How badly are you hurt?” “Fallard, I keep trying to tell everyone I am fine, but no one will listen. I fell down the stairs. I am bruised, of course, but quite certain no lasting damage was done.” She sounded exasperated, and tried to sit up, but he refused to allow it. “Lie still, my love, and allow me to satisfy myself you are unharmed.” He turned his head and saw Roana and Lewena hovering. “Has Luilda been called?” “Aye, she will be here shortly,” Lewena said. “She was in the village, apparently attending one of the elders.” Fallard watched as with Ethelmar’s aid, Varin herded everyone down to the hall so Luilda would not have to maneuver her bulk through a packed stairwell. Even Roana and Lewena left, leaving them alone but for Lynnet. He lifted Ysane’s hands, scratched and already turning colors, to cradle them in one of his own. He eyed the swelling bruise on her forehead and tenderly touched the ugly scrape on her cheek. “Tell me exactly what happened.” “My lord, Luilda has come,” Ethelmar called from the door. The healer pushed him aside. “My lord, I must see to my lady.” He sighed. His answers would have to wait. Luilda removed Ysane’s headrail and with his help, got her clothes off so she could examine her. He turned to Lynnet. The slave stood with her back against the wall, staring at him with no little trepidation. Does the fool child think I will hurt her? What does she know of this incident? “Lynnet, know you what happened with my wife?” He tried to sound unthreatening. The maid surprised him by squaring her shoulders and facing him. “My thegn, I know only that I came from the bower with the wash in my hands, and found her lying in the window. ’Twas my thought she somehow tripped and fell.” “You saw no one else on the stairs, nor heard aught?” “Nay, and she said naught of any other. Nor did I hear aught, not even her cry, did she make one.” “Very well. That will be all. Oh, and Lynnet, do you remember aught else, I wish to hear it immediately. You understand?” She bobbed her head. “Aye, my thegn. ’Twill be as you say.” He turned back to the bed. “Well, Luilda?” “She has a laceration on her left palm, and as you have seen, this bad scrape on her cheek and a knot on her forehead,” the healer said without looking up. “The bump concerns me somewhat, for it grows larger. Still, it did not render her senseless and that is a good sign. I will watch to make sure no damage was done inside the head, but methinks ’tis but a minor injury.” She reached for a pot in her basket. “I must examine her further, but ’tis my belief my lady is not badly harmed, though she will have much discomfort for a few days. She complains of pain in her ribs and shows much bruising there.” She gently worked a soothing cream into the darkening areas on Ysane’s torso. “I am certain none are broken, but I wish to wrap them, lest any be cracked.” “Should she stay abed, think you?” He slid an arm around his wife, clenching his teeth as she hissed when he lifted her, and supported her shoulders while Luilda wrapped binding cloths tight around her discoloring middle. For the first time since her arrival in the chamber, the healer looked at him. “Nay, my lord. With such bruising, ’tis best she keeps moving, else she will grow too stiff. I will give her a draught for pain, but moderate activity is vital. I will return this eve with medicine to help her rest, and to apply the poultice she should wear while asleep.” Addressing Ysane, she said, “Should your discomfort become too strong ere then, my lady, send word, and I will come at once.” Ysane nodded. “My thanks, Luilda.” The healer watched her drink the pain draught, packed up her basket and left. Fallard glanced at Lynnet as he knelt again beside the bed. “I will care for your mistress, Lynnet. You may go.” At Ysane’s nod, the slave obeyed. Ysane touched his cheek. “I told you I was alright, deorling. I fell but a short distance.” “Most grateful I am you are not badly hurt, little rose, but allow me the right to hear the words from the healer.” But he mentioned not the terror he felt when he thought her nigh to death. Why it mattered, he understood not. ’Twas true he cared for her, and found her pleasing despite her occasional obstinance. Certainly, she satisfied well his manly needs in his bed. But while ’twas one thing to feel fear when a loved one was endangered, ’twas quite another to be reduced to a quivering fool by this woman—by any woman. It shook him to his core…and had he actually called her ‘my love’? He shoved aside the conclusion to which his unhappy thoughts pointed and said, “Ysane, ere I allow you to be about your duties this day, I would have you tell me what happened. How came you to fall? ’Tis not like you to be clumsy or careless.” She glanced at the door Lynnet had left partially open. He followed her look, but though no one appeared nigh, he rose to close it. “If you would help me with my clothing, my lord?” Pink tinged her cheekbones. “I can move, but already I grow stiff.” After a few awkward moments while they got her dressed again, she caught his arm. “I was pushed, Fallard.” The tenor of her voice was stark. “I find it more hurtful than my bruises to believe one among my people would wish me harm.” As the meaning of her words sank into his mind, a red haze washed over his vision. The rage rose so quickly it nigh choked him. He fought it. A mindless response was worse than useless. When he could speak, he said, “Certain you are of this?” “I believe so. A hand against my back did overset my balance. Aye, and also, methinks I heard someone pass by, running down toward the hall even as I fell.” He gave thought to her words. “There is but one here who holds you in such low esteem, Ysane, and who might be bold enough to try such a thing.” He walked with her, supporting her down the stairs and into the hall. It gladdened his heart she seemed to move with reasonable ease. “Will you be well, my rose, if I leave you now?” “Of course,” she said, though he heard her breath catch, now and anon. She adjusted her headrail. “I will have Roana with me, and others.” “’Tis my wish you are not to be alone. I would have your word you will insure this.” “You have it. But what think you?” “That I will learn where the slave Leda was when this happened. Has she no witnesses that put her far from the stairwell, I will have her locked in the gatehouse until I can question her.” “Fallard, do naught in haste. ’Tis my belief I was pushed. Still, it may be I but imagined what I felt. ’Twas light, that touch, and mayhap, ’twas naught but my own mind seeking to understand what happened. Mayhap, I did truly trip on my hem. I…well, ’tis only that I can be not sure.” “I understand. But the other is also possible. I will rest not, nor will I leave you alone until I am satisfied we have no attempted murderers in our midst…and we have still not found our traitor.” With these words, and a buss of his lips against hers, he left her. CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE The rest of the day went well in spite of its inauspicious beginning. Ysane’s first act was to order the seven-day baths, earning ferocious scowls from Roul and Fauques. Next, she supervised the new batch of tallow candles being dipped in the courtyard. After that, accompanied by Roana and Lewena—who requested of Randel they stay a few extra nights—she walked to the village. With them, were servants carrying more blankets and clothing for the children of Ceorl and Sreda, as well as extra foodstuffs for those who sheltered the homeless family. They visited the houses of the ill and elderly to help cook and clean, but Ysane was subtly encouraged to sit, rather than work. Whenever she tried to sweep or wash a dish, someone politely took away the broom or gently moved her from the pails. After this happened several times, she gave up and let the women have their way. In truth, she hurt too much to argue. They chatted of many things while they worked. It took little effort to coax forth Lewena’s smiles as she spoke of her children, or to encourage Roana to tell of her happiness. Indeed, her cousin seemed to float her way through the day. That Trifine made her nigh deliriously happy was plain for all to see. As the day progressed, Ysane felt her movements slow and become more pronounced, though she refused to allow her cheerful mien to waver. She felt about as flexible as Fallard’s sword, and it seemed the world had developed a disquieting tendency to tilt. She made no demur when Lewena came to take her arm. “Ysane, ’tis time to return to the hall.” She heard Roana tell the alewife to send Luilda to the hall and then her cousin’s arm was around her waist. They made their way slowly homeward. *** Fallard spent the morn overseeing the beginning construction of Ceorl’s new home, then closeted himself with Tenney. The hoarder wished to discuss an anomaly in his records, one he had earlier mentioned. “My th-thegn, I believe I have pr-previously spoken of how two of your f-f-fiefs, Montceaster and Nevyndon, which border each other, have become unpr-profitable over the past t-t-two twelvemonths. I can find no g-g-good reason why.” “Show me,” Fallard said. He soaked a crust of bread in his nooning meal of chicken and onion stew and took a bite. When the hoarder laid out his suspicions, he agreed something was wrong, as both fiefs should show far more gain. He set both elbows on the table and intertwined his fingers, tapping his pursed lips with the tips of his thumbs. “I admit to puzzlement, Tenney. You say these two stewards have no history of incompetence, personal greed or bad management, so why are their quarterly dues steadily falling? Neither man mentioned difficulties during their recent stay. Do you still believe them involved in felonious activity?” “I am c-c-certain of it. There is no other explanation. Yet, I was assured all was well when I spoke with them. I wished to m-m-make you aware of the situation, that you may to handle it as you p-please.” Fallard rose and silently paced, working out his hunch. He hoped he was wrong, but the more he considered, the more possible it became. Both the stewards were Saxons. Though he had not come to know them well, he had sensed from both men a sly disrespect towards him and the other Normans during their stay at the hall. The two had also spent most of their time either alone or with each other. Were they siphoning Wulfsinraed’s profits to finance the rebels? He would have to deal with this at once, for any man who stole from his lord, ultimately stole from the king. Passing those ill-gotten gains to rebels lifted the crime beyond theft to treason. “Tenney, is Wigmaer as capable as you?” “Aye, m-m-my thegn.” “Good, call him here.” The hoarder looked as if he feared he was to be dismissed, but he hurried to obey. While Fallard waited for the assistant hoarder to arrive, he wandered to the window to look out on the drooping tree limbs in the orchard. Only time would tell if they would recover from the ice that had encased them, to bud again and bear fruit. Movement nigh the crypts resolved itself into Roul, Fauques, and several other youngsters. The corners of his eyes crinkled. Like all boys their age, they had a lively, if morbid interest in such places. The crypts reminded him of his little rose and he wondered how she did. He suspected she would return soon from the village, probably in considerable discomfort. The door opened and Tenney returned with the assistant hoarder. “Good day, my thegn. ’Twas your wish to speak with me?” There was curiosity in Wigmaer’s tone, but naught more. “Aye. Come and sit.” A short while later, Wigmaer leaned back. “Tenney is correct. There are troubling irregularities here.” “Both of you pack for a journey,” Fallard ordered. “Tenney, I send you to Nevyndon and Wigmaer, you are for Montceaster. You will review their records, assess their profits for the past two twelvemonths and tally their supplies. You will return not until you know why they fail to meet their obligations. Do not allow yourselves to be intimidated by the stewards, or your work in any way obstructed, for you will operate in my stead, under my authority. I will prepare written orders to that effect. “A patrol will escort you, enough men to split into two groups and still protect you both well. The moment you arrive, place two Wulfsinraed guards at the hoarding room doors and two more at the entrances to the storehouses so none may enter without your permission. I want no one to have opportunity to hide aught that should be seen. Be ready to leave in an hour. Send word when you know aught for certain. Send word by the end of a seven-day, whether you learn aught or not. Any questions?” “Nay, my thegn,” they answered in unison. Tenney began to gather the things they would need as Fallard left the chamber to find Ysane. *** In the busy hustle and bustle of the kitchen that eve, none took notice when an auburn-haired slave, using a sleight of hand any London pickpocket would envy, dumped a small portion of a clear brown liquid into a mead-filled goblet of blue glass. She continued into the hall with her own tray of trenchers. Another maid caught up the blue goblet, along with three others, on her way out the door. As she hurried around the mead-benches and approached the eating platform, a small tear in the hem of her cyrtel caught in the toe of her shoe. She gave a startled cry as she fell and instinctively threw her hands forward to catch herself. The goblets flew in all directions. By chance, the precious blue goblet landed on a pile of fresh straw and thus was saved from breakage. But the mead within pooled at the very back of the platform. The girl picked herself up, stuttered abject apologies to the curious expressions of those at the table, gathered the goblets with shaking hands and fled back to the kitchen. At first, no one noticed the rats that slithered from beneath the platform and greedily lapped at the small puddle, but as the rodents moved further into the open a slave saw them and chased them back underneath. Not until three days later did the stench of something dead grow so strong that a servant was sent with a broom to sweep out from beneath the platform. He found the stiffened corpses of two rats, their muzzles and front paws covered in dried blood. He twitched his nose in disgust and promptly dumped them in the river. *** After sup the day of Ysane’s fall, Fallard sat at the hearth of one of the hall’s fire pits. Gathered around him were Randel, Trifine, Jehan and Domnall. Humor tugged at the corners of his mouth as he watched the expressions of the two Saxons while he explained his plan to build a pillow mound—a structure of earth surrounded by a strong wattle fence—along the inside of the wall on the far side of the craftsmen’s cottages. ’Twas not the enclosure or its construction that had both men eyeing him as if they thought themselves the butt of a jest, but what he intended to keep in the mound. “’Tis a queer thing you ask us to believe,” Randel finally said after Fallard finished explaining. “Hares, but not, you say. But how can a hare be not a hare?” Trifine chuckled. “I said not that ’twas a hare, but a rabbit,” Fallard said, “and that a rabbit is like a hare, but not.” He supposed ’twas a difficult thing to understand for those who had never seen the difference. “Rabbits are better eating, and, aye, those Saxons privileged to feast on the sweet, tender flesh have pronounced it superior. Trust me. You will see and learn for yourself when the stock I purchased arrives.” *** Across the space nigh to the other firepits, Ysane sewed a new linen tunic for Fallard. She, Roana and Lewena were eavesdropping unashamedly on the men’s conversation. “Know you whereof Fallard speaks, Ysane?” Lewena asked as she worked on her embroidery. “Nay, I have not heard of this…’rabbit’ creature.” “Nor I,” said Roana, “but if one believes Fallard, ’twould seem a very fine dish, fit for the table of a lord and indeed, even that of the king.” Lewena nodded. “Fallard did mention the king enjoys it. Ysane, you must invite us when these creatures are served. I would taste this new food for myself and ’tis a surety Randel will wish it also, if only to assure himself ’tis not a tale told in jest.” She chuckled at the disgruntled expression on her husband’s face. “I will call upon you both to try the dish and judge its merits,” Ysane said, laughing. “Methinks mayhap, I shall also invite Thegn Noll and Lady Matty. ’Twould be a merry time of it should they also be present at such a noble feast!” She smiled at the enjoyment on the faces of her companions, glad for the peace of the eve and that she felt so much better from her fall. Though Luilda warned she would be sore for a few more days, she had rested ere sup and the healer’s poultices and potions had eased the worst of the aches that still plagued her. She set aside her sewing, sipped the honey-sweetened blackcurrant tea the women were sharing, and took up a sheet of vellum. “Look you,” she said, and started to draw the outline of a new tapestry she wanted to weave. “I will soon finish the tapestry on which I have worked, and want to begin a new one. Tell me, what think you of this pattern?” She began to explain her idea. The women soon dissolved into giggles, for Ysane wished to weave a comical scene involving the confused unicorn in the song she was learning to play on her dulcimer. *** As the men’s talk moved on to the spacious new cottage being erected for Ceorl, Fallard allowed his attention to wander to the women, or more specifically, to one woman. I must remind myself when we retire to our chamber this night to ask what inspires so much mirth. The firelight played on his wife’s animated face and shone like dark orange flames in her green eyes as she glanced at him now and anon. The sigh he breathed was a deep, slow, silent inhalation, but ’twas one of profound well-being, for this eve was the first quiet gathering of none but family and close friends since his tempestuous arrival at the burh. Sup had been relaxed and enjoyable. At the far end of the hall, Wurth the scop told the story of ‘The Seafarer’. He strummed his lute in time to the chanting refrain. In the corner opposite, the handful of young children belonging to the hall’s retainers gathered together, laughing or arguing as children will do while they played games under the direction of their nurse. Scattered about the hall, men played chess or knucklebones, Norman and Saxon in comfortable companionship, while others whittled or listened to the music. Roul and Fauques, with the other squires, played at games designed to test their manly skills. Even the hall’s servants went about their ceaseless chores, more at ease than he had yet seen them. For twelvemonths, he had yearned for this scene to play out in a hall of his own and now, ’twas difficult to believe ’twas real. To be complete, all that was needed was the presence of children of his own seed. Contentment such as he had never known took flight within his soul. He absently answered a question put to him by Domnall, then felt his glance drawn back to his wife. She looked straight at him, and offered a secret little smile. The room narrowed to naught but the two of them. How long they were locked in that spellbound sphere he knew not, but he was brought abruptly to himself when Trifine nudged his ankle with an ungentle toe. Glancing around, he saw the hall had fallen silent and everyone grinned at him, even Wurth. Incredibly, he blushed, the hot blood singeing his face. He could but hope his men would wonder not if being wed had made him soft. From his corner, Wurth launched into a song about a lovesick warrior besotted by a maid he could never have, ignoring Fallard’s scowl. Trifine leaned over and said, “’Tis not so bad a thing, my captain. I admit I am as equally enchanted with my lovely Roana, and there are others here who are besotted with their ladies, as well. The men are content to see it in you, but now they know, you must make ready to bear their jests.” Fallard frowned, but then shrugged. He would bear them, for he was sorry not to admit himself enamored of his wife, for already she satisfied him in ways he had never thought to consider. Aye, as a woman of rare grace and beauty, she played the role of lady of the hall with composure and wit, charming her guests. This he had originally desired from her. He also harbored no doubts she would bear him strong sons and lovely daughters. But she was so much more than the sum of his prideful and selfish expectations. She was intelligent in her thoughts and wise in her decisions. He found, to his constant surprise, he enjoyed conversing with her. His equal in knowledge, he had yet to introduce a subject beyond her ken. He had discovered in her an ability to look beyond that which was obvious, to see from a perspective different than his own. In so doing, she aided his judgments in many ways. She made him laugh and she had made him blush, and always she quickened within him a desire not only of the body, but of a depth of the heart no other could satisfy. He needed her, if his life and breath were ever to have meaning, or if life itself were to be worth the living. He had not before known how hollow his existence had been, now that she filled and completed him. Under his eye, she took up a second piece of vellum and began to write, then she brought the page to him. “These are the words I wish written on the runestones for Angelet and my father.” Fallard read what she had written, and nodded in approval. “The stones will be finished in time for the new moon.” She slanted him a flirtatious glance, wished all in the hall a good eve, and took herself up the stairs. A short time later he, too, bid good eve to all and rose to follow her, leaving the others to head for their beds at their leisure. She was not in their bower when he arrived. Curious, he climbed to her sitting room, but finding that room dark, he moved to the doorway that led to the crosswalk. She stood on the wall, silhouetted against the moonlight, waiting for him. He ran back to the bower to retrieve his cloak and went to join her. The shadows that were the sentries patrolled to either side, but respectfully maintained their distance. “’Tis so beautiful,” she said as he approached. She stared across a landscape drenched in moonlight, black and silver, barren of the hues of life. Then a blackbird called, its chirping trill stretching to them across the silence of the night, and they were reminded the seeming emptiness was a false perception. Fallard stepped close behind her. He slid one arm around her waist, the other about her shoulders and pulled her close, yet mindful of her bruises. She relaxed, seeming grateful to let him take her weight. He pulled aside the edge of her hood to find she had removed her headrail and loosened her braids for him, for he loved to play with her soft hair. Gently pulling a thick strand from beneath her mantle, he wrapped it loosely around his fingers and began to slide its length between them. “Did you ever wonder, my love, about the stars in the heavens?” The warmth of his breath stirred the hair that lay along the curve of her ear. “Have you read the ancient stories of lands far away, or of the mysteries of life that have yet to be fathomed?” *** Ysane trembled with joy at the simple feel of her husband’s embrace, at the rapture his touch evoked. She loved this man and almost, she told him so. But even as she thought to speak, the cruelty of another slithered in icy paths through her memory and for the nonce, she held her words. She wished him to know. She would tell him soon, but not at this moment, for she still harbored uncertainty of his feelings. She feared that although he held some small care for her and called her his love, she was still little more than warmth in his bed and grace in his hall. From the beginning, he had failed not to advise her that was all he required of her. So she waited, and sought to find words to answer his query. “When I was very young,” she said, “’twas my belief the stars were tiny pieces of ice sprinkled about the sky. One of my fondest remembrances of my mother was the day she showed me snow is made up of individual flakes of innumerable number. We went outside on a day when the snow fell softly. She placed a cloth of black on the ground and we knelt beside it. I watched as the flakes showed clearly against the cloth and then I knew the stars were falling, for what else could the snowflakes be but the beautiful stars of ice brought down from heaven to earth? I feared that one day, so many stars would fall to the ground none would be left in the sky. My mother laughed, but ’twas many twelvemonths ere she convinced me my thoughts were in error. I was quite relieved, but also a little disappointed. I was so certain my belief was right, you see. ’Twas rather humbling to learn I could be so mistaken.” Fallard chuckled at her rueful tone. “Methinks disappointment still lives within you concerning this.” “Aye, it does. But then methinks, who knows in truth what the stars truly are? Of what material are they made and what is their size or their purpose, beyond that of beacons to guide us in the night? Are they the same in lands far away? Do their mysteries truly have meaning for our lives, as some would have us believe? I know not, but I marvel at their beauty and wonder at their consequence.” Fallard nuzzled her temple while his hand moved beneath her cloak to find a warm haven. She trembled, but he only chuckled. “Mayhap, I can answer some part of your query. It has been told to me by men of the sea that in lands far to the south, where brave men live nigh to the edge of the world, the stars in the night sky are different than those here. Howbeit, some of those men also insist there is no edge to the world, that the world indeed is not flat but round, like an apple. Thus, one must hark to their words with discernment for mayhap, they seek to make jest with those who are bound to the land. “Yet, ’tis no secret among the learned that great scholars of the past also believed in the circle of the earth, among them Pythagoras and Aristotle of the Greeks and Pliny of Rome. I myself have read not of this. But Father Gregory, who has told me of his great fortune to sojourn in Rome in his youth, said certain scholars of our own Christian beliefs have also expounded a circular earth. He, himself, believes this not, but merely states that some, such as Bede, have done so.” “Aye, that is true,” Ysane’s interest in the subject was keen. “Yet St. Bonifice is said to have objected to the belief. But if such wise and learned scholars can agree not, how then does one consider what the truth might be?” “That I can answer not, my rose. I, for one, have no wish to follow the paths of the sea to learn of these things, whether to Rome or to the lands of the far south.” Unabashed amusement colored his tone. “The crossing from here to Nourmaundie is more than enough for my liking. My stomach appreciates not the waves and my feet prefer the firm ground beneath them too well.” For a time then, their conversation wove around the ancient myths and legends of their two peoples. They debated the existence of elves and faeries, in which Ysane believed, but Fallard did not. They discussed the tales of the terrible dragons and other portents of doom said to have plagued the people of Northumbria in the Year of Our Lord 793, and finally the merits of the even more ancient concepts of Middengeard and Yggdrasill, brought to this land by the Norsemen. But as the hour grew late and the night’s chill grew deep about them, Ysane sought to huddle closer to Fallard for warmth. He lost no time in taking advantage with an embrace that left them both gasping. “It grows cold, and I relish not the thought we are visible to the sentries,” Fallard said. He lifted her and carried her back to their bower. Taking care with her injuries, he loved her until all thought of profound scholarly concepts and all conversation regarding the deep mysteries of the universe were forgotten beneath the sweet simplicity of passion. *** Hours of honest introspection later, wearily awake while his wife slept in his arms, Fallard accepted that which he had so long sought to avoid. The unfamiliar emotions Ysane stirred in him since the first moment he saw her—and verily, even before, when Kenrick Wulfsingas spoke so eloquently of her—were now explained. He had fallen in love with his wife. This was the unknown conclusion he had moved toward, the very thing his soul had longed for, all unaware—that which his parents shared and for which he had long hoped. Foolishly, he had feared that giving so much of himself to another would somehow diminish his manhood and lessen his knightly skills. Yet, now that he thought, naught of the like had happened with his father or with King William, who loved his wife Matilda with a fervent adoration. Though he was far from ready to reveal this new awareness to Ysane, he was relieved that neither his manliness nor his knightly prowess would be compromised. He smiled in the darkness as he gently kissed her temple, sighed in contentment and promptly fell fast asleep. CHAPTER FORTY The quiet days continued as the burfolc enjoyed the return of normality to their everyday life. Randel and Lewena returned home, Lewena ecstatic at thought of being with her children again after an absence so much longer than expected. Fallard chose not to incarcerate Leda. While she had no inviolate alibi for the time of Ysane’s fall, the testimony of witnesses did not agree. Enough uncertainty remained over her whereabouts that in justice, he could do not as he wished and confine her. He did, howbeit, reinstate the watch on her that had been allowed to slacken in the recent rush of events. Under the assumption that Ysane’s fall was not accidental, Fallard also set men to guard her. They were never to leave her alone unless she was with him or a trusted male member of the hall, and that list of names was short. That she disliked the constant watch he knew, but she complained not. The guards did their best to be as unobtrusive as possible and he would not have relented, in any case. Early one morn, Ysane came to him in the hall with the request she be allowed to visit Cynric’s cottage, for the seven-day of his absence was at its end and she wished to know if he had returned. Fallard assigned the now inseparable duo of his valiant knight Varin and the equally doughty Saxon hearth companion Ingram as her escort. From his position in the south guard tower, Fallard watched her ride into the forest on Freyja, the two warriors trailing behind. Ere the trees cut her off from his sight she turned and waved, her happy smile visible even across the distance of the clearing. Fallard startled himself by laughing in return, but he lifted his hand in acknowledgement. How knew she that I would be here, watching? Mayhap, because she would do the same. He surprised himself further by whistling as he traversed the crosswalk back to the hall. *** The ride into the forest was delightful. After a damp, foggy beginning, the day had turned warm and sunny. The green growth was slowly beginning to recover from the unexpected winter blast. Bluebells carpeted the woodland floor and Ysane caught a whiff of their sweet scent. A nuthatch piped a long and rapid trill in warning of their approach while squirrels scampered away in alarm. She laughed outright when one anxious specimen, its tufted ears and russet froth of a tail twitching madly, ran along a branch above her only to drop the huge acorn it carried right into her lap. It raced from tree to tree ahead of her, chittering and squeaking in apparent rage, and leapt onto another low-hanging branch directly over the path. It did a somersault around it, before dropping to hang from its hind feet as it watched her approach. She reined in Freyja. Fat, fluffy rodent stared upside down at captivated woman, barely two feet apart. She made no sound. The squirrel’s every muscle quivered with the need to flee. Varin and Ingram fell silent some feet behind her. So slowly she might have been moving in cold honey, and making the offering with bated breath, Ysane took the acorn from her lap and raised it toward the tiny animal hanging in front of her. Moments ticked by as she sat absolutely still, waiting. The squirrel’s nose twitched as it sniffed. With a suddenness that left her blinking, it snatched the acorn from her palm and tore away along the underside of the branch, to disappear around the opposite side of the tree with one last scolding chitter and flick of its bushy tail. Ingram rode up beside her. “’Twould have made a fine supper, my lady,” he teased with a grin. Varin grunted in agreement. “Oh nay, not that one,” she cried, but she had to laugh. The squirrel had clearly found plenty to eat of late in the spring forest, for its coat was thick and its belly round. They continued their ride, reaching the turn-off to Cynric’s cottage. Freyja no sooner entered the obscure path before Varin gave an abrupt, angry bellow. Ysane twisted in the saddle to find Cynric in the path behind her. He held her two companions at bay with his bow. The arrow, unfortunately, was aimed at Varin’s heart. “Cynric, no!” She believed not her brother would shoot the Norman but she could be not sure. He seemed to have changed so much. She flung herself off Freyja and ran to place her hand on the rock hard muscles that held taut the sinew of the bowstring. Her heart raced. “These are my friends, Cynric. My escort. The escort you demanded. You will harm them not.” “They cannot pass.” “But they are my guards. You agreed.” “I agreed to an escort until you reached my side,” he said, never taking his eyes from the two. “They may travel no further, though they may return to the burh.” “’Twould be wise to put that bow away, young man,” Ingram said. “We have been ordered to bring the Lady Ysane to you and we are staying. But what say you, Varin? Does he seem the sort capable of protecting our lady without us, should trouble come?” Varin, who moved not a muscle during the confrontation, looked at Ysane. She nodded. “Aye,” he growled. “’Tis possible he might be of that sort.” “Varin, he is,” Ysane insisted. “He has protected me all my life. I still live because of that protection, when twice over I should be dead. Please. In this place, we are none of us enemies. Cynric, allow Varin and Ingram to keep watch here while I go with you to the cottage.” The direction of the arrow altered fractionally, then dropped to the ground as Cynric held Varin’s gaze. He began to back away. “If you ride to my place without my permission, I will kill you.” Varin nodded. Ysane believed neither man doubted her brother’s word. “Worry not,” she said, “if I come not back soon. I may be with my brother until the setting of the sun.” Cynric took Ysane’s arm and pulled her to the other side of Freyja, keeping the bulk of the horse between them and the two warriors. Ysane walked with him without comment until they were out of the others’ range of hearing, then she turned on him with a fury fed by slowly fading terror. “What monster has come to lurk within you, my dearest friend, that causes you to turn on those who are not your adversaries?” Cynric looked into her eyes, unsmiling. “They are Norman, Ysane,” he said, as if that answered everything. “Oh, pretend not blindness! Ingram is as Saxon as we both!” “He is clearly friend and companion to a Norman, and that makes him enemy enough in my eyes.” “Oh indeed! I am now married to a Norman, and most pleased to have it so. Decide you that makes me your foe, as well? Will you slay me, too?” “Speak not such foolishness!” He hurled the words at her. “You are my sister.” “By your own words, methinks ’twould seem to matter not who I am, since I have willingly wed one you oppose. Oh, Cynric! This hate you bear is a terrible thing. I fear ’twill cost your life. What—or who—has turned you against these ones with whom our people must learn to live in peace?” “You can ask that of me?” Disbelief rang in his voice. “Think you I felt no pain at the companions I lost at Santlache, or that I felt naught when I searched for our father in Normandy? Think you it fed not my rage to know he died in enemy hands, far from home and those who loved him? I saw his grave, Ysane!” His voice was filled with pain. “Aye, I did. They buried him not in a tomb, or even in a graveyard, but in a great field, an unmarked burial site where he lies with a hundred others not even of his own kind.” Ysane felt the blood leave her face. She reached to hold his arm. “What is this you say? Fallard said Father was treated with honor, and you said you went to Germania. You said naught of Normandy!” “Think you I would tell that Norman dog you married I spent time in his lands, that I found where our father was laid in his death as if no more than an animal?” “When, Cynric? How long have you known of this?” He sighed and took her hand, and they continued to the cottage. He walked her past his home to the lake. Casting himself upon the grass-and-moss strewn shore, he laid back, hands behind his head. He stared at the sky through a canopy of branches that waved in the gentle breeze, then closed his eyes. “The day we received the news of his death, that was the day I left.” “I remember,” she said, sinking down into the grass beside him, watching his face. “Then you also remember ’twas a time of great unrest and strife. Travel was dangerous.” “Aye, and that is why I worried so for you, and could understand not why you left without so much as a word. When you returned not, I thought you had died.” “As I said before, I left a message for you. I am sorry, little one, you received it not. ’Twas not my desire you should worry. But you should recall I am not a man, as others, to travel only the roads. I went by ways through the forest even the outlaws know not, but ’twas slow. ’Twas long ere I reached the coast of the Small Sea that separates our lands from that of the enemy. The closer I got, the more oft I had to hide from companies of Normans, or find a way around them.” He gave a little huff. “They call the sea La Manche.” “I am aware,” Ysane said, her eyes never leaving his face. “Another two seven-days passed ere I could find a ship with friends aboard who hid me for the duration of the voyage. When I reached the other side I had to hide again, but my friends gave me shelter. It took time, but they learned more about our father’s death and aided my search for the field where he was buried. I fear I grieved overmuch then, little one, for I wished only to lash out in anger, to kill, as our father had been slain. My friends were forced to bind me and carry me to a place far from where lived any other man, else I would have killed many of the enemy ere perishing, myself. “The rage gave way to sorrow and I lay as one dead in the place where they took me. I know not for how long. I ate little and slept less. Once the bitterness of grief dulled, I thought again only of vengeance. But my friends persuaded me that to attack the enemy in the heart of his own land was the province of a fool, and would risk the lives of many innocents. “Thus, they found for me a ship home, and we bid our farewells on a night of storm. When I stepped on the shores of Angelcynn I knew what I must do, what had to be done to avenge our father’s death.” He grew still, and was silent so long Ysane wondered if he slept. Moss green eyes opened and his gaze flicked to her. She finished his thought for him. “You joined the rebels, and you killed Normans.” She ran her fingertips again and again over the smooth surface of a stone that lay half buried in the grass nigh her knee. “Aye. I killed Normans.” The movement of her fingers stopped. “Methinks I can understand. What I understand not is why you never sent a message. You allowed me to believe you dead, Cynric. Thought you I would grieve not for you, as deeply as you grieved for our father?” “I could tell you not, little one. ’Twas best for you that you knew naught of my actions, or my whereabouts. That which you knew not, you could be not forced to tell.” “And if someone had believed I knew, but simply refused to tell, what then? Would you have let me die in their effort to gain such knowledge?” “Be not a fool! I well knew you were safe at Wulfsinraed. Already have I explained I made certain to leave you in safe hands.” “And I have explained how cruel—how unsafe—those hands were! Why do you believe me not? I have never lied to you. Renouf was a monster and Ruald little better.” She turned away. “Oh, what is the use? If you choose to believe me not, there is naught I can do to convince you.” “I have not yet made up my mind what I believe in this matter, but I promise you I will get to the truth. Then I will decide what is to be done.” “Are you in contact with Ruald, Cynric?” He sat up and stared at her, his face impassive, and made no answer. “’Tis my belief you are, that you have aided him, as you aided Renouf these past three twelvemonths. You are still fighting Normans, even though you must know the cause is lost.” “I will give no answer, Ysane. ’Tis far better that in this, as in other things, you know naught. Yet, say I this…the cause is not lost, not until every last Saxon in Angelcynn has died or given it up. Never will I cease to fight to regain that which is mine. Never will I yield the struggle to take back that which was wrongfully stolen!” “Then I fear, my brother, whom I love so dear, you will die, and never gain that for which you fight. Why can you not understand you cannot win this battle? The war is over, Cynric! We lost. William’s hand is too strong. For every Norman you kill a hundred more take their place, and a hundred Saxons die. Once we were strong—strong! But still we were defeated, and now we are weak. Too many have died. Too many still die. There is no longer hope of victory.” “Then I will fight without hope, little one, and if I must die, then be it so.” Again, a taut silence grew between them, hurtful and sad. So much had changed. Cynric touched her arm. “What will you tell the black knight?” “Of all we have spoken this day? I will tell him naught, except mayhap that long ago, you found our father’s grave, and wept there.” “’Twill please him not.” “It matters not. He cannot be allowed to know of what you do, though ’tis possible he already suspects. He is no fool. But did he know for certain, ’twould be his duty to hunt you down and take you to William. I cannot—I will not, for all our sakes—allow that to happen. I will tell him we spoke of happier days, of times long past and of hopeful times to come where joy might once again spring. Methinks he will question me not. I believe not he would use me in such a way. Whatever he thinks he must learn, he will find by other means.” “Then he has more honor than I credit.” “Be not blind on purpose! Normans are not so very different than we. I have told you already there are many with greater honor than some Saxons.” “And I have told you that is a matter yet to be decided. But well and good. At the least, you are happy now and I am not too blind to see he mistreats you not. For the nonce, I will stay my hand in this place, and what I do will be done far from here, so he will be not forced to search for me. I would not cause you more grief.” They spoke little after that. Cynric walked with her to the cabin and they shared a simple meal and a cup of mead. She asked not from whence came his supplies. There were still those at Wulfsinraed who were loyal to him for the sake of his blood and her love for him. So that her words to Fallard might be not a lie, they did speak together of happier times, and of hope for the future. Afterward, he picked up his pole for fishing and took her out on the lake in a skin-covered dugout so ancient she wondered how it stayed afloat. They sat in the warm sunshine in companionable silence until with a series of jerks, accompanied by a great deal of laughing and splashing, Cynric’s supper lay in the bottom of the little boat. When the noontide sun had moved far along its arc to the west, Ysane knew ’twas time to go. Cynric gathered Freyja from where she was hobbled in the shaded grass and escorted Ysane down the path until they heard the desultory chatting of her escort. He turned to her and opened his arms, and she walked into them, embracing him and resting her head on his chest. He cradled her, neither saying a word. She looked into his beloved face. “Cynric.” “Come not here again unless I send word, little one, for I will be here not,” he said, his voice low. She could help not but blanch as she considered his words. “You go to fight again.” “I know not how long I will be gone, but I promise, now and anon, I will send word.” “But what of the raising of the runestone for our father and my daughter? The ceremony is but a few days hence. Will you not come?” “I will come, but not to be present among those gathered. But you will know I am there, and I will hear what you speak.” “’Tis not my wish you should continue to be estranged. You are my brother, blood of my blood. You belong at Wulfsinraed. Even Fallard agrees. He would have you return, not as a burh workman, unless that be your choice, but as the son of Kenrick Wulfsingas, taking his rightful place.” “But of a certainty that ‘rightful place’ is not lord of the burh. Is it, Ysane?” She cast down her eyes. “Nay, my brother.” “Then until that time comes I belong not, and I will take not a lesser place than that which is mine by right.” “Oh, Cynric, this is such a tangle! I know not how it may be resolved and for that I am sorry, and afraid.” Teardrops slipped down her cheeks. “A wise man once told me that in the future, good may come of things that now seem evil. We will pray the good may come.” He took her face between his hands and kissed her forehead and then the tip of her nose, and she uttered a shaky little laugh. He wiped away her tears with his thumbs. When he spoke, his voice was a whisper. “Westu hál, Ysane.” “Westu hál, my brother. I love you.” “As I love you, little one.” As she turned away, she knew his eyes, solemn but resolute, kept watch while she moved down the path, and that he followed her, out of sight until she reached her escort. He would trail the three of them. As always, he would protect her until she was safely returned to the burh. Varin and Ingram rose when she appeared, and she surprised unsmiling concern on their faces. “We were discussing mayhap, ’twas time to come visiting, my lady,” Ingram said. “Aye, and never mind the Saxon’s friendly words,” Varin growled, still clearly angry at having had an arrow aimed at his heart. Ysane offered a gentle laugh that was not entirely forced. Their concern for her welfare was unfounded, but ’twas real enough. Nor would she allow her fear for Cynric to mar the joy she felt at being with him again, or allow that fear to cause men such as these to wonder why she feared for him. “Had you come,” she said, “you would have found a brother and his sister, falling asleep in a boat on the lake.” “You slept in a boat?” Varin’s ugly face mirrored his confusion. “On the lake, my lady?” Ingram sounded no less mystified, and not a little perturbed by her admission. “Aye. We fished for Cynric’s supper.” She flung the words over her shoulder as she walked Freyja to a fallen log and climbed into the saddle ere either could move to help. “But ’tis truth, I fear to say, the fish were in little humor to be caught. Howbeit, we were favored by fortune, for a nice little perch, exactly the right size, obligingly leapt out of the water and landed right at our feet.” She set Freyja to walking in the direction of the burh, then stopped and looked back when she realized no one followed. Both men stared after her, and neither looked happy. She burst out laughing. “Oh, very well, I lied. Cynric had a pole and he caught the fish. But ’tis truth to tell, ’twas exactly what he needed.” Varin looked at Ingram. “Her nose seems red enough to have spent that long in the sun.” Her fingers flew to that appendage and felt the heat radiating from it. Oh, faith! So absorbed had she been with Cynric’s company she had failed to protect her skin. She would need a mild burn ointment from Luilda once she returned to the burh. “Aye,” Ingram agreed. “And she seems merry enough, like she enjoyed her time with the man.” She smiled radiantly at them both. ’Twas necessary they believe she had not a care in the world. “I return home, my friends. You may follow or not, as you like.” There was naught left to say. They mounted up and followed. But she heard Varin, thinking his booming voice so low she could hear it not, vow to Ingram his captain would know all he could tell of the events of this day. A chill passed over her at his words. “I like not the lady’s brother, Ingram, nor do I trust him,” Varin said, “though it seems the captain deems her safe enough with him. But all is not as it seems between the siblings. There is trouble there, or I miss my guess, though my lady seeks to hide it. I can discern naught of what it might be.” “Aye,” Ingram said, “’tis also my thought all is not well. But ’tis better to tell of misgivings, than be regretful later. If the trouble lies but in our minds, no harm will be done.” CHAPTER FORTY-ONE Alewyn lifted two unlit torches from their fluted iron brackets. She thrust them into the flames crackling below several spits of pigeons roasting for supper. Once lit, she handed one to Ysane. Carrying the other, she grinned like a young girl at Ysane’s two guards and led the way down the steps into the buttery, a cave-like structure. Ysane stifled a giggle. How easily laughter comes these days, and all because of one very large, very determined dark knight. Even my fears for Cynric feel not so hopeless now that Fallard rules here. I know how Roana feels, as if I move in a daze of love. One of her guards stopped at the kitchen door while the other took up position at the buttery’s second door, which opened outside and led to the well and the smokehouse. Like the crypts and holding pits, the buttery had been excavated to the island’s bedrock but here, the heavily beamed wooden ceiling was very low. Even Ysane’s head cleared it by mere inches as she moved through the rows of kegs and barrels filled with various spirits. Her escorts would have to bend uncomfortably inside the space. She dodged hanging haunches of smoked and salted meats and skirted open wooden frames stacked with smoked fish. Linen sacks filled with flour of varying sorts lay against the walls between baskets of dried fruits and vegetables. Winter straw, strewn thick upon the floor, crunched beneath her slippered feet as she moved toward the darkest, coolest section farthest from the doors. There, sheets of ice off the ponds and the lake were layered in the corner among thick stacks of straw, with crocks of fresh butter and cream nestled among them. The hall’s spice locker was there too. On shelves above were rows of stacked pots of honey, the last of the winter supply. Beside the locker was a small table that held the jars and crocks of dried herbs and liniments Luilda used to make her medicaments. The two women settled their torches into the brackets on either side of the locker. “Need you help with your work, my lady, call to me,” Alewyn said. “Alyce is busy with her bread, but I have a wee bit of free time do you need it.” Knowing full well ‘free time’ was a nigh unheard of luxury for the industrious cook, who usually refused it even when offered, Ysane shook her head. “Nay, Alewyn, I will be fine,” she said as she pulled the key to the spice locker from its ring at her girdle. “’Tis but a simple accounting I plan, so as to know what needs be bought when the spice-peddler stops by. I will require but a short time.” Alewyn nodded and hurried back to the kitchen, forgetting not to make eyes at the guard, who shook his head even as he grinned back. This time, Ysane chuckled aloud. Alewyn was a notorious flirt, but none took her seriously for she never took herself so. Neither she nor her sister had ever married. They had decided at an early age they needed none but each other. But that stopped not the more outgoing of the twins from playing a game she enjoyed. The flickering torchlight played over Ysane’s hands as she became engrossed in the inventory. She lifted high on her toes to reach for a small, earthenware pot on the highest shelf. Absorbed in the work, she barely noticed when her left heel came back down on something cool and yielding that had not been there before. “Ouch!” The exclamation burst from her as a sharp, burning sting touched her ankle above her slipper. She dropped the pot and jumped back, her eyes searching the floor. What could I have stepped on? The small prick rapidly increased to a pain shocking in intensity. Something moved in the shadows at her feet. Gasping, tears already flowing, she grabbed the torch and thrust it nigh the floor. A long, cylindrical form slithered away, its motion sluggish. The zigzagging brown and tan dorsal pattern was all too familiar, though she had never seen it inside the hall. The guards at the doors jerked as her scream reverberated through the long, low chamber. Swords drawn, their faces registered shock as they scanned the dark space, searching for an enemy they could not see. They nigh fell over their own feet as they scrambled headlong down the steps in their rush to reach her. *** Five days later, Fallard stood at the edge of a stream far from Wulfsinraed. Exhausted from too little sleep, too much anxiety and from leading a frustrating, fruitless patrol, he debated the wisdom of following his heart and heading home. They had ranged through his lands for a day and a half and found no sign of rebel activity. The sortie should last several days longer and go further afield, but he loathed not knowing how Ysane fared while he was gone from the hall. He stared into the gurgling flow, letting the hypnotic coursing of the water calm the clamor in his mind. Abruptly, he made his decision. “Harold!” “Aye?” The second marshal’s acknowledgment was wary. Fallard could blame him not. For the duration of the patrol, he had been a distempered wolf, snapping and snarling and generally making life miserable for them all. Even young Roul walked softly around him, his normal ebullience subdued. “Mount up the men. We go home.” No one was heard to complain. As Foudre’s easy canter bore him toward the burh, he tried, without success, to pinpoint the moment when simple lust for a beautiful woman had slipped into love. Nor could he decide when merely desiring a wife to bear him heirs had changed into a need so desperate for this one woman, above all others, he would battle aught in heaven, hell or earth to protect her. He only knew he would find little will to live without her. He remembered fighting the change, but could no longer remember why. All that mattered now was reaching her side. He urged Foudre into a gallop. *** Ysane reclined in the hall amid the low-burning fire pits, facing the courtyard. Her left foot, still slightly swollen and wrapped in a medicinal plaster, was stretched out on a pillow-topped stool in front of her. Through the doors, thrown wide to take advantage of the after-the-nooning breeze, she watched the ruckus of the patrol’s arrival. She squirmed, wishing herself out there to welcome them home as befitted the lady of the hall. But when Fallard strode through the door her agitation evaporated and her heart lit up. She smiled in warm welcome, her happiness expanding when an answering glow surged like flame in his eyes. Relief was in his gaze also, at finding her recovered enough to sit in the hall, and he made no effort to hide it. “You are well, my rose?” He gave her no chance to answer as he bent to raise her chin and press a hard, impatient kiss on her mouth, a kiss that slowly gentled, yet became more ardent. He knelt to search her face. “Aye, my lord,” she said, when she could breathe again. “Luilda says the injury will soon be healed.” He laid a feather light touch on the skin above the plaster, where the mottled coloration of the bruising was fading to green and yellow. “’Tis a relief to find the skin cool,” he said. “’Twas a close thing, you know, for a few days. Did the serpent’s fangs find full purchase, things might have gone differently.” “So Luilda said. But ’twould seem ’tis uncommon to die from an adder’s venom, though ’tis not unknown for the bites to become putrid. But that happened not, and we may be thankful.” “Aye, we may. Now then, as much as I dislike so quickly leaving your presence, my love, I would offend you no further with the rankness of my person. Do you excuse me, I will return as quickly as may be.” “A hot bath will soon await you in the burnstów. Rush not, Fallard. I will still be here when you finish.” He growled, pushed aside her headrail and bent to playfully bite her earlobe, then followed it with little nips down the side of her neck. She gave a little shriek of a laugh that dissolved into a shivering, indrawn breath as his mouth found hers. “Ah, Ysane. I could feast on you like slices of honey-spiced apple. I have missed you, my rose…and I will hurry.” Roul loped up as he left, Fallard’s helm in hand. He bowed. “’Tis good to see you fare well, my lady.” “My thanks, Roul. Tell me, why is the patrol home so soon? I had no chance to ask my lord.” The squire’s grin nigh split his face. “’Twas the captain’s decision. You should have seen him, lady! A starving bear would be of easier temper. Why, I feared for my life, and more than once. His very expression nigh tore strips from my skin.” Ysane laughed. “And what, pray tell, was the cause of this ferocious behavior?” “Why, ’twas you, my lady. He worried for you.” As he dashed for the stairs, Ysane wondered if she looked as bemused as she felt. *** Fallard sighed, rotated his left shoulder, rubbed the old wound and closed his eyes as he eased into the hot, scented bath. He kept them closed as Roul bounced into the chamber and laid out clean clothing. His groan was low, but drawn out. The boy’s unflagging vitality made him feel decrepit, like a pair of boots worn far too long. Faith! Too many years and too many battles were catching up to him. “Captain, are you in pain? Need you a potion?” “Nay, Roul. That will be all. Tend to my gear, now, and then to yourself.” He knew without looking the squire grinned, and he shuddered as Roul bounced back out the door. He rested his head on the rolled linen at his neck and allowed muscles taut to the point of pain begin to relax. She is well. None of the horrors I imagined these past two days befell her. Saint’s bones, but it has been difficult. Ysane’s heel had come down on the serpent very close to its head. Sluggish from the cold, it had been unable to twist around to do more than graze her ankle with one fang, barely penetrating the skin. Still, her poor little foot had swollen horribly, the bloating reaching her knee by the end of the day. For a short but terrifying few hours, she writhed and cried out, calling for Angelet, for her father, for Cynric and for himself. Despite Luilda’s quick action, ’twas nigh three days ere the nausea eased and the painful, blood-filled blisters began to disappear from around the site. He had never left her side, refusing even to sleep, and he had cared for her, allowing no one else but the healer, Roana and Lynnet into the chamber. Every few hours, he forced the odd smelling liquid Luilda ordered down her throat. He bathed her when sweat poured from her body, and cradled her in his arms while Lynnet changed the bed linens. Sitting by her side, clutching her hand, he wished with all his heart he could take her pain to himself. Never had he felt so helpless, and he silently raged at that impotence. Aye, love came at high cost, though he would have it no other way. By nightfall of the third day, the ugly red streaks on her leg began to dissipate. The swelling eased, and the shiny, discolored skin of her foot no longer looked as if it might split open like a ripe plum left too long in the sun. Luilda announced she would live. Only then had he allowed the healer to persuade him to rest. He slept through the night, and the following morn left on patrol. Though he had reprimanded Ysane’s guards with a restrained rage that left them sweating, his anger was aimed more at himself. He was one of William’s most feared and respected knights, but what good was his prowess with a sword if he could keep not his beloved wife safe in her own home? He ordered her guard tripled while he was gone, leaving Trifine and Domnall in charge of the rotating shifts. Lynnet was never to leave her side and a cot was set up in the chamber so the slave might sleep there. Even so, ’twas all he could do not to set Ysane in a litter, surround her with all his knights and men-at-arms and send her far away to safety…preferably all the way to his family in Nourmaundie. He also ordered an even closer watch on Leda, though how she could have accomplished such a feat with the serpent he knew not. Worse, he still had no proof the snake’s presence was aught more than unhappy coincidence, though he believed it not. The little adders were common enough throughout the forest and were awakening with the spring, but they were shy, non-aggressive creatures and usually stayed clear of human habitation. Not even the village elders could remember more than one or two ever found inside the wall. Thus to his mind, not only Leda, but most of the burhfolc were now under suspicion of trying to kill his wife. *** Ysane moved an unfinished piece of embroidery off the small table beneath the south-facing window in her sitting room. Gathering her writing materials, she sat to compose a letter to her sister Gemma. ’Twas not quite noontide on a very warm, sunny day early in the month of tending sheep, and the ceremony of the raising of the runestones had occurred that morn. She wanted to pen her impressions to Gemma while they remained fresh in her thoughts. She stretched out her left leg and sighed in relief as she carefully rotated her ankle. It felt so good to be off her feet. The adder bite had healed, but her foot still pained her when she had to stand on it for a time. From the window, she could see the guard tower. She watched as one of Fallard’s knights climbed the wall stairs to speak with the sentry patrolling there. The guard nodded and the other man returned the way he had come. Below the wall, the brightening colors of her garden glowed like jewels in the sun. She had spent many happy hours there in recent days. She weeded and cleaned, pampered her rose bushes, and prepared the soil in the new lavender beds, which she had created by transplanting the contents of several other beds. She would plant the new cuttings very soon. Did the rootings grow properly, this twelvemonth she would have enough lavender to offer Roana for use in her bath without having to purchase it from the monks. Sweet air flowed through the open window, carrying with it the damp smell of the river. Drifting up from the garden came the rambling, happy twitter of a goldfinch and the repetitious notes of a thrush. From below in the hall she heard the low murmur as Fallard arbitrated between two of the burhfolc who disputed the placement of a fence. Her mind wandered, despite her effort to marshal her thoughts. The morn had not begun well. In their first serious disagreement, she had argued with Fallard over the disposition of the ceremony. “I am displeased, Ysane, that Cynric refuses to attend.” “He will be here, Fallard, but not seen. ’Tis his way.” “His way is wrong. He insults us both by refusing to attend in the proper manner, especially when I have promised safe passage.” “And I care not where he is, so long as he may see and hear. I want the ceremony on top of the south wall so he may observe from his vantage point at forest’s edge.” “Nay! Does Cynric care for you so little he will lay not aside his animosity to honor your wish, then the loss is his. Bah! This is a foolish argument. I will send men to drag him to the ceremony, does he refuse to attend willingly.” “You will never find him! Do you seek him, you will only succeed in keeping him away entirely. What difference does it make whether he is seen, or not?” “’Tis the principle of the thing. He is a man. He should act like one.” “You understand not. He was an unwelcome son in Wulfsinraed while our father lived. The day will come when his bitterness and sense of estrangement will end, but until that time I will force him not to come into the burh to pay homage to his father’s memory. ’Tis enough, aye, a true beginning of healing, that he is willing to watch from a distance.” She then dropped her best argument. “Besides, ’twould be easier for everyone to see and hear clearly if the ceremony was on top of the wall.” Fallard sighed and she knew she had won. “’Tis that I fear for your safety, my love. I have no reason to believe the attempts on your life are at an end, and to stand on the wall is to be exceptionally vulnerable.” “I know, and I truly thank you for your concern, but who could hurt me when I am surrounded by warriors? You will be close. I have no fears for my safety, my love.” In the end, because the runestones were Fallard’s gift to her, he relented. He threw up his hands. “Very well. So long as the ceremony is held inside the tower, you may do as you please.” She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him, but later discovered that when she walked away, he ordered the guard on the wall doubled, muttering that it seemed half the burh garrison had to follow her around. He was still grumbling. But he was also less worried, and she got her way. “Gemma, deorling. I know I should have sent a missive sooner, but so much has happened since Fallard sent the last messenger to Blackbridge. I have been overwhelmed, and was ill from an adder bite. (Fear not. I am quite recovered, and none the worse for it.) I will write of other events soon, but this morn I wished to recount for you the ceremony of the runestones. ’Twas so lovely. How I wish you could have seen it, but I will describe it as best I may. The people filed around the stones, each of which is painted in the prettiest colors of green, white, red and yellow. They remind me of my roses. Angelet’s stone is a little smaller than father’s. They are set into their places beside the crypts. I must admit my throat was rather thick when Fallard unveiled Angelet’s stone (please forgive the smears in the ink on this page). I did something quite out of character then. I rose on my toes and kissed him—in front of everyone. He took it well, the wonderful man. Methinks he was not overly abashed by my forwardness, for he took me in his arms and returned my gesture with much fervor. The people cheered. Angelet’s stone is very beautiful. The foremost side bears the likeness of a babe cradled in its mother’s arms. A likeness of the hall is etched on another. The third bears the sweetest inscription. I transcribe it here: ‘I, Fallard D’Auvrecher, Baron of Wulfsinraed and my wife, Ysane, daughter of Kenrick Wulfsingas, do erect this stone in memory of my wife’s infant daughter, Angelet. We commit her innocent soul to the merciful God.’ Father’s stone is inscribed thusly: ‘Together with Cynric and Gemma, I, Ysane of Wulfsinraed, erect this stone in memory of our father, Kenrick Wulfsingas, King’s Thegn and Eorl of Wulfsinraed, a valiant and honorable man. May God bless his soul with everlasting peace.’ (As you see deorling, we forgot you not.) When all had viewed the runestones, we sent everyone to the south clearing. I climbed with Fallard, Roana, Father Gregory and Wurth to the guard tower there (Fallard and I had a small disagreement about that. I wanted to be out on the wall, but he insisted I must stay in the tower…’twas in regards to my safety. You know how men must be.) But Worth was allowed to be on the wall, and you should have heard how clear and booming was his voice as he read the inscriptions to the people. I have no doubt Cynric heard him easily. I stood in one of the tower windows to speak of father, of the events of his life that made him the great man he was. Roana spoke of his character, reminding his people of how well he cared for them as their thegn. She made them laugh when she related that silly story about him and mother. You know, the one where father came home unexpectedly one eve after being overlong with King Edward, and pretended to be a traveling scop. I was but ten summers, but still I remember our mother’s face when father began to sing their favorite lay. You remember, Gemma? Mother screamed his name and the hall grew silent. Then she began to weep and all the while, father kept singing, but he smiled with his eyes. Then mother stood up and said, ‘Kenrick, you fool!’ Then she threw her goblet at him, but of course she missed. He laughed, set aside his harp and rose to go to her, and she laughed and threw herself into his arms. He swung her round and round, until we thought they would both collapse. Then he carried her to their bower and we saw them not for two days. ’Twas wonderful. When all of our speeches were over, Father Gregory prayed for the blessing of the Almighty upon us all, then Fallard announced the people were free to spend the rest of the day as they saw fit. That elicited a rousing cheer, I must say. ’Twas well done of him. ’Twas then, after Fallard’s kind gesture, I saw that for which I waited all morn. Cynric stepped out from between two giant oaks. Our brother’s gaze met mine, and we needed no words to understand one another. Then he raised his hand and smiled. A moment later, he was gone again. But he came, Gemma, he came! I am content. (Please forgive the overabundance of blots in the ink.) How grateful I was then for Fallard. His support was much needed and even more appreciated. I fear I wept overmuch, there in the privacy of the tower, for the sweetness of the ceremony and because methinks our brother is in grave danger. I dare say no more, but be much in prayer for him. (Oh, faith! I really should scrape the vellum clean and start over. How you will ever understand what I have written with all these smears, I can tell not.) There will be feasting and dancing for all the burhfolc this eve, of course. ’Twill be a fine end to a ceremony of great moment. There is much more to tell you, though….” “My lady?” Lynnet’s soft voice hailed from the doorway. “I bring a meal, since you broke not your fast this morn. Will you eat?” “I will,” Ysane said. She used her linen square to blot her wet face and blow her nose, and then moved aside her writing materials. “I believe I am hungrier than I knew.” The slave arranged the trencher on the table, with a goblet of mead. Ysane’s stomach growled at the smell of , sliced, baked chicken, fresh buttered bread and a blackberry tart. “My thanks, Lynnet. That will be all.” “I am beset by well-meaning visitors, Gemma. I begin to wonder, will I have time to finish this missive before the day is out! Lynnet interrupted my discourse to bring my nooning meal. Then I heard Roana speak with my guards—all six of them, now, do you believe it!—who stand watch at my door. She said she wished to know which of two headrails, lavender or yellow, to wear for sup, but methinks she but worries I grieve overmuch in the bidding of ‘fare well’ to my precious babe. Before she took her leave, Ieldramodor came with Marlee (they watched the ceremony from this room). She had naught but good things to say about it all, and Fallard’s role. She thinks very highly of him, you know. I had but picked up my quill to continue when Fallard interrupted me, but in the nicest way! He took the quill from my hand, threw it upon the table, drew me to my feet and kissed me until I thought I must needs beg aid to stand. Then he strode away without a word. Such a romantic man. See you my smiles? Finally, Ethelmar came and cleared his throat in that funny way of his to remind me Alewyn asked to speak with me ere sup. A woman’s work is never finished, as you well know. Last of all, my deorling sister, I will write more at a later time, but I would have you worry not for me, for I have nigh all my heart could desire. I am so happy. No woman could ask for a better husband than Fallard. I am quite hopelessly in love with him, and harbor good hope he also learns to care for me. But should he not, still he is good to me, and to our people, and he has promised to allow our brother into the fold of Wulfsinraed where he belongs, if that is what Cynric wishes. If not, he has promised to aid our brother in finding a position, elsewhere. But when he returns from his latest travels, I will do all in my power to bring him home to stay. And now, I must bring this discourse to an end ere you sleep from sheer boredom. I am so glad and grateful to hear that you all fare well. ’Tis my fondest hope to see you and the children, especially little Orland, my newest nephew, ere the twelvemonth is out. I send my love to the children, to Meldred and Faucon, to Arnulf and of a specialty, to you, deorling. Ysane.” *** During the unexpected freedom given the burhfolc on the day of the runestone ceremony, the slave Leda used the carefree and disordered merrymaking to briefly elude her watcher and make her way to the hidden place. The message she left was short. “I can do not as you ask. He guards her well, and they watch me.” CHAPTER FORTY-TWO The air grew warmer as spring waxed and waned. The mild month of tending sheep passed into the month of summer reaping. Tenney and Wigmaer returned with the two Saxon thegns from Montceaster and Nevyndon in chains. Their reports proved the men guilty of theft, but with no evidence that any of the ill-gotten gains had swelled any purses but their own. Fallard examined the assessment of his hoarders and ordered the two terrified men flogged and sent to William, who appointed two new lords, one Norman and one Breton, to take their places. Naught further untoward occurred. Vigilance around Ysane relaxed although Fallard refused to withdraw it completely. He deemed the patrols he sent out a wasted effort, for the rebels appeared to have truly withdrawn from the region. Twice howbeit, his men happened upon patrols from Witham. Those troops passed the word that further south the rebels grew bold, especially around London. The rampaging bands of Saxons were said to have fled the Wulfsinraed region because of the vigilance of Lord D’Auvrecher. Small parties of Norman citizens leaving London were attacked on the roads, the men ruthlessly slaughtered. Oft times, even the innocent were spared not, the women raped or murdered and the children taken. Few of the little ones were seen again, though ’twas later learned some were sold to slavers and through diligent search, recovered. Armed patrols whose numbers were too few faced the same murderous fate. Lords woke to find outlying crops burned and the farm cottages nigh them pillaged, the farmers and their families missing or dead. Herds of food animals were destroyed. A flock of sheep belonging to Blackbridge was ravaged, the shepherds run off and the sheep slaughtered. While some of the carcasses were taken for the rebel’s use, most were wastefully left to scavengers. An outraged William responded by drawing on ancient Saxon custom and declaring the rebels “wolf’s head” outlaws whereby any man must, on pain of his own death, kill the rebels on sight as if they were wild and ravening animals. He also ordered a temporary increase of the Murdrum fine he had reinstated after his coronation. This law ordained a punitive fine be levied on the English inhabitants of the specific fief where Normans were found murdered. Civilians were directed to travel in large caravans guarded by trusted knights and soldiers. The commanders of the garrisons were ordered to send out patrols of no less than thirty troops. Burhs outside the city doubled and tripled their guards. Throughout the south, word was sent to Norman holdings—and to Saxon thegns whose oath of loyalty was freely given to William, for they, too, suffered attacks—to increase their watch. But at Wulfsinraed, except for the increase in vigilance Fallard had already ordered, life went on as usual, for the depredations of the rebels were far away. Ceorl’s family moved into their new home and the last of the storm repairs of other homes were under way. Haymaking, sheep shearing and the preparing of fleeces for the making of cloth consumed the daylight hours. Huntsmen spent days abroad, returning home with meat to feed hungry burhfolc and furs to warm them when came winter’s chill. Spring crops slowly ripened. Four-footed babies of every description scampered and frolicked in the pens and pastures. The meadows were awash in a sea of color while a haze of green covered the land. Fallard watched in private delight as the full bloom of early summer engulfed the village with the rioting blaze of color he had foreseen in his first days as lord. The love between Fallard and Ysane blossomed along with the land. The burh women wagered whether Ysane or Roana would be the first to be found increasing, while the men teased without mercy both Fallard and Trifine over their besotted state. The only pinprick of serious concern brought to Fallard’s attention came, as summer waxed, by way of his reeve, Aldfrid. The man was worried over the lack of moisture. Rainfall had been normal after the unexpected blizzard, but as summer progressed and the time drew nigh for planting of fall crops, it had slowed to naught. While none wanted storms at this time of year, the slow, gentle showers necessary to crop growth had not come. If none fell within the next few seven-days, Aldfrid feared a drought. Fallard met with Tenney and Ethelmar and ordered supplies be sequestered, in case. *** At break of dawn early in the month of mowing, Ysane sat in the window embrasure of the bower she shared with Fallard. She inhaled deeply to savor the glorious fragrance of the roses in her garden. Woven through the smell of the roses drifted the scent of the lavender. The two scents together were nigh to overpowering. Thanks to judicious watering from the lowering river, the burh gardens flourished, if naught else did in the drought. She leaned forward to watch as a red deer hind with two fawns wandered out of the shadows of the forest and crossed the far edge of the clearing, heading to the river to drink. Already the new day was unseasonably warm and with water scarce, the river, and the lake in the distance, had become popular watering places. The animals moved without hurry, sensing no threat. The hind stopped to briefly graze on yellowing meadow grass, then all three passed beyond her sight. Despite her worry over the lack of rain, the little group brought a smile to her countenance as she turned back to the room. She lifted her heavy hair to allow the morning air to cool the heated skin of her nape. Fallard still slept, and she waited for him to awaken. She had news, and decided this morn was the perfect time to tell him. Crossing the chamber, she sat on the edge of the bed beside him. He lay as he oft did, spread-eagled on his back, one arm thrown over his head, with but the lightest of bedcovers tangled about his waist. A faint sheen of sweat glazed his forehead and bare chest. His big body occupied most of the surface of the bed. She studied him, thoroughly enjoying this rare chance to observe him unaware. His hair had grown considerably in the months since his arrival and now it stuck out in tousled spikes all over his head. The bluish cast to the black had deepened from time spent in the sun without his helm. The powerful muscles of his arms and torso appeared ready to leap into action despite his somnolent state, the skin bronzed as if cast from that brown-gold metal. His breathing was deep and steady, his mouth relaxed. She had heard the burh women speak of how in sleep, men’s faces lost the hard lines and angles that characterized them while awake, making them look younger. Fallard looked about as innocent as Grendel. Betimes she wondered if he had ever been young. Not that she minded. A playful grin curved her lips as she reached to trace the angry scar on his left shoulder and then spread her palm in the springy black hair that covered his chest. *** Fallard was not asleep. He lay quiet and still, and waited for her to return to bed. When her fingers fanned out over his skin, he grabbed her wrist, pulled her full against him and rolled over with her beneath him, all in one lightning movement. She yelped, and startled moss green eyes blinked indignantly. Then she started to laugh. “You cheated,” she huffed, and she cuffed him with her free hand, only to find that wrist also imprisoned. He straddled her hips, pulling both wrists above her head and holding them while he plundered her lips. “Nay, ’tis but a ploy a warrior uses when he wishes to take an enemy by surprise,” he breathed against her mouth. Her brows flew up as her eyes widened. “I am your enemy, then?” “Oh, aye, and the most dangerous of them all.” His mouth ravaged the soft skin beneath her chin. “A man with such a foe must make use of every advantage he may find, especially those deemed unfair. ’Tis only wisdom.” “‘Wisdom’, ’tis, then? Methinks mayhap, I should see these advantages you speak of as lessons, and learn from them.” He chuckled. “’Twould add a most interesting perspective to life, should you succeed. Mayhap, I will offer you many such lessons and give you leave to practice them as oft as you will.” He abruptly changed the subject. “What saw you from the window that had you smiling?” Her eyes narrowed and her lips made a little moue. “A family scene.” This time, ’twas his brows that raised. He bent to rub noses and then kissed her again. Between nips and pecks he said, “What kind of a family scene?” “Oh, the kind one oft sees at this time of the twelvemonth.” Excitement edged the words with gilt. He considered this for a while. Finally, he said, “Wolf?” “Nay.” “Fox?” “Nay.” “Badger?” “Nay.” “Hares? Squirrels? Ducks? Swans?” “Fallard!” “Ah! It must be deer.” She grinned. “A hind and two fawns. They were headed to the river, methinks.” “Two fawns.” “Aye.” “Twins.” “Of course.” “Did ever I mention multiple births run in my family?” He whispered nigh her ear as he caught both of her hands in one of his own and tickled her with the other. Her answer was a squeal that turned into uncontrolled laughter as she squirmed and thrashed in an unsuccessful attempt to make him cease. “Stop! Fallard, please, cease! I can bear no more! Stop!” “Ask me again, more nicely this time.” “Fiend!” She yelled in between peals of mirth. “A horrible man you are, Fallard D’Auvrecher. If you stop not, I will, I will…well, I swear I will think of something awful to do to you, and when you least expect it.” “Hmmm, methinks that is no proper way for an obedient wife to speak to her husband.” “’Tis good enough for you.” He chuckled, but ceased his torture and pulled her outstretched arms around his neck as he rolled again, bringing her atop him, tangling them both in the bedcover and in her glorious hair. He ran his hands into the soft mass and gently tugged her down to kiss her again, then wrapped his arms around her and squeezed. She sought without success to loosen his grip. “Faith! I might as well try to move the tower.” Her voice rose to a squeak on the last word as he squeezed again. “You, my lord, are a tyrant.” “Indeed? ’Twould seem instead I have been too lenient. A wife should respect her husband. Methinks mayhap, this calls for more stringent discipline.” He made a threatening face and his hands moved to cup her bottom. “Fallard, wait! There is somewhat I wish to tell you, lest we forget all in the moment.” She was full of an expectant excitement. He waited. She stared down at him, grinning like a child with a hand full of honeyed nuts. She licked dry lips and he closed his eyes, the sight doing things to his insides that must, perforce, wait upon her news. “Well?” His voice had gone hoarse. “Methinks I am increasing.” She blurted it out, grimaced and gave a groan. “Faith! To think I have practiced for days the words I wished to use to tell you, and now, I have forgotten them.” He watched her face. “Certain of this, you are?” “Methinks so, aye. I have missed two of my courses, and this month is late.” She blushed at the words and hid her face against his arm despite the intimacy they shared. “So I had thought, and I am glad. Look at me,” he said, and allowed a grin the size of a farmer’s sickle to plaster itself all over his face. He sat up and scooted so he rested against the backboard, arranging her so her knees straddled his hips. He pulled her against his chest, caught her face between his hands and kissed her lovingly, slowly, thoroughly. Between kisses, she pouted. “You…knew?” “When a man is oft intimate with his wife, ’tis hard not to notice the absence of a certain bodily function.” She grew quiet and dropped her eyes, then ran a fingertip along his breastbone. “I knew not if I could give you children Fallard, at the least, not sons. Much of Renouf’s anger was due to my lack in producing a male child. It enraged him it took so long to get me with child. He accused me of barrenness, and methinks ’twas his thought to seek an annulment. When I finally conceived but the babe I bore was not the son he craved, his rage was very great. He despised Angelet. To his mind, a female held no value at all, worth less, he said, than the livestock in the burh. He said at least one could eat the cows and the pigs.” “By the wolf’s head! That man was a wholly despicable lout. ’Tis a better world without him.” He ran his forefinger down her cheek. “Ah, wife. Need I speak the words? This news pleases me greatly, Ysane, and that holds true whether you bear me son or daughter. I will love either, or both.” He grinned. “Aye, and ’tis my thought this calls for a celebration. How would you fancy a trip to the faire at Fallewydde?” “Oh, Fallard, ’twould be lovely, my deorling! It has been twelvemonths since I’ve been to the faire, and ’twas one of my favorite activities each summer. They offer the most delicious foods and the happiest music, and troupes that dance and do the most amazing balancing acts. There are beautiful fabrics and wonderfully curious things from far away and Fallard, there is a man who comes there to sell books or at least, he used to come. Books! Terribly expensive they were, but even to look upon them was a joy. He would bring them out to show to me, and let me touch and admire them. Father would sometimes buy the small ones, and then allow me to read them. Oh, I loved the books most of all!” He chuckled his indulgence. “’Twould seem my words have unleashed a greedy child. Well and good, we shall leave this very day. But if we are to attend this magnificent event, mayhap, we should leave this bed and quickly, for if you keep looking at me in that way, my sweet rose, I swear we will leave not this bower for a seven-day!” CHAPTER FORTY-THREE They made it to the fair, but not in the manner expected. Lynnet knocked and peeped inside the door, but Fallard sent her away. They washed and dressed together, and laughed in shared enjoyment. He pulled Ysane’s thin linen syrce over her even thinner cyrtel, but declined to tighten the girdle, then combed out her hair at her insistence. “’Twas you, deorling,” she said, “who mussed it so badly, so ’tis only fair you tidy it.” “Ah, so I am a tyrant, but you, my rose, are a taskmaster.” When he began to plait the strands, she glanced at him over her shoulder. “You are a knight of unexpected talents, my lord. Do I assume you have performed this service for your…sisters?” He gave her a playful shake. “Play not the jealous wife, Ysane, and aye, when we were very young, I had occasion to help my sisters. Melisent, in particular, loved to sit while others combed her hair. Nay, leave the braid to hang,” he said, when she made to pin it up, and when she held up the headrail, he shook his head. He refused to allow her to wear the hot, confining wrap in the privacy of the hall. “’Tis a wife’s place to wear the thing, but ’tis a great discomfort when the weather is so warm.” “I have a husband of much gentle consideration.” She started down the stairs in front of him, but came to an abrupt halt as he caught the length of the dangling flaxen plait and wrapped it round them both, tucking the end into the sash that secured his braies. “I am considerate in other ways, am I not, little rose?” “You are.” “And you are grateful, aye?” “Oh, of a certainty.” “Show me,” he said, his growl husky. Their arrival in the hall was delayed by several minutes longer than they intended. “Your fair face is still delightfully pink, my rose,” Fallard whispered later in her ear as they broke their fast with crisp bacon, cheese and bread slathered with honey. He glanced at her trencher, piled high with the food Roul brought, then teased, “If you take not care, you will grow fat.” She grinned. Her pregnancy had gifted her with an embarrassingly increased appetite and naught of the stomach distress she had experienced while carrying Angelet. “Will I still please my lord do I grow overly large?” He slid his arm around her waist and gently squeezed. “You will please me do you grow larger than the moon and all your teeth fall out.” She burst out laughing. He leaned to nibble on her earlobe. “You taste better than the bacon. Shall we tell them, my rose?” “About the babe? Aye, my deorling. ’Tis good news for them too, methinks. Besides, ’twill be exciting to learn who won the wager.” “What wager?” “The wager over who first got with child, myself or Roana.” Her grin, offered between bites, was pure mischief. “A smaller wager was placed for whoever guessed the correct month whichever one of us announced it.” He stared at her. “Close your mouth, deorling. Is it truly such a shock?” He threw back his head and bellowed with laughter. “I know not why I am surprised,” he said when his mirth had finally stilled. “But you must know while ’tis commonplace for men to wager on everything, ’tis most unusual for the womenfolk.” She gave him a sidewise glance but said naught. She was too busy chewing. He chuckled again. “Very well, let us give forth the good news.” He stood, barely waiting until she put down her hadseax before pulling her up beside him. “I would have your attention, one and all!” The sound of voices stilled. Roul hurried to stand behind him. Expectant faces, many sporting curious grins, looked up at him. “I have news my wife and I would share. My friends, in seven months….” Ysane elbowed him and he stopped. She lifted on her toes to whisper something in his ear. He inclined his head at her words, then nodded. “My pardon. In six months, a new babe will be born to the hall of Wulfsinraed. My lady wife is with child!” A clamor broke out, filling the hall. Roul whooped and ran to Fauques. The two hammered each other on the back and then sped out the hall’s doors with a handful of others to spread this wonderful new gossip. Fallard grinned. With the squires squeaking like overlarge mice, the news would spread like spilled wine. Congratulations poured from those present. One of his knights began banging his tankard on the table. “Fallard!” With each metallic bang, the rest of the men, knights and hearth companions alike, took up the refrain until the hall fairly rocked with the noise. “Fallard! Fallard! Fallard! Fallard!” Ere long, a minor celebration was taking place in the hall, with laughter and new rounds of ale and impromptu dancing and shouts of good wishes to the happy couple. Fallard kept Ysane close to his side, but she, with an eye to the long hours ere sup, continued to eat with dainty greed. Into the midst of the revelry strode Domnall, an unknown soldier at his side. Fallard sat straight, all gaiety stilled. The stranger’s tunic bore William’s crest. A frisson raced down Fallard’s spine as he eyed the man. Missives from the king were rarely good news. Domnall made his way to Ysane. Fallard leaned out of the way as the first marshal caught her up in a hug that left her breathless, kissed her forehead and then said something in her ear that brought fresh blood to her cheeks and startled laughter to her lips. Then he turned to Fallard, grasping his wrist in a hard clasp. “My lord D’Auvrecher! ’Tis happy news we hear this day.” His hazel eyes laughed and he leaned close. “Proud of yourself, are you then, man?” He clapped Fallard on the back so hard ale flew out of his tankard to splash on the table. Fallard scowled at his overly presumptuous first marshal. “Aye, Domnall, proud I am, and pleased with my lady wife. But who is this you bring into my hall?” “Oh, aye. Almost forgot, I did, what with all the merriment.” He turned to the stranger and handed him a newly filled tankard. “Drink to the lord and his lady first, then speak your tidings.” The man smiled and upended his ale, downing it in one long pull, then wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “Lord D’Auvrecher? I am Geoffroi. Good wishes to you, my lord, from myself for your good news, and also from the king, and to you, my lady.” He offered a bow to Ysane. “Our thanks,” Fallard said. “But I bid you speak.” “I bear orders from the king, my lord,” Geoffroi said. “But they are to be given to you alone, in private.” *** Fallard led the way to the hoarding room and waited while tankards were refreshed and a meal was brought for Geoffroi. When they were alone, the messenger brought out the roll of parchment from inside his tunic and handed it over. Fallard read it while the man ate, his annoyance growing with every word. William, it seemed, held him responsible for the plundering by the rebels around London, since he had merely chased them away from Wulfsinraed, rather than destroying them. Thus, the letter informed him, ’twas the king’s charge that he hie immediately and with all haste to London with a full contingent of his knights and hearth companions. There, he was to take command of the effort to rout the blackguards and eliminate the threat permanently. The tenor of the letter left no doubt that while the words were somewhat facetious, William’s intent was in deadly earnest. But when Fallard read the next portion of William’s commands, he came out of his seat with a roar. The messenger dropped his food, lunged to his feet and half-drew his sword, his eyes seeking for the enemy his host clearly prepared to face. Fallard ignored him and strode to the door, his anger fear-fed and escalating. He yanked it open so hard it crashed against the wall and bounced back, nearly knocking him off his feet. He stepped out onto the landing and yelled in blistering terms for Domnall and Trifine to be brought to him at once. Domnall, who had been enjoying a second meal, but had leapt to his feet at his lord’s cry, was already at the base of the stairs. He took the steps two at time to halt in front of Fallard, his eyes searching for the danger. “My lord, what is amiss?” “Come!” Fallard turned back into the hoarding room and dismissed Geoffroi, whose face expressed his gratitude to be allowed out of harm’s way. Fallard paced the chamber, his rage lashing in silent futility. Domnall said not a word, but sheathed his sword, seated himself and waited. The half-open door pushed wide and Trifine sauntered in. Fallard took in his First’s easy stance and grunted. Trifine knew him too well, was prepared from long experience to let the blast flow over and around him. He too, took a seat and waited without a word. Fallard continued to pace, so angry he could not yet speak. “Fallard?” The small, uncertain voice stopped him in his tracks. “Ysane! My rose, what do you here? ’Tis no place for a woman.” She drew herself to her full, unimpressive stature. “I was concerned for you, my lord. Your…vocal response to the missive was quite…eloquent. But I see you are undamaged and in no danger. I will thus remove myself from this place where a mere woman should not be.” “Ysane!” She stopped and looked over her shoulder. Fallard sighed and ran his hand through his hair, then crossed to her. His gaze bored into hers. “Forgive me, wife. ’Tis …difficult. I will apprise you of that which you should know but for now, I must needs speak with my captains. Will you wait?” Her expression softened. She nodded and returned to the hall. He watched the sweet sway of her hips until she was out of sight, closed and barred the door and then faced his captains. He let fly with a round of creative expressions, none of which were curses but which eloquently expressed his frustration. Trifine’s left eyebrow rose while Domnall leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest. “William holds me to blame for the carnage the rebels unleash around London,” he finally said. “I am to hie there, posthaste, with a full contingent of troops and take command of the mission to rout them.” He started to pace again. “’Tis almost as if, after the treachery of Kenrick Wulfsingas and Renouf of Sebfeld, William doubts even my loyalty!” “Nay, my lord,” Domnall said. “The word among the troops of Witham is that you obeyed the king’s command and forced the rebels to scatter. Does he believe you at fault they chose to re-gather elsewhere?” Fallard’s frown became a grimace. “’Twould seem he does, though that part of his original orders was somewhat ambiguous.” His pacing finally came to a halt. “There is worse.” He swallowed. “One part of my instructions was quite clear. Upon arrival at Wulfsinraed, were I to discover Ysane was involved with the rebellion, I was to sever that involvement by whatever means necessary, even did it mean her interment in whatever prison facilities were available here. William seems to believe I have failed in the execution of that duty. “Despite all my assurances, he still believes Ysane involved with the rebels. He says a Saxon soldier was captured, admitted to being a rebel and identified Ysane, by name, as the link between Wulfsinraed and the rebel leadership. I am to bring her with me to London where she is to stand trial. Do they find her guilty, the court will seek to what extent. Do they decide she was coerced into helping the rebels, she will be incarcerated for life at Kensington Abbey. If ’tis found she willingly aided them, she is to be wedded to de Pardieu. Either way, our marriage is to be dissolved.” “de Pardieu!” Trifine jerked to his feet, his nonchalance disappearing in a spate of words almost as virulent as his captain’s. “What infamy is this? That man is a perverted beast, worse even than Renouf of Sebfeld. He has already put aside one rich wife and buried three others, and while few would say it to his face, all believe he killed them. Ysane would last not a seven-day in his vile hands. ’Twould have been kinder to let her throat be slit the day we took this burh.” “Think you I know that not? Deterrence is the purpose of public executions, but William is unwilling to have the beautiful daughter of a former high-ranking, wealthy Saxon nobleman put to death in a public venue. He has enough trouble with what’s left of the Saxon leadership and to execute Ysane would cause only more. But I know his mind. He believes marriage to de Pardieu a death sentence, and with Ysane, he would be correct.” He shuddered at thought of his delicate rose in the company of a man such as de Pardieu, and even more so now she carried his child. The rage in Domnall’s gaze and the frustrated sympathy in Trifine’s nigh undid him. He slammed his fist against the table so hard the massive furnishing vibrated. “I must find a way to prove Ysane is not involved, willingly or otherwise, with the rebels, but I have no time! I am to leave for London within a half-day of the delivery of the missive.” “Fallard, William knows not Ysane bears your child.” Fallard’s head snapped up at Trifine’s quiet comment. “What mean you?” “She can be not given to another so long as she carries your babe. ’Tis the law. Use it.” Relief flooded Fallard. “Aye, ’tis truth. So crazed are my thoughts I considered it not.” Fearing his legs would not support him, he jerked out a chair and sat. “She would still be imprisoned in the abbey, but she would be safe, at least until after the birth.” “Then we have seven months…,” Domnall began. “Six,” Fallard said. “Aye, six months to find the evidence we need.” “And we will find it,” Trifine said. “To that, I give my word. Enough proof to still even William’s most paranoid fancies.” Fallard looked into the eyes of his oldest and newest captains, seeking hope, any hope. He found it. “My thanks, my friends. Ysane is….” “Aye, Captain.” “’Tis understood, my lord.” “Another possibility arises here, Fallard.” Trifine filled a tankard and handed it to his captain, then drew another for Domnall and himself. “I have thought much on past treacheries by Ruald, and of the slave Leda’s possible role with the rebels. Despite our watchfulness, we can find no certain evidence to link her with them, and you are reluctant to punish her without that proof. “As you know, I was raised at court. ’Tis no immodest claim on my part to state my experience with the various wiles practiced by females is more…extensive than yours. The type of treachery I now have in mind is that which might first take root in the heart of a woman such as Leda.” “Go on,” Fallard said. “We have received no word, one way or the other, that your messages—in truth, that any messages—have reached William from Wulfsinraed. Even in this missive, William offers no acknowledgement of receipt of the communications we have sent, and none of our couriers have returned, though there has been time for most to do so. We have been so preoccupied with events, none of us has taken time to think through what that might mean.” Trifine looked straight at Fallard and said, his voice soft, “Mayhap, Fallard, our dispatches were intercepted, and others substituted in their place.” “Saint’s toes!” Fallard breathed, getting to his feet. “Aye!” He said then, spitting the word out. “Aye, that would bring William’s wrath down upon us all. We are fortunate our king is not one to believe whatever tale he may be told and act accordingly, without first giving the accused a chance to prove the falsehood.” “Aye, William is a hard man, but just, in especial where a favored one, such as yourself, is concerned, Fallard. He knows your loyalty. He would wait to hear your side.” Fallard swore again and half leaned, half sat on the table edge. He sighed heavily. “You are right. That is exactly what he does. He calls me to his side, and Ysane is caught in the middle. Bah! A fool I have been. All my defenses and safeguards were to defend against Ruald’s treachery here. It came never to my thought he might take the offensive in such a way, and with William.” His companions said naught, for there was naught to reply. None of them had forethought of treachery so sly. He began to pace again. “Would that I could find a way to bring the rebels to me, rather than journey to London.” In light of William’s order, he wanted badly to drag Leda to the interrogation pit and force the truth from her, not only of involvement with the rebels, but with the attempts on the life of his wife. He had stayed his hand so far because he had no clear evidence of wrong-doing, and because a slave had no rights or protections save those given by their masters. ’Twas not his way to offer hurt to those with no means of defense. But mayhap, ’twas time to set aside that way. He could ill afford the noble ideals of kindness and mercy if the life of the woman he loved depended upon their absence. But even as he thought it, his mind shied away from inflicting torment on a woman. Yet, he would trade Leda’s life for that of Ysane’s without a moment’s hesitation. He walked to the window and looked out upon the orchard. His gaze followed the road to the cool courtyard of the chapel. Suddenly, he smiled, but mirth played no part in the stretching of his lips. Mayhap, there was a way to learn of Ruald’s intent from the girl without physically damaging her. He turned back to his captains. “Follow my lead.” He gave no indication of his intent as they trailed him into the hall. CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR “Trifine, bring the slave Leda to me!” Fallard ordered. His tone harked of deadly menace. “Tell Harold to bring the key to the interrogation pit…and Trifine? Bid him bring the box we recently removed.” Domnall and Trifine exchanged a glance. Trifine nodded and moved to obey. “Fallard, what is happening?” Ysane’s voice was anxious. “’Tis naught to worry you, my love,” Fallard said, softening his voice as he turned to her. He pulled her into his arms and held her close while he rested his cheek on the top of her head. Then he released her and stepped away, not meeting her eyes. “Go to our bower and don your headrail. I would have you visit the village. Find there tasks befitting the lady of the hall. Come not home until I send for you. And Ysane, bring my gloves.” His eyes found Roana, who had come into the hall after his retirement to the hoarding room. “I would have you accompany her, my lady. You will go now.” Roana nodded and slipped away to the bower she shared with Trifine to make herself ready. “Fallard?” Ysane’s voice was a whisper. “Obey me, Ysane.” The steel that underscored his words left no room for argument. He made no further attempt to ease the worry in her eyes. She left and returned to the hall moments later, attaching her headrail as she came. He took the gloves she carried. Roana, duty basket in hand, linked arms with her and they went together out the great doors as Trifine appeared from the southeast tower, dragging a smirking Leda. Halting before his captain, Trifine hauled the slave in front of him. The First wrapped his fingers around a fistful of her short hair and pulled back her head so she was forced to meet Fallard’s eyes. “I know you made several attempts to slay my wife.” Fallard made his voice bitter as ice. “You will now confess, and tell me also of the plans of your lover, Ruald. I would have all that you know.” Leda’s complacency slipped a notch. Fallard gave her merit for courage as she kept silent and tried to stare him down, but he had no time to waste. “I know, slave. I know what you have done. I offer you one last chance. Tell me now, all you know of the activities of the rebels around London, of the plans to attack this hall, of the waylaying of our messages and of your murderous actions, and mayhap, my judgment will go easier on you.” Her eyes widened and she began to tremble, but still she defied him. He suspected she thought him weak because his hand had never been harsh toward her. “Well and good, slave,” Fallard said to her. “I now honor your choice.” He nodded to Trifine and strode to the hall doors. Flinging them wide, he stepped outside as Trifine dragged Leda, his hand still fisted in her hair, onto the steps in view of those who were without. Fallard lifted his voice so all could hear. “I would have your attention, folk of Wulfsinraed!” Silence fell. “So that all may know Fallard D’Auvrecher is loyal to King William, hear now my proclamation. The slave Leda has been declared guilty of conspiracy with the Saxons who have chosen to rebel against their king. She also stands accused of the attempted murder of the Lady Ysane, my wife. In front of witnesses, she was offered clemency did she confess. She defied my mercy. She will be offered no further leniency. Therefore, be it known my judgment for the crimes of Leda the slave is death by the punishments of fire and lash.” He looked at Trifine. “Remove her to the pit!” Collective gasps rose from around the courtyard and in the hall. Fallard caught sight of Roul and Fauques. Their eyes were wide and wondering. The faint bravado that still lingered on Leda’s face disappeared, to be replaced by terror. She blanched and nigh fainted. She would have fallen had not Trifine held her. Domnall and Trifine, each taking an arm, half-carried her down the steps. She began to fight and shriek, her screams interspersed with curses no woman should have known. Domnall glanced at Trifine over her head. Fallard’s mouth tightened. The first marshal knew not what game he played. But Domnall seemed to relax, as if he saw in the First’s eyes that which satisfied him. As they traversed the courtyard, silence met them as all sidled quickly out of their way. Young children were hustled away from the area by women whose eyes were huge and horror-filled. They were met at the door of the interrogation pit by Second-Marshal Harold, who held the key to the pit and an open wooden box, filled with a battery of frightful instruments, in his hands. His expression was starkly unhappy. Leda moaned. Fallard nodded. Harold unlocked the door and led the way into the dark chamber. He went round the room and lit the tallow candles in their holders on the walls. Together, Trifine and Domnall divested Leda of the threadbare syrce she wore, leaving her clad only in her equally worn cyrtel. They shackled her wrists high above her head with her back to the wall, and then locked her ankles into the lower manacles, as well. She gaped as Harold started a roaring blaze in the fire pit against the back wall and began to lay the necessary instruments into the heat. She screamed again when Trifine picked up the whip and lashed the air viciously in front of her. He chuckled. “Why do you cry out, girl? We have yet to touch you. Little fool. You thought not to be caught in your treachery. Think you any will come to your aid? Hah! Naught are you but a slave. None will care when your screams fill this chamber. Your lover is far away, but were he here, he could do naught to save you, even did he choose. Truth to tell, could we lay our hands on him, we would have him join you in our play.” “Nay,” Leda screamed. “Please, I beg you, do this not! I am innocent. I have done naught.” Fallard moved to stand in front of her. He took her chin in his fingers, his expression unrelenting and his grip firm. He held her amber gaze, as a serpent would hypnotize its prey. She wept freely and loudly, then whimpered pitifully when he stepped away to the fire. He lifted a knife with a blade already heated to a glowing red. Returning to his prisoner, he stood with the blade so close to her face the heat forced her to flinch away. “Mayhap we will begin with this toy,” he said, the tenor of his voice conversational. He turned the searing blade this way and that as if choosing where against her skin to lay it first. “’Tis my favorite, for it both slices and sears at the same time, doubling the agony. Even strong men scream from the pain. I have seen some rather exquisite examples of facial scars created with it. What think you, Trifine? Shall we start with the face? Or mayhap she might prefer we begin lower.” He laughed cruelly when he brought the fiery blade close to her breast. She screamed again. “You ask an interesting question, Captain,” Trifine mused, “but one that mayhap, we should let the slave answer, since she is the one to receive the weapon’s caress. But, should you ask of me which I would prefer to administer, ’twould be the kiss of the whip. It has been some time since I honed my skills on a living subject.” Fallard laughed again and pointed to Trifine. “My First jests with you, slave. He is a master with that implement. I have seen him slice the skin from a woman’s belly with one slash.” The sudden flicker in his First’s light eyes betrayed his effort to keep from laughing. Fallard lied through his teeth. Trifine was indeed talented in the use of the whip, but he had never heard of anyone that good. But even if he was, his First would not use his skill against a woman unless directly ordered. But Leda would not know that. “So,” Fallard continued, raising the knife back to her cheek. “Methinks we will let you choose. The blade, or the whip? The face, or…? What say you, slave?” But Leda only screamed, her eyes all but popping from her face as she writhed in futile effort to avoid the glowing blade. “Forgive me girl, I understood not your choice,” Fallard said. “Ah, but mayhap you have no preference? Well and good, then I will choose for you. Methinks we will begin with the lash and follow that with the knife, since we will have need to stop the bleeding with the heated blade.” Again, he stepped back and his voice was sharper than the lash of the whip Trifine wielded. “Strip her!” he ordered. Domnall hesitated, blinked and then moved to obey. Leda fainted. Trifine looked at Fallard and offered a crooked smile, his glance rueful. “Methinks mayhap, you went too far, Fallard.” Harold sighed, the sound like the flutter of a bird’s wing in the ugly chamber. Fallard frowned, annoyed. “Mayhap, I did, but ’tis her terror we need. Domnall, revive her. ’Tis time to see if our traitorous little slave will now cooperate freely.” “What if she still refuses, Captain?” Curiosity was the only apparent emotion underlying his First’s question. “I warrant I have thought not that far,” Fallard answered. “’Tis truth I thought her of less courage. I expected her to have confessed all by now.” “Aye, that was also my thought.” “Then, you mean not to torture her?” Harold’s relief was so great he grinned like a fool. “’Tis but trickery, to force her to speak?” As Domnall approached Leda with a bucket of water, Fallard glanced at the second marshal. “Methinks you should wipe that smile off your face, Harold, unless you can make it appear as if you are anticipating pleasure from her pain.” “Aye, my thegn.” The grin disappeared as if it had never been. Fallard nodded, took a deep breath and rearranged his own expression as he lifted the knife. Trifine raised the whip. Domnall threw the water in Leda’s face and then slapped her cheeks, far more gently than a tortured reality would have called for. Her eyelids drifted open slowly. She blinked rapidly, then stared blankly at him. Her eyes flickered around the pit and she jerked away, the terror flashing again. “We have been discussing your fate while you slept, slave,” Fallard said as he turned a little away from her. He held the knife as nigh as was comfortable to his own eyes, as if fascinated by the deep orange-red color of the metal. “’Twas said to me—and this was naught but a suggestion—that mayhap, we should seek once again to gain information from you ere we begin our play. After all, once the agony reaches a certain level, the victim is no longer capable of coherent thought, much less speech. We would have what you know ere you reach that point.” Fallard whirled suddenly and fixed her with a gaze as cold as death. The knife was thrust again in front of her. “What say you, slave? Have you aught to tell us about your lover’s plans? Mayhap, if you reveal all, including your role in the attempts on my wife’s life, I might be persuaded to forego my previous judgment. I could choose to offer mercy and kill you quickly, instead of with endless hours of agony. I might even think to let you live, or, since you failed in your task to kill my wife, I might choose to lighten your judgment to a mere twenty lashes. At my behest, my First can make those lashes light, barely raising a welt, though he is also capable of skinning you alive and flaying your flesh to the bone.” Trifine nodded. That much at least, was truth. “Would any of those choices loosen your tongue, girl?” Leda could not hide the hope that sprang into her eyes as she stared at her tormenter. He waited. Still, she spoke not. He moved to the fire and placed the knife back into the flame, then lazily retrieved a red-hot implement with a wicked, razor-sharp hook on one end. He looked up at the ceiling and shook his head. “’Twould seem the girl has naught to say, Trifine. Mayhap, your suggestion was foolish, and I would choose not to hear her confession now even did she think to make it. Methinks I will insure she cannot.” He turned and held aloft the heated hook. “Aye, I have made my decision. I will begin her punishment by slicing her tongue into ribbons and cutting them off, one by one. The heat from the blade will sear the flesh as I cut, leaving no concern she may bleed to death ere our play is finished. Aid me, Domnall. Hold open her mouth. We will feed the pieces to the dogs.” Domnall reached for her. Leda shrieked, then suddenly broke and began to babble. “Nay! Nay! What seek you from me? Only ask, I will tell all you wish to know, but hurt me not. Please, I beg you, do this not. Ask me aught, I will speak. I swear!” She began to scream without ceasing. “Silence, slave, or I will give you reason to squeal!” Domnall dropped his hold on her chin and clapped his hand over her mouth, cutting off the noise. Tears streamed down her face as she sagged in her bonds. Trifine looked at Fallard. “Mayhap, she is ready to speak to us now, Captain.” Fallard nodded at Domnall, who dropped his hand. Leda whimpered. Eyes closed tight, she talked. Profound relief washed through Fallard, though he allowed not a whit of it to show in his mien. By the saints! He hated what he had been forced to do, but by his action, they were learning the truth, and he would have the proof he needed to save his beloved. *** Outside the pit, the quiet in the courtyard was nigh absolute. Roul and Fauques waited in a corner outside the stable, pretending a manly nonchalance. Men with grim faces, and women pale as fulled fleece went about their business as muffled screams rose from the chamber below the ground. All had believed their new lord a man of less barbarity. The fear that held them in thrall while Renouf ruled the burh had returned in full force. The screams were cut off abruptly, as if by the sharpest blade. To many of those who listened, the silence was worse. For the time it took the sun to rise nigh to mid-morn position, the quiet in the pit reigned. Then the door opened and Leda emerged, stumbling, sobbing, yet apparently undamaged, though her face was chalk white and her red-rimmed eyes dazed. Her steps wobbled so wildly the First had perforce to support her with both hands. Harold locked the pit door and returned to the gatehouse, whistling softly to himself, and carrying his box of unpleasant—and to all appearances, unused—equipment. Domnall walked through the tunnel to find Ysane and Roana. Trifine escorted Leda back inside the hall. A great, communal breath seemed to sigh through the courtyard, echoed not the least by the two young squires. CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE Fallard stopped at the top of the hall steps before the great doors and once more faced his people. In the day’s growing heat, sweat trickled down his brow, but he ignored it. One by one, he met the eyes of those willing to face him. Many quailed before the white-hot rage that radiated from him like the heat waves that shimmered above the courtyard, for he now knew of all three attempts to kill Ysane, and knew who had given the order. As suspected, the missives he had sent to William had gone astray, the messengers disposed of. New reports, subtly injurious to both himself and his wife as only a cunning woman could craft, had been substituted in their place. “Leda is unharmed,” he said, and though he raised not his voice, his words were pitched to carry to the furthest corner. “But know this, my people. Whether or not you accept William of Nourmaundi as the rightful king of this land, he is king, and treason will be not tolerated. Nor will I allow any threat to stand against my wife, or any other who obeys my word and goes about their rightful business. “The slave has confessed to conspiracy against her sovereign. She has acted as spy for the rebel Ruald of Sebfeld. She has also admitted to attempting, thrice, to slay the Lady Ysane.” He silently drew breath and waited for the response to his declaration. Trifine stepped out of the hall and took his place beside him, even as Roul and Fauques raced to join them. Ysane and Roana appeared with Domnall at the gate. His wife looked ill, and he wondered at her thoughts. Then a notion occurred to him and his eyes narrowed. The look he gave her was grim when she met his gaze. Fortin the Bald, the brawny burh smith, stepped forward into the tense silence. Fallard gestured for him to speak. “What will happen to Leda, my thegn?” The smith’s manner was bold as he faced Fallard. He held his forger’s hammer as if he hefted a weapon he was preparing to use. Others among the men inched forward, pinning Fallard with unfriendly glares. Fortin was well-liked, and held influence among them. Trifine stilled. Silently, and unnoticed by the restless group of burhfolc, a number of Fallard’s knights moved into place behind them. On the wall, arrows were quietly notched into bowstrings. Domnall stepped in front of Ysane and Roana, and urged them back into the tunnel. Fallard held up one hand, the other resting on the hilt of his sword. Aware that Leda had spent many nights with the blacksmith since Ruald’s departure and that he had become her protector, he held to his temper, but met squarely Fortin’s belligerent stare. “Think you to challenge my authority, Fortin?” The tenor of his voice was soft, but beneath the quiet words ran deadly menace. “I will gladly face your hammer with my sword, but ’tis certain the outcome will be not to your favor. Shall I order the gallows readied then, and your grave dug?” The smith seemed to cease breathing. He did not quail, but neither did he make answer. Finally, he bowed his head, then lowered his hammer and let it drop, his aggression draining away. “Nay, my thegn. I but wish to know the woman’s fate.” Fallard let his gaze roam over the crowd. “Look around you, then, and to the wall.” He waited for the threat to register. The people became aware of their peril. Sullen expressions yielded to fear. He nodded. “Provoke me again and death will be your reward. I have told you I am a man of just decree, but mistake not fairness for weakness. I will hesitate not to offer judgment—and mete out retribution. “As for Leda, she will be punished for her crimes, though not by my hand. Her offense against her king is great, and ’twill be his decision how she will pay her debt. She will be sent to him, as will all others caught defying his rule. “As for any who choose to defy my rule at Wulfsinraed, be prepared to face the lash, the pit or at need, the gallows.” Peot the Potter moved forward. He had not been among those who supported Fortin. He faced Fallard, his manner subdued. “We have spoken our oath to you, Thegn D’Auvrecher. We will keep it.” The scowl he leveled against the smith was fierce. “All of us.” “Be about your business then. These events are closed. ’Tis my will that none speak of them to any outsider, on pain of the lash. Understand you my order?” They murmured agreement and dispersed. “All my tests should go as easy, Fallard,” Trifine remarked, “though I admit these Saxons surprise me. Few serfs back home would dare even so much.” “’Twas to be expected. Though not warriors, some of these men fought at Stamford Bridge and Sanguelac. They are not easily cowed. But I will allow it only once. I will have their obedience and loyalty, or I will have their life.” He paused. “I should punish Fortin, but the man’s skills as a smith are equal to those of Varin, and I need him whole, so Varin may serve only as man-at-arms.” Trifine grinned. “Aye. A one-handed smith is of little use.” He sobered. “They know your mettle, now, my friend. Methinks the lesson well learned. Your decision is wise.” Roana and Ysane approached, Domnall close behind. “Trifine, go with Domnall and choose threescore and ten of soldiers. I want a mix of hearth companions and my knights. Tell them to be ready to ride ere noontide. Pass the word we journey to London. Harold is to be left in charge of the burh defenses until Jehan is back from patrol, at which time he will take over until I return.” He looked at Roul and Fauques. “Make ready your lords’ equipage. We travel light, but ’tis not known for how long.” The two ran to do his bidding. Fallard followed Roana and Ysane into the relative cool of the hall. “My ladies, hear me.” He addressed Roana first. “Lady Roana, the king has called for a contingent from Wulfsinraed to come to London. I am to command a company whose responsibility is to find and destroy the rebels. Domnall and My First will travel with me, as will my lady wife. I therefore give leave for you to come with us as you desire, unless Trifine wills otherwise. As you heard, we leave ere noontide, so you have little time to prepare.” Roana’s eyes went wide at the news, but she nodded. “I thank you for your consideration, my lord. I will travel with you.” She hurried away. Fallard was left standing in the hall, staring at Ysane, who looked back with something akin to panic in her beautiful eyes. She trembled visibly. Fallard held out his hand and she took it. He led her to their bower and closed the door. He softened his expression but kept his tone stern. “I would know your thoughts, wife.” “You frightened a confession from Leda.” “Aye. ’Twas a regrettable ploy, one in which I found no pleasure, yet it worked. The girl remains unharmed, but now I know all she kens, and while she believes it but little, in truth, ’tis much. But tell me, if you knew ’twas a deceit, why then stand you before me as if you believe yourself my next victim?” “’Twas not the trick against Leda. ’Twas what I feared you would learn from her.” She said no more, and fought for composure, but could hide not her distress. He took pity on her, knowing what prompted the fear. “My rose, I will do all in my power to protect your brother. But Cynric, like his father ere him, has made his choice. In the end, I may be powerless to help him.” She gasped a sob and shuddered. Her eyes closed. “’Tis a relief in truth, now you know of Cynric’s activities. I have been so afraid for him. Yet I believe you will offer mercy where it might be granted.” “Wife, I have suspected his involvement almost since the beginning.” Her eyes flew wide and she wrapped her arms about her waist. “Even that day in the glade?” “Aye, and before.” “You could have taken him, but you did naught. Why?” “Because I had no proof.” He started to say he had also held his hand because of her love for her brother, but decided against it. ’Twas not a reason he wished to delve too deeply into, himself. He drew her to his chest. Her clutch upon his tunic was spasmodic, and she shook so hard her teeth nigh chattered. Fallard tightened his arms. He raised a hand to remove her headrail, then stroked her hair and whispered words of comfort. After a time, he set her from him. “’Tis truth we must be soon away. I will send Lynnet to help you pack.” *** Marlee, a smile on her old face, pushed Ysane out the door of Lady Hildeth’s bower. “I will explain all to her, lady, when her mind is clear. Go now!” Ysane grimaced and hurried down the stairs, dismayed her grandmother was unable to understand her farewell. With Tenney and Ethelmar hovering beside her, she edged toward the doors, talking almost without drawing breath as she reminded them of all that must still be done while summer’s warmth lay upon the land. “Ethelmar, you will work with Aldfrid to insure the stocks of fish and fowl are replenished. Hunting must not slack. Honey, berries and nuts must be gathered. Kegs of ale and mead must be restocked—see the alewife, Tenney—and enough candles dipped to see us through the winter. Forget not to have enough coal made for the braziers and wood cut for the fire pits, and the fall slaughtering will soon be upon us. “Oh, and do you have the keys to the spice locker and the coin box? I’ve left you more than enough coin, I am sure, Tenney, but should you need more, there is extra in the large chest in the lord’s bower. Jehan has the key. The spice peddler will stop by once more before winter. Ethelmar, did I remember to give you the spice list? And Tenney, forget not the annual delivery of wine from Boar’s Green is due next month, and oh dear, that reminds me, the cloth merchant comes this month and I cannot remember what I did with that list….” Ethelmar broke in on her frantic recitation. “My lady, be at ease, we have all in hand. Naught will be forgotten, and I know where lies the list for the cloth. You must go. They wait upon you and your lord appears to grow impatient.” Ysane whirled. Through the small crack in the doors, she could see Fallard standing by Tonnerre’s head. He scowled in her direction. Beyond him, Roul sought to hold a restless, prancing Freyja on a tight rein. She cast a pained glance at the hoarder and her dish-thegn. “Forgive me. I do trust you both, ’tis only that….” Tenney grinned. “M-m-lady, we know! G-g-o!” He pulled the door wide. The blast of heat nigh knocked her off her feet. “Mercy! This heat is vicious, and the poor men are in mail. They will roast alive ere we reach the shade beneath the trees.” And I am a lackwit, holding them up in this heat. She raced across the courtyard. Fallard, his expression tight, nigh threw her onto Freyja’s back. She winced, chagrined at her tardiness. “I am sorry,” she whispered. His lips compressed, but he said naught. She swiveled in the saddle to glance along the lines of mounted men, seeking Lynnet. Her maid stared back at her with a pleading glance. Lynnet hated travel and feared that every real and imagined danger, from murderous outlaws to fiery dragons, would surely destroy them all ere the day’s march reached its end. Ysane smiled encouragement. Lynnet accepted the refusal of her last appeal with an unhappy nod and looked down at her hands that gripped the saddle horn with white fingers. No one trusted her with control of her own horse. The hearth companion holding her reins had his head turned to chortle at one of the sentries on the wall who, despite the heat, was doing a little dance for his comrades. Off to Lynnet’s far side Roana’s new maid, Aelthid, a girl of much hardier humor, giggled with the young knight checking her cinch strap. That a strong attraction existed between the maid and the warrior was plain to see in the girl’s adoring expression and the hunger in the knight’s bold glance as he laughed up at her, teeth flashing. Near the far end of the company, Leda sat in sullen silence between two hulking soldiers. She was not bound, but as with Lynnet, her reins were held by another. Ysane turned forward in time to see the barely perceptible kiss of Fallard’s spurs against Tonnerre’s flanks. Instantly the great destrier trotted to the head of the cavalcade. Roul fell in behind him on his mount. The clatter of hooves against the paving stones changed to hollow thuds on the weathered wood of the bridge. Saddle leather creaked in counterpoint and the jingle of harness added its own irregular rhythm to the melody of the shifting, jostling column. As Freyja crossed the bridge in her turn, Ysane frowned at the turbid flow of the river, the dull sheen of its surface lower against the brown banks than she had ever seen. She felt as if she emerged from the tunnel into a furnace. The land looked scorched, yet the air was humid to the point of sapping one’s very humors. Even the trees of the forest seemed to bow in defeat, the varied greens of their leaves dulled by the powdery dirt that covered them. The meadow grass was a dreary yellow-brown that crackled beneath the horse’s hooves. Domnall had told her not even the elders could remember a dry time such as this. Fallard called her aside to wait with him on the far verge of the road as the first men in the column reined their horse’s muzzles to the west. As the column left the safety of the burh, there came a subtle increase of tension. It seemed to hover in the very air, though the men spoke quietly among themselves, and laughter sounded now and anon. Experienced warriors one and all, they rode to war, and battle could befall them at any moment. But they sat their horses straight, offering no complaint. Ysane watched them with pride tinged with concern. How bear they the torment of the heat in their mail? They must feel as meat baking for sup. Ah, but ’tis so hot! When the last man trailed by, Fallard raised his hand in farewell to Harold, who saluted from his place on the wall. The burh trumpets sounded in acknowledgment of the lord’s departure, the notes brassy on the dead air. Desultory calls of ‘safe journey’ floated down. They trotted to the head of the column where rode Roul and Fauques with Trifine and Roana. Feeling somewhat unnerved, Ysane looked to Fallard. “See you, husband. Even the banners hang lifeless on their poles.” He grunted. “Aye, and even the surface of the water looks dusty, think you not?” Another grunt. On the road, dust roiled from beneath plodding hooves and floated lazily on the still air, the smell of it thick. It mingled with the still, humid heat to create a sense of being smothered by an invisible blanket. Coughs and sneezes sounded among the men. Perspiration trickled down Ysane’s body, dampening her cyrtel. “How long think you this heat will last?” “Mmmph.” “Will we find water enough along the way?” No answer at all. She sighed and gave up the effort, letting Freya fall back a little. Warmth beat upon them and as the sun arced across the sky, the heat rose. The air shimmered like watery waves over the road. Freyja kept her nose close to Tonnerre’s hindquarters. Fallard turned and gestured to her to come back beside him. “Stay close, my rose. I trust you will inform me do you grow too weary to ride. This heat steals the body’s very strength. I would have not my son birthed ere he has chance to grow.” Now he deigns to speak with me! “Your son?” She laughed, though the dryness of her throat made it sound more like the crackling of sere oak leaves. She reached for the water leather hanging from the pommel and took a sip. “Oh, ho! By what foresight, husband, say you our child will be a son, and not a daughter?” “’Tis only that my family has a history of producing sons first,” he countered, an impish light twinkling in his midnight eyes. “I see. I take it that is similar to your history of more than one child birthed at the same time?” “Oh aye, though oft times several generations pass between. Then again, ’tis not unheard of for one generation to follow another with our women bearing twins.” “So I am to expect this child may be one of two, or mayhap even three?” “Happens you should.” “And what would be your thought, my lord, should the first child born of twins be a girl, followed by a boy?” “’Twill never happen, my love. I have told you, the firstborn are always males.” “Certain enough are you, that you would wager on that?” He threw her a sudden, wicked grin. “Now that is an intriguing thought. I would indeed wager with you, wife, but I must warn you. Think not my reward will be easy or quick to pay.” “Think you I would demand any less?” “Very well. What propose you to offer when I win?” “If you win. That is by no means a surety, despite your assertions. But I must have time to think on this, for my desire from you will also be not trivial, and must be that which is worthy of so notable a victory.” “I need no time to think upon my desire. Lean close and I will tell it.” She urged Freyja closer to Tonnerre. Fallard lifted her from her saddle to set her down in his lap. The unexpected action startled Freyja and she shied away. Trifine, riding behind with Roana, chuckled, moved forward and caught up the reins. Fallard looped his own reins around the pommel. Guiding Tonnerre with his knees, he wrapped both arms around her. She protested, pushing against him in a futile effort to gain her release. “Fallard, ’tis too hot to ride together, and ’tis not proper in front of your men.” “’Tis but for a moment, my rose, and then I will return you to Freyja. But hear me out, for I wish to tell you what my reward will be. Methinks you will wish not for others to hear.” He put his mouth close to her ear and whispered. Ysane’s eyelids flew wide and her mouth dropped open. Heat blazed across her face. The longer he spoke, the hotter she felt. Then suddenly, she giggled. “‘Why, ’tis not even possible, what you say.” “Oh, but ’tis, and I will have it from you when I win our bet. Agree you to this?” She glanced at him through narrowed eyes, then nodded. “I agree. You will have the details of my reward when we stop this eve.” Fallard glanced at Trifine, who returned his gaze without expression and obligingly held Freyja’s reins as Ysane was lifted back into her saddle. Some of her enjoyment in her husband’s attentions abated as Ysane glanced at the fields they passed. Despite a new watering project Fallard had recently commenced, too many of the summer crops shriveled ere their time. Though not yet lost, they would be, and soon, without water and an easing of the terrible heat. She listed in her mind the burh’s stocks of food. Even with the extra stores they had purchased, they would have to ration stocks through the winter if they had to supply the lesser burhs whose wealth could not match that of Wulfsinraed. She prayed, as she had done oft in the past seven-days, for rain. They arrived where the dusty road narrowed to little more than a track as it entered the forest, forcing the company to string out. She sighed with relief when the temperature dropped noticeably beneath the thick canopy. Fallard urged Tonnerre into a league-eating canter. The journey to London was begun. CHAPTER FORTY-SIX Two pairs of eyes that had earlier observed the long-expected arrival of William’s messenger now watched as the dark knight led his troops into the shadowy tunnel beneath the interlacing confusion of branches. Both men took note—with accompanying jaded comments—of the five women in the group, one of whom was the female their leader so-named the ‘Foolish One’. They agreed he would find that news of merit. They waited until the company passed from sight ere moving north along a narrow track that led deep into the forest. Ere the night was over, their leader had learned of the day’s events at Wulfsinraed. ’Twas all Ruald could do not to rub his hands together. All proceeded as he wished. The day the king’s messenger was spotted on the road to Wulfsinraed, the recall was sent to the groups of his raiders that had harassed Norman troops and holdings around London. By the time the dark knight arrived in the capital, there would be no rebels left to find. D’Auvrecher would chase ghosts, while Ruald took Wulfsinraed. Yet, part of the news brought to him by his spies concerned him, for he knew not what it might portend. The Foolish One had been among the riders and though she was fettered not, she appeared under guard, and ’twas the thought of his spies she favored not her inclusion in the company. Ah, but her last message repeated she was watched, which surprised him not. She was an incompetent accomplice at best. The dark knight was no fool. Mayhap, he had simply decided ’twas safer to have her under his eye. Ruald had received no hint of aught to lead him to believe his plans were compromised, and ’twas no hardship to him the woman was among those leaving. She had kept to her role and played her part, however ineptly. Should he need her again, he knew where to find her. Nay. He would waste not time on worry. His brother was due to arrive in the camp by eventide of the following day. Then they would make their move. ’Twas a simple strategy, and ’twould be successful because of it. They would launch the assault under cover of night, for even the moon played into his hand. Two nights hence, the light of the night would be in its dark phase. Such exquisite timing meant the fates worked in his favor. This time, naught would go wrong. *** The pace Fallard set was easy, so as not to push either men or horses too hard in the heat. They had not journeyed far when a red deer stag sauntered out of the trees onto the road ahead of them. The animal was majestic, huge, and sported a spectacular rack. It showed no fear. It snorted, and tossed its head as if in challenge, and trotted into the forest on the other side of the road. “Magnificent,” Fallard breathed. Ysane exclaimed in wonder. They met few travelers, only a unit of the king’s soldiers on patrol and a young couple, a freeman and his wife and children. Fallard sent them on their way after a brief conversation to put them at ease, for their fear of such a large group of soldiers was clear in their weary eyes. “The man is a farmer,” he said to Ysane. “His crops died in the field. He moves his family to a burh nigh the coast, where water, ’tis said, is more plentiful. He has a brother there, and they hope to join him. The load of their belongings is pitifully small. I gave them coin. Enough to hold them, if they are careful, until they are settled.” He offered the coin for no reason save the couple needed it, and he could easily spare it. But when he glanced at his wife, the look she gave him was nigh reverence. He sat straighter, glad he had obeyed the instinct to help. “’Tis so sad,” Ysane said, “like the news from Funta.” “Aye, but our people will be fine. We will care for them.” A fire started by summer lightning from rainless clouds had devastated Funta burh, its village and many of its surrounding fields and farms. Though no lives were lost, there remained naught left of the wooden manor house or the cottages. The burhfolc were temporarily absorbed into Wulfsinraed’s other fiefs, while Lord Belleme and his family had returned to London. “I will seek out Belleme. His service has been exemplary. ’Tis likely William will honor him and order Funta rebuilt, out of stone, this time. We will plunder the stores of all the fiefs to supply those who have lost all.” Roana rode to Ysane’s side. “How fare you, my dear? I worry for your delicate condition in this heat.” “I am well, but what of you, Roana? I fear ’tis too much for you. You are quite flushed.” Fallard peered around her to look more closely at Ysane’s lovely cousin. Roana’s face was ruddier than the small carrots Alewyn loved to serve boiled and mashed with butter and spices. “You are drinking enough?” “Aye,” Roana said with a laugh. “’Tis but the way my skin reacts to heat. I have surely drunk enough to float the swans who stop on the river to rest during their journey to the Fenlands.” Ysane’s laughter was to Fallard like a sprinkle of cool water. He listened with part of his mind to the two as they chatted of inconsequential things. The rest of his attention was given to their surroundings. As they journeyed, the forest light, already twilight dim with the closeness of the trees, grew darker. Beneath the heavy canopy, the stuffiness increased so the air was breathlessly close, yet it should have been cooler beneath the tree cover. Ysane looked up and strained to catch a glimpse of the sky. “’Tis growing hotter, methinks. I begin to fear I will either melt or burst into flame. I worry too, for the men. Though they have removed their helms, they remain in their mail. Already we have stopped thrice to water the horses and refill the water leathers.” “Trifine said his shirt is soaked beneath his hauberk,” Roana said. “Even the hides of the horses are dark with sweat.” Both women freely bathed their faces with small, wetted towels. The corners of Fallard’s eyes crinkled. When she thought he looked not, Ysane slid the cool cloth along her neck and down her front beneath the folds of her headrail. They had reached an area where the trees thinned out to offer a clear view of the heavens. Storm clouds roiled and churned overhead. There would be no gloaming this eve. He pointed to the sky. “Look above you, my ladies. You will see the answer to the puzzle.” “Ah! ’Tis as I thought,” Ysane exclaimed. “A storm comes. I knew I smelled rain, but thought it but a false hope.” “Praise be!” Roana breathed, her face filled with thanksgiving. “’Tis going to rain! Oh, how I wish for it everywhere, but especially at home.” “Aye,” Ysane answered, “but let us also pray the fields do not flood, lest what is left of the crops rot where they stand.” A soft murmur rustled through the trees. ’Twas as if the forest exhaled a long, slow sigh. Sweet puffs of cool air followed the sound, slipping past them like wraiths, briefly cooling sweat-soaked foreheads and heralding the advancing front. They passed two stone way-crosses leaning drunkenly beside the road, lichen covered, cracked and discolored with age. Ysane pointed to the one that, had it stood upright, would have directed straight ahead. Carved into the stone was a building with a high, pointed spire. “Fallard, will we make it to the abbey ere the storm begins?” He had determined to spend their first night at Bedhalh Abbey, a short gallop west of the Crossroads. Some eight leagues beyond, they would catch the main thoroughfare south to London. “Mayhap, we will,” he said. “The Crossroads are ahead.” Music and laughter reached their ears. The front of the column rounded a curve and before them, the trees opened out into a clearing at least half a league across. Their westward path cut through it to intersect, halfway across the great field, another road that ran north to south. This northern thoroughfare crossed over a wide bridge that spanned the river and continued southeast to Ceteham, Cantware Burh and other points along the coast. The grounds of Fallewydde faire straddled the roads and the river in concentric, ever-expanding circles. As their cavalcade exited the forest, sound and color exploded on their senses. It seemed the faire-goers paid little heed to either drought or heat. Fallard heard Ysane’s stomach growl at the luscious smell of cooking food. The strains of song from more than one traveling troupe were heard as they progressed. Tents and peddler’s wagons of vivid rainbow colors appeared almost garish to his eyes, accustomed as they were to the dusty shadows beneath the trees. Jugglers and acrobats, scops and dancers, men with trained dogs, monkeys and even stranger animals were to be seen on every side. As they traversed the field, merchants waved in welcome, inviting them to stop and sample the wares. Ysane and Roana exclaimed together at sight of bolts of lavishly hued, exquisitely woven cloth stacked on a table in front of an open tent. Roul and Fauques tried to look everywhere at once, their faces alight with excitement. Fauques spoke rapidly, his hands in emphatic movement. Roul, awe on his face, nodded and pointed to a very large, brown-furred mound curled beneath a tree. “My lord! ’Tis a bear.” The corners of Fallard’s eyes crinkled, but he stopped not. Domnall, who had ridden forward from the rear guard, uttered uncharacteristically rapturous words when his glance fell on a collection of ancient but beautifully preserved swords. “Look you, my lord! ’Tis certain I am that weapon there, the last one to the left at the top, is of great antiquity. ’Tis an Etruscan noble’s blade, do my eyes see correctly, yet see how well preserved it be.” Fallard nodded and kept riding. A Romany family, with what seemed a score of children tumbling, gamboling and laughing around their distinctively carved and painted caravan, invited them to stay. The patriarch, his black eyes glittering with avarice above the thickest, most amazingly curved mustache Fallard had ever seen, called to them. “Stay and rest a while, my lords. My eldest daughter will perform for you the dance of the peacock’s tail.” He gestured toward a beautiful, darkly voluptuous girl garbed in multiple sheer veils of shimmering blue and green. “You have my promise you and your warriors—aye, and even your ladies—will find it more amazing than aught you have seen.” Fallard pointed to the lowering skies and kept riding. A few unhappy murmurs from the men behind floated to his ears. The squire’s faces fell. He ignored them, and the displeasure that replaced the greed in the patriarch’s narrowed gaze. The column continued to wind its way through the throngs of people, passing a large inn and an even larger alehouse, the only permanent structures at the Crossroads apart from the bridge. Suddenly, Roana caught Ysane’s arm and pointed to their right. “Ysane, look you! ’Tis the bookseller. He is come!” Beyond the alehouse, wedged between a fat tent of yellow and green stripes filled with all manner of cookware, and a peddler’s wagon loaded with household notions of every description, was the small, nondescript booth of the bookseller. “Heard you, Fallard? The bookseller, he is here!” His gaze followed the line of her finger, but he looked her in the eyes and shook his head. Her expression lost all animation, and she faced forward. The elderly book merchant saw her, called her name and waved in glad recognition. Fallard watched her take herself in hand, force a smile and return the man’s greeting, then she tightened her reins and dropped behind with Roana until he rode alone. He hated the disappointment in her face, but his plans did not include stopping at the faire this night. *** Somewhere, deep inside her soul, Ysane felt something shrivel that had begun to grow again after Renouf bludgeoned it into oblivion. She stared at Fallard’s back, uncompromisingly straight. Had he already forgotten his promise to her, made only that morn? Knew he not that by the time they returned from London, the faire would be over? Silently chiding herself for allowing it to matter, she lifted her chin and reminded herself she was the lady of Wulfsinraed, and no longer a child. Life was filled with disappointments and small sorrows. One learned to accept them and go on. Besides, she had chosen to trust her husband. If he refused to stop, he had good reason. But she could help not the hurt wrought by his betrayal of his promise. A light touch on her hand brought her head around. Roana smiled at her, compassion in her look. “It matters not,” she mouthed. But as she glanced back at the others, she saw even Domnall had a glum cast to his features. She was not alone in her disappointment. Thunder rumbled overhead as the hot, hungry, and now rather drooping and disconsolate company followed the western road into the trees on the other side of the faire field. Slowly, the atmosphere grew more charged and a strong wind began to blow. The treetops swayed back and forth, but even beneath the trees, the breeze was forceful enough to buffet them with small twigs, leaves and grit kicked up from the road. To their left, the low, sluggishly running surface of the river bounced in tiny wavelets and splashes. She sighed and lifted her face. “How refreshing is the cool.” “Aye, but I fear we will soon be soaked,” Roana said with a laugh. “The abbey is nigh but mayhap, not close enough.” The lurid, brilliant flare of one lightning flash after another was followed by a cacophony of thunder that rumbled and roared as if all the hounds of hell were baying above them. Some of the horses, already nervous and skittish, pranced away from the blowing debris around their feet, and men’s hands tightened on the reins. Abruptly, Fallard slowed Tonnerre and moved close to Freyja. “Stay close, Ysane. Freyja is not so well trained as Tonnerre. I would have you nigh should the animal take fright.” Her heart lightened at the concern in his voice. She smiled. Behind her she heard Trifine murmuring to Roana and knew the silver knight also looked out for his lady. The fresh scent of the coming rain moved on the cooling air, dissipating the pungent odor of dust and sweat-soaked men and horses. The oppressive atmosphere lightened. The storm front was passing, and with it came the first tiny pellets of scattered rain. It seemed as if the now crisp breeze was spitting moisture in their faces. It began to grow dark. “Keep up!” Fallard threw the words at her and once again set Tonnerre to a ground-eating canter. “I wish to reach our destination ere the heaviest showers begin.” *** Minutes passed as they sped along. As the first fat raindrops of the storm dropped among them, creating tiny craters in the dust of the road, they came upon another clearing to their right. Set well back from the road, the network of buildings and gardens that heralded the Benedictine community of Bedhalh Abbey lay sprawled behind a wall of brick. The pointed spire of the chapel rose so high it seemed to pierce the dark, lowering clouds. A duty postulant swung open the double gates. The horses surged forward, sensing the end of the day’s journey, and the column swept through into the abbey yard. Fallard reined in at the doors to the refectory as a well-fed monk in the black robe of his order stepped out to greet him. “Well met, my lord, well met,” he cried. “Well come you are here, and in time for sup. Come inside, ere the rain drenches you. The stables are there.” He pointed to his left toward a sizable building. “’Tis dry and cool and the hay is fresh.” “My thanks,” Fallard said. The monk hurried back inside. “Domnall! See to the horses. Roul, you and Fauques go with him.” He slung his saddlebags over his shoulder and helped Ysane dismount. She grimaced as stiff muscles protested. He passed into the refectory and Ysane followed, Lynnet right behind her. Aelthid came next, then Leda, flanked by her guards. Trifine brought up the rear. The huge dining room was clean and cool, with large windows regularly spaced in the thick walls. On sunny days, ’twould be a bright, cheerful space, but with the rain now cascading as if the heavens meant to reverse the drought in but hours, ’twas merely gloomy. Another monk came forward. Short and slender, his face was wreathed in smiles. “Good eve, my lord. I am Brother Paul, and ’tis my joy to attend your party. You will wish to wash, I am sure. Please follow me.” He threaded through rows of wooden tables crowded with travelers and passed through an arched doorway into a vestibule. A long, narrow hall, unadorned except for a few sputtering torches, stretched in front of him. Identical corridors opened to the left and right. In each, plain doors lined either side. He waved his hand in an encompassing gesture. “I will guide the women to their cells. If the men will wait here, I will shortly return.” “Nay.” Fallard said. He pointed to Leda’s guards. “I and these two accompany us.” “But my lord, no men but our own may go into the women’s dormitory.” No one moved. Fallard stared the man down. Brother Paul huffed. Turning to his right, he started down the passage. Fallard glanced at Trifine and nodded, then gesturing to the women and Leda’s guards, followed the monk. Brother Paul stopped before a door nigh the end of the hall, gesturing to Roana and Ysane to enter. He opened the door across from it and with hands out, palms up, indicated to the other three women they should go inside. Fallard intervened, raising his arm to bar Leda from following the maids. “The slave will sleep in her own cell.” “But my lord….” “The slave is my prisoner. I take her to the king. I will increase my donation to the abbey do you see she has a separate cell. Do these doors lock?” “Nay! My lord, this is a house of God. Locks serve no purpose here.” “Then my guards will stay.” “Guards? Guards, you say?” Brother Paul drew himself up. “Nay, my lord! As I said, no men may remain in this section of the dormitories. ’Tis for the women, alone.” Fallard reached into his sash and pulled out a leather bag. He tossed it up and down in his hand. It clinked softly with the sound of many coins. “Then have one of your own, a trustworthy man, assigned to the task.” The monk licked his lips as he stared at the bag. “I am not a greedy man for myself, you understand, my lord,” he finally said, his eyes rising to Fallard’s face. He shrugged. “But our order has many needs. I will do what I can. Yet, your request is uncommon and the abbey is nigh full this night. I must learn if a single cell is available, and speak with the abbot. Mayhap, exceptions may be made when ’tis needful.” Fallard dropped the bag of coins into his hand. The monk bobbed his head and trotted back down the hall. Fallard stepped to the door where Ysane stood, waiting. He bussed her lips. “Are you well, my rose?” Eyes twinkling, she smiled. “Aye, my lord.” He arched a brow, but the corners of his eyes crinkled. “Come to the refectory when you are ready.” Laying hold of Leda’s wrist, he returned to the vestibule where waited Trifine. Brother Paul re-appeared. The energetic little monk led them through a maze of halls and workrooms. He stopped to indicate a small cell, barely more than a closet. “The Abbot has agreed. I will arrange for our Brother Milrath to serve as guard for the night. He is most reliable.” Fallard glanced at Leda. She glared back. “The slave is a beautiful female,” he said, “and knows well how to use her charms. She may seek to tempt your man in order to escape.” Leda narrowed her eyes and hissed. She tried to pull away from his grip. He ignored her. Brother Paul beamed. “Have no fear, my lord. I chose Milrath because he is large and strong, but he suffered an…injury, as a small boy. Should the female attempt such tricks, he will find it no difficulty to resist.” Fallard searched the monk’s face and nodded. “Well and good.” He hustled Leda into the tiny space. Inside was naught but a narrow cot with a pallet and a miniscule table upon which lay a pewter washbowl and water-filled pitcher. There were no windows. “My men will insure a meal is brought to the woman. Understand this. None are to speak to her, and once my men have turned her guard to Brother Milrath, this door is not to be opened without my sanction.” The monk bowed, palms together. “As you say, my lord, it shall be done. Do you follow me, I will take you to your cells in the men’s dormitory.” “My First and I will bunk in the stables with our men. We require a room only to wash.” Brother Paul blinked. “Very well.” They left the two guards to watch Leda’s door until Milrath’s arrival. The monk took them to a separate room off the refectory furnished only with a table and several large washbowls. “There is fresh water in the pitchers,” he said. He bowed again and left them, muttering something about ‘lords’ and ‘difficult’ beneath his breath. Trifine snorted and went to stand at the single, small window. He leaned a shoulder against the wall and looked out upon an extensive herb and vegetable garden being pounded by the rain. “What are you up to, Fallard?” “Before you retire, see to it Brother Milrath is given a cup of his favorite mild beverage in thanks for his nightly watch.” An unholy grin curved over Trifine’s lips. “I take it the drink will have an extra ingredient added?” They removed their mail and stripped, dropping their clothing to the floor. Fallard wiped the dust and sweat from his body ere ducking his head into a bowl to rinse his hair. He dumped the filthy water into the slop basin. He tipped the contents of a pitcher over his head and stood with eyes closed, enjoying the liquid skimming in cool refreshment over his skin. He threw back his head and like a great beast, shook the water from his hair. When he answered Trifine’s query, his tone was sardonic. “What think you?” A long, low chuckle rumbled from his First. CHAPTER FORTY-SEVEN “Think you she will take the bait?” Trifine was a dark shadow resting at ease against a stable post some yards away. “I doubt it not.” Fallard took a bite from the apple he held. The time was long past the mid-watch. The constant play of lightning coruscating through the sky repeatedly illumined a landscape made bleak by the stark white brilliance. He watched in silence as another bolt streaked horizontally across the skies, the flash outlining the form that appeared on top of the abbey wall. “Ho! Our little bird flies.” The rain, flung hard in every direction in wind-driven torrents, buffeted the figure and for a moment, he feared she would fall. Darkness swallowed her. A rapid succession of further bolts gave glimpses of her pell-mell flight toward Fallewydde. She slipped in a mud puddle and went down, but immediately rose, shook her hands, and kept going. He took another bite from the apple. The sweet juice ran down his chin. He rubbed it off and wiped his hand on his braies. Without taking his eyes off the place where the woman raced into the night, he stretched out his arm to offer the rest of the fruit to Tonnerre, whose massive head hung over the wall beside him. For all his size, the stallion’s acceptance of the gift was dainty as that of any mare. A whisper of sound alerted him that Trifine drew nigh. “She is gone, then?” “Aye, running like a hare toward the Crossroads. Resourceful woman that she is, she will seek aid there, ’tis certain. She will find Ruald and return with him to Wulfsinraed. We will be waiting.” “’Tis quite a risk you take, Fallard. She loves the man. She will confirm our intent to move on to London, but she may also tell him of her confession, or at least that you know somewhat of his plans.” “Nay. Set at ease your thoughts. She may care for him, aye, but she loves her own skin more. He would kill her without a qualm if she told him aught of what she has done, and well she knows it. She cannot speak of her knowledge without revealing her own role, so whatever tale she spins, ’twill be to her own advantage, and thus also to ours.” He paused, and then said, “Ruald never knew of my original strategy to take Wulfsinraed, and knows not now his scheme is the same. Nor will he learn until ’tis too late.” “’Twas a good strategy, that one, almost as fine as the new one we chose. ’Twould have worked.” “Aye. ’Tis too bad it will now fail.” “Aye, too bad. When do we leave?” “There is time, yet. I have a mind to sample the delights of the faire, and watch the light return to my lady’s eyes and the joy return to her heart when I purchase for her a book of her own choosing. We will set the time of our return for the day after the morrow.” Trifine laughed softly. “That is what I feared. Roana will insist I part with too much of my coin to purchase some of that lovely fabric she coveted. I vow your decision will beggar me, Fallard.” “Ah, but think you how happy our friend the gypsy patriarch will be.” Trifine’s teeth flashed luminescent in the brilliant play of light from the sky. “Do we return the women here, or take them with us back to the burh?” “Not here. I fear the treachery of Ruald. He holds no respect for the sanctity of the Church. We know not the location of his scouts. Should they learn of Ysane or Roana abiding in the abbey, Ruald might order an assault to take them. The monks are no fighters. They might wish to protect those left in their care, but they would stand no chance against a determined force. We will keep the women beneath our own hands.” “’Tis a sound choice, methinks.” “Get some sleep, Trifine. Soon, there will be little enough time for rest.” “And you, my friend?” “I will be not long behind.” Trifine nodded and sought his lonely pallet in the hay. *** Fallard insured the hue and cry the following morn over the disappearance of the slave was sufficiently wrathful none would suspect ’twas deliberately contrived. Poor Brother Milrath abased himself with such excess for his failure to remain awake and effectually discharge his task that Fallard, uncomfortable at his small deceit, privately took him before the abbot to reassure them no lasting harm was done. The news that the day would be spent at the faire lightened the mood of the company despite the muddy mess through which the horses trudged. The previous night’s storm left debris strewn all over the road, but it had broken the drought and the miserable heat, leaving the morn brisk and fresh. It promised to be a perfect day for leisurely pursuits, and all agreed a whole day at the faire was far better than a mere evening, as they had at first thought to have. Ere dispersing the company, Fallard ordered that everyone be back at the abbey by nightfall, for the following day would be long. Catching Freyja’s reins, he pulled the horse close and stared into his wife’s happy face. A doting smile pulled at the corners of his mouth. He knew he looked the fool, but he cared not. Her eyes when they rested upon him were limpid and adoring. That look was worth being seen as a besotted lackwit. “Where shall we begin, my rose?” Full-blown delight suffused her countenance. Peering at him from the corner of her eyes, she said, “Mayhap, I know of a peddler we might visit who offers rare purchase.” The rumble of a chuckle broke from Fallard. “So I thought. Lead on then, my love. I am at your service.” He turned to Roul, who chattered nonstop with Fauques. “Roul, you are released until nooning. Find me, then. I shall have packages for you to secure. Have you coin?” “Aye, Captain.” His grin nigh split his freckled face as he loped off with Fauques. They rode slowly through the faire grounds, the hooves of their horses grinding the brown grass of the field into the wet ground. ’Twas still early and few people were out and about, but most of the tents and stalls were open. Merchants called to them and cried the merits of their wares. Ysane was focused on reaching one stall in particular. She rose in the stirrups and waved as they approached. “Fair morn to you, Master Claudien. Fair morn!” The old man turned from arranging his books in the shelves at the back of his stall. The skin of his crinkled face lit up as his longtime favorite customer ran to him, her hands stretched in greeting. Claudien returned her grasp and leaned forward to place a kiss high on her cheek, nigh her temple. “My lady Ysane, ’tis very glad I am to see you again. I have missed you, fair one, these past twelvemonths.” “As I have missed you, old friend. Master Claudien, greet you Thegn D’Auvrecher,” she said, drawing Fallard forward. “He is my husband, and the new lord of Wulfsinraed.” Claudien took Fallard’s measure in a glance. “I have heard tell of the Norman warrior who walks like a dark ghost in the night. ’Tis said King William values him above many another knight, and that he is brave as Beowulf in battle and loyal beyond word—which, say I, is all well and to the good. But more to the point, my lady, is he kind to you?” “Good master!” Ysane bit her lower lip, but her shoulders shook. Fallard frowned and crossed his arms over his chest, but said naught. “Nay, ‘master’ me not, lady. I am not yet deaf. My old ears heard more than I wished to know of your troubles with that lout Renouf. ’Tis a kind man you are deserving of, now.” “Then fear not for me, Master Claudien, for I can have no complaints of my lord. He is a good man, and treats me well, and I would say such even were he nowhere nigh to hear.” Smiling, Claudien turned and rummaged in a lidded wooden box. Finding what he sought, he pulled out a small object carefully wrapped in linen and handed it to Ysane. “I have held this for you for the past four twelvemonths, in hopes one day you would return. I found it at Braehurst Priory and knew at once ’twould be to your liking.” Ysane unwrapped the linen folds with care. Her intake of breath was sharp on sight of what lay within. Fallard leaned to look over her shoulder. One eyebrow rose. Ysane lifted wondering eyes to Claudien. “You saved this for me, all this time?” Claudien smiled and glanced at Fallard, who gave the briefest of nods. Ysane’s hands moved reverently over the small book she held, her fingertips tracing with feather touch the beautifully illumined silver letters on the fine, calf leather vellum of the cover. She gently turned to the first page and a long sigh spilled from her lips. “What name has the book, Ysane?” “’Tis the poem ‘Waldhere’, my lord. ’Tis about a legendary hero of my people whose name was Walter of Aquitaine. You know of him?” “Aye, but not firsthand. I seem to remember something about a treasure and a great sword.” “That is the one. Waldhere was a warrior. With his lady Hildegyth, he stole the treasure of the court of King Attila. There is much in the story of battle and glory, but also some of love. It ends well. ’Tis a favorite tale of the scops.” Her voice was hushed. “Never did methink to hold in my hands the written text.” “Wrap it carefully, Master Claudien,” Fallard said. “We have far to travel and I would insure such a treasure arrives home in one piece.” “Oh, Fallard!” Her eyes glowed with emerald fire as she handed the book back to Claudien, then she threw her arms around his neck. She covered his face with happy, laughing kisses. So enthusiastic was her gratitude he began to laugh as well. He caught her in his arms, lifting her high, and returned her affectionate gesture with rather more passion than she had expected. The clearing of a throat gained their attention. Trifine and Roana stood nigh them. A large linen sack draped over Trifine’s shoulder. Both wore broad smiles. “’Twould seem your lady found what she sought, as did mine,” the silver knight said. “Had I known the effect such a gift would have, mayhap, I would have bought her a score of books when first I came.” Roana took Ysane’s hand. “I would have you come with me, if our lords mind not. Domnall wishes for the advice of our husbands in the choice of a certain sword. ’Twould seem the weapon is a rare find. Domnall is in raptures, but since you and I have other interests, ’twas my thought we would walk together for a time.” Ysane glanced at him. “Fallard?” He nodded. “But of course, my ladies, but I would have you stay together at all times, and leave not the confines of the faire.” He handed a goodly portion of the coins in his leather purse to the bookseller. “I would leave our horses tethered behind your stall, master, if ’twould be no trouble?” “’Twould be my pleasure, my lord, and I thank you.” “Master Claudien, my deepest gratitude for the book,” Ysane said. “For you, lady, I would have held it till my time on this earth was ended—and then I would have gifted it to you at my passing.” She laughed. “I would much rather have need to pay for it, my friend.” *** The rest of the day flew by on the speeding wings that always seemed to accompany happy times. Ysane and Roana strolled through the faire, chatting about their husbands, stopping to exclaim in delight at the wares displayed in the many stalls, or, once or twice, with disdain at the poor quality of overpriced goods. They listened to the songs of the scops, clapped and sang with the musical troupes, and marveled over the skills of the acrobats, throwing the appropriate coins to each. They passed a booth filled with novelties and items of odd nature. Ysane gasped and pointed to something in the booth. “Look you, Roana!” The vender moved close. He beamed at them and set himself to charm. “Think you Fallard would find this of interest?” Ysane picked up a curving, highly polished Norse drinking horn. She twisted it around to view it from every angle. The cup’s silver rim was decorated with an ancient spiral design. Sunlight flashed from the multiple lines of silver ornamentation that swirled gracefully around the curve of the horn to end at the chased silver tip. Etched in silver along the cup’s front was a depiction of the fearsome hammer of Thor. “I have noticed Fallard has taken a particular interest in the collection of Viking weapons in the hall. Mayhap, he would enjoy drinking his ale from this cup, now and anon.” Roana admired the implement. “’Tis a thing of both use and beauty. What man would not?” “That particular horn belonged to a very rich and famous jarl, none other than Thorfinn Turf-Einarsson, Eorl of Orkney, also known as Thorfinn Skull-Splitter,” the vender interjected smoothly. “Though ’tis hardly fit for a lady’s tender ears, methinks you will wish to know—so you may tell your esteemed husband—that legend passed down from that time says the eorl loved to drink the blood of his enemies from the horn.” He leaned forward and motioned with his hand to the two women to come closer, and then whispered in ominous tones. “’Tis told he cut out their hearts while they still lived and poured the blood directly into the horn even as the severed organs pumped their last.” “Ugh.” Ysane gave a delicate shudder, while Roana pressed her hand over her bosom. “Aye, and all would expect beautiful and high-born ladies of delicate humor such as yourselves to be distressed by such a wicked and barbaric custom.” His eyes glittered and he spoke directly to Ysane. “But I must ask, my lady, if your husband be a mighty warrior, would he not find it a tale worthy of recounting to his friends?” Roana’s trilling laughter rang out. “Methinks our friend is wise in the ways of his trade, Ysane. He knows well how to reach our purses through the tempers of our husbands.” Unoffended, the vender bowed to Roana, acknowledging her insight. “Mayhap, but he is right,” Ysane said. “Fallard would enjoy imparting that information to his friends. I shall buy it for him.” She turned to the merchant. “Have you also a holder?” “’Tis good you asked, my lady, for I have here a holder meet for such a fine cup.” He handed Ysane a heavy, blackened silver holder in the shape of the scaled lower half of a dragon, its clawed feet and speared tail forming the triangle of the base. He set the cup into the holder to show her how well it fit. “Oh, aye, that will do! ’Tis as if ‘twere made for the cup. I will take it. Roana, see you here aught that might catch Trifine’s eye?” “Mayhap, that.” Her cousin pointed to a cloak pin half hidden beneath a jeweled dagger. The vender handed the pin to her. “Forgive me, lady, if I seem impertinent, but ’twould appear you are wise not only in the ways of merchants, but possess a discerning eye, as well. ’Tis clear you note the piece you hold is not one of my finest. Mayhap, my lady would find her interest more captured by this piece, instead.” Reaching into a drawer behind him, he withdrew a small, cloth-wrapped item. He pulled aside the flaps to reveal a cloak pin beautifully crafted of black glass, silver and black and white cloisonné enamel. A tiny inhalation and a flicker of her eyelids was all that indicated Roana’s excitement, but Ysane saw the vender note it. He handed the piece to her. “Please, do me the honor of examining it with your expert eye. You will discover ’tis the finest of cloisonné work, crafted by a master of the art in the fabled city of Constantinople. ’Tis said the artist is a man of deep religious conviction, who never sells a piece he crafts unless ’tis first hallowed by a holy father who has received his training in blessed Rome itself. Good luck follows those who wear items of his crafting.” Ysane smiled as Roana examined it closely. Her cousin loved Byzantine cloisonné enamel. “Look you here, Ysane, at the craftsmanship. The good merchant lies not. ’Tis an exquisite piece. Think you not it will look well against Trifine’s cloak of sable velvet?” “That can be of no doubt, Roana. ’Tis an excellent gift for a knight of consequence.” Satisfied with their choices, Ysane and Roana settled their purchases with the merchant, bid him good day and wandered away among the other faire-goers. After a particularly humorous gossip about a most oddly dressed couple that passed them as they ambled along, Roana mused aloud. “Suppose you others gossip about us, as we do about them?” “If so, ’tis but fair, methinks,” Ysane said. “Why should we have all the fun?” Roana laughed gaily and hooked her arm through the crook of Ysane’s elbow. “Ysane, my dear, ’tis wonderful to see you laughing and carefree again. It has been too long, my kinswoman. My heart rejoices for you.” Ysane said naught, but smiled and placed her hand over Roana’s. “’Tis almost noontide. We have passed a great many food stalls and the wonderful smells bewitch me. Let us seek our husbands and have them buy us food, lest we starve.” “You are always hungry, these days,” Roana laughed. “Never have I known a woman with child to eat so much. You must take care or you will blow up to rival Luilda.” “Fallard said he would still want me were I to grow as big as the moon.” “Aye, and a good man he is to say so. But men are strange creatures, and ’tis truth that for all they believe they mean their words, they would still prefer us not to grow fat!” Ysane giggled. “Oh, methinks you are right, and I do take care, but no matter how much I eat, I still seem constantly famished.” “Well, at least you are not constantly ill. That is a blessing you may consider well as you happily stuff yourself. But mayhap, there is reason for your unnatural hunger. ’Tis my thought your babe is a boy, and will one day be the size of his father, and thus, even in the womb he requires more than the usual nourishment.” “Oh nay! Tell me not I will starve throughout my whole time of carrying him.” Roana laughed again at Ysane’s expression. “You need not offer such a woebegone look, my dear, for mayhap, I am in error and this hunger will soon pass, and you will then find the babe causes you some other difficulty.” “Luilda and the midwife have assured me of that. But faith, what a comfort you are, my cousin!” Ysane laughed and groaned at the same time. “With a friend such as you to offer succor in my tribulations, I have no need of a foe.” CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT They rounded a tent of scarlet and yellow, rather larger than most, to find their husbands arguing over the merits of a new style of padded forearm greave. The four of them wandered together to a food seller and sat beneath a shaded canopy to enjoy a repast of hearty rosemary-seasoned mutton pies, spiced fruit and burnt cream custard. There was much merriment and good-natured jesting when Ysane devoured everything on her trencher and then stole more from Fallard. The meal finished, Ysane and Roana gifted their husbands with their purchases. “’Tis a good story,” Trifine declared upon hearing the tale of the ‘blood in the cup’, “but ’tis likely there is little truth to it.” “Mayhap not, but I will enjoy the telling, all the same,” Fallard said, and immediately ordered a new round of ale, but had his poured into the horn. He raised it in toast. “I declare this horn the finest of cups, surpassing even the silver tankards at home.” “Hear, hear!” Trifine downed several hefty swallows, then affixed his cloak pin to the collar of his tunic. For several minutes, he swaggered and bowed to all who passed and bade them admire the piece until Roana, red-faced and laughing, pulled him back to the table and enjoined him to cease. “Methinks the heat grows apace with the day,” Fallard commented after the laughter died down. “’Tis my thought ’twill storm again this eve. Look you at the sky.” While they feasted, it had darkened somewhat. The ground beside them was patterned alternately in light and shadow as clouds raced across the face of the sun. Roul and Fauques appeared. The boys’ tunics were dirty and their faces showed traces of honey and cream, but they were nigh delirious with happiness. Fallard sent them to carry the day’s purchases—with the exception of Ysane’s book, which Fallard kept safe in his tunic—to the guards who watched their horses. “Tonnerre and Freyja are with Claudien, the bookseller,” he said. “Go there, thank him for his aid and take the horses to join the others. After, you may make free until sup.” Not long after their meal, the foursome met up with Domnall. Pleasure sparked from his hazel eyes as he showed the women the Etruscan sword. ’Twas a little later that he pulled Ysane aside while the others watched trained dogs being put through their paces. Taking her arm, he walked a little away with her. “Looks like more rain this eve, lady. Methinks the drought has been broken, mayhap, for good.” “Aye. Think you some of the crops can be saved?” “If there is not too much rain, too quickly. ’Twill be a close thing, though.” His eyes twinkled down at her. “’Tis fine to see you smiling with so much ease of late. ’Tis clear that great Norman yonder is good for you. Ysane, know you how glad I am for the wee babe you carry?” Ysane looked up into his face, letting her love for him show. “Betimes, Domnall, ’tis difficult to believe fortune has smiled upon me so kindly, and in so short a time.” “You do love him, then. Aye, I see it in you, and I see it in him too, in the way he looks at you, and the care he takes of you.” “You believe he loves me?” “Aye, lady, that he does, though he may be yet unwilling to admit to that fair emotion. But fear not. One day he will know it, and tell it, as well. He is a good man, and will be a fine father. Our people have given him their loyalty, true and fair, for even his judgments are sound, and he is generous with what he has been given, even to me.” “How so?” “See you this fine old sword I carry? ’Tis a treasure, and its price beyond my means. I thought to pass it by, and felt blessed at but holding it. But when I left, your husband returned and purchased it. He said ’twas better in the hand of a man who appreciated it as should be, rather than hanging on some rich man’s wall as a mere decoration, or a tribute to his vanity.” Ysane smiled. “That would be my husband. I wanted so to hate him, Domnall, when he came and took my home. My enemy, he was, and the enemy of my people. I feared he would bring worse than Renouf. But from the start, from the first moment he came to my sitting room, looked me up and down and said, ‘It pleases me to find you well’, then left me alone, I knew ’twould be not so. He captured my heart then, with his butchered hair and his dark eyes so filled with gentleness, though I knew it not until later.” They stood in silence for a time, each lost in their own thoughts. Domnall turned her back to the others. “I had best return you to him, ere he decides to come for you. I have taken note his attention rests upon us rather than with the dogs. He is a trifle grudging of any man who is with you, even me.” He chuckled at the thought. “But ’tis no bad thing for a man to hold tight to what is his, so long as he is not unjust in the doing.” Their time at the faire ended at dusk with most of the company meeting at the gypsy wagon to watch the daughter’s final dance of the day. Ysane sat off to one side with Fallard, his arm draped loosely around her shoulders, and Roana and Trifine to the other side. Their two maids, accompanied throughout the day by Aelthid’s young admirer and one of his friends, sat behind them, as did the two squires. Ysane found she blushed nigh continuously throughout the performance. But she was fascinated by the dancer’s sensual, fluid grace and sinuous movements so perfectly timed to the unfamiliar, but enticing music played on flute and pipes. She had not thought ’twas even possible for the body to make such moves. Relaxed and pleasantly weary, the company returned to the abbey amid low conversation and quiet laughter. Above them, leaden skies held the promise of more rain. Upon reaching their tiny cells, the women found their clothes from the previous day washed and folded on their pallets, ready to pack. ’Twas but another of her husband’s thoughtful gestures. Sorry she was at not sharing her bed with him this night. She wanted to hold him in her arms and show him her love, and be enwrapped in his loving strength. After sup, she lay in her lonely bed, finding sleep elusive as she considered the morrow when they would begin the journey to London to meet with the king. Her heart tapped a little harder at that thought, for while she did not exactly hate William, she deeply feared him. Always, he would remain the enemy, for he was the conqueror, the man responsible for the murder of her people and the rape of her land, and of the misery she had endured since her father’s imprisonment and death. ’Twas oft times difficult to prevent the lingering bitterness that dwelled in her soul from swelling into deep resentment, to sour the rest of her life. Thus, she sought to focus on whatever good might come from the events of that terrible day when William came bringing fire, sword and suffering. Eventually, she fell asleep, the sound of rain soothing her heart, and holding tight to the love she bore Fallard. For her, ’twas the best thing that had come out of that unhappy time. *** It seemed to Ysane she had barely closed her eyes ere Fallard was shaking her shoulder. “Wake up, my rose! Come, Ysane, open your eyes, let me see you are aware of me.” “Fallard.” Her voice was throaty, her mind and body slow to respond. He gently shook her again. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes. The flame of the candle he carried was the only light in the cell. “’Tis still dark, husband. Why do you wake me ere the break of day?” He grinned. “Slept you not at all last night? You are never easy to wake, but this morn seems worse. Mayhap, ’tis the babe, for ’tis said carrying a child makes a woman more tired than is natural. But come. I wish ’twas possible for you to lie in bed till nooning, but you must wake and dress. We leave soon.” “Husband.” She rolled over and tried to sit up, but she needed his help to do it. “I feel like a dead tree fallen over in the forest.” His lips twitched and his shoulders shook in silent laughter. She frowned at him through strands of hair pulled free from her braid. He set the candlestick down and took her face in his hands to kiss her. “You may feel like a dead tree, little mother, but you look like a hedgehog awakened from its winter nap. I am leaving now. Lynnet will be here shortly. ’Twas difficult to awaken her, too, for she was nigh as sleepy as you.” He laughed, this time aloud. “Mayhap, ’tis this place! There is peace here.” He looked back as he reached the door. “Nay, love, you may not lie down again.” Her scowl deepened as his words stopped her from rolling back onto the pallet. Lynnet appeared at the door. He turned to the maid. “If the both of you are not in the refectory by the time I return from speaking with the abbot, I will have you carried there like sacks of grain.” Lynnet’s eyes widened. Ysane promptly stood up, knowing he would do it. “Lynnet, find my syrce!” He left them to dress. *** “Why set you the women with the rearguard, Fallard?” Still seeking to remove the night dust from her eyelids and the cobwebs from her thoughts, Ysane struggled to loosen her cape from where it snagged on the saddle. Though his fingers were patient as he released the fabric, Fallard’s tone was not. His earlier good humor had vanished. “’Tis where I wish you to be. Say no more! I have ordered silent passage.” She curbed the urge to snap in return. As the monk on night watch held the gate to let them pass, Fallard quietly thanked him for the night’s lodging, mentioning they must make all speed to London. But as soon as the man wished them God’s protection, locked the gate behind them and returned to the abbey, Fallard ordered all to maintain silence. Then the whole company, in bewildering defiance of the haste with which they left, and despite Fallard’s careful words to the monk, walked their horses, not continuing west, where they would eventually connect with the southern road to London, but back east, toward home. Bewildered, Ysane leaned to whisper her confusion. “But Fallard, have you not orders from the king to proceed with haste to London? We have already wasted a day at the faire, which I mind not, of course, but why then do we return to Wulfsinraed? Will not William be angry at our delay?” “William will soon know the reason, and he will approve,” he whispered back. “So, William may know why we begin a hasty journey for London, ride like madmen through scorching heat, then spend a day lingering at the faire, only to return home this day, but I may not?” “There is no time to explain. For now, we must have silence!” She made a little face he could not see and raised her nose in the air. Well, then! He speaks to me as if I am one of his soldiers! ’Twas too dark to see his expression but ’twas clear from his tone he was annoyed. He urged Tonnerre to increase his pace, and left her. She supposed he moved to the front of the column. Another soldier eased forward to take his place beside her. She spoke quietly to Roana, whose horse plodded on her other side. “Naught about this morn makes sense, my cousin. ’Tis still well ere dawn. We are rushed through our departure, haste sends us into the wet night, then we must slow to the pace of a tortoise. I would know what he is about.” “Methinks our husbands have given us less than a full accounting of all they know.” “Aye, ’tis a great failing of all men, that. Know they not our fears would be less did we know what to expect?” “They believe they protect us with ignorance.” “They are wrong!” Her emphatic whisper and Roana’s low chuckle elicited more than one stern ‘Shush!’ from the men who rode with them. The rain had ceased, but the air was chill and gray with fog. Water dripped from every surface. They maintained the slow, hushed pace. When they came nigh to the Crossroads, Fallard led them off the road and deep into the trees, where ’twas so dark ’twas necessary to light small torches. The horse’s hooves gave off low sucking sounds as they sank into the soaked muck of mud, fallen leaves and other detritus. The constant drip from the darkness above became a vexation. Ysane finally realized the company was circumventing the faire at a far enough distance none there would guess at their passing. ’Twas clear Fallard wished none to know of their return to Wulfsinraed. His purpose remained a mystery. Well past the crossroads, the company returned to the road and Fallard set them to a steady pace through the misty dawn until they came about half a league from Wulfsinraed. Fallard led them once again away from the road to a glade deep in the forest. A hasty, low-voiced, last minute conference was held, this time with the women present, and Ysane learned something of what Leda had confessed to Fallard. Shocked to her core to discover Leda had learned the secret of the corridor and postern door and passed that information to Ruald, she was further horrified when Fallard explained he expected Ruald to use their absence to put men inside the wall and take over the burh. He was certain the attempt would be made that very night, for ’twas the dark of the moon and might well rain again, giving Ruald’s men good cover. But a trap had been laid, and they were returning to Wulfsinraed to spring it. “There will be fighting,” Ysane whispered, trying to hide the fear that loomed as a monstrous shadow over her heart. “There may be. I will lie not. But mayhap, if all goes well, a battle can be avoided. If not, we are ready. You and the other women will remain here with the horses, for we need them not. Fear not, little mother, I leave you well protected.” “You must know my fear is not for myself, Fallard.” “I do know. But think not the worst. Rather, think of how good ’twill be when the threat is removed. This must be done, Ysane. There is no other way.” “Fallard, about Cynric….” “He has been described to my men. As much care will be taken as possible. But if he fights, my rose, I can make no promises.” He pulled her aside, gathered her in his arms and spoke words of love and encouragement. The soothing warmth of his big hand spread protectively over her belly to penetrate the layers of clothing. It comforted her. As he pulled away, she saw that Trifine and the young knight enamoured of Aelthid held their ladies close as well, each offering farewell in his own way. “Lady?” Roul appeared before her. He stammered for a moment, straightened and said, “Know you, I will guard well my captain’s back. I will allow no harm to come to him. I pledge you this, upon my honor.” Before she could respond, he bowed and hurried away. Ysane watched him speak to Fallard, glance back at her and grin. Her heart suddenly felt a little less heavy. The men left behind to guard the women began to set up camp in whatever comfort could be found or devised. Fallard split his men into two companies, one large, the other but a handful. The two groups melted away on foot into the trees. Ere he vanished into the swirling fog, Fallard turned to Ysane. He stared with such hunger she shuddered. The power of his look spoke of a love and a need so strong, ’twas if he caressed her from afar. She sought to return that touch with the force of her own love, and from the way his eyes caught fire, knew she succeeded. He slipped away, as if to the hunt. Oh, aye, he hunts this night. But the game he stalks can too easily turn and rend him beyond recall. She shook her head to rid her thoughts of the danger he would face, for she feared that to think such things might make them come true. He will overcome, and be safe in the doing. He will! So she resolved. Roana met her gaze with the same determined optimism. Lynnet stood staring at their camp, forlorn. Ysane set her to work. The women would all need to keep busy this day, for by naught else could they keep the fear at bay. CHAPTER FORTY-NINE Fallard took charge of the smaller group and set aside all thought of Ysane, for he had need of a clear head. In the lightening day, he led them easily across the sluggish, knee-deep current to the southern side of the river. Flitting like wraiths through the forest, they made their way back to the burh until they were situated in the woods at a point across from the curving southwest end of the wall. They faced the hidden postern gate. Here, the river was wider, and thus shallower than at any other spot. From the reports of his farthest flung scouts, he now knew that as he had foreseen, the rebel forces operating around London had been traveling at speed towards Wulfsinraed for several days. Small groups were now arriving in the forest beyond the north clearing. The bulk of the force was expected to be in place by nightfall. He had got his wish. The rebels were coming to him. “Captain. Sir Ruald just finished a reconnoiter of the southwest wall, not far from our position.” The whispered report from his man brought crinkles to the corners of Fallard’s eyes. “’Tis as I expected,” he said. “Where is he, now?” “Gone, sir. He waits in a clearing beyond where we lie. The slave Leda is with him, and six others. I believe one to be Cynric Master Carver.” “Watch them, but not too closely. I would know when they move.” “Aye, sir.” The man slithered away. The morn passed while Fallard laid low with his small band. Shortly after noontide, he crawled back to the edge of the clearing and watched as Varin, on duty by design, paused above the gate. The knight looked out across the space, as he would have done a hundred times already that day. A hare erupted from the woods and shot across the open area to scurry into the underbrush further along. A grin stretched across Varin’s craggy face. Though the skies were overcast and rain threatened, the day was quite warm. He removed his helm, rubbed his hand vigorously through his short, sweaty hair as if allowing the air to cool it, and replaced the headgear. Then, as he had also done throughout his shift, he continued to amble along the wall, keeping watch. Fallard grunted. The signal had been received and acknowledged. He thought of Trifine, who led the larger group. They were north of Wulfsinraed, under cover in the same deep ravine where they had all sheltered before the attack on the burh, five months earlier. Throughout the day, they would rest in silence, for there would be no sleeping once night fell. He feared they might be hard pressed to remain concealed, but naught could be done about that, now. The return of the rebel troops from the London area had confirmed his thought Ruald intended to make his move this night or the next, at latest. Though Leda had not been privy to all the details, her admission that she had told the rebel leader of the postern gate was a critical piece of the puzzle. He was convinced Ruald, with a small group of his best fighters, intended to use cover of darkness to ford the river and enter the burh through it. In light of this, Father Gregory had already been warned to sleep in the village, in pretense of tending a ‘mortally ill’ villager, and the sentries were ordered to remain ‘blind’ to Ruald’s entrance. Fallard believed Ruald would follow the same strategy that he himself had originally intended to use, to open the gates from within and hold them while the larger force outside rushed the burh in the darkness. That force badly outnumbered the small garrison he had left behind. ’Twould seem to Ruald an easy victory. But once inside the corridor, Ruald would find the situation rather different than he would expect. He swept the scene before him with one last, searching glance, then wriggled back from his position and returned to his men. The after noontide hours were spent in rest and preparation. As he had surmised, the scudding clouds thickened. The air grew sultry and the gloaming drifted down early. He found himself smiling in anticipation. A wet night would aid his endeavors even more than it would his enemy. Soon, Ruald would enter the postern gate. If all went as planned, then shortly after would come the prearranged signal to advise him the insurrectionist leader was secured. He settled to wait. *** Sir Ruald of Sebfeld, camouflaged, as those with him, in dark clothing, and with face and hands blackened with greasy ash, knelt on the wet ground across from the featureless section of wall where the Foolish One assured him the postern gate lay. His reconnoiter of the area earlier in the day had afforded him a keen appreciation of the cunning design, for he would never have guessed an opening resided there. The storm front had passed, but moisture-laden air still buffeted his face. He waited in growing impatience, for he hoped the gusting rain would start again. Despite the darkness, he needed it to insure the movements of his small force were masked as they crossed the river and climbed to the gate. He laughed beneath his breath, the merriment a veiled insult to his companions. He was in a fey and dangerous humor. Though his men kept their distance, the Foolish One squatted beside him. He needed her not this night, but had decided her presence might facilitate certain matters. His even more foolish brother rested on his haunches at his other side. He knew Cynric regarded him with wary suspicion, but he cared not. He could scarcely credit the blind stupidity of them both. They believed all his lies. He could wait not to be rid of them, though Cynric must be tolerated longer than the Foolish One. A sneer crossed his face, unseen in the darkness. After her escape from the dark knight’s keeping, the Foolish One talked unceasingly of ruling the slaves and servants once she was lady of the burh. The thought of costly fabrics, jewels and more coin than she could imagine pleased her not so much as the anticipation of grinding the people of the hall beneath her feet. ’Twas a sentiment Ruald understood, and ’twas one of several reasons he had not killed her on sight when she showed up unexpectedly in his camp. Soon though, he would find a way to dispose of her and make it look as if she died at the hands of the enemy, for a man must sacrifice to achieve coveted goals. He would find new bedmates once he got an heir from the noble wife he intended to take once he, and not Cynric, ruled Wulfsinraed. He inhaled through gritted teeth as a spasm of sheer jubilation rolled over him. In but a few moments, he would hold all his heart desired—all for which he had for so long schemed and devised. None could stop him. D’Auvrecher was well on his way to answer the summons of his rampaging idiot of a king, leaving the burh protected by but a minimum force. Once the sentries were silenced, he would signal his men outside and open the gates. Wulfsinraed’s much-reduced garrison would be quickly overwhelmed did they attempt to mount a defense. His shoulders shook again with his mirth. As the dark knight had done to him, so he would do in return. ’Twas a fitting reward for D’Auvrecher’s interference. As he had hoped, a slow but steady rain started to fall. He lifted his face to its cleansing force and knew in his soul ’twas time. He turned to Cynric. “We move.” They forded the knee-deep river against a sluggish current and climbed the abutment beneath the hidden gate. Leda pointed out the narrow ledge in front of it. He pulled her up beside him. Under her direction, he opened the cleverly hidden latch. The door opened without a sound. A snarl of victory rumbled from his throat. This had been the only snag in his plan. The day he had learned of the secret entrance, he had sent a return message to the Foolish One ordering her back to the corridor to unbar it. She had assured him the task was done, but ’twas possible, howbeit unlikely, someone had discovered the unbolted door and resecured it. One by one, the small force crept through the tunnel and into the corridor. Ruald and Cynric lit the torches they had carried beneath their dark cloaks. Ruald moved to the secret door. His hand found the mechanism that slid the iron locking-rod into the wall, but when he pressed against the door, it opened not. His startled gaze flew to Cynric, who frowned, checked to make sure the iron rod was fully retracted, and shoved, then threw his strength against the portal. It gave not. The two pushed together, but the door held fast. Cynric shook his head as his scowl deepened. “Should not the door open easily?” A quiver of foreboding flashed like ice down Ruald’s spine. “Never mind. We will go through the chapel.” An amused voice spoke from the darkness behind them, the tone conversational. “Look you, Ingram. They seem unable to pass the door. ’Twould seem mayhap, some plans have gone awry, think you not, my friend?” Ingram chuckled. “Aye, Varin. But where Captain D’Auvrecher is involved, plans oft have a way of doing that, as I was saying to my woman this very morn. ’Tis maddening you know, but oft times, like now I would say, there is naught a man can do.” *** “Well done, Jehan! This night’s work proceeds well.” Fallard commended his Second as he surveyed the line of men—and lone woman—gagged and bound at hands, knees and feet, sitting with their backs to the corridor wall. Some of them, including Ruald and Cynric, looked rather the worse for wear. In the confined space, the brief fight had been swiftly won, for the warriors of the burh had been waiting to confront the rebels from the chapel and the crypts. After the first hard clash, Ruald’s force had deemed it wise to surrender. Only Ruald and Cynric had continued to fight until overcome. Fallard and his company had entered through the postern gate moments later, willing hands aiding them up the last few feet of the abutment. He paced the corridor, the hem of his black cloak brushing the feet of his captives, until he stopped in front of the leader. Ruald’s storm-hued eyes blazed with a rage so fierce ’twas a wonder he caught not fire and burned. Cynric, the only one not gagged, was far more composed. He wore stoic resignation like a cloak. Shoulders slumped, he relaxed in his bonds and returned Fallard’s stare through his sister’s moss green eyes. A trickle of blood from above his hairline dried on his temple. “You must know I am not truly surprised,” he said. “I told Ruald you were cunning, warned him not to underestimate you.” He sighed and leaned his head against the wall. “You knew of my involvement all along, did you not?” “Aye, though not by any word or deed of Ysane.” “I know it. Her loyalties tear at her, but she would never betray one she loved. This is none of her doing, but rather my own fate, which has again played me false.” “’Tis not the fault of fate you sit in defeat, Cynric of Wulfsinraed. ’Tis your own flawed choice.” Cynric closed his eyes and said no more. Fallard moved to Leda. Terror flared through the tears in her amber eyes. Her weeping increased, and she began to choke behind her gag. He bent to take her chin in hard fingers. “Calm yourself. Your fate will be not as you fear.” He straightened and called to several of his men. “This one,” he said, pointing to Leda, “take to the hall. Lock her within the uppermost chamber of the southeast tower. Remove her bindings, but leave two men to guard her…and know this. I will have silence. If she refuses this order, bind her again and gag her.” “This one,” and now he pointed to Cynric, “I want gagged and taken to the interrogation pit. Leave him there. I have plans for him that include not the others. Ere you leave, bind his knees and feet again. “As for the rest, drag all but this one,” he gestured to a nameless rebel, “into the hall of the crypts. Insure their bindings are secure and leave them in the dark to contemplate…defeat.” Ruald’s frenzied scream was muffled and his body heaved and bucked as he was hauled out of the corridor. Fallard regarded the rebel kept behind. Even in the chill of the corridor, the man perspired profusely. His eyes darted from one to the other of Fallard’s men and he swallowed repeatedly. Fallard glanced at Jehan and Varin, and jerked his chin. They lifted the man to his feet with ungentle hands, pinning him to the wall. Fallard drew his knife. The razor edge of the blade flashed in the torchlight as Fallard thrust it close to the man’s face, letting it fill his vision. He began to moan. “If you wish to survive this night in one piece,” Fallard said, indenting the weapon’s tip so deeply into the man’s skin while drawing it down over his cheek that a faint red line appeared, “you will answer my questions, immediately and without attempt at evasion. If you lie, I will know. If you seek to confuse, I will know and I give my word you will regret it.” He glanced at Varin. “Remove the gag.” As Varin jerked forth the rag, the stench of fresh urine lifted from the front of the man’s braies. “Now,” Fallard said, as he shaved off one of the prisoner’s eyebrows and made a show of sprinkling the hair from his fingers. “Tell me fully of Sir Ruald’s plan for taking control of my hall, and leave out no detail.” *** The wooden door slammed shut behind Leda, confining her in the upper tower chamber. She shivered. Her hands clenched as she sought to control her breathing. She had one chance, and only one to survive this new defeat, but she must control her fear. As she had done before in the crypts, she fought and defeated the demons of her own terror. Briefly, she paced among rolled tapestries, extra chamber pots and braziers, storage chests for spare linens, shelves lined with surplus crocks, bowls, and pitchers and other useful, but currently unneeded items of the hall. It had been one of her many responsibilities to keep the chamber organized, to insure all the items were cleaned before storage and to transport them back and forth from the hall as required. She hated the chore, but it had provided a convenient excuse for spending more time closeted in the room than otherwise would be expected. She crept to the door and laid her ear against it. All was silent, but she knew her guards remained. There was no escape that way. But the tower chamber was Leda’s sanctuary, and she knew its secrets. There was another way, one she believed even the dark knight’s whore had forgotten. She had found it long ago, by accident when she tripped and fell. Beneath her weight, the wall snapped inward by the space of two fingers, revealing the facade of a concealed door. Curious, she searched until she found and mastered the mechanism of the latch. She edged the door open. Light from the window embrasures disclosed a steep, narrow stairwell of wood. ’Twas some time ere she found the courage to explore her discovery, for the entrance was filled with webs and smelled of disuse. Who knew how dangerous it might be? Mayhap, ’twould crumble beneath her feet and she would be lost forever at its base. In due course, she overcame her reluctance and learned the staircase circled to a long-unused exterior door. This one opened alongside the back garden fence. Concealed by its resemblance to the stone around it and hidden from the sentries by the tight confluence of the fence and the tower’s curve, the stair had been her secret ever since. It had amused her to use it to foil the dark knight’s watchers. Those fools had never known that all the time they believed her busy at some chore in the tower, she had disguised herself in a ceorl’s headrail and syrce and made use of her freedom to accomplish her part in the plots of her true love. Now, she wasted no time. At the head of the stairwell, she kept a long wooden box. From it, she withdrew a langseax, two fighting hadseaxes and a leather satchel. Within the satchel, swathed in the protective ceorl garb, were the games pieces and folded board of the priceless Hnefatafl set, a bag of coins, two small objects of high value no one had ever missed, her message materials and the set of burh keys she had long ago stolen from the hoarding room and secreted away. She changed into the ceorl’s clothing, re-wrapped the Hnefatafl set and other treasures in her ragged cyrtel and returned them to the satchel. Keeping the keys in her hand, she bundled the weapons and the satchel inside a linen towel and fastened it securely around her waist. She donned a black cloak and made her way down the stairs, one palm sliding along the cold wall, the treads creaking beneath her weight. Her caution was great, for she had no torch. She let herself out into the wet night. At least, ’twas no longer raining. She paused and tried to sight the sentries in their oilskin cloaks who would be pacing the south wall, but the darkness was too deep. If only she could have stolen the keys to the garden gates! ’Twould have been so much easier to pass through that dark yard to the orchard. But as had Renouf, the dark knight kept the only keys in his possession. She would have to go the long way around, stopping first to free Cynric, and then work her way past the northeast tower and through the shadows in the courtyard. Hugging the tower wall, she pulled tight her dark cloak and crept on wary feet around the base to the pits. CHAPTER FIFTY Fallard stood within the north guard tower above the gates. He held a cresset high inside the embrasure overlooking the clearing and slowly swung it back and forth. He covered the light and turned to cross to the opposite embrasure that opened onto the courtyard. Using his body to shield his action from those to whom he had just signaled, he briefly let shine the flame. The burh troops, scattered about below, would note the warning and know their waiting was at an end. He raced down to the gatehouse and with the help of one of his knights, cranked open the inner portal. The distinctive metallic clank was loud. Even over the sporadic gusts of rain, the sound would clearly reach Ruald’s men where they waited beyond the clearing in the tree line. The expected questioning shout was raised from one of the sentries above, but as planned, he left it unanswered. Another shout was heard, more demanding this time, and then another, more urgent still. From high above, the alert trumpet sounded. Sentries raced along the wall and down the stairs. More shouts, and what sounded like a clash of swords began only to quickly die away. The warning trumpet’s clarion call was suddenly silenced. The outer gate lifted. Fallard stood poised in the tunnel entrance. Once again, he swung the cresset. To those waiting, he would be visible only as the tall, cloaked figure they expected to see. This time, his effort gained a detectable response. From among the trees along the edge of the clearing poured the horde of Ruald’s men, perceivable only as gyrating shadows as they rushed the gate. They were no more than halfway across the clearing, their leader approaching the bridge, when from behind them a semi-circle of equally shadowy and silent men slipped out from beneath the same trees and raced behind them. Torches flared to life all around the courtyard, sputtering and smoking. Fallard retreated to the hall stairs, dropped the cresset, threw aside his cloak and grabbed his waiting shield. As the rebels pounded through the tunnel into the courtyard, he drew his sword. Seemingly from nowhere rose the warriors of the burh. “Dex Aie!” Fallard’s voice roared the terrifying war scream as he leapt from the steps to meet the foe. Dozens of voices echoed the cry from within and without. Caught in the vise between the armed warriors confronting them unexpectedly from the front and the crush of more falling in behind, the insurgents floundered. The more experienced among them overcame the first rude shock. They fought like madmen, rallying the rest. The chaos of battle spilled over the bridge and into the clearing. Furious shouts, and the screams of wounded and dying men, rose above the resounding clash of weaponry. Thunder rumbled and reverberated overhead, as if the gods approved the conflict. *** Cynric Wulfsingas lay on a straw pallet in the interrogation pit. Yet, he could find little cause for complaint, for his captors had offered him his fill of water to drink and allowed him to relieve himself ere he was bound. They covered him with a woolen blanket, and left a torch burning in a holder on the wall. He wondered at treatment that seemed much too gracious for his situation, but he was grateful, for his clothing was damp and an unpleasant chill seeped from the walls. The warmth of the blanket and the light from the torch that chased away the blackness were very welcome. Despite Ysane’s conviction her husband would grant him leniency, his heart thudded in bitter recognition of his fate. He held no illusions about the dark knight’s intentions. He had always known the consequences should he be captured, and long since counted the cost and accepted the risk. But he could banish not the shafts of terror that scorched his soul as he thought of the king’s many methods of punishment for traitors. His father’s fate was possible, but unlikely for one who had aided Ruald the Rebel. The death he would face would be not easy. He was trying not to dwell on the frightening future that loomed all too close when he heard the faint scrape of a key in the lock. His heart slammed, then doubled its pounding rhythm. Who came for him? Inexplicably, the scraping sound continued for quite some time. Suddenly, the door above him burst open and someone came halfway down the steps. The cloaked figure stopped. “Cynric?” He stiffened in shock, then forced his body upright. Blighted hope soared at the possibility of escape. How or why he could guess not, but the voice belonged to Leda. He groaned an unintelligible mumble from behind the gag. She was at his side in a moment. While he gaped in disbelief, she fumbled with a bundle dangling from her waist to pull out two knives. With one, she severed his bonds. The other she gave to him. “What do you here, Leda? How did you get free?” “If you want out of this place, follow me,” she said, “and be quiet!” She bounded up the steps. Cynric followed as she turned left and crept round the base of the northeast tower. She stopped and pulled the hood of her cloak closer about her face. From the torchlit courtyard came the unmistakable clamor of all-out battle. Leda turned to him. “There is fighting! Ruald did not expect this.” Almost, Cynric laughed. He knew well the conflict’s cause. The rest of the dark knight’s trap had been sprung. “You should come with me, Leda.” He tried to take her arm and pull her back to the relative safety behind them, but she jerked away. “Leda!” Cursing, Cynric followed her for now she made no effort to hide. Though she hugged the wall, she moved perilously close to the combat. Unwilling to join a sword fight with naught but a hadseax, Cynric halted at the hall steps. But his companion, intent on some unknown objective of her own, arced a circle around the base, dodging warring men as she went. She fled toward the orchard. Abruptly, Cynric realized where she was headed. The crypts! She was going to release Ruald. Before he could move, a cry was raised and two men, one massive and the other tall and wearing a black hauberk, chased after her. Cynric recognized the tall warrior as Fallard. He leapt across the hall steps to pursue them, but found his progress impeded by a group of fighters. He was forced to crouch out of the way and wait for a breach through which he might pass. He saw his chance, and ran. Lightning seared the night and far ahead in its lurid glare, he saw the two knights reach the crypts. Instead of following, he raced instead for the chapel. *** The impact as his blade pierced the heart of a rebel soldier jarred Fallard to his shoulders. In the pallid light cast by a nearby torch, the man’s vivid green eyes blazed with shock, then rapidly glazed as Fallard wrenched his sword from his chest. He paused for a few moments, panting as he stared at his fallen foe. The older warrior had been a powerful and deadly swordsman, probably a knight in former service to some Saxon lord, now dead or disinherited. It had taken all his considerable skill and experience to best him. This man’s resemblance to Cynric is uncanny. I give thanks he is not my wife’s brother. He whirled to parry the next powerful blow he sensed slashing toward him, his feet slipping on wet pavement. ’Twas no longer raining, but faith, he hated fighting in wet weather, and hated it worse at night. His blade clashed with the other, striking blue sparks. As the two blades slid against each other in a teeth-clenching screech of steel, he gave a powerful twist of his wrist, forcing the other blade down. He disengaged, and in that split moment when the other’s guard was off, he plunged. The blow struck home. The man cried out and went down. In the lessening chaos of the melee, he glanced around, seeking his next opponent. His keen eyes found Domnall, Jehan and Trifine still on their feet. His troops appeared to be steadily winning the fray. A sudden, furtive movement in his peripheral vision exposed a form in a dark cloak. Too small to be a man, it darted through the pools of torchlight around the base of the northwest tower and sprinted for the orchard. Leda! He dashed water from his eyes and shouted. Someone crashed into him from behind. He staggered and spun to face the threat. Varin’s grinning face loomed over him as the knight’s massive fist caught and steadied him. “Sorry, Captain,” he yelled. Fallard wasted no time with battlefield pleasantries. The big knight was exactly who he needed for his next task. “Varin, come with me!” They dodged their way through battling warriors, parrying a blow to the side or stopping briefly to stand back-to-back to defend themselves with thrust or cut, but soon they were clear and following the figure already swallowed by the night. *** Ysane was terrified. ’Twas frightening to be alone in the forest at night, but that fear was an ordinary unease she could bear. The real dread came from within, for she had awakened earlier from a restless after-the-nooning nap in which she dreamed of her husband’s death. When she woke, she recalled the nightmare in all its stark clarity and feared it a portent. In the dream, she stood unseen in the secret corridor. Fallard moved into her sight, only to be brutally cut down by a tall figure rushing upon him from behind. She had awakened, sweating and gasping Fallard’s name, unshakably certain ’twas a true vision. But the horror that nigh paralyzed her during the following hours was also for Cynric, for she recognized the shadowy murderer of her husband, and ’twas her brother. She struggled to think rationally, to convince herself ’twas but a fiction devised by her own anxious imaginings, but as the day waned her apprehension grew until she could ignore it no longer. The need to leap up and run to her husband was profound. At first, she fought it, for such a path put at risk the life of her unborn babe. But as the hours passed, the increasing urgency left her with no choice. Other children might be conceived if this one is lost, but not without my husband. There is only one Fallard, only one man I love more than life. What hope has this child without him? I fear King William to my marrow, but should Fallard die, I dread his next choice of a husband for me even more. I would put it not beyond his cruelty to take my babe from me to give to another. I know not how, but no longer is there doubt that only I may prevent the horror awaiting Fallard and Cynric in the corridor. I will take great care, aye, and do all in my power to protect my babe, but I must act now. Her inner arguments finished, she waited till her companions slept. Drawing on the woodman’s skills Cynric had taught her long ago, she used the darkness to avoid the guards and make her way home through the black forest, praying she would lose not her way. She crouched at the edge of the river, waiting for the sporadic lightning to illumine the opposite verge. A distinctively twisted hawthorn would be visible on the other bank if she was at the right spot. The flash she waited for outlined what she sought. She lifted the hems of her cyrtel and cloak and tucked them into her girdle, freeing her lower limbs of their encumbrance. With the end of the long stick she carried, she tapped around in the water until she found the first of the stepping-stones. ’Twas Cynric’s belief the stones had been placed there very long ago, in a time when the riverbed was deeper than it was now and the water level lower. The flat stones were firmly embedded in the river bottom and too precisely laid for their placement to be of natural occurrence. He believed when first the stones were laid, their surfaces would have been well above the level of the water so one could easily pass over without getting wet. Why else would anyone bury them there? He could think of no good reason why one would put stepping-stones under the water. These days, one could normally use the stones without wetting more than one’s ankles. Not that wet feet mattered this night, for in order to follow Fallard, she would have to ford the river twice to reach the southwest side of the island where the postern gate was located. Then she must climb the bow-shaped abutment of solid rock to reach the gate. On a night in her youth, Cynric had shown her a way up the abutment, pointing out small ledges in the rock where her feet could find purchase. She had climbed it at night for no other reason than to prove she could, but it had not been wet then and Cynric had been behind her to catch her should she fall. This night, the rock face would be slippery. She made it over the stepping-stones to the south bank without mishap, quickly moved into the shelter of the woods, and huddled, shivering, beneath the dubious protection of a heavily canopied tree. The most difficult part of her journey lay ahead. Buttressing her courage with her love for her husband and brother, she rose to follow the riverbank, feeling her way along the edge of the tree line. Approaching the river’s fork at the west end of the island, she stopped, clutching her mantle. She closed her mind to the fear that battered like the wings of a frantic bird, and reached out with her senses to hear what could not be seen through the darkness. Only when she was certain no one else was nigh did she move, bending low to race across the flat, grassy space until she reached the river’s verge. She came to a halt when lightning slashed the scene, then slithered down the muddy bank and plunged into the water. She pushed her way through the current, surprised to find the surge stronger and the water level higher than when she crossed earlier. It flowed around her thighs, pulling hard, instead of at her knees, as expected. Still, it hindered her only briefly, and soon she was scaling the opposite bank and seeking the first of the ledges that would provide purchase for her hands and feet. She climbed, all her thoughts focused on finding the next ledge or toehold, until her searching fingertips found the rough, horizontal stone that comprised the low threshold of the gate. She threw back her head and laughed in defiance of her fear, a peel of thunder drowning the sound, and leaned, panting and trembling with effort against the solid panel of the gate. Her questing fingers found the latch without difficulty. A sudden freak gust of wind from beyond the wall brought a faint sound to her ears and she tensed. She knew that sound and it froze her heart. Mercy! The battle has already begun. My time runs short. I must hurry! Refusing to consider the possibility she might be too late, she slid inside and pulled the door to. Silence met her. Faint light from beyond the access tunnel proved the others had gone this way before her. Where is Fallard? He should be here. With palms grazing the chill stone on either side, she made her way through to the empty corridor where torches still burned in sconces along the walls. But she knew her path, and needed no light to guide her way. She turned to the right and sped toward the crypts. She reached to unlock the secret door, only to realize ’twas already open. She pushed through and it swung closed. She hurried as fast as she dared into the darkness of the wide hall between the vaults. Too late, she realized she was not alone. She collided with a hard male body and cried out in shock as powerful hands locked around her arms. “Fallard?” “Well, now, who have we here?” Ruald’s hateful voice sounded above her, and he held her fast. His hand moved over her in a lewd caress. “Let me go!” Cringing, she tried to break free of his grip. “Ah, ’tis my sweet little sister-by-law.” He laughed. “What a fortunate coincidence, say you not, Leda? Take the flint from my sash, will you, my love, and light the torch we found.” The whispery movement of fabric as Leda knelt to the floor was followed by light, blinding in the darkness of the crypts, as the tallow of the torch ignited. Leda glared at Ysane through squinted lids, clearly unhappy her rival had appeared. She sputtered obscenities beneath her breath. “How delightful to see you, Ysane.” Ruald said, as he dragged her with him into the corridor she had just left. “Hmm. ’Twould seem we had no need of the torch,” he said as he entered. “How kind of D’Auvrecher to leave our exit lit.” “Where is my husband?” Ysane struggled against his hold as Ruald jerked her toward the access tunnel. “If my fortunes hold, he is dead, skewered by one of my men. But finding you here is a better circumstance than aught I could have planned. Your presence will provide all the leverage I need should I run into any of his men.” “I will go not with you!” But she was no match for his greater strength. Still, her frantic efforts hindered him. “Cease fighting me!” He snapped the words. “Nay! Let me go! I must find Fallard.” She threw all her weight against his grip in an effort to twist free. In a burst of temper, he swung her around and slammed her against the wall. So hard did she hit, her breath was forced from her in a heavy, gasping exhalation, but ere she could draw another, he dropped the langseax he carried to wrap his fingers around her throat. He squeezed, his grip growing tighter, and tighter still. As pain exploded from her neck into her skull, she clawed at his hands, but to no avail. Images of Renouf’s hard hands around her neck and of Angelet’s death, shocking in their graphic detail, crowded into her mind. Darkness rimmed the edges of her vision. It wiped away the memories, but the blackness held flashing, capering lights upon which her thoughts fastened in astonishment. As if from a distance, she felt her body go limp, her hands falling to her sides as coherent thought spiraled away. So entranced was she by the lights no fight was left to her. “Ruald! Release the woman!” The familiar voice jolted her failing senses and dimmed the dancing lights. The grip at her throat dropped away, but Ruald whirled, dragged her around in front of him, using her as a shield. Painfully gulping air, she sagged against him, unable to stand. “Leda, the langseax!” The slave scurried to pick up the sword and hand it to him as Ruald backed away from the two knights who stalked him. He brought the blade to her throat as he half-pulled, half-carried her toward the tunnel entrance. Blinking through a misty haze, she saw Leda scamper to one side to set the torch in an empty wall bracket, then back herself into a storage alcove, out of sight. “Let her go!” This time the demand was a raging roar that erupted through the corridor as Fallard paced toward them, Varin but a step behind. Ruald’s laugh was ugly. “Think you I am a fool, D’Auvrecher? Nay, I like your little wife right where she is. She will accompany me from this trap as surety of my safety. Come no closer, or I will finish the job I began months ago and slit her throat.” CHAPTER FIFTY-ONE Fallard froze. To be sure, when he and Varin came through the secret door and saw Ruald choking an unknown woman, it meant little to him beyond concern for the life of an innocent. His focus was on his enemy. But when Ruald swung her around and he saw clearly the woman’s face, for a critical moment his mind blanked like the most callow of squires, unable to accept what his eyes told him was true. He felt like a mace had struck him in the gut. His heartbeat seemed to triple its pace. ’Twas Ysane. Yet, such was not possible, for he had left his wife safe, far from the burh. He blinked hard and shook his head, believing fear made him imagine what was not truly there. Varin’s hand gripping his shoulder sufficed to break the spell. He opened his mouth, but some obstruction blocked his speech. He swallowed, tried again, and startled even himself when the force of his rage reverberated off the corridor walls. Ruald laughed. He fought for control but feared when he spoke again, his voice would sound the way his heart felt. Instead, the words came forth cool and remote, but clear. “Release her, Ruald, and you may go free. I give you my word, on my honor as a knight of William. You will be neither harmed, nor stopped. But release her. Now.” A tense silence, broken by Ysane’s ragged breathing, held for a space as Ruald weighed his chances. Fallard threw his sword to the side and ordered Varin to do the same. “’Tis no game, Ruald. Come, I offer you freedom, in exchange for the life of my wife. ’Tis a fair trade, and well you know it. Let her come to me. My man and I will take her out through the crypts. None will follow you.” Still Ruald hesitated, and though fear ran rampant in Fallard’s soul, he pressed his advantage, never taking his gaze from the man who held in his hands the life of his rose. He threw all the persuasive power he owned into his plea. “’Tis your only chance, Ruald. You are already defeated. You saw for yourself the forces you commanded are dead or captured. Your effort here has failed and if you harm my wife, you will die, slowly and in pain. That I swear, by all I hold sacred. Let her go.” “Trust him not, Ruald. He lies.” Leda spoke from her place in the alcove. “He dare not free us, for he is commanded by his king to kill you or bring you to judgment. Even does he let us go now, he will cease not to hunt us like the animals he believes us to be. The only way to be free is to kill him.” At her words, Ruald’s eyes widened. They glittered, reflecting the light of the torches. Again, his laughter rang out, and again, he retreated, dragging Ysane with him. She looked dazed, and hung limp in his arms. Silently, Fallard cursed the slave. The fool had chosen to believe her. Ruald began to taunt him as his arm around his captive’s ribs lifted her off her feet. Fallard felt himself blanch, fearing the movement would force the edge of the langseax to bite into Ysane’s flesh. “Ah, ’twas a good try, D’Auvrecher, but I fear ’tis Leda who has the right of it. I will take my leave now with the lovely Ysane, but ere I go, I really must tell you of the use I made of her. So predictable she was, Renouf’s little wife, and did my work for me so well. All that was required of me was to whisper in Renouf’s ears how his wife made him look the fool, of how he was bound to her for life while yet she proved herself incapable of bearing him the heir he craved. I whispered of the uselessness of the female child she bore and how easily he could be rid of the brat. I plied him with all the drink he could hold and more, and almost, he killed her for me, but she reacted as I hoped to the murder of her child and killed him, instead.” Fallard edged forward at a pace so leisurely it ate like slow poison at his self-control. He wanted naught more than to leap on the man and rip him apart for daring to touch his wife. His fear for Ysane and the babe she carried vaulted to new heights as Ruald’s voice took on the high, brittle edge of one on the cusp of madness. His unwavering gaze caught the sudden flicker of shadowy movement behind the rebel leader, as someone crept upon him from the direction of the chapel entrance. He sought to center Ruald’s attention upon himself, while wondering when Leda would see the newcomer. He would have to use the moment well when the other man’s attention was distracted. “What mean you, Ruald?” He rapped the words out with an explosive snarl. “Explain yourself!” “’Twas my intent all along, to be rid of Renouf. I fear I could not bring myself to weep when Ysane played her role so well. The murder of my drunken fool of a brother gave me the excuse I needed to end her life in a perfectly legal execution. Imagine, if you will, how pleasing ’twas to neatly dispose of those who stood in my way in one swift stroke. With Renouf’s murder, and Ysane’s execution for the deed, the lordship of Wulfsinraed was mine. Mine! I held it in my very hand, the thing I had worked so hard to achieve, only to see it torn from my grasp by your inconsiderate actions. “Aye, and now you have again interfered, and I may no longer exercise mercy. Someone must pay for what I have lost, and methinks we have come full circle, the three of us, for is this not where we began?” He laughed again. *** The shadow that was Cynric halted its advance on his brother. One shoulder took his weight as his body slumped against the wall. His very breath choked him and he prayed he would not give himself away by yielding to the nausea that gripped him. Had a langseax skewered his stomach, he could not have felt more wretched. He closed his eyes to shut out the sight before him, wishing he could as easily erase what he heard. Ruald—whom he had loved, trusted and believed—condemned himself, irrevocably, with every twisted word he spoke. Though his mind had suspected this, his heart had stubbornly held to the hope Ruald truly loved him in return and meant to keep his word. But in assimilating the tense scene playing out in the corridor, he tasted the utter ruin of the last bond between himself and his only surviving brother. No longer did he doubt or question. Everything Ysane and Fallard had told him was truth. His brother had lied to him and betrayed him, had played him for a fool, seeking only his own gain. In that anguished moment of absolute clarity, for the first time in his life, Cynric’s heart saw his existence as it truly was. He gagged on the knowledge of his failure as bitter tears scalded his face. He waited in the darkness, laboring for control. The new insight he gained into his brother’s heart revealed Ruald had never meant him to be lord of Wulfsinraed. Far worse was the recognition that Ruald’s intent was to kill him along with Ysane and Fallard. His brother’s disclosure clearly implied that no one would be allowed to stand in the way of his greed. In that instant, his love for his brother died, writhing in a blaze of pain and regret, while that for his sister swelled to overwhelm all else. The choice between the two, for so long a tangle more convoluted than the most snarled knot, narrowed to a matter most simple. Ruald must die. He blinked to clear his vision. There was no time now for grief. He must act to save his sister, but he must first let the dark knight know he was there, and somehow indicate he would help. Hoping Fallard could see the gesture in the shadows, he raised his hand to point in Ruald’s direction, then brought it to his own chest and tapped. The dark knight’s answering nod appeared naught but a slow dip of his chin, but ’twas enough. Then Fallard, with slow deliberation, looked to one side, as if staring at the wall to his right, then returned his intent gaze to Ruald. Cynric frowned, tried and failed to understand the dark knight’s gesture, then set it aside. Ruald, still taunting Fallard, had backed nigh to the entrance of the access tunnel. He could not let his brother make it inside. He pulled himself up and tightened his grip on his hadseax, but held it at unthreatening angle. Praying his appearance would not startle Ruald into cutting Ysane, he stepped out of the shadows. Somehow, he kept his voice calm, his inflection merely inquisitive. “Ruald, what do you do? Why hold you my sister as if she were a hostage? Let her go, brother. I am here and we will fight together. You have no need of her, now. Send her to me.” At his first words, Ruald’s head jerked toward him and he whirled to put his back to the wall, dragging Ysane with him. But the blade that menaced Ysane’s throat dropped a few inches. *** Ysane’s senses had cleared. She allowed her body to hang limp in Ruald’s hold while her mind worked out how she might help Fallard. When Ruald flung her around at the sound of Cynric’s voice, she felt the langseax dip. Her response was instinctive. She sank her teeth into Ruald’s wrist. He howled and dropped the sword. From the corner of her eye, she saw Varin and Fallard launch themselves toward him, but her husband reached him first. His fist connected with the rebel leader’s jaw. Ruald’s arms dropped away from her and he staggered. Fallard caught her and thrust her into Varin’s waiting arms. Ruald turned to run but Fallard hurtled into him. They slammed into the hard stone of the corridor wall, both grunting from the impact. As they fought, Fallard’s heel caught in some obstruction on the floor and he went down, momentarily stunned when his head hit the ground. Ruald reached for his throat. Ysane was nigh deafened by Varin’s roar in her ear, but before he could move or set her aside, Cynric flipped the hadseax in his hand and drew back his hand to throw it. “Nay, Ruald!” But Leda screamed, slithered from the alcove and leaped at him, seeking to stab him. He forced her knife from her hand and dislodged her, his face showing his shock at her appearance. He had clearly forgotten her, had not known she was there, watching. He threw her to one side, and turned his back on her. The slave’s piercing screech also startled Ruald, and in that moment of distraction, Fallard rose from the floor like a charging boar. Cynric crept toward the warring knights, prepared to intervene should Ruald again get the upper hand. Thrown to the floor beside the hadseax, Leda grasped it, hefted the blade and rose. Ysane, her attention torn between her husband and her brother, saw the slave attack Cynric ere she could cry a warning. With all the strength of her fear for Ruald, Leda thrust her blade deep into Cynric’s back. He grunted, staggered from the impact and went to his knees. His body wavered for a moment, then he fell on his face, unmoving. “Cynric!” Ysane’s cry echoed around the corridor as she fought to break free of Varin’s hold, but the big knight only tightened his hold. “Let me go! Oh, mercy, Varin, let me go!” “Lady, there is naught you can do. We must wait!” “Nay! Mercy, oh mercy.” She scrubbed the backs of her hands against her eyes to clear the haze of tears as her gaze was wrenched from her fallen brother to the mighty struggle that raged between Fallard and Ruald. The two were evenly matched. Powerful muscles bulged as they fought for supremacy. Ruald tried to twist to break Fallard’s hold but the movement threw him off balance. A moment later, Fallard had his foe’s back against him. He wrapped his arm around Ruald’s head and gave one powerful jerk. Ysane heard the sharp, brittle snap of breaking bones. Ruald’s body stiffened and he went limp. Panting, Fallard stepped back. The body tumbled to the floor. “Ruald!” Leda’s drawn out wail held an agony of grief. She dropped to the floor and scrabbled for the knife Cynric had dropped. She came to her feet. Hate twisting her face into a parody of beauty, she raised the knife and leapt towards Fallard. She managed only two steps, for as she passed him, Cynric’s outstretched hand caught her ankle, tripping her. She hit the floor hard and lay still. Ysane never afterward knew for how many long, shocked moments, no one moved. Then she jerked against Varin’s hold and he let her go. She threw herself into her husband’s embrace, weeping, showering his face with kisses. She fingered the edge of a deep scrape that marred his forehead. He shuddered as he ran searching hands over her, but she pulled away. “Cynric is hurt.” She knelt beside her brother. His hand was so cold. She looked up into her husband’s troubled face. “Fallard?” Icy fingers squeezed hers and Cynric’s mouth curved, the movement more a grimace than a smile. Pain roughened his voice to little more than a croak. “Worry not, little one. I have had worse wounds. I will survive this one, as well.” He tried to deepen the smile, but blood bubbled from his lips. “Aye, deorling, of course you will.” Tears flowed down her cheeks like the water over the falls in the little glade. “We all know how contrary you are.” She continued to croon nonsense as Varin came to stand beside them. Fallard cut a long strip of cloth from the hem of her cloak and bent over her brother. *** “Look away, Ysane.” When his wife shook her head, Fallard glanced at Varin, who bent with tender strength to force her face against his tunic. She moaned. Fallard’s mouth tightened, but he placed one hand on her brother’s shoulder and with the other, drew forth the knife. Cynric gurgled in agony, and fainted. Fallard folded the strip of cloth he had cut and pressed it against the jagged, bloody hole. Ysane sobbed in quiet despair. “Varin, cut another strip to bind this pad.” The knight patted the top of Ysane’s head in awkward sympathy, then knelt to slice another bandage from her cloak. Fallard’s jaw clenched. Caught in the fierce, deadly struggle with Ruald, he had been peripherally aware of the altercation between Cynric and Leda, but he had not seen Ysane’s brother go down. His heart hurt for his wife’s pain, even while his gladness at her safety nigh overwhelmed him. He bound the bandage tight around Cynric’s chest, then said, “We must get him to Luilda.” Varin’s great hands settled on his shoulders and moved him aside as if he were a child. The knight lifted the fallen man into his arms and strode through the corridor into the crypts. Fallard followed, supporting his wife. *** Leda awakened from the stun she had received from her fall. A keening cry broke from her lips as she knelt beside her true love, but life’s lessons had taught her well. ’Twould be the height of foolishness to stay to mourn him. As the others turned away with their burden, she scrambled to her feet. She thought the dark knight sensed her movement. She paused, heart pounding, but beyond a glance over his shoulder, he paused not. She brushed away her tears and rushed to the alcove where she had stored the bundle with her stolen treasures. Do I leave now, I can travel far ere any may be sent to follow me. I wear the freewoman’s clothing, I have coin, and these treasures will earn much more from their sale. I will make my way back to Fallewydde. I will change my name and invent a piteous story of an attack against my husband’s party, of which only I am survivor, as we journeyed from the north. I will find a new protector who will take me far from this accursed place. Her flight through the access tunnel to the postern gate was swift. She stepped through the doorway, but her eyes had not yet adjusted from the torchlight in the corridor to the utter darkness without and she tripped over the threshold. A frantic grab for the door saved her a deadly tumble, but she had perforce to drop the bundle with its precious contents. The faint clatter as it rolled down the embankment to be lost out of sight seemed to her the death knell to all her hopes. Sobbing with fear, sorrow and not a little rage, she wasted several moments in a futile search before panic set in and she scrambled down the abutment. At the river’s narrow bank, she stopped. In the deep darkness beneath still heavily overcast skies, she could not see the water, but when she had forded it earlier with Ruald, his hand holding hers, ’twas but knee deep. Fear clutched at her heart. What if she fell? She could not swim. Nay! ’Twas not so bad. At worst, she would but get wet again. She could manage this. She had to. There was no other choice. She thought to leap into low, sluggish waters. Instead, she stepped straight into a flood. She floundered in the rapid current that closed over her head. Shock and terror held her under for several stuttering heartbeats before she struggled to the surface, but some small corner of her mind screamed the truth. The rains! The heavy weather to the west had triggered a significant rise in the water level and the cresting surge had arrived. What had earlier been a watercourse easily waded was now a torrent in deep flood, the current dangerously fast. She had seen it happen before, and knew of those who had died when caught by the power of the water. She fought to stay afloat, but her gasping attempts to cry for help merely choked and gagged her as dirty water filled her open mouth and poured down her throat. In despair, she realized that even had she been able to scream there were none to hear, for no sentries would be walking the wall above her. They would yet be engaged with events in the courtyard. As her waterlogged cyrtel become entangled with something large, horribly soft and yielding being carried along with her in the flow, utter panic assailed her. She went under again. Instinct drove her to gasp for air, but she was dragged beneath the dark water before she could finish the breath. She was but dimly conscious when her head broke the surface one final time. She thrust a stiffly splayed hand above the river’s surface, but was swept underneath and past the bridge. She vanished in the night. CHAPTER FIFTY-TWO Vivid striations of violet and sienna vied with pulses of gold to push their way higher into the inky wash of pre-dawn sky, revealing a disintegrating cloud cover. The increasing radiance overwhelmed the dying torchlight to lay bare a muddy, heartbreaking scene that bespoke the end of a fierce conflict. Men stood in the shambles of the courtyard, their mail stained with gore, their weapons dripping. Staring at the chaos, they huffed and panted as if they had run a league at top speed. Around them lay the dead and wounded. The cobbled stones were bathed in crimson muck. The stench permeated the air. In the eerie quiet that oft marked the aftermath to the horrendous maelstrom of warfare, pitiful cries could be heard. Trifine’s eyes searched through those both standing and fallen. He turned to Jehan. “Have you seen the captain? I lost track of him in the melee and have seen him not since the battle began.” “Nay, nor Varin, either.” Jehan’s weary face, sporting a new slice on his chin, smeared from where he had tried to staunch the bleeding, reflected Trifine’s worry. “Yet, I see them not among those fallen. I cannot think where they may be. We should search. Mayhap, they lie somewhere we cannot see.” “Aye. Make it so.” Harold approached. The doughty old warrior looked exhausted, but still carried himself with pride. “Orders, sir? I see not Captain D’Auvrecher to ask.” Trifine assured the second marshal they would find the captain and issued orders to see to the wounded and begin the clean up. He began his own fruitless search among the bodies, greatly fearing his friend and captain had fallen. If so, ’twould be but one more private grief, for another blow had already been struck him this day, one he would mourn for some time to come. “Trifine!” When Fallard called to him from the orchard, his relief was as immense as his surprise. The orchard! What does he, there? He called to Jehan, just coming from the gatehouse, and pointed to the captain. The Second’s eyes closed and his face was swamped with a grin. Curiosity piqued, Trifine left Harold, Jehan and Domnall to deal with the mess in the courtyard and ran to meet his captain. He came to an abrupt halt some distance away, stunned to see Ysane step from behind Fallard, her clothing dirty, torn, and blood-stained. Tears streaked her face. She trotted to keep up. Varin carried a third man in his arms. As they neared, Trifine recognized Ysane’s brother from the description given by Fallard. But ’twas the sight of Ysane that inspired in Trifine terror such as he had never known, for Roana was not with them, and where Ysane went, his wife was usually close by. He understood not what he saw, for he had left them both safe in the forest. “Where is Roana?” He roared the words and cared not if all heard his dread. ’Twas Ysane who answered to allay his alarm. “Nay, fear not, Trifine. Roana came not with me. She remains safe where you left her.” “Which is also where you should be, my rose,” Fallard rumbled as they approached. “I assure you ere this day is out, there will be a reckoning with me as to why you are not.” But the arm he curved around her shoulders tightened. Trifine closed his eyes and sought to return the steel to knees gone wobbly. She is safe. He blew out a long, shaky breath and faced Fallard. “What happened? How is it Ysane is here?” Varin, with Ysane following so close she nigh tripped him up, moved on to carry an unconscious Cynric into the hall where the noncombatants had huddled, awaiting the outcome of the hostilities. Fallard studied the battlefield, then, as they climbed to the hall and stepped inside, gave a rapid account of all that transpired. A little stunned at the report—he had thought Ruald still safely trussed in the corridor with the other rebels—Trifine paused to look around at the orderly activity. Someone, likely Luilda, had organized the servants, who hurried to supply clean bandages and fresh water to those tending the wounded. Still others fetched food and ale. The healer was bent over a soldier with a badly bloodied arm. Someone recognized Cynric, and called his name. Gasps went up among the burhfolc. Willing hands threw a thick pallet on an empty table. Varin laid his burden upon it. Trifine’s brows rose as the giant stepped in front of Ysane and smiled at her down his crooked nose. “Try to fret not, lady. I have seen lesser men recover from worse wounds.” He gently stroked her cheek with dirty, blood-crusted fingertips ere striding out the great doors. Ysane had ceased weeping. She straightened her shoulders as she called for Ethelmar and Luilda. The healer finished binding the soldier’s wound and hurried to the table where Cynric lay. Trifine found a dark, empty corner where he could savor his relief that his beloved wife was not among the dead or wounded, and where, if his tears for another loss should escape his control, he could let them fall, unmarked. *** From atop the hall steps sometime later, Fallard surveyed the damage. Though the battle was won, ’twas not without great cost. The rebel force had seriously outnumbered the burh warriors. Despite the twin advantages of surprise and Fallard’s return with his troops, the battle had been close. When they realized they were cornered, the rebels fought with the single-minded ferocity of those who know they have naught to lose. Any who survived would be sent to William for judgment and this time, there would be no rescue. A quick death in battle was better. Fallard caught sight of an undamaged Harold. “Second-Marshal!” “Aye, Captain?” “’Tis good to see you unharmed. We have people in the forest. They wait in a glade north of the road, some half a league west of the burh. Send a contingent to escort them home.” “Aye, Captain.” Trifine, in conversation with Ingram as Fallard gave his order, turned to him. “Fallard, Ingram reports that of our people, six and ten of the hearth companions and two of your knights, Wiscar and Deryk, are dead. Of the rebel force, only four and ten survive apart from those we captured in the corridor. There are no numbers yet for our wounded, but ’tis great. He thinks more than half our total force.” “’Tis as I expected, though I had hoped the number of dead would be less,” Fallard admitted on a sigh. “But ’twas as fierce a battle as any I have seen, and it could have been worse. Still….” “Aye. Nine and ten dead is a hard price to pay.” Silence reigned for a moment, and then Fallard frowned. “Nine and ten? The count Ingram gave is one less than that.” Trifine’s jaw clenched tight, and his expression was as grim as Fallard had ever seen. When his First spoke again, unashamed grief colored his voice. “Aye. He knows it not yet, but there was one other. Young Fauques lies among the fallen.” Fallard’s eyes closed and he cursed. “How?” “Protecting my back, as you once did at Sanguelac to protect Comte Riviere. Though I ordered him to stay clear of the fighting, I am told he darted in to thwart a blow I could not see coming. He took the thrust in my place. Roul saw him fall and ran to his side. Somehow, he dragged him clear. He died in Roul’s arms. Fallard, if not for that boy’s fearless heart, my body would be among those growing cold as we speak.” “Where is Roul?” “He hides—and weeps—beneath the healer’s table in the buttery.” Fallard stood silent, watching the activity in the courtyard. That his thoughts flowed along the same path as his dear and longtime friend, he knew. They were warriors and battle their way of life, and suffering and death an accepted part of it. But betimes, that cold blade sliced more keenly and closely than at others. “I will go to him,” Fallard said, his tone heavy. “Nay. Allow me. Fauques was my responsibility, and Roul’s friend. Ours is a shared sorrow. We will grieve together, as men.” *** Three days later, the body of Leda the slave was found some distance downstream, trapped in the tangled, muddy roots of a tree close to the riverbank. Two of the hall’s kitchen boys, sent to catch trout for sup, saw a scrap of wool floating upon the surface and went to investigate. As they drew nigh, they saw the tree’s roots were exposed by the heavy wash of the current as it ate away at the verge, revealing their sad burden. They buried her in the mass grave beyond the fields opposite the lake, where lay the rest of the rebel dead. The bundle she had dropped was recovered shortly after and the priceless Hnefatafl set returned to its place in the hall, but ’twas much longer before Lady Hildeth, during one of her ‘aware’ periods, remembered to tell Ysane about the old stair inside the southeast tower. Thus was the mystery explained of how Leda had moved about the burh, with no one the wiser as to her purpose. *** Diffused by a fine, lazily rolling mist, the light of early morn fell on Fallard’s torso where he stood by the open window embrasure. The moisture flowed into the bower to caress his skin with gossamer fingers, reminding him of the even more delicate touch of his wife. He thought of the life-affirming pleasure she had offered him this night, such as never before had been his, and shuddered with the thought of it. But the spasm that rolled through him had as much to do with remembrance of how close he had come t