Authors: Maura Seger
|Pocket Books (1983)|
y lady, are you sure you really want to go outside?" the maid asked cautiously.
Roanna's wide, amber eyes flashed her answer before she spoke. "Of course I do. I've been cooped up in here for weeks."
"Ten days, my lady. Not weeks."
A slight pout rounded the generous mouth that was usually set quite sensibly. "It seems longer. I'm perfectly well now and it's such a beautiful day. I can't bear to stay inside a moment longer."
"Perhaps you should just check with the Lady Brenna . . . ?"
"No!" Roanna insisted hastily, well aware that her sister-in-law would want her to remain abed several more days. Grateful though she was for the expert nursing that had seen her safely through a bout of fever, Roanna was now more than ready to be free of supervision.
Outside beyond the wooden palisade that was the main line of defense for their temporary home, a fresh summer day beckoned. Swallows and warblers sped busily around their nests caring for their young. Gnarled oak trees in full leaf bent heavily over the nearby river that rushed chortling and sparkling through sylvan glades. Shy deer peered from cover at the strange goings-on of the humans recently come among them.
It was a morning for meandering strolls, pensive pauses, sun-dappled thoughts. Roanna ached to be out enjoying it
"I won't be gone long, and I'm not going further than the riverbank in clear view of the guard towers, so there's no reason to mention my plans to anyone."
The maid looked doubtful. She was one of the few Anglo-Saxons trusted to serve in the house of the new Norman lord, and she took her responsibilities seriously. However cruel and rapacious many of the conquerors might be, they were a reality that could no longer be denied. Upon their favor depended all the necessities of life.
The fact that she served a master who was unfailingly kind and just only strengthened her determination to do nothing to jeopardize her fortunate position. If the Lady Roanna wandered off and got into any trouble, his lordship's wrath would be terrible.
Roanna, sensing the conflict in the girl, smiled reassuringly. "My brother is supervising the castle construction as usual, and will be there most of the day. I'll be back long before he returns."
Before the maid could debate the matter further, she was distracted by her ladyship pulling clothes out willy-nilly and beginning hurriedly to dress. At nineteen, Lady Roanna was radiantly beautiful even despite her recent illness and had an excellent sense of fashion, but she tended to be just the least bit disorganized.
As she attempted to put her white linen camise on backwards, the maid intervened.
"If you would allow me, my lady . . ."
Roanna permitted the assistance gratefully. She was somewhat weaker than she cared to admit Simply standing in the center of her small chamber in the wooden round tower required sufficient concentration without having also to dress herself.
Having enjoyed the luxury of her first full bath since becoming ill, her honeyed skin glowed warmly. Large, tawny eyes fringed by heavy lashes were brighter than they had been in some time. Her upturned nose and full, rather mischievous mouth softened the strong line of her brow and chin. Beneath a long, graceful throat her shoulders were delicate. Slim arms held up the silken fall of her golden hair as the maid straightened the camise. It fell softly over her high, firm breasts, narrow waist, and rounded hips, ending halfway down her slender thighs.
After the camise went a silk tunic the color of yellow irises, it was embroidered at the neck, wrists, and hem with violet stitching that matched the surtunic worn over it The bliaut was laced tightly enough at each side to leave no doubt as to the perfection of Roanna's form.
When a comb had been run through her thick, waist-length tresses and her head covered by a transparent veil secured by a golden circlet, she was ready. Thanking the maid, Roanna stepped quickly from the room. Before any further effort could be made to dissuade her, she sped down the circular wooden staircase and through the main hall.
The bailey just beyond thronged with activity. The knights and squires who served her brother were busy with their endless practice for battle. Their shouts and grunts rang out with the clash of steel and the whinnying of horses as they worked with tireless patience to keep themselves in peak condition.
Surrounding them along the edges of the palisade, armorers and tanners worked in their separate domains built against the inside of the protective wall. At a respectable distance, the more mundane tasks of chicken and pig tending, weaving, and food preservation went on.
Crossing the bailey, Roanna paused to look back at the castle rising remorselessly on a hillock dominating the countryside. Already the shape of the outer curtain could be clearly seen. Two narrow walls of locally quarried sandstone mortared with lime were being filled in with densely packed rubble. Workers scurried along the scaffolding that surrounded them. Where the walls had reached their full height, battlements with narrow archery slits were being built
Beyond the outer curtain with its moat and gatehouse would stretch a narrow open field that gave way quickly to an inner wall punctuated by further guard-posts. Inside that would be the great hall, chapel, family quarters, kitchens, well, and all the other accommodations required by a noble household.
When it was finished, the castle would present an essentially impenetrable defense against which even the most fervent enemies would be helpless.
Not that they were expecting any real trouble. The Anglo-Saxons who surrounded them certainly nursed grievances and hatreds in the aftermath of the Conquest, but they were too wise to attempt an all-out assault on the Norman fighting machine that had proved its implacable strength at Hastings.
Roanna frowned slightly as she considered the subtler forms resistance took, causing her brother no end of headaches but appearing to present no real danger in themselves.
As she waved to the guard manning the temporary gatehouse, she noticed that the small, rarely used confinement cell was occupied. Her sister-in-law had mentioned the previous evening that a persistent poacher had been caught and was awaiting trial.
Brenna gave the information calmly enough, but Roanna wondered at her feelings. Anglo-Saxon herself, but wed to a Norman before the Conquest, her sister-in-law left no doubt that her loyalty was to her lord. But she still felt deeply for her people, who were often bewildered and frightened by the vast changes occurring around them.
Several times, her gentle influence had stayed Guyon's hand in punishment, with the result that most of his new vassals were becoming inclined to respect and accept him. But the poacher languishing in the cell had defied all efforts at reason.
The man publicly proclaimed that the Norman forest laws which restricted the taking of game were ridiculous and that he for one would never obey them. He went on blatantly behaving as if the conquerors simply did not exist, until at last Guyon was forced to arrest him.
What he would finally do with the man Roanna did not know. Her brother was ruthlessly fierce in battle and awesomely skillful in negotiation, but he had little stomach for the giving of justice which led to executions. Killing a man in combat was one thing; ordering him to swing from the end of a rope was quite another.
Much as she sympathized with her brother's dilemma, she knew there was nothing she could do to help him. By birth and training, he was conditioned to the responsibilities of his position. He would fulfill them admirably, no matter what the personal cost
But perhaps she could ease his burdens to a tiny degree by finding some of the succulent wild strawberries he liked so much. Pleased with this task, she made her way toward the riverbank, going slowly to savor the warmth of the sun on her face.
The air, fragrant with the scents of thyme and honeysuckle, caressed her gently. Butterflies flitted past As she neared the river, Roanna stopped and sank quickly to her knees. A red-furred vixen and two pups had come down to drink. For long, sweet moments she watched the foxes until they loped off back into the forest.
Breathing deeply, Roanna settled on a rock near the water. She tossed her heavy hair back over her shoulder, heedless of how mis motion revealed the gentle swell of her breasts pushing against the restraining silk. Cupping her hands, she bent to slake her own thirst.
The sheer pleasure of returning health flowed through her. Aware of her good fortune in surviving an illness that had carried off several strong men, she wondered how she might express her gratitude to Brenna.
Between Roanna and her sister-in-law was a deep and abiding love that left no room for the conflicts that might have otherwise plagued two women thrown together in such proximity. Brenna was her brother's wife. To Roanna, that said it all. She had the absolute right to manage the household and receive the deference of all who lived there.
That her sister-in-law was also a kind and gentle woman possessed of rare serenity and sensitivity only made it all the easier to accord her the position she deserved. Roanna thought her brother infinitely fortunate in his choice of a consort, and did not hesitate to tell him so.
However, Brenna did have one small shortcoming. She loathed doing household accounts, something Roanna liked little better but could at least tolerate. Making up her mind that she would offer to take over the task, she lay back in the sun-warmed grass. For a brief while she watched the meanderings of a caterpillar making its way over a nearby rock. But shortly the unaccustomed exertion of her walk took its toll On her still recovering body and she drifted off to sleep.
For the first time in too long, her dreams were pleasant Gone were the dark and fearful images that had tormented her all during the months of preparation for the invasion, when her brother and sister-in-law were separated and she ached for them both. Banished also was the agonizing dread for Guyon's safety that had awakened her in a chill sweat night after night until she learned at last that he had survived the battle and been reunited with his wife.
Even after she came at their mutual persuading to join them in the family's new home, Roanna was still often restless in the night thinking of the frightened, angry people among whom they now made their lives. She and her brother shared the trait of hiding their deepest concerns beneath an unruffled facade that inspired confidence in everyone around them. It was an invaluable skill that sometimes exacted a harsh price.
But the fever seemed to have burned away the last of her concerns. She slept as serenely as a child, only stirring occasionally when a feathery seed pod or wisp of grass ruffled her nose.
To the men crouched in the underbrush nearby, she presented an irresistibly beautiful and desirable quarry.
One of the bearded, battle-hardened warriors, older than the rest and given to speaking his mind, whistled softly, "Ever see anything quite that comely, my lord?"
The man beside him shook his head wryly. Despite his sometimes violent, always demanding life, Colin Algerson had a connoisseur's appreciation of lovely women. He had known more than a few himself, but never one quite as startling as the glorious creature before him.
Slate gray eyes deep set between arching brows and a straight, rather assertive nose drank in the sight of her. A grimace touched the chiseled mourn draped by the long, pointed ends of a mustache the same coppery hue as the hair that brushed his massive shoulders. His huge, powerful body stirred restlessly. At twenty-eight, with ten years' leadership of his family's lands behind him, he did not care to feel like a randy boy.
"She's right in our path, my lord," the older warrior reminded him. "Think we can get 'round without her hearing?"
"I'm not sure it will do any good if we can," Colin murmured "you saw the guards on the palisade."
"Aye, more than we thought and more alert than other Normans we've encountered since Hastings," Alaric admitted. "Now that they've settled in a bit, most of that brutish lot seem to think no one would dare to challenge them. Their arrogance is our best weapon. But not with this bunch! They look ready for battle at a moment's notice."
Colin shook his head ruefully. "I'd heard about the high standard D'Arcy sets for his men, but I didn't quite believe it until now. Saving my laggard cousin's life is going to be more difficult than I'd thought"
The older man fought back the urge to suggest the effort was not worthwhile. In the most revered traditions of Anglo-Saxon nobility, Colin was utterly loyal to his kinsmen and retainers. Bound by ties of blood or oath to follow him, they received in return his complete protection. Never mind that his cousin was a drunken rabble-rouser who had never shown the slightest respect for authority. Colin still felt compelled to try to save him.
But the plan they were counting on was now clearly impossible. Any attempt to enter the Norman stronghold would only result in their own deaths, inevitable against such overwhelming odds. All the courage or skill in the world would not make the slightest difference in the outcome.
"We'll have to try some other way," Colin muttered, his gaze again on the girl. Far in the depths of his silvery eyes, a light flared. "Who do you think she is?"
The older man shrugged. "A noblewoman, that's for sure. D'Arcy's wife maybe. . . ."
"No, she's supposed to be beautiful all right, but with dark hair, not golden like this one."
"Mayhap he keeps a concubine."
Colin laughed, only just managing to stifle the sound so as not to wake the object of his attention. "Not with his wife in the house. She's one of us, not some weak-kneed Norman wench. I warrant she'd have his head if he tried anything like that."