Authors: Catherine Palmer
Published by Steeple Hill Books™
For Mary Edstrom Robitschek, my dear friend, encourager and prayer warrior. Thank you for loving and supporting me all the way back to Rosslyn Academy in Kenya, and for helping me survive seventh grade math.
My great thanks to four special people.
To my agent, Karen Solem, for representing me with such love and care. To my editor, Joan Golan, for believing in
twenty-three years after I wrote it. To Mary Robitschek, for transcribing all 694 pages of the manuscript from hard copy to disk.
To Tim Palmer, for seeing the potential in the first book I ever wrote and for reading and editing its 694 pages more times than either of us likes to remember. May God bless you all.
Amounderness in northeast England
Like some relic of a half-forgotten age, the Viking longboat sliced through the icy waters of the natural harbor. Its once brightly painted bow was scarcely visible through a thick coating of barnacles and algae. The sails hung limp and tattered.
A soft dipping of oars drifted through the mist toward an ancient walled keep, where a thin shaft of light from an open window glimmered on the water. An anchor suddenly splashed into the water, shattering the light.
The dark-haired young woman at the window of the keep watched as a small boat, heavily laden with armed men, left the longboat and made its way to shore. A burly old Viking lord stepped from the boat and waded to the beach. Then, with a shout that echoed into the marrow of the woman’s bones, he called his men to follow him across the hard sand toward the stronghold.
“The barbarian has come,” the woman whispered as she barred the wooden shutter.
She turned to find her younger sister looking at her with a petulant expression. “Do leave off peering into the night, Bronwen. I want no gloomy tidings on the eve of our winter feast. Just look how Enit has arranged my tunic. Please come and drape it properly.”
A chill ran through Bronwen as she hurried from the window across the rush-covered wooden floor toward her sister, who stood by a fire built on a stone hearth in the center of the room. The warm flicker of the flames served only to in-tensify Bronwen’s discontent. And the smoke, drifting upward to the vents in the roof, filled her nostrils with an acrid tang.
How could her father invite the Viking to their feast? To her, the barbarian stood for everything evil that her people, the Briton tribe, had worked so hard and so long to defeat.
Vikings! Raiders of villages, ravishers of women, pillagers of the countryside. Why would her father, with the Viking threat all but over, extend the arm of friendship to this barbarian now? Bronwen shook her head in dismay.
But she was forced to smile as she caught sight of Gildan fussing over the folds of her tunic with the nursemaid.
“Sister, you look lovely just as you are,” Bronwen admonished. “Let me help you with your gown, and then I shall plait your hair. Most of the guests have arrived, and Father will be growing impatient.”
“Yes, only to have us make an appearance and then send us back up to our rooms again so the entertainments may begin.” Gildan pouted as her sister arranged a golden gown over her tunic. “I do think this waist is too long, Enit. And just look how pointed the sleeves are!”
The old nurse clucked at her charges. “You two sisters are even fussier than your mother, may she rest in peace. But you do look pretty. As they say, ‘Fine feathers make fine birds.’”
Taking an ivory comb, Bronwen divided and began to weave Gildan’s hair into two long golden braids. Her sister was entirely lovely, Bronwen realized. Though she had been a sickly child most of her life, tonight Gildan’s pale skin glowed rosily and her blue eyes shone. She would make some man a lovely bride to carry on the great line of Edgard the Briton, their ancestor.
At the thought of marriage, Bronwen gazed into the fire. As her fingers continued nimbly in the familiar braiding pattern, Bronwen imagined she could see in the coals a dark shape. A man’s black eyes flickered, and in the wraithlike fire his raven hair floated above his temples. Bronwen sensed a strength in his determined jaw, a gentleness in the curve of his lips and a high intelligence in the smooth planes of his forehead.
Sighing, she turned away from the vision she had conjured more than once in the flames. Her father would never link her with such a man. She must wed the one he selected, and his choices were few indeed. He must betroth her to one of the remaining Briton landholders in the area, for her veins coursed with blood of the most ancient tribe still dwelling on the great island of Britain.
“Bronwen, just look at what you’ve done!” Gildan’s voice broke into her sister’s reverie. “You have wrapped this ribbon backward. Do stop your daydreaming and help me with my mantle.”
Bronwen gathered the soft woolen cloak and laid it over her sister’s shoulders. She placed her own mantle on the heavy green gown she wore and arranged her thick black braids over its folds. Kneeling on a pillow, she waited pa-Catherine Palmer
tiently as Enit veiled Gildan and set a circlet of gold on the younger woman’s head.
“Bronwen, you do look fine,” Enit remarked as she arranged Bronwen’s veil. “Let me rub a bit of fat into those dry fingers. You’ve worked far too hard on this feast. You must learn to let things go a bit, child. And do stop worrying over your father’s choice of guests. Edgard is a wise man.”
The young woman looked up into Enit’s bright eyes. The old nurse had cared for her since Gildan’s birth had resulted in their mother’s death. Enit’s skin hung in thin folds beneath her chin, and tiny lines ran randomly across her face. But when she grinned, as she did now, showing her three good front teeth, each line fell into its accustomed place with ease.
“That’s better.” Enit chuckled as Bronwen’s expression softened. “Now hurry down to the great hall, you two imps, before your father sends up the guard. And, Gildan, remember, ‘Silence is golden.’”
“Oh, Enit! Come Bronwen, you carry the rush light, and I shall carry your mantle down the stair.”
“Enjoy the feast!” Enit called after them.
Bronwen shook her head in contradiction of the nurse’s words. With barbarians in the keep and little to anticipate in the coming year, she felt the evening’s feast must be far less than enjoyable. But at last she lifted her head, slipped her arm around her sister and set a smile upon her lips.
As Bronwen followed Gildan down the stone stairs, she breathed deeply the fresh scent of newly laid rushes on the floor. She had worked hard to prepare for the feast, just as she labored at every endeavor. Since her mother’s death, she had been mistress of the hall. She had, on occasion, even managed the entire holding while her father was away at battle.
Standing in the light of the entrance to the great hall, the sisters surveyed the merry scene before them. Guests, all of whom were men, stood around the room discussing the latest news from the south. Bronwen recognized most of them.
Some were her father’s close friends, and others came only because they were loyal to the Briton cause. Few of the men held much land, and many served Norman conquerors.
“Look, Bronwen. Those swinish Vikings are already inside the hall. How vulgar their tongue sounds!” Gildan crossed her arms in contempt.
Bronwen spotted the Viking party in one corner, where they had gathered to tell bawdy stories and laugh raucously.
She identified the leader standing in their midst. A heavy old man he was, probably boasting of his battle prowess. He owned Warbreck Castle and its surrounding lands—a holding that adjoined her father’s. Thanks be to the gods, he had never threatened Rossall nor made any attempt to seize it. Indeed, he had allied himself with Edgard against the Norman invaders. But a Viking in their halls? A Norse barbarian? She sighed in frustration.
“Look!” Gildan broke in on Bronwen’s thoughts. “The minstrels are beginning to play. It’s time we made our appearance. I wonder if Aeschby will have come.”
“Of course he will. Father has invited all our neighbors.”
“How lovely the hall appears tonight!” Gildan said as they made their way toward the dais. Sounds of music—lutes, harps, dulcimers and pipes—drifted down from the gallery at the far end of the hall. Beneath it stood a high table draped in white linen and a green overcloth. Metal tankards and goblets were scattered across its surface and down the two long side tables next to the walls.
Cupbearers bustled from one man to another offering
drinks. Servitors removed platters, pitchers and spoons from the cupboard and laid them on the tables.
As the sisters made their way through the crowded hall, Gildan admired aloud the sheaves of wheat decorating the tables, and the green ivy, holly and mistletoe hanging from the torches. “Father is looking well tonight,” she whispered.
“Is that Aeschby he stands with? What a fine red tunic he wears.”
Bronwen spotted the tall blond man across the room. He stood well above their father in height. Because of the tract of land he held across the Wyre River to the east, and because of his Briton bloodline, Aeschby often had been mentioned as a possible husband for Bronwen, even though they were cousins.
But Bronwen had never cared for Aeschby. The times they had met as children, he had played cruel tricks on her and Gildan. And once he had dropped a kitten to its death from the battlements just to see if it could land on its feet.
“Indeed, Aeschby appears in good spirits tonight,”
Bronwen had to acknowledge. “But look, the piper has seen us, and now the feasting begins.”
As she spoke, trumpets sounded and each man moved to his appointed place, according to his rank. The sisters stepped onto the dais and waited beside their father’s chair. Bronwen looked fondly at the heavy, aged man as he lumbered to his place. His long white mustaches hung far down into his beard.
And though the top of his head was bald, thick locks of snowy hair fell to his shoulders. He had always been a proud man, Edgard the Briton, and he stood tall before his guests.
“Welcome, welcome one and all. The house of Edgard enjoins all friends of the great Briton kingdom of this isle to share in our winter feast.”
He lifted his golden cup high over his head, and a mighty cheer rose from the crowd.
“Now let us eat in fellowship. And when my daughters are gone to bed, we shall enjoy an even greater merriment!” At that all the men burst into laughter. Bronwen glanced over to see Gildan blushing. “But before they are gone, Edgard the Briton will make an announcement of great import to all gathered here. And now, let the feasting begin!”
Bronwen sank into her chair. An announcement of great import? What could her father mean? Perhaps he had some news of the civil war between the Norman king, Stephen, and his cousin, the Empress Matilda, both of whom claimed the throne of England. Yet Bronwen felt quite certain the news was something closer to herself. She knew it must be the announcement of her betrothal in marriage, for her father had been hinting of an arrangement for many months now.
But to whom? Edgard had called Bronwen to his side upon her last birthday. She remembered thinking how old and withered he looked. Though his body was still strong, he had put on much weight, and he often complained of aches in his joints. Bronwen recalled how he had placed his arm around her shoulders, a sign of affection he had not displayed since she was a child. “Bronwen, you have eighteen years, now.”
His voice had been filled with emotion. “You are well into womanhood. For too long I have depended on you for the management of my household. You remind me so of your mother when she arrived from Wales to become my wife.”
Her father had stopped speaking for a moment and gazed at his thick fingers, entwined in his sash. Though the marriage had been arranged by their fathers, Bronwen knew he had truly cared for her mother.