Authors: Georgia Fox
Copyright© 2011 Georgia Fox
Cover Artist: LF Designs
Editor: Marie Buttineau
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.
This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
To Tamzin and Pippa
The Conquerors, 3
Copyright © 2011
Wessex, England, 1081
He ran his fingertip along the smooth, curved surface, seeking the slightest imperfection. There was none he could find. The hardened pads of his fingers followed the swell and down into a dip, and then back up slowly. He turned his hand, resting the palm along that same camber. A frisson of satisfaction traveled across his skin, lifting the small hairs along his arm.
Wulf was pleased. The chair leg was as fine as any human hand could make it. Exhaling a deep sigh, he felt the proud tightening in his gut that followed every successfully completed step. Other folk might laugh to see how reverently he touched the wood he chiseled. They teased him for the long hours he spent shut away with his tools. But he took his work seriously, for without it what did he have? Once he was Raedwulf, disappointing youngest son of the Eaorl of Wexford; then, when the Normans came to conquer, he was taken prisoner. Fifteen years later he was finally freed and now he was simply Wulf the Carpenter.
And he was as happy as any man left alone to do as he pleased could ever be. But it wouldn’t last would it? Nothing good ever did.
Annoyed, he examined a splinter stuck in his finger. If he didn’t get it out the damn thing would work under his nail and hurt like a bugger.
Sucking on his skin, he tasted sawdust and sweat.
Splinters. There was always one somewhere.
Speaking of which…his sister’s voice approached the small shed he’d taken over for his work. As usual, Deorwynn chattered rapidly and today there was an added pitch of excitement in her tone. Wulf shrank inside a little when he heard it, because he knew the cause.
His bride was expected today.
Damn women. Like splinters. Always a profusion about and seldom good for anybody.
He knew he should be grateful to his little sister for arranging his freedom. Indeed, he would have been intensely thankful, had his prison been even half so bad as she imagined. Deorwynn was one of those Saxons who still resented the Norman victory. Even now all these years later, and although married to a Norman herself, there remained a few rebellious tendencies in the stubborn little woman. She refused to believe her brother was never tortured while he was in the Norman king’s custody, but in truth Wulf had been well looked after. He’d spent half his life with those captors, grown up into a man during his confinement.
Now King William granted him amnesty. His sister had married Guy Devaux, the Norman Knight who now possessed their father’s lands and he, Raedwulf, was sent home where he might live “free”, while also being watched. Just incase. There was always a worry that he could try to reclaim his father’s lands—or so they thought.
Wulf was amused by the idea of being a threat to anyone. His own sister had more mutinous spirit in her small bones than he ever did in his much larger ones. She was of the opinion that everything was worth fighting for; he believed there were very few things in life that warranted the trouble.
The door opened. She came in without knocking, as usual.
“Wulf, why are you still in here working?”
Peace was shattered. It was almost time then. Anxiety gripped his innards, but he kept his face composed. He set down his gouge chisel and sucked harder on the splinter in his finger.
“Look at you!” she exclaimed, striding around the bench, her pregnant belly leading the way. “Are you not going to bathe and change your clothes? She’ll be here soon.”
It was five days since he was freed, three days since he’d arrived here at his brother-in-law’s manor. And it was only a day since he’d learned of his impending marriage. Apparently one of the terms of amnesty was that he be wed and quickly, to a Norman woman already picked out for him by the king. That was supposed to ensure he behaved himself.
In this short period of time his sister expected him to adjust and be fully prepared to greet an unwanted wife.
“At least wash your hands,” she said, staring at the offending objects.
He held them up to the sunlight, where it poured in through the workshop window, staining the flagged floor a buttercup yellow. “You don’t think this fancy wench will take to my dirty Saxon hands?” he muttered wryly, examining the calluses and ingrained dirt.
“No I do not.”
He wrinkled his nose. “Then she’ll be disappointed won’t she? No matter. I daresay it won’t be the last disappointment she suffers while married to me. She may as well get used to it.”
“Wulf, you promised not to be difficult.”
He sniffed, turning away, picking up his tools again.
“You know you must marry her. You may as well try to be pleasant.”
“I thought I was supposed to simply be myself,” he flung over his shoulder. “'Tis what you advised me yesterday when you surprised me with this news of a bride on her way to me, sister.”
“Can you not be yourself
“No.” He might have to marry this woman, but he didn’t have to smile at her or talk to her. The idea of doing either brought him out in a cold sweat. As for bedding her—since she was a Norman lady from a noble family, being forced to marry a dispossessed Saxon—she was probably hoping for a celibate marriage. In which case he’d gladly comply. He’d been this long without ever knowing a woman; he would prefer not to put himself up for her mockery and loathing.
He returned to the comfort of his perfectly turned chair leg, caressing the curves with a loving hand as he bent over the workbench, littered with sawdust and curls of wood, and ignored his sister’s sighs.
“I hope you will not be rude to her. She is a ward of the king’s, you know.”
Wulf grunted. “What’s wrong with her anyway? There must be something amiss with the wench if he’s passing her off onto me. He can’t care much about his ward, if I’m the best husband he could get for her.”
“Be kind. It will cost you nothing.”
“I told you, sister, I will be myself. I cannot change what I am and I refuse to pretend happiness at an arranged marriage I never sought.”
“You’ve grown stubborn, Wulf. You were not so stern and unyielding when we were children. You would do anything for me back then.”
He chuckled. “You were six and I was fourteen when father sent you away to that convent. Yes, I would think we’ve both changed in the years since. That was half my life ago.”
A sudden ruckus in the yard outside took her attention to the window, hands clasped over her swelling belly. “It’s her. She has arrived.”
Wulf felt as if a great dark shadow moved in to eclipse that bright sun. He sucked harder on his finger and caught the splinter in his teeth.
“Make haste,” his sister exclaimed, rushing to the door. “Are you not eager to see your bride?”
He spat the splinter across the cluttered shed and she scowled at him.
“Please make a little effort.”
She held the door open, waiting for him. Wood dust floated and spun in the golden shaft of sunlight. He could hear horses snorting, hooves clattering, and creaking wheels lumbering slowly across the cobbles.
They’d traveled all the way from York, so he’d been told. Wench probably wouldn’t be in the best of moods after that journey in this cloying summer heat. He supposed he was mildly curious to see this woman no one else wanted. If only out of macabre interest. How desperate must the king be to find her a husband that he sent her there to marry him?
“Straighten your shoulders,” his sister urged, as he reluctantly left his bench and his tools. “Head up and don’t forget to smile.”
Teeth gritted, he gave her a fierce grimace and she paled a few shades.
“I said smile,” she muttered. “Not growl.”
* * * *
Within the first few minutes Emma concluded that the man they’d sent her to marry was mute. Possibly also deaf. Neither would be a bad thing for her, she reasoned, being of a practical mind. The less trouble he gave her the better. She expected nothing from this marriage except the security of a home and the opportunity of escaping the regime of her sharp-tongued mother-in-law. She still couldn’t quite believe the king had found her another husband, when everyone knew she was barren. She’d resigned herself to entering a convent, until the brief, terse message came from King William, advising her that she was to marry the son of a former Saxon nobleman.
She studied her new husband warily. He was tall and rough about the edges. His hair was unkempt, streaked with tarnished gold where it was longer and hung across his sweating brow. There was a square, determined angle to his rugged, unshaven jaw and Emma suspected he very rarely did something he didn’t care to do. But as he was so quiet, he probably didn’t argue about it, she thought; he would simply go his own way and do as he pleased. Well, so would she.
He was looking at her as if he expected her to bite. When their eyes met, he quickly examined the ground and his feet—then a bird flying overhead. After that, an insect on his arm diverted his attention while he watched its slumberous crawl from his elbow to his shoulder. Then he gently blew it off. Anything, it seemed, was more interesting than his future wife. While his sister chattered away, his long fingers twitched at his sides, impatient to be busy elsewhere.
She was sorry she’d intruded on his day; clearly her presence was an irritant.
But Emma had expected nothing better. She’d already experienced love with one good man and she knew many people did not have that in their lifetime. Tragically her dear husband was taken from her by early death and during their marriage she’d never fallen pregnant. She supposed that was God’s way of making her pay for the happiness she had known. No one could have everything, and to expect it, would be sinful. At thirty, she was content to settle for a marriage of duty, since the king had apparently changed his mind about letting her enter a convent.