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Authors: Christina Dodd

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“She’s older than Henry?”

“Aye, and that makes his defection particularly galling.”

“Any woman could understand that,” she acknowledged.

“Any
man
could understand that,” he snapped.

The flames illuminated his handsome features, and she was stricken anew by a sense of his power. This man carried his arrogance easily, without effort or thought. She knew that whoever he was, whatever he did, he was master. Her prolonged scrutiny brought his gaze to hers, and he lifted his brows in query. Hastily she said, “The porridge is ready.” She spooned it into the bowls, accepted a piece of crusty bread, and seated herself on the bed. Testing his knowledge, she said, “But the king is known to have liaisons outside of his marriage. There’s never been any talk of his fidelity.”


Henry’s
fidelity? Ha!”

She savored the flavor of cereal and fruit with closed eyes, and when she opened them she found his
gaze fixed on her face. A half-smile decorated his mouth, but whether because of her pleasure or Henry’s doubtful fidelity, she didn’t know. Briefly, her doubts of the night before returned. Was this the king of hell? Had she damned herself to stay with him eternally by the eating of his food? As she watched, he tucked his hair behind his ears to keep it out of the way, and she saw the earring again.

A barbaric earring of hammered gold, so large it expanded the pierced lobe. The pain must have been extraordinary, and she couldn’t imagine what had made him allow such a license. He glanced up to see the cause of her sudden silence, and she launched into speech. “I’ve heard the nobles keep their wives and daughters away from the king.”

“Unless they want a favor,” he acknowledged. “But this girl, this Rosamund, is different. Henry flaunts her, keeps her in the royal residences.”

As she ate, she debated the wisdom of telling him all the gossip the minstrel had passed on. But he knew so much, was so intimate with the players, she couldn’t resist. “During her autumn travels, Eleanor found Rosamund living at Woodstock.”

He put down his spoon. “At that most beloved royal residence?”

“So I was told.”

“Does Henry believe Eleanor will submit tamely to his disrespect? Before she was Queen of France or of England, she was Countess of Poitou and Aquitaine. Her lands are almost half of Henry’s empire.”

She scraped the last bits of apple from her bowl. “What kind of woman is she?”

“A marvelous woman.” His smile spoke volumes of his fondness. “No queenly figurehead is she.
She understands the politics between France and England, and understands the politics
within
France and England. Without her help, Henry could never have come so far, so quickly.” He took her bowl and gave her another helping of the oat and apple mixture.

“Surely you believe she’s one of the lesser sex.”

He sidestepped her challenge. “But greater than most men. She’s borne Henry seven children—three healthy, living sons, and perhaps a fourth at Christmastide.”

Juliana’s heart contracted with sympathy for the beleaguered queen. “She carries a child?”

“Which Henry sent her away to bear on English soil, so he said.”

“Perhaps the king doesn’t realize how he offends her with his exhibit of this Rosamund.”

“He does, never doubt it, but rather than placate the queen, he’ll display his power over her subjects. He’ll spend Christmas at Poitiers, at Eleanor’s own home, to introduce his son Henry to the Poitevin lords. The second son, Richard, is Eleanor’s designated heir to Poitou and Aquitaine, but the king will introduce Henry the younger as their future sovereign.” He set his bowl aside with a sigh of satiation or aggravation. “Our liege is a splendid tactician.”

The way he said it made her look at him. “Don’t Poitevins recognize the young Henry as their overlord?”

“Poitevins are a flighty people, with a tendency to break into rebellion every time Henry turns his attention elsewhere. If the queen should go to them and request their assistance—”

“They’ll gladly rebel,” she finished. “And mayhap rebellion would spread. Glad I am that I’ve plans to make improvements to my castle.”

His attention homed in on her. “Improvements?”

Should she tell him? Would it impress him that she had the foresight to strengthen her defenses, or would he see a weakness he could exploit? “Additions to the curtain wall,” she said, watching him as closely as he watched her.

He leaned forward, his hands on his knees, his eyes sparking with zest. “Your outer bulwark needs reform?”

“Aye. I’ve been told of the progress made on the design of castles manned by the Crusaders, and I resolved to take advantage of those designs.”

Obviously pleased, he told her, “I can help. I know a bit about castle design.”

Did he indeed?

Leaping up, he went to the door and gathered snow in his arms. Close to the outside wall of the hut, he piled the snow on the packed dirt floor and formed a mound. “There’s the outcrop your castle is situated on.” He drew a wavy line around three sides of the mound in the packed dirt floor. “There’s the river that protects you. The keep sits here, on the highest point, and in it you have your great hall, your storage cellars, perhaps a well, since you’re so close to the river.” He stabbed his twig into the summit, and around it like a fence he laid kindling.

“My kitchen is in the undercroft, also,” she said, challenging him.

“In the undercroft?” He looked as astonished as every man looked when told. “Why would you want it in the undercroft?”

“’Tis easier for the servants to bring dinner up the stairs. ’Tis easier to boil water when the well is close at hand. ’Tis just easier.”

“Than having a kitchen hut in the bailey?” He shrugged. “Such things are a woman’s concern, and although I’ve never heard of such a madness, ’tis not for me to complain.”

She stared at him, open-mouthed. None of the men she knew—not Sir Joseph, not Hugh, not Felix, not even her father before his affections had changed—none of them would have dismissed the location of the kitchen with such a bow to her knowledge.

“Have you had trouble with the fire below?” he asked, looking interested.

“Nay.” Eager to explain her innovation to someone who appreciated creativity, she said, “We built a fire pit into the bare earth, well away from the columns that hold up the flooring of the great hall. We put a flue high above to siphon the smoke.”

“So the flue is not a hole in your defenses.”

“Aye.” She rubbed her palms on her skirt, and she shared the greatest triumph of all. “And the food comes to the table warm.”

“Leave it to a woman to improve the living conditions, I always say, and leave it to the men to improve the defenses.” He pointed his thumb toward his chest. “That’s me. Now here is the wall you have now. The bailey is this open area surrounding the keep. In it, you have a garden, a stable, perhaps—”

She wasn’t listening anymore. She simply stared at the mound he’d made. He knew the layout of her castle. Not that it was an unusual castle. Except for the kitchen inside the keep, it was typical of the first stone castles built after William the Bastard had conquered England. But this showed he’d studied her home, as if he were a stone mason or a carpenter seeking work—or a warrior intent on conquest.

He said something impatiently, and her mouth went dry as she looked at him. This man was no simple carpenter.

“You want to add another curtain wall?” He spoke as if he would repeat the sentence into infinity, or at least until she answered him.

“Nay.” She cleared her throat. Keep him talking. He couldn’t learn anything she didn’t choose to tell him, and if she could just keep him talking, she might discover his purpose. “I want to strengthen the present curtain wall—not that it’s not strong enough,” she added hastily.

“What changes will you make?”

She realized reluctantly she would have to tell him, minimizing the deficiencies while sounding airy and positive. “There’s little protection atop the wall for the archers. I want to add stone merlons for them to hide behind and arrow slits for them to shoot out of. I want to add a tower and gatehouse”—she glared—“stop shaking your head at me!”

He smiled at her irritation. “You need an outer curtain wall.”

“What good would another wall do?” Picking her words with care, she said, “I already have a wall, strong beyond imagining.”

“A castle needs circles of defense to be effective, one inside the other, each stronger than the last.”

“There’s a moat around the wall.” Waving her finger at his creation, she ordered, “Dig a moat on that toy castle you built.”

He did as he was told, saying, “Also built, no doubt, when the first William conquered England.”

Irked by his patronizing air, she nodded.

“That was one hundred years ago! The new
designs are built with many circles, so the attackers must scale many walls, dodge many missiles, face many arrows.” In a fever of enthusiasm, he erased the newly dug moat with a sweep of his hand. He laid kindling along the side of the hill not facing the river and excavated a new moat right beside it. “See, with your site, you have a mighty advantage. With the addition of an outer wall from one bank of the river to the other, you’ll have an impregnable castle. We could build a tower here and here”—he placed tall sticks into the corners of his outer wall, overlooking the river—“and the men-at-arms you placed there would have a view of the surrounding countryside for miles in any direction.”

“Towers on the inner wall would produce the same results,” she answered primly.

“We’ll build towers on the inner walls, too,” he agreed. “But first, this curtain wall. We’ll construct a gatehouse, an impassable stronghold.” He rubbed his hands in anticipation and sorted through his kindling for just the right gatehouse.

As he placed his stubby, rounded piece of wood in the middle of his outer wall, she wondered when the construction of her castle had moved beyond her control, why this wanderer waxed so enthusiastic about bolstering her fortifications, and why he spoke as if he would supervise the construction. “Of what use is a gatehouse?”

“Your gate is the weakest place in your defense. It’s a hole in your wall.”

“A necessary hole.”

“Of course, a necessary hole. I didn’t tell you to close it, did I?” He looked impatient with her dithering. “Within a properly constructed gatehouse, the enemy
is funnelled through a small space where stones and boiling tar can be dropped on their heads, and a portcullis can trap them. A properly constructed gatehouse can be the key to an enemy’s defeat.”

She stopped debating. Why was she playing devil’s advocate? She’d conducted this argument with Sir Joseph, only he defended the old ways and she argued for the new. She’d yielded to Sir Joseph, but the man before her spoke knowledgeably about the things she’d hungered to know. Only a master castle-builder could know more.

The thought lingered, and she turned it in her mind. Only a master castle-builder would know more. A master. A master of men, of many crafts. She had thought this man a master, with a master’s authority and a master’s control. She’d been so frightened by him, she hadn’t been thinking straight, but…She studied him and his creation. Could it be? Was it possible? Choosing her words carefully, she said, “You have studied castles extensively.”

He held his hands out, fingers spread wide, with all the dirt and splinters and melting bits of snow visible for her to see. “If I did not study castle design and construction, I would not be free today.”

A free man. Not bound to any lord, he was a free man. To earn the privilege of freedom, he had had to perform services so valuable to his lord he had been released to make his way in the world. Buoyed by the hunch she now knew to be the truth, she accused, “You’re the master castle-builder I sent for!”

In places, the snow
drifted up to Raymond’s waist, but he plowed through, breaking the way for his new liege. He could hardly believe he’d made Lady Juliana believe he was a master castle-builder.

A master castle-builder, in charge of design and masonry, carpentry and smithery. Of all those trades, he understood only design, for a knight must sum up a castle’s defenses to conduct a successful siege. He brightened. But really, how hard could it be to build a curtain wall?

From behind him, Juliana said querulously, “Master Raymond, I hope you know how disappointed I am in you.”

He stopped and drew in great breaths of the frigid air. “My lady, I am moving as quickly as I can.”

“I wasn’t talking about our progress,” she snapped. “I sent for you last spring as soon as King Henry granted me permission to expand the castle’s battlements. He also included a royal recommendation to hire his finest castle-builder, and a promise to send him ere the summer waned. It is now only more than a month until Christmastide. Where have you been?”

He looked around at the primal forest: trees draped in shades of white and blue, hills rolling with snow. He looked at the sky, still pregnant with clouds. He looked behind at Juliana, who led his horse and glared. “My lady, I don’t believe this is the time or the place—”

“Master Raymond, I’ll decide the time and place,” she interrupted. “You spent the summer lolling in Henry’s court, no doubt, accepting the tributes of his nobles for your construction of his castle on the Dordogne.”

Her repetition of his name and his newly assumed title irritated him. It was her way of reminding him of his station, of telling him not to presume on the events of the previous night and this morning. Tucking his hands into his armpits to warm them, he protested, “My lady, your imagination—”

“My imagination needs no prompting. You come to me when the winter is hard upon us, expecting to live at my expense until spring.” She stepped closer to him. “Well, think again, Master Raymond. Aye, you will remain at the castle—if I allowed you to leave, only the angels know when you would return—but there are duties I will assign you.”

“Any duty you assign will be an honor, but as master castle-builder”—the title tasted strange on his tongue, so he repeated it—“as master castle-builder, there are other duties I must perform to prepare for construction in the spring. That is why I came when I did.”

“What duties are those, Master Raymond?” she demanded.

“Digging and…” She wanted him to forget her panic of yesterday, but she had become a nagging fishwife. He wasn’t used to such treatment, and he
resented it even as he groped for inspiration. “…and tool making,” he finished triumphantly.

“The ground’s frozen.”

Her tone put his teeth on edge. “I’ll make pickaxes.”

“Hmm.” She pushed at him. “Move on. It’s cold.”

Doing as he was told, he couldn’t resist saying, “I did advise against trying to reach Lofts Castle today.”

She ignored him. Ignored him as royally as she had done everything since his “identity” had been revealed. But she was selfconscious about her arrogance, for her voice quickened and she seemed more indignant than her suspicions would call for. “Why didn’t you tell me who you were?”

He bowed his head in what he hoped was subservience. “I was, as you said, late. I hoped to smooth your temper before revealing my identity.”

“And to observe the layout of my castle,” she guessed. “Are all castle builders as arrogant as you?”

“Have you never had a castle builder work for you before?” He cursed the hope that colored his tone, and floundered on a patch of ice hidden beneath a drift.

She caught him before he fell, and looked pleased, perhaps at her own daring, or perhaps at his clumsiness. Brushing the flakes from his cloak while he wiped his face, she answered with a courtesy absent from her previous conversation. “Nay. My father never chanced it, for during Stephen’s rule no one dared lower their defenses long enough to perform any but the necessary repairs. Henry came to the throne, and we waited and hoped. When the king tossed the Flemish mercenaries into the ocean and brought the bandit-barons to heel, our hopes were fulfilled.”

“’Tis easier to keep order with the threat of king’s justice,” he said.

She agreed readily enough. “If not for that, I would have been battered to the ground when my father died two winters ago.”

“Without the firm hand of a lord, men do all they dare to do and still not break the law.” She flinched, and he asked, “What enemies have you?”

“Enemies?” The bitter smile rested ill on her piquant face. “No enemies, only the men I once called my friends.”

“I see.” For the most part, he did. Friends turn greedy when confronted with a chance to enrich themselves, and her friends had proved fickle. “Your husband?”

“Millard was a sickly youth, and my father’s ward. He died ten years ago while I was in childbed with my younger daughter.”

No regret shadowed her face, no recollection of love nor faded sweetness. That union, he surmised, had been a political one, arranged by her father to add to the family’s wealth. An unimportant part of her life, and not the reason for her back-stepping caution.

“That was also the time Richard was born to the queen and designated as the queen’s special heir to Poitou and Aquitaine. My elder daughter carries eleven years, born the month Henry ascended to the throne.” Her mouth smiled, but her eyes dimmed with sadness. “My father said my fertility prophesied the events of a nation.” Flushing as if she’d said too much, she demanded, “Why do you stand there? We’ll never get home before dark if you don’t move.”

“As you say, my lady.” Turning back to his exhausting job, he wondered if this half-formed plan of his was worth carrying out, if Juliana would see through his ruse, and what she would do if she did.

One flake of falling trouble interrupted his musing, and he looked skyward. Another flake, and another, floated on the still air. “Saint Sebastian’s arrows,” he swore. “Now we’re in for it.”

“Should we go back?” she asked.

“We should never have left,” he answered savagely.

She sounded abashed when she said, “Cavilling at our dilemma will accomplish nothing.”

“It will make me feel better.” But he already felt better, for someone had had to make the judgment to leave the hut. Juliana had taken the responsibility without flinching, and if he didn’t agree with her decision—well, at one time, he’d made some painfully stupid decisions, too.

“I thought it best to try to reach Lofts Castle during the first break in the weather. The squirrels’ coats grew abundantly this year, and the caterpillars were thick on the ground, so I know it’s going to be a hard winter. We could have been trapped through the new moon.”

He blinked against the snow, now hurtling along on the freshening breeze. “The wind’s at our back. We will arrive on the wings of the storm.”

His conjecture proved ridiculous. By the time they crossed the drawbridge, the wind howled and snow blinded them. He had his arm around Juliana, carrying her, and his gelding plodded behind them with many a reproachful nudge. The bailey was empty. No one patrolled the wall walks. The keep had no door on the lower level, a primitive defense and very effective, but it meant Lady Juliana would have to wait until a ladder was lowered to enter her own home.

Raymond shouted and kicked at the stable door for too long before the stable boy came running. The
boy’s eyes widened. He backed from the two frozen figures who resembled nothing so much as walking snowmen.

“Care for the horse,” Raymond snapped. “I’ll take care of the lady.”

The boy responded to the anonymous voice of a lord, and in moments, the horse was being groomed and fed. As Raymond peeled the icy scarf from Juliana’s face, another man stepped out of the shadows. “M’lady?” His voice rose. “M’lady Juliana? Saint Wilfrid’s needle! What be ye doin’ out in a storm such as this?”

“Coming home,” she croaked.

“Oh, m’lady, we hoped ye holed up somewhere, but we were afraid ye’d do this.” He clicked his tongue and eyed Raymond with more curiosity and less respect than necessary. “Well, blessed be th’ moment o’ yer return. I’ll go tell ’em at once.”

He raced outside, but two more stable hands ran forward, and their jubilant cries gladdened Raymond’s heart. So they liked their lady, did they? He watched as they piled their own blankets on Juliana, and listened as the almost frozen woman thanked them in their own English tongue. So she’d troubled to learn the language of her servants, had she?

They, too, watched him with such intense curiosity he found himself wondering what reception they gave their guests when unaccompanied by the chatelaine. Raymond would have been happy to remain in the stables, but because of the hay, no fire was allowed, and only the animals’ warmth kept it above freezing. “We must get to a fire, my lady,” he warned.

“Is your steed settled to your satisfaction?” She hardly waited to hear his reply. “Then let us go.”

Without hesitation, she plunged out the door, and as Raymond followed her, he discovered why. Two forms struggled down the ladder from the open upper door of the keep. Shrieking wildly, they flew lightly toward Juliana. Juliana threw out her hands, and raced toward them.

Her daughters.

They met in a mighty clash, falling in the drifts, wrestling, kissing. Halting at a respectful distance, Raymond couldn’t see their faces, but implicit in the gestures was a frantic concern. Love shone around their little group like the rays of a star.

Amazed, he stared, his eyes smarting, his feet hurting from the cold. He’d heard stories of affection between mother and child, but he’d discounted it as a romantic tale, or a reality only for peasants. As Juliana and her daughters stood and walked, clasped in each other’s arms, toward the ladder, he made a resolution. He resolved he would be part of that magic circle one day. One day, Juliana and her daughters would run to him when he returned to them.

First the girls, then Juliana hitched up their skirts and crawled up the ladder. Raymond followed close behind, to guard against a slip, he told himself. In sooth, he wanted to examine this bond between mother and daughters, and see if there were rivals for the affection he coveted.

A young man-at-arms stood in the entrance, shouting, “M’lady? M’lady, ’tis glad I am t’ see ye, but how came ye here in this weather?” His exultation died when his gaze met Raymond’s. The same curiosity that waylaid the stable hands seemed intensified in this youth, with the added fillip of hostility.

Juliana and her children went into the dark passage, and Raymond elbowed the soldier aside to follow them. But the soldier closed in behind, following on Raymond’s heels as they climbed a short stair. Raymond noted and approved the narrow turns that gave all advantage to a defender, but he didn’t linger. Ahead of him, the door burst open and light streamed out.

Inquisitiveness and a bump from behind drove him into the great hall, and he squinted against the smoke generated by the roaring fire. After his isolation of the past weeks, the room seemed to be overflowing with humanity. Squeals of maidservants mingled with the deeper shouts of men as they all milled in excited circles around their mistress.

Through breaks in the crowd, he could see two caped figures clinging to Juliana, one a child’s size, one almost the size of her mother. That gave him pause, for although she’d said her elder was eleven, he hadn’t realized that daughter would be a woman. Juliana had an arm around each one, not releasing them as the maids fluttered around her. Her cape, her hat, her gloves were pulled from her while she kept hold of her children.

“Are you both well? Have you kept warm?” With a smile, Juliana turned to the younger child. “Are you wearing shoes, Ella?”

With a pout, Ella stuck out her shod foot.

“Good girl,” Juliana praised.

“And you, Margery? Did you—”

“Mama, I hurt myself,” Ella interrupted.

Juliana didn’t seem truly concerned, but she asked, “How did you hurt yourself?”

“I hurt my finger.” Ella held out the injured digit. Raymond noted the child hadn’t replied to the question, but Juliana leaned to kiss it anyway.

“She tried to stir the fire when no one was looking and burned herself on the stick,” Margery said.

Ella made a rude noise. Margery made one right back.

“Girls.” Juliana reproved them automatically, and reached out to stroke Margery’s cheek. “Are you well?”

Margery smiled and nodded, but Raymond could see her chin trembled. Margery was fast approaching the difficult time of her life. Childhood would soon be left behind, for in the form of her body she gave notice of a coming beauty.

Juliana gave her cloak to Margery, her gloves to Ella. “Put those away, please.” Margery clung a moment longer, and patting her shoulder, Juliana promised, “We’ll talk later.”

“Mama, who is that man?”

Ella’s voice was audible throughout the hall, and dozens of eyes fixed on Raymond. “He’s not important,” Juliana said firmly. “Please obey me, girls.”

Not important? To be so dismissed in the hall where one day he would rule…His surge of fury took Raymond by surprise. He
was
important. He was cousin to the king, heir to great tracts of Norman lands, heir to an ancient title. Never again would he dance for his supper, scamper to avoid the lash, work like a peasant. And if the Lady Juliana thought he could be so easily dismissed, her mind would have to be altered.

He was glaring at her, he realized, for although he stood in the shadows some of his hostility had projected itself across the hall. The color which had returned to her cheeks eroded. She pushed her children toward the great bed in the corner and faced him with squared shoulders and quivering chin. Raymond almost laughed at her heroics, so irrelevant
in a room filled with her men, and wondered why her fear seemed genuine. He stepped forward, intent on stating his true name and true intentions, and be damned to her feelings, when the young man-at-arms stepped between him and his mistress.

“What are ye here fer?” the soldier asked, resting his hand on the scabbard that held his knife.

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