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Authors: Christina Dodd

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BOOK: Castles in the Air
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Well-muscled shoulders and a variety of scars proclaimed battle hardening, and the thread of steel in his demand returned good sense to Raymond in a rush. In a low, controlled voice, he said, “I am the master castle-builder, sent by King Henry to raise a wall on his majesty’s property.”

The young man’s eyes narrowed. “I’m Layamon, chief man-at-arms in Sir Joseph’s absence. What’s that golden bobble ye’re wearin’?”

Used to the amazement his barbaric decoration engendered, Raymond caressed it and smiled without humor. “’Tis the mark of an ordeal I once endured. I wear it to remind myself of the pain.”

“Guess fashions are different where ye’re from.” Layamon extended a hand, but not in courtesy. Palm up, it demanded an accounting of this stranger. “Ye have, o’ course, proof o’ his majesty’s command?”

Damn! This Layamon wasn’t quite as trusting as Lady Juliana, who had never thought to ask for evidence. Raymond reached for his purse and selected a letter. Layamon took it cautiously and turned it toward the fire. Afixed in red wax was Henry’s seal, and Layamon’s face lit with recognition. “’Tis indeed from th’ king,” he pronounced, and unfolded the document.

Raymond said, “As you can see from the first lines, our liege thinks highly of my abilities.” Of his abilities to seduce Lady Juliana, but he didn’t repeat the lines
Henry had penned. Instead he watched the young man’s eyes as they moved in a random pattern over the page, and relaxed as he realized Layamon could not read. As he had hoped. But Juliana could read, or so she said. Would she want to peruse the document herself? Or would she not want to embarrass her man-at-arms by indicating doubt in his wisdom? Sipping mulled wine, she watched Layamon wistfully, and Raymond nudged the young man. “I believe your lady wishes to speak to you.”

Layamon’s head jerked up in obvious guilt, and he stammered, “Aye. She probably wants t’ know about th’ drawbridge.” Raymond slipped the king’s letter from Layamon’s limp hand and back into his purse.

She called, “Layamon, about the drawbridge. What were you thinking, leaving it down?”

The young man said earnestly, “M’lady, it seemed t’ me we should leave it open anticipatin’ yer return.”

“Anticipating the arrival of every army in England and Wales, you mean.”

“Nay, m’lady.” Layamon tugged his forelock as he contradicted her. “Not in this weather. No army marches in this weather.”

“Why, there weren’t even men patrolling the wall walks.” She paced in a circle, her mouth a tight line. Glancing toward her daughters, she lowered her voice. “What do you imagine would have happened if I had returned to find my children kidnapped?”

“Ye’d have had me strung up,” Layamon answered. “But I did keep men on th’ wall walks until th’ first one came in wi’ a few toes frozen. I knew ye’d not want t’ waste yer soldiers in such a way. Ye’ve told me, many a time, that if I’ll take care o’ th’ men, ye an’ Sir Joseph’ll take care o’ th’ defenses.”

His simple, honest reply seemed to melt her indignation, and she looked down at her own painful toes.

Layamon was right, Raymond knew. No army could march in this weather. Even if an enemy arrived, by himself or in a small group, he’d be hard pressed to do more than seek the comfort of the fire. Would the lady see the logic of it, and would she admit it if she did?

She proved her mettle when she said, “You did well. But let’s close the drawbridge now, shall we?”

“I’ve got men out there right now sweepin’ away th’ snow. They’ll pull th’ supports an’ swing it up.” Layamon’s bow was eager and brief. “I’ll go check on them.”

She spoke before he escaped. “Order cook to prepare an extra rasher of bacon for each man tonight, with my thanks. And take this”—she removed a horn cup, decorated with filigreed silver, from its place at the head table—“for yourself, in gratitude for your good judgment.”

The cup was too fine to give to a man-at-arms, regardless of his status, but before Raymond could protest, Layamon himself said, “Nay, m’lady, ’tis too grand fer me.”

He tried to thrust it back at her, but she refused. “The gift is given. May you find happiness in every brew you drink from it.”

The young man still held it out, but she turned back to her children, now poised in the doorway, and Layamon’s gaze caressed the cup. Recalling his duty, he would have tried again to return it, but she waved him aside. “The drawbridge,” she reminded him sharply.

Stumbling over his own feet, Layamon disappeared into the stairwell. Ella’s treble voice broke the silence. “That was Grandfather’s cup.”

“Aye.” Juliana’s own voice rose to fill the room. “’Tis a fitting gift for the man who will soon take command of my garrison.”

Almost as one, the people of the great hall gasped.

“Sir Joseph?” asked Margery.

“Sir Joseph has earned his rest. The duties of chief man-at-arms have become too great for his aging shoulders. ’Tis time another man took his place.” Juliana made her pronouncement calmly, but her gaze sliced to Raymond almost as if she sought his approval. Before he could give it, she remembered the hospitality due a guest. “This man is Master Raymond, our castle builder, come to us at last. Give him drink, dry clothes, and a place by the fire. Tomorrow he’ll pick his men from among my serfs and put them to work.”

The servants looked at him with the curiosity and wariness of people unused to strangers. He held their gazes, his strong, steady, and reliable. They relaxed, and he pushed his hood and hat off. From every woman with eyes to see rose a gasp, and three buxom maids eagerly started toward him. He couldn’t resist glancing at Juliana to see how the attention affected her, but her almost-pained gaze startled him.

She commanded, “Fayette, you help disrobe him, also.”

Juliana’s own maid stepped away from her mistress, seemingly puzzled at the instructions, but Juliana gestured, and the girl bobbed an obedient curtsey. Fayette’s knowing smile as she advanced on him told the tale; she knew how to pleasure a man. Juliana had given him the choice of one of these four women, or all of these four women, but he didn’t want them. He wanted Juliana, and he would use any method to possess her. He waved the women back. “I care for
myself, but if you could prepare warm food for your lady and me, you would have my sincerest gratitude.”

“He’s probably fat,” he heard one mutter, none too quietly, and with a smile he removed his cloak.

Fayette looked him over with frank appreciation and took the discarded wrappings. Pressing herself against him, she asked, “Are ye sure?”

“Quite sure.” His gaze wandered to Juliana, now ensconced in the master’s chair by the central fire, a daughter on each knee.

Fayette must have seen, for she hugged his waist and said, “Ah, nay, ye’ll not have luck in that direction. She don’t trust any man, an’ after all these years. Better take me, I’ll give ye a good buckin’.”

“Thank you for your counsel,” he replied in a manner that imparted the opposite, and she stepped back in an offended flurry.

He advanced on the fire and warmed his hands. Through the flickering red glow of the flames, he watched the little family and said, “My lady, I must send for my construction crew. With your permission, I will do so at once.”

He had pierced her motherly haze. Had she been interested in his reaction to such a bounty of womanly pulchritude? Had she hoped he would choose a mate from among her maids, or had she hoped he would not? Her frown gave nothing away, and she said, “A construction crew? Strangers? Here in my castle?”

“Without a doubt,” he said reassuringly. “My master mason, my blacksmith—”

“I have a mason,” she offered. “I have a blacksmith.”

“And grateful I am for them. My own masters will have need of their skill. But to undertake a project of this magnitude, men with the proper training are necessary.”

“How many men?”

He stroked the gold earring and made a pretense of thinking. “Ten men.”

He suspected she would protest any intrusion into her home, and she didn’t disappoint him. “Ten men? For one wall? That’s an invasion force.”

Craftily, he offered, “If my men offend you perhaps I could make do with one man.”

Her relief was palpable. “One…aye, you can bring one other man.”

He veiled his triumph as he added, “And two women.”

“Two women,” she said slowly. “Why do you need two women?”

“Why does any man need a woman?” He stared into the fire, projecting his will with silent might.
Believe the women are for me
, he prayed.
Believe they will keep me busy in the night. Believe they will succeed where your servants failed
.

Her inner debate was extended and painful, and made it too clear the maid’s words were truth. Juliana trusted no man. At last she said, “As you wish. Send for your crew. How soon can you be started?”

Struggling to keep his triumphant grin off his face, he assured her, “Three weeks.”

 

“Build a castle wall?” Raymond’s chief knight and companion paced across Lady Juliana’s bailey. As the sun peeked above the curtain wall, it shone on his changeless expression. “We do not know how to build a castle wall.”

Years of shared hardship had taught Raymond to read Keir even when he was most enigmatic, and
now Keir clearly believed his friend had developed maggots in his brain. With the charm of a practiced courtier, Raymond asked, “What’s the difficulty? The building can’t be as arduous as the breaching.”

Keir didn’t respond to the charm. Sometimes Raymond wondered if Keir knew what charm was. “You do not know anything about the trades, any of them.”

Raymond smiled guiltily as they stopped on the drawbridge. “I thought a wall built about halfway down the hill.” He pointed. “See? I have Lady Juliana’s men already busy with pick and shovel, digging the foundation.”

Keir’s tone was flat. “You are the least skilled man I have ever met.”

“The snow has melted, but the ground is still half frozen, and the other half’s mud. It’s hard work for the men.”

“You do not even understand the intricacies of a waterwheel.”

“The local mason has increased his order of sandstone from the local quarry. The lead quarryman tried to put us off until spring, but I convinced him—”

“I was a blacksmith,” Keir allowed.

Raymond dropped his courtly facade. “I had not forgotten. Nor had I forgotten you learned it the hard way—at end of a Saracen whip. I had hoped you would help me with this deception, but if you can’t face the humiliation of such work again, I won’t press you.”

“I know you would not.” Keir hooked his thumb in his belt and gazed at his hand. Only his thumb and forefinger remained, the others gone to some distant amputation. Projecting a fierce satisfaction, he said, “For that reason, I do as you desire. Besides, smithery is not without its dignity.”

Resigned, Raymond waited for the insult, and Keir didn’t disappoint him.

“More dignity, in fact, than mucking out a stable.”

“A fact you delight in recalling,” Raymond accused.

Keir smoothed his droopy gray mustache, which stood in stark contrast to his dark brown hair. “Not at all. I do not have to recall it. I seem never to forget it.”

Not for the first time, Raymond wondered if all natives of the island called Ireland were so unemotional as to be almost unreadable. He thought not; he preferred to think his friend’s constraint was rare.

“The Infidels had no use for a Christian knight’s skills, and we were, after all, nothing but slaves.” With hearty goodwill, Raymond slapped Keir on the back. As Keir regained his breath, Raymond added, “This proves even the Infidels dance to God’s own plan. If my master had not forced us to learn the trades—smithing, carpentry, masonry—we would have never escaped. Now, we use those trades again to gain me a bride.”

Clearly, Keir didn’t understand the sense in such subterfuge. “I would like to remind you, however, that although I possess the skills of smithery, those skills will not build a castle. I cannot hide your ignorance beneath the cloak of my knowledge, for I have no such knowledge. Why not just tell her who you are and demand she wed you?”

“Because she’d refuse, and I abhor the thought of besieging my future bride.”

“It is not because of your ordeal with the Saracens, then.”

Keir’s shrewd guess made Raymond remember to whom he spoke, and he lifted his big hands in a gesture that exposed, for Keir only, the depth of his
embarrassment. “A true knight would not let so little a thing as a woman’s emotions dictate the course of his destiny.”

“A true knight would not allow others’ opinions alter the course of his compassion.” Keir clasped his hands behind his back in a characteristic gesture. “Still, I wonder why she would avoid this union. King Henry rewards you with two fine castles, but he rewards her, too, with a husband who’ll not beat her nor steal from her, and some women, I have heard tell, call you comely.” He inspected his friend without a smile. “Although I could never see it, myself. So what is wrong with the woman?”

“That I intend to discover.”

“I have another question to ask,” Keir said.

“I hide nothing.” Raymond spread his fingers wide, opened his arms to embrace the inquisition.

“Why a master castle-builder? If you would come to the woman in disguise, I can think of a thousand masks more fitting to your skills and station.”

Raymond raised his foot and planted it atop a knee-high pile of cut sandstone. Propping his elbow on his thigh, he watched the men scurrying below in the mud and the ice. In the secret place in his soul, he’d made his plans. He would give Juliana the respect, the romance, the adoration the troubadours sang about, and she would fall in love with the man she called Master Raymond. By springtime, he would be spending every night beneath the covers with the lady of Lofts. He’d learn every curve of her slender body, kiss every sweet place. Perhaps he’d put a child in her belly, and a lady as sweet as Juliana would easily forgive the father of her babe.

Yet he wouldn’t tell Keir, for Keir didn’t understand
romance or subtlety or any of the ways a man wooed a skittish woman. Instead he said, “A new curtain wall is more than just a castle improvement to the Lady Juliana. It is security. It is safety. It is all the things I will be to her one day soon, and I want her always to associate me with such guarantees.”

BOOK: Castles in the Air
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