Authors: Christina Dodd
Sir Joseph bellowed from just inside the gate, “What are you doing, dallying with that young knave? Can’t keep your hands off the men, can you?”
Raymond’s fingers tightened briefly on her, then he moved forward to stand directly in front of Sir Joseph. “I am Master Raymond, the master castle-builder sent by my lord, King Henry, with instructions to strengthen this castle. I will be sure to mention your name when I report to the king.” His smile showed broad white teeth, and Sir Joseph craned his neck to look up at him.
Sir Joseph studied him, eyes half closed in contemplation. Slowly, as though he were thinking aloud, he said, “I would have said you were a lord.”
Raymond’s smile got bigger and broader and a shade more vicious. “I am a lord. Lord of the castle builders.”
“Pah!” Sir Joseph shook off his apprehensions. “Like as not you’re some bastard son that toadied up to King Henry and bought the appointment.”
“Like as not,” Raymond agreed.
“But ’tis no shame to be a bastard son,” Juliana said.
Sir Joseph flushed crimson again. “Well, this stupid bastard doesn’t keep the serfs working.”
Juliana waved to the muddy workers as they hud
dled around the fire and quaffed mugs of ale supplied from her cellars. “They’ve got to eat.”
Sir Joseph snorted. “You’re always too soft. If it were up to me…that young fool Layamon could never take my place.”
“No one could ever take your place,” she began placatingly. Then an unexpected gust of resentment swept her. “Just as no one could ever take my father’s.”
father? He didn’t want someone like you for a daughter, not even on his deathbed.” Sir Joseph jabbed her with one sharp elbow. “Remember whose hand he held when he died? I wonder what he’d think if he could see this day’s business.”
“Maybe he’d think he held the wrong hand,” she retorted, sick and furious with his jeers.
“I warned him about you from the day you were born. I told him to curb you with a large stick, but he was soft. He was so soft, but I reminded him of his duty.” He laughed, a nasty snicker. “You’re a disgrace to your family and a humiliation to your father. You’re nothing but a whore.”
Not a sound disturbed the silence of the bailey. Everyone had heard Sir Joseph’s accusation, projected in the manner of the half deaf and with all the venom of a scorpion. Juliana had heard Sir Joseph’s accusation—indeed, had heard parts of it—before. But never before had he admitted to his role in her father’s absolute, continuing, and final rejection of her. Never before had he called her a whore. And never, ever had he spoken in such a fashion before her people, her friends—and Master Raymond.
She couldn’t look at them. She looked, instead, out over her lands. Her lands, spread out before her in patches of wood and plain and village. Her lands,
rich and fertile, alive with her cattle, her serfs, her villeins. She’d been the shepherd for this land and its folk, tending it, encouraging it, protecting it. From this land she drew her strength.
With that strength she faced the people who stared, peering up from the trench and out from the bailey. She faced the triumph that sharpened the hawklike features of Sir Joseph, and she faced Master Raymond.
She couldn’t know the way she looked to Raymond: proud chin raised, copper hair soft around pale cheeks, mouth quivering, blue eyes muddy with anger too long restrained. He wanted to step forward, to defend her, but some wisdom curbed him. This was her fight. She wouldn’t thank him for his interference, nor would she gain the poise she needed so acutely. Let her resolve this to her satisfaction.
In a clear, calm voice, she said, “Sir Joseph, you presume above your station. Go to Bartonhale Castle, and live there until you die.”
By slow degrees, the satisfaction in Sir Joseph faded. He stared at her, then at the people standing around. Every face wore an identical expression, set in revulsion and rejection. If one man had reached down and picked up a stone, Raymond thought, every man would have picked up a stone, and Sir Joseph would have been consigned to the fate reserved for whores. A fitting justice for one so vicious.
“You may go now.” Juliana dismissed him and turned her back.
The staff quivered in Sir Joseph’s hand as he stared at the wimple wrapping her head, and Raymond nodded at Keir. Keir stepped forward and caught the aging fiend’s arm in a warning grip. “The lady of the castle no longer requires you,” Keir said softly.
Sir Joseph tried to wrestle free, and when he couldn’t, called, “Lady Juliana! Lady Juliana, I’m an old man. I’ve lived here most of my life. Won’t you have pity on an old man and let me stay?”
Never by any sign did she indicate she heard him.
Keir began to hustle him away, but Sir Joseph cried, “Lady Juliana! At least give me time to pack. To say my farewell to the place that has been my home these many years! I beg you—”
Raymond jerked his head at Keir. Keir almost wrenched Sir Joseph off his feet, but too late. Juliana was not immune to a woman’s pity. Without looking at Sir Joseph, she pronounced, “You may stay until after Twelfth Night. The day after Twelfth Night, you will leave, regardless of your health or the weather or any other excuse.”
Keir tossed an apologetic glance at Raymond, but Raymond only shrugged. He couldn’t condemn Juliana’s good sense in sending her opponent away, nor could he condemn her kindness to her obsolete commander.
Smugly, he realized one goal of his masquerade had been achieved; he had identified the reason Juliana had avoided marriage. Perhaps she had wanted some unsuitable man. The unbending old man’s contempt, excessive though it had been, had made it clear it was nothing more than a foolish love affair.
She stood on the drawbridge, so still, so upright, unaware of his cognitions and seemingly oblivious to the gazes of her people. He thought she might break from the weight of her humiliation, and without a hint of sympathy—his experience with women told him that would bring the tears—he said, “My lady, I was hoping you’d come to inspect the progress. Would you like to go down?”
She trembled—as he’d suspected, tears were close—but she controlled herself, and his admiration grew. “My thanks, Master Raymond. I would like to inspect the progress.”
Stepping to her side, he said, “If you would take my arm, my lady, I’ll help you. It’s very slick.”
She stared at the outstretched limb as if it were attached to a loathsome creature, but after her encounter with Sir Joseph, he didn’t blame her for suspecting a man’s kindness. Catching his elbow, she followed him toward the ditch forming below her curtain wall.
Whatever scandal tainted her past and haunted her nights would be Raymond’s to deal with as he thought best. He’d give her sympathy, support, kindness, passion. Without vanity, Raymond knew he could wean her from her useless longing and cure her of her fear. He never doubted he could do it.
Slanting a proud glance at her, he wondered if she realized how much confidence she’d gained today. He felt like a father with a precocious child, or a man with a lover.
That thought startled him. When had Lady Juliana become more to him than merely a challenge? When had respect and affection colored his view of her?
That was dangerous. Her devotion deserved to be cultivated, but if the spark of love ignited him with longing, wouldn’t he long to confess his own secrets? Wouldn’t he want to bare his soul? And when she saw the things hidden within him, would he survive the inevitable rejection?
Such an ill-favored attachment did explain these twinges of jealousy that stirred in him when he thought of Juliana with another man. He didn’t love her, he couldn’t judge her, and after all, what misdeed
had Juliana committed that could be greater than his?
A pinch on his arm broke his concentration. “Stop frowning. You’re frightening the serfs,” she ordered. “When will the wall be finished?”
When would the wall be finished? He hadn’t any idea, but he said, “That depends on the weather.” She accepted that, and he continued, “Even as it sits, just one long moat, it’s a deterrent to invasion.”
“We’ll work on it unless we have another storm like the one…” He trailed off, but she understood of which storm he spoke. Color came back to her face in a rush, and satisfied, he raised his voice. “We’ll work until we’re done, won’t we, men?”
One villager, obliterated by mud, stood and tugged a blackened forelock. “We’re idle this time o’year, m’lady, an’ ye know there’s never much work fer me father an’ me. Not fer what we do. We don’t mind workin’ until yer ditch is dug.”
“Tosti, is that you?” she asked.
“Aye, m’lady.” He grinned, his teeth a marked contrast to his face.
“What do he and his father do?” Raymond asked.
“They’re trackers,” Juliana replied. “The best I have. They can find and flush any game, and when…and when someone is lost, they’ll find him.”
Tosti clenched his fists above his head. “Aye, why shouldn’t we be th’ best? We belong t’ th’ bravest lady in England.”
Taken aback, she sputtered, “Brave? What do you—”
The men nodded toward the drawbridge where her confrontation with Sir Joseph had taken place, and with winks and smiles indicated their support. Again she blushed, pleased this time.
Raymond beamed at his workers and determined to give them extra rations of ale and meat. Assisting her in her climb back up to the gate, he said, “May I compliment you on the scarlet sash, my lady? It draws the eye and livens your gown, and reminds me that Christmastide will soon be upon us.”
Across her face paraded a variety of expressions. Horror, discomfort, and remembrance mixed in such a curious blend he wondered if he would ever understand her.
She snapped her fingers under his nose, as rude and abrupt as she’d ever been. “That is why I came out here to speak to you. Those two…women you forced on me.”
“Valeska and Dagna?” So his dear ones were working their magic. He should have guessed they’d contributed the sash. “Don’t you like them?”
“Like them? Like them?” She tasted the words and evidently found them sour. “How could I not like two aging crones who insist on treating me like a queen? Who offer to sing to me and give me gifts they got by fair means or foul?”
“Good! Good, I hoped you would like them.” He bowed hurriedly and backed away, keeping Juliana in sight while trying to get out of earshot. “Here is the drawbridge, my lady, can you find your way back?”
“They speak strangely. They move like young women. Can’t you find them work with the horses?” As he ducked into the smithy, leaned against the wall, and laughed, he heard her yell, “They’ll teach insolence to my children.”
Children. Raymond feared
them as he feared no man or beast. What did he know about children? He’d never been one. How could he please one? He didn’t know how to play or what they enjoyed. He could court a woman; how did he court a child?
Awkwardly, he’d tried to talk to Juliana’s daughters. Searching his mind for subjects that would interest them, he’d cornered them to discuss sewing. Margery had suggested he take his sewing to the maids, for she was too busy for such trivial matters, and whisked away. Ella told him she never sewed, never, never. Such activity was for softlings, and she whisked away.
Another time he’d suggested dolls. Dolls? Margery told him she was too old for dolls, and whisked away. Ella told him she never played with dolls, never, never. They were for softlings, and she whisked away.
In the end, he supposed it didn’t matter, for, after all, what did he know about sewing or dolls? Yet he wanted into that golden circle surrounding Juliana and her children, and he was clever enough to realize he couldn’t buy his way in, or fight his way in, or sidle his way in.
Shifting on the bench, Raymond pressed his back to the cold stone wall in the great hall and observed Juliana’s children. Each to her own nature, they helped or hindered the clearing of the noon meal. Margery took her responsibilities as heiress and elder daughter seriously, ordering and assisting the servants as needed. She had Juliana’s coloring and copied her mother’s ways, but her long thin face resembled none in the castle; she must look like her father.
Ella, the younger, watched the world through bright eyes, and her laughter rang over all the sounds of the castle. Her blond hair hung free around her face, and she asked questions without ceasing. Nothing was exempt from her curiosity, and her fertile mind found endless opportunities for mischief.
They would like him if they knew him, but they refused to know him. The children treated him as warily as they treated Sir Joseph, as if he could turn vicious. They treated him the way Juliana treated men, and how could he combat a model as powerful as their mother?
There had to be a way to prove his reliability, but how? To women, he gave gifts, praised their beauty and made false promises. Surely it would work with children. He had no other plan. Catching Ella’s gaze, Raymond graced her with his most beguiling smile.
Ella ducked behind the bench where Valeska sat spinning the fine thread Juliana preferred to work with. Valeska, ever his champion, spoke to the child crouched beside her. The girl glared at him. Valeska spoke more vigorously, and the child shook her head until her hair flew in a golden cloud. Valeska struck the spinning wheel; Ella stuck out her tongue at him.
Overcome by frustration, Raymond returned the
gesture with a vengeance. Ella’s eyes lit up. She stuck her fingers in the corners of her mouth and rolled her eyes wildly. Raymond was impressed and knew how to gain her respect.
Pushing back his hair, he wiggled his ears.
Ella’s mouth dropped. As if he beckoned her, she took one step toward him. Pushing back her own hair, she frowned in concentration. She squinted her eyes, puckered her mouth in a fishlike motion, extended her jaw. She might have been making faces at him, but Raymond knew better. In his boyhood, he’d seen others try to imitate him, but none could, regardless of their sincere desire and unending practice.
He grinned at Ella nastily and mouthed “Ha, ha.”
Without trepidation, she marched over to him and demanded, “Show me how.”
He stood, stretched. “I have duties to perform, else Lady Juliana would have my head. I need to consult with Keir about the construction.” Walking away, but slowly, he halted at the tug on his jerkin.
“Can I come?”
He considered Ella, still manipulating her face in a mad attempt to imitate him. Except for a short period in his youth, he’d never seen the value of his freakish talent, but now he thanked whatever saint had blessed his cradle. While dolls and sewing didn’t fascinate Ella, clearly ear wiggling did. “I don’t know. You’re only a girl.”
Hands on hips, she corrected him. “I’m not only a girl. I’m Ella of Lofts.”
And proud of it
. With the instincts of a warrior attacking a breach, he sighed. “It’s muddy outside and it’s getting colder. You’d rather stay inside, be clean and dainty, work with your mother on her knitting.” He was hard pressed not to laugh at her horrified expression.
“I won’t be in your way.” She was insistent.
Cocking his head to one side, he considered her. “Perhaps, Ella of Lofts, it would be wise for you to learn about a castle’s defenses.” Testing his influence, he belched.
Immediately, Ella began gulping air. “I already know everything,” she boasted.
Her answering burp surprised him with its intensity. He glanced guiltily at Juliana to see her glaring at him. Planning a strategic retreat, he flung his cloak around his shoulders and took a step toward the door. “If you know everything, you have no reason to come with me.”
“I don’t know quite everything,” she admitted, his phony reluctance pulling her behind him like a chain.
“Then…you may come.”
His permission impeded her rush to join him, and her expression disclosed a little girl’s second thoughts at joining this stranger. Brightening, she turned and shouted, “Come on, Margery!”
Margery halted, her arms full of tablecloths. She’d been observing the comedy with no small curiosity, Raymond realized, for she didn’t ask where they were going or with whom. Shifting from one foot to the other, she said, “I’m busy.”
“The servants can do that,” Ella retorted. “Can’t they, Mama?”
Ella wasn’t asking if the servants could do their jobs. She was asking if Raymond could be trusted, and Raymond waited anxiously for Juliana’s answer. Juliana bent her head over the ball of cream-colored yarn she was winding. “Is the gate open, Master Raymond?”
He hooked his thumb into the leather belt ringed
with his tools. “Aye.”
“Are the men-at-arms patrolling the walls?”
From his place by the fire, Sir Joseph said spitefully, “Only if that young jackanapes hasn’t called them all in because they might get cold.”
“The men-at-arms are patrolling the walls,” Raymond said.
Glancing at Sir Joseph, Juliana said, “’Twould do you children good to get out before another storm forces us to remain within. Do run along, Margery.”
Raymond promised, “I’ll look out for them.” Ella glared at him suspiciously, and Margery halted in mid stride, so he added, “If they fall in the trench we’ll dig them out.”
Juliana lifted her head and smiled at him. The enchantment, the pure physical beauty of it, struck him, singed him like a bolt of lightning. He froze and stared. Through the pounding of his heart, he heard her say, “I sometimes think, Master Raymond, you move like a warrior. Did you train for the knight-hood, then lose your sponsor?”
Did she know? Was she taunting him? He shook his head to clear it. Nay, not Juliana. Other women would find such torment amusing, but not Juliana. “I…” He couldn’t think what to say, but she took it as a confirmation, as if he’d said, “Aye.”
“’Tis a sad thing when a man isn’t able to follow the path of his heart.” Satisfied with the size of the ball, she put the yarn into her workbasket. Another smile winged his way. Another bolt of lightning struck, and he could almost smell his good intentions burning. “But I’ll trust you to keep my children safe from both an excess of mud and any stray abductors.”
He staggered under the influence of her friendly
mirth, for he’d never seen her friendship directed at him. He staggered under the load of his lust. “You’ll trust me?” he repeated, stupid as a fat lapdog after dinner.
“You’ve never lied to me. Would that all men had your code of honor.”
Leaning again to her weaving, the unscarred side of her profile glowed against the light of the torches. Her chin thrust out as she concentrated, and she tucked her tongue between her lips. A mixture of amazement, consternation, and pure masculine appreciation buffeted him. She trusted him? Because he’d never lied to her?
Only about his identity, the identity of his crew, his mission here…
It hit him like a blow in the chest. This woman was his, given to him by his sovereign, and because of his own misdirected empathy with her plight, he’d strewn the path to their mating with stones and thorns. He wanted her, and he would have her—but only when she discovered he’d been lying to her.
Weighed down by horror, he found himself leaving the keep, crossing the yard, entering the smithy. The two young girls looked at him inquiringly. Lit by the fire, protected by a leather apron, Keir heated iron until it glowed red, then brought it to the anvil and began pounding it into shape. Concentrating on the shovel taking shape beneath his hammer, he said, “Greetings, my ladies. You honor my humble workplace.”
Something about Keir—his solid shape, the calm that radiated from him—invited trust, and the two girls were no more immune than the cats who made themselves at home in his smithy. The girls relaxed, and Raymond congratulated himself until Keir asked, “What is your desire, Raymond?”
Raymond,” Margery corrected.
Any other man would have smiled, but Keir ruminated on her reprimand. After due consideration, he said, “
Raymond and I have created a relationship quite unlike the one between lord and serf or master craftsman and apprentice. While the respect in which I hold him is real, it is all the more profound for being unspoken.”
“Really, Margery,” Ella said impatiently, “it’s not as if Master Raymond is an earl or a baron.”
Raymond forestalled anything Keir might say with a brisk, “Indeed not. Lady Margery and Lady Ella hoped, Keir, you would show us the diggings and foundation preparation.”
Keir gripped the tongs with a dexterity that spited his missing fingers. “The master castle-builder should guide the young mistresses through the intricacies of construction. I do not possess the necessary skills of…communication.”
Smiling with determined courtesy, Raymond said, “Do come.”
Keir gestured at the forged pieces and unformed iron strewn about. “I am too busy.”
“Much as I regret it, I must demur.”
In a tone of triumph, Margery said, “See, Ella? If Master Keir doesn’t utilize the polite form of address, it causes dissention and proves disrespect.”
Raymond and Keir looked at the two ingenuous young faces watching them with rapt interest, then at each other. Keir put down his tongs and wiped his hands on his apron. “Let us proceed, Raymond.”
Stopping by the stables, Raymond spoke briefly and vigorously to Layamon about the safety of the children and the necessity of maintaining a close
watch for stray brigands or wayward mercenaries. He joined the small expedition as they crossed the drawbridge and started down the muddy slope. All the natural vegetation had been worn away by the ceaseless tramping of workers. The shallow trench originated where the cliff dropped to the river and followed that elevation around the face of the hill to the other side where, again, the cliff dropped off. It established an arc that slashed the earth to form the perfect bulwark, and Raymond glowed as he imagined the mighty wall he would create to dispel warriors who sought to take his land.
Aye, his land. His land, spread out in patches of wood and plain and village. His land, rich and fecund, alive with cattle, serfs, villeins. He would be the warrior for this land, protecting it from those who ravaged and gobbled with no care for the simple folk living there.
Juliana would dispute him, of course. She would call this property hers, but in no manner could any woman love the land like a man. Land represented more than just status, money, position. It was a place to be from, a place to return to, a home. These fertile lands, granted to him by his cousin Henry, came with a wife and children, a family ready-made. He gazed with satisfaction at the girls. From this land he would draw his strength.
A bonfire burned, lending ceaseless warmth to the air above and around it and none where it was most needed. A Saxon Christmas tune, liberally peppered with curses about the mud and the cold, rose from the trench. Tosti appeared over the top, dragging a laden bucket to add to the piles of oozing muck which rimmed the moat on the upper side. When he spied them, the whites of his eyes bulged from his blackened face, and he called down to his mates, “Hey, mud brownies, ’tis th’ lord an’ th’ two little ladies from th’ keep.”
Heads bobbed as the workers jumped up and down like Jack-O-Straws in the hands of a babe.
“They do not act like this when we arrive,” Keir observed. “Perhaps the Lady Margery and the Lady Ella should visit more often.”
Raymond nodded and turned to the girls. “Doesn’t your mama make sure you greet—” He broke off. Margery had her arm around Ella, and she looked at the men with an expression of horror. Ella cuddled close against her sister, and her wary gaze examined each muddy worker suspiciously.
“Why are those men staring at us?” Ella asked.
“This area is unprotected,” Margery pronounced.
Keir and Raymond exchanged glances. With as much reassurance as he could muster, Raymond explained, “They’re staring at you, my ladies, for you are their future mistresses.” As the girls digested that, he declared, “This area
well-protected. We have the men-at-arms who patrol the walls, but more important, the first line of defense is the winter. No army can march in winter, for an army cannot feed itself without foraging on the land.”
“It’s not just armies a woman must beware of.” Margery’s large eyes were serious. “Even a man whom a woman believes to be her friend can turn against her to gain control of her wealth.” She examined him from boots to knit hat as if she could gain his measure by his appearance.
“That’s true, but no one can know an enemy by sight, and so one must make judgments according to wisdom.”
“Whose wisdom?” Margery asked shrewdly.
Raymond crouched down until his eyes were level with theirs. “The wisdom of your elders, to begin with.” Before she could object, he added, “Even more important than that is your own wisdom. Observe
the people around you—all the people, not just the men—and make your decisions using your head, not your heart. But mistakes occur.” He straightened. “I can help prepare you for attack. Do you know what to do should an unarmed man attempt to carry you off?”