Authors: Christina Dodd
“My thanks, Layamon.” Juliana nodded to the young man. With a strained smile at Hugh, she said, “I’m not so irresponsible as you believe.”
Hugh’s indignation withered at the sight of her white face, and he bowed. “A thousand pardons, my lady. I thought that”—he darted a glance toward the place where Sir Joseph sat—“I thought unworthy thoughts.”
“Make yourself welcome,” Juliana repeated. “I must tend my children.”
The girls now shivered miserably. With the clap of Juliana’s hands, the maids came flying and dragged out the great wooden tub from the corner where it had rested unused all winter. Warm water, heated on the anticipatory orders of Valeska, arrived in buckets from the undercroft. Dagna placed the great folding
screen before the master bed to separate it from the great hall, just as she did every night when Juliana retired. As the women disappeared from view, the men seemed released from a spell.
With a glower that spoke volumes, Hugh stepped close to the fire. Short in stature, swarthy, and plump, Felix followed. He combined a habit of peering up from beneath his beetle brow with one of nodding his head to an unheard rhythm, and Raymond never doubted who made the decisions in the odd pair.
“You!” Hugh pointed at Raymond. “You’ll do. Remove my armor.” He held out his gauntlet-clad hands, challenging Raymond with his command.
As all knights did, Raymond had trained in his youth as a squire. Well he remembered how to remove another’s armor, and Hugh’s intended insult went astray as Raymond relished the chance to confront the baron.
As Raymond approached, Felix complained, “He’s dirty.”
“An understatement of the grossest kind.” Hugh’s lip curled as Raymond came into the light and the warmth of the fire. “You stink, my man.”
“’Tis clean mud,” Raymond answered, stepping up, toe to toe and eyeball to eyeball. “Unlike the horseshit knights delight in.”
Keir groaned, and Hugh lifted a fist to cuff the man he’d claimed as squire. Raymond’s steady gaze weighed Hugh, and Hugh stopped with his hand clenched in readiness. “Who are you?” he whispered.
Raymond longed to tell him, but he itched to know all of Juliana’s secrets, and Hugh was a simple man. He could be manipulated. The bride Raymond had come to claim was more than a conquest now; she was a mystery to be solved.
“I’m the king’s master castle-builder,” he told Hugh.
Hugh lowered his fist, but his rancor obviously flamed higher. Raymond wondered at such youthful animosity in a man of Hugh’s maturity. The man perceived a challenge in Raymond, and his hostility grew.
“Bring him warm water,” Hugh said. When no one moved, he shouted, “Warm water!”
Valeska darted about, clucking like a hen whose master was honing his axe. “Warm water,” she screeched. “Get warm water for Raymond.”
Hugh’s lip curled as he watched Valeska appropriate a bucket from the long line of open-mouthed youths who carried it from the kitchen below. “Your mother?” he said sneeringly.
“God did not so bless me.” Raymond plunged his hands into the water and shuddered as the warmth crept into the cracks and scrapes of his skin. After scrubbing the dirt away, he accepted with a smile the rag Valeska offered him. “My mother is ugly.”
Valeska flushed at the compliment and ignored Felix’s snicker. Using her yellowed knuckles, she brushed the flaky mud from Raymond’s cheeks and beard. “There’s more water warming for you below. You might wish to shave this day.”
“Why?” Raymond asked.
She glanced at the knight glowering at them and lowered her voice. “He’s a comely man.”
Raymond looked, too. “I will shave.”
“Let me see your hands,” Hugh demanded. Raymond complied, thrusting his fingers so close under Hugh’s nose the man had to push them away to view them. “They’ll do. There’s dirt under your fingernails, but what could I expect from a castle builder?”
Grinning, Raymond removed Hugh’s gauntlets and gloves and glanced pointedly at Hugh’s fingernails.
Hugh jerked his hands back and snarled. “Remove my hauberk.”
His chain-mail cap slid off easily, revealing a receding hairline. The scars of some early encounter with a sword shone in red and white glory, lending him a fierce appearance and giving Raymond a respect for Hugh’s fighting skills.
“Dreadful of me to challenge you below,” Hugh said in counterfeit apology. “But I’ve long felt a responsibility for Lady Juliana and her family.”
“We grew up together, you understand, and I care for the little coward.”
Felix piped, “I grew up with you. I was her friend, too.”
Raymond scarcely heard him, and it seemed Hugh didn’t either, so intent were they on each other. Holding the strings that tied Hugh’s hauberk close against his neck, Raymond questioned him. “Coward? You call her a coward?”
“What else would I call a woman who refuses to visit her other demesne?”
“Not a coward,” Raymond objected, remembering how valiantly she’d faced him when he snatched her from the teeth of the snowstorm.
Hugh laughed with loathsome superiority. “A coward, I tell you. She depends on Sir Joseph to tend Bartonhale Castle, to check the accounts and make sure the steward isn’t cheating her. I’ve told her it’s not wise to trust even so ancient and valued a servant, but still she huddles here at Lofts.”
“Then she doesn’t listen to you,” Raymond observed cordially.
“She has listened to me through the years.”
The strands broke in Raymond’s grip. Hugh only smiled at this destruction of his property.
“She listens to me, too,” Felix said.
“’Strewth! So old a friend as you”—Raymond flung the strings aside—“must have known her husband.”
With a wave of his muscled arm, Hugh dismissed the husband. “Millard? He was a youth, chosen only for his wealth and too sickly to live long. He gave her only girl-children. Not man enough to keep Juliana’s passionate nature satisfied.”
This was the man, Raymond decided. The one who’d put Juliana in the position to be humiliated by Sir Joseph. The one who had no thought to her reputation. Had he been her lover? If once, then no more, for Juliana was his. His to protect, to cherish, and this shiny-domed warrior would rue the day he’d hurt her.
“As we’ve grown older,” Hugh said with ever-increasing confidence, “we’ve found our affection growing and changing.”
Raymond wanted to rip the hauberk off, and in the process take Hugh’s head, but the respect of a fighting man for armor—any armor—kept his hand steady as he lifted it off. To retaliate for his control, he retorted, “Affection is like an hourglass. As the brain empties, the heart fills.”
“How intelligent you are for only a castle builder.” Hugh watched as Raymond examined the hauberk for injury or wear. “One would almost believe you had personal experience with chain mail—your concern is tangible.”
Raymond handed the hauberk to Keir. “Clean it. Oil it.”
“Why would a castle builder have experience with
chain mail?” Hugh inspected Raymond. Each muscle and sinew of Raymond’s body was being measured by an experienced warrior, and Hugh might espy what Raymond wanted concealed.
Raymond glanced at Valeska, and Valeska understood. Calling to Fayette, she ordered, “Assist this lord with his underpadding, and take the armor from this other one.” She glared at Raymond and Keir quite without respect. “Get you below, both of you, where you can be properly washed. You are leaving crusts of mud with every footstep.”
Scuffling the reeds, Raymond muttered, “Who can tell?”
“Tarry not,” she answered, her tone sweet. “Even now, the maids are carrying the water from the tub to the garderobes to flush them clean, so the Lady Juliana is done washing her babes. We will serve the evening meal without heed for two oafs who track mud on my floor.”
She aimed a disrespectful kick at Raymond’s departing backside, but Raymond needed no more urgings.
Before Juliana’s clean daughters made their reappearance to sup on milk and bread and bid the visitors a fair night, a damp, cleansed, and shaved Raymond stood in the midst of the great hall. The smoke from the torches joined the smoke from the fire, lending a resinous odor to the woody scent. The head table was set with a white cloth and spoons and a trencher to be shared by every two diners. Kettles of stew were dragged from the depths of the keep by puffing pages. Ale splashed freely into the cups at the lower tables. A wine-filled flagon was placed on the head table.
Before the center place, the place of honor, stood a
tall silver salt, and with the ease of a hospitable host, Raymond said, “Lord Felix, you are the greatest lord present. You will, of course, sit before the salt.”
Accepting that as his due, Felix agreed, “Of course.”
Raymond picked up the stool before Juliana’s loom. “Such a great lord should sit above even those at the head table.” With his knee, he pushed apart the benches that stood in a line before the trenchers. “You should sit here, higher than the rest.”
Felix bobbed incessantly, pleased for a moment. Then the consequences occurred to him, and he sputtered, “But I should sit beside Lady Juliana and share her trencher.”
Raymond gazed with simulated awe upon the twitching earl. “You wish to yield your place to Lady Juliana? You invite her to sit on the stool alone, to eat from her own trencher?” He placed the stool before the salt with a mighty thump. “My lord, you honor her with your regard, and yourself with your courtesy.” With his hand over his heart, he bowed. “Confess, you live at Henry’s court when not visiting your estates.”
Felix beamed, but Hugh said sharply, “You take much upon yourself, master castle-builder.”
The title sounded like an insult, but, while washing, Raymond had regained control of his rancor. He would discover the truth about Juliana and these men who so alarmed her, and he would protect her as a husband should. With courtly charm firmly in place, Raymond said, “I have had the honor of serving Lady Juliana this month, and know well the esteem in which she holds her neighbors.” The blandishment slipped easily from his tongue. “It will gratify her you hold her in such regard.”
From behind him, a sound—or was it an awareness?—made him turn. Juliana had heard every word, and her thanks were all the more poignant for being silent. Her copper hair had escaped the plait that had bound it and trickled like liquid flame across her shoulders. Her slim hands were outstretched, open and giving. Her eyes shone like amethysts, and her smile conquered all fear.
With a bow to the lady, Raymond indicated the stool. “Lord Felix begs you to do him the honor of letting him sit at your feet.”
“At her feet?” Felix interposed, real repugnance in his voice. “At her feet? At the feet of a woman?”
Displaying a flash of contempt, Juliana made her way to the table and sat on the stool Raymond pulled out for her. “’Tis an exaggeration of courtly manners, Felix. I do not expect an earl of the realm to sit at my feet, nor anywhere near me.”
Felix lashed out so suddenly he caught Raymond unprepared. His open hand almost struck Juliana, but she jerked back and, petulant as a child, he cried, “You’ve never forgiven me, have you? It was nothing! Nothing happened, and you’ve never forgiven me.”
Except for Sir Joseph’s crow of delight, the great hall was still. Every serf, every page, every maidservant waited to hear their mistress’s response.
As Raymond watched, Juliana slipped away. She dwelt somewhere in the past, lived some experience that pained her. He couldn’t bear the distance, and he laid his palm flat on her back. She shuddered, lifted her head, and looked at him. Green gaze meshed with blue, questions and comfort flowed between them, although who comforted and who questioned, Raymond knew not. His hand vibrated with the sigh he felt
rather than heard, and the strength of her spine was so vital he wondered how he would respond when he touched her bare back.
That startled him—how long had he wondered such a thing?—and that astonishment was reflected in her face.
She turned to Felix. Her fingers stroked the scar marring her cheek. “Perhaps forgiveness is beyond me, but I have forgotten. Content yourself with that.”
A collective sigh swept the room. Felix grinned and bobbed his head up and down in a motion as constant and repetitive as the waves on a pond. The captive audience bustled in a mass toward the tables.
The assault of sound and smell and sight seemed frighteningly mundane to Raymond. Hugh plucked Raymond’s trespassing hand from Juliana’s back, and Raymond let him. Keir moved to the end of the table and called Raymond to do likewise, and Raymond nodded, trying to appear normal.
But all the time he thought,
? Felix was the man who’d betrayed Juliana? Raymond looked again at the florid little rooster and, in his inattention, barked his shins against the bench where he tried to sit. He rubbed the painful bruise and stared at her without ceasing and marvelled,
? Felix had been her lover?
Nay. His disbelief was too intense, and Felix had himself denied it. Nothing had happened, Felix had said. He hadn’t been her lover. She hadn’t had a lover. The event that stained her past and made her a pariah in her own eyes was more than a simple love affair. It had been something dark, frightening, and Raymond was embarrassed by his own easy dismissal of her sin.
For had it been a sin, or had it been a crime?
When the meal was finished and the eating knives
had been sheathed, Hugh said challengingly, “Lady Juliana, tell us why your master castle-builder is digging such an immense hole in the ground.”
,” Juliana said firmly, “are digging the foundation for a twelve-foot-wide curtain wall.”
“Eight-foot,” Raymond said, correcting her.
She stared down her nose at him and summoned Fayette with the basket for the poor. “Twelve-foot.”
Raymond didn’t bother to hide his grin. “It depends on whose feet we use to measure.”
Shocked to the tips of his slick black hair, Felix said, “He is insolent.”
She tossed her sauce-soaked bread into the basket. “But he’s the king’s master castle-builder, and I trust his judgment.”
trust him?” Hugh’s shock was all the more conspicuous for being sincere. “You trust a man? A man whom you’ve known only a little while, who digs muddy holes for a few pence a day?”