Authors: Karin Tabke
Wide-eyed, the people of Rossmoor remained silent. The knight turned his attention back to her. “Your gallant is not here. His lands, as yours, are no doubt in the hands of my fellow Normans. Your betrothal is no longer valid, unless William commands it.”
“Arlys is one of Harold’s most trusted vassals. He will not lie down easily.”
“Harold is no more.”
“That may be, sir, but Arlys is a nobleman. He fought beside Harold at Stamford Bridge and my father and brother at Hastings. You may rethink your position here. I expect their return any day.”
He grinned then. Instead of softening his face, it hardened the angles sharpening them to hewn stone. “I was there. There were few survivors at Senlac Hill. William ruled the day.” His eyes swept her person, and she read contempt in the gesture. “Do you not think your kin would have returned home by now should they live?”
Her stomach fluttered as if a swarm of angry bees buzzed inside. She fought the urge to retch. Knowing he spoke the truth made Isabel solidify her resolve. Her father and her brother would not have died in vain. She squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them and peered at the man standing in front of her. He gave no care to her heart, or the hearts of other Saxons, knowing such blood was lost forever and to a bastard conqueror no less! Isabel stood resolved. Until she had proof positive that her kin lay as one with the English soil, she would do everything in her power to keep what was rightfully theirs from the hungry hands of these men of the bastard duke.
Aye, the Norse blood of her great-grandmother Signund ran as hotly through her veins as did the warrior spirit of her Saxon kin. She raised her chin a notch, refusing to give up or give this man before her the satisfaction of seeing her cower. She was Isabel of Alethorpe and the warrior sprit ran long and deep in her blood. “Do not be so sure my kin will not return. Lord Dunsworth will have your head for your trespass, as will my sire and my brother. You have no right here.”
“I have every right. William is rightful king. I am Rohan du Luc, his captain.” Sir Rohan turned to the gathered people of the hall. “He gives me right to claim land in his name.” He turned back to Isabel. “I see no living heir here. By right of conquest, I claim this manor, its people, and all that surrounds it.” He stepped closer to Isabel. “That includes you, Lady Isabel. From this moment forth, you and everything tied to this holding are William’s property.”
The harsh truth of his words penetrated her denial. Should Arlys magically appear, chances were their pledge of marriage would hold no weight with this new reign of terror. And so she would use any methods at hand to sway this scourge to leave them at least to a semblance of their former lives, until such time as they could permanently rid themselves of the Norman yoke.
Isabel looked past Sir Rohan to his men. Clad in black surcoats with the same insignia as their leader, over black mail with black shields and black helmets, only the glare of mercenary eyes and the sharp set of jaws clued her to the fact that they were human and not demon. A more brutal lot of knights she could not imagine. Her people cowered in fear for their lives at their feet. She looked back to du Luc. He was the wickedest of them all.
“Wouldst you rape me then?”
He shook his head slowly. “Nay, but I will take what charms lie beneath your gown in exchange for the young fool’s life.”
“And ruin me?”
“Never ruin, I assure you.”
“I will be unfit for marriage!”
“Nay, you will be a well-schooled lover for your husband.”
Heat rose in her cheeks. How dare he speak so casually of what she held so dear? Her eyes darted to Enid, who crouched at the feet of a tall knight. Her maid’s eyes beseeched her. Russell was her sister’s son. Isabel’s heart thundered against her breast. It was no choice. She would use any means at her disposal to save the lives of each and every person in the room.
“No man will have me after a Norman’s touch!”
Rohan shrugged his great shoulders. “’Tis no concern of mine.”
Isabel struck him. Her hand caught the bulk of his helmet. She winced as shards of pain shot up her arm. Rohan grabbed her hand, yanking her hard against his chest. A low, menacing growl rumbled deep in his chest. “Beware, damsel, I am not above striking a woman for such insolence.” He thrust her from him. He stood glaring down at her where she landed in the rushes. “What is your decision?”
Isabel scooted back away from him. “I—I give you what you ask for the life of my squire.”
Rohan pointed his sword at her bosom. “What is it you give?”
Her body trembled.
He moved the tip of his sword down her chest to her belly, then lower to her calf. In a slow, unhurried motion, he raised the hem of her undergown, revealing a bare calf. “Tell me, swear your oath here in front of your people and my men. First in my tongue, then yours.”
Humiliation rode her hard. She opened her mouth several times to say the words, but they would not come. When he moved his sword tip higher, revealing her thigh, Isabel gasped and choked out the words. “I will allow you trespass on my person in exchange for your oath not to harm Russell,” she spit out in French.
“Now so that your people will understand.”
Isabel choked out the words in English.
Rohan pushed the hem of her gown back down to her ankles and withdrew his sword. “Aye, for your man’s attempt on my life, I will spare him his death in exchange for all that lies beneath your gown.”
In a quick fell move, he grabbed her up to him and crushed his lips upon hers. The pain of his assault shocked her. Just as quickly, he released her. His eyes blazed beneath his helmet. He stepped away from her but warned, “I am a man of my word, damsel. Do not disappoint. When this day comes to an end, make yourself available.”
The thundering sound of more riders arriving broke the heavy tension in the hall.
oan, see to these churls. Wulfson, bring me the boy. The rest of you, follow me!” Rohan called, a high note of victory in his voice. He mounted his horse and disappeared from the hall. Isabel let out a long breath she had not realized she held, glad for the moment the arrogant warrior was gone. Russell came down from his place in the landing above.
“Boy!” the one called Wulfson called in English, pointing his sword at Russell. “Come with me.”
Isabel moved between the two. “Nay, he is not to be harmed.”
Wulfson moved past her and grabbed Russell by the arm. “He has punishment coming.”
“Nay!” Isabel screamed.
“Milady, I will go,” Russell said. Her eyes scanned the boy’s face. He faced her proudly. Yet there was fear in his eyes.
“Nay, I will take what punishment the Norman will give. I thank you for my life.” He bowed and took her hands into his and kissed them. “I will regain your honor, milady, if it is the last thing I do.”
Wulfson laughed. “Beware, little Saxon, there is none that can best
la lame noir
in battle or wits. Accept your punishment and be done.” With those words, the knight pulled Russell through the hall toward the crippled doors.
Isabel flew after them to the courtyard. The sight that greeted her eyes was far from what she expected. New horror filled her heart. Russell’s impending punishment forgotten, she stood rooted to the threshold and watched nearly half a score more of battle-ready knights and a score of foot soldiers fill the courtyard.
They were a terrifyingly awesome sight to behold. More black as night destriers, mounted by equally dark knights, milled around the crowded courtyard. She watched an equally ebony giant roll off his horse, falling to the rough cobblestone. A loud
rushed from his chest as he hit, but other than that, he lay motionless.
Isabel chewed her bottom lip nervously. She looked from Rohan to the downed giant, then back to Rohan, who now moved with amazing agility for one so encumbered.
“Manhku!” du Luc called, pushing his way past armored steeds and dismounting knights. As he approached his fallen man, she lost sight of them both as the other men crowded around them. But his deep voice boomed. “What fell him?”
A deep voice answered. “’Twas a Saxon ax, Rohan. A cowardly ambush just down the way. ’Tis what kept us.”
“Aye,” another deep voice said, “the head is still embedded.”
Confusion clouded Isabel’s thoughts. A Saxon ax? How could that be? The villagers did not possess the backbone to attack mounted knights. Indeed, many had flown to the forests at the first sign of trouble when a band of raiders struck a fortnight ago. They flew no standard or coat of arms; they appeared to be just a band of cowardly raiders bent on destroying.
Rohan knelt by his old friend’s still body. He touched his hand to the thick steel ax head embedded deep in his man’s thigh. Manhku moaned. Blood ran in a steady stream from the gash pooling beneath on the stone courtyard. “He needs a more experienced healing hand than what I possess,” Rohan said, turning to his right hand, Thorin.
The Viking moved past Rohan. “Aye, I’ll call for the healer, Rohan.”
“I doubt any Saxon will step up to the chore,” Rohan’s deep voice countered. His men spread out as Rohan moved through them. His gaze searched for the bold and foolish Lady Isabel. He did not have to look far. She stood at the threshold of the great manor. Rohan’s blood warmed at the sight of her. The morning breeze pressed the fabric of her garments against her curves, emphasizing each voluptuous turn of her. Her bare head gleamed golden under the morning sunlight. Big violet-colored eyes like a Far East sapphire stared up at him with no hint of fear. Indeed, the damsel looked as if she would take up a sword against him. Would that William had more men with her spirit; he would have taken Senlac with half the loss he had.
“Damsel, my man is gravely wounded. I would have you call for your healer.”
“Maylyn fell two days past under the cowardly sword of a raider.”
“Who else is skilled in the art of healing?” He watched her face cloud before clearing. For a wench so full of words, she seemed at a loss for them now. “Speak up. My man bleeds to death!”
Reluctantly, she said, “I am versed in healing skills, but I cannot swear to you I can save him.”
Rohan grabbed her by the arm and dragged her behind him to the downed man.
Roughly, he pushed her to her knees. She turned a heated glare his way but then turned back to the task at hand. She moved closer to Manhku and placed a gentle hand to the gaping skin around the embedded ax head. The force of the blow had cut straight through his mail chauses. She turned grave eyes up to Rohan. “The wound is deep, and he has lost much blood. I do not know if I possess the skill to save his life.”
Rohan knelt beside her. He pressed his hand to hers. “Save him, and I will grant you any request within my power.”
He felt her hand tremble beneath his. And if the circumstances were different, he would lay her down then and there and give her innocent body more to tremble about than the mere touch of his hand. For the briefest of moments, he found himself captured by her big violet eyes. The delicate turn of her nostrils flared. He noticed a light spray of freckles across her nose. His eyes dipped to her parted lips. They were full and the color of a blood rose. She licked her lips, glossing them. Rohan clenched his hand tighter over her. She winced but made no sound.
“Sir knight, I am unable to work with just one hand.”
Rohan moved back, releasing her.
He stood, and with his right hand on his sword, Rohan watched her rip a strip of fabric from the hem of her shift and work it through and around his layers of clothing before securing it around Manhku’s thigh just above the wound. She twisted the fabric taut, then grabbed the dagger from her belt. Before it was free of the sheath, Rohan’s warrior instinct took hold of him. He slapped the weapon from her hand. Isabel yipped and shrank back from him. She turned murderous eyes up at him. Rohan snatched the dagger from the ground. The maid immediately collected herself, retracting her claws to white-knuckled fists at her side. She stood, throwing back her shoulders. As she did, the soft scent of heather swirled around his nose. She held out her hand, palm up, for the weapon. “Foolish knight! To save him, I must form a tourniquet. Give me the knife.”
Their eyes clashed. And for the second time that day, something about this woman’s warrior spirit moved him. He had invaded her home, taken her people, humiliated her in front of them, and here she was spitting hellfire for the return of her dagger to save his man. His eyes narrowed. Was she a witch? Or was he blinded by her beauty?
Rohan snorted at the notion. There was only one woman on this earth who held any of his affection. And she was dead.
Rohan tossed the dagger hilt over point in his hand. Once. Twice. Thrice. His gaze raked over her face, settling on her heather-colored eyes that flashed angrily at him. He flipped the dagger one last time, grabbing it by the tip of the blade before presenting it to her handle first. His other hand moved to the hilt of his broadsword. The maid ignored his threat, turning her back to him, and bent to her chore.
She twisted the strip of cloth tighter, wrapping the ends around the dagger and tying them to form a tourniquet. She stood, wiping her hands on her tunic. “Take him into the hall. Have one of your men pull a pallet from the eaves and place it before the great hearth.”
The knights hurried to obey. When Rohan assisted her to rise with a hand to her elbow, she flung his arm away. “I require nothing from you, Norman.” Isabel strode as quickly as she could from the harassing knight without looking as if she were fleeing him.
Once the ebony giant was settled in front of the newly rekindled fire in the great hearth, Isabel bent to his side, checking the binding. Lifting her gaze to Rohan, she scowled. “I will need another blade, this one heated to a red glow.”
She held his hard glare. A shiver kicked and bucked to run across her skin, but she refused to allow it freedom. When he continued to stare at her, unanswering, she threw her hands up. “A blade or he dies.”
She shook her head. “Then I cannot help him, sir.” She had made a motion to move past the willful knight when his arm shot out and he stopped her. His grip, though firm, neither hurt nor soothed. She looked up into his eyes. His helmet shielded most of his face, but she could see the golden flash of his eyes and the stubborn set of his scarred jaw. His continued silence stymied her. It occurred to her then that this man was not one to change his mind once a decision was made. And whilst she was certainly no supporter of saving the enemy, she could not in good conscience allow a man to die when she knew her skills might give him a chance for continued life. She looked past the stubborn knight to the man he called Thorin and scrunched her brows. On closer inspection, it appeared…he had only one eye!
He grinned at her stunned reaction and pulled his helmet from his head, then pushed back his cowl, exposing a full head of long golden hair. But what captivated her most was the contrast of his bronzed skin and the black leather patch that covered his right eye. A jagged scar ran from below the covering straight down his cheek to his jaw. His one good eye was a deep rich hazel color. The same crescent-shaped scar as his master’s marred his chin. He was as large as Rohan and carried the weight of his profession as effortlessly.
Her gaze broke from his and touched on each of the knights standing behind him. As did their master, each one faced her unwavering, as if they had more right to be in the hall than she. She looked up to Rohan again, her gaze touching on the small half-moon scar on his chin, then back to the knights who stood closest. Several of them carried the same mark. And while many of
sported the black surcoat emblazoned with the gruesome skull, only the knights with the scarred chins bore the ones with the plunging bloody sword. These men were more than battle-scarred and battle-hardened warriors. A deep chill settled in her bones as her imagination ran rampant with vicious visions of these knights hacking away at her kinsmen on the bloody slopes of battle.
The giant moaned, disturbing the eerie silence. Isabel gave Rohan her attention once more. “I can stem the flow of blood for only so long with the tourniquet. But after I cleanse the wound, I will only be able to stanch the blood of such a deep wound with a searing. ’Tis extreme, but thread will not hold. I must do it now.”
“I do not trust women in general, wench, and Saxon women less. Be sure the blade does not slip.” He moved his hand to the hilt of his great sword. “Mark my words, my blade never misses her mark.”
Isabel’s eyes narrowed. “’Tis no surprise to me, Norman. Your duke’s penchant for slaying women and children should only naturally fall to his knights.”
Rohan grunted but did not deny her charge.
She moved past him to go fetch the healing herbs. He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her around to face him. “You would learn to ask permission to take leave of me, damsel.”
Her hands fisted, her anger sparked at having to ask permission from this man in her own home to aid a man who when once he was up and about would no doubt kill more of her people. ’Twas not right! In her sweetest voice, Isabel asked, “May I have permission to go to the lady’s solar for the healing herbs?”
By his nod he gave his permission. She sank into a deep curtsy and said, “You are too kind, sir knight.” Then she spun away and hurried up the stairs, only to have Rohan’s sharp command to his man infuriate her more.
“Ioan! Escort the lady to her chamber.”
Isabel hurried to her task, ignoring the hulking giant behind her. As she hurried back down the stairway, she noted that many of the knights had removed their helmets but continued to fondle the hilts of their swords and keep wary eyes cast about them. Rohan remained helmeted.
Isabel settled her basket and linens by the roaring hearth. As she set about crushing herbs into a simmering cauldron of water, she looked up at the knight and asked, “How did you clog the chimney?”
His lips drew back into a terse smile. “A well-placed arrow with a thick hide riding the head.”
Isabel nodded and turned back to her chore. Once the herbs had softened, she pulled a small skin from her pocket and squeezed a bitter-smelling liquid into the pot. Its pungent odor smarted the eyes. She blinked back tears but stirred it well, combining all of the ingredients. Then she soaked clean linens in the brew. From her basket, Isabel pulled a covered trencher of healing balm. She dipped a ladle into the brew and poured a small amount of it into the container, then mixed it together. Without looking up to him, she handed it to du Luc. “Hold this, and give it to me when I say.”
He took it, and Isabel bent to her chore. Carefully, she cleaned the area around the wound with the steaming rag she’d dunked in the small cauldron of herbs. When she deemed the area clean, she deftly dislodged the ax head, then pulled it out. The knights moved in closer for a better look. Isabel caught her hand to her throat at the sickening sight. The wound gaped wide, the white of Manhku’s bone exposed. It was a wonder he lived.
A heavy hand rested on her shoulder. “Damsel?” Rohan gruffly asked.
She shook his hand from her person and peered more closely at the wound. Her needle would serve no purpose here. Her only option was as she suspected. A searing. Swallowing hard, she grasped the dagger embedded in the embers of the hearth, dunked it into the steaming cauldron to cleanse the ash from it, then plunged it into the gaping wound.
The unconscious giant screamed out, his muscles clenched hard, but he did not pull away. Indeed, his faint deepened.
Isabel swept the flat side of the blade in and around the torn flesh. Although she had seen this procedure done several times, never had she been so close to the stench of seared flesh. It made her stomach rise and fall. She clenched her teeth hard to keep from emptying her gut. Once the task was done, she replaced the dagger in the embers and sat back on her heels.