Authors: Karin Tabke
Isabel knew a deep-seated anger she had never felt toward another human being. Not even Arlys’s treacherous cousin Deidre, who took every opportunity to flirt with another’s intended.
Isabel set her jaw and returned to the task. She ignored the smooth thickness of Rohan’s muscular chest and the way his arms rippled with strength when he brushed back his thick raven-colored hair from his face. She tried to forget the odd sensations his touch stirred. She set her mind instead on the matter at hand. Show a guest, albeit an unwelcome one, the hospitality decorum dictated, then be gone from the room.
“How is it that such a removed shire is so rich in population and appointments?” Rohan asked.
Glad for conversation that did not center on her or their respective oaths, Isabel eagerly answered. “The population has dwindled since the landing of your duke. But the land is fertile, the rivers require tolls to pass, and they teem with fish. My father’s stables boast a bloodline coveted by kings and emperors. But more, since my great-grandfather’s time, Rossmoor has traded vigorously with the Easterners.” She smiled. “And the Vikings. ’Tis how he acquired my great-grandmother Signund.”
“He traded for her?”
“Not quite. He borrowed her with no intention of returning her.”
“Did not her father demand payment for a stolen daughter?”
Isabel laughed. She felt his body tense at the sound but continued to run the linen across his chest into a rich lather. “Nay, he stole her from a beached dragon ship laden with Danegold. He fled with her and the treasure, saying it was dower money, since he had no use for Nordic lands. He built Rossmoor with his angry in-laws in mind. Until your arrival, this hall has not been breached.”
Rohan took the opportunity to remind her of their arrangement. “Aye, and I wager your thighs have not been breached, either.”
Isabel sat back and glared at him. “Sir, I am a lady gentle born. Could you not curb your crudeness?”
He shrugged. “’Tis what I am. Crude.”
“Does not make it right. If you know these things are offensive, then why not work to change them?”
Rohan sat up in the tub and turned his back to her. “I tire of this conversation. Finish the bath so that I may join my men and hear less waspish words.”
Isabel lathered up the linen and scrubbed his wide back. “I am not waspish.”
“I said your words were. There is a difference.”
From his anxious movements, Isabel knew he was eager to be gone from the tub. Quickly, she rinsed him. As he stood, she wrapped him in a linen towel. He took it from her hands and tied it around his waist. He looked up at the colorful banners adorning the high walls bearing her father’s standard. A golden hawk clutching a Viking ax.
“Have these banners bearing your father’s coat of arms removed from these walls. And move your possessions in here.”
Did he say to move her belongings to this room? “But—”
He turned to face her. “Your sire is no longer lord here.”
“Should he swear to the duke?”
“William has no trust of you warring Saxons. He would put his own men, men he can trust, in the power positions.”
“What of my brother? He could wed with a Norman. ’Tis what my father did.”
Rohan smiled and continued to dry himself. The damp linen clung to his muscular body. Isabel kept her eyes pinned to a spot on the wall behind him. Twice now she had almost dared to look at his full front. “That would explain your knowledge of my tongue.”
“I have people in Normandy. Would that they knew a bastard claims their kin’s land they would surely raise arms against you! I will petition William myself for leniency.”
“Feel free, damsel, but you will lose.” He dropped the damp cloth to the floor, and lord forgive her, but she could not help the drop of her gaze to what made him a man. She stepped back and pressed her hand to her mouth. Even dormant as it was, it was manlier than those she had seen before. And she had seen plenty. Not that she chose to, but as the lady of the manor, she had bathed dozens of men over the years, and more than a few had made it difficult for her not to look.
This man stood in all of his naked glory before her like a bronze statue of a mythical god. Her mouth went dry. She backed away toward the door. “Sir knight, I beg to be excused. The servants await my commands for setting the feast.”
She didn’t wait for him to give permission. Isabel threw the bolt and hurried through the doorway, never looking back.
To her surprise and disappointment, the hall was filled with many of Rohan’s men. The others, she was sure, were out patrolling the land’s edge. Deep voices rose to the rafters, and from the looks of it, someone had discovered the wine cellar. Several barrels of Aquitaine wine that were set aside for only the most special occasions had been tapped.
’Tis a celebration,
Isabel thought wryly. For the invaders.
Mouthwatering aromas drifted from the kitchens. Servants hurried about setting the tables. Lacking several servants at the moment, Isabel hurried to the kitchen to oversee the preparations. Finding the room bustling with activity under the capable hands of Astrid, the unchallenged lady of the kitchens, despite the lack of hands, Isabel nodded in praise. The Normans might think Saxons lacked courage, and mayhap some did, but her people were of hearty industrious stock, and even under duress they found a way to go forward with the day’s chores. Seeing that she was not needed, Isabel looked down at her damp, soiled gown. ’Twould not do for the feast. Quietly, she moved from the bustling kitchens up the back stairway to find her maid.
Rohan stepped down into the great hall, feeling rested and clean. Since his days lying in the urine-and feces-infested mud on the floors of Jubb, he had become an aesthete in his desire to be free of grime. It was the same for the rest of his brothers. They bathed regularly and vigorously. And sometimes, Rohan thought, it was not enough to erase the stench of death. His eyes scanned the hall, looking for the Lady Isabel. He frowned. She was nowhere to be found. An unexpected stab of loss sparred with his anger at her disregard for his authority. It mattered not. He would find her and set a man to guard her. Putting her from his mind since she did naught but cause him ire, Rohan continued to scan the room, his gaze landing on the seven knights who since that time in Iberia six years ago moved together as one with him. They were never far from one another. As they were now. They’d pulled the lord’s table down from its spot of prominence and pushed it close to the blazing hearth where their fallen brother lay.
“Rohan!” Thorin called, raising a goblet of wine. “Come enjoy the spoils of our labor!”
Ioan, Rorick, Warner, Stefan, Wulfson, and Rhys raised their overflowing cups. “Aye, to Rohan, may William reward your efforts with this most worthy of fiefs!” Warner called. “And if you should find the Lady Isabel’s tongue too sharp for your mail?” Warner drained his cup, the wine flowing down his chin to his surcoat. He slammed the empty cup down and challenged Rohan with his grin. “I’ll wager she will find my prick more to her liking!”
Rohan scowled. Of all of them, Warner was the clear cock of the walk. He liked to prattle of love to maids and matrons alike. They seemed to find his pretty words endearing, for he had more bastards than the rest of them combined to his credit.
Rohan strode to the table and took the proffered cup of wine from Thorin. “Warner, should the maid be able to find the prick you boast so fondly of, I will stand back.”
The table laughed uproariously while Warner scowled. Rohan slapped him hard on the back. “Come now, my friend, we know of no fewer than half a score of bastards you’ve left the camp whores with.”
Warner grinned and filled his cup. “Aye, but girls all of them!”
“Warner,” Ioan said, “you have not yet found the womb worthy of your man seed.”
“’Tis a curse we are all afflicted with!” Rorick cried out, and raised his cup but held it high, not drinking from it. His eyes widened, and a small smile twisted his lips. His gaze lay unwavering past Rohan’s shoulder. He noticed his men had all stopped their bantering and looked past him. Slowly, Rohan turned.
His body jerked as if he had been struck by a bolt of lightning. Something in his gut did a slow, hard roll. His mouth went dry, and he felt his rod rise against his thigh.
Her beauty rivaled the sun’s brightness. And with the realization of how profoundly she physically affected him, Rohan scowled.
Isabel had bathed, and the plainer clothes of her day wear were no more. Now she was richly gowned in a deep crimson undergown with gold embroidery at the hem. Her kirtle was a rich purple and gold velvet with what looked to be jewels sewn into the sleeves. A rich girdle of gold filigree accentuated the full flare of her hips. Her jewel-encrusted dagger hung from it. But what startled him most was her face. Her creamy skin flushed pink, her big violet-colored eyes sparkled even from a distance, and her full lips—Rohan swallowed hard—her full red lips parted as if she waited to be kissed. Her thick golden hair, like fine gossamer, had been brushed to shimmering brightness. It hung long about her shoulders but for two delicate braids entwined with amethyst-colored ribbon framing her face. The edges of the ribbon swirled about her bosom, accentuating the full swell of it. Instead of a veil cloth on her head, she wore a slender woven gold and silver circlet, the form of a hawk crowning it.
When Rohan made no move toward her, Rorick pushed him aside and moved to meet Isabel halfway up the stairway. He bowed deeply, taking her hand. “Damsel, you gift my sight with such loveliness I know not if my mortal self can bear the beauty of such a goddess.”
Rohan rolled his eyes and took another long draught of his wine, all while keeping a watchful eye on his man as he prattled on like an ass to the lady he planned to bed.
Isabel smiled, her eyes only for the Scot. “Thank you, sir?”
He bowed again. “Forgive me my manners, Lady Isabel. I am but a battle-weary soldier who has spent little time in court.” He brought both of her hands to his lips and looked up to her. “I am Sir Rorick of Moray but more recently knight of Duke William. I am your servant.”
“’Tis my pleasure to meet you, Sir Rorick. I pray your chivalry remains intact. ’Tis such a welcome respite to your brethren’s loutish manners.”
Rorick placed her arm in the crook of his and led her down the stairway with great care. He looked up at Rohan and grinned. Rohan scowled. When Stefan and Warner made a great show of placing the lord’s chair at their table for the lady to be seated in, Rohan had the urge to stick his booted foot up their arses.
“Nay, kind sirs, ’tis my father’s chair. Set it aside for his return.”
Rohan slammed his goblet down on the table and turned to Isabel. Rorick continued to smile and to pat the lady’s hand still resting on his forearm. “Your sire, should he return, will find himself seated with the lesser nobles.” Rohan picked up the great chair and shoved it back against the hearth, nearly missing Manhku. He pointed to the spot beside where he stood and ground out, “Now, see thyself perched thus. I tire of this prattle. Call for the food!”
Rorick’s good mood fled with Rohan’s words. He set the Lady Isabel down and gave his friend a sharp glare. “I must apologize for
Rohan’s poor manners. He was raised in a stable.”
Rohan grumbled and poured more wine. He would not allow his man’s flirting with a woman he had no intention of keeping to sour his victorious campaign. He caught Isabel’s harsh stare and smiled. He raised his cup and turned to his men. “To the conquering of Rossmoor.” The rafters shook from the boom of cheers. Rohan turned to look expectantly at Isabel. “And to breaching the shrew’s thighs!” While the cheers had been loud before, they nearly split the timbers from the percussion the second time around.
Rohan drank heartily and watched Isabel’s cheeks redden. Aye, the maid could play him false in public. But she would see each night who held the power. His blood warmed, and he rubbed his chest where the wound ached. Aye, taming the Lady Isabel would be a welcome repast for the long winter nights ahead.
sabel stared pensively into her wine. She wanted to tell the arrogant knight he could not command her like some common house servant, but she caught the eyes of several villagers attending to chores. Winston stacked more logs by the hearth, Lyn lit candles along the lower tables, Garth leashed the hounds, and several others carried out heavy trays laden with food.
Steaming platters of roasted boar, fowl, and venison along with poached fish fresh from the river graced the table. Sweetmeats and late vegetables added to the feast. Yet Isabel’s hunger waned as her logical mind parried with her emotions. She struggled to come up with a viable means to deal with Rohan du Luc.
If she continued to squabble over small things such as taking a seat next to this unwanted and temporary guest, she would lose precious ground and erode whatever small grip of sanity her people held. So, she would concede the smaller skirmishes. For on the morrow, she might need all of her might to fight a much larger battle.
Isabel looked down at Rohan’s large hand holding the goblet of wine, nearly covering the gold and silver chalice. Her body warmed as she thought of his fingers touching her. Her gaze rose to find his tawny eyes steadily watching her.
“Do you think of our time later this eve as I do?”
Isabel’s cheeks warmed, and she looked away, not trusting her voice.
“Here, damsel, drink. The wine, as you know, is exceptional. Mayhap it will settle you,” Rohan offered, sliding his full cup under her nose.
The last thing she wanted to do was drink from the same cup as he. But she had no choice. It would be a battle she would lose, for if she pressed the point, she would go without drink, and at the moment, she had a strong desire for the rich burgundy wine.
She turned the cup halfway around, making a point of sipping from the opposite side from his. The insult was subtle, but she knew she struck a chord when he stiffened beside her.
“Your insult is well taken, and be sure, ’tis no matter to me, damsel. After you, there will be another, then another after her.”
Isabel ignored his jibe and turned her attention to Rorick, who sat to her right. His deep blue eyes sparkled in mischievous humor. She noticed he had the same half-moon scar on his chin as did Rohan. Her eyes moved to Wulfson and the one called Ioan, then to several others. The eight knights sitting at the lord’s table all possessed the same scar and the same crimson sword plunging through the skull.
“How came you all by the scars on your chins, and why do only those of you with the scars bear the blood sword on your surcoats, Sir Rorick?” Isabel softly asked.
The fire in his eyes dimmed for a brief moment before it rekindled. He took her right hand and brought it to his lips. “’Tis an ugly story not fit for a lady’s ears.”
“Isabel,” Rohan said from her other side, “the trencher is full, and I have cut your meat. Sup. You will need your strength for later.”
Isabel turned from Rorick, who chuckled, and elbowed Rohan hard in the ribs. He let out a soft
“You have the manners of a boar.”
“Aye, and you have the temper of a shrew.”
Isabel noticed that he had indeed cut the meat. And from the looks of it, the choice pieces he placed on her side. Though her stomach gnawed in emptiness, she felt no hunger. Instead, a deep fatigue took hold of her. Her coming days would test her character and try her patience more than at any other time in her life. She took another deep drink of the wine and set the goblet down. Rohan grinned and filled it, then turned the lip of the cup to where she had drunk and pressed his lips to it. He looked at her over the rim. When he set the cup down, he softly said, “I have no such reservation placing my lips to yours, damsel.” He smiled across the rim. “And if we have the time, you will learn to crave my touch.”
Isabel set her hands in her lap, tightly clasping them together. The pain of her gesture made her wince. Rohan speared a large piece of venison with his table knife and bit into it. He chewed thoughtfully and pondered her. After he swallowed, he lowered his lips to her ear and whispered, “’Tis only a temporary meeting of flesh, damsel. There is no evidence left. If it pleases you to say you have not been breached, so be it. ’Twill be our little secret.”
Isabel set her jaw and closed her eyes. The warmth of his breath against her ear startled her in its intensity. As he softly spoke, he made her body react in a way she was not comfortable with. But his words were enough to cool her ardor. For he spoke of something she held precious.
“The proof will be on the sheets on my wedding morning.”
“Not all maids bleed.”
Her cheeks warmed to hot. She turned to him, beseeching. “Sir, please, such a topic is too personal to speak of.”
He raised his hand to her, and she flinched, moving so far from him she bumped into Rorick, who was more than happy to right her.
Rohan’s eyes narrowed. But he continued to move toward her. In a surprisingly gentle action, he rubbed his knuckles against her cheek. “I will keep my oath to you, damsel. While I look forward to pleasuring myself with your body, I will not breach that thin piece of skin you cling to so churlishly. You will remain intact for your husband.”
“Rohan,” Wulfson called from across the table, “what have you planned for the morrow?”
Rohan took a long draught from his cup. “When we slake our hunger, we will gather and speak of the morrow. Until then?” Rohan glanced over to a serving maid, who was more than buxom and who eyed him coquettishly from below dark lashes. “Enjoy the fruits of our labor.”
Wulfson laughed and took a long pull from his cup. When the girl, Lyn, came around, he snaked an arm around her waist and pulled her across his lap. She squealed and made as if to be gone from him, but her eyes smiled. “A wench to warm my pallet this eve?” He poured half of his cup of wine into the deep valley between her breasts and drank deeply from her. The table erupted in cheers as Wulfson lapped up every drop of wine covering her full breasts.
Isabel turned her head away, not wanting to watch what would undoubtedly be her turn next. She just prayed Sir Rohan would have more courtesy for her and ravage her behind closed doors.
It seemed that with Lyn’s ravishment more girls appeared and found the knights to their liking. Rohan called for another barrel of wine to be tapped, music erupted, and the bells from dancing girls chimed in tempo to the lute and the pipers’ tune.
The hall came alive as the knights imbibed the hospitality of Rossmoor. When Sarah, the daughter of Edwin, her father’s deceased gamekeeper, came forward, dancing in a tempting way before Rohan, Isabel lost all yearning for food. Rohan turned from Isabel and relaxed back into his chair. She could not see his face, but from the smiles on Sarah’s winsome lips and the way she pressed her bosom in his face, she knew the knight enjoyed the show. When Sarah pressed her hands to Rohan’s knees and pushed them apart, then moved between them and continued to dance like Salome, Isabel felt as if she would be sick. How could Sarah be so brazen? Isabel looked around to the other village girls. Some of them were recently widowed. Were they so desperate to survive that they would prostitute themselves to these invaders?
Isabel swallowed hard. Had she not done the same? Had she set the example for these girls? Sacrificing her body for Russell’s life? Did they feel they must sacrifice themselves as well to stay alive?
A wave of self-revulsion crashed through her. Her stomach rose as if rancid meat festered there. Pressing her hand to her belly, Isabel turned to Rorick, who was the only man at the table not besotted with one of the village girls. She placed her hand on his forearm. “Sir knight, I don’t feel well, would you—” Before she could utter another word, he pulled her up.
“Say no more, milady. The fresh air will clear you.” He led her to the now repaired front portal and opened it just enough to let her slip through. She saw him turn to look back into the hall, no doubt at Rohan. Rorick’s face hardened. Isabel turned and caught her breath. Rohan stood tall, dark, and angry at his chair, poor Sarah desperately gyrating to regain his lost attention.
“I do not wish to bring Rohan’s wrath upon you,” Isabel offered.
Rorick threw his head back and laughed heartily. “Rohan’s wrath? Nay, I fear it not.”
He pushed her through and closed the door soundly behind them.
Isabel inhaled deeply, the chilled air hurting the inside of her chest, yet it was cleansing. “Thank you,” she softly said. She noted that the torches were lit and burned brightly along the stone walls of the manor. There were several staked torches lighting the way through the courtyard to the bailey and farther beyond to the village. Several shadowed sentinels patrolled the premise.
“More ride warding off those who might try to take from Rohan what he has won this day.”
“’Tis not right!”
“’Tis war, Lady Isabel.”
war.” But she knew her words rang false. Alefric had been a staunch supporter of not only Edward but Harold. “My father will—”
“Nay, Lady Isabel. Your sire’s time is up here. Your brother’s as well. William will be crowned king, and everything will change. ’Tis best to digest it now so that you do not continue to feel as you do.”
“If your sire lives and if he is smart, he will go to William and pledge his fealty. William is a harsh man, a warrior at heart, but he is also just. Mayhap he will allow your sire some claim.”
“But what of my people? What of me?”
He looked down at her, and for such a fierce knight, he gave her a most compassionate expression. “Your people, should they serve the new lord here, will prosper.” He touched a golden curl that blew toward him under the strength of the breeze. He brought it to his nose and inhaled. “You, my lady, will find a husband worthy of your bloodline and live to give him many children.”
“I have no dower. I will come to him soiled! What man of means would want a bride such as myself?” The contempt and anger in her voice nearly strangled her. She faced Rorick full on. “Is your master so rigid he cannot see he ruins my chance for any husband?”
“Aye, Rohan is unbending. And with reason.”
“Rorick, the men call for you,” Rohan said from the threshold. Isabel’s stomach lurched at his voice. His eyes burned bright under the torchlight. His jaw was set, and his brows drew ominously low over his eyes.
Rorick turned and bowed. “Good eve, Lady Isabel.”
Isabel nodded. “Good eve, kind sir.”
As the door closed behind Rorick, Isabel glared up at Rohan. He stood rigid and still, glowering down at her with his hands behind his back.
“You will find no ally among my men. Our bond is unbreakable.”
“’Twould seem you are all the same, yet your man Rorick is not the savage you are.”
Rohan smiled, and she shivered. It was a smile that said that whatever she thought of Rorick, she was far off the mark. “Does he rape, pillage, and plunder as you do? And what binds you? The scar? As boys, did you play at blood brothers?” She said it contemptuously, demeaning their tie.
Rohan’s jaw flexed. “Mock what you don’t understand. It matters not to me.”
Isabel felt an infuriating urge to strike him. Instead, she started for the stable. “I must see to Russell.”
When he made no move to follow her, Isabel picked up her step. She was met halfway by Thomas. “Milady, allow me to escort you,” he said.
Isabel started at his appearance but nodded. They both looked over their shoulders to see Rohan striding their way. “He watches you like a hawk watches a mouse, milady. I have news of Arlys.”
Isabel’s heart lurched in her chest. “He
“Aye, and he prepares to free us from the Norman yoke.”
As Isabel entered the stable, she was met by one of Rohan’s men. Not a knight but a foot soldier. “I am Lady Isabel, here to see to my man. Let me pass.”
The soldier looked past her to where she was sure Rohan stood. She fisted her hands. It infuriated her that she had to ask permission to see her people.
The guard nodded, and Isabel hurried to where Russell lay in the straw. Thomas disappeared.
She knelt beside the sleeping boy and touched a gentle hand to his back. He flinched and turned his head to face her. “Milady,” he moaned. “It burns like fire.”
She shushed him. “I’ll cleanse the area again, then apply more balm. ’Twill soothe the fire.”
She set about her chore, and after she pressed the cool compresses to his back, Russell said, “Already the heat vanishes.”
“The balm will be better.” As she smoothed it over his raw skin, he tried to rise on his elbows. “Stay quiet, Russell, you will need your strength.”
“Lady, forgive me for missing my mark.”
“You did not. The problem lay with your target. I swear he is the devil’s spawn. I doubt a thousand arrows could have hit true.”
“I fear for you. He will ruin you.”
“Do not worry over me, Russell. I will do what I can to keep my innocence. There is naught you can do.”
“I will kill him if he touches you.”
“Stop such foolish talk! He will cut you down in your boots. I could not bear to lose you. My honor is mine to maintain. You will need your strength.” She bent down and whispered for his ears only, “Arlys comes.” Russell turned and tried to face her. She nodded her head. “Now, get rest. I will see you on the morrow.”
Isabel stood and turned to leave the stall. Rohan’s dark shadow moved forward, intercepting her. She caught her breath. She did not hear him come so close. Had he heard? Her limbs quaked, but she quickly composed herself. “You startled me.”
He took her elbow and guided her out of the stable back to the manor. It rose tall and bright in the short distance. Rossmoor. Her birthplace. In the hands of a foreigner. And one who held no regard for her people or their traditions. Her great-grandfather’s legacy would die with her and her brother.
“I am not one to give warnings, Lady Isabel. But you are young and inexperienced.”
Isabel remained silent.