Thursday, 15 November 2018

Magic and Magic-Makers in Medieval Courts


Magic played a strange and ambivalent role in medieval society. Wise-women and wizards were sometimes tolerated or revered or sometimes persecuted as witches, particularly if their 'magic' went wrong. Yet at the same time, priests could perform magic and utter charms as well as prayers to combat evil or demons.

All levels of medieval society believed in magic, including the courts. Magicians might be employed at European courts as entertainers, as alchemists, as healers or as diviners. In the later Tudor period we have John Dee, who served Elizabeth I as her astronomer and occultist, and the alchemist and astronomer Paracelsus. In myth we have Merlin, one of the most famous magicians of them all, who was on the edge first of Uther Pendragon's court and then of King Arthur's, and feared and respected in equal measure. In France in the 14th century, the astrologer Thomas of Pisano made figures out of wax to destroy the invading English by magic.
Astrologers, alchemists and magicians, promising gold, health and power, were often welcomed at court and given high status. Yet their places were always vulnerable. Jealous rivals could accuse them of using magic in an evil way, as happened to Mummolus, a shrewd military tactician of the sixth century AD, a time when Frankish Gaul was split into several kingdoms. Accused of witchcraft by Fredegund, queen to Chilperic I of Soissons, Mummolus was tortured and died of his wounds.

In 1441 Eleanor, duchess of Gloucester, was accused of using ‘treasonable necromancy’ against King Henry VI in order to advance her husband. She was imprisoned for life, while the astrologers Thomas Southwell and Roger Bolingbroke, together with Margery Jourdemayne, ‘the Witch of Eye‘, were condemned to death. In the mid-1480s Richard III of England accused Elizabeth Woodville (previously married to a Lancastrian) of having bewitched his late brother Edward IV into marrying her.

Even the court of the medieval papacy was a place where members could be accused of magic - because magic-making was seen as a part of life and a way of gaining or keeping favours. In 1317 the bishop of Cahors was tried for using magic against Pope John XXII and trying to smuggle magical images into the papal palace in loaves of bread.

I write about a medieval witch in my novels, The Snow Bride and A Summer Bewitchment.

THE SNOW BRIDE (THE KNIGHT AND THE WITCH 1)  http://amzn.to/15GhvMX   
ChapterOne http://bit.ly/2tfJq5c                             
                                                                    
A SUMMER BEWITCHMENT (THE KNIGHT AND THE WITCH 2) http://amzn.to/1vstZjD
Excerpt here https://www.bookstrand.com/a-summer-bewitchment



I have also written about a hedge-witch in my novella, Morcar the Northern Earl and His Captive.

A Bookstrand Mainstream Romance

Medieval Captives 4 

Buy whole series at Bookstrand here

Buy 'Morcar...' on Amazon Amazon UK  

Excerpt here

Other titles in Medieval Captives Series - Sebastian the Alchemist and his Captive
Valens the Fletcher and his Captive
Julian the Sheriff and his Captive 

Thursday, 14 June 2018

A Knight's Prize - new excerpt

Here is a new excerpt from my latest historical romance, "A Knight's Prize, now only 99cents/99p 



A KNIGHT’S PRIZE #99cents  https://amzn.to/2JlERMj


     Edith had not been allowed to return to her camp. She had retired with Lady Blanche and her ladies, to bed down in the solar of the castle, although she did not sleep a jot. At dawn she heard a creaking of wagons and the steady march of men and peeped through a shutter to see the captain of Sir Tancred's guard already on his way, riding steadily by castle Fitneyclare on the road to London. She recognized his banner, and then spotted the wagon Teodwin had brought from the miller's house at Warren Hemlet.
     She put her fist in her mouth and bit down hard on her knuckles, so as not to cry out. Her people were going. It was good sense that they left, safer for them, but, selfishly perhaps, she had hoped they would stay. Now she was alone, without friends, and she would never be able to relax and be herself, never put aside her veil.
     Perhaps this is how a true princess feels?
     Gregory's barbed irony made her want to snort with laughter, except she could not - that would be unlady-like. Instead she watched the slow column creep past until the rising dust of their travel obscured them, wishing she could slip like a sparrow through the narrow casement to join them. When she was sure they were gone, she knelt in a corner in a pose of prayer, so as not to be disturbed, and tried very hard not to cry. She had thinking to do.


      Later, she waited until Lady Blanche and her women were in the midst of dressing and maids and heralds were darting in and out of the solar, carrying gloves or messages, and then mentioned she was for the gardrobe. She left the room and when she was certain she was unnoticed, Edith set off for the bath-house instead. There, for her own veil and cloak, she bartered a drab tunic from a weary mid-wife who had been up all night at a birth and, with a thought and good-wish for Maria, also close to her time, she dragged on the tunic. Flinching at the coarse cloth and fleas, she set off for the postern gate of the bailey, planning to be far away before she was missed.
     "Princess."
     Ranulf fell into step beside her and dangled a long scarlet sleeve before her face - one of his own? She could not tell, since his own huge cloak covered his large frame.
     "I will not look," was all he said. Indeed, he stared resolutely ahead at the grooms walking the palfreys in the bailey yard, while Edith tied the sleeve about her head and face, "veiling" herself afresh.
     "I had meant to give you a sleeve later," he went on, before she could protest. "I suppose now is as good a time as any."
     Edith ran forward so she could stop smack in front of him. "You followed me! You must have done so!"
     "I watched out for you, princess, as a knight should for his lady, and recognized you by your height and shape and way of walking." Now he made great play of staring, head tilted on one side, like a man buying at a fair. "I like your silks better."
       "You are not to judge." Said more harshly than she intended.
       "No." He smiled and offered his arm. "May I escort you to your tent?"
       She remained unmoved. "I will not be any man's prize." She had not broken the shackles of her serfdom for that.
       "Not even your lover's?"


      Ranulf expected her to protest, or deny his question. Instead she confounded him afresh by replying "Perhaps," an exasperating answer that made him wish he had looked at her properly while she was unveiled.
     "Who is he?" Even as he knew he was being stupid, driven by jealousy, Ranulf touched the rough knot where she had tied the sleeve, as if he would strip her face then and there. "Who sees you, princess?"
If it was Giles, he would maul him, best him, beat him.
     Without waiting for her answer, he dragged her into his arms.
     "I am in mourning!" She closed her eyes, refusing to look at him. She was fragile in his grip but unyielding, like a killing knife. "And I am not your wife!"
     A scald of rage broke through him like a bursting blister, followed by horror. He shook with the force of both emotions where he wanted to compel her.
     "Master yourself." Her scorn ripped down his back like a flail.
     "You ask much, madam," he said, and her eyes opened, giving him a fleeting glimpse of regret, but not fear.     
     "If you were my maid, I would take you back into the bath-house and dunk you in a tub."
     "Good, for it would rid me of these wretched fleas!"
     In her answer, he saw maid and princess and he laughed, lifted out of his temper in the knowledge he had at last her full attention and he was facing all of her. "You are such a little liar. One day, I may put you over my lap and smack your bottom very soundly for all those lies."
     Taking advantage of her rare silence, he lifted her off her feet, warning, "We go this way, princess, back to your tent, and you can travel in comfort, in my arms, or over my shoulder." Part of him, the base part, wished she would struggle, so he could carry out his threat.
     "Being in mourning does not mean I have forgotten how to walk."
     "The ground is dusty and your feet are bare - had you forgotten that?"
     She smiled. He did not know how he knew that, with the red sleeve wound about the lower half of her face, but he felt her rest her head more comfortably into the crook of his arm.
     Ignoring the leering guard, he walked very slowly with her through the postern gate.

Lindsay

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Thursday, 24 May 2018

Medieval Black Heroines - Free Sampler of Excerpts




Medieval Black Heroines Sampler

Dark Maiden
Historical Paranormal Romance
Lindsay Townsend

Ghosts, revenants, incubi , vampires and demons haunt medieval England, as Yolande and Geraint must use their love to survive.

Beautiful Yolande comes from an exotic line of exorcists—a talent she considers a gift—and a curse. In fourteenth century England, a female exorcist who is also black is an oddity. She is sought after and trusted to quiet the restless dead and to send revenants to their final rest.

Geraint the Welshman captures Yolande’s heart with his ready smile and easy ways, and the passionate fire of his spirit. An entertainer, he juggles and tumbles his way through life—but there is a serious side to him that runs deep. He offers Yolande an added strength in her work and opens his heart to her with a love such as she’s never known.

But Yolande is not free to offer Geraint her love completely—not until her “time of seven” has passed. 

Can the powerful attraction between them withstand the powers of evil who mean to separate them forever? Yolande’s conscience and conviction force her to face this evil head-on—but can Geraint save his Dark Maiden…


Part One: Dark Maiden

Chapter One
England, the North, summer 1350.

She could smell the spirits of the restless dead. It was not the sickly sweet rot of the fleshy body, nor the whiff of lavender and violets of the saints. Demons, being fallen angels, did not stink of sulfur,  but the angry dead were ripe with it.
Yolande crouched behind the  bathtub  with her bow, hunting by waiting. She  heard the murmur of distant prayers in the summer twilight as the nuns and novices performed another sacred office. With her right shoulder snug against the tub, she flexed her legs and toes within her man’s leggings and boots, grateful she was not yet numb. She did not think her task would take too long.
The novice Mary-Joanna should have been bathing tonight, to ease her aching joints. She was a comely young woman,  but powerfully afflicted by pain. Yolande, a head taller and blessed with vigorous health, pitied the girl. She did not know if Mary-Joanna had a true vocation, but she agreed with the abbess that the novice should not be beleaguered by an evil imp when she was semi naked  within this tiny bathhouse.
Evil imp was how the abbess described the apparition. After listening to the older woman’s account of its habits, Yolande had her own suspicions. She had agreed willingly to pretend to bathe in Mary-Joanna’s place.
The bow and its arrows had been blessed by the abbess and dipped in holy water, to cover all possibilities.
She breathed in slowly, sensing her own balance, feeling the sacred herbs she always wore about her throat brush dryly against her skin. She saw no movement but her ears , thank the saints, were good and she heard a slight shuffling outside.
Yolande braced herself, chanting the great prayer of Saint Patrick, known as Saint Patrick’s breastplate, within her mind. As if in answer to her prayer, the door to the narrow lean-to yawned open.
A figure loomed across the threshold, faceless, soundless and black, even as the abbess had said. It slithered inside and closed the door again.
The spirit torments our novices, manifesting to them within the bathhouse, seeking to steal their immortal souls, the abbess had said.
“Sneak a peek, more likely.” Yolande’s heart was as steady as a slow drum inside her chest. “No spirit stops to shut a door.” She set and released an arrow  all in one, smooth, practiced movement.
The arrow flew, hissing across the bathhouse tiles. The “spirit” howled as its cloak was pinned to the door, and tugged desperately at the caught cloth  with a spindly human hand.
Dropping her bow, Yolande sprinted and lunged, knocking the man hard against the solid wood, jamming her elbow across his scrawny throat.
“You… bitch…black…bitch,” the fellow wheezed as she pulled off his hood.
“But no restless dead,” Yolande countered. She stripped him of his eating dagger then yanked him round while he was still shocked and tied his hands behind his back with his own hood.
“Could not see you…” The man was still grumbling. “You are so black.”
“Not as black as my father, nor as white as my mother,” Yolande replied. “You should be considering how you can plead with the sisters, instead of wondering about me.”
She put her hand firmly on his shoulder to “guide” him to the abbess. From his faint stench of fear— urine, sweat and manure, she knew he was utterly human. Her skills as an exorcist had not been needed, not against this gawping lecher, who liked to watch the pretty novices as they bathed.
Would that all my trials were so easy. At least there is no more here than this, Mother be thanked. It is not my final contest, not yet.

****

The convent was small and poor but the abbess invited Yolande to stay for the night. She accepted gratefully, asking only if she might pray in church before the shrine of the Virgin Mary.
“All penitents are welcome, daughter,” said the abbess, her wrinkled face pinched with curiosity. She took in Yolande’s outlandish attire with rapid, considering glances. “Let me guide you.”
Resigned, Yolande nodded thanks, matched her long, loose stride to her companion’s trip-trotting gait and waited for the first question.
Sure enough, as they entered the dimmed church of the convent the abbess asked, “You are not a religious? You belong to no order?”
“No, Mother.”
Beside her, the shorter woman pursed her lips. “You are still of the world?”
“I am.”
The abbess crossed herself. “So how are you an exorcist, if you have no vocation?”
Yolande had been asked this often and each time she gave the same answer. “I have a duty, Mother, as my father did before me.”
“But how?”
“In these times, when so many religious are falling to the pestilence, God calls others.” Wishing to say no more, especially concerning her parents, she asked simply, “May I pray, Mother?”
The abbess did not refuse her request. Instead, as if Yolande herself had developed the pestilence, she waddled hastily away, her habit flying.
Yolande chuckled softly and turned to the painted statue of the Virgin, ready to begin her vigil.

* * * * *

Geraint the Welshman unwrapped the wooden crucifix and set it on the trestle between him and the lanky-haired pardoner. Around them, men continued to haggle over deals and drinking games, their faces shrouded by the sooty torches and smoky fire. A pardoner in an alehouse at any hour, especially this early in the morning, should have been worthy of remark, but these days no one said or saw anything. With plague stalking every town and village street in England, men stayed home with their families or made themselves drunk, falling-down-blind drunk, in the alehouses.
Few wanted to watch or pay for his juggling these days, so when this pardoner had sidled across, clutching a rough cloth bag and wheedling for a moment of his time, Geraint had let the fellow buy him a cup of wine.
“You trust me to deliver this?” He tapped the crucifix. “I could take it for firewood.”
“Not if you know what is wise for you, my son.”
Geraint stiffened slightly  but told himself that the pardoner could not know his past. Yes, he had been a novice in a monastery and yes, at age ten he had punched the novice-master and been expelled, but had he the time again he would do the same. Old crook-nose, as he was now, would be less eager to fondle the boys under his charge.
“Your threat does not impress, brother,” he replied.
“Forgive me. I am the messenger only. But if this is not delivered to Yolande, she will have your skin.”
Geraint drained his cup, chewing on the lees, and made to leave.
“Listen.” The pardoner was so earnest that his face had gone as red as his script. “She is at the convent of the Holy Sisters of Fealty beyond the old Roman fort, ridding them of an evil imp, or so I have been told. You could walk there in less than two hours and win her gratitude.”
Geraint picked up the crucifix. It was plain and heavy and he had a sense that it was very old. “Why not go yourself? Or is there sickness at the convent?”
“Not at all, not at all.” The older man had the grace to look embarrassed. “Let me say only that Yolande is less tolerant of men such as myself.”
“You tried to trick her once,” Geraint translated. “Has she a husband, father or brother that you are so terrified?”
“None, none, but she needs none. She expels devils. She carries the bow of Saint Sebastian.”
Geraint was intrigued. He was wandering nowhere in particular so he could visit the convent. The nuns would feed him too. “Is there a message?”
The pardoner inclined his head  toward the cross. “That is the message, I was told. Not for the likes of me to question, I was told.”
“And how shall I know her?”
“Very tall for a woman, slim, pretty if you admire dark girls, and with her bow usually slung across her back. She wears me n’s clothes.”
“Aping men? The church has not moved against her for that? Or the sheriff?”
“Not in these times, with so many dying of the pestilence and the whole world preparing for the last days. Let any judgment of her be the final one, before God, I say.” “The pardoner shrugged, avoiding his eyes. “Will you take it?”
Geraint glanced at his long fingers wrapped around the feet of the wooden Christ and ignored the warning prickle at the back of his neck. “Seems I already have.”

* * * * *

The following morning, passing the bread and cheese that the sisters had generously given her to a beggar outside the convent walls, Yolande sensed someone watching.  She turned, forced to take a rapid backward step as a stranger trod on her shadow. She had not heard his approach.
“Mistress Yolande?”
“You have the advantage, mister. You know my name.” She smiled to take any sting from her words. “May I know yours?”
Greetings and courtesy were important to her. Each gave clues as to character and wishes. She had once known a demon, beautifully polite, who would have ripped the flesh from her bones had she not bound him by his own rules of manners.
The stranger bowed, a good sign. He muttered something in a language she did not know, which was not good. She moved a little closer, ready to boot him in the balls if he did anything unsavory.
“Geraint Welshman, at your service.” He crouched then looked straight at her. “I am just taking something from my pack, if it please you.”
She grinned at him to prove she was unafraid, her body heavy and languid as she itched to go onto the balls of her feet, ready to scrap. A quick stab to those astonishing black-blue eyes, a swipe at his knee and Geraint the Welshman would be groveling in the hard-packed mud.
Which would be a shame for such a glorious face. He bent his head, showing his trust of her, to rummage in his pack. He was a good-looking brute, not too muscled but as lean and wiry as herself. There was a soft jangle of bells within his patched shoulder-pack, revealing him as a wandering entertainer, a less deadly mirror of herself. They were even about the same height.
I entertain the restless dead before I send them on. What must it be like to work for living laughter?
Hard, she guessed, noting his less-than-clean black hair, the scars on his knuckles, his drab motley, missing bits of ribbons and coins. He was darker that she was, tanned by many suns, and with excellent teeth.
Strong, rangy and in no hurry to stick to one place, but a honeyman all the same. She felt a flicker of interest, a few youthful, girlish hopes. She was ten-and-eight these days, young for an exorcist but ripe for marriage. Her father, a remarkable man, had managed both.  She missed him, but her time would surely come—maybe with this Welshman.
“The pardoner said you would understand the message with this.” Geraint interrupted her reverie as he laid a crucifix down on the rutted road, on top of his pack to keep it from the dirt.
Yolande stared at it, all hopes forgotten in an instant. She sensed the earth shifting beneath her feet as the blood pounded within her temples, making her convinced the top of her skull might shatter. “Oh, great Maria, already?” she said, unaware she had spoken aloud, crossing herself, making the sign of the cross above the crouching Geraint. The great bow across her shoulders creaked as if in warning.
So soon! I must prepare with care. If this sign is right, there can be no mistakes. Pray that I am ready. It is so soon, so soon…

****

He saw her face change, becoming as still as a mask. Then she blinked. “I do understand it.  My thanks to you, master Geraint. How may I aid you in return? Are you thirsty or hungry?”
“Ale is always welcome,” he answered quickly, “but for now the pleasure of your company on the road will be more than payment.”
She raised her pretty eyebrows at that. The rest of her was  pretty too , if such a plain word could be used for such exotic looks. By “dark” he had expected black hair, which Yolande had—long, shimmering waves of the stuff, very clean but caught in a simple clasp at the back of her slender neck as if she had no time for any fuss. Her eyes were either brown or black—he could not be sure—but they were clear and steady as if she looked straight to the heart of things.
To the heart of me, for sure. Geraint liked women, loved their smell and feel and their cockeyed way of looking at the world. For all her man’s clothing, Yolande was very much a woman, and a love worthy of Solomon. Her skin was a beautiful shade of bronze, smooth as polished wood, and her eyelashes were double-lashed. She had a narrow face and elegant bones but there was a strength in her, character and soul together. He could imagine her besting devils.
For the rest…the performer in him knew at once that she should be in bright colors, reds and yellows and blues, not the drab serge of a thatcher. If she was in his company for long—and he intended she would be—he would tempt her into a brighter manner of dress.
For she has the glory of the evening in her. She wins me already and does not know it.
“I do not chatter,” she said, unaware of his inner tumult. “I have a way to go.”
Better still. He admired how she did not admit where she was headed. “For today then?” He lifted his hands, palms up. “To the nearest house of honest folk, who will let you sleep by their hearth and me in their hayloft?”
“You wish to squire me to safety?”
“For the pleasure of—”
“For the pleasure of  my company. Yes, Geraint the Welshman, you said that already.” But she was smiling as she spoke and he knew she would agree.
“Shall I carry this?” He motioned to the cross. “You have your bow and bag already, and it will be no trouble.”
After a moment she strode out like a youth, leaving him to catch up. Geraint admired her graceful gait and did not hurry. He wanted their day to last.
By then I may have won another day in her company.

* * * * *

At the end of their day together, Yolande slept with him in the hayloft of a new, nervous reeve in a village called Lower Something-Or-Other. Geraint had missed the name and was not interested in the shabby, defeated place anyway. He had offered to juggle and been told “no,” offered to chop wood and been shown a blunt axe.
Yolande, graceful and self-contained as a cat, apparently oblivious to the villagers’ stares and whispers, had paid for her lodging with gold coin. She had rebuilt the hearth fire too, with permission from the goodwife, and made flat cakes on the hearth—cakes that melted in Geraint’s mouth and exploded with spices on his tongue.
“I had the spices from a cook on London Bridge as a thank you,” she told him when he asked how she had made them. She did not say what she had done for the cook and he knew better than to ask, at least in the hearing of others.
She had surprised him by sleeping in the loft with him, but the reeve had been growing bolder through the evening, taking every chance he could to touch her. Geraint would have punched the fellow or cracked his greasy fingers, but Yolande was content to put herself above such petty gropings. He marveled at her patience.
She slept, her breathing light and soft, and he was glad to hear her slumbering in the stale, sparse hay, only the stretch of a hand away from him. He had not slept and had eased the ladder up into the loft with them. He did not quite trust the reeve, although the fellow was snoring loudly enough to put a sleeping bear to shame.
It was July and in the summer night he could see Yolande, her great bow—which he meant to ask her about, oh yes—laid beside her within easy reach. She lay curled on her side, her hair  wound about her long throat, her limbs twitching as she dreamed.
What do you dream of, my lady?
“So many dead, so many restless dead.”
The hair on his scalp rose as if trying to escape. Yolande was sitting up beside him, rigid as a pole. She was sleeping still, though her eyes were open.
Her voice was full of pain. “How can I help them all? This sickness is a plague and we are in the last days.”
Geraint cracked his knuckles together. He did not believe that, not for a moment. While in the monastery, he had heard of a time when men learned that a thousand years had passed since Christ had died . People had thought the world would end then, but it had not.
“Rest, it is nighttime,” he said quietly. He did not want her sleepwalking like a little child, for she would be a danger to herself. “Rest, Yolande.”
She sighed and lay down again. “This place is soaked in the evil of men.  Geraint senses it too. I can tell from his scent. And he does not like to touch the crucifix. He could be an exorcist, with training.”
This was news to him but he kept silent. He was startled that she had noticed his reluctance to handle the ancient cross, but could not understand how that was a point in his favor.
“We must leave early. Get away before the others wake. I must gather herbs, sacred herbs. Saint John’s wort and rosemary, lavender and hyssop. “
He agreed with that, grinning as he savored the we. He cleared his throat, cutting off her sleepy list. “Sleep now, Yolande. I will help you with the green stuff.”
“What has possessed them?”
He did not know who the they were and did not care. “We shall find out. Sleep, Yolande.”
“I would rest in honeyman’s arms, but it would not work. Men want more, want all and I cannot. I cannot give all.” She sank into the hay, leaving him more wakeful than ever.
What a nickname! Even the little you give me , lady, stirs me. “Honey-Man,” he said aloud, and smiled.

****

She woke him before dawn, just as the birds were stirring. “If you are still with me, we have a long way to travel, and should go,” she whispered. “I will leave more gold by the hearth.”
Swiftly he gathered their things. Whatever she had said in her sleep last night about his senses, his wits were nagging him to leave and leave fast.
She lowered the ladder and, before he could stop her and go first, she vanished into the swirling half-light, her bow rattling softly on her shoulders. He followed by swinging down from the loft, the pack on his shoulders bouncing painfully, the crucifix stabbing into the small of his back.
She was at the door, wrestling with the rope hasp. Figures round the banked fire were sitting up, shouting. There was the glint of a drawn knife.
Geraint scooped up her gold coin from the hearth, ran to the door, cut the rope with his dagger and dragged her outside with him. They pelted through the reeve’s garden in a shower of thrown pebbles and curses, crushing beans and peas, sprinting to outrun the lumbering pursuit.
Yolande  ran ahead of him into a field of tall wheat.  She hooked him off his feet and dragged him into cover below the bobbing heads of wheat and corncockle.
“Here.” He offered her the coin, but she put a finger to her lips. Silent, they lay in the field, waiting for the searchers and hearing only a skylark high overhead.
“Those people gave up quickly,” she said after a moment.
“No energy for a chase.”
Her eyes narrowed into slits. “I can fight for myself. I am no helpless child.”
Except at night, when you rise and talk in your sleep. “Right. Next time you can open the door.”
She chuckled, her brief anger vanishing like summer fog. “They have gone, have they not?”
“They have never come here,” he replied at once. She was testing him again, seeing what his senses told him. To cover his amusement he jumped up, cut a caper and drew her to her feet. She was light, her fingers warm against his. He wanted to squeeze them a little before he let her go, but wanted to win her trust, so released her at once.
She led the way and, with Geraint content to protect her back and watch her womanly dip and sway as she walked, they set out again.





Chapter Two

Yolande was not surprised when Geraint remained with her, even passing through a walled town where he could have stayed on and juggled and earned good money. He admired her, she knew, for his eyes were always bright when she caught him  watching her. It was the kind of gentle, interested way her father had looked at  her mother and it warmed her.
She knew his attention, however flattering, was also dangerous. The crucifix was a sign she dared not ignore and she would need her full attention on what she must confront. Yet the Welshman intrigued her.
He does not ask about journey’s end, about where we are going. Never have I known a man so easy about not being the master.
She knew why, of course. Geraint could take care of himself.
But I must work alone, when the time comes. Will he accept that?
He caught her eye and grinned. “Wondering about me, Yolande, I hope? I am unmarried, unbetrothed, not widowed, not plighted—”
“Enough!” she said, waving him to silence although she was pleased.
“You wear a ring. It saves you questions and trouble, I suppose?”
By an effort of will, she did not glance at the narrow gold band on her wedding ring finger. He had a touch of the fey about him, this Welshman, and saw too much. “I do not lead people on,” she admitted, keen he should know this about her. “I cannot offer a man a house, or dowry…or myself.”
“Very proper,” he said, grave as a priest, which made her want to tickle his feet to make him laugh. He had bare feet, tough and brown as hide, but she wagered she could find one spot to make him itch …
There was muffled shouting  behind her, several voices, but it was the sudden stench of sulfur that made her gag.  She turned toward the voices  and raised her arms in a protective cross before Geraint. Behind her the Welshman ripped a clod of earth and grass right out of the ground and hurled it with a massive shout. The smell fell back a little.
“How did you know to do that?” she asked.
“My mam taught me to scare off crows and other rubbish. Come on.” He seized her arm, shoving her forward with his shoulder.
“I face what comes.”
“But choose your ground, right?”
And the cursing thing was, he was right. Geraint was right even before the group of men broke cover from a sunken way, bursting onto the larger track a sword’s length away from them.
Something else is with them too—
Geraint said something in his own tongue and yanked her back so strongly her feet left the ground. She stumbled, gripped his hand and ran straight off the track, making for higher ground.
Higher ground is  usually sacred ground.
Geraint yelled more she did not understand but she saw the pale alarm in his eyes and spun round, striking out with her bow. The tip of the bow cut across a leering face and there was a howl. She let the bow sweep on to the farthest reach of her arm and another man screamed.
A heavy boot scraped down her calf and her whole leg burned but she did not stop sprinting. With her quiver clashing across her back, beating her up the weed infested slope, she panted and urged the fleeing Geraint. “Come on, on!”
“I slow for you, woman!” he roared, and then he too turned and threw a volley of pebbles at the closing group—no, not pebbles, but coins and bits of metal.
More howling behind them. She and Geraint pulled further ahead of the pack. Their sanctuary was a single oak tree that marked a field boundary and once—she knew it in a chilly, flinty instant of insight—had swung with sacrifices long ago. She reached it first by a fingertip and set her back against the bark, her throat dry, her lungs wheezing and her body shuddering.
“By the god and good within this tree, protect us,” she croaked, slipping her bow off her arm. Another breath, another moment and the arrow was notched and released.
A man gargled, the arrow twitching in his shoulder, and fell away, rolling down the slope. Geraint yelled and  drew a long dagger from his sleeve.
Suddenly the odds of the attack had changed. The rest of their assailants hesitated, slowing, looking at each other.
But not the one possessed. He will come.
“Give us the darkie,” called out another. “Luck for us.”
Geraint curled his lip. “She is not mine to give, and if she were you would never get her.”
“I have no quarrel with you,” Yolande said, wanting to give them an escape. “We are travelers and will be gone by tonight.”
Two turned away and she breathed a little more easily. Two stepped closer and she loosed two swift arrows at their feet. Another man sat down on the hillside amidst a patch of flowering fireweed and sobbed, “Poor Edo…”
“Drunken fool.” Geraint tipped her a wink.
Absurdly the wink gave her heart. She loosed another arrow, a warning shot over the waverers’ greasy heads.
“Go with my blessing.”
More turned aside, content that she had granted them the elusive luck they craved. Three remained, watching Geraint.
Not these men, they are men only—
Then she smelled a foul miasma that made her close her mouth sharply and glance at her companion. Sensitive as he surely was, although he had not known it before he traveled with her, Geraint had done the same and was nimbly burrowing into his pack.
“Not the cross, not yet. It may not be needed,” she whispered and he stopped at once, his long, tanned fingers frozen on the straps.
The copper armlet that she wore under her clothes grew chill. The world about them was slowing down, men’s mouths opening and closing as they talked, word by word. The dried Saint John’s wort that she always carried in a pouch around her neck hung heavy at her throat.
It comes, spirit, lost soul, angry for being trapped.
“I can help you,” she said in Latin, addressing the soul directly.
A new figure stalked forward, a beardless youth who looked excited and close to tears. Yolande lowered her bow. “Release the man-child,” she said in Latin.
The boy stopped as if barred by an invisible hand. The foul odor increased, worse than rotting eggs.
“Peace be upon you.” Speaking in English for the boy and others to understand, Yolande plucked a branch of oak and offered it to the spirit within the youth. “Let the strength of the tree be your refuge.”
Slow as a summer sunset, the lad’s arm rose to hers. He touched a leaf of the oak branch, pinching it between finger and thumb.
“Come out of him,” she said in Latin. “Come to the oak.”
The oak leaves trembled and the boy gasped, shivering as if plunged into ice water. After the heat of the angry spirit had left him, he would be cold.
Yolande braced herself and began to recite the creed, ignoring the yells of the bystanders as the branch of oak burst into flame. The youth swayed but did not fall. He let the branch go and was free.
The scent of the spirit stormed into her nostrils and through its heavy stench a name was blazoned in her mind’s eye.
“Peace to you, Thorkill,” she said in Latin. “Go to your rest with God.”
The soul of Thorkill spoke within her head. I cannot go yet. I died unshriven, unburied. The boy stole a dagger of mine as I lay dying.
“I will bury the dagger in a scared place, beneath this oak, and pray for you,” Yolande promised, whispering now. “Come out,” she said again in Latin. “Come to your rest, Thorkill.”
The last leaf of the oak burned away, scorching her fingers. She did not flinch. “Give me the dagger you stole from a dying man,” she ordered the sobbing boy.
The lad flung the knife at her feet and ran off. She picked it up and a whiff of sulfur  seeped away, leaving only the smell of her own lavender and rosemary and pepper.
“Go home,” she told the others, but they were already moving off, not too proud to run once they had gone a few paces away from her.
She closed her eyes and began the prayer for the dead for Thorkill.

Geraint stayed with her. He helped her to dig a shallow pit beneath the oak. He made her a small cross of holly wood to lay with the dagger. She shrouded both in one of her own hoods and prayed for the departed soul of Thorkill, easing him to purgatory.
Only when the sun was beginning to sink did she complete the ritual. Still Geraint was with her.
“Thirsty?” He offered her a flask as she smoothed the burial place and rose. “This here is freshly filled from a stream. I got it while you were busy.”
“Thank you.” The water was marvelously cold.
“Do you often get mobs following because you are different?”
His blunt question surprised her into a counter question. “Do you like me because I am different?”
He reached for the flask. “Only for the first half day, Yolande. Now it is your company I crave.”
She wagged a finger at him. “In villages I am often asked for blessings, or cures. I think they see me as some kind of charm, although I am by no means as dark as my father—or you, Welshman.”
“I am a black Celt, true enough.” Geraint took another long swig. “Was your father a Celt?”
Her throat tightened as she thought of her beloved parents, both long dead. “He was a scholar, a poet and a carpenter, from the land of Ethiope.”
“Such a talented fellow could have been a Welshman, and I can give no higher praise than that. And your mother?”
“A spinster and ale-mistress of York.”
“Ah, a woman for me then.”
“And yours, Geraint, your parents?”
“Do you always speak to the dead in Latin?”
“Always.” Going along with the sudden change of subject, Yolande sat down beneath the oak tree, thinking that she would not reach the abbey tonight. She was weary after her tussle with the spirit, more tired than she should be, for in the end his had been an easy passing.
Or was she seeking an excuse to linger with Geraint, who craved her company?
“Why is that?” he asked. “The Latin?”
“It is the language of the mass. It honors them,” she said. She leaned against the oak. Her honeyman sprawled comfortably amidst the tree roots, eyes half-closed, as if he were on a bed of feathers. “How is it you understand Latin?”
He shrugged. “Bits of Latin, some Greek, some English, all Welsh.” He rolled onto his belly and watched a black ant carrying a seed. “As a boy and after my mam died, I lived for a time in a monastery.”
“You were a novice?”
“Not by my choice. My da dumped me in there. I left as soon as I could.”
“You ran away.”
“Twice and was brought back. But the third time, after I had thumped the novice master in the face, they were keen for me to go.”
The wind ruffled his wavy hair as she was tempted to do. She was hungry but no longer tired. Rather she was intrigued.
“You punched a monk?”
“Laid him out flat in the nave.”
She sat up, hugging her knees. “What place was this?”
“Away to the west, a long ways from here.” He flicked the question aside. “What do you say to roast rabbit for supper? Or do you not eat flesh?”
Her belly rumbled. He laughed, looking briefly as young as the youth who had been possessed. “Roast salmon then, filched from whichever lord’s stream this is?”
“Stolen fish?”
“I do not think the lord will miss one, do you?”
She agreed, torn between shaking her head and smiling.
* * * * *
Geraint lay awake after their meal of salmon and fresh greens gathered by Yolande. His stomach was full, his woman-to-be slept with her head in his lap and he was blissful with delight.
He was also listening, in case she spoke in her sleep again tonight, but she was as quiet as a flower.
He gently smoothed her hair. Tempting her to use his lap as a pillow had taken no arts beyond a suggestion that the oak roots were hard, and he was glad.
As if in answer to his touch, she opened her eyes. “Still awake? Would you rather move on? Leave me?”
“Hush—I do not leave those I care for. I am staying with you.”
She was drowsy, for she closed her eyes again and slept.
Geraint leaned against the tree and watched the stars.

In the morning, when she rose and stretched, she looked puzzled. “Did you speak to me in the middle of the night?”
“Not I.”
“Strange, I must have dreamed it.”
“Was it a pleasant dream?”
“Very.”
He was not sure, but by a faint shadowing of her cheek he sensed that she was blushing. “Well then,” he said, and left it at that, checking they had all their things.

The day started fair and bright but changed quickly to a drizzling rain. Yolande tugged a patched hood out of her quiver and hauled it carelessly over her hair, grumbling when she caught her fringe.
“Allow me.” Geraint coaxed her hair aside and stole a gentle kiss. “You taste of sugar-cone.”
Her eyes crinkled with pleasure. “Satisfied your curiosity, Mister Welshman?”
“That too.”
She was chuckling as they moved on again, skipping and sliding through the gray sheets of rain.
“You are an exorcist,” he began as they picked their way through a hillside of strewn rubble and rotting thatch from a former dwelling.
“Some call me that.”
“And the friars and pardoners and clerics allow it? Last time I looked, women could not be priests.”
She mopped a strand  of damp hair from her cheek and kicked aside part of a fallen roof timber. “Hundreds of years ago, in a place called Whitby, there was a famous abbess who heard confessions. Customs change, but God calls us all. I do what I can to help others, and I am allowed to do so.” She threw him a challenging look. “The nuns of the convent were pleased I am a woman. It made solving their…problem much easier than had I been male.”
“And you have a calling.”
“I have a duty.”
Geraint splashed through a puddle, mud squelching between his toes. “Pity, if you are allowed, that the mighty of the church did not give you a horse,” he muttered in Welsh. Rain dripped off his nose and eyelashes. Of all weathers, he loathed the rain.
“I beg your pardon?”
“A curse against my clumsiness, nothing more,” he said quickly. He reminded himself that walking took longer than riding, which meant more time together, which suited him fine, really fine. “Where are we headed?” he asked after a space. He had not asked before, not caring where they wandered, but today the sky about them was as gray as a corpse and colder and the blasted rain seeped everywhere. “Have we a ways to go still?”
Yolande strode beside him, still straight, still limber, but he wanted her warm and dry—better yet, warm and dry and in his arms.
“I must remain a maiden,” she said as if she had read his  thoughts.
“But if your father could cast out spirits? And him a married man?” He noted the mottling of her skin and cursed his asking. “No matter,” he began, but she answered.
“My maidenhead is a barrier to my womb, a barrier I must preserve, or one of the possessed might enter me and remain .” She shivered at the notion and he did not blame her. “That is why women generally do not become exorcists”.  “ No demon can enter the womb of a virgin and grow there, unless the virgin invites the demon to possess her.  I must serve and do my duty as a maid for a time of seven. That is what the abbot said.”
Seven days, months, years? Geraint needed to know. And who is this abbot who lays time on you?
But he said nothing. A silver strand of rain beaded against her cheek like a tear. She lost pace, slowing down, and not for any obstacle. She looked haunted for an instant, closed in.
There is more than one way of possession. The work itself threatens to consume her.
“These are the final days,” she said  as if to convince herself. Rain hissed round her booted feet as she trudged through another puddle. Around them, the fields and even the grass-and-mud track they were on were lost behind belts of gray water and mist.
“Maybe, maybe not.” Using a juggler’s trick, he pulled a daisy chain out of her ear and wound it around her wrist. As she broke her stride, he pulled a second chain of flowers from his own ear and draped it round his wrist.
“Fool.” She stopped walking altogether to laugh.
“I have been called worse.” Glad to see her bright again, he took her hand in his, swinging it as they resumed their muddy slither.
“I am going east of here, to the monastery of Saint Michael and Saint Mary Magdalene under the Tower.”
“We are going,” he reminded her as the back of his neck prickled in warning. “What order?”
“Benedictine.”
Fat and rich but old too, and powerful. Strange alliance of saints, Michael and Magdalene. “And they sent you the cross as a message to come? Why not send horses?”
“Horses and I, we do not suit.”
He glanced at her through the drilling rain, all energy and nerves bound in a tight rein of deliberate calm, and thought he understood why. “If we find a carter going east we beg a lift.”
Her chin rose at that. “I do not beg.”
“Then I shall,” Geraint countered. He was sick of wet feet.

A passing carter, once she was assured they carried no pestilence, was glad of the company and had news besides.
“I see runaways everywhere these days,” she said between chews on a strip of lovage. She had generously offered Geraint a strip of the plant, but not Yolande, saying crudely, “It would turn your insides black  too.”
Yolande, her brain full of the trials to come, was not inclined to argue. She ignored the petty insult and dangled her feet over the end of the cart, leaning against bales of wool. She let Geraint sit in front with the carter.
“Runaway serfs?” Geraint prompted.
“Lots of those, for sure, especially from the abbey lands. Who would not flee when they are expected to do twice the work for the same wages and have no release from their dues even if their village is plague-stricken?”
“Including the monastery of Saint Michael and Mary Magdalene under the Tower?”
“Them more than most. Strange lights have been seen in their fields and low moaning issuing from the abbey church, even during holy offices.”
“Issuing, eh?” Geraint shot Yolande such a wicked look of mischief she was hard put to not to snort with laughter, and it did make the rumors a little less alarming.
The carter nodded and water dripped from the brim of her peaked cap. “People are saying the place is accursed.”
“Have you any food to spare, mistress carter?”
“Geraint!”
Yolande was horrified by his outrageous request but the carter merely pointed a thumb behind her. “Cheese and bread in the pannier, fresh this morning from one of my regular customers. Your wife can pass it round.”
“I am not—”
 “Excellent suggestion,” Geraint broke in. “Come to it, wife, for I am starving hungry.”

They parted ways with the carter in the village of Lower Liss and Geraint raced off the front of the cart to lift her down from the back. It was not until he had bundled her into his arms that Yolande realized what he was about.
“I can jump down.” She did not squirm in his grip. That would be unseemly—if they could become any more so, with the carter whooping and whistling at them both as she drove on. “I do not need your help.”
“Yes, but this is far more fun.” He hooked his free arm under her legs and drew her tight against him, snug against his beating heart.  ““And see—the rain has stopped for us.”
It had, indeed, and there was even a rainbow, arching beyond Geraint’s shoulder. “Are you my personal entertainer?” she asked. It was the best attack she could think of while her feet were off the ground and she was bobbing in his arms. “To light my life, give respite after danger?”
He swung her higher and kissed her.
This was no kiss of peace or brotherly embrace, or even curiosity. His mouth urged a response as if he hammered on the doorway to her needs. Her lips tingled and throbbed and she was aware of her breasts and female parts in a way she had never been before.
“This is not helping,” she hissed, kissing him back.
He grunted, her annoying, seducing honeyman, and his fingers smoothed across her rump. “More than enough for now,” he said, smacking his lips as he lowered her to the ground.
The front of his tunic bulged and she was glad. “Serves you right.”
He turned a cartwheel by her feet and came up smirking. “Yes indeed, my zesty girl, but you will not be thinking on demons and dead folk now, nor indeed until you need to, and you have fresh herbs to gather.”
“Most generous.”
“I like to think so, cariad.”
He winked and began to march jerkily in the direction of the sun, away from the thatched houses of Lower Liss and toward the wilderness surrounding the monastery.
Yolande started after him, exasperated that he was right, irritated by her own lusts but yes, also mightily distracted from the battle to come.
And how does he know that I need herbs?



Sir Baldwin and the Christmas Ghosts

Lindsay Townsend

Will Baldwin heed Sofia or will the restless dead prevail?

My Sweet Medieval Christmas Romance Novella, 
Sir Baldwin and the Christmas Ghosts, is now out as a separate story for just 99 Cents! The heroine, Sofia, is the daughter of Yolande and Geraint.

Here's the blurb and an excerpt

SIR BALDWIN AND THE CHRISTMAS GHOSTS

Ambitious and arrogant, the young knight Sir Baldwin returns to his family’s lands and estate at Brigthorpe to face disaster. The pestilence has struck, destroying his parents and all his family save for a young half-brother, Martin, whom Baldwin does not wish to acknowledge because Martin is the bastard child of a serf. Baldwin needs to learn kindness and how to be a lord–and quickly.
Into this hopeless situation comes Sofia, a young woman who can see glimpses of spirits, of the restless dead. These revenants are very restless around Sir Baldwin.
Somehow, Baldwin and Sofia must work together, to make a true Christmas for the survivors of Brigthorpe and the Christmas ghosts. Can they do so in time—or will the gulf of class and custom make any love between them impossible?


December, North of England, 1369
           

“I can help you with your ghosts, sir.”
For an instant, no longer than a single beat of his heart, Sir Baldwin of Brigthorpe was too startled to answer. That a stranger had entered the manor and he had not heard any approach was disconcerting, that the said stranger could sense the spirits that accosted him every night was disturbing. Not that he let such unworthy, serf-like feelings show on his face. He was a knight—courage and power were his.
“Sir? Do you wish for my help?”
He would have ignored his own peasants if any had dared to keep questioning him, especially one certain grizzling boy, but courtesy to strangers had been ground into him. Reluctantly, he fashioned some reply. “I do not think anyone can aid me. There are too many ghosts.”
I should not have admitted that. Mother of Almighty God, I must be wearier than I thought.
Scowling, Sir Baldwin swept the last of the rotted floor strewing into the fire-pit in the great hall and watched the stinking mess smoke and slowly burn. His back and shoulders ached worse than after a sword practise but he forced himself to straighten and relax. He had not been physically attacked yet and doubted he would be. There are few left alive to try. The ghosts were another matter. There are so many...
Reminded of his losses afresh, the grief sharp as broken glass within him, Baldwin looked at the dais. A swift glance reassured him that the brat was still asleep on the platform, snuggled down in his own long winter cloak. Last year I would never have given a cotter bastard any of my clothes, even though we are akin. Frowning anew, he flicked the broom from hand to hand and raised his head. “How did you come here?”
It was a better question, more polite, than asking the cloaked, snow-spattered stranger “Who are you?” The small, slender figure might be a lord’s page or even, in these disrupted times of famine and pestilence, a young lordling.
“The head-man in the village directed me here.”
This is a girl. Hearing more of the stranger’s mellow, accentless voice and realizing that about her at least, Baldwin disguised his surprise and leaned on the broom. “Be welcome,” he said stiffly, wondering how she had travelled to the manor and why she had come. “I will take you to the widow Agnes’s house. You will be safe there.” Agnes was his old nurse and would welcome the company.
“Thank you.”
“She will feed you.” More than I can. The shame of it, of the manor’s ruined, depleted stores, made the blood rush through him afresh, smarting in his face and ears. “Have you a horse that needs tending?” he went on quickly.
He almost sneered when the girl shook her head, before a sharp memory, clear as his father’s slap against the back of his head whenever he was insolent as a boy, reminded Baldwin that he had been forced to sell his charger for a fraction of the war-horse’s value. It was that or have no hay or mash for his palfrey and the scrawny sheep and cow in the barn.
Since I am a knight without a war-horse, am I a knight at all? You are now Lord of Brigthorpe, his father boomed in his head, but that inheritance was unexpected and unwelcome.
 “Any servants?” he asked, seeking to divert his thoughts.
“I have been walking alone on the roads, for six days,” came the quiet reply. “I was prenticed to a woodcarver in Freeton but the pestilence came there and the village was destroyed. My master, mistress, their children…” Her clear account faltered, then resumed. “Seven of us survived and we scattered.”
To his surprise, Baldwin felt a new chill in his stomach that he surmised was a kind of empathy, or pity at least. After his own losses he had assumed he was inured to those of others. “Where are you going?” he asked softly.
“Home, sir. To my parents.” The if they are still alive was implied but unspoken.
The girl stepped out of the late afternoon lengthening shadows and glided closer to the fire, drawing off the hood of her drab cloak and allowing Baldwin to see her properly for the first time.
Mother of Almighty God—He felt his tightened jaw slacken and knew he would be staring. As if I, a knight, should gape at a village wench. But even a king would stare, he wagered.
She was small and bright, the lines of her face as flawless as her deep blue eyes. Her skin was the color of a bronze, softly burnished and exotic, and her long, waist-length hair was a deep hazel-nut brown, rippling over her shoulders in shining ropes.
“Pretty dark lady!” called a piping voice behind him and then Martin launched himself from the dais, scampering across the bare floor toward him, always toward him.
“Your son, sir?” the young woman asked, grinning as Martin wound himself like a bindweed around Baldwin’s long legs. She had a small space between her front teeth that made her smile less perfect than it would otherwise have been, but curiously endearing. And  I am going soft.
“Your son?” she prompted again, brutally direct when he did not speak. After the soft-spoken murmurers of the surviving serfs and villagers, it was refreshing, though her question raised another issue.
“My…” Baldwin flicked the boy’s red-blond head of curls—so like Giles’s, so like Elaine’s—his heart pinched and breath tight within his chest as he took in the brat’s wide-eyed, trusting adoration. What should he say? That this grubby, thin-limbed cotter infant was his only surviving family? He had found the skulking creature hiding beneath the dais table when he returned to his father’s estate two days ago and had recognized the boy at once as one of his father’s by-blows. The likeness between them was too close to be otherwise. “Martin is my kin,” he said slowly.
“Good afternoon, Martin. I am Sofia.” Sofia crouched so that she and Martin were eye to eye. Martin reached out a tiny, pale hand to her, quickly snatching at his brother’s leggings when Baldwin shifted slightly, away from the foul-smelling fire.
I cannot have the brat falling into the flames and shrieking anew. His head ached like an old war wound.
“The pestilence has cut cruelly through your lands, sir.”
It took a moment for Baldwin to realize that Sofia was speaking in French, so his bastard half-brother would not be more disturbed.
“How long?” she continued, as direct as before.
This time he gathered sufficient wits to answer. “I was at a midwinter tournament at Windsor when word came to me that my father and my father’s lands had been attacked by the plague.”
He was a younger son, used to making his own way in the world, but he would never forget that wild ride north, desperate for news and praying his family were safe. They were not, of course. His father, step-mother, brother Giles, sisters Joanne and Elaine—they were all dead of the pestilence, struck down like the lowest of thieves and vagabonds. “When I reached here only Martin, Agnes, and eleven others still lived.”
And why those? Why did they survive when worthier souls were lost? Why did my bastard half-brother live when my true brother did not?
“Your priest?”
Sofia’s calm question returned Baldwin to himself.
“Father Stigand took sick and died after ministering to my father. I buried them.”
“And the village church?” Sofia went on, in a cool, relentless, still way that almost made him feel ashamed.
“It is closed and locked.”
If possible, the young woman became even more still. “You deny your people their ship of souls?”
“I could do nothing else. There are chalice and plate that would be stolen otherwise and we have no one to celebrate the mass.” Even now Baldwin could hardly believe it. He was lord of the manor of Brigthorpe and all was ashes in his mouth.
Tonight I must check the fish and game traps I set or I will not eat tomorrow, either.
Beside him, as if echoing his hopeless mood, the feeble smoky flames spluttered and died. Martin howled at once and set up an unearthly wail, making Baldwin want to smack him. He contented his frustration by shaking the boy but the howling continued.
“Give over! Are you a wolf?” he snapped, but a firm grip on his wrist stayed his hand.
“He needs comfort, not censure.” Speaking, Sofia thrust between them, her eyes burning like two dark fires of melting sapphire. She clasped Martin tightly to her body and lifted him into her arms.
“You should be ashamed,” she continued in English, deliberately in English so his snivelling half-brother would understand. “This is why you have restless dead in your house. You deny your own close-kin, and at Christmas-time!”
The fire in the heath blazed up again, tossing shadows into Sofia’s face, turning her features into a beautiful mask. Why has she such noble control? 
“I do not.” Baldwin planted his feet. He refused to be drawn into more speech.
“Martin is your family, your living brother, and it is close to Christmas. A time for family. Charity, too, though since you have locked the church and believe your folk would steal their own holy relics it appears you have much to learn on that as well.”
How dare she speak to me in that manner? And how had she known about Martin? That gossiping head-man must have told her. Baldwin pointed to the double doors leading out of the great hall, only his knightly honor stopping him from tossing the woman out into the snow. “Go to Agnes’s cottage. She will take you in tonight. Tomorrow you can be on your way.”
“No.”
“I am master in my own hall,” huffed Baldwin, his earlier weariness and abiding sorrow scorched away by anger. Who did this female think he was?
“Are you hungry, Martin?” Sofia took as little notice of his rising indignation as a hardened battle warrior and that made him pause, if only slightly. Still, it incensed him when she continued to rock and soothe his puling brother, producing a hard oat-cake from somewhere in her cloak and a flask, both of which she numbly offered to the infant even as she cradled Martin on her right hip, exactly like a peasant woman.
“Who are you?” he burst out, which won him a hard blue stare from Sofia. Martin, guzzling the oat-cake, was too famished to care, although usually his shouting set the boy to weeping. But I should have realized he was hungry. He is so small and thin. “Well?” he demanded, covering his confusion and guilt with a cough.
“I am the one who can help you with your restless dead.” Sofia tilted her sharp chin a little higher. “My mother Yolande—”
“The dark maiden? The exorcist?” Baldwin interrupted, as wonder sparkled through his lungs, allowing him to take a deeper breath than in days. “I have heard of her.”
“Everyone has,” said Sofia, with a sigh. “Though with two grown children she is maid no more.”
Noting her tightened lips Baldwin realized something else. “You wish to gain renown for yourself. Not be fĂȘted because you are her daughter.” It was a small connection between them, for he had also, once, wished to outdo his father.
His eyes met hers in an instant of perfect understanding before Sofia shifted Martin onto her left hip and glowered “My skill in treating and dealing with revenants is not as great as Yolande’s but here, in this hall...” She swept her gaze up to the rafters and minstrels’ gallery and back “...even I can sense the clamor.”
Baldwin felt as if a sword of ice had rammed through his chest. He heard the ghosts every night in his dreams, weeping and moaning in low words, too soft to make out what they were saying. “You hear them, too?”
Sofia shook her head. “My mother Yolande—” there was a small hesitation as she spoke the famous name—“she can smell the restless dead. I neither hear nor see them, not clearly, merely glimpses, like bright shadows on the edge of sight.” Her full mouth quirked. “You look to have a halo round you, and a brighter one glows around this wee man.” She stroked Martin’s wan cheek and the child leaned into the touch.
“Will they hurt him?” The question surprised Baldwin, even as he spoke it. Since when had he been so concerned for Martin? The boy, swaddled in his cloak, smiled at him from Sofia’s arms and the knight smiled back, disarmed.
“I do not think so,” Sofia admitted slowly. “I have seen such haloes before. These spirits are those of your family, your widest family I would guess, beyond blood-kin.”
Baldwin did not understand that last but after his dreams of the past nights he knew something must be attempted. “What should I do to appease them?”
  Sofia gazed at him, a calm assessing look. She stared around the bare, bleak hall, its cobwebs and soot and silence and a gleam of understanding filled her face.
“You must make them all a Christmas,” she said, “A glowing show, a pageant,” and she clapped her hands, as though she were sealing a promise.
“How? I have no servants or serfs left who are hale enough or young enough, the pestilence has claimed the rest, or they have fled.”
“You have yourself,” replied Sofia firmly, “and I will help you.”
“And me!” piped Martin, speaking for the second time that day.
“You always.” Sofia jiggled the child on her hip and the boy smiled and almost laughed while Baldwin felt a coil of jealousy snake about his throat, shut out, as he was, from their easy communion.
Not for long. Lifting her head, the daughter of the famous exorcist turned to him again. “We have a few days,” she announced, a call to arms of sorts.
Less than a week to make ready, to clean and garland the hall and make a feast for the survivors and a Christmas show to please the dead. We will never do it. Yet for all that, faced with the task before them, Baldwin felt the energy of re-newed life, and hope. 
****

“Open the doors and let your people in,” Sofia went on, her voice ringing with a confidence she did not feel. The new lord of Brigthorpe was breaking sticks for the fire, looking as handsome and remote as the effigy on a tomb. With his great height and rangy, heron-like build, his shimmering, shoulder length blond hair, fair skin and pale eyes he seemed as cool as an icicle. Does anything reach him? Yet he smiled at his half-brother. I have to believe he is not yet numbed by grief nor truly indifferent, or the task to comfort the restless dead at Brigthorpe will be impossible.
“A Christmas feast would bring comfort to both the living and the dead,” she added.
Her suggestion broke through the knight’s studied shield of calm and distance. His gray eyes narrowed, his lean features sharpened and his comb of hair quivered like the spines of an angry hedgehog. “One barley loaf, one pea and oat loaf and an end of cheese,” he snapped, reeling off what must be the manor’s stores as he flung the final bundle of twigs onto the rising flames. “Yes, and what fresh fish my river snares will catch, or a rabbit or two if no other have raided my traps. Plus all the well water my people can drink.” He snorted like an angry boar. “Most noble provisions! Most worthy hunting!”
“Sarcasm does not suit you,” Sofia fired back. At times her gift of sensing the restless dead was more a trial than a blessing. Were it not for the flickers of silver and gold coiling about this tall, grumpy knight she would have quit the hall and trudged on, in spite of the snow. “What does it matter if you cannot hunt the deer? Trapping will feed you and yours.”
Sir Baldwin scowled. “Maybe,” he grunted. 
The child, Martin, so far watching their exchange with big eyes, now shifted in her arms. “They took the food,” he said, admitting what his elder relation was too proud to confess. “Men came before my lord Baldwin rode home and they stole and stole.”
Sir Baldwin’s spare and haughty face became as white as church marble, his lips so thin and bloodless she could scarce see them.
Martin meanwhile was waving his thin little hands, reciting in a sing-song chant, “They took the bacon from the hall rafters and the carpets from the walls and the ale from the buttery and the salt server from the high table and the wheat grain...”
“Enough, boy,” snapped the embarrassed knight. “Be silent.”
“And then they ran away to another lord!” concluded the child, too excited to heed Sir Baldwin—and why must Martin call him sir, wondered Sofia, with renewed exasperation. Clearly they were brothers. The same gray eyes, the same long, narrow hands and feet, the same jutting forward of their lower lips before they spoke. Or, in the case of Sir Baldwin, shouted.
“Can you not be quiet?”
“Why?” demanded the child, with an identical pout, before hiding his flushed face behind her flask again.
“Such matters should not be spoken of,” came the pompous reply. “My father was lord here and a good one. He did not deserve to have his things stolen as he lay dying.”
“Are you certain that is how it was?” Sofia asked, when the golden spirit flickers around the stiff-necked knight became darker, changing to a deep red. A warning. There is some past injustice here. Determined to discover more, she held her ground as Sir Baldwin stalked nearer. “And if these were your father’s serfs as you accuse, are there any hereabouts who could tell us?”
Sir Baldwin’s jutting lower lip became a curling lip as he stopped in front of her, close enough for Sofia to catch his rich soap scent, overlaid with horse-leather. Of course his horses are expensive and important so he will care for them, wherever they are. “You seek to make excuses,” he began, but she tapped her foot and surprisingly he fell silent.
“What about your old nurse, Agnes?” Sofia suggested. “Will you ask her and bring her here to the hall for safety?”
Sir Baldwin raised his thick blond eyebrows. “Agnes may know where to recover my property.” He snapped his fingers as if she was a hound to follow. “Let us find out.”
Not exactly the spirit of Christmas-time, Sofia thought, hiding her disappointment. She bundled Martin closer into his borrowed cloak and stepped after the tall, striding figure. These knights were all the same, all ambition and avarice.
Outside the wind had dropped and the fallen snow gleamed, covering the tracks round the lower village in mantles of sparkling white.  The silence should have been peaceful but Sofia disliked the lack of smoke rising from the low cottages, the lack of human voices. Sir Baldwin charged ahead, looking neither left nor right and certainly not checking to ensure she could keep up, even though she was carrying Martin.
Enough. I was surely drawn here to help the restless dead, not slave for an arrogant noble. She halted in the newly churned-up path that the knight had made. “Sir Baldwin, take your brother. He can piggy-back on you.”
“Do not call him that!” In a flurry of snow the knight twisted about with a speed that showed his warrior instincts. The full moon illuminated him, his wide eyes and wild hair, and she realized for the first time how young he was, only a little older than herself.
What else has he learned but fighting? He does not know yet how to be a lord. “Martin, then,” she replied, with deceptive mildness, and whispered to the warm lump in her arms, “Go to him, child. You will ride much higher.”
Martin at once crowed in delight and reached forward, while Sofia silently prayed that Baldwin would indeed take him and not force the little boy to walk, in the icy snow, in his ill-fitting, ragged shoes, because of some foul status custom. She breathed out slowly as, after only an instant, the tall knight gathered up his younger half-brother and lifted him onto his shoulders.
Baldwin patted Martin’s dangling legs, looking about the hunched houses and snow-filled gardens as if seeing them for the first time. “The snow has drifted. It is deeper here,” he said gruffly and held out a hand to her as well. “Come. I will check my fish traps on the way.”
“Perhaps a gift of fish will please your old nurse,” Sofia countered, determined to remind the selfish brute that others now relied on him.
“Mother of Almighty God,” muttered the young knight, but he did not withdraw his reaching hand, merely wriggled his fingers at her. “Sometime before Christmas?”
Sofia laughed and took his hand, strangely comforted by the warm, strong clasp as they moved on, going steadily across the slight slope to the river that bordered the manor house and the village itself.
****
Agnes shivered in her bed as Sofia set a cauldron of water to boil on her fire and Sir Baldwin and Martin jammed rags into gaps in the cottage thatch. The old woman seemed happy to see her former charge and clearly delighted at the gift of a freshly caught trout, wrapped in a dock leaf, although her twinkling brown eyes dimmed when the young lord leaned against her door and asked after his missing bacon and carpets.
“Gone, my dear boy,” she quavered, nodding thanks when Sofia pressed a cup of hot water into her crooked fingers.
“But my father was lord,” protested Sir Baldwin, cutting off what might have been a fearsome rant after his old nurse skewered him with a less than kindly glare.
“Yes, he was,” Agnes said, tying a knot in a frayed piece of blanket to stop it tearing while Martin burrowed beneath it. “As he was during the time of the first pestilence.”
Sofia suspected what had happened, or rather, not happened. “I was a child,” she said quickly, “But I remember there was much anger against the nobles then, for forcing their serfs to toil for the same wages, although there were fewer workers and so harder work.” 
Her comment broke the stare between Agnes and Sir Baldwin as both turned their heads to her.
“My father paid what custom demanded,” Sir Baldwin observed, trying a sneer which did not suit him. “Why should he change anything?”
“Because times had changed?” Sofia asked.
“His serfs should have been loyal!”
“Are knights loyal to a commander who does not share booty fairly?”
“That is different.” The young man colored, a blush Sofia could see even by the fire-light, and she knew her shaft had pierced his knightly certainty.
“Why?” asked Agnes and Martin together.
He suited his blush, Sofia thought, as Baldwin straightened off the door and brushed fretfully at his dripping cloak. “Come with me to the hall,” he told his former nurse, avoiding answering the question. “You will be safer.”
“Is that an order?” Agnes asked shrewdly, unflinching as the young knight grimaced.
“I mean, if it please you,” he muttered, now without meeting her eyes. “The other villagers are also welcome.”
“Perhaps in a day or so, when the snow is less deep,” Agnes replied. She did not mention the ghosts and revenants, perhaps because they were not restless dead who were connected to her but only to Baldwin.
Agnes does not see them, Sofia realized. This lesson of ghosts and Christmas is not for her but for Baldwin, Baldwin who is learning.
Pray God he learns in time.   
****

They left after he had built up Agnes’ fire, gutted and set the trout to roast in the ashes and given her his cloak as extra bedding. The last was a gift inspired by guilt but, seeing his nurse’s thin, worn face glow as if lit from within and her offer of a pail to take the rest of the fish back with them to the manor made Baldwin feel that something good had come from the wretched evening. He had suggested that Sofia remain with Agnes, but the irritating wench simply shook her head.
“You are not my mother, nor father,” she had said glibly, and he had been forced to endure Martin’s sniggers as he hoisted the boy onto his back.
Nearing the stream on the return journey to the manor, Baldwin wondered what the ghosts would whisper in his dreams tonight. A breeze lifted the hair from the collar at the back his neck, reminding him of freezing fingers, and then all his generous thoughts of offering Sofia and Martin his bed-space for the night vanished with the snap of cracked ice and a boot full of freezing water.
Sofia, nimble as a hind in summer, sped up to him and leaned close, the pail she carried bumping against his legs. “We are being followed,” she breathed, placing her fingers to Martin’s lips so the child would not speak. “A man, not a spirit.”
“I know,” Baldwin whispered, wishing she did not. He motioned her in front of him. “Keep going.”
He caught her look of surprise that he should try to shield her from whatever or whoever was trailing them, but was too wary to gloat. Instead he coaxed Martin into clinging against his chest, ignoring the way the brat’s—no, the boy’s—arms half-throttled him.
Baldwin could hear their follower’s soft, quick breaths, the swish of the man’s clothes brushing over snow drifts. Then he caught another sound, a thud, tap, thud, and he knew who it was.
Simon the freed serf, released by my father because he is lame and straggling, with a wooden built up shoe, and slow-witted, besides. Simon the simple. Baldwin remembered the man as a boy, trailing after anyone who smiled at him, as eager for friendship as a puppy. I did not encourage him, so who did? Guessing at once, he glanced down at the shivering little boy attached to his chest and stroked Martin’s back.
“Soon we will be home,” he whispered. “With fish for supper.”
“Cold,” chattered the child.
“I will look out some clothes for you.” He had a set of his own childhood clothes in his pannier, the suit he had worn as a page. Why he had kept them he was not sure, for he was far from sentimental. Certainly Martin needed them more. “When we get home.”
Baldwin kept up his steady rubbing. His bare arms had gone numb long since but he could see the high roof of the manor house, rising above the black smear of the little river in front of them.
“Careful on the stepping stones,” he warned Sofia, and saw the gleam of her teeth as she grinned.
“I was the first time,” she replied and tripped lightly away, holding the pail in her hand as daintily as a fancy handkerchief and swirling through the snow even faster, as if to prove something.
For all her speech of restless dead she is young, like me. “Race you!” he challenged and they set out, in a half-graceful half-clumsy trot for the stream. Behind them he heard the drumming of Simon the simple’s heavy wooden shoe as the ex-serf also accelerated, blundering forward.
Blundering forward too quickly and being unable to stop when they came to the river, blundering into the dark, coiling water and sinking with a yell.
“Here.” Baldwin thrust Martin at Sofia and dived in.
****
The shock of the winter water was like being hit by a charging war-horse. Baldwin went under, his ears buzzing, his chest feeling ripped open as he scrambled wildly to gain his footing. Finding it impossible to see in the surging murk, he flung out his arms, slapping into a thrashing body.
“Noooo!” shrieked Simon, blundering in the water and slipping away from him. Baldwin grabbed again and this time held on, praying strength into his fingers.
“This way!” yelled Sofia, the next time Baldwin surfaced.
“Bubba!” screamed Martin, reverting to infancy in his terror.
“Leggo!” Simon flailed about in the tumbling water and kicked and punched. Baldwin saw green lights in his head as his shoulder exploded into raw, dagger-filled agony, but he tightened his grip and hauled.
As he flopped onto the river-bank, Baldwin felt Simon sliding away. You will have a better chance if you let him go, a cold voice whispered in the depths of his mind, but he braced himself against a stepping stone and held on.
“Got you,” he rasped, spitting out mouthfuls of water as he shoved the fighting Simon onto the bank. The final thrust had him scraping his side along the stone and sinking again but a mass of flame erupted over his scalp as someone grabbed him by the hair.
“Come on, Baldwin!” Sofia gasped, and her encouragement, and even more that dragging hand in his hair, forced him to make one last effort.
He collapsed into the mud and snow, the broken reeds and smeared leaves, rolling onto his back. Sofia was chattering something and Martin was hugging his leg and beside him Simon was blubbering, but they were all alive.
****
He saved him, Sofia thought in wonder as they stumbled back into the manor house. Baldwin had rescued a lame, weak peasant, someone who, according to the knightly codes of honor was of no use and no value. He was sleeping now before the central hearth fire in the great hall, with his little half-brother tucked into one side and the bedraggled ex-serf into the other. Simon the simple, Baldwin had called him.
 Leaving them to slumber, Sofia searched behind the stacked trestle tables for any kind of discarded rags to use as bedding. I wonder if he dreams of the restless dead, she thought, heaping the torn cloaks, less-than-clean scouring cloths and two woollen sheets that had been missed when the manor was picked through, over the three sleepers. I do not think so tonight. Tonight, Baldwin sleeps in peace, alongside those he cares for and protects. 
She watched snatches of spirits, glittering flashes of gold and silver, hovering above the bright blond head like the dazzling wings of angels, and smiled. He is learning to be a lord.
            ****   
Baldwin rubbed at his sore scalp and flinched and ignored his aching rubs and hipbone. He wondered if what he was seeing, stacked just inside the doorway of the great hall was real—although I do not think demons would tempt me with scraps of carpet, two barrels of salted fish, a sack of oats, a pair of bedsheets and my family’s silver salt server, without the salt.
“See what comes to you when you open your doors?”
Sofia’s voice had a gloating tone that he refused to respond to. The returns, possibly inspired by Agnes, were more than he expected but less than he hoped.
“They should return everything. They should never have stolen anything. They are after all, only peasants,” whispered the dry voice of Baldwin’s conscience, a voice which now sounded disconcertingly like his father.
A father who gave you a brother whom neither he nor you wished to acknowledge. Recalling how, only yesterday, he had ranted at the heavens, asking why Martin had been spared and not his true brother, he wanted to curl up on himself like a roll of parchment and hide.
“Be quiet,” Baldwin told the voice and rolled away from the hearth to greet the new day.
“What first?” he asked softly, and Sofia answered, “Food for us and anyone who comes. Christmas is a time of feast and giving.”
He glowered, about to tell the impudent wench that he was talking to himself, when he realized she was scrubbing the trestles. “You are not leaving today?” His heart soared, along with his question.
Sofia wrinkled her nose and he realized, by her more shaded cheeks, that she was blushing. “I thought, not until after Christmas-time.”
His heart was a lark, sky-high in heaven. “Your parents are not expecting you?”
Sofia’s blush deepened. “They do not know I am coming. And with what is afoot at Brigthorpe, I would prefer to ensure the restless dead here are satisfied.” She threw him an uncertain glance. “If it please you? I know I am not my mother, Yolande, in these matters of revenants—”




Amice and the Mercenary.
               
A Medieval Historical Romance Novella and sequel to “Mistress Angel.” It can also be read as a stand-alone story, or as part of a two-story bundle in “To Love A Knight”.

Amice is a mistress of sugar and spices but is she always mistress of her heart?


England in the summer of 1357 is a nervous, triumphant place. The English king holds the King of France hostage—but there are plots afoot to see this French monarch assassinated. Duke Henry begs beautiful Amice, the spice seller, for her help to counter and reveal such plots. Amice is an expert in the secrets of spices and poisons. She agrees to help for her own personal reason—revenge.  

But Amice must work in the glittering, dangerous world of the royal court, snubbed and mocked for her own dark-skinned beauty, until she is rescued by the notorious mercenary, Harry Swynford—charming, charismatic, and lethal.

In the shifting alliances of the court, which side is Harry Swynford on? In this world of poison among the feasts, can Amice stop an assassin in time? Harry has his own games to play, and although she is powerfully attracted to him, Amice is wary. Lives—including her own—are at stake.

Can their happiness last, or will their enemies tear them apart? What price revenge against true love?.


Chapter 1

Summer, Kent, 1357

“I need your help,” Duke Henry said. “I need your help to guard the king of France.”
Amice said nothing. She and the duke sat together at her best friend’s wedding, drinking French wine and watching the other guests dance. Throughout the simple country marriage feast, Duke Henry had spoken of the great golden beauty of the bride Isabella, of the good fortune of Stephen, the bridegroom, and of the mild summer weather—all safe, conventional subjects. His leaning toward her now and speaking of the guardianship of kings was unexpected. She raised her dark eyebrows.
Duke Henry lowered his voice still further. “I need someone with a knowledge of plants, medicines and spices, like yourself, a woman with a knowledge of sugar. The reward for such an undertaking will be generous, very generous.”
Listening, Amice was in no haste to commit herself. To a less powerful man than the duke she might have said, “What is the captured French king to me? Why should I care to watch over him against an assassin?” Instead, she asked, “You fear an attack against this mighty hostage? You fear he might sicken or even die and you will be blamed because he is in your charge?”
“I do,” the duke answered, frowning over his wine. “This is an angry time, a time of war and trouble.”
And knights and nobles live for such times. Again, Amice remained silent.
After a sigh, the duke continued. “There are many who might wish to strike against my royal captive. Perhaps an angry Englishman, who believes all Frenchmen are the spawn of the devil.”
“Or Charles of Navarre,” Amice remarked. “He does not lack ambition.”
“True, ‘tis true,” the duke grunted. “It may even be one of the French King’s subjects, one who does not wish to pay his ransom.”
“And you believe I can help. Why? I am no warrior.”
“But you know poisons,” the duke countered.
“As do your food tasters,” Amice answered. “Or you could have the king drink from a cup made from the horn of a unicorn to neutralize the poison.”
“I will do both,” Duke Henry agreed. “But I need still more.”
“I do not blend in,” Amice said, interested to see how Duke Henry responded to that truth. Her parents had been Londoners like herself, but her grandparents were African. She was as dark as Saint Maurice. Even at home, people stared at her in the street.
“That is all to the good,” the duke said quickly. “Tall and handsome, striking as you are, you will attract notice.” He smiled, a look of surprising sweetness. “They will see your beauty and naught else. You will be stationed close to the serving tables, if it please you.”
“To watch for a poisoner? That will be a large undertaking.”
Duke Henry sighed. “I know it will be difficult, Amice, but if you are willing to pretend to work there, you would be another pair of eyes. You have expertise my servants do not have. King Jean—King John in the English way—has a particular liking for almond dragees and anise in confit at the end of every meal.”
Sweets, spiced and difficult to create. Their taste would mask much, including poison. “I can make those.” And watch perhaps as other sweets are made.
“Stephen told me that was likely. That you are a superb cook of sweets. Is it true that your mother trained in Italy and learned all the secrets of sugar?”
“She lived there for a time, yes.” Amice replied. Isabella has been bragging on my behalf to Stephen. And what else has Isabella’s new husband told the duke? “Does the French king not have his own people watching him? His own food-tasters?”
“Of course. King John has many tasters. But still it would be embarrassing if they detected poison, especially in a dish or a confit made solely for the king.”
“I see.” How strange. This king is his captive yet the duke still wishes to be regarded as a perfect host.
Duke Henry glanced away to the dancers again. “I trust my own tasters, of course, but not all of them have your skill and knowledge, especially with spices and sugar.”
Very prettily put, but Amice realized then that the duke did not entirely trust all those within his household. She decided to be blunt. “I will not work in the main kitchen.”
Duke Henry flushed to the roots of his fair hair and looked horrified at the idea. “A young woman such as yourself amidst those raging fires and sweating, half-naked scullions? Indeed, I would not ask that of you. No women work in my kitchens. Women do not work in kitchens. You will be in the still room, with my wife Isabel and her ladies.”
Amice wondered why he felt it needful to stress this. In great houses, castles and palaces, the cooks were all men. If I venture anywhere where food is prepared I shall stand out. But then I do already. “Your wife agrees to this?”
Now Duke Henry looked surprised. “Of course.”
“Shall I wear your livery?”
Duke Henry shook his head. “You are elegant enough already.”
Amice inclined her head at the compliment, glad to hide her eyes as she thought furiously. If I agree to this and I am mostly in the still room , does it mean he suspects a woman? Has there already been trouble? “And for other kinds of assassins?” she prompted.
“King John has Sir Gilles in his household, a most capable warrior, and Harry Swynford, Gilles’s captain.” Duke Henry sniffed. “Swynford is your true mercenary. He is English, but he fights for any side that pays him. Sir Gilles rates him highly.”
Amice was glad that her coloring did not betray her feelings, although she felt as if an arrow had pierced her. “Sir Gilles of Picardy?” She spoke with seeming unconcern. “I had heard he was dead, cut down in a skirmish in Normandy.” Her beloved older brother Nigel had told her this on his death-bed and she had believed him. Why should I not, when Sir Gilles was the one who gave Nigel his death-blow?
But now Duke Henry shook his head. “Sir Gilles is very much alive.”
“What kind of man is he? Tall, dark, fair?”
“The report is that he is a good man to have your back in a fight….” came back the frustrating answer.
“Truly?” I know that to be wrong, thought Amice grimly, recalling what her brother had said.
“….The fellow has a massive bushy beard, very black. Once seen, never forgotten. Do you know him?”
“Not at all,” Amice replied at once. “The man is a stranger to me.” And beards, however big and bushy can be shaved off, so I still have no real notion of what Sir Gilles looks like. That however, could wait for the moment. “When do you wish me to start?”
“Soon,” Duke Henry said, with another heavy sigh. “As soon as you can.”
“I will see my Isabella and her Stephen on their honeymoon, and then I will come,” Amice promised, her heart beating furiously. Nigel had been so certain that the Frenchman had not survived, that he had seen the man cut down. To cross the path of this Sir Gilles now, she would close up her London spice shop and live at the duke’s palace of the Savoy for as long as it took. This English mercenary, this Harry Swynford, he will not stop me in my quest. For all he has done, Sir Gilles deserves to die. He will do so at my hand. The French king I will watch, too, but only for the chance of revenging myself on that French knight. Let my golden Isabella be settled and happy and then I shall begin.

****

Amice ignored her aching back and continued her sixth day of work in the still room at the Savoy palace. So far, despite Duke Henry’s earlier assurances, she had not been placed by the serving table in the great hall to watch for anyone tampering with the dishes for King John. Indeed, she had scarcely left this chamber. The still room  was pleasant, south-facing, with many windows and a perfect array of dishes, glasses, store cupboards and more, but it was a world of women. The duchess Isabel and her ladies spent many hours here and Isabel seemed determined that Amice should not venture anywhere else in the palace apart from the gardens.
“You have such a deep understanding of sugar, my dear,” the duchess had remarked to her soon after a palace squire had presented Amice to her. “Your almond dragees are sought after by all my court.”
Amice suppressed a grimace. Daily she made the sweets, daily the duchess sent them into the great hall and daily no word or progress came back to her concerning the king of France. She knew he ate her almonds because Isabel told her, but as for seeing him or watching any of those working within the hall or serving at the high table, the duchess always responded with a sharp shake of her fair head. It would simply not do.
Because I am black or because I am not noble? Either way, Amice remained in the still room. The duchess even had a bed made up for her there every night, “So you may observe the cordials and ensure their clarity and beauty.”
Does Isabel order this because she does not want me in her other chambers or because she fears that someone will poison the medicines and syrups if no one remains? But why me? Why not a maid?
Amice consoled herself with the reminder that knights often visited the ladies in the still room. Better for my purposes if Sir Gilles comes to me, once I am certain who he is. Distinctive as she was, there might have been a chance that, had she sought him out, the knight would have remembered her brother Nigel, the man he had killed. Being someone who made sweets, who seemed mild and quiet, was a perfect disguise.
As for Duke Henry’s wishes, well, he would have to make them known to his wife. If he wanted Amice to watch the servers out in the great hall he must speak to his duchess. Does he even know I am here? Surely he must, yet what do I know of the workings of these palaces? I will wait another day and then seek him out.
Amice checked on her boiling water, honey comb and the residues of the hive. She was making mead, boiling all in a crock and preparing to add rosemary, cloves and ginger to flavor the drink. She did so, covered the crock and set it aside, ready for the yeasts to grow and change the water and honey into mead.
The duchess and her ladies had gone out into the gardens, leavingher alone in the chamber. When they return the duchess will want me to make wafers, so I should prepare the things I need. These were easy tasks for her, her bed was comfortable and her meals very fine, so why was she discontented?
My friend Isabella says I am impatient and Issa is right. But it is so hard to know that Sir Gilles is here or close and I cannot reach him, be revenged on him. Perhaps I should pray to my grandfather’s sacred spirits and sweeten my request with some of this honey. Instead she moved to the store cupboard, glancing at the brazier to ensure it still burned steadily. She could use the small oven, but that tended to smoke and she could make more of a show with the brazier.  She set another crock of water over the brazier, so as not to waste the flame or fuel, and lifted a wafer iron from the cupboard.
A loud crash then a stricken cry, followed by “Please, no!” and the unmistakable sounds of a solid fist pounding flesh, propelled Amice out of the chamber. Stepping across a broken wine pitcher by the threshold, she found a cowering maid and a squire. The lad, plump and well-dressed, had clearly been beating the girl for dropping the wine jug but he was deathly still now, one fist frozen against the door, the other hovering free in mid-air, and no wonder. A small, slender woman held a knife to his throat.
Amice recognized the squire as one of the duke’s by his livery and the woman by her bright golden hair. “Isabella.”
“Well-met, Amice,” said her friend without turning her head. “Stephen rode here today to see the duke and I came with him to see you. I find you blooming and see what else I find.” She pricked her knife against the youth’s bare neck. “A bully.”
Silently, the parchment-pale squire pleaded for his life with his eyes, but the young fool had the sense not to speak. Her spine prickling with danger, Amice held out a hand to the maid. “Come, child.”
The girl whimpered and did not move.
“You know how I hate bullies,” Isabella went on, in a quiet voice tempered by years of anger. “This one has a look of Richard. Do you think he will grow to be a wife-beater, too?”
Isabella’s mention of her dead, unlamented first husband, who had whipped and starved her throughout their ghastly wedlock, had Amice wishing that her friend’s new mate was here. Issa, who had nursed her through a fever that could have been the deadly pestilence, was usually warm-hearted and sweet, but she loathed brutes and men who beat those smaller and weaker than themselves. No wonder, when she was misused for years through her first marriage. “How are Stephen and Matthew, Joanna?” Amice asked through dry lips.
“My husband Stephen—” Isabella’s whole face glittered—“sends his greeting and good wishes to you. Matthew and little Joanna have a new kitten now, called Pepper.”
“A good name.” Amice wondered for how long Isabella would hold the squire at knife-point. As Stephen was an armorer, her knife would be deadly sharp. “You are content?” she asked cautiously, aware, as her friend seemed not to be, of the squire’s skin whitening beneath her blade.
Isabella sighed and lowered her knife-arm. “I am as content as a woman can be. I never suspected marriage could be so amicable, Amice.” A blush swept across her pretty face. “So passionate and rich.”
Her heart pounding as if she had eaten a whole peppercorn, Amice stepped forward and hauled the squire away from the door, out of Isabella’s reach. When her friend let him go, relief swept through her, and a simple happiness. “’Tis wonderful to see you, Issa.” She admitted no less than the truth. “You look wonderful.”
“And you, Amice, and you.”
They embraced and the squire and maid made their escapes, going in different directions. Amice rocked her smaller friend and Isabella rocked her. “You smell of sunshine,” Amice said, envying her friend’s joy even as she was delighted to see it.
Isabella laughed, becoming fully herself again, a young, kindly, gold-haired lass. “I smell of Kent!”
“The loveliest county in England,” came a deep voice behind them, “and right for you, Mistress Angel.”
“Stephen!” Isabella darted back to the head of the stairs to her tall, handsome husband, who gathered her into his arms and whirled her about.
“We must go, sweeting,” he said, kissing her thoroughly before he glanced over his wife’s bright head, a look of mingled apology and regret rising in his piercing sea-green eyes. Releasing his Isabella with a final kiss, he set her down on the landing and gave a small bow. “I am sorry we must take leave of you so swiftly, Amice, but we shall see you again soon, I hope.”
“We shall all meet for a tisane and a long gossip,” Isabella promised, earning a broad grin from her new husband. Wrapped in their bubble of happiness, the golden pair turned together and sped off, clattering like rowdy puppies down the stairs.
“Take care,” Amice called after them, though she doubted any care could touch them. And thank the old gods Issa does not know of my quest. I want her happy and content. After being so long oppressed, she deserves her joy.
Amice waited until they were out of hearing before she cleared her throat. “Show yourself, whoever you are.”
“A comely couple.” A shadow detached itself from a tapestry and came forward, resolving into a man, a tall, well-made man. “Stephen Fletcher has done well for himself. His mistress angel reminds me of my mother, and I have no higher praise than that. With her as an actor, I was glad to watch the earlier scene play out.”
His cool, amused tones had her answering in kind. “A pity, then, if she had spitted the squire.”
Deliberately, almost insolently, the stranger stepped within the range of her arm. “Not, I think, with you so close. How did you know I was there?”
“When Stephen, another warrior, missed you?” she replied, meeting question with question.
The stranger shrugged. “He is deep in love.”
As he leaned closer, Amice brought the wafer iron in her hand up to his broad chest but he never flinched. “I smelled you,” she said in French, the language of the court.
Smiling, the stranger gazed down at her as if she offered him a confit rather than a potential threat. “Ah, another test,” he replied in the same language, with the round, open accents of Southern France, “but I am devastated to learn that I smell.”
“Ginger and pepper! I did not say what of,” Amice retorted, before she stopped herself. This Frenchman should not disconcert me as much as he does. Why did he? Because he was as tall as Issa’s husband and as strapping, or because he was French? Is this Sir Gilles? “How may I help you?” she demanded.
“Is that a more courtly way of saying, why am I here?” he replied, this time in English. His long fingers curled about the wafer iron. “How do I smell, pray?”
It was her turn to shrug. “Who sent you?”
His dark eyes crinkled. “Do I look like a servant?”
“A herald of discord,” Amice said steadily, intrigued to see how he would take that. Here is a warrior garbed in more silks and furs than the duchess, with a silver earring and sharp white teeth. A freebooter? She was glad he had no bushy black beard, before reminding herself again that beards could be shaved off.
His smile became a chuckle. “No more than you, my lady of sugar. May I call you Amice, as your golden friend does?”
Still looking up into his square, clean-shaven face, she unwound his fingers from the iron. “Your name, sir?”
“If I admit I have a headache, will you admit me to your sanctuary?”
Amice crossed herself against the impiety of his calling the still room a holy place. “You do not frown, nor hunch against a headache,” she countered, looking him up and down again. No trouble for me to study him, for he carries himself well and would look good even in rags. I cannot believe this is Sir Gilles, all my instincts run against that. He is too sanguine.  “My cures are not to be used for idle sport. Now, sir, your name?”
He moved to kiss her fingers but she stepped back and so he smoothly changed his action into a bow. “Harry Swynford, at your service, Lady Amice, and you need not trouble yourself for a potion. My headache is gone and your quickness has dispelled it.”
She did not flinch, yet it was a near thing. Gripping the wafer iron so tightly she could feel the metal digging into her palm, Amice fought off a chill of shock and light-headedness. Not Sir Gilles, the very devil himself, but his minion! “You seek another lady?” she asked, recalling her earlier suspicions concerning a possible female spy at the duke’s palace. Had this mercenary come to plot with an ally against Duke Henry and the French king? Perhaps even to speak with a poisoner? What did the duke say, that this man has no loyalty but to those who pay him? Has he come here to make mischief and wickedness? And if he is here, will his loathsome lord be following on?
She dreaded such an encounter but, before she could prepare, another part of her was sighing. Ginger and pepper! Making mischief with such a wholesome, handsome knight as Harry Swynford would be a pleasure….
Almost as if he sensed the chaos of her thoughts, a flicker of some feeling crossed his face before he bowed again. “My lady.”
It was no sort of answer, but she was not finished yet. “Will you take a tisane, Harry Swynford, to keep your headache at bay?” Let him enter and talk to me. He knows Sir Gilles. Through him I may find that knight again, recognize him, and have my revenge.
He considered her through twinkling brown eyes. “You are suddenly all courtesy. You have heard of me?”
She chose to be direct. “The Englishman who fights for France? You are notorious.”
“How notorious?” the irritating warrior persisted.
“Have I not just said? You change sides at a whim—first England, then France.”
“Do I eat babies also? Perhaps I ravish women and roast  my enemies on spits, in which case I am certain you could suggest some goodly spices to go with the meat…. No? You have not heard such things of me? Then perhaps I am not so notorious?”
Forced to admit to herself that she had heard nothing of real devilry, Amice was tempted to crown him with the wafer iron. “You consider changing sides a nothing?”
Harry Swynford laughed, completely unabashed. He had a merry, open face when he grinned, no scars and a mass of curling black hair— he looked more of a young pagan god than a mercenary, notorious or otherwise. “You cannot wound me with that, lady! I am no more than other men, I vow. I have no lands here in England, so take my fighting skills elsewhere.” He nodded to his empty sword-belt. “I wage war with honor.”
Your lord does not. And you doubtless have knives aplenty tucked into that fitted blue and red tunic of yours. You can probably make war with that silver earring.
“Besides, I am half-French on my mother’s side, much like King Edward.” Without taking his eyes from her he licked his lips. “Which of us is altogether English?”
He pushed on the door to the still room and held it open for her but she was determined to have the last word in this encounter. “You smell of lavender and copper,” she told him, sweeping beneath his outstretched arm into the chamber beyond.



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