Banners of Gold

Banners of Gold

4.3 3
by Pamela Kaufman
     
 

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The enchanting Alix of Wanthwaite returns in a suspenseful and richly textured adventure in which nothing less than the future of England is at stake.
Alix is home at her beloved estate on the Scottish border when King Richard's soldiers march into her castle and demand to take her to the Continent with them. King Richard has been captured while on Crusade, and

Overview

The enchanting Alix of Wanthwaite returns in a suspenseful and richly textured adventure in which nothing less than the future of England is at stake.
Alix is home at her beloved estate on the Scottish border when King Richard's soldiers march into her castle and demand to take her to the Continent with them. King Richard has been captured while on Crusade, and Alix is among the nobles whose lives will be collateral for the king's ransom. But when she's delivered to Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard's mother, she is dumbfounded to learn that the queen has other plans for her.
King Richard needs an heir, Eleanor tells Alix. Repulsed by his queen, a homely religious fanatic, he has told his mother that the only woman he wants is the one he met on Crusade, when she was disguised as a boy. Richard wants Alix to be his mistress and the mother of the next Plantagenet king. Now a beguiling and irrepressible young woman, Alix faces more tribulations—and romance—on this trip to Europe, where affairs of the state and affairs of the heart are intricately intertwined.

About the Author: Pamela Kaufman, Ph.D., is the author of the bestseller Shield of Three Lions, the first Alix of Wanthwaite novel, and The Book of Eleanor, a novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine—both available from Crown Publishers and Three Rivers Press. She lives in Los Angeles.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Home in England from the crusades (Shield of Three Lions, Lady Alix now is stranded and vulnerable at her Wanthwaite domain with husband Enoch off at war. Trouble brews when Bonel, one of the king's protected Jews, recruits Alix as a hostage to Germany where Richard the Lion Hearted is imprisoned. Homosexual King Richard finds himself once again attracted to Alix, the charming hoyden, and decides she must bear his needed heir to the throne. Alix's flight from this unwanted honor takes her to a nunnery that is a hotbed of erotic piety, then to a refuge with kindly, eccentric Sister Tiberga, who is both whore and healer. Richard's fanatic Spanish queen, Berengaria, persecutes Alix, but ultimately our heroine engages in a sporting interlude of courtly love with Richard before she discovers the perfidy of the Plantagenets. Details abound concerning the treatment of Jews, whose plight Alix seeks to alleviate. All told, this is another frothy, zany and irreverent medieval escapade that will delight readers who enjoyed Lady Alix's earlier misadventures. (October 24

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780517561331
Publisher:
Random House Value Publishing, Incorporated
Publication date:
12/08/1987
Edition description:
1st ed
Pages:
436

Read an Excerpt

1
A bitter shaft blew from the firth. Cold as a bone, it whipped the last of the leaves off the wands, turned turnips in the field a bright blue, keened around our castle towers while inside we labored frantically to hang hides across arrow-slits. I was dragging a ladder to my second window when I heard a familiar scratching.

"Dingwall?" I called suspiciously. "Where are you, Dingwall?"

My hound pup's rump wiggled from under my bedmat.

"If you take . . ."

He faced me with a vellum in his jaws, tail thumping the rushes in anticipation.

"Give that to me, you wallydrag!"

He darted out the door as Gruoth lumbered in.

"Catch him, Gruoth! He's got Enoch's letter!"

She stood back as I flew past her. Through the courtyard and gate, across the moatbridge, down the steep spinney where I fell on rime-coated grass. I would kill that no-good brute, slice him small and put him in a saucepan. Wind howled, branches splintered and shot past like arrows, but I picked myself up and plunged after Dingwall where his tail disappeared in the brush. I found him crouched by the Wanthwaite River, the vellum spread under his splayed paws as he licked it with slow savor. He was too cowardly to swim, but he would dash up and down the banks for a week if I chased him.

Feigning indifference, I swung on a low branch, then hoisted my heavy cowhide boots over my head and let go with my hands, dangling upside down so my hair brushed the ground; Dingwall couldn't resist my hair. From this view, the sky was an alarming chaos of flying gray cushions; the earth thumped and shook, as if its heart beat inpanic.

"Come, Dingwall," I called sweetly.

He growled, let flee a series of excited yips.

Puzzled, I turned my head and gazed into the pup's spiked tail, and beyond the tail to a horse's leg, and up the leg to a black boot in a gilded stirrup.

I put my hands flat and wheeled to an upright position.

A stranger looked down on me from an enormous chestnut destrier. Behind him stretched a line of soldiers and packed mules. Benedicite, how had they stolen so stilly through the wood? Then I recalled the beat I'd heard--horses' hooves.

The stranger pricked the vellum with his broadsword and held it forth. "Is this what you want?" As if he were offering the letter to a monkey.

"Aye. Thank you."

"Perhaps you can help me, lass. I seek Lady Alix of Wanthwaite, and the villagers in Dunsmere told me that this was the path. Are you one of her villeins?"

I hesitated. He was elegant as a black swan, swathed in dark furs over fine black wool and scarlet sendal, wore a crushed red hat on black crulled hair, but I didn't like the army behind him. Why would they travel to our remote Northumbrian estate with swords and heavy crates?

"Who seeks the lady?"

His lips tightened in irritation. "Bonel of Rouen, the king's man."

I studied him for insignia. "What king? William of Scotland?" Though he spoke with a Norman accent, not a brogue.

"King Richard of England!" he snapped, then pulled his reins as if to pass me.

King Richard.

Fighting a rush of fear, I leaped into the center of the path, fixed myself firmly.

His horse shied. "What are you doing? Be careful!"

By now I'd counted sixteen soldiers. "All the way from London, sir?"

"Yes." Snow began to fall in flakes big as rabbit tails, and I could hardly see him, but his voice threatened. "Please step aside before you get hurt."

I could think of no further delay. "I'll lead you, sir."

Abruptly I scooped Dingwall into my arms and scrambled up the slippery path half on my knees, the stranger following close at my heels while his men struggled with the laden mules. Before us, Wanthwaite's louring black walls and square towers pulsed in and out of vision behind whirling rings of snow.

When we reached the courtyard, I shouted over my shoulder, "Wait here, sir, and someone will come for your horses."

I dashed ahead into the great hall, where Dugan was climbing down a ladder from the highest arrow-slit.

"Dugan, armed men! From King Richard!"

He jumped heavily before me. "Keep your wits. Do ye ken their purpose?"

"Maybe from the king's Exchequer," I replied. "They have heavy crates."

"They canna dig silver from our ears, Alix," Donald assured me. "I'll tell him sae. Let summun elsit pay fer the Crusade."

"How many are they, Milady?" Dame Margery asked.

Before I could answer, the door blasted open behind us and Bonel swept in, a black mountain of a man in his swirling furs.

"For Goddes' sake, spare us!" Gruoth screamed.

All of us stared, stunned. In the wood, half of Bonel's face had been concealed. Now I saw that the right side was blighted by a webby scar centering on his eye, a huge magnified blue orb like polished ice with the eye painted on the underside. Then the door slammed behind him, and we were in semidarkness--the only illumination coming from the fire--and he was an incorporeal voice, dripping with honey and faint menace.

"I'm Bonel of Rouen," he announced, unperturbed by our reaction. "I represent King Richard on business with Lady Alix of Wanthwaite."

All of us drew slightly closer to one another.

"I'm Lady Alix." I tried to match his dignity, though my own voice bleated. He stared at me, transfixed, as if my face were as astonishing as his.

He recovered quickly. "I should have known at once, except that you're so . . . young."

So besmottered, he meant, so poor I took you for a villein.

"I'm sixteen." Let him think as he liked. I was proud of my tattered bliaut, bearskin vest, sheepskin cope, short plaid kilt with straw and feathers in the woof, bare raw knees, muck-covered boots--proud to look like the good Scot that I was, by marriage anyway. "Do you have proof that you represent King Richard?"

Bemused, he reached into his drafsack. "I carry the royal seal."

My heart squeezed as I held the heavy metal plaque in my muddy palm, pretended to weigh and study it. The seal gave Bonel an ominous authority far beyond his eye or voice, for few men carry the king's seal. Dugan leaned over my shoulder and muttered that it looked genuine, which it did. Richard rode with upraised sword on its polished surface, like himself yet different from when I'd last seen him in Acre.

I almost dropped the odious object as I returned it. "For the king's sake, welcome to Wanthwaite. Please let me take your cloak, and then join us by the fire."

Dame Margery dragged two faldstools close to the hearth while Donald crept quietly halfway up the stair and Dugan signaled to the women to draw close.

I caught the heavy furs as Bonel released two gold broaches. His crimson tunic had high, puffed sleeves with tight forearms; belted with jewel-studded leather, it flared just below his knees where it met fur-lined boots. Around his neck hung a gold Byzantine cross big as a horseshoe and encrusted with rubies. With his splendid dress, magnificent jewels, and viewed only on his good side, he was an impressive man. Yet, even discounting his uncanny eye, he was strange, a perplexing choice as royal officer; he might be a sultan from the east, or a Venetian, for he had the exotic and sinister aura of the orient.

"Thank you." Bonel appraised my face again, almost with wonder, then noted the positions of the Scots.

I unfastened my sheepskin to put with his cloak.

"You wear the Crusader's cross!" he remarked, pointing to my old Plantagenet bliaut. This time his shock was plain to see.

I tried to cover the stained emblem with my hands.

"It's not . . ."

Gruoth blabbed proudly, "Alix were on the Crusade wi' King Richard."

"But women weren't permitted on Richard's Crusade."

I shot Gruoth a warning look. "The fact is . . ."

"She went dressed as a boy," Gruoth boasted.

Benedicite. My face heated, I stared at Bonel's narrow boots.

"Quhat's wrong wi' yer eye?" Gruoth clattered on.

"Gruoth!" I jerked her braid. "Apologize to Bonel."

Our guest waved a bejeweled hand. "That's not necessary, Lady Alix. Everyone wants to know." He bent over Gruoth and lowered his voice. "I received my blue eye under peculiar circumstances, young lady. One stormy night four years ago I was struck by a thunderbolt which changed my life. I fell into a swoon, and when I recovered, I was marked by my scar and my eye. Ever since, I've had special vision; I can see directly into men's minds and hearts--especially into the evil that lurks therein." He straightened, touched his cross significantly.

Gruoth was entranced. "Did it cum from the Devil? Be it the Evil Eye?"

"No, God revealed Himself to me with His mighty bolt; I call this my Christian Eye."

"A miracle forsooth," I commented skeptically, not appreciating his gulling poor Gruoth. "If it please you, I would like to introduce my household, Bonel."

As I was presenting Dugan, Donald, Thorketil and Archie, Gruoth, Matilda, and my old nurse, Dame Margery, Bonel's men entered and quietly lined themselves against the walls. The Scots squinted at them suspiciously.

"Tell yer men to put doon their swords," Dugan ordered brusquely.

"They're always armed--a caution against thieves along the road."

"There be no robbers in Wanthwaite."

But the swords remained unsheathed, and the atmosphere chilled. The Scots turned slowly to count the wights; then Dugan threw me a subtle signal.

As I walked to a faldstool, my household moved as well, each person placing himself to oppose Bonel's soldiers if need be; Donald managed to slip up to the balcony. When Bonel sat on the stool opposite me, three mercenaries gathered close behind him, their faces pinched and surly, their hair plastered like tree fern on low foreheads.

Bonel bent forward like a conspirator, enclosed my hands with his bejeweled fingers.

"Lady Alix, I've come to take you to London."

THE WORDS exploded.

"London?" I echoed faintly. "That's a woodly jape, sir."

"No jape at all. Surely you've heard that two hundred hostages are being sent to the Holy Roman Empire in exchange for King Richard. Your name is on the roster."

I jerked my hands free and my movement permitted the firelight to catch his Christian eye: it glowed like a malevolent jewel.

"I'm sorry we couldn't give you fair warning, but your castle is remote, and we've had little time ourselves to prepare."

"You speak in riddles, sir. I know nothing of hostages or the Holy Roman Empire, and King Richard is leading a Crusade against Saladin in the Holy Land."

"Good God, can you be so ignorant?" Bonel cried. "Everyone in England knows that Richard left Acre almost two years ago, that he disappeared on his homeward journey and was thought to be shipwrecked until he was discovered as a prisoner in Austria!"

His insult brought a mighty roar from my household to the effect that they were not ignorant and that Wanthwaite Castle was in Scotland, not England. I let them rant as I watched Bonel; he was not a lunatick nor a scoundrel nor a sorcerer, but much worse: he was soothly an emissary from the king. I wondered how much he knew.

"That's enough!" I stopped Dugan. "Let the man speak. I want to hear more about these two hundred hostages and the roster."

Bonel's blue eye fastened on me like a spider. "King Richard is being held by Emperor Henry Hohenstaufen of Germany and Duke Leopold of Austria," he resumed, "and they demand a handsome ransom for his release, one hundred and fifty thousand silver marks."

Again the Scots interjected a loud groan of disbelief.

". . . of which England has raised one hundred thousand. For the rest, we are sending two hundred hostages with their English estates as security; many volunteered and the rest were carefully selected."

Selected? The word jarred my fantastick cells. "And I was one of those selected?"

"Yes. I can understand your confusion, since you're so isolated, but we have no time to jangle further. I'll answer questions along the road; now I suggest you begin your preparations."

I didn't move.

"You've made a long, hazardous journey for no purpose, Bonel. I can't possibly be a hostage."

There was no audible sound, but I was aware of the collective sigh of relief behind me. Bonel, the brow over his brown eye raised, gazed at me as if I were an irritating dolt.

"Your name is on the roster, and I was sent most particularly to accompany you to London."

"You can explain that I refused to come--that it's not your fault. Perhaps you can find someone else--someone more important--as you ride to London."

He rose, looked over his shoulder at his men, then stood silhouetted against the fire so that little flames darted around his black form, a Byzantine icon. "You have no choice in the matter, Lady Alix. England has been invaded."

The shocked Scots demanded details. King Richard's younger brother, Prince John, wanted to seize England, and King Philip of France was his ally. John's mercenaries had landed close to Sandwich--they held Windsor Castle.

I went weak with apprehension. "As a woman, I can hardly fight an invasion."

"No one is suggesting that you do so, but Philip and John are trying to pay Richard's ransom themselves. You see why the hostages are vital to our national weal."

"Aye, but . . ."

"There can be no buts."

"There are reasons I can't go, won't go."

"You have no choice. To refuse is tantamount to treason."

"To accept is tantamount to death!" I cried.

"No one will die. The king has sworn to redeem all hostages within seven months of his release."

"With what? If you couldn't raise the money, how can he?"

"He promised . . ."

"And if he doesn't, what then? The hostages are forfeit! Will die!"

"You have a female morbidity, Lady Alix, and don't understand . . ."

"Spare me your flattery," I interrupted angrily, "and let me think. I need to confer with my household."

He shrugged elaborately. "As you like, so long as you're prepared to ride at dawn."

He walked to a shadowy corner followed by his loathsome mercenaries. The Scots huddled close around me.

"I have a plan," I whispered feverishly. "We must say that Enoch's expected at any moment."

Gruoth stretched her stied lids. "But he be wounded, Alix."

"Don't mention his wound," I warned and quickly outlined my scheme. I would insist that I couldn't leave without Enoch and try to persuade Bonel to wait one more day. Meantime, Archie would sneak away to Dunsmere to rouse the villagers. As soon as Bonel left Wanthwaite, with me in his company, the Scots would join the rustics and prepare to fight.

"Aye," Dugan breathed, looking like a mad bull with his horned hat and red eyes. "We'll ambush them by the river quhere the big bend gi'es cover. They'll be too surprised to fight, and too weighted doon wi' silver."

We honed our strategy as well as we could do in our brief time, then called to Bonel.

"I should explain my refusal, Bonel. If you know my name's on the roster, you must know that I'm married to Lord Enoch Angus of Dingle-Boggs. He was called to Edinburgh by King William, but returns at any moment--we thought today, but certainly tomorrow. I must await his pleasure in this matter."

Bonel's smile unnerved me. Did he know I was lying?

"Queen Eleanor will leave London on December tenth, and you will be with her."

"Not December tenth!" Dame Margery shrieked so loudly that we all jumped.

"Be ready tomorrow morning, Lady Alix. You're wasting precious time."

Dugan stepped between us.

"Bonel, ye doona appear to be a fightin' man. The rules say that a husband decides yif his wife be hostage; betimes the husband goes in her stead."

"But Lord Enoch isn't here, so the point is moot."

"He will be here, tomorrow at the latest," I insisted. "If you tell us your route, we may join you. If not, we could ride straight to London. At the very least, he'll want to accompany me."

So rooted in truth was this statement that I almost believed my own lie.

Bonel spoke curtly. "You'll go with me, Lady Alix, and your husband can follow--if he so chooses."

Dugan's short temper snapped. "Ye hear the harp boot nocht the music!" he roared. "Alix canna gae no place wi'outen Enoch. That's my last word."

"I won't go," I confirmed. "My husband is my lord in this matter."

"King Richard is your lawful lord, and you are his vassal," Bonel said impatiently. "In return for your title and lands, you owe him fealty. If you refuse to leave now, then I'll simply reclaim your lands and title forthwith. That's one reason I carry the seal."

"Wanthwaite's mine!" I cried in panic.

"If you go, yes."

"But I can't go! You just heard that my husband won't permit it!"

"Loyalty to the king takes precedence over marriage vows. Do you concede or shall I begin an inventory?"

He waved derisively at my great hall and for a moment I saw it from his view: the chickens and pigeons scratching in one corner, snow falling through a leak in the center, rotting carrion and dog messes besmottering the rushes--for we'd had no time to clean. His scathing glance enraged me as much as his demand.

"Do whatever you like! You can't harvest the beans! Can't carry Wanthwaite away on a mule!"

"I grant that you're easier to transport than your estate, which is the point of being a hostage. However, the king is riding north the moment he's freed. Do you want your household to face his wrath?"

His words struck like mallet blows.

"All he wants is revenge!"

"Revenge?" Bonel was brought short, gazed on me as if I'd tinted my reason. "The King of England wants revenge on a paltry baroness?" He hooted in contempt. "My God, the absurdity--if you think . . ."

The Scots were equally astounded, as none but Dame Margery knew anything of my former relationship with the king. Much as I was appalled by my blunder--especially to Bonel with his smirk-- it was the truth. Certainly Enoch would agree that the king sought revenge . . . no, I couldn't let Richard ride north, couldn't let him fight Enoch. Benedicite, it was the collapse of my plan.

Dame Margery shook my arm. "Alix, I must speak with ye prively. 'Tis most urgent."

"Aye," I said, in a trance. "Bonel, I'm going to my chamber with my old nurse so we may be alone; there's no exit from the room, so you need not worry."

Before he could reply, I took a firebrand and led Dame Margery up the narrow stair.

I FELT I WAS STEPPING INTO THE PAST AS WE ENTERED THE memory-haunted room. There was the bed where I'd been born, where my mother and I had slept together the night before she died, where Enoch and I had first . . .

I held the torch high. A faint alarmed rustle in the eaves revealed that some canny animal or bird had found a home; snow blew across the center from the open window and covered the furs on the bed. I led Margery to a corner protected from the wind where we huddled close, the flame a waning flicker before us. I put my arm around my shivering nurse.

"December tenth, Alix." She clutched my wrist with an icy claw. "Do you take the meaning?"

"It's when Bonel said Queen Eleanor would be leading the hostages from London."

"Aye, and what else?"

She asked with heavy significance, but I couldn't answer.

"December tenth in 1174 my own sister Annie were taken hostage by the Scots, and we never saw her more."

"Aye," I breathed, impressed.

She then repeated a tale I'd heard all through my childhood but had never found so real before, how Scots, painted with woad and berserking like savages had raided Wanthwaite and captured forty prisoners. The hostages, among them Annie, had marched naked through the snow to their deaths.

" 'Tis a warning, Milady, and ye must heed it."

"Aye, it couldn't be coincidence."

I shouldn't have agreed. My doughty nurse, who is tough as a wild boar, waxed to a morbid frenzy, sobbing and groaning in ever louder wails until I became alarmed. I tried to undo the mischief.

"Be brave, Margery. Remember that I was only eleven when I left before and came back safely."

She blew her nose on her barmcloth and gradually gained control.

"I'm sorry, honey-lips. I'll take hold in a moment, but . . ."

I stroked her thin hair.

"But it's different, Alix. Last time ye were forced to flee Wanthwaite for yer life. But why should ye go now? To rot in prison fer that worthless king? Look how he abused ye before. The whole scheme be daft."

"Aye," I agreed forlornly.

"Last time ye had Enoch to protect ye."

I couldn't deny it.

"Fer yer sake--and fer his--I hope ye're together soon."

Wind yowled at the base of the tower, and suddenly I saw my mother at the snow-rimmed window as she'd stood that last night, moaning and praying for my father--both of them dead the next day. Where was Enoch now? How grave was his wound?

"I love him!" I cried vehemently, and my voice echoed like a thin shadow.

"Of course ye do, sweets."

The firebrand went out, leaving only a glowing ash, but we didn't move. I felt the power of her argument, though I needed no omen to strengthen my resolve, but what could I do? My few Scots against sixteen armed mercenaries, the weight of that seal . . . King Richard. Who could have anticipated the long reach of the king's wrath?

At the foot of the tower, the wind growled ominously; higher, over the turrets, it was a haunted shriek. I listened, and a second plan took shape. I clutched Margery's arms and began to whisper rapidly, though there was no one to hear. Bonel's mules and their load of silver had been taken to the stable--and that silver would save me as well as the king. I would go back to the great hall and argue with Bonel. While we talked, Margery would sneak down the steps, out the door and to the stalls. There, with the help of our villeins, she would load the mules and lead them to our labyrinth and thence to the cave by the river. If Bonel wanted to retrieve his treasure, he must agree to leave without me: silver would be our hostage.

Margery pointed out that he might torture me, but I was sure I could withstand any pain he might inflict. He wouldn't dare mutilate or kill me in the king's name--to that extent I trusted Richard--and his insistence on speed indicated that he wouldn't tarry long.

Dugan shouted my name from below.

"Coming!" I answered.

I pulled Margery to her feet, and we embraced in the dark. Whatever the flaws in my scheme, Margery was not one of them. We'd conspired before in our time, and I knew she would get the treasure out of sight--if only all else went well.

I walked alone onto the balcony, looked down on anxious Scottish faces. Bonel didn't even glance upward as I ran lightly down the stair to his side.

"My mind is set, Bonel. I'll not be going as hostage."

A lusty cheer rose around me. Bonel let it die.

"Are you sure?"

I heard the menace, but paid no heed.

"Please give my regrets to the queen. I appreciate the king's danger, but . . ."

"I don't think you do."

Above me the door creaked; Margery had begun to move. Dugan stepped between us. "The lady ha' made up her mind, Bonel, and that be that. Ye're welcome to sleep the nicht, but they'll be namore blether about hostages."

Bonel made a slight gesture with his gold cross, and two mercenaries leaped up the stair and grabbed Margery's arms. A hiss of metal followed and swords gleamed.

"I'm sure you don't want that old woman harmed, Lady Alix."

I was dazed. "Why are you holding her? Tell them to release her at once."

"She's our hostage until you agree to come peaceably as ordered."

"But you said--you said--I was given a choice!"

"Never. You wanted to talk and I let you, but I told you plainly from the beginning that you had no choice. We'll leave at dawn."

"Let them kill me, Alix!" Margery shouted. "I don't care! But ye mustn't go! Remember December . . ."

One of the mercenaries struck her face.

Gruoth burst into sobs.

"Stop them!" I cried. "I'll go! Only tell them to release her."

Bonel called in a foreign tongue and the mercenaries dragged Margery down the stairs. Her eyes were wild with fanatic hate, but her bones rattled with fear when I held her.

"It's all right, Nurse, I'll be all right," I whispered. "I'll be back, I promise."

She drew away. "Mayhap."

I clutched her again, spoke to Bonel over her shoulder. "I need money for myself and two retainers."

His voice was conciliatory. "The king's coffers will provide, and we carry tents for emergencies. However, my orders are to bring you alone--I'll look after you."

I turned away, unable to face his suave duplicity.

FROM THAT POINT ON I DIDN'T SPEAK TO BONEL, though I had Dugan ask when the king was going to be released--the date of my imprisonment--and was told that he would be free in early January. I calculated swiftly: if the king redeemed the hostages in seven months as promised, I would be back in Wanthwaite in August at the earliest. I had no preparation to make for my journey, none for my sojourn in Germany, but I must plan my absence from Wanthwaite.

With Matilda and Dugan, I pored over my records and listed plans for the spring planting, for the rotation of cows in the field to avoid hoof rot, the purchase of more swine. Matilda took notes, for Dugan wanted to go for Enoch at the first thaw.

By daybreak we were weak with weariness and appalled at what hadn't been done, but time had run out. My friends now gathered in predawn murk to present farewell gifts. Dugan gave me a leather band for my arm, Archie his own quiver, Thorketil a horseshoe, Donald another horseshoe, Matilda a bag of herbs against spells and diseases, Gruoth her best squirrel hat.

Dame Margery pulled me outside the great hall and marched us to the kitchen court. There, in the dark crevice of the chimney, she handed me a rag containing a long object within.

It was my father's dagger.

I looked up, startled. "Are you suggesting . . ."

"Ye don't need suggestions, Alix," she reminded me. "Ye killed a man once."

But under different circumstances.

"And ye may do so again. Keep it close."

"Soothly I don't think Bonel will harm me."

"Mayhap not," she replied grimly, "but what about his army? What about the hundreds of ravening wolves along the road?"

Remembering her panic the night before, I tried to comfort her. "I know how to look after myself, dear. After all, I was in much greater danger when I went as a boy. Suppose my disguise had been discovered?"

"Ye miss my meaning. Ye're a walking honey-pot among bears." She put a hand to my lips to stop my protest. "Even that sorcerer slavered at the sight of yer bonny face, like he was bespelled. I've ne'er seen yer match: ye don't walk as other people, but float and bend like a swan; yer hair be yellow as gorse, yer eyes gray as heather, yer lips, pearly teeth and dimples enough to tempt a priest to ragery--even my old blear-eyed Tom can rise fer thee."

"You'll make me vain. Suppose what you say is half-true, remember that I'm a married woman. Any man can see my virtue."

Her eyes bore hotly into mine. "Nay, Milady, ye don't know yerself as I do--as any sharp man will know as well. Ye cry out in the night from hot dreams, betimes stroke yer breasts, lick yer lips and sigh most bewitchingly."

"Stop!" My cheeks burned.

"Enoch lit a mighty fire in yer bedstraw."

"What are you suggesting?" I cried, incensed.

"That ye've been alone too long--that ye're ripe to be plucked."

"Only by Enoch!"

"Enoch be a phantom riding yer sweet mound. Married three months and away near to three years . . ."

"No more," I beseeched, not wanting to part in anger. "Enoch can't help that he's . . ."

"Called to be a soldier? Is wounded? No, 'tis no one's fault, but take care."

Promising that I would, I held her tight, noting how frail her frame had become, how precarious her balance. Seven months--would she last so long?

"I'll not see ye again, sweet lamb," she wept, answering my thought.

I fought tears myself, not wanting that one-eyed mooncalf to know how I suffered. Then we walked swiftly to the courtyard where the line waited, where my horse Thistle was saddled and ready. For the last time, I embraced each of my friends and servants.

"You dally too long, Lady Alix," Bonel scolded. "We have a long ride today."

Dugan helped me mount, put my mule's rein in my hands to pull the beast behind Thistle, and I took my place beside the king's man. I dug my heels. "Hoyt!"

We clopped slowly over the slippery boards of the moatbridge, down the spinney and into the wood. The last thing I heard was Dingwall's unearthly howl of grief.

Copyright 2002 by Pamela Kaufman

Meet the Author

Pamela Kaufman, Ph.D., is the author of the bestseller Shield of Three Lions, the first Alix of Wanthwaite novel, and The Book of Eleanor, a novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine—both available from Crown Publishers and Three Rivers Press. She lives in Los Angeles.

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