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March, 1067 A.D.
Adrien de Ries paced in front of the closed door that led to his liege's Great Hall. He did not like waiting, even for the king, but if William was conferring with his advisors on matters of this new kingdom of England, then Adrien must wait. He was a soldier, not a statesmanthere was naught he could do to aid the discussion or hurry it along.
"'Tis too fine a floor to wear a path through, Prado. Sit or you'll be buying the king a new one."
At the sound of his childhood name, Adrien spun to face his younger brother. Eudo, William's personal steward, usually had the king's ear, but not today. Yet having more of a talent for diplomacy than Adrien, the younger sibling wisely patted the low bench beside him and ignored his brother's foul expression.
Adrien refused the offer of a seat. "Why should the king ask for me? Have I not served him well, here in London as well as in battle?"
Eudo shrugged. "Mayhap he wishes to reward you, brother. The king wants to secure this land. He has won it with bloodshed, but trust me, William wants peace. He might offer you a share of that peace in the form of lands or titles."
"I need only to serve as a soldier. William understands such. He's a warrior"
Beyond the heavy door, they heard a woman's muted cry, not one of fear, but something akin to mockery. Immediately, the king's voice boomed, harsh and angry. Adrien glanced at his brother, who shrugged again.
"Is that a woman in there?" Adrien demanded, pointing to the door.
"Aye, but have no fear, Prado, she'll not be harmed."
Disgruntled, Adrien turned from his youngest sibling. Eudes, or Eudo as he preferred to be called, was not the guileless simpleton he was pretending to be. He'd deflected the king's murderous punch once, holding the royal fist at bay and whispering in the royal ear long enough and well enough to save a man's life and secure the post of steward for himself. And in that post, he was always certain to know everything occurring at court. Aye, Eudo would know who was receiving the king's fury but obviously cared little for it.
The doors flew open and Adrien turned. Aubrey de Veres, one of the king's most trusted advisors, motioned for Adrien to enter.
With a wary eye, he stepped forward to peer beyond the threshold. Within the richly decorated inner chamber, William sat in a large, comfortable chair, his embroidered sur-coat draped over one side. His meaty fists gripped the ends of the chair's arms. A dark expression burned on his face.
To Adrien's right stood a young woman, face flaming, eyes burning a hole in the carpet below the king's dais. Weak, winter light from the high windows washed her light-colored cyrtel in a pale gold. Her cloak was thrown back and he was surprised to see she had allowed her pale yellow wimple to fall away from her braided hair.
Thanks to fashion and good Norman propriety, Adrien rarely saw women's hair and found himself staring hard at her golden locks. All of his family had dark brown hair, the color of walnuts after they'd been hit by frost. This woman's blond tresses were truly her crowning glory. Several other men in the room stared also, yet she appeared to ignore her hair's beauty and its effect on those around her.
"Adrien, my faithful servant," William barked after allowing him to bow his respect at the open doorway. "Enter. You, too, Eudo. I want you both."
Cautiously, Adrien stepped closer. William chuckled. "You have served me well, Adrien."
"I've tried, my liege."
"True. Especially at Hastings." William waved Eudo closer. "Eudo, my steward, come to my side."
Adrien watched his younger brother move to stand at William's left, as was his place. Adrien noticed that his brother shot the woman in front of the king a curious, furtive look with more than idle interest in his eyes.
Immediately, Adrien's suspicion swelled. His younger brother did know the reason for this audience. He was sure of it.
"England is a good land, Adrien. Don't you agree?"
"'Tis pleasant here, sire." But 'twould be more pleasant to leave the place behind. Since Hastings, Adrien had spent the winter in London, continuing his service in Westminster out of loyalty to the king, but little affection had blossomed in his heart for the conquered land. He had no desire to enjoy the green countryside and certainly not another raw winter like they'd just endured. His life was to protect the king. Rumor had it that William planned to return to Normandy, and Adrien hoped that he'd be chosen to accompany him and leave this land for good.
"And whilst England is pleasant to look upon, there is little peace," William continued.
Adrien straightened. "Nay, sire." Surely the king did not ask him here for idle talk? As everyone knew, there was little peace indeed, except in London, where the troops forced it upon the locals.
"The land is rife with those foolish enough to oppose me."
Beside him, Adrien watched the young woman stiffen. From the corner of his eye, he saw her shoulders pull back, her chin jut out. The torch above the king glowed upon her flushed cheeks.
"Peace will be had, Adrien," William carried on with a fast glance to her. "But I would prefer it not by further bloodshed. I've proved my right to the crown and will subdue this lawless land through direct measures with every lord and lady. I will raze the holdings of those who oppose me and leave the land of those who don't. But to kill everyone would be a fruitless endeavor."
Adrien silently agreed. Though a soldier and loyal to the king, Adrien knew their Lord and Savior wanted peace in all lands. Respecting the lands of those willing to pledge loyalty to the king would do much to smooth the path to peace. Saxons who would battle against pillagers might give way to a king who honored their holdings.
For himself, Adrien had no taste for pillage. The spoils of war belonged to the king, and the men under Adrien's command knew they'd have to face him first if they decided to steal from the conquered.
William was a God-fearing man, but feared only God, many whispered. "So, I must secure my hold with my most loyal subjects in strategic places," William continued, "with soldiers to keep the peace."
Adrien beamed. He would go wherever his liege sent him, but William wanted him out on the front lines. Aye. 'Twas far better than the fate Eudo would probably receive. Many men were being ordered to marry Saxon noblewomen, whereas he, Adrien noted to himself, would be sent to where soldiers, not husbands, were needed.
Thanks be that that was not his fate. Nay, marriage made no sense to Adrien. The Good Lord had given him a fighting heart, not a family one and he did not mourn its absence. All a family heart was good for was to create loyal followers. A man should not be required to marry himself to some fool woman whose emotions were as scattered as the old king's army when Harold had died
William waved to him. "Come closer. I have a gift for you."
Beside Adrien, the young woman's head shot up, her shocked expression bouncing off the well-pleased king to hit Adrien. When he locked gazes with her, she tore her sky blue eyes free to look to the distant end of the Great Hall. Yet even with her face averted, he could see that fury billowed from her like smoke from a soggy campfire.
What did this mean? Was this woman some captured rebel? Many a widow or daughter of a dead soldier kept up the fool fight against William, and Adrien had heard they lost their lands and more as punishment.
"You are a loyal soldier, Adrien."
He tore his attention away from the furious beauty. "Thank you, sire."
A smug look grew on the king's fleshy face. "My reward to you, then." He held out his arm toward the woman.
"Are you giving me her lands?" He was a soldier, not some guardian to lord over her property because she refused to hand it over to her rightful king. What was he to do with it? He was no farmer.
The king laughed heartily, as did Eudo. Adrien shot a filthy look toward his brother. But the younger sibling grinned back with cheek.
"More than land, Adrien. Baron Adrien," the king offered, his voice booming as his arm slashed across the cool air of the hall. To his left, one of the torches flickered with the breeze. "I'm giving her to you. Marry her, take her back to her keep and give me strong babes that look like you. All the whilst controlling her lands and servants."
Horror drained Adrien's being of all but shock. "Sire, I have no experience running a town or a keep."
"But you have experience training soldiers. You can start training this woman, for she has defied me more than once in the short time she's stood before me. I will see her, her lands and her men subdued. And you, my loyal servant, are the soldier to see them conquered."
Adrien tossed a glare at the woman, who met it squarely with a glower of her own. With a spine made no doubt of fine steel, the woman warned him of one definite proclamation.
The battle forthcoming would not be an easy victory.
Ediva turned and shut her eyes. All was lost. When a young messenger had delivered the news of Ganute's death, she'd thought nothing could spoil her happiness. The cruelty called a marriage was finally over. The daily insults, the nightly brutality so awful that she battled constantly with the temptation to flee, staying only out of concern for her maids and other innocents. How she praised the day when King Harold gathered his troops and Ganute's duty drove him to fight against the Norman duke!
Ediva had cared little for the royal household. She barely survived her own. It was always a relief when her husband left for Westminster to serve his military duty. And his leaving for war did not take her to the keep's chapel to pray for his safety, despite the chaplain's strong suggestion that it should.
God hadn't listened to her prayers for deliverance during her first year of marriage, and Ediva would certainly not offer them for her husband's safety after that. Mayhap 'twas best, she thought wryly. Any prayers she might have offered in the keep's small chapel would have been for the first arrow of the battle to pierce her husband's vile heart.
How odd that now she'd been practically dragged here and ordered to serve her time, not as a soldier herself, but as a wife to yet another one. This one chosen for her by the new king himself.
This new king had terrified her the moment she'd first laid eyes on him. Big and strong, he looked like he could break her like a twig. Then he'd spouted off something about God expecting each woman to serve Him as a good wife and, despite her fear, she'd laughed in his face.
And incited his anger.
He then revealed his ultimatum.
Marry or lose your lands.
Never! she'd wanted to cry. Never did she want to marry again, and yet never would she give up the lands that were legally hers. With no issue from her marriage, thankfully, and no male heirs in either family, Ediva considered it her right to keep Dunmow. A fair trade for the cruel marriage she'd endured. But the king had ignored her protests.
Still, she shot a furtive look to the man beside her.
He was as tall as, if not taller than, the king. And whilst William had a paunch from too much fine food, this man was thick-shouldered and slim-waisted, his tunic a dark brown, with only the most basic embroidery at the neck and of good enough quality to hang well on his torso. His hose was wrapped so tightly with fresh thongs, she could see warrior-hewn muscles defining strong legs.
His thick leather belt kept his outer tunic snug to his torso, and Ediva knew enough that the empty scabbard indicated respect for his king. Somewhere beyond this chamber, his weapon waited for him.
The man, whose name appeared to be Adrien, was handsome enough to gaze upon. But Ediva was not a simple maid. She was nearly twenty years along, and had been married for the last five. She had learned early that a finely chiseled face meant nothing. Ganute had one when they'd first been wed. 'Twas the heart that defined a man, and none she'd met yet had a good one.
"Adrien, my chaplain is waiting," the king snapped.
Adrien looked at her, his gaze drilling into her so fiercely she felt it press against her cheek. "Sire," he said, moving to face his king. "I don't even know this woman's name. Where is her keep? Is she a maid or widow?"
William dismissed the questions with a wave. "She is Ediva Dunmow, widow of one of Harold's unfortunate knights. You'll learn the rest on your journey to her keep. Women can talk a hound off its quarry." He flicked his hand at his steward. "Eudo, go witness your brother's nuptials."
That was it? Ediva fumed. She had no say? This foreign king was just dismissing her without discussion, without giving her a chance to make a different offer? If the king required a pledge from her that she would ensure the loyalty of her people toward the new reign, then she would willingly comply. Or was it restitution he required, after her husband's allegiance to his enemy? She'd heard of some powerful families purchasing back their forfeited lands.
She had the coinage to do that, but the king had not even offered the choice. How was she to protect her people now?
A firm hand caught her elbow and she looked up to find Adrien, her newly betrothed, prepared to direct her out to their nuptials. His grip was firm but not unkind. He masked all but the calmest expression, a look as bland as milk, with the exception of tightness in his jaw. At the moment, his expression showed no depravity, as she'd seen in Ganute's on their wedding night. But who knew what expression he would show when they were alone and the masks fell away?
Nay! A carefully hooded evil was still evil. Ediva yanked back her arm and marched out as quickly as she could for her body still ached from the horrid ride into London. And with no deference to the king who'd ordered this marriage.
Expecting to be hauled back for her insolence, Ediva found herself stomping from the Great Hall to the sound of William's hearty and satisfied laughter. He cared naught of her impudence. He had her lands.
She skidded to a stop when she spied a military chaplain holding a small prayer book. The nearby soldiers kept one hand on their weapons. She muffled a sarcastic snicker. Were they so afraid of one small woman that they needed weapons? She could scarcely lift a sword, let alone stab it into one of them. She was hardly a danger to them.
But then it hit her, fully, with the force of a terrible storm.
Her freedom was gone. She was facing another marriage, this time to a man as obscure to her as the sun on this late winter's day.
Another example of how God had turned his back on her.