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By Meriel Fuller Mills & Boon
Copyright © 2006 Meriel Fuller
All right reserved.
West Country, AD 1068
God's blood! Eadita's violet eyes widened in shock. From her precarious position astride a forked branch of a bare oak tree, she watched the group of soldiers approaching on horseback, the sound of the hooves deadened by the sticky mud of the cart track. Sweat sprung to her palms as she gripped the dry, nubbled bark to twist round to her brother, Thurstan, lounging indolently on the next branch.
"How can you sit there like that?" she squeaked, his calm manner unnerving her.
"Have a care, sister," he warned in a low voice, "you'll lose your seat swinging round like that."
"Thurstan, we must move, they'll see us easily. Thurstan, please!" The urgency in her voice betrayed her inner panic. 'They're Normans, they will certainly kill us! They're too small a number to be with Uncle Gronwig's party! There's not a Saxon among them."
"We're in no more danger than we've ever been in before. They won't even look up." Thurstan's placid response belied a much deeper hatred of the men who were now advancing on them slowly, a hatred that burned and festered in his breast like a wound. Eadita failed to notice his inner frustration as she studied the outwardly calm lines of his face when he turned toward her, his smooth sable locks ruffled by the harsh winter wind, the lean planes of his face ruddywith cold. My brother! Eadita thought proudly, feeling the familiar rush of sibling love.
"If only we had more men with us. I'd fight every single one of them and kill them slowly for what they did to our father, for what they've done to our country." Thurstan jammed a fist against the bark.
"Now is not the time, Thurstan. Hush now," Eadita reassured him with gentle tones, trying to hold him back when she feared his headstrong nature would lead him into danger. Not that she could talk! Her father would have had her flayed alive if he could have known what she was up to now!
The plodding hoofbeats were gaining clarity, the deadly 'chinking' sound of the Norman chain-mail hauberks and creaking of leather in the saddle flew to her delicate ears on the strengthening wind. Thurstan had taught her to rely on her hearing, sight often not quick enough in the shady dimness of the woods. Behind the skeletal criss-crossing of bare oak and beech branches, the winter sun started to descend from its high point; even at noon, ice-crystals in the wind settled on her skin like miniature pinpoints of freezing fire. Eadita shivered. She did not want to be here. She wanted to be home, in the Great Hall, or her favourite spot in the kitchens by a roaring fire, surrounded by light and sound and laughter. Instead she sat, some three miles from the manor at Thunorslege, dangling her legs from a tree, passing information to her outlaw brother. And if they weren't extremely careful, they were in imminent danger of being attacked by a group of Norman warriors.
"Thurstan, a plan, now!" she whispered hastily. 'There's not a great number and they're obviously carrying coin and jewels...just look at the size of that cart!'His eyes sparkled, but surely he spoke in jest?
"I truly think you've gone mad, or moonstruck, or both; we are only two this afternoon, we had no plans to —"
"You and your plans, sister. I've always told you, surprise is the best form of attack, but maybe you're right, I don't..." The rising wind drowned his last words. But as she continued to look at him, he smiled and waved. Upon the stars! He wanted to strike the Normans! In truth, she had prayed against it, gulping nervously at the size of the men riding out of the trees at the opposite edge of the clearing. She inhaled sharply at the sight of the sweaty warhorses, the bright ribbons flapping on the long spears, the striking reds, blues and golds decorating the oval shields, the dull shine of the hauberks and helmets. Her insides wobbled. Surely Thurstan joked with her, there were at least ten men; yet as she turned to him again, she found he had disappeared. He must be on the ground already, moving into position.
Honed by her brother's steady training over the years, Eadita flexed her muscles and wriggled her legs and toes to get the blood moving after sitting in the tree for over an hour. She set her sights as usual on the leader; a huge man, face shielded by the steel nose piece of the helmet, great arms and legs encased in leather, creased and ridged from use. Her mind flew into panic, then settled. She knew what she had to do.
Baron Varin de Montaigu wrestled to suppress his rising irritation. He'd had no desire to leave his King after the siege at Exeter, but William had insisted, bluntly indicating that this mission was of the utmost importance. His orders had been clear: Lord Varin was to keep a watchful eye on their new Saxon ally, Earl Gronwig, while using his country estate of Thunorslege as a base for the weary battalion of Norman soldiers.
A mission, indeed. Varin threw a cursory glance at the covered ox-cart that lumbered in their wake. It had taken an age to hoist Earl Gronwig in and now he lounged inside, his corpulent body bundled in furs and woollen blankets against the cold. Restless by nature, used to the headlong pace of route marches and intense battle training, Varin balked at their slow, plodding pace. But King William was convinced that Gronwig, despite being a personal adviser to Leofric, the Bishop of Exeter, was not as loyal to the new Norman regime as he pretended. Alongside the Bishop, Earl Gronwig was one of the most high-ranking and powerful Saxons in the West Country; he had access to the hearts and minds of all the lords, earls and thegns in the area. Both Leofric and Gronwig had been instrumental in breaking the eighteen-day siege on the city of Exeter. As part of the agreement negotiated, the Earl had promised to help William gain a foothold in this part of Devonshire, and in return, William had promised him protection.
William had asked Varin, his close friend and finest knight, to stick close to the Earl's side. Gronwig's reluctance to house the Norman battalion at Thunorslege had been palpable; the air thick with tension when William had made the suggestion. Varin would have preferred his battalion to reside near the King, at Bishop Leofric's palace in Exeter, but there had been no room. Thunorslege had been the only option. Reluctantly, Varin had agreed to the timely march to the country; a tense and edgy journey through unfriendly forests and treacherous stinking marshes that threatened to pull their exhausted war-horses down into their miry depths.
Pulling the leather reins sharply to halt his high-spirited steed in the middle of the clearing, his hard thighs clad in fine mesh chain-mail gripping the animal's flanks to steady its gait, Varin addressed his portly charge in French.
"Whither now, my lord?" Most of the Anglo-Saxon nobility spoke his language and Gronwig answered him easily from his comfortable seat.
"Take the right fork, my lord. "Tis not far now." A white hand fluttered feebly from within the curtained interior to bid his escort forward. Mud caked the large wooden cartwheels, a sad reflection on the state of the roads in this part of the country. Why couldn't he ride a horse, like the rest of us! Varin thought. The ox-cart had severely slowed their progress from the city. He could barely see the track at all, the dense growth of the wood making it difficult to pinpoint the direction with accuracy. Hauling abruptly on the reins, he wheeled the horse around to the right, then threw an arm high to beckon his entourage to follow.
Eeeeeeyarrrgh! A bloodcurdling scream rent the air, then another and another. An entire body weight dropped on Varin's back, clamping knees like a limpet tight around his shoulders and pinning his arms to his sides. Icicles of fear slid through his veins as cold steel pressed against the throbbing pulse at his throat, through the neck hole of the chain-mail. Sacré bleu! Under attack from rabid outlaws, having survived the whole siege fighting alongside his King at Exeter. He would not die at the hands of these villainous churls! Raising a gloved hand, he grabbed the arm that held the knife to his throat, but the grip on his shoulders did not lessen and the knife pressed slightly deeper.
"I will spill thy blood, Norman pig," the voice hissed in his ear. "We will have your gold...and your life as well if you don't keep still!" So the outlaw spoke French — an interesting quirk of fate. And the weight on his back was not quite so heavy after all.
"I've no time for this, peasant!" Varin spat out, rearing his whole body up and around, sheer muscled force wrestling the attacker from his back, disarming him in the process and slamming him to the muddy ground from the considerable height of his horse. The churl landed with an almighty thump, howling in despair and pain. Swiftly, Varin dismounted, pulling the short sword from his belt as he prepared to finish off the lowly serf. Granted, he'd had enough of the killing and the fighting, but this was just one more annoyance that stood between him, a hot meal and a warm bed, luxuries that he'd not taken the pleasure of for many months.
His attacker was only a lad; sprawled in the burnished mass of fallen leaves he seemed very small, a woollen hat pulled low over his face, a short cloak swirling on the ground behind him. His tunic and braies were a dull green colour — no doubt a deliberate choice to blend in with the surrounding vegetation. The boy seemed dazed, an unfocused look in his huge violet eyes, eyes that sparkled out from his mud-spattered impish face. Violet eyes! Varin shook himself. He had never been that way inclined and the women that followed the Norman camp were always obliging if the need arose. Varin lifted his sword.
"Stay your hand, mon ami." A warning hand rested on his arm, preventing Varin from making the fatal downward thrust. By his side stood Geraint de Taillebois, his friend and fighting comrade. A lord in his own right, he'd elected to become Varin's steward during the Conquest and had remained a calm and steady companion throughout their days in this heathen country.
"Remember our important Anglo-Saxon charge, Varin,' Geraint continued. "These are his woods; he may want to decide the fate of this outlaw himself."
"Granted." Sheathing his sword reluctantly, Varin turned to the ox-cart where the Earl, as if on cue, pulled back the richly embroidered curtains to view the spectacle. The cart lurched sideways as Gronwig leaned out.
"Good work, Baron," he praised, a sinister smile playing across his florid features. "I'm glad you didn't kill him. I shall have fun torturing him for information about the many attacks in these forests. We must hunt down those responsible. Take the lad prisoner."
Excerpted from Conquest Bride by Meriel Fuller Copyright © 2006 by Meriel Fuller. Excerpted by permission.
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