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Barfleur, FranceAD 1135
Emmeline pulled her thick woollen mantle more closely about her slim frame, shivering, checking that the voluminous hood covered her head adequately. Her mother had clucked her tongue disapprovingly at her daughter's shimmering unbound hair, muttering something about the 'whores of the dockside' as Emmeline left the cottage. But Emmeline had not the time to care for such vanity, although she wished she had found the time to slip on an extra woollen chemise. She had to see whether La Belle Saumur had finally made it across the Channel.
The north-east wind coming in from the sea and up the mouth of the river to where she stood on the wooden revetment whistled under her hem-line and cut into her bones, causing her weak ankle to ache with more persistence than usual. She paid it little heed as she focused on her father's ship. Her ship. La Belle Saumur lay some distance out to sea, beyond the point where the beacon stood marking the entrance to the river channel. Dieu merci! God had decided to spare her after all. A huge sense of relief burst through her: the ship represented her family's livelihood, a means by which to stay free and independent of any master or husband. She just wished her mother saw it that way, rather than trying to force her into a marriage that she neither needed nor wanted.
Squinting her eyes against the weak morning sun that had begun to push through the mist, she watched as two men on board lowered the anchor, testing the rope to make sure that it pulled taut into the waterLa Belle Saumur had obviously just arrived. The big, square canvas sail flapped uselessly in the wind; the crew, having released the fore and aft stays, had not yet managed to roll the bulky sail up to the yard arm. The long hull rode low, indicating the amount of cargo on board, but the three or four lighter ships she had just dispatched from the slipway had now reached the vessel and were starting to unload. The tide was too low at this time of day for the heavily laden ship to enter the mouth of the river. The shipmaster, Captain Lecherche, would have to wait a few good hours before the vessel could be towed in to a safer, more sheltered harbour.
'Mam'selle de Lonnieres, Mam'selle de Lonnieres!' Geoffrey Beaufort, one of the more prosperous merchants of Barfleur, flung his arm up, waving at her from one of the lighter boats. As the vessel crunched up on to the shingle, he jumped out, his sturdy leather boots splashing in the shallows, to run up the planked slipway to greet her.
Emmeline hugged him, her fingers touching the sticky sea-salt of his cloak. 'Praise God that you are safe. For the last few days I have had some horrible reports of the weather in the Channel '
'Never fear, young mistress.' Geoffrey frowned at the exhaustion around the maid's bright green eyes. 'You shouldn't worry so much. You look tired.'
'La Belle Saumur is all we have, all I have,' she replied simply, self-consciously drawing her hood more firmly about her blond head.
'Your shipmaster and his crew are the best and most experienced around.'
She nodded. 'And for that reason I continue to hire them. Only them.' She bit her lip suddenly. 'I was worried, Geoffrey. You are more than a week late back from England.'
The merchant clutched a pudgy hand to his chest. 'And for that you will have to forgive me, Emmeline. I couldn't resist staying on for the market fair at Winchester. Tis only once a year and a shame to miss it. Such excellent quality of cloth to be purchased there! It will sell well here and at a good price, too.' He caught her slight frown. 'Worry not, young lady, I will pay you for the extra time; your shipmaster made sure of it.' He grinned wryly, his cracked lips stretching thin. 'Just look at how much I managed to bring back. And I sold all the wine.' Emmeline glanced down to where the lighter was unloading. It took three men to lift the huge sacks of cloth out of the vessel and into the waiting cart.
'And you broke the wine casks down, Geoffrey. I can see from the weight of the cargo how low the ship rides in the water. They must be in pieces so you could get that much in the hold.'
'I will cover the cost.'
Emmeline nodded readily in agreement. At the moment, she could scarcely afford to cover the cost of putting the wine casks back together again, a complicated job at the best of times and normally the responsibility of the ship's owner.
'Wait, I have something for you, mam'selle.' Geoffrey beamed. 'A message from your sister.'
Emmeline frowned, nibbling at the fullness of her bottom lip as Geoffrey fumbled in a leather bag that hung from his waist belt. It was rare for her elder sister to make any contact with her family in Barfleur, appearing instead to want to sever all ties with her humble past and to build a new life in England with a rich nobleman. The few missives Emmeline had received contained news of great wealth, of vast lands and castles and of the doting concern of her husband Lord Edgar. In the early days, just after Rose had died, Emmeline had felt ashamed at her sister's behaviour, but now, the feeling had dwindled to a dull fleeting sadness.
As Geoffrey handed her the tightly rolled parchment, Emmeline's fingers shook as she untied the red ribbon, unrolling the paper so it flapped in the wind. Securing it as best she could, with one hand at the top, one hand at the bottom to stop the paper curling in on itself, she quickly read the contents. Her heart went cold as she scanned her sister's hastily scrawled words: I live in fear. Please help me. I have made a terrible mistake. Please forgive me.
Emmeline closed her eyes.
Her sister's words danced before her mind's eye: the writing jerky and ill formed, a message seemingly scrawled in haste and desperation, her sister's anguish apparent on the page. It formed a marked contrast to the last time Emmeline had seen Sylvie, dressed in her expensive finery, standing in the doorway of the cottage in Barfleur. She had been defiant then, arrogant and proud, uncaring as to what her family thought of her, uncaring that she had left her baby daughter Rose in their care. She had craved a life of luxury and nobody was going to stand in her way.
'Something's amiss,' Emmeline said slowly, opening her eyes to stare at Geoffrey, distraught.
'Not bad news, I hope?' Geoffrey frowned, studying Emmeline's anxious look.
'She's in some kind of trouble,' Emmeline replied, shakily. 'When did you last see her?'
'I was fortunate to spend a night at Waldeath, as a guest of your sister and her husband, Lord Edgar.'
'How was she? Is she in good health?'
Geoffrey spread his hands wide, unsure of his words. 'She appeared a little jittery, but'
''tis always the way with her.' Emmeline finished for him with a helpful smile, immediately putting him at his ease. Sylvie was well-known for her highly strung, skittish behaviour. 'Thank you for carrying the message, Geoffrey.' She tucked the crackling parchment into the embroidered pouch that hung from her girdle. A vague sense of unease swept her body, her mind already trying to work out how she could reach Sylvie.
'I shouldn't worry too much, Emmeline,' Geoffrey patted her arm. 'Her husband appeared to dote on her.'
'If La Belle Saumur can manage one last crossing before the winter storms set in, then I will visit her in England,' Emmeline said. But Geoffrey didn't hear. His gaze was diverted by a brightly coloured family group moving toward him across the jetty. The high-pitched, gleeful cries of the small children merged with the screeching of the seagulls above them.
'Ah, there is Marie and the children!' Geoffrey beamed in delight as his family emerged from the jumble of warehouses set back from the river's edge. Emmeline's soft mouth lifted at the sight of her friend. Almost the same height as her husband, Marie carried her thin frame gracefully, despite having three small children clinging to her skirts. Beside her, Emmeline was almost half a head shorter, her creamy skin and blond hair contrasting strongly with Marie's ebony locks and darker skin. Emmeline often cursed the more rounded curves of her own figure, despite the constant admiration from her mother. She had found it difficult to do business in the world of men, when all they would do was stare at her body rather than listening to her words. Luckily, most of the merchants who chartered her ship were old friends of her father, using La Belle Saumur out of loyalty with the assurance of a safe crossing and an experienced crew. Younger merchants tended to charter the newer, faster ships that were being built farther along the coast at Caen and Dieppe.
'I swear they have grown in the few weeks that I have been away!' Geoffrey exclaimed, lifting and swinging his children around in turn, to the sound of excited giggles. 'What are you feeding them, madame?' He planted a fond kiss on his wife's cheek. Emmeline felt slightly uncomfortable at the joyous reunion, or was it the faint prickle of regret? She sighed. Despite being unable to draw any similarity between the happy family before her and the bitter memory of her own marriage to Giffard de Lonnieres, she knew that such a wonderful picture would never be part of her life.
Forced into marriage after the death of her father, Anselm, Emmeline had stood by as Giffard inherited her family's shipping business, watched him make mistakes and lose money through bad deals. She'd learned not to challenge him, even though he'd driven the business nearly into the ground. It had been a blessed relief when he had been killed in a hunting accident, and Emmeline, as his widow, had won the right to run the business. She had vowed to make it successful once more, making it her whole life, despite her mother's repeated nagging to make herself more attractive to the opposite sex. She could never tell her mother what Giffard had done to her behind closed doors. The petty humiliations, the constant verbal abuse, the pinches and the sideways kicks, until the day he had pushed her down the stairs. She shookherhead, trying to dispel the memory.
'So, we worried for nothing, eh, petite amie?' Marie drew Emmeline into a hug. 'What the sea puts us through!' Her tone was confident, but Emmeline noticed the way she gripped her husband's tubby fingers.
Geoffrey had turned his attention back to the unloading of the ship. 'I need to get to the warehouse,' he announced. 'Those men are unloading faster than I thought and I need to count the sacks in make sure nothing's damaged.' He caught Emmeline's eye. 'As I'm sure they will not be.' He took in her pale face, her sensitive skin reddened by the cold, whipping wind. 'Why not break your fast with us, Emmeline? I'm sure Marie has something good prepared.' He cast a benevolent smile toward his wife.
Emmeline shook her head. ''Tis kind of you, my friend, but I need to wait for Captain Lecherche; I must pay the crew.'
'But, Emmeline,' Marie protested, 'they will be hours yet; you'll freeze to death on this jetty. Come on, I haven't seen you for ages.' As the shivering air whipped around the hem of her woollen bliaut, chasing underneath the hem-line and up her icy legs, Emmeline was sorely tempted to change her mind.
'Tell the crew where you will be; Captain Lecherche will come and find you when they've finished,' Geoffrey added. Eyes watering against the cold, Emmeline looked toward the warehouses lining the riverfront harbour. Geoffrey's warehouse, the largest and most imposing with vaulted under-arches leading to a ground-floor store, also housed his family's living accommodation, a comfortable abode that was always welcoming.
'I'll come, my friends, just for a few moments.' Emmeline laughed at their persuasiveness. 'But I'll catch you up look, I can see Captain Lecherche on deck. He'll be across in a moment. Let me speak with him, then come to you directly. I promise.'
Long muscular legs braced against the gentle rolling of the ship, Lord Talvas of Boulogne stared impatiently at the small harbour. Coming into Barfleur meant a journey on horseback north to visit his parents in Boulogne, a much more substantial port, which would have been his chosen destination if he had been on board his own ship. Too bad that the sail had ripped from top to bottom on the previous crossing, a lengthy repair that had forced him to seek passage on the next available ship to France before the winter storms prevented him. His intention was to spend Yuletide with his parents and check on his lands in France before returning to his preferred country, England. He didn't like to stay too long in France; the country held too many painful memories for him. Yet Stephen, his sister's husband, on hearing of his proposed journey to Boulogne, had asked Talvas to visit the Empress Maud, to check on the Empress Maud, at her estate in Torigny. The woman was kin to both of them and a well-known troublemaker, being the only daughter of the current king, Henry I. It would not be above a sennight before he could escape this God-forsaken country! Gripping the wooden guard-rail with lean, tanned fingers, Talvas prepared to swing his legs over and climb down into one of the lighter boats.
As the sun rose, the port began to wake up. Some of the fishing boats that had been out since the early hours were starting to return, the heaps of fish in their hulls gleaming slickly. They would unload farther upstream, directly beside the market, bumping and scraping their wooden hulls together as they jostled for the best position to pull up on the beach.
As Emmeline rolled back and forth on her toes in an effort to warm her feet, the massive cross-beam of the one crane at Barfleur began to swing round behind her, lifting the oak wine casks from two hulks that had tied up at the jetty. The barrels were so huge that only three could be fitted lengthways into the little boats. The two men at the one end of the crane grunted with exertion as they pulled down on the rope hanging from the end of the cross-beam to heave the wine cask from the rounded hull. Once the cask was level with the timber jetty where Emmeline stood, the familiar creaking began, the noise of the vertical wooden post pivoting in its stone turning-hole to swing the cask up and into the waiting cart.