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A Knight's Captive
By Lindsay Townsend
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One Northern England, September 1066
"Uncle Marc! Is she not as beautiful as the sun? That is what her name means. She is Sunniva, Sun-Gift. Do you not think she is like the sun?"
"Steady, little one. You will wake your sisters. But yes, you are right. She is most comely."
Ignoring the powerful temptation to look where Alde was pointing, Marc tucked the ends of his big traveling cloak around his excited niece and encouraged the child to lie down again by doing so himself. A swift, anxious glance confirmed that Judith and Isabella were sleeping, sprawled under his cloak, their small faces sunburned with weeks of travel. Isabella was sucking her thumb. The day had been long, the riding hard and tiring. He prayed she would sleep through, free of nightmares.
Just one night, Lord Christ. As a mercy to her, and to her sisters.
"Uncle Marc?" Alde whispered, tugging on her lower lip, the pupil of her left eye sliding toward her small, faintly hooked nose as she fought her body's weariness, "Can I have-" A tiny snore escaped her pouting mouth.
Marc waited a moment, watching his charges. His brother had spoken of the "fierce love" a parent feels for a child: in these past months he had come to understand what Roland meant. He would kill for these three.
Beside him a female peddler, as gnarled as the sticks she carried for sale on her back, snorted and shifted closer to the central fire. Turning carefully so as not to disturb Isabella, Marc lounged on his side, one hand absently rubbing his aching spine as he scanned the company.
Two-and-twenty figures, hunched in various attitudes of slumber, some snoring, most silent, were ranged about the fire, their dun and dust-stained clothes orange in its fading glow. Outside the ruined, roofless square fort-an old Roman castle, according to their escorts-he could hear the night guards walking and talking softly. So far, the pilgrim party he was part of had journeyed in safety, although he slept with his sword close to hand. Even main roadways such as the one they traveled on were haunted by footpads, ever ready to prey upon the unwary or unprotected. There were rumored to be horse thieves hereabouts in these rough lands of the north and worse still, slavers.
He knew of one who would be a great prize to such creatures. Blonde-such fair eyebrows and skin must betoken blonde hair, although he had never seen so much as a strand of it: Sunniva was a modest girl who hid her tresses under a plain russet headsquare. Lithe, with a tumbler's body: that much he could guess from her graceful walk, though her robe hung on her as if made for a larger woman. And her face ... Marc smiled in the semidarkness. Even at a distance, she was more than comely, she was spectacular, a prize-
"Sunniva! Damn you, wench!"
The carping voice broke into Marc's guilty daydream, causing him to stare where he had sworn he would not. Straight across the fire from where he and his three darlings were snuggled into a corner, their backs safe against the fireproof stone walls, a hulking scarecrow of a man sat bolt upright. Cloaks and scraps of precious cloth and even tapestry rolled off him, scattering like chaff as he whirled his beefy arms. "Here, girl, attend me! Look at me, girl! You should not be sleeping!"
"Not when my leg troubles me!" Marc finished for Cena under his breath, clenching both hands into fists as he fought his own temper. Since he and his girls had joined the pilgrim party five days ago he had grown weary of this graybeard's mewling complaints-the Englishman moaned more readily than six-year-old Isabella.
"Is it your knee, Father, or your arm?" his daughter whispered, rising to her knees, her hands outstretched. Her face and form were in shadow, but even so she made a sinuous, lissome shape that instantly made Marc's body stiffen, his heart quickening further at the sound of her warm, soft voice.
"Shall I rub the joints for you? I still have some of the comfrey compress I made-"
"Bring wine," was Cena's graceless interruption, "and do not dally."
He gave her a spiteful shove that had Sunniva rocking on her heels but she did not complain-the wonder was, she never did.
"Of course, Father. Is there anything else you desire?"
"Why are you wearing old clothes? You look like the lowest pot-scourer, not a lady of means!"
"But Father, as you have often told me, I have no means and it is my duty to serve you."
"Aye, and your brothers, remember that!"
"How could I forget, Father?"
"My God, when you smile that way you look as sinful as your mother ... Why that rag of a headrail, girl? Do you mean to shame me? I want you to look good to men; you're no use to me ugly. Your blue headsquare is better."
"It must be washed, Father. Is there anything else?"
"More wine!" Cena's broken teeth were visible as black patches in his mouth as, grimacing, he raised a scarred hand. "Now!"
"I am going." Seemingly unafraid of her father's threat, Sunniva bent close to him. "The dressing on your knee, is it comfortable?"
"No thanks to you. I said you had bound it too tight. And your brother's teeth are aching again."
"I have looked to Edgar's hurt, father, and to his horse's."
"Wine! Where is my wine? Must I tell you again, idle slut?"
"Of course." Sunniva drew back, deftly avoiding Cena's flailing fist. "Wine will lift your spirits and if you are a little 'hazy' mounting your horse tomorrow, I am sure the saints will protect you. St. Cuthbert will surely reach down from heaven to save you from falling on your rump." She raised two elegant, ghostly hands, paler than moonbeams in the guttering firelight, and made the sign of the cross. "I will bring the comfrey, too."
"Get on, chatterer!"
Cena subsided under his mound of makeshift bedding and Marc quickly closed his eyes, in case she noticed him watching. As with many of these father-daughter exchanges he found himself grinning and wondering: she had bested Cena in words yet again, but did that old misery realize she teased him?
I would do much more than teasing, Marc vowed, his mood darkening as he listened to her lightly stepping amidst the sleeping pilgrims toward the baggage heaped in the doorway. Only the girl's own unfailing good humor stopped him intervening: he longed to take on Cena and Cena's three useless sons, who, as usual, slept on through these nightly conflicts.
What did Cena mean, "I want you to look good to men"? Surely such a beauty as Sunniva would be betrothed-
A tiny snuffle close to Marc had him raking his head round swiftly, but Isabella was all right, peaceful and tranquil, still fast asleep. Kneading his wry neck, Marc settled onto his side, his eyes drawn inevitably to the other, golden girl.
I do not spy, he told himself. I look out for Sunniva because her father and brothers do not.
She was at the saddles and packs now, a small shimmer of movement against sooty stones, carefully easing her eldest brother off one of the trunks, gently ruffling his dirty-blond hair to calm his muttering slumber. To his chagrin-he was no longer a gangling youth-Marc found himself blushing, envying the brother her touch. In his own mind, he instantly imagined those slim fingers stroking him-a pleasantly distracting thought. Suddenly, he saw her direct a single, piercing glance to Cena. The fellow was snoring again.
Sunniva acted fast. Her hands burrowing nimbly inside the trunk, she retrieved a wine flask and salve and then she was off.
She was going outside!
Even as Marc marveled at such folly, he was straightening, seizing his sword. Striding over the peddler woman, a scrawny monk and a serving-lad with bare, wind-chapped legs, he reached the other side of the fire before realizing he had misjudged the moment: Sunniva was standing by the threshold, breathing in the sweet night breeze.
She was merely snatching an instant for herself, Marc guessed, feeling foolish at his overreaction. Reluctant to intrude further on her, he turned to go back.
A slight shift in the air was his only guide that anything was amiss. With a warrior's quickness, Marc whirled about, freeing his sword, feinting a stumble, lunging his counterattack. His blade slashed through shadows and there were only the grunting sleepers round his feet. Beyond the hot-iron glow of the banked-down fire was an utter darkness, where any creature, thief or troll, might linger. He squinted into it, looking for anything stirring, listening intently for the rasp of metal, his head full of old Breton stories of deadly night elves, lethal elf-shot and the evil of the devil.
Isabella and the others, were they still asleep? Safe? Was he failing them again?
"God help me!" The whisper burst from his clenched lips and was answered at once by a flash of gold, bright as lightning, and a choked cry.
His purse, its long strings newly sawn through, was fixed to one of the few remaining crossbeams, scarcely two spears' lengths from his own head. Outside there was a rush of fading footsteps, quickly lost in the still night as the thwarted cutpurse ran off the road into cover.
Marc was still staring at what had nailed his purse to the beam. Slowly, as in a dream, he sheathed his sword and freed the long dagger, catching the purse as it fell.
"He will have escaped over what is left of the roof by now," Sunniva observed softly. "I spotted him scrambling in by the same way, just before you sensed him and reacted, but could not warn you in time to be on your guard. Our night watchers missed him, or never expected a thief to come in that way. I am sorry."
"I heard him leaving." Amazed that she was talking to him-to him!-Marc stretched out the arm that was clutching the dagger. As she stepped closer to take it back, he wanted to snatch it away, snatch her away.
Rapidly, he schooled his expression into what he hoped was a polite smile and said, "Thank you. That was ..." He hesitated as a thousand questions flooded through his mind. How had she done that? How had she learned such throwing skill? How had she seen anything? "That was unexpected," he finished lamely.
"I see right well in the dark," she said, taking the knife back most carefully, as if she had guessed part of his thoughts.
"Better than most. Far better than me."
She smiled at him for the first time then, another lightning flash in the darkness of their makeshift sleeping quarters, and he felt a bolt of pleasure strike deep in his loins.
"You need apologize to me for nothing," he grunted, retying his purse to his belt for something to do. She could have ridden over him on a war horse and if she smiled that way he would have been smitten afresh. "Nothing."
She looked troubled, but did not answer.
Marc knew he should say something: about his nieces, perhaps, or the changeable English weather, or the pilgrimage they were both on for their different reasons. What were hers? He almost asked her, but then the moon broke through the gray ramp of clouds and lit her fully.
He almost gasped-it was the first time he had been this close to her and, even as Alde had said, her sheer beauty was unearthly. He had seen no one to compare with her except for the glittering icons of Constantinople, city of wonders. Like an empress in those sacred pictures, Sunniva glowed.
Like the icons, she drew him first with her eyes. Large and bright, they were the color of the Breton seas of his childhood, a brilliant blue-green, flecked with gray. Mermaid's eyes, he thought, glimpsing the pensive dreamer beneath the clear, direct gaze. The skin around them was as flawless as a pearl but briefly, as she blushed and gave him a swift warm smile, he saw her eye corners crinkle and knew how she would look when old: a laughing Madonna, with a long, straight nose, limpid eyes and a bountiful mouth, red and sweet as a pomegranate.
Her lashes were long, slightly darker at the tips-as her hair would be, he guessed. When she smiled-and Sunniva, it seemed, would often smile-she had a slight gap between her front teeth. It made her endearing, more approachable.
So why was he not approaching?
"Are you bound for the shrine of St. Cuthbert?" he asked, an obvious question, but anything more seemed beyond him right now. Like strong sunshine, she mazed his wits. "Have you been traveling long?"
"Ten days. And you, sir?"
"Five by road. We were at sea from London before then." Marc did not elaborate: he was reluctant to draw attention to the fact he was a foreigner. After a year in this country he thought his accent passable. His clothes were English and even his hair, once cropped Norman-fashion, was now almost as long as Cena's.
"Do you go to the shrine for your father?" he asked.
Sunniva nodded, glancing Cena's way. "We hope the saint may cure his knee," she said. "And my brother Edgar's toothache. What is London like?" she added, breaking off as her father loudly belched in his sleep.
Marc wanted to laugh, but quelled the impulse. Another long, deepening silence wound between them, as the rest of the ruined fort rustled with dreaming sleepers and foraging mice. The fire crackled and spat, the night guards outside stamped their feet, stared at the northern hills and blew on their hands, a man with a filthy bandage on his elbow flopped onto his back and ground his teeth but here, now, he and Sunniva were silent.
"Only we two in here are awake," he said at last. "Or this is a dream?" He leaned forward and kissed her lightly on the cheek.
"My thanks to you," he said, and tore himself away, returning to his nieces without looking back.
Chapter Two Next day, Sunniva was eager to see Marc again, but also wary. From her father and brothers she knew men were changeable, keen to chase women, just as they might hunt down a hare, but then losing interest the instant their quarry was captured. Marc might have kissed her on a whim.
She had been kissed before, not willingly. Her face burned with bitter memories as she toiled to load her baggage onto her packhorse-her father always wanted to be first away every morning and she had told her maid to help him instead. Her brothers left her to her struggle and for that she was glad.
Too much she remembered the friends of her brothers, grabbing her in the yard or the kitchen corridor at home, pressing their sweating bodies and greedy, groping hands against her as Ketil and Told, her twin older brothers, guffawed and bragged about poking a peephole in the wattle wall of her tiny bedchamber, the better to spy on her. It was her eldest brother Edgar, dour yet strong, whose relentlessly sour mood was not improved by persistent toothache, who inevitably dragged such youths off her. Inevitably, too, he would scold her for being too forward, for smiling too much, but then Edgar did not care for women.
Forget them, Sunniva told herself, resting her forehead against her packhorse's flank to catch her breath. This pilgrimage was a chance for her, a chance to escape. She had her plans and they involved no men.
And yet ... Sunniva's mouth twisted into a bleak half smile. She longed for children, for a home of her own. She coveted Marc his three little girls. Watched them as often as she could. They seemed happy children during the day, quick and curious as kittens, and Marc was patient with them. She would have liked to make friends with the girls, but that might have alerted her father to Marc.
So far, thankfully, Cena had dismissed his fellow pilgrim. Marc was not showy in his green cloak, mud-stained leggings and green tunic, patched at the elbows. He rode an excellent horse, a glossy chestnut, but had no baggage except a small saddlebag. She knew how her family thought. Cena had assumed Marc was not rich and so he had felt free to ignore him. Marc, too, was big and broad, a bearded, hairy bear of a man, an obvious warrior, and her father, like most bullies, preferred his victims to be smaller and weaker than himself.
Sunniva shivered, fingering her dagger. She had learned to match her actions to her name, to be fiercely cheerful and to smile-smile as her mother Ethelinda had been too fearful to do. Never let them know they hurt you, her mother's voice whimpered in her head, and Sunniva answered aloud, "I never will." As ever, the vow gave her renewed heart. She patted the packhorse and lifted her head, wondering what new people and places she would see today. The day was bright and mild-too clear for thieves, she decided, fixing her eyes forward, toward the north, while part of her remembered, with a swift burst of joy, that Marc's eyes were a rich, deep amber. She spent the first hour of traveling daydreaming of her own child with amber-colored eyes, mentally pointing out cloud shapes and wind-bent trees to her imagined companion, the loose stones of the old Roman road ringing beneath her horse's hooves like bells.
The gladness did not last. The pilgrim party, blowing horns to announce their coming so that suspicious farmers and haughty northern lords would not attack them as possible brigands, came to a crossroads. There they stopped and soon Sunniva heard her father's voice raised in furious complaint.
Cena often argued, especially with those he considered of lower rank. The crossroads was in a narrow gully, where the road sank between high banks to meet a second, sunken road. On this road was a shepherd with his flock, who wished to cross first. Cena was objecting.
"We are on the bigger road! We are the larger party! Your sheep must wait and so must you!"
Excerpted from A Knight's Captive by Lindsay Townsend Copyright © 2009 by Lindsay Townsend. Excerpted by permission.
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