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A Knight's Enchantment
By Lindsay Townsend
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Lindsay Townsend
All right reserved.
Chapter OneApril 1210, England
"You come now," said the steward Richard Parvus, his blue-robed bulk filling the doorway.
Joanna tried to reason with him. "Sir, this distillation is almost complete and I should not leave it. I will come soon."
"Come now," the steward repeated, staring at a point in the windowless chamber somewhere above her head and refusing to look at her or the room full of stills, glass and earthenware vessels, star charts, and burning candles. He could not stop breathing, however, and his wide nose wrinkled in distaste at the heady scent of rose petals.
"My lord loves rose water," Joanna reminded him, but Parvus merely snapped his fingers at her as if she was a hunting dog.
"Now, girl! Leave this-wreck and make haste! Our lord would have you as a scribe in his audience chamber now, and none of your puffer's nonsense will delay him!"
"I am no-" Joanna stopped, refusing to dignify the insult of "puffer"-meaning a fake alchemist-with a reply. As for the rest, she could leave it. The fire and candlelight were safe now. It was a small risk, and making rose water was scarcely part of the great work of alchemy, but she disliked obeying the steward, who was forever trying to peer up her skirts and bullied everyone in this grand, unhappy household, even its priests.
And where was her lord's regular scribe?
She slipped round him, closing the door after her, and ran down the spiral staircase. Reaching the landing of the first floor of the tower, she stopped, listening for the slightest sound in the room beyond that strong oak door. To her dread, she could hear nothing.
"Boo!" said Parvus behind her, laughing as she flicked up her skirts and sped on, rushing down the second spiral flight of the great stone donjon. She did not stop to remonstrate with the steward. Knowing always what was at stake, she was suddenly desperate for fresh air and natural light, for the freedom to leave her workbench and walk with her father by the river and in the city.
Oh, my father! Will I ever see you delivered from these terrible men?
She ran down the rest of the stairs, deliberately not looking at the weighted trapdoor set in the flags of the ground floor. She ran straight past a guard and out into the yard, into a day of misty sun and drizzling rain.
Shouts and catcalls at once assailed her as the rowdy prisoners in the three wooden cages in the center of the yard roared out what they wanted to do to her. After two days of this, their lewd persistence wearied her and their imprisonment was another dread. What if her lord decided to place her father in with these rough rogues? How long would he survive in their company, in cages open to the rain and cold? And what of her lord's other "special" prisoners, held captive with her father in the stone tower of the donjon? If they were moved to these outdoor cages, how would they fare?
"Good nature, protect them," Joanna chanted breathlessly, taking the outdoor wooden steps to the great hall two at a time. Inside again, she mounted another stairway leading to the private audience chamber on the second floor and prepared to run again, then stopped.
Ahead of her were five guards surrounding a stranger who topped them all by half a head. Even as they marched away the stranger glanced back, gave her a curt nod, and addressed the captain leading him.
"Your men will be returned once I leave through the main gate."
"As agreed," the captain replied, "though our lord will not be pleased by your plucking them off the streets of West Sarum like so many fallen apples."
"That is no grief to me," said the stranger. "How much farther?"
He was a rude fellow, Joanna decided, coming up behind the troop. Trying to slip by again, as she had with the steward, she saw him closer and liked him less.
He looked a thing of fire to her. Dressed in a long red tunic, he was as high colored and as lean as a single flame, moving with the swift agility of a salamander. His hewn features were as sharp as freshly forged metal, his charcoal-black hair was ruthlessly hacked short, and, even at this early hour of terce, his jaw prickled with fresh black stubble.
He was hot and dangerous, Joanna decided, wishing to be past him. If he had snatched hostages from her lord's entourage before this meeting, that did not bode well. Now she was about to be admitted into her master's presence, she had hoped to plead with him, to ask for more than a month to complete her sublimations. True alchemy was the secret work of years, not days. But her lord was impatient and, thanks to this bad-mannered, fiery stranger, he would be in an ill temper.
Gliding by the first guard, she was making progress overtaking the troop when the door at the top of the staircase crashed open and two of her lord's unruly hunting dogs bounded toward them, tails up and teeth bared.
Not again! Joanna reached into the purse belted to her waist and plucked out a handful of her handmade sweets, which the hounds, though bred to attack the boar and stag, adored. About to cast them to the noisy beasts, she heard the stranger shout "No!" and then whistle: three loud, sharp blasts. At once the great white alaunts became almost comically docile, lowering their heads and whining softly, their claws scratching softly against the floorboards as they milled close to the nervous, stiffened guards and the striding stranger.
Without breaking step he bent, scratched both their ears and throats, and scolded her. "Sweets spoil them, girl, do you not know that yet?"
"Better than the teeth of an alaunt in her throat," muttered a nearby guard.
Joanna silently agreed with the guard but for courtesy she raised her head and looked into the stranger's cold blue eyes. "Thank you," she said, still smarting at the do you not know that yet?
"No grief to me," came the arrogant reply as he swept round her.
For a moment, Joanna was so aggrieved she stopped on the final step and a dog lumbered into her, almost knocking her off her feet. At once the stranger somehow lunged past his guards and put out an arm to steady her. It was like being supported by a bar of iron.
"I am grateful, sir," Joanna said, sweet as her honey drops, although her face ached from forcing her mouth into a thankful smile.
He was about to say "No grief," but instead did less, flicking his eyes over her slim figure and tanned face and clearly finding her wanting. He turned soundlessly and marched away, leaving the guards bobbing like flotsam in his wake and Joanna furious at his dismissal of her.
Hugh Manhill of Castle Manhill cursed himself as he strode away. What kind of bully was he to get pleasure from taunting such a slip of a creature? She was not even pretty: too tanned and long-nosed, and her hair was not blond. But her eyes were the warmest, brightest brown he had yet seen and her mouth reddened to a lush cherry when she was indignant. Would her kiss be cherry sweet, or sour? Still, she was nothing but a distraction, one of the bishop's hangers-on and so his enemy.
And where was David in this wretched place? How was he? Since learning the news that David had been captured by Bishop Thomas, Hugh had heard nothing more. He had been on the trail for a month, following the cleric from London to Oxford to West Sarum itself, before he had even discovered where David was being kept. Now that he knew for certain, he had already acted, taking prisoners of his own so as to compel Bishop Thomas to see him.
I will save you, brother, and bring you out of your captivity, he vowed, sweeping into the audience chamber. The girl was there, too, hurrying to a desk close to the dais in the middle of the room. Intrigued by her role-was she a scribe, or a confidante?-Hugh turned his attention to the figure enthroned on the dais.
Bishop Thomas was a small, neat man with a pale, ageless, pleasant face, unremarkable gray-brown hair, and a body only slightly softened by years of good meals and little exercise. Certainly, he did not have the look of a devil-cleric, a gluttonous lord of the church, rumored to be rank in murder, sexual intrigue, high politics, and witchcraft, but, as Hugh knew from his own sour personal experience, appearances were often deceptive.
As if to compensate for his very ordinary aspect, the bishop was robed not in the cloth of the clergy, but in a brilliant blue and scarlet two-colored silken tunic, with hanging sleeves of yellow, a cloak of pure white ermine, and gloves embroidered with gold thread. Perhaps he genuinely believed this show of colors and fabrics proclaimed the richness of his see, but to Hugh it put the bishop just a little higher than a performing player: all spectacle and no substance.
As the guard captain stepped up to the dais and whispered in the ear of this gaudy manikin, Hugh mentally ran through his own plans.
Think of this as a tourney and be as you are in battle, doing what you must to survive, he reminded himself. Do not lose your temper. Faced at last with the gaoler of his beloved brother, that was almost impossible, but grimly Hugh determined to try.
"By kidnapping my scribe, you have committed outrage against our person and the holy church," Bishop Thomas remarked, in a surprisingly deep voice, as the captain stepped back. "I demand that you return him and the rest of my men at once, unharmed, and that you make payment for your assault."
"You will have your people when I have returned to my men," Hugh replied. "Until that time, they are my honored guests within my camp."
"Let us not play games with each other," snapped Bishop Thomas, his pale face darkening. "Your camp, as you term it, does not exist. Your men have gone to ground and my people are your hostages."
So Thomas's men were seeking his, thought Hugh, gratified at the bishop's irritation. But he had to be careful. While Thomas held David, he dared not goad the churchman too much.
"I come in peace," he said, tapping his empty scabbard as proof. "I seek news of one of your 'guests' and bring an offer of a ransom for him."
The bishop's look of anger was replaced by one of calculation.
"What did you say your name was?" He slid forward on his chair.
"I did not give it," Hugh answered. "I will say nothing more until I have seen the inmates of your donjon. I can pay a suitable ransom," he added, "but I will see these men for myself. I know that such a great lord as yourself will have kept them in conditions appropriate to their standing."
This was a risk, Hugh knew, but he had to be sure that David was indeed held captive here, and he gambled that Bishop Thomas's greed and vanity would prick him to agree.
And so it did. Bishop Thomas snapped his fingers, rapped out orders, and stepped down from the dais with an escort of priests and soldiers, the fighting men and unarmed dark-robed priests huddling urgently about their lord. Passing Hugh, the cleric directed a single glance not at him but at the tanned girl in the drab robe, jerking his head. At once she snatched quill and parchment from the desk and hastened to join her master.
Shortening his stride to march behind them, his mouth drying with hope even as his gut tightened with anxiety, Hugh tightened one hand into a fist. At last, I will see you, brother.
They crossed the yard, soldiers, clerics, and even the dogs, the bishop paying no more heed to the groveling pleas of his caged prisoners than to the dust under his boots as they all entered the sturdy tower.
This must have cost Bishop Thomas almost a thousand pounds, Hugh thought, stubbing his toes on the narrow spiral steps in his eagerness to climb them. I and my men cannot storm this, but I will find another way to breach it.
As if in answer he heard the girl, her clear, warm voice rising sweetly above the panting priests and scraping metal as the soldiers toiled with swords and armor up the stairs.
"Your rose water is now finished, my lord. I have made much progress with the other matter and will make more if I am allowed to visit my father when I wish. Please, may I do so? Please, my gracious lord?"
The gracious lord's answer to this heartfelt request was lost as the door to the tower's first-floor chamber was struck by a mailed fist and noisily unbarred. Straining to see ahead of the rest, Hugh saw a large, square room with a comfortable fireplace and, sitting on a bench by a small fire, the person he had searched for and longed to save for over a month.
"David," he breathed, and as if his brother could hear him, David Manhill, once of Castle Manhill, now of Outremer and the Knights Templar, turned on his seat to face his captor.
To Hugh it was as if he looked into a transforming mirror. David was fair where he was dark, open and expressive in features where he knew himself to be stark and grim, easy and merry in manner where he was so often wary and aggrieved. Even now, imprisoned by the worst bishop in England, David rose to his feet and bowed as if greeting honored guests.
"How do you fare, my lord bishop?" he asked, not yet having noticed his brother, a loss which gave Hugh a stab of hot, sickening guilt in his belly. David did not expect to find any of his family here, striving for his release-how could he, when their own father's castle was scarcely forty leagues away and yet no word or succor had come from there? Hugh himself had already called there.
But David was speaking still. "I am healthy in the care of your guards, although I regret my loss of liberty. There is no word yet from my order, I presume? No one to vouch for my good faith?"
"I am here," Hugh answered, buffeting the guards aside as he forced his way into the chamber. "Here, David, and ready to take you home."
He turned and faced Bishop Thomas. "I am Sir Hugh of Manhill," he said, finally giving his title and his name. "No man is my lord, for I make my own way, but I am this man's brother."
"Soft, Sir Hugh," said the bishop, his bright, avaricious eyes darting between the two wall warriors. "Lordless as you are, I doubt you have wealth or wit enough to free your kinsman."
Temper surged in Hugh but he checked it, reminded by the girl's sharp intake of breath just what was at stake here. "I have goods enough for any ransom," he said mildly. "But on what charge is he here? My brother is but lately returned from fighting in the East, a most Christian enterprise, and-"
The rest of Hugh's question was lost as another, smaller man stepped from behind a curtained-off part of the room and approached, speaking urgently in French. Dark as a troubadour, with pale blue eyes showing very startling against his deeply tanned face and shaggy black hair, he was garbed in silks as bright as the bishop's. His accent and language was of southern France, the Languedoc, and Hugh could not understand him.
"Mercury asks if he may have fish again for lunch," David translated, beckoning to the stranger to sit beside him. "His memory is still lost to him, my lord bishop, but he has told me that his head aches less than it did from the battle wounds that he presumes he received when he was taken, together with the brigands in the yard, and brought here."
If the bishop was disconcerted by any of these claims he did not show it, although Hugh wondered at the name "Mercury" and was puzzled, too, by the man's claim to be injured-he could see no mark on him.
Hugh's silent question regarding the nickname was answered by Bishop Thomas himself, who sighed, grumbling, "It will be a mercy for all of us when that young man's memory returns, for I tire of that foolish title."
Unabashed, the Frenchman launched into another speech. Whoever he was, it was obvious from his dress and bearing that he was rich and accustomed to power. He was charming, too, bowing to the company before he sat beside David and smiling at Bishop Thomas as if the man were keeping him in the donjon as a favor. Clearly, Bishop Thomas did not know what to make of him, and did not want to admit that he could not understand him. Again, he was waiting for David to translate.
Others were less comfortable. Standing apart from the crush of guards and clerics, under a thin arrow slit, the girl scowled, then schooled her face into placidity. Hugh had not noticed her move to there but he marked how she looked at the stranger nicknamed Mercury and then at a sallow-skinned, balding man who had joined her by the donjon wall.
Excerpted from A Knight's Enchantment by Lindsay Townsend Copyright © 2010 by Lindsay Townsend. Excerpted by permission.
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