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November 20, 1066
Riders approach!" bertram the tower lookout called.
Isabel halted just outside the small chapel attached to the magnifi cent stone manor that was Rossmoor. Her blood quickened. Father! Geoff! Isabel gathered her skirts and ran through the courtyard toward the bailey, her slippered feet barely touching the smooth limestone.
"Armed knights!" the lookout said, his voice a ragged strangle.
Isabel's blood chilled. Just as quickly as her excitement had engulfed her, it plummeted, and dread took its place. A scream congealed in her throat, choking her like a hunk of rancid meat. Skidding to a stop, she turned as quickly on her heels and ran as fast as she could back through the courtyard to Rossmoor. The raiders had returned! Holy Mother. They grew bolder each day. Had they not pillaged and plundered the gentle souls of Alethorpe enough?
"To arms! To arms!" Isabel yelled up to the lookout. Why she demanded such an action she had no clue. There were naught but a handful of inexperienced villagers to answer the call. But it mattered not. The warrior spirit in her burned hot.
"Jesu! 'Tis the Black Sword!" Bertram yelled as he identified the leader of William's most notorious death squad, les morts. The scream lodged in her throat escaped.
As she pushed open the huge wooden portal, Isabel collided with Russell, her father's squire, who he insisted remain at Rossmoor to protect his daughter and home. "Russell, 'tis the Black Sword! Gather all the servants. Call the villagers!" She flew past him, up into the tower, and out to the rampart. She dared look upon the horizon. The sight that greeted her terrified her to numbness.
Nearly a half-score of fully armored black knights upon equally black war horses, their huge furred bodies as armored as their masters', galloped over the last ridge before the village. Long black crimson-lined mantles billowed like the wings of fallen angels about their shoulders.
Villagers screamed, terrified at this new menace. These were not the hooded raiders who skulked about the forest attacking innocent women, children, and old men. Nay, this menace that moved at breakneck speed toward her home was death on horseback. And Isabel knew with an earth-shattering certainty that once they poured into the village below and then into the manor, lives would forever be changed.
The standard of William Duke of Normandy, two golden lions on a crimson field, ripped mightily in the chill of the morning air, but more terrifying was the standard of les morts. Flying arrogantly at the end of each lance a flag with a gonfalon blazed on a black field with a blood red sword plunging through a gruesome, grinning skull. Death.
"Sound the horn for the villagers to seek refuge in the woods! Prepare for battle!"
Isabel turned, rushed down the stairwell out to the courtyard, and hurried the panicked villagers into the hall.
Several of her servants came rushing from the kitchen and others from the chambers above. Bertram hurried from the tower, a sword at the ready, Russell behind him. With the help of Thomas the hostler, she threw the thick, heavy bolts into the metal brackets, then secured the braces against the door. "Shutter all of the arrow slits and windows! See to the outer doors! Stoke the fires so they cannot penetrate from above. Bring the knives from the kitchens."
"What of the privy?" Enid asked, wringing her hands.
"There are hooks. They can attempt, but they will find themselves in shreds." Isabel smiled tersely as she imagined William's knights caught up on the hooks designed specifically to ward off any who thought it a good idea to climb up the privy shoot from the cesspool.
Once her orders had been met and the people reassembled in the hall, Isabel took a deep breath. For now, they were safe.
"Milady?" Russell said from beside her. She looked up into the clear blue eyes of the boy on the verge of manhood. She smiled and gave him a reassuring pat on the forearm.
"The bolt will hold. Our walls cannot be scaled. We have enough stores to last us well into the New Year. By then my father and brother will return." The boy gave her a look that belied her words. Anger flared, and she cuffed him. "Believe it, Russell."
Isabel turned and hurried to the wide stone stairway
that led to the many rooms on the second floor of the manor. She turned and called to her people. As she had when the first attack came nearly a fortnight ago, she calmed them by her own calm presence.
As she opened her mouth, the tower lookout called out, "They have scaled the courtyard wall!"
Panic erupted around her.
"Hear me!" she called. "Hear me, now!" The eruption subdued somewhat, but she still had need to raise her voice high. "We have prepared well. The doors will hold!"
"But milady, we have no archers, no pitch. No soldiers to protect us!"
"Aye." Isabel nodded. "And we don't need them." She pointed to the double thick-hewn doors, the impenetrable gateway to Rossmoor. By comparison to the inner richness of the hall, the thick English oak seemed too rustic. But the doors served their purpose. They were designed to prevent even the most ardent pursuer's entrance. "Rossmoor has withstood the heartiest of attacks. We will hold until my father and brother return."
The walls were not scalable, save for the tower, but the door at the top and the entrance to the hall were as solid as the front doors. And, she was sure, the enemy would never find the secret passage known only to herself, her father, and her brother.
For now they were safe. The harsh thud of a fisted hand beat on the door.
"I am Rohan du Luc. I come in the name of William Duke of Normandy. Open these doors." The French words rang clear, and while the villagers did not understand them, the tone was clear.
Bertram rushed down from the tower, his face flushed red, his pale, watery eyes open and terrified. "I have battened the door. Should they scale the wall, they will not find a way to penetrate it."
"Open this door, or prepare for the consequences." Du Luc's voice boomed through the timber.
Isabel moved through the crowd toward the tower door.
"Nay, milady!" Russell cried, following close behind her." 'Tis folly. They will surely bring you low with an arrow!"
She flung his hand from her shoulder. "Leave me be, Russell. They are knights, not archers."
She pushed up the heavy bolt from its hold and hurried up the twisting narrow passageway until she came to the equally thick door to the lookout nest. She heaved the bolt up and pulled open the heavy door. The icy November air swirled angrily around her ankles, snaking up her skirts. Her teeth chattered in deference. Isabel hesitated before stepping onto the rampart. What if Russell spoke the truth? Would she die at the hand of a Norman archer? Running her hands up and down her arms to warm herself, Isabel straightened her spine and lowered her arms. Taking a deep breath, she moved to the edge of the stone balustrade.
Placing her hands on the cold, hard stone, Isabel looked down to see each of the black knights save the one leading them, with bows strung and arrows notched, aimed directly at her. She caught the scream in her throat. She would show no fear.
"Would you kill an unarmed woman?" She sneered at the one she assumed was du Luc. He sat arrogantly astride a huge black horse covered in spiked leather armor. As her nervous gaze appraised the lot of them, her blood slowed and chilled. Each destrier was similarly appointed. They looked like the devil's own steeds.
"I am Isabel of Alethorpe. What business do you have with me?"
"Unbolt your doors so that we may parle," the knight in front said.
Isabel laughed, the wind carrying off the cryptic sound.
"Do I look like a churl? Say what you have to say from your horse."
As one, the knights pulled their bowstrings. Fear congealed in her limbs. She didn't feel the harsh slap of the wind against her face or the way it ripped off her veil and tore at her unbound hair. She stood like a marble statue. Rigid and unyielding. She would not show fear. She would not turn and run. She would never yield the day to this black knight.
"In the name of Duke William, I claim this manor and this land. Now, give us entry!"
His words sliced through her resolve. Fear made a quick, seamless shift into fury. How dare he demand such a thing? 'Twas her home and the home of her ancestors. She would never willingly hand it over to any man, much less a bastard Norman!
Isabel moved closer to the edge of the rampart. "I claim this manor and the surrounding lands in the name of my father, Alefric Lord of Alethorpe, Wilshire, and Dunleavy. You have no right here! Leave us!"
"Harold is dead, damsel. England is William's. Allow us entry." While his voice held a note of contempt, a thinly veiled warning gave it credence. Isabel studied the knight. From her position, she could see only the lower half of his face. Cruel lips were cradled by the harsh cut of his chin. Her gaze moved over the rest of them. Some seven knights and a full score of foot soldiers pouring in behind them. Were there others to come? It mattered not. William himself could be at her threshold, and she would not acquiesce.
"Nay! My father and my brother will return. I will not have them find their home in the hands of foreigners. There are other fiefs to be had. Leave us!"
"I will not ask again, Lady Isabel," du Luc said. "Open the door, or find yourselves with less than I would grant should you comply."
"Nay! I will never open the door for any Norman!"
Isabel turned and hurried from the tower rampart. She pulled the heavy oak door closed behind her and threw the bolt. As she entered the hall, Russell closed the second door and bolted it. Isabel turned to the terrified villagers and her servants.
"Have faith. The manor is strong and will take whatever abuse those barbarians will mete out."
"My lady, what shall we do?" Enid mewled.
Isabel patted her maid's hand. "We shall wait, Enid, for Lord Alefric and Sir Geoff to return. They will rid our land of yonder Normans."
"Do you think those knights plot with the raiders?" Russell asked.
Isabel shot the boy a harsh glare and motioned for him to step aside so that she might have a private word with him. "Russell, speak not of those others. Our people are terrified enough."
He nodded and bowed. "You are wise beyond your years, Lady Isabel. Were you a man, I have no doubt you would best those knights single-handedly."
Isabel swallowed hard and thought were she a man, she might lie stiff and frozen along with other Saxon soldiers on Senlac Hill.
"Keep the people calm, Russell, while I inspect the manor."
Quickly, Isabel set off around the hall, making sure each entrance to the edifice was secured. Rossmoor had been constructed by her great-grandfather Leofric, whom many called Reynard for his wily ways, with the express intention of waiting out a siege and prohibiting invaders from scaling the walls. The roof was pitched at severe angles covered with several underlayers of thin metal sheets topped with treated thatch to prevent fire from infiltrating. It was a chore, but every few years, the thatch was retreated with a special concoction dating back to Roman times to prevent the spread of fire. Should an invader hook a spike, he would have nowhere to climb but up and over.
As Isabel inspected the stores, she counted to herself and calculated how long the occupants of the hall could last. Four months, at least. Longer if they were frugal. She looked over at the thick oak door that led to the courtyard from the kitchens. It would serve as stalwartly as the main portals. The only predator with the strength to penetrate the stone walls was death.
Just as Isabel made her way back into the hall, a loud thump hit the front door. It was quickly followed by another, then another. The cadence was clear. Two battering rams. Isabel hurried to the oak portals and watched as each slam shook the timber. It held. But for how long? A terrible premonition shook her resolve. Her body flinched each time the harsh slam of the wood hit the timber. The villagers cried out, louder with each hit, their confidence shaken almost beyond repair. They had suffered so much.
Isabel forced a smile more to reassure herself than her people. The Normans would learn soon enough that many an attack had fallen useless under the strength of the doors. Should the hinges fail, the braces locked into the stone threshold were thick and sturdy and more than ample to keep the doors upright. It gave her pleasure to thwart such a cunning foe. But she was more cunning. Her smile died when the acrid scent of smoke assailed her nostrils. She glanced at the roaring hearth and watched as billows of gray smoke poured into the hall. "They have blocked the chimney! Douse the fires!"
Several cauldrons of water were poured over the embers of each burning hearth in the manor. Smoke billowed acrid and thick into the hall, stinging Isabel's eyes and sinking deep into her chest. Coughing harshly, she pulled her tunic up over her nose and mouth and motioned for everyone to move toward the front of the hall where the air was clear. When the fire was finally doused, Isabel blinked back the tears. Jesu! Would they die from the smoke?
The rhythmic battering continued on the door.
The small crowd in the hall drew close, eyes wide, bodies trembling, women keening.
"Lady Isabel?" Russell asked from beside her.
"Stand fast, Russell." She moved to the wide stairway and walked up several steps. As one, the small mass of people cleaved to her wake. "Stand fast all of you! Stand fast!"
"They will slay us all! Gouge out our eyes and burn us alive!" Mertred the tanner cried. His wife, Anne, shrieked and tore at her hair. The distraught villagers moaned as one, their fear of a tragic death making them unpredictable. They all knew invasion at the hands of mercenary knights was imminent. Even should they stave them off, their time in the hall would be a living hell.
"My children lie one with the earth from the raiders. I cannot stomach more," Guntha, a village woman, wailed.
Isabel raised her hands and explained. "These knights of the bastard duke are not the same who laid havoc on the village! Those cloaked cowards would not dare come this close." Her voice quieted. "Nay, these knights are of a different breed."
"Aye, the devil's henchmen! We are lost for sure!"
Hysteria rose so thickly in the hall, Isabel could slice it with her table knife. Her mind raced with an alternative plan. Bargaining with the Norman was not an option. He would see his way into the hall, and all would be lost. It would take an army to remove them. Arlys Lord of Dunsworth, her betrothed, had yet to return from his campaign at Harold's side. Yet she heard word he lived. Had she known his whereabouts, she would send word for him to come to her aid.
The sharp splintering of wood crashed into her thoughts, sending them scattering in a thousand different directions. Jesu! The door gave way!
'Twas not possible!
Enid screamed beside her. "Lady! We are doomed!"
Isabel searched out Russell amongst the terrified villagers. She met his eyes over the cowering shoulders. "See them all safely upstairs. Barricade the doors. Do not lift the bolt until you hear my voice, and only my voice!"
As the words left her mouth, a full score of villagers stampeded past her and up the stairway. Russell slowly followed.
"Milady, what of you?"
"I will stay here, Russell."
"Here? Have you gone -- "
Isabel cuffed him. The boy's face turned crimson. "Do not question me, sir squire. I have a ready tongue in my head and know well how to wield words of compromise." She swallowed hard and prayed to the Holy Mother for assistance. For she would need it in dealing with the soldiers from hell.
"I'll see to our people, milady, then stand beside you."
"Nay," she calmly said. "See to them until you hear my word." She pushed him up the stairs as the continual thuds against the cracking timber of the door grew louder. Voices from the other side of the portal were clearly audible. The French words left no doubt they expected to be inside momentarily. The promise of punishment was also clear.
"Go, Russell. Now!"
As the boy ran up the stairway to herd the villagers into several rooms to safety, Isabel turned and faced the crippled door. The oak portal shook, the solid wood cracking louder under the violent thrust of another attack. The support braces shuddered. As if struck by the same battering ram, her body jerked violently.
Her determination wavered for the briefest of moments. Had she been a fool to stay and defend Rossmoor? Here, alone, in the hall? What did she truly think a lone woman could accomplish? Was the stone and timber edifice worth her life? The lives of her people?
Her eyes swept the rich tapestries hanging from the high stone walls and the richly appointed furniture, then back up the hall, settling on her father's ornate upholstered oak chair positioned in his favorite spot near the now cold hearth. She had refused to have it moved. It was as he left it some months before.
A bittersweet smile tugged at her lips. Alefric. Her father would never permit another man to sit in his chair. Not even Geoff, who would one day be rightful lord. While the fire of life had dimmed considerably in her sire's eyes at her mother's death some six years past, he still claimed his place as lord and master over his many holdings. He would fight to the death to protect his family and his home. And at three score and nine years, sporting his Saxon glory of a full snowy white beard, he was still a force to be reckoned with.
Her heart beat faster against her breast. Had he succumbed to a Norman sword? Had Geoff? Her fun-loving brother, who had much growing up to do, had just recently been knighted. He had waved as he rode off, promising she would see him home before his November birthday.
The first of November had come and gone with no word of her sire or her brother.
"Milady!" Russell called from the top of the stairway. She turned to find him wild-eyed and pale. "More riders on the horizon!"
Hope swelled for a moment. "My father's standard?"
"Nay, more of the black horses."
Isabel's stomach plummeted to her feet. Hastily, she crossed herself several times. "Go, Russell, keep the villagers quiet."
"But -- "
"Nay! Mayhap with words of peace I can stay this threat to our shire. Now go." Before Isabel moved to meet the Black Sword, she reached up behind her father's chair and wrestled down a broadsword from the wall. It rested there more as a decoration, but it was solid and a worthy adversary. It took two hands to bring the great weapon down from the stone wall. But once it was in hand, she moved to stand in the middle of the hall, the only home she had known.
Emotion gripped her heart. She could not imagine foreigners calling the hall home. Call her foolish, but how could she not stand and defend it? She flung the sword from her hands, knowing she could not effectively wield such a weapon. Instead, she fondled the jeweled hilt of the dagger hanging from her chain girdle. And so she stood. And waited.
Let them come.
Copyright © 2008 by Karin Tabke