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Thaxted Forest, northeastern England March 1067
The ground beneath her feet began to shake and Gillian searched for a cause. It was a fair day, considering that winter still claimed the land, but no clouds marred the sky's bright blue expanse. Looking up, she could see no sign of a coming storm that would cause the thunderous noise that covered the area.
Pushing her hood back, Gillian stepped into the road and glanced both ahead and behind. With only a moment to spare, she realised the reason for such a clamour and jumped back into the tangle of brush and bush at the road's edge. With a prayer of thanks offered that she'd stolen a dark brown cloak on her escape, she tugged it around her and lay still as the large group of mounted knights and warriors thundered past her hiding place. When they pulled up a short distance from where she lay motionless and silent, she dared not even breathe for the fear of being detected and captured by these unknown marauders.
Too far away to hear and too low to understand, their words were a jumble of Norman French and some English, as well. Keeping her face down, Gillian waited for them to move on their way. When she heard the sounds of men dismounting and walking along the road, her body began to tremble. Being caught out alone during these dangerous times was an invitation to death or worse and something Gillian had taken pains to avoid.
Her decision to leave her home and flee to the convent was not made in haste or without considering the consequences, but her alternatives were limited and not attractive: the marriage her brother Oremund had arranged to a poxed old man or one the invading duke had made to a vicious Norman warrior on his way to destroy all she held dear. All she could do was stay out of sight and pray this troop of soldiers would move on and her quest to reach the convent would continue.
Gillian waited as the men discussed something and held her breath once more, trying not to gain their attention as their voices grew nearer to the place where she hid. She recognised the name of her home and her brother's, as well. If only they would speak in her tongue or at the least speak slower so that she could try to understand more of their words!
After a few seemingly endless minutes, the men began to walk away from her, calling out to the others that they saw nothing. She raised her head with care as slowly as she could and watched their retreat. But one knight remained in the road, not more than several yards from where she lay. Instead of following the others, he reached up and tugged at his helm, pulling it free and tucking it under his arm as he turned.
The gasp escaped before she could stop it.
He was tall and muscular and the most attractive man she'd ever beheld, even considering her cousin who was accounted to be every woman's dream. He did not wear his blond hair in the short, shorn Norman-style; instead it hung loosely around his face. She could not tell the colour of his eyes at this distance, but his face was all masculine angles and intriguing in spite of his being a Norman.
A Norman! And a Norman in full battle armour.
Holy Mother of God, protect her!
And he was staring into the trees in her direction. She dared not move, even to seek the cover of the snarls of branches beneath her for he cocked his head, narrowed his eyes and waited. She knew he listened for another sign that someone was hiding and she barely let out her breath as she remained motionless there.
Gillian thought he might come into the thicket to search, but instead he turned to the others before placing his helm on and striding with those long legs back to them. He rained down curses as he walked, some so loud and rude that she felt the heat of a blush creeping up her cheeks. He could not be the lord who the Conqueror had given Thaxted to, for no nobleman would act in such a common way, using words as he had and comparing one of his men to a beast of burden, and a feeble, useless one at that.
So, who was he and what was his mission here?
One of the other men called out orders to move on and she prayed that they would indeed do so. Gillian did not move until the dust settled back on to the road's dry surface and no sounds could be heard. Even then, she dragged herself to sit up and pulled her cloak around her. She would not move from this spot until she was certain that there was a safe and adequate distance between herself and the warriors.
Pulling the skin of watered ale from beneath her cloak, she drank deeply and eased the dryness in her throat. The exertion of walking many miles, the dusti-ness of the road and the fear that yet pounded in her veins all caused her parched throat and the ale soothed it. Tempted to partake of the food she carried wrapped in cloth, Gillian decided to wait, for she had taken only enough to last her for two days of journeying from the keep to the convent and she had few coins to buy more.
If any at all was available for sale along the way.
The winter had come early and the last harvest was a meagre one, disturbed by plans of wars and their aftermath. Any surplus, even some of that required to feed the number of souls who lived on her father's lands, had gone to feed King Harold's army as it passed close by. They had been first on their way north to face the forces of Harald Hardrada, and then on their way south to battle with the usurper William of Normandy.
King Harold's forces had little chance to regroup after battling the Norse before heading south to meet the Norman forces near the coast. In one short day in mid-September, England's hopes were dashed as her king and many of his closest allies were killed.
Worse, in the months since that battle near Hastings, outlaws and rebels traversed the length of the land seeking what they could take to fuel their efforts against the conquering Norman army. Gillian sighed, her stomach more upset by the memories of these last months and now unable to think about eating. Enough time had passed, she thought, so she stood, brushed the damp soil and leaves from her gown and cloak and made her way to the edge of the road.
Peering up at the sun, she realised she'd most likely lost an hour of precious daylight during this encounter. Stepping on to the road, she increased her previous pace and began her journey anew. She had to reach the convent by sunset or she would spend another night alone in the woods—a thought that scared her more now that she knew these Normans were sharing the road with her.
An hour passed, and then another, and Gillian continued to walk, always with an eye ahead and an ear listening for the sounds of danger, travelling in the same direction as the men while trying to stay far enough behind so that she would never catch up to their pace. As the sun dropped lower in the western sky, she realised she would not make it to the convent before the sisters closed their gates for the night. Surely, she hoped as she wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her sleeve, sleeping in the shadows of their walls would be nearly as safe as sleeping within them?
She hurried then, deciding to eat the chunk of bread and piece of cheese in her bag and doing so in some haste, slowing only when she reached the rise in the road that signalled she was nearing her destination. Only a few miles separated her from safety. Her breathing grew laboured as she climbed the rising road to its peak and she paused to catch her breath a few times before reaching the summit.
Then she lost the ability to breathe completely as she beheld a terrifying sight—the same troop of warriors, and more now, camped on the side of the road. Gillian glanced ahead and wondered if she could simply continue on her way as though a simple peasant woman on a task. Mayhap they would pay her no mind? Fighting the urge to run, for running now would be nothing less than an invitation to follow her, she decided that a steady pace was her best choice.
Tugging her hood closer over her brow, she lowered her head and put one foot in front of the other, forcing slow, measured steps along the road. Gillian carefully peeked over at the soldiers out of the corner of her eye and hastened her pace past them. Although many approached the road, none stopped her. A quickening of hope beat in her chest as she made her way. She was nearly beyond the camp when a huge man stepped in front of her, blocking her way forwards.
She side-stepped him, or tried to, but he moved as she did. His large size and muscular form spoke of his strength, and Gillian considered her choices. She turned, thinking to go back in the direction from where she'd come, and faced another warrior there. Then a third and fourth man blocked her sides so that she had nowhere to go. Taking and releasing a deep breath, she waited for them to act.
'Mistress, why are you on these roads alone?' one asked in heavily accented English. 'What is your business?'
Although she'd hoped never to need it, Gillian had prepared a story to answer just that question. Without meeting his gaze, she turned to the one who had spoken.
'My lady sends me to the convent, my lord,' she said, hoping that referring to these common soldiers as 'lords' would flatter them and ease her way. She bowed her head lower as she said it.
'The night is almost upon us,' the one at her back said. 'Come, you will be safer in our camp this night.'
Was a sheep safe when guarded by a wolf? She thought not, almost hearing them salivating over her. Shaking her head, she begged off such an invitation. 'The good sisters are expecting me, my lord. I must hasten there now. My lady will be angered if I do not arrive there.'
She pushed against the one in front of her, but he barely moved. Gillian tried once more without success. Before she could try again, two of them grabbed her by her arms and pulled her with them as they walked towards the others. No amount of struggling loosened their iron grips and her heart began to pound in her chest, making her blood pulse and her head spin.
Before she realised it, they were in the middle of the camp, far enough that she could not make an easy escape. She did not make it easy for them, but it neither slowed nor impeded their progress. They simply dragged her between them. Her arms ached from it and she knew her skin would show bruises by morning—if she lived until then.
By their fast and furious whispering amongst themselves, she knew something was wrong. She decided to take advantage of it. Stomping her foot down with all her weight, Gillian pounded on the instep of the one behind her and pushed at him with her hips, trying to force him off balance.
It did not work.
Instead, her own foot now ached from it and she was forced to limp along as they continued forwards. Finally, they stopped and she took advantage of that moment to pull free and run. One soldier grabbed her cloak, which gave way when the laces snapped. Gillian had not taken two steps, two painful steps, before a mail-covered arm wrapped around her waist and dragged her up against the hardest surface she'd ever felt. So hard was it that it knocked the very breath from her lungs and nearly rendered her senseless as her head collided with the top of the chest plate.
'Where are you going now, mistress? Have you decided not to favour us with your presence this night after all?'
When she recognised the voice of the warrior who now held her firmly against him, terror began to tease her senses. With no chance for escape and suspecting that these men were planning all manner of illicit and immoral acts against her, she listened to the laughter of those watching the scene and wished she could faint. Instead, she gasped as the giant behind her wrapped his other arm around her and pulled her into an indecent embrace against his chest. Then he leaned his head closer to hers until she could feel his hot breath against the skin of her neck.
'Tell me what you seek, sweetling,' he whispered in English words flavoured with his exotic foreign accent, 'and I will try to oblige you in any way I can.'
Though the circumstances and sometimes miserable history of his existence as a bastard among noble-born should have taught him the lesson, Brice Fitzwilliam had never learned the one about patience being a virtue. It had always seemed overrated and a necessary nuisance, and this situation simply confirmed his opinion about it.
After being patient as the king required, and waiting while the winter passed for his letters granting him the lands and titles of Baron and Lord of Thaxted to arrive, he'd made his way here only to find the keep firmly closed against him. Three weeks of waiting for reinforcements from his friend Giles's forces to arrive found him no closer to conquering the keep or the people inside.