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The small band of mercenaries rode out of the shadows of the forest and drew to a halt. Their leader, Gunnar Olafson, narrowed his blue eyes against the June sun. He looked across the meadows of ripening wheat to the dark rise of keep and ramparts, and beyond that to the vast expanse of the marshes.
This was Somerford Manor, and it was not as he had expected.
Gunnar had seen so much waste in his travels about England, good country lying fallow for want of enough men, or the will, to plant it. Though he was no farmer, it hurt Gunnar bitterly, in some fundamental way, to see the land so abused.
The coming of the Normans had meant more than a new system of government; in many cases it had meant an entirely new way of life. Such changes could not be wrought in a year, or even six. It would take a long time for prosperity to return to England.
Gunnar had been prepared for similar chaos here at Somerford. Instead he gazed on a golden harvest so abundant the grain was almost bursting from the fields, and the soil beneath appeared well cherished and rich. He could not help but wonder if this was the Lady Rose's doing.
He did not want to think so.
He did not want to think well of her.
Gunnar rarely associated with Norman ladies, and this particular Norman lady was already his enemy. Although he had never met Lady Rose, he was prepared to wish her ill.
"There are strong wooden ramparts around the bailey." Ivo, his second-in-command, leaned closer and gestured across the fields with his black-gloved hand. "And within the wall there is a stone keep -- there are not many stone keeps built on manors as smallas this. Aye, their defenses look good, Captain. They are prepared."
"But prepared for what?" Gunnar said in reply. "Are they hoping to keep out Lord Radulf's enemies? Or Lord Radulf himself?"
Somerford Manor straddled a corner of the great Lord Radulf's Crevitch estates, and shared boundaries with the lands of Lord Fitzrmorton and Lord Wolfson. Gunnar knew that neither of these latter two barons was an ally of Lord Radulf, the legendary King's Sword, and both were wont to turn greedy eyes in his direction.
Lord Radulf had sent to Wales for Gunnar and his men because he had a bad feeling about Somerford Manor. An itch, he had told Gunnar in his low, husky voice. The itch had begun when he accidentally intercepted a sealed letter from Somerford to Lord Fitzmorton, asking for help in obtaining mercenaries. He wanted Gunnar to scratch it, while at the same time not upsetting his wife, the Lady Lily, who had made Lady Rose her protégé ...
"You really believe this Lady Rose is in league with Lord Radulf's enemies?"
Gunnar shrugged off Ivo's question. "This is what we have come to find out."
"They will not suspect us?"
"They have sent for mercenaries and that is what we are. Why should they suspect us? They do not know it is Lord Radulf's orders we obey."
"And if the job is done well, then Radulf will see you have Somerford Manor as reward, Captain."
"Aye. But for those of you who want to stay here with me, there is a welcome place. For those who want to go, there will be recompense."
The others murmured their agreement, but Ivo shot his captain an uncertain look. "We have never dealt with a woman before, Gunnar."
Gunnar shrugged off Ivo's doubts. "A traitor is a traitor whether it be man, woman, or child. We will do our job, Ivo, as always. It may be our last."
Ivo nodded and scratched his chin. "Our last, aye. You know I am with you, Captain, as always."
Unsmiling, Gunnar turned to look at each of them, feeling the weight of their lives heavy in his hands, memorizing their faces. These five men had been with him for more years than he cared to remember: Ivo, Sweyn, Alfred, Reynard, and Ethelred. They trusted him, they relied on his steel strength and calm stillness, and they in turn gave him a reason to stay alive in a world he found increasingly lackluster.
Their fellowship was coming to an end.
"Follow me he said quietly, and knew they would.
Gunnar led them from the shadowy forest and along the rough track in the direction of Somerford Keep. The meadows of wheat waved about them.
What would it be like to be master of all this? To be lord of Somerford Manor? Certainly he would have no trouble protecting and fighting for the land and the people; being a mercenary had taught him well when it came to warfare. But a man, even a lord, could not be always fighting. Mayhap he would marry as his mother was always telling him he should.
I am an old woman. I need grandchildren, my son. And you need a wife. If you remain alone you will grow bitter and nasty, and you do not want that, Gunnar, do you?
He smiled at the memory of her voice, her pale eyes all but closed and yet seeing so much. He had made her wait a long time, but maybe at last the moment had come. Soon, if his future turned out the way he hoped, he would need a wife. Not a Norman lady -- they were for the wealthy or the ambitious, and being neither, he had no use for them. No, give him a good earthy peasant woman. Someone he could hold without fearing she might shatter, or kiss without going down on his knees for permission. A plain, good woman to keep him warm at night; that was what he needed to cure this melancholy that had lately afflicted him.
Aye, a woman in his bed and his own land beyond his door!
"The gate is open."
It was Ivo who spoke, drawing him back to the matter at hand. Gunnar frowned. The gate was open. Wide open. Such a lack of caution or care was not good. If they had been a band of outlaws, they could have ridden straight in. Five minutes, and all who lived would have been dead ...The Rose and the Shield. Copyright © by Sara Bennett. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.