Read an Excerpt
When he found her in the snowbank, he was sure she must be dead.
These Franks were fools about bad weather. True, they had come from beyond the Rhine and conquered Roman territory; but too much soft living since then had ruined them.
He was surprised and angry. Not with the gentle creature he was sure she must have been, but with her menfolk and guardians. Because she must have been surrounded by those dedicated to her interests. This girl was obviously a noblewoman. To be abandoned here to the fury of winter’s last blizzard seemed an impossible fate for such a woman.
In the name of God! No, that name was bitter on his tongue. The woman-skirted priests told him the powers his people honored were demons, that they were somehow evil. They claimed that their Jesus was the only god. But his own gods—whatever their moral stripe—were better suited to the sort of life his people lived than this fool Christ.
He quickly brushed the snow away from the woman’s face, wondering if she was dead. He pulled off his glove. He was warming to a fine fury; he would have no problem with the cold. What manner of men had charge of this slender beauty, that she was left here to die? He touched her cheek, then her forehead. Cold. Cold and hard as marble.
She was wearing a silk gown trimmed with sable, and a white brocaded mantle. The wind was howling around him and the world was sinking into a cold, gray blueness as the sun set somewhere beyond the clouds. He lifted her hand. Icy but still flexible, not stiff yet. His outer mantle was a thick bearskin, somewhat worn and stained. No, very worn and stained, but warm.
He leaned over her, lifted her head, and tried to see if her breath fanned his cheek. The hard, wind-driven pellets of sleet, mixed now with the blowing snow, stung his uncovered nose and lips.
He couldn’t tell anything. He paused for a second, then vented his frustration with one sharp curse word. He could put his hand down her dress, but to touch a young woman in certain places, even with her permission, was considered a particularly vile offense. He was hesitant, not wishing to dishonor her family even if she was a corpse.
Then he spat out another curse, this one directed at himself. If she wasn’t already dead, she might easily die while he stood over her dithering about the proprieties. He pushed his hand down her dress, feeling for the heart where the throbbing can most easily be felt, on the left chest below the breast. He was rewarded by warmth and a slow but steady throbbing. After that he wasted no time. He pulled off his outer bearskin mantle, threw it on the snow drifted at the roadside, then lifted her and wrapped her tightly in the heavy fur. He reflected that both he and the mantle were probably harboring a few fleas, kept alive by the warmth of his big body. This girl didn’t have nearly the healthy temperature he did; maybe the little bastards would die. At any rate, the extermination of his vermin companions was the only benefit he was likely to derive from this particular adventure.
He had planned to avoid the monastery at the foot of the pass, to find some secluded place to sleep through the blizzard, then continue on his way unobserved by the Franks. No possibility of that now. If he didn’t get this girl to someplace sheltered and warm, she would soon die. Well enough for him to curl up inside his mantle and let his own body heat seal out the cold. He could survive almost subzero temperatures wrapped in the skin. That was, after all, why he’d killed the animal in the first place.
He’d met the bear in the mountains when he was no more than fourteen. It had been an old animal, humpbacked and silver about the muzzle, but well fed, with a thick winter pelt.
“It seems,” he had said to the bear, “I am your destiny.”
The bear reared on his hind legs and roared a challenge.
“You may go if you wish,” he told the bear. “I will not hinder you.”
But the bear dropped down on all fours and trotted forward to wrap him in a lethal embrace. He knew he would get only one chance, then the creature would kill him. He stood his ground and drove his spear into the bear’s side as it reared again to tear him apart. The spade-shaped blade sank in to the cross hilt but the bear didn’t die.
He thought, I did not reach the heart, just as the bear stripped the skin from his ribs with one claw and made a serious attempt to disembowel him with the other. So, he thought, and remembered himself as calm. This is death.
But it wasn’t, because then the bear died and left him with the biggest and best skin he’d ever seen. At least it was the best after he’d tanned it and sewn up the hole made by the spearhead. He was glad he’d clung to it along the many roads his life had taken since then.
He struggled downhill with the woman over his shoulder. The icy, vicious wind in his face attempted with almost conscious malignity to blind and freeze him, but he was too proud and annoyed to give in to his discomfort. His own anger warmed him. I could have searched the drifts where she lay, he thought at whatever guardians and companions had been with her. But I didn’t. “Fools, you deserve to die,” he whispered in the teeth of the wind. He spoke to their souls, their ghosts, if they happened to be following him.
Frank means free, so they say. Frank means fool, idiot, if you ask me.
Hear that, woman? He shook the limp body draped over his shoulder. I think your people are stupid. I think your people are dirty. I think your people are lazy. I think your people are—But then night and the storm didn’t hear the next insult because he ran face first into the monastery wall.
He staggered back and sat down in a snowdrift. He eased the limp body from his shoulder and cradled her in his arms.
She was breathing. The bearskin had done its work. Her skin was warmer than his now. He was clad only in his shirt, woolen mantle, trousers, and cross-gartered leggings. And more tired than he realized or was willing to admit.
He lifted her, got to his feet, and went in search of a gate.
He found it at length after a search along the walls, a search in which his principal terror was of straying away into the icy darkness and freezing to death before he could find the building again. Yes, he could lie in the cold and wrap the mantle around them both, but he didn’t think even the bearskin would serve to warm two people on a night like this.
Women were, in his experience, fragile creatures, and he had no desire to lie in the darkness and feel her life drain away as her body grew colder and colder. When the Frankish slaveholders had driven him across the Alps to sell him to the Lombards, he’d had just such an experience with the man chained next to him, who had been old. Beyond a certain age the body loses the power to keep itself warm. Used to frigid winters and violent blizzards, he’d warned the slave dealers that the older men in the party might not survive the climb over the pass. But all he got for his pains was a blow to his face with one end of the driver’s whip—a blow that nearly broke his jaw and made eating the biscuit and dried meat they were thrown every few days both difficult and uncomfortable. Then he was roundly cursed when three of the slaves died at the top of the pass. He had woken one morning and gazed into two ice-glazed blue eyes empty of life. He remembered he’d been lying there when the older man began to whimper and moan in the night. He spoke not one word of the man’s language; he had not even been sure what it was. All he could do was share part of the bearskin with him. He didn’t like to remember he’d cursed and threatened the old one, trying to make him shut up, fearing he’d bring the driver’s punishment down on all of them.
At length his neighbor was silenced. He had thought the old one slept. But when gray light from beyond the boiling clouds began to fill the high rocky track—not like the sunrise, more the way water fills a cup—he had realized he was chained to a dead man. Then it was his turn to shout and scream and he’d been duly punished. And worse yet, laughed at by the slave drivers for being frightened of a corpse.
He remembered the way the old one’s stiffened body bounced from ledge to ledge until it finally vanished into the thick, pale ice cloud filling the valleys below. He tightened his arms around the woman and prayed to meet the slave dealers again. Prayed to his own stubbornly held gods that he might be able to meet them sometime when circumstances favored him. He didn’t ask for any special advantage, only weapons and no chains to confine him. He would solemnly thank his gods and handle the rest. He also prayed to find the door in this wall. By now it was night and black as a pig’s asshole.
He circled the structure, rapping with his right hand. At length his knuckles struck wood—oak planks by the feel of them and bound with iron. He slammed his fist against it, and the door swung open. He found himself in a shallow courtyard almost as dark as the night he left behind.
There was a little light, enough to show that the pillared walkways sheltered from the wind held a half-dozen men. One of them reared up and shouted at him, “Kick the perdition-bound door shut, you fatherless bonehead. It’s cold enough here without a fool like you letting the storm in.”
He was in no position to argue. He kicked the door shut.
A lantern with a very low flame hung on a rack projecting from the wall. By its light he could see the huddled figures lying against the walls.
“Is this how guests are accommodated here?” he asked contemptuously.
“This is how the smart ones are,” the reply came from above—the one who’d shouted at him. “This is not the best of stopping places. Nor is the lord abbot the friendliest of men. At least we will survive here and can press on to more comfortable places in the morning. What have you there?” He pointed to the bundle in the bearskin.
“A . . .” He paused. This wasn’t the most respectable bunch he’d ever seen.
“A . . . what?” Someone from behind him lifted the lamp from the wall, held it up, and looked down into the face of the figure.
The man who had shouted at him stood up. “A what? A woman! You motherless one. How do you bring a woman into this of all places and on a night like this?”
“I found her.”
Someone in the shadows gave a nasty laugh. “My cousin found eight pieces of gold, or at least so he said. But the king’s judge cut off his right hand anyway.”
“Is she pretty?” the man who had called him motherless asked. “If she is, you might be able to sell her for a few coppers, a night’s lodging, and some food. If she’s amiable enough, they might even let you keep her when you leave.”
Just then something struck him a hard blow in the upper back. He felt the point enter his skin. He dropped the woman and spun around. As he did so, he felt the knife rip out of his back as it was torn free of the hand of his attacker. The skills that had kept him alive in the Lombard slave pens served him well. He slammed the heel of his hand into his assailant’s chin, snapping his head back, while he brought his knee up between the fellow’s legs.
His knee thudded painfully into a spiked leather cup. A professional, he thought. Therefore he had no compunction about slamming the knife man’s head against one of the stone pillars holding up the porch roof. It broke like an egg hitting a cobbled floor. Brains were flung everywhere.
Screaming. He was hearing screaming. His opponent shouldn’t be screaming. He should be extraordinarily dead. No, the screaming was behind him. He spun around. The woman was up. She had a foot-long knife and was driving it up into the throat of the man who’d shouted at him to shut the door. She didn’t look steady on her legs, but the hand holding the knife was accurate enough. The steel had gone in below the Adam’s apple and the point had broken through next to the spine.
She wasn’t screaming. No, the one doing the screaming was another of the “guests,” the one holding the lantern. Blood poured from his face. The blood from four long gashes on one of his cheeks dripped onto his shirt. She must have gotten him with her nails. He snatched up the bearskin, threw it around her, grabbed her, and ran across the courtyard to the inner door.
It opened in front of them. A man stood behind it holding a wax light. One of the monks, he surmised. When they were safely inside, the monk slammed shut the door and shot the bolts. The monk, if that’s what he was, let them both catch their breath.
“We come,” he gasped, his arm wrapped around the woman; she sagged against his shoulder.
He could smell a faint perfume in the darkness. She was growing warmer, and the scent was being released from her clothes and skin. It was a shock to him, a delicate scent like the incense of the Christian churches he’d been forced to attend by his Lombard masters, but not so musky, leaning more toward flowers.
“We come,” he gasped out again, “in search of food and shelter—”
“Be quiet,” the old monk whispered. “What were you two playing at out there? Were you trying to rouse the abbot and his whole house?”
Someone or something giggled in the darkness. The monk, if that’s what he was, muttered something unintelligible under his breath. “Too bad for you both now,” he muttered.
The woman took a deep breath and pulled the bearskin around herself. “My husband and I—” She indicated him. “—got lost . . . We were coming over the pass . . . and . . .”
“Husband? Tee-he-he. Oh, my, what a deception.”
The figure materialized next to them. It carried a torch. He could see enough and smell enough to tell it was dirty, crippled, and old; how old, he couldn’t tell. It limped and had a head of thick, white hair. Crippled: the back was hunched and twisted, the shoulders were higher than the head. Dirty: the stench of unwashed flesh was a vile reek in the stone-walled corridor. He’d never encountered any human quite so aromatic, even in the slave barracks where men went for months without washing.
It giggled again and reached a filthy paw toward the woman.
He was just getting over the shock of hearing he had a wife, but he instinctively interposed his body between this thing and the woman. It turned toward the monk with the wax light and chuckled horribly.
“He says he’s her husband?”
“Yes, my lord abbot,” the gatekeeper answered obsequiously. “We should honor the sanctity of the marriage bond as Christ . . .” The porter spoke gently, slowly, as if to a child.
“Abbot?” the woman whispered. He found he was holding her hand; it tightened on his own.
The creature turned away from the gatekeeper and began to try to pull the bearskin away from the woman’s body. A thread of drool ran down from the corner of its mouth to the chin. The mucus glistened in the light—the light coming from behind them.
Something smashed into the side of his face. He felt her hand pulled free of his as he lost control of his body and went down. The back of his head struck the stone floor of the corridor; his vision dissolved into flashes of light. No, he thought. No. Twisting, he tried to fight off the stunning effects of the blow and regain control of his arms and legs.
Someone screamed. A woman.
He had a moment’s sorrow that he couldn’t have offered her better protection. He was still struggling, but couldn’t feel his arms and legs; and when he could, it seemed only a few seconds later—he found he was tied hand and foot and being dragged along the corridor feet first, his head bouncing uncomfortably along the cobbled walkway.
“My lord, I beg you . . .”
Everything was black as the bottom of a well. He wondered if he’d been blinded by the crack on the head . . . but no. It was just dark because he could see a little.
“My lord!” The old man who’d opened the gate continued to remonstrate with his captors.
“Drive that fool away!” The command came from the one he’d heard addressed as abbot. “Drive him back to his cell. I don’t want this one to get away.” The creature sounded like a peevish child.
“You know, you know how I love to hear them scream. You can hear them for a long time afterward. After we drop the slab some of them go on all night, screaming and screaming and screaming.”
She was not as frightened as she ought to have been. This was her first clear thought. She’d awakened when he pushed his hand down her dress. She’d believed for a moment, for a joyous moment, that he was her husband taking familiar liberties while waking her from a nap. But that happy, carefree moment quickly faded.
The other memories were a jumble. He was carrying her. It was cold, oh so cold. He was saying insulting things. They were dragging him away, down the hall. Now three women appeared, coming out of the darkness. One carried a candle, but she could see them all clearly. She must see well in the dark, she thought.