"I have never seen such a collection
of rabble and complainers." Gilles d'Argent turned from
his closest friend, Roland d'Vare and stared about the hall
of Hawkwatch Castle. A line of petitioners and petty criminals
stretched across the great stone chamber and wound itself
about the perimeter.
"You have no need to trouble yourself
with this chore. Be gone." Roland, a tall, spare man
with streaks of silver running through his hair, pared an
apple, discarding the skins to the rushes beneath the table.
"Your father felt much the same when King Henry granted
him the barony. He made a point to be away for these events,
God rest his soul."
"And I find no pleasure in being
sent to take his place." Gilles frowned as a cat leapt
and danced after the curling strips of apple peel.
"Whilst you may mind your task,
King Richard values your lands and would be loath to see them
fall to Prince John's scheming."
"Aye, it did not take Richard
long to rue granting John control of five shires."
"Now 'tis the task of men like
you who must offer restraint." Roland grinned as another
cat pounced past Gilles's boots to join the first tumbling
"I served the old king from the
age of nine. After three decades of duty, I scarcely warrant
such a sentence. Guard duty! Saving one brother from another--pitiful.
And must you entertain my mousers whilst old Garth is sleeping?"
Gilles growled as yet another cat skidded among the rushes
and apple skins and tumbled over the mongrel hound with a
hoary muzzle that stretched, oblivious, at his feet.
"I believe you are delaying the
matter at hand, my lord," whispered Thomas, the cleric
who had been frantically scratching out Lord Gilles's judgments
all day. He repeatedly wiped an impatient hand over his tonsured
Roland ignored the man and grinned.
"You have bailiffs, reeves, me, your newly appointed
steward, to handle this. Why try your patience to such an
Gilles grinned back. "You know
"Oh, aye. You must put your long
nose in every matter, sniff about like a hound." He lowered
his voice to a barely audible whisper. "You would make
a better sheriff than lord."
"I shall not be given the choice.
But I feel I must take the measure of these men." With
a sweep of his hand, he indicated the cleric and village worthies
who sat in anxious awe of his assessment. He made no effort
to lower his voice, a subtle warning to them. "I believe
they have wrung more silver for their own pockets from these
miscreants, than for my father's coffers--" He paused
in mid-sentence and lifted his head.
"What is it?" Roland straightened
and followed Gilles's gaze to the stout oak doors of the hall.
"I don't know. I feel . . ."
He didn't finish the sentence. A woman and an old man had
entered the hall, drawing his eyes. Mayhap it had been but
the chill air that accompanied them that raised the gooseflesh
on his arms. He watched the couple advance toward him. Unbidden,
as if approached by ones higher of consequence, he rose from
"You must await your turn,"
Thomas said to the couple, pointing with a long, bony finger
toward the direction from whence they'd come.
"I shall hear them next,"
"But, my lord!" Thomas began,
then sputtered and coughed at Gilles's raised eyebrow. "Of
course, my lord. Forgive me. State your name, sir."
A flood of words spilled from the old
man before them.
Gilles d'Argent held a hand up. "Hold.
I can scarcely follow your words."
The old man petitioning him was dressed
in filthy attire, his odor offended even from the ten feet
he stood from the dais. His ochre skin indicated disease,
his lank hair clumped in dirty hanks, personal neglect.
In contrast to him, the young woman
at his side stood tall and lithe and, best yet, clean. Her
mantle could challenge the gentians for glory. It hung well
from her shoulders, clasped with a simple knotting of the
Her dignity before the manorial court
impressed Gilles. She somehow seemed aloof of the proceedings,
untouched by the torrent of words flowing in an obscene stream
from the old man. She did not even look at the crowd on the
benches about the hall who had gathered to be heard and to
be entertained by the telling.
Gilles returned to his seat on the
dais. He did not wish to appear to be unduly interested in
the young woman. Her hair, the color of summer honey, fell
loose about her shoulders. Her pale cheeks seemed almost colorless
as if she had been ill. He willed her to look up, to allow
him to assess her beauty.
"State your name again for Lord
Gilles," his cleric said, whilst trying to fend off a
feline determined to climb his woolen soutane.
Gilles contemplated the young woman.
He wondered if she found him forbidding. Did she fear his
decisions? He arranged his face in what he hoped was a less
The old man rasped out his name once
more, this time slowly and distinctly. "I am Simon of
Lynn and my brother's dead, rest his soul. I've the care of
his only daughter--and a sore trial it be. He had only this
female, and he promised her to a worthy man, Jacob Baker by
name. 'Twas a bargain that would have greatly benefited me.
Now 'tis all for naught. She's soiled herself and my good
name. Demand she name the cunning knave who stole her maidenhead.
Make him take her to wed and end the shame that will surely
fall upon me and mine."
The old man's malicious voice rose
like a wind foretelling a coming storm. Quick as a viper,
he turned and struck the young woman on the face, forcing
her head up as she stumbled and fell to her knees. The crack
of his hand reverberated around the vaulted hall.
"Hold," Gilles thundered,
leaping to his feet again. The attack had caught him by surprise,
for the man was skinny and small. The young woman struggled
back to her feet, unaided, and again stood composed and mute
before him. The ugly red mark of the old man's fist stood
out starkly against her pale complexion. She never raised
her eyes from the floor.
"She's made a whore of herself
and shamed my family. Make her name the man and wed him, my
lord. Why should I be providing for her and her bastard? Make
the man pay the price." The old man spat onto the stones
at his feet.
Gilles subsided into his seat, though
he felt the strong throb of his pulse in his throat and temple,
and considered the two so diverse individuals. "Your
name, mistress?" Gilles asked. He tempered his tone to
the one he used to his youngest squire when he wanted to sound
stern yet reasonable.
The young woman raised her head and
her eyes, mirroring the mantle's vibrant gentian color, looked
steadily at him. Although pleasing, he realized she was not
beautiful. It was her compelling eyes, so large in her face,
and her dignity that made one notice her. Once noticed, Gilles
mused, never forgotten.
She watched him for a moment, then
with a soft voice spoke into the quiet oasis of men on the
dais. "Emma, my lord," she said, then bowed her
head and considered her toes again.
"What have you to say, Emma? Three
others have been before me today with the same complaint--love
satisfied, but not sanctified." Gilles stroked his closely
cropped black beard. This woman had not the demeanor of the
other young women and he wanted to hear from her, not the
"My Lord Gilles, the fact remains--"
her uncle began.
"Silence, old man." Gilles's
voice cut through his words.
The young woman knotted her hands before
her, her only sign of agitation. "Lord Gilles, I have
no complaints to bring before you. I am content with my lot
and just wish to return to my weaving."
Her words surprised him. She spoke
as one from a station of life far above her companion.
The old man flew into a paroxysm of
vituperative adjectives describing the young woman, her mother,
and her mother's mother. When Gilles raised his hand, the
old man stamped and swore.
"Again, old man, do not speak
until I direct you." Gilles leaned forward and rested
his elbows on the arms of the oaken chair in which he sat.
He reached down and scratched Garth's ear for a moment, although
he did not take his eyes from the young woman. She stood as
still as a statue, as composed as if naught concerned her,
stately and calm.
"Emma, your uncle seems to think
he has a complaint. As you are his ward, he has complete control
of you, your thoughts even. If he has a complaint concerning
you, it is your complaint, too."
This time her chin jerked up and her
deep blue eyes flashed defiantly for a moment, then her head
bowed quickly as if she'd gained control and remembered her
place, her anger suppressed as she answered. "I cannot
help what my uncle thinks, or others, my lord."
"Are you a maiden?" Gilles
watched intently as the question brought a red flush up from
the mantle's braided edge to stain the rest of her face the
color of the angry mark on her cheek.
The one word threw the old man into
another round of angry invectives and a cuff to Emma's shoulder.
"William." Gilles snapped
his fingers at William Belfour, a young knight of his company
who along with others, had been avidly watching the proceedings.
"Take this old man out until I have finished questioning
his ward." The knight, tall, blond as a Viking, and thick
with a warrior's muscles, unceremoniously dragged Simon from
the hall. The old man looked like a small child dangling from
the knight's large hand.
"Now, Emma, mayhap we may proceed
without interruption. Your uncle is--not unreasonably--upset
that you have lost your maidenhead. What is so entertaining?"
Gilles spoke sharply. The small smile that had appeared on
the young woman's face disappeared at his tone.
"Forgive me, Lord Gilles. It is
just that I find the idea of a 'lost' maidenhead amusing."
"How so?" he asked, puzzled
by her attitude, for most often such boldness in a serf oft
yielded, at the least, a few lashes. Of course, she was a
free woman. Her speech and demeanor indicated gentle birth.
His curiosity was well piqued.
"Lost implies one may find the
object in question and so have the benefit of its use again,
and we know that is not the case here, my lord."
Though her posture had stiffened with
his rebuke, Gilles noted that she no longer avoided his eyes
now that her uncle had left the hall. Gilles smiled despite
his inclination to sternness. He kept the smile in place to
reassure her. He had brought a sharp discipline to Hawkwatch
Keep, a discipline resented by many who had grown lazy under
his father's haphazard regime. His manner, coupled with his
sun-darkened skin, hard features, and black hair, had many
thinking him the spawn of Satan.
Gilles let his spine relax against
the chair back and stretched out his long legs. He had no
wish to rush this judgment. He had no wish to rush such a
lovely creature from his presence. In truth, he considered
that if she was no longer a maiden, had been well bedded,
he might wish to have her himself. Something about her went
beyond a compelling face and pleasing figure. She had some
indefinable aura that drew him, sent his blood rushing as
if he were a boy in his first flush of manhood.
"The loss of a maiden's virtue,
Emma, is not a matter of amusement," he lectured, trying
to maintain a serious demeanor and shake off the attraction.
"Aye, my lord," Emma returned.
"How does your uncle know of .
. . this happenstance?"
"Why, I told him so."
Gilles sat bolt upright and stared
at her dumbfounded. The cats scattered in a rush. Garth lifted
his head and yelped. "You? You told your uncle? Surely
you could foresee the consequences of such an action?"
She looked away from him, and he watched
her stare down the long stone hall with its high ceiling and
brightly woven tapestries. She seemed to consider each person
who loitered or sat at ease before deigning to answer him.
"Nay, I did not foresee these
circumstances, my lord. I meant only to end the connection
my uncle had arranged for me."
"Why? 'Twas surely an honor."
Gilles's sympathy rose; he empathized with the difficulty
of answering his questions in a public venue. The dais upon
which he sat stood a goodly distance from the folk in the
hall. Still, her uncle's commotion had ensured that many took
"When my uncle came to me with
the marriage plans, I felt duty bound to tell him that I loved
another. I believe his words were that a woman's wishes meant
naught. Jacob Baker and he had marked their names to the documents.
My uncle said the contract was met. And so I told him 'twas
more than a woman's wishes. 'Twas a deed done." Her voice
broke on the words.
"Do you not wish to name the man
who took your innocence so you may wed him?"
"Nay." Her answer came swiftly.
There was a silent entreaty in her eyes.
"Hmm." Gilles tented his
fingers beneath his chin, then steepled his index fingers
and stroked his mustache. Mayhap the trembling voice bespoke
a subtle lie, the frantic look, fear. Mayhap the girl had
been raped and feared naming her abuser.
"Did you give yourself of your
own free wish? Has someone abused you?" Gilles asked,
quietly and gently.
She shook her head, sending her hair
flying out in a golden bell. "Nay, my lord, nay."
"Would naming the man cause him
"The distress would be mine, my
lord." Her hair subsided, along with her agitation.
Pledged to another, he thought, or
Emma studied Lord Gilles as he considered
her. Outwardly calm, inwardly a sea of screaming emotions,
Emma remained determined to give nothing away of her inner
turmoil or the sickness in her belly at being so publicly
examined. She thought Lord Gilles too intelligent to accept
the denials she had practiced on her way to the judging. As
she and her uncle had stood outside the hall, Emma had paid
sharp attention to the gossip of Lord Gilles's attendance
at the judging. It was generally accepted among the satisfied
that he cut swiftly through to the core of a matter. He dealt
judiciously with petty squabbles and in some cases was just
as likely to think of an unusual settlement as dismiss the
complaints as a waste of his time. He listened fairly, but
suffered fools not at all. Of course, the dissatisfied thought
him cruel, a blight on their future. Emma had decided that
she would say nothing and offer no denials, for 'twas obvious
Lord Gilles accepted none.
She would never give up the name of
her lover. When the time was ripe, he would acknowledge the
vows they'd spoken together. She had never doubted it for
a moment--until now. She had thought she had his most sacred
vow, could withstand any beating she received. Until today,
this hour, her heart knew her lover would take her away when
his obligations were fulfilled. Although she had known him
but a few weeks, he a member of an advance guard of Lord Gilles
d'Argent's, Emma had fallen in love with a stunning swiftness
that defied sense.
She had accepted her lover's promises
for the future and sealed those promises with the joyful giving
Now, her heart beat in panic and fear;
the panic and fear of a decision made that may bode ill for
the future. From the moment she'd entered the hall, she'd
been struck with Lord Gilles's power. It radiated to her from
across the long chamber, like tendrils of creeper extending
along a garden wall, drew her forward as if someone had taken
her by the hand.
Did everyone feel it, that power, as
she did? 'Twas obvious from the gossip some feared him, whilst
others felt grateful to rest their cares with him. Why did
no one remark on this intangible pull? His physical presence
drew her, too. His fierce expression did not frighten her;
it beguiled her. She felt somehow mesmerized by the lord's
Emma looked about the crowd and her
gaze rested on her lover, who stood in haughty disregard of
the proceedings and her presence. Feigned she hoped. He had
not once looked in her direction.
Suddenly, he seemed a shadow of a man
compared with the power and force of a Gilles d'Argent. In
vain, Emma tried to shrug away her thoughts, telling herself
she merely sensed the difference found in a man of but a single
score of years and that of a man of two score years or more.
Surely, one would note the strength of a warrior tested and
honed in battle and one not yet tried, not yet called to prove
himself. She had made a promise, sealed it with more than
a kiss. All would come right if she but kept her silence,
as she had promised her lover. Surely, God would help her,
answer her frantic prayers.
"Emma?" Gilles's voice jolted
her to the present. "Do you not think that whatever difficulties
may arise for your lover, you will bear greater ones if you
do not name him?"
"Nay, my lord. I see no difficulties
"Have you lived in a cloister
to not know what becomes of unmarried females without male
protection? Surely, this whim of yours to protect your lover
will bring you to grief. Should your uncle scorn you, you
may find yourself earning your living at the whim of less
patient men. Your uncle may cast you out to earn your own
way if you bring shame on his household."
"He brings his own shame by dragging
me here and stating his ugly accusations for all to hear,
my lord." Her anger flared anew. "I believe he thinks
less of my predicament and more of the weight of Jacob Baker's
"Aye. 'Tis most likely true. No
one would know of your predicament for a while, but only for
a while. Surely you know that you cannot hide a child beneath
your skirts for long."
"Who said I am to have a child,
my lord? If all such . . . encounters caused birth, this keep
would be overrun with babes. I see few in the village and
fewer here." She allowed an amusement she did not feel
to enter her voice as she swept out her hands to indicate
a room with many people but few children.
"True. But, as I have seen to
the disposition of three such cases today, I can be sure that
such encounters often result in birthdays. So, your uncle
comes early to see to your honor--and his. May I ask, Emma,
how you wish this resolved?"
"My lord, if I were to be a farmer's
wife, the farmer would not see this as some shameful circumstance.
Indeed, he might even demand I prove my fertility before he
would wed with me--"
"You are no farmer's wife!"
Gilles retorted. "You were to have been wed to a baker,
a man of worth."
"I do not hold Jacob Baker in
great esteem, my lord."
"Nay? And are maids picking their
suitors these days?"
"Would that they could, my lord."
Emma met his amusement with serious intent.
Gilles lost his grin before her frown.
"I believe I have been chastised! And by a simple maid!"
Emma swallowed. Deep lines radiated
from his obsidian eyes. Eyes narrowed now in displeasure.
She clamped her teeth on her tongue to stay the torrent of
words bubbling up inside her.
"Again, Emma. How do you wish
"Allow me to return home, my lord.
I wish to return to my weaving. If I should prove wrong and
. . . a child results, I shall pay my six-pence fine."
"You will find even six-pence
a fortune without your uncle's protection." When she
did not answer, Gilles signaled to William Belfour, who stood
at an arched stone entrance to the hall. William hustled Emma's
uncle back into Gilles's presence.
"It seems, old man, that you come
early to seek a wedding. Emma says she is not with child.
I am reluctant to dictate solutions to events that have not
some tangible consequence."
Simon spluttered his indignation. "My
Lord Gilles, she is ruined. She has no dowry. How am I to
make a marriage for her when she has given away her only possession
worth anything? Who would have her now she has spread her
thighs for some nameless man? All know she is no longer a
virgin. You asked her before this company, and she has admitted
her shame. She is worthless. 'Twill cost me dear to keep her
"Well, old man, you certainly
made sure every man, woman, and child is aware of her loss
of virtue by presenting this case. If you had held your tongue,
no one would have been the wiser."
Every one of their words cut Emma deeply.
Pain flared and blossomed, swelled and grew to ugly proportions.
Soon the pain would be there for all to see, for surely in
another moment she would weep. Tears in her eyes burned to
be released. She offered up a silent prayer for the judging
to end. She wanted nothing more than to escape to the forest,
to silence and peace.
"Demand his name, my lord. I demand
The old man cowered as Gilles rose
on the dais. His crimson mantle flared about him, angry in
its own inanimate way. His black eyes flashed a warning. Emma
silently prayed her uncle would heed it, else they might find
themselves in the lord's prison. Simon scuttled back as Lord
Gilles stepped from his place to stand before them.
"So, we come to the crux of the
matter. Compensation. I have asked you to hold your tongue.
I am at the end of my patience. Speak again and it will be
you I will punish, you who will pay compensation."
Gilles moved to stand before Emma with
arms crossed on his chest. A single shaft of afternoon sun
pierced an arrow slit high above, casting a sparkling flame
to radiate from the blood red ruby on his left hand.
"I will not force you to name
your lover. Yet I know few men of quality who will have you
without your virtue intact."
He spoke intimately to her, so only
she could hear his words, spoke softly as if to spare her
further torment and yet, torment her his words did. She bled
"Emma, did you not realize the
consequences when you took a lover? What manner of man would
leave you to face a judgment such as this?" He swept
out his hand to the company before crossing his arms again.
"Why did you give away your most precious possession?"
Emma found herself unable to speak.
This close to him, she could not hide from his intent scrutiny.
She could not hide from the terrible twist of realization
his words forced upon her. What manner of man would leave
her to face this humiliation? Her lover could have come forward.
He could have saved her this humiliation--claimed her before
the company, admitted the vows they'd spoken. He could have
stayed Simon's fist. She must lie to Lord Gilles and to any
other who chanced to ask the same questions as he.
"Speak. Why did you give away
your most precious possession?"
She slowly shook her head, unable to
"Answer me, Emma." His voice
gentled, but there was a power in his words that made her
unable to refuse him.
She swallowed the lump in her throat
and met his eyes. "You have answered your own question,
Lord Gilles. You see--I had nothing else to give." So
saying, she bowed her head.
They stood in silence for a few moments.
"Pray God your lover holds your gift in high esteem."
His voice was harsh.
He resumed his seat, once more at that
impossible distance, ready to pronounce her fate. As he moved
away, she felt the loss, as if his power had included her,
had given her the strength to explain, to stand here before
this company, exposed. With distance, she felt frail and alone.
Her stomach churned, her knees threatened to fail her.
"Old man, take your ward home.
Mistreat her and you face my wrath. If a child results, see
me at the next manorial court. You have wasted my time."
Simon grew red beneath his yellow complexion
and in anger wheeled away, swearing as he scurried up the
aisle of the hall.
Emma vowed to hide her pain, hold it
inside. She looked once more on Lord Gilles. She wished to
steep herself in the power that shimmered about him, as if
that inner power of his might sustain her in the days to come,
for suddenly, her future seemed tenuous and frightening. She
locked eyes with him for a moment, boldly drinking him in
from his ebony hair to the hard lines of his warrior-trained
body, knowing instinctively he'd not punish her for meeting
his eyes. She nodded once and, head held high, she followed
The cold air that greeted them as they
left the hall did naught to cool her feverish brow and sweaty
hands. For one brief moment, she whirled and reached out for
the iron latch of the door to his hall. She grasped the curved
metal that held the double doors to Lord Gilles's life closed
to her--held his world closed to her. And, she now realized,
that of her lover, too.
Despite the humiliation and pain of
the judging, Lord Gilles had treated her kindly, more kindly
than she had expected. She was beset with confusion.
"Come, you worthless bitch,"
Simon called from the bottom of the steps that led up to the
"Worthless bitch," Emma murmured,
her hand falling from the latch. She raised the hood of her
mantle to conceal her face and turned away, following her
uncle into the roiling mass of humanity that moved about the
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