Chapter One

Yorkshire. April 1071

"Tell me, madam, where is my bride?"

Gilbert du Lannion flung his arms wide in a gesture that encapsulated anger, surprise and disbelief. He turned a slow circle around the gloomy hall then once again faced the impassive woman sitting on the dais close to the firepit.

"I have travelled from York to Haxby in appalling weather, and at risk to my safety with the sole intention of your daughter and now I discover she is not here!"

From his place at the left side of the hall Guillaume FitzBegard hid a frown as he watched his liege lord and childhood friend grow increasingly irate. The journey from the city to this manor house was manageable within half a day on foot, and on horseback had been even faster. The Galtres Forest had provided shelter from the sudden April rainfall and there had been no sightings of any trouble. Gilbert was merely attempting to impose his status on his audience, and as usual he showed no sense of how to do it with poise or effectiveness.

With his handsome even features, thick chestnut hair cut high into the back in the fashionable style favoured by most Norman knights and a well-built frame, Gilbert seldom failed to charm anyone he raised his soft brown eyes to, but if the glowing youth was hoping to make a good impression on his future mother in law he was failing. From her seat above them Emma, dowager countess of Haxby continue to look down her nose with an expression of disdain.

"Perhaps you should have checked before setting out on such an…" Emma paused to smirk openly, "arduous journey whether it was one worth making."

Her blue eyes became flint. "My daughter has not lived with me for the past six months. I sent her away last winter after Earls Morcar and Edwin retreated leaving our city in the hands of your king."

She brushed a hand down her sleeve dismissively.

'Your king,' Gui noted.

He had not expected her to call William 'The Great' but this open disdain was a clear signal. If Gui he had previously wondered which claim to the throne of England the widow of Herik of Haxby might have supported in the tumultuous events of four years previous this was the evidence to confirm it. No doubt she believed the oathbreaker Harold's claim was valid, or perhaps she had supported the Aetheling in his failed attempts the previous year to take York back from Norman control.

Gui flexed and bunched the fingers of his right hand and ignored the creeping itch in his left wrist. He looked closely at Gilbert to see if the nobleman had also picked up the inflection and choice of word. Doubtful. Lady Emma would have to openly call William 'the bastard' for Gilbert to realise her hostility.

"I know she is not here. I am fully aware of her absence," Gilbert said. He tossed his head. "You are telling me nothing I don't know and I believe you are being intentionally unhelpful!"

Gilbert's voice was rising and a blush was creeping up his throat. Any moment now he would stamp his foot. Gui noticed a shift in the stance of the attendants standing at either side of Emma's chair. They were readying themselves to move in defence of their mistress if the cause arose. The two men were middle aged and wore short swords buckled at their waists. The woman must have considerable influence to be allowed to keep armed guards after William's determination to bring Yorkshire's defiant inhabitants firmly under his yoke.

Gui carried a sword of his own, as did Gilbert and the two men they had brought as escort, so Gui doubted they were in any real danger. Part of Gui relished the idea of drawing English blood and teaching these northern curs that they were now and forever under the rule of William of Normandy. Another part grew clammy with cold sweat at the thought of taking arms in battle. The sword had never been his preferred weapon but he no longer wielded the bow that had brought him the recognition he craved. He was no use in that respect any longer.

In any case, William had decreed that was not the way things were to be done. England had been taken by force and subjugated by brutality but would be held and secured through marriage and creating alliances.

Gui was growing tired of listening to the demands and refusals going back and forth. It was time to intervene and smooth the path for his lord as he had done so many times before. That was why Gilbert had brought him today after all, not to fight. He was no use in that respect any longer.

Gui swallowed the bitter bile that caused his stomach to twist in self-loathing. He cleared his throat and stepped smoothly forward to stand beside Gilbert. He bowed his head.

"Lady Emma, it's time to put an end to this nonsense. Be gracious enough tell us where the maid is, now," Gui declared.

Emma raised an eyebrow in surprise. Her watery blue eyes raked over Gui. She blinked but did not outwardly show revulsion at the sight of him as most women - and enough men- did. Gui felt a grudging touch of admiration for the woman who faced down these unwelcome visitors in her house and lands with such assurance.

What must she think of him in comparison to the noble knight he now stood beside? He was a head shorter than Gilbert and with a broader frame. He had not been graced with Gilbert's open, regular features or winning smile anyway but now bore a nose that had been broken in childhood and never fixed, leaving it permanently crooked. If that had not ruined his features enough, his time in the army had left him with a scar that split his lower lip into two uneven parts and eyes that were charcoal smuts from frequent sleepless nights. He felt like a rough tree trunk beside a tower of polished oak.

He thanked his stars that his true disfigurement that was not immediately apparent to an onlooker.

"Who are you to speak so boldly on a matter which does not concern you?" Emma asked.

He folded his right arm over his left, concealing the padded leather glove he always wore and turned his eyes to meet the widow's gaze, boldly as she had called it.

He gave Lady Emma a smile knowing that even when he meant it - which was rare these days - his scar twisted his lip into a grin that was more likely to provoke repulsion than kindness.

"My name is Guillaume FitzBegard, my lady. As to who I am… I am no one of import."

No one. Not a man of rank, simply an archer who had followed his friend and lord to England to seek his fortune and failed to find it.

Gilbert clapped a hand tightly on Gui's shoulder and gave him a warm smile. The anger in his eyes was replaced with a softer expression.

"Guillaume is my closest confidant and my advisor, Lady Emma. He reminds me that I need to temper my speech at times and perhaps now is now such time. I could not manage without him."

Emma flashed Gui a look of understanding that took him by surprise. Perhaps she had spent the years before widowhood smoothing the path of a rash nobleman.

Gui bowed his head modestly. "Sir Gilbert does me too much kindness. I would add my petition to his, however. Delaying this affair simply to provoke us will solve nothing. Whether or not you accept William as king, he has spoken on this matter."

He gave another crooked smile and took a step back.

"I sent my daughter with her foster-sister - a foundling my late husband took in - to take sanctuary at the priory at Tresche," Emma said after a long pause. "Sigrid saw her brothers cut down before her eyes when the earls rose against York in the summer of the year 68. She narrowly escaped defilement, first at the hands of the rebels, then by men such as yourself who came to take the city."

Emma's voice caught. Gui looked up into eyes that were blank, viewing something other than the room before her. Were her nights plagued by the same dreams as his? Did she hear the same cries also?

He studied his boots, momentarily ashamed of his countrymen, though he had not taken part in such dishonourable exploits.

"Sigrid was already of fragile temperament and is not strong in body or spirit," Emma continued. "I believe that despite his determination to break our shire, William of Normandy has enough respect for the sanctity of holy orders to allow a maiden to be safe there from abuse and slaughter."

Her voice dripped with contempt. Having travelled from the south through the ruins of what had once been prosperous villages Gui found it hard to blame her.

"If you have sent her away you must fetch her back," Gilbert blustered, seemingly unaffected by the tale he had heard.

A victorious smile flitted across Emma's lips.

"That is out of the question."

Gilbert growled deep in his throat and tensed his shoulders. Gui laid a restraining hand on his friend's forearm, foreseeing a return to the hostilities he had hoped were ended.

"You are making this harder than necessary, my lady," he cautioned.

Emma rose from her seat and walked slowly to the men. Her attendants stayed at their stations but both stood poised to act if the need arose. Did these men of the north think Normans so dishonourable that they would attack a woman in her own home?

Emma stopped before Gui.

"I am a poor widow with few resources. I do not have the means to escort my child here safely and she cannot travel alone, not while bands of rebels and outlaws roam through Yorkshire. It is simply not safe."

"Your daughter will come to no harm," Gui assured her.

"You thought York was safe after the earls left but Edgar and Sweyn proved you wrong half a year ago! Yorkshire may rise in rebellion again at any time."

Gui curled his lip at the open gloating, or perhaps it was a warning. He and Gilbert had marched with William to take York back when the Aetheling attacked for the second time. That was why William had decreed that Gilbert was the man to marry the sister of the young eorl who had taken arms against him.

"Yorkshire will not rise again. William has seen to that. Barely a village stands between here and Durham."

Emma looked from man to man. Approaching her late thirties and therefore at least ten years older than either man, she was still an attractive, elegant woman with full breasts and a gently curved belly. Where once he might have taken his time to appreciate her beauty, Gui remained unmoved, simply noting that time and her troubles had not diminished her looks.

"I agreed to allow my daughter to marry you, Sir Gilbert," she said coldly. "Sigrid is a compliant and dutiful maiden and will do what is required of her but I do not have to like it. Nor do I have to aid you in the process."

"You did not agree. You were given no choice," Gui pointed out. "A marriage was settled in return for your lands not being devastated after your son joined with Edgar's forces."

Emma's eyes filled with hatred. Gui shrugged. A daughter's virginity was a small price to pay in return for a home and security and the guarantee of safety for those who lived on her manor, especially when the girl would have been doubtless married off to some straw-haired eorl in any case.

"If you wish to marry my daughter go bring her here yourself!" Emma lifted her chin. "I'll send word ahead that they should expect the noble Gilbert du Lannion to come claim his bride! Until you marry her, this house is mine. You can leave it now. All of you."

She turned on her heel and swept away, disappearing behind the thick embroidered hangings into her private quarters, leaving Gui, Gilbert and their escort standing alone. Her attendants moved silently to stand before the curtain and block entry.

Gilbert spun on his heel and flounced out of the building with as much drama as the departed woman. He turned and kicked the beam of wood at the corner of the building.

"Merde! That woman is impossible. How dare she behave to me in such a manner?"

"We have invaded her land and now you wish to claim her daughter as your wife. Did you expect to be greeted with open arms?" Gui asked.

"Wish to marry her daughter! Wish to?" Gilbert was growing pink in the cheek. "The wish is not mine. You know that, Gui. It is as much a penance to me as a reward. I don't want to marry a whey-faced English mouse who by her mother's own account might be feeble minded!"

Gui had long held the suspicion that Gilbert had no urge to marry any woman. His mind was consumed entirely with thoughts of gambling, hunting and other diversions that did Gui no credit to suspect him of. He kept his thoughts to himself and put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Calm yourself. You might not want the girl but you do want this."

He gestured around at the imposing building they had exited and the fields surrounding it. Emma's lands had been spared too much destruction during the taking of the shire. Gilbert shrugged him off and stalked to the horses- his own destrier and the mount Gui had hired in York.

Gui followed him. "You'll be a man of means with land here. It's better than being the second son of a nobleman in Brittany, even if it does mean marrying the English mouse."

Much better than being the son of a vassal in that nobleman's fief too. Although Gui had accompanied Gilbert from Brittany at the behest of his friend no one had offered him land, much less a bride for the part he had played in the conquest.

"You know where the girl is now. All you need to do is go fetch her and the matter can be settled. You can have her back here by midsummer's day. That would be a good omened day for a wedding."

"I have better things to do than chase around the shire bringing back runaway women," Gilbert said petulantly.

"Such as?" Gui prompted.

"Robert de Coudray was granted land in Cheshire with fine deer hunting. He's invited me to join a party of nobles now he's rid himself of the last of the rebels plaguing him. You should come too."

Gui's jaw clenched. He jerked his head to his left. "And how would I bring them down with no means of drawing a bow?"

"Forgive me, that was tactless," Gilbert said. His faux pas immediately forgotten, his eyes lit and he pointed a finger at Gui. "You can go to Tresche in my place. Bring the girl back to me while I go to Durham."

Gui gave a short laugh then stopped short. He scowled.

"You actually mean that, don't you?"

Gilbert swung himself into the saddle. "Why not. It should be a simple matter. I don't want to trouble myself and if you don't intend to come with me you have nothing better to do with your time."

Gui had planned to spend his immediate future locating as many of York's drinking dens as he could and passing into oblivion. Traipsing halfway across Yorkshire to collect another man's bride did not hold any appeal, even if that man was his oldest friend. He mounted his horse, gathering the reins in his right hand.

"We'll make arrangements within the week," Gilbert mused.

"My lord! Gilbert! I said no," Gui reminded him.

"Of course you did, but you'll do it anyway." Gilbert exuded confidence, displaying the easy charm that had failed to work on Lady Emma. "I could command you as your liege lord but I know I won't have to. My good friend. I ask a lot of you but I'll reward you too. You'll need a better horse, of course. Better clothes too. It will cost me dearly."

Gui ground his teeth. New clothes were not much of a reward and Gilbert had been spinning tales of riches and power for them both since they had left France. They had so far failed to appear. For Gui at least.

"I imagine Lady Emma will see it as a personal insult if you send a messenger in your place."

Gilbert grunted. "Should I care? It's the daughter I have to marry, not the mother."

Gui gave him a stern look. Diplomacy was not Gilbert's strongest feature.

"I suppose you're right," Gilbert conceded. He broke into a trot and said nothing more as they skirted round the edge of Lady Emma's land towards the forest path. Gui followed, uneasy on horseback and watchful for signs of trouble Gilbert might ignore.

As they reached the edge of the forest Gilbert pulled his reins sharply and turned to Gui.

"You go as me!"

Gui drew his horse to a halt, momentarily puzzled by what he had heard.

"You go in my place to Tresche," Gilbert clarified. He smiled. "Lady Emma is sending word I am coming but the Lady Sigrid and I have never met. She won't know you aren't me. I'll even give you my seal to wear to add to the deception."

He trotted on, lost in his plans.

"She'll discover I'm not you on your wedding night!" Gui said. "What will she do when she finds out she has been deceived?"

"She'll be uncomplaining if she's as timid and compliant as her mother says." Gilbert answered. He smiled. "If I went to bring your bride back I can see that would be a problem, but as it stands…"

He left the thought unfinished. Gui ended it for him.

"As it stands she will take one look at you and thank God she does not have to marry a beast after all."

Gilbert had the grace to look abashed. "That isn't what I meant."

It had been, but Gui had long grown accustomed to Gilbert's tactlessness and it washed over him. Besides, it was true.

"You really don't look as bad as you imagine," Gilbert said. "If you were wealthier a woman would look past your face anyway. When I am master of this manor I'll have the power to grant land, If you do this for me I'll grant a portion to you. I'll make you my reeve. My second-in-command."

Gui gazed around at Lady Emma's estate. Her land had been spared the worst of the harrying that had all but destroyed much of the North. There was a river. Gently rolling hills that in time could be brought back to life. It reminded him a little of home and the farmer's son in him awoke. To be master of his own lands under the fiefdom of his friend would be a good thing to be. And all for making a journey of a week and escorting a girl to her home. What could be simpler? His lips twitched into a smile.

"I'll bring your bride," he agreed. "I'll do whatever it takes."

x

Gui raised himself high in the saddle and rolled his shoulders back. It was now mid afternoon and he had been riding all day but the final stage of his journey was almost complete. He steadied the horse and surveyed what lay before him. He had reached the highest point of the hill and stopped beside the stone marker. He could make out the roofs of the priory nestling in the dip below. It stood along the furthest bank of a river that wound lazily between hills and back towards York, passing by the remains of a couple of desolate villages and vanishing periodically into knots of trees.

Gui pulled at the neck of his cloak to loosen it. In the five days since he had left York the Spring weather had turned drastically for the better and the new wool was still stiff and itchy in the unexpected sun.

Not that he was complaining about his new attire. Gilbert had been as good as his word and so grateful for Gui's agreement he had presented Gui with the new cloak, a fine linen undershirt and a new tunic of light wool with a deep band of embroidered braid along the thigh length hem. A new buckle adorned the worn leather belt Gui insisted on retaining along with his boots and gloves. They were by far the finest clothes Gui had ever possessed and how he looked exactly like what he was supposed to resemble: a knight of middling wealth hoping to make a favourable impression on his bride.

Despite all Gilbert's coaxing Gui had steadfastly refused to shave his head in the same style as the knight and had kept his dark brown hair longer than fashionable so it skimmed his jaw and framed his face. He brushed the length back from his forehead where it had become damp with exertion from the ride. Sweat pooled beneath his arms and the linen clung to his torso.

He frowned. It would not do to arrive at the priory looking so travel stained. No doubt the prioress would provide the means to bathe but sunlight turned the river silver and to Gui it was a more appealing prospect. He turned the horse towards the river and in a lazy walk he made his way down the hill to one of the bends where trees would afford him some privacy in the unlikely event he encountered anyone.

Gui tethered his horse to a tree close to the river where she could drink as she wished or take shelter from the sun. He unbuckled the short sword he wore at his belt and stowed it in the saddlebag along with the bow he could not bear to part with. He pulled off his boots and stripped off his clothes. He paused before removing the padded glove on his left hand but in this isolated spot he removed that too.

Once naked he plunged into the river. It proved to be deeper than he had expected. He stood gasping and shuddering, toes curling in the mud at the bed of the river as the chilly depths closed around him to his waist. When he became accustomed to the cold, he swam under the surface with powerful strokes, emerging downstream when he could no longer hold his breath. He scrubbed at his hair and body until his flesh stung, wishing he had the means to scrape the bristles from his jaw.

The sun was still warm, lessening the worst of the chill. Gui lay back in the water and closed his eyes taking deep lungfulls of the sweet scented air. He drifted along with the gentle current, allowing the water to caress him, feeling knots in his muscles loosen as the current and weeds played around his body. For what he reflected was almost certainly the first time since stepping foot in England he felt truly at peace.

x

"That'll do until I come again next week." Aldyth tightened the knot holding the bandage on Brun's leg. The old man drew a sharp breath and bit his lip. Aldyth pulled the threadbare blanket back over his legs and smiled. "Try to move a little if you can or you'll get more sores. That poultice will help ease the discomfort."

"You're a good lass. You'll make a good wife to some man," Brun rasped. Aldyth wondered bitterly who she would marry now Yorkshire's men were dead but Brun meant it kindly so she said nothing. She waited patiently while coughs wracked his frame.

"I won't be sorry to go but you've made these months more comfortable," he wheezed.

"Don't talk like that! You've got years ahead of you," Aldyth lied.

A film of tears covered Brun's eyes. "Weeks. A month or two, perhaps. I didn't think I'd see this year come when they came to burn the village. My sons are dead, my home is gone. I'm ready to go join them."

They. The Normans. They'd laid waste to the villages all around Tresche and further afield if tales were true. The new king's vengeance for what had happened in York. For the people daring to try regain their city. Aldyth's throat tightened with hatred.

Brun was her last patient. She began to pack up her bag of poultices and medicines to stop her hand straying to the brooch she wore concealed beneath a fold in the neck of her shapeless tunic. She would not think about the man who had given it to her or her eyes would fill with tears too.

She said her goodbyes and left the dimly lit hut where the remaining villagers now dwelled: the old and the young, those who had escaped the killing. She began to make her way home to the priory, considering herself lucky to have a home however much she hated the confining wall. She tried to ignore the fields that should have been thick with growing barley and stomped along the rutted track. Her boots were sturdy and she set a good pace up the hill, only pausing for breath as the top came into view and she felt perspiration rising on her face and neck. The breeze was warm as it caressed her cheeks, a sure sign that spring would be hot this year.

Aldyth's skirts billowed around her and she shook her head, enjoying the sensation of the wind's kiss upon the back of her neck. She ran the last few paces to the top of the hill then spun around, arms wide and head thrown back. She laughed at her foolishness, as she realised what she must look like. She did it again, sure no one was watching, for who was there left to watch her now?

Her stomach growled. Breakfast had been hard, gritty bread and sour cheese, and supper would be nothing worth anticipating. The river glinted in the sunlight, winding through the valley. Aldyth had time to spare before she had to return to the priory and her spirits lifted. When such feeling came upon her she could forget her country was under the yoke of the Conqueror, could forget she had not seen her home for almost two years, could almost forget the dull ache in her heart at the loss of the man she had loved.

An idea struck her. She was thirsty and hot. The river could satisfy both those needs and she could even try catch a fish to supplement the meagre diet at the priory using the method Brun described when his mind wandered to his youth.

Anticipating the cool water swirling around her legs Aldyth hastened her steps as she neared the river where it bent towards her side of the bank, skipping and occasionally spinning in circles in the sheer joy of being alive. The world was empty. She could swim naked if she chose, though would not go that far. If her swim was ever discovered Aldyth would no doubt receive the customary whipping from one of the sisters, but there was no one to see and no one to tell. It would be her secret, and hers alone.