Royce was thrown backwards. He landed a fair distance away from his stallion. He didn’t sleep long. Dust still clouded the air around him when he opened his eyes. His soldiers were running toward him to offer assistance.
He declined their help. He sat up, shook his head in an attempt to rid himself of the pain and fog that confused him. For a minute or two, he couldn’t even remember where the hell he was. Blood trickled from a cut high on his forehead, above his right eye. He prodded around the edges of the injury and only then realized a fair chunk of flesh had been torn away.
He still didn’t understand what had hit him. From the size of the jagged wound, he knew an arrow couldn’t have done the damage. But damn it all, his head seemed to be on fire.
Royce pushed his pain aside and concentrated on standing up. Fury came to his aid. By God, he would find the bastard who’d done this to him and give him equal measure.
That thought cheered him considerably.
His squire stood holding the reins of his mount. Royce swung himself up into the saddle and turned his attention to the top of the wall that surrounded the holding. Had his enemy aimed at him from that spot? The distance was too great for him to see even a glimpse of a threat.
He put his helmet back on.
Looking around, he saw that in the ten or fifteen minutes that had passed since he’d taken the blow, his soldiers had seemingly forgotten everything he’d taught them.
Ingelram, his temporary second-in-command, had the full contingent of men fighting in a unit near the south side of the fortress. Arrows rained down on them from the top of the wall, making advance impossible.
Royce was appalled by their ineptness. The soldiers held their shields up above their heads to ward off the arrows, and they were fighting a defensive battle again. They were in the exact position he’d found them in when he’d joined them for this nuisance duty this morning.
Royce let out a long sigh, then took command again.
He immediately changed tactics to prevent them from losing the ground they’d already secured. He pulled ten of his most reliable soldiers away from the wall and went with them to the small rise above the holding. With one of his own arrows he killed a Saxon soldier who was standing on top of the wall before his men had even had time to secure their own sightings. Then he allowed them to take over the task. In little time at all, the Saxon walls were once again unprotected.
Five of Royce’s men climbed the walls and cut the ropes to the bridge, lowering it. God help him, he’d actually had to remind one of the eager volunteers to take his sword with him.
Royce rode first across the wooden planks of the drawbridge, his sword drawn, though there really wasn’t any need. Both the lower bailey and the upper one were completely deserted.
They made a thorough search of the huts and outer buildings and discovered not a single Saxon soldier. It became clear to Royce that the enemy had left their holding by a secret passage. Royce ordered half his men to search the walls for such an opening. He would seal it the minute they located it.
The Normans secured the holding in William’s name a few minutes later when they hoisted the duke of Normandy’s banner, displaying his magnificent colors, onto the pole atop the wall. The castle now belonged to the Normans.
Yet Royce had completed only half of his duties. He still had to collect the prize and take her to London.
Aye, it was time to capture Lady Nicholaa.
A search of the living quarters of the keep produced a handful of servants, who were dragged outside and pushed into a tight circle in the courtyard.
Ingelram, as tall as Royce was, though he lacked the bulk and battle scars, held one Saxon servant by the back of his tunic. The servant was an elderly man with thin, graying hair and puckered skin.
Royce hadn’t had time to dismount before Ingelram blurted out, “This one’s the steward, Baron. His name’s Hacon. He’s the one who told Gregory all about the family.”
“I didn’t talk to any Normans,” Hacon protested. “I don’t even know anyone named Gregory. God strike me dead if that ain’t the truth,” he added boldly.
The “faithful” servant was lying, and he was feeling quite proud of himself for possessing such courage in the face of dire circumstances. The old man still hadn’t looked up at the Norman leader, though, but kept his attention on the overly eager blond knight who was trying to tear his tunic off his back.
“Aye, you did talk to Gregory,” Ingelram countered. “He was the first knight to take on the challenge of securing this holding and capturing the prize. It won’t do you any good to lie, old man.”
“He be the one who left with the arrow in his backside?” Hacon asked.
Ingelram glared at the servant for mentioning Gregory’s humiliation. He forced Hacon to turn around. The servant’s breath caught in the back of his throat when he finally looked up at the Norman leader. He had to tilt his head all the way back in order to get a decent look at the giant, who was covered in leather and steel links. Hacon squinted against the streamers of sunlight that reflected off the armor and into his eyes. Neither the warrior nor his magnificent black stallion moved, and for a brief minute, the steward imagined that he was looking at a grand statue made of stone.
Hacon held on to his composure until the Norman removed his helmet.
He almost lost his supper then and there. The barbarian terrified him. Hacon felt sick with the need to cry out for mercy. The look in the Norman’s cold gray eyes was frigid with determination, and Hacon was sure he was about to die. Yes, he’ll kill me, Hacon thought. He said a quick Pater Noster. It would be an honorable death, he decided, because he was determined to help his gentle mistress until the very end. Surely God would welcome him to heaven for protecting an innocent.
Royce stared down at the trembling servant a long while. Then he tossed his helmet to his waiting squire, dismounted, and handed the reins to a soldier. The stallion reared up, but one hard command from his master stopped his budding tantrum.
Hacon’s knees went limp. He fell to the ground. Ingelram reached down and hauled him back up to his feet. “One of the twins is inside the keep, abovestairs, Baron,” Ingelram announced. “She prays in the chapel.”
Hacon took a deep breath, then blurted out, “The church was burned to the ground when last we were under siege.” His voice sounded like a strangled whisper. “As soon as Sister Danielle arrived from the abbey, she ordered the altar moved to one of the chambers inside the keep.”
“Danielle’s the nun,” Ingelram volunteered. “It just as we heard, Baron. They’re twins, they are. One’s a saint, bent on serving the world, and the other’s a sinner, bent on giving us trouble.”
Royce still hadn’t said a word. He continued to stare down at the servant. Hacon couldn’t look up into the leader’s eyes very long. He turned his gaze to the ground, clasped his hands together, and whispered, “Sister Danielle’s been caught in this war betwixt the Saxons and the Normans. She’s an innocent and wishes only to return to the abbey.”
“I want the other one.”
The baron’s voice was soft, chilling. Hacon’s stomach lurched again.
“He’s wanting the other twin,” Ingelram shouted. He started to say more, then caught his baron’s hard stare and decided to close his mouth instead.
“The other twin’s name is Nicholaa,” Hacon said. He took another deep breath before adding, “She left, Baron.”
Royce didn’t show any reaction to this news. Ingelram, on the other hand, couldn’t contain his disappointment. “How could she have left?” he demanded in another shout as he shoved the old man back to his knees.
“There are many secret passages built into the thick walls of the keep,” Hacon confessed. “Didn’t you notice there weren’t any Saxon soldiers here when you crossed over the drawbridge? Mistress Nicholaa left with her brother’s men near to an hour past.”
Ingelram bellowed in frustration. In a bid to ease his anger, he shoved the servant again.
Royce took a step forward, his stare directed at his vassal. “You do not show me your strength when you mistreat a defenseless old man, Ingelram, nor do you show me your ability to control your enthusiasm when you interfere with my questioning.”
The vassal was properly humiliated. He bowed his head to his baron, then helped the Saxon to his feet.
Royce waited until the young soldier had taken a step away from the servant. He then looked at Hacon again. “How long have you served this household?”
“Near to twenty years now,” Hacon answered. There was pride in his voice when he added, “I’ve always been treated fair, Baron. They made me feel as important as one of their own.”
“Yet after twenty years of fair treatment you betray your mistresses now?” He shook his head in disgust. “You won’t give me your pledge of loyalty, Hacon, for your word isn’t trustworthy.”
Royce didn’t waste another minute on the steward. His stride was determined as he made his way to the doors of the keep. He pushed his eager men out of his path and went inside.
Hacon was motioned into the cluster of servants and left to worry about his fate when Ingelram rushed after his lord.
Royce was methodical in his search. The first floor of the keep was cluttered with rubble. Litter covered the old rushes. The long table near the far corner had been overturned, and most of the stools had been destroyed.
The staircase leading to the chambers abovestairs was still intact, though just barely. The wooden steps were slippery with water dripping down from the walls. It was a dangerously narrow climb. Most of the banister had been torn away and dangled over the side, and if a man lost his footing, there was nothing to prevent him from falling.
The landing on the second level was just as pitiful. Wind howled through a gaping man-sized hole in the center of the far wall. The air was bitter from the cold winter wind blowing in from outside. A long, dark corridor led away from the head of the stairs.
As soon as Royce reached the landing, Ingelram rushed ahead of him and awkwardly drew his sword. The vassal obviously meant to protect his lord. The floorboards were just as wet and slippery as the steps, however. Ingelram lost both his sword and his balance and went flying toward the gaping hole.
Royce caught him by the nape of the neck and sent him flying in the opposite direction. The vassal landed with a thud against the inside wall, shook himself like a wet dog to rid himself of the shivers, then picked up his sword and went chasing after his lord again.
Royce shook his head in exasperation at his inept vassal’s puny attempt to protect him. He didn’t bother to draw his own sword as he started down the hallway. When he reached the first chamber and found the door barred against him, he simply kicked it open, ducked under the low lintel, and went inside.
The room was a bedchamber in which six candles were burning. It was unoccupied save for a serving girl who cowered in a corner.
“Who resides in this chamber?” Royce demanded.
“Mistress Nicholaa,” came the whispered reply.
Royce took his time studying the room. He was mildly surprised at how Spartan and orderly the chamber was. He didn’t realize women could live without a clutter of possessions surrounding them. His experience was limited to his three sisters, of course, but that was quite enough to allow him to draw such a conclusion. Still, Lady Nicholaa’s room didn’t have a bit of clutter. A large bed stood against one wall, its burgundy draperies tied back. The hearth was on the opposite wall. A single low-fashioned chest made of fine, burnish red wood stood in a corner.
There wasn’t a single article of clothing hanging from the hooks to give Royce any idea of the woman’s size. He turned to leave the chamber, but found his path blocked by his vassal. A glare quickly removed the obstacle.
The second door was also barred from inside. Royce was about to kick it out of his way when he heard the sound of the latch being removed.
The door was opened by a young serving girl. Freckles and fear covered her face. She tried to curtsy to him but only half completed the formal greeting when she got a true look at his face. She let out a cry and went running across the large chamber.
The room was alight with candles. A wooden altar covered with a white cloth stood in front of the hearth. On the floor in front of the altar were several leather-padded kneelers.
He saw the nun at once. She was kneeling, her head bowed in prayer, her hands folded below the cross she wore on a thin leather thong around her neck.
She was dressed in white, from the long veil covering her hair to her white shoes. Royce stood inside the doorway and waited for her to acknowledge him. Because there was no chalice on the altar, he didn’t genuflect.
The serving girl timidly touched the nun’s slender shoulder, bent down, and whispered in her ear. “Sister Danielle, the Norman leader has arrived. Do we surrender now?”
That question seemed so ridiculous that Royce almost smiled. He motioned to Ingelram to replace his sword, then walked farther into the room. Two servants stood together near the fur-covered window across the room. One held a baby in her arms. The infant was diligently chewing on his fists.
Royce’s attention returned to the nun. He could only see her profile from his position. She finally made the sign of the cross, a signal her prayers were finished, then gracefully gained her feet. As soon as she stood up, the baby let out a lusty cry and reached out to her.
The nun motioned the dark-haired servant forward and took the baby into her arms. She kissed the top of his head and turned to walk toward Royce.
He still hadn’t gotten a good look at her face because she kept her head bowed, but he found himself pleasantly affected by her gentle manners and her whisper-soft voice as she crooned to the baby. The infant’s head was covered with a sprinkling of white-blond hair that literally stood up on end, giving him a comical look. The baby cuddled contentedly against the nun and continued to suckle on his fists. He made loud, slurping sounds, interrupted only by an occasional yawn.
Danielle stopped when she was just a foot or two away from Royce. The top of her head only reached his shoulders, and he was thinking to himself how very fragile and vulnerable she appeared to be.
Then she lifted her gaze and stared into his eyes, and he couldn’t seem to think at all.
She was exquisite. God’s truth, she had the face of an angel. Her skin was flawless. Her eyes fascinated him. They were the most appealing shade of blue. Royce imagined that he was looking at a goddess who’d come to earth just to tantalize him. Her light brown eyebrows were perfectly sculptured into soft arches, her nose was wonderfully straight, and her mouth was full, rosy, and damned appealing.