Hugh smiled back. “Old, say you? You’ll change your opinion when you hear about my astonishing victories against the Saxons.”
The arrogant warrior then began to relate, detail by methodical detail, the series of victories he’d claimed in William’s name. He didn’t finish with his litany of boasts until they were in the courtyard of the castle.
Ingelram wasn’t there to greet his lord, and Royce surmised the besotted vassal was still abovestairs, staring at the nun.
The mere reminder of the Saxon woman made him uneasy—something about her bothered Royce, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was.
Perhaps, he thought to himself, it was because she was such an appealing woman. It was a shame, to his way of thinking, for such a beautiful woman to belong to the church. She should belong to a man.
He decided it was weariness making him think such sinful thoughts. He walked at Hugh’s side into the keep. It had already been decided that Hugh and his contingent would spend the night at the holding, for dark was fast approaching.
Hugh looked exhausted and chilled through. Royce ordered a fire started in the hearth for his friend’s benefit, then requested that the Saxon informant Hugh had told him had useful information be ordered inside. “I would like to ask him a few questions regarding this household,” he explained.
A soldier was immediately dispatched to bring the Saxon inside. A minute or two later, Ingelram came running into the great hall. The fair-haired soldier skidded to a halt, bowed to his lord, and prepared to give his accounting.
Royce cut him off with a curt order. “Bring the nun to me. I’ll question her now.”
Ingelram looked astonished by the order; he paled visibly. Royce was just about to give the vassal a hard shove to get him moving when his attention was turned to the entrance. The soldier Hugh had sent outside had just returned with the informant at his side. The Saxon Judas was dressed in ill-fitting garments, an indication to Royce of his fall in status. The brown tunic the man wore brushed the ground and was caked with mud. He reminded Royce of an owl. He was a short man with stooped shoulders, and his eyelids were so heavily laden with extra folds of skin that they appeared hooded. Aye, he looked like an owl, but he had the heart of a vulture to betray his countrymen, Royce thought with distain.
“Come forward, James,” Royce commanded.
The Saxon did as he was ordered. When he reached the Norman soldiers, he made a low bow. “I am ever your faithful servant, my lords.”
Royce stood by Hugh’s side in front of the hearth with his hands clasped behind his back. Hugh held a woolen cloak around his shoulders in an attempt to ward off the chills racking his body. Royce noticed the pallor of his complexion, the fevered look in his brown eyes, and immediately ordered a chair carried over to the fireplace.
“Bring your baron a full cup of ale,” he called out to one of Hugh’s soldiers standing sentry near the entrance. “Make one of the Saxons take the first swallow. If the servant doesn’t die, we’ll know the ale isn’t poisoned.”
Hugh grumbled over Royce’s order. “I’m every bit as fit as you are,” he muttered. “I’ll be seeing to my own wants.”
“Yes, you are as fit as I am,” Royce agreed. “But you’ve fought double the number of battles this past week.” That was a lie, of course, but Royce sought to appease his friend’s pride. “I, too, would be weary if I had accomplished half your number of victories in William’s name.”
Hugh muttered agreement. “’Tis the truth you would be weary.”
The shield of Hugh’s pride had gone undented. Royce held his smile and turned his attention back to the informant. Since the infidel had spoken the guttural Saxon language, Royce questioned him in kind. “Tell me about this household,” he ordered. “Begin with the parents. Is it true they’re both dead?”
The Saxon moved out of the way as a soldier carried a large high-backed chair over to the hearth. He waited until Hugh was settled before answering. “Aye, my lord. The parents are both dead. They’re buried in the family plot atop the crest to the north.”
James’s neck began to ache from having to tilt his head all the way back in order to look up at the Norman’s face. When the crick became too irritating, he turned his gaze to the floor. The action proved a blessing, for the tightness in his chest immediately loosened once he wasn’t looking directly at the warrior’s face. The Norman’s eyes were just as terrifying as the hideous scar covering most of his right cheek, James admitted. His hard, cold gaze was far more intimidating than his size or his marks.
“Now tell me about the other members of this family,” Royce commanded.
James hurried to answer. “There are two brothers. Thurston is the eldest of the children. It was reported he died during the battle in the north. This hasn’t been verified yet.”
“And the other brother?”
“His name is Justin. He’s the youngest in the family. He was injured in the same battle. The nuns are taking care of him now at the abbey. It isn’t believed Justin will live, though. His injuries were quite severe.”
Ingelram continued to stand by his leader’s side. Royce suddenly turned to his vassal. “Did I not order you to bring the nun to me?” he demanded, still speaking Saxon.
Ingelram answered him in the same language. “I didn’t know you meant to question her, Baron.”
“It isn’t your duty to know what I plan to do, Ingelram. You’re to obey without question.”
Ingelram took a deep breath. “She isn’t here,” he blurted out.
Royce resisted the urge to strangle his vassal. “Explain yourself,” he ordered in a hard voice.
It took all the courage Ingelram possessed to meet his lord’s stare. “Sister Danielle requested an escort back to the abbey. She’d given her word to her superiors she’d be back before dark. She was also most concerned about her brother. Because he’s the youngest in the family, she feels great responsibility for him.”
Throughout the halting explanation, Royce hadn’t shown any reaction. Ingelram didn’t have the faintest idea what his lord was thinking. The not knowing made his voice squeak when he continued. “The brother’s injuries are life-threatening, Baron, and she wanted to sit by his side through the night. She promised me she’d return to us in the morning. Surely then she’ll answer any questions you have for her.”
Royce had to take a deep, calming breath before he dared to speak again. “And if she doesn’t return to us in the morning?” he asked in a mild, thoroughly controlled voice.
Ingelram looked stunned by that question. He’d never considered such a dark possibility. “She gave me her word, Baron. She wouldn’t lie to me. She couldn’t. She’s a bride of the church. It would be a mortal sin on her soul if she didn’t tell the truth. If, for some reason, she cannot leave the abbey in the morning, I’ll be happy to go inside and fetch her for you.”
Royce was conditioned by years of training to control his temper. He did so now, though the urge to shout at the foolish vassal made his throat ache. The fact that the Saxon informant was in the hall did help somewhat, for Royce would never ever chastise one of his men in front of an outsider. It would be an indignity, and Royce always treated his men the way he expected to be treated. Respect was earned, not demanded, but dignity was taught by example.
Hugh cleared his throat, gaining Royce’s full attention. The older warrior gave his friend a sympathetic look, then turned to Ingelram. “Son, you can’t go inside the sacred walls to get her. The left hand of God would descend upon all of us if we dared to violate the most holy law of all.”
“The holy law?” Ingelram stammered out, clearly not understanding.
Hugh rolled his eyes heavenward. “She’s under the protection of the church now, son. You’ve just given her sanctuary.”
Ingelram was finally beginning to understand the ramifications of his deed. He was horrified by his own conduct. He was also desperate to find a way to redeem himself in his lord’s eyes. “But she promised me—”
Royce hadn’t raised his voice when he gave that command, but the Saxon informant jumped a good foot, for he’d gotten a glimpse of the fury in the warrior’s gray eyes. He took several steps back in a puny attempt to separate himself from the Norman’s wrath.
Royce was amused by the Saxon’s cowardly retreat. The little man was literally shaking in his boots. “You’ve told me about the brothers, James,” Royce said then, returning the conversation to the household. “Now tell me about the twin sisters. We were told that one is a nun and the other . . .”
He stopped when the Saxon shook his head. “There is no nun in this household,” James blurted out. “There is Lady Nicholaa,” he added in a rush when he saw how his explanation was affecting the Norman. The jagged scar on the warrior’s face had turned stark white. “Lady Nicholaa is—”
Royce interrupted him. “We know about Lady Nicholaa,” he said. “She’s the one who defended her castle against us, isn’t that correct?”
“Aye, my lord,” James answered. “That is correct.”
“Now I want to hear about the other twin. If she isn’t a nun, then . . .”
The Saxon dared to shake his head at him again. James looked more perplexed than frightened now. “But my lord,” he whispered, “there is only one. Lady Nicholaa does not have a twin.”
Royce’s reaction to the Saxon’s announcement was swift and surprising. He threw back his head and laughed until tears filled his eyes. Lady Nicholaa’s clever ploy to gain sanctuary astonished him. The woman had proved to be extremely resourceful, a trait he was quick to appreciate whenever he chanced upon it.
Nicholaa wasn’t a nun. Relief swelled inside him. He didn’t understand the reason for such a reaction, however, and quickly pushed the feeling aside. Then he started laughing again. By God, he hadn’t lusted after a bride of the church after all.
Ingelram didn’t know what to make of his lord’s bizarre behavior. In the short while he’d been under the baron’s command, he’d never even seen him smile. The vassal suddenly realized he’d never witnessed his leader accept defeat, either.
“Don’t you understand, Baron?” Ingelram blurted out. “You’ve suffered a humiliation because of me. I believed her lies. I gave her escort to the abbey.”
Ingelram boldly moved forward until he had placed himself within striking distance of his lord, then said in an anguished whisper, “I alone am to blame.”
Royce raised an eyebrow over his vassal’s dramatic confession. “We will discuss this later,” he announced with a meaningful glance toward the Saxon.
When Ingelram bowed his head, Royce turned back to the tax collector. “Tell me what you know about Nicholaa,” he ordered.
James lifted his shoulders in a helpless shrug. “I was run out of this area two and one half years ago, milord, when the task of collecting the tax was given to another man. I know that Nicholaa was supposed to marry a giant of a man named Roulf, who had a large holding to the south. She’d been pledged to him since childhood, and if the wedding took place as scheduled, she was married to him almost two full years before he was slain at Hastings. ’Tis all I know about Nicholaa, milord.”
Royce made no comment on the information he’d just been given. He dismissed James, waited until he had left the hall, and then turned back to Ingelram. “In future, you will not parade your sins in front of outsiders. Do you understand me?”
Ingelram nodded. He looked properly horrified by the reprimand.
Royce let out a sigh. “When you act in my stead, Ingelram, your mistakes become mine. If you’ve learned anything from this incident, then the inconvenience you’ve caused me might all be for the good.”
Ingelram was astonished by his lord’s remarks. He’d never heard a defeat referred to as an inconvenience before. He didn’t know how to respond.
Hugh captured Royce’s attention when he interjected, “Lady Nicholaa has proved to be cunning, hasn’t she, Royce? She certainly slipped out of your grasp . . . for the time being,” he added with a nod in Ingelram’s direction.
“Yes,” Royce answered with a grin. “For the time being.”
“’Tis the truth, I fell victim to her lies,” Ingelram blurted out.
“Nay,” Royce contradicted. “You fell prey to her beauty. Recognize the error for what it was so you won’t repeat it.”
The vassal slowly nodded. He took a deep breath while he removed his sword from his scabbard. His hands shook when he offered his father’s bejeweled weapon to Royce. “I’ve failed you, Baron. Because of me, you’ve been shamed.”
Ingelram closed his eyes in anticipation of the blow. A long agonizing minute passed before he opened them. Why was his leader hesitating? “You don’t wish to retaliate, Baron?” he asked, confusion obvious in his gaze.
Royce let him see his exasperation. He turned to Hugh, caught his smile, and almost smiled himself. “What I wish to do and what I will do are two different things, Ingelram,” he said. “In time you will understand. Why do you offer me your sword?”
Ingelram was caught off guard by the question. Baron Royce’s voice had been so mild. Was it possible his lord wasn’t overly displeased by his error in judgment? “I offer you my sword so that you may use it against me, if that is your inclination. Baron, I don’t understand why you . . . I have disgraced you, haven’t I?”
Royce ignored that question and asked one of his own. “Under whose command were you before you came into my ranks?”
“I was Baron Guy’s squire for two years,” Ingelram answered.
“And in all that time did you ever see Guy use a vassal’s sword against him?”
Royce was prepared to hear a quick denial. He knew Guy sometimes used intimidating tactics when dealing with younger, inexperienced soldiers, a method that found little favor with Royce. There had even been whispers of true brutality, but he didn’t pay any attention to such talk. He believed the stories were simply exaggerations spread by disgruntled men who hadn’t been able to meet Baron Guy’s rigid training requirements.
He couldn’t hide his surprise when Ingelram nodded. “I did witness such retaliation. Baron Guy never killed a vassal, but several unfortunate soldiers later died from the punishment he inflicted. Their wounds became infected.”