Royce found himself physically reacting to the woman and was immediately disgusted with himself. His sudden lack of discipline was appalling to him. The indrawn breath he heard told him Ingelram was experiencing the same reaction to the beautiful woman. Royce turned to glare at his vassal before looking at the nun again.
Danielle was a bride of the sacred church, for God’s sake, and not booty to be lusted after. Like his overlord, William of Normandy, Royce honored the church and protected the clergy whenever possible.
He let out a long sigh. “Who does this child belong to?” he asked in an attempt to regain his unholy thoughts about the woman.
“The baby belongs to Clarise,” she answered in a husky voice he found incredibly arousing. She motioned to the dark-haired servant in the shadows. The woman immediately took a step forward. “Clarise has been a faithful servant for many years. Her son’s name is Ulric.”
She looked down at the infant and saw that he was gnawing on her cross. She removed it before looking back up at Royce.
They stared at each other a long silent minute. She began to rub Ulric’s shoulders in a circular motion, but kept her gaze fully directed on Royce.
She showed absolutely no fear in her expression, and she’d given the long sickle-shaped scar on his cheek little notice. Royce was a bit unsettled by that—he was used to quite a different reaction when women first saw his face. The disfigurement didn’t seem to bother the nun, though. That pleased him considerably.
“Ulric’s eyes are the same color as yours,” Royce remarked.
That wasn’t exactly true, he realized. The baby’s eyes were a pretty blue. Danielle’s were beautiful.
“Many Saxons have blue eyes,” she replied. “Ulric will be eight months old in less than a week. Will he live that long, Norman?”
Because she asked the question in such a gentle, undemanding voice, Royce didn’t take offense. “We Normans don’t kill innocent children,” he replied.
She nodded, then honored him with a smile. His heart started pounding in reaction. She had an enchanting dimple in her cheek, and, Lord, how her eyes could bewitch him. They weren’t blue, he decided. They were violet, the identical shade of the fragile flower he’d once seen.
He really needed to get hold of his thoughts, he told himself. He was acting like a besotted squire. He was feeling just as awkward, too.
Royce was too old for such feelings. “How is it you’ve learned to speak our language so well?” he asked. His voice had gone hoarse.
She didn’t seem to notice. “One of my brothers went with Harold, our Saxon king, to Normandy six years ago,” she answered. “When he returned, he insisted we all conquer this language.”
Ingelram moved to stand next to his baron. “Does your twin sister look like you?” he blurted out.
The nun turned to look at the soldier. She seemed to be taking his measure. Her stare was intense, unwavering. Ingelram, Royce noticed, turned bright red under her close scrutiny and couldn’t hold her gaze long.
“Nicholaa and I are very much alike in appearance,” she finally answered. “Most people cannot tell us apart. Our dispositions, however, are vastly different. I’ve an accepting nature, but my sister certainly doesn’t. She has vowed to die before surrendering to England’s invaders. Nicholaa believes it’s only a matter of time before you Normans give up and go back home. ’Tis the truth, I fear for my sister’s safety.”
“Do you know where Lady Nicholaa went?” Ingelram asked. “My baron has need to know.”
“Yes,” she answered. She kept her gaze on the vassal. “If your baron will give me his assurance that no harm will come to my sister, I’ll tell you her destination.”
Ingelram let out a loud snort. “We Normans don’t kill women. We tame them.”
Royce felt like tossing his vassal out the doorway when he heard that arrogant boast. He noticed the nun didn’t much care for the remark, either. Her expression turned mutinous, though only for a fleeting second. The flash of anger was quickly gone, too, replaced by a look of serenity.
His guard was suddenly up, and though he couldn’t give a reason for his suspicions, he knew something was amiss.
“No harm will come to your sister,” Royce said.
She looked relieved. Royce decided then her anger had been a reaction to her fear for her sister.
“Aye,” Ingelram interjected with great enthusiasm. “Nicholaa is the king’s prize.”
“The king’s prize?”
She was having difficulty hiding her anger now. Her face became flushed. Her voice, however, remained calm. “I don’t understand what you mean. King Harold is dead.”
“Your Saxon king is dead,” Ingelram explained, “but duke William of Normandy is on his way to London even now and will soon be anointed king of all England. We have orders to take Nicholaa to London as soon as possible.”
“For what purpose?” she asked.
“Your sister is the king’s prize. He intends to award her to a noble knight.” Ingelram’s voice was filled with pride when he added, “That is an honor.”
She shook her head. “You’ve still to explain why my sister is to become the king’s prize,” she whispered. “How would your William even know about Nicholaa?”
Royce wasn’t about to let Ingelram enlighten the nun. The truth would only upset the gentlewoman. He shoved his vassal toward the doorway. “You have my word no harm will come to your sister,” he promised Danielle again. “Now tell me her destination. You have no understanding of the dangers outside these walls. It’s only a matter of time before she’s captured, and there are, unfortunately, a few Normans who won’t treat her kindly.”
He’d softened the truth for the innocent woman, of course. He saw no reason to explain in detail the atrocities her twin would be subjected to if she was caught by ill-disciplined soldiers. He wanted to protect the nun from the harsh realities of life, to shelter her innocence from worldly sins, but if she refused to give him the information he needed, he would have to be more blunt with her.
“Will you give me your word you’ll go after Nicholaa yourself? You won’t give the duty to someone else?”
“It’s important to you that I go?”
“Then I’ll give you my word,” he said. “Although I wonder why it matters to you if I go or send someone—”
“I believe you’ll act with honor toward my sister,” she interrupted. “You have already given me your word no harm will come to Nicholaa.” She smiled again. “You would not have attained such a powerful position if you habitually broke your word. Besides, you’re considerably older than the soldiers under your command, or so I was told by one of the servants. I believe you’ve learned patience and restraint by now. You’ll need both to capture Nicholaa, for she can be very difficult when she’s riled. She’s clever, too.”
Before Royce could respond to those comments, Danielle turned and walked over to the two women standing by the window. She handed the baby to the woman called Clarise, then whispered instructions to the other servant.
She turned back to Royce. “I shall give you my sister’s destination after I’ve seen to your injury,” she announced. “You’ve a fair-sized cut on your forehead, Baron. I’ll clean and bandage it. Do sit down. It should only take a minute or two of your time.”
Royce was so surprised by her thoughtfulness and her kindness that he didn’t know how to react. He started to shake his head, then changed his mind. He finally sat down. Ingelram stood in the doorway, watching. The servant placed a bowl of water on the low chest next to the stool on which Royce sat while Danielle collected several strips of clean white cloth.
The baron swallowed up the stool. His long legs were stretched out in front of him. Danielle skirted her way between his feet and stood between his thighs.
He noticed her hands shook when she dipped the cloth into the water. She didn’t say a word to him while she saw to his care, but when the injury was cleaned to her satisfaction and she was applying soothing salve, she asked him how he’d come by the wound.
“A stone perhaps,” he answered with a shrug. “It isn’t significant.”
Her smile was gentle. “I think perhaps it was significant at the time. Why, the blow must have left you stunned, at the very least.”
He was barely paying attention to what she was saying. Damn, she smelled good. He couldn’t seem to concentrate on anything but the beautiful woman standing so close to him. The faint scent of roses caught his attention. So did the cross nestled between her breasts. He stared at the holy article until he was able to control his reaction to her. The minute she stepped back, he stood up.
“My sister went to Baron Alfred’s holding,” she told him. “His home is just three hours north of here. Alfred has vowed to resist the Normans, and Nicholaa plans to add our brother’s loyal soldiers to his fight.”
A shout came from the doorway, interrupting the conversation. One of Royce’s soldiers was requesting his attention. “Stay with her,” Royce ordered Ingelram.
The warrior was already out the doorway when the vassal’s fervent reply reached him. “I’ll protect her with my life, Baron. As God is my witness, no one will touch her.”
Royce’s sigh echoed down the hallway. God save me from eager young knights, he thought to himself. If he hadn’t been blessed with such a patient nature, he knew he would have slammed Ingelram’s ignorant head through a wall by now. He’d imagined doing just that several times in the last hour.
Another young soldier was waiting for Royce at the top of the steps. “There’s a battle raging even now, Baron, to the south of the fortress. From the walkway atop the wall we can see that the Saxon dogs have our Norman soldiers surrounded. The colors of the banner tell us the small contingent belongs to Baron Hugh. Do we ride to give him assistance?”
Royce left the keep and climbed up to the walkway to judge the situation for himself. The soldier who’d reported the battle trailed behind him. He was, unfortunately, just as unskilled as Ingelram and as hopelessly enthusiastic as well. It was a dangerous combination.
“Do you see how the Saxons have our soldiers in retreat, Baron?” the soldier asked.
Royce shook his head. “You look, but you don’t see,” he muttered. “Hugh’s men use the same tactic we employed in our battle near Hastings. Our soldiers are drawing the Saxons into a trap.”
“But the odds are surely in the Saxons’ favor. Their numbers are thrice—”
“The numbers aren’t in the least significant,” Royce countered. He let out a weary sigh, reminded himself he was a patient man, and then turned to look at the dark-haired soldier. “How long have you been in my ranks?”
“Nearly eight weeks now.”
Royce’s irritation immediately vanished. There hadn’t been time for training, what with all the preparations needed for the invasion of England. “You’re excused for your ignorance,” he announced. He started toward the steps. “We’ll give Hugh’s men assistance, but only because of our love of a good battle, not because they need our help. Norman soldiers are vastly superior in any fight, and Hugh’s men will most assuredly claim victory with or without our help.”
The young soldier nodded, then asked if he could go into battle by his baron’s side. Royce granted his request. He left twenty soldiers at the holding and rode out with the remaining men. Since there were only women, children, and servants inside the walls, he decided Ingelram could easily maintain order until he returned.
The fight was invigorating, though too quickly finished, in Royce’s estimation. Because he was a cynical man, he thought it odd indeed that as soon as he and his soldiers joined the battle, the Saxons, with still at least double the number of soldiers, scattered like mountain wolves into the hills. Had the battle been staged to draw him out? Royce, weary from too little sleep, decided he was arrogantly overly concerned about the Saxons’ retreat. He and his men spent another hour ferreting out infidels from their dens before giving up the chase.
Royce was surprised to find that Hugh, a friend and equal in rank under William’s command, was leading the contingent, for he assumed Hugh would be fighting by their leader’s side on the final sweep into London. When he put that question to the warrior, Hugh explained he’d been dispatched to the north to subdue the faction there. He had been on his way back to London when the Saxons attacked him.
Hugh was a good ten years older than Royce. Gray stained his brown hair, and the faded scars on his face and arms made Royce look almost unblemished.
“I have only lesser-skilled soldiers in my unit,” Hugh confessed in a bleak voice. “The more experienced were sent ahead to William. I tell you, Royce, I don’t have your patience for training men. Had it not been for our informant’s warning, I believe I would have lost most of my men just now. The Saxon spy put us on our guard at just the right moment, and for that reason the ambush wasn’t nearly as effective as it might have been. My soldiers are still without discipline.” Hugh leaned forward and, in a voice usually reserved for the confessional, whispered, “Two of my men have misplaced their swords, I tell you. Can you believe such a sin? I should kill the fools now and be saved the aggravation.” He let out a long sigh. “With your permission, I’ll ask William to place a few of my boy warriors in your ranks for proper training.”
The two barons, surrounded by their troops, started back toward the holding.
“Who is this informant you mentioned?” Royce asked. “And why do you trust him?”
“The man’s name is James, and I haven’t said I trust him,” Hugh answered. “He has proved to be reliable thus far, that’s all. He tells me he’s hated by the other Saxons because he was given the unholy chore of collecting the tax. James is very familiar with the families in this area. He was raised here, you see. He knows all the favorite hiding places, too. Has the wind not taken on a wicked bite this past hour, Royce?” Hugh asked then, switching topics as he pulled his heavy cloak around his shoulders. “My bones are feeling the rattle of winter now.”
Royce barely noticed the cold. A fine mist of snow was swirling around them, but it wasn’t sufficient to blanket the ground. “You have old bones, Hugh. That’s the reason you feel the cold.” He grinned at his friend to soften the insult.