“Ingelram, that explains your peculiar behavior,” Hugh interjected. He turned to Royce. “The boy’s speaking the truth, Royce. Guy uses physical retaliation and humiliation to gain obedience and loyalty. Tell me this, Ingelram,” Hugh continued with a glance in the vassal’s direction. “Are the bastards Henry and Morgan still acting as Guy’s right and left hands?”
Ingelram nodded again. “They are his closest advisers,” he said. “When Baron Guy is occupied with more important matters, Henry and Morgan supervise the training of the men.”
“And the punishment as well?” Hugh prodded.
“Yes,” Ingelram answered. “The punishment as well.”
“Morgan’s worse than Henry,” Hugh announced. “I’ve seen him fight. I hoped he would die during the invasion, but the Saxons didn’t accommodate me. I suppose the devil’s bent on keeping him alive.”
Ingelram took a bold step forward. “May I speak freely?” he asked Royce.
“Isn’t that what you’ve been doing?” his baron answered.
Ingelram blushed. Royce suddenly felt like an old man. He was a good twelve years older than the vassal, but the differences in their reactions made it seem more like twenty. “What else did you wish to say, Ingelram?”
“Most of the soldiers are obedient to Guy, but they aren’t loyal, as Baron Hugh supposed. They fear him and do his bidding for that reason alone. There’s no loyalty, save to Duke William, of course.”
Royce showed no outward reaction to the startling news about Guy. He leaned back against the mantel of the fireplace and folded his arms across his chest. He looked very relaxed. Inside he was furious. A man of such status should be a protector by nature, Royce believed, with values stronger than those of his men. It sounded as though Guy had become a destroyer.
“Ingelram?” Hugh asked. “Did you request this move into Royce’s ranks?”
A noticeable wheeze had entered Hugh’s voice. He leaned back in his chair to ease his weariness and rubbed his whiskered jaw while he waited for an answer.
“I did request the move,” Ingelram answered. “In truth, I held little hope I would be considered, though. The list of soldiers begging entrance into Baron Royce’s army numbers over a thousand. My father was able to sway William’s mind, however, and my name was lifted to the top of the list. I was very fortunate.”
Hugh shook his head. “I still don’t understand how you managed it, with or without William’s blessing. First you had to gain Guy’s permission to request this transfer. ’Tis a fact Guy isn’t known for granting requests, especially those that might benefit Royce. Guy’s been in competition with Royce ever since their squire days together.”
Hugh paused to let out a low chuckle. “I almost pity Guy. He always comes in second best. I think it’s making him crazed.”
Royce was watching Ingelram. The vassal’s face had turned bright red. When Ingelram realized his lord was staring at him, he blurted out, “Baron Guy isn’t your friend. He’s filled with jealousy. You always best him.”
“But why did he grant you this transfer?” Hugh prodded, wishing to get to the bottom of this puzzle.
Ingelram’s gaze turned to the tops of his boots. “He didn’t see my transfer as a favor to Baron Royce. Quite the opposite, in fact. Both Henry and Morgan had a good laugh over their lord’s cunning decision. They all believe I’ll never be a fit knight.”
“Why would Guy consider you unfit?” Royce asked.
If Ingelram turned any redder, Royce thought, he might burst into flames. He held his patience and waited for the soldier to answer him.
“I’m weakhearted,” Ingelram confessed. “Baron Guy said I wasn’t strong-willed enough for his unit. Now you have the truth, and Baron Guy has been proven correct. My weakness caused your defeat.”
Royce felt like growling. “We’re not defeated,” he snapped. “For God’s sake, put your sword away. You haven’t even begun your training, and for that reason I do not fault you. If, however, after six months under my direction, you should make a similar misjudgment, I’ll take your throat between my hands and try to strangle some sense into you. Do you understand?”
Royce’s voice had taken on a hard edge. Ingelram nodded vigorously. “I shall willingly give you my neck if I fail you again,” he vowed dramatically. “No other defeat will I—”
“For the love of God, will you cease calling this minor inconvenience a defeat?” Royce demanded. “Lady Nicholaa has only delayed me; she hasn’t eluded me. When I’m ready to leave for London, I’ll go to the abbey, and I won’t have to go inside, Ingelram. She’ll come out to me.”
He took a threatening step toward his vassal. “Do you doubt me?”
“Nay, my lord.”
Royce nodded. He didn’t explain how he planned to accomplish this feat, and Ingelram knew better than to ask. The topic was duly dismissed.
Soon, however, Royce was forced to put the matter of collecting Nicholaa on the bottom of his list of duties. Hugh was far more ill than anyone realized. By the following morning the warrior was burning with fever.
Royce stayed by his friend’s side for three long days and nights. He wasn’t about to let any of his own inexperienced young men or the Saxon servants near the Norman. They would poison him at the first opportunity, or so Royce believed. The duty of caring for the knight therefore fell on Royce’s shoulders. It was a task he was, unfortunately, unqualified to accomplish with much skill.
Royce kept the tax collector in residence and left Hugh’s side only once during the long vigil, to question the Saxon about Nicholaa’s family. He’d already formulated a plan to force the woman from her sanctuary, but he wanted to make certain he hadn’t missed any other considerations.
Hugh’s condition deteriorated. By week’s end, it became apparent he would die if he didn’t receive proper treatment. In desperation, Royce took his friend to the abbey. Both Ingelram and Hugh’s vassal, Charles, flanked the cart in which Hugh rested.
The four men were denied entrance to the abbey until they agreed to remove their weapons. Royce didn’t argue with the order, and once the swords were handed over, the iron gates to the abbey were opened.
The abbess met them in the center of the stonepaved courtyard. She was an old woman, nearly forty by Royce’s estimation, stooped in posture, too, but with a surprisingly clear, unwrinkled complexion.
She was dressed in black, from the veil hiding her hair to the shoes covering her feet, and though the top of her head didn’t even reach his shoulders, she seemed unimpressed by his size. Her gaze was direct, unwavering.
The abbess reminded him of Sister Danielle . . . or rather Lady Nicholaa, he corrected.
“Why have you placed your soldiers around the walls of this abbey?” the nun asked in greeting.
“My soldiers are here to make certain Lady Nicholaa doesn’t leave her sanctuary,” Royce answered.
“Have you come here with the intent of persuading her to leave?”
Royce shook his head. He walked over to the back of the cart and motioned for the abbess to follow.
The abbess proved to have a compassionate nature. As soon as she saw Hugh’s condition, she ordered him taken inside.
Hugh was too weak to stand on his own. Royce hoisted the sleeping warrior over his shoulder. He staggered under the weight, straightened, and then followed the abbess inside. There was a stone staircase directly to the left of the arched entrance. He and his men climbed the steps and followed the nun down a long, brightly lit corridor.
Whispers followed them. The clatter of men’s boots as they strode down the wooden floor echoed off the stone walls, but Royce could still hear the soft chanting of the other nuns. The closer he came to the door at the end of the hallway, the stronger the voices became. He recognized the Pater Noster and knew then the sisters were at prayer. From the direction of the sweet, musical sound, he guessed the nuns were sequestered on the floor above.
“We have only one large room in which to house the sick who come to us,” the abbess explained. “Just one week past we were filled to capacity, but today only one Saxon soldier remains under our care. You do agree, don’t you, Baron, that all men are equal inside these walls, be they Norman or Saxon?”
“I agree,” Royce answered. “Is this Saxon soldier Lady Nicholaa’s brother?”
The abbess turned around. “Yes,” she answered. “Justin is resting inside.”
“Is he dying, as I was informed?”
“Only God can answer that question,” she replied. “Justin refuses to accept the cross thrust upon his shoulders. He fights our every treatment. He prays for death while we diligently pray for his recovery. I can only hope God will not become confused by our contradictory pleas.”
Royce wasn’t certain if the mother superior was making a jest or not. Her brow was puckered into a frown. He nodded again, shifted Hugh over his shoulder, and then said, “I would like to get my friend settled. Can we not discuss your concerns after Hugh has been made comfortable?”
“I’ve only one concern now,” the abbess announced. “You’d best know I have every intention of placing your friend in the bed next to Justin’s. I can see from your frown you’ve little liking for this decision, but I have a sound, practical reason. Sister Felicity is best qualified to care for both men. She’s quite elderly now, and I won’t have her running from one end of the room to the other. She’ll sit between the soldiers. Do you accept this condition?”
Royce nodded. The abbess looked relieved. She turned and opened the door. The room Royce entered was gigantic. He squinted against the sunlight that poured in from three large windows in the far wall. Wooden benches stood beneath each window. The walls were sparkling clean from a recent whitewashing.
Along the opposite wall were over twenty beds. Next to each bed stood a small chest. A single white candle sat on each chest.
Each bed and chest could be enclosed on all sides by white curtains that hung from ceiling to floor. When the draperies were pulled, the area became a cell of privacy.
All but one of the beds was exposed to the sunshine now. Royce surmised that the square white cocoon near the center of the room was the cell where Justin rested.
He settled Hugh in the bed next to the curtained cell. Within minutes he’d stripped his friend of his heavy outer garments and covered him with a mound of thick, soft fleece blankets.
“The wounds on his arms and shoulders are festering,” the abbess remarked with a worried frown. “Sister Felicity will know what to do.” She bent down and stroked Hugh’s forehead in a motherly gesture. “God willing, this one will recover.”
Royce nodded. He continued to be very accommodating until the nun suggested he and his men take their leave. Royce shook his head then. “No,” he said. “A Norman soldier will guard Hugh until he recovers. He will not be allowed to eat or drink until the food has been tasted by one of your own,” he added in a hard voice.
It was obvious from the surprised look on the abbess’s face that she wasn’t used to being contradicted. “You’re a suspicious man, Baron,” she said frowning. “This is a sacred house. No harm will come to your friend.”
When Royce only shrugged his shoulders, the abbess asked, “And if I do not accept your conditions?”
“You won’t turn Hugh away,” he countered. “Your vows won’t let you.”
Her smile surprised him. “I see you’re every bit as stubborn as I am,” she said. “We’ll both spend a bit of time in purgatory for that flaw in our natures. Very well, then. I’ll accept your conditions.”
Hugh moaned in his sleep, drawing the mother superior’s attention again. She gently tucked the covers around the warrior, whispering soft words of comfort all the while. Then she closed the curtains and went in search of Sister Felicity. The minute she turned to leave, Royce motioned to Ingelram and Hugh’s vassal. The two soldiers immediately followed the abbess to the doorway and took up their positions on either side of the entrance. No one but a nun would be allowed inside the chamber until Hugh had fully recovered.
While he waited for the abbess to return, Royce decided to appease his curiosity about the Saxon soldier. He wanted to see for himself that the man was too ill to be a threat to Hugh. He wasn’t about to take for granted anything a Saxon told him until he had personally confirmed it.
Royce walked to the other side of Hugh’s bed and was just about to push the curtain away when someone pulled it back from the other side.
He suddenly found himself shoulders to face with Lady Nicholaa.
Her indrawn breath told him she was even more surprised by their encounter than he was. He assumed she thought he’d left with the abbess. He knew she must have heard every word of their conversation.
They stood no more than a foot apart. A light fragrance of roses caught his attention.
Lord, she was lovely—and, he hoped, frightened. Her eyes were wide with what he suspected was fear.
Yes, he decided, she was afraid. Royce thought that was a most intelligent reaction. The woman should damn well be afraid of him, for every action after all produced a reaction, or a retaliation. Lady Nicholaa had lied in order to gain temporary freedom. Soon, however, it would be his turn to retaliate.
Neither of them said a word for several moments. Royce towered over her and waited for her to cower.
She waited until she could control her anger.
The longer she stared at him, the more furious she became. How dare this Norman venture inside her brother’s sickroom?
Her chin came up in an instinctively defiant action.
He quit smiling.
She wasn’t afraid of him. That realization stunned him. It was followed by a sinful thought. The woman was close enough for him to grab. Lord, how easy it would be simply to toss her over his shoulder and leave the abbey. It was a sinful thought because she was under the church’s protection now. But it was no more sinful than the sudden burst of desire that caught him unawares.
If a man’s preferences ran to blue-eyed nymphs, then Nicholaa would certainly be his first choice. He told himself his preferences didn’t run in that direction. Then he recognized the lie and gave it up. Hell, he could be content to spend the rest of his days staring at her and wanting more.
Her mouth was too appealing to give him any peace of mind. All he wanted to think about was what she would taste like.