He wasn’t ready to be dismissed. “I would warn you, Nicholaa, that being clever isn’t going to aid your cause. The journey to London will be difficult at best, and the time we’re forced to spend together will be tolerable for you only if you behave.”
She refused to turn around. There was fire in her voice when she spoke again. “My God, you are an arrogant man. I’ve been given sanctuary here and even unholy Normans cannot break that law. I won’t leave.”
She let out a gasp and turned to confront him. “You would violate the right of sanctuary?”
“No, but you will walk outside these walls when the time comes.”
A shiver of fear rushed down Nicholaa’s spine. What weapon could he use against her? Her mind jumped from one possibility to another, and after a long minute she concluded that he was bluffing. There wasn’t a thing he could do to force her to leave her safe haven.
The rush of relief made her eyes fill with tears.
Her composure vanished. She completely forgot she was standing in a sickroom. She certainly wouldn’t have shouted at the barbarian otherwise.
“As long as Normans are in England, I’ll never leave here. Never!”
Never arrived exactly eight weeks later.
Baron Hugh had fully recovered from his illness and had left the abbey the day before. The abbess told Nicholaa she’d overheard Baron Royce ask his friend to stay at the holding until he’d taken the prize to London.
“I believe, Nicholaa, the prize he referred to is you,” the abbess remarked in a sympathetic voice.
“He’s bluffing,” Nicholaa muttered.
She repeated those two words to herself over and over again during that long day. She didn’t sleep at all that night, either. Royce had sent a messenger back to the abbey just before nightfall with the order that Lady Nicholaa was to gather her possessions and be ready to leave the abbey the following morning.
The abbess didn’t believe the Norman was the type of man who would bluff, but she kept that thought to herself. She packed Nicholaa’s small traveling bag and carried it down to the front entrance as a precaution against the very remote possibility that the baron did in fact have a plan of action in mind.
“Perhaps, if you’re prepared, nothing will happen,” the abbess declared.
Nicholaa was dressed and pacing in earnest by the crack of dawn. She wore her favorite cream-colored chainse and royal blue bliaut for the simple reason that her mother had helped her stitch the garments and the clothing always made her mood lighten. The material was too thin for the harsh winter weather, but she wasn’t going outside so that didn’t matter.
She declined the invitation to join the sisters for morning prayers, knowing full well she’d do more squirming than praying and would certainly distract the others.
Her trusted servant, Alice, came to give her weekly report a scant hour later. The elderly woman was sweet-tempered, extremely loyal to her mistress, and had a strong memory for details. She was fifteen years older than Nicholaa, yet clung to the youthful habit of giggling whenever she was nervous.
Alice was giggling when she rushed into the vestibule where Nicholaa waited for her. “It’s just as we suspected, milady,” Alice blurted out. She managed a quick curtsy, then continued. “Baron Hugh has settled in for a nice long stay at the castle, and Baron Royce is preparing to come and fetch you.”
Nicholaa took hold of Alice’s hand and pulled her to the window. She motioned for her servant to sit down on the bench and then sat down next to her.
“Were you able to find out how he plans to persuade me to leave this sanctuary?” she asked.
Alice shook her head so vehemently that wisps of gray hair flew free from her braid. “We’ve all been guessing and guessing, milady, but not one of us has been able to come up with a single possibility. Baron Royce holds his own counsel. Clarise has taken on the duty of eavesdropping on the two men, but neither has spoken of this trickery, milady. You would think Baron Hugh would be interested in knowing just how Baron Royce plans to snatch you away from here.”
“Clarise is being careful, isn’t she? I wouldn’t want her to get into trouble because of me.”
Alice giggled again. “Clarise is just as loyal to you as the rest of your staff. Why, she’d give her life to keep you safe.”
Nicholaa shook her head. “I don’t want her to give her life for me. Nor you either, Alice. You take too many chances coming here, though, God’s truth, I do look forward to hearing the news from home.”
“’Tis called Rosewood now,” Alice whispered.
She nodded when Nicholaa looked so surprised. “They’ve named my home?”
“It was Hugh who gave it the name. Your Baron Royce didn’t seem to mind. Then afore you knew it, even the staff was calling the place Rosewood. It’s got a nice sound to it, doesn’t it, milady?”
Alice didn’t give her mistress time to answer. “I’ve got to speak the truth, milady. The two barons are acting as though the place belongs to them now.”
“What other changes have they made?” Nicholaa asked.
“They found one of the passageways to the outside through the north wall and sealed it up real tight. It’s the only one they’ve spotted so far, though.”
Nicholaa realized she was wringing her hands. She forced herself to stop the nervous action. “And my chamber, Alice?” she asked. “Which one of the infidels has taken over my room?”
“Neither,” Alice replied. “Baron Royce has had the door barred and won’t let anyone inside. When Hugh took ill, he was given your room, but when he returned to Rosewood, he was given the larger chamber. Clarise and Ruth were given the unholy chore of cleaning the room for the Norman. Are you wanting to hear the rest of this, milady?”
“Yes, of course,” Nicholaa said. “You mustn’t try to shield me.”
“It’s becoming very difficult for us to hate Baron Royce,” Alice confessed with yet another inappropriate giggle.
“It’s a sin to hate, and for that reason alone, we must not hate the Normans,” Nicholaa said. “We can, however, thoroughly dislike them, Alice.”
The servant nodded. “But even that’s difficult to do,” she wailed in a voice as bleak as the howling wind outside. “He called all of us together before him. We hid Hacon in the back, thinking the sight of him would remind the baron that he’d boldly lied to him about you being a twin and all. And do you know what happened, milady? Baron Royce called the meeting to praise Hacon for defending his mistress. The baron asked him to kneel and give his pledge of loyalty. He didn’t demand it. He asked!”
Several loud giggles followed that explanation. Alice put her hand to her breast and took a deep breath. “The baron even helped Hacon to his feet after he’d given his oath. Well, now, we were all put right in a muddle over that kindness. We all thought the Norman would want Hacon’s head, not his loyalty.”
“Who can know what the barbarian wants?” Nicholaa said.
“The baron never raises his voice to anyone, either. Clarise says it’s because he’s older, though certainly not as old as his friend, Baron Hugh. Myrtle spilled a full draft of ale right on Baron Royce’s trencher of food, and do you know he didn’t raise his hand against her? Nay, he just moved to another spot at the table and went right on having a conversation with his friend.”
Nicholaa didn’t want to hear any more about Royce. “How is Baron Hugh?” she asked.
“Singing your praises, milady,” Alice answered. “He told Baron Royce it was you who took care of him, you who sat by his side during the dark nights when he was so fevered, you who held a damp cloth to his brow and offered him comfort—”
“I did not offer him comfort,” Nicholaa interrupted, her voice emphatic. “I was just helping Sister Felicity. You know how old and tired she is, Alice. And since I was sitting up at night by Justin’s side, I only added Hugh to my duties. That’s all.”
“Baron Hugh says you’ve got a kind heart. Now, don’t take to frowning, mistress. It’s the truth. Hugh also said you beat him fair and fast at chess time and again.”
Nicholaa smiled. “Hugh was bored with his confinement,” she explained, “and giving the abbess one tantrum after another, demanding to be let up. I played chess to help her, not to entertain the Norman.”
“Baron Hugh smiled when he spoke of you, but he frowned fierce whenever Justin’s name cropped up. He told how your brother threw the tray of food at you. Then Baron Royce took to frowning, too. He’s a pure fright when he scowls, isn’t he?”
“I didn’t notice,” Nicholaa replied. “Neither of the Normans could possibly understand the torment Justin is going through,” she whispered. “Now, please, tell me all about Ulric. How is my dear nephew doing?”
Alice smiled. “He’s a handful, that one is, now that he’s taken to crawling. Another tooth poked through just the day before yesterday.”
“Isn’t it too soon?” Nicholaa asked.
“No, no,” Alice answered. “Ulric’s doing just what he’s supposed to be doing at his tender age. You haven’t had much experience with babies, so you’ll have to be taking my word on this.”
Nicholaa nodded. “I wish I’d brought him here with me. I worry about him, Alice. Oh, I know you and Clarise are doing a fine job of caring for him, but I—”
“You made the right decision,” Alice interjected. “You had no way of knowing if you’d make it to the abbey without being caught,” she reminded her mistress. “And the weather would have chilled Ulric through to his bones. Besides, what would you have told your escort? They thought you were Sister Danielle, remember? Rest your frown, milady. Ulric’s safe at Rosewood. It’s just as we predicted it would be,” she added with a nod. “The Normans don’t pay any attention to the babe. They’re still believing your lie that he’s just the son of a servant. Clarise keeps him abovestairs all the time. Why, I’m thinking Baron Royce doesn’t even remember he’s there.”
“I pray to God his father’s still alive,” Nicholaa whispered. “The longer we go without word, the more convinced I become that Thurston’s dead, Alice.”
“Don’t think such dour thoughts,” Alice ordered. She used the hem of her bliaut to mop at the corners of her eyes. “You’ve had a time of it, haven’t you? Now listen to me. God wouldn’t be so cruel as to take both Ulric’s mama and his papa. Your older brother must still be alive. You mustn’t give up hope.”
Nicholaa nodded. “No, I mustn’t give up hope.”
Alice patted her mistress’s hand. “Baron Royce believes you’ve been married,” she announced. “That fool, James, thinks the wedding to Roulf took place. We’re all snickering over that one, we are. That know-it-all traitor doesn’t know everything, does he? I’m hoping Baron Royce will toss James out on his backside when he finds out the truth.”
Bennett and Oscar, two of the stable hands, came to escort Alice back to the holding. As soon as the three loyal servants took their leave, Nicholaa hurried back up to the sickroom to sit by Justin’s side.
Her brother’s mood was as stormy as the weather. When he finally fell asleep, Nicholaa leaned over him to pull the covers up around his shoulders. His right hand slammed into the side of her face—quite by accident, for he was sleeping now, but the blow was still powerful enough to knock Nicholaa to the floor.
Justin had caught her below the right eye, and she knew from the horrid throbbing she was feeling that she would wear a dark bruise by nightfall.
She left Justin alone and resumed her pacing. Every now and again she would pause at the window to look outside. By midafternoon she was convinced that whatever plan Royce had decided upon had somehow failed.
She was just about to pull the heavy animal skin back over the opening when the sound of thunder drew her attention. Men on horseback were racing around the bend in the road. The contingent of soldiers numbered at least fifty. They stopped when they reached the bottom of the steep path that led up to the doors of the abbey. The soldiers who’d been keeping guard around the perimeter of the walls then joined the ranks. When they were added to the unit, the number swelled to over seventy.
One warrior separated himself from the others and nudged his mount up the hill. From the size of horse and rider, she knew it was Royce.
He’d come for her after all.
Nicholaa backed away from the window, but kept her gaze directed on him.
Sunlight bounced off his open faced helmet and the metal rings sewn into his leather chest armor. It was the dead of winter, and yet his arms were bare. Nicholaa shivered. Royce suddenly seemed invincible to her.
She had to shake her head. He was just a man, she reminded herself. A man who would soon freeze to death, she hoped. Nicholaa saw his sword strapped to his side, but she didn’t see a shield. He was still armed for battle—or for the journey through hostile land to London.
Royce stopped when he reached the center of the path. He sat there a long while, looking up at the abbey.
What was he waiting for? Did he actually think she would come outside? She shook her head and smiled. The Norman could sit atop his stallion for the rest of the day for all the care she would give. She wouldn’t be so easily intimidated.
Royce sent a messenger up to the abbey’s iron gates and waited until he was certain Nicholaa had been informed of his arrival.
The abbess found Nicholaa standing near the window. “Baron Royce asks that you look out the window, Nicholaa. He says he has a message for you.”
Nicholaa moved to the center of the opening so that Royce could see her. She stood with her hands folded in front of her, trying to look serene and confident. She wasn’t certain that he could see her expression, but she wasn’t taking any chances. She was worried, yes, but the Norman wouldn’t know it. Besides, she told herself again, he was bluffing.
Royce waited until he spotted her in the window, then slowly removed the heavy blankets protecting the baby he cradled in his arms.
Ulric was sound asleep, but his face scrunched up into a frown when the cold air reached him. “You’ll be warm in just a minute,” Royce promised.
He lifted the baby high into the air and waited for a reaction.
It wasn’t long in coming. Lady Nicholaa suddenly disappeared from the window. Her scream of outrage lingered in the room.