William seethed. And well he should. Even a bad king, which he could prove, ought not suffer so inauspicious a coronation. As if carved of stone where he faced an anxious audience of Normans and Saxons about whose feet smoke had begun to drift, he remained unmoving, only his eyes stirring when he caught sight of one of two D’Argents who had accompanied a dozen of his personal guard outside the chapel. Chevalier Maël, returning by way of a side door, inclined his head, assuring his liege and what remained of his guard there was no need to halt the ceremony that was to see the Duke of Normandy crowned King of England. Rather, no need yet. The service had proceeded smoothly and according to long-established tradition— William prostrated before the altar, anthems sung in praise of the one who would be king, and oaths sworn to govern his subjects justly and defend the Church. It was the next part that shattered the solemnity, causing the congregation to tense in anticipation of fleeing hallowed ground. After the English archbishop asked if the people would accept William as their king, and the Norman bishop of Coutances translated his words into French, hundreds of Saxon and Norman nobles had shouted their approval. Though William would be a fool to believe the enthusiasm of his fellow Normans was matched by Saxons who had lost their country when their king fell at the great battle, some of the latter were well with being a beaten people since there could be great gain in turning against their own. As for those who believed England’s throne lost to a thief, they but feigned acceptance of the conqueror in the hope of protecting themselves and preserving what remained of their possessions. Unfortunately, the Saxon shouts elevated by the Normans’ had caused soldiers stationed outside to suspect an assassination attempt against William. For that, they set fire to nearby buildings. Or so said those confronted by the duke’s personal guard. Maël did not believe it, nor had his cousin, Theriot.
If the soldiers truly feared William was in danger, sound reason and loyalty would have bade them hasten inside to defend him. Had Maël to wager, it would be that the duke’s mercenary soldiers seen emerging from homes and shops with bulging sacks had used the din inside the abbey as an excuse to return to burning and pillaging. And the temptation for William’s own liegemen to enrich themselves had been too great for many to abstain. When the man soon crowned king learned his forces, rather than rebellious Saxons, had caused the disturbance, he would have much to say about the near ruination of his coronation. But it would be naught compared to his wrath were it necessary to halt the ceremony. Having alerted William it was safe to proceed, Maël was eager to return to Theriot to aid in ensuring those out of control were reined in before Saxons fleeing ruined homes and businesses were moved from fear to anger. If that happened, rioting would ensue. And slaughter. He had no love for the people of this land, and less so after losing his sire to them, but further bloodshed of city folk not given to warring would benefit none. As the bishop once more translated the archbishop’s words, Maël started back toward the side door.
And paused when he caught movement on the dim balcony above that provided an unobstructed view of William before the altar—and a path for arrows and blades. Through narrowed eyes, he sought the source but found none. Might it have been a bird searching for a way out? A rodent scurrying across the rail? The rising shouts of those in the streets beyond the chapel and the sharpening scent of smoke causing the congregation to turn more restless, Maël hesitated. He was needed outside, but more here lest the coronation was interrupted not by the actions of greedy men but an assassin in truth. Bypassing the side door, he nodded at one of the king’s guard whose presence there ensured the congregation remained seated. Hoping the man had not allowed someone to gain the balcony unseen, he stepped onto tightly-turning stairs. As they were constructed without regard to defense, providing little space in which to wield a sword, Maël drew the family dagger he continued to wear only so none question its absence from a warrior no longer worthy of the esteemed weapon. It was wrong it should fit his hand so well, and the price paid for the momentary comfort was recall of his sire awarding it to his only son. Rather, legitimate son. Thrusting aside that memory of the day his accomplishment was honored by the man who had commanded if Maël could not be the worthiest of the family D’Argent, he be among the worthiest, he climbed the stairs cautiously so he might hear and not be heard above the holy words intoned.
However, he was expected by the two who stood at the center of the balcony in the light of a single torch flickering at their backs. Ladies, as told by veiled hair, embroidered skirts beneath mantles fastened with brooches, and noble bearing. Saxon ladies, as evidenced by their presence in a city recently surrendered to Normans. But the same as the young of these conquered people, a handful of whom were responsible for the corpse made of Maël’s sire, they could prove far from harmless. Tossing out another memory, seeing no others here and that the hands clasped before the women were empty, he strode forward. Their faces were mostly in shadow, but as he neared he discerned the one on the right was elderly, a hunch to her shoulders and the pale braids visible on either side of her veil thin and grey. The taller one was young, the lower loops of the braids brushing her shoulders thick and darkly gleaming. From her sharply drawn breath, he knew the moment her eyes made sense of the side of his face come out of shadow. It was the same reaction of most women who looked upon a visage so ruined its contrast with the mostly unspoiled side shocked. The king’s physician had assured Maël that, given time, the livid and swollen flesh would heal sufficiently so the monster made of him at Hastings would once more look the man, but it was assurance he had not sought.
Worse should have been done him, and not merely the loss of a limb as suffered by a cousin. Rather, loss of life the same as his sire and, possibly, another cousin whose body had not been recovered from that godforsaken meadow. Maël halted a stride from the women. “What do you here?” he demanded with just enough volume to be heard above the men of God and the congregation’s restlessness that boded they would make for the doors if what transpired outside was not soon resolved. “What do we here, Chevalier?” the old woman said in a voice still melodious despite a crackle, and well enough accented it was obvious she knew his language well. “We mark this momentous day in the history of our country by bearing witness to what goes inside our abbey.” Unlike the Saxons below, she was openly disaffected, a prerogative of the elderly who often believed they had little to lose—and unlike her companion who set a hand on her arm to calm her and for it was jabbed with an elbow. As the young woman jumped back, Maël shifted his regard to that one’s face, and immediately the glitter in her eyes extinguished. Since her proud bearing did not falter, he was certain she had not lowered her lids out of fear nor deference. She hid something.
Unfortunately, it was impossible to look nearer on one whose features were mostly obscured the same as the older woman’s. However, of note was hair peaked on her brow and a generous mouth. She might be pretty, she might not, but unlike before the great battle, it mattered not to one whose face would no longer give him the pick of women worth courting. Returning to the old woman, he said, “Who are you?” She snorted. “You are not quick of wit, are you, Norman? As should be obvious, we are Saxons.” “Your names,” he growled. She set her head to the side. “For what would you know? So you might persecute us the same as your countrymen and mercenaries who continue to set fires and pillage though this city surrendered to Le Bâtard?” The young woman gasped, stepped in front of the older one, and raised her gaze. The glitter there of such height and breadth it bespoke large eyes, she said, “Forgive my grandmother. So dear and great the number of those lost to her at Hastings, it is difficult to see any good come of the rule of your people.
” Though her Norman-French accent was somewhat aslant, her speech was beautifully precise as of one given to much thought ere letting words off her tongue. When he did not respond, she raised her chin higher. “Have mercy, Chevalier. Of an honorable age, my grandmother is of no danger to you nor your duke.” “Her king,” he corrected. “Her king—our king,” she acceded. And stumbled forward. Certain a blow had landed to her back, Maël bit, “Cease, old woman, else your granddaughter’s pleading will be for naught.” So quickly that lady came out from behind the other that were Maël incapable of swiftly assessing a threat, impulse would have caused him to wield his dagger against her. The old one was empty-handed, but were it not impossible for her to escape following a struggle that would alert the guards, likely she would have drawn whatever blade was fixed to her girdle.
Stepping so near his dagger’s point grazed her mantle, she spat, “Nithing! Thief! Murderer!” As Maël wavered between delivering her to the king’s guard and honoring the younger one’s request by escorting them from the chapel, the decision was snatched from him by a rise in the commotion outside the abbey. Immediately, it was answered by the congregation. As if having held its breath, they expelled exclamations and cries. Then came the pound of boots and scrape of slippers. Maël crossed to the railing. Though William remained flanked by the archbishop and bishop, monks, and personal guard, all was becoming chaos. Even before the doors were flung open to permit the panicked to flee, it was obvious the smoke’s penetration of the chapel had intensified. Still the duke did not stir. Naught but the certainty of death would prevent him from departing Westminster absent crown, ring, sword, scepter, and rod. As more smoke entered by way of the congregation’s exit, Maël swung around.
He had sensed no movement from the women, but he was surprised they were where he had left them—until he realized they had no cause to join the exodus. They had not slipped past William’s guard and ascended the stairs that delivered Maël here. Somewhere on the balcony was a concealed door that could have seen an arrow put through William were these two of murderous intent. Thrusting his dagger in its scabbard, he returned to them. “Show me the passage, and you may depart the way you came. Refuse me, and the guard will detain you and themselves learn its location.” As hoped, the young one yielded. “We are without choice,” she said and pivoted and strode past the torch. Maël gripped the older woman’s arm through her mantle. “Make haste.
” “You dare!” she snarled as if not only were he the enemy but beneath her. Though she was mistaken to assume he was not as noble as she, he let it pass and allowed her to pull free. Less hunched than before, she followed her companion. The passage in the far corner was accessed by an empty sconce. Turned to the right, the wooden panel whispered inward to reveal descending stairs. The young woman entered and reached behind. When her hand was slapped aside, she entreated, “We must not delay.” The old woman turned back. Torchlight now upon her face, Maël’s cast in shadow, she said, “I pray it was one of mine who spoiled your comeliness, Norman.” She coughed, surely from the smoke.
“A pity he did not also gut you.” Since he was mostly in accord, her attempt to offend was wasted. “Go, Saxon.” She grunted, swung around, and stepped into the passage. As Maël closed the women into darkness, he assured himself if the elderly one continued to refuse aid and tumbled down the steps, it would be her fault alone. After engaging the sconce’s lever that locked it in place so no longer could it be opened from the inside, he descended the narrow stairs and found the last of the congregation shoving past William’s guard amid smoke as eager to enter as they were to exit. As he moved toward doors soon to be closed to allow the officiating clergy to complete the coronation, he looked behind. No longer did William appear cut from stone, his color high and chest rising and falling rapidly. Doubtless, the reward to be distributed to the men who had greatly aided in seating him on England’s throne would be denied those responsible for making a mockery of his ascendancy that could prove impossible to remove from memory. Though Maël believed his own reward was secure, he would decline and return to Normandy.
Or so he planned, unaware his efforts in the riotous hours ahead would see many of those who started the fires and looting drop to their knees before a wrathful William. And Maël elevated not to the lordship he refused after Theriot accepted lands for his brother, but to something of greater benefit to England’s new king. A position fit for one who had betrayed his family by not keeping his word and forgetting where his loyalties lay. A position requiring he ensure no murderous Saxon, Norman, or otherwise thwart his liege’s plan to bring England fully under the conqueror’s control. A position that could render him bereft of family and friends, though already that was earned. But God help him did he become as heartless as the king he served. HİS FACE. Beneath dark hair streaked with silver that did not belong on a man less than two and three score aged, she had thought it so handsome as to be nearly beautiful—until long strides carried him fully into torchlight to which she and her grandmother had turned their backs upon realizing there was no time to retreat. For a moment, Mercia had thought herself afforded a glimpse of evil disguised as a thing of beauty to seduce women otherwise destined for heaven, but his mask had not slipped—was no mask at all, merely a ruined face. Considering how fresh the scar scoring the left side of his brow and grossly ridging the right down past his eye and across his cheek to his ear, she guessed it dealt two months past during the clash now known as the Battle of Hastings though it had been fought upon the meadow of Senlac.
Might one of her grandmother’s fallen sons have been the warrior who disfigured a Norman unworthy of such a face? Might it have been Mercia’s own sire? Unlikely and never to be known, not even when the old woman made good her promise to answer a question that was not to be asked of her again. “There!” that one said, voice coarse and brittle less from age than the smoke of precious things devoured by fire. She pointed at the inn on the opposite side of the street where the rendezvous had been set in the event her men drew the attention of Normans. And so they had, forced to depart the stables where earlier they had aided the women in dismounting. “Praise the Lord,” Mercia gasped. The escape from Westminster had been frightening. Amid smoke and great heat, screaming, shouting, cursing, even laughter, they had run street to street, turning back here, turning aside there. And once they were forced to crawl to escape the notice of Normans whose stuffed sacks had begun moving their victims from fear to anger, as evidenced by Saxons making weapons of whatever they brought to hand. “Halt!” her grandmother commanded. “For what?” Mercia exclaimed.
“The inn is ahead.” And as far as she could see, the only people about were few and Saxon. As evidenced by the many her grandmother and she had passed and those who fled ahead of them, the foolishly curious were drawn to the commotion surrounding the abbey, the wisely fearful quick to distance themselves. “Here!” The old woman turned into an alley between buildings. Mercia followed and was unprepared when her grandmother swung around and backhanded her. She cried out, stumbled sideways into the building, and slid down wooden slats onto her knees. “You dare!” Quelling the impulse to raise an arm to shield her lest the attack had only begun, berating herself for not expecting it ahead of forgiveness for what instinct had demanded she do to keep them safe, Mercia pressed a palm against lips bleeding onto her tongue. She had known her grandmother’s ire was not all for the chevalier, having been subjected to it when jabbed with an elbow, struck in the back, and her hand slapped away. But as there was no further show of aggression during their flight, she had believed that the worst of it. So was this the end or just the beginning? If the latter, she would suffer without protest.
The hem of the old woman’s soiled, embroidered skirt sweeping the dirt, she stepped near. “Never are you to name me g randmother, neither in private nor public, and yet you did so before our enemy.” Mercia’s thoughts returned to the Norman as done often throughout their flight, but this time they cast further back—rather, deeper—and she acknowledged how greatly he had disturbed beyond fear of the enemy. What was it about him that tugged at her? On such short and near disastrous acquaintance, it was impossible to know, but something sorrowfully empty in him had made her long to fill that emptiness with what little she possessed that he did not. Foolish! she silently rebuked. Were your grandmother to reveal that never has she been kin to you, here much proof. You must cease being fanciful, Mercia. “Have you naught to say?” demanded the old woman. “I spoke as I did to calm the Norman’s impatience and rouse his sympathy in the hope he would let us go,” Mercia rasped. “And so he did.
” “What if that barbarian had instead dragged us before others and I was recognized, hmm? All I have done to keep you safe would be for naught were it known you are of my son’s blood.” Which son? wondered the one named for the place of her birth. “And then for you to speak to that knave of my great loss and beseech his mercy!” She spat on the ground, snatched up her granddaughter’s chin. “Show me.” Lowering her bloodied hand, curling fingers into the slick warmth, Mercia watched the aged eyes move over her mouth. “Regrettable.” It was said with what sounded sincerity. “But deserved for speaking of me as if I am helpless and senseless—worse, acknowledging Le Bâtard as king.” “Gran—” She nearly named her that again as if the title of kinship were more familiar than that by which ever she addressed her. The old woman’s teeth beginning to bare, Mercia said, “Forgive me, Countess.
I could think of no other way to deliver us, but we are here now and soon shall be safe in Exeter.” Her grandmother’s gaze wavered, then she released Mercia. “Safe for how long? Le Bâtard will set his army at that city’s walls as well…will not be content until all of England bends the knee.” “We shall beat him and his kind back across the sea,” Mercia said. “That is as you told, and that Harold’s son will take back the throne.” As if the old woman needed to hear that, her shoulders and back straightened. “Aye, Harold’s son will sit the throne, and higher it will be raised upon the bones of the usurper. Ere I breathe my last, I shall see it done.” Would she? Mercia wondered and startled when her grandmother extended a hand. Though no frail thing, it was not for a lady of years to bear the weight of one of many fewer years.
However, lest she offend, Mercia placed one hand in her grandmother’s, pressed her other bloodied hand to the ground, and pushed upright. “Mercia,” the old woman bemoaned as she looked closer on the damage. “Your lip is cut and begins to swell. I…” She swallowed. “’Twas deserved,” Mercia sought to console her though her heart was not in it. She had been disrespectful as never before, but she was certain the humbling of one of two Saxons had moved the chevalier to allow them to depart unmolested. Raised and educated in letters and numbers at a convent that aspired to shape her into a woman fearful of displeasing the Lord, next tutored in the ways of the nobility whilst tending the lady of a great house that would have become greater had King Harold been victorious at Hastings, Mercia had begun learning the art of reading women and men and flattering and being flattered. Having sensed the chevalier on the balcony was not given to the behavior of fellow Normans who threatened to ruin Le Bâtard’s coronation, she had trampled pride nearly to the point of scraping and bowing. And for it, this. But she would not have her grandmother know how strong her resentment.
Blessedly, it would ease, the countess’s loss of loved ones so great she must be excused for grief-induced rage. It was her due as it was not Mercia’s whose own loss remained uncertain and could never be that of a loved one. Blinking away tears, her grandmother said, “Aye, deserved, but I am glad for the disrespect shown me.” “I do not understand.” “Though I know you are of fine demeanor and sharp intelligence, I was not aware you could be so wily.” “Wily?” “A kind word for deceitful,” her grandmother misinterpreted the question, and as Mercia struggled against revealing how much it offended, continued, “Of good benefit to our cause.” She arched pale eyebrows. “You will not accompany me to Exeter.” Mercia caught her breath. “My punishment is to be parted from you?” “Not punishment.
Reward. A pity I took you from the convent ere your profession was made, but you were raised well enough to play the part so none will discover your true purpose.” Mercia frowned. “What part and what purpose?” “I am sending you to Wulfenshire.” “For what?” “’Tis where you are needed, and since God has made a place for you there, it is His will.” Heart pounding, Mercia clamped her teeth lest she spill words that would see her dealt another blow. “Mercia,” her grandmother murmured as if to herself. “Though few know what you are to me, that name could prove your undoing in the midst of our enemies. You must take another, and methinks a biblical one best serves where you go.” Somewhere upon Wulfenshire, far northeast of the city of Exeter where her grandmother would journey without her.
“Have you a name to mind, Mercia?” “I must think on it.” “Best one similar to your own so you not forget to answer to it.” Fearful of the pressure in her chest evidencing screams circled there, Mercia lowered stinging eyes. An aged hand settled on her arm. “Look at me, Granddaughter.” Never named that, neither in private nor public, Mercia flew her gaze to rheumy eyes darkened by vengeful sorrow and resolve. “Other than the danger which names present in the face of our enemies, they are no longer of great import. Who you are inside is all you must be.” She stepped nearer. Skirts brushing Mercia’s, she cupped the younger woman’s jaw.
“Never forget—ever embrace— you are Saxon. Strong of mind, body, and spirit. True to the blood, the bone, the marrow.” Mercia shivered over words with which her grandmother had rallied thousands of noble and common Saxons since the flower of England were slain upon that meadow, many of whom were now dead as well. Thus, it mattered not the exact role she would play. It was enough to know that just as she had been no mere companion to the lady she served less than a year, no mere companion would she be upon Wulfenshire. This, however, would be dangerous. Like it or nay, Mercia of Mercia’s aid in overthrowing the usurper would make of her an enemy to Normans. A rebel.