Lord of Secrets – Mary Gillgannon

HE WAS THE new Lord of Higham. William Fitzhugh felt a sense of disbelief as he led his troop of mounted knights through the gatehouse and over the oak planks of the drawbridge. Behind them rose the thick sandstone walls and high towers of the massive keep. Ahead was the small village that had sprung up in the shadow of the castle. It still stunned him to think he controlled this strategic demesne, situated on the borderlands between England and Wales. Much of his apprehension came from the thought that he’d done naught to win it. His new position was all due to his father’s shrewd political maneuvering. Now he must prove his worth and hold on to his rich prize. The thought of the challenge facing him made his stomach tighten, but he fought to push the uneasy thoughts aside as he led his knights towards the village. Most of the wheat fields surrounding the hamlet had been harvested and they glowed bronze in the sunlight. Along the edges, bright red poppies and blue cornflowers bloomed in profusion. There was a large mill by the river, the millpond shining like a bright silver coin. Surrounding the green common and beyond were several dozen houses, some of daub and wattle and others of stonework. Many had thriving vegetable patches nearby. It was a scene of prosperity and efficiency, demonstrating that the former lord of Higham, Richard Roscales, had done a good job of managing the demesne.

His replacement might well be treated with wariness, perhaps even hostility. William’s tension increased. What would he find when greeted the villagers? Would they disdain him as too young and inexperienced to rule them? His father had advised him to ride into the village in full battle attire to establish his absolute authority. But William could not bring himself to do it, knowing how he and his knights would bake in full armor on this stifling, early August day. He had compromised; he and his men wore hauberks but no helm or gauntlets. His squire carried the banner showing the Fitzhugh device: a black griffin on a field of scarlet. William hoped this display would be enough to impress the villagers and show he was no untried youth, but a battle-tested warrior. But he didn’t want them to think he would be a harsh overlord. He sought a partnership with them, a relationship of mutual respect. It was easier to win people over to your cause by showing how your plan would benefit them, rather than expecting them to blindly obey orders.

Appearing inflexible would not win him any allies, and he desperately needed allies. Anxiety tweaked him as they approached the village commons. Everyone had gathered there, from the feeblest elder to the bright-eyed and well-fed children. Many of the youths appeared restless, as if they were seeking a chance to sneak away and play as soon as the adults were distracted. William envied them. For him, there was no escape. He must confront the village matrons in their neat gowns and head-coverings of snowy white linen. Impress the craftsmen still wearing their leather aprons. Even the russet-clad serfs from the fields were watching him carefully. The important men were gathered by the village reeve, Hearne, whom William had met previously.

They included the miller, likely the richest man in the village, the brewer and tanner, and the smith, who had a workshop at the castle. Everyone regarded William with impassive faces. He wished he had worn his helm. That way they could not immediately tell how young he was. But he would not have been able to hide the truth for long. At least his size and strong physique would likely impress them. His warhorse, Trueheart, baulked as they neared the gathering. While trained for battle, the stallion had little experience riding into a peaceful crowd. William patted the animal’s neck to soothe it, feeling sympathetic to the animal’s twitching ears and sidling steps. Halting a short distance from Hearne and the other men, William dismounted and spoke softly to the stallion.

For a time, it looked as if no one meant to take Trueheart’s reins. William was on the verge of asking his squire to dismount and do so. Finally, a village youth approached and took charge of the horse. William asked the slim young man with wheat-colored hair what his name was, and the youth answered Theo, short for Theobold. William nodded appreciatively. A bold young man with a way with horses could be very useful. William approached Hearne and the reeve introduced the villagers gathered nearby. William nodded to each man in turn, trying to memorize their names and gain some sense how much power they had in the village and also their reaction to him. The miller mentioned manor court and everyone looked at William expectantly. He was not ready for that; he needed a better sense of these people before rendering judgment over their disputes.

“In a few days, I will hold one. I have a lot of work to do at the castle right now.” Which was more than the truth. Everything at the castle was disaster. Roscales had stripped the place. William had been so relieved the man had gone quietly, he had not thought about the many wagons Roscales was taking. Only as he began to explore the castle did he realize the former lord had seized nearly everything of value. Merely replacing basic things would be a daunting task. It would take months to properly furnish the castle, let alone be able to offer comforts to entertain noble guests. That meant he could delay having his parents visit by saying there was no way to accommodate them.

He would be happy to have his mother come. Indeed, he could use her advice. But he had no desire to see his father. William Fitzhugh the Elder would find fault with everything he did. He turned to peruse the rest of the crowd, wondering if he should make some sort of pronouncement. * “LOOK AT HİM, the new lord of Higham Castle.” Young Maybelle let out a long sigh. “He’s so big. So ferocious-looking.” Beside her, Egelina tossed her red-gold curls.

“Ferocious? He’s not a dog or some other beast. Merely a man.” “Only a man, aye.” Maybelle’s voice had not lost the edge of awe. “Yet he has the power of life and death over all of us.” “If we poach or steal or break the law, of course we will be punished. But no lord kills his subjects over nothing. Who would work the land if they were dead? How would he prosper?” Rhosyn, observing the two young women from behind, envied Egelina’s fearless words. But she was likely too young to know better. Besides, as the smith’s daughter, Egelina had been sheltered from much of the harshness of life.

Rhosyn turned her attention to the man everyone was focused on. William Fitzhugh’s arrival had been impressive. He rode in like a conquering hero. The sun glinted on his mail and golden hair. The banner carried by the knight beside him streamed out in a slash of blood red. The device on the banner was a fierce black beast. This creature had two legs and its body was narrower and its tail longer than the red dragon of Wales. The thought of the powerful image of her homeland aroused a sharp pang of yearning. Rhosyn fought against it. That was all in the past.

She must forget her old life. “Look how big he is.” Maybelle’s gaze was still riveted on Fitzhugh. “Most English knights are tall.” Egelina sounded peevish. “Not like this one.” That was true. Fitzhugh had looked enormous on his huge chestnut destrier. Even when he dismounted, he stood nearly a head above any of the villagers. But he also looked quite young, far less than thirty winters.

Perhaps his youth accounted for the way he’d arrived there, riding out with his knights, banner flying. He clearly sought to intimidate and impress. Rhosyn’s mother always said arrogant men were weak and cowardly, hiding their true nature behind a bold façade. Rhosyn knew she would do well to avoid the new lord. In fact, she should slip away now and return to her cottage. But she stayed where she was, drawn irresistibly by the expectation and excitement of the villagers surrounding her. None of them could stop watching the mighty young warrior. Fitzhugh’s horse whinnied and stamped the ground and Rhosyn felt new respect for young Theo, the brewer’s son, holding the reins of the enormous horse. The youth’s actions marked him as uncommonly courageous. He clearly sought to draw attention to himself and win the favor of the new lord.

Rhosyn hoped his risky plan paid off. Seeing the slim youth so close to the massive stallion made her wonder if she had enough comfrey and all-heal on hand. Her skills as a healer hadn’t truly been tested yet, and she didn’t fancy a crushed limb or battered head being her first challenge. “I hear he doesn’t have a wife yet,” Maybelle said. “He will need one to run the castle and to beget an heir.” “Aye, he will need a wife,” Egelina agreed. “But it will be a noblewoman with a wealthy dowry.” Rhosyn glanced at Egelina, assessing her anew. Perhaps the young woman had some common sense after all. But then Egelina tossed her head and added, “Once he tires of his noble wife and has gotten her with child, he will want a woman who pleases him.

” So, that was it. Egelina aspired to be the new lord’s leman. Did she truly think that was a better life than marrying some man from the village? Perhaps for a short time it would be. But if she bore Fitzhugh a bastard, the child’s future would be utterly dependant on the new lord. He could choose to recognize the child and raise it up, or ignore it and condemn it to a life of struggle. It seemed unfair the English didn’t give their bastard offspring any legal rights. The Welsh tradition of recognizing any child a man claimed as his own seemed much more reasonable. Although it did result in all the sons competing for a share of their inheritance. And that competition often caused warfare and strife. Rhosyn perused Egelina.

With her reddish blond hair and pert features she was comely, but not what anyone would call beautiful. Some village boy might succumb to her charms, but Rhosyn doubted the new lord would. The Saesneg were extremely cold and ruthless, especially in their dealings with women. Perhaps she should tell Egelina the tale of her own experience with English lords and enlighten the young woman. Nay, the girl would never listen. People like her never did. They were cocky and certain of themselves, oblivious to how cruel and unfair life was, until it was too late to change course. She had once been like that herself, Rhosyn though ruefully. Fitzhugh was still talking to the reeve. Despite his size, the new lord’s demeanor wasn’t particularly fierce.

With his cropped blond hair and sunburned skin, his coloring helped him blend in with the villagers. Although, the mail hauberk, tall boots and sword at his side marked him clearly as a knight. She wondered how a man so young had risen so high. His family must have strong connections to King John. As if he sensed her watching, Fitzhugh turned and looked directly at her. His vivid blue eyes took her in from head to toe and Rhosyn struggled to conceal the dread bubbling up inside her. She didn’t want to be noticed by any man. Certainly not one this one, who as Maybelle had said, held the power of life and death over all of them. Fitzhugh finally broke off his gaze and turned back to the reeve. Rhosyn exhaled, feeling like a coney escaping the jaws of a fox.

* IT WAS HARD to say why the dark-haired woman had caught his eye. Perhaps because her appearance was so different from the other villagers. Next to them, with their blond or light brown hair and sunburned skin, the woman looked foreign. Perhaps she was Welsh; her small stature suggested it was so. William wondered what she was doing here. The Welsh were a fierce, stubborn race who didn’t usually mingle with the English. Indeed, every time he’d encountered a Welshman, the man had been an opponent in battle. Why was she alone? Where were her menfolk? His gaze traced the delicate lines of her body. She looked much too slender to have ever borne a child, or to be able to do so safely. The thought immediately inspired a wave of remembered horror: Emma lying pale and still, the bed around her soaked with blood.

Would he ever be able to banish that heartbreaking image from his mind? Since Emma’s death, it seemed the lovelier the woman, the more she reminded him of that anguished moment. But there was no doubt he must wed again. Every lord needed an heir. William sought to concentrate. As the village men stepped forward and bowed to him, he noted many of them had Saxon names. Although it had been generations since William the Bastard and his Norman army conquered the Saxons, in many parts of England, they still clung to the old ways. The prominent villagers would know Norman French. The rest would speak at least a few words. But when they were alone together, they probably conversed in the old Saxon tongue. Hearne asked if William wanted to visit the mill.

William declined. There would be time for that when he held manor court. He turned to leave, and then remembered the dark-haired woman. “Who is she?” He nodded in her direction. “That’s Rhosyn. She’s the new healer.” “New?” “She’s only been here since the beginning of the summer, taking the place of our former healer, Branwyn. No one knows much about Rhosyn, although she’s apparently Branwyn’s niece.” “But she’s Welsh, correct?” Hearne nodded. William glanced at the woman again.

She reminded him of a dainty bird ready to take flight at the slightest hint of danger. Why did she appear so ill at ease? Was it because she was new to the area and uncertain whom she could trust? He reminded himself he did not have time to worry about a woman, especially one of so little consequence. It was far more important to find out about the men of the village and how they felt about their new lord. He still couldn’t tell if they resented him for taking over from Richard Roscales. It had been a bold move on John’s part, to seize the lands of a respected baron like Roscales and give them to the son of one of his favorites. It had made the king enemies, and John already had plenty of those. William wondered if this was what his father had plotted when he first backed John years ago. When Richard went off on Crusade, most people thought the Lionheart was invincible, too bold and strong to succumb to anything. It was only when Richard was imprisoned by the emperor and it was uncertain whether his mother could raise the funds to pay the ransom, that other men had courted favor with John. Then when Richard was freed, they’d reversed course.

At the time, William had thought his father was a fool to maintain his allegiance to John. But his father’s stubbornness, whether based on loyalty or pride, had paid off. John would never forgive those barons whose support melted away when news came of Richard’s release. And he had been keen to reward men like William Fitzhugh the Elder, who had stayed the course. William forced his thoughts back to the present. Having met the important villagers, he should go back to the castle and see to things there. But he dreaded doing so. All he could think about were all the problems and responsibilities he faced. And it was so lovely and peaceful here. The air was filled with the sweet scent of new mown hay.

Bees buzzed lazily in the clover. The hot sun beat down, causing a pleasant lethargy. Here, outside the castle, he might be able to sleep, to doze peacefully instead of tossing and turning, tormented by dark memories. It had been weeks since he’d truly slept properly. That was it, his excuse to remain here a while longer. He would ask the healer for a sleeping draught. The villagers drew back as he strode through them, looking startled. William hesitated when he reached the dainty woman. How was he to address her? It was unlikely she was wed, so goodwife didn’t work. Lady or mistress hardly fit her circumstances either.

He inclined his head politely. Something about her inspired all his notions of courtesy. “Maid Rhosyn, I understand you are a healer.” * WHY WAS THİS man speaking to her? Had he already heard the tales from Cardiff? Did he think to have her seized and taken back there to suffer the same fate as her mother? She was being foolish. He was probably seeking advice about some ailment. Rhosyn licked her dry lips. “Aye. I’m a healer.” She wished she didn’t sound so uncertain. Her mother always told her to be bold and firm.

It was important to inspire people’s confidence. Fitzhugh spoke impatiently. “I need something to help me sleep. Can you provide me with a potion that will aid me?” He probably couldn’t sleep because he was haunted by the terrible things he’d done. Although it seemed unlikely men like him had consciences to haunt them. She turned to leave. “I will bring you something.” “Where are you going?” She shot him an exasperated look. Did he think she carried her medicines on her person? “I must go to my cottage to fetch the sleeping draught.” “I’ll come with you.

” Panic surged through her as she remembered her terrifying experience the last time she’d been alone with an English lord. This man meant to rape her. There could be no other reason for him wanting to accompany her. She managed a small nod and started walking. As soon as they reached the woods, she would run. But one of his strides would easily match two of hers. It would be better to wait until they reached the cottage and she could get a weapon. Although one of her puny knives would do little against this giant. To reach his eyes or throat, any part of him that was vulnerable, she would have to wait until he was already on top of her. Dread made her breathless as she took the path to her cottage, but she forced herself to walk slowly and steadily.

Do not let him see your fear. He followed a few feet behind. The path twisted through the trees, and she remembered how pleased she’d been to discover the healer’s cottage was set away from the other houses. Now the isolation of her dwelling horrified her. If she screamed, no one would hear her. Not that it mattered. Even if they wanted to help her, none of the villagers would come to her aid. He was the lord of Higham. He could do whatever he wished. Thoughts of the pain he could inflict made her tremble.

He was so big and she was still a virgin. And this was a Saeson, a race known for their cruelty. You cannot change what happens to your body, but you still have power. You must find a way to keep him from damaging your spirit. She would go away from herself, as her mother had taught her. Doing so was clearly how her mother had endured her horrible death. Rhosyn had also learned to detach herself from what was happening around her. That’s what had allowed her survive this long, pushing the fear and horror down so deep it couldn’t reach her. Although what was about to occur now would bring it all back. Somehow she must find a way to stop him.

If she merely injured Fitzhugh, he would be even more vicious. She would have to kill him. And then what? Flee again and try to find another place to serve as healer? This was the king’s man. If she murdered him, she would be pursued relentlessly, even into her homeland.

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