Excerpt: Norwyck's Lady
Book Three: Medieval Misadventures
The north coast of Northumberland Late autumn, 1300
The air was still, but the North Sea surf crashed violently upon the beach, as a result of the morning’s terrible storm. Dark clouds hovered over the northern cliffs and over Norwyck Keep, threatening another burst of rain.
Bartholomew Holton, Earl of Norwyck, stalked up the beach, oblivious to the weather. His tall, powerful form was garbed in his usual dark tunic and hose, though he’d worn a cloak in deference to the harsh weather.
He cared not for clothing, or fashion, especially not now, while circumstances at Norwyck weighed so heavily upon him. His elder brother William’s untimely death had made Bartholomew earl. His new responsibilities disconcerted him, and his wife’s treachery and subsequent death preyed upon his heart and mind.
Felicia Holton had done the unthinkable. She had betrayed Bartholomew’s elder brother, delivering him to their Scottish neighbors to the north, the brutal and barbaric Armstrongs.
‘Twas nearly a year now since William, Earl of Norwyck, had died at the hand of Lachann Armstrong, and Felicia herself had lost her own life soon thereafter in childbed, bearing an Armstrong bastard.
Bartholomew continued down the beach, brooding, heedless of Norwyck’s massive walls looming above the shore. He sorely missed his brother. He had never dreamed of being lord of this place, for Norwyck had always been Will’s legacy. William, lighthearted and fair, who seemed always to know what was expected, how to handle every situation. He’d had the respect of every Norwyck knight, including their father’s old adviser, Sir Walter.
Upon his return from the wars in Scotland, Bartholomew’s only wish was to retire to the demesne granted him by King Edward, enriched by the lands that were part of Felicia’s dowry. All he’d been able to think of was the life he’d have with his sweet Felicia, and the children that would soon follow.
Aye, Felicia. His lying, murderous, whoring wife. Bart kicked at a piece of flotsam that had washed ashore. ‘Twas dark wood, and had once been highly polished, but Bartholomew paid it no mind as he scowled and continued down the beach, stepping around other bits of debris that had washed up in the storm.
A sudden wind whipped at his cloak and he grasped the edges in annoyance. Sand filtered into his shoes, but he took no notice. He hunched his shoulders against the wind and walked on.
Eight months since Felicia’s death. It had been eight months since he’d learned of her treachery, her betrayal. And still Bartholomew did not know how she’d managed to lure William into Lachann Armstrong’s trap. Or why.
True enough, Bart had hardly known Felicia when their betrothal contract and marriage had taken place. She’d been a lass of seventeen; he had barely reached manhood. They’d been married a mere six months when Bart had gone off to Scotland with King Edward’s archers and his mighty cavalry.
And for two long years, he’d been away from home. Bart had been foolish enough to hope his wife had been with child when he left. But that had not been the case. Still, ’twas no matter. They had many years in which to raise a family, and upon his return from Scotland, Bart threw himself into the task of wooing his wife. This was no hardship, for Felicia was beautiful and accomplished. Within weeks, she was pregnant.
Little did Bart know that the bairn had been planted in his absence. The boy-child, born only six months after his return, gave proof to Felicia’s lie. Her hateful words during the throes of her labor only verified it.
The broad expanse of beach that ran adjacent to Norwyck Castle began to narrow as Bart walked north, and he was soon forced to walk among large boulders and shallow tide pools, with thick reeds and grassy growth sprouting from the wet sand.
More debris was here, too, and it finally caught Bartholomew’s attention. Among the flotsam were several odd items – table legs, a sealed chest with brass handles, two wooden spoons, a sealed barrel.
Awareness struck and Bart stopped in his tracks to gaze out at the roiling sea. A ship must have sunk in the storm. ‘Twas quite common for ships to have difficulty navigating these waters, yet only one vessel had ever gone down here in all of Bartholomew’s twenty-eight years.
He’d been a raw youth, not yet in his teens, when he’d walked this beach with his father and William, looking for survivors.
There had not been any. They’d found plenty of bodies, but no one had managed to get to shore alive. He assumed this wreck would be just as bad.
Bart almost welcomed this turn of events, for it took his mind off the dark and dismal thoughts that preoccupied too many of his waking hours. He began walking again, and discovered the first body, that of a man whose clothes – what were left of them – were in tatters.
Bart rolled him over and verified that he was dead, then quickly moved on, looking for survivors.
The speed of the wind increased, and the waves crashed ever more violently upon the shore, but Bartholomew continued along the beach, caught up in the macabre scene splayed out before him. More debris and bodies were caught behind rocks and trapped among the weeds.
Not one victim was alive. Still Bart walked, in spite of the storm that was moving in. He turned over bodies and stepped past the shattered fragments of the lives that had been lost. When he returned to the keep, he would send a contingent of men to recover the corpses and bury them. He would direct the priest to –
He stopped in his tracks and rubbed his eyes to clear them. A wave of dread overtook him as he looked upon a body lying prone in the sand. Long, dark hair cloaked a narrow back, but did naught to hide pale, feminine buttocks.
A woman. Anger was the first emotion he felt. A woman had been aboard that ship, and Bart’s conflicting emotions warred within him. The knight’s code had been deeply ingrained, so ’twas impossible to look upon her bruised and battered body without pity. No woman should meet such a violent and terrifying end.
Yet he had experienced a woman’s treachery, causing him to hold naught but harsh and bitter feelings toward the weaker sex. In truth, Bart would lay odds that she had somehow been responsible for the shipwreck.
Approaching her warily, he barely noticed her feminine form – the tapered waist that flared to smooth, full buttocks, the long, shapely legs and delicate feet. He saw only the ugly bruises and nasty scrapes that marred otherwise perfect skin.
He crouched beside her and touched one shoulder, pushing her over. He did not know what he expected, but it was certainly not to cause a paroxysm of retching and coughing.
God’s blood, she was alive!