Excerpt: Saxon Lady
Book Two: The Conquerors
It is 1068, two years after William the Conqueror has taken England for himself. Mathieu FitzAutier is one of his Norman knights, sent to subdue Saxon Lady Aelia and her people, and take her fortress – Inglewald – from her. After a pitched battle, Aelia realizes her little brother has gone to the enemy camp, so she has no choice but to go after him.
When the guards and their torches were out of sight, Aelia slid quietly from the tarp and crawled to the Norman’s tent. She lay perfectly still, listening intently for sounds within. But all was silent. She heard naught.
Was Osric inside, awaiting the perfect moment?
The flap was lose and Aelia slipped under it, disturbing the canvas as little as possible.
Once inside, she held perfectly still for a moment to allow her eyes to adjust to the gloom. Campfires burned outside, casting a small amount of light through the fabric walls of Fitz Autier’s tent. Aelia’s eyes were drawn to the figure who lay perfectly still upon a fur pelt.
He was unmoving, but not dead. And Osric was not here. Aelia heard the Norman’s breath, deep and even in sleep. She drew her knife from its sheath at her waist and crept toward him, past the center pole, past the suit of armor that lay in an orderly arrangement near the far wall.
When she was close enough to see the stubble of dark whiskers that grew upon his jaw, she raised her arm and struck.
* * * * * * *
Mathieu moved with the speed that belied his size, grabbed the woman’s wrist and pinned her beneath him. ‘Twas ironic that the very wound she’d inflicted upon him earlier in the day had throbbed sufficiently to keep him from sleep, making him aware of her the moment she crawled into his tent.
“Lady Aelia, I presume.”
“Get off me, you . you Norman swine!”
“I see your aim is better than your manners. Fortunately, your skill is unmatched by your size, or I might have had something to worry about.”
She pushed and squirmed under him, but Mathieu did not yield. “Do you Saxons plan to assault me one by one until I’ve beaten every last one of you?”
“One by one?” she gasped. “My brother . he is here?”
‘Twas some time since he’d had a woman under him, but though he was aroused by her soft woman’s flesh, Mathieu was no rapist. He was disgusted by his own father’s preferred technique. Instead, he favored an enthusiastic partner rather than a combative or submissive one. “Do you mean the red-haired maggot who tried to stick me with his puny sword?” Mathieu quipped. “If Wallis is reduced to sending children to vanquish his enemy, then I’ve lost all respect for the man.”
“My f-father is dead.”
Her words surprised him. Who, then, had led Ingelwald’s defense? Wallis’s elder son? “Then ’tis Godwin who rules Ingelwald?”
Lady Aelia did not answer, but renewed her efforts to free herself. She jabbed her knee forward, hitting Mathieu ruthlessly between the legs. He groaned and rolled to the side, still holding her wrists in his fists.
“You have already done sufficient damage to me, demoiselle,” he said through gritted teeth as she continued to kick and flail against him. “Cease. You are going nowhere.” He lay across her, pinning her legs as well as her hands and wondered how she’d managed to slip past the sentries who patrolled the boundaries of the camp. He had to concede that her small size had served her well in this instance.
“Where is my brother?”
“Stowed safely away,” he said roughly. His face was so close to hers that he could see a few light freckles dancing over her smooth, flawless skin. Her bared teeth were white and evenly spaced, her lips full and pink and slightly parted. He could almost taste them.
As appealing as that would be, he resisted the urge. “Should my men be watching for Godwin, too?”
That was something Mathieu had no intention of doing. At least, not until she was properly restrained. He made another quick move and turned the wench face down on the pelt that made up his bed. Placing his knee in the center of her back, he shoved her long blond plait aside and held her hands tightly behind her in one fist. With his free hand, he reached for a length of rope to bind her, then turned her again to tie her hands in front.
He was not a cruel man. His ruthless reputation had been exaggerated, but it had served his purpose as he battled for the king. If only Wallis had heeded what he’d heard of Fitz Autier, the Saxon lord would still be in possession of his holding. Instead, he had rebelled against William’s authority, refusing to accept him as king. William had had no choice but to send an army to quell the rebellion.
When the woman was securely tied, Mathieu allowed her to sit up and face him. “Will Godwin negotiate for your release?”
She pressed her lips tightly together and looked away, refusing to answer. But Mathieu saw her throat move convulsively and noted a slight tremor in her mouth. She was not merely being obstinate.
It he was not mistaken, ’twas raw grief that made her tremble.
Her brother was dead.
He ignored the twinge of sympathy that arose from some place deep within him. ‘Twas the way of war. Soldiers as well as innocents lost their lives, especially when those innocents did not surrender peacefully to the conquering armies. Mathieu had made warfare his business, and he was not in it to save anyone – particularly not this Saxon wench who stood between him and his deepest wishes.
Mathieu rose to his feet and placed the woman’s knife on top of his hauberk as he considered what to do with her. At first he thought of taking her to the supply wagon and leaving her there with her brother, but decided against it. Better to keep them separated.
“Who is in charge at Ingelwald?” he asked.
She raised her chin and refused to meet his eye.
“It does not matter.” He tossed a fur pelt down to the floor beside the one where the Saxon woman sat. “Tomorrow morn, when you arrive at Ingelwald gate, trussed up and draped over my horse’s rump, someone there will deal with me.”
“Where is my brother?” she snapped.
Mathieu laughed. “You are in no position to demand answers, demoiselle.”
“He is just a child – send him home.”
Mathieu reached for the knife. “You do not yet understand, Lady Aelia. The boy no longer has a home. Nor do you.”
She let out a huff of breath as if he’d struck her. If there had been any compassion in him, he might have spared some of it for this proud woman who’d braved the dark forest paths, then a legion of enemy soldiers, to rescue her young brother. If he were of a baser nature, he would allow her beauty and her womanly curves to entice him.
But Mathieu had one purpose here. He was to win Ingelwald for William, who in turn, would grant it back to him as the king’s trusted vassal. ‘Twas a rich holding, and a far greater reward than either of his brothers had achieved. He had already been named baron of Ingelwald by King William.
He reached for a length of rope and wrapped it twice ’round the Saxon woman’s waist, tying it behind her. Then he took the loose ends and tied them to one of his own wrists and lay himself down upon the extra pelt.
Aelia twisted her body to take hold of the rope that bound her to him, and tried to pull free. “If you think I’m going to lie here-“
“I am weary, wench,” he growled as she continued to struggle. She kicked him and tried to beat him with her fists, but Mathieu shoved her to the floor once again and took hold of her hair at the nape of her neck where the long plait of gold-red began. He leaned down and spoke softly in her ear. “I can call to my men, and if you prefer their company to mine, you can pass the night with them.”
“You would do such a thing, Norman!” she cried, wriggling to get away. “Set an innocent woman-“
“Innocent?” he turned her and pulled her face close to his. “This bloody gash in my cheek had naught to do with innocence. The arrows that rained down upon my soldiers were not meant as goodwill tokens, demoiselle. Be grateful that I am more civilized than you and be still. Sleep or not, but rest assured that your continued good health and that of your bratling brother will depend upon your conduct tonight!”