Excerpt: The Bride Hunt
Book One: The Conquerors
Castle Kettwyck, Northumberland. Late Summer, 1072
Anvrai d’Arques felt uneasy in spite of all the music and merriment around him. The castle wall was yet unfinished, and Lord Kettwyck’s knights had recently done more to aid construction than train for defense. ‘Twould be so easy for Scottish raiders to wreak havoc there, during the welcoming festivities for the lord’s two daughters, Isabel and Kathryn.
He turned from the balustrade overlooking the courtyard where Lady Isabel danced with her prospective suitors.
“Anvrai d’Arques!” called Sir Hugh Bourdet, Lord Kettwyck’s most trusted retainer. The knight clasped Anvrai’s hand in greeting. “I’d heard you had come in Baron Osbern’s stead. ‘Tis good to see you. Has it really been two years?”
“Aye, at least,” Anvrai replied tersely. He respected the older knight, but Anvrai was not one for idle conversation.
“To this day, you remain steadfast.” Hugh laughed. “You still do not command the king’s garrison at Winchester.”
Anvrai gritted his teeth. ‘Twas a sore spot between him and King William. Of all the knights who might stay at court and enjoy the notoriety of being commander of all King William’s armies, Anvrai was least interested. He would have appreciated a small estate – a home – as his reward for his years of service, before and after Hastings.
Yet William would not reward the man who had defied him. And so Anvrai lived in Belmere’s barracks, in service to Baron Osbern d’Ivry, Lord of Belmere. ‘Twas a source of ire, but there was naught to be done. Anvrai had proved to be as strong-willed as the king.
Anvrai gestured toward Kettwyck’s castle walls and spoke of his concern. “The fortifications are not yet complete, Sir Hugh. Does Lord Henri have no fear of raiding Scots?”
“None of the raids have come this far west,” Hugh replied, “though we’ve taken precautions. We have knights patrolling the perimeter of the walls .”
“You think they will deter a band of murderous Scots?” Anvrai had heard tales of vicious attacks on Norman knights. Of barbaric Scotsmen carrying away women and children to be sold and used as slaves. Better to have high walls and armed knights on patrol.
“Soon we will see an end to such raids. As we speak, King William’s herald makes his way across Northumberland, rallying the king’s vassals to battle.” Hugh glanced toward the celebrations below. “The king himself rides north to Scotland, gathering legions of knights as he goes.”
“‘Twill be a dangerous venture, meeting King Malcolm on his own turf.”
“Perhaps, but there is no doubt William has the superior army. His herald arrived an hour ago and delivered the command for all his vassals to meet him at the mouth of the River Tees, where a host of Norman ships await him. He intends to have a formidable force at his bidding.”
“By month’s end.”
Anvrai stepped back, his mind racing. As commander of Belmere’s knights, he would need to return there immediately and marshal Belmere’s men.
Hugh placed a hand upon Anvrai’s arm. “Naught to be done until the morrow,” the elder knight remarked. “For now, there is dancing in the hall.”
Anvrai gave a slight shake of his head. “‘Tis not for me.”
“I doubt Lord Osbern sent you here to pace the battlements, even if you must leave precipitously,” Hugh said with a rueful laugh. “You are a young man . a powerful knight . many a likely maid awaits your attentions.”
Anvrai ignored the barb, certain ’twas unintended. There wasn’t a knight in England or Normandy who had not seen, or at least heard of, Anvrai’s ugly visage, of his many scars and the empty socket where his eye once dwelled. Nary a young maid, neither comely nor plain, was wont to favor him; at least, not without generous remuneration. It had been a painful lesson, but he’d learned it well, years before.
Other men could gaze upon a fair maid, appreciating her beauty, dreaming of her touch . mayhap her kiss. When Anvrai did so, he was deemed an ogre.
No, he did not dance.
“Surely you will stay the night. ‘Tis said Lady Isabel will choose a bridegroom this eve,” Hugh said.
Anvrai relaxed his stance. Hugh was right. There was no point in leaving right away. He’d been ordered to come and represent Belmere, and he would do so. His armor was in storage while he attended the feast in honor of Kettwyck’s daughters, and he’d clothed himself in a finely embroidered linen tunic. He was as presentable as he would ever be.
“Aye. I’ll stay the night and for morning Mass, then be off. There will be much to do at Belmere to prepare for William’s campaign.”
“No doubt Lord Osbern has also received word of William’s intent and will begin to make ready.”
Anvrai agreed. Osbern would not delay preparations for battle. All would be ready when he returned to Belmere.
“Lady Isabel seems smitten,” Hugh remarked, turning Anvrai’s attention to the courtyard where the elder sister danced. “Mayhap she will choose Sir Roger for her husband. Or Etienne Taillebois. Both are worthy, well-connected young men.”
Anvrai shrugged. ‘Twas said Lady Isabel would be allowed to choose her own spouse from the throng of noblemen her father had assembled, and Anvrai counted himself lucky to have escaped Lord Kettwyck’s notice. He was no suitable husband for any woman – especially one as comely as Isabel. In any event, the actions of the great families of the realm meant naught to him. His interest was in King William’s imminent military campaign against the Scots. Though he had no intention of joining every one of the king’s battles, ’twas high time King William dealt with the barbarian Scottish raiders.
Turning his gaze toward the heavens, he assessed the sky and concluded ‘twould remain clear upon the morrow for his ride toward Belmere. With luck, the weather would continue fair through the following day for his arrival at home and his quick departure for the River Tay and King William’s army.
“Lady Isabel is a charming lass and will marry well,” Hugh mused. “Were you among those in the hall who heard her tale this morn?”
“Tale?” Aye, he’d seen her in the hall early in the day. She’d kept a throng of children and guests entertained with a story of a Greek hero Anvrai had never heard before. Isabel had changed the inflection of her voice for each character in her narrative, keeping all enthralled with every word she uttered.
Her dark hair had shimmered in the early morning light, her golden eyes flashing with merriment during the humorous parts of her tale. Even Anvrai had been spellbound by her words and her beauty, and he’d let the sweet timbre of her voice surround him until he could almost imagine she’d been speaking only to him. A burst of applause had shaken him loose of her captivating words and manner. ‘Twas just as well. He was not one to waste time on such frivolity.
“Aye. The lady is a bard,” said Sir Hugh, “as inventive as any Celtic loremaster. She weaves such tales as I’ve never-” Sudden, shrill screams overwhelmed the music and Sir Hugh’s voice. Anvrai unsheathed his sword and ran, silently lamenting his lack of hauberk and shield. “To the hall!” he called to Sir Hugh.
He descended the stone steps by twos and found himself confronted by five barbarian Scotsmen on the landing, wielding swords and axes. Without hesitation, Anvrai speared the first man while Sir Hugh did battle with the second. The three remaining warriors attacked as one, but Anvrai lifted a stout wooden bench and tossed it at them, knocking two out of his way while he quickly dispatched the third. When the other two recovered and lunged for him, Sir Hugh came to his aid. Together, they finished off the Scotsmen and took the next staircase down toward the hall.
“How did they get in?” Anvrai asked.
“Must have been the south wall,” Hugh replied. “The only true weakness is there.”
Anvrai muttered a curse as they turned a corner and confronted two more warriors. ‘Twas not only the wall that was weak. The keep and many of the outer buildings were unfinished. He and Hugh battled the two attackers, but Anvrai was acutely aware of the need to get down to the hall, where the barbarians were doing their worst damage, killing any who mounted a defense and carrying off those who would make likely slaves.
The two knights fought their way across the gallery and down to the great hall. There, they were separated by terrified women and children, and those too old to fight. Screams and confusion abounded.
“You must get to the courtyard,” Hugh shouted. “Isabel and Roger are unprotected!”
It meant Anvrai would have to fight his way through the throng in the hall, gathering as many knights as possible to swarm the courtyard. By the time he got there, the intruders might well have killed Roger and carried Isabel away.
The intruders were merciless, gaining the upper floor and shooting arrows down at the Norman knights who fought to defend the hall. Anvrai saw Sir Roger’s father fall but, as he was beleaguered from all sides, could do naught to help the man.
“The courtyard!” Hugh shouted over the din.
Anvrai gave one final, fatal thrust into the belly of his current attacker but was assailed from behind, catching the point of some barbarian’s blade in his shoulder, unprotected as it was. A sharp, searing pain pierced him, but he remained undeterred, swinging ’round to commence battle with this newest assailant as he backed his way toward the courtyard.
If he was delayed much longer, ‘twould be too late. The Scots would surely capture as comely a prize as Isabel de St. Marie. He’d seen several women – mostly serving maids – carried off already. Anvrai managed to prevent the abduction of many more women, allowing them a chance to run for safety, but it was clear the Norman knights were vastly outnumbered and unprepared. Lord Kettwyck’s patrols had failed, and the guests within did not wear armor and were easily wounded. The Scots were winning the battle for Kettwyck, and withdrawing as they carried off anything of value. They set fires as they retreated, adding to the confusion and panic in the hall.
Battered and bleeding, Anvrai tore himself from the fighting in the hall and made for the courtyard, joining battle with the remaining Scotsmen, who laughed and taunted the defeated Normans. Though their language was unintelligible, their meaning was clear as they proclaimed themselves victors and jeered at their Norman opponents.
The final insult was the firing of the stables, with many of the horses trapped within. The Scots had taken those that could be easily stolen, but the rest were left to burn.
There was no sign of Lady Isabel or Sir Roger. For one short instant, Anvrai considered the lady’s fair countenance and the damage that would be done her. ‘Twas a fate no innocent woman should have to endure, whether comely or not, but Anvrai doubted he could do aught to prevent it. She was gone.
“They ride for the hills, Sir Knight!” cried one of the grooms. “The bastards set fire to the stables and ran off like the thieves and brigands they are!”
Anvrai wasted no time, but found himself a suitable steed and saddled it quickly as horses scattered away from the fire and grooms threw water on the flames. He rallied twenty knights to join him, then led the party of men to the hills, where he would do all in his power to hunt down and rescue another man’s bride.