Candle in the Window: Castles #1 by Christina Dodd




  Candle in the Window

  CHRISTINA DODD

  To Scott

  Who supported and encouraged me

  through two word processors

  and

  ten years of writing

  I Love You

  Contents

  One

  “Do you want her?”

  Two

  “What in God’s name possessed you to say such things…

  Three

  “William, you have to stop kissing the maids.” Saura slapped…

  Four

  “June is the month of love. The month when the…

  Five

  Saura had lied to Bronnie.

  Six

  “Only hope will greet us tomorrow.” Was it his own…

  Seven

  A twist of the key in the lock, and a…

  Eight

  The sepulchral barking grew closer, more menacing, and Saura crouched…

  Nine

  Lord Peter stood up beside them and shouted, “A toast…

  Ten

  Saura floundered out of the deep well of exhaustion, urged…

  Eleven

  The great hall smelled good, clean, and scented with herbs…

  Twelve

  Rubbing her arms against the chill, Saura pulled off her…

  Thirteen

  Looking up from his appraisal of the young stallion, William…

  Fourteen

  Raymond seated himself, and answered the shouted questions between mouthfuls…

  Fifteen

  “I have a poem, dedicated to my lady of love.”

  Sixteen

  Without a word, Saura stepped forward and put out her…

  Seventeen

  “’Tis Charles.”

  Eighteen

  William was a man who prided himself on his logic.

  Nineteen

  “I used to worship him,” Nicholas said plaintively. “Did you…

  Twenty

  Saura hung there for days, through a season, until she…

  Twenty-One

  “What blocks us?” William asked, squeezing next to Saura and…

  Twenty-Two

  William trotted down the path on the knoll, looking back…

  Twenty-Three

  Raymond took his arm and led him to the strange…

  About the Author

  Other Books by Christina Dodd

  Credits

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  Medieval England

  Springtime, 1153

  one

  “Do you want her?”

  “What?” Lord Peter turned his gray head to his host, surprised by the question, jolted by the interruption.

  “I said, do you want her? You keep staring at her.” Theobald wiped his nose with the hand that held his knife.

  “That girl? The one at the foot of the table?” Lord Peter tread warily, unsure of his host, unsure of the hostility he saw mirrored in the man’s eyes. “She’s very pretty.”

  “Pretty?” Theobald snorted, holding his knife clutched tight in one hand and lifting his cup with the other. “Aye, look at her. Her mouth is so wide and red and smooth, and her hair is black, long, clear down her back. It looks magnificent against that skin of hers. Plague take her, Saura’s body is the kind poets sing about. She’s got legs up to her rump. A very nice rump, it is, too. A tiny waist and these….” Theobald used both hands to gesture, sloshing ale into his lap and cursing.

  Repelled by the catalog of her charms and by the thought of the lout laying hands on the girl, Lord Peter apologized stiffly. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know she was your concubine.”

  “Concubine!” Theobald sniggered with contempt, hating the girl with his darting eyes. “I wouldn’t have her in my bed, nor give her to you for yours. She’s useless, can’t you see it? She’s blind, blind as a treble-bandaged mole. She’s the daughter of my first wife and Elwin of Roget, and I can’t even marry her off. A stone hanging around my neck, worthless!”

  Worthless? Lord Peter wondered. What had drawn his attention was the way she seemed to manage the production of dinner from her seat. The movement in the great hall swirled around her; the serfs spoke to her respectfully, bowed, and did her bidding. She murmured to her maid and the woman hurried off in the direction of the kitchens. The servant returned and whispered in Saura’s ear, and Saura climbed off her bench. Lord Peter watched with close attention to see her stumble, but she moved gracefully, lightly touching the arch that divided the great room and disappearing into a stairwell.

  “I’m interested in her woman,” Lord Peter told Theobald, never taking his eyes from the spot where Saura had vanished. “What’s her name?”

  “Saura’s woman?” Theobald hooted. “You brave soul. We can do better for you than old Maud.”

  Lord Peter turned his head to his host once more, smiling thinly. “I prefer my meat well seasoned.”

  “Aye, it covers the rank smell, doesn’t it?” Theobald grinned at his young wife, shrinking beside him, and Lord Peter felt sorry for the girl who would share her lord’s bed tonight.

  “Maud?” Lord Peter stepped out of the alcove and examined the woman his squire had brought him. Her gray braids hung down her back, her round face was wrinkled with middle age, and she stood tall. Remembering how the retainer had towered over the blind girl, he realized he had found whom he sought. He waved his man away. “You’re Maud? You’re the woman who serves Saura of Roget?”

  Bright blue eyes combed his figure, seeking his credentials in the cut of his clothes and the condition of his body. “I am Maud. Saura’s my mistress. I served her mother and I’ll serve her until the last breath is left in my body, and if that ass Theobald has offered her to ye—”

  “No!” Lord Peter roared, infuriated by her assumption. “No. She’s young enough to be my granddaughter.”

  Maud peered at him quizzically, amazed at his vehemence, and Lord Peter explained with a sheepish shrug, “My lady wife would slice my gizzard on a platter.”

  “A good woman,” Maud said. “Come, walk with me. We’re too conspicuous standing in this drafty hall. Why do ye want m’lady?”

  Lord Peter fell in step with the woman. “I will speak to her.”

  “Why?”

  “That is between me and the lady.” Under Maud’s dubious gaze he continued. “Methinks I cannot harm her with you standing guard, or is she so timid she requires a shield?”

  “Timid? God, no, not Lady Saura. She has the heart of a lion.”

  “Good, she’d be of no use to me if she weren’t brave. She seems to run the household.”

  “Oh, aye. She seems to.” Maud walked beside him, her face set straight ahead.

  No further comment was forthcoming, and Lord Peter insisted, “Well, does she?”

  “As ye know, Lord Theobald has married young Lady Blanche and she’s the lady of the castle.”

  Lord Peter examined her, amazed at the cautious answer. “I don’t give a damn about Lady Blanche! I’m not a relative of Lady Blanche. I’m only interested in Saura of Roget. Now, does she run this household?”

  Maud stopped and searched his honest, exasperated face. Pushing her hand against the door beside her, she suggested, “Why don’t ye ask her?”

  Lord Peter entered the chamber, gaining at a glance the worth of Saura to her family. The tiny room contained only the space for a straw palliasse and a bahut chest made of iron and wood. Still, a small fire burned on the hearth and no smoke blew in—the sign of a clean flue.

  Seated in the only chair, Saura was wrapped clear to her chin in a coarse wool blanket. Her feet were raised off the cold floor with a footstool.
Her ears were covered by a fine linen cap, tied beneath the chin. But the headwrap was frayed and no longer white, and almost too small for her tiny head, as if it had been hers since her childhood and never replaced.

  Her face! Good God, what had been an admirable portrait of the Madonna seen from a distance was, in fact, the work of some more profane artist. She was beautiful in an earthly way; she was beautiful in the way that made men long to indulge themselves with her. Her white skin shone clear and unmarked by the pox, lifted by exotic cheekbones that bespoke her Norman ancestors. Long and straight, her nose twitched with the scent of him. Her lips were chapped from the cold, as were his, as were everyone’s, but hers turned up in a wide, enticing mouth. Black eyelashes which swept her cheeks were a foil for the great violet eyes that turned to him so inquiringly.

  No wonder Theobald snarled about her, no wonder he stared at her with hunger and hate. This girl lived beneath his hand, but away from his touch, and it would be beyond the will of any man not to desire her. Until some man branded her as his possession, Saura would be a bone of contention in any household.

  If only William—Lord Peter broke off his thoughts with a sharp sigh.

  “See enough?” the woman beside him asked with astringent emphasis.

  In surprise, Lord Peter realized the two women had been quiet, waiting for his appraisal to end. “Are you always so patient?” he queried, smiling at Maud as he moved to the trunk to sit down.

  With a gesture, Saura stopped him. “A moment,” she ordered, as she reached into the roomy bag on the floor beside her and pulled out a cushion. Handing Lord Peter the carnation-scented pillow, she said, “The slant of the lid makes the trunk less than comfortable.”

  “Thank you, my lady.” Lord Peter adjusted the cushion on the trunk and sat, amazed that she knew his location with such accuracy.

  “I have brought ye Lord Peter of Burke, Sire of Burke, m’lady. He wishes to speak with ye.”

  “Lord Peter!” Saura rose with a flurry, aware of the man’s wealth and prestige. “Why didn’t you tell me at once, Maud? He shall have my chair.”

  Putting his hand on Saura’s shoulder, Lord Peter pushed her back. “I am quite comfortable, I assure you, and better able to bear the cold than one so fair.”

  “He’s a big, strong man,” Maud added drily. “And has seen worse conditions, I’m sure.”

  “Maud, you’re incorrigible,” Saura scolded, but Lord Peter agreed.

  “I have seen worse conditions, just today, with the snowstorm that drove me to take advantage of the hospitality of Pertrade Castle. I assure you, Lady Saura, I’m dry and well clad, and as your maid pointed out, I’m a big, strong man.” Lord Peter smiled directly at Maud with such charm that the older woman stepped back in surprise.

  “Then how can I favor you, my lord?” Saura cuddled back into her blanket.

  “I need information. You can help me.”

  Discomfort and trepidation colored his voice, and when he said no more, she prompted, “I would be glad to give you any information I have, my lord.”

  “You seem to be….” Lord Peter paused, unsure of how to proceed. Glancing at Maud, he observed the waiting amusement that lit the woman’s eyes. “It appeared that you ran the serving of dinner from your place at the foot of the table. Did you?”

  A slight frown crossed Saura’s face. “As you know, my stepfather has married Lady Blanche and she—”

  “No!” Lord Peter stopped her, blunt with impatience. “You don’t understand. I don’t care if Lady Blanche doesn’t lift a finger, it’s you I’m concerned with. You! Are you blind?”

  Saura lifted a finger and touched one ear, as if she could not believe the question, and Lord Peter raked his fingers through his thinning hair. “I didn’t mean it like that. In sooth, I came to the vicinity hoping for an encounter, for Raymond of Avraché remembered hearing tales of you. I know you are blind, but you manage so well, it almost seems a hoax.”

  “Ye wouldn’t say that if ye had seen the times she has fallen over a bench or walked into a door,” Maud said without inflection.

  “Or the times Maud has beaten some poor idiot for leaving his bench out,” Saura added with a clear laugh.

  “Have you been blind all your life?” Lord Peter asked, intense with concern.

  She blessed him with her slow smile and answered, “Not yet.”

  Lord Peter whipped his head around. Realizing the irony of it, he sighed. “You handle your lack of sight so well.” Almost in despair, he added, “You’re so young. You move gracefully, you feed yourself, you dress neatly. You run this household?” Maud nodded to him. “Does your maid do it all for you?”

  Maud scowled, but a flattered smile flitted across Saura’s face. “No, Lord Peter. Maud is my strong right hand and my eyes, but I’m self-sufficient. My mother taught me to care for myself, for my servants, for my family, and for my home.”

  “How?”

  “My lord?”

  “How did she teach you these things? Was she blind also? Did she talk to someone, learn from someone? How did she know what to do?” His voice quavered, thick with a private anguish.

  Disturbed, Saura heard his trouble but couldn’t diagnose the source. “My mother was a canny lady, and if she ever worried about me, I didn’t know of it. I did the things she told me because I never knew I couldn’t, and if I had ever given in to despair, she would have disciplined me out of it.”

  “How do you discipline a blind person? Knock them a blow that they can’t see coming and are unable to duck?” Lord Peter asked, his question bitter on his tongue.

  “You’re not talking about me, sir. Do you have a loved one who has lost his sight?”

  “A loved one. Yes. My son, my only child, as strong and robust a man as has ever walked this earth, now cannot walk this earth without stumbling and cursing, falling, walking into something.” He buried his head in his fists. “He needs help, my lady, help, and I have no help to give him.”

  Silence permeated the room, save for the crackle of the fire, while the doughty warrior fought his emotions to a standstill. Saura laid her hand on his elbow and when he raised his head, she held out a filled cup of cider, warm from the fire. Maud stood beside her, smiling encouragement, as Saura invited, “Tell me.”

  “Since Stephen of Blois claimed the throne from Queen Matilda, there’s been nothing but trouble. Nothing but trouble.” He rubbed his belly as he remembered. “William and I are balanced on a sword’s edge, trying to keep our vows and our properties and our honor. We are forever putting down some bit of rebellion from a tenant or cracking heads with one of the barons who thinks he owns an acre of land he does not.”

  “Did your son have to go and fight in any of those endless royal battles?”

  “No, no. Matilda has retired to Rouen. Why should she fight Stephen, when his barons are doing such a good job of destroying England with these endless, petty wars?” he asked bitterly. “She sits across the Channel and watches and waits. Her revenge is coming. She’s raised up her son to fight.”

  “He tried to take England before,” Saura pointed out.

  Lord Peter was surprised. “Do you follow the great follies of our sovereigns, then?”

  She lowered her head, as befitting a modest maid, yet her voice rang firm. “I own lands that rest beneath the march of armies. With my feeble woman’s mind, I seek to understand what I can, but we’re at the end of the world here. I hear very little, and that two years late.”

  Lord Peter suspected her disclaimer hid a keen interest, and so he explained, “Henry was only fourteen last time, but they say he’s matured into a powerful leader. He’s made plenty of trouble for Stephen from his lands in Normandy, and some say he’s already landed in England with an army.” Watching her closely, he added, “He was invested with the duchy of Normandy after his knighting by the king of Scotland.” He was rewarded by the way her face lit up.

  “The king of Scotland is his uncle, is he not?”

  Re
calling herself, she lowered her head again and folded her hands, but Lord Peter could no longer be deceived. Here was a bright and inquiring mind, languishing in ignorance. He was never a man to let such a mind go to waste in a man, and his wife had taught him the dangers of ignoring that asset in a woman. “Aye, he’s Henry’s uncle. Henry’s related to every great lord and king in Europe, I believe. From his mother, he received the duchy of Normandy. From his father he received the provinces of Maine and Anjou. ’Fore God, the boy has inherited so many lands, so many responsibilities, and still he seeks the position of king of all England.”

  “King Stephen won’t yield the throne on Henry’s behest.”

  “Nay, but these years of struggle have aged Stephen. The man can’t live forever,” he said, but he was hopeful, not convinced.

  “What’s going to happen to our poor England?” she asked.

  “I don’t know.” He sighed. “I don’t know. Nineteen years ago, it all seemed so clear. Queen Matilda was good King Henry’s only surviving child, and he made the barons swear to uphold her claim on the throne. But she is a woman, and a haughty woman at that.”

  “That’s a bitter dose for haughty men to swallow,” Saura answered with humor.

  “You show a formidable insight.” His humor acknowledged hers. “When Henry died—the present Henry’s grandfather—Stephen claimed the throne in London, and England hailed him. He seemed to be the perfect solution. He was the grandchild of William the Conqueror, just as Matilda was. He was charming, generous, and brave. The barons thought Stephen would bring prosperity. We soon found out that charm, generosity, and bravery are poor substitutes for the unscrupulous sternness needed by a monarch.”

  “I can’t even remember a time of prosperity,” Saura said. “I was born the year good King Henry died.”

 
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