Excerpt: Secret Thunder
Book 1: Lords of Conquest, The Perigueux Family
April 1067: The Cambridgeshire manor of Hauekleah
Faithe looked up from the daisies she was tying together to see young Edyth burst through the open doorway of Hauekleah Hall, red-faced and breathless. Ewes’ milk spilled from her two full buckets, soaking into the fresh rushes.
“Edyth!” Faithe scolded. “Slow down. You’re getting the new rushes all—”
“There’s two Normans headin’ up the road,” the dairymaid gasped. “One of ‘em must be him—the Black Dragon.”
Silence fell over the great hall as the house servants turned apprehensive gazes on their young mistress. Faithe’s fingers grew cold, and she realized she had stopped breathing. She set down the daisy garland and rose from her bench, summoning all the composure at her disposal.
“His name,” Faithe said quietly, “is Luke de Périgueux.”
Edyth blinked. “But Master Orrik, he says they call him the Black—”
“His name is Luke de Périgueux,” Faithe repeated, her gaze sweeping every member of her raptly attentive audience, “and as he’s to be your new master” —she drew in a steadying breath— “and my lord husband, you are to address him with respect or suffer the consequences. Am I understood?”
Faithe’s famuli, unused to such threats or admonishments—for Faithe rarely found them necessary—exchanged uneasy glances.
“Am I understood?” Her words were softly spoken, but clear.
There came a chorus of murmured assents, accompanied by the occasional pitying look. They viewed her as a martyr, she realized—first widowed by the Normans, then forced to choose between marriage to one of their own or the loss of her ancestral home.
Faithe tucked her hair behind her ears and smoothed her kirtle, hearing the crackle of parchment in the pocket of her skirt. The letter from Lord Alberic, the Norman sheriff to whom she now owed allegiance, had been treacherously courteous in that manner the Normans seemed to have perfected. He’d told her little about the husband he’d chosen for her, only that he was a knight named Luke de Périgueux and that he was famous for his soldiering skills. Skills used against her people… her husband.
Know, my lady, his lordship—or, more likely, his lordship’s clerk—had written, that you would be fully within your rights to refuse this marriage. In such an event, I will endeavor to dispose of the estate by other means. In other words, she could marry the notorious Luke de Périgueux and remain at Hauekleah, or refuse to marry him and let the Normans seize it—in which case she’d no doubt spend the rest of her days languishing in some convent somewhere. Worse, the sprawling farmstead that had been her family’s for over eight hundred years would fall into the hands of strangers, enemy strangers.
Better to give myself to some Norman devil and keep Hauekleah, she’d decided. Her grandmother, Hlynn, had done much the same, entering into a loveless marriage to a Danish warrior chief rather than relinquish Hauekleah to the Northmen. Finding farm life tiresome, Thorgeirr had stayed but a single summer—long enough to build a new manor house and plant the seed of Faithe’s father in Hlynn’s belly—and then moved on. Although it was rumored that he lived for many more years, Hlynn never saw him again, and counted herself lucky.
Perhaps, Faithe told herself as she stepped out into the warm spring afternoon, she would be as fortunate. Her new husband, used to the ways of the sword and the crossbow, might be so bored here that he’d leave her in peace and she’d have Hauekleah all to herself again.
All eyes were upon her as she walked slowly through the entry gate that provided passage through the stone wall surrounding Hauekleah Hall—a wall that had stood since Roman times. Shielding her eves against the sun, she squinted down the dirt path that connected her manor and the village it encompassed to Foxhyrst and the other great market towns to the west.
Two men on horseback rode toward her on that path, one tall in the saddle, the other slumped over. Faithe’s mouth felt chalky. She wiped her damp palms on her plain wool kirtle. Field-workers abandoned their plows and livestock and ran to join her house staff in what felt like a defensive phalanx around her. As always, their loyalty and affection moved her immeasurably. If for their sakes only, she could never abandon Hauekleah to the Normans.
As the riders drew closer, she saw that the upright man gripped a sword in one hand and the reins of both mounts in the other. The insensible one swayed in his saddle. The fellow with the sword dropped the reins and grasped the other man’s tunic to keep him from falling. Leaning over, he whispered something into his companion’s ear and gently patted his shoulder.
“He’s hurt.” Faithe stepped forward.
Her young reeve, his eyes full of worry, grabbed her arm. “Nay, milady…”
“That man’s hurt.” Faithe shook Dunstan off and approached the two men, wondering which one was Luke de Périgueux. They were sizable men, both of them, with hair as black as ink. The injured man—she saw the blood on his tunic now, and a raw gash on his forehead—had his hair shorn in the Norman style, while the other wore his unusually long and bound in back.
Faithe’s servants followed her, Dunstan and some of the burlier men flanking her protectively. The man with the sword pointed it at them as they approached. Faithe hesitated, along with the others. It wasn’t the weapon that gave her pause, for although he was armed, he was but one man and they were many; it was the way he looked at them.
Some of his hair had come loose and hung over his broad forehead, enhancing his feral image. His eyes were deep-set and fierce against oddly swarthy skin. Black stubble darkened his grimly set jaw. He didn’t look like any Norman soldier Faithe had ever seen. He looked untamed… as menacing as a beast with its fangs bared.
Faithe’s gaze traveled to the ornate pin holding his mantle closed—a golden disk inset with black stone in the shape of…
A dragon. A black dragon.
“That’s him,” someone whispered.
Faithe stifled a sudden urge to cross herself. So this was the man to whom she would be wed within a matter of days, this dark, savage creature with murder in his eyes and a quivering broadsword in his hand.
Forcing her fear beneath the surface, Faithe stepped forward, her escorts at her sides.
“Stop right there,” de Périgueux ordered in French-accented English as he thrust the weapon toward them. “I’ll have none of your Saxon tricks.” His voice rumbled like thunder; his tone was that of a man accustomed to being obeyed. That he spoke English came as something of a shock. She’d never known a Norman to utter a word of her native tongue.
Faithe clutched her skirt in both fists. “We mean you no harm.”
“Tell that to my brother. We were ambushed in the woods not a mile back.”
He scanned the faces behind her. “Where’s your mistress? My brother needs help. He’s badly wounded.”
Faithe lifted her chin, consciously ignoring his sword, which was aimed directly at her. “I’m Faithe of Hauekleah. I’ll tend to your brother.”
Those intense eyes of his pinned her with a look of astonishment, his gaze lighting on the handful of brass keys hanging from a long golden chain around her neck, which he evidently hadn’t noticed before. He surveyed her from head to toe, taking in the unbound hair that hung loose over her breasts, the humble kirtle she’d shortened for field work, and the patched slippers soiled from that morning’s gardening. As usual, she’d gotten too caught up in the day’s chores to bother overmuch with grooming, and as a result looked more like an untidy adolescent than a chatelaine.
Even when she did bother to dress in her finest silks and adorn herself with jewels, Faithe looked far younger than her four-and-twenty years. She’d learned to counteract her youthful appearance with displays of unflinching confidence, even when they had to be feigned. Therefore, when Luke de Périgueux’s attention returned to her face, she met his eyes steadfastly.
He held her gaze. She saw his throat move as he swallowed; his penetrating eyes darkened from brown to black. So… it unnerved even the infamous Black Dragon to come face-to-face with his betrothed.
Faithe nodded toward his sword, still aimed at her throat, and said quietly, “If you’ll lower that, my lord, I shall see to your brother.”
* * *
“Gently, now… gently,” Lady Faithe urged as six of her men, gripping the edges of Alex’s mantle, carried him through a gate in an old stone wall and over the threshold of the enormous timber manor house it surrounded. Alex was unconscious, his face drained of color. Luke muttered a quick prayer as he followed his brother into a vast whitewashed hall flooded with sunlight, its lofty roof supported by two rows of thick oak posts. Each post, he noticed, had a garland of flowers wound around it from top to bottom, and floral swags hung from the ceiling beams. The green rushes that crackled underfoot were likewise strewn with sweet blossoms whose scent perfumed the air.
Lady Faithe gave orders for a pallet to be placed next to the central hearth, a stone slab on which a low fire crackled beneath a brass kettle. “Lay him down carefully,” she said, and her men obeyed, handling Alex as if he were a newborn pup. “Bring me some soap and my medicine box,” she told two maidservants as she ladled warm water from the kettle into a bowl. “And clean strips of linen and blankets.” Her soft, girlish voice seemed unsuited to command, yet her servants jumped to do her bidding.
Odd, Luke thought as he divested himself of his mantle, for such authority to be invested in a girl of such unassuming appearance. Not that she was plain. Indeed, she was slender and fair, as Lord Alberic had promised in the letter in which he’d offered Luke her hand in marriage—and therefore her estate. Her light brown hair, fine as silk, framed a face as appealing as any he’d ever seen. She had those soft hazel eyes he’d only ever seen in England.
Luke was grateful for his bride’s comeliness, although he’d expected someone more… polished. Saxon or no, she was a high-born lady, yet she wore no veil or fur or jewels, and her face was as sun-burnished as that of a common field laborer. The chatelaine’s keys hanging around her neck were the only indication of her rank.
Kneeling beside Alex’s pallet, she unbuckled his swordbelt—empty, since Luke still held his brother’s sword in a fierce grip. Luke took the belt before she could hand it to the woman helping her, buckled it over his own tunic, and sheathed the sword. That he chose to keep the weapon close at hand was clearly not lost on Lady Faithe, who glanced warily in his direction, then proceeded to unlace Alex’s boots.
Luke wished he didn’t feel the need to defend himself and his brother from these people. After all, he was their new lord. Yet they regarded him as the enemy. No doubt Lady Faithe found his presence here particularly loathsome. He was a victorious invader, she his war prize. Who knew what depths of bitterness might simmer beneath her seemingly harmless exterior. Saxons were tricky. It was in the nature of defeated people to use cunning to resist their conquerors—to put on a show of cooperation while fighting back in whatever sly way they could. He’d have to keep a close watch on her and those whom she commanded with such subtle skill. Hence the sword, although in truth Luke felt ill at ease bearing arms. In fact, this was the first he’d done so since entering the monastery after the incident in Cottwyk.
Two months of prayer and seclusion had lulled the fury within him into an uneasy hibernation, yet it would be naive to think he was free of it forever—or to blame it on a handful of dried leaves. Those herbs had merely awakened a beast that lay curled up within him, waiting for the chance to kill and maim—a beast that was part and parcel of who he was, that had always been with him and would never leave him in peace.
Squatting down, Luke lowered his head and rubbed his left arm below the painful knot near his shoulder, thankfully his only souvenir of the ambush. When he looked up, he saw Lady Faithe’s hand slip into the pouch of her girdle. Steel flashed as she withdrew a knife and brought it to Alex’s throat.
Luke whipped out an arm and seized her wrist, jerking her hand—and the knife—away from Alex. She cried out and tried vainly to pull away from him. He grabbed her other hand and yanked her to her feet, clenching his teeth at the searing pain in his upper arm. The knife fell into the rushes.
“None of your Saxon tricks,” he growled. “I told you.” She struggled. He tightened his grip on her wrists.
She winced, but met his eyes squarely. “Let go of me,” she rasped, “or they’ll kill you.” He followed her gaze to see every man and woman in the huge room closing in on them, many wielding crude weapons—hatchets, shears, cleavers—that they’d produced with remarkable speed.
Leaning down, Luke stared directly into her eyes. “If you harm my brother,” he said quietly, “I’ll kill you.” He squeezed her wrists to underscore the threat. She hitched in her breath.
A young, fair-haired man advanced menacingly on Luke, but Lady Faithe shook her head. “Nay, Dunstan. It’s all right.” Dunstan stopped in his tracks, glowering at Luke, a dagger at the ready.
“You’d kill your own wife?” she asked unsteadily.
“We’re not married yet.”
She was trembling, he realized, but to her credit she raised her chin and said, “You Normans think you’re so civilized, but I’ve never yet heard an Englishman threaten to kill a woman.”
“I’ve never yet seen a woman—Norman or English—try to slit the throat of a wounded man entrusted to her care.”
“You think so little of me?”
“I don’t know you,” he said. “And I’m beginning to think I don’t want to. Much less be wed to you.”
Her soft eyes frosted over. “‘Twould suit me well if you were to ride away from here and leave me in peace.”
Luke allowed himself a grim smile. “And ‘twould suit me if this estate were simply appropriated and given to me outright… Sister Faithe.”
Her golden face paled, and Luke knew he’d threatened her where it mattered this time. Hauekleah must be very dear to her heart. Indeed, why else would she have agreed to marry a strange Norman knight rather than lose it? That her stake in this union was as great as his was useful to know.
“You’re hurting me,” she said tightly, glancing at her immobilized hands. “Let me go.”
Luke released her. She let out a ragged breath and rubbed her wrists, now marred by livid marks where his fingers had dug into her. He bit back an apology, reminding himself that, just moments ago, this woman had been aiming a knife at his brother’s throat.
“Go about your business,” she told her staff. They slowly dispersed, except for young Dunstan, who stayed close in an apparent effort to keep watch over his mistress. A plump, older woman brought her a wooden box with brass fittings and a bar of yellowish soap, which she set on a nearby bench. “Thank you, Moira.”
“We could simply take Hauekleah from you,” Luke told Lady Faithe, only to see her face lose even more of its color, highlighting a constellation of pale freckles across her nose and cheeks. “But ‘twould be a brutal business. Regardless of what you may think, your new rulers are a civilized people. Why settle with the sword what we can settle with a marriage?”
In point of fact, Lord Alberic would undoubtedly have seized Hauekleah by force, as was his inclination—provided he could observe the fighting from a safe distance, as usual—had not the alternative of granting it to Luke amused him more.
Alberic was a petty and pampered creature, his one great weakness a paralyzing fear of battle—a rather inconvenient attribute in a military commander, which was what he’d been before he’d maneuvered William into naming him sheriff. He’d managed to hide this flaw from everyone but Luke, who’d seen him hunker down in a ditch at Hastings, blubbering and shrieking as the battle raged around him. The other witnesses to this shameful display had perished at the hands of the English, and no doubt Alberic wished Luke had succumbed to the same fate. From his lordship’s attitude toward Luke since then, it was clear that he despised his most celebrated knight for being privy to his cowardice. Not that he was outwardly hostile; fancying himself a diplomat, Alberic couched his maliciousness in a facade of remote disdain. For his part, Luke had never revealed what he’d seen to a living soul, except for Alex; it would be his word against that of Alberic, still very much a favorite of King William’s.
For months, Lord Alberic had resisted the idea of granting a conquered estate to Luke. Finally, under pressure from William—who’d interpreted Luke’s seclusion at St. Albans as a form of protest for his lack of reward, and didn’t want to alienate one of his most renowned military heroes—the sheriff gave him Hauekleah by means of marriage to Lady Faithe. It was meant as a sort of mean-spirited jest, of course. Hauekleah was a humble farmstead, nothing like the grand estates he’d bestowed on his other knights. Little did Alberic know that the holding he’d intended as a subtle insult suited Luke perfectly. His fondest boyhood memories were of farm life. He could live contentedly at Hauekleah—provided he managed to keep his Saxon bride and her villeins under control.
Another serving wench laid a pile of blankets and linen on the bench. Lady Faithe started to turn toward them, but Luke grabbed her shoulder and forced her to face him. “Hauekleah is mine now, my lady, with or without you. Rest assured I’ll be keeping a close watch on you. If you even think about causing harm to my brother—if I but see it in your eyes—then I’ll refuse this marriage and let Lord Alberic take Hauekleah by force.”
Lady Faithe twisted out of his grip. “You can’t honestly think I meant to cut your brother’s throat.”
“I saw you with my own—”
“I was trying to cut his tunic off.”
Luke studied her seemingly guileless eyes, then looked at his brother, lying on his pallet in his blood-soaked clothes.
“Do you think,” she said, “if I’d intended to murder him, that I’d do it right in front of you?”
A good point, Luke had to admit. She knelt and retrieved her knife from the rushes. Crouching, Luke snatched it from her. “I’ll do it.” Most likely she was telling the truth. If not, she was a consummate liar. Regardless, he’d best reserve judgment on her character—and withhold from her the right to wield knives around his brother—until he’d gotten to know her a bit better.
Anger flashed in her eyes, but she backed away, giving him room to maneuver. As he cut through the heavy wool of his brother’s tunic, she pulled the pieces off and handed them to the plump maid, Moira. Alex’s undershirt sliced easily. She peeled the crimson-stained linen from his injured side with great care.
Her hands were those of a woman who spent her days working. They looked strong and capable, and even slightly work-roughened, but well-shaped. She wore no rings and kept her nails blunt.
“What weapon did that?” she asked as she examined the ghastly wound.
“‘Twas some type of mallet, with a spike on top.”
She nodded. “That’s a farm tool. We use it for driving stakes and breaking up the earth. How many men were there?”
“Just two, but they surprised us. They popped out of the woods a mile down the road. One had that mallet, and he went straight for Alex. The other had a sling.” He touched his left arm high up, where it had been hit, sucking in his breath as the hardened lump throbbed with pain.
“Are you hurt?”
He gritted his teeth. “‘Tis of no concern. If you Saxons could aim, ‘twould have been my skull that stopped that rock, and then I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale. No doubt they meant to knock us out and then finish the job with that mallet, but they weren’t up to the task.”
“I take it they got away.”
Luke grimaced at the memory. “I would have gone after them, but Alex needed me. The one with the mallet may not get far—I took Alex’s sword and stabbed him in the gut before he ran off.” He paused for a heartbeat. “Did you send them to ambush us?”
Seeming unsurprised by the question, she tossed her head in a partially successful attempt to flip her hair over her shoulder. “My men have standing orders to give all Normans a wide berth. I care far too much about Hauekleah to jeopardize it by encouraging my people to attack yours.” She stripped away the last of Alex’s shirt. “The bleeding has stopped.” She began untying Alex’s bloodstained chausses. “Here, help me get these off him.”
Luke hesitated, discomfited by the sight of her loosening his brother’s hose and untying the drawers beneath them. “Isn’t there some manservant who could do this?” he asked. “Someplace else?”
She cast him a wry look. “If it’s your brother’s modesty you’re protecting, I assure you he’s quite unaware of what’s happening, and my servants have all seen—”
“Nay, I meant…” Why was he fumbling for words? “Surely it’s not considered proper for a lady of rank…” He shook his head in exasperation.
She laughed, and he was torn between pleasure at her luminous smile and humiliation at being the cause of her mirth. “You’re serious,” she said.
“No Frankish lady would expose herself to a naked man, much less take his chausses off herself.”
Lady Faithe chuckled as she carefully worked the chausses and drawers down over Alex’s wounded hip. “I can’t think that makes the Frankish husbands very happy.”
Luke almost smiled. He tried to imagine his stepmother or sisters saying such a thing, but they’d rather die than let even the most mildly bawdy remark pass their rouged lips. Just as they’d rather die than undress a man with their soft white hands; no wonder their husbands always looked so unhappy. “Here.” He used his knife to cut the remaining garments from his brother’s body, leaving him entirely naked. Alex certainly wouldn’t mind. One thing he’d never been was shy.
Lady Faithe tucked her hair behind her ears and folded back her sleeves. Taking the soap, she washed her hands, then lathered up one of the linen cloths and gently blotted the gash on Alex’s hip.
“Would you like me to do that?” Luke asked.
“Nay, it takes a light touch.” She smiled lopsidedly, which Luke found oddly engaging. “You really needn’t trouble yourself over my delicate sensibilities, my lord. I’m a widow, not a blushing maid.”
This reminder of Lady Faithe’s widowhood took Luke aback. According to Lord Alberic’s letter, her husband had left for Hastings last summer and never returned. Luke thought back to all the Saxons he’d dispatched with his crossbow at Hastings—and since—and felt an uneasiness in his stomach. For the first time since Alberic’s letter had arrived at the monastery last week, he contemplated this union from Lady Faithe’s perspective: Having killed her husband but seven months ago, the Norman conquerors now expected her to enter meekly into a marriage to one of their most ruthless soldiers. That she could accept this with such seeming composure was really quite remarkable. Either she did have some treachery hidden up her sleeve, or she was one of a singular breed—those true survivors who prevail against adversity by virtue of adaptation and sharp wits. At any rate, she did not strike him as being deep in mourning over her late husband, which was all for the best.
She wrung out the cloth, ordered a fresh bowl of water, and went to work on the ragged laceration along Alex’s side. Tendrils of hair fell across her eyes, and she blew them out of the way. “They’re ugly wounds,” she said, “but now that they’re cleaned off, I’m encouraged. The one on his hip is deep, and I daresay ‘twill take him a while to get back on his feet, but no bones are broken. If we can keep the wounds from festering, he should be fine.”
“Thank God.” Luke crossed himself. She spoke with such confidence that he accepted her assessment unquestioningly. He felt weak with relief.
She cleaned the swollen cut on Alex’s forehead. “This doesn’t look like the other wounds.”
“That’s from a stone. The sling found its mark that time.”
“Can you identify the men who attacked you?” she asked.
“They were dark-haired, both of them. Around my age.”
Her gaze flickered over him. “You strike me as older than that.”
He felt older than that. “The man I stabbed,” Luke said, “the one with the mallet who’d attacked Alex, was missing an eye. The other one had a big red birthmark on one cheek.”
She exchanged a knowing look with the watchful young man, Dunstan, as she twisted the cloth over the bowl of water.
“Do you know these men?” Luke asked.
She tossed her hair out of the way, which made her keys rattle softly. “They’re incorrigibles, both of them. Hengist and Vance—cousins. They prowl the woods around here, robbing travelers—Saxon or Norman, it makes no difference to them.”
“Only they don’t usually attack this close to Hauekleah,” said Dunstan, taking a step forward. “In fact, they never do. Orrik and I make it our business to keep those woods clean of bandits.”
“Orrik?” Luke said.
“My bailiff.” Lady Faithe opened the padlock on her medicine box with one of her many keys and sorted through the contents. “He manages the farm for me. Yesterday he went to Foxhyrst to buy a cart and some supplies. He should be back tomorrow. Dunstan is his reeve. He looks after things for me when Orrik is gone.”
“Another thing about Hengist and Vance,” Dunstan interjected. “Those two are robbers, not murderers. I never knew them to attack to kill.”
Luke absently rubbed his arm. “They did today.”
“Aye.” Dunstan regarded Alex’s mauled body with a thoughtful expression.
Luke gritted his teeth in frustration. His instinct was to chase after these bandits, but he didn’t dare leave Alex’s side.
“I want those curs found,” Lady Faithe told her reeve. Luke stared at her; young Dunstan merely nodded. “They had no business venturing this close to Hauekleah, not to mention trying to kill our new lord. I won’t have such misdeeds tolerated.”
Her quiet leadership both impressed and disturbed Luke. He admired how well this young woman in her dirty slippers and rough kirtle controlled her men. And, of course, he was eager for the bastards who’d done this to Alex to be apprehended. But what if this was all a trick? What if she had arranged for the ambush, and was now merely pretending to send a party of men after knaves who’d, in fact, done her bidding? Even if it wasn’t a trick, the authority she wielded so effectively was authority that Luke himself should be exercising. He’d crossed the Channel and soaked the earth with blood to acquire this farmstead. Hauekleah was his now. He could lay down his crossbow and live in peace—but first he’d have to prove to these people that he was their master.
He considered the notion of wresting control of this situation from Lady Faithe and giving the orders himself, but in the end he kept quiet. For one thing, Hauekleah wasn’t officially his until after the wedding. For another, the men who’d ambushed them were even now in flight. For Luke to delay their pursuit while he tussled with Lady Faithe over command of her villeins would be ill-advised in the extreme.
“Take some good men,” the young widow told Dunstan, “and see if you can pick up their trail in the woods. It shouldn’t be too difficult. From Sir Luke’s account, Hengist is badly hurt, and possibly dying. Look for blood.”
“Aye, milady.” Dunstan left. Luke had but a few moments to be surprised that the earnest young reeve had left his mistress unprotected against the Black Dragon. As Dunstan exited the great hall, he called out, “Firdolf!” to a fair-haired, brawny young man who was hauling in firewood. After dumping the wood next to the fire pit, this fellow stood in the spot Dunstan had vacated, arms crossed, and stared at Luke.
Retrieving two parchment packets from the box, Lady Faithe ordered some honey and salt brought to her. Two voluptuous young flaxen-haired wenches—twins, from the look of them—sprinted through a door at the far end of the hall and returned with the requested items.
“Thank you, girls,” said Lady Faithe in obvious dismissal. They backed up a step, but couldn’t seem to wrest their gazes from Alex. Luke’s little brother had the face of an angel and the well-muscled body of a soldier. His many old scars—mementos not of the battlefield but of the savage beating he’d taken at seventeen after a liaison with the wrong woman—only served to add an intriguing edge to his beauty. It was little wonder women were drawn to him, but they usually didn’t get quite this much of an eyeful on a first meeting. The young man standing guard, Firdolf, scowled at Alex, then at the girls.
“Lynette, Leola…” their mistress said, “that will be all.”
“Can we help, milady?” one of them asked plaintively.
“Nay!” Firdolf snapped.
Lady Faithe raised an eyebrow at him, and he muttered an apology; it appeared to Luke that she was trying to keep from smiling. “Nay,” she echoed softly as she poured some salt and honey into a bowl. “Go out back to the cookhouse and see if Ardith needs anything.”
Lady Faithe smiled. “When he wakes up, I’ll let you feed him.”
The girls brightened instantly and left amid giggles and whispers.
“Your brother won’t mind, will he?” her ladyship asked as she unfolded the first packet, revealing a number of narrow, dried leaves.
“I should hardly think so.” The twins were pretty and, from all appearances, already ripe for Alex’s persuasive charms.
Lady Faithe crumbled several leaves into the bowl and then opened the second packet, which held smaller leaves. When she crushed those between her hands, they released a familiar aroma.
“Mint?” Luke asked.
“Pennyroyal. The other was hyssop. They’re excellent for wounds like this.” She stirred the herbs with her fingers into the honey and salt, spread the mixture onto a strip of linen, and laid it over the wound on Alex’s hip.
Alex moaned as she gently pressed the poultice into place. “Easy,” Luke said, patting his brother’s shoulder.
As Lady Faithe worked on smoothing the poultice down, that disorderly hair of hers kept getting in the way; each toss of her head only seemed to make it worse. She lifted a hand to tuck it behind her ears, but her fingers were coated with the greenish herbal mixture. “Moira,” she said without looking up from her work, “would you braid my hair?” Receiving no response, for the stout maid who’d been hovering so closely was now nowhere to be seen, she let out a little growl of exasperation.
Reaching behind him, Luke unwrapped the long leather thong from his own braid. Lady Faithe watched him out of the corner of her eye as he knelt behind her, slipped the thong between his teeth, and began gathering up her hair.
It was perfectly straight and slippery-smooth; no wonder it was so unruly. He divided it into three sections, combing his fingers through the slick strands to coax out the little tangles, and then began weaving them together.
His knuckles brushed her long neck, as soft as the skin of a peach, and warm. He could have avoided the contact, but instead he let the back of his hand caress her, again and again, as he slowly braided her hair. It felt oddly comforting to touch her this way, like stroking a kitten.
The skin on her upper back was especially smooth, a film of warm satin over the delicate bones of her spine. Tiny goose bumps rose on that skin as he worked his way down, and her breathing quickened to keep time with his. He felt disappointed at the first rough touch of her wool kirtle.
Soon she’ll be your wife, he thought, and then you may do more to her than braid her hair.
Luke tried to concentrate on keeping his hands steady and his work neat—on resisting the urge to pull the ribbon that laced up the back of her kirtle and watch it come undone. He imagined doing just that, imagined reaching inside to glide his hands around her narrow back and close them over her breasts. He imagined how they’d feel, warm and heavy, their nipples stiff against his palms.
When he took the leather thong from between his teeth, he found that he had bitten it in half.