Excerpt: The Sun and the Moon
Book 2: Lords of Conquest, The Wexford Family
June 1172, Oxford, England
“That’s her,” the young man whispered, pointing toward a bench in the rear of the candlelit church, packed this evening with scholars listening intently as an earnest young lector held forth on the application of reason to faith. “That’s the one you’re looking for.”
“Which one is she?” Hidden in the shadows of the nave, Hugh of Wexford squinted toward the bench, on which sat a handful of women amid a sea of males clad in identical black academic robes, most with tonsures shaved into the crowns of their heads, some in clerical skullcaps.
“The pretty one,” said the young man, a mendicant scholar judging from the shabbiness of his black cappa and his eagerness to earn the tuppence Hugh had offered in exchange for pointing out his quarry. “The one without the veil.”
Seven women occupied the bench. Four looked to be nuns, if their wimples and black tunics were any indication. Two, also veiled but not quite as severely attired, were probably local matrons whose husbands indulged them by allowing them access to Oxford’s studium generale, a loose association of students and masters still in its infancy but already renowned throughout Europe for its enlightened scholarship.
Then there was the unveiled woman. “That’s Phillipa de Paris?” Hugh frowned as he studied her. He’d been told she was five-and-twenty, but with her petite stature and enormous, dark eyes, she looked far younger. Clad in an unadorned but well-made blue tunic, her black hair plaited in two long braids falling over her chest, she more closely resembled an unworldly young girl than a self-sufficient, free-thinking woman scholar—or what he’d imagined such a creature to look like, this being his first encounter with the rare breed. The only real indication of her scholastic calling was the document case of tooled leather that hung from her girdle.
“Aye, that’s her,” the youth said. “She comes to most of the arithmetic and geometry lectures, and all the disputatios on logic. Sometimes she even gets up on her bench and argues points along with the others. I’ve seen it with my own two eyes!”
“Indeed.” Hugh rubbed his jaw, coarse with nearly a week’s growth of beard. He’d expected her to be not only older-looking, but plainer, perhaps even mannish, given her immersion in the male domain of academia. And, too, she defied convention by living so independently. For a maiden of noble birth to make her own way in the world, with neither father nor husband nor overlord to guide and protect her, was remarkable even in broad-minded communities like Oxford. That this delicate waif had managed such a feat was downright extraordinary.
It didn’t sit right, his having been sent for the likes of her. Still, he had an assignment to fulfill, and fulfill it he would.
The boy’s gaze lit on Hugh’s unkempt, overgrown hair, on the wineskin and worn leather satchel slung across his chest, and finally on the sharply curved Turkish dagger sheathed in its ornate silver scabbard on his hip. “You mind my asking what business you’ve got with the lady Phillipa?”
“Nay.” With his good left hand, Hugh dug two silver pennies out of the kid purse hanging on his belt and handed them over. “As long as you don’t expect an answer.”
“It’s just that…well, I don’t often see your kind here in Oxford.”
“Nor did you tonight,” Hugh said, extracting two more pennies from his purse. Hugh gave the boy a meaningful look as he pressed the additional payment into his hand.
“Ah.” The young scholar nodded nervously as he slid the coins into his own purse. “Right. Of course. I under—”
“Carry on,” Hugh said dismissively, returning his attention to the woman on the bench.
“Aye, sir. Good night to you, sir.”
Hugh lurked in the dimly lit nave until the young lector switched from Latin to French—proper Norman French, not the anglicized common tongue spoken in less rarified circles—to announce that he was done with his presentation and that anyone who cared to debate these matters was welcome to return for a disputatio at terce tomorrow. A drone of conversation filled St. Mary’s Church as the scholars rose from their benches and filed out into the night.
Hugh ducked behind a pillar as the lady Phillipa passed by him, pinning a gray mantle over her shoulders as she chatted with two lanky young men about what they had just heard. “Ah, but is it really so critical to understand the nature of universals,” she was saying in a soft, girlish voice, “if one accepts the nominalist position that universals are but one element in the realm of logic, which is really more about words, or how we express concepts, than about absolute reality, which is to say matters of metaphysic…”
“God’s bones,” Hugh muttered as he watched her leave the church. Absolute reality was finding yourself eyeball to eyeball with an infidel warrior screaming battle cries—and knowing that either his razor-edged kilij or your own sword would be sheathed in flesh before your next breath had filled your lungs.
Universals…nominalism…metaphysic. Words within words within words.
Hugh crept out of the church behind the last few stragglers. Just listening to such blather made his head thud. As harsh and brutal as his soldier’s life had been, he thanked the saints he’d been spared the mewling, platitude-spouting life of a cleric.
Hugh stepped out onto Shidyerd Street, lined on either side with thatch-roofed shops and houses that sagged over the narrow dirt road, all but obliterating the meager moonlight that managed to penetrate the blanket of clouds overhead. The night air prickled with damp; it would rain this evening. He headed south, his predatory gaze fixed on the lady Phillipa and her companions.
He must get her alone. And soon, before it started raining.
At the corner, she turned left onto High Street, the main thoroughfare of the walled city of Oxford, waving good-bye to her friends, who went to the right. Hugh followed her at a discreet distance, keeping to the shadows to avoid being seen. Soft yellow lantern light spilled through the occasional window shutter; the only other source of illumination was that of a full moon shrouded by gathering clouds.
It struck him as odd to see this highborn girl roaming the city streets without an escort after dark. Only whores larked about on their own at this hour. Was it intellectual arrogance that gave Phillipa de Paris her illusion of invulnerability, or merely the lack of common sense so prevalent among women of her station?
She turned right at a corner, disappearing from sight. Hugh waited impatiently as a flock of scholars in disheveled cappas lurched past, braying with laughter. They weren’t among those who’d attended the lecture at St. Mary’s; they were coming from the wrong direction, and they reeked of ale.
When at last they had their backs to him, Hugh sprinted across the street, pausing to peer around the corner down which Lady Phillipa had turned. It was a cramped, winding lane, dark as hell save for the occasional dimly lit window.
Hugh made his way swiftly but stealthily down the lane—until at last he spied her, entering what appeared to be a small shop still open for business—one of Oxford’s many booksellers, judging by the wooden sign above the door, which read “Alfred de Lenne, Venditor Librorum.”
Hugh approached the shop cautiously to peer through its half-open window shutters. Dozens of wood-bound volumes were secured by chains to the massive reading tables crammed into the small space. The more valuable texts, most bound in deerskin or embroidered linen, were displayed in two iron cages against the back wall.
Despite the late hour, the proprietor, a scowling, jowly fellow whose great belly stretched the green wool of his tunic, was enjoying a brisk business. Five or six young scholars and an older man, all in cappas, leafed through the tethered books by the light of overhead lanterns, pondering which ones to rent for copying. Lady Phillipa, her back to Hugh, was perusing the volumes in one of the cages.
The portly bookseller approached her, his key ring jangling on his belt. “Evenin’, Lady Phillipa.”
She nodded in his direction. “Master Alfred.”
“Anything in particular you’d like to see, milady?”
“That one.” She pointed to a small volume covered in red-dyed deerskin. “The Rhetorica ad Herennium.”
Master Alfred chose a key and twisted it in the lock. As he swung the cage open, Phillipa abruptly turned around, facing the front window—and Hugh.
He ducked out of sight, swearing under his breath. Damn, but it was a tiresome business, skulking about this way. He’d been trained to stand and fight, not slink through the shadows like a cat sniffing out a mouse. His instructions, however, had been explicit; he was to execute his mission with the utmost secrecy, lest the wrong people become privy to it.
Hugh allowed some moments to pass before he chanced another wary glance into the shop. The customers still flipped through the chained books; the bookseller was returning the little red volume to its place in the cage.
But where was Phillipa?
Slamming the door open, Hugh strode into the bookshop. Heads turned. The proprietor paused in the act of relocking the cage to look him up and down, his scowl deepening.
“Where did she go?” Hugh demanded, his swift assessment of the little shop revealing two ways out, aside from the front door—a corner ladder to the floor above and a door in the rear wall, between the cages.
“See here…” Master Alfred blocked the back door with his considerable bulk. “What would you be wantin’ with the lady?”
Idiot, Hugh scolded himself. Not one minute ago, he’d been reflecting on the need for discretion, yet he’d bulled in here with the unthinking zeal of the soldier he’d once been, instantly rousing suspicion. The men in this shop might have little in the way of fighting skills; still, there were half a dozen of them and but one of him. If they wanted to detain him while the lady Phillipa got away, they could probably manage it.
Hugh would do well to remember that his livelihood these days depended more on cunning than brawn—cunning and a facility for fabrication, never a particular talent of his. “The lady, she…dropped something as she was leaving St. Mary’s just now. I only wanted to return it to her.”
“What did she drop, then?” demanded the bookseller, clearly dubious.
Hugh slid his leather satchel off his shoulder, thumped it on the nearest table and withdrew from it the sealed document that he carried tucked among his clothes and gear. “‘Tis a letter, I reckon. Something’s written on the outside.” He frowned at the name inked on the folded sheet of parchment, as if he were incapable of deciphering it.
The older man, whom Hugh took to be a teacher, came closer to peer at the letter. “It’s addressed to Lady Phillipa de Paris,” he told the proprietor. “He’s telling the truth. Let him go.”
Master Alfred stepped aside with a grumpy sigh. “If you say so, magister.”
Snatching up his satchel, Hugh muscled the stout bookseller aside, opened the door and stepped out into a common rear croft shared by the surrounding buildings, from which the only outlet was a narrow gap between two stone townhouses that faced the next street over. Clutching the letter in one hand and his satchel in the other, he strode swiftly down this alley, and was almost to the end of it when he paused, niggled by…something…a presence, a sense that he was not alone. He’d seen no one, heard nothing, yet he couldn’t shake the impression that someone was lurking in the dark, watching him pass.
Turning, he looked back in the direction from which he had come. What had it been? A whisper of movement? An exhaled breath? The heat of another body?
“Who’s there?” Was it her? Or perhaps some night crawling cutpurse. Hugh tucked the letter under his belt and looped his satchel over his shoulder to free his hands. “Show yourself.”
There’s no one there. ‘Tis but a chimera, a fancy of the damp night air.
Still… His hand poised over the hilt of his jambiya, Hugh retraced his steps back up the alley, taking it slowly this time, peering this way and that into the darkness. He came upon a little alcove in the stone wall to the right and ducked into it, finding a wooden door; he jiggled its brass handle, but it was locked.
Stepping out of the niche, he saw something flutter in the shadows at the very edge of his vision. It was a hooded figure, slight and feminine, darting out of another recessed doorway further up. It’s her. Her footfalls receded swiftly as she sprinted away.
Hugh overtook her in three swift strides, seized her by the shoulders, spun her around. Her hood flew off.
“Get back!” Steel flashed in her hand. “Keep your hands where I can see them. Raise them in the air!”
“By the Rood, is that a dagger?” He chuckled. “You’re a plucky little thing, I’ll give you that.”
“Get your hands up!” she commanded, with only the faintest hint of a tremor to belie her bravado. “I won’t hesitate to use this.”
“You do realize you’ll have to go for the throat if you mean to do me any real harm with that thing.” He took a lazy step toward her.
She took two awkward steps back to keep him at arm’s length. “Do it!” An admirable display of ferocity, even if it was born of desperation. Knowing he could easily overtake her if she ran, she was forced to stand her ground, but what now? He almost felt sorry for her.
Hugh rubbed his jaw as he leaned indolently against the stone wall to his right, uncorked his wineskin and took a swallow. “It takes a fair measure of strength to plunge a dagger into a man’s chest, or even his belly. Especially if you’ve got to get through something like this.” He patted his heavy leathern tunic. “A wee thing like you, well…meaning no disrespect, my lady, but I don’t quite think you’re up to—”
“Hold your tongue and get your hands in the air!” She circled around to face him, just as he’d hoped. This was too easy.
“Now, a throat, on the other hand, can be opened up with surprising ease. A child could do it, provided he knew what he was doing.” Hugh recorked the wineskin with care, so it wouldn’t leak; he hated it when they leaked. “The trick is in placing the knife just so.”
Unsheathing his jambiya in a blur, he lunged forward, forcing her to stagger backward. She hitched in a breath when she felt cold stone against her back, gasped “No!” when he brought the edge of the broad, curved, keenly-honed blade a hair’s-breadth from her throat and held it there, arm outstretched. Her eyes grew huge as she gazed upon the lethal shimmer of steel in the darkness.
She met his gaze, motionless and alert, her own weapon quivering in her hand. Slowly she raised the aim of the dagger from his chest to his throat—a futile adjustment, inasmuch as it still missed contact with him by several inches. She was plucky, but not long on common sense, to have let herself fall into his hands like this. Now she would discover what came of such lack of foresight.
“I take it you’re something of a novice at back-alley knife fights,” Hugh said dryly. “Note the difference in the lengths of our arms. You could slash at me for hours without causing so much as a scratch, whereas I, simply by applying a bit of pressure and drawing the blade across, like so…”
He whipped the jambiya across her neck, purposefully but taking care not to cut her. Most men, when subject to this little demonstration of superior force, screamed and dropped their weapons. Lady Phillipa de Paris merely closed her eyes; her grip on the dagger never wavered.
“Is it silver you want?” she asked in a low, strained voice. Opening her eyes, she reached beneath her mantle with her free hand. “I have—”
“I don’t want your silver.”
Her eyes, when she looked up at him, put him in mind of some small, clever creature that’s found itself cornered by something much larger and more powerful—yet loath to surrender to its fate, as others might, it persists in sorting frantically through its options. In the creature’s wide-eyed stare, one can see not just fear, but the machinations of its busy little brain.
“What do you want,” she asked, “if not money?”
Hugh allowed himself a smile. “Why does any man hold a woman at knife point in an alley at night?”
“I have powerful connections,” she said quickly. “My father, he’s a great baron in Normandy. If you harm me, he’ll see that you’re hunted down and killed.”
It was true that Lady Phillipa’s father, Gui de Beauvais, was a baron of great influence and renown—although it was also true that he had sired Phillipa and her twin sister Ada on a Paris dressmaker rather than his lady wife. Nevertheless, from all accounts, he had lavished as much affection on Phillipa and Ada as on his legitimate offspring, even if he’d felt obliged to keep them tucked safely away in Paris, their existence unknown to his family in Beauvais. He most assuredly would have had his daughter’s molester hunted down and exterminated…had he not died of old age some four years ago.
Interesting. Lady Phillipa looked Hugh straight in the eye as she spoke of Lord Gui seeking his revenge. It would seem she was a good deal more untroubled than he by bald-faced lying.
“It won’t be a pleasant death,” she continued desperately. “My father’s men will make you suffer before you—”
“You’re trying to puzzle a way out of this predicament,” Hugh observed, grudgingly impressed with her coolheadedness. “You’d have done better to have avoided it in the first place. Any sensible person who was being followed—particularly a woman alone at night—would have steered well clear of her pursuer, not lurked in a secluded alley he was bound to pass through. ‘Twas some inept attempt to shake me loose, I gather.”
She lifted her chin, indignation flaring in her eyes. “I was going to follow you, see where you went, then report you to the sheriff’s man so he could—”
With a bark of incredulous laughter, Hugh said, “You meant to follow me? Woman, you have no earthly idea who you’re dealing with. You’re a fool to have played this little game, and any harm that comes to you is harm you’ve brought down on your own head.”
“Does it help you to justify your viciousness,” she asked quietly, “if you can blame your prey for having invited it?”
“Oh, you invited it, all right, wandering the streets alone at this hour as if you owned the world, smugly certain that you’re too clever to ever fall victim to a blackguard like me.”
“Too well-armed, actually.”
He snorted disparagingly. “If you were counting on that puny little weapon to protect you, you’re suffering from some dangerous illusions.”
“It’s protected me in the past, and come away bloodied. I’m not afraid to use it, if that’s what you’re thinking. So don’t be so sure you’ve got the upper hand here. I may be small, but I’m quick and agile, and I won’t hesitate to defend myself by slicing whatever part of you happens to be closest to hand at the moment.”
“Ah. Well, that won’t do.” Seizing Phillipa’s weapon hand, Hugh twisted it, using just enough pressure to pry her fingers open without snapping any bones. She let out a furious little whimper as the dagger fell to the ground. “I’m rather fond of my body parts,” he said as he kicked the weapon aside. “Wouldn’t want any to come up missing.” Any more than already had.
As Hugh’s eyes grew accustomed to the dark, he could see her more clearly. By the rapid rise and fall of her chest, and the hint of panic that had crept into her eyes, he knew she was finally coming to terms with the futility of her situation.
“That dagger only made you more vulnerable, because it gave you the illusion of protection where none existed,” Hugh said. “As you see, even unarmed, I would have bested you.” He took a step toward her, bracing his left hand on the stone wall while his right still held the jambiya so its blade just barely kissed her throat; she shrank back from him, her expression grave. “I’m twice your size and far, far stronger, and very determined to get what I’ve come for.”
She held his gaze steadfastly, although she shivered from head to toe.
“You’ve misjudged the situation badly,” he said, lowering his voice to a menacingly intimate timbre as he leaned in closer. “A comely young thing like you should know better than to let yourself end up all alone with the likes of me in a dark, secluded place like this, with no room to maneuver and no one to help you…or to hear you if you scream. You’re entirely at my mercy.”
Hugh’s gaze lit on her eyes, liquid-dark against creamy skin…on her mouth, as pink and precise as if it had been painted onto a statue. He shifted the jambiya, gliding its edge along her throat like a lover’s caress.
With the tip of the blade he nudged her mantle aside, draping it over her shoulders. She sucked in a breath, closed her eyes. He appraised the rest of her as she stood flattened against the wall, her arms rigid at her sides. She was a delicate little thing, with fine bones and high, small breasts. The beaded girdle with which she’d cinched in her tunic pointed up the narrowness of her waist, the feminine swell of her hips.
He returned his gaze to her eyes, to find her regarding him with loathing…and surprising dispassion. “Get it over with, then.”
Hugh pushed back from the door, studying her closely. “Just like that?”
“You’re right—I’m outmatched,” she said, exhibiting a remarkable degree of composure, under the circumstances. “I may not be able to walk away from here unscathed, but I do intend to walk away. I won’t struggle, so long as you take that knife from my throat and just…do what you came for and be done with it.”
“Indeed.” With a smile of triumph, Hugh slipped the jambiya back in its sheath and reached toward his belt. “How very accommodating of you.”