Royce shook his head. “Nicholaa?” he called out as he reached for the door.
“I do have one last thing to say to you.”
She turned around to look at him. Anger, he thought to himself. The anger would make her forget her fear.
“What is it?” she asked.
He grinned. “Checkmate.”
He pulled the door closed on her outraged gasp. Royce laughed.
A loud crash sounded against the door. “What was that?” Lawrence asked.
“The water pitcher, I believe. She’s feeling better.”
And so was Royce.
Nicholaa’s anger kept her occupied for the better part of the day. Two women came to her chamber late that afternoon. Both were Saxons, a fact that surprised Nicholaa. One carried fresh clothing; the other brought linens. Nicholaa moved to the window when they carried a wooden tub into the room and poured it full of hot, steaming water.
The bath was too inviting to refuse. Nicholaa soaked in the rose-scented water and washed her hair until she finally felt clean.
She didn’t speak to either woman until one offered to brush the tangles out of her hair. “Why do you serve the Norman king?” she asked.
“He’s England’s king now,” the servant named Mary answered. “Everyone serves him.”
Nicholaa didn’t agree with the servant, but she felt it would be unkind to contradict her. Mary was entitled to her own opinion, even though she was wrong.
Mary was about Nicholaa’s age. She was a plump young woman with bright red hair and freckles that covered most of her face. The other servant, Heloise, was considerably older, and her manner was brisk and unfriendly.
“I’ll never serve William,” Nicholaa announced. She sat down on the stool Mary had provided and folded her hands in her lap.
Mary started to brush her hair. “Talk like that will land you in trouble, milady,” she whispered.
Heloise was turning down the covers on the large bed. “Mary speaks the truth,” she announced with a dour-faced nod. “Those who won’t kneel before King William get themselves killed. Even now a dozen Saxon soldiers are waiting for the deathblow.”
“Where are these Saxon soldiers?” Nicholaa asked.
“They’re here, two floors below us,” Mary whispered.
“God have mercy on their souls for being so stubborn,” Heloise muttered. “Each one was given the chance to pledge his loyalty, and each one turned his back on that chance.”
The fire crackled in the hearth, causing Mary and Nicholaa to jump. “Everything’s so different now,” Nicholaa said.
“It’s orderly,” Heloise interjected. “It’s only taken the king two short months to squelch most of the resistance. He rules with an iron hand, that one does. Everyone has his place now.”
“Everyone except Saxons,” Nicholaa said.
“Nay, even Saxons have a place,” Mary countered. “’Tis the reason you’re going to become a Norman’s bride, milady. The more marriages between the two, the better for the future peace.”
Nicholaa listened to the women talk about all the changes. She didn’t eat the supper that the women provided, but went to bed early. She thought about the twelve Saxon soldiers waiting for execution. Her heart went out to the men and the families they would leave behind. She knew her brother Thurston might very well be one of the twelve, and that thought terrified her. She prayed until she was exhausted and then cried herself to sleep.
She dreamed about Royce.
He had a nightmare about her. He decided he must have been more fatigued than usual to have had such a bizarre dream. It had been a long day, after all. He’d spent over three hours talking with King William and hadn’t returned to his chamber until the dark hours of the night.
The nightmare made him wake up in a cold sweat. It had been so vivid, so real. In the dream Nicholaa was lost in a forest. She was in great danger, and he couldn’t get to her.
Royce couldn’t go back to sleep and ended up pacing in the gardens behind the palace. There was much to consider. His life would be forever altered if he allowed himself to lose his heart to this woman.
But damn it all, he was too old for her, too set in his ways. Why, his life was like a map. Yes, that was it . . . a map. The lines had already been drawn, and the map couldn’t be altered. And neither could he. It was simply too late for him to change.
He felt relieved after he’d come to this conclusion. He’d made the right decision. Yet time and again he found himself staring up at Lady Nicholaa’s window, wondering if she was all right—and if that wasn’t ridiculous, he didn’t know what was.
The Norman knights were called before their king the following evening. Lawrence walked by Royce’s side when they went into the gigantic great hall. The vassal was concerned about his lord, who seemed preoccupied. Lawrence sensed that something was wrong, but he couldn’t imagine what it was. He knew it wouldn’t do him any good to prod, though. Royce would tell him when he was ready.
King William took his seat in the tall-backed chair in the center of the platform four steps up from his audience. The king was a big man, given to bulk around his middle. His brown hair was tinged with gray, an indicator of his true age, but when he smiled he looked like a fit young man.
Matilda, the king’s wife, was the complete opposite. She was a tiny woman, plump in bosom and thighs, and had sparkling brown eyes and curly brown hair.
King William motioned for his wife to join him on the platform, and when Matilda stood by her husband, the top of her head came only to William’s waist. He waved his hand for silence. A hush immediately fell over the group. William then took his wife’s hand and smiled at her.
“Most of you have heard the tale about Lady Nicholaa and how she bested three of my noble knights.”
A loud murmur rushed through the crowd. Royce smiled. He had explained to his king that the Saxon named John had helped defend the holding against the Norman challengers, but William had decided to withhold that information from the group. The soldiers were in need of a reward, he explained to Royce, and he didn’t want to sour the sweet by splitting the praise and possibly marring the legend.
“Clayton the herald will recite the feats soon so that those who aren’t familiar with this remarkable woman will understand why the rest of us are so well pleased,” William continued. “But first you must meet my prize. I’ve deliberately kept Lady Nicholaa well hidden until this very minute just to pique your curiosity.”
William paused to kiss the back of his wife’s hand, added a wink to let her know how much he was enjoying himself, and then motioned to two soldiers who stood to the right of the platform. As soon as the soldiers opened the doors behind them, William turned back to his audience.
“You will decide whether to engage in battle games for her hand in marriage. The winner will have his bride tomorrow evening.”
Matilda whispered in William’s ear. He nodded, then said to the crowd, “I’ve been reminded to tell you that the holding goes with Lady Nicholaa, as do fertile lands as far as the eye can see to the east and west. ’Tis a generous dowry I give with this courageous woman.”
A loud cheer went up. William smiled in amusement. He was immensely pleased with the men’s enthusiasm.
The noise soon became deafening—until Lady Nicholaa walked into the hall. Silence reigned then. Men quit cheering in mid-bellow. Women stopped laughing. Everyone stared in fascination at the beautiful woman walking toward King William.
Nicholaa was dressed in white, a gold braided belt looped around her waist. Her unbound hair fell in soft curls that swayed ever so slightly with each step she took.
She looked like a vision. Royce stood at the very back of the hall, his big shoulders resting against the wall. Because he was the tallest man in the room, he didn’t have any trouble seeing Nicholaa.
“Lord, she’s a beauty,” Lawrence remarked.
Royce agreed, but in truth he was far more impressed with Nicholaa’s regal bearing. There was such pride, such dignity, in her manner.
He knew she had to be terrified. Yet she kept her feelings well hidden from her audience. The expression on her face was peaceful, serene.
He knew, though, that the hellion was probably plotting to kill both the king and his wife right now. He heard someone whisper that she was an angel and almost laughed out loud.
Lawrence glanced up at Royce just in time to catch his smile. “Will you fight for her?” he asked.
Royce didn’t answer him.
Nicholaa followed the guards over to the fireplace. When they stopped, so did she. Then the two soldiers moved away, and she was all alone. She stood several feet in front of the giant hearth, a fair distance from the crowd and the king.
God’s truth, she felt as though she’d just been led into a den of lions. And she was their supper. She hoped her expression didn’t betray her fear. Her heart was pounding such a wild beat it was almost painful, and her stomach seemed to be on fire. Thank God she hadn’t eaten any of the nooning meal she’d been offered. She’d have been throwing it up now if she had.
It didn’t take long for her to start feeling like a freak. Everyone was staring at her. She could feel their rude gazes on her, like bugs crawling up her arms.
Three little girls sneaked away from their mother’s skirts and rushed over to stand directly in front of Nicholaa. They looked up at her, mouths gaping open, eyes wide with curiosity. They reminded her of little birds waiting to be fed.
“Are you a princess?” one whispered.
Nicholaa looked down at the child. The dark-haired little girl couldn’t have seen more than four or five summers. There was innocent curiosity in the child’s expression. Nicholaa couldn’t be rude to her. She slowly shook her head. Then she turned her gaze to the far wall, determined to ignore everyone.
Baron Guy stood in the center of the hall, surrounded by his vassals. He’d been relating an amusing story when Lady Nicholaa entered the hall, and he had lost his train of thought then and there. He feared he might have lost his heart as well, for though he wasn’t given to fancy, he was certain he was in love. The vast holding King William offered as dowry added to the Saxon woman’s appeal, of course, but Guy was smitten by her beauty, too.
He decided he would have her.
Guy took a step forward and broke the silence in the hall with an arrogant boast: “I’ll challenge anyone for her hand in marriage, and I’ll win, too.”
“You’ll win only if Baron Royce doesn’t enter the games,” a bold knight shouted.
That remark didn’t go unappreciated. Laughter echoed through the crowd. Guy kept his composure. He turned to face the king, bowed formally, and then stood with his legs braced apart and his hands at his sides while he waited for the other knights to enter their bids.
Guy had fought beside William for nearly ten years. The scars on his arms were ample testimony to his battles. By sheer luck, his face had remained unblemished, and the ladies at court considered him quite handsome. He had golden hair and clear hazel eyes. He was almost as tall as his king, though he lacked both the bulk and the advanced age.
Royce was Guy’s opposite. He was as dark skinned as Guy was light and towered over his friend. He wasn’t considered the least bit handsome, either. The right side of his face was marred by a jagged scar that ran from the top of his ear to the base of his neck. He had earned the sickle-shaped mark years before when as a squire he’d put himself in front of his leader’s wife, Matilda, to protect her from attack. Needless to say, that noble act hadn’t gone unrewarded. Royce had been given his own contingent of men as soon as he’d finished his training under William’s personal supervision.
Royce had proved his value early. Because he’d become so skilled in battle tactics, William began to send young, unseasoned knights to him for instruction. Royce was always patient, though ruthlessly demanding, and it was considered a privilege to train under his tutelage. His troops were the elite, invincible core of William’s mighty army.
Guy considered himself a true friend to Royce, but he was still consumed with jealousy at what he considered Royce’s good fortune. The leftovers were sent to Guy for training, for he’d also become known as a trainer of men. Guy had been fiercely competitive with Royce ever since their squire days together, and he often thought to himself that he would have become the more favored knight in William’s eyes if he’d been the one to save Matilda’s life.
Royce recognized the fever of jealousy in Guy’s character, acknowledged it as simply a flaw he would surely eventually overcome, and then dismissed the insignificant matter from his mind.
“I, too, shall fight for her hand,” another knight shouted. He strutted forward to stand before his king.
And then another and another stepped forward to join in the bids.
Nicholaa had never felt such stark humiliation before. She straightened her shoulders in reaction as she tried to block the shouts and fuel her anger at the same time. She needed to stay furious inside so she wouldn’t break down and weep. But the humiliation, the degradation, was making her too sick to concentrate on much of anything.
The three little girls, all dressed like ladies, in long, flowing gowns, were now chasing one another in a spontaneous game of tag. They ran in wide circles around Nicholaa.
Where was Royce? Why was he letting this happen to her?
She forced herself to block any thoughts of him and tried to picture little Ulric in her mind. Royce had told her to keep Ulric’s future in her thoughts whenever she was tempted to do something foolish.
She thought she might like to kill the king of England. Was that foolish? William alone was responsible for the disgrace she was now suffering. If he’d left England alone, none of this would be taking place.
It was a foolish plan. She couldn’t kill the king. She’d never get away with it. She didn’t even have a weapon. She was a good distance away from the platform where the king and his wife were seated, a good distance, too, from the gawking crowd bidding for her.
She still hadn’t heard Royce’s distinctive voice enter into the bidding. Was he even in the crowd or had he already left for Normandy? God’s truth, she wanted to kill him, too.
An ear-piercing scream turned Nicholaa’s attention. It was a child’s voice. Nicholaa turned just in time to see one of the little girls screaming in agony. The child’s gown had caught on fire. The flames were licking their way up the backs of her legs.
Nicholaa pulled the child up against her own gown and used her skirt and her hands to beat the flames out.