Authors: Susan Sizemore
Stian forgot his annoyance and his father’s presence as he heard the name. He turned around to look at his wife. She’d pul ed up her chemise and was
putting on her red underdress. Al he saw for a few moments was the bil owing of rich cloth. As her head final y emerged above the embroidered neckline of the dress, she raised her face to look at him. To Stian it seemed as if he were seeing her for the first time, dark-eyed, dark-haired and lovely.
“Eleanor,” he said. “Your name is Eleanor.”
* * * * *
The girl would have slammed the door behind her if he hadn’t shouldered his way inside. She backed into the bedroom as he slammed the door himself
then leaned against it to peer blearily at her retreat. Servants had scurried out just as they’d come up the stairs from the hal , leaving the covers turned down and a thick hour candle burning on the table next to the bed.
“Eleanor,” he said as the girl moved into the gold circle of candlelight.
Her eyes blazed with the same fury that had been in them al through dinner. She had turned her gaze on him rarely during the meal, but when she had,
he’d been scorched by the intensity of her unspoken rage. They had shared trencher and cup but no words had passed between them while al eyes
stared openly at them. The ale had been new and he’d cal ed for plenty of the strong, fresh drink. Eventual y his awareness of the watchers had grown
fuzzy though he hadn’t been able to drink enough to take his attention off the woman beside him. She had left the table for the tower stairs as soon as the meal ended, long before coverfire was cal ed to put an end to the day. He’d fol owed on her heels with a curse and much lewd laughter ringing in his ears.
Now that they were alone he took a step toward her, staggering a bit, hands reaching, and said again, “Eleanor.”
“Aye,” she said bitterly, “now you know my name. But yesterday you did not. Or today.”
It was true, so he nodded in acknowledgment. “What matter if I—”
She threw the folded chessboard at his head before he had a chance to finish. He ducked and lunged for her.
“What matter?” she shouted as she dashed around the bed to avoid his grasp. “What matter? How often do you bed strangers, my lord? Daily? Nightly?”
He shrugged and she threw something else. The slop pail he supposed when he heard crockery break against the wal behind him.
She had spent the day being meek enough, but he remembered now that yesterday she had bitten his tongue when he’d done nothing more than greet
her with a kiss. “Vixen!” he snarled, and dove across the bed to grasp her around the waist.
“Bastard!” she replied as her smal fists pounded against his back. “You took me! You used me! You married me! And you didn’t even know my name!”
Her words made no sense nor did the sob that fol owed. She shouted other things but Stian paid the words no mind. His head was ful of ale and his
hands were ful of a wel -made woman. She writhed against him, flailed at him. Her fighting did her no good, but roused him and set fire to his blood.
When he kissed her, he tasted tears. After a while it was she who was kissing him and along with the anger and hurt he tasted passion.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone look so, wel , used.”
A giggle fol owed Edythe’s words and Eleanor adjusted the veil she’d fastened over her braids, hoping to hide a blush. She tried to ignore her sister
altogether and concentrate on the Mass as rain pounded on the roof and windows of the smal building. She pul ed her cloak closer around her while rush lights and altar candles swayed in a cold draft, mixing shadows and smoke among the folk gathered for the daily service.
Father Hubert mumbled in sincere but nearly incoherent Latin as he lifted the Host above his head. Not that it was easy to hear him over the conversations taking place among Lord Roger’s household crowded into the chapel. So Eleanor recited the correct words to herself and watched the young man’s fine,
long-fingered hands as he went through the sacred motions of the service. She wondered where he’d found the tattered cassock he was wearing.
“I think you were wel pleasured last night,” Edythe said as the communion began. She was obviously not going to let the subject alone. Eleanor sighed and looked at her sister.
Edythe said, “You look drugged with sex. And you walk differently this morning, with a sway to your hips. Like a woman.”
“I can barely walk at al ,” Eleanor whispered. The reply escaped before she could stop it.
While Edythe giggled, Eleanor looked around furtively to see if anyone else had overheard. Dame Beatrice was standing nearby, along with several other gentlewomen of the household. The chatelaine was seemingly lost in prayer after returning to her place from taking the Host, but a pair of red-haired girls were openly staring at Edythe and her. The girls were so alike they had to be twins.
Eleanor couldn’t help but wonder just who al these people were, even as she took a step away from them. Her natural curiosity was asserting itself at last, even while her body was stil reminding her of al the attention her lord husband had paid to it last night.
As for her lord husband— She cast a bitter glance to the front of the chapel. She located him near the altar, talking to his yel ow-haired friend. Stian stood with his hand casual y resting on his dagger, his clothes rumpled, his hair uncombed—and her scratch marks marring his cheek.
“If you keep mauling him like that,” Edythe whispered in her ear, “he’l beat you.”
Eleanor ducked her head then looked up at her fair sister through her lashes. “I think not,” she murmured. “He liked it.”
Edythe did not answer with a giggle but with a soft, throaty laugh. “As did you, I think.” Edythe put her arm around her shoulder. “Who would have thought the brightest wit of the queen’s court would have a taste for that rough barbarian?”
Who indeed? Eleanor wondered. As she looked at him in daylight, she felt nothing for Stian of Harelby but the same righteous anger that had set her to attack him the night before. She knew she meant nothing to him, nothing at al . She was a body he eased his desire with, a nameless body. A faceless
body, for he had blown out the candle and had her in the dark. He’d cal ed her mouse and rat and vixen, so if he thought of her at al it was as vermin rather than as a woman. But in the dark, an animal part of her had stirred. Her responses to him had been primitive, wild, as demanding as—
“Oh dear.” She crossed herself and vowed to make a quick confession to Father Hubert. For surely the wanton feelings rushing through her were sinful to have in church. “He is a brute and I hate him,” she added with a glare toward her husband. And despite al that had passed between them the night before, she knew it to be true.
We shared passion
, Stian thought as he caught a basilisk look from Eleanor out of the corner of his eye. His body tightened with wanting her but he feigned indifference as he thought,
passion will do and nothing else matters.
He remembered how she’d bucked and clawed and bit—and how they had both enjoyed it.
I’ll just sleep with my dagger by my side,
he thought with a feral smile
, until the wildcat is tamed and breeding.
He felt her gaze stil on him, hot and accusing. He couldn’t understand why he felt as guilty as he did sated, so he turned eagerly to Lars when his cousin tugged on his sleeve.
“Lady Edythe shared her trencher with me at dinner last night. Did you notice how she smiled at me?”
Stian had not noticed. He had paid attention to no one at the high table last night but his own wife. He was surprised his father had al owed anyone to take his place at the wil ow woman’s side. “Oh?” he questioned. “How come you to such honor?”
“’Twas at the lady’s own request.” Lars preened, puffing out his chest and running his fingers through his long fair hair. “Lady Edythe told me it is the custom of the queen’s court for ladies to choose a knight from their lord’s household to be their special champion.” He nudged Stian in the ribs. “She wants me.”
Stian gave his cousin a cold look. His voice was equal y cold and dangerously quiet when he said, “You speak of my father’s wife.”
“I know that wel enough,” Lars hastened to tel him. “The lady is al that is good and honorable, I swear by Saint Olaf. She spoke only of the customs she knows, of courtesy and gentle knights. If she wishes me for her champion, I’l gladly serve her like a knight from her precious Poitiers.” He put a hand firmly on Stian’s sword arm then he glanced longingly at the golden-haired beauty standing serenely beside Eleanor. “Who would not do anything for a smile
from a woman like that?”
In truth, Stian thought, who would not? He gave Lars a nod in reply while his gaze sought out his young stepmother. Once his attention was caught by
Edythe, it was hard to notice that Eleanor was standing at her side. Edythe was al that was light and grace, nothing of earth, like her smal , dark sister.
Stian was glad that today he could look at Edythe and feel nothing but a faint trace of longing for her burning inside him. Even that, he hoped, would soon go away for she was strictly forbidden to him by al the laws of God and man.
He wanted to be able to appreciate the beauty who moved among them without any taint of lust coloring his observance of her. He had no idea how to
idolize without touching, for Edythe was certainly no Madonna come down to walk on Earth. Perhaps such detachment was what Eleanor meant when she
spoke of true knights. Perhaps there were lessons to be learned from the foreign court where the sisters had been reared.
“Tel me,” he said to his cousin, turning them both firmly toward the altar and away from the tempting sight of Edythe, “what did you learn about courtesy and gentle knighthood?”
Eleanor saw how Stian looked at her sister and felt no more than a smal stab of pain pierce her heart. She knew the look on his face wel and she did not blame him or Edythe for it. Al she could do was sigh.
Her feeling sorry for herself was interrupted as Edythe said, “Lars is in love with me.”
She had never heard such cool calculation in her sister’s voice before. As the Mass ended, she watched Lord Roger gather up Stian, Lars and several
older men and leave the chapel. She watched them go as she tried to get over her surprise at Edythe’s matter-of-fact words.
Final y, she looked at the softly smiling Edythe. “Oh?” she asked.
Edythe nodded. She bent her head close so they would not be overheard by the women who moved past them to return to the keep. “I’ve noticed that
Stian listens overmuch to his cousin,” Edythe told her. “So I wil set myself to taming Lars, which wil help you tame my lord’s great red lion of a son.”
Tame Stian? By al the saints, that was an impossible task. Eleanor nearly laughed at the very notion of civilizing the brute she’d been wed to. Stil , she couldn’t help but smile and hug her sister tight, grateful for Edythe’s efforts even if they were destined to come to naught.
“You are so good to me,” she whispered as they held each other close for a moment.
Edythe touched her cheek. “We must care for each other in this barbaric place. Perhaps in the end, we can make it a little like our home.”
“Aye,” Eleanor agreed reluctantly. “Perhaps we can.”
Edythe gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. “Al wil be wel . Now,” she said, stepping away from Eleanor’s embrace. “I must see to my lord, for this day wil be long and hard on him.”
Eleanor wondered why the day would be hard on Lord Roger as she watched Edythe hurry away. Then she remembered mention being made of
something cal ed a shire court. She would have to find out just what that was. There was so much about the doings of Harelby she needed to find out. She also wondered if she should make sure Stian broke his fast and washed his face—or whatever nursemaid tasks were considered wifely.
“Ha,” she concluded after only a very brief contemplation. “I’l see to such wifely duties when wolves fly to the moon.”
Instead of returning immediately to the hal , she approached Father Hubert to make confession of al the sins she’d managed to commit in only a day or so of marriage. She feared that for herself, matrimony was not a holy state at al .
* * * * *
The chatelaine turned so quickly Eleanor had to jump backward to avoid a col ision. Not that her moving out of Dame Beatrice’s way did her any good.
She only ended up bumping into a servant who was busy raking up old rushes from the hal floor. Eleanor ignored the laughter from a group of men-at-
arms who loitered by the hearth.
“What do you want?”
Eleanor contrived to get her temper under control in the time it took her to right herself. She managed a smile as she turned back to the chatelaine. It was brittle but it was a smile. She had not come here to make an enemy despite the woman’s impatient hostility. Dame Beatrice had stepped up onto the dais while Eleanor was occupied with the servant so now she had to look up to address the woman who was already several inches tal er. Eleanor greatly
misliked such a maneuver on the woman’s part but she chose to believe that Dame Beatrice had merely moved to get out of the sweeper’s way.
“What do you want?” Dame Beatrice repeated, her tone even more annoyed this time.
Eleanor gestured at the bustle around them as the hal was prepared for the arrival of many visitors. “Father Hubert told me people wil soon be arriving for something he cal ed a shire court. Can I be of any help? I hope that I—”
“Help?” the woman cut her off sharply before she could finish. Dame Beatrice bent forward. Squinting, she looked Eleanor square in the face and gave a caustic laugh. “What do you know but embroidery and lute playing, little girl?”
“Roger had no business bringing court-reared women to Harelby. What’s a border castle to do with ornaments like the pair of you? What use wil you be in a siege? You’re nothing but a pair of extra mouths taking up warm places by the fire that would be better suited to proper women.”