Read an Excerpt
April 20, 1066
THE LIGHT BLAZED across the dark heavens like a banner unfurled for battle.
Brynn stared up at the midnight sky in fascination and delight. It was like watching a mysterious flower blossom in the shadowy depths of the forest. She had prayed it would still be there tonight.
“Did you do it?”
She stiffened but did not turn around. She had come to this tiny room in the back of the stable hoping to steal this time for herself, but she should have known she would not be permitted to enjoy this wonder alone. At least, it was only Delmas. Perhaps she could rid herself of him quickly. “Did I do what? I don’t know what you mean.”
She heard his steps behind her and then felt his heavy hand on her shoulder. She felt a surge of revulsion but didn’t move.
“Look at me.”
She reluctantly turned her back on the glory in the heavens and gazed boldly at him.
He immediately looked away as he usually did when she directly confronted him. “Be quick, I’m weary and would seek my bed,” she said.
“Not too weary to do that,” he snarled as he gestured at the sky. “I want it stopped. Do you hear? I want it gone.”
She stared at him in astonishment. “I beg your pardon?”
“Don’t pretend innocence.” His eyes glittered wildly in the moonlight. “It’s your doing. I know it. You brought it to destroy me so that you could return to your precious Gwynthal.”
She wanted to laugh. She had not dreamed even Delmas could believe something so outrageous. “I waved my hand and a comet streaked through the sky? Don’t be foolish.”
Pain streaked through her jaw as his palm made contact.
“Send it away!”
She shook her head to clear it of pain and darkness. It had been a long time since Delmas had struck her, and she cursed herself for miscalculating the depth of his fear and panic. She could not afford to make such mistakes. He might offer her little protection, but it was all she had in this foreign land. “I didn’t bring the comet.”
“I watched your face when you saw it last night. Everyone else in the manor was filled with fear but you . . . you were triumphant.”
He had mistaken her wonder for triumph. She supposed she should have pretended to share their fear, but it had not occurred to her. In truth, she had been amazed at their terror. Miracles occurred every day and this was only another. Wasn’t a rainbow a miracle? Why did they not marvel at the changing seasons? And surely the birth of a child was the most glorious of mysteries. “You were mistaken. I only–”
He struck her again, harder. “I want it gone from here.”
She reached out and grasped the wall to keep herself upright as the room swam around her. She had given up trying to convince Delmas she had no magical powers and now used his fear and superstition to protect herself. The ploy had worked very well for the past three years, but now his belief was a danger in itself. She must find a way to soothe his fear. “All right. I did it.”
Satisfaction lit his face. “I knew it. Now send it away.”
“I cannot send it away.” She took a hurried step back to avoid the blow she knew would come. “Not at once. The magic is too great and must run its course, but I will make sure it harms no one.”
He frowned uncertainly.
“It is all I can do,” she said firmly.
“It will go away?”
“Yes.” She breathed a prayer she was not lying.
“Soon.” She added quickly, “It takes time to break a spell as strong as this one.” She closed the shutters of the window to block out the sky from him. “Now may I go to my bed?”
“No.” He gazed at the shutters and then evidently decided to accept the partial victory. “Lady Adwen needs you. She woke in great distress and sent her servant to rouse me. It was then I discovered you had left your bed.”
“Why did you not tell me at once?” She moved quickly toward the door. “Have you summoned Lord Richard?”
“He knows. He was occupied.” Delmas followed her into the hall. “He said to call you and he would be there shortly.”
Occupied with his latest leman, Joan of Danworth, no doubt, Brynn thought bitterly. Adwen could die and he would not care. Indeed, she was sure he would prefer it. He had not been pleased when Lord Kells, Adwen’s father, had sent Brynn to Redfern to care for his daughter. A wife unable to bear children was an intolerable inconvenience to a man as hungry for power as Lord Richard. To be free of that wife and retain her fat dowry would be very tempting. God knows, it would not take much to rid himself of such a frail burden: a little neglect, a window left open to induce a chill . . .
Well, she would not let him do it, she thought fiercely. Adwen would live. Brynn would not let her die.
“You wouldn’t have to create such havoc if you’d be sensible,” Delmas said as he hurried after her. “Give me your promise tto lead me to the treasure, and I’ll return you to Gwynthal.”
She did not look at him. “There is no treasure.”
“You lie. I want it, Brynn. Give it to me.”
Demand and avarice. Dear heaven, how sickened she was of it all. At times she had been tempted to tell him what he wanted to know just to gain peace. But he would have wanted more and then more until he had it all, and she would never let anyone have Gwynthal. “There is no treasure.”
“I could buy my freedom. I could buy all of England. You hate it here. Why won’t you–”
“There is no treasure.”
His hand reached out and closed on her upper arm, biting into the flesh. “Bitch.” His voice was laden with frustration and anger. “Someday I’ll choke it out of you.”
The threat didn’t frighten her. He had tried torture in those first few weeks after they were wed, before she had learned how to protect herself. “I cannot tell you what I don’t know. Be satisfied with what I do bring you.” She paused outside Adwen’s chamber door. “It’s more than what you had when you married me.”
“But not enough. Not nearly enough.” He released her and gazed at the door with uneasiness. “Do you need me?”
He was hoping she would say no, she realized contemptuously. He had witnessed his parents perish from a fever within a few days of each other and was deathly afraid of sickness. At these times he was almost as much afraid of Brynn’s healing skills as he was of losing his chance to become a free man. He was sure she used not her herbs or the knowledge her mother had taught her, but some magical way of banishing the demons who stole life. She should be grateful, she thought wearily; because of his belief she had been able to retain possession of her soul, if not her body. “I don’t know. Stay close. I’ll summon you if I need anything.”
Adwen’s servant, Alice, was standing by the large, curtained bed and looked up with a sigh of relief as she saw Brynn. “She’s very bad.”
“Her stomach?” The day before, Adwen had been violently ill and unable to keep anything down. Brynn strode over to the bed. Adwen’s eyes were closed and she appeared asleep.
Alice shook her head. “I don’t think so. She just suddenly woke and started to shake and weep.”
Adwen opened her eyes. “Brynn?” she whispered. She groped wildly for Brynn’s hand. “Midnight . . . he’s coming.”
“Shh . . .” She quickly took Adwen’s hand in both of hers and pressed it reassuringly. “What’s wrong? Do you have pain?”
Adwen shook her head. “I saw him. He’s coming.”
Brynn felt a chill. Who was coming? Death? She had cared for others trembling on the verge of the other side who had claimed to see the visions that foretold their time. It was almost impossible to bring them back after they had gone through that experience. “You’ve been dreaming.”
“Yes,” she said firmly. “And it’s no wonder you’re shaking. It’s cold in this room. Why is the window open, Alice?”
Alice’s blue eyes widened in alarm, but she did not answer.
“Richard was here earlier and said the room was overheated and I should have more air,” Adwen said wearily. “He’s always so warm.”
A window left open . . .
Brynn hid the flare of anger that exploded through her as she recalled that only moments before she had thought how easy it would be to destroy Adwen. “Well, Lord Richard isn’t here now.” She strode over to the window and closed the shutters. “And I’m sure he didn’t realize it would turn this chill.”
“Perhaps not,” Adwen said. “But he doesn’t like to be disobeyed. Perhaps you should–”
“They stay closed,” Brynn said flatly. She took the candlestick from the table beside the window and brought it closer to the bed. Adwen’s face appeared pale and streaked with tears, but that was not unusual. Brynn would have been more worried if she had been flushed with fever.
She was struck anew by the youthful fragility of the woman. Slight and fine-boned with long black hair, Adwen looked a mere child. She was scarcely more than that, Brynn thought angrily. Richard of Redfern had taken her to wife when she was only thirteen and had promptly set about trying to take from her what he most desired. Adwen had lost four children before she came to term and had spent almost the entire past five years in this room guarding the little health she had remaining so that it could be expended in giving her husband a child.
“Why are you frowning?” Adwen whispered. “Are you angry with me?”
Brynn smiled. “Of course not.” Gentle Adwen always feared disapproval. “Why should I be angry with you?”
“It was not I who sent for you. I know you are tired from tending me for the past two nights. You know I would not have disturbed you–”
“It is no disturbance. Have you forgotten my husband was slave to Lord Kells before he was given to your husband? Your father sent us to Redfern to serve you, my lady.”
“You know I do not look upon you as a servant. You are angry with me.”
She tried to restrain her impatience. “I told you I was not angry. I want to be here. Now, what is wrong?”
Adwen smiled wistfully. “You’re so strong. You’re never afraid, are you? You must think me very foolish.”
“No.” She nodded for Alice to leave. She wasn’t sure she trusted the woman and was never comfortable in her presence. Alice appeared fond of Adwen, but it was common knowledge at the manor that the maid occupied Lord Richard’s bed on occasion. Brynn knew she should not fault her for this, when it was entirely possible the woman had no choice. Lord Richard was master here and he slept with any servant who took his fancy. Thank God, his fear of Lord Kells’s displeasure had kept him from looking in her own direction. Adwen’s father would not have been pleased if his healer had been used for a purpose other than the one she had been sent to perform.
When the door closed behind Alice, Brynn sat down on the bed. “It’s not foolish to be afraid, only to hold it close and let it smother you. Tell me and it will go away.”
“It is–you’re hurt!” Adwen’s concerned gaze was on Brynn’s cheek. “You have a bruise.”
“It is nothing.”
“Someone struck you,” Adwen whispered. “Your husband?”
Brynn shrugged. “I displeased him.”
“You should be more careful. A woman is so helpless . . .”
“She does not have to be.”
“Please, do not be so bold,” Adwen pleaded earnestly. “I hate to be selfish, but I do not think I could bear life without you.” She forced a smile. “I suppose I am very fortunate. Richard has never struck me, even though I have failed him.”
Anger flared again. Oh, no, Lord Richard had never struck Adwen. He had only used her frail body as a vessel for his lust and barely let her rise from the childbed before trying to get her with child again. He had broken her health and her spirit and robbed her of all joy. “You have not failed him. There’s time yet for you to bear children.”
Adwen shook her head. “I am too tired. Sometimes I think I’m too tired to draw another breath.” She was silent a moment and then said, “Will you blow out the candle? I want to tell you about my dream, but I don’t want to see you laugh at my foolishness.”
Brynn blew out the candle and then took Adwen’s hands again. “Are you warm enough? Should I get you another cover?”
“No.” Adwen nestled deeper under the blanket. “Did you see the shooting star tonight?”
“It’s not a shooting star. The good monks call it a comet.”
“Alice helped me to the window and I saw it. Was it not wondrous?”
“Alice was frightened. She said it was an omen of bad fortune.”
“Alice is very stupid.”
“I don’t think it is bad fortune. I believe it means that my wish for a child will come true. Is it terribly vain of me to believe that God could be so concerned with my needs?”
Brynn swallowed to ease the aching tightness in her throat. “No, you are not vain.” She paused. “But did you ever consider that perhaps God did not mean you to have a babe?”
“Of course not, it is my duty to give my lord an heir.”
She would very likely die trying to perform her duty, Brynn thought with exasperation. There was something very wrong with this world that valued one life over another.
“Perhaps if you gave Delmas a child he would not treat you so cruelly,” Adwen said.
“A child is not what my husband wishes of me.”
“It is what all men want of women.”
It was true. Even Delmas would be puffed up with pride if he got her with child. She shuddered at the thought. A child would tie her to Delmas as those forced vows had never done. After that first hideous week in his bed she had concocted a scheme to fool him into believing her healing powers would be lessened by copulation, but there was always the possibility Delmas might overcome this fear.
No, she would not think of it. She would have no child and someday she would escape Delmas and go back to Gwynthal, where she belonged. She would lose herself in the forest and he would never, never find her.
“What else does he want of you?”
“What?” She had lost track of the conversation. She wrenched herself back from those memories of the cool, green forests of home.
“You said Delmas wants something else of you.”
“Oh. Lord Kells has promised Delmas he will make him a free man if you are made well again.”
“And what of you?”
“I am his wife. There is no freedom for me.” Unless she took it. Unless she ran away from this hated place.
“It does not seem just. You are only one and twenty and he is old and ugly.”
“Not so old.” She did not know Delmas’s exact age. His beard was streaked with gray but his powerful body was still firm. She supposed he would appear old and ugly to Adwen. Lord Richard was a young man, golden of hair and fair and virile as a god from Olympus. In Brynn’s eyes it seemed terrible for evil to be so winsomely cloaked. Delmas and Lord Richard were both ambitious, ruthless men, but she would far more deal with Delmas, who had no pleasant mask to hide his inner ugliness.