On the Sussex coast of England,
Late October 1066:
Word of the Norman invasion reached Stanwood Manor in the middle of the night. The messenger arrived near to death, babbling tales of horror and of King Harold’s defeat at the Battle of Hastings. The British king was dead and England was falling to the Normans.
Adaira Godwin had been shaken from a peaceful slumber by her father, Lord of Stanwood, Alden Godwin. Her sleep-fogged mind could barely understand why he was telling her they must flee and seek asylum in Wales, the land in of his birth. Alden had tried to explain to her that he had sent most of his best housecarls to aid the king’s cause in Hastings. With so few remaining to defend the property, it would be suicide to stay. At three score and one year, he was too aged to fight. Still, Adaira could not comprehend why she must leave her homeland, and the insane hope that they might somehow defeat these Normans took root in her desperate mind. So when she fought the idea of leaving Stanwood and argued with her father about why she must put on the ragged clothing he brought to her, she was unprepared for her father’s sudden anger. Tossing the gown at her, he demanded that she get dressed, pack a small bag, and be ready to leave before dawn.
In all of her ten and eight years, Adaira had never known her father to show such anger. From the moment of her birth, he had cherished, loved, and protected her. Raven-haired and violet eyed, Adaira was the image of the mother she had never known. The love of Alden’s life, her mother did not survive Adaira’s birth.
The idyllic life she had lived up until today was over. Even her wedding, planned for the first of day of December, would never take place. Her father’s dearest friend, Lord Gregory, owned the manor that bordered Stanwood, Aldwulf Hall. Adaira had known all her life that Oswald, Lord Gregory’s son, would one day be her husband.
From her window, she could hear her father in the courtyard below, shouting orders to the peasants as they feverishly packed supplies and belongings into a wagon for their escape. It was almost daylight and, if what the messenger said was true, it would not be long after sunrise before the Norman’s would be at Stanwood’s gates, ready to ram them down. Adaira tried to pack faster but her fingers shook and her eyes darted with indecision from item to item strewn about her bed. What to take and what to leave behind would be an easier decision if she were only permitted the time to think straight.
Taking a moment, she peered out of the small window and drew a calming breath of cool air. Her mind was a tangle of thoughts, ranging from confusion to terror. The black of night was already beginning to pinken along the horizon and she could see the urgency of the servants in the courtyard below, who hurried to load the wagon. Even as she stood watching, choking fear began to rise up in her throat like vomit. She worried about Oswald and Lord Gregory, wondered if they knew of the Norman’s imminent attack. Aldwulf Manor was less than a league away and, if the Normans came to Stanwood, they would surely attack Aldwulf as well.
Her father’s voice broke through her panic. Adaira looked down to see his worried face below. “Hurry, lass! Stanwood is one the largest keeps in Sussex and close to Hastings, the Norman’s are sure to be here soon.”
A short time later, Adaira appeared at the door leading from the hall, dragging a large bag behind her. “Father, you could not have meant for me to carry my own bag!”
Alden gave her a sad look. “I dinnae wish it so, lass, but things are about to change. I am afraid carrying yer own bag will seem an easy task compared to what will be demanded o’ ye, should we not be away from here before the Normans attack.”
A loud shout from the guard on the tower wall silenced everyone. “The Normans are almost upon us! They come over the ridge!”
Alden growled fiercely and cursed. Then clutching Adaira to his side, he turned to face the dawn of the new day and crossed himself. “We might all die this day, lass. Pray God be with us all.”
Norman warriors galloped toward the gates of Stanwood Manor on massive steeds whose hooves pounded into the ground like merciless fiends from hell, ready to trample anything in their paths.
It took little effort to dispose of the small band of guards and archers that stood in defense of the manor and, in what seemed like moments to Adaira, the terrifying Norman warriors were crowding into the courtyard.
A thick cloud of dust, kicked up by the Normans’ entrance, blew past her and her father as they stood amongst Stanwood’s inhabitants. All stood in shocked horror with nothing to defend themselves but clubs and sticks as the air cleared to reveal a ferocious, cutthroat band of men, the likes of which none of them had ever seen.
When the deadly order, “Kneel or be slain” was shouted, all looked to Alden. Any act of defiance would result in senseless murders and the only hope of survival was to throw themselves on the mercy of their captors. In despair, Alden thrust his sword into the ground, and fell to one knee in a gesture of surrender. With glistening eyes, he then reached for Adaira and waved for the rest to follow his lead.
All quickly followed his example, save Adaira who resisted the pull of her father’s hand. With the innocence of one who had never lived a frightful day in her life, Adaira glared at the unwelcome group with contempt, unable to accept this fate. The misguided hope that she might escape to Aldwulf Hall and seek help from Oswald, made her turn and run toward Stanwood’s massive gate. A burly Norman chevalier quickly stepped into her path, blocking her exit.
Adaira snatched the dagger secured at her waist with a trembling hand. Pointing it at the knight, she shouted in her most authoritative tone, “Nay! Ye viper, stand aside.”
The large Norman, who stood far taller than Adaira, laughed at the smallness of the blade jabbed in his direction. Assuming he was up against some dim-witted peasant too dense to understand the situation, he grinned and winked. “Come now, lass,” he coaxed in French. “I fear the scratch of a kitten more. Put that puny thing away and kneel.”
Schooled in French as a child, Adaira understood his words and was surprised that the filthy beast spoke with the excellence of one highly born. Hope that these Normans beasts would honor the Peace of God, the proclamation issued by the clergy to protect the defenseless from violence in times of war, gave her courage. Sweeping her hood back, she stared up at the one threatening her, arching her eyebrows in scorn.
Holding her dagger levelly, she berated, “Ye black hearted churl! I demand thee stand down.”
Apparently stunned that it was not a simple peasant girl who challenged him but a, woman of some import, the man hesitated. When he leaned in seeking a closer look, Adaira delivered a swift and unexpected slice to his jaw. Though her knife did not cut deep, it did leave a diagonal path of blood oozing from his chin. Shock more than pain backed the man up a few paces.
“Zut!” he cursed.
Recovering quickly, the now enraged beast lifted his heavy war sword. With the thick blade hovering high above Adaira’s head, he roared, “Prepare your soul for death, witch.”
The one in charge of the fearsome group had been occupied with scanning the surrounding lands of the fief for hints of threat. Now the commotion drew his attention. Shifting in the saddle, he turned in that direction and saw one of his men preparing to slice the prettiest maiden he had ever seen in half. The hellish fire that blazed from the maiden’s violet eyes, even as she faced certain death, was as surprising as it was mesmerizing. However, she won the commander’s admiration when she then welded her dagger with amazing precision and scored his man’s chin a second time. A bloody red ‘X’ now brightly marred his jaw.
“Ho there, Albert. Hold!” the leader shouted fiercely before the warrior could sink his blade into the girl’s skull. “Lower thy sword and bring the wench here. I wish a closer look at this little hellion.”
A very reluctant Albert brandished a scowl at Adaira before sheathing his sword. “Oui, my lord.” Wringing Adaira’s wrist until she dropped the dagger, he dragged her forward and shoved her to the ground.
Sprawled in front of the huge steed, Adaira lifted her eyes and got her first good look at the Norman warlord who had commanded the attack on her home. He was undeniably the largest, filthiest, most hideous monster Adaira had never seen. Shielded by helmet, mail, thick leather, and fur, the brute was heavily plastered with the blood of English men he had cut down and brutally murdered in battle. The only hint that there was indeed human instead of beast beneath those trappings was the arrogant, vivid blue gleaming at her through eye slits in the helmet.
From his lofty position, the warrior scanned Adaira with sparks of interest flaring in his azure eyes. “I would know the name of this firebrand that thwarted one of my most skilled champions,” he thundered.
Over the laughter of his comrades, Albert turned crimson and was quick to speak in his defense. “The demoiselle is uncommonly sleight of hand for a female.”
“I see that,” the commander roared. Looking again at the gashes on Albert’s chin, he shrugged. “Methinks the wound will leave a fetching scar. Surely a welcome addition to your grisly looks. But pray tell, Albert, what will you tell the fair maidens who swoon at your feet when they ask how you came by such a mark? I am wont to hear that story.”
The ribbing obviously did not sit well with Albert for he glared at Adaira as he wiped the blood from his chin with the back of his gauntlet. “Give me the wench for one night, milord, and I swear I will reap from her a story worth telling,” he growled furiously, stepping toward Adaira.
Adaira scrambled to her feet, ready to battle Albert again, and the action made the commander laugh. “I fear it would not be a fair fight, Albert. Ye may well loose something precious in the fray.”
When all his men, except Albert, began laughing, the commander slashed his hand through the air to regain order. “Amusing as this may be, there are more pressing matters to dwell on at present than the taming of wenches. You understand their tongue, Albert. Tell the girl I would know her name and the whereabouts of the Lord of this manor,” he demanded.
As Albert translated the command, disgust filled Adaira’s face. Once Albert was through, she turned and focused furious attention on the massive man atop the steed. Arching an eyebrow, she bided her time, taking a moment to massage the wrist Albert had abused.
When she finally answered, her lips turned down with loathing. “I am Adaira, daughter of the Lord of Stanwood Manor,” She said with her head held high and her voice shaking with scorn. Swinging an arm out to her father, she continued. “This noble, the same that you have treated so despicably, is Alden Godwin, lord of this keep. I demand our immediate release and that you depart from our lands, you filthy, slimy, Norman bastard of Satan.”
Adaira’s father tried again to stand in defense of his only child but the giant guarding him pushed him back to his knees. Alden glanced up at Adaira with despair. “Lass! Do you wish to be sliced to the bone?” he ground out angrily. “Hush your senseless prattle and do as commanded!”
The huge Norman in charge looked at the distraught old man and raised a hand to silence the harsh English. Though the elderly man wore rags, he bore a striking resemblance to the breathtaking beauty now glaring at him, ripe with defiance. The spark of interest grew more intense and the leader returned his attention to Albert. “What doth she say?”
Albert blushed and his eyes widened as he responded hesitantly. “Forgive me, my liege. Some of what the demoiselle says is lost in translation, but here is the most of it. She claims to be Adaira of Stanwood Manor and she says this beggar is her father Alden Godwin, lord of the hall. Uh…and as unthinkable as it may seem, she demands that you release her family and leave these lands immediately.”
Clamorous laughter erupted from the Norman warriors. The commander chuckled with amusement as he took note of Adair’s small delicate features. “Does she now?” His gaze lingered on Adaira as he questioned Albert further. “What more doth Her Highness say.”
Albert rolled his eyes heavenward. “The rest, my liege, I hesitate to repeat—”
“Tell me what she said, word for word!” the warlord barked with his eyes still trained on the small female rebel.
Crossing himself, Albert stumbled through the interpretation. “Ah—well—Uh—oui—she mentions your need to bathe, claims that your father is Satan and—that he never wed your mother.”
Adaira sensed she could be in grave danger for speaking such uncommonly brazen words and, this time, no one laughed after Albert’s interpretation. All, Norman guards and Stanwood’s inhabitants alike, stood silent. She suddenly realized that everyone watched the leader, waiting. Certain he would order her death, her blood ran cold.
Instead, the large Norman displayed even white teeth, flashed a look of genuine surprise at Adaira, and laughed. He then enjoyed some sarcastic banter with his men on the matter before demanding silence. With a flourish, he brought his fist to his chest in mock homage. Never breaking eye contact, he leaned forward in the saddle, smiling at the small contentious young lady standing before him.
“Charmed, milady,” he retorted amid hoots from his men. “If you will now permit me to introduce myself, I am Renouf de Sinclaire de Normandie and, you demoiselle, along with every other being and thing on these lands, now belong to me. If you wish to stay alive, I suggest you make a greater effort at respect and curb that wicked tongue, or I will allow Sir Albert to slice you in two. Comprends?”
Adaira did not need Albert’s eager interpretation to understand Renouf’s declaration of ownership. Her mind iced over with contempt. However, a shot of desperation from her father finally penetrated her outrage and she clinched her teeth, fighting the urge to hurl more expletives the leader’s way.
Renouf cocked his head to one side with sardonic amusement at her barely restrained obstinacy. Wondering if he might have seen the limit of the maiden’s courage, he shrugged and urged his horse a few paces closer. “Her Highness is suddenly speechless,” he taunted. “Have you nothing further to say to your new master and Lord of Stanwood?”
Before Adaira even opened her mouth, her father cringed.
“When pigs fly, only then will I acknowledge you as master of anything other than the sty where they reside, you miserable, loathsome swine,” she spat in French, glaring up at him. “I shall instead pray for the day when the gates of Hell open to claim your filthy, accursed hide.”
Loud laughter from Renouf’s men followed her outburst, along with a few lewd suggestions on various methods of retribution their leader might seek against the pretty wench. Renouf was the only one who did not seem to find humor in the moment. He urged his horse even closer and locked eyes with Adaira. “A swine is it, ma demoiselle? Perhaps milady needs time to rethink her answer. Chain her to the pigsty,” he ordered blandly.
“Gladly,” Albert replied with gusto and wasted no time grabbing Adaira. Unmercifully, he dragged her, kicking and screaming, to the fence surrounding the sty. Alden flushed hot with anger, yet he was so outnumbered there was nothing he could do to help his daughter. He lowered his eyes to the ground.
Once Albert had shackled Adaira’s ankle to the post, Renouf rode his prancing horse over to where she sat on the ground and dismounted. He found the young woman even more beautiful close up. Hair as black as midnight framed flawless ivory skin. The lofty blaze from her eyes lured him closer. Squatting at the damsel’s side, he removed his gauntlet, lifted a lock of her fragrant hair, and brought it to his nose. The sweet rosewater-scented tresses gave Renouf reason to smile, almost as much as did the repugnance displayed on her face. He was delighted to see the viperous beauty so annoyed and, for a moment, he considered kissing the tremulous red lips to see what fit of temper that might stir to life.
“My haughty princesse, perhaps you should save your prayers for these pigs—that they might soon sprout wings—or you may be here a goodly length of time.” Unable to resist stroking the velvety soft cheek with his finger, he searched the violet orbs. “What say ye now, ma petit?” he whispered with arrogance.
Adaira could barely contain her hatred. Glaring at the amused, twitching lips visible beneath the nose plate of the helmet, she swatted at the grimy hand and jerked her face away wrinkling her nose. “I say thou do make a right good swine,” she hissed. “For thy stench is far worse.”
Hardly amused at being compared to the swine again, Renouf frowned with displeasure and stood up. Staring down, he growled with vexation. “I wager that, in time, you will rather me over these pigs. When you are ready to recant your sour, poorly chosen words, bid the guard bring thee to me.” Thrusting an arm toward the grunting pigs and filthy sty, he grinned. “Until then, my mutinous little princess, savor your view.” Placing a toe in the stirrup, he mounted his charger, jerked on the reins, and rejoined his men.
Before leaving to survey the rest of the fief, Renouf ordered his men to kill all who refused to swear an oath of loyalty to the Duke of Normandy. Adaira’s angry shouts, defaming his character, went unheeded by the new Lord of Stanwood. However, he did allow himself a chuckle as he rode off. The beautiful wench had fire—fire he would love to experience in bed.
The Norman guards that remained began taking oaths of loyalty to Normandy, starting with her father. Adaira watched in horror as he complied with Renouf’s demands of surrender so he might keep his head. She lowered her face and cried with anguish at the despondence her father displayed as he was then led away, bound like a slave. This was a sad day, not only for Stanwood but also for all of England.
Hours later, the man left to guard Adaira was feeling extremely put out. He made no secret of it and cursed her as the reason he stood outside in the cold dark of night, with only the smell of a sty to fill his nostrils. Bemoaning the fact that his comrades had long since been inside the hall, enjoying heat at Stanwood’s huge hearth, feasting on succulent roasted meats, and drinking cool ale, he waited with impatience the decision of a haughty shrew.
When Adaira’s own discomforts finally outweighed her stubborn pride, she demanded to see Renouf de Sinclaire. Displaying lavish orneriness, the guard was none too gentle as he unchained her, dragged her into the main hall of Stanwood, and threw her to the floor in front of the seat of honor.
Adaira looked up to find a Norman seated in the chair reserved only for the Lord of Stanwood Manor. The sight made her choke with fury. No other had ever dared dishonor her father in this way. As if he had owned the manor all his life, a large Norman sat with his long legs thrust out and crossed at the ankles. If not for the startling blue eyes, Adaira would never have recognized him as the one who ordered her chained to the sty. The hideous beast of before had transformed into a handsome, muscular, exemplary specimen of the male form. To Adaira, he seemed nearly perfect and not even close to what she had imagined might be hiding beneath the blood and filth.
For the moment, he was in conversation with one of his men, which afforded Adaira the opportunity to study him unnoticed. The power he effortlessly exuded thrilled as much as it terrified. Short blond hair curved in damp waves around a tanned face that displayed a straight nose and full sensual lips, cornered by creases that hinted of an easy, frequent smile. The richness of cloth adorning his giant frame bespoke of great wealth rarely seen except in royal courts, as did the fine leather boots that laced up muscular legs covering the lower portion of expensive woolen chausses. Her eyes traveled back up past the strong forearms crossed over his massive chest and found taunting lips turned up into a smile as cold blue eyes returned her regard. Horrified that he had caught her watching him, she looked away. But she could not so easily dismiss the laughter, which confirmed that he found her blatant inspection amusing.
Adaira’s gaze darted over the Great Hall of Stanwood in search of her father. The hall was filled to capacity and, while she peered through the crowd, villagers and servants whom she had known her entire life stared back with quiet fear. Their wretched faces were painful to view because there was nothing she or anyone else could do to help them now.
When, at last, she located her father, bound and kneeling some distance away, his haggard appearance sent her heart plummeted into deep despair. A cut surrounded by a large bruise was forming on her father’s forehead. Obviously, some Norman lout had laid her father low, and the blow had been brutal, for the injury on her sire’s brow was looking worse with time.
When their eyes met, the old lord seemed happy at first, but then he looked down with glistening eyes. His despair brought tears to Adaira’s as well. She knew he was feeling unbearable shame, and the remorse at not being able to protect those he loved was as a dagger to his soul.
A man moving through the crowd of peasants caught her attention. Making his way forward, he bowed to Renouf de Sinclaire. Though she had not seen him since she was a child, Adaira immediately recognized the man as her cousin, Edgar Godwin, son of her father’s brother. Orphaned at an early age, Edgar had been raised by her parents. Childless, Alden and Miranda had treated Edgar as their own son. Then, years later, Adaira was born late in life and Miranda had not survived it. Adaira had always been envious of Edgar, for the mother she never knew had loved him.
He was more like an older sibling. There was not a single day that Edgar and Adaira had gotten along. Then when she was just a young girl, he disappeared without a word. Now here he was, returned to Stanwood. She stared in confusion at her cousin and wondered why Edgar should be free to move about until she realized that he wore the red and gold of Normandy.
With disbelief, Adaira listened as Edgar addressed the Norman warlord in French. “As I have pledged my loyalty to you, Lord Renouf de Sinclaire, I would be remiss in not informing ye that my uncle’s family has been ruling this holding for almost a century.” Waving a hand, he indicated Alden kneeling near by. “The former lord is well loved and respected by those who live on the manor. The serfs would see it as an act of great generosity should you allow their noble family some leniency.
Renouf’s expression hardened as he followed Edgar’s gesture and saw that Alden had been mistreated. Scowling, he pointed to Edgar, and spoke in rapid French. “You will translate so that all within this hall will understand my words. I have no quarrel with this old man as long as he doth nary pose a threat. I order him released from his bindings. He will remain my servant and unharmed as long as he pledges to serve me.” The last he spoke with a stern eye on Alden.
A hum of whispers rose up from those in the hall when Edgar translated Renouf’s words. The guard cut the bindings from Alden’s hands and, standing, Alden turned red eyes to Renouf. “And my daughter?” he asked with concern. “What is to become of her?”
Edgar submitted Alden’s question and, smiling, Renouf turned to the raven-haired maiden kneeling in front of him. “Alden Godwin, your daughter drew first blood. If la demoiselle will agree to stop charging at my men and behave, as would a lady of position, I will guarantee her treatment as such. However, naught will change for her until she issues an apology and publicly surrenders to me.”
Edgar translated. Alden looked at Edgar and continued to plead his daughter’s case. “Pray tell the Norman lord that my daughter has been given much leeway in her upbringing. As my only offspring, I fear I have spoiled her. I am sure she is only frightened into mania, for this…this behavior is far beyond anything she has displayed before.”
With a look of disdain at Alden, Edgar complied. While he recanted Alden’s words to Renouf, an outcry over Adaira’s treatment filled the entire hall. The voices of the villagers rose up, demanding her release.
Renouf startled everyone by shouting for silence in English. His eyes rested heavily upon Adaira while he studied her for a long moment. The keen intelligence of one fully in control of her faculties was evident as her violet eyes flashed with open contempt.
Amused, Renouf shrugged. Still watching Adaira, he waved for Edgar to interpret. “Though it matters naught to me how you chose to raise her, I doubt mania has anything to do with the demoiselle’s actions. I have yet to witness fear of any kind in this one. All I do see is much stubborn defiance. She would do well to remember she sets an example for the underlings here at Stanwood who look to her for what they should do, how they should act. She might also consider that any uprisings will be rewarded with the loss of heads and that bloodshed will stain her conscience, nay mine.”
Alden was quick to respond. “I swear to you, sire, my daughter will do as you wish.”
Even before Edgar could finish translating, Renouf halted him with a raised palm. “I demand this from demoiselle’s own lips not yours.” Turning his eyes on Adaira, he asked, “In God’s holy name, girl, do you concede all to Normandy and to your new lord?”
© 2015 by Leigh Lee
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