Northern England, 1172
Garrick of Hawkwood smashed a fist against his saddle and uttered a vile curse. The wrong damn castle! He could almost hear the king’s hoot of laughter, hear the derisive words, “Try as I may, Hawkwood, each time I grant you a boon you manage to muck it up. First, Maud of Grimsby expires on your wedding night and now...”
“This isn’t Fairfield?” Garrick stared at the ancient porter who recoiled slightly at his tone.
“Course it is. Didn’t I just say?”
“No,” Garrick snapped. “You clearly said ‘Castle Ladyslipper.’”
The old man gave Garrick a toothless grin and made a vague gesture toward the square whitewashed keep.
“Did I indeed?” His eyes danced with secret delight. “’Tis a flower, y’know. A great many of them grow within our walls.”
Garrick groaned. Had Henry sent him to an asylum for lunatics? Was this some royal practical joke?
A trio of small girls darted out from behind the wall. The tallest of the three stepped forward and tugged at the porter’s tunic.
“You’re supposed to bid them enter.”
With a flourish, the porter bowed, waving Garrick and his men through the open portcullis.
“Follow us!” the girls called.
They hitched up their skirts and tore off though the grassy outer bailey, bony legs flashing white in a sea of green. As if on cue, the sun broke out from behind a thick curtain of clouds.
Garrick nudged Rufus into a trot. He shook his head at the condition of the crumbling barbican and followed the girls through the arched opening of the interior wall. A kettle of eels, the king had called Fairfield. Marry d’Arcy’s widow, he’d ordered with an enigmatic smile, then look for snakes amongst the eels.
In a voice startlingly loud for such a small child, one of the girls shrieked as she ran, “Men! A full dozen of them! Come see! Come see!”
Garrick glanced over his shoulder at Roland, his master-at-arms. His friend had warned him to expect hostility. Dealing with the unknown is always risky, he’d added, especially when it involves women. To which Garrick had replied, “How difficult can one small woman be?”
Was it too early to gloat?
“They’ll soon be throwing flowers at our feet,” Garrick said with a grin.
Roland winked. “The day is young.”
Summoned by the child’s shrill cry, a flood of females poured into the bailey; sharp-eyed matrons, tiny tots, wrinkled crones, demure maidens -- woman folk of every sort, size, shape and age. With growing apprehension, Garrick scanned the crowd. Nary a...
“Sir Garrick!” said his squire, Toby. “Where are the men-at-arms?”
Garrick shrugged. Where indeed? Other than archers visible in the parapets, Fairfield seemed woefully undermanned.
“This way, Sir Knight,” a smiling woman called out. The chattering crush parted to form a living aisle. At its head stood a tall, slender woman watching him approach, her face an unreadable mask.
Surely this could not be the Lady Helene, with manure-stained boots, bits of wool clinging to her kirtle and hair the color of summer honey bursting from a thick braid in a wild halo of curls! A huge wolfhound leaned against her leg, his sides vibrating with ominous growls.
As Garrick drew closer the woman glared, her hands curled into fists. A sullen-faced boy clutching a wooden sword pushed his way through the crowd and stood in front of her. Garrick pulled Rufus to a stop in front of the woman. She flinched as his shadow fell across her face. He waited for words of welcome: words that never came.
Garrick dismounted and handed his helm to Toby, unable to look away from the woman’s strange glittering eyes. All at once, the heady scent of roses flooded his senses, and a wave of dizziness swept over him. His knees buckled. He grabbed Rufus’s saddle to keep from falling. Bloody hell! Was she some kind of a witch?
Thankfully, the powerful aroma and its debilitating effects left quickly. He took a deep breath to clear his head and reached into a saddlebag, fumbling for the document bearing the king’s seal. Why were his hands shaking?
Gathering his wits Garrick said, “I bring orders from the king.”
An enthusiastic “Ohhhh” rippled through the crowd. Silence from the woman. Was it possible she couldn’t speak?
“Tell her!” A woman spoke directly into his right ear. Garrick whirled toward the voice and came face to face with Roland.
His friend leaned forward on his mount. “Everything all right?” he murmured, looking tense. He wasn’t the only one.
Garrick gave a brief nod. Too long on the road. Aye, that’s it. Why else would he hear a disembodied voice? A hot meal and a soft bed would put things right.
He unrolled the parchment and cleared his throat. “I, Henry the Second of England, by the grace of God and the authority vested in me do hereby assign the hand of Lady Helene d’Arcy, widow of Matthew d’Arcy to my vassal, Sir Garrick of Hawkwood. Furthermore, I grant Sir Garrick guardianship of William d’Arcy, ward of the crown, until such time that he is deemed fit to undertake his responsibilities.”
Garrick paused and looked at the woman. She remained silent. Her dog continued to snarl. The boy stroked his wooden sword and glared. “You are the Lady Helene?” Garrick prompted.
Finally, the woman spoke in a low, husky voice. “Nay, my stepmother has returned to France. You’ve made your journey for naught. Please feel free to sup with us and rest your horses before you begin your journey back. I’ll send my steward to see to your needs.”
She turned and walked toward the keep, the boy trailing behind. His duty complete, the dog disappeared into the crowd.
Garrick fumed at her abrupt dismissal. Who was this woman and why did she think she could flaunt the king’s orders? He covered the distance between them in two steps and caught her arm. With a gasp of outrage, she whirled to face him. He let his gaze trail over her features – her slanted green eyes, haughty nose and stubborn chin. “You have me at a disadvantage, my lady. Who are you?”
She tried to tug free of his grip. Failing, she stiffened. “I am Emma, daughter of Mathew d’Arcy.”
“Ah.” Garrick tried to hide his surprise. Why hadn’t the king told him of d’Arcy’s daughter?
Emma said, “I am mistress of Fairfield and guardian to my half-brother. ‘Tis what my father wanted.”
“The king’s orders clearly supersede those of your father,” Garrick told her. God’s teeth! Why did women make everything so difficult?
“And clearly, you cannot marry a woman who is not here,” she retorted. “Now, if you’ll release me, Sir, I have work to do.”
Despite the brave words, Garrick felt her tremble. A pulse pounded visibly in the hollow of her throat. Without a doubt, the lady had secrets.
Remembering what the priests had taught him -–that women are basically large children and should be treated as such-– he said slowly and with exaggerated patience, “We’ll talk soon. You’ll tell me exactly where to find the Lady Helene.” As an afterthought he added, “You needn’t worry. I’ll see to everything now.”
She tensed in his grip. Her lashes fell but not before he saw the flash of anger in her eyes. He felt the heat of her skin through the coarse fabric of her gown and knew he should release her but was strangely reluctant to do so.
She looked up then and smiled, revealing even white teeth, a cold smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. Though she stared defiantly into Garrick’s eyes, she spoke to the boy by her side. “Did you hear that, William? We are truly blessed. Hawkwood has arrived.” She fairly spat his name. “Perhaps, Sir, you’d like to lend a hand with the sheep shearing. I’m sure a man such as you knows farm work is never done.”
Impertinent wench! Garrick ground his teeth and renewed his vow to be patient. He heard the creak of leather behind him; his men stirred in their saddles, unsure how to react to her jibe. Nervous titters rippled through the crowd of women. Now is not the time, but you‘ll pay for that, lady, Garrick thought.
His discomfort seemed to please her and her smile grew broader. Finally, she jerked free of his grip.“Come, William,” she said, taking her brother by the hand. Head held high, she marched away, a queen in peasant’s clothing. The women broke ranks and hurried after her.
Garrick looked at Roland who rolled his eyes. “Welcome to Castle Ladyslipper.”