Poitou, Summer 1179
“Donna Siri, cover your head.”
Siriol de Calendri caught the fear in her companion’s voice as the older woman nudged her mount close enough to reach out and whip the hood over her mistress’s head. Regrettably, the action hindered Siri’s view of the band of armed knights who had burst from the forest to surround her traveling party. Their shields, their surcotes, even their helmets lacked any crest or insignia to give a clue as to their identity. She had seen their blades leveled at the men of her guard before her companion’s action had veiled her face. Siri knew from experience that it was safer to keep herself hidden, yet . . .
She started to draw back the edge of her hood to grant herself just a peek at their captors, but she felt Lucianna’s fingers on her hand.
“Carissima,” her companion hissed in warning, “per favore.”
Siri reluctantly left her hood in place. But she heard the hard warning in the male voice that rapped out, “Drop your weapons, if you hope to see your wives and children again.”
There was much cursing in the Italian tongue, challenged by several threats in French, before she heard the soft clumping of swords being dropped onto the road.
“Now stand aside. Let us see what fortune has brought us today.”
The Italians gathered around the two women, abandoning the wagons to their captors. For a time the robber-knights devoted themselves to ransacking the trunks and chests and ignored the travelers. Siri imagined the pleasure with which their captors must be discovering the rich fabrics of her gowns, the combs, the mirrors, the wreaths of silver and gold, that denoted her a lady of the first rank. Her late husband had endowed her too generously. The discovery of her jewels would undoubtedly lead these knights to conclude that she might reasonably be held to ransom for twice the amount with which she traveled.
But first they discovered the wine—her brother’s best, a gift to sweeten the surprise, perhaps unwelcome, of her return to the land of her father’s birth. Shouts of glee, recognizable in any language, punctuated the finding. Only then did alarm overcome Siri’s curiosity. Men enflamed with the heat of wine were far more dangerous than the cold, calculating greed of knights simply bent on a little plunder. Nervously, she fingered the jeweled hilt of the slim dagger attached to her girdle. If they decided to seek more than ransom, they would find they had a hornet in their grasp.
The muttering of her guards at last provoked their captors into detaching several of their own number to surround them. Sensing Lucianna’s distraction, Siri finally stole a peek from beneath the confines of her hood. She saw the dissatisfied posture of the French knights as they watched their comrades freely enjoying the bounty of the grape. Much good wine was drunk and spilled before their leader returned his band’s attention to the more pressing business at hand. Siri marked him well. Though a dull, uncrested helmet concealed his face, the bold confidence of his commands confirmed his authority.
“Load it all back into the wagons. We will examine the spoils at the castle. We must be gone before Lord Fauke’s devilish patrols begin.”
“What about them?” One of their captors jerked his head towards the two women and their Italian guards.
The leader turned to weigh them with a steady gaze.
“Foreigners,” he said, his derisive snarl muffled, like his voice, by the thick metal of his helm, “but apparently wealthy ones. One would have thought they would have guarded their treasures better.”
He urged his mount across the space that separated him from his captives and pushed his horse between Siri and Lucianna, forcing them apart as he rode in an arrogant circle around the older woman. A dust-stained wimple concealed Lucianna’s hair but revealed a set of handsome features, their smooth youthfulness belying the truth of her forty-odd years. Siri caught the sharp flash of Lucianna’s eyes to hers and hastily ducked her head.
Her movement drew their captor’s attention.
“And what have we here?”
He reached out a mailed hand and threw back the hood of Siri’s cloak.
Siri was not surprised to hear his gasp. She had seen too many men stand stunned by her beauty. Their flattery she knew by heart: her glowing locks rivaled the liquid sheen of purest gold, her eyes dazzled like the sky on a midsummer’s day, her cheeks bloomed with the blush of spring roses . . .
For all this and its accompanying effect she was prepared.
But she was not prepared for his companions’ startled oaths, or the signs of the cross sketched hastily across mailed breasts.
“But it is she!”
“My lord, it cannot be—”
“Silence!” their leader snapped, and Siri caught an impatient amber flash from behind the eye-slits of his helmet. “Of course it is not she. Look at me now, girl. State your name and origin.”
Siri debated her answer. Some of his companions seemed to think they knew her, but she doubted that any of them could, unless they had passed through Venice, perhaps looking for transport to take them to the Holy Land. Her late husband had often aided such men, lending them money and arranging for ships for their voyage. But he had kept her hidden or veiled, fearful of her beauty’s effect upon the intemperate crusading knights from the West.
“I am Donna Siriol de Calendri,” she said at last, answering him in French as he had questioned her, “and I do not see why I should tell you any more than that.”
Again an amber gleam, this one amused. “Ah, but we have uncovered a spirited little minx. Come, girl, if we are to ransom you, we must know where lies your family. To whom do we send word of your capture?”
“There is no one,” she said. “My parents and brother are dead and all I own in the world is in these wagons. Take what you will and let us go.”
Her captor sounded skeptical. “Surely your family did not cast you alone upon the world? Nay, you did not leave your foreign land without a purpose. To whom do you go? Tell me—”
Just then one of his men, too far away to have been drawn into the surprise of her appearance, dropped one of the chests he had been loading back into the wagon. Out of it tumbled a bundle of vellum sheets, followed by several glass vials and a litter of brushes and pens. Siri watched in horror as he lurched drunkenly onto the sheets to reclaim one of the vials and hold it up to the light.
Lucianna grabbed for Siri’s arm, but Siri evaded her and slid from her saddle. She ran, trembling with fury, and pushed the man away.
“You imbecile! You stupid, ignorant oaf!”
She was half the size of the robber-knight, but he nevertheless staggered back at her shove. She gathered up the sheets and tried in vain to brush away the stains from the figures painted there. Her eyes stung with tears at the desecration.
The man, apparently more intrigued with his discovery than offended by the shove, held the vial out to his master. “Look here, my lord. She’s got it filled with sapphires!”
“That is paint, you fool, and don’t you dare drop it. It is worth a fortune—“
Lucianna’s warning came too late. The leader rode to swoop the vial out of his comrade’s hand and hold it up to the sun. The rich blue contents sparkled like jewels.
“A fortune, eh? For a vial of paint? And just who would pay to retrieve it unspilt?”
Siri could almost see the challenging cock of his eyebrow behind the iron helmet. She pursed her lips together in what she intended as disdainful defiance, but which she knew the bow-like cast of her mouth would translate into a pout. The man laughed, a bold, arrogant sound, and tucked the vial into his belt, then leaned down from his horse to take her chin between his fingers. The iron links that encased them were cold against her skin. The grip tightened painfully when she tried to pull away.
“Nay, carissima, you are in my power now. You will answer my questions, here or at my castle.”
She met the amber gleam with scornful silence.
“Very well, then.” He glanced at his men. “Is everything loaded?”
“Aye, my lord.”
“Then my castle it will be.”
His strong arm swept about her waist and lifted her off the ground. Siri had only seconds before she found herself planted before him on his horse, but in that space she moved like lightning. She twisted about in the same instant as she loosed her jeweled dagger. Her free hand flashed beneath his helmet to draw back the mail that shielded his chin. Before he could react, she pressed the point of her steel against his throat.
“You will put me back down,” she said, her breath coming more rapidly than she liked, “and let my companions and me go, or I swear by my brother’s grave, we will be the last innocents you will try to rob along this road.” She imagined his sneering lips as his arm tightened about her waist. She thrust the point warningly up beneath his chin. “If you do not want your tongue pinned to the roof of your mouth—”
“Carissima,” he murmured, “I think you have not the stomach for so grisly a task.”
She nudged her blade higher and was gratified to see him roll his head back at the threat. “And I think you would be wise not to risk me proving you wrong. Now if you do not put me down and call your brigands off—”
“My lord,” one of his men interrupted with a shout, “there are horsemen approaching!”
“Lord Fauke’s men,” cried another. “My lord, if we are discovered—”
Her captor held her another moment, then slowly swung her to the ground. She thought she saw bemusement in the amber gleam that held her eyes for a weighing instant, but when he spoke, it was with the same swaggering arrogance he had used before.
“This round is yours, my lady. But the game is not over between us yet. We shall meet again.”
He signaled to his men and they rode off into the trees, leaving Siri and her spoils standing in the road.
The fuming curses died in the flame-haired baron’s throat as the full force of Siri’s beauty seemed to strike him like a bolt of light. This was the sort of response to her appearance Siri was accustomed to, and she found it reassuring after the odd reaction of the robbers to her face. Their indications that they somehow knew her had been inexplicable for its impossibility.
“Bloody scoundrels,” her rescuer muttered now. “They have been dogging these roads for months and when I catch them, I will skin their miserable hides from their backs. They did not injure you, I trust? Or any of your companions?”
With apparent difficulty he dragged his eyes from Siri and cast a glance at her traveling party, but almost immediately his bedazzled gaze returned to her face.
“My companions and I are unharmed,” Siri said, “though I fear I cannot say as much for some of my belongings.”
She glanced at the spoiled vellum sheets still lying in the road, but her impulse to turn her back on this gentleman and retrieve them was preempted by Lucianna’s rebuking gaze. Siri hastily swept the man a curtsy. There could be no doubt from the quality and cut of his clothes that he was a gentleman of rank and wealth.
“Our thanks to you, sir. To whom do we owe our safety?”
The gentleman bowed and came up with a grin that set off a tiny warning in Siri’s mind. There was a new gleam in his eyes as they raked the elegant curves set off by the tight bodice of her blue silk gown. Aye, this look she was too familiar with, and she drew the concealing folds of her mantle closer.
“I am Lord Fauke de Vaumâle, and I am pleased I could be of service to you. As I said, these brigands have been harrying hapless travelers for months. Duke Richard has charged me with their apprehension, but they are a wily, dishonorable lot, and so far they have eluded me.” He paused with a darkling look. “When I catch them, there will be little enough of them left for the duke to exercise his justice on. I’ll see to it their leader is naught but a bloody mass of—” He checked himself and his gaze again grew warm on Siri’s face. “Forgive me, these matters are not for such delicate ears as yours. May I ask who it is I have had the pleasure of rescuing?”
“I am Siri de Calendri—”
“Donna Siriol,” Lucianna corrected.
Lord Fauke looked perplexed. “Donna?”
“It means ‘lady,’” Siri said with a rueful glance at her companion. “I gained the title through marriage, but my parents were not so nobly born.”
“Ah.” Lord Fauke looked disappointed. “Then you have a husband to whom you should no doubt be returned.”
Siri hesitated, knowing the truth would bring that weighing desire back into his eyes, but she confessed, “My husband died two years ago in Venice, and my brother has but recently followed him to the grave. I have no other relatives, so my brother has placed me under the protection of a friend, one of your countrymen.”
She stated the gentleman’s name and the castle that was her destination.
Lord Fauke frowned. “Ah,” he said again. “Then your brother chose ill. That ‘friend’ is in the duke’s disgrace, and mine.”
“You know him?”
“He is my own vassal—he and his neighbor, Sir Raynor de Molinet. The loyalties of both are suspect. Duke Richard is lord of Poitou and Aquitaine, and those who think to turn it otherwise will find their heads on the block.”
This fearsome threat dismayed her. Had her brother known this about his friend?
“I trust you are mistaken, my lord,” she said. “I know little of these lands, save for rumors we encountered along the road. But I am certain my brother would not confide me to anyone of less than sterling honor.”
Lord Fauke gave her a skeptical smile. “You are not like to find it in that gentleman. I would no doubt be doing you a service were I to ignore your brother’s wishes and—”
Siri stopped him with a freezing gaze that had dampened, albeit never more than temporarily, more than one suitor overeager to sample her charms.
“I trust you will not do so, sir. I should be reluctant to have to call on my guards to defend me. They were some of the best swordsmen in Venice and had those robbers not taken us by such surprise, the brigands would no doubt be lying dead in the road even now.”
The Italian guards had taken advantage of Siri’s exchanges with Lord Fauke to retrieve their lost swords and awaited her command with their blades in their hands.
Lord Fauke gave an awkward cough and Siri noticed how the freckles on his face darkened when he flushed. “Now, now, naturally I will escort you wherever you wish to go. Pray,” he added with a bow, “if I may help you to remount?”
“My vellum—” Siri began, glancing at the scattered sheets.
“My men will gather them up for you, never fret you, my lady. But it is growing late. We should be on our way.”
Siri took note of the angle of the afternoon sun, but it was not until Lord Fauke signaled two of his men and she saw them respectfully gathering up her sheets that she allowed the red-haired baron to lift her back onto her horse.
Some hours later, Siri drew up her mount and stared dubiously at the rubble-filled ditch that encircled a razed stone wall that had formed an outer curtain to the soaring square castle beyond. A second wall nearer the keep, crenellated like giant gapped teeth against the sky and defended by four corner towers, rose smooth and untouched in the afternoon sun. A second moat surrounded it, this one filled with darkly roiling waters. Given the obvious threat of robbers in the nearby woods, Siri was not surprised to see that the twin-towered gatehouse beyond stood with drawbridge up and portcullis down.
Lord Fauke called out his name and immediately the bridge was let down and the gate opened. Clearly the guards had no inclination to challenge a man who was, as the baron had proudly informed Siri as they rode, a stalwart supporter and intimate of the king’s son, Duke Richard. Lord Fauke told her that he had inherited wide lands in Poitou from a great-uncle who had died the past year. From a nearby stronghold, he regularly patrolled the forest roads in search of just such malcontents as had turned their bullying avarice on Siri’s party today.
He and his men escorted Siri’s party now into the castle’s bailey. Siri had grown weary of Lord Fauke’s bedazzled gaze as they rode. Hoping to forestall—at least for the time being—similar gazes from the occupants in the bailey, she once again drew her hood over her head.
The yard was filled with a miscellany of servants. A girl with long, brown braids carried a bucket across the yard while another shooed a flock of cackling geese toward a timber lean-to inside the wall. Several men stood near the stables conversing with one who looked as if he might be a blacksmith, while a large, friendly looking hound dashed from one member of the group to another, receiving here a pat of the hand, there some small treat from a tolerant knight or squire.
The dog came yapping across the yard to greet the newcomers. One of the men detached himself from the group and followed with a halting limp. Siri drew the edge of her hood over the lower half of her face and watched as the grey-haired retainer bowed low before Lord Fauke.
“My lord, we had no word of your coming. My master is not here just now, but you are mightily welcome to come inside and partake of some refreshment while you await his return.”
“Nay, Sir Balduin,” Lord Fauke replied, “I will not so trouble you. We came upon these poor travelers suffering an attack by the thieves of the forest. The ladies named this as their destination, and we thought it wise to guard them safely here.”
Sir Balduin gave the ladies a rather blank look. “I beg your pardon. My master did not inform me that we would be having guests. We have no room prepared.” He cast a worried glance at the wagons. “Will—Will your stay be long?”
Lucianna replied to his frankness with an ill-concealed condescension. “Indeed, signore, we come to stay. I regret that we were unable to send messengers ahead, but the letter will explain it all.”
Sir Balduin looked astounded. “Come to stay? But—”
“Signore,” Lucianna interrupted, “we have traveled many weeks to reach this land. Donna de Calendri needs to bathe and rest. Can you not find us some accommodation?”
Sir Balduin looked so flustered that Siri lowered the edge of her hood and offered him a sympathetic smile.
“Ah, saints!” He staggered back, so pale that Siri half feared he was about to faint.
Other servants drew near at her unveiling, nudging and whispering, some making the gesture of the cross, while others fluttered less Christian signs. “It is impossible—”
“Come, man, pull yourself together,” Sir Fauke snapped. “Have you never seen a beautiful woman before? Do as the wench says. Find them a corner to sit in while you make ready a room and send word to your master—”
“My master—” Sir Balduin gasped. “But he must not see this! Forgive me, my lady, but you cannot stay here.”
“But we have nowhere else to go,” Siri said. “Please, sir, the letter will explain all to your master. He knew my brother. They journeyed to the Holy Land together, prayed together before the Holy Sepulchre. I know he would not wish to deny my companions and me his simple hospitality.”
“There, man, she’s right,” Lord Fauke said. “If there is a problem, leave it to your master to deal with. Now let these women inside—or must I escort them to Poitiers and explain your master’s rudeness to the duke?”
Sir Balduin seemed alarmed by this threat, and Siri sensed it held a significance she did not understand. “It will not be necessary to trouble the duke with my master’s affairs. My ladies, if you will come with me, you may wait in the hall until—well, until something can be arranged.”
Siri did not give him a chance to change his mind, but slid out of the saddle and followed him into the keep.
She bided the waiting patiently, silently reassuring herself over and over that her brother would not have sent her on so lengthy and arduous a journey to this strange castle, had he not been confident of her welcome. Lucianna, seated beside her, concealed any anxiety of her own by grumbling on and on in Italian about Sir Balduin’s incompetence and the dismaying prosaicness of their surroundings. Siri knew her companion missed the luxurious hall she had come to enjoy during her charge’s marriage to Alessandro. Sumptuous to the point of excess, it had been to Siri little more than a splendid prison.
She fancied she could be quite content in this simpler hall. Only four colorful shields adorned its high, polished stone walls, arranged behind the empty dais, where they framed a long silk banner bearing the emblem of a gilded rose. The room itself was relatively small. The narrow, arched windows set with bars, cast a pattern of shadowed latticework across the rushes of the floor. Siri caught the scent of sweet woodruff beneath her feet, rising with a fresh fragrance very much like that of new-mown hay.
The scent grew stronger as she left her seat, her soft-booted steps crushing the petals to release the full potency of their perfume. She wanted to examine the stone hearth built into the wall near an exit that she guessed must lead to the kitchens. A cunning zigzag pattern had been etched into a reddish decorative stone that formed an arch about the fireplace, but on so warm a summer’s day any flames had been dispensed with.
“Carissima, come. Such curiosity has no place in a lady.”
“I am only a lady by marriage,” Siri replied to Lucianna’s rebuke. Too often her companion seemed to forget that fact. Her mother had been a merchant’s daughter and her father a simple craftsman, though his skill had won him some wealth and his art had rivaled the best of the masters of Venice.
“Yet your father had some noble ties.”
Lucianna’s insistence sounded more wistful than confident. There had been whispers of an aristocratic birth, and it was widely known that her father’s origins had lain in the far-off county of Poitou. But Walter Geraud had done his utmost to squelch the rumors and settle happily into his foreign home with his beautiful Italian wife. Walter the Poitevin, as he had been known to his patrons, had died without either of his children knowing how much of the gossip might be true. Her mother had followed him a year later, and then six months ago her brother . . .
Siri blinked back the tears of memory and returned to her seat beside Lucianna. With a darting, nervous glance at Siri’s face, a servant brought in a tray of cheese and bread. Sir Balduin brought them some wine, but he did not linger long enough to converse, other than to reply—to Lucianna’s query—that he could not guess the hour of his master’s return.
The shadows of latticework had lengthened across the rushes and begun to fade when a deep, quiet voice caught Siri’s ear. She turned her head to look at the man stepping through the arched entryway that had earlier admitted her and Lucianna to the hall.
“De Calendri? She says I knew her brother? I do not recall any such name.”
He stood with head tilted, his tall frame leaning slightly down to listen to Sir Balduin. The hound Siri had seen in the bailey trotted at the man’s heels. The man carried some sort of packet under his arm and an inkwell in one hand. At his shoulder stood a fair-haired youth, slenderly built, with a dreamy, distant expression. The youth’s gaze flitted to Siri first with an absent curiosity, then focused into the same sort of disbelieving shock that she had witnessed twice before upon this day. He mouthed some word which Siri could not hear, but which caused the taller man’s head to jerk up and around. The man did not seem to notice as Sir Balduin took the packet and inkwell, but stood so long unmoving, gazing on Siri’s face, that Lucianna finally rose in obvious annoyance.
“Signore, I am Lucianna Fabio, and I have been charged to deliver to your care a most priceless jewel. Stand up, carissima. Pray, signore, allow me to present to you Donna Siriol de Calendri—”
Lucianna broke off as the man strode abruptly across the hall and caught Siri’s chin in his hand. Siri gasped a little as he forced back her head. She saw the way the blood washed away behind his tan. She had an impression of strong, passionate features and a mass of coal-black curls, before she found herself engulfed in the swirling agony of his eyes. They embraced her like two deep, ebony pools, drawing her into an eddy of pain so poignant that she thought she must drown in its depths. From some great ringing distance, she heard him utter a name, not her own, but one spoken on a breath like a prayer.
And then the dark eyes closed and he lowered his lips to hers.