Tuesday, May 24, 2011
I pegged it as one of the best entries overall, as the writing was strong and engaging from the first page. The story is set during the Roman period, a tale about the beginnings of Livia, the future wife of Augustus Caesar. Check it out if you have the chance. Congratulations to Phyllis Smith and all the other finalists.
Sunday, May 22, 2011
Kingsholm, Gloucester, England
September 1051 CE
On the evening of their arrival, Edric attended the prayer Mass at Vespers. He stood near the back of the chapel. Cynwise’s melodic singing drifted up over the other women in the hymn of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Even her angelic voice gave his heart no peace of mind. He thought only of Avicia.
How dare she be so happy in her marriage? He claimed contentment but little more. Cynwise’s demonstration of loyalty and her gentleness with their children aside, nothing else recommended her. She did her duty by the Church’s laws, not because she loved him. Surely, the knight loved Avicia and, worse, she loved him.
His mouth crimped in annoyance at lascivious thoughts of them together. Her husband must take immense pleasure in her body at night, his fingers kneading her breasts with her thighs pressed against him. Edric bridled at the images in his mind.
His hands were tight fists at his side when he stalked from the chapel after prayers. He waited outside for his wife in the fresh evening air.
In due course, she came. “Husband, I did not see when you left, you moved so quickly. Lady Edith told me the King devises a royal hunt in the morn. One of his relations, his sister’s husband Count Eustace of Boulogne, shall leave in three days. The King honors him tomorrow with a feast.”
“I wonder why he rode to Gloucester with the King at all, if he leaves so soon,” Edric grumbled. “I am hungry. Let us dine in the hall.”
Congregants streamed out of the chapel, headed for the hall. Cynwise scanned the crowd for Harold’s wife.
Avicia appeared, her arms interlocked with the black-haired man at her side and a woman on her right. She walked directly toward him and halted at his side. She and her female companion curtsied.
“Lord Edric, it pleases me to see you again.”
He blinked with surprise at her flawless Latin. When they had first met at Flanders, she spoke only the Flemish language.
Now, she regarded him without a hint of emotion. By contrast, his heart raced at the sight of her. The same pert nose and mouth he remembered. Her golden brows flared while he studied her. An uneasy silence stretched between them.
Cynwise rested her hand on his forearm and curtsied.
Recalling his wife beside him, Edric whispered. “This is my wife Cynwise of Elham. Wife, this is the Lady Avicia.”
Avicia said, “I present my husband, Sieur Philippe de Montfort and the wife of our overlord, Lady Alice.”
Edric bowed before them, as each acknowledged him with a slight nod. He straightened. “Lady Avicia, you surprise me, in many ways. Your fortunes have improved vastly since we last met.”
She arched her eyebrows at his statement. Though she seemed ready for a reply, Cynwise interjected, “How do you know my husband, Lady Avicia?”
Blood roared in his ears. Edric waited for the answer.
Avicia regarded his wife, who favored her with a pretty smile. “We met in Flanders three years ago, Lady Cynwise, when the retinue of Godwin of Wessex negotiated his son’s marriage to Lady Judith of Flanders. Milord Edric taught me some English words. Your country is very beautiful.”
“I have heard much the same of Flanders,” Cynwise said.
“I hold fond memories of it, but my home, my heart is in Normandy,” Avicia replied.
Edric sneered inwardly. How dare she come in all her glory, parading her happy marriage?
He interrupted whatever his wife’s reply might have been. “Indeed, Lady Avicia, much has changed since we last saw each other. Both of us married. You to a French knight. When last we saw each other, you held no lands or monies, and had no marital prospects. You were a mere attendant in the Flemish court. How you must relish your improved fortunes.”
Avicia gaped in stunned silence, while her friend gulped. Wide-eyed, Cynwise’s cheeks reddened.
“A lowly attendant?” A feminine voice intruded. “I am not surprised, for you do not possess the refinement of a true lady.”
Edric looked toward the interloper. A black-haired, green-eyed beauty stood nearby. She tittered behind her hands. The brawny man beside her tugged her arm. “Come along, Mabel.”
Avicia’s husband pulled her close. “A pleasure.”
He led her from Edric’s side. Her friend glared at him, before she followed.
Cynwise cleared her throat. “You embarrassed her, my lord. Why does she inspire such cruelty?”
Lady Edith’s arrival halted his reply. “Forgive me, for I tarried too long with the Queen. She shall let me see Wulfnoth and Haakon after Tierce tomorrow. You may both come with me. I am sure Wulfnoth would be pleased upon seeing Lord Edric again. Oh, the hall must be very full. Shall we go in?”
“I have no appetite,” Edric said.
Cynwise eyed him with an unwavering gaze. “You said you were hungry.”
“Not anymore.” He walked off into the dim evening alone.
Avicia sat beside Philippe on a long bench at the narrow trestle table. For the first time in which they dined together, she noted the coarseness of his table manners. He selected the thickest slices of venison for himself and piled thin scraps before her. He licked his grease-covered fingers. When he poured generous cups of wine for himself from the earthenware pitcher, much of it spilled on the white tablecloth. She sneered at his crude behavior and turned from him.
Across the hall and to her right, Mabel sat with two other women. Avicia could not remember their names, but knew they were also the wives of William’s closest advisors. Mabel met her gaze and laughed openly. The other women bowed their heads and smothered their sniggers. Mabel challenged Avicia with an unrepentant stare. Her green eyes narrowed with disdain before she sniffed haughtily and whispered with one of the women, who laughed.
Avicia’s stomach soured. Why had Edric embarrassed her? She had never experienced ashamed of her service to Matilda of Flanders, but when he belittled it before her nemesis, she felt lower than dirt. No doubt, Mabel had shared the insult among her friends. Most of them already presumed they were her betters, because her husband possessed no land. Now, they likely thought of her as a servant who aspired for higher status.
Mortified at her humiliation, she barely stomached the food. The butter tasted rancid, or perhaps the onset of her pregnancy made her think so because Philippe spooned copious amounts on his bread. The leathery meat and its taste, or lack thereof, disgusted her. She had never liked lampreys and refused them now, steeped in wine and covered in cold sage.
Her husband’s silence about the insult Edric had delivered hurt her. Philippe betrayed her trust and reliance on him. He devoured a leg of roasted pheasant with obvious relish. Not for the first time, she wished he might choke. He experienced no shame in his lack of action. How dare he act indifferent while she suffered?
“You do not eat.” Philippe discarded his bones.
She rolled her eyes heavenward. “How observant of you, husband.”
He raised one of his black eyebrows in a quizzical slant. “Why take such a tone with me? You became ill-tempered after you saw the Englishman….”
“Ill-tempered?” she sputtered. “Ill-tempered!”
Alice and others glanced at her, but she ignored their curious expressions. She stared at Philippe, with her lips pressed tight together.
“Avicia, I beg you do not scowl at me so. Lower your voice at the table.” His visage hardened. “Do not be angry with me, if your reunion with the Englishman went badly. Why did you seek him out? He has the arrogance of his kinsmen the Godwinsons. If he was rude to you, why should you care for his opinion? You shall never see him again, after we leave England.”
Although he acknowledged her suffering, he simply did not care about it.
He continued, “His actions do not matter. When we were in London, you said it meant so little to see the man again. Eat some food for the sake of our child.”
She forced a smile. “You only care about your heir. You did naught while Lord Edric shamed me before Mabel de Belleme.”
He chuckled and sought her hand. “She cannot harm you either.”
She tugged her fingers from beneath his grasp and stood. “How can you be so blind to my misery? I must leave. I shall return shortly.”
“You cannot wander alone in this strange place.”
“Please, leave me be!” She stifled a sob and darted from the hall. High-pitched laughter chased her.
Edric pressed his head against a timber post. He had behaved stupidly. Avicia’s happiness rankled on two accounts. Her marital pleasure surely outmatched his. She had given her heart in full to her man, while his wife did not love him.
He and Avicia had known each other only for a short time. Still, it seemed a betrayal that she loved another. She had forgotten him.
His heart ached with nostalgia. She had found someone else who made her happy. Her disloyalty hurt. For years, he had kept memories of her afresh and alive in his mind and heart.
Still, she had not deserved a measure of his pain, but like a fool, he had belittled her, reminded her of her humble origins. He gained little for his trouble, except more cause for regret.
He sank down on the dank earth and tugged his grandfather’s wolf skin pelt around him. Across the yard, a hound nosed for a few scraps in a heap. He emitted a baleful whine when he found nothing, before he loped off. Edric drew his knees up, rested his elbows on them, and slumped into silent misery.
Avicia stumbled into the courtyard and headed for a dense copse of thick leaves. Her eyes watered with every step. She wiped the tears aside as soon as they fell, intent on the solitude the thicket offered.
“Avicia?” In her path sat the source of her embarrassment.
When Edric rose, she stepped back. He advanced and she put her palms up, warding him off. His fingers closed on her wrists.
“Get away from me! By your own recent observation, I am a lowly retainer, worth no one’s notice.”
“Stop this. I did not mean to hurt you.”
She wriggled from his grasp, desperate for an escape. “Let me go, or I shall scream.”
“You behavior draws unnecessary attention. The King’s guards look at us.”
Two huscarls, who warmed themselves by a fire, nudged each other with shrewd leers. One winked at her and gave a raspy chuckle before he whispered to his companion, who also laughed.
“Come with me,” Edric urged.
She bridled. “Leave me be! How dare you?”
His hand clamped on her wrist. He dragged her toward a timber structure. Behind them, the sounds of laughter echoed.
He pried open the door and pushed her inside. Birds squawked in loud protest at the intrusion. They stood in the King’s mews.
“I am the wife of a knight, not some peasant you can abuse. Let me out, my lord, or I shall scream this place down!”
He barred the door and stepped closer.
Her stomach fluttered and she licked her dry lips.
She wiped her clammy hands in her skirts before she balled them into fists. Her senses grew attuned to the sound of his even breath, the smell of horses and grass that lingered on him. Masculine power emanated in his square shoulders and powerful legs.
“I acted without foresight. I regret my earlier behavior, my lady.”
“You regret it? You regret it! You embarrassed me before my friend, my husband, and a woman whom I despise. Yet you can counter my feelings with simple regret.”
“Shall I fall on my knees and beg forgiveness? I shall if you want!”
As if giving proof of his words, he did so. His body hit the earthen floor with a heavy thud. She held his rapt gaze in silence. The King’s birds quieted.
“Why did you do it?” Her eyes watered again.
“It was unforgivable. I was angry. I did not expect that you might marry, might love another.”
“Should I have brooded forever in your absence?”
He smiled but it seemed insincere, forced. “Was it too much to hope?”
She turned her back on him. “You are an English lord’s son. I lived by the whim of my uncle. Your status and mine dictated our fates.”
“My father is dead. I am the lord of his lands now. Your fate changed for the better, too. You left Lille and your cruel uncle behind.”
“Philippe rescued me.”
Stillness descended in the room again. Stifling warmth grew and swelled in the enclosure. Edric’s boots scraped the earth behind her. She whirled and faced him. He stood with arms rigid.
Perspiration glided down her back underneath her garments. She backed off, but he reached for her and held her firm.
“Do you love the Frenchman?”
“I married him.”
He jerked her toward him. “That is no answer. Do you love him?”
His breath warmed her cheeks. His mouth drew her gaze for a moment before her eyes flitted back to his. “I love him! I carry his child. Did you believe I would never find love again, content with shallow memories of you? There is a great divide, which separates us forever. Hope forsook me when you told me you belonged to another. Philippe found me. He desired and loved me. I chose to love him, too.”
Edric released her so fast, she stumbled a moment. He turned from her, his shoulders hunched. Waves of misery cloaked him. Her heart wrung with pity at the sight.
“Cynwise is no true wife,” he muttered. “She does not love me. I married her because Godwin wished it. She tolerates me at best.”
Avicia blinked back tears. His voice seemed so wooden, remote. With trepidation, she put a hand on his shoulder. Muscles bunched beneath her touch.
“I am sorry for you, my lord.”
He spun around, his face a dark mask. “Do you think I want your compassion? Am I some object of your pity, scorned and ridiculed for my loveless marriage? Do you congratulate yourself for the happiness of your union with the Frenchman?”
“Please, I meant no such thing! I would never pity you, or think myself above you. You have confused me and made me say things I do not mean.”
Edric captured her face in his hands, forced her gaze upward.
Her eyes traced the contours of his mouth. She remembered the pleasure of his lips on hers. Her heart fluttered in tiny ripples.
He loomed closer. “Did you forget me, Avicia?”
She tugged at her lips with her teeth. He inhaled sharply, desire warming his gaze.
“Please release me. I am a married woman, my lord.”
“What did you feel when you first saw me? Why did you stare openly? Did you remember our days together? Have you missed me as much as I have missed you?”
“I love my husband. Edric, do not do this….”
His lips hovered dangerously close to hers. “You forgot to say ‘please’.”
She drew breath in one space. In the next, the feathery light touch of his kiss trailed across her mouth. So softly, her mind scarcely acknowledged it. She leaned toward him, seeking proof of the phantom caress. With a low, urgent chuckle, his mouth pressed against hers in full. She responded with keen insistence. Their lips and breath melded together. Her hands swept up his arms to his face. She held it firm between her fingers.
The distance and time between them faded. His kiss outmatched the hesitant, exploratory embrace of their past. He grew bold and brutal, possessive. She moaned when his hands slid down her waist, cupped her buttocks beneath the coarse wool and lifted her against him. He hardened beneath the layers of cloth, and pressed against her firm, rounded belly where the child grew inside her. Philippe’s child.
She broke the kiss. “This is madness!”
Rushing for the door, she escaped into the evening air.
Alice whirled toward her in the middle of the courtyard. “Avicia! I have been looking everywhere for you! Philippe was worried and I….”
Her voice faltered when Edric emerged from the mews. Stiff-backed, he bypassed them in lengthy strides. Alice gaped at him before her gaze returned to Avicia.
They fell into step together. Near the hall door, Alice halted. Cold speculation frosted her gaze. “I shall not speak of what I have just seen.”
“You saw nothing….”
“Do not contradict me! I know what I saw. I love Philippe, Avicia. He is dearer to me than my own brother is. I shall never let anyone deceive him, not even you.”
“I love him, Alice! I would never betray him with Edric.”
Alice frowned, her lips drawn tight. “I do not believe you. I do not know why you and he were alone together. You are my friend, but if Philippe ever suspects your fidelity to him, I shall not defend you.”
“Naught happened, Alice!”
“I wish you spoke the truth. Yet, your lips are too full and moist, those of a woman who has just been kissed, passionately so.”
Alice continued toward the hall. Avicia fell into place behind her. She touched her swollen lips and shivered.
Friday, May 20, 2011
|Author Evelyn Lafont|
Suffering from Sequelitis
I loved Alanis Morrisette’s first popular album, Jagged Little Pill. I think I was about 19 when it first came out and while I hadn’t suffered all the setbacks in love that she had, it still felt like an anthem for my life.
Did I like her follow up album? The one…uh…oh—called, um…wait—what was her follow-up album called?
This is the conversation that runs through my mind every time I sit down to write the sequel to my first novel, The Vampire Relationship Guide, Volume 1: Meeting and Mating. See, when I wrote the first book in the series, it was my debut work. There were no expectations and nothing to live up to.
Now, while my book isn’t top of the charts or anything, I do have a readership and I have set a standard that I’ll be held to. This is true of any author working on their second work. But in addition to that, since I’m writing a sequel, people are attached to the characters and have certain expectations based on the events in the first book.
Let me tell you, that feels like a lot to live up to. But, as Lisa will tell you (although she hasn’t known me that long, she seems to have picked up on this) I’m not one to run away from a challenge. That means that I park my ass in my chair and force myself to write that damned sequel according to my writing schedule. I write through the fear, I write through the weight of expectations, I write through the insecurity, I write through the doubt, and eventually I reach the gooey, caramelly center of my writing experience—which is the fun. And once I remember that it’s about having fun, oooh, I can’t be tamed.
If you are suffering from sequelitis, sophomore scares, and follow-up frights, just write. Eventually, your mind will go to that special place that only we writers know about and the rest of the world will melt away, just as it should.
Evelyn Lafont is an author and freelance writer with an addiction to Xanax and a predilection for snark. Her debut novella, The Vampire Relationship Guide, Volume 1: Meeting and Mating is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Smashwords.
If you do ANYTHING online today, please follow Evelyn Lafont on Twitter! She is all-knowing and altogether fun, all of the time. And, don't miss the trailer for The Vampire Relationship Guide!
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
In my last round of online reviews for On Falcon's Wings, I noticed several readers chiming in about the amount of sex in the novel. I have never really thought that I write truly detailed or even provocative sex scenes; they do nothing for me. One of my best writer buddies has always said she finds them tasteful. Is she lying to me? Fess up, writing bud; you know who you are. However, another writerly friend does love scenes that leave me needing a cigarette afterward. And I don't even smoke.
When there is a romance involved in the storytelling, I like to include lots of sexual tension, whether between the estranged lovers as in this book, or the couple in a pre-arranged marriage who will become passionate lovers, as in Sultana. My approach to including sex in any novel is never to be gratuitous or to write scenes according a specific formula, as in, "And they should have sex for the first time on page 163."
Also, while I write historical novels, some people assume that they are historical romance because of the interactions between my protagonists. Nothing against historical romance; I cut my proverbial reading teeth on the likes of Heather Graham, Johannna Lindsey, Betrice Small, but uh, I don't write historical romance. My characters always have rocky starts as in historical romance, but a happy ending is never certain. When my characters fall in love, I make them work for it. Sorry, but I do love to torture my creations. Makes the ending much more fulfilling or perhaps bittersweet, but more importantly, I want readers to feel all the difficulties have been worthwhile.
To me, detailing sex in a novel should be the natural outcome of the intense relationships that have been built in the preceding pages. Love scenes, like any other scene, should feel natural. It should make perfect sense that the characters would find themselves together in such a way. While I understand that some readers shy away from the details, if I've spent all that time building up the tension, showing the budding love as it evolves between two characters, should I really just close the door on the sex scene to follow? As a reader, I'd feel cheated of something if a writer did that me. But what do I know?
So, you tell me. Feel free to leave your comments, or if you don't want to go into detail, just take the poll below.
Do you read detailed sex scenes in novels?
Sunday, May 15, 2011
January 1049 CE
In the bitter cold, Matilda of Flanders attended Mass. Afterward Avicia waited and shivered, while Matilda spoke with the English envoy, Brithric, the young grandson of Earl Leofric of Mercia. Heavy snowfall blanketed them. Matilda and the other women had donned their hooded linen cloaks lined with fur. Avicia enjoyed no such comfort. The wet and wintry precipitation chilled her to the bone in her short cape.
She stared at the pale-faced Brithric and wondered whether Matilda could not also see his sheepish expression and half-hearted shrugs, which answered all her inquiries. Whatever Matilda’s regard for Brithric, Avicia knew he did not find her appealing. He finally begged her leave and hurriedly reunited with his entourage. Matilda sighed and clasped her hands over her heart. Avicia rolled her eyes heavenward.
The next day, she sat with her head bowed over her embroidery, in a corner of Matilda’s room. Since her arrival at Lille, the other attendants had treated her with disdain. Each of the young, unmarried women came from the oldest and noblest of families in the country. They looked down upon her because her father had held no lands of his own.
She looked up and found six pairs of expectant eyes on her. She blinked rapidly and wondered what she had done wrong now.
“You are not finished, while the other ladies and I have completed our tasks. Are you so useless, even at embroidery lessons?”
Matilda’s melodic laughter filled the chamber. Her attendants joined in. Then Matilda rose from her cushioned stool. All the women of the Flemish court envied her subtle beauty and petite frame. Brilliant blue eyes rivaled her indigo colored garments. Her headcloth, secured with a gold and sapphire diadem, concealed flaxen hair except for a few stray strands.
Avicia coughed and the sound rattled deep in her chest. “I am sorry. If milady recalls, we were out in the cold yesterday. Now, I am unwell.”
She swayed in her seat, as a sudden, dizzying wave of heat overwhelmed her.
“Your illness is not my concern.” Matilda dismissed her words with a wave of her hand. “If your uncle cannot provide you with warmer garments, it is not my fault.”
When she turned from her, Avicia said, “I would not be sick if we had not waited outside the church for so long. Had I not stayed with you, I would be well. In the end, Lord Brithric barely spoke with you before he rushed to re-join his retinue.”
Matilda’s stony gaze returned. “You dare blame me for your weakness. Tread carefully, or I shall warn your uncle of my displeasure. You should be grateful you remain at court. Do not think I have forgotten the trouble you caused me last spring.”
A pained wheeze escaped Avicia. She cringed at the memory of the incident with Edric and the dead merlin. Though seven months passed, Matilda had often remarked on it.
Matilda covered her mouth and nose with her pale hand. “I shall send my physic to you. Perhaps bloodletting may cure you of this sickness. When I receive his report of your condition, you may return to my service but not before.”
She swept from her room and her attendants followed. Avicia glared in their wake before she left.
Outdoors, she gathered her woolen cloak tighter about her shoulders. Brutal cold descended with ferocity this winter afternoon, a few days after the New Year. The bleak landscape at Lille mirrored her health and fortunes. Baldwin’s stone fortress towered over her head, near the Duele River. Massive gray fortifications protected it on almost all sides. Within the courtyard, men-at-arms, servants, and nobles jostled each other. Despite the fetid smell of dank earth and gray clouds, the open air offered the freedom and serenity she had never found in anyone else’s company, except perhaps with one person.
She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. She should not have spoken so bluntly to Matilda. She should not have blamed her for the illness, or reminded her how Lord Brithric barely tolerated her.
Gruff demands for entry echoed beyond the gatehouse. The wooden entrance groaned before a band of riders galloped into the courtyard. Count Rudolf rode at the forefront of them. He had returned to Aalst last spring, and since then, he sent no word to her. A sense of foreboding warned her that his return would affect her.
The familiar dress of the men with him sparked memories of her father. One among the new arrivals stared across the courtyard at her with such familiarity, it bordered on rudeness. He was a yellow-haired man with a ruddy face, who wore the robes of a clergyman, yet he carried a sheathed sword. His beady eyes fixed on her, a hawk trained on its prey.
She jerked her face away and met the relentless gaze of another man.
Suddenly entranced, she studied his sculpted face with a cleft chin, high cheekbones, an aquiline nose and a mouth set in a thin, dry line. He wore black hair severely shaved at the back and sides of his head. Her eyes drifted downward. His red linen cloak covered chainmail. His deep, throaty laugh drew her gaze to his face again. He obviously took pleasure in her scrutiny. She blushed.
“Avicia, do not dare turn from us! Attend me.”
Rudolf dismounted and met her on the steps.
She curtsied. “Milord, welcome to Lille.”
“Why are you not with Matilda of Flanders?” His gruff voice betrayed his displeasure.
“She dismissed me for the day because I am unwell.”
Rudolf groaned and rolled his eyes heavenward. “Can you do naught to please her?”
When she made no reply, he shook his head. “Where is she, in her chamber?”
“I am not certain, milord.” She looked past him. Both the clergyman and the black-haired man eyed her boldly.
“Who are those men in your company, milord?”
He scowled at her question. “They are knights from Normandy.”
She gasped. “Are they my father’s relations? Have they come for me?”
He sniggered. “Why should anyone in Normandy care for you? They showed no concern for your welfare when your mother and father died. I inherited the burden, a thankless task. You have done little in these last five years.”
She blinked away tears at his cruelty.
“Why have the Normans come then?”
“Their Duke seeks an alliance with Baldwin.”
“Why would he ally himself with a Norman, milord?”
He assumed his usual posture of superiority. “William the Bastard is Duke of Normandy. His father proclaimed him heir before his pilgrimage and subsequent death. William is a powerful man. Flanders would do well in an alliance with him. I shall convince Baldwin of this fact. They shall seal the alliance with the betrothal of William and Matilda. When they marry, the Normans shall remember my role in forging this union and reward me.”
“Milord, what if Matilda does not want this bastard Duke?”
“Have you lost what wits remain you, woman?” he asked. “Who cares what she wants? Matilda shall do what her father tells her!” He jerked his head toward the riders. “I have brought William’s envoys to Lille with gifts. When she receives such inducements, she cannot reject William’s claim. I shall ensure it.”
She peeked at the men. Rudolf followed her gaze.
The black-haired Norman grinned again. The yellow-haired clergyman continued his scrutiny. His appraisal bothered her more than the first man’s own. Rudolf’s stare swung back to her, accusation in his eyes. She recoiled from his glare and fled inside.
She bypassed Matilda’s room, where the door creaked slightly on its hinges. A shrill scream echoed beyond the wall and Avicia halted in her tracks. She returned to the door and peeked inside. Matilda sat on a stool. She ripped the threads from the tunic she had been embroidering earlier. Pink blotches marred her face and her eyes were puffy and red-rimmed.
She looked up. “Get out!”
Avicia jerked at the mournful sound of her voice, but she lingered in the doorway. Matilda tossed the ruined cloth aside and advanced on her.
“Did you hear what I said?”
“Milady, forgive me, but you are overwrought. Is there naught I can do to help you?”
“You? Help me!” Matilda laughed as she mimicked her tone. “You are useless! You could never help me. Leave me, and do not return until after you have seen the physic.”
She stumbled backward and collapsed on the stool, before burying her face in her hands. Heavy sobs shook her slim shoulders. Avicia’s heart cleaved, pity warring with her natural inclination to leave the selfish girl to her suffering. After all, Matilda had stood by and watched her whipped for a careless mistake.
“Why do you stand there? Do you stay only to torment me?” Matilda’s eyes lit up with fiery accusation. “You take such joy in seeing my misery?”
“I do not, milady. I wish to help you. Shall I call one of your other attendants?”
“So they can laugh at me? They already whisper that I am a fool behind my back.”
“I have heard them! I do not give you leave to contradict me.”
Avicia edged closer. “If they cannot help you, then let me do so, milady. I shall not fail you, again.”
Matilda hiccupped and wiped a hand across her nose. “Would you be willing to do something for me? To deliver a missive for me? It is not for prying eyes, especially not your own. If you betray me….”
“I shall not. You have but to command me, milady.”
Within minutes, Avicia loitered in the shadows of the church. She watched the entryway, as congregants entered and left in succession. The biting cold nipped at her flesh through the short cloak, but she dared not leave before she had completed her duty to Matilda.
At last, the English delegation exited the church. The envoy Brithric trailed them, as they crossed the courtyard, headed for the fortress. He had drawn a hood over his head, nearly down to his eyes, but thin hanks of his white hair escaped the folds of cloth. Just as he reached the steps, she approached him.
He smiled at her tentatively. Before he moved on, she clutched at the rich wool of his mantle. He jerked aside in surprise.
“I do not mean to startle you, milord,” she whispered.
“Then remove your hand, milady. Mercy. Are all you Flemish women so forward?” Accusation embittered his tone and he sneered at her.
“I serve the purpose of another.” She handed him a rolled parchment. “Please, will you take it?”
He drew back the hood. “What is it?”
“I cannot say. I have not read its contents.”
When he snatched it from her, she drew back and clenched her jaw stiffly. He seemed rude and hardly worth Matilda’s interest.
He broke the seal and read the letter. She stared at him expectantly. When he finished it, he tossed it at her and rushed to re-join the other Englishmen.
Avicia returned to Matilda, who sat alone on her stool. Her head cradled in her hands, she looked up. Then, on shaky legs, she rose to her feet. Her gaze drifted to the rolled parchment Avicia carried. She took the missive and noticed the broken seal. A sob escaped her. She shook and stumbled slightly.
Avicia grasped her shoulders before she tumbled. She did not resist as Avicia drew her near, resting her chin atop the diminutive girl’s head.
Brightly colored tapestries hung along the walls of the Flemish court. Beneath them stood a multitude of people dressed in deep hues of varied colors. In the audience chamber, the rulers of Flanders outshone them all.
Baldwin wore a gleaming gold crown slightly askew on his yellow hair. A broad smile softened his ruddy face. His wife Adele, daughter of the King of France, clasped her slim, bejeweled fingers in a pose of sedate modesty.
Avicia hovered in the recesses of the room. Her uncle approached with the Norman envoys.
A herald announced their arrival in a strident voice. “Count Rudolf of Aalst and the envoys of Duke William of Normandy may draw near.”
“Welcome to Lille, my lords.” Baldwin’s voice squeaked. He held out his pudgy hand. Each finger except the thumb bore a ring set with a ruby or sapphire.
Rudolf kissed the hand he proffered. “You honor me, Count Baldwin with your gracious welcome.”
The Normans bowed, though Avicia thought their movements stiff and reluctant.
“Why have you come?”
“Duke William seeks friendship. I pray you shall hear his envoys and accept a token of his house.”
Rudolf snapped his fingers. One of his retainers set a wicker enclosure on the floor and removed the linen cloth. The peregrine falcon inside chorused her alarm immediately. Her long, pointed wings thrashed against the cage. Her black head bobbed. She revealed her white throat from which a short, sharp vocalization issued. The bird’s obvious distress pained Avicia, but she kept her distance from the cage.
Baldwin leaned forward on his gilded throne. “It is a fine gift you have brought, Count Rudolf.”
“It is but one of many from William of Normandy intended for Matilda.”
“Indeed? Then news of your niece’s carelessness with my daughter’s prized bird has reached Caen? Did Duke William think one falcon might replace another?”
Avicia pressed back against the wall. Though no one took any note of her, shame filled her at Baldwin’s reference. Rudolf’s visage darkened, but he never looked in her direction.
“I should not make sport of the issue,” Baldwin sobered. “It is in the past. Let William’s emissary make his address.”
Heavy booted steps sounded. The man who approached seemed a larger version of the black-haired Norman Avicia had admired. He possessed the same cleft chin and aquiline nose. Despite the craggy lines and crinkles at the corners of his eyes, the resemblance was uncanny. She wondered briefly at their connection and then shook her head. She should not concern herself with the Normans at all.
The envoy said, “I am Hugh of Montfort-sur-Risle. His Grace the Duke of Normandy is a friend to Flanders.”
Baldwin’s loud guffaw interrupted him. “His forbearers were not!”
“The Duke desires friendship and peace with Normandy’s neighbors.” Hugh continued without an acknowledgment of Baldwin’s comment. “Duke William would seal the peace with Flanders through a royal marriage. He proposes himself as the bridegroom and the prospective bride, your noble daughter Matilda.”
Baldwin rose from his seat. “William the Bastard thinks much of himself to claim my daughter.”
“Indeed, Father, for I am far too high-born to marry a man of such low birth.”
Matilda entered the audience chamber, her attendants trailing. Restored to her usual outward cheer, she glided across the room in dark red garments. A bejeweled chaplet encircled her headcloth. Rubies set in gold sparkled on her fingers. Her garments rustled lavender and honeysuckle bulbs strewn on the floor.
Baldwin came down from the dais and took her hand. “I present my daughter Matilda of Flanders.”
A grim frown marred Hugh’s visage. “Count Baldwin, perhaps your daughter does not understand the great honor my lord William shows her.”
Matilda giggled. Tears sprang to her mirthful eyes, which she dabbed at with an embroidered handkerchief.
“A descendant of the noble King Robert Capet of France,” she began, “and of the great King Alfred of England shall not sully her body with the seed of a Norman bastard. Return to Caen and tell your Duke I shall never have him for a husband.”
She withdrew while her attendants trailed behind her. Her laughter pealed along the length of the corridor.
Baldwin dismissed the courtiers and trailed after his daughter, with his wife at his side.
The crowd bustled from the audience chamber and swept Avicia along with it. When an iron hand closed on her wrist, she stifled her natural reaction.
“Prove your worth.” Her uncle’s foul breath washed over her. “You shall learn the true reason Matilda refuses this match. Come with me and I shall tell you what to do.”
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