Read Fires of Winter Online

Authors: Roberta Gellis

Fires of Winter (8 page)

I was surprised at first that Magnus made no sharp answer to that. Jealousies and greed—and there were those who envied us the rich fishing and Ullswater and the new manors Papa had bought or reclaimed from wasteland—can make men put aside insult from a haughty overlord and carry tales when they hope to profit. But this time Magnus held his tongue, and I understood it was because he knew Papa was going less to support King David than to keep Donald from throwing away his life.

“Besides,” Papa said, now looking at Magnus, his mouth grim, “you had better find yourself a wife, since I have done so poorly.”

I bit my lips to keep from crying out. I knew the chances of war because in neighboring manors fathers and brothers had been lost in battle, but I had not before looked deeply into that well of fear. Death's scythe had reaped differently in my family, and my father and brothers had come home laughing and scatheless each time they had fought. Now Papa's thinned lips and hard voice renewed that pang of terror and spreading cold I had felt earlier. He had never looked like that when he went off to fight raiders or the first time he took up arms for the Scots king. This time, I felt, he thought he might not return.

Should I have pleaded and cajoled, wept until I made myself sick? Perhaps my sickness could have kept Papa at home, but it would not have held Donald, and if he had died I think my father would never have forgiven me. In any case Papa's next words made me doubt that I had read his grim look aright. He said, “I do not know when, or even whether, Donald will be willing to marry again, so it comes back to you. And I have been thinking that perhaps we have gone about this business the wrong way. It may be that the girls fear you abused your wives because you were not satisfied with my choices.”

Magnus looked up, as if he were about to say something, but he did not speak and Papa went on, “So, this time look about yourself to find a girl that pleases you. Then show her attention; get her mind set on you. Once the girl is willing, it will be easier to bring the father to terms. We should be back by the early planting.”

Those last words comforted me a little. They came out easily, not as if Papa were straining to reassure us, and so I was able to part from him without outward show of my heaviness of heart. I am glad of that, glad that he did not carry away a memory of me weeping, glad he never knew that his charge to Magnus to find a wife cost his son's life.

I think Magnus first chose Mary because she was a widow with two young sons and good property not too far from Ulle and needed no man's yea-say as to whom she would marry. I suppose by right she needed the approval of her overlord, but her lands—for she was living on her dower property, her husband having been a younger son—were north of Keswick in that part of Cumbria ceded by treaty to King David, so Magnus could count on approval…if King David was successful and Cumbria did not change hands.

I also know Magnus liked Mary's boys; he spoke of them more than of Mary at first, except to say she had a strong will and would take him, if he could win her favor, in spite of her husband's family and the new man they had chosen for her. After a few weeks though, he began to talk about Mary, and what he said about her gave me hope that she would be a sister I could love. I hoped, too, that Magnus would find the kind of joy that Donald had known and be enthralled by his wife.

I think it would have gone that way because one evening Magnus came home in a rage and told me that her husband's kin had come and threatened Mary, saying they would take her sons and the lands and thrust her into a convent—or worse—if she did not accept the man they had chosen for her. Magnus went more often and stayed longer after that, and I noticed he had provided a good coin dowry and sent away the girl he used—I was not supposed to know about that, but I had always kept an eye on my brothers' women.

Anyway I was not in the least worried when he did not return to the evening meal as he said he would on the fifth of January. It was the last of the twelve days, and Magnus had ridden over to give Mary twelve pearls as her twelfth-day gift. I was sure he intended to ask her to pledge to him that day and equally sure she would agree. In fact, I rejoiced when I sat down, later than usual, to eat alone because I thought Mary and Magnus must have been celebrating their betrothal so heartily that he forgot the time and had decided to stay rather than brave the bitter, icy roads as dusk was falling. I went to bed very happy that night, hoping that Magnus, who was growing a bit restive without a woman, would have come at last into a safe haven.

He was safer than I thought, safe for all time in God's arms. A shepherd who was out seeking a missing ewe found him lying in the road pierced by five arrows.

I think that was when I gave up hope. I did all the right things—set the huntsmen and tenants searching for any sign of the murderers, sent a messenger to Mary and several men to find King David's army and tell Papa and Donald what had happened. I even rode to Keswick to put a complaint before the sheriff about my brother's murder and to testify to what he had told me of the threats of Mary's husband's kin. But I do not remember weeping for Magnus nor did I really expect that Papa or Donald would ever come home. I am not even sure whether it was one week or two that passed between Magnus's death and the day that Tom, our bailiff, brought the news that King Stephen himself had set out from Carlisle with a huge army and was sweeping through Cumbria and taking every manor.

“I will not yield Ulle,” I said, knowing that was what Papa would have said.

“Lady, lady,” Tom cried. “We could not even hold a keep against that army. Ulle is only a manor house. It is not meant to be defended against an army. Will you ask us to throw away our lives?”

The bailiff was loyal and I was sure he was not lying to me. I knew he had defended Ulle against raiders and fought bravely under Papa's orders. If he said defense was useless, it probably was. Ulle would be taken, but I would not give it away. Papa would blame me for that. It would have to be taken by force, and I would not yield nor sign any writing nor give oath or pledge of any kind ceding my right. If the king had me killed, I would have done my best and would be free to join Mama and my brothers—and Papa too if what my heart said was true. But I did not really think the king would kill me, and as long as I lived I would have a right to Ulle. Papa would expect me to try to hold the land and, if I could not, get it back in some way sooner or later.

“No,” I said, “I do not want you to throw away your lives. I want you to do nothing and say nothing. Move everything that can be moved into the caves. Sail the boats under the cliffs where they cannot be taken. Make no resistance to the king. If he takes Ulle, I do not think he will harm me. If he takes me away and sets a new master into Ulle, cheat him as much as is safe. Watch for my father and my brother so that they do not fall into any trap when they return.”

I remember how Tom's eyes lighted at my words and the fervor in his voice when he said, “We will be watching for them, lady.” But there was no answering light in my heart. I was only saying the words I knew Papa would have expected me to say and acting as he would have wished me to act. There was no hope or expectation in me.

As the king's army drew closer and it became clear that Stephen would not, as some had hoped, pass east along the easier route south of the tarn and ignore Ulle, I called the manor folk together and told them they must leave and take with them into hiding all the valuables of the household. I bade them take not only the strongbox of money and jewelry, the two pieces of fine plate, and the few glass and silver goblets but all the stored food and stock, even the linens and feather beds and extra clothing. When Stephen took Ulle, he would find bare bones, and old bones at that, with all the marrow gone.

I had wanted to stay alone; the people wanted me to flee with them, but I explained that I must stay to maintain my father's claim to Ulle—I was wrong about all this, but I was ignorant because Papa had never explained such matters to me, thinking women unable to understand, and the manor folk knew less than I did. But they would not hear of my staying alone, and they arranged among themselves that all the young men and women should go, leaving behind only a few old womenservants and the men of my father's retinue who had been ordered to protect Ulle in his absence.

I had no notion they meant to fight. Papa had only bade them guard Ulle to salve their pride—had he feared an attack he would never have gone, and Donald would have stayed too, to fight for his own land. The men-at-arms Papa left behind were all too old or too crippled to go with him. But they gave me no warning of their intention, and when Stephen's army was sighted, one column winding down the pass from Darkgate and another creeping along the track by the tarn, the captain asked me to go inside the main hall with the four women who had remained and bar the door. I went without words, for he had already promised not to open the gates but to make the king's men force them. I believed he wished to bargain for my safety—or, perhaps, for his own.

So I went inside and sat down on Papa's chair to wait, and the women drew stools close around me. The windows had already been shuttered, and the hall was lit only dimly by the wan grey light that seeped down from the smoke holes in the roof and the low-burning fire. I was not conscious of the passing of time, but it could not have been very long because we saw the army soon after dinner, and when I heard the first stroke of the ram on the gate, the light from the smoke holes had not grown dimmer. The sound of the ram woke no fear in me; it was dulled by distance and by the walls of the hall and the shutters on the windows. To me the hollow thuds were much like those of heavy clods of earth falling on a coffin—all too familiar to my weary ears.

Then there was a crash. The women on the stools around me set up a wail, and it took me a moment to hush them. Only then did I hear the shouts and a faint clashing of metal on metal and realize that those foolish old men were fighting. I cannot imagine what they thought they could accomplish, but perhaps they only wished to die with honor instead of being driven out to beg for bread. At the time I did not think of that. I jumped to my feet to run out and stop them, but the women clung to me, weeping, ignoring my commands to let me go. And the battle, if it is not laughable to call it that, was over before I could free myself. The clashing died away and what noise there was of more men entering did not penetrate into the hall, but soon the shouts began anew, this time in tones of rage as the invaders saw the bare stables and outbuildings and realized the shell they had cracked was empty of meat.

Around me the women, who had been murmuring to me, fell silent, although they clung still tighter. I could feel their terror, and tendrils of it crept through the deadness in my soul until my heart could scarcely beat, so encased was it in the ice of fear. I had said the king would not hurt me, but what if he should torture me to discover where the wealth of Ulle was hidden? I could not tell him. I did not know where the manor folk had fled. There were caves and hollows in the hills that I had never seen or heard of. Or what if Stephen should throw me to his army as a scapegoat to be used by the men until I died?

A mailed fist thudded against the hall door and a single male voice, strong and clear, rose above the noisy confusion. A moment later the ram crashed against our last defense. I suppose it was fortunate that it took no more than a few blows to burst open the door and that I was frozen with terror. Had I not been, I would have disgraced myself by running about and shrieking as mindlessly as any frightened hen.

The splintering of the door loosed my women's tongues and they began to wail. One further blow and the door sprang open, letting in the soft light of a grey winter's day. It did not blind me, but it was bright to my dark-accustomed eyes, and my fear gave a sharp-edged, slow-moving quality to everything that happened.

First, a man in full mail with a bared sword in one hand and a raised knight's shield in the other leapt in and stepped sideways to put his back against the door, as if he expected the sealed hall was a trap. The shrieks of my women, augmented by his entry, drew his head to us. The light then fell full on his face—dark and…and hungry. I will never forget that face. I have reasons enough now to remember it, but at that moment terror seared the features and expression into my memory. He had lowered his shield when he saw only women and there was no nasal to the helmet he wore, so I could see clearly the large, black eyes, the high-bridged, aquiline nose, and the mouth—but that I did not see as I saw it later; then it was only a thin, grim line in a black-stubbled face. Simple as I was, I thought he was the king. I learned later that two men could hardly look more different—or be more different.

The difference in looks I discovered in the next moment when a second man came through the door. I knew at once the mistake I had made when I saw this man's armor, for his shield was beautifully painted and gilded, whereas the first man's was chipped and battered, and this man had a gold circlet affixed to his helmet. This was the king, but somehow I was less afraid. His face was obscured by the nasal of his helmet, but the eyes were mild, the mouth bland, and there was a fullness about the chin that robbed it of determination even though it was not weak. His expression, puzzled rather than angry, held none of the intensity of the first man's, who said a word to him softly and went out with an indifference that showed contempt and emphasized my powerlessness.

Others came in then, but with sheathed weapons; and as the king approached me, he put his own sword away and lifted off his helmet, handing it to a smaller man—perhaps it was a boy, a squire. “Be quiet!” he said to the women. “I will do you no harm.” They obeyed him better than they would have obeyed me. He stopped about a yard away from us, his followers respectfully behind him, and asked, “Who are you?”

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