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Here's the second of our #HistoricalHeroes finalists, Tora Williams' first chapter from The Welsh King's Spy.
Matilda picked up her skirts, scowling at the splashes of mud decorating the hem. Perhaps she shouldn’t have worn her best gown to cross the bailey, but she’d chosen it hoping to catch Sir Guy d’Eyton’s eye. Her guardian had done his best to keep her out of sight during Sir Guy’s visit, but now she had her chance. One moment alone with him. That was all she needed.
She found Sir Guy by the castle gates with a knot of huntsmen. He stood beside his horse, in conversation with another man whose hood was pulled up against the fine April drizzle. She drew a breath and approached.
His companion turned. She stopped, her fists bunching in her skirts. Sir Reginald, her guardian, faced her, his mouth twisted in a sardonic smile.
‘Come to wish us luck, have you?’ The knowing glint in his eyes told her that he guessed her intentions.
Heat flooded her face, but she had to continue. To retreat now would confirm his suspicions.
‘And a safe return.’ She risked a flirtatious glance at Sir Guy. ‘I hope to see our guest unscathed this evening.’ Please God, let Sir Guy take the hint and seek her out when he returned.
Sir Guy looked her up and down, his eyes lingering on her breasts. ‘It would take a catastrophe to keep me from your company.’
Matilda wiped her palms on her skirts, fighting queasiness. She’d succeeded in gaining his attention, but now she doubted her ability to keep up this charade. She wished Sir Reginald had invited a pleasanter man to Redcliff.
A rattle made her turn her head. A beggar, bent double beneath his ragged cloak, shuffled towards them. He held out a wooden dish containing a few coppers. He shook them again.
‘Alms for the poor, my lady?’ The hood shadowed his face, but he spoke in the reedy, tremulous voice of the old or infirm.
Before she could reply, Sir Guy stepped between them. Matilda froze in shock when he lashed out at the beggar, striking the poor man in the face and knocking the dish aside.
‘How dare you address a lady? Stay away from her, you cur.’
When Sir Guy raised his hand again, she recovered herself and cried out. ‘Stop! Leave him alone.’
Guy lowered his arm and stepped back, giving her a stiff bow. ‘As you wish, my lady. But if you want my advice, you should throw him out. No good ever came of inviting vermin into a house.’ He mounted his courser.
Sir Reginald moved as if to follow, but turned back to Matilda at the last moment and seized her arm in a bruising grip. ‘You’re playing a dangerous game,’ he said, his voice as smooth as butter but with an edge of malice. ‘If I ever catch you making sheep’s eyes at one of my friends again, I’ll have you flogged. Understand?’
Matilda nodded, pressing her lips together to keep them from quivering. Sir Reginald gave her one last hard look before he released her arm and joined the other huntsmen. She watched, rubbing her arm, as the men filed out of the gateway. As they descended the causeway leading off the sandstone escarpment that gave Redcliff its name, she had a mad impulse to dash out of the gates herself. It was a futile dream. The man on the gate threw a wary glance in her direction. Sir Hugh would have given him strict orders concerning her. No doubt her guardian would also have a word with Sir Guy during the hunt. He would warn him off, just as he did all the men who crossed her path.
The gates creaked shut and she turned to leave. Her eyes fell on the beggar, scrabbling in the mud for his coins. She still couldn’t see his face, but Sir Guy must have inflicted a painful bruise, if not worse.
‘Let me help you,’ she said, bending over him. ‘That was a brutal blow.’
He tried to fend her off. ‘I’ve taken worse.’
‘Maybe, but I’d like to help.’
Before he could turn away, she grasped his hood and pulled it back. Revealing a shock of chestnut hair and the strong, angular face of a man no older than thirty. She recoiled with a small cry, her pulse racing.
Her first thought was to run, but the man grasped her wrist while with the other hand he covered his face again. In a low voice he said, ‘Don’t give me away. I won’t harm you, but Sir Reginald would see me hanged.’
Matilda darted a swift glance about the bailey. The guards on the gate had their backs to her, watching the departing hunt. The workmen who had come to see the hunt off were now drifting back to their various bothies around the edge of the bailey. No one had noticed her unmask the beggar.
‘An honest man wouldn’t need to disguise himself,’ she replied. ‘Why should I care if you were caught?’
‘If that was the case, you’d have called for help by now.’
She couldn’t deny the truth in that. Her fear of him was balanced by the possibility that he was the answer to her prayers. As long as Reginald Fitzhugh didn’t know the man was here, he couldn’t stop her going to him for help.
‘Who are you?’ she asked. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘The bailey isn’t the place for this conversation.’
Of course not. She forced her whirling mind to come up with a solution.
‘Come with me to the stillroom,’ she said finally, raising her voice to ensure the guards heard. ‘I’ll tend to your cut myself.’ No one would think it odd if she treated a beggar; she had done so before. Then she added in an undertone, ‘We’ll be alone there, but within earshot of the armourer. I’ll scream if you make so much as a threatening move.’
The man nodded, and she led the way to the keep and down the stone steps to the undercroft, where the stillroom was situated.
Once in the herb-scented stone chamber, she turned to the stranger and drew in a sharp breath. ‘Merciful saints! How did you manage that?’
‘I could swear you’re a whole foot taller.’
He chuckled. ‘You’d be surprised at the huge assumptions people make, based on outward appearances. I just stoop beneath these rags, and all they see is an infirm beggar. Watch.’ He pulled his cloak closer about him and appeared to shrivel before her eyes.
She crossed herself, startled. But as her eyes became accustomed to the dim light, she saw that the man was indeed only bent double beneath his cloak. Now that she came to look closely, she saw the outline of broad shoulders and a muscular back. He straightened up again and now her face was level with his chest. His thin rags couldn’t hide the firm muscles beneath. She had to press a hand to her stomach to still the curious fluttering within.
‘Sit there,’ she said, indicating a stool beside the lit brazier. Maybe she would be less flustered if he wasn’t looming over her.
Tallow candles stood on a long, wooden table and shelves that stood against the back wall. She busied herself with lighting them, to supplement the light slanting in from high windows in the vaulting. Then she gathered up a flask of strong wine, a jar of ointment and a soft cloth and turned to the stranger.
He had thrown back his hood and was watching her, his hazel eyes gleaming in the reflected light from the brazier. For a moment she froze, her fingers tightening upon the jar until she was in danger of breaking it. What was it about this man that caused her wits to scatter? She set the flask and jar upon the bench, but kept hold of the cloth, needing something to occupy her hands.
‘Will you tell me who you are now?’ she asked, fighting to keep her voice steady. No easy task, when her examination of the bruised cut below his eye forced her to take in the strong lines of his cheek and jaw.
‘My name is Huw ap Goronwy.’
He smiled. A crooked smile that caused a curl of warmth in her belly. ‘You’re quite safe. I ate my fill of Norman maids last night.’
Now that she was paying attention she could detect the lilt in his accent. She smiled and shook her head. ‘I didn’t mean it that way. My mother was Welsh.’ That must be why he had this strange effect on her. He reminded her of the yearning gap in her life. Relieved, she uncorked the wine.
‘She died when I was five.’ Matilda tipped a little wine upon the cloth and dabbed at the cut, wincing at the pain she must be inflicting.
Apart from a slight tightening of the jaw, Huw gave no sign of discomfort. ‘And your father?’ he asked.
‘Dead two years later,’ she said. The desolation of those days came back in a rush and she had to press her lips together to stop them from trembling. But at least it served a useful purpose. It reminded her that men were unreliable. She would attempt to enlist Huw’s help, but she wouldn’t make the mistake of trusting him.
She reached for the ointment, only to gasp when Huw gripped her wrist.
‘Hold—you’re Reginald Fitzhugh’s ward?’ There was an odd look in his eyes that she couldn’t read at all.
He let her go. ‘You’re Matilda Comyn.’
A shiver of unease trickled down her spine. ‘How do you know my name?’
‘I keep my eyes and ears open.’
‘That’s no answer.’ Suddenly she was afraid. Not the same fear she held for Sir Reginald, but the fear that came when standing on a precipice, knowing one misstep would send her plunging into the unknown. She moistened her lips which had grown dry. ‘You still haven’t told me why you’re here. Give me a reason why I shouldn’t turn you in.’
‘And even if I tell you, what guarantee do I have that you won’t turn me in anyway?’ he asked.
‘Because I’m no …’ She stopped. This wasn’t how the conversation should be going. So far she’d learned his name and that he was Welsh. She’d as good as told him her life story. Trying to get information from Huw ap Goronwy was like wrestling with eels.
‘There’s no guarantee. You’ll just have to trust me.’
‘I don’t trust anyone.’
This was getting them nowhere. ‘You’re right. I could turn you in.’ She stabbed a finger up towards the main body of the keep. ‘There’s any number of men up there who would be very interested to know why a Welshman is here, disguised as a beggar.’
‘So what’s stopping you?’
‘In case you hadn’t noticed, Sir Reginald and I are not on the best of terms. If he caught you and then found out I’d spoken to you, he’d punish me. So believe me, I want you to stay hidden.’
Huw’s face darkened. ‘He beats you?’ It gave her a thrill to hear the concern in his voice. It wasn’t something she was used to from a man.
‘Only when…’ She caught herself. She was doing it again. Giving him information when he volunteered none. ‘That’s none of your concern.’
Huw shifted on the bench as she was speaking and his cloak parted. His tunic was as ragged as the cloak, but a glint caught her eye. Just before he pulled the cloak closed again, she caught a glimpse of a dagger at his hip. Although its ornamentation was simple, the quality of the workmanship was clear to see. No ordinary man would bear such a weapon. A suspicion of the truth formed in her mind and she grasped it. Anything to break through this man’s reserve.
‘You’re Owain Gwynedd’s man, aren’t you?’ She’d heard rumours that the king of Gwynedd was seeking to reclaim the lands taken by the Normans, now that the feud between King Stephen and the Empress Maude had plunged England into chaos.
A muscle jumped in his jaw, betraying him.
‘That’s it.’ Her voice, which she had kept pitched low, now rose in excitement. ‘You’re here as his sp—’
‘Quiet!’ He clamped a hand over her mouth and spoke in a low hiss. ‘Do you want to get me killed?’ He glanced over his shoulder towards the open doorway, his body tense. Matilda forced her breathing to calm. If he’d wanted to kill her, he would have done so by now.
The sound of the armourer whistling, accompanied by the rasp of whetstone upon iron, drifted into the room. Huw relaxed and loosened his grip. ‘Promise to keep your voice down, and I’ll let you go.’
She nodded her head. His reaction had dispelled any doubt about the rightness of her guess. The plan that she had been turning over in her mind was looking ever more possible.
He removed his hand from her mouth and she stepped back, rubbing her arm.
‘Did I hurt you?’ he asked.
She shook her head. She picked up the jar of ointment and fumbled with the stopper, fighting the urge to speak. Two could play at this game. This time he was going to talk, and she was going to listen.
One corner of his mouth tilted up. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘You’re right. I am the king of Gwynedd’s man.’
‘And you’re,’ she dropped her voice to a murmur, ‘spying out the Norman strongholds for him?’
‘And that’s why you’re here at Redcliff?’ She frowned. Redcliff was a few miles east of Shrewsbury. Not far from the Welsh border, but surely not close enough for the Welsh to have a claim.
‘Not in this instance, no.’
‘Then why are you here?’
‘I came to find you.’
The jar slipped from Matilda’s fingers and clattered upon the wooden table and rolled off the edge. Huw caught it and set it down with an amused smile.
‘Me?’ Matilda’s face was all wide, blue eyes. ‘Why me?’
‘Because you could be useful.’ He was determined not to give too much away. He would wait to see what more she would volunteer about herself before he revealed his hand.
‘I don’t see how,’ she said. ‘Sir Reginald never tells me anything. And now I’m not even allowed outside the bailey.’
To his frustration, she clamped her lips shut. She picked up the jar, removed the stopper and dipped her fingers into the ointment. ‘It’s comfrey, for your bruise,’ she said.
Huw nodded and tilted his face, allowing her to smooth on the ointment. He would have to be patient with her. She was as skittish as a newborn foal, and no wonder, considering how Fitzhugh treated her. His interest had been roused from his first sight of her, when she had marched across the bailey, armed in all her finery, radiating tension. And that was before he’d learned she was the girl he’d been sent to find.
Prickles of pleasure coursed through his flesh at her light touch. The ointment might be soothing, but having her lean close—so close he caught the scent of honeysuckle rising from her skin—was anything but.
Concentrate! he told himself. But it wasn’t easy when his task involved him with a girl whose full, tempting lips and alluring curves reminded him how long it had been since he had last bedded a woman. Only one thought kept him from pulling her close and stealing a taste of those lips: she was a Comyn. It was enough. Just. And yet …
She was starved for love, he’d stake his favourite horse on it. How could she be otherwise, as the ward of a bastard like Fitzhugh? And that was her weakness. If he paid her some appreciative attention, she’d do anything he asked.
‘That feels better,’ he said, indicating his bruised cheek. ‘Thank you.’ He looked around the vaulted room, taking in the shelves crammed with pots and bottles, and the dried herbs hanging from hooks on the ceiling. ‘Is this all your work? If so, you’ve a great deal of skill for one so young.’
A tinge of rose touched her cheeks, matching the dusky pink wool of her gown. ‘I spend all the time here that I can.’
‘Away from Fitzhugh, you mean?’
She nodded. ‘But he encourages my work. Says a girl ought to learn the art of healing to become a good wife.’
Huw leaned back and regarded her thoughtfully. ‘And has he found a husband for you yet?’ It was surprising that she was still unmarried, now that it occurred to him. She looked to be about eighteen or nineteen. Well past the age at which a high-born girl would marry.
To his surprise she went pale. For a moment he thought she wasn’t going to answer him, but then words tumbled out of her in a rush. ‘When I turned fourteen I thought this hell was about to end. He would choose me a husband and I would be free.’ She paused. ‘From him, anyway. But that was five years ago. At first I wondered why he was delaying. Then I thought it was because he wanted to keep the revenues from my land.’
‘But you know differently now?’ he prompted when she paused again.
She looked down at her hands. Her veil swung forwards, obscuring her face. ‘I learned two months ago that his wife was ill. Dying.’ She raised her head and looked him straight in the eye. Huw shivered. Her face wore no more expression than a stone effigy. ‘When she dies, he’ll take me as his wife.’
Understanding dawned. ‘That way he doesn’t lose your inheritance,’ he said.
She nodded. ‘When I found out, I made plans to escape. But I made the mistake of confiding in my maid. She told Sir Reginald, and I’ve been confined to the limits of the bailey ever since.’
Now her look of desperation as she’d approached that goat’s arse, d’Eyton was explained. ‘That’s why you tried to speak to Sir Guy earlier,’ he said. ‘You wanted to enlist his help.’ With her golden-blonde beauty there would scarcely be a man breathing who could resist her. God knows he would have been hard pressed himself, if it hadn’t been for the taint of her Comyn blood. ‘But would you really have married d’Eyton? From what I know, you wouldn’t have been much better off.’
Her lip curled. ‘Him? Never. Once he’d freed me from Redcliff I was going to slip some poppy syrup into his drink and make good my escape.’
Interesting. He would have to take care for as long as he was in her company. She wasn’t nearly as fragile or helpless as she appeared.
‘Where would you have gone?’ he asked.
‘To appeal to King Stephen and ask him to choose me a husband who wasn’t Fitzhugh.’
‘A pity he wouldn’t marry you to a Welshman. You would have far more freedom.’ Comyn or not, he hated to think of a woman of her spirit chained to a Norman.
Matilda rose and cleared the table. ‘I don’t know much about Wales, I’m afraid. I remember some of the tales my mother used to tell me, though, about mountains and waterfalls. I’d love to go there one day.’
Now Huw saw his way to completing his task. And it would be so much simpler if she believed the idea was hers. ‘You do have family still living in Wales,’ he said.
‘I do? I don’t know anything about my mother’s family. If she ever told me about them, I was too young to remember.’
‘Then you didn’t know your mother was cousin to the king of Powys?’
Matilda froze in the act of returning the flask and jar to the shelf. After no more than a couple of heartbeats she placed the goods down with deliberate movements and turned to face him, her eyes shining. ‘Do you think the king of Powys would help me regain my inheritance—Coed Bedwen?’
Coed Bedwen. The merest mention made his heart contract. ‘I couldn’t say,’ he replied.
‘But it used to be part of Wales, didn’t it?’
‘Part of Gwynedd, yes.’ It was only his years of playing a role that enabled him to keep the emotion from his voice.
Or maybe his skill failed him, because Matilda gave him a searching look. ‘Have you been there?’
‘Never.’ But he’d seen it. Many times. His father had made sure of that.
‘But you’re going back to Wales, aren’t you? You could take me with you. To my family.’
And there was his victory. Best not appear too eager, though. He frowned at her. ‘When I finish here I’m to report to Owain at Aberffraw. I could take you, but it’s a long, hard journey.’
Her face lit up as though she were standing in full sunshine. ‘I’d endure anything if it gets me away from here.’ For a moment she looked as though she was about to fling herself into his arms, but she hesitated, her brow puckered. ‘Wait. When you’ve finished here? But you said you came here to find me. Why? You never did say.’
Hellfire! He had never had a problem lying to a woman before, but for some reason he couldn’t bring himself to do so now. ‘King Owain would like me to bring you to him,’ he said. ‘I would have asked if you hadn’t got there first.’
She gave him a long look. ‘I can’t imagine what he can want with me.’
He shrugged. ‘Once I’ve freed you from Redcliff, you can ask him yourself.’
Because Huw wasn’t going to tell her. And she’d better not think he was going to help her regain Coed Bedwen, either.
Coed Bedwen was his.
You can follow Tora Williams on Twitter @ToraWilliams1
Read the other finalists here: Phoebe Randerson, Eye of the Beholder and Faye Delacour, Like a Musketeer.
When you’ve read all 3 chapters, pick your favourite, and send an email by midnight this Thursday, 17th July to Historical.Heroes@hqnuk.co.uk with your favourite in the subject header. The public’s choice will then be declared Tournament Champion on Twitter and Facebook on Friday, 18th July!