A familiar shape was outlined in the underbrush to Mabel’s left. A small bump, like a loaf of bread, with long ears laid back and head down. Caught in a bad place, waiting for the danger to pass. Mabel knew the feeling well. The single, dark eye stared at her, but its body was relaxed. It didn’t fear her. It probably didn’t know she was a person, could only see the horse she was sitting on. All its focus was on the pack of dogs in the distance.
The waving tails reminded Mabel of long reeds in a fen being buffeted in a wind, if the wind were howling and baying in a very annoying manner. At least she was far enough away that the noise wasn’t causing her ears to strain. Her patience with the hunt master, however, was severely strained. He’d just been standing there for what must have been at least a quarter of an hour, watching the swirling mass of the pack as it circled the entrance to the den. Finally, he blew the signal—the prey has gone to ground. The pack followed their shouting masters, still baying and wagging excitedly.
Lifting her bow over the horse’s head, she pivoted, took aim, let loose, and was rewarded a moment later by a short, high-pitched squeal. “You,” she called to one of the dog handler’s boys, then pointed to the bush. “Fetch that.” Winter’s full chill was close, and Mabel woud need furs for her clothes. As the boy held it up, several riders came to join her.
Twelve year old Hawise stood her horse right next to Mabel. “You shot a rabbit?”
“Yes, Stupid,” her brother, Conan, said. “Why do you always ask such obviously stupid questions?”
Hoël looked like he wanted to hit Conan. Normally, a twenty year old wouldn’t hesitate to cuff an annoying tick who was four years younger, especially since Hoël was son of their host, Count Alain. But Conan was the Duke of Brittany. Instead, he said “Hold it up, Eon.” The rabbit dangled by the arrow in its throat.
“You’re supposed to use a lead-tipped arrow,” Conan told her, like she didn’t know. He licked his lips, as he often did, then rubbed them with a gloved hand. “You could have ruined it.”
“I didn’t have a lead-tipped arrow.”
“It was an excellent shot, Lady Mabel.” Hoël complimented her.
“And now we didn’t waste the whole day,” Mabel responded. “Something needed to be killed.”
Conan laughed and started leading the way back to Count Alain’s hunting lodge. As Hawise rode by her side, Mabel asked. “Do you think your mother will ever send for you, Hawise?” Her mother, Bertha, had married the Count of Maine ten months before. News of the birth of Hawise’s baby brother made her very anxious to join the new family in Maine.
“I hope so, but I hope not, too.” It was the sort of typical Hawise response that would make her brother get nasty. “Conan’s gotten worse since he turned sixteen. He says if the Duke of Normandy could be knighted and start ruling when he was fifteen, then why shouldn’t he be able to when he’s sixteen? When I said it’s because they only let you be duke once you can see over a parapet, he and his friend chased me and poured dirt down the back of my dress.”
Oh, it was such a wonderful feeling to be able to laugh like this again. It came out harder when Hawise added, “There were burrs in it. That’s not funny!” But Hawise giggled, too. Probably because, as she’d been told many times, Mabel’s laugh was very infectious.
“I think that’s yet another reason that you should want to go. But why would you hope not to go?”
“Count Hugh is seventeen, but he’ll be my father. I won’t have an Uncle Euzon to run to for protection.”
“Your mother has written that Count Hugh is sensible and kind. Besides, he’ll be too busy with his duties and outmaneuvering Martel to bother with his wife’s daughter.”
“Still, I think I’d rather have a mature man to watch over me. I barely remember my father.” She said it so wistfully. Mabel had to agree. She couldn’t imagine what kind of life she would have if Talvas had been killed when she was only four years old.
They were both surrounded by boys at the moment. Hoël and Conan had their boisterous friends with them. The other ladies—including Hoël’s mother and sister—rode separately, but Mabel enjoyed the energy and talk of young men, and they enjoyed her. Hawise preferred it, too, when they weren’t treating her as a pest. Someday soon, she would have breasts and beauty and wouldn’t be allowed such mingling. Even if she did, though, she was the sister of a duke, and would never know the million little cruelties Mabel had suffered the past two years. When she prayed to God, it was in thanks for bringing her under the protection of Count Alain his Countess, Judith.
Talvas prayed the young Hoël would want to marry Mabel, but she wouldn’t try to gain his attention. He was nice enough, but rather plain and boring. And, oddly, not interested in Mabel at all. Neither was another retainer who had recently joined Duke Conan’s household.
She craned her neck to look around, easily spotting his blond head among the darker Breton men. Straight in his saddle despite his defeat. She couldn’t see his face clearly from this distance, but knew his icy blue eyes and the split in the right side of his reddish beard, a scar still raw and pink from the battle.
Néel de Saint-Sauveur spent three months in a Norman prison after the Battle at Val-es-Dunes, as it was called. He’d been offered forgiveness and a place at Duke William’s court, but was stripped of everything else. He would have been little more than a humbled and humiliated household knight, striving to prove his loyalty to regain favor and position. Of course, that was all he was in Brittany, as well. But Duke Conan hated the Normans for killing his father, and so Néel had a much better chance of rising here.
In Normandy he would have been a beaten and cowering dog. In Brittany, he was a proud but defeated hero. Mabel thought she could love him, but now was certain his heart had been broken before she’d seen him in Lower Normandy. After Val-es-Dunes, it had been nearly crushed. She had no desire to be a consolation prize, a second best, or to gaze into eyes as cold as a shallow pond in January. She wanted nothing but warmth and vigor in her life.
“‘Something needed to be killed,’” Duke Conan startled her, quoting her words with appreciation.
He had directed his horse to fall into step next to her, too distrated to notice when Hawise drifted closer to Countess Judith. Conan chewed on his lip while he regarded Mabel. “You say lots of funny things I like. And you’re very pretty, especially when you laugh. You could be my mistress if you wanted.”
A young lady should never, ever do what Mabel did then. She turned her head, raised her eyes, and stared straight at Duke Conan. His horse’s gait hitched just a bit, sensing his master’s sudden tension.
Straight, dark hair wafted lightly in the chilly breeze, which colored his nose and cheeks. His eyes were so dark, they were nearly black. He would probably be very attractive in a few years, when his pimples receded, his face caught up with his nose, and the smudge on his upper lip grew to a real moustache. He was Duke of Brittany—in name only, at the moment. He was rich, would be powerful someday, and he liked her very much. His free hand was resting where his hip met his thigh, his fingers subtly rubbing the erection under his tunic. She could do much, much worse than be the mistess of a duke. At the moment, she couldn’t do any better.
Mabel might never be a duchess, but she could rule Conan. He would love her, do her bidding, give her everything. Their children would be noble. Someday, if she wished it, she could make him marry her to a lord of her choosing. It was a great opportunity for her, an honor for him to offer, and for that she vowed, someday, if it were ever in her power to do so, she would kill him.
As she continued to watch, Conan’s breathing shallowed, but not with passion, not from nearing a conclusion to his own stimulation. “Mabel—Lady Mabel,” his voice cracked.
The power she held over him in this moment rode on a wave of lust through her body. “Your offer is a great honor, duke. Alas, my father has other plans for me. He hasn’t announced it yet, but he is in the process of arranging a marriage for me back home. We will be leaving soon.”
Mabel hadn’t credited Duke Conan with any kind of sensitivity or perception. Either he was more observant than she knew, or the black intent that filled her at his words seeped out through her smile. He accepted her excuse and took his leave.
But now she’d have to find a way to make what she said true without telling her father why they had to leave.