"That's my girl," I whispered. In my imagination, my falcon, Fleta, dove into the flock of starlings. Talons outstretched, she snatched a bird from the air. Her triumphant kree echoed in my ears as she swooped to my gauntleted hand.
"Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant!"
Father Matthew's voice ended my daydream. I glanced at the priest. He peered down at the little ones, his eyes an angry black beneath bushy brows. My own Latin lesson, barely started, was scribbled on the slate laying on my lap.
It was hot. Too hot for Latin. Too hot to listen to Father Matthew's dronings.
I leaned against the stone of the great hall's open window. My legs dangled over the ledge brushing the ivy creeping there. A warm, August breeze twirled the dust in the castle's bailey. One of the palisade guards, Jean, I think, moped his brow, setting aside the iron helm to let the warm wind cool him.
"Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant," I heard Richard repeat. FatherMatthew huffed and with a swish of his black robes, moved on.
Through shimmers of heat rising from the courtyard, I saw the stooped figure of Delwyn standing on the mural tower. He had just released Lady Eleanor's peregrine falcon. Duchess soared above the palisade. I watched her circle upward. Latin left me with the excited flutter of her wings. Down she dove.
"Lady Mercia, have you finished your lesson already?" Father Matthew glared down at me. He reminded me of Dru, Baron Guillaume's goshawk. "Or are we daydreaming, again?"
"Sorry, sir," I whispered. Audrey giggled at something Squire Perry said and Father Matthew whirled to face her, babbling something in Latin. I ignored him.
Duchess had something in her claws. A flash of iridescence told me it was pigeon. Pigeon pie for dinner, perhaps? I could almost taste Cook's flaky pastry crumbling on my lips. I licked them.
Again, Delwyn tossed the falcon skyward. How I wished to set Fleta to prey. No chores, no lessons, no Latin. Just the wind, the sun, and the sky above.
"Now that's enough of that," Father Matthew's voice sounded tired. David, or perhaps I should call him Squire David, made a face behind the priest's back. Since becoming a squire, he'd become insufferable. Little Henry, his chubby fingers covering his mouth, chortled as Father Matthew scowled.
I resumed watching Duchess bank on the thermals, flying in larger circles. As she flew over the road beyond the barbican, a puff of dust rose to cloud the blue sky.
Below me, Jean quickly jammed his helm back on his head. A flash of sun on steel spears told me this visitor was not expected.
"A visitor," I replied in Latin.
Everyone swarmed the great hall's windows.
"Can you see who it is, Mercia?" Olin asked, his blonde bangs clinging to his damp forehead. "You've the sharpest eyes."
Olin was as unlike his twin brother as anyone could be; yet, they were rarely apart. If you did see one without the other, then Owen was off on a lark and Olin was left behind to do his brother's chores.
"That comes from watching that merlin of hers as it destroys some stupid blackbird," Audrey replied as she wriggled closer to Perry. She winked at him. He blushed.
When would Audrey learn to behave like a proper lady-in-waiting? I wondered.
Glancing back at the road, I caught a glimpse of gold on a dusty red surcoat.
"It's a messenger from the King," I told them.
Father Matthew called to the Baron who sat on the dais at the end of the hall. He had been studying the estate accounts with the steward. "A messenger from the King!"
As the priest's voice echoed down the hall, Baron Guillaume scrambled to his feet sweeping aside the parchments. Steward James frantically gathered up the rolls then staggered to his desk at the foot of the dais. He dumped them in a heap on top of it.
"Children, back to your lessons. Squire Perry, could you lead them in their verb conjugations? I must attend the Baron." Father Matthew then hurried up the hall. The rushes on the floor whispered as his black robes swirled over them.
I was sure the Baron did not need Father Matthew but the priest was as curious as I was. Quietly, I slid from my window seat and slipped behind one of the columns supporting the hall's vaulted ceiling. With the stealth of a cat, I crept from pillar to pillar to the dais. Peeking around the final one, I saw the Baron smooth his purple tunic, its silver belt draping his hips. Steward James hovered nearby, squinting down the hall toward the door. I slid behind his desk. The towering bundle of rolled parchments easily concealed me.
Despite being almost twelve, I would never be tall and at this moment, that was an advantage. Today, I would know King Richard's news as soon as the Baron did.
From behind the desk, I saw David creep up the other side of the hall. Where David crept; trouble usually followed. Still, I couldn't blame him. I hunched down to wait; my eyes on the Baron's back.
"Move over," Audrey whispered, bumping me aside. "I'm not letting you have all the fun."
As I adjusted my position, Cedric, the garrison's captain strode into the great hall. Behind him, dust billowing from his cloak, came the king's messenger. Anne, a tankard of ale in her hand, scurried after them.
"Sir Stephen de Enné," Cedric announced as the knight, with the king's colours blazed upon his tunic, knelt on one knee.
"Rise and welcome to Castle Guillaume," the Baron said. "Have a mug of ale for your parched throat then we shall hear your news."
Giving a nervous curtsey, Anne presented Sir Stephen the tankard then dipped into the hall's shadows as he quaffed the ale. After swiping his moustache with the back of his hand, he mounted the dais. The Baron towered over Sir Stephen as he did most men. His grandfather and mine had fought together in Portugal so the Baron was like family to me.
"Sir Stephen, I present my wife, Lady Eleanor," the Baron said as M'lady swept into the hall. Nurse waddled in behind her, her black gown swathed in white linen; her wrinkled face framed by snowy veils. Lady Eleanor also wore black, making her fair skin ghostly white. A neat silk hat with a net barbette, the latest fashion, covered her thick black braids. M'lady's elegant hands rested on her swollen belly.
"Your beauty surpasses the praise of the minstrels, Lady Eleanor," Sir Stephen said. M'lady blushed.
"You are a poet, sir," she replied sweetly. "Perhaps, after dinner, you can entertain us with your verses."
"I would love nothing more but today I must only deliver my message and be gone."
"Another time, perhaps?"
"Indeed, it would be a pleasure. Now, Sir Baron, I must give you this."
He withdrew from beneath his surcoat a simple wood cross decorated with gold lace.
"The Crusader's Cross," Baron whispered, accepting it with reverence and kissing it gently. Father Matthew made the sign of the cross, quickly touching his forehead and shoulders.
"So the rumours are true," Lady Eleanor said. Tears glistened in her eyes as Nurse patted her hand.
"Yes, M'lady. King Richard, Coeur de Lion, has vowed to defeat the Sultan Saladin and his Saracens in the Holy Land. He has promised the Holy Roman Emperor that he would free Jerusalem but he needs both money and men."
"I had heard he sold some royal lands to raise funds," Captain Cedric said, folding his arms across his massive chest. He wore his hunter green tunic and a sword brushed his thigh. "Even our royal forests are no longer sacred."
"We all know King Richard cares little for England," Sir Stephen replied. "Aquitaine, the land of his mother, is where he's happiest. But, he loves a battle more. He chafes to fight a Holy War and wishes each baron to join him and donate one thousand marks to the cause."
Steward James freckled skin paled. "We...we can't."
The Baron waved him to be silent. "He is our king, James. His wish must be obeyed. Besides, we owe it to our faith." He laid the cross carefully upon the table. "We must save Jerusalem from these heathens and restore it to the true faith. I will join this crusade to preserve the birthplace of our faith."
"Oh my lord," Lady Eleanor cried, clutching his arm. "You can't go. Our baby!"
"I must see that cross," Audrey whispered. I nodded. We crept behind the chairs of the Baron's table. David scuttled behind Nurse and Lady Eleanor to join us. No one noticed as Lady Eleanor pleaded with her husband-knight to forego the battle for the sake of their unborn child.
The Baron assured her all would be well and he would return victorious within the year. Nurse reminded M'lady she must remain calm for the baby's sake. Sir Stephen appeared concerned. Steward James wiped his bony hands on his black tunic. Father Matthew, his eyes heavenward, seemed to praying to God to soothe our mistress. Captain Cedric chose to study the tapestry hanging on the wall. No one saw me draw the Crusader's Cross across the table.
Made of rosewood, the cross had been rubbed smooth and shiny. Prayer had also burnished the gold filigree to a soft sheen. As I touched it, the presence of God tingled through my fingertips.
"Don't!" Audrey hissed. I yanked my hand away. My face flushed.
How could I have done such a thing? I had touched the cross of the Holy Father himself. I crossed myself several times to ward off evil.
At that moment, Lady Eleanor moaned, slumping against the Baron.
"She must sit down, sir," Nurse said, grabbing her mistress's arm. "Her delicate condition."
As one, David, Audrey, and I backed up against the "Guillaume" tapestry. Not giving us a second glance, the Baron hauled out the chair we had been huddling behind and gently settled Lady Eleanor into it.
"Wine, Anne," he called as Nurse fluttered about her mistress. Steward James, Father Matthew, and Sir Stephen gathered nearby. Captain Cedric leaned nonchalantly against the table, obviously wishing he were elsewhere.
"Away, away," Nurse finally said, waving her chubby hands. "Give her air, my dear sirs, she needs space to breathe."
Anne rushed in with a pewter goblet and Nurse let a little wine dribble into Lady Eleanor's mouth.
"I'll be all right, really I will," M'lady assured them. "I...I don't know what came over me." She tried to rise, teetered a moment, then allowed Nurse to gently push her back into the chair.
"Rest, my dear," the Baron said softly. "I have no wish to lose you or the little one. We'll talk of the crusade later. We'll dine first."
"No, my lord. I know what I must do. I will go with you," M'lady said, touching his hand and gazing into his weathered face.
Nurse gasped. "Oh my lady, no!"
"Why not? Grandmama went to Portugal on the Crusade of Bernard of Clairvaux. Grandpapa's whole household went; except his steward, of course."
"Wives do go on Crusades, my lord," Sir Stephen added with a nod. "Lady Mary will accompany me; so will my little Stephanie."
"Please, my lord, let me go, too."
"I would like nothing better, my dear, but we must think of our unborn child. Do you really wish to live in an army camp with a battle raging while you birth our child? Here at Castle Guillaume, it will be born into a loving home, not a hostile land. Think, my dear, of the child. God would wish it so."
"But I'll miss you, my lord. The child will not know his father."
Baron Guillaume knelt before her. "Our love will burn across the seas. The child will know it. And, what a wonderful gift to come home to. God will see us through this separation." He kissed her hand and then rose. "Now, please go with Nurse and lay down, my lady. I will see Sir Stephen to his mount, then we shall dine."
Lady Eleanor gathered herself up and leaning upon Nurse's arm, slowly shuffled across the dais. The oak door of her chamber thudded shut a moment later.
"She is so young," the Baron said to Sir Stephen, "Barely twenty."
"We live in difficult times, my lord."
"Yes, King Richard's crusade. Tell me the news of this." He glanced down at the table. "But, where...where is the Crusader's Cross?"
I stared at the bare table.
"Mercia took it," David cried as the Baron's angry eyes fell upon us. "She was the last to touch it."
The Baron, Sir Stephen, Steward James, and Captain Cedric glared me. Father Matthew's brows knitted together in anger.
"I didn't take it, sir," I squeaked. "What would I want with such a wondrous thing?"
"What indeed?" Father Matthew growled.
My head whirled. What should I do? Oh, to be Fleta and fly above their heads and out the window.
But would my merlin fly? No, she would not. She would fight her accusers. I would be my fierce Fleta and face my foes.
I took a deep breath. "David is right, Baron Guillaume, I did touch the Crusader's Cross. I felt the holy presence of God in its wood. But, I did not take it. It was not mine to take. You know I would never steal. And, never ever would I steal anything so holy. When M'lady collapsed, any one of us could have taken the cross. Even you, sir."
Father Matthew gasped; his knuckles whitened as he clutched his own cross hanging around his neck. The Baron studied me a moment, then smiled.
"You're right, Lady Mercia. Anyone could have taken the Crusader's Cross but who did?" His eyes swept those gathered around the table. Everyone shook their heads.
The Baron sighed. "Since he cannot continue his journey without the Crusader's Cross, I will take Sir Stephen on a tour of the armoury. When I return, I would like to find the cross upon this table. I did not take this holy relic and neither did Sir Stephen. Why would he steal what has been in his possession for many weeks? I will not punish the one who has taken it. To touch such a treasure is to be blessed by God. I understand that. But, by the time we dine, the cross must be back in Sir Stephen's hands!"
The king's knight nodded. "I have no desire to face King Richard without the cross of the Holy Roman Emperor."
The two strode from the great hall. In the silence, all eyes fell upon me. Despite what the Baron said, they all assumed I was guilty.
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