England, November, 1066
Roscelyn inhaled the odor of decayed vegetation that rose from the freshly turned earth. Considering the rich, loamy soil, this hedged section of ground beside the orchard might well serve as a garden.
Except for the graves that crowded the area.
She shivered against the damp wintry afternoon and eyed her father's headstone. 'Twas a hasty effort that nowhere near matched the finely wrought design of her mother's headstone. But that would change.
In a matter of months, she would be able to build a monument worthy of her father.
The secret scroll he had left unto her care not only provided her the means to control her own destiny, but the means to free England from the butchering Normans.
At the thought, she realized she was pacing. Halting mid-stride, she glanced down, then released her pent breath.
At least she had not stepped on any graves, praise the Blessed Virgin.
She had no desire to incur the wrath of the dead in addition to the misfortunes that currently plagued Cyning. Half the village folk sick with a catching fever, scarce enough food to last the winter, a late sowing of the winter crops that would feed the village in spring-none of which compared to the Norman threat.
With her father and brothers dead, there would be no protection from the wretched Norman curs should they visit Cyning.
But Cerdic was dead as well, God forgive her sense of relief. Gunderic had seen him fall early on in the battle. And according to Gunderic, the remaining Saxon armies-friends of her father's, men she knew and had entertained at Cyning-had retreated to the fens of northeastern England. Even now they forged an alliance with the Danes in hopes of driving the Normans from England.
Meanwhile, she possessed the scroll.
For the moment she'd buried it beside her father's headstone. 'Twas the safest place she could think to hide it.
She shivered with anticipation, then caught herself before she could begin pacing anew. Faith, 'twas difficult to keep still when she held proof that the Norman Duke William had deceived the pope.
Her lips curved in a grim half smile. The Bastard Duke William thought himself clever, no doubt. He'd received papal blessing for his invasion of England by claiming the Saxon
King Harold had sworn over sacred relics to serve him.
Lies. The word sizzled in her head like fat dripping into the flames of an open cook pit.
In truth, King Harold had given his oath under duress, had been forced to swear allegiance while a virtual prisoner at William's court in Normandy.
As for the sacred relics that Harold had held while making his pledge to the greedy Norman duke? They were in fact no more than the bones of a goat.
Again she fought the urge to pace.
The truth was sworn and attested to in the scroll by the bishop of Rouen and several of William's barons. The pope could hardly deny the document's authenticity.
His Holiness would withdraw Church support for William's foray into England. Saxons would again rule the land. And for her efforts in delivering the Saxons from the Normans, she could name her price.
She hugged herself beneath the folds of her gray cloak. She would demand riches enough to make certain her people never again suffered from hunger or cold, wealth enough to pay hundreds of housecarls for protection that Cyning would never again be left to the mercy of an invading army.
And as Cerdic's widow, she would demand his lands and give them to her sister.
Abruptly, a sense of desperation crept over her and she clutched the material of her cloak in her fists.
Prithee, God, speed the remainder of Gunderic's recovery.
The only housecarl to return from battle, Gunderic's loyalty had near cost him his life. Badly wounded, he'd scarce possessed the strength to carry her father's remains home, much less those of her brothers', whose bodies still lay on the battlefield-along with Cerdic's.
She took a deep breath and held it. 'Twas yet difficult to grasp that her father would never again tug her braid for luck, that her brothers would never again tease her over slobbery kisses and weeping fits.
They would never sit in the great hall again. Never challenge one another to a game of dice after the evening meal. Never again tell gruesome tales, then laugh gleefully when they made her half sick.
She stared at her father's headstone.
How many nights had she dreamt they were alive and well, only to awake and experience the loss anew?
She exhaled and swiped at her eyes.
In the next few days, Gunderic would be well enough to deliver the scroll to Saint Dunstan Abbey. 'Twas only the elderly abbess at Saint Dunstan whom she could trust to see that the document reached the pope-or rather a portion of the document, enough that the pope would recognize the document's contents and its authenticity.
Meanwhile, she would keep a portion for herself until she'd secured her future and the right to care for her people.
She would also send Wulfwyn with Gunderic to the abbey against the chance that a Norman lord would be appointed to govern Cyning before the scroll could reach the pope. 'Twas an idea Gunderic endorsed, though the housecarl argued that she should seek refuge at the abbey as well.
Not that she would consider such. She would never leave her people alone to face a Norman threat. As well, the village folk were dependent upon her counting skills to see that the dwindling food supplies were evenly distributed.
Her lips puckered as her thoughts moved to her sister. She had mentioned nothing to Wulfwyn. She could well imagine her sister's reaction to the idea of living in a cloister. Like as not, she'd have to truss-
The sudden, quarrelsome landing of a crow in a branch snatched the thought from her head.
Her breath caught. When had she begun pacing again?
She glanced down and her eyes rounded. Great toads! Had she just walked over her great-granduncle's grave?
The crow screeched, raising the hair at her nape.
Had she cursed herself?
Had the bird been sent by her brothers? Did their immortal souls yet haunt the battlefield? Would they never find peace for lack of a Christian burial?
What if Gunderic had been wrong? What if one of her brothers yet lived? What if even now he lay calling for aid?