Like historical fiction? Ballsy babes and men who uh, reevaluate their attitudes when bombarded with awesomeness? Me too.

So, once upon a time I began writing a story. Not my usual stuff, nor same POV. Whereas my writing tends to be first person, this project is in omnipresent third person.

So, if you enjoy knights, medieval chicks with education and spunk, I invite you to read the following tale (what I have so far. Would like feedback on whether the POV works; I find it hard to judge my own writing)

A Knight In Smoking Armor

A Saucy Novel

By Mandi Rei Serra

ONE

Home.

Eight years since Edmund gazed upon the battlements of Thoxily. Eight long, hot years in the Holy Lands before a peace reached. It was time to shake the sand from his boots and settle before the fire of his own hearth, but first family obligations to attend.

Would his mother still be alive? Father– did he recover from the running bowels which laid him low and ultimately caused him to ask Edmund to take his place in the Crusade? What of Robert and Arthur, his brothers? Little Janet, she would be sixteen now, maybe a tot tugging at her skirts. So much changed in the time spent at war, but what?

And what of his betrothed? Leandra? Or was it Laurel? Liza? Whatever her name, would she be waiting for him as well? Did she even remember the ceremony? She was four at the betrothal, and he, a solid lad of ten. It’s been fourteen years, now she should be ready for the breeding of children. Liza-Laural-Leandra had been sent off to a convent, he was told. The good nuns would teach her a wife’s duty.

Would she be an adept cook? The thought of hot food tempted Edmund. Would she sew well? His clothes were sewn by unskilled hands—that of his squire. Well-fitting clothes appealed to him. And a warm body to lie against at night. Especially since October in England felt cold after years in the Levant. A warm, eager body. That, Edmund thought, would be the best part of married life. Could a man wear himself nigh unto death by fucking his wife? Edmund planned on testing that idea, provided his bride, if ugly, didn’t mind tupping in the dark all winter long. Beget a legion of sons, an army of daughters and wed them well. By doing so, Edmund of Thoxily would be remembered as being a patriarch, united with a warring house and siring a legacy. ‘Tis as good a life as any knight could want. His betrothed has lands, lands that will be his once a child born of their union. A child and an estate. Worse things were asked of men.

The Midlands of England gave way to the forested hills of Cannock Chase, to the clearing where Thoxily stood, silhouetted against the rising sun. Edmund was so close to home, he could almost smell the porridge simmering over Cook’s fire. Warm bread, cheese and ale. Mayhap smoked ham. It would be a good way to finish the morning. Breakfast in one’s own home– such a heavenly thought that heated the blood and spurred Edmund forth. A warm bath and a feather bed awaited. A comely maiden to warm that bed. That was a must. The road to Thoxily’s gates passed beneath horse hooves. Even the destrier seemed to know where the path ended. Home.

As Edmund drew near, he could see the portcullis down, barring the entry to the castle’s courtyard. Edmund of Thoxily and two dozen men stopped before the portcullis and called up to the gatehouse.

"Unbar the gate!"

A woman’s voice answered. "By whose authority?"

Incredulousness socked Edmund in the gut. Where is Sir Turlough? Who was this woman in the gatehouse, denying him entry? "By mine. Now open the castle to me and my men." Impatience wore on the knight’s near-to-last nerve. Being denied entry into his home, by a woman other than his mother, stoked the fires of ire. Who was this wench that acted a dragon in his home?

The disembodied voice replied, "Wrong answer."

Edmund’s squire, Percy, exclaimed, "We’re under attack sir!"

Then, in lieu of further spoken communication, this mysterious woman who guarded Castle Thoxily opted for clay pots filled with excrement thrown down upon Edmund and his men. Horses danced, upset at the stink as pottery shards flew everywhere. All the mounted men raised their shields high to keep the foul bombardment off their heads.

"Stop! Open the gates or get Sir Turlough, Lord Edgar or Lady Mirian to vouch for me. They will attest I bring no harm to Thoxily or its people!" The rain of shit ceased, which Edmund thanked God for.

The voice came from the arrow slit on the left tower. "You say you know Lady Mirian. If you can answer three questions about her and her family, I shall allow you entry to see her. Upon her judgment will the rest of your men be permitted entry. If you agree to these terms, you will leave your arms outside the castle wall."

"Very well." As soon as his mother vouched for him, the quicker he can put this uppity female into her place. Where is Sir Turlough? The captain of arms should have spoken, or at least a man-at-arms, not this woman.

"It’s not safe, milord," Percy whispered. "Your home has been taken over by harpies. Who knows how many lurk inside? It could be a trap."

That woman spoke again, "The first question. What is Lady Mirian’s youngest sister’s name?"

"Lady Catherine of Haverleigh Castle." Edmund rolled his eyes. Anyone with an idea of Thoxily’s heritage would know such things. Legacies are built around family dynastic maneuvers.

"The second question. What are the names of Lady Mirian’s children, in birth order?"

"Robert, Edmund, Jane and Arthur." The questions she asked were too easy to answer, Edmund thought.

"What is the name of Lord Edmund’s betrothed?"

Edmund bit his tongue a moment before answering. "The answer I have is not complete. I know her name starts with an L, and that as a child, this girl had large green eyes and honey blonde hair. She was solemn, yet as soon as the betrothal ceremony was over and before the feast began, the little girl bolted for the meadows and proceeded to get muddy by chasing the lambs. Her mother laughed as Lord D’Monfort scolded the girl with a lopsided grin on his face." Nearly a scandal, with how un-upset her parents were. Hopefully the convent will have dampened the exuberance of youth with modesty and contemplation.

Slowly and with much creaking, the iron portcullis raised enough for Edmund to pass under. He dismounted his horse and left it in Percy’s care with his sword before striding into the castle proper. Things seemed shabbier than he remembered. The stables were in need of repair and more thatch. Chickens were scrawny and the ever-ringing of hammer against anvil which Edmund grew up with was silent. Where is everyone? He could hear the portcullis rumbling closed behind him.

"Well Nameless One, you best have a good reason to keep your identity secret."

Edmund turned to face that voice.

She walked down the stairway leading from the battlements atop the gatehouse to the courtyard below. This vision wasn’t as tall as he, but her light brown hair and dark eyes caught his admiration, as did her womanly body. Perhaps he’d gone too long without a woman’s touch, being that he didn’t visit any bawdy houses after arriving in London. No time was wasted getting home, and months of tension centered themselves in his loins as soon as he made eye contact with the owner of the voice.

Dressed in a long blue tunic over brown hose and boots, the woman’s attire seemed odd at best. A dagger and sword both hung from her belt and in her grasp, a long bow. She was young, but seemed far older for the authority carried in her voice.

"Do you need lessons in the use of the steel you wear? I’d be more than happy to volunteer." Edmund could imagine the encounter—unclothed, and the only stiff bit of steel being the one throbbing in his trews.

With a bright smile the warrior woman replied, "I need no lesson."

Edmund looked around, noting the absence of people in the bailey. "Where are the men-at-arms?"

"They are tending the sheep."

"Why are they not at practice with their weapons?"

"Because I am here and there is no need."

"You? Surely you only walk around armed when the menfolk are away, lest they beat you for your impudence and send you to tend the cattle as a proper milk maid."

"Mock me if you will, but make an error in manners and you will see why men-at-arms are not needed.”

The audacity bubbling forth from this woman amused Edmund. "I will make no error. But I would love to see you prove the words coming from your mouth."

"Very well." The warrior woman laid down her bow and unbuckled the sword from her belt and tossed it aside. With a smile and wicked gleam in her eye, she said to Edmund, "Try to take the knife out of my belt. I dare you."

Edmund laughed. "If you insist." Then he lunged for her with the intention of getting her in a bear hug and subdue her by force. This woman couldn’t be that skilled in hand-to-hand combat, not like he, a trained knight. He’d subdue and then seduce. The wench looked like a good tumble. He craved a good tumble.

With an acrobat’s grace, she twirled out of reach and ended up behind him. With a kick to the back of his knee, he fell face first into the courtyard’s mud. A knee held his neck down and Edmund could feel the knife slipping from the sheathe on his belt and then the cold tip against his throat.

"You missed. When I said you needed to be disarmed, I meant all weapons. As you can see for yourself, men-at-arms are not needed here. Mind your manners and you’ll keep that pretty face." The knife receded and her knee lifted. “Next time I won’t be so nice.” The Voice relayed her message in a kindly tone reserved for the daft.

"Who are you?" Admiration and irritation mixed in Edmund’s blood as he arose to his feet. She thinks I have a pretty face, Edmund thought. She’ll be in my bed tonight.

"I am Daria, companion to Lady Mirian. Let me take you to her." Daria turned about and walked up the stairs to the keep after retrieving her sword, handing off her bow to an awaiting servant boy.

The knight could hardly imagine his mother having an amazon as a companion.

"Why is she not here to greet guests?" Edmund walked briskly to catch up.

Without a pause in step, Daria replied, "You will see. And the people stopping by as of late were not the friendly sort of folk."

"Where is Sir Turlough?" Turlough would answer questions. And would never have tossed the contents of a chamber pot on anyone’s head.

"Sir Turlough died six months ago."

"And Lord Edgar?"

That question halted Daria in her tracks. She turned to face Edmund. "Lord Edgar died almost seven years ago. And before you ask, Lord Robert followed soon after. Lord Edmund is on crusade, Lady Jane has since married and Lord Arthur has joined the Church."

"And where do you come from, Daria?"

"I come from the place unwanted girls are cast. I come from a convent."

Edmund said nothing in response. Unwanted? Must be an orphan with no kith or kin or anyone of station to foster her. While her attitude could use adjusting, many men would beggar their future children to claim the beautiful Daria as a wife to parade at court.

They went through the hall, up the stairs, and finally, to the solar. Daria opened the door, and called out, "Lady Mirian, you have a visitor."

"Is it whom the watch saw?"

"Aye, my lady." Daria opened the door more and brought Edmund inside. "This man refused to give his name at the gate and said you could vouch for him."

Eight years.

Eight years since he had seen his mother. Lady Miriam gave him both his ink black hair and hazel eyes. Her hair now streaked with white and creases were etched into her face. It wasn’t the visible signs of age that hit Edmund low. It was that his vibrant mother now lay wizened upon a bedstead, covered in furs.

One look from those sharp hazel eyes resulted in an excited, "Neddie! You are home safe!"

Daria paled and tried to excuse herself. "I will call the rest of your men into the castle, my lord. Excuse me, my lady."

"Nay! Have Alix call forth his men, you must stay here, my girl." The gleam grew in Mirian’s eyes. "Edmund, you remember Daria, do you not?"

"I do not. Should I?" Edmund would never forget Daria had they met before. He moved his eyes from bottom to top, memorizing every curve of her body revealed by her clothing. Striking and silently arrogant, she lifted an eyebrow in challenge when his eyes meandered to her heart-shaped face. Her eyes are as green as a forest. That lip of hers begged to be kissed, replace that smirk with dazed wonderment. She must be a hellion in bed. He’d find out just how much tonight.

With a smile, Daria replied, "You described me so well at the gate, my lord. My name is Lysandaria, although your mother prefers the shorter version."

Lysandaria.

His betrothed wife. Not some convent-raised girl, meek and abiding. No. Lysandaria, a striding and assured sword-wielding Queen Cordelia reborn. The only child of Balin D’Montfort, a renowned knight who served his king and God gloriously in the last Crusade and known for his quick wit and quicker temper– which seemed bestowed upon his daughter, as well.

Lysandaria D’Montfort of Hulgravis Castle, heiress and apparent warrior.

His betrothed wife.

TWO

"Edmund, your stink is making my eyes water. Daria, attend my son with his bath." Lady Mirian’s voice echoed in the tapestry-draped chamber. "Really, my child. Bathe next time before you present yourself to me. Such things should not be borne by the frail."

Daria spoke up, "But, my lady, I never…"

"Lady Lysandaria, tell my mother why I am unnaturally odiferous."

"Surely after being ahorse for months on end–"

"And then being assaulted on one’s own doorstep with shit-filled crockery."

Mirian gasped, "Daria, you didn’t!"

"I did and would do again to any who demand we open the gates without offering a name in exchange." Daria looked Edmund dead in the eye and replied, "No one will take Lady Mirian’s home from her, not while I breathe. I did not know who you were and liked not the arrogant tone you used. Had you answered me the first time I asked, you would have been spared the light assault." That was as close to an apology Daria could offer.

Edmund strove not to smile. Light assault, indeed.

"Well, if that’s the case, Edmund, you are lucky she didn’t rain arrows on you instead. Since Sir Turlough died, she single handedly has defended this castle, kept meat on the table and is working on stocking the larder for winter. Daria never misses her target."

"Nuns taught you to shoot?" Incredulousness rang through Edmund’s voice. There will be time tonight to find out who dared to attack Thoxily. That miscreant will be dealt with, and harshly.

"Nay. Your father did."

Before Edmund could query further, Lady Mirian said, "Now is as good a time as any for you to get practice at the full duties of a chatelaine, Daria dear. Now Edmund, hands off her until the priest weds you two. You look like a hungry wolf stalking a dragon’s tail when you look at her."

Those words brought forth a smile on Edmund’s face. "As you say, Mother." Daria wouldn’t give him an opportunity for a cuddle and kiss unless she wanted it. Getting around her prickly defenses would require patience and skill. But did he want to be patient with his wife? Once wed, she was his to do with as he liked. Most men wouldn’t be patient. But by the hands of Daria, those same men would make her into a widow before the wedding day sunset.

"Go, now. I will dine with you both in the hall tonight. Send Marecella in to assist me."

Daria called forth the ancient nurse, Marecella. With fingers as gnarled as old oak trees, the crone’s loyalty to her mistress being the result of a lifetime of care starting at Mirian’s birth.

“Come, Lord Edmund.” Daria turned about and walked out the door and made her way to the kitchens.

“With your leave, Mother,” Edmund bowed to his mater and again, caught up with Daria. “Why do you walk so fast away from me?”

“Because there are things that need attending and I can’t waste time.”

“Tell me what has happened here.”

“Where do I begin?”

“Where are all the men-at-arms, castle guards? I’ve only seen children and women here.”

“Most of the men-at-arms perished with Sir Turlough, in defense of this castle. Since you have been gone, the building of adulterine castles has run amok, and those knowing Lords Edgar and Robert died and you were gone, tried to take this castle.”

Edmund walked silently as he pondered what Daria revealed. That his father died did not come as a surprise—not as much as Lord Edgar teaching a little girl to shoot a bow. But that Robert— destined to be Earl one day– died at a young age, shocked Edmund. Realization hit Edmund like a rock to the head. “Who is now Earl?” He had to be sure before he could accept the answer.

“You, my lord.”

A deep sigh escaped Edmund’s lips. Plans contemplated this morning changed. He now has his own lands. “That will make you a countess once we formalize our union.”

“Indeed.”

“You do not sound pleased to have made such a well-match, my lady.”

“I am not pleased.” Daria stopped and faced Edmund. With a shrewd look, she seemed to decipher the fabric of his soul, to measure how he would react to her words. “How openly may I speak without fear of recrimination?”

“Freely as you choose, as I would have no misunderstandings between us.”

“You are fair, my lord. I am not pleased to make this match because for longer than I care to admit, I have harbored hope of returning to Hulgravis. If Lord Robert still alive, you and I would reside there. But circumstances being what they are, I have little hope of spending any significant time at my childhood home. The best I can hope is you allowing our second son or daughter to inherit the castle and title and not merely be an extension of your heritage. I want something of mine to help create a cadet branch or some such. I fear I have ambitions, my lord, ill-suited to meek womanhood.”

Edmund knew the feeling welling in Daria. Eight years spent longing for England, the knight knew well of the longing and desire for home.

“I know not of the laws and legality of such things, but I promise you that we will address your request. And I vow we shall spend your natal month in your own home, every year. Will you accept my truce?”

The austere façade Daria maintained fell for a moment, allowing Edmund to glance an ecstatically happy girl hiding behind the warrior. This woman intrigued him, fascinated him. More than just the enticing curves he longed to caress, but explore her adept mind, as well. Should Edmund ever need return to war on the King’s call, he could trust his home in her hands. Daria already has shown her bravery and tactics at defense. Now, to quell the bastards intent on stealing his home.

“Aye, I will accept. But should you fail on your word, I will remind you and none too gently. Consider yourself forewarned.”

“When is your natal day?”

“The day after All-Saints Day.”

A month. He could get things settled here at Thoxily in a month’s time and curry Daria’s favor by allowing her to visit Hulgravis.

They arrived to the kitchens. Bereft of bustling servants and scads of under-cooks, the room seemed far less busy than Edmund recalled.

“Martha, have we a large kettle on to boil?”

“Aye, Daria.”

Edmund whispered to Daria, “Why does she not refer to you as Lady Lysandaria?”

“Because I told all the servants we do not having time for trifling matters of station. War demands action, and whether I am called Lady, Daria, Lysandaria, or even Wench by the bold and soon to be tongue-less, will not change how I deal with a situation. It is extraneous and unneeded. Everybody can die, thus we are all equal mortals in my eyes.”

This would be an interesting marriage. Edmund could foresee that very well.

Daria busied herself by rolling a large tub to an alcove. “My lord, if you will grab the kettle of hot water and follow me, we can get you bathed.”

“Why not ask the cook to help you?”

With hands on hips, Daria replied, “Because she is cooking your supper. However, if my lord’s hands are too fine to help with the hot water, I am sure he won’t mind a cold and invigorating bath.”

“I was just asking. Are you always so testy?”

“As of late, yes I am. Since my lord Earl is home, now he can acquire the provisions we will need to see us through the winter. Those raiding us burnt the fields every time we planted. Kitchen gardens and my hunting have been keeping us fed, but I fear a lean winter if we cannot buy more grain. Also, we need more men to guard the walls. The two dozen soldiers you brought—is that the extent of your men? I recruited no mercenaries out of fear of being betrayed into a trap.”

“Since my lady asks, no. I have a hundred more that will be here within a month with my spoils of war. My lady may be pleased to know her intended has wagons upon wagons of treasures from the holy land to purchase the grain she requests.” No sarcasm lurked in Edmund’s voice.

“I am glad you have wealth enough to purchase the grain. What little I have gotten was in exchange for some baubles my mother left me. I have no use for such trinkets and they are well worth the lives of Thoxily’s people.”

“Sell no more of your jewels, my lady. I am humbled that your care of my people comes at the cost of the legacy your mother left for you.”

“Do not be humbled. Cold stones mean little compared to living flesh.”

With naught to say, Edmund retrieved the large kettle of hot water, tipping it into the tub. Wisps of steam arose and curled the hair framing Daria’s down-turned face as she swirled cold water from a bucket into the bath. “Strip down and get in.”

Edmund laughed. “I hope that’s the first time you’ve ordered a man to get naked in your presence.”

“It is.” Daria’s back faced Edmund as he removed stained and worn clothing. He could see the outline of her derriere clad in hosen. Shapely and delightfully womanly. The thought of a hot bath calling him, Edmund climbed into the wooden tub to enjoy his first true bath in nine months. With a sigh at the warm water lapping at his skin, Edmund let a low moan pass through his lips. “Let me soak a bit before you scrub me down.”

“Very well, my lord. I will see that your men have places to rest and a hot meal to eat.”

“If you could send my squire, Percy, to me, I will have him seek out provisions from Stafford.”

“As you will, my lord.” Daria turned about and walked off, leaving Edmund to his thoughts.

First order of business after the bath would be to visit the graves of Father and Rob. Then taking stock of the castle and its provisions to see what would be needed to survive the winter. And come spring, if anyone comes a-raiding, they will meet with over a hundred battle-hardened warriors forged in the fires of Crusade.

The scuffle of footsteps nearing alerted Edmund to Percy’s arrival. “I am glad to see you well-taken care of, sir. We vowed if you did not reappear by nightfall, the castle would be stormed in your name.”

“I am glad it did not come to climbing spikes and ropes. Now, I have a mission for you. Choose three men and ride for Stafford. You will need to purchase grain—enough for people and animals to last the winter and whatever foodstuffs you think we will need. Meat isn’t an issue.” Tomorrow would be time enough for a hunt. With many men out, it wouldn’t take long to fill the larder. “There, in my boot, a sack of coins. Take it, and get the supplies. Make the purchases, and let everyone know the Earl of Thoxily has returned home.”

“Earl, my lord?”

“Rob is gone.”

Percy looked down, “My condolences, sir, er… my lord Earl”.

The squire fetched the heavy linen sack. Lanky for his age, with russet-brown hair, freckled face and gray eyes, Percy proved himself an adept lad. Food, especially the hot and tasty kind, had been rare on the road. A winter of bedding down in this stone bower, fattening up on good eats would add weight to the lad.

“Anything else before I go, my lord?”

“Yes. Find a mercer and get a selection of fabric. Linen, muslin and worsted. Needles and thread. And silk, enough for two dresses. And a circlet of gold.”

Percy nodded. “Aye my lord.” With that, the squire left.

“Going to sew a dress?” Daria walked into the knight’s view.

Edmund started at Daria’s voice. “Nay. You are.”

“I don’t sew.” She put her hands on rounded hips and shook her head for emphasis.

“If my lady’s hands are too fine to sew her own wedding dress, then I suppose she will be happy to wed me in her chemise. Could be invigorating.”

“I will learn to sew, I suppose.” Daria spoke with no hint of ire, only matter-of-fact acceptance. As much as she resented it, he did have a rather charming grin.

Edmund stood up. “Come now, time to scrub the stink off me. Imagine, had you opened the gate to me, you wouldn’t have to wash me like a babe.”

“Had I opened the gate to every man in armor who asked, your castle would have fallen long ago and you would come home to nothing.”

The knight closed his eyes and focused on the sensation of rough and soapy cloth sliding over his skin. First his neck and shoulders, back and chest, arms and stomach and lower yet. Edmund enjoyed the slick sensation and his loins quivered. “You missed a spot.”

“I won’t wash that. Take responsibility for yourself and scrub.” Daria threw the washrag at Edmund’s face.

“There will be a day you will eagerly wrap your hands around me as if I were your sword’s hilt. You will crave me sliding inside your sheathe.” What audacity possessed him to speak his thought aloud? He didn’t know, but she seemed to find it amusing rather than shocking.

“Luckily for me today is not that day.” With that, Daria reached for a bucket of water to rinse Edmund free of soap suds. Being icy cold, the water also quenched his lustful display. “Oh, a pity. I know of no sword, dagger or wee knife with such a small grip.”

Edmund slid down into the tepid depths of the tub in an effort to bring warmth back into his bones and to hide his shriveled pride.

“Shall I wash your hair, my lord? Or would you prefer to tend yourself?” Daria smiled sweetly. That smile scared the shit out of Edmund. The woman is quick witted, adept at combat and proficient at humiliation. That smile hid an olive branch, he knew.

“I’ll tend myself, thank you.”

“Nay, thank you. With your leave, my lord, I shall return to Lady Mirian’s side.”

Edmund nodded. Anything to get the she-wolf away from him before a new humiliation manifested itself.

As Daria turned away, Edmund called out, “Thank you for your help, Lady Lysandaria.”

“You need not call me that.”

“Your children will visit the court of kings. ‘Tis only right their mother be afforded every honor.”

“You read too much about chivalry in your time abroad, my lord.”

“There is nothing wrong with the notion of chivalry, lady.”

“Oh, but there is. It in itself is flawed.”

“How so?”

Daria took a step toward the tub, clasped her hands before her and raised that stubborn chin. “The notion of chivalry is reserved for knights, and knights alone. Not for any others that fall beneath the blade. All are mortal and all will die one day. To crow of how gentle a knight you are to your brethren because you choose to ransom them whilst the blood of others taints your blade seems flawed to me. Good day, my lord.” She turned around and strode toward the hall, calling out to Edmund, “Oh, and your clean clothes are on the table. Out here. Enjoy, o’ chivalrous knight. Enjoy.”

Damn that woman.

Damn that woman to his bed.

THREE

“Must I marry her, Mother?” Edmund came back to the solar for a word with Lady Mirian before heading to the burial grounds. He sat next to his mother as she plied her embroidery needle.

Mirian hit Edmund on his head with her embroidery hoop. “Aye, you must marry her. How dare you ask such a thing of me, Edmund! Especially when she has saved us all time and again! Daria is more of Thoxily than you have been of late. I mean that not in reproach, but in fact.”

“She will kill me before I can give you grandchildren. I am sure of it.”

“Change frightens her, though she would never confess such a thing. And she will give you children; you just need to endear yourself to her first.”

“Why is she here, why is she not in a convent?”

“A plague killed all but she and one nun at Saint Anne’s. The nun wrote to D’Monfort, but he himself died from the Sweating Sickness. D’Monfort’s bailiff reported it to the king; the king offered your father wardship of Daria in exchange for use of Hulgravis’ garrison.”

“So she arrived before Father died? How did he teach archery to her if he was bedridden?”

Lady Mirian smiled with the memory. “He had targets brought into the hall and would sit in his chair at the high board. Daria would stand behind him and watch as he would hit the bull’s-eye time and again. She asked to learn, he taught her. Edgar had Fulk make a bow especially for Daria. It was her favorite natal day gift. She’s a natural when it comes to archery, truly blessed. When she brought down her first stag just a few weeks later, your father had Sir Turlough teach Daria about battle. She proved a most eager and adept student.”

“She has strange notions of chivalry.”

“That would be Father Stephan’s doing. He taught her to read and reason.”

“Oh. That is unfortunate.”

Unfortunate, you ungrateful clod? All those years parading in chain mail amidst the desert must have softened your head, child of mine. There are far worse things in this world than an educated woman! Get you gone from my sight! Your disparaging remarks wound me. I will see you at the high board for supper and no sooner.”

“Your pardon, Mother.”

“Go. And send Daria to me.”

“Aye, Mother.”

Edmund left the solar and searched out this paragon of womanly virtue. Daria seemed much more complex than he assumed his bride would be, not that he gave much thought to the subject prior the long march home.

That woman irritated him—beyond any other irritant Edmund ever experienced. But at the same time, Daria fascinated him, like the enticement of gold for an alchemist. The Cold Water incident gave him pause for thought. Acting the cock-sure man would get him nowhere with her, well, unless it involved getting skewered by an arrow or dagger. Being as Edmund hoped to sire children, he needed a way to gain her trust, since annulment of the betrothal was not an option. Endear himself to her, said his mother. How does one please a woman who cares not for jewels or the stories of chivalry?

Edmund did not believe in hitting women to get his way, a man easily angered is a man easily defeated. Daria is no servant, and thus not accessible for a tumble in the hay as he first presumed. He would have to wait for his wedding night to delve betwixt her thighs.

When the wagons arrived, there would be a treasure Edmund thought Daria would enjoy. Well, a few treasures, but one particular one especially.

A Saracen trader gave it to him—a book. But being that Edmund could not read, let alone read Latin, there was no way for him to decipher the formula for a type of steel unseen by most. Better than castle-forged steel, better than anything an English blacksmith could smite. Legendary steel known only to Saracens and people of Cathay, it was light and flexible, strong and beautiful. If Daria could transcribe the formula, Edmund would have his blacksmith attempt the forging of crucible steel to make a blade for the new Countess of Thoxily. That, Edmund was sure, would be a gift treasured far more than pearls or ribbons by his bride.

With his battle plan to win Daria’s tolerance set, Edmund now focused on his duty. Out that castle by postern gate, up to Thoxily Hill. There, his ancestors resided. There, where his father and brother had been buried.

Graves grassed over, now with autumn’s kiss, browned and dry. A rose bush sat sentinel over each grave, so that this place of death was also a place of life. It was a tradition springing forth from the first Thoxily to die in this castle and his wife’s desire to always touch her husband.

The small bushes over two graves marked where Lord Edgar and Robert were buried. Come spring, the flowers would bloom.

Edmund stood at the foot of those two graves, silent; as he pondered the fate he was given. He was never taught to run an Earldom. His education was in combat and war. With Lady Mirian’s help, he could gain knowledge about the office, but, Edmund noted, it would not be a mistake he would make with his sons. They all would be educated in numbers, letters, fife and the tabor, as well as sword and horse.

Even his daughters too, would receive an education. That would please Lysandaria.

That thought fresh in his mind, Edmund returned to the castle. He found Daria walking down the stairs on her way to the great hall.

“Lady Daria, walk with me, will you?”

She pursed her lips and muttered, “Very well.”

Edmund offered her his elbow. She ignored it.

“I need to know what of the bailiff, and the affairs of this castle.”

“You believe a mere woman would know such things belonging to the realm of man?”

“I know you would know of such things.”

“As it happens to be, I do know what you wish to learn. Can you accept learning from me? You mocked me once already. I will not tolerate it again.”

“You have kept my home intact and my mother safe. I will listen to your words.”

A shrewd look poured from Daria’s green eyes. “The bailiff died during the siege. They came during Lent, the heathenish bastards.”

“How?”

“Arrow in the back. I shot his attacker in the eye—he pulled out the arrow, dropped his bow and I shot him in the heart.”

“You’ve killed a man?”

“I’ve killed many. By arrow, by sword, by rock and dagger.”

“Dagger?”

“Tied to the end of a broken pike. Stuck the soldier in the face as he tried scaling gatehouse. His ladder tipped over, they went down. A few fire arrows ruined their ladder.”

“You are a one-person siege machine?”

“Nay,” Daria smiled. “But I did devise one.”

Curious, Edmund asked to see it. She led him up to the battlements overlooking the portcullis. There, a wondrous contraption met his eyes. At every notch in the battlements, two crossbows were mounted to a wooden board held in place with piles of stone. The very center notch had no crossbow, just a tall basket full of arrows. Two ropes, one from each side of the center notch, ended where the center archer would be.

“This is my one-shot army.”

“I see. Impressive.”

“Sir Turlough helped me build it, but they came and raided, killing him before it worked.”

Edmund could see each crossbow was drawn and had a bolt ready for flight. “You had this trained on us?”

“Yes. Had anyone made an aggressive move, I would have pulled on that rope and let the rain fall.”

“It’s a good idea, but you don’t want to keep them all drawn back without firing. The sting will become loose and your bolts will lose power. They wouldn’t even pierce leather.”

“That is good to know and I should have realized that.” A sly smile emerged from Daria’s lips. “Want to try it?”

“It? It is vague. Do you mean your invisible archers, or kissing you? Because I’d like to try that if you are game.”

The smile disappeared. “I meant the archers. Save the string and whatnot.”

“Aye, I’d like to try. I do one side, you do the other?”

“Aye.”

“Ready?”

Daria pulled on her rope in answer and with a series of thaps! the two dozen crossbows assembled threw bolts towards the ground. Edmund followed suit and admired the invention once more.

“That is marvelous! Had we several of these in Jerusalem, the siege would have ended much quicker. Marvelous.”

“I am glad you appreciate a woman’s wisdom.”

“I am glad you didn’t make it rain earlier.”

“So is your mother.”

“Why is she so frail?”

“The same malady which laid Lords Edgar and Robert low also took a toll on Lady Mirian. She rallied, then again, became ill. The healer suggested bed rest, although it tries your mother’s nerves.”

“What of this illness?”

“I know not what it could be. If it were tainted food, all would have fallen ill. I’ve only noticed one pattern, but your mother thinks it is a coincidence.”

“What is this pattern?”

“Shortly before anyone got ill, a troubadour would come and stay for a night, entertainment in exchange for shelter and food.”

“You think the wandering minstrel has something to do with this?”

“I cannot say. All I can say for certain is that within a week after the troubadour leaves, some people get ill and some die.”

“Well, should this troubadour come a calling, we will permit him shelter in the stables.”

Daria wore a half-frown.

“Anything else about the defenses I should know?”

Daria looked to Edmund. “Aye. I’m glad you are handling them from now on. I prefer hunting red deer to stupid men.”

“If you weren’t so temperamental, I think we would get along brilliantly.”

“Do you?”

“Yes. I can envision us riding through yonder forest, seeking our prey. I know of a meadow with a pond, we would eat there, rest and then go back on the hunt. I think we both would enjoy such an outing.”

With every ounce of Daria’s willpower, she kept from biting her lower lip. What he suggested excited her, thrilled her. That he would suggest it meant he began to see her as an equal. Not until he realized her worth would she permit him to be a husband in all ways. Slowly she nodded. “Aye, I would enjoy that.”

“Are you the gaming sort?”

“How do you mean? Throw dice? Sometimes, although Lady Mirian would have me work on alter cloths as punishment.”

“As my wife, I can spare you the punishments—well those sorts of punishments. If I were to make you pay, I’d want you to enjoy it as much as you like hunting.”

That took Daria aback. “Why would you seek to please me? You know me not.”

“Because you will one day be my wife and the mother of my children. If I wanted spitfire girls and wild boys, I could do no better than you.”

“Is that to say one child will not be reserved for the Church?”

“I did not say that. If one has such a disposition, then I see no foul. Besides, a bishop or abbess can’t be bad for the family.”

“May I ask a frank question, my lord?”

“I will have you never hold your tongue to me, Lady Lysandaria. As I said before, I would have no misunderstandings betwixt us.”

“What are your plans now that you are home?”

“I had given some thought to raising and training destriers.”

Daria’s eyes lit up, brighter than Edmund had seen in their short acquaintance. “War horses? They would be in high demand among the king’s knights, if you have good strains of horseflesh.”

“I do. Bloodlines from France and beyond. Mares to breed with my stallion. The foals will be nimble, strong, intelligent and fast.”

“Sounds like a perfect horse, my lord.”

“That is what I strive for. But you haven’t fully answered my first question. Are you the gaming sort, now that you have no fear of embroidery silks?”

A smile hedged from her lips. “Aye, with no fear of needle or thread, I consider myself the gaming sort.”

“Care to make a wager regarding the hunt I proposed to you?”

“It depends on what you are betting, my lord Earl.”

“Best hunter claims a prize of the other.”

“What would you have from me?” Daria asked, not sure of Edmund’s intentions.

“A kiss if I win.”

“And if I win, we celebrate the wedding night when I choose.” Daria tilted her face proudly upward; sure she played a winning hand.

Edmund thought about what she wagered. It was a double-edged sword. If he could gain her favor, her affection even, then he could celebrate the wedding early. If he displeased her, she wouldn’t warm his bed for a long while. He needed to do his duty to Thoxily, and to be quite frank, Edmund was tired of fighting. Blood and guts, shit and puke—it’s a sight and smell one can easily tire of being around. He wanted Lysandaria in his bed by the next raid, whenever that would be—and he wanted her writhing against him in pleasure.

“I accept your wager, Lady Lysandaria.”

She turned around and smiled to him over her shoulder. “In the short time I’ve known you, I’ve noticed you are quite the glutton for punishment. Hope you have a favorite hound to keep you warm come winter, my lord.” And with that, Daria skipped down the stone stairs in delight of what she thought was a sure victory.

FOUR

A shrill feminine screech echoed down the stairs to fill the great hall. Edmund dropped the bow he was stringing and reached for his sword. Too many times, screams like that heralded an attack and time was of the essence. He then released the hilt of his sword before it cleared the scabbard when he realized the shriek came from Lysandaria. Her voice filled Edmund’s head as he made for the second-story solar.

“Dressing in a gown will not make him change his mind about me, Lady Mirian, I am sure of that. A gown will not soften my ways nor make me appealing to him. If he cared enough for harmony in his house, then he will accept me as I am, not as he thinks I should be.”

“For too long I let you run wild, my girl, and I can’t help but wonder what my son must think of his bride. I have failed you both.”

“Nonsense you speak, lady. How have you failed us both if I have managed to thwart invaders time and again? That you allowed me to learn and practice martial arts has kept this castle in your son’s name. Perhaps next time I shall sit here in the solar with you, embroidering the cuffs of my lord’s chemise while raiders attempt to pillage. Mayhap I should have done that before, when Lord Edmund had yet to come home. Think we could have gotten an alter cloth done in that time?”

Edmund chuckled. Perhaps it was the joy of being back in England and hearing his mother’s voice once again, that made Lysandaria’s peccadillos seem amusing rather than irritating to him. He knew for certain, that Lysandaria’s antics would have infuriated other men. To wear breeches and throw a knight into the mud—those acts were enough to warrant a beating. Edmund had no desire to strike his bride to be for her impetuous ways. Rather, he liked the unpredictable yet grounded personality she had shown so far. While he may not agree with her flagrant disregard for tradition and station, he understood the thoughts behind her reasoning.

Edmund had enough with gore and violence—and provided his bride didn’t try to stick him with a knife come the wedding night, he would leave her be. Already he had found a few weak links in her armor; he would exploit them as needed to win her affection. Lysandaria’s desire to see her childhood home, that would be easy to fulfill, and she would be grateful. How grateful? That remained to be seen.

As she appreciated fine steel, she would enjoy having a hand in creating her own blade. She wouldn’t work the alchemist magic of the forge, tis true, but she would be the mother to the metal. Without Lysandaria’s ability to read the book, there would be no magic steel.

She was a double-edged sword, this scholarly warrior woman. Lady Lysandaria knew of duty, but would she know of a wife’s duty? Would she embrace married life with the same fervor she grasped a knife’s hilt? He wanted to find out, and soon. Already his loins ached with wanting to tame this hellcat his father betrothed him to as a lad. She held no interest back then, but now, she was a castle to be sieged and conquered in as subtle a way he could manage.

“Hush, you! Sarcasm does not befit a lady of your standing, Daria. Tut-tut-tut! No rolling eyes, either, young lady. You will mind your tongue tonight. You will show my son your softer side. You will do this because your family’s honor is at stake. What will happen if my son repudiates you in favor of a more biddable lass?”

“I would congratulate them both and wish Lord Edmund a happy marriage.” Lysandaria’s dry words brought a smile to Edmund’s face. He could see her doing just what she said, with a beatific smile upon her face.

“You silly chit! You would not be allowed Hulgravis. That would go to the king, and you would be his ward. He’d marry you off to some prissy lordling he wishes to favor with no care to you. If you wish that fate for yourself, very well, my girl. Just you remember this: Edmund could have beaten you time and again for how you acted toward him today. He has not. You cannot guarantee such a thing with a man selected by the king to be your husband. Now go to your chamber and change into something appropriate as I have requested. Then return here and I shall plait your hair.”

“Weaving ribbons into my hair like I am a prized horse won’t fool my Lord Edmund, Lady Mirian. ‘Tis true your son has not struck me in anger. But there are other torments one can heap atop a soul to make them wish for death. Perhaps he will while away his time thinking of punishments for me. I know not the man, nor the boy he once was. I know only of an arrogant knight who boldly tells me how much I will want him.”

“Methinks he wants children, Daria. You are of an age, and no matter the husband, children are expected of you. If you want time to know him, then tell him. I’m sure he won’t be completely unreasonable.”

Edmund heard a deep sigh. “He and I made wager. I win; we celebrate the wedding night when I choose. Which will be when he can respect me and I don’t anticipate that happening anytime soon, not when he struts his naked self before me and crow how I’ll handle him like I do my sword.”

“Truly now? He would make such a bargain? What does he gain if he wins? Your maidenhead?” A frown etched itself when Daria said naked, and Miriam’s eyes narrowed.

“Nay! A kiss, he said.”

“A kiss. I see. My son’s behavior is not that of a chivalrous knight, being that he is making wagers with maidens.” Lady Miriam sighed. “It is what it is. I do not condone either of your behavior, but I will let you both work it out, however it must be.”

“He will not raise a hand to me, lady. For if he does, it will be the last time he uses that hand.”

“I pray for both your souls to find peace in this arrangement. What future do you have, my dear girl, when an honor-bound knight refuses to wed his betrothed? I have no desire for you to be shunted off to court and married to suit the king’s needs.”

“I have no desire to be trapped in marriage to stranger.”

“Then get to know him, silly girl. It’s him, the King or a nunnery. Choose wisely.”

Thus dismissed, Daria mimicked a curtsey, and then strode to her own chamber. Her sense of duty and obligation warred with her irritation. To what end, she knew naught; but sure she’d make it work out. Some how.

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