In A Glance - Sample First Chapter

In A Glance - A Medieval Romance Here is the full first chapter of the novel In A Glance - A Medieval Romance.

Chapter 2

England, 1208

“If it is not right do not do it;
If it is not true do not say it.”
-- Marcus Aurelius

Joan smiled in contentment as she crossed the village green in the easing crimsons of late afternoon, walking across a carpet of ethereal white primrose flowers. May had brought a gentle warmth with it, finally chasing away the chill of the long, rough winter. She ran a hand through her chestnut brown hair, brushing it back in the breeze, then turned to the blonde at her side.

“Muriel, while the flowers you have here may be different from the ones I grew up with near Jerusalem, they are just as beautiful in their own way.”

Muriel smiled in appreciation. “Someday I would like to be able to see the Holy Land,” she mused, pulling her cloak closer against the soft chill. “But to have lived the life of a military child must have been rough on you.”

Joan shrugged, a twinkle coming to her eye. “My father gave me free rein, and the entire camp was my playground. I would say my childhood was fairly idyllic.”

Muriel raised an eyebrow. “And yet, when you turned twenty-three last year, you decided to return to a ‘homeland’ where you’d never set foot before.”

“Lucky for you I did,” pointed out Joan. “Who would you have turned to with this current problem?”

Muriel’s gaze became serious. “I am grateful you are willing to lend a hand with this,” she admitted. “I have heard good things about Hugh and his band, but I would still feel uncomfortable going in there alone.”

Joan ran her eyes over the rough-hewn walls of the tavern before them. It was far from the finest she had seen in her years of travel. One of the shutters hung askew and the oak door was nearly split down its center. “Your elder sister is on a dangerous quest,” she gently reminded the woman. “These men will ensure she gets safely to the other side.”

“You are sure of that?” Muriel’s voice was hesitant. “Maybe we should go to the sheriff.”

Joan sharply shook her head. “It’s true I have only been on English soil for a year. Still, that’s been long enough to know to avoid the sheriff at all costs,” she ground out. “No, Hugh’s men are our best bet. They hold court in a private room at the back of this … choice establishment.”

She stared at the door for a long moment, then glanced at the sky.

“It is not quite time yet,” she informed her friend. “Let us go around to the side window and listen for a few minutes. The more information we can gain before we engage them, the better.”

Muriel nodded. In a moment the two women had slipped through the weeds at the side of the aging structure. Joan picked up a stick and used it to detach a large, intricate spider web from the shutter. She then carefully eased the sagging wood open just an inch. Slowly, cautiously, she drew close to the opening.

Four people were seated around a large, circular oak table, with room for at least two more. Mugs of ale sat before each person. As Joan watched, a buxom waitress with stunning honey-blonde hair came pushing her way through the door, a large ceramic pitcher cradled in one beefy arm. She gave a warm smile to the group as she moved from mug to mug, filling each to the brim.

She stopped solicitously by a raven-haired woman. “Sybil, my duck, would you like that stew now, or later?”

“Later,” snapped Sybil, not looking up. “You know I would not interrupt business with pleasure.”

The waitress looked over at the person next to her, a middle-aged, greying man whose thick biceps reflected an active life. “You hungry for some stew, Norman?”

“Certainly,” he agreed, glancing up and nodding. “With some steamed turnips on the side.”

A thin, wiry man at his side eagerly leant forward, his gaze sweeping down the waitress’s form. “You know what I would like,” he called out in a suggestive tone, his eyes twinkling.

The waitress’s mouth quirked up in a grin. “Stew is all you shall be getting,” she advised him.

She turned to the fourth man, shook her head, and then headed back toward the main room. She closed the door behind her with a gentle thump.

Joan took in a long, deep breath, and then turned her gaze toward the last man at the table. It had been five long years since she had seen him. She could vividly remember that summer’s day on the coast near Jaffa, with the fragrant smell of olives wafting from the kitchens of the seaside restaurant.

She had watched him for an hour, drinking him in as a dying woman submerges wholly, gratefully, in a desert oasis. And then she had turned her back and left. It had been the first time she had seen him in person – and she swore it would be the last. Her heart yearned for him too strongly. She was not free to follow the passions swirling within her.

And yet, with the twists and turns of life, the forks in paths and the cul-de-sacs, somehow she was here. She was watching him again, how he ignored the ale before him and stared steadfastly at the door, as if his focus could cause it to open before the scheduled time.

He had become sturdier in the past five years. His short-cropped hair was still light brown, but somehow it seemed darker in the depths of the gloomy inn, rather than out beneath the glowing sun of an azure Mediterranean sky. His dark eyes seemed shadowed, and she wondered if her own held that same burden. His arms and shoulders still held the muscled, toned readiness that she remembered, and she had read enough reports of his prowess in battle over the years to know he was an expert with the sword at his side.

God’s teeth, she still craved him with all her being.

He suddenly looked straight at the window.

Her years of training served her well – she stayed stock still, only flicking her eyelids shut to hide the gleam. He would have noticed any sudden movement; instead all he could see would be a muddle of shadows, nothing to bring concern. After several long moments she risked opening one eye a fraction. He had returned to his perusal of the door. His fingers began a slow, rhythmic drum against the table.

The reedy man at his side gave him a nudge, following his gaze. “Hoping for Ada to come back and spend more time on you?” He shook his head vigorously. “I saw her first,” he insisted. “I get first rights.”

Hugh’s fingers stilled for a moment, a ripple of tension moved through his shoulders, and then the coiled muscles forcibly released. The fingers went back to their even thrumming. “You can have her, Ymbert,” he stated without interest.

Ymbert’s smile grew wide. “She is surely the most beautiful woman I have ever seen,” he extolled. “Such curves, such hair! How she ended up in a slime-pit like this is beyond me.”

Sybil’s laugh was harsh. “Better get her quick, then,” she advised the thin man. “Before she comes to her senses.”

Ymbert’s face shadowed with worry for a moment, then he shrugged it off. “Another will come along, even more beautiful,” he promised. He turned to Hugh. “You were off in the crusades; you have seen the world,” he prodded the man. “Who was the most beautiful woman you have seen?”

“Not now,” retorted Hugh, his gaze steady on the door.

“Please?” wheedled Ymbert. “I have never been more than thirty miles beyond this tavern. What are the women of the south like?”

“We have a client – ”

“We have at least fifteen minutes before our client arrives,” prodded Ymbert eagerly. “The church bell has not even rung yet. Tell me, are the women of the Holy Land tall and slender like angels? Are they round and soft like pillows? Are they …”

Sybil rolled her eyes. “God’s teeth, Hugh, just tell him something. Anything. If he whines any more I swear I will run him through myself.”

Hugh looked down at his ale for a long minute, then brought the mug up, taking a long draw. “Fine,” he said, bringing his eyes back to the group. “I will tell you about the most stunning woman I have ever encountered.”

His gaze drifted for a moment and he looked off into the distance. “She was wearing a flowing silk dress of tangerine and gold that rippled in the late afternoon sun. I remember she was barefoot, dancing along the waist-high stone wall which separated the cobblestone courtyard from the sea below. Seagulls, glossy white against the blue, were hovering at her side. Every once in a while she would turn and throw a bit of crust to one, laughing in delight when they picked the food out of the sky by maneuvering with just a subtle twist of the wing-tip.”

Ymbert leant forward, his eyes wide. “What was her beauty? What did she look like?”

Hugh gave his head a soft shake. “Michael and I were sitting at the far side of the plaza, at one of the small tables near the restaurant. She was across the cobblestones. I could barely see her face in the summer glare. She had long, dark hair which fell in waves past her waist. She was young – perhaps eighteen – and slim. But it was not artfully made up eyes which caught me, or abundant curves, or pouting lips.” He drew his gaze down to his ale again. “It was her lightness of being, the dance in her step, the sheer pleasure she took in the natural beauty of the day. And then she looked at me …”

Ymbert was practically lying on the table now. “And? And?”

Hugh took another draw on his ale. “And nothing,” he cut out shortly. “And I turned to Michael, and by the time I looked back, she was walking away. She was gone.”

Ymbert shook his head in bewilderment. “Why did you not go after her?”

Hugh’s eyes moved back to look at the door. His voice was curt. “I was on business, as we are now.”

The somber bells of the church across the green began tolling; Muriel gave a nervous tug to Joan’s sleeve. “It is time,” she murmured.

Joan nodded, drawing in a deep breath. She forced herself to come back from the window, to gently ease it shut again. She had not realized that the one glance had meant as much to Hugh as it did to her – but thank all that was Holy he never got a good look at her. She needed the next few days to unfurl as carefully as a field mouse peeling a nut near a sleeping cat. There was enormous potential for disaster. One misstep could plunge her hopes into an icy river, to be swept downstream, her chances lost forever.

She had to lay each stepping stone with perfect precision.

She pulled her cloak closer, drawing the hood over her head. Her years of training taught her to reveal nothing, to give away not the slightest hint beyond what was necessary.

The two women moved to the main door and Joan shouldered it open with a shove. The room within was fairly dim, with perhaps six oak tables scattered, populated with a collection of rough-looking men in leather and sword. Ada, the buxom beauty, wove easily between them, carrying a platter with several mugs balanced on it.

“Sit anywhere,” she called out as she turned to wait on the table before her.

Muriel pressed closely against Joan’s side with a nervous shiver. Joan patted her reassuringly on the arm before moving toward the door in the back. She could feel the attention of Hugh’s gaze on it, could feel the focus of his stare before her, and she laid her hand against the oak for a long moment.

It had begun.

She lifted the latch and eased the door open, drawing Muriel along with her into the room, then turned to slide the door shut. She deliberately slouched her shoulders, blending into the background, allowing Muriel to take all their focus.

Norman stood, smiling at his guest. “My dear Muriel, welcome. Please, have a seat. My companions here are Sybil, Ymbert, and Hugh. I am Norman.”

Muriel settled nervously into the chair while Joan leant back against the wall by the door. She took a pose of quiet obedience, her eyes lowered, a non-threat. The others barely glanced at her.

Norman steepled his fingers, his weathered face gentling. “We hear you have a problem we can help with. Please tell us about it.”

Muriel cleared her throat. “Well, it is my older sister, Linota. She is twenty now – two years older than I. She was always a take-charge person, even as a child. Had to be, I suppose. The fever took our parents and our two brothers when she was barely thirteen. She kept the farm going, took care of me, and somehow we hung on.”

Norman nodded encouragingly. “Do go on.”

Muriel looked around the table. “She married about a year ago, and I thought that fate had finally eased for us. Robin was a good man. Gentle, kind, all one could have hoped for. He and his sister, Beatrice, came to live with us.” Her eyes misted. “It was just about perfect.” She shook her head. “And then, a few weeks ago, Linota wanted some mushrooms.”

Ymbert’s thin face wrinkled in confusion. “Mushrooms?”

Muriel nodded. “Beatrice went down to the stone bridge by Kirklington to pick them. She never came back.”

Hugh looked up, taking interest for the first time. “The tinker’s bridge. Robin went to look for her? And was found drowned?”

Muriel instantly shook her head. “He did not drown,” she insisted. “Robin could swim like a fish. There was a lump on the back of his head, but the sheriff dismissed our concerns. He said Robin must have fallen in somehow. Linota was furious, and said she would take matters into her own hand.”

Hugh held her gaze. “What did she do?”

Muriel twined her fingers together, the knuckles turning white. “She made me promise not to send anyone in after her until Wednesday – so five days from now. She figured whoever took Beatrice would take her as well, and that way Linota could help her and any other captives escape.”

Sybil’s thin lips turned down. “Elias,” she murmured.

Muriel’s eyes grew wide. “Sheriff Elias?” she asked hoarsely.

Hugh shot a warning glance at Sybil, then turned back to Muriel. “Do not worry; we will be the assistance Linota needs. We will get Linota, Beatrice, and any other innocents out of their bondage.”

Muriel brought a worn leather pouch up onto the table. Pulling open the mouth, she counted out twenty silver pennies.

Hugh’s brow creased in confusion. “The cost for our help is only ten pennies,” he gently corrected her.

From her position on the wall, Joan held her breath, fighting the urge to look up. Her heart caught in her throat. This was the first hurdle. True, it was minor in comparison with what was to come. Still, a challenge here could derail the entire plan. She prayed with all her heart that Muriel could see it through.

Muriel’s voice was resolute. She looked up at Hugh. “I want my friend here to go with you to rescue my sister and sister-in-law.”

Four pairs of eyes instantly swiveled to look at Joan, assessing her form with sharp attention. Joan did not move a muscle. She kept her gaze lowered, her cloak hanging loosely around her, shielding herself from their view.

Hugh’s voice was a low rumble. “Our group works alone,” he informed Muriel.

Muriel’s voice was reasonable but firm. “Linota and Beatrice are all the family I have left. While you were warmly recommended, I neither know nor have a history with any of you.” She glanced for a moment at Joan, then back at the group before her. “My friend does not need to have a voice in the planning or a role of any importance. But I insist she be there when you find my two relatives.”

Muriel looked down, pressing the coins into the center of the table. “I am willing to pay extra for this accommodation.”

Ymbert’s thin fingers twitched with nervous anticipation, but Hugh gave another long look at the figure standing quietly by the door. “You there, what is your name?”

Joan pitched her voice low. She had worked hard to perfect her English accent since arriving; she now could pass in most situations. But Hugh was focused on her, attentive. Nothing could interfere with this first part of the plan.

“Joan,” she murmured.

He frowned, looking down her length. “And you will stay out of the way?”

She nodded mutely.

Hugh looked back to the rest of the group. “We have several days to equip ourselves for the task, and for Ymbert to research the situation, before we set into motion on Wednesday. We can see then how we want to involve Joan in our plans, if at all.”

He glanced toward the shuttered window where the light was now easing through in crimson streams. “But I am late as it is; I promised to be at Lord Weston’s before sunset.”

The door was pushed open and Ada bustled in, a large, wooden platter cradled in her arms. “Oh, I meant to tell you, Hugh,” she apologized, laying a bowl of stew down in front of Norman. “My stableboy says your saddle is not back from the leatherworker’s. It will be another day at least.”

Hugh rounded on her in surprise. “What? Nobody should have touched my saddle!”

She shrugged, placing a bowl in front of Ymbert, giving the thin man a wink. “I only know what I have been told,” she offered sweetly.

“God’s teeth,” swore Hugh, running a hand through his short hair.

Joan’s heart pounded in her chest. And here came the second obstacle, so crucial.

Would Hugh follow along the path she created for him?

Muriel’s voice held just the right balance of reluctance and resignation, and Joan could have kissed her for it. “I was planning on staying with Father Picot to help with his patients through Tuesday afternoon,” she offered. “Joan is going near to Lord Weston’s keep. It was one of Joan’s horses I rode here on. If she is willing, you can have the use of that steed to get to your appointment.”

Hugh’s eyes turned back to Joan’s and she warmed in the subtle shift in dynamics. Now she was the one who had something he wanted. She could feel it in his gaze, in the subtle dropping of his shoulders.

His voice was tight when he spoke. “I would be grateful if you would lend me the use of your steed.”

She nodded in agreement.

Hugh sighed, easing back into his chair for a moment, then scanned the rest of his group. “We regroup at the bridge on Wednesday at noon,” he informed them. “Ymbert, you do your usual magic to gather the background we need.”

Ymbert was busy shoveling stew into his mouth; he nodded. “Of course,” he mumbled between bites.

Hugh stood. “Then we are settled.” He glanced at Joan. “Give me five minutes to collect my things from the stables, then we can leave.” He was out the door at a steady stride.

Muriel stood, nodding to the group. “Thank you,” she offered them. She turned to Joan, her eyes warm. “And thank you,” she whispered.

Joan smiled back, tenderly clasping her friend’s arm. “We will get both women back safely,” she promised in a low voice.

Muriel nodded, then she headed out into the main room of the inn, Ada right on her heels.

The door settled closed again and Joan looked at the three remaining people at the table. They were ignoring her now, a fixed dismissiveness which drew a smile to her lips. The coins on the table were gone, undoubtedly swept up by Ymbert the moment Muriel’s back had turned.

Her eyes went to the wiry man. “You seem the betting type,” she murmured.

His eyes flashed with interest and he put down his spoon. “I admit I like a good wager,” he agreed. “What are we betting on?”

The corners of Joan’s mouth turned up. “I bet you do not want me to come along with you on your adventure.”

He chuckled at that, his eyes gaining a sparkle. “You hardly need a bag of bones to divine that one.”

She took a step toward the table. “Well then,” she smiled, “here is my bet. I bet you, if you leave me completely alone with Hugh for the weekend, that by Wednesday he will insist you take me along with you.”

Sybil burst out laughing. “Hugh? Want you as part of our crew?” She shook her head. “That man is not interested in women. If he had his way, I would not be here – but he needs my particular abilities to open certain doors.” She scoffed, looking down the folds of Joan’s cloak. “He will never want you.”

Joan spread her arms wide. “So you accept my bet?”

Sybil leant forward with sharp interest. “What are your terms?”

Joan looked across the three. “If I win, and Hugh wants me with you, then you accept me without argument. I will not interfere, but I will be there when you seek out the two women.”

Norman’s brow wrinkled in thought. “And if you lose?”

She shrugged. “If Hugh does not want me, then I will not go with you. You can travel unimpeded.”

Ymbert glanced down at the pouch at his side. “And the money?”

“I will tell Muriel that my role is separate from yours. Her terms will be satisfied and you can keep your extra money.”

Ymbert’s eyes lit up. “Done!” He held a hand out to Joan.

Joan ran her eyes across all three. “But you cannot say a word to Hugh, nor bother us in any way. Otherwise all bets are off.”

Sybil grinned widely. “Oh, absolutely,” she agreed. “We would not dream of doing anything but watching your hopeless plan unravel into frail little threads.”

Joan nodded. In a moment she had clasped three hands.

Joan’s eyes sparkled. “In fact,” she advised the group, “I will even give you a head start and annoy him a bit before we leave.”

Sybil laughed out loud. “You are already playing a weak hand and you want to make it worse? By all means, this I want to see.”

The door was pushed open and Hugh strode in, a pack over his shoulder. “I am ready. We should head out – I will miss half of the ceremony as it is.”

Joan slouched her shoulders, bringing a regretful droop to her eyes. “I am sorry, but I am afraid I need to use the privy before we leave. Could you please let me know where it is?”

The string of curses which followed her path out back were all she could have hoped to achieve.

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