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Of Men and Angels – excerpt from a yet to be published Medieval

You’re in for a treat for the next few months – I’m pulling out all of the novels I’m working on (remember that I told you I have 27 in the pipeline to be finished) and will be posting excerpts to show you what’s coming up in 2014 and beyond.  This one is from an unpublished novel entitled OF MEN AND ANGELS.

1217 A.D. –  Curtis D’Avignon is a powerful earl. When one of his vassals, Nathaniel du Rennic, is killed in battle, Curtis takes his army to du Rennic’s castle with the intention of claiming it. It’s a big castle and important. But the knights loyal to du Rennic don’t want anything to do with Curtis so he basically has to lay siege to claim the castle.  Enter the Lady Avrielle du Rennic; Nathaniel’s wife, she is distraught at his death.  In fact, she’s gone a little mad.  In this scene, Curtis is inspecting his latest acquisition and comes across Lady du Rennic and her children.  It’s a sad and touching scene.  Meet Curtis and Avrielle:

***

He hadn’t realized how extensive the grounds of Castle Canaan were.  The sun had finally set, leaving in its wake a moist evening as Curtis wandered through the stable area near the walled kitchen yard.  A huge stone barrier separated the kitchen from the area where livestock was kept and he went to a large gate carved into the wall, lifting the latch and passing through.

The old iron gate clanged loudly behind him as he moved into the yard housing the buttery and the smokehouse. It was dark here, the only light coming through the open kitchen door and the smells of grease and smoke were heavy. A few servants ventured about, startled when they saw the massive man in battle armor wandering their safe, secure yard.  Curtis gave them not even a glance as he assessed Castle Canaan, growing more impressed by the moment with the grandeur and wealth of the place. Whoever married Lady du Rennic would be a lucky bastard indeed. Perhaps he should take Stewart’s advice after all and keep the castle for his own.

At the far end of the kitchen yard was another gate cut into the wall, iron and wood barely visible in the darkness. Curtis made his way toward the gate and was about to open it when a small body suddenly blocked his path.

“Nay, nay,” said a little voice sternly. “You cannot go in there.”

Curtis found himself gazing down at a small boy, perhaps five years in age, with softy sandy hair and magnificent blue eyes. He studied the boy, his expression impassive as he spoke. “Why not?”

“‘Tis a secret place and you are not permitted!”

The Earl of Penn was a man rightly feared by most of England. His reputation was solid, his methods bordering on brutal. There was not one sane person in the civilized world that would challenge him, and for good reason.  Yet this little boy was blocking his path, and doing so quite effectively.  To stand against D’Avignon was no small feat and Curtis fought off a smile at the fearless, naïve child.

“What is the secret?” he asked. “I promise not to tell.”

The boy shook his head. “You cannot know.”

“But I will keep your secret safe. I swear on my oath as a knight.”

The boy looked doubtful and refused to answer. Curtis hunched over a bit, trying not to appear so imposing. “Tell me you name, lad.”

“Stephen,” the boy said. He pointed into the shadows and it was then that Curtis saw another small figure, perhaps two or three years older than the boy, with the same magnificent blue eyes.  He found himself gazing into the face of the prettiest little girl he had ever seen. “That’s my sister, Sophia.”

Curtis dipped his head at her ever so slightly. “M’lady.”  He turned back to Stephen. “I swear that I will not disturb your secret place. But I would like to see it. Will you let me in?”

Stephen was dubious in spite of the reassurance. He looked at Sophia, who shook her head fearfully. Torn between the big knight and his sister, Stephen scratched his sandy head and looked at Curtis hesitantly. “You cannot… right now. Later, mayhap. But not now.”

Curtis glanced at the old wooden gate. He could hear something just beyond, a faint scratching, like earth being moved about. He tried to see through the slats in the grating. “Is someone in there?”
Stephen gazed up at the big knight. The man was enormous, but Stephen sensed no hostility from him at all. Only a unique gentleness he could not begin to understand. In a sense, it reminded him of his father and he did so want to be a knight when he grew up, just as his father had been. His little mind began to warm to the knight’s request.

“Aye,” he said softly.

“Who?”

Stephen didn’t reply for a moment. When he did, he averted his eyes. “Mam.”

Curtis couldn’t quite figure out why Stephen seemed so glum, nor did he understand why the lad would not let him past the gate.  He was more than curious. “What is she doing in there?”
Stephen shrugged and moved away from the gate. Wandering over to his sister, it was obvious that he was seeking her comfort, and she put her delicate arms around him.  Together, they looked very, very sad.

“She’s raking the dirt,” Stephen finally said. “She always rakes the dirt.”

“Does she grow vegetables for the house?”

Stephen shook his head. “She just rakes the dirt.”

It didn’t make any sense to Curtis and his curiosity peaked. Reaching out, he lifted the latch to the gate and was met by no resistance from Stephen or his sister. They simply let him go, be it by trust or fear he could not be sure.   Stepping through the low arch, he emerged into what had apparently once been a grand garden.

Vines wound up the cold stone walls, half-dead with neglect, while the remains of a variety of flowers littered the dusty earth. There was a lovely marble bench against one wall and a door at the far end that led into the keep itself.  Curtis paused in his observations of the once-beautiful garden as his gaze came to rest on a figure several feet away, hacking angrily at the ground.  It was a woman, that much was obvious, for she had long honey-colored hair that hung past her buttocks in great tangled clumps.  And she was a short little thing; even though she was bent nearly in half as she hacked at the ground, he could have imagined that she would not stand higher than his chest. It was very curious, this dirty-haired woman hoeing furiously, and he observed for several long moments before conspicuously clearing his throat to gain her attention.

The woman didn’t turn around. She continued to chop at the hard packed earth.  Curtis took a few steps toward her, trying to catch her attention with his movement, but either she did not see him or she was intent to ignore him. Noticing that Stephen and his sister were now standing just inside the garden gate, watching fearfully, he decided to put an end to the silence.

“Madam,” he said, his bass voice a quiet rumble. “Are you a servant?”

She didn’t respond. The children’s expressions grew more fearful. Curtis, not a man who tolerated games, moved to the woman and stood very close to her. “You will answer me. Are you a field servant?”
Again, she didn’t reply. When she brought the hoe up high, chopping at a particularly dense clump of earth, he grabbed the shaft and easily pulled it from her hands.  Grasp empty, she flailed her hands about a couple of times as if still hoeing, as if not realizing she no longer possessed a tool.  Then, she came to a confused halt. When her head finally came up, gazing from beneath a curtain of mussed hair, nothing could have prepared Curtis for what was to follow.

The most exquisite blue eyes he had ever witnessed stared at him in a daze. The woman’s face possessed the sweetness of the most beautiful angel in Heaven, so splendid that it literally took his breath away.  In fact, he had to catch himself from taking a step back. He thought that perhaps he was gazing at an apparition, for certainly nothing mortal could be this lovely. He found himself staring, inspecting her features as if searching for some flaw in this field of perfection. He could find nothing imperfect about her but for the dirt on her cheeks and the distant look to her eye.  As she straightened up and stood tall, staring at him as he was staring at her, he eventually realized that she was enormously pregnant.

“Why are you working this garden in your condition?” he demanded, perhaps too harshly “Who has ordered you to do this?”

She looked at him as if she hadn’t heard him. Then, slowly, he could see her dazed eyes flickering with confusion.  “I do not know you,” she said in a  voice that sounded to him like the laughter of angels. “Who are you?”

“I would ask you that question, madam.”

She almost answered him. She certainly considered it; he could see that. But suddenly, it was as if clouds passed over her brilliant orbs and she turned away from him. He watched her as she ripped out dead stalks of foxgloves with her bare hands.

“I will again ask you your name, madam,” he said with patience he did not feel. It was more than her refusal to answer that irritated him; he found that he simply had to know.

Her once-luscious hair hung wildly has she ripped and pulled. Curtis was afraid she might injure herself with her strong actions.  After a moment, she simply shook her head. “It doesn’t matter what my name is,” she whispered. “I am no longer anyone of concern.”

He continued to watch her rip at the flowers. “You’re going to come to harm if you continue that,” he said. “And why would you say you were no longer anyone of concern? I should determine that for myself.”

She ignored him, pulling and weeding. When she was done with the foxgloves, she moved to the enormous daisy bush and began ripping at it. “It doesn’t matter anymore,” she repeated.

Curtis glanced at Stephen and Sophia, silent and cowering in the garden gate. The sight of their frightened faces brought a rise of anger from him.  This woman was acting like a wild animal, apparently not realizing the effect it was having on her offspring. “You’re frightening your children with your behavior, madam.”

She continued to slash and shred a fraction of a second longer. Then, her movements slowed, becoming a mere shadow of what they had once been. She came to a stop, gazing up into the sky with such pain of her face that Curtis could feel the physical impact. He swore she was praying, or perhaps cursing, a God that she could not see.  There was a great inner turmoil taking place though he could not fully comprehend what that might be. Perhaps he would never know. After a small eternity, she finally turned to her cowering children, a weak smile spreading across her sweet, full lips.

“My sweet, sweet babies,” she murmured, and the children instantly ran to her. Embracing them, she kissed their heads and spoke softly. Curtis observed the touching scene, a stab of remorse filling his heart; he wished he could see his own children with such motherly love.  But they knew nothing but their father, and try as he might, he could not fill the void left by their mother.  His own childhood had been filled with love from his grandmother, lavished on him when his warrior father wasn’t looking, and it was completely natural for Curtis to soften to it. In spite of his practiced, hard façade, he found he very much craved the warm feelings.

“Come along, now,” he moved toward them, waving his massive arms like a shepherd moving sheep. “Sit down on the bench, all of you. Sit down before you fall down.”

The woman allowed him to place her and her children upon the bench. Curtis stood over them, hands on his hips, thinking they were perhaps the most perfectly beautiful family he had seen. The need to know the woman’s identity reached a maddening level.

“Now,” he crouched down before them as they hugged and kissed. “Your children were kind enough to tell me their names. Would you please indulge me as well, madam?”

She looked at him, her lips on Stephen’s blond hair. The magnificent eyes spoke softly to him, words he could not understand but most assuredly feelings he could not comprehend. They disarmed him, eluded him, unable to fully penetrate. He was concentrating so on the emotions from her eyes that he barely heard her voice.

“Avrielle,” she whispered. “My name is Avrielle.”

He blinked, almost startled by her gentle voice. Avrielle. It was the most beautiful name he had ever heard and suited her perfectly. “Lady Avrielle,” he repeated in a soft voice that did not suit his harsh appearance. “Who has ordered you to work this garden?”

She shook her head. “No one,” she murmured.

“Then why do you work so hard in your condition? And where is your husband that he would not prevent you from doing this?”

The human gentleness in her eyes, so recently returned, suddenly vanished.  She stood up, leaving her two children wide-eyed and disappointed, and meandered back into the weeds. Curtis watched her closely, wondering what on Earth he could have said to suddenly upset her so. When she realized she had no hoe to work with, she sat down on the ground and began raking it with her hands in great sweeping, harsh motions.

“Lady Avrielle,” Curtis was genuinely concerned; any other woman, or man for that matter, would not have elicited this kind of concern from him. He had no idea why she should, and the unfamiliar emotion in his chest disturbed him. “Get up from there. You should not be straining yourself.”

She continued to claw at the earth, shaking her head, and tears suddenly began to fall. Big, heaving sobs followed.  The children, upset that their mother was crying again, ran to her in tears themselves and fell down beside her, weeping. It was a horrible, distressing scene and Curtis was a loss as to what to do. For a man who always had the right answer, it was terribly unpleasant for him.  The most beautiful woman he had ever seen was sobbing pitifully, her children were crying, and Curtis knew, instinctively, that he was responsible. And he knew, equally, that he had to make amends.

Before he realized it, he was beside the trio, his massive arms encircling them.  He didn’t know what else to do and instinct took over. They needed comfort, and for some reason, he was determined to give it.  He held Avrielle tightly in one arm, feeling her head against him, her tear-stained face against his neck, and he swore that never in his life had he felt anything so sweet and right.  It was an electrifying, addicting sensation, like nothing he had ever experienced. He thought he should say something, anything at all, but he couldn’t manage to bring words to his lips. It seemed better than he simply sat on the earth, in all of his armor and mail and weaponry, holding a weeping pregnant woman and her sobbing children and having no idea why he was doing it. But it was the best thing he had ever done.

“Christ Almighty,” a voice whispered from the garden gate. “Do you see what I see?”

Adam didn’t respond to Georg’s question. All he could do was stare in disbelief. “What in the hell is going on ?” he said after a moment. “He… he’s touching her. And the children, too.”

“Lady Avrielle hasn’t let anyone come near her in weeks,” Georg was so astonished he could barely speak. “And now she lets D’Avignon , of all people, comfort her? I cannot believe my eyes!”

 

Hope you enjoyed this excerpt!