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Romance and deception in England during the frenzied years of the Black Death.
As a pestilence sweeps medieval England, a low-born woman has only the sharpness of her wits—and the courage of her heart…
Edith of Warren Hemlet plays a dangerous game. At the knights’ tourneys across the land, among the lords and ladies, she is a strange foreign princess. But in the privacy of her tent with the other survivors of her village, she is but a smith’s widow with a silver tongue. They are well-fed, but if discovered, the punishment is death. And one knight—fierce, arrogant, and perilously appealing—is becoming far too attentive…
Sir Ranulf of Fredenwyke cares little for tourneys: playing for ladies’ favors, when his own lady is dead; feasting, while commoners starve; “friendly” combat, when he has seen real war. Still, one lady captivates him—mysterious in her veils and silks, intoxicating with her exotic scents and bold glances. Yet something in her eyes reminds him of home…and draws him irresistibly to learn her secrets…
"He has walled us in alive! Our own lord has abandoned us!"
"He cannot do this!"
But he has done so, Edith thought, as she crouched to give her shivering cow a drink from a bucket of water. Sir Giles de Rothencey, their brutal lord of Warren Hemlet, had driven all of them, villagers and beasts alike, into the church and had ordered his men to seal them within to die.
He might have spared her, for she was the smith's widow, skilled in metal-working and so useful, but she had entered the simple, windowless church willingly enough. It could be that they would all die of the pestilence soon, and she wanted to be with her own people.
"We have wine and water," she reminded the others, rising to her feet and speaking above the hammering as their lord's men barred and sealed the door. "We are in a holy place." She hoped her voice would not waver as she said this - she had fallen out with God. "We are together."
"What use is that when our lord herds us in here, the hale and the sickening, so all perish?"
Edith trod on the loud-mouth's foot.
"We are together," she repeated. "Those men outside will not stay for long. If we go quiet and stay quiet, they will think us dead. We know this has happened before, in other places."
Around her the villagers grew silent, thinking perhaps, as she was, of the ghastly rumors concerning the pestilence. Only last month a peddler had come to Warren Hemlet with gruesome stories of people going to bed healthy and dying in the night; of people dying in the fields, in the washing houses, in the streets. No one was safe, or spared. She had seen it herself, all this last week, in her own village. So many had died. From their village of four-score souls, only three and twenty were left. Of these, Anwyl was already coughing in one corner and Peter the shepherd lay shuddering and whimpering amidst his scrawny sheep, his neck covered with red boils.
And then their lord had come - not to save them, but to ensure the sickness did not spread to him. Which was how they came to be here, in the church: a stone building Sir Giles intended would be their tomb.
"But we shall escape," she said aloud. If she was to die, she wanted to do so out of doors, under the blue sky and trees. "We shall break out."
"And flee this place, that God and his saints have left," said her brother quietly. Gregory could always speak and be heard: he was the priest here, so people listened.
"How do we do that when we are locked in?" demanded the loud-mouth.
Edith threaded her way round the villagers to the stone font and picked up the baby she had carried into the church with her and laid in the dry stone bath. She unwrapped the "baby's" saddling bands to reveal her own metal-working tools, bundled together in a rough blanket.
"We shall get out," she said.
"And then?" demanded the loud-mouth.
He was as noisy as a miller, Edith thought, but she did not say that. Their miller had been one of the first to die at Warren Hemlet and since then there had been too much death, and talk of death. She glanced at her brother, but Gregory was tending a shuddering old man, Martin, who lay against the south wall of the church, giving him his own cloak. Soon, Edith guessed, he would be leading his depleted flock in prayer, but her thoughts ran to more practical measures.
"First we must be quiet. Those outside will not leave until we are." To mark her point she crossed back across the nave to her cow and settled down beside Daisy, taking a small comfort from the warmth of the animal. When she said nothing more, the other villagers began to lament afresh, then they too fell silent.
Edith closed her eyes, pretending to sleep. She had plans. If they lived, she had many plans that would bring them food, riches, honor and a different life to slavery in their lord's fields. Gregory disapproved, but so he must for he was their priest, and he had sworn to keep his distaste to himself. He had grudgingly admitted they had few choices, and none virtuous.
Edith considered her scheme afresh. Again she was glad her grandfather had once been a sailor, and that her old husband, Adam, had been so excellent a smith. From these two worthy men she had a fund of stories she could draw on and more besides: bundles of cloth, paintings on the tops of tables, strange devices, knowledge of steel and surgery, fine pottery. The things were buried in her herb garden, the memories in her head. She would need both.
If they survived....