Being a new author myself, I like to help out as many other authors as I can when I have the time and space in my day to do so. This can take many forms from reading an ARC (advanced reader copy) in order provide a quote or pre-publication review, to hosting a guest blog, or doing an author interview. I’ve done all of the above, and in fact the next post I do will be a pre-publication review of Matthew Harffy’s Blood and Blade, book three of his Bernicia Chronicles, to be released December 1. Until then I have a little treat to post as a favor to another author in my circle of acquaintances, Emily Murdoch.
Emily Murdoch is a medieval historian and writer. Throughout her career so far she has examined a codex and transcribed medieval sermons at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, designed part of an exhibition for the Yorkshire Museum, worked as a researcher for a BBC documentary presented by Ian Hislop, and worked at Polesden Lacey with the National Trust. She has a degree in History and English, and a Masters in Medieval Studies, both from the University of York. Emily has a medieval series and a Regency novella series published, and is currently working on several new projects.
In light of the fact that October of this year has been the 950th anniversary of the Norman Conquest of England, Emily’s publishers have extended a promotion for her book Conquests: Hearts Rule Kingdoms for 99 cents.
Emily has allowed me host the first three chapters of her book here for free! If you are interested in more, feel free to visit Amazon to purchase the entire book at the special price.
**Disclaimer — I own this book, but I have not yet read it. I am promoting Emily’s work here as a courtesy rather than because of any personal endorsement.
You can follow Emily on twitter and instagram @emilyekmurdoch, find her on facebook at
www.facebook.com/theemilyekmurdoch, and read her blog at www.emilyekmurdoch.blogspot.co.uk.
The village burned in the darkness. Anglo-Saxon women crawled in the ashes and blood, crying, but quietly. They did not want to be found. They knew what would happen to them if they were discovered. In the light of the flames only one building could be seen left standing; the great manor house. None dared approach it. They knew that if the men returned, that would be exactly where they would go to. In the courtyard of this house, a shadow wept.
A young girl was crouched in a corner, sobbing. The stone wall behind hid her in its silhouette, and she tried to muffle the sounds of her cries. She did not want to be found.
A noise startled her; the sound of hooves on wood. They were coming.
Picking herself up and wrapping her long skirts around her, the girl ran – but she was not fast enough.
A whining man’s voice rang out into the darkness and broke through the silence. It was the rider of the horse that she had heard, but now many more horses had joined him. It was a whole host of men. The girl gasped and tried to run faster, but there was nowhere to run to. Nowhere was safe now. Before she could reach the other side of the courtyard, strong rough hands grabbed her.
“Bring her here!”
The same gruff voice spoke, and the girl struggled. The man holding her had to drag her over to the horse of the speaker. The man had dismounted, and the girl caught sight of his broadsword. She gasped, and pushed backwards trying to stay as far away as possible from the blade. She had seen swords similar to that one. She had seen what they could do.
“Hold her up.”
The man was older than her, probably as old as her father. He stank of sweat, and his mean eyes bore down into her. When he gazed down upon his captive, he was surprised. The lonely figure that he had taken to be a child was much older. The girl must be verging onto womanhood.
He leered at her.
“Do you have a name, my sweet?”
The girl stared back at him. Fear danced in her eyes, but also resentment. She knew why he had come to her home. She knew what he wanted.
“My lord Richard asked you a question!” said the man holding her back, twisting one of her arms so she let out a yelp of pain.
“Avis,” she breathed, her arm searing and tears brimming in her eyes. “My name is Avis.”
Avis leaned against the flint wall and looked up at the magnificent sky, and forced a blonde curl back underneath her veil. The sun was setting, and she could feel the cool of night descending quickly. The long summer was starting to cool into autumn, and soon winter would be on its way. As she sighed, her breath blossomed. A loud voice behind her startled her.
She turned to see Richard walking aggressively towards her, and instinctively took a step back.
“Are you not coming?” The medieval Norman Richard stared down at her, panting slightly at the exercise. The running was unlike him, a man who spent his life swaggering from meal to meal. Rolls of fat were carefully covered by his tunic, but Avis knew that she could outrun him. A fact that had given her comfort over the long three years since he had first arrived. He sneered down at her, mentally undressing her in a way that was disgustingly apparent.
“I follow you, my lord.” Avis attempted a smile as she spoke in the harsh Norman language that she had come to learn, and Richard seemed appeased. Offering her his arm,she draped her delicate blue velvet sleeve across and allowed herself to be led inside to the Great Hall. A feast had been prepared – in her honour, Richard had told her, but in the three years since the Normans had conquered England that she had been forced to share her ancestral home with Richard, nothing had ever been organised for her own comfort before. She was suspicious, and Richard knew it.
“Come now, relax.” He sniggered, and she sat down gently at her normal place near the head of the table. The knights and other men that now lived in her home sat down at various points along the trestle tables. Richard took the seat at the head of the table, where her father had once sat. He clapped his hands, and servants immediately began bringing in food. Sizzling meats and sweet aromas soon filled the Great Hall, and the large dogs that had been snoozing by the fire soon jumped up and positioned themselves around the tables, hoping for scraps. Men began pouring ale, and soon the Great Hall was filled with the scraping of metal on plates, swirling goblets and belching. Avis ate silently, and many men’s eyes flickered across to gaze upon her beauty.
Richard leaned over her, breathing in her scent as he poured her wine. He lingered just a little too close for comfort, forcing her to lean back in her seat to avoid him.
“The question is,” Richard began speaking as if continuing an earlier conversation, “when are you going to realise that you must marry me?”
A few of the men nearest to Avis leered and chuckled, and she could feel her pale skin darkening red. How dare he!
“You have offended me enough with your constant disdain for my wishes.” She managed to contain her anger. “Please do me the courtesy of never asking me again.”
“No.” Richard was forceful. “You have no land, no property, no wealth, no family. You lost all that three years ago.”
Several men cheered, and one man yelled, “God bless King William!”
Richard chuckled. He had good memories of the Norman invasion three years ago in 1066, and gave no thought as to how Avis may feel. She gripped her knife hard, and tried not to speak. She had born the indignity of being taunted by her people’s defeat for the last three years. She could do it again.
“The Normans rule here now!” Food and saliva leapt from Richard’s mouth as he shouted. Goblets were lifted in the air and men began giving speeches, praising themselves and their friends for the great deeds they had performed during the invasion. The Battle of Hastings, the Battle of London, the subduing of the Anglo-Saxon people, the murder of innocents, the ransacking of churches…
Avis felt hot and angry. Her father had been the Anglo-Saxon ealdorman of these parts – the local lord, a just, honest, kind man who had not wanted to go to war but had obeyed out of love for his King. And he had paid the price with his life. Now she, an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman, had nothing. No one to protect her, no one to care for her, and no options.
Richard cut across his men to once again speak to Avis. “Avis, I am getting tired – ”
“As am I! Tired of your constant requests for a promise that I will not make!” Avis cut across him. She would not allow herself to be bullied.
Richard grinned at her. “And I am not getting any younger.”
“We can all see that.” Avis muttered under her breath. Richard’s weight had only increased after William the King gave him her father’s home, and the skin around his eyes had sagged and creased. He was losing time, and he knew that if he was to have an heir, it would have to be now.
Richard’s shout had silenced the entire hall, and Avis blushed again. She knew that the whole household would hear his next words.
“You will marry me,” Richard spoke with a hardness and finality. “William has ordered his Norman nobles to marry native women. He is going to create a new people, of both sides. You and I.”
“Never.” Avis stood up. “You may live in my home, Richard, sleep in my father’s bed and give orders to my people, but you do not order me.”
Sweeping her long blue skirt behind her, she walked out of the Great Hall. As she pushed the wooden door shut behind her, she could hear the beginnings of chatter – led by Richard, in an attempt to cover up the embarrassment of his ward once again defying him. She slowly breathed out, releasing the tension from her lungs and slowly calming her shaking hands. Avis knew that after three long years, Richard would not be taking no for an answer much longer. The trouble was she didn’t have any other choices.
Seated at the top of the Great Hall, Richard stroked his greying beard as his men soaked themselves in ale and wine. He had never thought that forcing a lonely and unprotected girl to marry him would be so difficult. William had been insistent when he had given Richard this land that he must marry a local girl to secure it, and his time was running out. He leered at the thought of getting his greasy hands under those flowing dresses that he permitted Avis to wear, and his loins tightened – but then he sighed. He called a servant to him, who quickly retrieved a letter that had been delivered to him by a King’s messenger that morning. Scanning its contents, he sighed again. But William’s word was law, and if he decreed something, it was to be done.
He would tell Avis in the morning.
Avis awoke naturally before dawn. As she lay in bed, listening to the house stirring, she smiled. She could not help but hope that as Richard could not, he would not force her to marry him. All she had to do was wait, bide her time. Soon enough Richard would have no other choice but to marry another so that his heirs could inherit this land. Her land. Her smile flickered, and faded.
Forcing herself out of her warm covers and into the coldness of morning, she struggled to force her pale smooth figure into her bodice, and quickly tied the laces which held various garments together. When she was younger she had a servant girl to aid her in this monotonous task, but she had learnt quickly how to take care of herself after she was plummeted into poverty. Avis pulled on her leather shoes, and began the arduous problem of maintaining her hair. Golden blonde and full of curls, it constantly attempted to escape the veil that she placed on her head to protect her modesty. For her Anglo-Saxon people, one’s hair was not seen, and so both she and her mother had always worn veils that covered their hair but left their faces free.
“Your face is important,” her mother had always said, “because that is where people see the truth.”
Even after her mother had gone, Avis always wore her veil. She knew that she was not fashionable – but then being of Anglo-Saxon stock automatically made one lower class in this new England that William had created. She frowned, placing the last wayward curl behind her ear. This ‘new’ England was not one that she particularly liked.
Avis wandered leisurely down the stone slab stairs into the kitchen, firm in the knowledge that none of the servants would be up yet. The blue sky that heralded her lifted her spirits. She had always loved the summer season the most. After passing through the long corridor, Avis entered the kitchen. Checking the fire by the spit was lit, she began to prepare dough for baking. She had loved cooking ever since she had been taught as a girl, but it was not appropriate for a noble woman to be seen doing servants’ work. This was why she always worked in the kitchen in secret. Even the servants did not know who prepared the delicious bread that was seemingly delivered every morning.
It was hot work, and soon Avis had forgotten about Richard, and proposals, and invasions, and family. One could not bake bread and fret. She threw herself into the task, and before she realised it the servants were beginning to appear. Washing her hands briskly in the nearest ceramic bowl of water, she pretended to inspect the wooden tidy surfaces as men and women streamed in, ready for a new day of work.
“Oh!” The cook saw her and attempted a curtsey, almost tripping over her own feet.
Avis laughed. “It’s alright, Æthelfreda, I just wanted to check everything was running smoothly down here.”
“Oh.” The cook attempted a smile, but was clearly terrified. “We’re doing our best in preparation for my lord’s guest, but I haven’t – ”
“Guest?” Avis stopped her, and nonchalantly began walking around the kitchen. “Who?”
“A man from the King, my lady. He brings a message about your marriage.”
Avis stopped. Her eyes widened and she could see bright lights moving around her. “My marriage?”
The cook swallowed, suddenly aware of every other servant looking at her, horrified.
“Maybe my lady should speak to my lord about this.” Avis nodded, and collected herself. Walking serenely out
of the kitchen, she broke into a run towards the Great Hall, the centre of the manor, where she knew Richard would be warming his back by the fire.
Pushing the door violently and neglecting to shut it, she burst out, “Richard!”
The short sweating man turned, surprised, and scowled when he saw her.
“I have heard tell of my impending marriage!” Avis was incredulous. “Pray do tell.”
Richard opened his mouth to retaliate angrily, but stopped. He thought carefully, and then sat down in a chair by the fire.
“Sit.” He ordered curtly. “I will tell you all.”
Avis rushed to the comfortable wooden seat with several throws covering it that was opposite him, and dropped down, smoothly her skirt around her. Raising her eyes to him, Richard was reminded once again how striking she was.
“I have grown weary of this pretence,” Richard began. “It is not my choice to – ”
“I know.” Richard had been gazing at his feet, but now he looked up at her, the newly lit fire throwing his wrinkles into sharp relief. “But it must end.”
He waited for her to challenge him, but she knew he was right.
“I received a letter from our King yesterday. William requires further marriages between my people and yours, to cement the nations together. He knows that I have been…unsuccessful with you.”
Avis looked at him. She could not pity him – he was a Norman – but she could understand the pressure that he was under. Part of having noble blood was that certain things were expected of you. Marrying well was one of them. Richard was tired, and he looked it.
“And so William has chosen a husband for you.”
Avis started. “A husband? He cannot choose me a husband!”
“He has.” Richard was firm. “He presents you with a choice: to marry me, or to marry young Melville.”
Melville. Avis thought hard, and translated the strange Norman word. Bad town. Not a name that suggested a brave, strong man. He was probably short and pale, like Richard, she thought miserably.
“Who is this Melville?” She said finally.
“He is a young nobleman of Norman stock. That is all you need know. He will arrive today, and then,” Richard’s gaze moved from her to the fire. “You shall make your choice.”
“And if I choose none?” Avis spoke strongly, and Richard turned to look at her again. “If I choose not to marry at all?”
Richard smiled, bitterly. “That is no choice.” Avis was confused, and her small nose wrinkled. “Everyone has a choice!”
“Not you.” Richard stood up and began to walk away. “You are a Saxon.”
He slammed the door behind him, echoing the Great Hall with a hollow note. Avis bit her lip. She did not know what William, Richard or this Melville would do to her if she tried to disobey, but she could imagine. She had lived but sixteen summers when the Normans had arrived in her village, and she could still recall the smell of burning and the screams of the women who had been taken. She shut her eyes, and tried to think.
There could be no harm in viewing this Melville. Perhaps he was old, like Richard, and required a companion in his old age. Maybe he is tired of this country, and could return to Normandy without her. She opened her eyes, and her face looked determined. Richard’s passing insult had only revived in her the spirit of her people: proud, strong, and courageous. Anglo-Saxons did not give up without a fight, and their women were powerful. They had to be. She knew she was brave enough to face down this Melville, whoever he was.
Melville was tired and disappointed with this weather. Riding for three days towards a town which he had never heard of, to marry some wench that he imagined dirty and petulant, had not improved his mood. He swept his long dark hair out of his eyes as two of his men returned on horseback from a scouting trip on the area. Rain poured down his face, lining his jawline and causing his clothes to cling to his taut body.
“Nothing to report, my lord.”
A curt nod from Melville was enough to prevent the man from speaking any longer. He was not in a temper to hear someone rattle on about pastures and woodland – not until he’d dried off and changed into clean clothes. This country, England. He was sick of it. He had been here three years too long.
Melville could feel his horse tiring underneath him, and patted his mane encouragingly. Melville’s strong body was highlighted by the rain dripping down along the leather chaps and onto the ground. His horse twitched unhappily, and Melville reached down again to calm him.
“Nearly there,” he murmured – but the platitude to his horse grated on his very soul. The horse could not understand why he was riding so hard and so fast towards a destiny that he did not want.
But William was the King, and William must be obeyed. The vows a man took when he became a knight were until death, and obedience was not required, but expected. Melville had known that when he agreed to come across from Normandy, to go over to the land where the savages roamed, he had not believed that he would remain there for very long. Now he had been given English land, and land needed heirs.
A man near the front of the party hallooed, and Melville started from his reverie, enjoying the time spent with his own thoughts. Looking up, he saw a large manor house. He had arrived.
A short balding man was waiting outside the building to greet him. As Melville pulled up and dismounted, the man came towards him.
“Richard, at your service.” “Melville, at yours.”
The two men briefly embraced, and then began to talk about the weather. Anything to pretend that they weren’t two men at a meeting, forced to be there against their will and better judgement. Richard looked over this youth. He was tall, and had clearly fought in many battles. You could tell by the way that he held himself that until he knew he was safe, he would never truly relax. Melville’s dark features gave him the appearance of distrust – but then, Richard thought, Normans did not expect trust in this foreign land.
“Come inside. We have warmth, and food, and cheer.” Richard gave the offer with a watery smile, and Melville matched it with almost less enthusiasm. They walked into the Great Hall, their men and servants following them at a respectful distance.
As Richard indicated where Melville was to sit, he called out, “bring in Avis.”
Avis? thought Melville. It was a Norman name, but an uncommon one. Was Avis a servant girl? But the young lady that gracefully walked into the Great Hall was no servant girl. Her face was frightened, but determined, and it was obvious from her luxurious and tasteful clothes that she was a woman of high standing. A strange veil covered her hair in a manner that Melville had never seen before, but it was not unattractive. He wondered why she covered what was such a beautiful part of a woman, but was pulled back into the moment by Richard’s booming voice.
The girl increased her speed, arriving at a brisk walk in front of Richard. He lowered his voice to speak to her, and she began replying with hurried tones, both of them glancing nervously at Melville. He began to feel uncomfortable, especially when her frosty eyes landed on him. Her frantic but quiet words were spoken in a manner devoid of panic – but her calm words were clearly not being well-received by his host.
Avis could not believe that this man – this tall, dark man standing but paces away from her already viewing her home as if he owned it – was her intended husband. How dare this William, this King, dictate her life to her! How dare idiotic Richard agree to this pathetic charade! As Richard tried to placate her, and remind her that she always had another option, she repeatedly glared at this stranger. At least Richard over the years had come to appreciate and almost love the surrounding area. This man was an outsider. He could never understand the beauty of her country, and the nobility of her people. The strange man stood there, stock still and straight having refused the seat offered to him, and his muscular thighs strained at the leather hosen, and under the soft white linen shirt, muscles rippled. He must be a great deal taller than her, Avis surmised, glaring at him under her blonde lashes.
Eventually Richard grew tired.
“Food!” He shouted, gesticulating that nourishment should be brought up from the kitchen to the trestle tables. His men and the men that Melville had in his service gave a cry of appreciation, and Avis was forced to sit down on the left hand side of Richard, with Melville on his right.
The conversation in the hall was so loud and the men so enthusiastic in their eating and drinking that Avis could not hear what the two lords spoke of. She ate her chicken meekly, trying to ignore the occasional glances that the newcomer kept shooting her way. The man called Melville seemed uncomfortable, and Richard appeared to be attempting to convince him over something.
But Melville would not be convinced.
“I refuse to marry a woman at the order of my King!” Richard’s eyes narrowed.
“Then that is treason, my lord.”
“Sir,” Melville took a deep breath, trying to quell the anger rising up inside him. He was a long way from his land and the men that were loyal to him, and he could not afford to start a real argument here. “I love the King as much as any of his true and honest followers. But I love not his desire to design my marriage!”
“Marriage is not an individual matter.” Richard said curtly. “It is a matter of state when a nobleman decides to wed. When I marry, I shall be at my King’s disposal.”
Melville looked at the older man, and pitied him. It was plain that Richard would never marry. He had run to fat, whereas Melville was nothing but lean hunger and fierce power.
Choosing his words carefully, Melville began again.
“It is not that I would not lay down my life for my King. I just don’t want to have to lay down my life for my King every night!”
He threw a glance at this girl who the King had chosen for him. She had taken a brief peek at him, and he looked away quickly, furious with himself that she had caught him.
Even with that quick glance, it was difficult not to notice her supple figure, and the rigid way that she held herself allowed his gaze to see all of her. She had scrunched up her nose when she caught him gazing at her, clearly unimpressed but nervous. Even in her shyness, she was beautiful.
“Do you not want success?” asked Richard. “Do you not want land, and fortune, and children?”
“I want to go home,” said Melville shortly. He stood up. “Forgive me, my lord, but I am tired and require rest. I will see you on the morrow.”
He strode rudely out of the hall, aware of two pairs of eyes following him out – one much clearer and more dazzling than the other.
After Richard had watched him go, he turned to Avis. “Well?” He said abruptly. “What do you think?”
Avis hesitated. All of her assumptions about Melville – old, haggard, ugly – had been destroyed when the young man walked into her home. Why, he could not be that much older than she. His dark long hair often covered his moody expressions, but she could not help but feel that he was just as uncomfortable with the situation as she was. If he had been Anglo-Saxon, he would probably have been a family friend, someone that she could have trusted and relied on – as it was, he was a Norman. A man that she could never trust.
“You ask me to try and make a very sudden decision,” she murmured, unwilling to commit herself to a decision so quickly. Richard nodded.
“Our King does not wait, he acts. And so must you. Who is your choice?”
Panic flooded through her veins: but not a cold panic. A hot panic filled her as she considered the curt, sturdy man that had just left the hall. Melville, her husband? She could ignore the fact that she physically warmed to him – wanted to know just how strong he was. He was her natural enemy, but in a country devoid of friends, that was not unusual. Her isolation forced her to make the only choice that she could.
Avis looked up at Richard boldly, determined to meet her fate in the decisive style of her heritage, afraid of nothing and no man.
“I shall marry my lord Melville when it suits the King.” Richard looked disappointed, but not surprised.
“And so be it. I shall send word to Melville and the King, and you shall be wedded.”
He made a movement away from the table, suggesting that he was leaving, but Avis swiftly put a hand on his arm.
Richard lowered himself back down, startled at the fear and discomposure in her voice. He had never seen her so unsure of herself, not since he had first ridden towards the gates of this place to take residence after the invasion.
“My lord, I wondered…I wondered if we may have a betrothal, in the style…in the style of my people.”
Avis’ eyes looked up at his, clear and stunning but full of tears. He remembered that for the people who had once lived in this land, it was not merely the wedding but the betrothal that held great power and hope over people’s lives. It was a time when the families of each of the couple came to celebrate their joining together, with much feasting and joy. The Normans had spoken about it with both awe and derision. Richard was curious, and he knew that this would be the last step in Avis’ Anglo-Saxon path. When she married, she would be leaving that behind and become Norman.
He smiled. “Make your arrangements.”
Avis nodded. She was so grateful to Richard for allowing her this last rite of passage that she almost regretted not choosing him to be her husband. But she recalled the constant groping, the sweat that poured off his nose on a summer day, and shuddered. She would never have been able to keep her marriage vows to Richard, and for her a failed marriage was worse than death – even a marriage without love was kept. Melville looked a man that understood the power of an oath. He would be a more apt partner for her.
Richard continued speaking.
“Let this mark your entry into our society. Let no expense be spared, and arrange it for three nights hence. A week today you shall be married.”