Isabella: Tynemouth Priory, 1322
(Isabella and her damsels flee from an approaching band of Scots.)
Beyond the cliffs where the Benedictine priory sat, a rising wind lashed at the blue-black sea, churning the waves into foamy peaks. Against the ragged shoreline, the raging waves crashed in sprays of white. Then, broken and hushed, they retreated seaward in defeat. At the northern edge of the horizon, the sky had already begun to darken again.
I looked once more toward the priory, wondering if I should order us back to wait until tomorrow, but with a glance Patrice banished my thoughts. She did not want to relive York, nor did I.
My men-at-arms lifted the small rowing boat from behind a sand dune and carried it forward on their shoulders. I waited on shore while they rowed my damsels out in twos and threes to board the ship. The youngest of my damsels, Cecilia de Leygrave who was fifteen, hovered at my elbow, already blanched in complexion.
“You do not like to sail, Cecilia?” I asked cautiously.
Tremulous, she cast her brown eyes toward the lowering horizon. “Oh, I have not sailed much. Once before maybe. I was little then, so I don’t remember much of it. But I do not like storms, my lady. I do not like being wet or cold or standing out in the lightning. Ida told me once about her cousin who was struck by lightning—there was nothing left of him but a pile of ashes in his boots and the ring from his finger. And I have heard there are monsters in the sea that follow ships. That they especially follow ships with women on them.”
It was strange to see the usually witty and tittering Cecilia so terror-stricken. I hung an arm over her shaking shoulders and forced a laugh. “Was it Ida who told you about the sea monsters who devour women? She is full of silly stories. Well, I have never seen a sea monster, nor have I ever known anyone who has. It is simply a tavern tale told by old sailors to make themselves sound braver than they are. So you needn’t worry about monsters, Cecilia. They don’t exist. Besides, I have hired the best sailors and the fastest ship north of London. We will arrive somewhere safe sooner than you know.”
But I stretched the truth. The ship I had commissioned for our rescue was one that had recently been blown back by storms. A sodden and battered crew had crudely mended its sails, sliced by the gale. The hull had received a hasty caulking of moss and a spotty daubing of pitch. Its seaworthiness was highly suspect, but taking ship was no surer a fated death than remaining at Tynemouth.
She pressed her fingertips together in a hasty prayer. “I am to be betrothed to a squire from Oxford. A good man, I’m told. He sent me this.” She splayed the fingers of her left hand and wiggled them to show a ring of tarnished silver set with a milky blue stone. A pretty bauble, it was nothing of great value. To her, however, it was a treasure.
“Very beautiful.” I leaned close to peer at it. “So you have not met?”
She twisted the ring on her finger. Then, deciding it was loose, she switched it to another finger. “No, but he writes. I have one of the monks read them to me. It is . . . embarrassing sometimes, what he says, to hear a holy man say it. But he sounds most kind.”
Two soldiers each extended a hand to help us into the little rowing boat that reeked of fish. “A very important trait for a husband to have. You will be happy.” I hooked my arm through hers and together we walked into the foamy rush of cold waves that wrapped about our feet. The boat rocked as we each stepped into it. We plunked down on a rowing thwart in the front and the two soldiers took the back, leaving the oarsman in the middle. I hugged Cecilia close. As I did so, I saw, far to the south and high up at the edge of the cliffs . . . a line of horsemen, armed. Their silhouettes cut stark and ominous against a gray veiling of clouds. The tips of their spears jabbed at the sky as they rode hard and fast along the thin lip of earth.
The oarsman pulled hard, grunting, and we slipped away from shore. My heart tumbled in fear with each jerk of the oars. Most of my damsels, including Patrice and Juliana, had already boarded the broad-bellied merchant ship that would take us down the coast to safety, but three others still waited on shore for the rowing boat to return for them.
Cecilia bit fiercely at her lip as we lurched toward the bobbing ship, each wave knocking our tiny boat back almost as far as the oarsman could manage to advance.
“He will be in York, waiting for me.” Her voice was barely a whisper above the roar of waves around us. Rain began to fall suddenly, heavily, stabbing at my shoulders and back. Cecilia crouched down before me and tucked her head tight against my bosom to keep the rain out of her eyes.
I did not think to ask what her betrothed’s name was, so fixed was my attention on the horse-men now leaning back in their saddles to plunge rapidly down the steep trail toward the shore. “Do not worry, Cecilia. The brunt of the storm is to the north. Away from us.”
But there was a closer fate to the south, closing fast. The last of my damsels were quaking in a tight huddle at the edge of an angry sea. A remnant of my guard, four men, waited with them. A small garrison had remained at the priory, thinking that if anyone came to attack, they would approach by the road to the west. Lightning cracked overhead. One of the soldiers glanced up at the cliffs. In the flickering light, sword blades glinted. I could now make out the round, studded shields affixed to their forearms—the targes of Scots. And at the lead a man with wild black tresses that fell to his shoulders. With his sword thrust out before him, he raised himself up out of his stirrups and closed on those below like a demon of the night.
The garrison soldier let out a cry to stand in defense. The black-haired Scotsman cocked his arm back and leaned out hard to the side. His blade slashed through the darkness and severed the man’s bare neck. The soldier who had given the warning was forever silenced. His head bounced in front of the terrified clutch of women and rolled to the water’s edge. The man’s torso swayed until a gust of wind finally pushed it over.
Above the crash of thunder, I could not hear the screams that followed.