AFTER A MONTH’S JOURNEY across Europe, the royal procession of litters, sumpter horses, and carts finally arrived at the King’s camp in Normandy. Maud stepped from her litter into a lush green meadow and looked curiously about her. From this land, she realized, her grandfather, William, called the Conqueror, had set sail for England fifty-nine years ago. Her eyes passed across a narrow strip of river to the opposite shore. Through the early morning mist she could make out an array of brightly colored pavilions. Surrounded by a profusion of knights, archers, and squires, a scarlet tent, larger than the rest, boasted a red-and-gold banner blowing arrogantly in the autumn wind: the standard of her father, Henry, King of England and Duke of Normandy.
With slender jeweled fingers Maud slipped off the hood of her black mourning cloak. Mingled rage and apprehension coiled like twin snakes in the pit of her belly. She had been sent from her father’s court when she was nine years old, to be the bride of the Holy Roman Emperor of Germany. Now, fourteen years later, the Emperor was dead, and she had been summoned by her father, against her will, to return to his domains. As she stared fixedly at the King’s pavilion, Maud knew that the determination of her fate lay behind those scarlet walls.
Startled by the sound of hooves ringing on stone, Maud turned to see a party of richly dressed nobles riding smartly across the arched stone bridge that spanned the river. They must be headed for the King’s camp, she thought, to meet her. Assaulted by a terrible sense of futility, the impulse to weep, to succumb to despair, was almost overpowering. No, Maud thought fiercely, she would not, must not, show the slightest sign of weakness. No one must suspect how lost and vulnerable she felt, how much she dreaded this meeting with her father, a virtual stranger, whom she had not seen since she was a child.
The sound of a splash, followed by a sudden movement in the clump of green reeds growing by the river, caught her attention. Her eyes searched the bank but could see nothing. An intimation of danger, a tiny ripple of alarm, passed through her. Was it her imagination or did someone lie hidden in the reeds observing her? She knew she should return to the tent and prepare for the upcoming meeting with her father, but she found herself impelled toward the clump of reeds.
With a half-guilty, half-defiant look over her shoulder, Maud slipped off her cloak and headed for the river. Her shoes sank into the muddy grass, so she stooped to remove them, then her black stockings as well. The feeling of her bare feet against the soft moist ground was delicious. Running lightly over the grass, she stopped just short of the river.
The reeds slowly parted and before Maud’s astonished gaze the torso of a naked man rose up from the riverbank. For a moment she had the wild thought that she had come upon a woodland god, the legendary Pan of ancient Greek fable that she had heard about. She caught a quick glimpse of wide shoulders; wet honey-colored hair framed an arresting face with high cheekbones, a curved sensual mouth, and cleft chin. Under tawny brows, arched like the wings of a hawk, green eyes flecked with gold locked with hers. Maud’s heart lurched within her breast; danger, fear, excitement—which it was she could not plainly tell. With a sudden surge of recognition, her breath caught in her throat. The moment, reverberating like a cathedral bell, catapulted her back to another time, another place.
MAUD, PRINCESS OF ENGLAND, shrank back against the damp stone wall of her father’s castle. The fat greyhound puppy, Beau, clutched tightly against her small body, growled softly. Around the corner of the narrow passage she could hear the ominous tread of booted feet coming toward her. It must be one of the guards.
Where could she hide? If no one could find her, she thought, suddenly hopeful, the Imperial escort might leave Windsor without her. Holy Mother, she prayed, do not let them take me away to Germany to be married. Cautiously, she looked down the still deserted passageway and saw the nail-studded oak door of her mother’s solar slightly ajar. Running toward it, Maud pushed the door open and slipped inside. Her eyes scanned the open casement window, gold and scarlet tapestries swaying in the April breeze, the royal arms emblazoned on the walls, the prie-dieu and ivory crucifix. The room was empty.
Her disappointment was so intense that her head started throbbing. Yet what else had she expected? When had the Queen of England, her mother, ever been a refuge? But today, of all the days in her nine years of life, today when her need was desperate, she had hoped it would be different.
The sound of heavy footsteps stopped just outside the solar. Maud darted toward the tapestries, sliding quickly behind the soft folds just as someone pushed open the door. Sick with dread, she buried her face in Beau’s silken fur.