Lille, Flanders

Robert banged the door shut behind him and held his head high.

Robert banged the door shut behind him and held his head at a height he hoped indicated imperious displeasure, but he had scarcely taken two steps into the room when his dignity was shattered—and not by the astonishingly pretty woman before him.

From the corner a deep voice called, “Runt! Have you been growing? By God, you almost look like a man!”

'By God, you almost look like a man!'

Robert cringed, anticipating a cousinly caress in the form of a cuff or a blow. He whispered, “Hingwar!”

Leofric chuckled and smacked him squarely between the shoulder blades. “Flanders the Younger! Son of a serpent!” He slung an arm over Robert’s back and leaned low to peer up into his face. “Ruling a county agrees with you, runt. Puts the color in your cheeks, even if it hasn’t put the hair on your chest yet.”

Leofric pinched his cheek, pounded him lightly on the breastbone, and turned him around to aim him at the giggling young woman.

“I have the pleasure, my lord, of introducing you to your charming cousin: my brother’s baby daughter, Lady Gunnora Hingwar.”

'My brother's baby daughter, Lady Gunnora Hingwar.'

Robert said, “Delighted.”

“Dear Cousin!” Gunnora spread her skirts and dropped into a deep curtsey, in the French fashion, but when she stood she straightened them with an innovative shimmy of her hips. “How glad I am to meet you, and so grateful that you have deigned to heed my plight!”

“Yes, about that plight…”

Leofric clapped Robert’s shoulder and stepped around him to stand at Gunnora’s side. “Aren’t you going to ask how your sister fares?”

'Aren't you going to ask how your sister fares?'

“Ah… Yes. How is Ogive?”

“Ogive is quite well, and she sends her love. Or rather, she would have, if she had any idea I was coming here. Which she didn’t.”

“Yes, what are you doing here?”

“And how is my lady your mother?”

Robert sighed in exasperation. “My mother is well. She is at Bruges, as are the rest of us. Why did you come to Lille in the middle of winter? You must have known you would not find me here. I was told…”

'I was told...'

Robert glanced at Gunnora, and his voice failed him. This starry-​eyed young woman was the “wretched widow” who had “earnestly implored his immediate attendance.” She was so unlike the stout, handkerchief-​clutching Flemish matron he had expected that he resolved never to expect anything so thoroughly again.

And Lord Hingwar, he supposed, was to be cast as the wretched widow’s spinster handmaiden.

Leofric said, “One more time before I died, I wanted to visit the place where my mother was born.” He laid his hand upon his heart. “And a most affecting journey has it been.”

“Yes, I’m certain, but the letter said—”

“That was my reason for coming, mind,” Leofric said. “Gunnora has her own. Tell him, Baby.”

Gunnora nodded graciously between them. “Yes, my dear cousin. You see, my late mother’s husband has betrothed me to a horrible old man. And you must prevent the marriage.”

'And you must prevent the marriage.'

Robert was so stunned by the baldness of her request that he could only stare at her. This reaction proved unwise, for Gunnora clasped her hands and gazed imploringly at him, batting her dark lashes and pursing her full, pink lips into a kissable pout.

Robert began to feel a little out of breath. “On… what grounds?”

'On... what grounds?'

Gunnora tossed her head, and her handsome dark curls bounced against her cheeks. “On the grounds that he is horrible and old!”

“But what am I supposed to do about it?”

“Forbid it! You are the Count Regent of Flanders, and I am your widowed cousin, and you must write to Sir Robert—that’s my stepfather—and tell him that you do not approve of your relations being married off to pot-​bellied, limp—”

Leofric whispered, “Baby!”

Gunnora’s mouth briefly fell open into an adorable O. “—men of whom you do not approve!” She batted her eyelashes conclusively.

She batted her eyelashes conclusively.

Robert looked dizzily to Leofric in hope of masculine assistance, but then he remembered: Leofric. Leofric slitted his eyes and smiled through his whiskers like a cat.

Robert looked dizzily back at Gunnora. “But, my dear lady, by what authority may I do so? I am not the Pope.”

“By the authority of the Count Regent of Flanders.”

After so much hair-​tossing and eye-​batting, her tone of hushed reverence was all the more intoxicating. So she might have said, “By the authority of Almighty God.”

Robert coughed and reminded himself he was not yet even more than Regent. “Ah, yes, I know who I am. Is the man Flemish, then?”

“No, he is a Norman dog.”


Leofric spoke at last.

Leofric spoke at last.

“Her own parish priest thinks him enough of a scoundrel to not only refuse to marry them, but to refuse even to attempt to resign the girl to the business. Under Norman law I may have no right to interfere myself, but by God, there are laws more ancient than these damned Norman strictures, and among these it is written that a man must care for the widow and orphans of his brother. And that is why I kidnapped my niece and brought her here.”

Robert winced. “Oh, God, no.”

“Oh, yes,” Gunnora said. “Uncle was very brave, was he not? Because he is an outlaw now, even though he was legally dead before.”

Robert sighed and shook his head. It was like Leofric to come back from the dead to break the law.

'What do you believe I can do, my dear lady?'

“What do you believe I can do, my dear lady? The man is not my father’s subject. You are not my father’s subject. My authority extends only over the subjects and the territories belonging to my father. I cannot interfere with the affairs of the English king, who, I presume, consents to the marriage.”

“But you are my cousin!”

“Not near enough to justify my interference. Why do you not ask your brother?”

“Because Sir Robert is my guardian!”

'Because Sir Robert is my guardian!'

Leofric explained, “Her brothers can but object to the marriage. They may not prevent it. By Norman law, Sir Robert has as many rights over my niece as if Alix had bequeathed him a horse instead.”

“And anyway,” Gunnora pouted, “Sir Robert never listens to anything Baldwin says! And Brit is in Jerusalem with your father.” She gave Robert such a glare she seemed to believe it had been his own idea.

“Well, my dear lady,” Robert said, applying some of his mother’s style of sarcasm to the dear, “I can only see two alternatives left you. You may return to England, beg your stepfather’s pardon, and consent to the marriage, if it is still offered.”

'I can only see two alternatives left you.'

Gunnora shrieked, “Never!”

Leofric murmured, “Baby…”

Robert took a deep breath before continuing. “Otherwise, I can only recommend you abandon any thought of your dowry, hurry to find some gentleman whom you do fancy and who loves your beauty more than money, and marry him.”

“But I do not want to marry anybody! Dear Cousin, cannot you simply write a teeny letter to Sir Robert and explain to him that it would grieve you so much?”

Leofric said, “You’re not married, yet, are you, runt?”

'You're not married, yet, are you, runt?'

Robert gasped. “Absolutely not! Out of the question! My father is not here to—to—disapprove!”

Nor was his father there to save him! Robert was beginning to fear that if he stayed even overnight at Lille with these two regrettable relations, he would find himself married in the morning. The idea was horrifying, like the sensation of the earth dropping out from beneath him… and yet a glance at Gunnora’s flushed cheeks and sparkling eyes made it intoxicating too.

A glance at Gunnora's flushed cheeks and sparkling eyes made it intoxicating too.

He had to get back to Bruges.

I would never marry him anyway!” Gunnora said. “He does not seem to have a heart.”

Robert made her a jerky bow. “In that case, good day, my lady.” He took a step back towards the door, but Leofric laid a hand on his arm and stopped him.

“Now, Baby,” Leofric scolded gently. “Forgive her, runt. She’s terribly disappointed just now. She was just certain you could help her. She had her little heart set on it. Even though I told her not to get her hopes up. Didn’t I, Baby?”

Gunnora turned her face away and said nothing—unless that was a sniffle he heard?

Gunnora turned her face away and said nothing.

“I told you there was probably nothing he could do. Didn’t I, Baby?” Leofric sighed. “Well, there’s nothing left for us to do but go to La Bassée and wait there for word from Baldwin—or for Brit to return in the next year or two, barring that. I daren’t take you back to Britain.”

Robert looked back at him in confusion. “La Bassée? Are you acquainted with Sir Hubert?”

“Who is Sir Hubert? I’m talking about my mother’s dower lands at La Bassée. Haven’t been there since I was younger than you are now, runt.” He smiled wistfully. “Can’t say I mind the chance to see it again.”

Robert’s mouth fell open. Was that the earth crumbling beneath his feet? “Ah… I fear there is a small problem.”



“Ah… Hubert of La Bassée is the problem. He, ah… he’s lord there.”

“Hmph. There’s going to be a small problem, then. For Sir Hubert.”


“Those lands made up part of my mother’s income. She had the right to entail them to her eldest daughter as part of her dowry, or lacking any daughter surviving, the estate was meant for the enjoyment of her second son until his death.”

Leofric snorted and smiled wistfully as he strolled around Robert towards the fire. Robert did not like the feeling of a Leofric looming over him from behind.

Leofric said, “Had nothing better to do these last three days waiting for you, so I looked through the old records from my mother’s time. Found the old marriage contract itself. She signed it with her own dear hand with a tiny brown X, the poor little thing.” Leofric sighed and laid his hand over his heart. “A very affecting journey it has been.”

Robert cleared his throat and finally found his voice again. “Ah… I’m not certain, but it’s possible that since my father believed for many years that you were dead…”

'Ah... I'm not certain.'

Leofric scratched beneath his chin. “Hmm. That would explain why I haven’t seen a penny from that place in twenty years. It never amounted to much after the Emperor’s army rolled through Artois thirty years ago, but all the same, after twenty years it does add up…”

Robert stared at the lacy curtains in despair. What would his father have done? And even had he known what his father would do, would he have had the courage to do it? His father was in no wise cowed by the clan of Hingwar. But his father had never suffered the indignities of cuffs and blows, and being called runt unto the age of nineteen, and having his lack of body hair pointed out before an astonishingly pretty young woman.

Just then Gunnora herself whirled around to face him and cried, “I know what we can do!” while her curls were still bouncing.

'I know what we can do!'

Leofric asked, “What, Baby?”

“Dear Cousin,” she said to Robert, “you have authority over every person and every inch of land in the County of Flanders, do you not?”

Robert said warily, “Such persons as are not merely visiting here, and such lands as do not belong to the Church.”

“Uncle, did not my grandmother think to spare a scrap of land to the second daughter of her eldest son?”

'Uncle, did not my grandmother think to spare a scrap of land?'

Leofric smiled. “I don’t recall reading anything like that.”

“But couldn’t we find something like that?” She turned to Robert and repeated, “Couldn’t we find such a grant of land for my dowry? For surely, dear Cousin, surely the Count Regent of Flanders has the power to refuse his consent to a marriage when the lady holds a bit of Flemish land in her dowry. It is a matter of utmost importance to the Count, indeed, what manner of gentleman will hold power over a portion of Flanders, for you know that under Norman law a woman has no say at all.”

Robert blinked at her, breathless again.

Robert blinked at her.

“If you looked very hard,” she said, “don’t you suppose you could find a very small contract which my grandmother signed, granting a teeny farm to her second granddaughter from her first son? Just a teeny one! Just a small dairy farm with a cottage, in case I am rendered penniless and must retire, as I fear is all too likely in this world so cruel to widows. Preferably a pretty cottage, but I shan’t be particular. Don’t you suppose you could find such a contract for your poor widowed cousin Gunnora? Then we shan’t need my brothers’ help at all.”

Robert glanced up at Leofric. “And then,” he said, trembling as he began to understand, “you wouldn’t need to go to La Bassée at all, is that it?”

“Hmm… That’s true…” Leofric said. “We wouldn’t. Indeed, we have no desire to spend much time in Flanders at all. We have friends awaiting us in Tournai who hope to be moving on. But if I must go to La Bassée and wait months—nay, even years—for Britmar to return and come to his sister’s aid, then I must.” He lifted his hands helplessly. “Sacred law says I must.”

Robert said, “I see. I see what you are doing here, Hingwar. Do not think I don’t.”

Leofric patted his shoulder. “I reckon you might, runt. You always did seem a clever boy. But all the brains in the world won’t help you when a man has you by the balls.”

'I see what you are doing here, Hingwar.'

Gunnora laughed. Robert’s cheeks burned with humiliation.

“If I help your niece,” he said, “I expect you to sign away your right to every inch of land at La Bassée, and every penny it might have earned you in the last twenty years.”

Leofric said, “Naturally. I can be a gentleman when I get my way. Don’t be sore, runt. It doesn’t cost you much. Only a little farm somewhere in Flanders, though I do insist that the cottage be pretty. Anything less would be unworthy of this beauty here. Or, if you have the balls to write to England and refuse on grounds of severe personal displeasure, it won’t cost you anything but a diplomatic point or two. It’s up to you.”

Robert huffed in exasperation. “Tell me, do you often speak of—balls before your niece?”

Leofric shrugged. “Fairly often. But she’s usually the one who brings it up.”

'But she's usually the one who brings it up.'