About the book
He saw the fire in her eyes and wished more than anything to play with it…
Raised among the nuns of Saint Martha’s Nunnery, Lady Rowena Cran is determined to dedicate her life to God. When her estranged father announces her impending nuptials to a distasteful man of means and power, she enlists the help of her fellow nuns and flees under the cover of night.
Taran Robertson, Laird of Frenich, is certain that a nun has no place among the English soldiers that ambush him while on his way to Scotland. Especially not one as beautiful as Rowena...
Tantalizing and unstoppable, the passion that brews between them is tainted not only by secrets but also by the manhunt launched to find them both. With Rowena’s intended looking to retrieve her and Taran promised to another, all hope seems lost.
But then, something else thought lost comes to light: a ring with a very familiar crest…
Rowena pushed a wayward strand of blonde hair behind her ear as she cut one more cabbage from its stalk. She had gone to the abbey garden to gather herbs and found Sister Prudence straining to harvest cabbages. Rowena said, “The garden is ripening early this autumn.”
Sister Prudence had paused. “Aye, and I have not had time to harvest it all.”
Rowena had taken the knife from her, saying, “Let me help you, Sister.”
“Thank ye, lass. Me strength fails me.” Sister Prudence held a sack open for Rowena.
“It’s my pleasure,” Rowena said, as she caressed Sister Prudence on her shoulder. “Please, save your strength for the cooking! You’re the best cook of all of us!”
Rowena moved to the next cabbage plant, sliced off the head and tossed it into the sack. She said, “And the way you are able to make enough for us and feed the poor folks. It’s impressive.”
Sister Prudence shrugged as if it was nothing. She said, “Times have been hard. Since the last wave of pestilence, so many people are goin’ hungry. Never have we had so many askin’ for food these days.”
Rowena nodded. “It seems to be a problem everywhere. Even my father . . . who, as you know, is used to getting what he wants . . . has complained that he cannot find enough laborers to work his fields. So many have died. And those who survived have been moving to the cities. They don’t want to do farm work for the magnates anymore. They want to learn a trade and make more money. Who can blame them?”
Once the cabbages were harvested, Rowena moved to the rows of herbs and flowers. She prayed a quiet prayer of gratitude for its bounty. Sister Prudence admired the beauty of it. She said, “Rowena, the garden is lovely. You seem to have a knack for the medicines and cures.”
“I do love that part of it.” Rowena said. “It’s amazing to me that God has endowed these plants with such healing powers. We have so much to learn about them. It makes me very happy to know that this little part of a dying rose,” Rowena held up the hip of a spent rose blossom, “can help ward off sickness.”
Sister Prudence shook her head in wonder. “Aye, tis’ a miracle.” She walked with Rowena down the garden row. Rowena picked some yarrow and then some echinacea for tea and tucked it into her heavy sack of vegetables. “Ye’ve learned all about this from Mother Lenora?”
“Yes,” Rowena said. “And from the books in the library. At night, when you and the other Sisters are sleeping, I like to tiptoe off to the library and study the books on medicine there. But you must promise, do not tell anyone about that, especially Mother Lenora.”
Sister Prudence chuckled, “Rowena, we all ken about yer midnight library visits!”
Rowena exclaimed, “No! You can’t know! How long have you known?”
“We’ve ken since ye were a child. Mother Lenora let ye dae it. She thought it was good for ye. She liked that ye loved to study.”
Rowena giggled. “And to think all this time I thought I was so clever. None of you ever mentioned anything to me about it! I don’t believe it!”
Rowena examined the plants and thought about why she loved learning about them so much. She said, “I suspect I love it because my mother died giving birth to my baby brother. She was in terrible pain for hours. The midwife came. And the physician. Nothing they did helped her. Her suffering haunts me even now. And the horror of the pestilence. I suppose I would like to find a way to cure people. Help ease their suffering.”
Sister Prudence said, “We all felt so sorry for ye. Ye were such a young lass. Ye were what, twelve, when ye came to here to us?”
“Yes. I miss my mother still. But my father. He could not be consoled. He never showed his grief in public, though. He had to keep up the façade, you know, being the Right Honorable Earl of Kensley, Alfred Cran, and all that.”
Sister Prudence chortled. “I guess when ye’re one of the most powerful noblemen in all of England, it’s important to keep up yer appearances.”
Rowena’s thoughts drifted back to those early days of her time at St. Martha’s abbey. Her father had insisted she come to St. Martha’s for her education. “I suppose,” she said. “It was seven years ago, and I was very spoiled, I now realize!”
“Of course ye were. Ye were Rowena Cran, Laird Kensley’s only daughter!” Sister Prudence laughed.
“And I still am,” Rowena said absently, her thoughts focused on some mint plants. It seemed nothing could kill mint. Why was that, she wondered. What made a plant like mint so vigorous, while other plants and animals can be so vulnerable to disease? To injury?
Church bells began clanging from St. Martha’s Nunnery. The bells called the abbey nuns to the morning’s third prayer service. “I love the sound of the bells,” Rowena said, as their song echoed in waves off the rolling hills of Jarrow, in Northumberland. “We’d better get going, or we’ll be late for service. We still need to clean up a bit!”
As Sister Prudence and the novitiate Rowena scrambled up the hillside to the abbey, Rowena said, “It’s funny, I hardly remember much about my life before my mother died.”
Sister Prudence said, “Yer life was nae doubt the envy of any little English lass.”
Rowena said, “I remember the day my father told me I was coming here.” He had taken Rowena by the hand and led her out for a walk in the garden at his estate at Middle Kirk Manor. He said he had decided to send her to St. Martha’s Nunnery, in Northumberland.
Rowena remembered what her father had told her that day in the garden years ago. She had to learn the manners expected of a noblewoman of rank and refinement. How to weave, to spin, to manage servants, to tend to the sick and injured. He had said, “All of these are skills expected of an English lady of your stature. Some day you will be a wife. A mother. Remember, God is always there for both of us.”
Rowena had clung to his words through the years.
To Rowena, Mother Lenora and the abbey sisters looked old and frightening. But when Rowena met Sister Prudence, she brightened up. Sister Prudence had a sweetness about her that was rather grandmotherly and sisterly at the same time. Something about the way her green eyes twinkled when she smiled and the faint brogue in her speech endeared her to Rowena. Sister Prudence made Rowena feel like she could tell her any secret and she would never tell a soul.
When they arrived at the abbey kitchen, Rowena gently dropped the big sack of vegetables on the floor. It was heavy, but her years of living at the priory had made her strong and sinewy.
She found bread dough covered with a cloth. A bowl of cherries sat next to it.
Sister Prudence followed Rowena into the kitchen. She said, “Me dear child, thank ye! Some of these will go into the potage right after prayers, and just in time for our hungry visitors.”
Sister Prudence then plucked a ripe, red cherry from a bowl on the table. She put a finger to her lips and said, “Shhh.” With mischievous eyes, the nun placed the cherry in Rowena’s hand. Rowena grinned at the treat and gave Sister Prudence a warm hug and peck on the cheek.
“Your secret’s safe with me, Sister!” Rowena said, popping the cherry into her mouth.
The nun said, “Me dear, it has been such a pleasure havin’ ye with us these last seven years. It’s hard to believe ye will finish yer tutelage here next year. Have ye decided yet what ye plan to dae?”
“I think so, Sister. May I confide in you? I’d like your advice about something,” Rowena said. From the moment Rowena arrived at St. Martha’s, the nuns had taken her in as one of their own. They adored the little girl. They taught her good manners, how to weave, and how to speak French. Rowena was not the only girl the nuns had ever schooled. Mother Lenora saw that Rowena was especially interested in the healing arts and had worked to teach her all she could. But Rowena and Sister Prudence had a special closeness between them.
“Of course, me dear. Let’s talk on our way to chapel or we’ll be late!” Sister Prudence handed Rowena a damp cloth. They wiped the garden dirt and debris off their hands. Rowena offered an arm to Sister Prudence as they walked to the chapel.
As they walked arm in arm, Rowena said, “You know, I’ve been thinking of becoming a nun but I’ve had some doubts. Yesterday at morning prayers, I thought I heard God’s calling. I believe He wants me to follow the path and take the vows to become a novice. Yet, I still have some reservations about it. I cannot explain why. It is nagging me. If you can tell me, Sister, I need to know. Did you have doubts when you decided to follow the path?”
Sister Prudence smiled. “Aye, Rowena. I had me doubts at first. But once I took me vows, me doubts disappeared. Lookin’ back I ken it was the best decision I ever made. However, the fact that it was right for me does nae mean it is right for ye. Tis’ a deeply personal decision. Tis’ good that ye are mullin’ it over carefully. Have ye talked it over with yer faither?”
Rowena said, “Some. He knows I’m thinking about it. I haven’t yet told him that I’m close to a decision. I plan to tell him when he next visits me.” I hope he will be happy about it, she thought.
Sister Prudence squeezed Rowena’s arm. “He will want to ken that.”
“I only hope I make the right choice,” Rowena said, a bit of doubt still sounding in her voice.
“Trust in yer heart, child. God speaks to us in the still small voice that we hear in our hearts. He will not steer ye wrong,” Sister Prudence said.
Rowena bit her lip. “Yes, I believe I have heard that voice. But please, Sister, promise me you will keep it secret for now. I must tell my father when he is here next before I tell anyone else.”
Sister Prudence gave her another hug. “Of course I will, dear! I ken ye will make the right choice.”
Rowena said, “Thank you, and thank you so for your years of friendship, Sister. I am eternally grateful to God for sending me here. I have learned so much, and I love you all!”
Near the chapel door, Rowena waited in line behind Sister Prudence and the other nuns to dip her hands in the holy water. As she waited her turn, she quickly re-pinned her long hair. She caught a glimpse of herself in a reflection off a piece in a stained-glass window. In her old life, people would often tell her she had inherited her mother’s beauty. As an adolescent, Rowena had enjoyed hearing those compliments, but now Rowena no longer cared about such things. Besides, she didn’t feel especially attractive with her cheeks rosy and dewy with sweat from working in the garden.
In fact, even in her untidy state Rowena was stunning. Her blue eyes were round and set wide in her feminine, oval-shaped face. Her features were beautifully symmetrical. Her jawline was well-defined without being prominent. When she smiled, she lit up the room. It was hard for anyone to take their eyes off of her. Yet her life in the abbey made her totally unaware of her beauty.
Lord Kensley leaned on a cane by the tall windows in his receiving room in Middle Kirk Manor. He had gotten a foot hung up in a stirrup during a dangerous fall from his horse a few days earlier. He ignored the pain as he watched the entourage from Strongbow ride up the lane into the courtyard. In the lead was the arrogant David Fulton, Earl of Strongbow.
Earl Strongbow owned property in Surrey, just south of London. He had been knighted by the king for his service in battle several years back, although the factual accounts were surrounded by controversy. Strongbow, through shrewd (some might say underhanded) business had managed to acquire valuable property and ingratiate himself with the king.
Before Strongbow became an Earl, he had been just another unlikeable, conceited man, like any other of that ilk. Now that he ranked among the noble classes as Earl of Strongbow, he had become completely insufferable. His affluence had brought him fortune and treasure. It also had put many pounds on him and his fitness had begun to suffer some. His breathing was now raspy, as if he smoked too much, and his gluttony was beginning to bloat his face. Though his new lifestyle showed in his appearance, it had not yet impaired his fighting skills. He could still ride a horse and wield a sword as well as he ever did before.
Lord Kensley had gotten to know Earl Strongbow through parliamentary meetings and various social events. Earl Strongbow was a powerful friend of the king, and he was the only one who was able and willing to help Lord Kensley defend his land and livestock. No one else had resources at their fingertips like Earl Strongbow.
“Lord Kensley,” his valet said. “The Right Honorable Earl of Strongbow has arrived.”
“Show him in,” Lord Kensley said.
Before the valet could usher the earl in properly, Earl Strongbow barged into the room. The valet bowed respectfully and left, closing the door behind him.
“So good of you to come on short notice, Lord Strongbow,” said Kensley, as he made his way to an oak chair behind his massive desk. Such furniture made Lord Kensley’s life more comfortable, and it also demonstrated his wealth and status. He tried not to hobble too much. He dropped himself down onto another luxury- a straw-stuffed cushion that covered the hard seat. He motioned to a matching chair and cushion and said, “Please, Lord Strongbow, do sit down. Your journey was a good one, I hope?”
Earl Strongbow sat, grunting as his weight flattened the cushion. He was in his mid-forties now. He looks every bit of it and more, thought Lord Kensley. Earl Strongbow crossed his chubby legs priggishly and waved a hand dismissively, like a man born into the noble rank he now held. “Oh, it was a bit long, but uneventful. I must say, Lord Kensley, your invitation left me intrigued. I have been looking forward to our . . . um . . . meeting.” Earl Strongbow smirked, as he looked around eyeing the tapestries hung on the walls. His gaze rested on Lord Kensley’s ankle, now propped up on a stool beside his desk.
“What ever happened to your foot? My word, it looks as big as a hornet’s nest! Is it fractured?” he asked.
Lord Kensley did not want to elaborate much about his injury. He had invited Earl Strongbow here to negotiate over an important business matter, not to talk about any feebleness of his. He needed to make a showing of strength to Earl Strongbow, not weakness.
“A little mishap with my horse is all. Tis nothing,” Lord Kensley said, dismissively. In fact, it was quite painful. He was quite worried that his ankle may not heal properly, and he would need to walk with a cane for the rest of his life. He needed to have a physician tend to it and planned to do so tomorrow.
Earl Strongbow said, “I see. Best take care. Have you seen your physician? All that swelling … appears to be broken. Needs to be set. Watch out for fever, abscess, and gangrene.”
“Thank you for your concern. I assure you it is only a minor sprain,” Lord Kensley said. An awkward silence ensued as the men sized each other up. Lord Kensley spoke first. “Well then, Strongbow, let us get down to business, shall we?”
Earl Strongbow held up a hand. “Of course. But first, please, Lord Kensley. I prefer you address me as Lord Strongbow.” Fulton smiled.
“Certainly . . . my apologies, Lord Strongbow,” Lord Kensley said, as he leaned back in his chair, trying to conceal the pain shooting up his leg. He folded his hands and took a deep breath.
Earl Strongbow said. “Now. I understand from your letter that this is an urgent matter?”
“Yes, I’m afraid it is,” Lord Kensley said, leaning forward and clasping his hands on his desk. “For the last several years, I have suffered great losses from the marauding Welsh bands from the west. The earls of Cheshire and Shropshire simply cannot, or will not, hold them back any further. Rumors are that the earls have made some kind of ‘arrangement’ with the bastards and now the Welsh are coming across the border at will, coming here to Staffordshire and stealing whatever they can get their hands on. My own wool production is a fraction of what it once was.”
Lord Strongbow nodded. “I, too, have heard stories about those thieves.”
Lord Kensley harrumphed. “I wish it were only the Welsh I have to contend with. The famine and the great pestilence took a heavy toll on the population here. Those who survived have left for London and anywhere they can make a living. Those who are left here cannot be trusted – today they support the Welsh princes. Tomorrow the English king. I am afraid I will not be able to provide arms to the king, should he request it. I simply cannot rely on the resources I have left.”
He sympathized with Lord Kensley by saying, “I understand what you mean. The country still has not recovered from the pestilence. It has already been a decade, but the population still hasn’t recovered.”
Lord Kensley nodded. “Right. And don’t forget the peasant’s revolt a couple of years ago. King Richard gave them everything they wanted. So no more workers for us and my crops are rotting in the field! No rent coming in. But God forbid the king does not get the money he wants for his next raid.”
He is quite desparate, thought Lord Strongbow. This could be a wonderful opportunity for me. Lord Strongbow said, “Everyone I talk to is looking for workers. There are not enough of them to go around. My own workers are so burdened they hardly get enough rest. But I pay them well, and I have invested in cloth-making and other businesses, not simply agriculture and wool exports.”
Lord Kensley said, “Very smart of you, Strongbow. I must say, I would like to go that direction myself. The king will bring us all to ruin if he’s not careful.”
“Are you saying what I think you are, Lord Kensley? Are you saying that you are … broke?” Earl Strongbow asked with a rude bluntness.
Lord Kenley bowed his head and said, “No – I mean, well ...that is … not yet.” Lord Kensley then looked directly at Earl Strongbow, trying to hide his dislike for the man. “But without your help, it won’t be long. Needless to say, I could use a loan, though I would not be able to repay you immediately.”
“You certainly have a serious problem,” Earl Strongbow said, assuming an air of condescension. “I have the best soldiers in all of England. Many border shires would pay a pretty sum for my assistance. The Welsh are raiding from the west, and the Scots are raiding the northern shires. My services are in great demand. Why should I help you?”
Lord Kensley had anticipated this question. “As Earl of Kensley, my heritage is old and venerated. My allies are indebted to me, but they are not in a much better position than I am. My soldiers are loyal only to me. You will have my allegiance and that of all my allies. I will see that you have privileged and exclusive right of way through Staffordshire, its roads and rivers that lead to neighboring Cheshire and its ports of trade on the Irish Sea. You can peddle your wool and your goods anywhere in the world.”
Earl Strongbow was quiet.
“Think of it, Strongbow,” Lord Kensley continued. “The power of our allegiance would be unparalleled in England. Working together, we could both profit mightily from an alliance.” Who knows, thought Lord Kensley. An alliance with Earl Strongbow could be such a deterrence to foreign incursions, the king just may grant them more lands and riches.
Earl Strongbow was quiet for another moment. When he spoke, his response took Lord Kensley by surprise. “Tell me, Kensley. How is your daughter, the lovely Rowena?”
“My daughter? Why, Rowena is doing well, thank you. She has grown into a lovely young lady under the tutelage of St. Martha’s at Jarrow. I made the right decision sending her there. What prompts you to inquire about Rowena?”
Earl Strongbow leveled his gaze at Lord Kensley. “Yes, I caught a glimpse of her when I was in Northumberland defending the crown against the Scottish raiders last year. We were forced to lodge at the nunnery one night unexpectedly when the weather turned foul and several of my men had taken ill with a fever. The nuns took us in and fed us. My needs were attended by the most ravishing girl I had ever seen. She took my breath away when I saw her. I asked the old Abbess Lenora – what a hag that one is -- who the young beauty was. She informed me the girl was your daughter who had been entrusted into their care some years back. Apparently, she has become quite notorious for her uncommon beauty.”
Lord Kensley puffed his chest a bit. “Why thank you, Earl Strongbow, er, I mean Lord Strongbow. I am quite proud of Rowena. It took a lot of courage for her to accept things when her mother died, I must say. I visit her every chance I get, but lately I’ve been remiss.”
“What a shame that she is cloistered away in that isolated wilderness,” Earl Strongbow said. “She needs to be dressed in silks and finery and shown off to the upper crust of London!”
Lord Kensley looked dismayed, but did not argue. He dare not say anything that would jeopardize an agreement with Earl Strongbow.
“She must be what . . . eighteen, maybe nineteen, now? What plans have you made for her future?” Earl Strongbow asked.
Lord Kensley sighed. Earl Strongbow was close to touching a nerve. Lord Kensley had been putting off making plans for his daughter’s future. She was a grown woman now, and the time was at hand. He sighed again. His life had become overwhelming. Rowena’s future was one more worry that he needed to manage that he had happily avoided. “At this point, I have no plans for her. She seems quite content at St. Martha’s and has hinted on occasion at her interest in becoming a nun. Her future is up in the air at the moment. I have been so terribly distracted by matters here that I have not yet tended to long-term planning for her.”
Earl Strongbow’s eyes narrowed. He tapped his fingers on the desk, leaned forward and said in a low, suggestive tone, “Have you considered, Lord Kensley, that your lovely daughter may be the key to your financial security?”
Lord Kensley shook his head, wary of the direction this conversation was heading. “What are you driving at, Lord Strongbow?”
Earl Strongbow looked at him with condescension in his face, as if the solution was obvious to anyone of average intelligence. He gave a smug smile and he said, “Well now. Give your predicament some thought, Lord Kensley.” Earl Strongbow looked down his nose at his fingernails and said, “Let me make this easy for both of us. I will agree to an alliance with you under the terms you proposed… But I require one additional concession from you.”
Lord Kensley kept a stone face, hiding the relief he felt wash over him, followed immediately by apprehension. That was too easy, he thought. What else did Earl Strongbow want from him? Whatever it was, Lord Kensley would do it. It would be bad enough to have to collaborate with this hufty-tufty Strongbow but it was better than certain financial ruin without his resources and influence. At least Strongbow sees some advantage to an alliance. What else did he want? Lord Kensley asked, “I see. Tell me, what is the additional condition you propose?”
Earl Strongbow slowly smiled, his thin lips pulling back across uneven teeth. Lord Kensley definitely did not like the look in his glittering eyes. Lord Kensley felt like prey –a dormouse – and Earl Strongbow was toying with him, ready to come in for the kill.
Earl Strongbow gazed silently at Lord Kensley for a few long seconds.
“What is it, then, Lord Strongbow?” Lord Kensley asked again, uneasily.
Earl Strongbow held his piercing stare a moment longer, looked directly into Lord Kensley’s eyes and said flatly, “You will give me your daughter’s hand in marriage.”
His demand took Lord Kensley by complete surprise. He sputtered. “I beg your pardon?”
“Oh, come now, Lord Kensley. Surely you have not contemplated her value to your estate.”
Although Lord Kensley had not expected this, he was not stupid. Lord Kensley knew exactly what Rowena meant to his estate. Arranged marriages between British nobility or even foreign royalty were a common way for powerful families to boost their power and influence. Forming a strong alliance between important families and factions could be effective.
Lord Kensley said, “Of course I have thought about it. But until now, it had not seemed urgent. Or perhaps I have not wanted to face the fact that some day she will belong to someone else. I admit I have a soft spot for her.”
“My word, Lord Kensley. Stop sounding like a silly old fool. I’m surprised you did not make arrangements for her years ago.”
“If you must know, Lord Strongbow, I have given it thought. The truth is I’m not convinced of the wisdom of these marriage ‘arrangements’. The idea of making my own flesh and blood a pawn to further my commercial or political interests seems . . . to be frank, it seems wrong. I’m not convinced that it is best for my daughter.” Lord Kensley looked out the window as he said this. “Besides, you’ll expect a dowry from me. I have nothing to give you.”
Earl Strongbow grew exasperated. “Forget the dowry. An alliance with you is enough for me. With my workers, your wool production will give me an endless supply of raw materials. So you may put your emotions aside, Lord Kensley,” he said. “The value of this alliance with me could ensure the survival of Middle Kirk Manor and your earldom.”
Lord Kensley raised an eyebrow. “I need you to understand what it will take to succeed. I’ll need you to supply at least fifty laborers who know how to farm sheep. I’ll need another twenty-five or so to tend the oats and barley.”
“No problem,” Earl Strongbow said, without hesitataion. “Do you have housing for them?”
“Of course,” Lord Kensley said. “I have tenement cottages all over the manor property. Many of them are vacant.”
Earl Strongbow nodded. Then the two noblemen finished negotiating out other details. When they had concluded an agreement, Lord Kensley had a servant write it all down. Earl Strongbow signed it, then passed it to Lord Kensley.
He held the pen, thinking over what he was about to do. He knew that Earl Strongbow was right. If he did not do this, he would likely lose everything. Sure, he would keep his title of “earl”, most likely, but what good was a title? It could not pay for food and shelter and self-defense. Lord Kensley could think of no other way out of his predicament with his fortunes intact. Earl Strongbow had him in an iron grip.
Lord Kensley put his head in his hand, worried about Rowena’s reaction to the news. How will I tell her? She will be terribly dismayed, but once I explain everything to her, she will understand. She would have to. But would she ever forgive me? He could not be sure, but it was a risk he had to take. Without another word, he signed the agreement. Then he pulled himself to his feet and offered a handshake across his desk to Earl Strongbow. “Rowena is yours,” he said. “When can I expect your workers to begin arriving?”
Earl Strongbow stood slowly as he lifted himself off of his seat. He shook Lord Kensley’s hand and said, “I’ll have my workers here in two weeks’ time. And on the morrow I shall ride to St. Martha’s with my men to retrieve Rowena.”
“Wait just a moment, Lord Strongbow!” Lord Kensley objected. His paternal instincts had suddenly taken control.
Earl Strongbow narrowed his steely eyes at Lord Kensley. “Are you telling me ‘no’? I beg your pardon, Kensley, did we not just reach an agreement on the terms of this alliance?”” Earl Strongbow asked.
Lord Kensley swallowed his ire. He would have to be more careful about what he said to this supercilious fool. He said, “Of course, Lord Strongbow. But I insist on sending my own knights along with you. The abbey is located near the borderlands with Scotland. It is rife with outlaws and raiders. As you would expect, Mother Lenora, the abbess there, will need assurances that I have approved of Rowena’s sudden departure.”
Earl Strongbow said, “You are right. This will come as a surprise to them.”
Lord Kensley continued. “I would go with you, but as you can see, I am in no condition to go. However, Rowena knows many of my knights, and they know her. It will comfort her to be in the company of my men. I will write a letter that they can take with them to assure her that you are acting on my instructions. Can we agree on that?”
Earl Strongbow paused, and then nodded. “I suppose you are right, Lord Kensley. I see no harm in that. But do not dawdle. I am anxious to consummate our agreement, if you understand what I mean,” he said with a crude smile. Lord Kensley swallowed the bile he felt rising in his throat.
“Lord Strongbow, I am Rowena’s father. Please keep that in mind when you speak to me about her.” Lord Kensley suppressed the urge to punch Earl Strongbow right in the nose. Before he could say or do anything further, Earl Strongbow was out the door and heading to round up his men.
Lord Kensley limped back to his desk. Poor Rowena. He wished he could deliver this news in person, but he could not go. His knights would have to deliver his letter when they arrived at St. Martha’s. He began to write:
Rowena, my dearest daughter,
Nothing is more important to me than protecting you. Since the death of your mother, I have wanted only to do what is best for you. We have both paid a heavy price for it – these past seven years without you here have been lonely and difficult. The situation with the citizenry has not improved – sickness still pervades the countryside and few are able to work. Unrest is rampant. I fear society is on the brink of collapse, along with my own fortunes, and drastic measures are needed.
Although you have been away from me for so long, you have been constantly in my thoughts. No father could care as much as I do for his daughter, nor be willing to sacrifice so much.
Entrusting you to the sisters of St. Martha’s has kept you safe and taught you well. You have learned to be courageous and strong, dependent on no one, even in the face of profound disappointment. How more blessed can any father be?
Dear child, I have important news for you. Our futures and the future of Middle Kirk Manor are at stake. I can explain details to you later. For now, please understand that for reasons of your own safety and security and to fulfill my obligations to King Richard and to the citizenry of the shire, I have determined it necessary to form a strategic alliance with Lord David Fulton, Earl of Strongbow.
As part of our agreement, I have consented to give him your hand in marriage. Your union will seal the most powerful alliance in all of England, assuring the best defense for the shire and all of our interests. Most importantly, this marriage will establish you as a noblewoman of the utmost prominence in the highest ranks of British nobility. As the wife of Lord Strongbow, you will want for nothing for the rest of your life.
The ceremony is to take place forthwith. Accordingly, you must return to Middle Kirk Manor with Lord Strongbow at once. Our knights will escort you to ensure your safe arrival.
Your loving father
When he finished writing, Lord Kensley folded the letter and sealed it with hot, crimson colored wax. He pressed his signet ring into it, leaving his crest embossed deeply into the seal. No one would doubt the importance of this message. Especially Rowena.
Rowena was in the abbey library. She was completely absorbed in her schooling assignment of the day: translating a Latin manuscript of Beowulf into English. She was so deep in concentration that she did not hear the commotion in the entry hall below.
Sister Prudence dashed up the back stairway and stood at the library doors. “Rowena! Rowena! Ah, thought ye would be here!” Sister Prudence called in an urgent but hushed voice.
Rowena finally looked up from her work. “What is it, Sister?”
“Come, look out!” Sister Prudence motioned her over to the arched windows that looked out into the courtyard below. The leaded glass made everything look wavy and a little distorted, but Rowena could see well enough. The sight alarmed her. Four armed knights dressed in chain mail had galloped right into the courtyard. Two of them bore her family crest on their cloaks.
Behind them rode a solitary man on a fine-looking gray horse. Both horse and rider were well-turned out, carrying a banner emblazoned with a crest that she did not recognize. Mother Lenora, flanked by three nuns, were rushing out to greet them, their long skirts flapping in the breeze.
Watching the scene unfold below, the sisters gasped. Rowena cried, “That is my father’s crest! I recognize one of the knights. Where is my father?” They watched as the five men dismounted. She knitted her brow in confusion. “I don’t understand. Why are they here? Where is my father? Oh no, there must be an emergency! Something must have happened to my father! Please God, let him be safe!”
Rowena rushed to the stairway and down to the entry hall with Sister Prudence following behind her. Mother Lenora came through the entry door with the man wearing the crest she did not recognize. She turned to him, but gestured to Rowena. “This is Rowena,” Mother Lenora said. Then to Rowena, the old abbess said, “This man has news from your father.”
The man stepped forward and gave a perfunctory bow. “Perhaps you do not recognize me. We have met before, many times. You were a child then. And a year ago, you tended to me and my men when we stopped to rest for a night. I am Lord David Fulton, Earl of Strongbow.”
Rowena immediately recognized him. She had met him a few times as a child. Then last year, he had come to St. Martha’s with his fighters after they had gotten lost in a raging storm. Strongbowhad stared at her impudently and made crude remarks while she served him. He became drunk and started groping at her as she served him. She was able to get away from him when the bells called the nuns for evening prayers. Rowena had not told anyone about this incident, thinking she would likely never encounter him again.
Rowena gave a quick curtsy. “Lord Strongbow. Of course I remember you. Pleased to meet you once more.”
Looking at him now, she estimated he was in his mid-forties and looked every bit of it. He had an unhealthy paunch and thinning gray hair combed across the top of his head. His face bore the expression of a man whose lifelong unhappiness was transforming to malice.
He said with an oily voice, “I suspect our presence troubles you, my dear. No need for concern. My men and I have come to take you back to Middle Kirk Manor at first light tomorrow. I am delighted to inform you that you are to become my wife.” He handed the letter to Rowena. “This letter from your father will explain it all.”
She saw her father’s seal on the letter and ripped it open. She recognized his hand. It was genuine. She began to read the letter silently. As she read, she clutched at the crucifix she wore around her neck and shook her head. No, no, no, this cannot be! she thought. Her hands began to tremble. She bit back tears as her eyes burned and the inside of her mouth felt full of cotton. It took all of her composure not to scream out!
In a daze of confusion, she swallowed her emotions and assumed an air of calm that she certainly did not feel. She handed the letter to Mother Lenora, who read it as Rowena turned to Lord Strongbow and said coolly, “I see. I shall gather my things and be ready to leave at daylight, as you command.” She turned and headed back up the stairs to her cell. She needed time alone. She needed time to pray.
Behind her, she heard Mother Lenora instructing Sister Prudence and the others to make preparations for the men to lodge in the visitor’s quarters overnight. Sister Prudence scurried off to the kitchen to prepare meals and the others scattered to tend to their assigned duties. Mother Lenora followed Rowena to her cell.
When the abbess reached Rowena’s cell, Rowena was already at her prayer bench, kneeling in silent prayer. She heard Mother Lenora come in and looked up at her, tears brimming in her eyes. The abbess gently placed her hands on Rowena’s shoulders. “I’m sorry, my dear child. I know how you thought you wanted to dedicate your life to God. But it now seems God has other plans for you. Let Him guide you.”
“Thank you for your words of consolation, my dear Mother. I am sorry but I take no comfort in them. I’m afraid God may be mistaken this time!”
Mother Lenora chuckled. “I sincerely doubt He is mistaken, Rowena. You must take comfort in knowing that we cannot always understand God’s reasons. Understanding is not what He calls us to do. We must be willing always to trust that God has a plan for all of us, and we are bound to obey. He will never betray you, Rowena. You must trust Him.”
Rowena hugged the abbess. “I cannot bear the thought of leaving this life behind, nor all of you. The abbey is my only family now. The church is my family. Nothing else matters to me.”
Mother Lenora continued her gentle, but firm solace. Her faith in God was steadfast. “Rowena, listen to me. You are no longer a child. As the noblewoman you are about to become, you will have many opportunities to show your devotion to God. You can be an example of piety for many others. Your generosity and your strength in spirit will see you through every moment. God will be with you everywhere and in every moment. Have faith in Him, Rowena.”
With that, Mother Lenora left Rowena alone with her thoughts. Alone in the silence of her cell, Rowena prayed. She prayed to God to watch over everyone she loved, the abbey itself, Nana, and Holiday, who by now was probably feeling his old age. She prayed long and hard for a way out of this unacceptable predicament she suddenly found herself in. She wondered, was this truly God’s will? What about the notion that God only helps those who help themselves? Was there no way out of this for her?
Hours must have passed. Rowena’s vigil was interrupted by a knock on her cell door. “Rowena?” It was Sister Prudence. She held a plate with some bread and cheese and a cup of potage “I thought ye might like somethin’ to nibble on.”
Rowena got up stiffly and opened the door. “Thank you, Sister. Please, come in,” she said, glumly.
Sister Prudence set the plate on a night table and gave Rowena a motherly embrace. “This must be a heartbreakin’ blow to ye. I’m so sorry,” Sister Prudence said.
“I am despondent. I have been beseeching God to show me His will. . . the way He wants me to go,” Rowena said. There was a quiet but unmistakable determination in her voice. “I did not envision this! Marrying a man I do not even know. . . a fat old lecher like Earl Strongbow.”
“Oh? And has He shown ye another path?” Sister Prudence asked.
“Yes, in fact, I believe He has,” Rowena said, almost whispering. “Close the door. I must confide in you.”
Sister Prudence peered into the hallway. It was deserted. She closed the cell door so they could talk without being overheard.
“What is it?” Sister Prudence asked in a whisper.
Rowena took a deep breath. “I cannot abide by my father’s will. The thought of marrying Earl Strongbow is repulsive. I do not care that it is what noblemen are supposed to do with their daughters or that everyone expects me to go along with it.”
“What will ye dae? Ye cannae stay here anymore,” Sister Prudence asked.
“I know. I’m going to run away… Tonight.”
Sister Prudence gasped. “What? Have ye gone mad, dear girl? Ye cannae go out alone. Only women of ill repute venture out alone at night. And ye know this countryside is dangerous. It is filled with raiders who would kill ye or commit unspeakable acts of depravity! A young woman like yerself has nae chance alone.”
“I am aware of the dangers,” Rowena said, “though I fear a worse fate if I allow myself to be taken back. I believe my life is meant to serve our Lord. I will not allow my father to take me from that calling and use me for his own profit. How dare he push me into marriage?”
Sister Prudence nodded. “I understand how ye must feel. But it is the custom of the aristocracy. These arrangements happen all the time to young women from prominent families like yers. Think of it. If ye choose to submit, ye can have a comfortable life and use yer riches for the benefit of all that is good. With yer beauty and yer charm, ye could have the nation at yer feet! Think of all the good ye can dae. Perhaps that is God’s purpose in this.”
“Hmmph. You sound like Mother Lorena,” Rowena said wryly. “I do not wish to become a wife. I only want to serve God. Why do my own desires matter not at all?”
“Rowena, it is not about what ye want. It is about what God wants for ye. Remember that Lord Strongbow is a child of God, too. God sent him to ye for a reason. It is not yer duty to understand or question His plans for ye. Yer only duty is to obey His will. I fear that ye will have to find His purpose for ye… as Lord Strongbow’s wife,” Sister Prudence said.
Rowena seemed not to hear her. “Sister, have you considered why Lord Strongbow has not yet taken a wife, at his age? My goodness, he is old enough to be my father. No, I want nothing to do with him or his riches. I want only to devote my life to serving our Lord. This- this- ‘wedding’ scheme of theirs must be the devil’s work.”
Sister Prudence shook her head at all of this. “Oh my word,” was all she could say.
Rowena then told her about the upsetting encounter she had with Earl Strongbow last year.
Sister Prudence raised an eyebrow. “Ye were right to keep that tale to yerself,” she said. “It would only have caused ye trouble, for nae good reason.”
Rowena nodded, adding, “Yes, that is if anyone cared to listen!” Sister Prudence stayed silent as Rowena continued. “No. I shall not be his wife. I have made up my mind, Sister. I am leaving here tonight.” Rowena started grabbing her few clothes and putting them in a woolen bag.
“But wait! This will be exceedingly dangerous for ye!” Sister Prudence clutched Rowena’s arm. She could see the girl would not be stopped. And who could blame her, really. If what she was saying about Earl Strongbow were true, Sister Prudence knew she would do exactly the same thing if she were in Rowena’s place.
“I do not care,” Rowena said.
“Have ye considered where ye will go?” Sister Prudence asked.
Rowena said, “Yes. I will take one of the men’s horses and ride to St. James Monastery in Chester. I know the way. I will be there before morning. Surely Brother Ian will provide me with protection until I can find suitable accommodations in another nunnery.”
“I see,” Sister Prudence said. “Brother Ian is a godly man. He will certainly be able to give ye refuge for a time. But ye need a longer term solution. I have an idea for ye. Stay here, I must retrieve something from my cell. I will return quickly.” Sister Prudence slipped out the cell door into the corridor. The sun had set and the old stone hallway of the abbey was dark.
While Sister Prudence was gone, Rowena finished tossing the few items she had in her bag. The simple life at the nunnery had required her to unburden herself from material possessions. As a result, Rowena had only a few meager articles of clothing and basic toiletries to take with her. She also took her cache of medicinal herbs that came in handy for a variety of minor ailments.
She looked around at her cell – her home for the last seven years. It was simple, but the nuns had been so kind to her. She would miss all of them.
Rowena’s appetite returned. Knowing she would need food later, she downed the potage quickly, and then put the bread and cheese in the deep pocket of her skirt.
With a soft tap on the cell door, Sister Prudence reappeared. She handed Rowena a flask outfitted with a rope belt and already filled with clean water from the abbey’s cistern.
“Bless you, Sister. You think of everything,” Rowena said, taking the flask and tying it around her waist.
“Aye, remember that is why I am the chief cook here,” Sister Prudence said with a chuckle. “Now, listen to me. I ken where ye can go; where ye will find safety and protection. Nay one will find ye there. And ye can continue yer path in the service of God. But it will be a dangerous and difficult journey for ye alone. A woman travellin’ alone, especially at night . . . I fear for ye. Ye will need help from the monks.”
“Sister Prudence, I assure you I will get help. Now tell me, please! Where can I go?” Rowena asked with urgency sounding in her voice.
Sister Prudence took a deep breath. “Ye need to find yer way to the Hebrides island of Iona. An abbey is there . . . St. Columba Abbey.”
Rowena had never heard of the place. “An island? Where is this Iona Island?” Rowena asked.
Sister Prudence sighed. “Iona is a small island. Ye will find it in the Inner Hebrides off the Ross of Mull, on the western coast of Scotland. There is nae much else there but the abbey, I’m afraid.”
Rowena contemplated this. “It sounds far away,” she said quietly.
Sister Prudence nodded. “It is. It will be a difficult journey for ye. But with help, ye can make it and there ye will find safety. Nae one will ever find ye.”
“How do you know of such a place?” Rowena asked.
Sister Prudence looked away. “My birth sister is the abbess there. Philomena is her name … Mother Philomena.”
“Why, Sister Prudence! You never told me of your sister,” Rowena said.
“I ken. I dae nae speak about it much anymore,” Sister Prudence said. “We were close as children but separated long ago. Dae nae reveal this secret to anyone. It is a long story but we have nae time for all of that if ye are to make yer escape tonight. It does nae matter now in any case. Are ye sure this is what ye want to dae?”
Rowena nodded. “Yes! As God is my witness, yes, it is.”
“Well then,” said Sister Prudence. “I ken Mother Philomena will welcome ye. When ye get there, ye will tell her I sent ye.”
“I will,” Rowena said.
“One more thing, and this is important,” Sister Prudence said. “They will look for ye in the mornin’. When they find yer cell empty, they will begin a search for ye. They will continue lookin’ for ye everywhere.”
Sister Prudence said, “Ye must nae reveal yer true identity to anyone, not even to Philomena! Tell her that ye came to me as an orphan seekin’ a path for service to God, and seein’ that ye were sincere, I sent ye to St. Columba Abbey to begin yer service as a novitiate nun.”
Sister Prudence then took Rowena’s hand. She placed a golden ring in her palm and closed her fingers around it. Rowena looked at it and saw it was emblazoned with an elegant red and gold shield.
“This is our family’s crest. Show it to Philomena and she will ken it was from me,” Sister Prudence said. “She will ken ye are in danger and she will protect ye.”
Rowena tried to fight back the tears that were beginning to spill down her cheeks. “Thank you, Sister Prudence. Thank you for everything. You have been a guardian angel to me. I love you dearly, and I will never forget you.”
They embraced for a long moment, believing this would likely be their last. Sister Prudence said, “I must go now and tend to the kitchen. Nay doubt Mother Lenora will question why I am late to me duties!” She picked up the empty dishes to return to the kitchen, pausing to toss the sharp knife into Rowena’s sack.
“It may well come in handy,” she said with a wink. Then in a serious tone she said, “Good bye, Sister Rowena. May God watch over ye and keep ye safe.” With that, Sister Prudence slipped out through the cell door and once more vanished in the dark hallway.
When Rowena was sure the nuns had settled in their cells for the night, she moved quietly out of her cell, closing the door carefully behind her. She made her way through the corridor, down the stairs to the entry hall, crept through the back hallway into the kitchen, and slinked out the back door. She heard sounds of men laughing coming from the candlelit window of the guest quarters at the other end of the building. She made her way across the cloister, staying in the shadows close to the stone wall.
She headed straight to the barn to take a horse, but when she got there, she gasped in dismay. The horses were not in their stalls! Confound it! Where are the horses?
She tiptoed to the backside of the barn and peered around the corner. There they were! Their horses had been left outside in the corral. She had not considered that the horses would be left outside. That was a problem. Horses are herd animals. If she tried to take one away from the herd, they would make a loud commotion in protest. Whinnying and calling to each other, stampeding, and carrying on the way horses do, would certainly get the attention of the knights, who were still awake.
Rowena decided that she could not take the risk of being caught trying to steal one of the horses. She would have to make her way to St. James on foot. Alone. No matter, she had done it before, and she could do it again tonight. It would be difficult and slow going by herself, but not impossible. On the road, she was likely to encounter other travelers. In the forest, she could hide. Yes, a midnight walk through a forest infested with raiders was preferable to becoming Earl Strongbow’s wife.
She prayed this was not a harbinger of things to come.
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