Excerpt from Lady’s Minstrel by N.J. Walters

Copyright © N.J. Walters, 2019

Shrouded in a dark cloak that covered him head to foot, the minstrel looked more specter than musician. He was tall, head and shoulders over most, but he kept to the shadows and preferred his own company. He spoke rarely, but when he did, his voice was a painful rasp. One of the serving girls had glimpsed one side of his face and had told all the others that it was scarred and ruined. Alicia wanted to see for herself the face of this man who made such poignant music, but threatened her peace of mind and the security of Hawkspoint.

The silence was deafening as the last haunting strains of the psaltery died away. Although no words had been sung, the song he’d coaxed from the strings had been sad and poignant. Alicia shook off her melancholy. She needed her wits about her and she needed to think. The crowd shouted their pleasure but, before they could encourage him to play again, Alicia pushed back her chair and bid them all good night, thus bringing an end to the evening.

“Keep a watch on him, William. Let me know if you learn anything more.”

He nodded and gave her a short bow before striding toward the fireplace to speak with several of his men.

She could feel the eyes of her people on her as she made her way across the large expanse of the hall, the keys attached to her girdle jingling and her leather shoes swishing against the rushes strewn across the floor. Conversation resumed as she started up the stairs. Several wall sconces, set with tallow candles, lit her way as she headed up the darkened staircase. She trusted William to keep a watch on the stranger.

Entering her solar, she closed the heavy wooden door and leaned against it, shutting the world outside her chamber. Fatigue washed over her. It seemed to her as though she was always tired these days. Sleep wasn’t easy to come by. Worries kept her awake and pacing more nights than she cared to remember.

Alicia crossed to the cheerful fire that crackled and danced in the hearth. Rubbing her hands up and down the arms of her plain green, woolen gown, she tried to warm herself. The dress was one of her best, but it was old and worn thin in spots and had been mended in others. Tonight, she felt as tired and threadbare as her clothes. Both of them had been brighter and newer when she’d arrived here six years ago. Now, at twenty-three, she was barely a bride and not really a wife, for all that she’d been married almost six years.

Settling into her chair by the fire, she stared at the flickering flames. It had not always been so. Once she’d been filled with hopes and dreams of happiness. Her marriage had been arranged by her father, as was to be expected, for marriage was a serious affair of alliances and wealth. Alicia had not seen her husband Reys, Baron Warran, Lord of Hawkspoint, until her family and their entourage had arrived at Hawkspoint Abbey for the signing of the wedding documents and the blessing of the union by the church.

Alicia rubbed her fingers over the gold band that adorned her left hand, a symbol of her authority here. The weight of it was as heavy as the responsibilities that lay on her shoulders. Hawkspoint was a small, but self-sufficient estate. The land was fertile and good for farming and raising sheep. The surrounding land provided fresh meat, firewood, wild berries and herbs. The bounty from the sea was equally as plentiful.

Her husband Reys had been kind and patient with his seventeen-year-old bride. Alicia gave a little laugh as she remembered her wedding night. She had been led away from the marriage feast by the older women, stripped naked and put in a thin sleeping gown before being herded into the lord’s large bed. She had felt lost in the huge bed and tucked herself away in the corner with the covers pulled tight to her chin. The women had been laughing at her and joking about the night ahead when Reys had entered the chamber…