She felt the master's stare on her. She lowered her face. She knew her place in the hierarchy and could tell by his posture that he did too. It would not do to study him nor, God forbid, openly challenge him by staring back. But when her horse came to a placid stop near the steps, his physical appearance stole her breath.
He was a beautiful man. A virile, well-built man, his pale but thick blond hair and striking blue eyes at complete odds with the dark house from which he’d just emerged. She could not stop a tremulous smile as hope rose within her. Certainly this man could achieve her one requirement!
He strode to her horse resolutely, then reached up for her without a word, his right hand gripping her waist firmly as she slid from the saddle, his left catching her other side just before her feet touched the ground, easing her carefully onto the slippery packed snow.
“Thank you, sir,” she said softly to the center of his chest as she lifted her trembling hands from the solidity of his shoulders. She let her vision rise only to the pale stubble on his chin, noting in her peripheral vision the left arm fixed in a permanent right angle at the elbow. There had been no weakness in his grasp, no apparent difference in strength between his two arms. His elbow simply did not flex, as Guy had explained. She did not care about that. She had no need of his elbow.
He drew the rough brown fabric of his cloak over his left arm, purposely hiding it from view as he backed away from her. “Welcome to Atrum Calx,” he said, his voice deep yet as chilly as the air around them.
Behind her she could hear Guy struggling to get Aunt Begga out of the cart, then cursing softly at the walking stick that refused to be freed. The man before her scowled, momentarily distracted by the scene, and Philantha took the opportunity to study him, starting at the ground. He had rather large feet in well-worn brown boots. His legs, wrapped in brown wool braise, extended to her waist at least, or so it seemed based on where the leather belt gathered his buff tunic into careless folds. Overall, he stood much taller than her, which wasn’t unusual since she was considered short. His shoulders and chest were broad and his stomach showed no sign of excessive eating. Nor did he smell of ale or wine, a pleasant surprise late on a winter afternoon when most Bavarian noblemen would already be well into their cups.
She hazarded a glance at his face, noting distinct cheekbones and a narrow straight nose. His lips were full but his mouth not particularly wide. A muscle worked along his wide, firm jaw. As the walking stick finally came free, he looked down at her again and his eyes glinted like unforgiving blue ice. He raised an arrogant golden brow at her before he turned to the door, gesturing with his good arm to indicate that she should proceed to the house. She slipped once. He caught her elbow, not letting it go until she reached the dry floor inside the door.
It was the smell that hit her first, a nauseating combination of cooking odors, rodent urine, and dust. Aunt Begga came up beside her. They clung to each other’s hands, mutually appalled at the milieu before them. The hall was spartan and filthy and filled with a haze of smoke and pestilent vapors. Food remains and grease covered the surfaces of the table and its accompanying benches, though the idea of a person actually eating here made Philantha gag a little. The cushions on the chairs around the fire sported burn holes and stains to the point that she could not even begin to speculate what their original color may have been. Below them, she could see just enough of the floor beneath a layer of mud and food detritus to know it was stone, and around the edge, where it met the sooty, spider-webbed walls, a drift of grime softened the intersection to a gentle, disgusting curve.
“My God, Aunt Begga, the house is a pigsty,” Philantha blurted, her usual reticent manner completely overcome by the rank filth. Her heart dropped into her already churning stomach. She knew immediately that she’d just ruined everything. After two days hard travel she'd not even gotten her cloak off before destroying her opportunity. A dirty house could be fixed but a direct insult to the master of the house was probably irreparable. A quick glance over her shoulder confirmed her fear. Her host stood just behind them, bent slightly at the waist, obviously having heard her disparaging comment
Before she could begin to apologize, he froze her with his piercing eyes. He studied her while nodding slowly and assessingly, even moving up beside her so he could look her full in the face.
He must be deranged, she thought. Yet she couldn’t look away. He exuded expectation, his gaze entreating as though he hoped she'd speak again. But between the mortification of her last utterance and the chill of his stare, she could not force her mouth to work.
Aunt Begga finally broke the trance, exclaiming “Ach!” with her usual phlegm. Doeg's eyes flicked to the old woman who pointed at the left wall. “I just saw a mouse run to its little nestie under those steps.” Her aunt dropped Philantha’s hands to march toward the steep stairs that clung precipitously to the left wall, their whole length elaborately draped in webs and dust. Begga brandished the walking stick like a weapon as she peered beneath the first step then struck, rewarded by small squeaks and the soft crunching sounds of tiny bodies. “Guy! Go find a cat. This house has great need,” she called.
“I am a clerk, Aunt Begga, not a housemaid,” Guy retorted as he strode across the hall. “Clerk to the manager of this whole estate, and I do not fetch cats!”
“Do not backtalk me, boy. Pretend you are a stablehand and go find a cat. Every barn has one.”
“No,” Guy replied as he disappeared into what appeared to be the kitchen. Aunt Begga shook her stick at him. Little mouse bits scattered off the end to be absorbed among the general filth on the floor.
The master of the house watched the squabble with rapt attention. His steady expression did not even twitch, yet Philantha sensed increasing eagerness. His cold stare swung back to her and she knew it was her turn to do something appalling.
Philantha sighed at this odd predicament. The least she could do was find a way to clean up the mess her aunt had made before the mute observer sent them back to Martin's house. She noticed a young boy peeking out the kitchen door and smiled at him. Philantha knew how a household worked. One did not send the master’s clerk after cats. One sent the child of a servant. She beckoned to the waif while digging in the folds of her tunic for the little bag concealed there. His pace quickened when he saw it, though she noticed he kept a wary eye on the observant man still frozen behind her. She held out a coin, a trifling bit of money, as she bent to speak to the lad. “What is your name?" she asked.
"Gunter," he whispered.
"Do you know where to find some good mousing cats?” she asked secretively.
He nodded, his clean little face out of place in this filthy cave of a room.
“Will your mother mind if you go to find some?"
He shook his head. "My mother don't live here no more. Cook lets me stay with her."
Philantha figured there was more to that story but focused on the task at hand. "I will give you this coin if you can bring three good mousing cats into this house before dark.”
Gunter bobbed his head up and down excitedly before he scampered back to the kitchen, arms and legs pumping. She could hear his animated babbling before another door opened and closed. Philantha braced herself. She’d leapt across the bounds of hospitality, but there had been no help for it. She turned to face her host, not surprised to find his cold stare still on her. She’d felt it these last few minutes and known he’d never stopped mentally recording observations of her since that first impetuous outburst. Yet there was something there other than ice, an intense curiosity as though he could not wait to see what she would do next. And what could she do after exhibiting such rudeness but apologize?
“I beg your pardon, sir,” she said to his chin. “It was much too presumptuous of me.”
He brought his right arm up to cross it with the left. “It is fine,” he said shortly. “Do continue. Do whatever you would like to assure your comfort.”
A flush rose to her cheeks as she dropped her head in mortification. “Now you are just taunting me.”
“No,” he said sharply. His hands balled into fists then pointedly relaxed. “No,” he said again but with great care, “I mean what I say. Do what you think should be done.”
She could not stop herself from glancing at his face. The man was in earnest. He wanted her, as a guest, to change what should be changed about his house. That was what he had been waiting for. The list of tasks unfurled in her mind like the tapestries that should be softening the walls of this hall. The list was long. And it would take days. No, weeks. “It is nearly dusk,” she answered. “There is little that can be done today. But the weather is very mild. If you do not mind, I would open the door to let some sweeter air into the hall.”
He lowered his chin in assent. She eased past him to wrench the door open, cringing at the screech as she swung it wide to catch the last of the afternoon air. “Those hinges could use a daub of grease,” she noted, mostly to herself.
“What is your name again?” he asked.
She whirled. “Oh, sir, I am sorry. I thought Guy would have told you.” It just got worse and worse, didn’t it?
He waved her apology away impatiently. "He probably did tell me. Your name?" he demanded.
“I am Philantha, sir.”
“Philantha, you will marry me.”
END OF EXCERPT
You probably noticed that Philantha is submissive. Some readers take issue with that, but Doeg would never in a hundred lifetimes be attracted to a forceful woman, not to mention the reality of the time period was that of a strong male family leader who was obeyed. Throughout the book, we are shown that Philantha does stand up for herself when she knows she must. She works within the system to get what she needs, with unwavering loyalty for a husband she does not immediately understand but begins to love. Doeg has enough baggage for the both of them. He needs her uncomplicated devotion to give him a safe place to BE so that he can become the man he should have been all along.
If you want to get to know these two non-typical romance characters, you can find Redeemed at the following merchants. Redeemed is available in print from Amazon and Createspace.