Norman England has little to celebrate in the new year of 1140. The country is immersed in a bitter civil war from which no one is immune, including Hugh de Leon, heir to an earldom. His Uncle Guy has arranged his marriage to the spoiled daughter of the newly named Earl of Lincoln. It is a merger that will combine two of the land's largest fortunes -- and give the de Leons unparalleled power. Hugh's heart, however, belongs to the Lady Cristen, and he will do everything he can -- including eloping -- to make her his own.
His plan is simple enough-until the new Earl of Lincoln is murdered, and a friend of Hugh's is accused of the crime. Though he has little time in which to foil his uncle's arrangement, Hugh cannot see an innocent man wrongly hanged. To save his friend and marry the woman he loves, Hugh must work fast to track down a deadly -- and wily -- serpent. But when he grabs it by the tail, can he avoid its poisonous bite?
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Cristen was giving haircuts. She had spread a large Sheet under a bench in the middle of the great hall, and a procession of her father's household knights submitted themselves to her ministrations during the course of the winter afternoon. As the last of them stood up, blowing the hair off his nose, she turned to the young man sitting in front of the large fireplace playing chess.
"You next, Hugh," she said.
Hugh de Leon ran his fingers through his hair as if to assess its length. "My hair is fine as it is," he said.
"It's too long. It makes you look untidy."
Hugh looked affronted.
Thomas, the young knight who was playing chess with Hugh, grinned. "The rest of us had to get Christmas haircuts, my lord. I think it's only fair that you follow our example."
"I hate to get my hair cut," Hugh complained. "The hair always gets under my shirt and itches."
Cristen flapped the large cloth she had been draping over the knights to keep the hair off of their clothes. "This will stop the hair from going down your neck," she promised.
"Hah," Hugh returned. "I've heard that before."
But he got to his feet and moved toward the chair, stepping around the tufts of hair that the shorn knights had left behind.
Cristen raised her comb.
Hugh yelped. "You're not going to use the same comb on me that you just used on Lionel!"
"Why not?" Cristen demanded. "His hair was clean."
"I will get you my own comb," Hugh said.
"I'm insulted," Lionel called from the bench where he was repairing a link on his mail shirt.
"Adela always told me neverto use any comb but my own," Hugh said firmly.
"Go and get it, then," Cristen said with resignation.
When Hugh invoked the name of his beloved foster mother, she knew that the subject was closed.
He returned with his comb, handed it to Cristen, and took his place on the bench. She ran the comb once through his thick, straight, ink-black hair, and then she began to cut.
"I can feel the hair going down my collar," Hugh informed her after she had been working for a few minutes.
"Be quiet," she replied sternly. "You are worse than Brian." Brian was her father's page.
They were interrupted as the door to the hall opened and the lord of the castle, Sir Nigel Haslin, came in.
"Father," Cristen said with satisfaction. "You are just in time to get your hair cut."
But her father paid no heed. Striding across the room, he was intent on Hugh, still enthroned on the haircut bench. "I've just got word," Nigel said, "that Stephen has named Gilbert de Beaute to be Earl of Lincoln."
Cristen stopped cutting.
"De Beaute?" Hugh said in surprise.
The two men looked at each other soberly.
Resuming her cutting, Cristen asked, "Didn't everyone expect him to name William of Roumare?"
"William of Roumare certainly expected it," Hugh said.
"The king obviously decided it was safer to split the power in Lincolnshire between Roumare and de Beaute," Nigel returned. "We can only hope that this development will not push Roumare and his half brother, the Earl of Chester, into the empress's camp."
The civil war between King Stephen and his cousin, the Empress Matilda, the only legitmate child of England's former king, had been raging since September, when she had landed in England along with her half brother, Robert, Earl of Gloucester. At the moment, the empress's party was securely in control of almost all the western lands. Outside the west, the country was weakly in support of Stephen.
"What do you know about de Beaute?" Nigel asked Hugh, who had been brought up in Lincoln.
Hugh looked thoughtful.
"Ralf thought he was a nuisance. He seemed always to be involved in some lawsuit or other regarding land."
"Hmm," said Nigel through his aristocratic nose. "Well, obviously Stephen thinks he can trust de Beaute's loyalty more than he can trust Roumare's."
"You can get up now," Cristen said to Hugh. "I'm finished." She looked at Nigel. "Come along, Father. Time to get your Christmas haircut."
Nigel sighed. "Oh, all right."
"Once Lady Cristen starts cutting, no one is safe," Brian said mischievously.
"That is right," Cristen agreed. Her large brown eyes regarded her father commandingly.
Nigel took off his cloak and handed it to his squire. "Don't get hair down my back," he warned his daughter.
I won't, she replied.
"Yes, she will," Hugh said gloomily. "I am going inside to change my shirt."
That evening Nigel retired early to his private solar, leaving the rest of the household singing songs around the fire. He had been brooding in his large, high-backed chair for almost an hour when the door opened and Cristen and Hugh came in.
Nigel took one look at the two young faces and felt a knot form in the pit of his stomach. He knew what was coming.
"May we speak to you for a moment, sir?" Hugh said.
Nigel looked at the young man whom he had known for five months, and whom he had come to love like a son.
"I suppose so," he said heavily.
Side by side, they moved to stand between him and the glowing charcoal brazier.
"I want to marry Cristen," Hugh said.
Nigel shut his eyes. When he opened them again, he fixed them upon his daughter.
Her small, delicate face was pale. Her eyes were shadowed.
Cristen knew what he was going to say.
Wearily, Nigel rubbed his hand up and down his face.
"Hugh, if the decision were up to me, I would tell you that there is no one to whom I would rather give Cristen than you. But my daughter cannot marry without the consent of her overlord. Nor can you marry without the consent of your uncle. And I am very sure that Lord Guy will never agree to such a match."
Hugh's fine-boned face wore a look that Nigel had seen before. When Hugh looked like that, nothing on earth could move him.
He said, "If Guy does give his consent, will you agree?"
Nigel sighed. "Aye, I will give my consent if Lord Guy will give his."
Hugh smiled, suddenly looking as young as his twenty-one years. "Thank you, sir."
Nigel felt impelled to add, "Guy is not going to consent to this match, Hugh. He will want you to make a marriage that will bring more land into the family. The de Leons have nothing to gain from a marriage to Cristen. Somerford already belongs to the Earl of Wiltshire's honor."
The smile disappeared from Hugh's face. His eyes narrowed. "We shall see," he said.
Once more, Nigel looked at his daughter. His heart ached when he saw the expression In her great brown eyes.
I should have kept her away from Hugh, he thought. I should never have allowed this situation to develop.
But from the moment Hugh had arrived at Somerford, the two of them had been as close as two people who have known each other forever...
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