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About the Author
Roberta GellisRoberta Gellis has written over 25 romances with over 1 million copies sold. Publishers Weekly called her a master of the medieval historical. Her many awards include the Silver and Gold Medal Porgy, the Golden Certificate and Golden Pen, and the RT Lifetime Achievement Award. She lives in Seattle, Washington.
My mother was a castle whore. My father, Sir William Fermain, holder of Jernaeve keep, took the whore Berta to his bed in spite of his wife. That poor...
My mother was a castle whore. My father, Sir William Fermain, holder of Jernaeve keep, took the whore Berta to his bed in spite of his wife. That poor lady had borne my father a third daughter who survived only a few hours, like the other babes before her. Once her lord had taken her, my mother touched no other man, and in the third month of her master’s keeping she conceived me. Moreover, even after the lord called her to him no more, she remained chaste, and for the whole time she suckled me also.
My mother, like most of the people of Jernaeve and the lands beholden to it, was fair of hair and light of eye, but I am dark—like my father. Yet, because my mother was what she was, he would not acknowledge me even as a bastard of his get.
I only learned these things later. When I was very young, three or four years old, I only knew that the dark man in fine clothing hated me, and that if I ran or hid or wept, I would be beaten, but if I defied him or fought him, he would only cuff me once or twice and then let me be. I am accounted a brave man. I learned that from my father’s handling—but there are better ways to learn.
In those early years, before I understood what rank meant, I often begged my mother to leave the keep, or if she would not, to give me to one of the serf families in the outer bailey. I would not have grieved much about being parted from my mother. By the time I could conceive that there were other places to live, most of her hopes had soured. She was plying her trade again, and I was a nuisance. She kept me clean and fed but preferred my absence to my presence. In any case, although I did not know it then, she had not the power to be rid of me. My father would not acknowledge me—but he would not let me go either. The lady of the keep had lost two more babes over those three or four years, and little as Sir William Fermain liked a whore’s child, I was a living son.
Moreover, as the years passed, I came to look more and more like a Fermain. I could not have displayed the aquiline nose or the square, stubborn chin of the Fermains in those early years, but my skin was already darker than that of the local people, my hair so dark a brown as to be safely called black, and my eyes the same. I had grown happier also because my father had ceased to torment me—not that I ever grew to feel anything for him other than fear and angry resentment. The reason I became less a target for his cruelty was that from the first time an old man-at-arms put a blunt wooden sword into my hand, I knew, as if by instinct, how to handle it. It was the same with horses. I was running among their feet out of love for them as soon as I was steady on my own, and riding was my greatest pleasure from the moment I was set astride.
Had my father ignored me completely, I would have been perfectly happy, but as my skills in horsemanship and swordsmanship increased, he watched me often with an expression that made me uneasy, and he brought others to look at me. One man I recall in particular, then only because he looked so much like my father that I was doubly afraid, but since then for many reasons.
I was six years old at that time. I remember clearly because one day my mother gave me a small round metal helmet and a leather jerkin sewn all over with metal scales. She told me my age then and that the helm and hauberk were gifts from my father. She smiled at me and kissed me too—a thing I could not remember her ever doing—and said I would make her a great lady yet. She was then suckling another boy child, one whose father she could not name, but she let him scream on the heap of straw where he lay while she dressed me in my father’s gift.
Many years later I realized that the gift and the new attention he was paying me made my mother think he intended to recognize me soon. The lady of the keep was great with child again, and my mother believed that when that babe died, my father would give up hope and make me his heir. Poor woman, her hopes were never to be realized because my father’s wife at last bore a babe—a daughter—who clung to life. I saw Audris, who had been baptized in haste, since she was not expected to live, only a few hours after she was born. She was a tiny, scrawny creature, but strangely beautiful, brought to my mother to nurse because my father’s lady wife was dying. The memory of how she looked—of all the sights and sounds of that night—are very vivid because I was so frightened at first.
It was late at night and I was wakened by the men with torches who accompanied the woman carrying the whimpering babe. Being wakened would not have impressed me; it was no unusual thing because of my mother’s trade, but the crowd of finely dressed people and their loud, excited voices as they discussed the lady’s coming death branded each detail on my mind. Young as I was, it was all too clear that they were glad of the poor lady’s perilous condition. I had never even seen her close, yet that grieved me. Now I know that it was no dislike of the lady herself that bred such callousness. What they desired was that my father be free to wed a different woman, one who could breed him a strong heir.
I saw, too, the indifference with which the babe, Audris—they told my mother her name; I do not know why—was thrust at my mother. The child was still wet with the water of baptism and carelessly wrapped in an old shawl though it was autumn and the night was chill. My mother listened to all they said, for they spoke before us as if we were beasts with no understanding—or, perhaps, they thought their language would be strange to us. But a whore must learn the tongue in which the men who use her speak, and my father had seen to it that I was tutored in proper French and used it.
Initially my mother had taken Audris with an indifference equal to that with which the babe was handed over, and I could feel tears sting my eyes. Here was another such as I, of no account to anyone, unwanted, unloved. But as my mother listened to the talk of those who had invaded our hut near the stable wall, a strange expression crossed her face. I was the only one who saw, for she had lowered her head in seeming submission to the high-born ones. In Berta’s eyes there was a malicious gleam and an immovable stubbornness in the set of her mouth. As soon as those who had come were gone, she put Audris to her breast—and the babe sucked. Then my mother laughed softly and bade me bring my good clean shirt to her. With that, she patted Audris dry and wrapped her more carefully in a clean shift of her own, holding her close to warm her.
When Audris had taken her fill—and it was a good meal she made for a creature so tiny—my mother patted her until she brought up wind, then made me rise from my pallet, which was warm from my body, and laid Audris therein, covering her with my blanket. She threw her own blanket over me to keep me from growing chilled and bade me watch by the babe, with stern words about what I should do if she cried or began to spit up what she had eaten. Then she made up the fire so that it blazed in the hearth like a fire of winter. I saw Audris better in that light, and she looked so strange in the sudden flare and sudden dark that I had to see her better. Finally, my mother snatched up my half brother and went out with him.
I knew I would never see him again, but that did not trouble me. My mother had so taken the other two babes born to her down to the serfs in the lower bailey. When she took the first child, I had never been there, but my mother told me, when I cried for the babe she had carried away, that there was always a woman who had lost a babe among them or among the people of the village beyond the wall or on the outlying farms. It was the first I had heard of any place other than the keep and the inner bailey, and the tale had distracted me from the loss of my toy—for it had been an amusement to watch the comic expressions on the face of the little one and see the wavering of his arms and legs and the attempts to move himself. I was so lonely in those days, forbidden to play with the other children and constantly in fear of my father. By the time Audris was brought to us, I was accustomed to losing my siblings and I had enough, in my practice of arms and riding, to fill my days.
Before she left, my mother had lit the lamp with a long sliver of wood first thrust into the blaze of fire in the pit in the earthen floor. When I was younger and the little leaping flame from the twist of linen set into the soft fat in the pottery bowl had fascinated me, I had been forbidden to touch the lamp. I gave that only a glancing thought now. My mother would not be back for some time, I knew, and I had to see Audris more clearly. A stool lifted me high enough to reach the low shelf on which the lamp was set, and I brought it nigh and examined my half sister in the flickering light.
I could see at once that she was different from the babes my mother had borne. Unlike them, she was not red, nor was her head bald and strangely pointed. Her cheeks were very pale, almost as if no blood coursed under her skin, and she had hair, silvery white. And as I gazed at her, she opened her eyes, which were not a cloudy blue but clear and very, very light, almost silver like her hair. I had never seen so lovely a babe; my mother’s were all ugly when they were newborn, though each had a certain charm even then, and they grew handsome after a week or two. Audris, though, was like a faery thing; I shuddered looking at her, wondering if she were perchance a changeling. It could have happened, I knew, because no one cared about her and likely no one had been watching.
So fearful was that thought that the flame shook in my hand and I lifted the lamp away; Audris cried out then, not a raucous howl like my mother’s other babes, but a soft mewling. I made haste to climb the stool again and set the lamp back on its shelf so I could pat the child silent as my mother had bidden me. In stroking her, I must have pushed aside the fold of cloth that held one arm, and she worked it free and found one of my fingers around which her little hand closed softly. I had had that experience before, but this was different somehow, partly because Audris’s grip was so much gentler than that of the other babes but also, I think, because I knew my mother could not give away this child, and I hoped I would have someone with whom to play. It did not occur to me then that, being the lord’s daughter, Audris might merit a finer wet nurse than my mother or might be kept from such as I. I had seen how little she was regarded and did not then understand the difference between a whore’s bastard and the legitimate daughter of the lord of the keep.
Nonetheless, we were not separated. Partly that was owing to how sure my father was that this child too would die, and partly it was owing to the fact that he was busy seeking another wife, out of whom he expected strong sons, who would make a daughter near worthless. He was much away, and I remember my joy in those months and remember also feeling that it was Audris who had somehow brought all my happiness with her. Nor was that all childish foolishness. The nurse of a nobleman’s child has many privileges and an easy life; thus, my mother did not wish to have Audris taken from her, and she closed her door to the men who were used to finding it open. That pleased me, for they often disturbed my sleep with their grunting and groaning and thrashing about, and Audris herself, as she grew stronger, amused me more and more.
Audris talked and walked early. It was a strange thing to see and hear, for she was very tiny, no larger than other babes months younger. She was my pass also to lovely places like the keep garden, where my mother would often set me to watching her while she washed clothes or did other tasks. And with Audris, I was free to play by the hearth in the great hall, for we had all moved from our hut to the third floor of the south tower in the keep a few weeks after Audris came to us. My father had come to my mother’s hut through the first snow of winter, choking in the smoky interior while he stared at Audris, who was squalling lustily at that moment—her voice having grown stronger—and beckoned my mother out. When she returned, she was laughing softly but triumphantly.
“I have won what I played for. Today we move into the keep.” She spoke in her native tongue—mine was French, for though I understood English, I was rarely allowed to speak it.
And then, during the dog days of August, my father died. Perhaps he brought home the sickness from some keep or town that he had visited. I knew nothing of it at the time he died; I have often wondered since I have been a man whether I would have been glad or whether his loss would have shaken me. I never loved him, yet he had been a central core in my life, and I might have felt strange to know he was gone forever. But by the time I heard he was dead, I was too terrified to care.
My father’s sickness had spread throughout the keep and all had fallen into chaos. I knew something was wrong because my mother began to cook our meals on the small hearth in our chamber, and she kept us close within our tower. She told me angrily, when I begged to go out to my lessons, that the man who had taught me was dead and that so many were sick there were not folk enough to tend them.
I later learned that when my father’s strong hand was gone and there were none to bid them nay, most of those who still had their health had fled. They carried the seeds of the plague with them, so that the village and outlying farms were also reaped by Death’s scythe, the sickness lingering some weeks. That was why Audris’s uncle, Sir Oliver Fermain, delayed so long in coming to Jernaeve. I believe that if he had known Audris was alive, he would have come at once. But hearing of the deadliness of the disease, he must have thought so small and seemingly weak a child had died; thus, there was no sense in exposing his family and himself.
At the time, however, all I knew was that I was alone with no one to help me or tell me what to do. Those I had depended on were gone, for my mother had disappeared and the man-at-arms who taught me had died, and those I approached later drove me away. My mother was also dead then, but I did not know that either because she had left the tower—for what reason, I will never know—telling me only to stay within and to keep Audris with me. She had gone down to the village, where she had been slain, I suppose by someone who thought she carried sickness.
I obeyed my mother’s order all the first day she was gone, for there was some food left from the breaking of our fast and I shared that with Audris for our dinner. By evening we were very hungry and Audris was crying, so I dared creep down the stairs. The hall was empty, the fire dead—a thing I had never seen before because Jernaeve was stone built, and even in the hottest days of summer the hall was cold. I do not think I have ever known such fear, not even when my father beat me for no reason. To be alone, all alone! It was unthinkable. In those few moments I looked death in the face, believing the whole keep was empty save for Audris and me.
I have never forgotten that I looked back toward the doorway to the tower stair, tempted to run back to be with Audris, but my stomach ground within me and I had only soothed away her tears by promising to bring her something to eat. I would have gone hungry longer to save myself the eerie trip across the silent hall and out and down into what I feared would be an equally silent bailey, but I never could bear to see Audris cry. So I ran quickly across to the door and down the wooden stair of the forebuilding, beginning to weep with relief when I heard sounds coming from the bailey.
My tears of relief were shed too soon. What I had heard were the beasts—the dogs in their kennel, the horses in a small paddock and stable, and the few cows kept in the upper bailey pens for their milk. Usually there was a hog or two and a sheep being fattened for slaughtering. The last two were gone, already butchered and eaten, I suppose, and no more brought up because my father and his steward were both dead and there was no one to give the order. I did not think of that then, of course; I was simply overjoyed to see the animals alive, for I knew by instinct that someone must have been feeding and watering them. Most of my fear dropped away, and I thought of one of the grooms who lived with his wife and children in a hut near ours against the stable wall. He knew me and had always liked me, allowing me to “help” with his duties—which was more hindrance, I am sure—around the horses, and I believed he would help me now. Perhaps his wife would give me food.
I received my first shock on the way to his hut. A man came out of the chapel, and I ran toward him in joy at seeing another person—but he screamed at me to stay away, and when I stood for a moment, too shocked to move, he cast a stone at me. I suppose he was sick and his cruelty was for my own sake, but at the time it was a terrible blow. I was to receive another, even worse. When I came to the groom’s house, his wife was sitting in the doorway.
Before I could even speak, she spat at me, screaming, “Whore’s bastard, how dare you live while better than you died!” Then she began to struggle to her feet, gesturing menacingly, and added, “The lord is dead. He can protect you no longer.”
That was how I learned my father was dead, and partly why I gave little thought to it. I was too shocked and frightened to do more than flee before the groom’s wife could reach me, terror lending speed to my feet. But I saw before I was halfway across the bailey that she could not follow, and then rage steadied me. I was sure my father had never protected me—at that time I had no idea of the effect of simply being the lord’s son—and I believed I had won the little favor I had received by my own natural skills. That was in a sense true, for if I had not shown a natural aptitude for riding and handling a sword, my father would have turned his back on me totally. But my rage was mingled with a new fear. I remembered the man who had thrown a stone at me and the physical threat implied by the gestures of the groom’s wife. Did those who survived blame my father for the loss of their families? Did they intend to revenge themselves on me—and on Audris, who was even more the lord’s child?
I have long since learned that the woman was almost mad with grief and have forgiven her, especially since the notion she set into my mind, to avoid everyone in the keep, may have preserved my life and Audris’s by keeping us free of the sickness. The anger she woke in me, by reminding me of the praise of my tutor and the approving looks of so harsh a critic as my father, was also useful to me. It gave me the feeling that I was able—urged on by the pangs of hunger—to provide for myself and Audris.
By then, I was near the kitchen sheds built against the wall of the keep. With the stealth natural to a small boy, whose curiosity often drove him to invade places, like the smithy, where he would not be welcome, I crept into the kitchen yard, keeping well inside the lengthening shadows. Seeing no one, I sidled into a storage shed, where I found a knife stuck into a round of cheese, as if someone had been about to cut a portion and been called away and forgotten. I finished the work, though it was not easy, the knife having rusted and stuck to the cheese. Still, I managed, and then having the knife in my belt and knowing—as I thought, being very ignorant—how to use it, I felt much bolder and went from shed to shed, gathering what I could carry.
For many days—recently, thinking back, I decided it must have been nearly a month—I kept Audris and myself hidden. I stole wood for our fire and food for our bellies and emptied the vessels of soil, mostly going out in the late evening, just before dark when the shadows were deepest and most plentiful. Near the end of the time, I went out in the early morning also, into the garden where the fruits were ripened. For drink, I stole milk, if any remained in the shed by evening, and I fetched water from a small spring in the garden in one of my mother’s pots because I could not lift the pail that went down into the well in the lowest floor of the keep. I was afraid to go down into the dark too, but I did not admit that. By then, I was very bold and proud. I think I must have believed, for a time anyway, that we would always live that way.
I was well content that it should be so, for Audris was very good and minded me. I kept her as clean as I could and took her with me for an airing when I went to the garden, teaching her to hide and be still on those few occasions when someone came in. I wonder now whether it was those lessons, for I was frightened and she may have felt my fear, that made her so shy of strangers all the rest of her life. But at that time she was happy, playing only with me. I was happy too, but as the weeks passed, I began to miss my pony and the practice with my sword. Soon I was trying to devise a way to steal a ride and at the same time keep Audris safe. Usually I left her sleeping, tied by a cord to the leg of the bed so that if she woke she could not burn herself in the fire or fall down the stairs, but I knew that a ride would take longer than my short forays for food and that it would be dangerous to leave her tied too long.
Still, thinking about the pony made me wonder if he would remember me, and I could not resist a short visit to the stable. I had been there once, perhaps two weeks earlier to take some straw to add to the rushes on the floor; these were becoming thin and matted, and it was growing cooler as the summer waned. Then, although feed had been thrown into the troughs, the stable was filthy. This time it was different. Plainly, someone had been at work. I remember how my heart sank at the sight—I suppose I knew then that life would revert to its normal pattern and I would sink into nothing again instead of being provider and protector, a person of the first importance. I could not even stay to see the pony but turned and ran, and because I was already running, escaped the outstretched hand of a groom. I heard him calling after me, but I had become most adept at concealment and escaped him easily.
That did not lift my spirits, though, and it was a long time before I fell asleep that night. Nor was I wrong in my feeling that my life was about to change again. On the very next day, not long after Audris had wakened me and I had given her some fruit and cheese and sour milk with which to break her fast, a tumult of sound rose from the hall below us. That place, dead and silent for so long, was suddenly full of people, all talking, shouting orders, wielding rakes and brooms to rid the place of the rotten old rushes, starting a roaring fire to burn cleansing herbs, and suchlike. The noise startled Audris, used as she was for so long to no noise except that which we made ourselves, and she began to weep. I hushed her fiercely, thrusting her into the corner of the room farthest from the door, and ran back, struggling to close it. This I could not do, for the locking bar was down and it was above my head and too heavy for me to lift, so it caught against the seat into which it normally dropped.
Had the door closed, Audris and I could have spent the day much as usual, since, young as I was, I knew no sound could pass the thick stone walls or the thick wooden floor and door. As it was, I was frightened to death that the smallest noise we made would betray us, and I held Audris in my arms to keep her still and silent. I could feel her little body shaking with fear—poor child, it was my fault, for she would not have been afraid, I think, if I had not myself been terrified. I tried to calm her by telling her over and over that as long as she was with me, I would let no harm come to her. It was a stupid promise and I knew it, but I could think of nothing else to say to comfort her.
Of course, our silence could not keep our presence secret long. I should have known that the cleaning would not stop with the hall. By early afternoon, our door was flung open suddenly, and a tall woman with thick bronze-colored braids entered. I shrank back, but there was no shadow in the south tower where windows facing southwest and southeast allowed sunlight to pour into the room. For one moment the woman stood frozen, staring at us, then she cried out and ran forward.
Perhaps I cried out too. Audris’s thin little arms were clasped tightly around my neck. I remember how she screamed when the woman pulled her away from me and lifted her, holding her firmly with one arm. With the other, she urged me to my feet and hurried me down the stair to confront a man, who looked so much like my father that I thought for a moment the groom’s wife had lied when she told me the lord was dead.
In the next moment I realized he could not be my father because he asked, “Who are you?”
I had learned early that to display fear brought a harsher punishment than defiance, so I answered boldly, “I am Bruno, Berta’s son.” And then I recognized him as the dark man my father had brought to watch me at my training, and I knew he too was a lord and would protect a lord’s child against the common folk, so I added, “The child is Audris, Lord William’s daughter.”
The woman was rocking Audris in her arms, trying to quiet her, and Audris was struggling to be free, shrieking, “Boono, Boono,” which was the closest she could come then to my name.
“Set her down, Eadyth,” the dark man said, and Lady Eadyth obeyed.
Audris ran to me at once, and I whispered, “Hush, you are safe now.” She quieted, slipping her hand into mine and trying to hide herself behind me.
“I am Sir Oliver Fermain,” the dark man said, “Sir William’s brother, and I have come…” He hesitated, staring at Audris, who was half hidden behind me. Then his mouth set hard, and he went on, “I have come to hold Jernaeve for Demoiselle Audris.”
There was a moment of heavy silence in which grief and fear gripped my throat and closed it. I was very innocent and was afraid of the wrong things. It never occurred to me that Sir Oliver need only slay both Audris and myself, and Jernaeve keep with all its rich lands would be his own and his children’s after him. It would have been so easy. Who was to say that we had not died of the disease as so many others had done? Certainly not his wife whose children would profit. Nor did I fear that I would be thrust out of the keep altogether and left to make my own way, which would have been within Sir Oliver’s right. A whore’s child has no proper place. The horror in my mind was that Audris would be taken from me.
During that silent moment, Sir Oliver had been looking at what he could see of Audris. Suddenly, he frowned and turned his head to his wife. “Take the child away and clean her and dress her properly.”
“She is clean,” I cried, heedless of angering him in the agony of losing the one creature who had ever valued me above others. “I could not wash her linen. I—”
“You are nowise to blame,” Sir Oliver said sharply, raising his voice above Audris’s renewed shrieks, but these grew fainter as Lady Eadyth carried her away.
My eyes followed her, until the dimness of the hall and the mist of tears that rose obscured Lady Eadyth. Then I fought back the tears, knowing they would only gain me a beating. I suppose I knew, too, that it was right for Audris to be cared for by a woman, and the fact that Sir Oliver was praising me, saying it was a miracle that I had kept the child alive, also eased my bitterness. I had had few words of praise in my life, only now and again, grudgingly uttered, by the man-at-arms who trained me. Thus, despite my grief, I was able to answer Sir Oliver’s questions so that in the end he knew everything. And it was he who told me, as kindly as one is able to give such news, that my mother was dead.
I felt no grief over my mother—all my grief and loss was confined to Audris—but knowing my mother was gone for good gave me a sense of being adrift with nothing to cling to. I do not remember that I made any response to Sir Oliver; perhaps my expression was enough, for he put his hand on my shoulder and himself led me down to the kitchen, where he bade one of the cooks feed me. I must have told him that Audris and I had had no dinner; there was food in the tower, but we had been too frightened to eat. And as the cook hurried to find cold meat and some pasty for me, Sir Oliver told me that when I was full I might amuse myself as I pleased until bedtime and that I should sleep in the tower that night, until he could make new arrangements for my care.
Looking back, I wonder what he planned. Not, I suspect, what actually happened. It was Audris, I believe, who forced Sir Oliver to take me into his own household. He was a good man, honest and honorable, but I do not think he intended to raise a whore’s son with his own children. Perhaps I am wrong. He knew, although he never said it and I had not claimed it—my mother had made clear to me that it was forbidden—that Sir William was my father. In any case, it is foolish to speculate on what can never be proven. What happened, happened, and my life has been shaped by that, not by what might have been.
Audris could not be quieted. She screamed until Sir Oliver bade his wife bring her back to me, and even when she became more accustomed to her aunt and the new servants, she would not be parted from me for long. Lady Eadyth tried a few times more over the following days to separate us, but Audris began to scream the moment I was out of her sight. So instead of being cast out completely or raised among the servants, Sir Oliver took me into his family.
His sons tried to overawe me at first and called me “whore’s son,” but I stared them down with such pride that even Alain, who was older than I by more than a year, did not dare raise a hand to strike me. And when I was matched with him in swordplay, I beat him so quickly and so soundly that he came to be in awe of me. I think when they saw my skill in riding and fighting, Alain and young Oliver wished to be my friends, and we were easy enough together doing those things that boys do, but I could never take them into my heart. I could not forget that they had called me “whore’s son” at first, and they tormented Audris when they could.
I think Sir Oliver noticed their hatred of Audris, for he sent them early to be fostered. After Alain was sent away, I expected to go too, but Sir Oliver kept me in Jernaeve. He never gave a reason. Well, he was not a man for talk. At first I thought it was for Audris’s sake. Later, I realized it was because he did not wish to foist me on a noble family as if I were gently born. Poor man, now I know I was a burden on his loyal heart. He knew me for his brother’s get, yet my father had never recognized me. But he took over my training himself, teaching me the skills of a knight rather than those of a man-at-arms, and I learned that he paid for my armor—true mail, not the boiled leather of a common soldier—out of his own purse.
By the time I was fifteen, I was growing restless and a little bored in Jernaeve. Like any youth, I thought that I knew all there was to know and was impatient with lessons. And my case was worse than many others because Sir Oliver did not allow me to put into practice what I had learned by going in his stead to oversee the outlying manors or to collect the dues from the small keeps beholden to Jernaeve. So when he loosed my tether and sent me with a troop from Jernaeve to answer a summons from the king to fight in France, I was wild with joy. I went as squire to Sir Oliver’s substitute, a man called Sir Bernard, and I learned two salutary lessons.
The first was about women. When we came to London, I was burning with desire for a woman. Not that I was a virgin. Knowing too much of the uses of women from my youth, I had sought out one of the castle whores—in fact, she who had taken over my mother’s place—as soon as the first desires came upon me. I had always something to trade for the service, for I needed only to ask Audris for an old silk ribbon or take a heel of the fine bread or rich cheese that appeared only on our table. Such small items were sufficient; I knew I did not need to pay at all. A word to the bailiff could have brought deep trouble to anyone who displeased Sir Oliver’s squire—but I never used that weapon. Quite aside from the fact that Sir Oliver would have been furious if he found I had misused my power in such a way, I had too clear a memory of my mother’s troubles (despite being shielded by the presence of the lord’s bastard and my father’s favor—such as it was) to wish more trouble on any woman who needed to ply Berta’s trade.
I think I was a favorite with the whore too, partly because I was a whore’s son and partly because I was young and not ugly. Whatever the reason, she taught me ways to pleasure a woman so that she could receive from me some measure of return for what she gave. I was impatient at first, eager only for my own delight, but I soon learned that to resist my satisfaction was to make it more intense when it came. I do not think, though, even in those early years when the body’s demands are paramount, that I was a lecher. And later, I was even less given to the demands of the flesh—but to be honest, that may have been because once I left Jernaeve, most of the women I could afford, if I wished to use them often, I could not stomach.
What drove me that night in London, though, was less a need of the body than curiosity. I imagined that a whore in a great city would be something strange and somehow richer than the woman who plied that trade in Jernaeve. Had I not been warned by a priest that the lips of a strange woman drop as a honeycomb and her mouth was smoother than oil? Having been told that such joys existed, was it not natural that I should be eager to experience them?
Not being an utter looby, I realized that the price of what I bought would be higher in London than at home, but I had several items for trade. One of my perquisites as squire was to keep the horsehair I curried from our mounts, and since I was assiduous at such duties, I had a bag of the resilient hair beaten free of dirt. This was much favored for stuffing pallets or cushions. I had also the candle ends from the thick candles that Sir Bernard burned at night to ward off evil spirits. The candle ends were of a good length, no mere stubs, since the days were long and the nights short in the spring. In Jernaeve, I knew any of these would be a welcome gift, but here in London I took along one of the coins from the purse Audris had given me when I left Jernaeve—I knew enough not to take along the purse.
Clever as I thought myself, I was still skinned. My “pleasure” cost me my shirt as well as the other items, but in a way I received value for my payment. Because of my expectations, I chose the most exotic appearing of the women I encountered. In the uncertain light of flaring torches she looked a marvel—her eyes rimmed with black, her skin whiter than milk, her cheeks and lips a more brilliant color than those of any woman I had seen. I had no idea at that time that a woman could paint herself to change her appearance, and I followed her eagerly, expecting wonders, only to discover that she was less in every way than the whore of Jernaeve—even after I bribed her, knowing the way of whores, to show me some new twist in the play of love. And I discovered, too, once I had recovered from my disappointment, that there was only a shade of difference in my own pleasure and that difference rested only on the fact that I was fond of the woman in Jernaeve and cared nothing for the whore in London. Years later, if I could have found that whore I would have given her a round sum, for that lesson was worth far more than I paid her.
My other lesson came with being blooded in battle—a little more thoroughly than Sir Oliver had intended, I suspect. In fact, I am not sure the action at Bourg Thérould should be called a battle. There were no tens of thousands drawn up with brave banners flying and heralds riding to and fro crying defiance and shouting heroic lines to hearten their masters’ men alternately with crying curses and imprecations at the enemy. Perhaps Bourg Thérould was no more than a skirmish. However, it was battle enough to me—it was my first and God knows it was a bloodier fight than many far greater battles.
I changed from boy to man that day. I was a boy when I waited to charge, lance in hand, thrilled to know that I would be aiming at a living man rather than a senseless quintain. Such are the young: I did not once think that if my aim was good a living man, against whom I had no spite, whom I did not even know, would be painfully hurt or die. I did not harm my first target. I was not heavy enough at fifteen to overset him, and either by luck or skill, I warded off his lance; but the second I struck true, and the dreadful scream as my lance thrust through mail and gambeson made me a man. Quintains do not scream.
I cried out too, in horror at what I had done. Could I have withdrawn, I might have run away, but I was attacked and by instinct defended myself. And then Sir Bernard was struck down. I did not know that he was dead, and it was my duty to defend him so I fought on. I did not even dare spew up the meal I had so gaily eaten that morning, though the screaming and stink of blood and excrement from the loosened bowels of the dying (or terrified) roiled my stomach. Instead I went away inside myself to some far place where all the stench and noise were very distant and could not touch me. I have sought and found that place many times since then, but I no longer wake up as I did the night after Bourg Thérould, sobbing bitterly.
I was utterly amazed, wondering about what I was weeping. When I caught my breath, I realized that the tent was free of my master’s snores, and it all came back to me. I still am not sure why I wept, and I have given the matter some thought over the years. Oh, I was sorry that Sir Bernard was dead, but in those days the only person whose death could have wrung from me those racking tears and sobs was Audris’s. Perhaps I wept for those who had died by my hand, or for all men who died in battle—but I think it was more for myself, because the innocent joy of boyhood in my skill in arms was lost.
Later in the day, though, I remembered how the leader of our force and many others had praised me for my heroic defense and I began to grow proud of what I had done. Is it not this that makes war possible? That men forget so easily their revulsion at inflicting pain and death on others and recall only their pride in their own prowess?
After the battle, which broke the back of the rebellion against the king, I was witness to the punishment of the prisoners. I saw how men without influence were sentenced to be maimed or blinded or killed, whereas one such as Waleran de Meulan, who had been a leader of the rebels against the king—although he had been raised like a son in the king’s own household—was only sent into gentle imprisonment. One good effect of the fearful punishments exacted for rebellion was that I became less discontent for a time with the quiet life in Jernaeve and was glad to go home.
I was welcomed back with wild joy by Audris, and that, too, sweetened the days of that summer—but I found also that Audris and I had come to a parting in the ways of our hearts. Out of love, she listened to my tales of war, but she was horrified, gentle creature that she was, not excited. She did not even much relish my tales of London and the foreign towns I had seen. It was the hills and forests and the wild creatures that lived in them that she loved, not close-packed houses filled with people or the streets busy with trade. We did not love each other less, but we had grown apart.
As if to compensate, I was closer to Sir Oliver for a time than I had ever been before. I had brought with me a sealed letter for him from the commander of the force, which, I am sure, held high praise of my behavior in both camp and field, and for the next few years Sir Oliver put me to use fighting off raids by outlaws and Scots. That first year I went with Sir Oliver to drive the raiders away and follow them back and burn their villages. The next two years I led a troop of my own, and was welcomed warmly in the manors to which I brought relief and protection. In some of them I stayed the night or even a few days, and more than once I was asked questions about Audris that puzzled me.
At first I said nothing to Sir Oliver about these questions, fearing to bring trouble on my hosts, but their curiosity about Audris herself, and such matters as when she would be ripe to marry and whether Sir Oliver was soon planning to betroth her and to whom, remained in my mind. Then one afternoon while Sir Oliver and I were idly drinking ale before the high-burning fire of deep winter, before I thought, my mouth had disclosed what puzzled me.
In the next instant my blood froze in my veins, so strange was Sir Oliver’s expression as he slowly lifted his head. He had been idly watching the flames in the fireplace as he grumbled; now, instead, he stared at me for a long moment in silence. Finally he said heavily, “I knew the time would come.”
Pretending my heart was not leaping in my throat, I stared back at him. “If I have done wrong and should have told you about this sooner, I am sorry. I thought there was no harm intended, just a natural curiosity about Audris because she is so shy.”
Sir Oliver sighed. “You have done no wrong. Still, you must leave Jernaeve. I cannot keep you anywhere on the lands. You are a danger to Audris.”
“I?” I gasped, the shock of hearing so suddenly that I must leave my home being swallowed up in the far greater shock his last sentence gave me. “I a danger to Audris? I would die to protect her.”
“I have no doubt of it,” Sir Oliver said sadly, and then with a spurt of bitterness, “Damn your Fermain face! Why could you not look like your mother?”
This time I was so stupefied by astonishment that I could not find my voice at all and just gaped at him.
“Do you not see that the men beholden to Jernaeve might prefer a strong man they know to hold the lands, bastard though he be, to a frail maiden?” Sir Oliver went on after a moment, watching me all the while as if he would draw the thoughts inside my head out through my eyes.
He could have discerned nothing but astonishment and disbelief, because that was all I felt—but it is likely he could not tell what I was thinking at all. I had not that trust in people that allowed every emotion to play freely over Audris’s face, and it had long been my practice to hide what I felt.
“You cannot believe I would have any part in such a scheme,” I protested when I could speak.
Sir Oliver shook his head. “Nonetheless, the longer you remain, the more men will compare you with Audris and the greater their discontent will grow. You must go.”
Fear and desire warred in me. I knew that I no longer had a home, that I was to be cut off from Jernaeve forever and that was a fearful thing, but I also had a deep craving to go out into the world, where perhaps I could make a place for myself that did not depend on being my father’s get on a whore. I also feared Audris’s reaction to hearing I was leaving Jernaeve for good, and I dared not tell her the real reason. It would be a bitter brew indeed to make poor, loving Audris drink of, that because she was a frail woman I had become a threat to her possession of Jernaeve. A silly fear. Audris had always known me better than I knew myself, and she had seen my restlessness. She tried to hide her tears to spare me pain and only made me promise that I would never fail to send her letters.
Again, I was not cast out but sent with honor, with a fine horse of my own training and good arms and armor. In the spring, I went to serve Eustace Fitz-John, in Alnwick keep, as one of the captains of the men-at-arms. I had my seat among the other captains and the upper servants at the second table and respect from the common folk and men-at-arms; I had no need to feel that I had fallen. And, although the troop I was given to manage was small and all raw men, that was to be expected for one as young as I. I took great pleasure in training the men and polishing them, and in the small actions we were sent on they behaved well. The troop was enlarged and then enlarged again.
Before I realized it, two years had passed. Every few months a messenger came from Audris in Jernaeve with a letter of news about the keep and the family, and I sent a letter back with the man with my small news, but in 1126 I had matter of greater interest to tell, great enough to hire a messenger of my own to carry word to Jernaeve. King Henry’s son-by-marriage, emperor of the Romans, had died, and his widow, Empress Matilda, had returned to her father. King Henry had been in Normandy all this time, but now he was coming back to England, bringing Matilda with him with the avowed purpose of forcing the barons to swear that they would take her for their queen when he died.
To my surprise, I was chosen to accompany Sir Eustace to the swearing. It was most interesting to see the seeming eagerness with which all men swore to uphold Matilda’s right to the throne against all others in the king’s presence. The greatest lords gave their oaths first. King David of Scotland swore to her first; after that there was nearly a quarrel between Robert, earl of Gloucester, the king’s most beloved bastard, and Stephen of Blois, sister’s son to the king and his favorite nephew, as to who should first swear fealty. Robert claimed the right of half brother; Stephen the right of sister’s son.
I could not help wondering, considering what I had heard in Alnwick, on the road, and in the drinking houses, which of the three would betray her first, for Matilda, I could see, was not the kind of woman who could make a man wish to die for her. Out of the king’s sight and hearing, it was clear that no one was happy with the idea that a woman would rule England.
“If you enjoy epic historical romances, this book is a pleasant read and I'll be reading the first in the series for sure” - Once Upon a Chapter
“If you enjoy epic historical romances, this book is a pleasant read and I'll be reading the first in the series for sure” - Once Upon a Chapter
“Exciting and riviting, there is no doubt in my mind why Ms Gellis is a best selling author. Her work truely does speak for its self. Her tales are filled with romance and inspiration that will touch you in a way that only a gifted storyteller can. Bravo!!” - Seriously Reviewed
“This is a really nice story that shows we can have an honest romance with a history lesson thrown in without the sexual prominence overtaking our story line.
” - Yankee Romance Reviewers
“This historical romance is not your typical love story and I think readers will appreciate the difference.
I'm giving this one 4 out of 5 apples from my book bag!
” - Debbie’s Book Bag
“A masterpiece! An epic adventure!” - Romance Reader at Heart
“For fans of medieval romance who are looking for something a little different, this would be a great story to check out. The author knows her stuff.
” - Long and Short Reviews
“I love a romance that compliments a complex storyline, giving it emotional substance. If you're already a fan of Roberta Gellis, or are looking for a new author to read, look for this book in November 2011.” - Between the Pages
Length: 8 in
Width: 5 in
Weight: 12.00 oz
Page Count: 496 pages