Always, p.1Lynsay Sands
For a dear friend, Helen Owens
"Women are the spawn of the devil!"
Lady Adela, abbess of Godstow, frowned down the length of...
"The marital bed."
"It's about damned time! What the hell did you do...
"Is that Shambley?"
Rosamunde dismounted on her own, pride the only thing keeping...
Rosamunde dropped onto the chair by the fire and sighed...
It was a spitting hiss and several tiny claws digging...
Rosamunde ripped her dark bread in half with a sigh,...
"There is a horse in my great hall," Aric muttered...
The main doors to the keep were both wide open...
"Have you given any thought to what kind of trouble...
"I will be only a moment, my lady. I just...
Humming under her breath, Rosamunde straightened from examining the pregnant...
Rosamunde stepped out of the tent and peered around at...
Sighing, Rosamunde paced the length of the room she and...
"Ah, you are awake."
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June 18, 1189
"Women are the spawn of the devil!"
"Come, my friend, surely not?" Robert of Shambley murmured chidingly. "You are just disillusioned at present by Delia's actions."
"Name me one female as courageous or faithful as a knight," Aric challenged, grabbing his mug and swigging half his ale in one gulp. He had arrived at Shambley this morning, and had been working very hard at drinking himself into oblivion for most of the afternoon and well into the night. Robert, good friend that he was, was keeping him company.
"My brain is too ale-soaked to rise to such a challenge," his friend admitted wryly. "I could, however, name a knight or two--or even a king's son or two--who are not so faithful or courageous as they should be."
"Aye." Aric sighed as he thought momentarily of the king's sons and how they rebelled against Henry, seeking to steal his crown at every turn. Then he rallied. "That just proves my point! It is good Queen Eleanor who eggs her rotten spawn on in these endeavors. Women. They are a curse upon the earth."
"Hmm," Robert murmured, glancing over his shoulder as the door to the kitchens opened and a buxom young serving wench hurried out with two fresh pitchers of ale. He tugged playfully at her skirt as she set the pitchers on the table, then, ignoring the baleful look Aric was giving him, he winked at her as well.
Smiling knowingly, the blond wench whirled away, skirts flying, and she sashayed back through the door, her hips rolling provocatively.
"Mayhap they are, my friend," Robert murmured as the door closed behind her. "But they do have their uses, too."
"Aye. In bed." Aric muttered, then added bitterly, "And some of them are too eager to be useful to all. Delia certainly seemed quite enthusiastic in Lord Glanville's stables when I caught them there together."
"I would not judge all women by your ex-betrothed, Aric. She is--"
"A faithless, cheap whore who apparently spread her legs for everyone," he suggested dryly, then gulped more ale. Slamming his mug down, he said, "I vow I shall never marry. I have learned my lesson. There shall be no faithless wife for me. Being cuckolded by my betrothed was enough. I shall never marry. Not for land or estates. Not for all the wealth in the kingdom. Not even under threat of torture!"
"What about under threat of death?" asked an amused voice, and both men turned wide eyes to the shape that now filled the open door that led out into the bailey. The man who addressed them was tall, and he wore a black cloak with the hood drawn up to cover his head, casting his face in shadow. The new arrival's features, however, were not nearly as troubling a matter to the two men he had surprised as how he had managed to make his way into the keep unannounced. Frowning, both Aric and Robert were on their feet in an instant, grimly reaching for their swords.
A second man entered Shambley Hall. Upon recognizing the thin little man who now stepped into the keep, Aric relaxed. He saw Robert's hand loosen on his own sword.
"Bishop Shrewsbury," Robert called out in greeting. "My apologies, my lord. My father's men should have heralded your arrival."
"They were ordered not to," the first guest announced, flicking back the cowl of his cloak as he strode forward. His features were strong and his hair, once red, had faded to a gray that matched his piercing eyes.
There was a brief moment of silence as Aric and Robert gaped; then Robert pulled himself together enough to offer a deep bow. "My liege. Had I been warned of your coming I could have prepared--"
"I did not realize myself that I would be coming. 'Sides, I wanted no one to know." Shrugging out of his cloak, King Henry II handed it to Shrewsbury as the smaller man rushed forward to take it. Henry then turned his attention to removing the heavy mail gloves he wore. Slapping them down on the table, he grabbed Aric's empty mug, poured fresh ale into it, and downed a good quantity of the stuff. He turned to eye the two younger men consideringly.
"You must be hungry after your travels, my liege," Robert murmured, obviously shaken by this unexpected and exalted visit. "I shall order a meal prepared."
"Nay!" The king caught Shambley by the shoulder and shook his head. "I ate at Burkhart. Sit. Both of you."
Aric and Robert exchanged a startled glance at the mention of Aric's family home, but neither man said anything as they dropped onto the bench at their king's order. Their backs to the table, they watched silently as Henry poured himself another drink, quaffed it, then paced a few short steps toward the silent Bishop Shrewsbury. He turned sharply.
"So." His eyes bored into Aric. "You will not marry?"
Aric shifted uncomfortably under his king's steely gray gaze, his own eyes sliding first to Robert, then to the bishop's enigmatic expression. His ale-soaked brain whirled in confusion. "Ah...well--" Aric finally began reluctantly, only to be interrupted.
"Not for land or titles? Not for all the wealth in the kingdom? Not even under threat of torture, I believe you said," the king quoted grimly. Aric squirmed where he sat, unsure how exactly he had displeased his sovereign, but knowing that somehow his words had done so.
"I have no desire--" he said at last, only to be interrupted again.
"What if I, your king, were to order it?"
That took Aric aback. He hesitated, his mouth opening and closing; then he began to shake his head in bewilderment. Why would the king care if he married? The question sloshed around inside his head, but he could see no ready answer. Aric was a second son. Not heir to any vast estates. He had no duty to produce an heir.
Apparently taking his head-shaking as a refusal, the king's infamous temper rose to the surface. His eyes blazing, he was suddenly in front of Aric, leaning forward and forcing the young knight to lean back until the table was digging uncomfortably into his back.
"What if I threatened to have you killed if you did not consent to marriage?" Henry snapped. He paused and, apparently thinking that specifics were necessary to convinc
"Marriage sounds pleasant," Aric managed to get out, embarrassed to hear the sudden rise in pitch his voice had taken under his liege's threats. He sensed rather than heard Robert's relief beside him, and wished wholeheartedly that he could feel that relief, too, but with the king still glaring at him, his face a bare few inches away, fire spitting from his eyes, and his breath warm on his face, Aric wasn't feeling any yet. Though he did suddenly feel quite sober. It was a desperately uncomfortable sensation.
A satisfied smile curving his lips, the king straightened abruptly as if he had not just been threatening the younger knight. "I am glad to hear it. I would rather have you for a son-in-law than decorate Westminster with your head."
"Son-in-law?" Aric said blankly, then glanced sharply at Robert, confused. The king had three daughters, Matilda, Eleanor, and Joan. But all three women were already married. Robert looked as befuddled as Aric felt, but his friend did nudge him and nod toward Henry, seeming to suggest he ask what they were both wondering. Sighing, Aric turned to the King and began, "I do not understand, Your Majesty. Your--"
The king was no longer standing before them, though. He had snatched back his cloak from the bishop and was wrapping it around his massive shoulders even as he strode back toward the door. Shrewsbury was hard on his heels. It seemed now that they had garnered Aric's promise, both men were leaving.
Aric glanced uncertainly toward Robert. His own instincts, the ones that had saved him time and again from death while in battle, were urging him to either remain where he was, or flee up the stairs to his room. Of course, his instincts were a bit muddled right now. They were probably wrong. The fact that Robert was suddenly on his feet, grabbing his arm and urging him to follow King Henry and the bishop unfortunately seemed to indicate his error.
Sighing, Aric grabbed up the king's chain-mail gloves--he had left them on the table--and hurried after the two nobles, aware that Robert was following.
"But, Your Majesty," he called out as he caught up to them. "Your daughters are all married."
"Not Rosamunde," the king answered promptly. Pausing at the door, he glanced back at Aric, opened his mouth to speak, then blinked at the sight of the gloves that the Aric held out. "Oh. Thank you," he muttered, taking the gloves and tugging one onto first the right hand, then the left. He opened and closed his fingers into fists a few times to assure the gloves were on properly, then flipped the hood of his cloak back over his head.
"Get your cloaks. 'Tis wet tonight," he ordered, then strode out of the keep. The bishop followed.
Robert and Aric exchanged a grimace, then hurried to do his bidding. It wasn't until they had fetched cloaks and headed out of the castle to chase the two dark figures striding toward the stables that Robert murmured what Aric had been thinking. "Was not the fair Rosamunde the king's mistress? The one he installed at court and loved openly?"
"Aye," Aric muttered. He had met her on a visit to court with his parents when he was ten. Hers had been a beauty unsurpassed. Skin like white silk with just a hint of blush to it. Hair as fine as gossamer thread, that shone brighter than gold. Eyes the color of the sea on a clear day. Her laugh had tinkled like a bell, and she had been kindness itself.
There had been rumors at the time that the king planned to set Queen Eleanor aside in favor of his lovely paramour, but Rosamunde had died the following year. Which had spawned new rumors. Had the queen killed her out of fear of losing her place and title? But the question had remained unanswered and the story became just a tale told by the fire at night. Few believed it anymore. After all, the queen had been imprisoned for inciting her sons' rebellions long ere the fair Rosamunde's arrival--what had she to fear from a king's mistress?
"Your Majesty?" Aric said as soon as he and Robert were within speaking distance of the man in the billowing black cape. "You did say Rosamunde?"
"Aye. My daughter, Rosamunde. Born to me by her mother, that fair beauty of the same name. A lovelier creature never lived," he told them grimly as they reached the stables. Pausing outside the doors, the king let the bishop rush inside and order fresh horses prepared. He himself turned to Aric and announced, "Our daughter is nearly as lovely. It is she you will marry."
"Do not 'but' me, Burkhart!" Henry snapped. Stepping forward, he poked him in the chest to emphasize every word. "You can live in wedlock or die a bachelor. You will marry her!"
"Aye, my liege, but why?" Aric asked quickly. Henry straightened, a blank look on his face.
"What do you mean, why? Because I like you. Because I think you will make her a good husband. Because I say so."
Aric grimaced, and didn't point out that threats to have him drawn and quartered were not the actions of someone who liked him. Instead, he said, "I meant, why now, Your Majesty?"
Henry scowled, then sighed. "Well, I have been searching for the perfect husband for her for quite some time, but none seemed good enough. I have always thought you a likely candidate. Not perfect, mind you, but promising. But you were already betrothed. Now you are not."
"I became unbetrothed only today," Aric pointed out dryly.
"Aye. I was on my way to Rosshuen to offer him her hand. We stopped at Burkhart Castle to switch horses. We were there when the messenger arrived with the news for your father: the betrothal was off and you were here drowning your sorrows. It seemed providential. I have always liked you and your family. You are honorable. And Rosamunde--my sweet love--spoke well of you. I think you impressed her, or as much as a boy of ten could...."
The king's eyes had a faraway look, then he returned. "Shambley was a day's travel closer, and time is of the essence. I..." Pausing as he recalled his rush, Henry turned to bellow a sharp order into the stables, then turned back. "So you are the lucky bridegroom."
"How fortunate for me." Aric sighed, then flashed an apologetic grimace as the king glared at him sharply through the drizzling rain. "But why now, my liege? You are supposed to be in Chinon. Your son Richard and the king of France--"
"And John," Henry inserted harshly. "He has joined them."
Aric and Robert exchanged a grim glance at that. It seemed the rumors were true then. The king's favorite son had joined the rebellion. That news must have been a blow for the old monarch. The appearance of Shrewsbury with two of Shambley's best horses in tow drew their attention, and King Henry impatiently moved to meet the man.
"Good, good," he said with approval, looking the beasts over quickly. "Nice horseflesh, Shambley. Give your father my compliments when next you see him. How is he, by the way?"
"Oh. Better, my liege. Improving daily," Robert assured him. The king took the reins of one of the beasts and proceeded to mount him. Robert's surprise that the king was even aware of his father's illness was obvious, and Aric supposed it was a bit startling, when the king was plagued with so many of his own troubles.
"Good." Settling in the saddle, he scowled down at them. "Well, what are you waiting for? Mount up!"
Following his gesture, Aric and Robert blinked at the two horses the stablemaster was now leading out, then quickly moved forward to do as they were bid.
"As far as everyone knows, I am still in Chinon," Henry announced. "I am presently believed to be sequestered, nursing my heartache at loss of Le Mans."
"Le Mans?" Robert asked with dismay.
"Aye." The king turned his steed toward the gates and urged him forward. Shrewsbury was immediately at his right, keeping pace. Aric had to spur his horse forward to keep close enough to Henry's left side to hear him as he went on. "Richard attacked Le Mans. I ordered the suburbs outside the gate set afire to hold him off, but the wind turned. Le Mans is ashes."
Aric winced at this news. The king had been born there. His father, the Count of Anjou, had been buried there. The loss of his birthplace would have been hard to bear. And that assured Aric that there
"What was that?" Robert asked, from Aric's left side. "Did he say Le Mans burned?"
Waving the question away, Aric addressed the king instead. "And yet you slipped away to see to your daughter's wedding? Why not wait until after all is settled?"
Henry looked displeased at the question, but after a glare at Aric for his impertinence, he snapped, "To ensure her safety should things not go my way."
"Safety from what?" Aric pressed. If he was expected to keep her safe, he had to know where the threat might lie.
The king was silent so long, Aric had begun to think he would not answer; then he suddenly announced, "There are rumors that Eleanor had Rosamunde's mother killed. I believe them."
"But Queen Eleanor was locked up at the time of her death," Robert pointed out, crowding Aric's mount with his own as he tried to keep abreast of the conversation.
"Aye, but she has servants, those who are faithful to her and are willing to do her bidding."
"But would she have wished Rosamunde dead, enough to murder her?" Aric asked, frowning at Robert and tightening his hold on his own mount's reins, trying to keep him from crowding the king's horse as they neared the gate.
"As you'll recall, my wife is eleven years my senior. I was nineteen when we married and she thirty. And she was newly divorced from Louis VII, the King of France. She lost her title as queen of France, married me, and became queen of England when I acceded to the title. Think you she would risk being set aside again? Another annulment? Lose another crown?" He shook his head grimly. "Nay."
Leaning forward to peer around Aric, Robert asked, "Why did you not--"
"Punish her? Have her killed for the deed? I wanted to. But I made a promise to Rosamunde. She made me swear never to unseat Eleanor. She did not want to be queen, just mine. Sweet, naive girl. She said it would accomplish no good and merely cause more political upheaval for me. 'Sides, she feared for our child. She was terrified that Eleanor might see the child dead for revenge."
There was silence for a moment; then Aric murmured, "I did not know that there had been a child."
Always by Lynsay Sands / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes