Vow of Deception, page 19
Wept for a lonely boy who wanted a father. Wept for the naïve girl who’d married for love and then discovered her husband was a cruel brute. Wept for the deception she was forever a slave to, for fear of Rand’s hatred.
Rose, her basket of medicinal herbs, oils, and salves in the crook of her arm, exited the cramped cottage. A cold, brisk breeze ruffled her cloak collar and she clutched it tightly around her.
Beside her, Robert, a reed-thin boy with light brown stringy hair, age ten and nine years, asked, “What am I to do, my lady?” The lad was the eldest of Widow Grayson’s nine grandchildren. “’Tis my responsibility to provide for my family now.”
A thin layer of snow covered the spiky golden grass along the path they followed around to the side yard. Here, a fenced garden plot next to the cottage was protected from the two small boys who kicked a leather ball back and forth. Sir Justin stood sentinel inside the gate by the road keeping a vigilant eye on Jason, the smaller of the boys.
“The cottage and land will be yours when—”
“Aye. You can say it. When Grandmama dies.”
“With land to inherit, you can now marry the miller’s daughter you fancy.”
He blushed to the roots of his hair. “’Tis so obvious?”
“You have my permission for the marriage and I will speak with Sara’s father. She has a respectable dowry, which shall be indispensable to start your married life. ’Twill just be up to you to convince Sara to accept your offer.”
Robert grinned and winked. “Oh, she’ll accept my offer. Sara cannot resist aught I ask of her when I do it sweetly.”
She bid Robert good day and walked to the gate, where Sir Justin stood in full armor waiting. Justin was diligently taking his responsibility of guarding her and Jason whenever they were not within the safe confines of the castle walls. She was relieved. A number of travelers had brought reports of Welsh raids west of Ayleston. Then there was Sir Golan’s threat. That the man had not tried to retaliate yet did not mean he had forgotten. She knew Sir Golan was not the type to forgive an insult, especially when he had been so publicly humiliated.
“Come, Jason!” she hollered. “We must be getting back to the castle!” The sky was dark with impending snow.
Jason picked up the ball, waved to his friend, and ran to Rose’s side. Sir Justin took Rose’s basket, opened the wooden gate onto the main village road, and stepped out onto the dirt road, where he’d tied up the horses. She and Jason followed. Having secured her basket to her saddle, Justin gave her a hand up onto her black mare and then lifted Jason to sit before her.
“How does the Widow Grayson fare?” Sir Justin asked as they followed the meandering road.
Clutching Jason to her tightly, Rose shook her head sadly. “I am afraid she is not long for this world.”
“Is Widow Grayson going to die, Mama?”
“Only the Lord knows, son. But Widow Grayson has had a long and fulfilling life. We shall pray she gets better.”
“Aye, I will pray for her,” Jason said, sniffling.
“It must be burdensome for you when you cannot save the poor souls you seek to heal.”
Rose glanced over at Justin, riding beside her. “Aye, ’tis difficult when someone I am caring for dies. But I have a special calling for healing. For those I do have a small hand in saving, their lives make up for the pain and suffering I see every day.”
As they approached the last bend nearing the lowered drawbridge, a loud clattering of horses’ hooves came up from behind them. Tack and armor jingling, the party of soldiers came upon them rapidly, forcing them off the road. Rose cried out, clutching Jason to her. Sir Justin guided her horse safely off the road, but in the process, his horse stumbled and went down. Rose screamed. The destrier rolled over Justin, crushing him, then staggered to its feet, limping and shaking its head.
Helping Jason down first, Rose slid off her mare and ran to Justin’s side. She skidded to a stop, nearly slipping on the snow-covered grass, and dropped to her knees.
First, she carefully removed his mail coif. He lay pale and still. Her lips moved as she prayed beneath her breath that he was alive. She patted his face, but he did not respond. She checked his pulse. It was weak, erratic. Next, she checked his limbs.
She grimaced upon seeing the bone of his lower leg poking through his mail chausses.
The party of riders entered the castle except one man, who turned around and approached on a large black warhorse.
“You fool!” Rose blasted the miscreant. “What were you thinking? Your reckless disregard has endangered my knight.”
The knight in the black tunic and cloak who’d led the party slowly removed his hood. “I was thinking you would give way to your betters, as is custom.”
The breath ripped from her lungs. “You. How dare you seek hospitality within the walls of Ayleston. Do not dare to think you will be given such. Especially after this day’s deeds.”
Sir Golan smiled, a gloating smile so evil she shivered. “I’m afraid you have no choice, my lady. King Edward has awarded me the position of lieutenant-justiciar for the Earldom of Chester. Surely you do not wish to offend me or the king by denying me hospitality?”
He sneered, knowing she had no choice but to allow him to stay. Rose glared at him in impotence. As an officer in the earldom’s administration, Golan held a position of power and no doubt intended to wield it to their detriment.
Several of the castle guard rushed out. She gave them instructions.
Sir Golan had dismounted and approached Sir Justin’s horse, behind which Jason had been hidden during their exchange. “Who is this, my lady? Mayhap this is your son? Lord Ayleston, am I correct?” His hand came down on Jason’s shoulder.
Rose, her heart palpitating in fear, rushed over and grabbed Jason from him. “Stay away from my son.”
Two men of the castle guard came forward with a stretcher to carry Sir Justin inside. “Take him to the chamber next to mine.”
Another knight helped her and Jason mount Evangeline.
Staring down at Sir Golan, Rose said, “By all means, you may stay at Ayleston for the night. But I’m afraid we have no private chambers available for your use.” She smiled, pleased to deny him this small comfort. “You may sleep in the Great Hall with the rest of the household, or with your men in the west tower. I doubt you shall see me before you leave on the morrow. Good day.”
Sir Golan sneered, ignoring her dismissal. He would have the last word. “Where is the ever valiant Sir Rand?” he asked snidely. “I hear he has been away for some while and now resides in Chester. You do not have him to protect you anymore.”
Her eyes grew wide, fearful. He thrived on her fear. She was just like his first wife—a whore to the very core, he thought.
But in some ways, he hated Lady Ayleston more. For she’d humiliated him before the whole court, by choosing Sir Rand and no doubt whoring with him, also. She was going to pay for rejecting him. And he knew exactly the means by which he was going to achieve his revenge.
Sitting on a stool beside Justin’s bed, Rose wrung out a linen cloth in the basin, folded it neatly, and pressed the cool cloth against the knight’s forehead. She was very worried for him. He’d not awoken since his accident. Not even when she set his broken leg bone and put it in a splint. She piled on extra blankets and now waited to see if he would awaken.
Jason sat quietly on the window seat on the other side of the bed, scratching out his letters on a wax tablet. The sun had yet to set on the day, and a heavy snow had begun to fall.
“Edith, Jason and I shall be sleeping in this chamber while Sir Golan is in residence. I do not trust the man. He is a pestilence determined to infect us with his evil presence. Prithee, send David up. I need to speak to him about posting a guard at our chamber door for the night.”
Edith picked up the last bloody towel on the floor and put it in the basket she carried on her left hip. “Aye, my lady.” She huffed, breathless, and
“Absolutely not. Sir Rand wishes to maintain separate households. I shall not burden him every time a crisis arises. I am perfectly capable of managing the situation,” she said stiffly, wounded.
“But surely he’d wish to be informed about Sir Justin’s injury.”
Rose chewed the corner of her lip in thought. She did not want Rand to think she needed him in any way. He’d easily rejected her and she did not want or need him. She and Jason were perfectly happy to rely only on each other. But Edith was correct. Rand should learn that his friend was hurt and that Rose did not know whether he would survive or not.
“Of course, you are right. When you return, bring my writing accoutrements from my chamber and I will prepare a message for David to have delivered.”
Edith nodded and left the chamber. She soon returned with Rose’s writing box, which contained ink, a quill, parchment, a bag of sand, and sealing wax. Rose wrote Rand a brief message, sanded it, and then sealed it with wax. A few moments later David arrived.
He bowed, his gaze dark and unreadable. “My lady. Edith said you wished to speak to me?”
“Aye, David. As you know, Sir Golan and his party will be staying at Ayleston for the night. But I do not trust the man. He’s threatened to harm me and my son, yet I cannot afford to offend the new lieutenant-justiciar by denying him hospitality.”
“I understand, my lady. Tell me what it is you would have me do.”
“As I need to watch Sir Justin through the night, Jason will sleep here in the chamber with me. I need you to have the captain of the guard send me his ablest knight to guard the chamber door until Sir Golan leaves. The man is quite capable of harming us in our own beds while he pretends to seek our generosity.”
“Of course. I shall go speak with the captain now and have him send his best knight immediately.”
“Wait, there’s more. I do not intend on leaving this chamber all night, so I will not be dining with you in the Great Hall this evening. I spoke with Lady Alison. She will entertain our visitors in my place. Despite my suspicions, give our guests every courtesy and treat them graciously. I do not wish to give Sir Golan any reason to accuse me of inhospitable treatment.”
“Very well, my lady. Is there aught else you wish me to do?”
She hesitated, then turned and picked up the sealed missive on the washstand beside Justin’s bed. “There is one more thing.” Handing the letter to David, she said, “Have this message delivered to Sir Rand in Chester. ’Tis imperative he get it with all due haste.”
David stood staring down at the message in his large, bronze hand. He cleared his throat as if he wished to speak.
“That will be all, David.”
He suddenly raised his gaze to hers, his eyes feverish with yearning. “My lady, there is no need to send for Sir Rand. You know I will do whatever it takes to protect you from Sir Golan.”
The sudden intensity of his emotion made her uncomfortable. “I trust you will. But Sir Rand needs to know Sir Justin is gravely injured.”
“My lady, forgive me. I’ve not said a word since Sir Rand left, but I can no longer contain myself.” He drew closer and clutched her hands in his. “I love you, Rose. It seems like I have loved you forever. Yet I never dared to confess it because you were so intent on taking a vow of chastity. Then you married, and your husband abandoned you.”
“David, pray do not say another word.” She pulled her hands free and stepped back. She glanced over at Jason. He was preoccupied and could not hear their discussion.
“How can I? I see the way you look at me. Tell me you love me as much as I love you.”
“I do not love you, and I have certainly given you no reason to believe such.”
A surge of anger heated his face and his next words. “Do you love him? Are you in love with Sir Rand?”
Rose lurched back in shock. “You go too far. It is none of your concern what happens between my husband and me. I appreciate the loyalty and expertise you have provided Ayleston since my first husband’s death, but if you wish to continue on as steward, you will refrain from such intimate discourse in future.”
He dropped his head. “Forgive me, my lady, if I offended you. ’Twas not my intent. You need not fear I shall overstep my bounds again.”
“Very well. You are dismissed.”
He spun on his heel to leave.
“Do not forget the letter.” Rose picked it up off the bed, where he’d dropped it when he held her hands. She handed the missive back to him.
This time his cheeks flushed in embarrassment. “Of course, pardon my lapse. I’ll send that guard for your protection straightaway.”
“Naaaay!” Rose cried in denial. She jerked awake, sitting upright on the stool, heart pounding. The echo of a nightmare suffused Rose as she stared around the room. Light from the hanging oil lamp next to the washstand penetrated the suffocating darkness. She was in Bertram’s former chamber, but he was dead. Now, Sir Justin lay in the bed, his raspy breathing the only sound in the bedchamber.
She rubbed her face. Wrinkles from the bedclothes lined her cheek where she’d rested it on the bed. Getting up from the stool, she checked on Jason, sleeping on a pallet at the foot of the bed. He was lying on his back, his curls matted on the right side of his head.
The door suddenly rattled. Rose jumped, startled. She heard a deep groan outside, followed by a heavy body slumping to the floor. A second loud thump jarred the door, then silence.
Her hand flew to her throat and her pulse pounded. She went to the door and leaned against it. “Sir William? Are you all right?” she asked the guard who’d been posted at her door hours earlier.
When he did not respond, she spoke louder. “Sir William. Answer me if you can hear me.”
She knew better than to open the door. It could be a ploy by Sir Golan to draw her out from the safety of her barred chamber. But she had to check to make sure William was not hurt or gravely ill. She could not live with herself if William was hurt while trying to protect her and she didn’t do anything to help him.
But she would not open the door unarmed and defenseless. She grabbed the basin off the washstand and shoved the bar on the chamber door aside. Then she leaned her back against the wall beside the door and threw it open. William’s upper body, having been slumped against the door, fell inside the chamber. A dagger was embedded in the paneled door piercing a piece of parchment. Rose gasped, her eyes widening.
Stepping forward, she gazed down the corridor both ways. She saw no one and bent down to check William’s pulse. It throbbed beneath her fingers. An icy quiver ran down her spine. She could feel a malevolent presence in the shadows, watching her.
Alarm racing through her, she yanked the dagger from the door, the parchment still stuck in the tip. Hurriedly, after she set the basin down, but still clutching the dagger, she hooked her arms beneath William’s and hauled him inside. She groaned with exertion, and sweat broke out over her skin.
Once he was inside, she slammed the door shut and shoved the bar back in place.
She checked William for injuries but found none. She lifted his eyelids. His eyes were unfocused as though he was drugged. Assured he was safe for the nonce, she pulled the parchment free and studied the dagger. It was plain and nondescript with no special markings to indicate its owner. She moved to the hanging lamp next to the washstand, unfolded the parchment, and held it up to the light. Written in French, it read:
I know your secret. One hundred marks buys my silence. Leave the coin at Lord Ayleston’s tomb in the chapel crypt at the hour of Lauds. Tomorrow.
The parchment fluttered as her hand shook. Someone knew her secret. But which secret was the extorter referring to? She was hiding two damning secrets: that she’d killed her husband and that she’d committed adultery and as a result Jason was not Bertram’s son.
It would be disastrous if either secret was to become known. But if someone knew her secret, why did the person wait till now to expose her? And how could the person possibly know the truth? Which led her to wonder who had left the note. Was it just a coincidence that the extorter surfaced the very night Sir Golan, her hated enemy, arrived at the castle?
It made more sense that someone who resided in the castle at the time of her husband’s death had seen her struggle with Bertram at the top of the stairs that night. And, for reasons that eluded her, had kept silent. But very few of her first husband’s retainers remained at Ayleston.
One particular person came to mind, though. David. She would not believe it. The seneschal was her most trusted servant. Why would he wish to harm her? Unless…could he wish to punish her for rejecting him? His passionate confession that he loved her had completely taken her by surprise.
Whoever the perpetrator was, if she did as demanded, she might as well confess her guilt.
What if she did not leave the money? A fist squeezed her chest, making it difficult to breathe. Light-headed, she stumbled to the bed and sat down, the questions going round and round inside her head.
Her gaze landed on her son, lying on his pallet at her feet, his sweet, beautiful countenance softened in sleep. Her heart did a flip-flop, her love for her son an unceasing gale force emotion. She knelt down and brushed his matted curls back off his face. She had less than a day to decide what to do. Whatever her decision, it would be in Jason’s best interests, no matter the cost to her.
Nor could she rely on anyone but herself to protect him.
Upon returning from Beeston Castle, Rand stomped the snow from his boots as he entered the Great Hall of the house he leased in Chester. Will followed him inside, wiping the snow from the collar of his squirrel-lined cloak. The porter, John, took their cloaks and hung them on pegs inside the Great Hall entry.
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