Vow of deception, p.2

Vow of Deception, page 2

 

Vow of Deception
 



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  “Good. Why don’t you go put the worm in your pail?”

  Jason skipped away.

  “Milady. What do you intend to do?” Edith looked up at her, her hand shielding her eyes from the glare of the sun.

  “We leave for Lichfield at dawn. I dare not delay one day longer.”

  “I shall go and have Lady Alison pack for you and Jason then.” Edith rose and hurried toward the Keep.

  Rose’s gaze returned to Jason, drawing in the dirt with his stick. Her only regret about her decision to formalize her vow of chastity was that she would not have any more children. But it was a sacrifice she was willing to make for her independence. Not to mention her emotional and mental welfare.

  Rand swiped his moist brow upon entering the shadows of the squat stone building shrouded in thick, twisting green vines. Unusually warm for early autumn, it was darker and moderately cooler in the still room. Rand sighed in relief, even as he braced himself for the duty he was about to perform.

  “Papa. Papa.” Rand heard the childish chant moments before a small whirlwind crashed into his knees. Startled, Rand nearly buckled his legs. Rand stared down at a tow-headed boy about three summers old. The lad wrapped his chubby arms around Rand’s knees and clung to him as tenaciously as the crusty buildup on the bottom of Rand’s ship’s hold.

  It was Jason, Rose’s son. He looked just like his mother, except for his blond hair and blue-green eyes. Rand’s heart twisted in yearning, and then he knelt and greeted the little Lord Ayleston.

  A soft, deferential voice spoke behind him. “Make your bow, Jason. This is Sir Rand Montague.”

  On his knee, Rand twisted to look over his shoulder at the lady of Ayleston. Rose stood framed in the doorway, backlit by the sun. Her short, slender form was hidden beneath a sleeveless surcoate of drab gray wool worn over a tunic of white linen. Her beautiful hair and swanlike neck were completely covered by a wimple and veil, the headdress customarily reserved for nuns and older widows.

  If he closed his eyes, he could still imagine her dressed in gaily colored silks, with her straight copper hair hanging loose to her waist, and her eyes flashing with life and innocent joy. But when Rand returned from the Eighth Crusade, he’d found Rose’s appearance and personality drastically altered. He’d recognized the signs of abuse—docile obedience, avoidance of eye contact, dispirited disposition—because he’d seen the same characteristics in his own mother.

  Taking Jason into his arms, Rand climbed to his feet. Rose stepped into the room. Rand’s gut clenched at the sight of her. Despite her drab garb, she was the most beautiful creature he’d ever seen. With bright blue eyes that pierced a man’s soul, when they were not darting away from direct contact.

  Rose’s cheeks appeared slightly flushed as she stared at Jason, in his arms. “Good day, Rand. What brings you to Ayleston Castle?”

  “Must I have a reason to visit you, Rosie?” He grinned.

  She winced, but otherwise ignored the hated nickname. “Nay, of course not. ’Tis just now is a busy time for me.” She held up the basket of flowers in her arms. “I am drying flowers and herbs for my scented bath oils and soaps. Half the fields have yet to be cleared of the harvest. I’m planning to leave on the morrow for Lichfield to visit Bishop Meyland of Coventry and Lichfield. Now, you have arrived—”

  She stopped in midsentence and cocked her head. “Why have you come, Rand? Has King Edward sent you on a matter to do with his wardship of Ayleston?”

  Rand knew how clever Rose was and was not surprised she grasped the significance of his arrival so quickly.

  Rose strode around a large cauldron in the middle of the room and laid her basket down on the worktable along the north wall. On shelves above the table were various vials and jars and bottles, their mysterious contents used for numerous treatments and cures for the habitants of the castle and village. A number of plants and herbs, including marigold and thyme, hung from the low ceiling in various stages of drying.

  Her arms outstretched, Rose came forward to take Jason from him.

  The boy leaned his head on Rand’s shoulder and clung tighter. “I want to stay with Papa.”

  Amused, Rand watched Rose redden in embarrassment.

  “Come, Jason,” she said sternly. “Edith is here to take you to bed.” Then her voice softened. “If you behave, Cook shall give you a treat when you wake from your nap.”

  With only a little fuss, Jason went to his mama, who kissed him and ruffled his hair before handing him over to the plump nurse who had appeared silently at the door.

  Rose turned around and wiped her dirt-grimed skirts in a nervous gesture. “I pray you forgive Jason. Ever since I told him he had blond hair like his father, Jason calls every blond-haired man he meets Papa.”

  “You need not apologize, Rose,” he said softly. “I was not offended—quite the opposite actually. He seems like a fine boy. I would be proud to claim him as my son. Indeed, you are to be commended.”

  Her eyes shuttered, but he saw the comment pleased her. “Thank you. Would you care to go to the Great Hall? We have some excellent mead and you can explain your visit while you refresh yourself.”

  “Aye. I would appreciate rinsing the dust of the road from my parched throat.”

  Rand followed Rose outside, past the flourishing kitchen garden, and around to the inner courtyard. “You have made some improvements since I last visited.”

  Her eyes jerked to his, almost fearful as though she expected censure. She relaxed when she read the admiration in his eyes. “I do not like speaking ill of my husband, but Bertram neglected the estate when he was alive. So I have expanded the gardens and repaired the dilapidated outbuildings. I’ve increased the arable and grazing lands, also. But there is much more I wish to do. When Jason reaches his majority, I want him to have a prosperous, well-run barony to inherit.”

  Rand felt a sudden stab of guilt as Rose spoke proudly of the improvements she was making to Ayleston. She had no idea that soon all control of the estate was to be given into the hands of Sir Golan, along with her person. But the king had vowed him to silence, and Rand could not think of breaking his sworn oath to his king. Rand’s father had berated him, calling him a disloyal, disobedient son. But Rand had proven him wrong. Honor and duty were his personal code, his only pursuit that of faithful and dutiful service to his king.

  So he shook the guilt away. Rose certainly knew as an heiress she would have to remarry eventually. Except for older widows, it was rare for a woman to be allowed to run vast estates without the protection of a husband.

  But Rand just smiled and said, “A worthy goal, indeed.”

  The double doors of the Great Hall were open. He took her arm to escort her up the steps. She flinched, subtly leaning her body away so only their arms touched. Though Rand kept his expression bland, her reaction saddened him. There was a time she did not despise his touch. Once, she even…

  When he reached the dais, he pulled out the chair at the head of the table for her. She looked up, her big blue eyes startled, then dropped her gaze and sat down.

  Did her husband never do her this courtesy? But it was the least of the man’s transgressions. Not for the first time Rand hoped Bertram was burning in Hell for his foul treatment of Rose.

  Rand took the only other chair beside her at the trestle table, and a pretty dark-haired servant promptly appeared. Her name was Lisbeth if he remembered aright. Leaning past his shoulder, the maidservant plopped down a tankard of mead on the board. Slow to withdraw, her bodice gaped, the smooth upper slopes of her breasts inches from his face. He flashed an appreciative glance at her offering, then winked at the bold wench. She sauntered away with a saucy, inviting smile on her lips.

  “Why are you here, Rand?” Rose’s voice snapped like a whip.

  She sat stiff and straight with her hands clasped demurely in her lap. His knights and squires, already partaking of the mead and ale, were laughing and conversing boisterously at the lower table.

  Smiling at
his men, he drank deeply. Wishing to delay the interview, he changed the subject. “You left court rather abruptly after Kat and Alex reconciled.”

  “It was time. Though I enjoyed serving the queen, I was gone from Jason too long. And Kat no longer needed me. By the by, have you news of my brother and Kat?”

  Rand could not keep the huge grin off his face. “News, indeed. Kat is with child and Alex is elated. I daresay you will not recognize Alex next you see him. He is already making a toy bow and arrows for the child, which he insists will be a girl.” Rand envied them their familial bliss, though he hid it behind a cheery facade.

  “What marvelous tidings. I know Kat always wanted children. They both deserve to be happy after what they have endured.”

  “Aye. Lady Lydia caused them a lot of grief. It is still hard to believe a woman was behind the attacks on Kat and Alex. You can never know where evil exists when it hides behind such beauty.”

  A shudder raced down Rose’s spine. She wholeheartedly agreed with Rand as she stared down at her hands in her lap. Bertram had been such an evil man, hidden behind the face of a Roman god. She was glad he was dead, though her soul was damned for her thought.

  Rose took another drink of mead. “I heard the king confined Lydia to a nunnery for the rest of her life.”

  “Aye, he was reluctant to execute her, but I believe a nunnery a rather fitting punishment. She will no longer be able to seduce men into doing her evil deeds. Edward even ordered her beautiful hair shorn.”

  Rose agreed the punishment was rather diabolical and just. Bertram’s mistress had been a curse on many people and there was no way to know how many lives she had destroyed. Her evil machinations had even reached into Rose’s own marriage. “What became of Sir Luc? I heard he recovered from his wound.”

  “Though Sir Luc conspired with Lydia, he had no knowledge of her murder plot or the attack on Alex in Outremer. So Edward banished him from court forever, a stiff punishment for a courtier. Last I heard, Sir Luc returned home to reconcile with his estranged brother.”

  Rose was surprised she had not heard this news. Sir Luc’s family seat was in the neighboring shire of Derby. As long as the man caused her family no grief, he was not her concern. But Rand’s untimely arrival was troubling.

  Surely it had naught to do with the bishop’s repeated excuses to delay taking her vow of chastity?

  Rose looked up into Rand’s eyes. They were greenish gray or grayish green. His thick blond hair was similar to Bertram’s, though that was the only similarity. “Tell me. What brings you to Ayleston?”

  He shifted in his seat, a nervous gesture that surprised Rose and put her on guard.

  “King Edward requests your presence at court. In that vein, he ordered me to escort you safely to Westminster. You have today to pack. We leave on the morrow.”

  Her heart sped up. She waited several beats and forced her voice to remain steady and calm. “I’m sorry, but I must decline.” She licked her suddenly dry lips. “As I said, I’m traveling to Lichfield for an audience with Bishop Meyland. ’Tis imperative I meet with him. I can delay no longer. Prithee, give the king my regrets.”

  Rand stared at her lips. Rose reddened. Her hand fluttered over her lips and then dropped limply into her lap.

  Rand looked up and cleared his throat. “Edward’s invitation is not a request, Rose. ’Tis an order. You shall have to postpone your visit with the bishop.”

  “Do you know what Edward wants of me?”

  “Alas, I cannot say.”

  Rose frowned and studied her friend’s open countenance. Whatever the king wanted, it could not be to her benefit. Since Edward had become king, Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, the prince of Wales, had refused to pay homage to Edward as his overlord. The king was losing patience, and it appeared England was on the verge of war with Llewelyn.

  Because Ayleston Castle was in the Marcher lands of Wales near England’s border, it would be vulnerable to attacks and raids by Welsh rebels. With Bertram dead, and Jason in his minority, Edward held wardship of Ayleston and could do aught he wanted with the barony.

  Now more than ever it was imperative she take her vow of chastity.

  “Very well. I’ve already made arrangements to travel to Lichfield. Once I meet with the bishop there, we can continue on to Westminster.”

  “’Tis out of the question.” His voice was adamant. “The king has ordered me to escort you directly and forthwith to Westminster. You shall have to delay your audience with the bishop for another time.”

  A throbbing pulse jumped at her throat. Oh, this was not good.

  Rose raised her chin, bravely holding his intense stare. “My audience cannot be delayed. Bishop Meyland has agreed to take my vow of chastity. I wish to see it done immediately.”

  A flash of surprise brightened Rand’s eyes. “A vow of chastity? When did you decide to take such a monumental step?”

  She dropped her gaze and rubbed her fingers in her lap. “I have been considering it for some time. I have no wish to be compelled to marry, or be dominated by a man who shall have complete control over my body and my estates. I imagine some ambitious lord may try to claim my wealth for his advancement. I shall never be at the mercy of a man like Bertram again.”

  His voice a soft caress, Rand offered, “Not all men are like Bertram, Rose.”

  She shook her head. “I cannot take that chance. The king can force me to marry any lord of his choosing. The character of the man shall not matter to him, only what advantage he may gain from the transaction. King Edward will not coerce me to marry once I profess to God my vow of chastity before the bishop. Unless he wishes to risk excommunication.”

  “I am afraid you have no choice in the matter. Your vow shall have to be postponed. The king sails for Gascony in a fortnight.” He shoved up from his chair. “Our journey cannot be delayed for any reason. You may bring one servant and one chest of clothing for each of you.”

  She scrambled to her feet. “What of Jason?”

  His brow puckered. “We shall be traveling swiftly, with brief stops and mostly sleeping in tents out of doors. It would not be conducive to a child. Jason will have to remain at Ayleston.”

  He waited patiently for her acquiescence. What choice did she have in the matter? she thought bitterly. She’d never defy King Edward and put her son’s welfare in jeopardy.

  “Very well. I have already begun packing. My attendant, Lady Alison, and I shall be ready to depart for Westminster, as you command,” she said, her voice monotone.

  Rand nodded and left the dais to join his men. Will, Rand’s brown-haired squire, said something to him. Rand threw back his golden head and laughed. Dimples creased his cheeks, softening the sharp angles of his face.

  She dropped her eyes, her stomach agitated. Deep in thought, she stared down at the pale rose liquid she swirled in her chalice.

  Chapter Two

  Ayleston Castle, Chester County

  In the year of our Lord 1274, January 3

  Second year in the reign of King Edward I

  Rosalyn, the lady of Ayleston, froze in stunned horror at the landing of the Keep’s stairs. Right before her eyes, Lord Ayleston whirled his arms like a windmill, teetering backward, one foot on the top stair. Her husband’s handsome features—honed as if by the hand of God Himself—suddenly contorted in stark fear.

  Rose clutched her infant son to her chest protectively, though he was asleep and cradled securely in the makeshift sling around her neck. Feeling sluggish as though swimming in deep waters, Rose at last reached out her free hand to Bertram. His fingers brushed her sleeve before he hurtled backward down the steps, an open O of terror on his lips. Thump, thump, thump, the sickening sound of his body hitting the rough stone stairs drummed inside her ears.

  Legs moving without volition, Rose raced down the wide spiral stairs after him. When his golden head hit the last step, a loud crack echoed up the stairwell. Bertram landed in a crumpled heap at the bottom.

  Rose stared wide-e
yed at her husband, her temples pounding in rhythm with her agitated heart. Her cheek burned from Bertram’s recent violent slap, while a scream of horror reverberated inside her head. It echoed like a pack of hell-hounds in Purgatory.

  Light from a single torch illuminated Lord Ayleston. His body was facedown, but with his neck twisted at an awkward angle; his vacant eyes stared up at the heavens. With gory fascination, Rose watched a dark red pool of blood begin to form on the step beneath his head. It slowly spread, until a drop of blood dripped over the edge and plopped on the stone floor of the Great Hall.

  A noise in the hall shattered her stunned observations. Beads of sweat popped out at her temples and her heart thundered as though it were going to explode. If she was found with Bertram’s body, she might be blamed for his death, whether she was responsible or not. A hue and cry would be raised, and if accused of having killed her husband, she would be taken to gaol, away from her young son, a prospect she could not bear. Even more frightening, if she was indicted and convicted of killing her husband, hence her lord, her punishment would be harsh: burning at the stake.

  Rose clutched her tunics in one hand, spun around, and made quickly for her chamber at the end of the corridor. After easing the door closed behind her, she rushed into her son’s adjoining chamber. Jason’s usually vigilant nurse remained sound asleep on a pallet beside the boy’s cradle. Rose had slipped a sleeping draught into her drink earlier. When Rose’s disappearance was discovered in the morning, she wanted Edith to be able to truthfully say she knew naught of Rose’s intentions.

  But everything had gone awry when Bertram had stumbled out of his chamber just as she had reached the stair landing.

 

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