Valentines day anthology.., p.8

Valentine's Day Anthology: Hearts and Handcuffs, page 8

 

Valentine's Day Anthology: Hearts and Handcuffs
 


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  Now it was night and Meredith had been led to her bridal chamber at the top of the West Tower. And there she was left. Alone.

  In this most dreadful room, burning candles offered a weak light. Servants had spread leaves of sweet-box and witch-hazel flowers on the floor. A table had been heaped with platters of pies, cakes, nuts, berries and flagons of mead. Worst of all was the bed, covered with rich furs and fat embroidered cushions.

  Circling as far as she could from this bed, her feet scattering the soft green leaves carelessly, she stopped in front of a narrow tapestry. The Lady of The Lake, embroidered in white and silver, wore a loose shift, shimmering hair so long that its ends dipped into the lake. If was meant to offer serenity, it failed.

  Meredith tried to steady her breathing. Her new husband would come soon. Perhaps it was better to sit. There was a small leather stool. She perched on the edge. A log crackled in the fire pit. She sprang up as if bitten and turned around in a panic.

  There had to be something in this room to offer hope.

  Jugs of mead and small pots of honey had been placed in each corner of the room. Did they think she or the prince were too lazy to walk the five steps to the long table groaning with every kind of food to ever come out of the castle’s kitchen?

  The sounds of drunken singing drifted through the window, from the feasting. Had the window been any wider than an arrow slit, she’d have crawled through it. If the high leap broke her neck, so much the better. The Prince of Mercia was sure to kill her himself when he discovered her secret.

  A wave of nausea rolled through her. It passed, leaving a cold fear in its wake. She should run from the room and fly down the stairs. She gathered her long skirts in her hands crossed to the door but there met with the sounds of singing rising from the stairs.

  Male voices, thick with too much ale and choking on laughter, chorused together

  Hurrah, hurrah!

  Time to wed.

  Horoo horoo!

  ‘Tis time to bed.

  Meredith looked for another exit, but the camber was at the top of the tower and the stairs its only access. She ran back into the room.

  The sounds followed, getting gradually nearer.

  To pipe, to sing

  To dance, to spring,

  Aloft carried to bed

  And his garments to shed

  ”Put me down, afore I fall and break my leg.” A man laughed – a man far gone in drink.

  “Bad that.” Someone else answered before a third voice shouted. “Better to break his leg than his cock.”

  Meredith whimpered and retreated, looking for a place to hide.

  The tapestry.

  She swung it aside to get behind it, but the tapestry was hung too high and Meredith’s feet were visible below the edge.

  The singing continued punctuated with bawdy laughter.

  Following sensual appetite

  With pleasure and delight

  Carry him to his bridal bed

  For now his bride shall spread

  Meredith dashed to the far side of the food table trying to sink behind it. She knocked a platter which spilled roast fowl on the floor.

  With goodly cheer,

  To receive his spear,

  Frantic, Meredith ran to the far side of the bed and dropped to her knees. It was too low to hide her, but she gathered the cushions up in a mound and tucked her head behind them.

  The voices were just outside the chamber, now.

  ‘Tis time his lady to offer,

  Her arms,

  Her lips,

  Her pink flower.

  Would this horrible song be the last she ever heard before she died?

  Prince Edwyn lurched in unsteadily while the singing and laughter receded outside as the revelers went away.

  Another man came a few steps behind him. “Can I do anything?”

  “No.” Edwyn waved him away.

  “Will you be all right my Prince?”

  “Thank you Bryn. You should leave me.”

  The man left and the prince stood at the other side of the bed.

  She hadn’t looked at him at the ceremony earlier. She’d kept her head down for the entire day because the one moment she’d glanced up, she’d caught sight of the King pale and thin lipped. She had closed her eyes and dropped her head again. All she’d seen of her husband were his boots.

  Now, peeking from behind the cushion, she saw a short, slight man, very red faced. Too drunk to walk, he stumbled against the table and fell over knocking down many dishes. With an impatient hand he brushed away a ham hock and smoked fish and fumbled for a flagon of mead. He lurched towards the bed and sat on it to drink deeply tilting his head until the flagon was empty and he flopped back on the bed.

  Was this all? Had he gone to sleep? Could she slip past him? Meredith rose quietly and tip-toed slowly around her side of the room. There was a candle in the corner and she bent close and blew it out. Her breath sounded much too loud, but the prince didn’t stir. She glided slowly along the back wall.

  The hardest would be crossing in front of him to slip out. Meredith circled the food table. Keeping watch on his slack face and closed eyes, she snuffed out the two candles there. That left five lit candles only. No help for it. Her back pressed into the last wall, her eyes measured the distance to the door, ten steps.

  One slow agonizing step.

  Another step.

  Her foot was in the air when he grunted softly and woke up. She froze.

  Edwyn rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand and sat up blinking in the poor light. His eyes landed on the tapestry of The Lady Of The Lake in front of him.

  He tried to stand and after two failed attempts lurched to his feet and bowed. “Well met, Lady.”

  Rising from his bow, he said. “I pray you forgive my tardiness.” He pulled his clothes to tidy them. “My comrades kept me long with their revels. I fear have plied me with entirely too much ale that I am scarce able to stand upright.”

  He drew breath and stood straighter and looked up at the high tapestry. “You are in truth much fairer than they said, and…” he raised his head higher. “You are so … majestic … and much ...er.” He looked all the way up and toppled backwards to sit on the bed.

  “Lady, do not judge me unfairly for my drunkenness.” He blinked repeatedly before reaching for her hand. His fingers landed on the embroidered wool and shrank away in shock. He blinked again, rubbed his eyes then poked the tapestry with his index finger.

  At long last he sat back on the bed with his face in his hands. “What a great show I have made, mistaking you for my wife.” He looked back up. “In truth I wish ‘twere you and not her.”

  Meredith’s leg suspended up began to cramp; she tried to lower it in small hair’s breadth increments.

  “What do you think my Lady?” Edwyn glanced all the way up to where the silver-embroidered face reflected the candle light. “What does she hope for, this bride of mine?”

  He pushed off the bed and dropped to his knees before the tapestry and pressed his palms together in prayer. “I have been on long pilgrimage, visiting the saints, fighting in the wars of the Holy Roman Emperor and his brother. I have won silver and paid alms to the church.” His voice gradually lost its drunkenness and now quivered with a different emotion. “I have forced myself into a five-year exile to save my father’s kingdom, but the instant I am back in Britannia, I find myself matched and forced to wed.”

  Still on his knees, he pulled his shirt and his embroidered jerkin over his head messing his soft, wispy hair. Half naked he bowed. “Kill me, Lady. Lift your watery sword and strike my head from my body. Though it’s sure to bring war, it will not be war of my own making, and my shame shall die with me.”

  He waited.

  When at long last he must have given up hope of the tapestry cutting off his head. He lifted his head and candle light reflected on tears running down his face.

  Meredith, moved by his sadness, forgot her fear for a moment. Bef
ore she could think about it, the words were out of her mouth on a soft whisper. “What shame could drive a prince to forfeit his life?” Then it occurred to her that it might be her own shame that he knew of. The cuckolding forced on him. Her stomach twisted.

  For the first time since he came into their bridal chamber, Prince Edwyn finally saw his young wife. He rose. Searching among his clothes, he found his sword and pulled it out of its scabbard before walking slowly towards her.

  Fear crashed back into her. Why did she speak? She had always been an irresponsible chatterer. She pressed her back into the wall as Edwyn came to stand hand-span in front of her.

  He placed his palm flat on her chest, just below her throat where her skin suddenly rose in goose pimples. “You are a living women, not one made of thread and wool.”

  He was not taller than Meredith and this close, the smell of drink wafted in her face. Her stomach chose that moment to heave. She barely managed to turn away in time before she retched into a half spilled jug. She half expected him to sink his sword in her back while she emptied her stomach.

  When she turned back he was on his knees, offering her his sword hilt first.

  “She was not so sickened by me.” He tilted his face towards the tapestry. “But you are a living moving woman.” He pulled his shoulders back. “Make it a quick death, a stab through the heart.”

  She closed her eyes and waited for the sickness to pass. He waited for her to open her eyes then spoke.

  “I wouldn’t lay this on you if I hadn’t been such a coward. I did try. I rode my horse very fast thinking to take us both over a cliff. My horse shied at the last minute. To be sure he is a noble stallion and did not deserve such a death.”

  He wiped sweat, or perhaps tears from his face. He really was very far gone in drink. He swallowed with difficulty then continued. “I did try to make the leap myself over the cliff but my legs refused to take me. The truth is I want to live, so you must kill me, I cannot do it.” He tried to push the sword at her again.

  “No.” She took a step back

  “I beg you. Tomorrow I shall be sober and my courage will have melted.”

  “Never. I’m no killer of men.”

  A mirthless laugh escaped him. “You need have no worries on that score, I am not a man. I am a coward and a disgrace to men.” His eyes filled with tears.

  Meredith sank to her knees too and after a moment took the sword from his unresisting hands and pushed it far under the dinner table.

  He bowed so low, his head lay between his knees. “Saint Valentine the most holy,” Edwin whispered. “Ease my passing on this, your day.”

  Meredith brushed his hair back gently. “Why do you wish to die? You are a Prince of the most powerful English kingdom, and your father’s heir. You are young and pleasing to look at.” She said, although she didn’t find him handsome. Not compared to her powerful Gawain.

  But Edwyn had a smooth skinned fragility that moved her to pity. She wanted to comfort him like a child. “What could shame you?” She stroked his head. “You are not a maiden who finds herself with child conceived out of wedlock.” Her own pain resonated to his, and tears spilled down her face too.

  “I wish I were such a maiden. Alas no child shall be mine. My father needs me to beget an heir. How am I to obey him?”

  Meredith wiped her face, silly tears. “I’m sure if you ask your singing friends, they would be happy to instruct you.”

  He lifted his head and seeing her smile, he grinned through his own woes. “’tis not lack of instruction, but a worse… there are greater obstacles.”

  “What obstacles?”

  His gaze travelled from her head down to her body and back. “I can’t rise to my duty, because … because…dumplings”

  “Dumplings, Prince?” her brows knitted in confusion.

  He held his hands a short distanced from her chest. “Because of those.”

  She looked down. “My bosoms?”

  “Not yours, Lady. Any bosoms.”

  “But all women have them.”

  Edwyn nodded miserably. “Hence my obstacle.”

  “You need a flat chested maid.”

  “Know you of such a maid? And perhaps she could have a beard and a cock.” He held her gaze and waited while she tried to understand what kind of woman he wanted.

  His face was sad, patient. When at last he saw understanding begin in her eyes, he dropped his head. “When the first women I tried to hump, … er. I failed to raise a flicker. I killed them to ensure their silence – thankfully they were only village wenches.” He scrubbed the hair out of his face. “I took to the road. In five years I met every class of wench. Fat, skinny, dark, fair, clean, dirty, old, young. Never did my wick rise for any of them. My father shall have no royal heirs. Not from me.”

  Edwyn rose to his feet and went round the table to find the sword where Meredith had pushed it. “How long before rumours spread of Edwyn the lover of men?” He stepped over the spilt food back to kneel before Meredith again. “And what would they say of my father? How long before he became a mockery? I would kill myself but, not being a man, I am a coward.” He placed the hilt of his sword in her hand and wrapped her fingers around it. “If you have any pity for me.” He lifted the point of the sword to the hollow of his throat. “Just one strong push.”

  A plan was forming within her, like stones in the castle wall.

  “My Lord, I have heard your tale. Now, I have words of my own to tell you.” She didn’t trust him not to push himself on the sword, so she rose and took it to the window and pushed it out with a satisfied finality and brushed her hands.

  It wasn’t until she saw the look of horror on Edwyn’s face, that she let out a girlish scream and they both ran back to the window, to see if it landed on anyone below. It lay harmlessly in the grass, glinting in the moonlight.

  “Never do that with a weapon, never!” Still half naked, the prince rubbed his hands on his arms.

  “Oh you are cold.” Meredith ran to find his clothes but they smelled of wine and sweat, so instead she pulled a cover off the bed and dragged it over to wrap him then threw her own arms around him. “Oh My dearest Prince Edwyn, I love you with all my heart. I love you.” She pressed a kiss on his cheek.

  “Easy, Lady.”

  “I love you, and you are my husband, and we are going to do very well together.”

  “No, you have not taken my meaning.” He shook his head.

  She took him by the hand. “Come let’s sit away from the cold air.” When he didn’t come she pulled him to the bed and sat him next to her. “You say you’re not a man.” She took his free hand in hers. “I don’t believe you a coward, for you sat very still with the point of a sword at your neck.”

  “This doesn’t change my nature.”

  She squeezed his hand. “I don’t believe you shameful. The heart cannot help where it finds love.”

  At last, there was an answering squeeze from his hand. “Thank you sweet Lady, but I fear others won’t see me with your eyes.”

  “They will when I give you an heir.”

  His face fell. “My Lady has been at the wine?”

  “No, no, no, listen to me. I am that maiden, carrying a child conceived out of wedlock. I had a lover.”

  “When?”

  “This morning. And for six month before that. I am with child. But my lover was forced to give me up to you.”

  She watched his face while he tried to assimilate the thought. He was rather slow, and not only from the drink.

  He shook his head. “I need more ale, or less ale, or a long sleep.”

  “Don’t you see? Your father’s kingdom is safe, your honour is safe. This makes you safe.”

  “It also makes me a cuckold.”

  The word doused her excitement.

  She scraped her courage together. “Do you care? Whence the cuckolding if the cuckold is in on the trick.”

  “Oh sweet Lady, you are a child, you have not seen enough of this world.” E
dwyn pushed off the bed and went in search of another drink. He rummaged around and found a jug, raised it to his lips and found it empty. He spoke while searching for more drink. “The last King in this castle was deposed for this selfsame reason. Your own father was the man to denounce him.” Edwyn tried another jug.

  “Dear Prince, please don’t drink any more, the smell makes me very sick.”

  He lowered the jug and stared at her.

  She swallowed against the queasiness. “No one will know our secret. We are safe.” She was starting to shiver. If Gawain were here, he’d have made her warm. But this boy-man prince merely stood staring at the jug of mead in his hand.

  “How shall we be safe when your lover comes with his prior claim to blackmail us for his silence?”

  “Why would he do such a thing?” She was very tired and her heart ached.

  “Gold and silver.”

  “He has more gold and silver than you. He paid for our wedding and the festival today.”

  Edwyn shook his head. “Your lover is your father?”

  “Not him. I hate my father. And it was the King who paid.”

  Why was it taking him so long to put it together?

  “You carry the King’s child? King Gawain?”

  She nodded and tried to smile encouragingly but misery flooded her. She was sick of talking, she was tired, and everything in the room smelled of spilled ale.

  She went to the window and pushed her head out into the fresh air. The cold slapped her face and made her eyes water. Or perhaps it was just misery that spilled her tears again. She was shivering and her teeth began to chatter.

  A soft fur coverlet draped around her. “Forgive me.” Edwyn spoke quietly from behind her. “You have been very kind, and I forget that you are in a delicate state.” He pulled her around and held her in his arms while she sobbed on his shoulder.

  When she’d calmed, he took her back to the bed and helped her sit. “Can I ask you a question, my Lady?”

  She nodded.

  “Why didn’t he stop the wedding? Who could force the King to relinquish his mistress?”

  The memory of Gawain earlier when he lay atop her. His words twisted her heart. She took a deep breath to keep the tears at bay. “Fear of war with Mercia.”

 
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