Madelon, page 1
Spain at the time of El Cid is a country torn by bitter conflict between Christian and Moslem. Madelon and her brother Paco are travelling to court across this dangerous land when they are set upon by Moors. Thrown at their mercy, the beautiful Madelon is faced with the terrifying prospect of enslavement to her cruel captors. Rescue is unexpectedly at hand by Valentin, the magnificent Lord of the Eagles. Madelon is both captivated and repelled by her noble rescuer, for Valentin is her brother's sworn enemy...
"Madelon, damn it! Where are you? I've been ready to leave for the past half hour."
Paco del Rivas y Montevides thrust aside the entrance of the silken pavilion and stormed inside, the angry expression on his handsome face deepening into a scowl as the soldier on guard tried to hide a smirk. Madelon's presence among the men was causing unrest, he would have to speak to her. She was too tree with her smiles and favours. Well-bred young women did not acknowledge the common rabble. He stopped short on the threshold with a surprised oath.
"By Our Lady of Santalinas, what have you done to yourself?"
The girl standing before him was tall and reed-slender, her perfectly moulded figure displayed to full advantage in a sleeveless robe of white silk, trimmed with gold thread. A thin gold chain encircled a waist so small, it could be spanned by a man's two hands. Long fair hair streamed past her shoulders like a cloud of sunshine, reaching almost to the jewelled girdle. Her exquisitely beautiful face was perfection itself; the petal-soft skin flawlessly white despite the long days spent beneath a scorching sun, her mouth, full and soft, curving into a smile at her brother's surprised expression. Her eyes were a brilliant blue, as magnificent as the huge sapphire suspended around her neck.
"Alfonso and Sancho fight over kingdoms, but the fight of Kings will be nothing compared to the ones there will be over you, my sister. I should have left you in the convent for another year."
"Surely that would only have made matters worse," Madelon teased gently.
Paco feigned mock annoyance and walked slowly around her, scrutinizing her from head to toe.
"You look like an angel, but I suspect there is a devil in you somewhere, waiting to be released."
"Paco, really! I've only changed my dress. This is my first time at court in three years, I must look my best, Besides I thought you would want to marry me off as soon as possible."
Paco did not miss the bitterness which crept into her quiet tones.
"Father tried that. You were a precocious little girl three years ago and I thought marriage was the best thing for you, but you were mad enough to choose to remain in that graveyard of a convent rather than agree to the man of father's choice."
"An old man, more than three times my age." Madelon's soft mouth curved in disgust. "I felt sick to have him look at me, let alone touch me." I
"And what if I find a husband for you and he isn't to your liking?"
"I shall fight you as I fought our father," his sister replied stubbornly. "I still have a mind of my own and in the past three years I've grown up a lot more, Paco."
"So I see." Paco continued to gaze at her through narrow eyes. "Suddenly I find myself with a very beautiful sister and Pd like the chance to get to know you again."
"You could have visited me in the convent."
"I'm a soldier, I can't come and go when and where I please. Don Alfonso is a very zealous overlord, besides father gave orders I wasn't to be allowed in. He intended you to rot there until the day you died, you realize that, don't you? He never forgive you for disobeying him."
"You mean he never forgave me for being born a girl, not the second son he longed for and never had."
"He's dead now... and you are free. I'll not chain you. But I must warn you about your familiarity with my men, especially my captain. You haven't been with me a week and yet I swear there are at least two young fools in love with you."
Paco's eyes held hers for a moment and the look in them made him realize she was unaware of her beauty or the pitfalls such loveliness could bring. Beauty and innocence - rare combination among the women at Alfonso's court. She would be watched and envied and desired and suddenly he was afraid for her. "Madelon, you will be guided by me, won't you? You are so young and vulnerable."
"Then why didn't you send me straight home?" Madelon swung away from him with an angry toss of her head that sent the loose cloud of hair swirling around the bare arms. With a soft expletive Paco grabbed her by the shoulders and swung her back to face him.
"Three years' solitude has dulled your wits. You are my sister and I want us to be together...."
"But not at court?"
"You were at court for a month only before you exiled yourself. To a girl of sixteen, fresh from the country, it must have seemed very grand. But it isn't like that. There's ugliness and hate. Castilian spies are everywhere and as for morals - there are very few I know of. The women especially seem to take delight in taking lovers as soon as their husbands' disappear from sight - some don't even wait for that."
"They can't all be bad or cousin Urraca would not have sanctioned my return," Madelon protested.
Paco released her with a heavy sigh.
"I've no more time to waste arguing, at this rate we won't reach Santa Maria de Carrion before the end of the week. I'm giving orders to strike camp in fifteen minutes - please have the goodness not to keep me waiting any longer."
"No, Paco," Madelon murmured. She knew her brother had inherited their father's impatient nature and she did not want to rouse him to anger, for it would only serve as an unnecessary reminder of the man who had parted her from her beloved mother when she was only a young girl and condemned her to a life of seclusion. He had hated her because she was a girl and had never tired of humiliating her.
Outside the tent she could hear her brother's authoritative voice issuing orders to the soldiers. With a smile she sat down on one of the trunks containing the sumptuous array of clothes which had been made especially for her court debut. Her first new clothes in almost three years. All the materials had been sent by the king's sister, Urraca, and brought by one of her own dressmakers and an escort of liveried servants. Dona Urraca would look after her, Madelon thought, but for her thoughtfulness she would have had to appear at court looking like a pauper.
One of Madelon's serving women brought her a white silk cloak which she placed around her mistress's shoulders, drawing the hood over her hair and face to protect them from the sun, but as soon as she was out in the open and she felt the warm sun on her cheeks, Madelon pushed it back. How wonderful it was to be able to do as she pleased without a disapproving look or rebuke from the sour-faced duenna her father had sent to the convent with her. She was free and no longer under surveillance, for at the last moment the woman had decided she was too old to travel the countryside where the danger of attack from Moors and Christians alike was always imminent and she had remained in the peaceful convent Madelon had been sent several serving women trained to anticipate her every wish by the Dona Urraca. They were young and inclined to be scatterbrained, but Madelon did not care. She could laugh with them and ask questions of the court. She knew far more of what went on there than her brother realized, but she had not enlightened him, knowing he would chide her for becoming friendly with her servants.
Paco was proud of his name and of the fact the Montevides family were related to the Kings of Leon and Castile. He was an alferez, a general in command of Alfonso's most skilled fighting men and he worshipped his long with a blind devotion both admired and ridiculed by his fellow officers.
Madelon wandered past the soldiers and servants busy dismantling the tents. It was not hard to pick out Paco's lean shape among the blue-
"It would not be wise to interrupt Don Paco at the moment, Dona Madelon," a voice remarked behind her.
She turned to look into the smiling face of her brother's second-in-command. Captain Rodriguez was in his late twenties, extremely handsome and with an eye for a pretty face as Madelon had discovered at an early stage, but she was still innocent enough to be flattered by his attentions without reading any ulterior motive into them. It was Paco who did that, on the second evening of their journey after he had discovered his captain kissing his sister's hand behind her tent. Madelon protested they had merely been talking, but still her brother lectured her until she thought her eardrums would I burst. She could see nothing wrong in a little harmless conversation and after the solitude of the convent, with only the nuns or her duenna to talk to, or occasionally a learned tutor, she was grateful to anyone who took the trouble to be nice to her.
The man is a philandering rogue, Paco told her harshly. What defences do you think you have against his smooth tongue - you, a child fresh out of a convent? What do you, know of life? Madelon had no answer to the latter question for she had no knowledge of either love or life beyond the walls of her prison until Paco came to fetch her, but as for the other, she assured him in no uncertain terms that she had not defied their father and his threats and received the ultimate whipping which had resulted in her being confined to bed for a month or her three years of loneliness, to fall into the arms of the first man who smiled at her. She remembered her words as she stood looking at Captain Rodriguez, conscious of the admiration in his eyes and silently thrilled by it "Your horse is saddled and waiting, my lady." The captain signalled a groom who came across to where they stood leading a chestnut mare. She had been a present from Paco to his sister, and Madelon, who had not ridden since she was in her early teens, took great delight in riding off alone, another offence which earned her the sharp end of Paco's tongue. Captain Rodriguez helped her to mount. Madelon suspected his hand lingered a moment longer than was necessary on hers, before he placed the reins in her hands and moved across to his own mount.
"You were disobeying me again." Paco was beside her, intent on adjusting one of the stirrups. When he looked up Madelon saw his brown eyes were hard and angry.
"Captain Rodriguez merely helped me to mount my horse," Madelon protested. "I didn't even speak to him. I am beginning to find your attitude rather childish, Paco. Your concern as my brother, I understand, but this goes beyond those bounds. I am as much a prisoner as if I'd stayed at the convent."
To her surprise she saw a flush steal over Paco's sunburnt features. The anger vanished instantly and he caught her hands in his with an apologetic smile.
"You are right, little one. Forgive me, but every time I see my captain or any of the men look at you, it makes my blood boil. All any of them have ever had are common peasant women or town whores. I'm a soldier too and I've had my share of women, so I know what I'm talking about and what they are thinking when their eyes follow you."
"Are you jealous?" Madelon asked, astounded.
"Why not? My little sister has grown into a woman of great beauty and I want you all to myself - to get close to you - as close as we were as children. Do you remember those times, Madelon, before father sent you away for the first time? You always came to me when he made you unhappy and I always let you join in my games because you were as sturdy as any boy and you didn't burst into tears every time I won a battle, like all the girls I knew."
Madelon nodded, her eyes growing misty at the remembrance of a childhood that had been both miserable and wonderful. Paco had made it wonderful for her and she had cried until she made herself ill when she had been parted from him at the age of ten. She did not see him again until her sixteenth birthday. The strict convent life had curbed her wild temper, tempered an impetuous nature into docility and produced a quiet, impeccably mannered lady from a willful child.
Madelon had not been at home a week when her father announced her betrothal to the Count Don Fernando Gomez and all her hopes that her homecoming had been in an attempt to reconcile their differences, were dashed to the ground. She knew nothing of her future husband and had been disciplined sufficiently to accept the fact that she must marry whoever her father chose and be a good wife, whatever her own feelings in the matter, but the sight of the little, wizened man panting across the room to meet her on the night of her betrothal ball sent all the years of training spinning into the dark recesses of her mind. She could not marry that horrible creature. The apparition smiled and she saw he had no teeth, took her hand in his and kissed it and she felt as if she had been touched by death itself. As she ran from the room, pushing her way past startled, open-mouthed guests, shutting her ears to the angry roar of her father as he came after her, Madelon remembered thinking how much he must hate her.
No amount of threats on the part of her father, or persuasion by her tearful mother would induce her to go back downstairs. She was locked in her room for a week on a diet of bread and water, and allowed no visitors. Paco climbed up to her bedroom window with a basket full of fresh fruit and spent several hours trying to make her see reason, but Madelon was adamant, declaring she would spend the rest of her life in seclusion before surrendering herself to Count Don Fernando Gomez. Her father pleaded with her, for the good of their family name. Her conduct was bringing shame on them all, he told her. When the pleas ran out he threatened again and at last resorted to the whip. Had Paco not intervened, Madelon knew she would have died from that terrible beating. Even now she still bore several scars on her back which would remain with her for the rest of her life. It was Paco who reminded her of her vow to return to the convent rather than marry against her will. She knew he did it to warn her of the grim alternative; the thought of growing old, alone and unwanted, imprisoned within the same stone walls until the day she died and she could still recall to mind the look of pain on his face when she voiced her refusal to the marriage for the last time. He had expected her to give in.
From that day - until the day she left home a month later - Madelon had no contact with any of her family and she only glimpsed Paco for a brief moment as the Utter bore her over the drawbridge, before the duenna closed the curtains and shut out sixteen years of her life.
Madelon drew a hand across her eyes to blot out the pain on her brother's face as he stepped back from her horse. Of course, now she understood. What an idiot she was. Paco blamed himself for her being sent away a second time, that was the reason for his possessiveness. He wanted to make up for those lost years. Impulsively she leant down and kissed him on the forehead.
"There was a bond between us when we were children, Paco, and it's still with us. No separation, however long, could erase the love I have for you. Be patient with me. I'm like a young bird who has just discovered it can fly. There are no walls about me any more and I can fly as far as I please. I've wanted to tell you how I feel, but it's difficult because you have never been cooped up the way I was and the memory isn't exactly pleasant. Be patient, please."
The adoring look Paco gave her was sufficient to tell her he understood.
Night camp had been made on a hard sun-baked plateau accessible only by a steep path which rendered it invincible against a surprise attack. Several times Madelon had been awakened by the lusty howl of a wolf somewhere on the plains below. It was past midday by the time the last horseman had descended the narrow, rocky trail to the plains. Paco, riding out in front, paused to pick a handful of red poppies and daisies which he presented to his sister with great ceremony. Madelon thanked him and used the heavy silver brooch from her cloak to fasten a large daisy onto the blue tunic he wore over his chain mail.
"My God, th
Madelon reined in her horse and soaked her handkerchief in water from the goatskin bag tied around the pommel of the saddle. The cool touch of it on her burning face was heaven.
"Can't we rest for a while? We've been riding for hours," she begged. The sun was too hot for her to remove her cloak and risk burnt arms, and beneath the enveloping folds her dress dung uncomfortably to her perspiring body.
"In a while perhaps, if we can rid ourselves of our unwelcome guests. So far they have kept their distance, but if we make camp they may decide to pay us a visit."
Madelon turned in the saddle, her eyes following his pointing finger. Outlined against the skyline behind them was another band of horsemen.
"Moors," Paco said shortly.
"Moors!" She looked at him in horror. "What are they doing here?"
"Taking advantage of the unrest and petty squabbles which is driving Leon and Castile apart instead of uniting it King Ferdinand was a fool to divide the kingdoms."
"But if he had given everything to Sancho, the eldest son, would you have served him as you serve Alfonso? I have never heard you speak well of him, even though he is our cousin."
"If he was my king, I'd respect him and give him my loyalty," Paco retorted, "even as I now give it to his brother. But he isn't my lord. He's a greedy, loudmouthed fool who can't be content with one kingdom, he has to try and steal his brother's as well. He's been making treaties with some of the Moors, making promises he has no intention of keeping, to get their armies on his side."
"Christians and Moslems fighting together, it's unheard of," Madelon said in disgust.
"To oust his brother from the throne of Leon, he will use any means in his power. I've heard it said he entertains the Moorish king of Badajoz at his court If they join forces Leon will have enemies on both its borders. He even sends his alferez into their camps with gifts and offers of peace. Rodrigo Diaz, may he be cursed by heaven, has an army of Moorish soldiers he can call on at any time. They even call him El Seid - the Lord."