Wales, Summer 1281
“I cannot do this, my lady! I—I fear they will find us and we will both be killed, the babe and I!"
The high thin voice belonged to a young girl of no more than sixteen summers. Her body was stout and tall for her age; she came from hearty peasant stock. She knelt in the rushes before the Lady Elaine, the woman she had served as long as she could remember.
"Gerda, you must!" Elaine spoke sharply, a tone Gerda had heard but rarely. "If my son is to be saved, it is you who must save him. You must flee this keep and take Peter back to Sedgewick." Her eyes briefly sought the sunken gaze of the woman who lay abed, Lady Claire Chandler, but it was Gerda to whom she spoke.
"We are marked, all of us here. You have seen with your own eyes the bloodlust of our attackers. They spare no one—not the farmer in the field, nor women or children. I prayed it would not come to this, but they know not yet of you or Peter."
Outside in the bailey, the skirmish raged anew. The ramparts were filled with the sounds of battle. Harsh guttural sounds tore from men's throats. Sword met sword, the clang of steel against steel ringing through the air. A terrified scream reached a shattering crescendo, then fell eerily silent.
The raiders were sly and cunning. Led by Richard of Ashbury, they had entered the keep as friends, not foes, seeking an alliance with Claire's husband Thomas, castellan of Ramsay Keep. They had barely passed through the gates than the unwarranted siege had begun.
For three days, Ramsay Keep's defenders had fought a valiant but losing battle. Claire's husband Thomas was left with only one choice. Yet Thomas’s offer of surrender had been met with treachery. He was struck down from behind and still the raiders stormed the walls; still they maimed and killed.
Elaine's tone grew beseeching. "Please, Gerda! I plead for the life of my son. These raiders take no prisoners. Their horses trample the dead and the dying. I would have Peter spared—and you as well!"
Gerda began to tremble. She had been with the her lady forever, it seemed to her young heart. Her mistress had laughed with her, scolded her, protected her from her father who was wont to wield the stick whenever he was in his cups. Indeed, it was her father's wrath which had caused the injury to her knee when she was but a babe. Others ridiculed her clumsy gait, her awkward progress whenever she tried to hurry. But her lady guided gently and praised her care of the little lord Peter. Who would guide her when her lady was gone?
Gerda was immediately ashamed of her selfishness. With eyes like the summer sky and hair as gold and glistening as a radiant halo, her lady was a vision from above, Gerda thought. And she was good and kind and sweet.
She began to weep. " 'Tis so unfair, my lady! If your lord were here, these wretched robber barons would not have dared attack Sir Thomas or any of his vassals!"
So be it, Elaine agreed silently. Her heart twisted. Gerda's words rang pure and true indeed. Sir Thomas held this keep for her husband, Guy de Marche, Earl of Sedgewick, who was a man of the times. Like all men of his rank, Guy had trained as a warrior throughout his life. His prowess as a knight was known from the mist-shrouded land of Scotland to the rugged coastline of nearby Cornwall. He was a fierce and lethal force in combat, deadly and precise and fearless. But Guy de Marche was also a man of great honor and he ruled his fiefs with a just and noble hand.
But Guy was half a world away. Both he and Sir Hugh Bainbridge, Claire's brother, were on crusade. They had been gone nearly a twelvemonth.
"Please, milady, will you not come?" Gerda begged her mistress. "You say this keep and all who dwell within are doomed. Come with me, I beg of you!"
At this, Claire stirred slightly. She groped for Elaine's hand. "The girl is right, Elaine." What might have passed for a smile crossed lips that were once rosy and full with the sweetness of youth. Russet-brown hair lay matted and drab against the pillow. Her skin was white and colorless, her breathing shallow and raspy. Elaine despised herself for the thought, but she prayed that this ague which had sapped the life breath from her friend these past weeks would soon send her to God's kingdom. Better that than death at the hands of the treacherous butchers who ravaged the village and even now pillaged the keep.
"Nay," Elaine said softly. "I cannot leave you, Claire. Your brother Sir Hugh has served my husband too long and too well for me to forsake those he holds dear. And you, his sister, are my dearest friend in all the land. As there is honor among the living, there is honor among the dead. I ask only that you save the life of my son." She touched the dry parchment-thin cheek of her friend. "I fear there is not much time. The fighting grows close. Quickly now, I bid you tell Gerda the way to the monastery. The monks there will see that they are sent to Sedgewick."
Claire closed her eyes in silent assent. In a voice grown weak from strain and sickness, she told the girl of the secret staircase behind the bedstead. The staircase twisted down to a tunnel that led outside the keep to a hut near the woods. It was but a short distance to the monastery. From there the girl could seek refuge and escort back to Sedgewick.
At last Claire slumped back against the pillows. Elaine lifted her sleeping child from the wooden cradle and gazed down at him. Tears glistened in her eyes.
She touched his cheek gently, marveling that God had given her such a wondrous gift. She buried her face against his unruly dark curls. Peter was the image of Guy, every bit his father's son. He had been conceived on her last night with Guy. This Elaine knew with all her heart. Her one regret was that her beloved husband had yet to see the fruit of their love.
God, how she loved them both! With tears blurring her vision, she drew back to trace the babe's features one by one: winged brows as black as night, tiny nubbin nose, the beautifully shaped mouth that even now held a touch of his father’s strength.
The tears spilled over. She would never see Peter grow sturdy and tall as the oak trees which grew near Sedgewick . . . as tall and proud as his warrior father. But even as she dried her tears, Elaine refused to think of death. She thought only of life . . . her son's life.
Very gently she wrapped him in swaddling cloth and gave him over to Gerda. The child slept on, snug against the young girl's breast. Elaine slipped open the hidden panel behind the bed and turned to Gerda.
She clasped her sturdy young shoulders and looked the girl straight in the eye. "I trust you in this, as I have never trusted anyone in my life, Gerda."
Gerda looked ready to cry. "I—I will not fail you, mistress."
Elaine squeezed her shoulders and smiled. "I know," she said simply.
Gerda clutched the babe in one arm, a tallow candle in the other. She stood in the threshold of the secret stairway, frightened for herself, frightened for her lady. Tears streamed down her cheeks. Her shoulders shook with the force of her emotions. "I will pray for you, my lady," she sobbed. "I will pray that what you fear will not come to pass and you will once again grace the hall at Sedgewick."
And she would pray for naught. But Elaine withheld these words; instead she tipped the girl's chin up. "I know you do not understand, Gerda," she said softly. "But I do what I must."
"But you choose to die."
Elaine was already shaking her head, a sad, faintly wistful expression on her face. Her hand came out to rest for an instant on the cloth covering her child's head. "No," she said quietly, "I do not choose to die. I choose for him to live." She gave the girl a gentle shove toward the darkened stairway. "Now go, Gerda. Fly as if the devil himself were at your heels and do not stop until you are safely inside the monastery."
They shared one last hasty embrace. Elaine watched until Gerda disappeared from sight and the echo of her shuffling footsteps became faint and distant. At last she closed the heavy door and slid the secret panel back into place.
When she turned she found Claire's eyes upon her, clearer than they had been for days. She crossed to her quickly and sat down on the edge of the bed.
Claire feebly gripped her hand. "Had I known this would happen," she murmured, "I would never have bid you come to me." She tried to smile. "But I wanted to see you and Peter one last time," she whispered. "And I am afraid I am much like Gerda, for I fear I do not understand why this is happening. I do not understand why Thomas was killed. Why Richard of Ashbury covets this humble keep."
" 'Tis not your fault." Elaine soothed her with a tender touch upon her brow. "King Stephen's rule has been naught but a time of lawlessness and greed. 'Tis said that vassals battle one another throughout the land, while Stephen tries vainly to restore order, to tame the pattern of violence. As for why, I cannot say. To war," she said sadly, "is the nature of men. And Richard is an evil man. He seeks that which is not his, for that reason alone." She could not change the course of events and so she must accept them.
Elaine stayed by Claire's side throughout the long day, listening as the battle drew nearer. . . ever nearer. Dusk crept through the clouds hovering on the dismal horizon. The shadow of darkness—the veil of death—crept within the chamber. Elaine felt the strength wane from Claire's hand and knew that she slipped into sleep . . . sleep eternal.
Hers was a hurt too deep for tears. Elaine lovingly folded Claire's hands upon her breast, silently praying she would be granted a Christian burial. She was dimly aware that the crush of battle had extended into the great hall below.
She fleetingly thought of following Gerda and saving herself. But the notion had no sooner chased through her mind than fate decreed otherwise.
There was a heavy footfall of steps in the passage outside. The door was flung open.
A great hulk of a man filled the threshold of the chamber, dark and evil-looking. A vile lust gleamed in his eyes. Blood dripped from his sword onto the rushes.
But Elaine drew herself up proudly, quaking inside but determined to show no fear. She was the wife of Lord Guy de Marche, Earl of Sedgewick.
The man stepped forward.
Elaine began to pray. She prayed that Gerda's journey back to Sedgewick would be a safe one. She prayed that the Lord would watch over Guy and keep him safe from the heathens in the Holy Land. She prayed that Guy would soon return home to Sedgewick to love and protect the son he had never seen. . .
May her soul rest in peace.
" . . . may her soul rest in peace."
Guy de Marche, Earl of Sedgewick, knelt before the grave of his beloved wife. The words were the closest thing to a prayer he was able to summon, though his countenance was far from prayerlike. For even as he spoke the words, all the curses of hell sprang forth within him, fighting to be free. His mind was consumed by thoughts of but one man.
Richard of Ashbury.
High above, Ramsay Keep squatted on the hilltop. A melancholy veil of fog surrounded its crenellated towers and jagged outline, a reflection of Guy's dark and somber mood. For two long years Richard had laid claim to the keep, but no more. . . no more. Guy's battle to regain Ramsay Keep had been satisfying short, yet the taste of victory was like dust in his mouth.
He rose to his feet, a powerful figure garbed in the fiercesome trappings of war, his helm tucked under his arm. Behind him, atop the rise that guarded the gravesite, a body of mounted men watched somberly, awaiting his command. The silence was broken only by the occasional snort of a stallion and the gurgling rush of the stream, swollen by early-spring rainwater.
Another man walked slowly to his side. Guy stirred only when a rough callused hand clapped his shoulder. Neither man spoke, yet their very silence was rife with words unspoken.
Sir Hugh Bainbridge gazed solemnly at the other man's profile. His sister Claire was buried but a few paces distant from Elaine, and so he had more than an inkling of the pain Guy felt. He called Guy lord as well as friend. As a boy, Hugh had been page to Guy's squire and served at his side whenever the call to duty arose. Hugh had shared in all his lord's triumphs—both on the battlefield and off—just as he shared this loss as well.
It was Guy who broke the silence. "Why," he murmured in a voice thick with emotions held deep in his heart, "must the Lord see fit to give with one hand and take with the other?"
Hugh gleaned his meaning only too well. Guy's marriage to Elaine was truly nothing short of a miracle. Theirs had been an arranged marriage, and yet the two had fallen madly in love with one another. Hugh and his friends had chided Guy greatly about his adoration of his wife, for no one liked the ladies more than Guy. But lo and behold, Guy found marriage to the lovely Elaine no burden at all and it proved the end of his wenching.
In truth, Hugh had faintly envied Guy's happy contentment and his desire to settle into his estates and concentrate his efforts at building a family. Hugh was a knight bachelor and possessed no holdings of his own; he was certainly not yet sought after as a husband. Indeed, it was only of late that he'd even begun to think of gaining a wife.
"I should have been here." Guy's mouth twisted as he sucked in a harsh breath. "God damn it, I should have been here!"
His violence stunned his men-at-arms. They glanced uneasily at each other and wisely moved away, leaving the two knights alone.
Hugh was the only one who was not startled. "Do you think I have not said the same a thousand times since?" he replied unevenly. "We cannot alter the course of our live. We cannot change the past."
"And I," Guy ground out tightly, "cannot forget!"
"You had no choice but to honor the call to arms."
"The call to arms?" Guy's laugh was bitter. "My friend, you and I have been gone from this land for three harvests! Half of that time was spent in that bloody dungeon in Toulouse!"
And it was there that Guy discovered the existence of his son Peter. It was there he was also told of his wife's murder. Guy had been so shocked— he'd had no idea Elaine was even with child—and then wondrously elated at the news of his heir. From the heights of happiness. . . to the dregs of hell. . . in the blink of an eye.
"Had we not been there," Hugh reminded him, "we might never have run into Henry's forces when we were finally able to escape. And methinks it less than wise to be on the opposite side of our new king."
"True indeed," Guy agreed with a grim smile. "I had no choice but to pledge my sword to Henry."
Hugh's shaggy brownish-gold eyebrows shot up. "You regret it?" he asked in some surprise.
Guy shook his head. "Nay," he replied. "Henry strikes me as a man of many faces. But I think 'tis well that with Stephen's death Henry has reclaimed the throne of England. I suspect 'twill not be long before this land is on the road to recovery." He fell silent for a moment. "And I gained Henry's sanction to recoup that which was taken from me."
"Which you have done."
"Which I have done."
Guy's gaze flitted to the gates of the keep. His tone was harsh, even bitter. Hugh watched as a mask of hardness settled over his handsome features. Seeing it, Hugh suffered a prickly sense of unease. He knew Guy as well as anyone—better than anyone—yet in that moment he felt he knew him not at all.
Guy caught his friend's uncertain expression and gave a twist of his lips. His next words were not what Hugh expected.
"Your brother-in-law Thomas served me long and well in holding this keep, my friend. Now he is gone, and your sister as well. 'Tis time you were rewarded for your loyalty, Hugh. Therefore I offer Ramsay Keep to you—though not to hold this manor and lands for me and mine—but as your own, to do with as you will."
For just an instant Hugh was stunned. Ramsay Keep was a fine and wealthy manor—not nearly so grand as Sedgewick, but it was all he had ever dreamed of. And yet . . .
"May I speak plain, my lord? Not as your servant, but as your friend?"
"I would have it no other way, Hugh. You know that."
Hugh smiled slightly, but it was a smile that held no small amount of sadness. "Your generosity overwhelms me, Guy. Would that I could accept it. But mayhap 'tis just as you said. Claire died here, and 'twas here that Thomas and your lady Elaine were slain most cruelly." He hesitated. "I fear I could never forget the evil that was done here."
Guy was silent for a moment. "Then you are with me?" he said finally. "I need you now more than ever, Hugh. But only if you are willing."
There was no further need for talk. Guy turned and strode into the circle of stampeding horses and fully armed men. He paused only for one last glance at Ramsay Keep.
His eyes squeezed shut. Elaine, he thought desperately. So sweet. So gentle and tender . . . Elaine! He screamed her name in silent anguish. Pain ripped through him like a sword from throat to groin. He saw her as she had once been, golden and gloriously beautiful, her spun-gold hair spinning about her, laughing in that lilting musical voice of hers. He had always teased her that she had been crafted by the angels in heaven . . . and it was there she now dwelled.
It was terrible, my lord . .. horrible!
The words Gerda sobbed out upon his arrival back at Sedgewick took the form of vivid, horrible images in his mind's eye.
Richard and his men came in the name of peace. Then they raped and killed and butchered . . . They spared no one, not women, not children. They showed no mercy, my lord. No mercy at all!
The vision in his mind shifted and twisted, like a windswept fog . . . He saw Elaine as she must have died, lying bruised and violated in a crimson pool of blood.
He felt he'd been catapulted once again into the wild foray of battle, seized by a red mist of rage deeper than anything he could ever remember. His head, his blood pounded with the heat of his wrath.
His eyes opened. His wide unblinking gaze took in the final resting place of his wife and the many others who littered the grassy hillside.
"Your death will be avenged, my love," he murmured aloud. "This I promise. This I vow, by all the saints."
Hugh nudged his destrier beside him. "It does not end here, does it?" he said quietly.
Guy's silver eyes glittered like steel. His face had taken on an expression which would have frightened many a brave man. Guy de Marche was not a man given lightly to revenge; he fought when the need arose, to protect and defend, but he was not a cruel man. Yet Hugh did not pretend to misunderstand the bent of Guy's mind at this moment, the raging storm roiling within him, swirling and growing stronger by the second.
"Nay." Guy stared straight ahead. Never had a single word sounded so ominous and deadly. "It only begins."
He wheeled his mount to face his men-at-arms. "We ride for Ashbury!" he shouted. Sunlight glinted against the steel of his sword as he ripped it from his scabbard and held it high above his head. A raucous cheer went up from the men. With the thunder of hooves shaking the earth, they raced madly after the Earl of Sedgewick.
Thus began his quest for vengeance.
The great hall at Ashbury Keep boiled with life like stew in a kettle, but the ladies' bower was calm and peaceful. Several serving girls sat beneath the window, winding wool into long skeins. Another sat spooling thread onto bobbins. The rhythmic clack of the loom in the corner filled the air, a soothing backdrop to the talk and laughter exchanged between the servants. Another woman, daintily blond and beauteous, smiled and nodded and occasionally joined in the chatter.
From her place near the doorway, Kathryn of Ashbury fixed brilliant green eyes upon her sister, her expression disturbed. How, she wondered silently, would Elizabeth take the news? Would she cry? Pretend she understood and then run into her room and weep silently into her pillow? A feeling of guilt wound through Kathryn. Either way, she wasn't sure she could stand it.
Elizabeth was happy here, happy and content. The bower was a place of privacy, where Elizabeth was able to relax and be herself; she was neither timid nor fearful, or plagued by the memories of a past that seemed to never drift out of reach.
A pang swept through Kathryn. In the four years that had transpired since their parents' death, she had done her best to shield Elizabeth from further hurt. And now, all was well. All was quiet and serene and settled in Elizabeth's small world. But with what she was about to tell her . . .
She stepped into the bower. "Leave us, please," she said briefly to the three serving girls. Two scrambled to their feet immediately. But Helga, the eldest of the three, complied with far less haste.
Kathryn watched as Helga slowly pushed aside her distaff, praying for a patience she had never been blessed with. The girl then began neatly piling the skeins next to her. Kathryn pressed her lips together; she knew better than to believe the girl wished to make herself useful, for she was well acquainted with her laziness. More than likely, Helga's supposed tidiness was meant to irritate.
It was all Kathryn could do to hold her tongue. Helga's grandfather had been the smithy at Ashbury even before Kathryn's father Sir Damien had been lord of the manor. The old man had passed on several years ago, and Helga, whose parents were also dead, had been brought into the keep to serve as ladies' maid. But she had done precious little in the way of serving the two ladies of the household; Kathryn and Elizabeth saw to the upkeep of their clothing and chambers, and Kathryn had quickly learned she could not speak freely before Helga. She suspected her of carrying tales to her uncle Richard—as if her uncle were not already eager enough to see his niece take the bite of the lash or the cuff of his hand.
Yet Kathryn could not dismiss the girl either, though Richard had turned matters of the household over to her. To do so would be tantamount to admitting defeat. Her uncle would glory in knowing he had provoked and bested her; Kathryn refused to give him the satisfaction.
But it also appeared Helga was not above using her womanly attributes to advance her position. The girl openly returned the admiring gazes of her uncle's knights; she laughed when a male hand trespassed boldly beneath her skirts. And of late, Helga hinted that she had oft shared Richard's bed. Kathryn had long since ceased to be shocked. Richard's wife had died in childbed long ago. Since that time, countless serving wenches had warmed his bed. If Helga were the latest, Kathryn feared the girl's insolence would know no bounds.
Helga continued with the task. The bodice of her rough woolen gown gaped open but the girl paid no heed. Kathryn lost her temper at last. "Make haste, girl," she snapped. "There are no knights here to ogle your charms and I would speak with my sister."
The girl withdrew at last, but not without bestowing on her mistress a triumphant smile. Kathryn ignored it, closed the heavy wooden door, and prepared to face her sister.
Elizabeth had pushed aside the loom. Kathryn turned and beheld her sister gazing at her with a slight smile curling her lovely mouth. Her sheer veil only enhanced the shining glory of her hair. Like the finest beams of the sun, the shimmering strands sparkled like a pale golden waterfall down her back. Her face was small and heart-shaped, her eyes the color of the sky on a warm spring day.
Seeing her sister thus, Kathryn felt a painful squeeze of her heart. Elizabeth deserved so much more than what she had—spending her days cloistered in this bower for fear of the outside world, a world filled with men who knew nothing but war and lust. If only their parents had lived, her sister would have wanted for nothing! There would have been a husband, and children Elizabeth could love and cherish.
But dreams were for naught. Dreams were for children. . . and fools. It was a lesson Kathryn had learned well—within months of the time she and Elizabeth were given over to their uncle's care. Richard was their father's bastard half-brother; King Stephen was so busy trying to restore order to his lawless kingdom he had little time for other affairs. He had wasted no time in granting all of Sir Damien's lands and holdings to Richard. There was little two young maids of fourteen and fifteen could do. Now, both women were subject to the whim and will of a man whose moods grew fouler with each passing day.
Kathryn's shoulders slumped. She was being foolish, she told herself bleakly, foolish and fanciful. It was possible their lot in life would have been little better had their father lived. Had Sir Damien chosen to marry either of them off, it would have been for one reason only—to unite lands and holdings. Not for love, Kathryn thought bitterly, never for love.
As women, they had little say in the matter. But at least Ashbury Keep would have been theirs . . .
Kathryn did not aspire to happiness. She aspired to freedom, to at least some measure of it, however small. She yearned to live her life as she willed— to make her own choices and decisions—and not beneath the domineering fist of her uncle.
Perhaps she could not gain all that she sought, but she was not like Elizabeth, content to gaze out at the world and never really be a part of it. But there was a tiny kernel of hope inside her. It was blighted hope, perhaps. But it was all she had.
And it was this which brought her to this moment.
Kathryn crossed to where her sister still sat upon a low-backed chair. She knew of no easy way to break the news to Elizabeth and so she simply came out with it. "Roderick has asked me to marry him," she said quietly.
Elizabeth stared at her numbly. "Marriage?" she echoed. Her lovely forehead pleated with a frown. "Surely you jest. Why, Uncle seized our dower lands long ago. Even if he approved, what would you bring to the marriage?"
"I would bring naught but myself." The subject of their dower lands still rankled; Kathryn cut her sister off more sharply than she intended, but Elizabeth didn't notice. She still looked rather stunned. Well, better that than tears. "Roderick is willing to take me as I am," she added quietly.
Elizabeth rose from her chair, an odd expression on her face. "Forgive me, sister. But I cannot see you a meek and servile wife."
Meek and servile? The thought made Kathryn smile, a smile that was all too rare these days. “In this I fear you are right," she admitted.
A hint of puzzled hurt crept into Elizabeth's beautiful blue eyes. "I do not understand," she murmured. "I do not understand why you should wish to marry Roderick. You do not love him, surely!"
It was more an accusation than a question. A trickle of shame crept through Kathryn. For all that Elizabeth was younger by only a year, she was remarkably naive. Many times, she saw only the goodness in life, for her heart was filled with hope and kindness.
Perhaps it was for the best, for Elizabeth had seen . . . what no woman should ever see.
Kathryn went to her and pulled her down on the cushions before the window. "Nay," she said quietly, "I do not love Roderick. I love no man." Nor, she added silently, will I ever. Since the death of her mother and father, she had known little of tenderness, save Elizabeth's. The world was a harsh one. It was a man's world, controlled by men. Their needs, their wants, their desires were all that mattered, and women were there only to fulfill those needs. In her heart Kathryn knew she had little choice but to tolerate the unfair treatment of her sex.
Yet her rebellious mind refused such passive acceptance.
Elizabeth's lips began to tremble. 'Then why? What will happen to me if you marry Roderick? He has a small fief of his own. No doubt you—you will leave here! I—I do not understand, Kathryn! Have I displeased you? Made you angry that you wish to quit this keep and be rid of me?" Her spiraling voice reflected her fears. "If you leave with Roderick, what will I do? I love Ashbury as much as you, but I could not stand it here without you, Kathryn! And Uncle refuses to let me take the veil!"
Kathryn's laugh was tinged with bitterness, but she sought to ease her sister's mind. "I do not seek
to leave here, Elizabeth, for this is our home. It does not matter that our bastard uncle calls himself lord and master," she said fiercely. "When Father died, King Stephen granted his lands and our wardship to Uncle, but he has done naught but seek more, always more. 'Tis men whose laws say that we as women cannot pay homage. Therefore it does little good for a woman to inherit! But in my mind, Ashbury is ours—yours and mine. And I make you a sacred vow here and now, Elizabeth. Someday Ashbury will be ours once again!"
Elizabeth gasped in horror. "How can you make such a vow? Especially one you cannot hope to keep!"
Kathryn leaped to her feet, her eyes blazing. "I cannot go on like this any longer. If the past four years under Richard's thumb have taught me nothing else, I have learned that 'tis the way of men to take what they want. In Uncle's eyes, we are no more than servants. He makes us beg for what little we have—what belongs to us. And 'tis for this reason that I would ally myself with Roderick."
Elizabeth hesitated. She envied her sister, for Kathryn was quick and intelligent and witty—and not afraid of her own shadow as she was.
Kathryn's face softened when she saw her sister's confusion. "You still do not understand, do you?"
Elizabeth shook her head miserably.
"Uncle is driven by greed," Kathryn explained quietly. "He gave away our dower lands for one reason only—he seeks to keep us here with him forever. He fears a husband might challenge his claim on our father's lands."
Kathryn thought of Roderick, chief retainer of her uncle's knights. Many times in the last four years had Kathryn wished that she had been born a man so that she could challenge her uncle sword- to-sword for what was hers by right of birth. But being a woman, she must fight with what weapons were at hand.
And this was one time her womanhood might be a blessing and not a curse. Kathryn knew nothing of women's coquetry, but she was learning. She hadn't mistaken the flare of desire in Roderick's eyes. Only this morning he had declared his love for her. With a touch, a word, she hoped to be able to sway him to the bent of her mind. She had prayed long and hard for freedom from her uncle's tyranny and God had led her to this crossroads. She despised the method and the means, but fate left her no other choice.
"There are still those knights who are loyal to us here, despite Uncle's attempts to roust them and replace them with his own." Her voice rang with quiet determination. "I am counting on that loyalty as well as Roderick's position and leadership to help us assume our rightful place here. Roderick has knights of his own loyal to him. With Richard gone and Roderick as my husband and protector, Ashbury will be ours once more."
Elizabeth's eyes grew wide and fearful. "Rebellion? You would dare a revolt against Uncle in his own keep?"
For just an instant Kathryn's eyes flared. Then she glanced quickly around the chamber. "Keep your voice down," she cautioned. " 'Tis the only way. Richard is a harsh and brutal lord. There are many who would gladly see him replaced."
Elizabeth said nothing. After a moment, Kathryn shook her head sadly. “'Tis not the way I would have it happen. And it may take time, but I see no other way."
"I—I think I understand." Elizabeth drew a long, shaky breath. "But must you marry Roderick in order to carry out this plan?"
"It is the only way," Kathryn replied calmly.
"But he stares at you so, when he thinks no one is looking. Methinks he is nearly as greedy as Uncle." Elizabeth shivered, thinking of the tawny- haired Roderick. He was tall and broad-shouldered, broader even than her uncle. And while he was handsome and not ill-mannered as some of the other knights, there was something about him . . .
"I do not like him, Kathryn." Elizabeth shuddered. "How can you even think of marrying him?"
"You like no man," her sister pointed out. And Elizabeth feared every man, though she was better at hiding it than she'd once been.
Elizabeth regarded her sister. No two sisters could possibly be more different, either in looks or demeanor. Kathryn was as dark as Elizabeth was fair; Kathryn was firm and unwavering, afraid of nothing, while she cowered here in her bower. Yet never had Elizabeth wished she were more like Kathryn than at this moment!
She wrung her hands. "If only I were more like you. If only I were as brave and strong as you! I am capable of nothing but hiding in this chamber like a child who fears the dark!"
Kathryn felt a wrenching pain in her chest. Her sister had witnessed their mother's violent rape and murder; it had gouged a wound which had never healed. Uncle called Elizabeth's fear of men unreasonable. But Kathryn understood. Countless nights she had held Elizabeth's shuddering body, her mind tortured by dreams in which she lived through that horrible day once again. For Elizabeth, the nightmare had never truly ended.
Warm fingers pressed against Elizabeth's trembling lips. "Hush," Kathryn said softly. 'You are good and kind and sweet. I would have my sister no other way." They embraced tightly, but Elizabeth's delicate features were still etched with worry when she drew back.
"1 still do not like the thought of you marrying Roderick," she said quietly. "Besides, what makes you think Uncle will permit it? He wishes to keep us under his thumb."
"He believes he controls Roderick," Kathryn reminded her. "Through Roderick, 'tis my hope Uncle will feel he has twice the power over me. But if he balks at granting consent, I plan to tell him I am with child."
Elizabeth gasped. "With child!" Her gaze slid down her sister's slender form.
"I am not. I am as untouched as you." Kathryn laughed. Elizabeth was as shocked as she had expected. They both knew what went on between men and women, especially Elizabeth. As for Kathryn, some of her uncle's knights were crude and lewd. They spared no thought for her tender ears. Kathryn had no doubt that such an act was vile and disgusting. It was but one more way men sought to subjugate women and the thought hardened her heart.
The words she spoke were bitter. "Richard has Ashbury. He has usurped other lands as well." Her soft lips curled with disdain. "And he thinks he has gained honor to his name. But for once, that is well and good. The shame of his niece giving birth to a bastard is one he dare not take. He desires no further stain on his name."
Elizabeth folded her hands in her lap. "And so you think he will grant consent to your marriage to Roderick?"
Her sister regarded her somberly. "I fear men," she said softly, "while you scorn them. You swore that if we were ever free of Uncle, no man would conquer you. No man would claim you. Yet you would give yourself to Roderick." She shook her head. "This is not the time to be reckless and headstrong."
Kathryn lowered her eyes. Elizabeth had little interest in the outside world, but at times she showed unusual wisdom. Her sister's words pricked her deeply. Kathryn swallowed and went on bravely.
"I have prayed for deliverance, Elizabeth, and this is the course set out for me. Were I a man, I would challenge Uncle in battle for what is rightfully ours. Alas, I have the courage but not the strength. And no matter what the outcome, I will have the satisfaction of knowing the choice was mine. To Roderick, I am not just a mere vessel; I am an equal. It is the only way, Elizabeth, the only way. Marriage seems a small price to pay."
Elizabeth's gaze was troubled. "And when Uncle discovers you are not with child after all?"
"The deed will already be done. I will be wed to Roderick."
Elizabeth watched her sister depart from the bower, her narrow shoulders stiff with pride. Kathryn possessed the same proud and stubborn spirit as their father. Indeed, he had fought to the death rather than surrender Ashbury to a band of raiders. She flinched at the memory. He'd been badly wounded during the fray, yet still he claimed victory. Two weeks later he'd died from infection.
Elizabeth loved Ashbury as much as Kathryn and their father did; she hated her uncle's presence here. Within these lofty stone walls, she felt secure. But it was love of Ashbury which had robbed her of the lives of both parents, and the knowledge pierced her chest like a knife blade.
Her hand fluttered to her breast. Dread filled her mind and heart, spreading like slow poison. "Kathryn, I fear you are too much like Father," she whispered aloud. "You may well succeed and claim Ashbury as your own. But at what cost to yourself?"
Early that evening Kathryn slipped outside the castle walls. A misty drizzle fell from the sky, but she paid no heed. She merely gathered her thin woolen cloak more tightly about her and draped the concealing hood over the braided coronet atop her head.
She stopped only once, when a waning sliver of sunlight streaked through the cloud blanket. To her right, fat sheep slouched in the pasture. To the left, the pounding waves of the sea crashed against the cliffs. She loved Cornwall, its wildness and its mystery. She stood for a moment, a still figure crowning a lonely hilltop. Then she hurried on.
She stopped when she reached the secluded covert where she was to meet Roderick. A prickly unease crept up her spine. Just for an instant, she had the strangest sensation she was being watched.
A tall figure stepped out from behind a thicket of spindly trees.
"Roderick!" She pushed back her hood and held out her hands, suddenly ashamed of her fleeting apprehension and reassured by his presence. He grasped her hands and gazed down at her. She did not miss the flare of approval in his eyes.
Aye, she thought, she had chosen well. Roderick was strong and quick-thinking, and, above all, ambitious. She was counting on his ambition to help her regain Ashbury. It was but a boon that he was pleasing to look upon. With his tawny-brown hair, his imposing stature and blazing golden eyes, he reminded her of the majestic lion gracing the silk tapestry her father had brought back from the Holy Land.
"Well?" One thick golden brow hiked upwards. "I can wait no longer for your answer, lady. Do you or do you not seek to be my wife?"
Her eyes lowered demurely. "I do," she said with the tiniest of smiles. She glanced up in time to see an expression of triumph settle on his features. Roderick had, she realized, never doubted her answer.
Kathryn found the notion vaguely disturbing. At times Roderick's behavior bordered on arrogant. But wasn't it true that this, too, might be a blessing in disguise?
She let him lead her beneath the shelter of a tree. His smile contained a rare flash of humor as he grandly spread his cloak upon the mossy ground and pulled her down upon it. She was surprised at his set expression when he turned to her. "I have thought long and hard about what you said earlier—that your uncle may balk at letting us marry."
Kathryn bit her lip. "I, too," she confessed.
"I fail to see how he can say me nay when I take you unto me with no marriage portion."
Her eyes flashed fire. Her chin shot up and her mouth opened, but before she could say a word Roderick chuckled. "You are very proud, my love. I like that, just as I have always admired the way you stand up to your uncle. But there is no need to do battle with me, sweet." The laughter went out of his eyes. "I will not let Richard stand in our way. If I must, I will snatch you from this place and we can be married at the monastery near Boscastle. The abbot there is a distant cousin of my father's and will give us no trouble. Once the deed is done and the marriage consummated, there is naught Richard can do."
His frankness made her flush with embarrassment, but she laid her hand on his arm. 'There may be another way." Her skin pinkened further. "I—I thought we might tell him I am with child."
Roderick laughed heartily. "You are a cunning one, aren't you? Well, perhaps you have reason. I've oft thought that Richard has not done right by you and your sister. Mayhap we will change that once we are married."
But Kathryn heard only one word .. . Cunning. She felt she'd been dealt a stunning blow to the head. Desperate, mayhap .. . but cunning? The word brought to mind deceit and deception. . . traits that belonged to her uncle.
She wasn't like him. She wasn't! She was doing what she had to. It was the only way she could hope to wrench Ashbury from her uncle's greedy hold. She would surely die if she and Elizabeth were forced to live out the rest of their lives with him!
As for Roderick, she reminded herself she had not lied to him. She had never professed to love him, nor had he asked that she love him. Who married for love anyway? Marriage was for expedience and gain.
She swallowed the pangs of guilt and forced a smile. Roderick ran a finger down the tapered line of her jaw. "Come here, love. I crave a sampling of the sweetness soon to be mine."
Kathryn tensed. His gaze had fastened on her mouth. "Roderick," she began, "I do not think that we—"
He reached for her. His words were smothered against the softness of her cheek. " 'Tis only a kiss, dearest, just a kiss . . . nothing to what we shall share a month from now."
She lifted her hands to push him away, only to find his arms wrapping tightly around her. She saw his eyes, the flame of desire high and bright. His head lowered slowly. Startled by the touch of a man's lips against hers, she felt herself go slack in surprise.
His touch was not what she expected. Handsome as Roderick was, in some distant corner of her mind she had thought to be repulsed by such intimacy. But for all his fierce gaze, his kiss was gentle and sweet. Gradually her fingers uncurled against his leather gambeson. Indeed, the kiss was scarcely unpleasant. Was it possible, she thought in amazement, that there was pleasure to be found in a man's touch?
Her lips parted softly in surprise, and then suddenly everything changed. She felt his hands in her hair, tugging at her braid, his fingers loosening the silky ebony strands. Deftly he unfastened her cloak and pushed it from her shoulders. She moaned, a tiny sound of protest and distress, but it was smothered against a mouth gone hard and demanding. In rising panic, she struggled against his hold. But he crushed her against him and bore her back against the ground, his body completely covering hers.
Somehow she managed to tear her mouth free. "Roderick," she gasped out. "Roderick, please!"
But it wasn't her voice that stopped him cold. It was the unmistakable sound of steel whispering sleekly against a scabbard . . .
Roderick twisted and bounded to his feet. Kathryn jolted upright. Her heart seemed to freeze in her chest. It spun through her mind that if she were wise, she would leap up and run as if the yawning pits of hell gaped at her feet.