In the year of our Lord 1276
Fourth year in the reign of King Edward I
“The lady who shall be my next wife shall have no reason to find fault with my lineage.” Sir Golan de Coucy chuckled. “Indeed, `tis no boast when I say that the de Coucy’s are endowed with certain attributes women greatly esteem in a spouse.”
Sir Rand Montague, escorted into King Edward's chamber by a dark-robed clerk, glanced at the knight speaking amongst a group of lords.
Hazy light filtered into the long, narrow room through three glazed windows on the longer east wall. Opposite this, a table was pushed up below a map of the world painted on the plaster wall. Rand approached Lords Warwick and Pembroke, and de Coucy standing before the table.
Sir Golan was tall, of broad muscular frame, with dark brown wavy hair that swept back from his smooth forehead. At court, rumors abounded about the comely, well-sought-after knight who was searching for a new bride. The gossip mainly revolved around the knight’s prowess with the opposite sex and the tragic story of how his first wife died giving birth to their stillborn son.
But another dark rumor claimed Golan had had a hand in his wife’s demise.
Rand truly despised the courts’ ruthless preoccupation with other people’s personal affairs. He knew firsthand the destructive force of speculation and innuendo. His cousin Kat was nearly destroyed by scurrilous lies spread by vicious nobles who reveled in court intrigue.
Rand greeted each man, forceful slaps on the back all around. On the long board were what appeared to be a large rolled-up map, and a lighted branch of candles, a flagon of wine, and several jewel-encrusted drinking vessels.
Golan passed Rand a chalice of claret, or rose`. “I believe I have boasted enough for the nonce,” he said, grinning broadly. “Rand, tell us about your mission to Gascony.”
The Earl of Warwick added, “Aye. I had not heard you’d returned to England. Was your journey successful?”
Rand patiently answered all their questions, savoring his claret. He recognized the excellent vintage from his family’s Bordeaux vineyards that he imported in his cargo ship.
“My lords, well come we meet,” King Edward intoned behind them.
In unison with the other lords, Rand spun round and bowed low before his sovereign liege lord.
Edward waved a negligent hand for them to rise, then moved to the table. They gathered round the king, who unrolled the map, which was a very detailed representation of Wales and the western border of England. Without preamble, the king began discussing war plans.
“Here and here,” Edward said, pointing to the Welsh Marches along the English border, “if it comes to war, as I expect it will, is where I plan to cross into Wales. The troops will advance into the south and central regions of Wales, but I’ll send the bulk of the troops into Llewelyn ap Gruffydd’s territory in Snowdonia in the north, harrying him and any resistance we meet.” A red flush crept up Edward’s face as he continued, “If the man does not come to pay homage to me as his overlord, I intend to crush and subdue him.” He rapped his knuckles on the table, punctuating his statement. “No man, prince or otherwise, shall defy me without retribution.”
Rand listened with half an ear as Edward discussed his plans. With war appearing imminent, he could not help but worry about Rosalyn Harcourt, Lady Ayleston, and her young son, Jason.
Staring at the map, his eyes strayed to the cartographer’s mark that indicated the town and port of Chester near the Welsh border. The manor of Ayleston lay in the Marches five miles southwest of Chester, making it vulnerable to Welsh raids once hostilities broke out. It was too dangerous for Rose to remain at Ayleston without proper protection. But Rand did not think she would listen to him if he tried to reason with her. She ought to move to one of her dower manors farther inland for the duration of the war.
“Well, cousin. I have lost you, haven’t I?”
Startled, Rand glanced up at the king.
Several inches taller than him, Edward had long golden hair and a drooping right eyelid. The king slapped him on the back good-humoredly. “Come. Tell me what troubles you.”
Rand glanced around, realizing he and the king were alone. Consternation filled him at his breach of etiquette, but Edward, seemingly unperturbed, moved to the table to pour more claret into his chalice. Rand followed suit, taking a big swill of his wine.
“Now. I would hear what had you so distracted earlier that war plans could not hold your interest. Most unusual for you, cousin.”
Rand had been feeling rather out of sorts of late. The pride and satisfaction he usually took in being a trusted and highly valuable knight in the king’s household no longer fulfilled him as it once had. Something was lacking in him, but for the life of him he could not deduce what.
“’Tis Lady Ayleston, Sir Alex’s sister.”
Edward chuckled. “Ah, of course. I should have guessed. After warring, you are renowned for your amorous conquests.”
Rand chuckled. “Nay, Sire. My interest in Lady Ayleston is not of a prurient nature. Verily. My concern is her proximity within the border of Wales, war with Llewelyn appearing inevitable. As Alex is my friend, I cannot help but feel it is my duty to keep her safe from harm.”
Rand shrugged, grinning as though his apprehension was naught but a trifle.
“Ah, Rand, you are a good and dutiful friend. But let me set your mind at ease on that score. The good Sir Golan has offered to marry the lady, and offered a hefty sum to acquire the wardship of the lands of Lord Ayleston’s heir. He shall make a worthy protector of Lady Ayleston.”
Rand’s stomach felt as though it had dropped to his knees. He knew it was inevitable she would marry again. But thinking of Golan caressing the delicate perfection of Rose’s body—kissing her soft, luscious lips—was too awful to bear.
Rand took several deep draughts of wine. It burned a path down his throat, clearing the images from his mind. “Has the lady given her consent to the marriage?”
“Nay. I have not informed her yet, but Lady Ayleston will do as she is told. As you have noted, the seat of the Ayleston barony is in a strategic location near the border between our two countries. It also has a total of thirty-two knight’s fees, and fifty men-at-arms and archers. Ayleston will need a strong leader to rally her fighting men under one banner.”
Perhaps just as importantly, Rand thought, silver from Sir Golan’s purchase of the wardship would flow into Edward’s coffers and help pay for the war.
Edward quirked his blond head at him and a twinkle of humor flashed briefly in his eyes.
“Have you given some thought to seeking a bride yourself? ’Tis time you married and saw to the begetting of heirs.”
“I have not thought about it, Sire. I have plenty of time yet before I need concern myself with siring heirs. Besides, I doubt any lady with good sense would have me,” Rand said good-naturedly.
“Nonsense. Any lady would be proud to have a knight of your renown to claim as husband.”
Nay, there would be no wife for him. Rand turned to stare blindly at the portrait of Queen Eleanor above a cold fireplace. What he did not tell the king was that he would never marry—for everyone he ever loved died. The waking dreams of his sweet, vivacious little sister were a constant reminder.
A pain throbbed at the base of his skull as the memory returned.
The river’s current tugged Rand under, and he sputtered, choking up water even as he gripped Juliana tighter. “Rand!” she cried out in desperation moments before they were dragged under again. The water’s embrace drew them deeper and deeper into the dark depths of the river. Holding his breath, lungs bursting, he couldn’t breathe. A bright light burst inside his head.
Oh, God, Rand released Juliana. Her narrow arms slipped from his neck and she floated down.
Suddenly he kicked his legs and shot straight up. He burst free to the surface, gasping for breath. His mouth opened wide; a long, agonized wail of grief ripped from his throat until his voice was sore and raw.
“ . . . you are to escort Lady Ayleston to court without delay.” King Edward’s commanding voice pierced his waking vision. “Certes, keep your counsel regarding her marriage to Sir Golan. I shall inform the lady of her duty when she arrives at court.”
“Sir Rand.” The same dark-robed clerk as before appeared at his side, his arm extended toward the door by which Rand had entered.
Reeling, Rand bowed and then exited the chamber. His agitated footsteps echoed down the torch-lit corridor, while it felt as though a vulture pecked at his exposed innards. Not only would he have to watch Rose marry another man, but now the king had tasked him with delivering her into that man’s hands.
When he finished his distasteful task, it was time to consider his position in the king’s household. He’d risen to knight banneret, yet still he was not content. Perhaps he was destined for dissatisfaction—guilt was his burden and his curse.
Juliana’s death was not all he had to atone for. His mother’s violent, painful death was on his conscience, as well. Rose, he had wronged her, too. . . But she made him swear never to speak of it and he honored her request.
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