POITOU -- SPRING, 1176
`"Can you see him yet? What does he look like? Is he tall and slender? Is he as handsome as they say? Oh, tell me, Heléne, tell me quickly! I am like to die from trepidation!"
Heléne glanced at her sister, waiting anxiously beside the bed. Agitation only deepened the bloom in her glorious cheeks, while an almost feverish dread lent a dazzling fire to her brilliant eyes. Clothilde de Merval was a heart-stopping beauty. Golden hair streamed o'er her shoulders in shimmering, luxurious waves, and her chemise of fine lawn graced a figure so tantalizing as to have driven men to distraction for miles around.
She stood now, her fair hands clasped to her shapely bosom, her tender face a tortuous mirror of hope and fear. She looked, Heléne thought, more like a maid awaiting her bridal night than a twenty-one year-old woman who, not eighteen months past, had seen her husband's body laid in the grave.
"If you are so curious," Heléne said, "why don't you come and see for yourself?"
Clothilde shrank delicately from the thought. "Oh, I could not. It would be so bold. What if he saw me? What would he think?"
"He would think you as curious about him as he must be about you. Do not be such a goose."
Clothilde's bow-like mouth drooped at her sister's chiding, but she made no move to join Heléne at the window. Heléne tried hard not to feel impatient with her, but she, herself, felt no compunction at all about spying on events in the bailey below. She knelt on the cushioned window seat in the bedchamber they shared, heedless of her own state of undress, and leaned forward again to look through the recessed opening looped into the castle's thick stone wall.
Dozens of men had ridden into the yard below. Heléne saw the colorful flash of rich mantles, a flurry of yellows and blues and reds. At least thirty knights mingled with the men of her father's court, but even amid this miscellany of aristocratic rank, she easily singled out the Earl of Gunthar. She had glimpsed him once before, arrayed in full battle armor in her father's hall. He had been oblivious to her presence then, and she had been hastily bustled away by her mother before he could become aware of her. But even though he wore no armor now, she had no trouble recognizing him.
He stood head and shoulders above the others and even from the distance of her second story window, she saw the proud loftiness of his stance. She watched with scorn as her father acknowledged the Earl with a low, self-effacing bow.
"Heléne--" her sister's voice floated once more across the room-- "please tell me what you see."
"I see a yard full of knights come to pay court to our father."
"But the Earl? Can you tell which one is he?"
"Of course. He is the one Papa is groveling before."
It had been over a year since the Peace of Montlouis wherein the King had made peace with his sons, and her father, like the other rebels, had renewed his oath of loyalty to the crown. Heléne dismissed with disdain the accusations made by the strange young man she had encountered near the river a week past. His suggestion that her father intended to break his oath was absurd. Her father was a man of honor and it was unfair that the King should continue to punish her family for their support of the princes.
Her voice took on a crisp note of anger. "It is not enough that the King has ordered Gunthar to take our brother away and make him little better than a hostage. He insists on humiliating us with this insulting offer of marriage."
Offer? she thought. It was a command devised by the King to ensure their family's loyalty. And her father simply bowed and consented!
"Were the King to bear such a dictate to me, I would--"
"Heléne, is he fat?"
Heléne turned her head, biting her tongue on an exasperated response. What on earth had that to do with anything?
Clothilde gave a despairing shudder and too late Heléne understood the urgency of her sister's question.
"No, no," she said quickly as Clothilde raised trembling hands to her face. "He is just as you hoped. He is very tall and lean and--and handsome." She added this last though in fact she had not yet seen his face. "Come, Clo, see for yourself. He will never know we are looking."
She turned back towards the window and leaned out over the courtyard once more. Only then did she realize the inaccuracy of her last statement. The Earl of Gunthar had turned away from her father and, as if sensing her gaze, suddenly glanced up at the window.
Heléne expected to feel again the rush of hatred she had known when she had seen him in her father's hall, his features concealed by a fearsomely crested helmet. Instead she gasped. His face, exposed to her now, was hawkishly proud, though not exactly handsome. His eyes, grey and piercing beneath thick, lowering brows, met her contemptuous stare with a powerful, probing regard. For a moment it transfixed her so thoroughly that she felt as though she had ceased to breathe, had been frozen into some curiously fashioned image laid open, every favor and flaw, to his uncompromising gaze.
Then one of his heavy eyebrows lifted and his cold, unyielding mouth curved upwards into a quizzical smile.
With that first glimmer of unexpected charm, Heléne remembered her awkward state of undress. Like her sister, she wore only a sleeveless chemise, with her pale gold braid spilling over her shoulder. With belated modesty, she drew back and leaned against the cold stones that ensconced the window seat. She pulled up her knees and twisted her arms around them, trying desperately to quiet the wild thudding of a heart which had but a moment ago been so inexplicably still.
The chamber door clicked open. "Dear me, what is this?" her mother's voice sounded. "Why have you not begun to dress? The Earl has come and your father will be sending for us any moment."
The Lady Gwenllian de Laurant stood on the threshold, her pretty mouth drawn down in displeasure. Twenty-three years of living among her husband's people in Poitou had softened but not entirely erased the lilt of her native Welsh accent. Though a few strands of grey glistened in her pale gold hair, there could be no doubt whence Clothilde had inherited her profusion of graces.
"Where is your maidservant? I sent her to attend you hours ago. If I find she's been sporting again with that pretty stableboy, I shall have the pair of them soundly whipped."
The Lady Gwenllian sailed across to her daughters' wardrobe. To Heléne's relief, she came alone. More often than not the old nurse Sybil was at her heels, ever ready to employ that stinging rod she carried.
"Heléne, come quickly. Take this to your sister and begin helping her dress."
Heléne scrambled from the window seat and took the smock and costly kirtle from her mother's arms. The clothes smelled of sweet violets and felt soft against her skin. With a wistful sigh, she slid the straw-colored smock over her sister's head, an easy assistance as she stood several inches taller than Clothilde. The luscious blue silk of the kirtle followed.
"See you lace that up tightly," her mother called, as she searched her daughters' clothing chests for the appropriate accessories. "We shall give the Earl something to dream of tonight. Mayhap he will prove the more amenable in his negotiations with your father on the morrow."
Heléne saw the unhappy blush which stole up into her sister's cheeks. Clothilde's beauty had snared the rich, fat, twice-widowed Sir Fulbert de Merval when she was scarcely sixteen. But Merval, after persuading their father to join the princes' rebellion against the King, had died suddenly at the height of the war, leaving their father to face the royal wrath alone.
The King had sent Hugh de Bury, Earl of Gunthar, to pacify this particular corner of Poitou. Gunthar had employed the same sort of lightning tactics for which his master, the King, was famous, and with the same devastatingly successful results. After a few token weeks of resistance, Laurant had surrendered his castle and thrown himself and his family on the Earl's mercy.
What took place at the actual moment of her father's formal capitulation Heléne did not know, for her mother angrily whisked her away from spying on the proceedings. What she did know was that the Earl imposed a humiliating oath of surrender upon her father, an oath that spared Pennault Castle and salvaged for his family a tenuous security.
Secure, she knew, so long as her father abided his oath and obeyed the dictates of the King. She thought again of the young man beside the river, and frowned.
"No, no, Heléne, I said tightly." Her mother pushed her aside and finished lacing up Clothilde's gown herself. "When one is so perfectly formed as your sister, one need not be ashamed to display it. The modesty of Clothilde's manners will provide an appealing counterpoint to her provocative figure."
A vivid blush flooded Clothilde's cheeks as her mother tightened the gown, but while her delicate hands clutched at the flowing folds of her skirt, she made no protest. Heléne knew that their mother's spirits, so cruelly dashed first by Merval's unexpected death and then by her husband's defeat, had soared at the King's decision to cement their father's new-found loyalty by marrying Clothilde to the Earl of Gunthar.
No one had considered consulting Clothilde's feelings in the matter, but Heléne had no doubt that she would go to this marriage as meekly as she had gone to Merval. Heléne would never have done it. Her parents might have whipped her daily and locked her in the loneliest tower, and she still would not have—
"Heléne, where are your wits?" her mother's sharp voice broke across her thoughts. "I asked you to--"
"Yes, Mamma." Heléne hastened to preempt the scolding by fetching the semi-circular cut of fine white linen her mother had already requested twice.
She placed the veil in her mother's waiting hand. The Lady Gwenllian arranged the veil skillfully about Clothilde's head, fastening it into place with an elegant gilt circlet, which drew the cloth into a becoming frill against her daughter's brow. The snowy folds floated softly to Clothilde's shoulders.
"Heléne, fetch me that girdle I left on the bed."
Once more Heléne obeyed. She carried the silken band with its colorful adornment of embroidery and beads to her mother. She waited while her mother passed it about Clothilde's slender waist, crossed it at the back, then brought the tasseled ends to the front once more and knotted them loosely below Clothilde's hips.
"What am I to wear, Mamma?" Heléne asked breathlessly then. Hopeful visions danced in her mind of some ravishing silk such as Clothilde now wore . . .
"You shall wear your green smock and your surcote of saffron wool."
Heléne bit her lip, dashed by the mundane choice. But her mother's indifference to her appearance did not come as a surprise. To her mother's frequently voiced despair, Heléne had failed to inherit even the lowliest of her sister's graces.
Three years younger than Clothilde, Heléne stood a full head taller, her figure as boyishly slender as Clothilde's was generously curved. Heléne's hair, sweeping below her waist, tended towards the flaxen, insipid, her mother never tired of saying, beside the vibrant sheen of her sister's glorious mane. The blue of Heléne's eyes paled almost to silver against the deeper hued sapphire of Clothilde's. Her mother repeatedly bemoaned Heléne's imperious little nose, together with the wide mouth she had inherited from her father. And that chin of hers was far too pointed and decisive to ever permit anyone to take her for some frail and delicate maid.
Heléne did not need her mother to remind her that such deficiencies accounted for her still unmarried state at the embarrassingly advanced age of eighteen. Not that she wished to be used as the kind of pawn Clothilde had been made to play at a much younger age when her parents had betrothed her to Merval. Still sometimes, when she saw men staring at Clothilde with such enraptured admiration . . .
"Tush, girl, don't look so downcast. Tonight is your sister's, but your turn will soon come."
The Lady Gwenllian's rare expression of sympathy startled Heléne. "Why, Mamma, what do you mean?"
Her mother responded with a thin smile. "Your father has had a letter from Lord Heywood. That land we inherited last year from your father's cousin in England apparently marches alongside one of Heywood's manors in Northumberland. Heywood desires to purchase it from us. He is a man of respectable wealth, holding substantial estates which he has shrewdly enlarged since his father's death. What is to our benefit is that he remains a bachelor. I have suggested to your father that we offer Heywood the land he seeks as a portion of your dowry."
Heléne gasped. "But Mamma, he has never even seen me. He cannot possibly wish me for his wife."
"That he has not seen you can only be to our benefit," her mother answered coldly. "Not every man can wed a beauty like your sister. Heywood is determined enough to gain the land that he has agreed to overlook a few flaws of face and figure. Be grateful, Heléne. You've no idea how humiliating it has been for your father and me to admit the likelihood that you were destined to remain a spinster."
Heléne bit her lip again, this time against the sharp twinge of pain her mother's callous words inflicted. To be bartered off for a piece of land! She knew she was not beautiful, but she would sooner have died a pitiable maid than be sold like a piece of chattel. Defiance hovered on her tongue, but before she could blurt out what her mother would have viewed as a pert reply, the door flew open.
"Milady," a flustered voice exclaimed, "milord is demanding your attendance. He is below stairs with the Earl and says you are to bring your daughters at once."
"Does he?" The Lady Gwenllian's chill voice cut like a knife across the serving girl's excitement. "And where have you been this past hour, when you were told to prepare your mistresses for this very summons? Or need I ask? Your shameless countenance speaks volumes of what you have been about."
Audiart's pretty face puckered, but Heléne knew that her mother had judged the cause of the servant's delinquency aright. Telltale strands of hay clung in Audiart's dark hair and her bright cheeks still glowed with the lingering passion of a stolen tryst.
"'Tis no time to speak of this now," the Lady Gwenllian said. "Be assured you shall taste the rod for your disobedience before the day is out. Aye, and your shiftless stableboy, as well. Now see to the Lady Heléne. If she is not prepared in a trice to attend her father, I shall have Sybil replace the rod with the whip."
The servant's eyes widened in fear. Heléne did not blame her. Sybil had once served as Heléne's and Clothilde's nurse and still had the whole castle in terror of her rod. Clothilde was the only person Sybil doted upon, and her mother the only one she obeyed.
The pretty servant moved quickly across the room to fetch Heléne's smock and surcote. She helped her young mistress dress in silence, but when Heléne thanked her softly and smiled, she warmed responsively.
"I'll brush out your braid if you wish it, milady. 'Twould look so lovely, your long tresses--"
"Leave it alone," the Lady Gwenllian said. "There's no time for such nonsense. The Earl will not be looking at her anyway."
"At least," Audiart insisted, "let me fetch a fresh ribbon--"
Her mother's voice was a crisp command. Too abashed to meet Audiart's gaze again, Heléne followed her mother and sister out of the room.
Heléne's spirits quickly revived as she trailed her mother and sister down the winding circle of deep stone steps which led towards the tumult of the Hall. She recognized her father's robust laughter and the nervousness which cracked it. But the other voices intrigued her more. The strange, foreign ones belonging to men she did not know. Heléne's feet twitched with excitement. Had she not been trapped behind her mother's languid movements, she would have run ahead to peer around the final twist in the steps. Fortunately for her impatience, she was tall enough to see over the Lady Gwenllian's head as they made the final turn that brought them full into the hall.
The Great Hall of Pennault Castle where the Baron de Laurant had assembled his guests, gleamed handsomely in the slanting rays of the afternoon sun. A huge, sprawling chamber with a vaulted ceiling two stories high, the freshly whitewashed stone walls sported bright tapestries attesting to the weaving skills of generations of Laurant women. A banner bearing the emblem of their house, a double-headed phoenix rising from the flames, draped the wall opposite the stairs behind the dais.
Dozens of men, knights, squires and pages, mingled in the hall. Heléne identified some of them as members of her father's house, but most belonged to the Earl's retinue. She knew them from the blue and silver livery they wore and the badges on their shoulders--a stallion embroidered in silver, prancing on a field just shy a royal blue.
Gunthar she recognized at once. He was the tallest man in the room, though a plain but amiable-looking gentleman standing beside him nearly rivaled him in height. Still, the latter seemed oddly dwarfed beside the Earl's powerful presence.
Gunthar's close-fitting tunic strained at his broad, square shoulders, the dark brown cloth dulled by the dust of travel. A wide band of gold embroidery formed a belt from which hung a jewel-hilted sword, and a curiously wrought brooch of silver and sapphires clasped at his neck a red silk mantle, tossed negligently over one shoulder. Beneath a stylish round cap he wore his dark hair neither cropped too close at the sides nor flowing in elaborate curls to his shoulders, but in a soft, natural wave cut to the nape of his neck.
But his style of dress, quite unobtrusive in itself, did not account for his unmistakable aura of power and strength. No, Heléne realized, it was something in his face. The hawkish cast of his features, the implacable set of his lips, the piercing grey eyes that cut one to the soul. She remembered her brief meeting of that unnerving gaze from her window and for a moment her heart thumped anew.
But as her mother had predicted, the Earl was not looking at her. He had tilted his head towards her father, listening to one of Laurant's tedious jokes. Laurant ended with a roar of self-appreciative laughter, then choked a little when the Earl showed no other response than a lift of his heavy brows.
Heléne felt an uncomfortable tightening in the pit of her stomach at the sight of her father's nervousness. Did he anticipate trouble over her brother's absence? Or had the young man beside the river been right? She remembered his challenge to meet him again if she would know the truth. She had not considered doing so--until now. Watching her father fidget before the Earl, Heléne found herself wondering . . .
Laurant caught sight of his wife standing at the foot of the steps and hastened to summon her forward.
"My lord, allow me to make known to you my wife, the Lady Gwenllian de Laurant."
The Lady Gwenllian dissolved into a curtsy of perfect depth and grace, her head bowed modestly before the Earl. When she rose, her face glowed with a soft and delicate smile so that it seemed impossible a hard or calculating thought could possibly lie behind it.
"My lord," she murmured in her most musical tones, "we are overwhelmed by this honor. That you should condescend to rest in our most humble home--"
"My lady, the pleasure is mine," the Earl interrupted, not curtly, but with an evident desire to preempt whatever fulsome abasement the Lady Gwenllian had intended to make. His deep, vibrant voice intrigued Heléne, for though he spoke a flawless French, there lingered on the words the faintest ring of a foreign timbre. "I am most appreciative of your hospitality while I attempt to discharge the King's commission."
The Lady Gwenllian offered him a coy smile. "I trust your duties will not prove too demanding, my lord. We have many pleasures to offer you here at Pennault. Pray allow me to present to you our daughter, the Lady Clothilde de Merval."
Clothilde came forward at her mother's gesture and sank into an elegant curtsy. The Earl bowed over her delicate hand.
"My lady, rumor has failed to do you justice. The whole realm speaks of your beauty, but the bards have sought in vain for words to describe such grace as I see before me now."
Clothilde blushed and made some whispered reply, but Heléne felt a stir of anger. Though her mother looked delighted at the prettily worded compliment, Heléne failed to detect any hint of the sort of ardor that normally accompanied such flattery to her sister. There was not a man within a hundred miles of Pennault who had not been genuinely smitten by Clothilde's beauty and would consider it the fulfillment of a dream to claim her for a wife. Yet this man whose privilege it would be to wed her, stood smiling now rather vacantly, his grey eyes no longer piercing, but merely looking bored.
"Our poor Clothilde is but recently widowed," the Lady Gwenllian informed him, striking a sorrowful pose. "A most unfortunate marriage, as it turned out. Of course, we had no notion when we succumbed to Sir Fulbert's offer where his sympathies lay. Had we realized he harbored treason in his heart, we would never have delivered our innocent daughter into his hands."
The Earl looked politely skeptical of this obvious attempt to distance herself and Laurant from their son-in-law's politics. "Indeed," he said dryly, the smile now gone from his face.
Heléne felt a frightful fluttering in her stomach again. Laurant's hurried attempt to divert the Earl from his wife's unfortunate words did little to reassure her.
"My lord, you have not yet been made known to my younger daughter. Come forward, girl. My lord, the Lady Heléne."
Heléne finished descending the steps. She stiffened her back as she confronted the Earl. Her parents could bow and tremble in fear of this man's displeasure, but she would have him know there was at least one Laurant whom he could not awe. Tall enough not to be intimidated by his height, she met his eyes with an unveiled challenge.
He surveyed her coolly for a moment, his level gaze lowering from her face to sweep the length of her dull saffron gown, then traveling slowly back up again. Heléne somehow managed not to blush at this insolence.
"But, my lady, have we not met before?"
The mildly voiced query took her aback, momentarily checking her anger. "Why--Why I do not think so, my lord."
His brows rose, faintly incredulous at her reply. "Are you sure? I am quite certain I have seen you--somewhere."
She was about to protest again when she saw his eyes flicker to her pale gold braid. His haughty mouth twitched and when his eyes swept back to hers she saw a distinct twinkle in their probing depths. This time some heat did steal into her cheeks. Surely he was teasing her, remembering her inquisitive face at the window?
Her mother's pretty laughter floated across Heléne's embarrassment. "I assure you, my lord, it is quite impossible. Heléne has not set foot off Pennault since she was eight years old."
"Then it must have been some other vision, or perhaps a dream," the Earl murmured in his deep, subtly accented voice. He spoke quite gravely but there was no mistaking the amusement with which he observed Heléne's discomfiture. Then he seemed to take pity on her, or perhaps he merely grew bored with the game. He turned to her father. "My lord, my companions and I are weary with travel. The crossing from England was less than pleasant for a few of my men, as the waves were high and uncooperative. If you would be so good as to direct us to our chambers?"
Laurant promptly bowed. "But of course, my lord. I trust you will find your accommodations here more than adequate. We know how to enjoy our comforts here in Poitou. And perhaps a bit later you will consent to partake of a few of our more humble dishes? After you and your companions are rested, of course."
This, Heléne knew, was Laurant's way of informing the Earl that a lavish banquet was being prepared in his honor.
"We should find such refreshment welcome," the Earl said. "My thanks to you."
Laurant nodded, warming to his theme. "Aye, a fine, hearty meal and a good night's sleep will set you up right. And tomorrow I'll show off to you my park. Well, King Henry's really, but my father won grant of vert and venison there. You'll not be disappointed. The deer are in plenty this year . . ."
Laurant rattled on happily now, for hunting was his passion. Heléne knew he could continue such a discourse for hours. The Earl listened, then betrayed a shared interest in the subject by inserting a question when Laurant paused for air. They were soon deep in the throes of discussion, arguing the rival merits of the red versus the fallow deer and the hunting of deer in general versus that of the wild boar. Heléne occasionally enjoyed participating in the sport herself and was generally accounted a good huntswoman, but she dared not enter the debate while her mother stood by. The Lady Gwenllian would consider any remark on this masculine subject by a daughter of hers unforgivably bold.
Precluded from joining in the lively discussion, Heléne soon grew bored with it. She allowed her attention to wander by taking stock of the men who formed the Earl's court. The Hall teemed with unfamiliar faces. She guessed those standing nearest the Earl to be the most important. Not all wore the badge of the stallion. Some wore distinctive emblems of their own or no insignia at all.
Among the latter, one gentleman interested her for his extravagant dress. He wore a bright red tunic slashed up the front to reveal yellow hose banded about with green stripes embroidered in gold. A tangle of gold and silver chains, some with jeweled studs, adorned his breast. Clearly, she thought, a man of wealth and one, moreover, who enjoyed displaying it. Of medium height, he had a round, smooth face and a mouth full of good humor. Heléne saw that he was not attending in the least to the discussion taking place between her father and the Earl. Rather, he stared like a man bedazzled at Clothilde.
He was not alone. Heléne counted fully a dozen other gentlemen gazing at her sister with the same bemused expression. Clothilde stood with her eyes modestly downcast. The Earl must be a cold-blooded man indeed, to be so impervious to her sister's charms. How could he stand there speaking of stags and hounds when so exquisite a creature waited nearby, trembling for his approval? No wonder Clothilde looked so pale. If only he would speak one genuine word of warmth to her—
Heléne realized she was glaring at the Earl. She forced herself to look away before her mother caught her, and almost gasped at seeing amid the company a face that clearly did not belong. She knew him instantly. Etienne de Brielle, the younger son of their neighbor, Sir Damian. His presence filled her with apprehension, for the family was in disgrace and held a bitter grudge against the Earl.
She thought Etienne looked pale, uncertain as he stood for a moment, watching the Earl. Abruptly, he edged his way past a ruddy-faced knight, then stopped again. His green eyes narrowed on the Earl, still conversing with her father, both of them oblivious to the youth's appearance.
She wondered if she should call out a warning. Etienne's hand disappeared inside his cloak, but came out again a moment later, empty. She told herself not to be ridiculous. Etienne could not possibly intend any mischief in the midst of this crowd of armed knights, all of whom owed their allegiance to either her father or the Earl. Surely simple curiosity had brought him here, for he had not been present at the battle that left his father crippled. Etienne had been sent away with his stepmother before the Earl's siege of their castle began.
Etienne stood quietly now, gazing at the Earl through thoughtful, narrowed eyes. If resentment burned in their normally teasing depths, surely that was understandable? His soft dark curls, tousled by the wind, formed a wild halo about his handsome countenance. He was but a year older than Heléne. They had played together as children. She still counted him a friend, but she sensed with some disquiet that it was not mere curiosity she read in his face. He kept reaching beneath his cloak in an odd way. But if she cried out and it was nothing—
Then he moved. His expression changed in an instant from quiet resentment to desperate resolve. His hand flashed out and this time, Heléne saw a glint of steel.
She screamed, but it was too late. The Earl turned as Etienne closed the distance between them and flashed his dagger in a deadly arc towards the Earl's chest.