From the window of her tower room, Rosalynde watched a noisy, spirited cluster of men and boys on horseback sweep through the early snow into the courtyard of her father's castle, followed by an ornate carriage. Horses and riders both carried all the trappings of nobility and the white saint's rose was emblazoned on every banner. Only those who bore the royal blood of Chastelayne were allowed to display it. This would have to be the Duke of Afton and his family at last.
"That one, Ankarette," Rosalynde said, picking out the leader of the party. He was tall and dark of hair and eye and sat his horse with all the handsome majesty of a king. "That must be Duke Robert."
She saw him pull up and speak to the young copy of himself that rode at his side.
"And that is doubtless his eldest, Richard of Bradford."
Her nurse glanced out the window, then went on weaving pink ribbon into Rosalynde's dark hair. "The boy looks of an age with your sister, my lady, and a fair match to her, if rumor proves true."
"Oh, that's been tattled about for months now," Rosalynde said, twisting around to look at her. "Ever since Duke Robert went to fight in the Riverlands."
"Your sister is near twenty," the tall spare woman said, and she turned Rosalynde's head straight forward again. "She might have been married these five years and more, keep still now, unless my lord of Afton and my lord your father have had other plans for her."
"Father would never betroth them, not without the king's consent."
"Then why have they come here, the duke and his lady and their sons, with winter coming on and all? You mustn't turn your head about, my lady. You can hear me without you see me. Anyway, Westered can hardly be on their way to anywhere but wilderness, unless they mean to put out to sea."
"They come out of friendship, Father says."
"Well, I'll not doubt his lordship's word after so long, even if it does strike me odd. Almost done now. Still, mayhap he means to match your sister with Prince Stephen."
"I dare say that would suit Margaret well enough, whatever the prince is like, but they say King Edward will have no less than a princess for his only son. Besides, I hear the prince is horribly ill-tempered."
Ankarette tucked in the ribbon's end. "Any proud-blooded man might be cross to have his command taken from himself, being a prince, and given over to a duke."
"I heard it told that the king put Duke Robert in his place because all Prince Stephen did was spoil the land with killings and burnings and never gained a foot of ground."
"Mayhap Lady Margaret would not be so set to be a princess if she heard of this."
"She has heard, but says she cares not. I think she would never care if he were old enough to be her grandsire and as ugly as Vulcan either, so long as she could be queen."
Ankarette laughed. "I doubt he is little more than thirty."
She drew Rosalynde back into the chamber and sat her down so she could put on her shoes.
"And handsome enough, I suppose, with the king's Chastelayne blood in him. All the Chastelaynes are long famed for beauty as well as valor." She stood Rosalynde up again, checking to see that everything was properly done, then patted her cheek. "And I somehow doubt it is the tales of their valor that makes you so eager to see Afton's sons today."
Blushing, Rosalynde scurried back to the window, glad when Ankarette finally went to see if her father was ready for her to come down.
Afton had three more sons, Rosalynde knew, Philip of Caladen, then Thomas of Brenden, then John of Rounchaux, each a duke in his own right and, as Ankarette had said, all of them famed for beauty. She searched further through the band of riders down in the courtyard, dismissing several by their garments and deference to the others as servants, but there were yet two among them who could not be any less than sons to such a man as Robert Chastelayne.
The two were so close in age, she could not decide which was Philip and which was Thomas. John, the youngest, was but ten or twelve, she had been told, and these two looked to be a year or perhaps two older than herself. Even from a distance, she could see that they were much alike, tall and dark-haired and handsome like their father.
Hearing the two laugh between themselves at something she did not catch, she moved closer to the window, then one of them chanced to look up at her, the smile still on his face, his blue eyes still warm with laughter. She froze where she stood, a surprised little sigh escaping her lips, then she stepped swiftly back into the chamber.
Eyes like heaven, she thought, feeling an unaccustomed fluttering in her breast. Which is he?
"You're to go to your father now, my lady," Ankarette said, coming back into the room, and Rosalynde went to her looking glass to see if there was still too much guilty pink in her cheeks.
"Am I fit to meet them?"
Ankarette adjusted one dark curl and made a final tug at the lace in Rosalynde's sleeve. "You make a pretty picture, lamb."
Rosalynde looked at herself again and frowned. She was fifteen and looked plumply twelve, but she did make a pretty picture with her bountiful hair loosely bound down her back and her thick-lashed green eyes wide with excitement. Her frown deepened.
"You always say so."
"Because it always is so," Ankarette said calmly. "Now, come along to your father. Your sister is down there already."
"You honor us, my lady," her father was saying to the exquisite woman standing at the Duke of Afton's side.
Lady Elaine was tall, up to her tall husband's ear, and slenderly built, with flawless white skin, a wealth of fair hair, and eyes like twin sapphires. Rosalynde watched as her father kissed the lady's hand with the utmost reverence, as if he dared touch a goddess, and Lady Elaine made a regal curtsey.
"You are most gracious to open your home to us, my lord of Westered," she said, her mellifluous voice in perfect accord with her golden beauty.
"You are welcome, my lady," Westered said, "and my young lords as well."
Rosalynde hesitated at the foot of the stairs, but he caught sight of her and reached one brawny hand towards her with a smile.
"And this is my younger daughter, Rosalynde."
She made a deep curtsey and took a better look at Duke Robert. He looked at most to be in his middle thirties, younger than she had expected to have a son grown and two others nearly so. He was a handsome man, she had seen that already, but now she saw there was something more in him that gave him such favor in Lynaleigh, with the nobility and with the people, even above the king himself.
"Two such fair ones, my lord of Westered," Robert said, looking from Rosalynde to Margaret. "For the first time, I regret having had only sons. Still, such as they are, allow me to present them to you. This is Richard, my heir."
Margaret dropped a practiced curtsey, smiling boldly at Afton's eldest, and Rosalynde saw the young man's obvious appreciation of her sister's beauty, then she looked at the comely, fair-haired boy at his side.
"And my youngest, John," Robert said.
The boy was as finely golden as his mother, bearing out, as did they all, the truth behind the reputed grace of the royal Chastelaynes.
Rosalynde was keenly aware that there were yet two more to be presented to her, Afton's middle sons. Still not knowing which was which, she took a furtive glance at them. They both had their mother's fair skin and her more-than-commonly-handsome features, but they also looked to have inherited their father's strength and the stubborn Chastelayne jaw line. Their knightly training had left them lithe and gracefully well muscled, every inch the noble warriors they were born to be.
"This is my next youngest, Thomas," Robert said and one of them stepped forward with an engaging smile. She let the warmth in his brown-velvet eyes coax a smile from her, but he was not the one who had caught her attention from the courtyard. That left only one other.
She looked up at the last of Afton's sons and forgot to breathe. The laughter was gone from his expression now, replaced with polite reserve, but she had never in all her life seen such eyes. They were like the sea that stretched along the west side of the castle, like the smooth summer sea when it was touched with moonlight. Even his exquisite mother's eyes were not so blue, hadn't such lights in them or such feeling. Rosalynde imagined that if she could look hard enough she would be able to see clear through their crystal depths into his very soul.
"This is my son, Philip," Robert said, a hint of amusement in his tone, and Rosalynde realized she had been staring. The others laughed and her lashes swept to her burning cheeks.
"You honor me, my lady," Philip said as he bent to kiss her hand. His voice was kind and she glanced up again, surprised to see gentleness in those wondrous eyes and not annoyance or embarrassment. She knew nothing of young men and had expected these, from Margaret's estimation of the breed in general, to be spoiled and coarse and vain. She was glad it was not so.
That night the Duke of Westered held a great feast in honor of his guests. Richard quickly established himself as Margaret's escort, and Rosalynde found herself seated at the long, bountifully-laden table between Philip and Thomas, listening to the quick banter that flew from one to the other, making her laugh and easing her self-consciousness.
"Will you be with us long, my lords?" she ventured as the servants set out the honeyed quince that ended the meal. "My father did not say."
"A few days only," Philip replied, the soft, caressing tones of his northern-born voice falling pleasingly on her ears. "We're to winter at home in Treghatours, then Father is to return south to the war come spring."
The war touched them little here in Westered, but Rosalynde knew of it well enough. Lynaleigh and her enemy, Grenaver, had been one kingdom until a long-ago king had decreed that, upon his death, his twin sons should each have a kingdom of his own, the two halves of his realm, Lynaleigh in the north and Grenaver in the south. The dividing line was to be the river that flowed from the western mountains to the sea in the east. For generations, the two kingdoms lived together in peace, then one of the Grenaven scribes, looking into the old king's will, suggested that perhaps it was the northern branch of the river, a good distance into Lynaleighan territory, that the decree intended as the dividing line. The King of Grenaver, already chafing over a dispute of trade, made a demand for the immediate return of his lands.
In response, the King of Lynaleigh claimed that it was the river's southern branch, winding almost as far into Grenaven territory, that was meant by the terse wording of the decree that said only "the river". The main flow that divided the lands evenly, that had long served as border marker, was discarded by both sides. For a long time afterwards the dispute boiled between the two kings and their emissaries and eventually flared into the war that had been raging, off and on now, for years. As long as Rosalynde could remember, there had been fighting in the Riverlands.
"They say your father will win the Riverlands back for King Edward in time," she said and a fervent light sparked into Philip's eyes.
"The king'll not find a stouter champion, nor a more loyal. There's not a worthier man in Lynaleigh."
"Worthier than the king himself," Richard put in. "By blood if nothing else."
Rosalynde's eyes widened. She knew, as did the whole kingdom, the story of Robert of Afton, how he had once been heir to the throne. Now Edward of Ellenshaw, his uncle, his father's younger brother, was king and had been for almost thirty years. It was near treason to even speak of Robert's claims.
"Do not listen to his ramblings, my lady," Tom said lightly. "My father would likely box his ears for such talk and he knows it."
Philip pushed his empty plate away and frowned at Richard. "Edward was anointed king in the sight of God. Father would never challenge that sanctity. It would hardly be honorable."
Richard dismissed him with a wave of his hand. "I never said he would make good his claim, just that by right he is more king than Edward."
There was a challenge in Margaret's eyes. "I think if I were rightly king and had an army at my back, I'd not let another keep my right from me."
"Meg!" Rosalynde cried and Richard laughed.
"There, you see? And should it not be so, the right being on our side? Lady Margaret, you've won my very heart."
Rosalynde thought again of the rumored alliance between Margaret and Richard, between Westered and Afton, an alliance that would make Duke Robert strong enough to revive his claim if he desired. There was also the royal blood that flowed in the veins of his sons. Because of the direct lineage of both their father and mother, the blood they bore was more purely Chastelayne than any in Lynaleigh.
Right and might both together, she thought. Still, as Philip had said, there was not a more loyal man in the kingdom than Robert of Afton.
"Doubtless you know your own mind, Lady Margaret," Philip said with a polite nod. "For myself, I had sooner keep my dukedom and my honor."
"My brother has a very fine sense of honor on every point, my lady," Richard said, pouring himself more wine. "He'll not leave a dog in the cold or beat a lazy page or trifle with a woman's honesty."
Margaret gave Philip an insolent, appraising glance. "Will he not?"
"No, faith," Richard said. "He's a very maid for chastity, but I have hope he will outgrow it."
The color rose in Philip's face, as if he were ashamed of his own innocence and angry that his brother had been able to make him ashamed of it. His eyes narrowed but he said nothing.
"As you have outgrown it, my lord?" Margaret asked, looking with perfect innocence into Richard's face. This time it was Philip who laughed.
"I am as honest as any nobleman need be," Richard said with a touch of pique. "One day, when I am too old for roistering, I shall mend my life and be as pious and dull as my brothers there. They are near Heretics for strictness."
"Pious and dull?" Tom popped a slice of fruit into his mouth with a smiling shake of his head. "You say it as if the two must go together perforce. Pious, I hope, but dull? May God spare me that. It was never His way."
"Nor the way of the Heretics," Philip added. "Nor mine either, I hope."
There were those they called Heretics, Rosalynde knew, even as far as Westered, those who believed outside the established church, who claimed a simpler, purer faith than was fashionable. The belief was strongest in the north, near Afton, but she had not thought it would reach so high among the nobility.
"Are you a Heretic, my lord of Caladen?" Margaret asked.
"I'd not call it so, my lady," Philip said, an easy certainty in his tone. "Is it heresy to live as pleases God without hiding behind the rituals and the hypocrisy of the church?"
"Best be glad you are here and not in the king's court, my lord," Margaret said, "when you speak so bold."
"I am not ashamed of my life, my lady. I would face whatever may come of it rather than deny what I believe true."
Richard took a smug drink of wine. "As I said, lady, he will outgrow it."
There was haughty amusement in Margaret's face and Rosalynde's eyes flashed. They had no right to make sport of this young man for holding to his principles, as if two or three years more of life had made the two of them all wise.
"I'll not believe it of him!" she said and Margaret laughed.
"I yield to your champion, Philip," Richard said, then he made a mocking toast. "Lady Rosalynde."
Rosalynde felt her face turn hot, but Philip smiled at her and also raised his cup.
"Again you honor me, my lady. I pray I prove worthy your faith in me."
She knew he said it impersonally, as any gentleman might in a chivalrous moment, but she could not help that odd quickening in her pulse when he turned that smile upon her.
"But you mustn't heed my brother too much," he added, a little mischief in his eyes. "We give him scope when he's had more than two cups of wine all of an evening."
"Faith, Philip, you are too good to me," Richard said, grinning. "I could never hope to deserve it of such a nonpareil."
He gouged Philip with his elbow, then the jugglers began their tricks, and treason, for the moment, was forgotten.
"My Rosalynde is quite taken with him," Westered said when he and the Duke of Afton spoke alone a few days later. "But she is young yet, I think, for such things."
"I was married at fifteen myself," Robert said, "and I have had nothing but pleasure in it. She and Philip would match as well as Margaret and Richard, I think."
Westered smiled. "A double bond never hurt a friendship, eh? That is if there is to be any bond at all."
"Of course you know there are more than a few young ladies quite taken with my boy," Robert reminded him and Westered's smile widened.
"Come, my lord, shall we speak freely? Did you not come here to dangle him and the other one, Thomas, in front of my Rosalynde's eyes to see which she'd prefer? I'll admit your boys are all, in breeding, manners, and looks, the very pattern of what a young man ought be, but Westered will not be easily bought."
"Do you count your daughters as negotiable merchandise, my lord?"
"As much as you do your sons. Come, we both want to see our children well matched and our dukedoms enriched, but you must confess there is some danger in marriage between our households. Especially between your heir and mine. The king will see nothing but rebellion in it."
"He would have no cause to care if he knew he held true title to the throne. He knows I am no longer a boy of seven, to be bullied into relinquishing what is rightly mine." The tautness in his face turned again into affability. "Still, I did not come to talk of such perplexities, but of both our futures."
"I have no quarrel with your title, my lord. There was no justice in your being set aside, regardless of your youth."
"You are not alone in that belief."
"I thought I might not be the only one you spoke to of this," Westered said. "Yet there is danger even in support of a just cause."
"True," Robert said, "and much gain to those willing to risk much." He smiled. "A kingdom for risk of a dukedom?"
"Or a chopping block," Westered observed.
The next day the snow melted and Rosalynde watched their guests sweep out of the courtyard as boisterously as they had come into it, it seemed such a short while ago. The days of riding and dancing, of long walks along the wintery beach and longer talks, of all Philip's chivalrous attentions, they were over.
There had been much ceremony in the parting between the two noble families, formal embraces and flattering farewells. Rosalynde had felt the blood rush through her when Philip kissed her hand and shocked herself with the wish that he would kiss her lips instead. She had never desired such a thing before, had never understood that longing in anyone else, but just then it had struck her deeply, painfully.
He had smiled at her again as he mounted his horse, then had to lean down to catch her breathless "God speed." Now he was gone, his horse's tracks mixed in with all the others in the mud the snow had left behind. She stared out towards the northeast, where she imagined Treghatours must lie, and wished he had never come just to leave again.
"You'll not die of it, goose," Margaret said, and Rosalynde did not turn around, knowing her whole heart was in her eyes.
"Still," Margaret continued, "he is a pretty piece of flesh. Now if you had been merely a serving wench and not his host's daughter..."
Margaret finished with an insinuating smirk but Rosalynde made her no reply, knowing anything she said would be mocked and twisted out of all recognition, but she did not believe it. Not of the fervent-eyed boy who had spoken time and again with such passion of his honor and his God. Not of her Philip.
A year passed and Margaret and Richard did marry. In two years more, King Edward's displeasure at their alliance was of no consequence. He was dead and Robert of Afton was king.
Philip was a prince, but Rosalynde heard little more of him. She knew he and Tom had been brought to court right after their older brother's marriage and held in polite captivity as guarantee of their father's loyalty. Then Robert had returned from the war in victory and, in one swift, bloodless move, had used the threat of his army to take the throne. King Edward was imprisoned and, shortly after, the announcement came that he had died in his cell.
Although the war in the Riverlands was over, there was a new war, in the south and in the east, as the former prince, Stephen, tried to retake the crown he had been raised to believe was his. Rosalynde sometimes wept at the thought of her Philip being slaughtered on the field of battle, defending a crown she knew he believed did not rightly belong to his father. But it pleased her, too, to think of him as a prince, to imagine him in the king's council standing for God's truth, certain he was one who would swear to his own hurt and not change.
There was still talk between his father and hers of a second alliance between Westered and Afton, but time passed and, despite her hopeful prayers, nothing came of it. She prayed for him anyway.
The great hall of the king's palace in Winton was filled with lights and music, trimmed with ribbons and garlands of summer and the white saint's rose everywhere. The banqueting tables groaned under their burden of roast peacock and swan, huge platters of roast beef and wine to tempt every palate. Robert of Afton had been king for a year now and he had invited all of his highborn subjects to celebrate the anniversary with him. That was not, however, the only reason for this gathering.
Stern and unwelcoming, Philip stood beside his father as, one after another, the eligible daughters of the nobility, fetched from throughout the kingdom, were presented to him. His presence here was not by invitation but by command.
"I have set the day for the great feast," Robert had informed him a few weeks before. "I will announce Tom's betrothal then."
"He is betrothed?" Philip had asked, surprised.
"I have contracted him to Lord Aberwain's daughter, Lady Elizabeth."
"And Tom is agreed?"
"He will be. I've not told him yet as my lord Aberwain and I have only just concluded our terms, but he will be. She is reported fair and pliant and most truly virtuous. Tom can find no fault in the choice."
"Except if he does not love her."
"If not, he will grow to it in time, as you will when you marry. In faith, I never once saw your mother until we were at the altar, but from that moment I loved her as deep and sweet as even your stubborn heart could wish. Tom may easily find it so for him."
"And if she does not love him?"
Robert had laughed. "Not love Tom? I defy the girl to do it! Besides, he knows where his duty lies, as I trust you do. I wish to have your betrothal concluded soon, too."
"My lord, you pledged me I should have until spring," Philip had said stiffly. Robert had often pressed him to choose a wife, but Philip had reasons of his own to put him off and had wrested from him a pledge to keep his freedom for yet awhile.
"You shall not marry until spring, I shall keep that true to you, but now is to promise. We have asked to the feast all the lovely maids whose fathers we wish to have bound to Afton. They are to be presented at court. Look among them, choose one, and I shall set my approval upon her."
"I cannot choose a wife as I would a horse or a pair of gloves – from stock on hand. I can tell you now already, there is none of them I could love."
Robert had taken a calm sip of wine, recognizing the stubborn set to his son's jaw and realizing that force would not move him now.
"It is that girl you've taken to sport with, is it not? This creature that waits on Richard's Lady Margaret, Katherine Fletcher? Surely you cannot mean to set aside your sacred duty and your honor, too, for your pleasure."
"I love her." Philip's stubbornness had melted into entreaty. "You said I might choose for myself now. Please, Father, let it be Kate. For that deep, sweet love you've known so long, the love I've only yet tasted, let it be Kate."
"It cannot be," Robert had answered. "I almost wish for your sake, son, I might say yes, but, even if we were at peace, it cannot be. Have you forgotten the blood you bear? The very noblest, the very most royal, and yet you would mix it so carelessly in marriage? With a serving wench? It cannot be."
"Forgive me, my lord, and do not think I mean you disrespect, but I cannot choose among your nobly bred maids. I cannot forsake the one I love. You know I have tried to please you since you betrayed the king–"
"I am the king."
Philip had rubbed his cheek, remembering the first time they had had this quarrel. "I know it. Please, Father, I do not mean to anger you. Ask me any other service and I swear I will be Mercury to do it, but do not ask this of me, I beg you."
"You know it must be so, but it need not fret you. Marry one of these girls, help me keep Afton strong, and you need not give up your Kate. I will see her safely to some secret place, away from the tongues at court, and there you may keep her so long as it pleases you. Meanwhile, your noble lady and her kinsmen need never take offense at what they do not know. Just spare me the knowledge of any half-blooded whelps she gives you."
Philip had looked at him in disgust, his dark brows drawn into a hard line. "You dare call yourself a king and my father and urge me to willful adultery?"
"You make fine distinction between adulterer and whoremaster."
Philip's whole body had tightened with the desire to strike the cynical smirk from his father's face. He had made a curt bow instead.
"I ask your leave to withdraw, my lord, before I am no longer master of my tongue."
"Go on then, but make yourself ready to choose a wife come the feast day."
"I have told you my choice."
"And I have told you, that cannot be. Do you think this is some boys' game we play now? You are a Chastelayne prince. Your marriage is a matter of state. When you have tired of this wench, you will thank me that I have not let you tie yourself forever to one so far beneath you."
"Do what you will," Philip had said. "I'll not be threatened or cajoled or ordered into marrying anyone."
"See here, proud boy–"
"No, my lord, I do not nor will not see. Pardon me or let me not be pardoned, but do not force me in this. It can never be."
"It must be," Robert had said gravely. "Please you or no, it will be."
So now Philip stood watching the seemingly endless line of gentlewomen, some little more than children, some older even than his own mother. Their simpering chatter stung his already-nettled temper. It pleased him no better to hear them say among themselves that his frowns were as becoming as most men's smiles.
He could not have said afterwards which of them were fair and which were plain, which seemed well spoken, which quiet and shy. Many of their names he knew already, having heard them bandied about for several months now along with a catalog of their virtues and possessions.
He wondered vaguely why Lady Rosalynde was not present. He remembered her as modest and gentle, and it had pleased him to do as his father had asked and show her a little gallantry. Robert had asked it of him many times before and since, with the daughters and cousins and nieces of other noblemen, but it was only later that he realized his father had more than courtesy in mind when he did. Philip suspected now that Robert thought Margaret was alliance enough with Westered. There was a multitude of ladies among whom Philip might choose and other noblemen who might be bound to Afton with a well-considered marriage.
After all the others, the Lord High Chamberlain, Lord Dunois, Baron of Paxton, presented his daughter Marian – a timid, greensick girl of fourteen, as pale of hair and skin as her father was dark. Philip kissed her thin hand and said something grudgingly pleasant, word for word what he had spoken to each of the others, and Dunois looked with fondness upon her.
"I shall be glad to have her at court with me now. I have missed having her gentleness always about me."
He neglected to mention that he had seen her but once since she was eight years old. "She will be an ornament to our court," Robert said. "Will she not, son Philip?"
"Of course, my lord," Philip said dutifully.
"She has been most eager to dance with you, my prince," Dunois said, giving the girl an almost-imperceptible push forward.
"Please, no," she whispered, her eyes pleading against her father's subtle urging. She pulled back, catching Philip's glance, and the tears started into her eyes. Philip let an encouraging smile soften his expression.
"Please, my lady," he said, offering his hand. "You would do me much honor."
Dunois signaled the music to begin and Philip took the little bit of childishness into his arms, ignoring the satisfied expression on her father's face.
"You needn't dance the whole measure with me, my lord," she said gratefully as he whirled her across the floor. "My father would have me to dance with you, but I would never presume – ”
"You, my lady, do not presume, and for that I count you my friend."
"He's taken to her," Robert said, watching her flush with pleasure at his son's careful attentions, and Dunois could hardly manage a serene reply.
"She'll do well enough, for such a little chit of a girl. Her mother, you know, was the Duke of Ellison's niece."
"Was she, in faith? Then there is a touch of the blood in her. It speaks well, my lord. It speaks well."
Dunois said no more of his daughter’s pedigree. There was no need. He could see the idea glimmering already in Robert’s eyes.
The king and queen danced frequently that night and between times sat close together, sharing a cup and a plate, their glances full of deep secret meaning, their eyes sparkling more brightly than the jewels in their heavy crowns.
Richard, too, danced awhile with his own wife, making great show of his affection towards her and hers for him, knowing what a pretty sight they made together, him with his solid dark handsomeness and her with her honey locks and eyes of green. Margaret would make him a fine fair queen, and if he found her tedious company already, well, the people needn't see that.
As the night wore on, many of those less inclined to merrymaking retired to the comfort of their bedchambers. Even John had been hustled off to bed by one of the servants. The rest of the nobility, well heated with wine, sang and danced and drank yet more, growing louder with each passing hour. The dancing went faster and faster and the room swirled with color, sparkled with the silver and gold of rich jewelry.
Richard led the revels, downing a flagon of wine with each of his numerous changes of partner. Tom joined in, too, dancing with this lady and that, blind to their admiring glances, evading their too-possessive embraces, making them laugh with his piercingly humorous refusals of their attentions and winning them the more because of it.
Dunois watched as Philip danced with one potential bride and then another, but always he returned to little Marian, setting her at her ease in this vast world of strangers, finally coaxing a smile from her. Evidently he pitied greatly to see her used so for her father's advancement. Pity was as good a lure as any, Dunois supposed.
"It seems you have chosen after all," Robert said late in the evening after he had called Philip to a quiet corner of the hall.
Dunois bowed. "I am honored, my prince, but I dare not hope that you have chosen to grace my poor house–"
"You mistake, my lord," Philip said, turning stern eyes on him, "if you think I mean to marry your daughter. You spoke truly of her gentleness and I believe of herself she is a most worthy lady, but I'll not marry her."
Seeing his father's indignation, Philip made his tone more gentle. "I do truly ask your pardon, my lord Dunois, for I am sure in time Lady Marian would bless any man with her heart and hand, but I cannot marry her. I know you have done good service for my father, but I cannot do this to please you or him. Not and be true to my heart."
Robert's lip curled into a sneer. "True to your heart! As if the baseborn slut you've chosen could mean more than sport to a royal prince. Go back to the ladies, boy. Choose the one you best like and bring her to me. I've no more patience for this."
For a moment Philip stood glaring, then he bowed. "At your pleasure, my liege."
The two men watched as he stalked across the room, Dunois noting with growing satisfaction that he was going towards Marian, but he turned aside before he reached her and instead pulled one of the waiting women out from among Margaret's astonished attendants, a little plain, fair-haired girl, not yet twenty.
She struggled, bewildered, against him. "Please, my lord, not before your father and the court–"
He did not answer her as he pulled her back to where the king stood. He did not change his flinty expression.
"Here, my liege, is my choice." He turned in fierce triumph to the crowded hall. "Come! Music for the queen of my heart!"
The musicians struck up a jarring, merry tune and Philip spun the fearful girl a few defiant turns around the room, then he halted at the foot of the stairs, a wicked smile marring his handsome face.
"Good night, my liege, my noble ladies all! Come, Kate, it's long past time we were to bed."
He pulled her up the steps after him and the room began to buzz with murmuring. Robert's face was a deep red.
"Before God and all the saints, dare he shame me before my court? I will have the strumpet whipped out of my kingdom!"
"Softly, my liege," Dunois counseled, forcing a calm over the rage that thrashed through his blood. "Do that and he will likely follow after her. He is proud and the more you belittle his choice the more his honor demands he hold to it. Let him have until spring as you promised and by then, knowing the changeable nature of young men, he will be pleased to be rid of the girl."
"And what of his betrothal?"
"The more you urge him, the more his pride will resist you. Leave it for now, speak gently to him when next you meet, and we will find a way to put all right. Let him consider the fair ladies he might have, the great wealth and honor that comes with each of them, and this worn dishrag of a serving wench will be quickly shook off."
"You speak wisely," Robert said, mollified, and there was a touch of humor on his face. "I've half a mind to simply give him to your daughter, in payment of all you've done."
"Too much honor for my poor house," Dunois said, fighting to keep any trace of smugness off his face. "What could my humble service have meant, in truth, to your nobility? Any man would have done so much."
"Not so, Edmund. I rest your debtor still and, if my insolent boy braves me so once again, I may well use him in paying that debt."
The next morning, Philip went to his father's chamber and requested a private audience.
"His Majesty is not yet risen, my lord," Dunois informed him. "If it shall please you, I will take him your request and return you his answer."
Philip thanked him and set himself to wait. He did not expect that the space of one night would be enough to cool his father's anger, and he steeled himself to meet the full force of it. He would be humble and ask pardon for his rashness the night before. Surely peace with his father was worth that much pride. Surely Katherine was.
"Have you puzzled out all the mysteries of the ages yet?"
Philip lifted his head and saw Tom grinning down on him.
"What, do I look so perplexed?"
Tom sat next to him, looking not for the first time at the fine sapphire cross that hung around Philip's neck, only half concealed by his shirt. Doubtless he had noticed that it was the same one Katherine Fletcher had worn but wore no longer, just as Philip no longer wore the ruby ring that marked him as a Chastelayne prince.
"I suppose you've been summoned to answer for last night."
"I was a fool," Philip said. "That was no way to win his liking for Kate. All I did was shame her and make him the angrier. I came to make it right with him, if he will let me, but, no, I was not summoned. Were you?"
Tom nodded. "I expect it will be more upon this favorite theme of his – marriage."
"Can you do it, Tom? Marry for policy?"
"I would I had freedom in the choice, as much as you do, but even before Father was king we knew it would not be so. They say Lady Elizabeth is fair and virtuous. I shall make it all my study to love her as it was meant a wife should be loved and I dare say we shall be happy enough. I cannot believe God will let it be otherwise."
"What if you loved already? Would you let them marry you to someone else?"
"If I loved a woman truly and knew I could love no other, I suppose I would have to marry my beloved, no matter the cost." Looking steadily into his eyes, Tom tucked the cross back inside Philip's shirt. "Then I would tell Father I'd done it."
"You might have told me. I've kept your counsel before."
"How could you know?"
"I know you."
Philip smiled, blinking away the telltale burning in his eyes. "I love her, Tom."
"I know that, too."
"I know what I've given up in marrying her," Philip said. "I'd pay that price and a dozen times over for the love she has given me."
"Father might not think it such a bargain after what you've doubtless cost him in some alliance or other."
"He needn't know for some while yet, I hope."
"Well, now you've done it, tell him. He will be vexed, but not so much as if you were his heir."
Philip shook his head. "Not as yet. Let the country be more at peace than it is now. He will be angry enough as it is. If he knows she is truly my wife, I fear what he might do. Now he pleases to think I am a stubborn, wantonly boy. He thinks I will tire of her soon and make one of his precious alliances. Our best safety lies in that."
"Good morning, my sons."
Philip and Tom leapt to their feet and bowed deeply as their mother came from the king's private chamber. She was dressed in a robe of sky blue velvet, with the rich lace of her shift peeping out at her wrists and throat and her hair falling in golden ringlets down her back. She looked as fresh and fair as a bride. It was little wonder that their father found arranged marriages nothing to fear.
"Madame my mother," Tom murmured.
"Madame," Philip echoed, and she looked at him as if they shared a secret.
"You were indiscreet last night, Philip."
"I do beg your pardon, madame," he said with another bow. "I know you think me intemperate and disgraceful, and for that I am heartily sorry."
"I merely said you were indiscreet." There was a sly smile on her full lips. "A true gentleman is always discreet with his mistresses."
A true gentleman has none, Philip thought, his eyes turning cold, but, before he could reply, another voice interrupted.
"Elaine, my love, not gone yet?"
The boys bowed once more and their mother curtseyed as the king came from his chamber. He pulled his wife to him and said something low in her ear to make her giggle, then he put her hand in Tom's.
"See your mother back to her ladies, Tom, while I talk to this rascal here. Then I shall wish to speak to you."
Philip looked at his brother, surprised at the king's affability, but Tom merely gave him a quizzical smile and led his mother away.
"Now, my son, you wished to see me?"
Philip drew a deep breath. "Yes, my lord. My behavior last night was most unbecoming, and I wish to apologize for it. It ill suits the son of Lynaleigh's king to make such common display before the court, and I crave your pardon."
"Bravely spoken," Robert said, clasping his shoulder. "We were both of us too hot in speaking last night. Let us say no more of it and it will soon be forgotten. I have perhaps pushed too hard in this matter of marriages. You shall have until spring as I promised."
"I shall?" A smile broke thorough Philip's incredulity. "Tell me what service I may do you now to prove my obedience."
Robert ruffled his son's thick hair. "Go to your brothers, tell them to put on their royal white. We are to make procession through the streets this afternoon in further celebration of my reign. The lord mayor has asked it at the people's request, and I can grant them no less. Show bravely for Afton today, and I can wish no more."
At the appointed time, Philip and his brothers met in the courtyard, dressed as their father had requested. Their horses were also decked in the immaculate luster of the royal white, ready for them to mount. Beside them, the king's groomsman was calming a skittish Barbary roan, one the princes had never before seen.
"Whose horse is that, Hawkins?" Richard asked, impressed by the beast's fiery temper.
"His Majesty's, my lord. A gift from the lord mayor."
Richard held out his hand. "Let me try him."
"I cannot, my lord. Not until His Majesty says I might."
Richard frowned, and Philip tried to stroke the roan's nose.
"Have a care!" Hawkins warned as the horse snapped at him. "He's hardly tamed."
"Father will let me ride him," Philip said lightly. "I shall see he is gentled down."
Tom laid his hand on the roan's flank and was nearly kicked for it. "Best have a care, Philip. This one will throw you, like as not."
"Nonsense. I've never been thrown yet."
"Not true," Richard said, laughing. "I remember once you walked home bloodied and bruised because old Samson had tossed you off in the forest."
"He did not!"
"He did." Richard looked to Tom and John for confirmation. "You were no more than twelve, as I remember, but I thought it odd that you'd been thrown. You never had been before and not since."
"I remember that day," John said before Philip could protest again. "You must have fallen hard, you were so battered."
Tom laughed. "You were so mortified, you'd not even speak when Nathaniel was searching you over for broken bones."
"Odd I'd not remember it," Philip said with a puzzled grin, "but it'll not likely happen again." He swung up onto his horse, a long-legged black, and patted his silken mane. "Not likely, my Alethia."
"This one is not so fierce as Hawkins says," John said, feeding the roan a handful of fresh straw. The horse showed no hint of skittishness.
"What's this, boys?" the king asked when he came into the courtyard with his dazzling queen on his arm, both of them also in white.
"A gift from the lord mayor, Father," Richard said eagerly. "May I ride him?"
"Sometime. Today, I shall."
"You ought not, Your Majesty, pardon me," Hawkins said. "He is very skittish."
"Do you let me decide on that, Hawkins. Give me the reins, man."
Hawkins obeyed, and soon the king was in the saddle, the roan's only protest a whinny and a little pawing of the ground. Robert smiled.
"There. No need to fear now. Come, let us go among the people. I would have the lord mayor see how fitting his gift is for a king."
Hawkins helped the queen up onto her palfrey and, bowing, handed her the reins.
"But where is your lady, Richard?" she asked.
Richard's mouth turned down in annoyance. "She asks your pardon, madame, and yours, Father, but she is ill with the coming child and cannot ride today."
"They say that happens often," Elaine said gaily, "though I have not found it so. Not once in four times."
"Have patience, Richard," Robert advised, smiling upon his own wife. "You will find yourself well rewarded the first time you hold your heir. Let your lady have her rest now. You mustn't risk the child."
"As you say, Father. Shall we go on?"
Preceded by banners and trumpets and drums, followed by richly attired nobility, the royal family rode out into the streets of Winton, a brisk wind at their backs. As always, the peasantry crowded around them, cheering and whistling and covering them with blessings and rose petals. The king had his hands full with acknowledging their favors and keeping his horse from bolting. Once he made his speech, promising justice and prosperity to his people and thanking the lord mayor for his fine gift, he turned gladly towards home. The roan wanted more gentling before he could be ridden again among the people.
The wind was in their faces on the way back, tugging at cloaks and snatching caps and popping the rich, gilt-edged banners.
"I shall have my hair down about my knees before we've reached the palace," Elaine said, holding one hand to the heavy golden mass twisted at the back of her head. Just then, one of the streaming banners snapped loose and flew into the roan's face. With a shrill, terrified neigh, he reared up and struck out blindly with his hooves, beating the queen from her own mount.
Robert jerked at his reins, wrenching the beast's head to one side. Wild-eyed, the roan continued to plunge and Robert could only watch in horror as his wife's tender flesh was trampled into the cobbled street.
Braving the flashing hooves, Philip and Richard seized hold of the panicked animal's bridle on either side and pulled him away from their mother. Robert leapt to the ground and took his wife's battered body out of Tom's lap, pulled her crushed hand out of John's fearful grasp.
He kissed her bloodied lips, then lifted her up in his arms, echoing her cry of agony. Several of the nobles took charge of the roan and Richard and Philip went to their mother's side.
"Let me help you, Father," Richard offered, but Robert only crushed his wife tighter against himself, making her cry out again.
"Let him alone," Tom said low and Richard stepped back, his face marked with disbelief.
"It was over before it could be stopped."
"It could not be stopped," Philip said, his breath coming hard and unevenly.
John's eyes were wide, bewildered. "Mother?"
Tom put one arm around his shoulders. "Come on, John."
Robert carried his wife in his arms the short distance back to the castle, speaking low, loving words with every step. Their sons and all the others came in grim, silent procession after them. The physicians were sent for, every comfort was thought of, but no one seeing the crushed remains of so delicate flesh could believe there was any hope for more than a few brief hours of pain before death.
Somber and restless, the princes stood outside the chamber where their mother lay dying, watched the evening fade into night and, after eternity, watched the lazy sunrise bring in the everlasting morning. They heard her call sometimes for John, always John, but he was forbidden to go to her. Only her tormented husband was allowed at her side as the physicians labored against hope to save her.
Philip found himself burdened with a sorrow that surprised him. There was no mother heart in this woman for him, nor never had been, and he thought he had made himself proof against the instinctive pain that brought him. She had never taken much notice of any of her sons. Even John, her youngest, the one most like her, had only held her momentary interest. Her gowns, her jewels, her entourage of admirers, these had been much dearer to her, but Philip still felt some pain, some grief at her passing.
More than that, it was his father's sudden, cruel loss of the woman who meant more than the world to him that drew Philip's pity and remorse. Having so recently found such a deep love himself, he felt his father's pain as if it were his own. He knew if he should have Katherine only twenty or thirty years, it would not be near half enough. To have her so brutally torn away from him would be beyond bearing.
He could hear the priests now on the other side of the door intoning an ave, muffled and indistinct, and knew his mother was making confession. Soon she would be absolved and her spirit would be put into the hands of God, then the priests would be silent.
The silence came. The princes crossed themselves and waited for word to be brought. Finally the door swung open, and Robert came out of the chamber, pale and trembling, the bloody stamp of Elaine's wounds still on his white doublet. The brothers were startled at his expression. He looked furious, not grieved.
"You," he snapped, pointing at John. "I will have you from my sight and from my court. You are not to stay even the burying." He took rough hold of John's wrist and stripped the Chastelayne ring from his finger. "Go where it pleases you to go, but go now. Do not let me see your face again."
John flinched as if he had been struck, and Robert turned on Philip and Tom and Richard.
"I will not have a word from the three of you. Keep silent, or before God Himself, you go with him!"
He stalked into the room opposite the one where their mother's broken body lay and slammed the door.
Philip started after his father.
"No." John was pale and shaken. "I will go if he wishes me to."
"You'll not!" Richard said and, swearing a terrible oath, he flung open the door his father had just slammed and slammed it again behind him. Immediately the sounds of quarreling filtered out, the words unintelligible but the tone unmistakable.
"He is hurting, John," Tom said. "I am sorry he has hurt you."
"How could he say such a thing?" Philip fumed, pained by the shattered expression on his youngest brother's face. "He cannot mean really for you to go. By my life, John, you've always loved him better than any of us have!"
The three of them stood silent, listening to Richard's voice battling his father's, back and forth, louder and more vicious, until the door flew open again and Richard stormed out with the king close behind him.
Richard halted and turned back to his father.
"Rumor is a strong tool in the right hands, my lord king," he warned. "Take care what you speak before the court. Once told, it cannot be again unsaid."
Robert considered for a moment then, looking at John, his eyes turned steely.
"Very well. I will say nothing to my nobles of this, but he is banished. I'll not be swayed from that."
John had not wept at the news of his mother's death, but now he did, the quiet tears slipping down cheeks that had not quite lost their childish roundness.
"If you banish him, banish me as well," Richard swore. "I'll not stay at your court if you do this to him."
"I'll not be threatened by you or anyone," Robert returned. "He is banished and you may do as pleases you."
Richard looked at him, fury coloring his face, then he grabbed John by the arm.
"I have sons yet to do my bidding, my lord of Bradford!" Robert shouted after him. "Your loss will not be keenly felt!"
"Stop them, Father," Philip insisted. "Mercy and grace, what has John done?"
"This does not concern you."
"Does it not? John is–"
"Father, please–" Tom began at the same time.
"Enough, Philip. Tom, not another word. Will you both rebel against me, too?"
"No, Father." Tom put a restraining hand on his brother's arm. "Come, Philip, I think we all of us would do well to consider for a moment before we say anything more."
"As you say," Philip agreed, and with a taut bow he left the room.
Robert sat down abruptly. The light from the window above him was unkind to his haggard face and made the wounded rage in his eyes all the clearer to see.
"May I get something for you, Father?" Tom asked.
"Bring me some wine, then leave me."
Tom overlooked the sharpness of his tone. "Shall I have Dunois tell the court of the queen's passing? They will be waiting."
Robert drew a harsh breath, as if he were going to swear, then he checked himself.
"Tell him. And tell Richard he is to go to Tanglewood, if he must leave, and take– take my lord of Rounchaux with him. I will make it known that I have sent them there to lead the army at the border."
"Please, Father. John would never–"
"Not another word, Tom. Not one. Do as I bade you and leave me in peace."
Tom bowed. "Yes, my lord."
It was little more than a week later that word came of Richard's death. "'Richard should never have gone out to them,'" Tom read from the letter John sent. "'They came to the wall and challenged us and, even with them twice our strength, he went out to them. He swore he'd never send to the king for more men, that we were easily worth their number and so many more besides, and he went out to them as merrily as if he were going to a May morris dance. I would God had made him more wise and less proud, but I think he's in heaven sure. I went to him, when the fighting was over. He'd been three times thrust through and could scarce speak, but he said 'Mercy, Lord Jesus, pardon...sinful soul' and more I could not understand, but surely God heard him.'"
"I know He did," Tom said and Philip nodded, but Robert only looked through them.
He put his head in his hands, then he took a deep drink of the wine that had been his constant companion in the days since the queen's death.
Richard was dead. The son he had groomed for kingship, the one he had meant for greatness, was gone. All that was left of his hopes was Richard's battered body, the child Margaret carried, and the echo of his own acrid words.
Your loss will not be keenly felt.
"I am sorry about Richard, Father," Philip murmured, only now daring to speak. "I know John is sorry, too."
"And well he should be," Robert returned, his grief now cold contempt. "Were it not for him, Richard would have not been there in Tanglewood to die. What more is in the letter? I suppose the city is lost, too."
"No," Tom said. "He writes he sent to Eastbrook for help, and it is firmly ours again."
"Let him see better to his duties, then," Robert said, "or, before God, I will have him driven from my kingdom altogether."
"Let him return to us," Tom asked, not for the first time.
"Show him your mercy, Father," Philip pled, "as you would have God show Richard His."
"Yes, faith, he shall have mercy," Robert replied. "All the mercy Ellenshaw can afford him down in Tanglewood. I'll not have him in my court. Do not plead for him again."
Copyright 1997 ~ DeAnna Julie Dodson
Illustration - "Fair Rosamund" by John William Waterhouse