Somewhere in the south of France…
There was once a man, in a tavern, drinking ale. He was surprised to find it was exceptionally good.
Nothing else was. The central hearth belched smoke every time a strong gust of wind howled across the roof, which was often. The serving women were the innkeeper’s wife and daughters, and an unspoken hands-off rule ensured the absence of fun to be had there. The food, a few stale vegetables in a greasy broth simmering over the meagre fire, was best avoided.
But Tom wasn’t there for a woman or food.
He was there to listen.
Fulk had sent him, God rot his evil black soul, to this cesspit of an inn in the middle of nowhere. Count Fulk, as he insisted you call him, was not the sort of person you argued with. Not if you wanted to continue breathing.
Fulk ruled half the valley, a region called Betizac. The ruler of the other half, known as Freycinet, had been an old man, long sick. He’d died a few days ago. His older son was already dead, the other a member of the Church.
The Count didn’t usually encourage fraternization with the people of Freycinet, but a need for news was his priority.
The funeral had been this afternoon. Every able-bodied individual for miles around had been there, Tom heard, plus a few who weren’t able-bodied but had climbed out of their cots and gone anyway.
Nothing beats a good funeral, he thought.
Of course she’d been there too: Berenice, the Lady of the Vale of Freycinet, the eastern end of the valley, and the purpose behind Fulk’s mission to him.
“I love her, we all do, but it makes no difference. She can’t rule.” The speaker, a black-bearded giant of a man, pounded the table. “She’s a woman!” Going by his size and strength he was bound to be the Freycinet blacksmith.
The innkeeper glared at him across the room.
“Please excuse me.” The big man ducked his head in apology. “I forget myself.”
“Women can govern,” announced another, his voice quieter than his companion’s, his demeanor calm. Broad in shoulders and chest but with ample grey in his dark beard, he was a knight perhaps. He’d definitely been a soldier.
“Tell me when,” demanded the smith, leaning over the table until his face was inches from the soldier’s, “Tell me when it’s not against the laws of the land and of God.”
“Convents are run by women,” stated the soldier, calmly sipping his ale.
“But we are not nuns!”
The others laughed and pounded the smith’s back.
“Regardless,” answered the greybeard, “We all know the Lady would rule if she’d been born a boy, and so her husband is the heir, the new Lord of Freycinet. She must rule until his return, whenever that is. She has no choice. You all heard her say so today.
She needs your support, not your questions and condemnation.”
The smith grunted his agreement. The others nodded.
Tom knew the Lady had another option. He noticed none of the men even considered it.
But he’d heard all he came for. His loyalties – such as they were – lay with his Lord. Say what you would, Fulk paid him well. Wrapping his thick, woolen cloak around himself he headed for the door.
Sleet soon saturated his garments, and an icy rivulet ran down his back inside his leather jerkin. He shuddered.
Tom dug his heels into the horse’s flanks. No sense in dawdling. Soon he caught a glimpse of Castle Betizac above the tops of the trees.
The castle appealed to the soldier in him, representing undoubtedly the best the century had to offer in efficient military technology. The serrated ridge of the battlements topped a sheer, grey curtain wall, behind which loomed the dark tower of the keep. The portcullis hung between twin towers, ready to be dropped at the first sighting of an enemy.
Tom reached the massive, iron bound gates, and bellowed his demand for admission. Above them the warmth of the guard house fire would be abandoned as men scurried to do his bidding.
He rode under the portcullis and into the courtyard, where a groom held his horse while he dismounted. Tom nodded his thanks.
With a few long strides he was at the heavy oak door of the keep. Battling a bitter wind, he wrenched the door open. Once inside he brushed the sleet from his cape and climbed the stairs to the Count’s chamber.
Too soon he reached the Count’s door. He and his men may well be ordered to ride at dawn, winter or no winter, once the Count digested the news he was bringing.
He knocked, his metal-spiked gauntlet sounding loud in his ears.
“Come!” roared a voice. The heavy door swung silently inwards.
This room never ceased to amaze him. Outside, the grim grey castle was all stark functionality; in here, everything was luxury, but luxury taken to decadent extremes.
A vast bed, laden with furs of every shade from deep brown to silver grey, dominated the room. Richly hued tapestries covered the stone walls; thick Turkish rugs, the polished timber floors. A wood fire crackled and hissed in the fireplace. The intricate carvings of its mantel and supports depicted men and women entwined in unnatural acts of passion.
The Count lounged in a carved chair on the far side of the long table in the centre of the room. His usual black garments, made from the finest silks and velvets, would have looked even more impressive, thought Tom, if the Count had allowed his manservant to brush away the days-old food stains and crumbs.
The Count was absorbed in the cleaning of his fingernails with the lethal tip of a small Italian dagger. No lady’s knife, its finely honed, steel blade bore the sheen only well-used weapons acquire.
He glanced up as his visitor entered.
“Ah, Thomas,” he drawled, sheathing the dagger in a concealed scabbard in his boot, and leaning forward, “What news, my man, what news?”
Tom eyed the comfortable chair to the left of the table. He’d ridden long and hard through rain and sleet, but he knew Fulk would expect him to stand at attention. He shifted on his feet, being careful not to let water drip on the precious carpets.
He cleared his throat. The sooner he got this over with, the better.
“The old Lord’s dead, my Lord Count.”
“Dead? You’re sure?” The Count sat up straighter.
“Positive, sir. He’d had the wasting disease badly for nearly a year, and he hadn’t been well for a long time before that, as you know. He died peacefully, in his sleep, two nights ago. The funeral was earlier today.”
Tom held his breath, and waited.
The Count rubbed his hands together with relish he was making no attempt to conceal. “And the girl? What’re they saying about the girl? Will she marry?”
“Evidently not, sir. They’re saying…” Tom hesitated. He’d fought on battlefields across Europe, he’d taken part in more sieges than he cared to remember, on both sides of the castle wall, but he’d never met a man who frightened him as much as this Count. He’d buried two wives already, so rumor said. What hope did a young woman have against him?
“They’re saying she intends to rule, my Lord Count. She’s been taking her father’s place for nearly a year, since has illness got a lot worse, and…” He took a deep breath and rushed on, “She intends to rule in the name of her absent husband.”
“Husband? Husband! Hah!” The Count threw back his head and laughed.
At first Tom was relieved; the Count’s reaction was better than he’d dared hope for.
His relief was short-lived. Not only did the sound resemble something between the cackling of chickens and the braying of a donkey, but great gales of the Count’s foul breath, caused no doubt by the blackened stumps of his rotting teeth, blasted into Tom’s face.
“But she’s a widow as well as an orphan, Tom!” The Count pushed his chair back, and strode to a brass-bound trunk beneath the window. “Remember this, Thomas?” He found a smaller, plain, wooden box beneath the furs and robes, and tossed it to his captain.
“There’s no-one in my way now her father’s gone!”
Tom snapped open the box. Inside it a man’s ring, finely crafted in silver, lay in a nest of deep blue velvet.
The Count leaned back in his chair once more, his smug smile reminiscent of that of a well-fed predator.
“Her husband’s ring, Thomas!” He laughed again. “I’ve waited many years for the old man to die. Now the girl’s alone, just waiting for me to come to her rescue.”
Tom closed the box, and returned it to the Count. He remembered. Oh yes, he remembered. “Do we ride then? Do you want my men to bring the girl to you?”
“You fool, my plans are a little more subtle than that.” The Count swung his booted feet onto the table. “No, Thomas, we will not take her now. We’ll wait until their midsummer fair, and go to her with fair words and pretty speeches. The girl will have had enough of managing on her own by then, and will welcome the attentions of her wealthy and generous neighbor.”
Tom wondered what sort of attention the Count had in mind. And what would happen if the girl did not agree to the Count’s propositions?
“But my Lord Count, the fair…” As soon as the words were out of his mouth Tom knew he shouldn’t have spoken.
“The peasants will not appreciate it if the peace of the fair is broken.”
“Peasants – bah!” spat the Count, “what do I care what her peasants might think? They’ll soon be my peasants, and they’ll know who’s master then!” He turned away.
Tom knew when he was dismissed. Backing out of the door, he quietly closed it behind him. He never turned his back to the Count, not out of respect, but from a very real fear of finding a knife between his shoulder blades one day.
He made his way carefully down the uneven stairs and to his own quarters near the gates.
Someone had lit a fire for him. He hung his dripping cloak on a peg behind the door and unlaced his leather jerkin.
Using his foot he hooked a three-legged stool over to the hearth. Soon the warmth penetrated his damp garments and his spirits rose, a little. The meeting with the Count hadn’t gone anywhere near as badly as it could have.
For once he agreed with his Lord: the Lady’s husband was, to all intents and purposes, dead.
Tom sighed as the steam rose from his clothes and warmth returned to his limbs.
He was good at his job, he knew. When he’d met Fulk he’d been a freelance knight for many years. He was rarely bested with the long sword, and unequalled with his favorite weapon, the English bow.
Perhaps it was time to move on once more. To resume his search.
“La Bonne” her people had called the young woman who now ruled the upper half this valley in the name of her absent husband; “The Good” in his own language. Her people loved her and had loved her father as much as the Count’s peasants hated and feared their Lord.
Tom sighed and scratched his bushy blond beard. A job was a job when all was said and done. Travelling in winter was rarely a good idea. He’d stay where he was for a while longer, and see what happened.
“Get out of my kitchen!”
The cook’s roar was followed by the sound of breaking pottery.
Berenice finished wringing out a fine linen cloth to place over the dough and glanced up.
The intruder was standing, trembling, on the kitchen doorstep, the shards of the cook’s missile at his feet. Gerard the stable boy was ten years old and small with it. He quivered all the way from his shaggy brown hair to his dirty toes.
“I’ll take care of it, Robert,” she called across the room. “What is it, child?” she said to the boy.
“S-s-s-sir Gilbert s-s-sent me,” he stuttered, glancing nervously in the cook’s direction.
“Sir Gilbert sent you,” she repeated, steering him out of the doorway and into the bright sunshine of the courtyard.
The day will be hot again, she thought, despite it being still June. Rain would make a nice change. Even a cloud would break the endless monotony of the brilliant blue sky. At least the river still ran full and deep, so they’d plenty of water for the gardens and orchards.
“Yes, my Lady.” Once out of the cook’s reach Gerard’s speech returned to normal. “There’s a stranger at the gate. Sir Gilbert sent me to fetch you.” He stayed hopefully by her side.
“Thank you, Gerard. Now off to the stables with you, I’m sure there’s work to be done!”
“Yes, my Lady.” He bobbed a brief bow, and was gone, but not without another long look towards the entrance.
Berenice smiled, envying the boy’s excitement. It would only be the carpenter, of course, but even the arrival of an artisan was a major event in their small valley. Its remoteness may keep them all safe, but a price of that safety was a distinct lack of exciting visitors.
She wiped the bread dough off her hands and onto her apron, nudging her headdress into place with the back of her hand.
She’d been expecting the carpenter all week, although she’d believed he was bringing his wife and family with him. Perhaps he’d left them behind somewhere, and decided to do this job alone. The task was, after all, a fairly small one, just a covered walkway from the kitchen door, past her tower, and to the great hall. Provided the cost was not excessive she might have it extended past the door of her father’s tower, and around to the cottages on the other side of the courtyard. She would see what his workmanship was like before she came to a decision.
As she walked across the courtyard she felt a trickle of perspiration snake between her shoulder blades and continue down to her waist beneath her shift.
Berenice took a few long, deep breaths. She mustn’t show any sign of weariness. Everyone depended on her, all the people of the castle, the three other villages scattered around the valley, even the monks in the monastery on the hill: over five hundred souls altogether.
She knew well what many of her people said when they thought she was out of hearing: it was against God and nature for a woman to act as castellan and Lord. It didn’t matter to them that it was her ancestors who had first cleared this valley, invited people here to farm the land, and built a castle, albeit a small one, in its defense. She was only a woman, and a woman should have a man to wield a sword for her, to protect both her and her people.
After her father had died last winter Odo had helped when he could, but she knew his mind was no longer on secular things.
She’d never really had a chance to grieve for her parents. Her father had been ill for some time, relying on her to keep things running after mother had passed. Since he’d gone looking after the lands, the castle, and her people took all her time.
Berenice told herself she should be used to hard work by now. She’d grieve when she had time to.
And now there was the perpetually unasked question of her absent husband. He should have been here. He should be the one to carry this load. There were times, she admitted to no-one but herself, she feared it was all too much for her.
She wiped the moisture from her forehead with the corner of her apron.
Berenice took another deep breath. Squaring her shoulders she strode through searing sunlight, her back straight. Her husband, here! She made a small sound of disgust to herself. She refused to contemplate the possibility.
The carpenter had been told to bring timber from Bordeaux, their little valley lacking the wealth of a lumber mill.
This man brought only himself and a tired horse.
He was tall, and something hung down behind him, for all the world like folded wings. In the heat the earth shifted and moved around his feet. Was he an angel, Berenice prayed, like the one sent by the Lord to Gideon to tell him help was at hand?
No-one ever closed the gates, and they dangled loosely on their hinges. Berenice studied the man standing between them.
For a moment she was afraid. He was more spirit being than human. Had her prayers been answered?
She dismissed the thought with an impatient shake of her head. More like a demon, come to add to her worries. The Lady of Freycinet could not afford to indulge in superstitious fancies. How Odo would laugh at her! He’d call her a peasant if he knew. She held her head a little higher.
He was merely a man wearing loose, coarsely woven garments such as peasants wore. His wings were nothing more than an ancient, fraying cloak worn, no doubt, in an attempt to keep off the dust of the road. It hadn’t worked. Dust clung to his clothes and his hair.
The closer she came the more he looked like a vagabond or a bandit than an angel. Why had Gilbert sent for her instead of sending this creature on his way? He would have known she’d trust his judgment.
The poor, tired horse drooped under the weight of luggage and parcels of strange shapes and sizes. A pedlar then. Even worse. Everyone knew pedlars where often thieves too.
“Sir Gilbert,” she called to the stocky, grey bearded figure lounging in the shade of the gatehouse door, “who is this man?”
The vagabond made no move to speak for himself, but he watched her. She shuddered. Could he read her thoughts?
“Do you dare turn me away?” the expression in his eyes demanded, but he did not break his silence.
It was Gilbert, emerging from the shadows of the gatehouse, who explained, “The man’s a troubadour, my Lady. He asks leave to sing his songs and tell his tales in exchange for a bite to eat and a place to sleep.”
“We haven’t room for an idler. There’s been little rain for weeks, the food we have may not last until the harvest as it is. Everyone who sleeps here, works here, as well you know.”
The troubadour took it upon himself to answer.
“I can work, my Lady.” His voice was deep and soft, like the distant rumble of thunder in the hills. “I can earn my keep…”
She’d expected a different response. A troubadour should have been ready with polished phrases, not this simple plea, not this humility. The angel returned her thoughts again. She observed him more closely.
He was indeed tall, a full head taller than she was, and his angular shoulders strained the coarse cloth of his tunic. He exuded the impression, even standing still, of great strength and power, perfectly controlled.
His brown hair was caught back from his face somehow. His neatly-trimmed beard, darker than his hair, was trimmed to a point Saracen-fashion and framed his face. Thick brows shaded his eyes. His nose was too large and too crooked for beauty. A puckered scar ran from his left eyebrow, down his cheek and into his beard, giving him a slight, but permanent, smile.
Not the face of an angel, she decided, but something about him made the air more difficult to breathe, and her heart beat faster in her chest.
His effect on her was, quite definitely, not spiritual.
The troubadour must have taken her hesitation for refusal. In a swift movement that startled both Berenice and Gilbert he dropped to one knee before her. Taking her small hand in his large, tanned, calloused one, he bowed over it.
“My Lady,” he said, and she felt his breath on the back of her hand. She hoped he wouldn’t notice her dough encrusted fingernails.
As he bowed his head she saw his hair was streaked with gold, like veins of ore running through rock, braided and tied with a leather thong as the Vikings do.
He looked up at her. His eyes were the soft grey of mist clinging to hills on autumn mornings. For a moment she lost herself in the softness of those eyes.
“My Lady?” The troubadour’s deep, rich voice brought her back to reality. He was still holding her hand. She snatched it away, annoyed at herself, and annoyed at him for taking advantage of her lapse in concentration.
“What?” she snapped, and then, because it was not in her nature to lack courtesy towards any man, she said, “I’m sorry, my thoughts were elsewhere.”
She took a step back and smiled politely, and he stood. She was so close to him she could smell his unique scent – a combination of horse, fresh male sweat, and something indefinable.
“What do they call you?”
“Gareth, my Lady.”
“Gareth.” She tasted the flavor of the unfamiliar name, stumbling over the last two consonants. “It’s not a Frankish name.”
“No, my Lady. My mother was from the land of Cymry in Brittania.”
She had heard of the small but rugged land. Its people gave the English kings a great deal of trouble. She looked him up and down. He tolerated her scrutiny.
“You can stay. For a while. Sir Gilbert will show you where you can sleep.”
She headed back to the kitchen. The dough would have risen by now.
“I thought your mother was English,” said Gilbert, abandoning his comfortable spot in the shade of the gatehouse doorway.
Gareth grinned. “No, she was from Cymry, or Cambria as it is sometimes called. She gave me her father’s name as well as the one you once knew me by. The story we were told as children is one of my father rescuing her from bandits, but given the state of politics at the time I’m no longer convinced it was true. But he took her to his home and married her.
“I’ve been told it upset quite a few people at the time.”
Gilbert chuckled, and both men watched Berenice stride across the courtyard. Despite her small stature no-one could fail to appreciate who was in charge here.
“She’s a fine woman,” said Gilbert.
“She is,” Gareth agreed.
They stood in companionable silence, until Gilbert added, “To think, not all that long ago, she was chasing chickens around the courtyard, and trying to keep up with her brothers.”
Gareth’s thoughts had nothing to do with chickens. He was admiring the way her hips and her neatly rounded rear moved beneath her slim fitting, pale blue gown. She might not be tall, but there was no way she could be mistaken for anything but a fully grown woman.
Berenice disappeared under the arch that led to the kitchen door.
“Well,” said Gilbert, slapping him on the back, “We’d best get this beast of yours unloaded. He looks as though he could do with a good feed and a drink, and so do you.
“You can bring your bits and pieces to my place, I’ve plenty of room downstairs. We spend our evenings in the hall anyway, and there’s a bench you can use, and rugs if you need them. What I haven’t got, Esme’ll find for you.”
“Esme’s still here! How is she?”
“Same as ever, lad, same as ever.”
“Still won’t marry you?”
“Can’t, she says. Can’t! I tell her it doesn’t matter, these are modern times, but you know how women are.”
“I do, Gil, I do.”
They took the horse to the stable, found him an empty stall, and fed and watered him in the hay-scented coolness.
“We’ll turn him out to pasture later,” said Sir Gilbert, “but right now he looks like he’d enjoy being out of the sun for a while. How far did you come today?”
“Far enough. I left Bordeaux four days ago.”
Gilbert stopped walking and turned to the younger man. “Now tell me, my L…”
“No, Gil.” Gareth placed his hand on the older man’s shoulder. “I’m just Gareth the Troubadour, remember? We agreed on that when I arrived, before I would even let you send for the Lady.”
“Very well, Gareth.” Sir Gilbert looked at his feet, then back up at the younger man, “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to, sir, it doesn’t seem right somehow.”
“No ‘sir’ either. I have my reasons, and you’ll hear them soon enough.” Now it was the younger man’s turn to slap Gilbert on the back. “You’ve no idea how good it is to see you, old man!”
“Old man? I’ll give you ‘old man’! I haven’t reached fifty yet! How about I find you a sword later, eh? Or have you got one hidden away in these bundles of yours? It’ll be just like old times!”
“Perhaps,” Gareth laughed, “But we must be careful. The walls have ears, and eyes too.
“Is this cottage of yours still in the same place? I want to shed the dust of the road, and I’ll need to tune my lute if I’m going to play my part tonight.
“And you’d better find me something to do, or the Lady will believe me lazy and throw me out of her castle!”
“Well, the cesspits need emptying,” said Gilbert, his old blue eyes sparkling, “and after that’s done, the stable roof needs fixing. And…”
“And the gates haven’t closed properly in years. I noticed,” said Gareth in a more serious tone.
“The old place needs a man’s firm hand, that’s for sure. I do what I can, but…”
“But she wears her hair covered. Where’s her husband?” Gareth avoided looking at Gilbert. He had to ask the question, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer.
“He took up the cross and left for the Holy Land. To save Jerusalem from the heathen Saracen, he said, like many a good man I’ve known. I don’t need to tell you about that.”
“Yes,” said Gareth, “I know. And just how long ago did this husband leave, Gil?” he continued, holding his breath.
“It would be about eight years ago, my Lord, sorry, Gareth.” Gilbert stopped and turned to him, hands on hips. “He left eight years ago, as I’m sure you know.”
Eight years, five months and six days ago, thought Gareth, looking Sir Gilbert in the eye once more. He relaxed, letting go the breath he’d still been holding.
“And she’s waited for her husband? All this time?”
“Aye, lad, she’s waited.”
“Why hasn’t she given him up for dead? Why hasn’t she remarried?” Most women would have, he thought.
“She refuses to give up hope. Her mother begged her to, before she passed away. Esme begged her. Even her father this last year, when he knew for sure he was dying, begged her to admit she was a widow, not a wife any longer.”
“What did she do?”
“She stormed out of his room. There was a lot of shouting and banging of doors. She swore she was a wife, married in the sight of God, and until someone was to bring her evidence her husband no longer lived, she was no widow.”
Gareth let out a low whistle. “Quite a lady!”
“Quite a lady indeed.”
“So she’s never strayed? She’s never been tempted?” Many women in her situation would have taken a lover.
“Never! You know how things are in a little place like this. There’s never been anyone else in her bed.” Sir Gilbert was adamant.
Gareth nodded. “I see,” he said, but he wasn’t sure he did.
Gilbert’s small house was right where Gareth remembered it, one of half a dozen inside the castle walls. It had two rooms on two floors. The upper one Gilbert used for sleeping. The lower floor was intended to be a living room, but he rarely entertained, or even ate there, preferring the company of the hall.
Looking around the living room Gareth knew he’d be happy to sleep there again, with a straw palliasse and a rug or two. A broad timber bench was fixed to the wall between the hearth and the single, small window. A table, another free-standing bench, and a large, iron-bound chest beneath the window completed the furnishings.
Gilbert opened the chest and took out some rusted pieces of armor and chain mail.
“I’ll take these to the armory, son, they’ve seen too many years already. You can use the chest for your own gear. I’ll send Esme over with some bread and some wine while I’m at it.” Before Gareth could tell him not to bother Gilbert had gone.
He looked out of the unshuttered window, across the yard, to the Lady’s tower. He wondered if she still slept in the second floor room. Its one window opened onto the courtyard too.
An agile man could climb onto the kitchen roof, he thought, and, grasping the sill, pull himself into her room. That same, hypothetical man would then be able to take the Lady in his arms and kiss and caress her until she murmured with pleasure, and begged him to stay.
Sighing, Gareth turned from the window, sagged onto the bench, and leaned against the cool, stone wall. His parcels and bundles were piled on the table before him.
Why had he come here? he wondered. Was it idle curiosity, a last look at all he was leaving behind? Or was it the memory of a perfectly oval face, and black wings of brows, and eyes as deep and dark, and as pure a blue as the Mediterranean Sea?
It was dangerous to be here, far more dangerous than he’d anticipated. If he’d any sense at all he’d wait an hour or two while the horse rested and then leave. Ride away from here, forever. No-one would notice the troubadour who arrived and then departed after half a day.
Except Gil. Streaks of pure white highlighted his iron dark locks. One day, not too far in the future, he would be too old to protect the castle and too old to protect Berenice.
So she ran things, did she, in the name of the husband she hadn’t seen for eight years? Gareth had ridden through fields, orchards, and gardens on his way to the castle. Well clad, well fed peasants sang as they worked.
The Lady ran things well, which was all very well in times of peace, but what would happen when this peaceful, prosperous, fertile valley caught the eye of a predator? Like Fulk, for example? How could she stand against the likes of him?
She could marry him, whispered a small, nasty voice at the back of his mind. She could acknowledge her widowhood, as her parents had begged, and ally her lands with her nearest neighbor’s.
Gareth had only met Fulk once, long ago. He hadn’t liked the man then, and the condition of his lands and his peasants, compared to Berenice’s, spoke volumes. To complete the argument, the thought of Berenice beneath Fulk’s lecherous bulk set Gareth’s hands curling into fists.
So who did she have? An aging knight and a useless monk of a brother. If marriage to Fulk had occurred to Gareth it was a fairly good bet it had occurred to Fulk as well.
He’d done what he’d promised himself he’d do. Seeing her again, soaking up the sight of her like a garden soaks up rain, he knew it hadn’t been enough. He wondered if it would ever be enough.
And now, seeing the gates half hanging off their hinges, seeing Gil so aged, seeing just a small part of the defenselessness of the castle and the valley, he knew he had to stay. At least, for a while. Long enough to know she was safe.
A knock at the door announced a woman, taller, older, and plumper than Berenice, who pushed into the room backwards balancing a tray of food. She slid it onto the table.
“My Lord,” she began. Her hand covered her mouth as she swallowed, “Oh, dear, forgive me, Gil told me not to call you that. Gareth the Troubadour, he said. Oh, how strange, calling you by a foreign name! Gareth it is then, I’ve brought you some wine, and some bread, and a bit of cheese and fruit.”
It was enough to feed a small army.
“Esme, my dear lady,” said Gareth, rising and bowing over her hand, “you grow even more beautiful. Sir Gilbert must be a happy man.”
“Oh, sir, oh…” She blushed, and gnawed at her lower lip, “It’s good to have you back, after all this time! And so changed to! Gil didn’t tell me. You’re so much thinner and with that strange beard too. Oh! I shouldn’t be saying these things! Forgive me sir, please.”
“There’s nothing to forgive, Esme, really. I’m not the same man who left – in many ways, not just the way I look. Sit down, and share this lovely meal with me.”
“Oh, I couldn’t!” she protested, perching herself on the end of the bench.
“Well, talk to me then, while I eat. I want to know everything that’s happened in the last eight years.”
“Oh, sir, I couldn’t,” she repeated. “I wouldn’t know where to begin!”
But he smiled, patted the bench beside him, and she told him.
Within hours of the troubadour’s arrival Berenice noticed subtle changes in the rhythm of castle life.
She watched Sir Gilbert trudge across the courtyard carrying an armload of rusted chain mail and singing an old love song from his youth. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard him sing.
Then Esme went missing for hours in the middle of the day. When she reappeared she was flustered and giggly, totally unlike her usual calm, organized self.
By the time of the evening meal Berenice knew something was going on.
She’d finished her baking and checked the inventories in the huge cellars beneath the kitchen with Robert, the cook. When she’d gone to her room to bathe and change out of her working dress Esme had laid out her best gown for her to wear to the evening meal. It was a deep, rich blue, with gold embroidery at the cuffs and hem, and it fitted her like a second skin. Esme said the color brought out the blue of her eyes.
Before dressing for dinner she took a moment to stand at the window of her chamber and look down into the courtyard. Her grandfather had planted the ancient walnut tree in the center of the yard. Its leaves shaded the seat built around its trunk. The smithy was quiet now, and the animals in the stables had been seen to for the night. Most of her people had been at work since dawn, and now, in ones and twos, they headed for the hall ready for one of Robert’s hearty meals, a chat, a song perhaps, and then bed.
Berenice loved this time of the day. Her small world was at peace. She hoped the arrival of the troubadour would not upset the fragile harmony of her valley.
She smiled to herself, thinking of her strange reaction when he’d held her hand at the gate. He’d unsettled her, there was no doubt about it, like a sudden breeze ruffling the leaves of the walnut tree on an otherwise still day. Despite his effect on her she suspected the grey-eyed stranger would fit quite well into this little corner of the world.
She remembered the arrival of another stranger, many years before. How different it had been!
Berenice stood at the top of the steps, her mother and Esme a pace behind her. Her mother had asked her to wear her thick cloak of English wool over her gown, and now she was glad she had.
Despite the cloak she shivered in the early morning chill. The sun barely showed itself above the hills, but her quiet, gentle mother, who never insisted on anything, had insisted they wait out here. And so they did.
The three of them had been up since well before dawn. Hot water was brought to her mother’s room, and a sleepy Berenice was scrubbed and scented. Scrubbed, so the grass stains of her latest escapades no longer showed on her palms and knees; scented, so her future husband would appreciate the woman she was about to become.
Esme had brushed Berenice’s brown hair until it shone. It hung almost to her waist, shifting and stirring in the early morning air.
Berenice was sixteen years old, and her betrothed was about to arrive. She wondered what he would look like, what manner of man he would be.
Perhaps, if God were smiling upon her today, her betrothed would be kind and gentle and studious, like Godfrey de Freycinet, her father. Or he might be as wild and free as the eagles in the mountains as her brother Denis had been. Or he might be serious and a fighting man like Sir Gilbert, the captain of her father’s men-at-arms. Or like her brother Odo, as studious as their father, but still capable of enjoying a good meal and a flask of wine.
These men she’d known since her cradle. These men she loved. Surely her father and the king would not want her to marry someone who was very much different to these.
She shivered again, not entirely from the cold.
Marriage. She’d known, for as long as she could remember, she would be expected to marry wherever and whomever her father decided. It didn’t make the prospect any less frightening.
It wasn’t as though she was ignorant of the realities of the marriage bed. She’d seen the bulls cover the cows, the dogs mate in the courtyard, and even the ducks and the drakes, but she couldn’t imagine actually wanting to do anything like it. The very thought filled her with horror.
And with a complete stranger as well! She prayed silently for the strength to endure the days and the weeks ahead. Not to mention the years.
Whether in answer to her prayer or in denial of it the morning breeze brought the sound of harness jingling, men singing raucously, and horses’ hooves pounding the dirt road to the castle gate.
He was nearly here.
They poured between the gates like wine from a spigot; young men and old, knights and retainers, great war horses, pack ponies and carts, with banners flying and pennons flapping – a riot of color and men and horses. Where a few minutes before all had been calm now there was tumult.
Berenice searched the seething throng for a glimpse of him. Which one was he? Huon de Fortescue, twenty four years old, tall and well-built, dark haired and handsome with it, she’d been told. Youngest son of a northern count, favorite of the king, come to collect his prize.
She’d seen a doll at the summer fair last year, perched high on the top shelf of the peddler’s stall looking down at the crowds, dressed in silks and brocades. Berenice was sure her hair was real. Even her finely carved features were life-like.
“Throw three wooden balls into the slot, little Lady,” the pedlar had said, “and the dolls’ yours!”
She’d missed, of course. The doll would have been carefully packed away for the next fair. She suspected the peddler made certain she missed, although she didn’t know how he’d done it.
Now she was the doll. Huon de Fortescue had thrown his three balls for the king and won a sixteen year old heiress with one brother dead, another in holy orders, and a father with one foot in the grave. She wondered what he’d done to deserve not only her, but the valley, with its villages, a castle, a Roman bridge, and a forest to hunt in.
The seething, shouting mass in the courtyard coalesced into some sort of order. Her father and Gilbert chatted to some older men. One of them would be the king, she guessed. The baggage train turned and headed out of the gates to the field where they would erect the pavilions. Near the kitchen door a group of well-dressed young man dismounted, laughing amongst themselves and passing around a wine skin. The group included several tall, dark young men. One of them had to be him.
As though hearing her thoughts they all turned towards her. Almost as one body they swept off their hats and bowed. She nodded, acknowledging them, blushing furiously.
But she didn’t go down to greet them. Just this once it was up to him to come to her. For the rest of her life it would be her duty to obey him in all things.
The significance of her small gesture of defiance was not lost on them. They singled out one of their number. The laughter and half-heard, ribald jokes resumed. The others dusted him down, rearranged his clothing, and placed his hat firmly upon his head. United, the group propelled him towards her.
She watched him swagger across the courtyard. His footsteps, she suspected, were not quite as steady as they could have been.
His garments, compared to those of his companions, were of good quality but sober. His dark, straight hair was neatly trimmed to just below his ears, and he was undeniably handsome; a fine, straight nose, a square jaw with a trace of a cleft, clear skin.
He was also huge. Berenice though he must be the tallest man she’d ever seen. He was broad too, with the mighty arms and chest of one who regularly wields the sword and lance. And he was full-fleshed, this man clearly ate his fill at every meal.
He drew closer and, with each step, more vast in her eyes. One of his friends called out a comment, and he laughed, showing perfect, gleaming teeth.
Berenice’s pulse raced. Her blood pounded in her ears. This could not be him, it couldn’t be! The thought of this giant of a man doing unnamed things to her body brought the bile to the back of her throat.
He reached the foot of the steps and began to recite a love poem to her. He hesitated, whereupon all his friends laughed and shouted advice. Shamefaced, he began again, but gave up when his friends offered more suggestive comments.
Berenice looked from them to him and wondered how much worse this day could get.
Standing at the foot of the stairs, his velvet hat crushed by his great hands, his grey eyes on a level with hers, he attempted his best version of a courtly bow. But he was clearly more at home in a tournament than the ladies bower and measured his length on the steps, his head only inches from her slippered feet.
Berenice squeaked, her mother gasped, and Esme stifled a giggle. The fear of his being hurt served to make Berenice conquer her fear of him, and she knelt on the step beside him. The sickly smell of stale wine nearly made her gag.
So he was a drunkard as well as a buffoon. Standing, looking down at his unconscious form with loathing and disgust, Berenice stated clearly for all to hear, “I will not marry him, mother! I will never marry him.”
Turning on her heel, she walked back into the tower.
She had married him, of course, in the village church on the day following the next Sabbath.
Being a married woman had advantages. She was someone’s possession now, which kept the other wolves at bay. Most of the time. And in her husband’s absence, since her father’s death, she ran things, and put up with the wagging tongues and the whispers about the rightful place of women.
She had Gilbert for support, after all.
Berenice looked at the blue dress on her bed and wondered if it were a feast day she’d forgotten about. She was sure it wasn’t. It was just one more strange thing since he’d arrived.
She wore the garment, seeing no harm in it, and went down to the hall.
As usual everyone stood and waited in silence until she reached her seat. Gilbert held out her chair for her. Once she’d seated herself they all sat again, and the murmur of conversation resumed.
Four chairs stood behind the table on the dais. Berenice sat to one side of her husband’s vacant seat, Gilbert on the other. The empty chair served as a reminder to everyone in the hall of her status of wife ruling while her husband was away. Esme, more friend and companion than servant, sat on Berenice’s other side.
From the dais she could hear the velvet timbre of the troubadour’s voice despite his being too far away for her to understand the words. A pool of silence surrounded him as he spun his story.
What spell did he cast on people? she wondered. This morning she’d thought him an angel; now he might be a magician, come to lead her people astray. A silly fantasy, she knew, as silly as this morning’s had been. There could be no harm in his tales of battle and adventure. There’d been no-one here to talk of such things since…
Berenice sighed, and picked at the crumbs of her roll.
Her husband and his friends had told sagas of the glories of war, and everyone loved to listen. The whole population of the castle turned out to say goodbye to them. The people from the villages lined the road all the way to the bridge.
Huon de Freycinet et de Fortescue and his seven brave comrades in arms, glorious in battle dress, plumes waving, pennons flying, bright armor gleaming in the spring sunshine. Eight brave young men, off to fight the Saracen hoards, to deliver the Holy Land from unbelievers.
How grand they’d seemed, how wonderful their dreams.
Berenice had stood on the tower steps again, as she had six weeks before, with her mother beside her and Esme behind her, and waved goodbye. Her mother and Esme wept with the beauty of it all. She felt a profound sense of relief.
She pushed herself away from the table, her broth untouched, the roll she’d baked that morning a crumbled mess next to her bowl. Everyone stood again and waited in respectful silence while she left the room. As she closed the door behind her she heard the conversations resume.
Wearily she climbed the cold, stone steps to her chamber. A sudden tension, an ache, a longing for something she couldn’t name pervaded her soul. She envied the people in the hall their easy companionship. Even Esme and Gilbert had each other – despite their relationship being the worst kept secret in the valley.
Her hand brushed the fine fabric of the deep blue gown, a symbol of everything that kept her alone and lonely. She longed to take it off. Running up the last few steps to her room she flung open the door.
The sun was only now setting, and light flooded her chamber. The shutters were wide open and welcomed the evening breeze.
Without bothering to light a taper she struggled out of the dress and threw it on the bed. Clad only in her headdress and shift she leaned out of the casement. The breeze tugged at her garments like a lover’s hands would: tender, patient, gentle.
She paced the room, filled with a sudden, nervous energy. From the hall below came echoes of laughter, cheering and applause, then music. She could hear a tabor, a lute, a whistle or a flute, a man’s rich baritone voice, followed by other voices joining in a well-known chorus.
The singer and the lute player would be him. The troubadour. No-one else owned a lute or would know how to play it. And only his voice could caress her as though he were with her, here, in this room.
He indeed possessed a magical quality to the place. He brought sagas of adventure and stories to amuse. He brought music. He brought joy.
She longed to see if she were right, if he really was the singer. Tossing her faded, everyday dress over her shift and sliding her feet into old, frayed slippers she tiptoed back down the stairs.
She promised herself one very quick glance around the hall door. She wouldn’t stay. Her presence wouldn’t be welcomed, everyone would have to remember their manners with her there.
One quick peek, that’s all. They’d be having too much fun anyway. As though she was eight or nine years old again, spying on her parents and their friends.
Lifting the latch she pulled the heavy door towards her. Its old, neglected hinges let out a shriek like an enraged rooster.
The door continued to swing open, framing her in the entrance.
Everyone turned to look.
Robert the cook and his apprentices. Reginald, the huge, dark, silent smith, for once without his leather apron and hammers, stood with Marie the laundress, surrounded by their many children. Esme and Gilbert sat side by side on the edge of the dais. The kitchen hands, the ostler and the stable boys, Gilbert’s men and their women. All the people who lived within these walls.
Berenice was an uninvited child at an adult’s feast, an interloper, a stranger, here in her own castle. She turned to flee.
“My Lady, wait!”
The troubadour’s deep, warm voice broke the dreadful silence as surely as a footstep in an icy puddle shattered its frozen surface. Conversations resumed; musicians continued their tunes.
He strode across the room towards her.
“What do you want?” she asked.
He stopped before her and, bending one knee, made a courtly bow.
“One dance, my Lady, I beg of you. Just one dance.”
Awkward and embarrassed in her improperly laced work dress and thin slippers she wanted to refuse, but before she could voice her protest he’d taken her hand in his and led her into the vacant space in the centre of the hall.
The music resumed; a whistle or two, the flute, then the tabor. The tune was an old one, known to them all. Voices joined in, a word here and there, then a hum. Hands clapped, feet tapped.
The troubadour led the Lady, their hands raised, their fingers barely touching. They bowed to each other, straightened and circled. In the elaborate and ancient rhythms of the dance they came together, touched palm to palm, and separated again.
The dance continued, building tempo. He touched her more often now; a hand on an arm to guide her, his other hand holding hers, turning her in a circle, weaving complex patterns with their bodies. ’Round and around, through and over and under again.
Her heart pounded. Her eyes sparkled. The soft fabric of her skirts swished against her bare legs. She breathed harshly, mesmerized by the experience, never wanting it to end, begging silently for it to stop before she collapsed.
Each time they grew closer Berenice’s pulse raced, every nerve attuned to his nearness. Each separation was a bereavement.
The audience, the very building around the two dancers, ceased to exist. Their only reality was the music and each other, eternally circling, the moon and the earth. A cocoon of music enclosed them.
Until it came to an abrupt, crashing end.
They stood for a moment, hands still clasped, chests heaving, breaths mingling. Applause filed the room, but they didn’t hear it. Their world was each other, united in the music.
Berenice looked up at Gareth. His misty grey eyes were darker, deeper. She was drawn into their smoky depths, losing herself there, forgetting all the cares and woes of her daily existence.
“No!” she breathed.
She would not, could not do it.
Wrenching her hands free she ran.