The Baron's Bride
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“Kenrick, how good it is to see you. I didn’t know you were expected or I would not have gone out this morning to see Aldith.”
“And how is she?” Her father smiled his welcome as his daughter divested herself of her mantle and came to his side near the fire.
Kenrick of Arcote, their nearest neighbour, only a few years older than Gisela and her friend from babyhood, caught his breath, as he always did at sight of her these days. Gisela of Brinkhurst was now on the brink of womanhood.
She was not over-tall for a woman, but stately of poise and already her youthful, budding breasts were thrusting tight against the cloth of her blue woollen gown. He was sure he could have encircled her waist, cinched in tightly with her ornamental leather belt, with one hand, so slight of form was she. Her luxuriant tawny braids caught golden lights from the fire as she moved nearer to her father.
He thought her heart-shaped face with its small, slightly tip-tilted nose, her luminous blue eyes and generous, sensuous mouth with its slightly fuller lower lip, even the remains of the summer freckling on nose and cheeks—for Gisela rode out in all weathers despite her former nurse’s warnings about the ruination of her fair complexion—quite enchanting. Now he saw, as her father had already noted, that something had disturbed her badly.
Sir Walter urged her down upon a stool beside him and placed a gentle hand upon her bowed head.
“What is it, Gisela?” His heart thudded against his ribcage as he thought she might well have been accosted, even molested, on this ride into Allestone wood. “You have not encountered masterless men abroad and had to ride hard to safety?”
“No, nothing like that,” she assured him hastily and turned, a little uncertain smile parting her lips, to face the anxious frown she could see gathering on Kenrick’s brow.
“No, I have been in no danger. It is Sigurd, Father. He—he attacked the Lord Baron of Allestone Castle and—and he has been arrested and imprisoned there. It is very serious. Aldith is terribly upset and I have brought her here to Brinkhurst. You will give her shelter?”
“Of course, child. You know we owe so much to Aldith we can never repay her adequately. You say Sigurd dared to attack Alain de Treville? How in the world could that happen with the Baron well guarded? Is he seriously hurt?”
Gisela choked back tears as she tried to marshal her thoughts to tell of the encounter coherently. She explained the Baron’s determination to oust Aldith and her son from their home and his reason for clearing the land and her own objections and attempts to dissuade him.
Her eyes clouded with tears as she burst out, “Then—then he refused point blank to reconsider and made to move away. Sigurd—he—sprang at him with a knife—and—and the Baron’s arm was injured. Fortunately he had the presence of mind to turn in time or—or—he might have been killed.”
She read the dawning horror in both her listeners’ eyes and added, tearfully, “I—I blame myself for what—what happened.I should not have interfered. I think—poor Sigurd took that as encouragement for his cause and—and he lost all control.” She stopped and turned away.
“Father, I know how terrible a crime this is, to attempt to kill your lord. In spite of everything, Sigurd is still just a boy and—and you will try to save him, won’t you, for Aldith’s sake?”
Walter of Brinkhurst let out an explosion of breath and leaned back in his chair, considering for a moment.
“Gisela, as you’ve said, this is a very serious matter indeed. Sigurd may well hang for this, or be maimed, at the very least. The boy is getting past control. I’ve said as much to Aldith many a time recently. Now, child, stop weeping, you will make yourself ill. You cannot blame yourself. The boy could well have done this whether or no you were present.”
Kenrick gave a hasty nod of agreement to this last statement.
Walter went on, “Though, I have to say, you were unwise to come to odds with Lord Alain over this. He is quite within his rights to clear his own land for defensive purposes and Aldith’s assart was cut by Rolf unlawfully. It is to be hoped that your disagreement with the Baron has not further prejudiced him against the boy. Such a man is unlikely to countenance any criticism of his orders, especially before his men.
“I cannot say how I would have reacted to that myself. However,” he added hastily, as he saw his daughter’s eyes begin to brim with tears again, “what’s done is done and we must make the best of it we can. Certainly I will plead for the lad at the manor court, but I have to warn you that my intercession is unlikely to be received well by my neighbour. From what I hear of the man, he makes his own decisions, consulting with no one, and likes to keep himself to himself.”
Gisela reached up to hug her father. She loved him dearly, this broad-built, heavily muscled, still-active and attractive man, whose brown hair was beginning to recede now from his brow. His round, blunt-featured face with the brown eyes that were often disposed to twinkle whenever he gazed on his lovely daughter, the apple of his eye, but which now had darkened with concern for her distress and the reason for it, began to take on an expression of very real alarm.
Baron Alain de Treville had been sent by King Stephen expressly to assist the shire reeve of Oakham to keep the peace in this district and Walter of Brinkhurst felt distinctly uneasy at being the man to oppose him on any matter. He fervently wished his daughter had never met and come into open conflict with his most powerful neighbour.
He gave another heavy sigh. “We may have need of this man in the future, so be circumspect in your dealings with him. Kenrick has come to inform us of another attack on a nearby manor, this time only five miles on the far side of Oakham, more than likely the work of that devil, Mauger of Offen, or the rabble of unruly routiers he keeps to attend him.”
Gisela turned a horrified face to Kenrick. “Were people killed?”
“Fortunately not. The family was away attending a wedding in Leicester Town. When the place was attacked the household servants fled into the forest land nearby and only returned when it was all over, but the manor house was sacked and its valuables stolen, then the house was fired. It’s unlikely it will be habitable this winter.
“Only the sense of preservation of the serfs in the village in running and hiding saved their womenfolk from pillage and rape. As your father says, Gisela, it isn’t safe these days for you to ride far from the desmesne without suitable escort. This unrest has been going on far too long. It is time Mauger was brought to justice. Everyone in the shire knows who is responsible for these depredations.”
Sir Walter shook his head regretfully. “The wily fellow covers his tracks and disowns those fellows who are caught. The King is too busied with continued insurrection throughout the realm to be concerning himself with our small pocket of land here.
“In the South, men are suffering far worse. There is talk of merchants being savagely tortured to reveal hidden wealth, nuns ravished and priests murdered while church plate is plundered and no man can trust his neighbours. It is a sorry state of affairs when our King and his cousin, the Empress Matilda, cannot reach an equable solution of their differences.”
Gisela said fiercely, “Father, you said all men swore allegiance to the Lady Matilda when commanded to by her father, the late King Henry. Why didn’t the barons keep faith—simply because she is a woman?”
Her father shrugged. “There is no binding law which says in England that the eldest son of the monarch must inherit. Even before King William came to our shores from Normandy he believed he had right of inheritance, but the Witan chose Harold Godwinson to be King and William only succeeded in his claim by his victory at Senlac.
“William’s oldest son did not succeed him to the English throne. William, called Rufus, became our King and, after him, his brother, King Henry. It is likely that his son would have inherited but, as you know, he was lost in the tragedy of the wreck of the White Ship, a terrible blow to his father. Yet life continued to be unsettled and, on his death, the council almost unanimously decided that his sister Adela’s son, Stephen, should be our King.
“I cannot help agreeing that they were right. The English barons and earls will not readily accept a woman to rule over them, not even one so strong and formidable as the Lady Matilda.”
Gisela’s mouth set in a hard line. “Yet many men do support her. Her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester, accepts her as sovereign lady.”
Walter nodded, pursing his lips. “Aye, and so battle has been waged these many years. I cannot believe now Matilda will ever ascend the throne. Unfortunately, I cannot place much hope for peace in the King’s eldest son, Eustace, who has proven himself feckless and unstable. I wish it were otherwise.
“Stephen is a fine soldier, too chivalrous for his own good. A King needs to be ruthless to prosper. The Conqueror proved that. Men are tired of war and the barons must make soon an acceptable treaty with Matilda’s supporters for the good of the realm. Rumours abound that the King is ailing. Meanwhile, we continue to suffer from the unspeakable behaviour of men like Mauger, who thrive on unrest.”
“And you think this man, de Treville, will be able to bring order to the shire?” Kenrick asked.
“He is the younger son of a knightly family in Normandy who came here to make his way in the world. He has served the King well, they say, and has a reputation as an efficient and ruthless commander.”
“He doesn’t appear old enough to have achieved such a reputation,” Gisela said, “though I could not see his features clearly. He was armoured and wore his helmet.”
“He must be in his middle twenties,” Walter mused, “possibly close to thirty. He’s said to be a hard man, but just.”
“Which does not augur well for Sigurd’s chances,” Gisela said gloomily.
Kenrick rose, nodding courteously at his host. “I should be returning to Arcote. My mother worries herself almost into a panic these days if I am even a fraction late returning.”
“Understandable,” Sir Walter grunted.
Gisela scrambled to her feet. “I will go with you to the stables. My palfrey seemed a trifle lame this morning and I want to make sure the grooms are examining her properly and tending to her if necessary. I was in too much of a hurry to tell Father of Sigurd’s plight when I arrived home to give instructions properly.” She slipped her discarded mantle round her shoulders as Kenrick drew on his own which had been draped over a stool.
He watched her as she spoke anxiously with the head groom, who reassured her about her palfrey’s condition and promised to keep the animal under surveillance for any signs of further discomfort.
Kenrick’s desires were quickened by her nearness as they moved together outside the stable while he waited for his own mount to be brought out. He would have declared himself to her father long ago had it not been for his doubts about his mother’s declining health.
She had seemed to ail continually since the death of his father two years ago and, more and more, clung to her sturdy, handsome young son for comfort, so much so that her constant demands for attention were becoming irksome. He looked now at Gisela’s radiantly healthy countenance and mentally compared it with that of the sickly, pale creature awaiting him at Arcote.
He longed to wed Gisela and take her to be mistress there, but knew there would be constant conflicts of wills between the two women and was not sure if he could honourably request Gisela’s hand of her father. He was aware also that she was now ripe for marriage and if he did not do so soon, he might well lose her. He must tackle his mother on the delicate subject of his marriage, tonight if possible or tomorrow if she had insisted on retiring early to her chamber.
Gisela watched him as he rode off, a smile lingering round her lips. Kenrick was a kindly man. He would never have uprooted Aldith so ruthlessly and so precipitously brought about this terrible trouble to Sigurd.
She had been considering recently that perhaps Kenrick, who came so often to Brinkhurst on some excuse or other, would ask for her hand in marriage. She had also allowed herself to consider that life at Arcote with so considerate and admiring a young husband could be very pleasant indeed.
She liked the openness of Kenrick’s expression, his curling brown hair and wide-spaced grey eyes. At twenty he was not over-tall, but well set up, hard-muscled, an attractive man who could handle himself well with weapons and in the wrestling ring. Despite his prowess he was not boastful and she perceived no hint of cruelty in his make-up.
In fact, secretly, she thought Kenrick too easy on those who served him and much too compliant with Lady Eadgyth, his demanding mother. Were she to become his wife, she would lead him gently in the way he should rule at Arcote.
Alain de Treville strode purposefully into the hall of Allestone Castle and bawled for his squire, Huon. He stopped as he entered through the screen doors to see he had a visitor, who rose from his seat by the fire to meet his host.
“Rainald,” Alain said delightedly, “how good it is to see you. Do you come on the King’s business?”
The two friends clasped arms and Rainald de Tourel stepped back in some alarm when his friendly squeeze of the arms was met with a sharp, hastily suppressed gasp of pain.
“By all the saints, Alain, you are hurt? Have you been ambushed?”
Alain de Treville sank down wearily into the opposite armchair and looked up as Huon came running.
“Not exactly.” He grimaced. “I was involved in an altercation about the clearance of land in the wood when one of my tenants took strong objection and decided to end me.”
“God in Heaven!” De Tourel snapped at the boy, who was staring in dawning horror at the blood welling up on his master’s sleeve through the improvised bandage, “Get that Jewish physician here at once and bring warmed water and towels. Your master has been wounded.”
The boy scuttled off and de Treville leaned back, grimacing as the pain of the wound was beginning to make itself felt.
“Stand up,” Rainald de Tourel ordered. “Let me help you off with your hauberk. The boy will be back soon with your physician. How in the name of the Virgin could this happen and you well guarded, I hope?”
De Treville did as his friend commanded and gave only the slightest of grunts as the painful business of divesting him of his mailed hauberk was concluded. He explained briefly what had occurred.
“I cannot, in justice, blame the men for being off guard. My back was turned and I had no expectation of the attack. God be thanked I heard the boy approach over the fallen leaves, though he moved like a cat, and was in time to prevent him stabbing me in the back or, more likely, the neck.” He grinned faintly. “I have the lad securely locked in the guardhouse.”
“You should have hanged him out of hand,” de Tourel commented tersely, “and left the body dangling from the keep to show the rest of the villagers you mean business.”
“Yes, I might well do that after he’s been brought before me in the manor court, but the lady will not like that. Already she considers me a Norman barbarian and a tyrant to boot.”
“What lady is this?”
“Ah, I forgot to tell you that bit. The two Saxons were defended by a young termagant, the daughter of my nearest neighbour, the Demoiselle Gisela of Brinkhurst. I think she was far more concerned about the boy’s fate than my survival, more or less told me the whole business was my own fault for insisting on my right as desmesne lord.”
Rainald made a comical gesture. “She appears to have made an impression on you, my friend. Ah, here is your physician and the boy with water and towels.”
An elderly Jew, clad in the dark blue gaberdine robe of his calling, came unhurriedly to his master’s side and bent to examine the wounded arm. Behind him hovered the alarmed Huon.
“Mmm,” the physician murmured. “It does not appear too serious, my lord, but we must cut your sleeve and lay it bare, then we shall know more. Our most imperative task is to ensure there is no dirt or fragments of cloth in the wound. It may need to be stitched.”
Alain grimaced again. “Oh, very well, Joshua, submit me to your torments. I’ll not complain.” He set his teeth again as the physician opened his small chest containing instruments and medicaments, extracted a slim, long blade and slit the long woollen sleeve of the tight-fitting tunic de Treville wore beneath his hauberk, then with gentle fingers probed the cut.
The Jewish physician worked quickly and in silence, gesturing to Huon to come close with the metal dish of warmed water. He declared it unnecessary, after examination, to stitch the wound, but drew the edges together carefully after cleansing it with vinegar and wine, which made de Treville gasp and curse briefly, then he bound up the wound, made obeisances to the two Norman knights and, waving to the boy to withdraw with him, left the hall.
He had advised de Treville to drink watered wine to replace the blood loss, but not to overheat his system with too much wine and to eat sparingly and take himself off to bed as soon as convenient. De Tourel poured for his friend and watched, frowning, as Alain drained the cup.
“That fellow is a treasure. I hear he has saved your life on more than one occasion—but then, you saved his hide, I understand. He should be and is grateful.”
“Joshua is a fine physician and, more importantly, knows when to hold his tongue from too much gratuitous advice.” Alain de Treville’s long lips curved into a smile. “As you perhaps do not know, he was taken by routiers, his house burned and his family murdered. It was lucky my company came along in time before they roasted him over a slow fire to make him divulge the whereabouts of treasures he did not possess. We put the fellows to flight and rescued Joshua ben Suleiman. He has been in my service ever since and has saved my hide many times on campaign.” He laughed out loud. “Faith, I think he was hoping for a quieter life since we settled here at Allestone, but this affair bodes ill for our hopes.”
“Are you having trouble with your villeins?”
“No, just with my neighbours, it seems.”
De Tourel’s merry brown eyes met the darker ones of his friend and they both laughed.
“Do you anticipate trouble with her father?”
“I sincerely hope not, since I intend to further my acquaintance with the lady more closely.”
“Ah, then she is pretty?”
De Treville raised one eyebrow as he considered. “Truth to tell, I am not sure, she was so hooded and muffled in her mantle. I could see by the way she carried herself that her figure is pleasing and she is fair. I saw just a glimpse of tawny hair and—” he laughed joyously “—what counts most with me is that she has spirit enough to match that of two good men. By the saints, Rainald, I was greatly taken with the wench.”
De Tourel looked thoughtfully round the sparsely furnished and appointed hall, noting its lack of tapestries and hangings to keep out the draughts and only the most elementary luxuries.
“You know, Alain, it is more than time you considered taking a wife. This place needs an efficient chatelaine to oversee the work and enhance its comforts. Allestone is a fine castle and you are fortunate to have it within the King’s gift, but it could be considerably more comfortable.
“Incidentally, I am on no particular business, as you asked when you first came in. I am on my way to join the royal army. It’s likely Stephen will lay siege to Wallingford soon and will need my support. The last time I was at Court he asked after you and, strangely enough, expressed a hope that you would soon marry and get an heir.”
He gave a little regretful sigh. “He sorely misses the late Queen, you know. That was a love match indeed and he thinks we should all be so blessed. Her death was a terrible blow to him.”
Alain nodded thoughtfully as he sipped his watered wine and experimentally moved his sore arm. “She was a fine woman and as good a commander as her lord. I do not know what he would have done without her on many occasions. Think what pains she took to have him released when the Empress held him prisoner.”
“So, this little demoiselle is unwed?”
“Yes, so I hear.”
“I have heard nothing about that.” Alain laughed again. “Do not take my telling of this encounter too seriously, my friend. I have talked with the demoiselle but once, but I confess my curiosity to see her at close quarters is piqued. She has Saxon blood, as do many of the knights and squires in the shire. If I took one of their women to wife, it might be pleasing to the community and be more likely to achieve their willing co-operation in the defence of the district.
“I think one or two look on me as an interloper, especially since I was born in Normandy. She is young and appeared healthy; she could give me sturdy children, I think. I have no great need for her to possess a large dower, though that, too, would prove beneficial. You might be right. The time has come for me to settle down and marriage could be the first step in establishing myself in the shire.”
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