Read Fires of Winter Online

Authors: Roberta Gellis

Fires of Winter (10 page)

Moreover, I thought, stopping abruptly in the middle of the hall, the diversion provided by my knighting and marriage would be especially absorbing because there would be meat enough for vicious gossip over the giving of a true-born lady to a whore's bastard. Then I started forward again, almost smiling. There might be talk, but as the king had said, there would be little envy. Stephen would be sure to describe his generosity to everyone—perhaps that was another fault, but most of the time I found the king's eagerness to be praised rather endearing. It would save me from making more enemies, since all who did not know already would soon learn that Lady Melusine's father had been disseised and she had no dower.

On that thought I reached the top of the stair and entered the small anteroom to the queen's chambers. The page nodded to me and before I could ask for Lady Melusine called through the door, “The king's squire for the queen.”

It was not worthwhile to make the boy feel a fool by correcting him. I knew Queen Maud would not be angry when I explained the mistake—she did not have that kind of haughty temper—and perhaps she would bring me to Lady Melusine and ease our first introduction to each other. Beneath that thought lay another. If this marriage was Stephen's idea and he had not discussed it with his wife, it was possible that Maud would oppose the union. With the queen on my side, I was certain that I could escape; but Maud's first words, after I bowed before the chair in which she sat and said I had no message from the king, dashed that hope.

“You have come to see Melusine, I suppose. That was kind, Bruno, but I think it would be better if you did not.”

A bitter bile rose in my throat, but I think my voice was steady when I asked, “Is she so unwilling? Because I am a whore's son? Madam, if she—”

“No, no,” Maud assured me. She had been slow to interrupt only because she had first risen from her chair to take my hand. “She is not unwilling at all. I have told her of the marriage and of your birth.” The queen hesitated and smiled at me with a hint of apology in her eyes. “I had to tell her. You know what the court is like. She would have heard from others in a less pleasant way. But I was also able to explain why the king and I had chosen this marriage for her—that you were kind and would take her without any dowry and that you would surely find great advancement because you were a fine man and because of the deep love the king bears you, and of my own affection for you, Bruno.”

“Thank you, madam.”

I hope she understood the sincerity of those few words. I loved the king in spite of his faults, but I respected and admired the queen to the very depth of my soul. When not driven by her need to help and protect Stephen, she was both wise and kind. It was certain that she had used all of her considerable ability to persuade Lady Melusine that I was a prize of inestimable value, to make me acceptable rather than a hated necessity, which I would certainly have become if the queen had simply told Melusine that the marriage had been the king's order and could not be opposed.

“Then why,” I continued, “should I not see Lady Melusine and tell her myself that though I take her by the king's command, I will do my best to be a kind husband?”

“A small precaution,” Maud replied, going back to her chair. “You remember, do you not, that you were the first man into the hall at Ulle? If Melusine should recognize you, she might change her mind and try to refuse to marry.”

“All the more reason for me to speak to her now—” I began.

“No,” the queen interrupted, and her eyes now looked like bright black stones. “I tell you that will she, nill she, she will marry you within the week. I would prefer that I do not need to drag her bound and gagged to the altar, but I will do it if I must. The bishop of Winchester will marry you, and I will find witnesses to testify that she was willing. Stephen has too many troubles now for me to allow this girl to add even a small one, and the way to keep her from that is to have a husband loyal to the king.” Then her expression became gentler. “But that would be a dreadful beginning, and I do not want that for you, Bruno.”

“And if she recognizes me at the altar and cries out?” I asked, my voice harsh although I tried to keep it quiet.

“I do not think she will notice then,” Maud said. “She will be confused and excited, and even if she does recognize you, I think she is too clever to try to protest. I have given much thought to this girl—no, woman. Maiden she is, girl she is not. For months she has tried to show herself as quiet and gentle, utterly obedient, but I sense that this is all a lie. It is what I said—a show put on to deceive us and make us trust her. There is much, much more to Lady Melusine than I have ever seen. And she is much beloved by the lords of Cumbria. The king has had inquiries about her health and well-being even from those most faithful to him.”

“But surely—”

The queen shook her head, cutting off what I would have said. “The king and I are agreed that you are the only suitable man for our purpose. And, perhaps Melusine will not recognize you at all. If she does, you will soon be able to convince her that you were only doing your duty to your master. After all, you did her no harm. You did not, if I remember aright what Stephen said, even go near her.”

“That is true,” I had to admit. “And I left the hall at once. Lady Melusine was very frightened. It may be that she will not remember me.”

“I hope so,” Maud said, “but I do not wish to take any chances. And since you are to be knighted before the wedding, I can tell her that you were given no opportunity to come and speak with her. I see that you do not like this, Bruno, but the king believes, and I agree with him, that having given your oath to him, rich or poor, you will keep it to the death.”

“That is so, but there are other men as loyal,” I said, and the queen, who was as sensitive to the feelings of others as Stephen was blind to them, no doubt heard the hint of resentment I could not keep from my voice.

Instead of growing angry, she smiled at me. “Be that as it may, there are other things that can change a man besides the desire for power and wealth. As many men have been bent—and broken—by women, though few men will admit it, as by other cravings. And Melusine is beautiful—and clever. I know that despite her long attempt to make me believe she is stupid.” Maud put out her hand and touched mine in a kind of gentle apology, which puzzled me until she uttered the words, “Whore's son, you know more about women than any other man I know.”

“I?”

My shocked expression as the word burst from me made the queen laugh. “Yes, you. I have seen how you look at the maidens of my court. Women have no hold on you.”

I thought of the way a single tear sparkling on Audris's lashes could turn my bones to water and make me allow her anything she desired no matter how wrong or dangerous. But was that not because I remembered her as an infant, her little wet kisses the only show of love that had ever been mine? It was true that what made my shaft stand hard could not touch my will. Still, I knew there was a kind of weakness in me; what made my heart warm could make me foolish too.

“I know my place,” I said, because if I tried to explain that I was not as hard to women as she thought, the queen would only believe it was another protest against this marriage.

She shook her head. “Many men know their place, but what is in their eyes is different than what is in yours. You are the right husband for Melusine. She will not be able to trick you or drive you into treason, and because you are the man you are, I believe she will come to value you as you deserve. Then you will be happy, although I know you now think Stephen and I are doing you a wrong.”

I did not make a formal protest. The queen would have known it for a lie, and though I was truly willing to die for Stephen's sake, I had never expected to be asked to endure a life sentence of torment instead.

Before I could bow my acceptance, Maud got up and moved closer to me, touching my hand again. “Bruno, if this marriage remains bitter to you, when the kingdom is firm in Stephen's hand, you may set your wife aside. We will help you, I promise.”

I do not know what I said as I bowed and the queen nodded and gave me leave to go. It must have been thanks of some kind because I understood she meant well, but the notion was shocking to me, almost as horrible as the expectation of a wife who hated and scorned me. Perhaps I could set such a woman aside, but what if my hell were of my own making? What if Melusine
were
stupid, and the queen had misread her? Could I cast aside a simpleton who disgusted me when she was trying to please?

Those were not thoughts I wished to dwell on, and I reminded myself that I had something much better to think about. If I was to be knighted in two days, I must cleanse myself and prepare. For that I needed time, so I presented myself to the king again and asked for leave for that purpose. He was still annoyed with me, and for a moment I thought he would deny me. Then he looked amused, nodded, and waved me away. Perhaps he was thinking that such a serious attitude was not fitting for a man of my years, that bathing and confession and a night of vigil were only meant to impress a young man and I should know better. Or perhaps he was surprised that at any age the ceremonies of faith and dedication to the order of knighthood should be more than a formality to be overpassed if possible.

I did not care. From the time Sir Oliver had sent me away from Jernaeve, I had believed I would never have a chance to attain this goal. To me knighthood was a high honor, not mine by right of birth but an achievement. If that achievement was a little soiled by being tied to a marriage I did not desire, so much the more must I take care that my heart was clean and that my understanding of the purpose and duty of a knight was whole and perfect within itself, separated from outside matters.

I had no close friends, although there were those who liked me well enough to have helped me make ready if I had asked, but I did not desire help. Those I drank with and whored with were by nature light of heart and would have hurt me unawares by jests and teasing. So I was busy all that afternoon. First I had to arrange for a real bath in a tub in a private room, rather than a steaming and scouring in a bathhouse, then I needed a white gown to wear after my bath when I went to confession. It was fortunate we were in a cathedral town or I might have had trouble finding one on such short notice. My last errand was to arrange with a priest to hear my confession after vespers the next evening. After that I found a quiet corner and cleaned my sword and armor. I kept it sound and free of rust, of course, but to stand before God and His saints, the dull grease-clotted mail was not good enough. It took me until it was too dark to see that day and almost until dinnertime the next, but when I was finished the mail shone like silver, brighter than it had when Sir Oliver gave it to me.

I suppose I must have spoken to people and eaten and suchlike, but I remember nothing of that. I remember washing myself—with soap to be sure I was clean—and the odd thought, as I walked from the house where I had paid for the use of a chamber to the church, that I was glad it was summer or my feet would have been cold. I confessed that petty thought as I confessed my greater sins and my lack of faith in my doubts about my coming marriage. It was a long confession, for I was not usually overcareful in freeing myself of my sins. I heard my penance and rejoiced; I would perform it and be free. My heart was lighter, even when I thought of Melusine, as I changed into my armor and went to stand and pray through the night. I have no more to say of that. I do not wish to hold anything back in this telling of my life, but I have no words for what I thought and felt.

To my surprise and great joy, I was not without sponsors. William Martel, the king's steward, and Robert de Vere, his constable, separated from the group watching and came forward, one taking my sword and the other my helmet, so they could return them to me as first and second guarantors of my fitness for knighthood. And the queen, acting for the king, gave me a pair of gilded spurs as third guarantor. I was so happy, I could have floated up on to the dais, but I managed to keep my feet on the ground and even kneel.

The king looked down at me and I saw the mingled amusement and remaining touch of spite in his face. He meant to knock me off the dais to sprawl on the floor and I almost let him do it—almost, but when the blow from his fist came my pride would not yield and I braced myself. He rocked me, but I did not fall, and he laughed, his good humor restored as I sprang to my feet. He embraced me with good will, and called my name aloud, “Sir Bruno of Jernaeve, Knight of the Body, I greet you.” I knew him, all his faults and weaknesses, but how could I help but love him nonetheless?

There was time to change out of my armor before dinner, but when I presented myself at the king's table and he had, as was customary because of my clumsiness at carving and presenting, excused me from serving, I noticed that Melusine was not among the queen's ladies. The king might have forgotten a small thing like that; the queen would not. I have no doubt it was Maud's doing too when, after dinner, the king summoned me and sent me off to Oxford with a letter for his castellan. Since I was given no verbal message that might need discretion, any messenger could have done the task as well.

I guessed at once that the purpose was to keep me out of the way; nonetheless when the castellan of Oxford confirmed my suspicion by telling me it would take him a day or two to find the answers the king desired, I was overwhelmed by a black loneliness. Although I had known the time for fulfillment could not be soon and my chances of success slim, I had nourished a dear dream ever since the king had taken me into his service. I had hoped that when England was firmly in Stephen's hand, I would be given some estate as a reward for loyalty. Then it would be possible for me, I dreamed, to take a wife—a woman who would be a pleasure to my eyes and heart and who would come willingly, even with joy, to my bed so that I would have a warm, caring companion with whom to share my life.

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