Read Fires of Winter Online

Authors: Roberta Gellis

Fires of Winter (58 page)

That was not the last of my surprises. When Robert of Gloucester arrived a few days later—I had already been riding on Barbe and found riding hardly tired me at all, although I needed help to mount—he sent to me my armor and my sword. I did not weep over them, but I was very glad to have them back, not only because they were the best of their kind and would be costly to replace but because Sir Oliver had given them to me and they were dear to me on that account.

That gesture, however, seemed to me like a polite hint to be gone. I knew from the fact that Lord Robert had not summoned me to give me the armor himself that he must find my presence a painful reminder that his party had lost all the great advantage they had won in the battle of Lincoln—and, from what Melusine had told me, largely because of the pride and stupidity of his sister, which must have been a bitter cud to chew. By his chaplain, I sent Gloucester my humble and heartfelt thanks and the news that my wife and I would depart the next day.

Melusine was aghast when I told her, but she could not deny me when I pointed out that it was very late in the year and if we did not go within the next few days, at the latest, snow would close the passes near Ulle. I proved stronger than she feared, however. I did not faint with weariness after a day's riding; I just ate twice what I would have without the exercise. I did not take a chill from the cold air either, not even when we met snow before we reached Rydal.

Melusine made me laugh by the way she kept brushing the snow off me and the way she plied me with hot ale until I was nearly drunk. But I was surprised and much less pleased when, after the bailiff and his wife had withdrawn so Melusine and I were alone beside the fire, she said suddenly, “Let us stay here for the winter. The way to Ulle will be too hard for you in the snow, too cold.”

“The snow is not deep,” I replied, surprised. “As for too hard—it is poor Barbe who does all the work. And I do not mind the cold. I can pull a fur around me if it grows colder. We will go to Ulle.”

Melusine did not answer, only searched my face for a moment and then turned her eyes to the fire—but I had seen again that darkness in her eyes and a dreadful thought came to me. I sat frozen, unable to bring out the words I knew I must say, but our life would truly be together now, no longer a few weeks of play between long partings. We had now what I had promised her I would get when I had taken from her the knife with which she tried to kill me. And in all our years of marriage, there had always been those moments in which she drew back from me. Did she still want me dead?

“Melusine,” I said, “if you cannot bear to see me sit in your father's chair or drink from his cup, I will go back to the king and trouble you no more.”

“Oh no, beloved, no,” she whispered, slipping from the bench on which we sat and kneeling before me, her hands gripping my arms. “No! Not even if it was by your hand Papa died. I know you did not kill him apurpose to get Ulle.”

“I did not kill him at all!” I exclaimed. “Melusine, in God's name, have you carried that fear—that you were lying abed with your father's killer—all these years? My love, dearling, I
know
I did not harm your father or your brother. I was not even
at
Wark at the time of the battle. I was with the king, and we came too late. Why did you not ask me?”

A weak smile trembled on her lips. “I did not want to know.”

“Is that why you never would say you loved me, dear heart?”

She put her head down on my knee then and whispered, “No. I am afraid to love. What I love, dies.”

I pulled her up into my lap and held her tight, remembering all the cruel losses in her life, but it would do her no good to yield to her fears. “All men, and all women too, die,” I said. “Will you withhold joy from me during my life because of that? You once asked me if I thought I was God to make and unmake the fate of kingdoms. Must I ask you the same question? You are only a woman. Whether you love or not, I will live or die as God wills.”

“But we are so near home, so near safety. I cannot believe my happiness will not be snatched away from me.”

“That is gross superstition,” I said, laughing at her. “And you are not the only one who feels that way, so do not put on airs.”

She laughed a little then, although I felt tears on my cheek where hers rested. “Oh, very well,” she said. “We will ride on to Ulle.”

So we pressed on early the next morning though the horses were fetlock deep in snow. A few times, when the trail seemed to disappear completely, I wished I had not insisted, but Vinaigre knew every foot of the way and led us without once faltering. We arrived safely as dusk was falling to find my dream turned real—a roaring fire of winter blazing on the hearth of a well-lit hall in which a tall polished chair stood empty at the head of a long table from whose filled benches a tumult of greeting rose as Melusine walked in.

This time I stood in the doorway apurpose, waiting for her to look at me. I could not bear that there be any shadow between us. Well, I no longer feared to lose her even if she did remember. I was sure now that I could soothe her hurt. But when she looked across the room, she smiled. For a moment I thought she did not remember and I would have to tell her in words, but she came to me, held out her hand, and led me to her father's chair. There she kissed me and said, “Be welcome, beloved invader. Be welcome in your own home.”

Epilogue

Melusine

I heard this afternoon that Queen Maud was dead, and I thought back eleven years to the day I had last seen her when she said she would like to visit Ulle and see its beauty. Although she remained at Bristol keep for nearly two weeks more, I was busy with Bruno and did not go to her. And she never came to Ulle. I wept for her. Poor queen, those eleven years had been as bitter for her as they had been sweet for me. As Bruno had feared, the war continued all that time. Oh, there were truces now and again, but they never lasted long and treachery piled on treachery.

In Ulle, we lived in peace—at least after Bruno righted the wrong of Magnus's murder. Mary's dead husband's father and brother are dead now, their lands divided between us and Mary, whose sons have been restored to her. Bruno went to the king to swear fealty for Ulle and the new lands and to receive quittance for having done justice without proper warrant. I almost died of fear until he returned, but he begged continued leave because the lands needed his attention and Stephen did not hold him.

Even so, for the next year, I was terrified that the king would summon him. I was carrying my first son by then and could not have accompanied him even after the boy was born, for we had no one fit to rear a child in our manor. Bruno must have felt the same, although he never said so, and at last, in our fourth year in Ulle after our second son was born, he went to the king to offer his service if he were needed. I quarreled with him bitterly before he left, but he was right. Stephen seemed barely to remember him, thanked him warmly for the offer, accepted his fealty and his homage for Ulle—and released him from his promise, except for the military service any vassal might be called on to perform. But he was never called.

When Bruno heard the queen was dead, he too was sad. Later when the children were abed, he said it might mean trouble for us. He did not think that Stephen would long survive his wife, and Eustace was not fit to be king. Yet if Henry, Matilda's son, took the throne, which seemed most likely, we who had been steadfastly faithful to Stephen might suffer for that.

“No, we will not,” I said, “for Henry Plantagenet is indebted to King David.” And I brought out what I had kept quietly in my chest for all these years—two more charters, one from King David confirming those he had given to my father long ago, and one from Henry, David's son as overlord of Cumbria, for Ulle and the other manors.

Bruno shook his head. “Little rebel,” he said, “how did you come by these?”

I reminded him then of Sir Gerald's capture of King David and how Hugh had hidden the king among his own men and taken him safely to Jernaeve. “I did not ask for these,” I said, touching the sealed parchments. “They came with a letter from Audris, saying that it was King David's wish that I and mine not suffer, no matter what the outcome of the war.”

Although Bruno shook his finger at me—it is the harshest punishment he has ever visited on me—for keeping the matter secret all these years, he was pleased. I am glad we are well protected because I have four children now, Malcolm is our eldest, Hugh our second, Audris our first daughter, and Bruno, the baby, is two years old. I think our Audris will be the next lady of Jernaeve, for she and Eric are already fond of each other and it is Hugh's and Audris's dearest wish (despite the consanguinity) that our families be bound in the next generation as in this. It will be a little confusing to have two Audrises in Jernaeve, but Bruno's sister is eager to take our daughter, who is already a skilled weaver and—to my horror—a great climber.

That frightens Edna even more than me. She is still with me and loves my children with the passionate devotion of a woman who cannot bear her own. She nursed Fechin too in his last illness—with surprising tenderness when one considers how sharply she always spoke of him and to him, but he died last year. Bruno and I were grieved, but he went quickly and without pain. Merwyn is married to a girl from the village and is now our master-at-arms. We keep more men-at-arms now. The smaller manors are adding to our wealth as are the lands that were Magnus's blood money, so we can afford a small private army, and we might need it. Cumbria is at peace, but Bruno fears that the war will grow fiercer now that Henry is grown from a boy to a man. Well, I write the truth here. I look forward gladly to the time when Henry Plantagenet will be king—though I do not say it to Bruno.

I am healed of the trouble that fell on me when I was thirteen too. Even when I lost a daughter, my little Melusine, though I grieved bitterly indeed, I did not suffer again the guilt and terror that had haunted me for so many years. Well, I am
almost
healed; when Bruno asked me if I would not name the child I am carrying now for our lost daughter or one of my brothers, I would not hear of it. If it is a boy, it will be Oliver; if a girl, I will name it Maud, for the queen. I hope the babe will be a daughter, for it was the queen who forced Bruno on me—and gave me this new and very precious life.

Author's Note

For those readers who are familiar with the use of titles in English society, I feel it necessary to explain that it is not ignorance that allows me to call Melusine, the daughter of a simple knight, Lady Melusine. In the early twelfth century, titles and their use had not yet been formalized. All women of the noble class were “lady,” with no distinction being made between the daughter of a simple knight and that of an earl. A man who had been knighted was “sir” to his equals and superiors, but he was most often “lord” to his own servants and inferiors who did not know better.

I feel I should also mention that in the first half of the twelfth century, there were no such titles as Squire of the Body or Knight of the Body. However, the positions—both requiring close attendance and service to the king—did exist. I have used the titles as a matter of convenience, because they make clear the duties of the hero without explanations that might impede the action.

About the Author

Roberta Gellis is the bestselling author of over twenty-five historical romance novels with over one million copies sold.
New
York
Times
bestseller John Jakes has called her a superb storyteller of extraordinary talent;
Publishers
Weekly
has termed her a master of the medieval historical. Her many awards include the Silver and Gold Medal Porgy for historical novels from
West
Coast
Review
of
Books
and the Golden Certificate and Golden Pen from
Affaire
de
Coeur
, several
Romantic
Times
book awards, and also the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Romance Writers of America. She lives in Lafayette, Indiana.

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