Read Fires of Winter Online

Authors: Roberta Gellis

Fires of Winter (9 page)

The question was plainly addressed to me, and I suddenly found that my tongue no longer cleaved to my mouth, bone-dry with fear. I answered quietly, “I am Lady Melusine of Ulle.”

“Where is your brother Magnus?”

His voice was sharp now, still not hard, but my heart sank. I remembered how my father had said the king would know nothing about us, but Papa had been wrong. It seemed that Stephen knew far more than Papa had guessed. Still, nothing could hurt Magnus ever again, and my first terror worn away, the deadness in my soul had crept back, making me indifferent to my own fate.

“Magnus is dead,” I said softly. “He was murdered on the road on his way home from his betrothal.”

Shock, followed by sympathy, showed on the king's face, and it came into my mind that I might yet save Ulle with weakness where strength would not serve. So before Stephen could speak I asked, “Why did you attack me? I have done no harm to anyone.”

The little hope was crushed at once. A kind of spiteful stubbornness replaced the look of sympathy, and the king snarled, “Why did you seal your manor against me, against me, the king? You knew your father and brother were rebels, gone over to King David. Well, the lands are forfeit for that. I am done with forgiving rebellion. And you need not think any will dare oppose me. I have cleaned out this sewer of Scots lovers. Nor will there be any to lead uprisings. Your father and your brother are dead, killed at Wark in open rebellion.”

I had known they were dead. I had known from the moment the shepherd brought Magnus home with frost crystals whitening his eyes that whatever curse had fallen on me on my thirteenth birthday would not lift until all I loved were destroyed. Still, to hear it said, no longer to be able to fight the knowledge, no longer to be able to cling to any shred of hope—that felled me. I must have fainted and perhaps I was unconscious for a long time and that reawakened the king's sympathy. I learned many months later that he had treated me with great kindness, but I have no memory of that nor of anything else that took place until the beginning of September. I must believe, little as I like it, that I was quite mad for nearly eight months.

Chapter 5

Bruno

“My lord, I do not want a wife, especially one I do not know, and I cannot provide for one.”

Fortunately the king and I were private when the words burst from me, and he laughed at my reaction. “You know Lady Melusine. She has been one of the queen's ladies since you took her manor—Ulle. You must have seen her many times. She is the tall, dark lady to whom I often speak—a very beautiful woman, very quiet and gentle. Well,
I
think her gentle.”

I called her to mind as soon as the king described her, but I did not think her beautiful—a big mare, good for heavy work like a peasant, not small and delicate like a great lady. And her face—all I could remember was the expression of terror that had twisted the features.

“But, my lord,” I protested desperately, “you have disseised her, and for excellent reasons. I heartily support your decision. Still, if I marry her, she will be reduced to a condition unfitting her birth.”

“Nonsense,” Stephen rejoined, still smiling. “If you take me for a fool, at least do not tell me so to my face.” He chuckled at my visible consternation and took my hand, for I was standing before him. “Bruno, my Bruno, I know you have nothing—” The smile on his lips twisted. “—and is that not your own fault for refusing bribes to whisper this and that in my ear?” Then his look softened again. “It is wrong that you be poor because you are honest. Moreover, although I am sure you think I had forgotten my promise to knight you, I have not forgotten. I did not wish to do it without some special reason. There are already some who look sidelong at you and call you ‘favorite' under their breaths.”

I knew at least one of those “some” who looked sidelong at me. As Waleran de Meulan increased his hold on the king, he grew more and more jealous of anyone Stephen loved, and Waleran knew I thought much of his advice wrong. He wished to be rid of me. Could this marriage be his way to send me away from the king?

To accuse him of it though would be a faster path to the same result, so all I said was, “I am sorry, my lord. Perhaps my manner has been at fault. I will take more care—”

Stephen waved that away. “I have been seeking an excuse to advance you, and I have found it in Melusine. For my purposes, she must be married, and to a man whose loyalty to me cannot be shaken. Thus, the marriage is a service to me, and will make it only reasonable for me to knight you and grant you a pension. But the pension will be for you, Bruno. Melusine will remain Maud's lady, so her food and much of her clothing will be provided. And since you will now be a Knight of the Body, you will still be lodged and fed at my expense.”

Knight of the Body…then I would remain connected to the king, although not so intimately as I have been as squire. That thought pulled me this way and that: I would be safer if I was less close to the king, for I often rubbed him wrong by speaking my mind or reminding him of the queen's opinion when he did not want to hear; yet I loved him for his kindness to me and I owed him what little I could do to check his impulsive nature. Also, I wanted to be a knight. God knows I was far past the usual age for knighting and being a squire made those who did not know me look at and speak to me in a way that rubbed my soul. And a pension…But at the cost of a wife? I had a brief memory of Audris's face when she spoke of Hugh, and a heaviness came into my chest at the thought that I would never see a woman look at me like that.

“It is too great a favor, my lord,” I said. “There must be many men who are more worthy.”

“But I have chosen you,” the king said, frowning now. “I trust you, Bruno, and I think you less likely than any other to allow your wife to make trouble for me.”

I must have gaped at him like a fish out of water, for he shrugged as I echoed, “Make trouble?”

“I thought it would be sufficient to place her in a convent, but Maud will not hear of it. Lady Melusine's father was a man of influence in Cumbria, and I hear from the steward I sent to Ulle that the people are only waiting for a signal to rise up against me. If Ulle rebelled, it is possible the rest of Cumbria would follow.”

“You think Lady Melusine would escape from a convent and return to Ulle to lead a rebellion?” My voice rose with incredulity.

“No, I do not,” Stephen replied. “I have spoken to her many times, and I am sure she is a—a docile creature.”

I wondered about that hesitation before the word docile, recalling also the way the king had said
he
thought Melusine was gentle, but I only nodded acceptance of his answer.

“But,” the king went on, “she did try to leave us secretly when we were on progress in the north. I think the poor girl misses her old home. I doubt she ever left it before I took her with me to court. Yet as long as she is unmarried, I dare not allow her to go there even for a visit. There is too great a chance that a man of those parts—and I trust none of them for I think they all have a secret leaning toward David—might seize her and marry her. He could then claim her right to Ulle, and use my denial of that right to raise rebellion.”

As he spoke Stephen's face showed only interest and his eyes were guileless. I knew him and believed he was telling the whole truth, or as much as he knew of it. But then he shifted slightly in his seat as if something had made him uncomfortable and added, “And Maud says Melusine is hiding something, but I cannot believe it.”

That cast a different light on the matter. If Queen Maud said Lady Melusine was hiding something and it was the queen who had opposed placing the girl in a convent, her attempts to escape became more significant. Although it was no pleasant prospect, I felt it was my clear duty to marry her. The queen had an uncanny ability to sense any danger to her husband, so she was more likely to be right about Melusine than Stephen. My selfish desire for a marriage of caring and warmth must be put aside—not that I was losing much, since I doubt I could ever have made myself an acceptable suitor to any well-born woman.

“Very well, my lord,” I said. “I will marry Lady Melusine when and where you say.”

“You need not look as if I have just condemned you to torture.”

Stephen looked decidedly irritated, and I realized that my expression must have been grim. “You have taken me by surprise,” I replied. “I have never been responsible for any other person, and to be tied for life…”

The king reached out and grasped my arm, and grinned suddenly. “I understand. Now that I think back, I could not have looked much happier when Maud was proposed to me. I did not think she was an attractive woman.” He laughed heartily. “What fools men are. If I had known the prize that was being given me, the joy she would bring me and the help, I would have spent the time between our betrothal and our marriage on my knees praying for her welfare. But you can have no quarrel with your lady's looks—ah, the pension.”

“I had not even thought of that,” I said indignantly. “You must know, my lord, that I have always found you over rather than under in generosity. As for beauty, I prefer my women small and fair, so we are in much the same case. I do not think my bride very attractive. I can only hope that fate will be as kind to me as to you. If my marriage brings me even a part of the happiness in yours, my lord, I will be blessed above most men.”

A small frown formed on Stephen's brow and then quickly smoothed away, and he nodded in seeming satisfaction. “That is true, and my hope goes with yours. Maud and I thought that fifty marks a year while you are on duty at court and a hundred marks when you must live on your own means would be suitable.”

I bowed deeply. “That is indeed generous.”

I know neither my face nor voice betrayed my surprise and uneasiness at the amount of the pension the king was offering. It was too much—a knight's fee was twenty pounds a year, and out of that the knight must find food and shelter for himself and his horse. With all necessaries found for myself and my wife, and some clothing too, Stephen was offering more than a double knight's fee. Had such an offer been made by any other man, I would have suspected that the woman was not only a hunchbacked dwarf but a raving lunatic too. But I knew that Lady Melusine was normal in appearance and quiet and well behaved among Queen Maud's ladies. The overgenerosity had nothing to do with the lady; it was typical of Stephen.

The king was large of promise, poor in fulfillment. I was certain that as soon as the wedding service ended, Stephen would hand me a purse with the first quarter's payment of my pension. I might receive another quarter, but after that it would depend solely on the state of the king's purse. If it was full, the money would be given with a smile and a jest; if it was not, I would have the smile and excuses; if I persisted, anger would replace smiles—and the larger the sum that was owing the deeper the anger would be. It was a fault I feared deeply, not so much for its effect on me—if worse came to worst, I could always send my wife to Audris so she would not starve—but for the dissatisfactions it bred among the nobles.

As I came up from my bow, I could see that the king was dissatisfied by my guarded voice and expression. I was struck by remorse, for I knew how much pleasure Stephen took in making people happy—and he truly meant to fulfill his promises, I am sure. It would not have hurt me to bend my lips into a smile. Stephen was not much aware of other people's feelings and would never have known the smile was false. But I had no time to amend my mistake, for his next words again took me by surprise—only proving what a fool I am, for I should have realized what he must tell me.

“Then the day after tomorrow I will knight you, and in a week's time—let us say the first day of September, that will be an easy day to remember—we will have the wedding.”

I forgot completely the need to seem happy, as a wild protest rose to my lips. I managed to swallow it, but I could not command my voice and could do no more than bow again, and when I tried to speak, Stephen waved me off, saying petulantly that I should go gaze on my bride's beauty and find a better mood.

The remark about my bride I took to be an order, and I left the king's chamber to go to the queen's quarters, but I doubted that Melusine's appearance would do much to improve my mood. Although I knew better, I could not help but be irritated by the king's expectation that I would show joy over his proposal. Even if I had believed he would be faithful in payment, could he not realize that my heart would be heavy at the prospect of taking an unwilling bride? But then I thought of what Stephen had said, and I began to wonder whether Lady Melusine
was
unwilling. Some women are so trained to obedience that they seem to have no will at all. That idea did not make me much happier. I suppose it is better to have a placid, obedient wife than a bitter, unwilling one, but it woke no enthusiasm in me. The only great lady I knew well, my beloved Audris, was as willful and naughty as she was sweet and delicate, and I thought that a great part of any woman's charm. I always chose my whores from among those with saucy tongues.

The thought was double-edged. With a wife in my bed I would no longer need to use the whores. Not only would that save money, but Lady Melusine would, I hoped, be cleaner and sweeter smelling than a whore. On the other hand, the notion of a woman with the right to ask me about my comings and goings was not so pleasant, and I thought again with resentment of the king's great eagerness to bind me to this woman I did not even know.

In a moment I realized I was being unfair. There were good reasons for the king's haste. A knighting and a wedding would be a diversion for the small court gathered around Stephen at Winchester. For a little time each event would provide something to talk about besides the increasing number of men who were rebelling against the king. In June, the attempt in Normandy to ambush Robert of Gloucester had borne bitter fruit despite the king's denials. Gloucester had sent envoys to Stephen to cry defiance—a formal renunciation of Gloucester's oath of fealty. Although it was no part of the defiance, the messengers had also carried the bad news that Gloucester had submitted Caen and Bayeux to Geoffrey of Anjou.

Many of Gloucester's English vassals had followed his lead, some because they were good and honorable men but more because they were discontent with what Stephen had given them, having hoped from his promises for much more. If Gloucester had come to England at once and united those men, I do not know what would have happened, but he had not. Each had cried defiance separately, and thus far, Stephen had put down each rebellion as it rose. But as defeat for each rebel was only followed by another's defiance, even those most firmly committed to the king were growing uneasy.

To make matters worse, King David had attacked and besieged Norham castle in June; for a time he had seemed stalled there, but through July and August the news had been very bad. Castle after castle had fallen to David, and the Scots had flooded down through Northumbria and Durham and were now threatening York. Yet Stephen did not dare go north to fight David lest the Scots' attack be only a feint to draw the king away so that Gloucester could come from Normandy after all and lead a unified rebellion. That would deprive Stephen of the rich and populous south—not to mention the ports through which Queen Maud's ships brought men and money from her lands.

Any diversion, even such small ones as a knighting of the king's squire and the marriage of one of the queen's ladies, would be welcome. I would have been in urgent need of diversion myself—little as I had to lose if Stephen were driven out of England—if I had not had a letter from Audris that past week, telling me she was safe in Jernaeve and Hugh was off to join Sir Walter Espec, who was gathering an army to defend the north. Audris's news had comforted me; foolish as it was, I felt that Hugh was doing my part as well as his own in defending the shire. I knew I could not go myself while trouble held the king in the south, but I did not worry about Jernaeve. The Scots might raid the lands and even take the lower bailey, but they would never take the mighty keep itself by assault or siege. If I knew Lady Eadyth, Jernaeve was stocked for a year or more and Audris would be safe.

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