But how could he not like you?"
"He is an earl, Joan!"
"And you, Marget, are to be his countess."
The Midsummer Day sun was hot and absent any breeze. We were sitting on a log at the marsh's edge, our skirts drawn up to our knees, caps resting on the ground beside us. The marsh birds would warn us of any intruder, but there were unlikely to be any wanderers this festive day. We had slipped away from the city's merriment to ponder my rapidly approaching marriage.
In several short months I was to exchange my life as a knight's daughter for life as a countess. That thought still had the power to drain the blood from my face as if January's salt-laden winds were whipping in from the Wash, stealing my breath as they continued on their way.
"Think you. For how many years now have you trained for this?"
"Twelve." It had begun at the age of five. If I whispered the number it was only because, of a sudden, I did not wish for the training to end.
"And now you can ... what are all those things you can do? 'Tis been some time since I heard your father recite them all at my father's tavern."
"He has been busy."
"Aye. The pride of our fair city. The noble merchant-turned-landowner. He has been turning himself in circles, sending hither and thither across the kingdom to catch you a husband. You should be rejoicing at his success."
"But what if—"
"What if what? What if you cannot please him?" Joan's voice was rising, as if my worries were trifles too small to warrant her attentions. "Do you not know a dozen ways to dance? Can you not sing like a songbird? In how many languages can you read? And how many stitches can you work upon a canvas? How can you fail to please him, Marget?"
"If only I could meet him ..."
Joan shrugged. "And what good would that do anyone?"
"What if he is ... aged?"
"Then you will spend less time in bed and more time in delighting yourself with ... all the means of a countess at your disposal."
I could not keep a blush from spreading through my cheeks. "But his first wife—"
"The marriage was annulled. Is that not what you told me?"
"Aye. 'Tis true."
"Then she was no wife to him at all."
"But what if—"
"What if horses could fly? Would that not be marvelous? What if the Queen herself were to trade places with me? Would that not be grand?"
I grabbed her arm and made her stop. Made her turn toward me. "Truly. What if I cannot please him?"
"Are you meaning to ask me if you are to play the role of your mother?"
My fingers tightened around her arm.
"He will not be your father, Marget. You will please him. He will stay in your bed. Is that what vexes you?"
I could not bring myself to nod, but Joan knew me almost better than I knew myself.
"Hear me: there is nothing in you that could make him cast you off."
"Hush you. Last time I noticed, earls were still men." She said it as if that settled everything. As if there were no reason for the worries that churned in my belly.
"And last time I looked, Marget, you still had the face of an angel." Her gaze softened before she continued on. " 'Tis nothing like my own."
Her words asked for no comment and none was needed. We both knew the truth, had known it since we became friends. God had doled out looks to me with a generous hand, while he had been overly judicious with Joan. Her eyes seemed perpetually tired; her mouth drooped constantly in apparent fatigue. She hunched at the shoulders as if expecting a blow at any moment. Her strengths were abundant—loyalty, honesty, good humor—but they registered not upon her person. My poor, sweet Joan was less than plain. But it seemed not to matter to her one whit. She had always been my protector. I had assumed she always would be. But fate had decreed that in a few short weeks I would be embarking upon a new life without her. And at that moment, that seemed the worst part of the impending change.
"Come." Joan bent to pick up our caps and then took my hand, pulled me from the log, and began to run toward the city's walls, toward the bonfires and the singing and the dancing.
I could do naught but follow.
It was enough to drive a man mad!
Any nobleman worth his title could write poetry. That was what my tutor had taught me long ago. That was what I had always believed. But then came Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser, and now rumors of some person named Shakespeare. They had ruined it for us all. It was no longer acceptable to just dash out a sonnet. One must employ mythology and politics, and work for days to cultivate allusions aplenty.
But now, all I needed was a rhyme for carriage.
Her Majesty's comportment, her carriage, could be compared to ... Bah! It had been at the edge of my mind the entire forenoon. Carriage ... carnage.
Carriage ... cleavage.
There was no hope for it. It would come. I could feel it, but I might as well do something else, something more productive, until it did. Why did poetry have to require so much work? I was replacing the quill in the inkwell when a knock sounded upon the door, and then it opened forthwith.
It was Nicholas. He was carrying something in his hand. "For you, my lord." He straightened from a bow and extended a document toward me. "From the east, my lord."
The east. Perhaps ... I made quick work in breaking the seal, but then found my eyes could not deal so deftly with the words contained inside. If only my hands would stop shaking.
I spread it on the desk before me but still could not focus on the words long enough to read them. Pushing away from the desk, I gestured Nicholas toward the paper. "Read it."
"My lord." He stood beside the desk and took the letter into his hands. " 'Tis dated King's Lynn this twenty-second day of June. 'To Simon St. Aubin, most gracious lord, Earl of Lytham, I humbly take my pen in hand to—' "
"Aye, aye. Does he accept the terms or not?"
"It seems, my lord that ..."
"An aye or nay will suffice."
"If you could find the patience to allow me the opportunity to simply—"
"You vex me."
Nicholas's lips twitched into the briefest of smiles. "If you would rather have the reading of it, my lord?"
"Nay! And may the devil take you."
"Then ... it would seem as if ..."
Nicholas held up a finger to stay my words. If he had not been my most trusted friend, I would not have forborne the insolence, but he was my Gentleman of the Horse. And I had marked him as mine in my younger days. Had it not been for my youth's ill temper and the sharp end of a stick, he would now be absent a star of a scar that marred his left cheek.
"What say you?" I asked again.
Using that same finger, he reached down and slid it beneath a line of text. And then, finally, he lifted his eyes to mine. "Aye. After all of that, in the very last phrase, he agrees. You shall have the hand of his daughter in marriage."
"Congratulations, my lord. It is my fondest hope that the young lady will bring you nothing but happiness."
I looked at him. Though his mien revealed nothing but innocence, I knew him too well. "You mean to say, as opposed to the first young lady?"
Nicholas merely stood there.
I frowned as I regained my desk and removed my quill from the inkpot. "The young lady is of no importance."
"I beg to argue, my lord."
"You have never begged for anything in your life, Nicholas." I looked up just in time to see him hide a smile by tucking his chin into his chest.
"Be that as it may, that young lady shall soon become your countess."
"Aye. 'Tis the manner in which these things generally occur."
"A countess who will represent you. A countess who may bear you an heir."
I put the quill back into the inkpot and turned to look at him. "Pray, be plain."
"As a knight's daughter, her only wish will be to please you. You must not punish her for another's mistakes, my lord."
"Do you think me some cruel tyrant?"
"Nay, my lord. But it was you who said she was of no importance."
"Relatively speaking, Nicholas. 'Tis her dowry that I am after. Her knight-father's riches will allow me to regain Holleystone. If there is anything to rejoice over, 'tis that fact. You and I shall both be going home. 'Tis for that God is to be praised."
After being sold to pay for another's destitution—my brother's, the former earl—Holleystone was once again to be held by its rightful owners. And never again would it leave the family's possession.
Coaxing the lease of my other estate, Brustleigh Hall, from the Queen had been a victory, but the return of Holleystone would be a triumph. It was a shame I would have to marry for that pleasure, but the return of Holleystone was worth any tribulation. Surely the girl could not be so bad as my first wife, Elinor. I gathered those thoughts before they could gallop away from me. Though I had taken Elinor to wife, Parliament had recently annulled that marriage and so, in fact, I had no wife. Had never had. But the Act of Parliament that had expunged a marriage had failed to obliterate the memories ... that the face of an angel could hide a heart so duplicitous ... that beauty could be so deceitful.
It still cost me to think of the ways, all the very many ways, in which she had betrayed me. Though I had tried everything I knew to mend the wound, each thought of Elinor pulled at the edges, threatening to start it bleeding once more. And now I was to bind myself to another woman.
At least this one was just a knight's daughter. Surely I would not be expected to keep her long at court. Just as soon as I was able I would hide the horse-faced young girl away at Holleystone. Would that I could send her to Brustleigh and keep Holleystone for myself, but it seemed it could not be helped.
If Holleystone was personal, a family wrong to be righted, then Brustleigh was for the Queen. The renovations were nearly complete, and with what would be left of the girl's dowry, the remaining work could be finished sooner rather than later. And when it was, I would persuade Her Majesty to visit. With that sign of preference, along with some small sign of the Queen's preferment, then I could finally be first among her courtiers.
Nicholas cleared his throat, a sure sign that I had been ignoring him. "The young lady, my lord."
"What of her?"
"You will not neglect her, my lord?"
"Certainly not! Luck's chosen vessel must be looked after ..."
My thoughts turned toward all the ways in which I might, very soon, become lucky. I might be selected to receive a venerable Garter Knighthood. I might be asked to take a seat on Her Majesty's Privy Council. I might be given another estate or even a chance to purchase a monopoly.
"What is it?"
"The gifts, my lord."
"If you are to be married in several months, then I have only several months to attend to the preparations, my lord. First among them, the gifts."
"For the betrothal, my lord. And the morning after."
"Morning after what?"
"Your wedding, you great dunce!"
I waved him away. "Choose something you deem adequate. And since you concern yourself with the girl's welfare, take the gift there yourself."
I am certain he thought I did not see him shake his head over my words; I did. But I could not care. Fortune had finally smiled upon me. My ship had turned its sails toward home. That I would soon be married and have some girl by my side as I sailed could hardly matter.
That was it! Carriage, marriage. Her Majesty's carriage could be compared to a marriage of ... grace and virtue? Of grace and ... beauty? Grace and something. Why did poetry have to come in fits and starts? My only hope was that the more I practiced, the more I wrote, the easier it would become.
As Nicholas left the room, I reviewed the portions of the sonnet I had already written. I had been writing on the subject of Her Majesty, but as I contemplated my future, I decided to write instead about Fair Fortune.
I put the one sonnet to the side and began anew.
* * *
The Earl of Lytham sent a letter agreeing to the terms of the marriage. Along with the notice of his concurrence was sent a betrothal gift. It arrived in a small chest, carried by a messenger clad in the earl's colors of azure and red.
"Perhaps a gift of coin!" My father had never been able to shed the gowns of his trade, and a merchant's interests were both singular and constant.
"It could hold a prize other than gold. It might be jewels." With those words, my mother had come as close to scolding Father as ever she had. "Go on, Marget. Open it!"
I did not want to. I did not wish to know what it contained. A gift always reveals its giver, and I was afraid that it would tell me something I did not wish to know about the man, the earl, who was soon to be my husband.
Were it coins, I would know he was assuming me to be some ill-bred spendthrift, concerned only for the state of my purse. Were it some piece of frippery, I would know he was assuming me to be a wanton, bent only on frivolity.
I walked toward the messenger who held it; he dropped to one knee at my approach. As soon as I had closed the distance between us, he lifted the lid of the chest and then offered the whole of it up to me. But not without first meeting my eyes. I found his gaze filled with understanding. It was oddly reassuring.
I did not relieve him of his burden but took only from the chest what the opening of the lid had revealed: a letter and two packages, one large and one small.
As I began to open the letter, my mother grasped my arm. "The gifts first!" She took the letter from me and replaced it with the smaller of the packages.
My fingers fumbled with the ribbons that bound it, so I handed it to her.
She made quick work in revealing the contents. "I was right— 'tis a ring!" She tried to give it to me, but I did not want it. "Rubies. And ... sapphires? They are strangely blue."
"Azure." I looked toward the messenger and he nodded. " 'Tis a ring of the earl's colors." There had been enough messengers going back and forth between the earl and King's Lynn that if I knew nothing else of him, I knew the St. Aubin family colors.
"Well, 'tis ... 'tis fine, then. Put it on, child."
If I had not held out my palm for it, she would have dropped it to the floor, so great was her eagerness to have me wear it. But I did not yet wish to be marked like some prized mare.
"And the other? The larger?" My father was leaning across the table in his impatience to discover the contents of the remaining package.
I took it to hand and was surprised by its weight. This one was easier to open, contained inside a velvet pouch. Upon being released from its tether, the gift, a golden disc, slipped out into my hand. I turned it over. Its flat surface was marked by a winding of golden scrollwork and its edges measured off in regular increments. It was divided in two by a golden bar.
"What is it?" My father had no use for things which had no purpose.
"Let me see!" My mother was standing upon her toes, trying to see over my shoulder.
The messenger cleared his throat. " 'Tis an astrolabe, my lady."
"An instrument, my lady, for navigation."
"Navigation?" I could not treat this man any longer as a mere servant. In this matter, clearly, he had more knowledge than I.
Above a star-shaped scar, his eyes seemed, for a moment, to twinkle. "Perhaps if the lady read the letter ..."
I put the gifts on the table and returned to the task I had first undertaken. I broke the seal and spread the letter before me. But in this, at least, the messenger was mistaken. It was not a letter. It was a poem. A sonnet.
"What does it say?" My father was squinting in his attempts to read it.
I began to read. "It says,
Every man who claims a destiny
Is giv'n a ship of fate on which to sail
Some guide their course by basest treachery
While faint hearts anchor far from life's travail
But take to hand the Astrolabe of Love
And soon you find that your course does run true
Through day and night, gales thundering above
All the sailing leads to naught but you
To you alone I give Love's astrolabe
That in your sailing you might find the same
Gale winds that blew my soul to you to save
Might in return give you to me to claim
Coupled, may we kneel before love's altar
Clasping hands that bear faith's ancient color."
At the end of its reading, I discovered myself to be smiling. A quick glance at the messenger told me he had discovered the same. Trying to turn my lips into a frown, I returned my attentions to the poem. If the earl were true to his words, he was a man who seemed to want to love me. Or, at the very least, to respect me.
I could wear a ring given me by such a man.
While my father tugged the sonnet from my hand, I turned to question the messenger. "Ancient color?"
"Azure, my lady."
" 'Tis the Earl of Lytham's motto, my lady: fortiter fideliter."
"Well said, my lady."
"I am not your lady."
My words were inexcusably sharp, but the messenger met my gaze with one of mild amusement. "Nay, madam. You may not be my lady, not yet, but you are one just the same."
I refolded the poem and put it back into the chest with the astrolabe. Then I took the ring from the table and pushed it onto my thumb. It was heavy but it fit.
* * *
Our banns, the Earl of Lytham's and mine, were read at church three weeks in succession. With each reading, the knot within my belly that had eased upon the delivery of the earl's sonnet began to tighten once more. I felt a giddy excitement about leaving the marshes of Norfolk for the storied opulence of the Queen's court. But lying beneath it was a pressing anxiety. In spite of Joan's attempts to buoy my spirits, I felt as if I were an impostor. Who was I to launch myself upon the royal court as a countess? And, more importantly, how was I to survive upon my own?
With each twisting of my innards, I read the earl's poem anew. Surely life would not be so bad if it were lived beside the man who had written such a poem. After two months' time, the parchment had grown soiled from my fingers and worn from being folded and refolded. But it had also become fixed in my mind.
And my heart.
* * *
I was given leave by my father to take a servant with me from his household, but in my new life I desired more than a servant. I wanted a companion. My old nurse had died. I had my own maid, but she was a simple girl and cowed by the least change in daily routines. I might have settled on one of the maids-of-all-work, but to what advantage? I had almost resigned myself to leaving alone when Joan saw me passing her father's tavern and begged a word. In private.
"My father searches a husband for me."
I clasped her hands, excited by the prospect. "But surely this is good news!"
Her face became even more drawn than normal. "How can it be good? Who would want me?"
I restrained my sigh but could think of no reply. Who indeed would want her? Her father, a publican, was not so rich that a dowry would long distract a man from Joan's face. "Does he ... has he mentioned any names?"
"Only John Stump."
"The very one."
"With seven children?"
"Aye. And three wives buried."
Three wives buried could not be held against a prospective suitor ... unless those wives had been helped toward death by the back of a man's hand.
We looked at each other in a long silence.
"Could you come with me to London?"
"Could I go with you to London?"
I could not say whose petition was presented first.
It took, however, no little amount of persuasion to convince Joan's father to let her come into my service. My father's first request to him was denied.
I questioned him about it at supper. "He said, 'Nay'? But why?"
He shrugged, then tugged at his ear. "I cannot account for it. You do not offer her a position as a scullery servant. She is to be your personal companion!"
"And you told him that?"
"I did, the obstinate dogfish! And I talked to him in monies too. In keeping Joan from marriage, he could save what he might have paid out for a dowry."
My father threw his hands into the air. They came down around a tankard of ale. He took a long draught, then wiped his mouth on his sleeve before he continued. "He has not the sense of an ass. And he has never operated his trade according to how much money he can make but according to how many enemies he can create. So one cannot hope that talking sense to him would change his mind."
"But how can this not benefit Joan? And she so clearly does not want to marry John Stump ..."
"Her father cannot have her interests in mind."
"For certes he does not! Any man worth the name marries off a daughter for his own interests. And any man who does not should consult a physician. But the thing of it is, I cannot see how Joan's service to you could fail to benefit him."
* * *
I despaired of ever gaining her when, two weeks before my marriage, well past supper, she pounded upon the door and was shown up into my room. I was already abed but folded back the coverlet so she could join me.
She slipped in, thin as an eel, and curled herself into a ball.
"Are you cold?" I questioned.
"Are you well?"
Joan's voice was barely a whisper. "I will be in two weeks' time. Once we have journeyed far from here."
"Is here so very bad?"
She slipped a thin hand around my forearm and tugged at me until I turned to look at her. "I will never make you sorry you took me with you. Only promise you will never hit me and I will stay with you until death. Mine or yours."
"Hit you? Why would I do such a thing?"
I had no choice but to agree if I hoped to quiet her. But still, I wished I knew the source of her desperation. "I promise."
* * *
And so Joan came into my service. On the day I was to put on my marriage gown, she put on a livery of the Earl of Lytham's colors: a red gown with azure sleeves. I fingered the material as I helped her pull it down over her head.
She shook out the gown to arrange it over the farthingale hoops. "I have never seen anything finer."
Neither had I. And to think that it had been provided for a simple servant!
"Come! 'Tis my turn to help you." With Joan's assistance, I came to be dressed in a shift of fine linen. While Joan occupied herself with finding my corset, I pulled silk stockings up over my knees and tied them just beneath with a length of gilt ribbon. We wrestled with the corset, finally cinching it tight to flatten my breasts. And then my farthingale hoops and petticoat. And finally the gown.
Made from crimson satin, it was embroidered with gold and pierced with pearls. Joan worked around me to fix the folds of the ruff with pins. And then, when I could no longer see my feet for the ruff, she helped me push them into my shoes. When she at last combed out my hair and pronounced me perfect, we went downstairs, where my mother placed a garland of rosemary and red roses into my hands.
* * *
I felt, that day, as though my stomach encaged some mad beast that was using his claws to find a way out. I recited the sonnet to myself ad infinitum, hoping that like some charm of magic it would soothe my nerves. It was only when I saw the Earl of Lytham that my belly began to fashion itself back together. Joan had spied him from a window of the great hall as he stood talking to my father.
"There, now! He does not look so very old, does he?" Joan must have read my mood, for her voice was colored by false cheer.
I joined her at the window, pushing back a curtain so I could see more clearly. He did not look old, though he did seem closer to my father's age than my own. His hair was dark and curly. His brows were still black. His beard had been tamed, clipped close to his chin, leaving his jaw clear. And his mustache followed the wide curve of his mouth.
We kept watch as he spoke to my father.
"His eyes are kind." Joan said it as if she begrudged him that quality.
I stayed for a while and watched and indeed, it seemed to me that there was kindness in the way he held his lips and in the lines around his eyes. And I decided then that I would rather meet him in my own courtyard than in front of the church.
When I stepped out of the door, the earl left off conversation with my father and looked upon me.
And at that, he seemed to recoil. His eyes darkened in alarm, as if, instead of comeliness, I offered him some sort of misshapen horror.
I blinked. And blinked again. The girl's father continued to speak, but I no longer heard his words, for standing before me was a vision of ... Elinor ... as she had been ten years before. Still possessed of grace, still infused with innocence. Change the black hairs for red and ... this girl was even more lovely than my wife who had never been.
And she expected me to marry her. This day!
I clamped a hand around Nicholas's arm, wheeled us around, and took us toward the stables, sword slapping angrily against my thigh. "I cannot marry that girl. And why is she wearing my mother's ring?"
"A betrothal gift, my lord. You said to find something I deemed adequate."
"That you would give such a girl the ring of my beloved mother ... !"
"She is to be your countess."
"Nay. I will not marry her."
"You must, my lord."
"I will not marry that girl."
Nicholas opened his mouth, then closed it. He leaned to my left, looking, no doubt, at the girls standing behind me. "Is there something ... wrong with her, my lord?"
"Aye. Everything! She is too young ... she is too ... beautiful."
Relief colored Nicholas's smile. "As I told you when I had returned from delivering the betrothal gift."
"But I thought that surely ... surely you had exaggerated. That a knight's daughter could possess such ... perfection ..."
"You would have the other, then? The one who stands beside her?"
I turned and looked to where the girls waited. Standing beside the one I was pledged to marry stood precisely the sort of woman I had hoped for. A horse-faced, tired old-woman-of-a-girl. "Aye. That is exactly whom I wish to marry!"
"But you have pledged yourself to—"
"To a devil in women's weeds! I will not do it. Not again! Beauty is deception. Beauty is ... 'tis nothing but a lie!"
Nicholas stepped near and laid a hand upon my arm.
I shook it off. "You forget yourself!"
"She is not Elinor, my lord."
"I am being punished. May God help me ..."
"She is not Elinor. I have observed her, my lord. I have spoken with her. She will not disappoint you."
"How could she do anything other? You should have told me."
"I did, my lord."
"You should have made me listen."
"I thought you were. My lord."
I sighed, closed my eyes, and turned my face toward heaven and prayed for God to give me strength. I do not know why I bothered; He clearly was not listening to me. There was no help for it: I had to talk to her. Had to meet her. Courtesy demanded it of me. Oh, to have worked so long and so hard to shed myself of one siren only to arrive once more at the beginning of the nightmare. It was not to be borne. Yet what could I do?
Like Odysseus, I would take every measure to keep myself from her. I would stop my ears to her voice. I would turn my eyes from her face; I would do what I must. I would not have my life's blood drained from me again.
I would not do it.
My father had ceased talking, and together, Joan, my father, and I had watched as the earl stalked away with his messenger. If truth be seen, with someone who was clearly more than a simple messenger.
Something was wrong. I knew it. My hand found Joan's as we stood there watching. Waiting.
The men had argued. The earl had quieted. And now he was walking back toward us. Back toward me.
My right foot stepped backward. My left foot joined it. Were it not for Joan's hand grasping mine, I would have fled from the anger, the rage I saw in his eyes.
But he did not come on the attack. Once before me, he removed his hat and swept it toward the ground, its crimson feathers trailing in the dust. He followed that gesture with an elegant bow. Then he took my hand in his.
"Mistress Barnardsen, you have done me a great honor by pledging to become my wife."
I would not have thought it by his tone, nor by the way his fingers barely grazed mine. What had I done to disgust him? And where was the man who had written the sonnet?
* * *
After the signing of the wedding contract, we proceeded from my father's house to the church. The only two people who did not speak or sing or tell jokes were the earl and me. Around us rang out laughter and good wishes to the accompaniment of instruments. And then we reached the church.
Standing before the altar I pledged, in front of the rector, my friends, and my God, that I would take the earl to be my wedded husband, to have and to hold, from that day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, to cherish, and to obey, till death us depart, according to God's holy ordinance.
It was over. I was bound to the girl for time and all eternity. Until death us depart. I could not think a gloomier thought.
I could think on the night's festivities and what lay ahead.
God, please help me. Help us both.
Sliding a look toward her beneath my cap, I saw a face too young to hold such ... misery. She was thinking thoughts no happier than my own. Perhaps then all would come right. I was no beast. Perhaps if I smiled.
There. I tried.
And was rebuffed. Hibernia never saw a chillier maid. It would take a tankard of ale for me to do ... what must be done.
I must think on Holleystone. Holleystone was worth any trial. Holleystone was worth any harpy. With Holleystone regained, I could set my thoughts on other things. Things such as Brustleigh and the Queen's favor and all that would follow from that triumph. Holleystone was worth even this ... Aphrodite.
It had to be. Until death us do part.
The earl never spoke one word to me. Though he did leer at me.
The ceremony finished, Joan took the garland of flowers from my hands and fixed it on my head. As we stepped out of the church, the bells tolled noon. The return to my father's house was even more raucous than our departure. Once there, we dined on peacock, replete with its feathers; on capons and veal in pomegranate sauce; on pig and sturgeon; on wafers and jellies; on grapes and quinces. The barrels of wine my father had imported were drained by evening, but that stopped no one from imbibing in ale.
Later that night, after still more feasting and dancing, we were placed into bed together, the earl and I. He did what I was told he must do and then he left my chambers.
At least he had not stayed long enough to see my tears.
I sought the corner of the bed farthest from the door and pulled my knees up toward my chest to staunch my trembling. At some time during that long night, Joan climbed into bed beside me and circled me within the fortress of her arms.
When I could find my voice, I spoke to her in a halting whisper. "Is this then what a marriage is ... one person conquering and the other being conquered?"
"Hush you, now. 'Tis the way of a man with a maid."
I could not stop my tears. They were unquenchable, ushering forth from a fount sprung up inside me.
"Hush, now. You must not begrudge him a thing he had to do."
"He ... hurt me."
"Aye. But tell me true: 'tis your soul that hurts more than your body, is it not?"
"How do ... how did you know?"
She took a long time to answer, and during the interval, curiosity overcame my tears. I turned to face her.
She turned away, and it was then she spoke. "You do not know me, Marget."
I knocked on Nicholas's door. Waited. Put an ear to the wood and heard a sonorous snore. Knocked again. The snore stopped ... and then started once more.
I had already been to the stables to chase up a game of cards, but my men were nowhere to be found. And the stable grooms were sleeping off their ale.
Knocking a third time, I threw the weight of my shoulder into the motion. At this rate I would soon awaken everyone in the house!
I turned from the door and considered returning to the girl's room. Nay. I could not do it. And just as well. For as I began contemplating taking myself to the stables once more, the door swung open and Nicholas appeared.
He stepped out into the hall and glanced both up and down its length with bleary eyes. "My lord?"
"I have need of a place to sleep."
Wisely, he made no comment as he stood aside for me to enter ... though he did look a bit forlornly toward the bed he had just vacated as he kicked the rushes covering the floor into a pile. He lay down on them, threw his cloak about himself, and soon resumed his sleep. Along with his snoring.
It did not matter, for I could not sleep. I loathed myself.
Perhaps God would grant me just one request. If there could be a child come from this horrible night, then I would never have to touch the girl again.
That I should be one to make a girl weep.
She had tried to hide her tears, but I had seen them. I had only done what I had to. And it had taken tankards of ale in order to do it. But I had been as gentle about it as I could. And in the end, Nicholas had been right. The girl was not like Elinor. Elinor had always been more than willing ... and that was the problem. Who had not sampled of sweet Elinor's delights?
I stopped myself before I could think on it further. Holleystone: there was a happy, happy thought. I had Holleystone. Holleystone was mine. And this night's ... events ... meant that the girl would not be able to dissolve the marriage. She would not be able to do what I had done to Elinor. At least not unless I lost my senses, and I was not planning to.
Nay, Holleystone would be forever mine.
But as my eyelids closed and I drifted toward sleep, the thought occurred to me that I might have sold my soul to obtain it.
The next morning there came a knock at the door while I was being dressed. I was startled to discover myself cowering, clutching my shift to my chest while Joan went to answer. She talked for a moment with a person in the passage, then closed the door and walked back to me. "A gift."
"From the earl. 'Tis the wedding gift." She opened her hand and held out her palm. Nestled within were a pair of bracelets. Matches to the ring I had received upon our betrothal. "Shall I help you with them?"
"I do not want them. I will not wear them." Their glinting, glittering jewels were fixed to nothing more than a pair of shackles. And I did not wish to wear a constant reminder that I had bound myself to the earl until death us depart.
"You must." Joan eased them over my wrists, and when I began to cry, she clasped me to her chest.
* * *
I was expected to sit a horse, something I did not often do, and ride all the way to Downham Market, some ten miles away. Accompanied by Joan, the earl, and fifty of his men, I gritted my teeth and did as I was bid. But, oh, the humiliation that was driven deep into my soul. All who looked upon me could not fail to know what had been done to me.
At least the earl's messenger, who had turned out to be his Gentleman of the Horse, a man called Nicholas, was solicitous of my well-being. A tall and balding man with the look of a scholar about him, he rode beside me most of the forenoon and I learned that he had been attendant upon his master since boyhood.
"Infanthood, my lady. His, at any rate. I came to the earl's house as a squire."
"You are of noble birth, then?"
"The second son of a baron, my lady. I could tell you many stories." Though he waited for my reply, his tone made it clear that he hoped I would prompt him to do so.
"Certain though I am that you could, they are not of any interest."
"I do hope there might come a time, my lady, when they will be. I remain at your service." He doffed his hat before he trotted away to join the earl.
It was the greatest courtesy I had been shown that day.
"As one who has known you from birth, my lord, I cannot keep myself from speaking."
"You will whether I wish you to or not. Be brief."
"The countess, my lord."
"What of her?"
"If you would only speak a word to her, my lord."
"To cheer her, my lord."
"I? Cheer her! You misread the situation, Nicholas. She hates me."
"My lord, she cannot hate you. She does not know you."
"She hates me. Watch you this." I pulled my horse from the front of the column, gesturing for it to continue and then joined the girl. "Good day to you."
She shrunk from me, her horse jogging the legs of the maid riding beside her.
I waited until the girl had checked her horse before I spoke again. "I hope you travel well this day."
She neither looked at me nor deigned to speak.
"Well ... only several miles further." I doffed my hat before leaving to rejoin Nicholas.
"She does hate you!" Nicholas's hand hovered above his scabbard. "What did you do to her?"
"If you are going to draw your sword on me, I will do more than scar your cheek."
"What did you do?"
"Only my duty."
"Only ... but ... did you speak no word of kindness? Was there no tenderness?"
"I never wanted her."
"And now she knows what she might only heretofore have suspected. Well done. And they call you the nobleman." He wheeled his horse around without taking leave of my presence and went to join the back of the column.
But his words reverberated in my head. He should have stuck me through with his sword. It would have been more kind.