Authors: Tracie Peterson
|Alas My Love|
|Barbour Publishing, Incorporated (2012)|
England in the Middle Ages is far from a jolly place for an unprotected young woman. Yet the savagery of her stepbrother and the devious schemes of her stepsister have given golden-haired Helena Talbot little choice. She must find shelter elsewhere.
Afforded protection by the magnanimouse Duke of Gavenshire, Helena nonetheless lives under an assumed name, ever fearful her whereabouts will be revealed to her stepbrother. Only one dream transports her above her worries, the desire that one day she will be reunited with brave Tancred. Years have passed since they were together and now an ocean and a king's decree keep them apart. But are those obstacles stronger than a woman's paryer for love?
Copyright © by Tracie Peterson. All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, is forbidden without the permission of Truly Yours, an imprint of Barbour Publishing, Inc., PO Box 721, Uhrichsville, Ohio 44683.
All scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®. niv®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.
All of the characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events is purely coincidental.
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Helena Talbot held back a strangled cry as the whip came down again. Her tender skin, marred with bleeding welts, bore yet another strike. Would it never end?
Stripped to her lightest linen tunic, Helena received the punishment of her defiance without a word of protest. Twenty years old, without mother or father in this world, Helena faced her stepbrother’s demands and temper.
“Will you go?” Roger Talbot questioned, and again Helena shook her head.
He grimaced and raised the whip, while Helena steadied herself as best she could. Her strength had given out hours ago, so she stood on sheer determination alone. She longed for the dizziness to overtake her and put her mind from the whip’s biting edge. Even death would be a welcome relief.
“Your refusal has caused this grief,” he said firmly but with a hint of gentleness to his tone. “I find no pleasure in punishment.” Helena believed it to be true. At one time, she and Roger had been the closest of friends.
“I. . .I cannot.” Helena wanted so very much to sound brave, but in truth her words were barely audible. Through fading consciousness, she knew his displeasure. Poor man. If not for his sister Maude, Roger would never have forced the
situation. Maude’s jealousy had tainted Roger’s love. For over twenty years,
Maude had loudly protested the interference of Helena’s mother, Eleanor, and then of Helena herself. With Eleanor only days in the grave and the words of her funeral service still ringing in Helena’s ears, Roger found no way to ignore Maude’s demands.
“Give her over to the church,” Maude had told him in a hushed whisper while Helena cried over her mother’s still body. “Send her with haste.”
They believed me too grieved to understand,
Helena thought. Even then she’d known this would be a bitter battle to the end.
A chill, damp wind blew across the newly plowed fields. The rich aroma of dirt assailed Helena’s meager senses. Home! At least the only home she’d ever known. Now with her beloved mother and stepfather both dead, no one was left who cared for her. No one except perhaps Tanny. Images from the past flooded her mind to offer comfort.
Helena, oblivious to Roger’s consternation, slumped against the whipping post. As she did, she could feel the braided hemp bite into her wrists. How long had she been there? First Roger had made her stand for hours, bound to the post and exposed to the elements. After that, he’d deprived her of food and drink, all in hopes that she would acquiesce to his will.
Helena knew, however, that she had a most special circumstance. It was because of this circumstance that Helena remained strong in her resolve, refusing to give even the slightest consideration to her stepbrother and stepsister’s plans. Helena smiled to herself, even in her half-conscious state. Her mother, Eleanor, had been second-cousin to the queen. Not only had they been related, but they had also been the dearest friends. Because of this, King Henry III would not hear the demands of Roger Talbot to force a marriage upon his young step-sister. The king had instead listened to his wife and Eleanor in their pleading to allow Helena to marry, not as customary in an arranged affair, but for love.
And Helena had loved. With all her heart she had loved a man who barely knew of her existence. She didn’t blame him, though. When last he’d seen her, she had been a mere child of nine, but her love for him was eternal.
“Tanny,” she breathed the name, not realizing she’d done so aloud.
“What say you?” Roger stepped forward anxiously. “I demand you speak to me.”
Helena’s head bobbed and swayed in rhythm with the wind. She barely heard Roger’s words. She tried to move, but the fire in her back caused her to gasp for breath before surrendering to the black oblivion her mind offered. Her fading thoughts were of her beloved. Tanny!
“Helena!” Roger rushed forward, afraid that he’d dealt her one blow too many. How many times had he hit her? Five? Six? He reached out for her crumpled form and lifted her upward in order to release her bonds from the overhead hook. God alone would be his refuge if Henry learned of this matter.
“Helena,” he spoke once more, this time against her ear. Roger had no way of knowing whether she heard him.
Cursing, he called for help. “Take her to her room,” he said to two men who waited nearby. Then turning to Helena’s maid, Sarah, he added, “Make her comfortable and cleanse the wounds.”
The woman nodded her reddened face. “Aye, Milord. ’Tis my duty.”
Helena writhed and moaned as Sarah gently rubbed salve into her wounds.
Thanks be to the Creator,
the cuts were not deep.
Still it grieved her and tears rolled down her weathered cheeks.
Sarah, still crying in soft sobs, dressed the wounds as best she could. Her poor lamb did not deserve the heavy hand of her stepbrother.
“Hush now, my little one.” Sarah sprinkled a concoction of herbs over the worst of the cuts and offered what consolation she could. “No one will hurt you now.”
“Tanny,” Helena whispered. “I, I want Tanny.”
Sarah struggled to make out the words, but knew without a doubt that Helena was speaking of her one true love.
“Just rest, Milady. ’Tis sure that your love will come one day. Just rest.” Sarah spoke the words even if she didn’t believe them. She prayed they would comfort the young woman and give her peace of mind.
In her strange state of dreams, Helena saw the face of the man she’d loved. Gentle, dark eyes teased her with winks, and a laughing face crowded out the memory of the burning pain in her back. She imagined her beloved returning from the sea. His longing would match her own and she would rush to his side and proclaim her love. She would write a song for him, she thought through the haze of her sleep. Yes, she would write him a love song.
For as long as she could remember, Helena had been devoted to music. She wrote songs and sang them, always finding a closeness with God when she did so. She devoted most of her music to the goodness and wonder of God and His creation. But some songs, little snippets really, were devoted to more emotional and personal matters. She’d written half a dozen songs to declare her love to a man who thought her only capable of child’s play.
Smiling to herself now, Helena imagined the days when they were all together; a time when her stepfather had been alive and Tanny had fostered in their home. She had been but a tiny child then, still under her nurse’s care.
“What a frightful sight you are!” It was Tanny’s voice she heard, just as clearly as if it had been yesterday. She had been playing in the barn and was covered in a variety of things, some most disagreeable and odorous. Roger and Tanny had found her and knew that her nursemaid would beat her for disobeying and visiting with the animals.
“You’ve been to the mews as well,” Roger had said, picking bird feathers from her hair. The young men agreed to clean her up and keep the nurse from learning of her actions. And that was when Helena had lost her heart. Sitting on Tanny’s lap while he used a wet cloth to wipe her face, she had stared into his kind eyes and fallen in love.
A sound at the door brought Helena awake and surprisingly clearheaded. Maude and Roger entered the room, heavy in discussion on the matter of Helena’s beating. Helena pretended to sleep, but watched cautiously from barely opened eyes. No sense in letting them nag her just yet.
“You’ve softened in your old age,” Maude said to Roger. “She hardly looks worse for the ordeal.”
He stared at her a moment in disbelief. “Did you not see the marks?” He waved a hand over Helena. “Henry will have me swinging from a gibbet.”
His frown deepened and he moved away to the window where Helena couldn’t see him. “I did as you bade me, Maude. I starved the child and forced her to endure
more punishment than our father would have dealt out to a wayward villein.”
“Our father was a weakling when it came to Helena. He pampered and spoiled her at every turn.” Maude’s gray eyes narrowed. “Have ye our father’s heart?”
“Our father had no heart for unjust affairs and neither do I. I would hardly call this a pampering.”
Helena wanted to cheer Roger’s retort. Maude always bullied him, and Helena hated the way he allowed her to dominate their home.
“You have endured Helena’s childish demands that she be allowed to choose her own husband, but honestly, Roger.” Maude paused to emphasize the emotion of the moment. “She is a woman of a full score. What man would take her now?”
Roger laughed aloud. “Helena could have any suitor she wanted. ’Tis this that grieves you most, me thinks.” Helena almost giggled at this and quickly moaned and coughed to disguise her reaction.
Roger came to her bedside, but Maude remained where she stood. “Helena? Can you hear me?” Helena let out another moan, but refused to offer anything more.
Let him think I’m nearly dead,
Then maybe the fear of what he’s done will sink in and he’ll stand up to Maude.
Maude gave Roger no time to consider the matter, however. “Even the king cannot expect you to continue responsibility for one so wayward.”
“The king will expect me to heed his wishes.”
“But she is past marriageable age,” Maude protested, coming within Helena’s view.
“So are you, my dear sister. Or have you forgotten you hold seven years in addition to Helena’s twenty? Age has not stopped you from looking for another husband.”
Maude grimaced. “But I am a widow. My status is more favorable for a union.”
Roger sighed. “I have done what you asked of me. I beat the child and still she refused.”
“Then have her taken away,” Maude said menacingly. “Have her taken away tonight before she regains enough strength to object.”
Helena felt her breath catch. Would Roger actually listen to Maude and do as she suggested? If that happened, what hope would there ever be of finding Tanny or of him finding her?
“And bear the wrath of King Henry? When he learns of this, I will be lucky to retain my life, much less my title.” Helena felt Roger’s hand upon her forehead. He smoothed back her hair, and Helena couldn’t resist feeling some pity for him.
Maude viewed the entire matter disdainfully. She clucked her tongue. “Poor brother. The responsibilities put upon your shoulders are too great. I shall ease your burden and make the arrangements myself. She will be removed tonight.”
“I am lord of this manor and you are but my sister. Bide thy tongue carefully, or it will be you who makes the journey to the abbey.” With that he turned and stomped out of the room, while Maude stared after him.
“Think to threaten me, will you? Ha!” Maude stated to no one in particular. She let her gaze travel to Helena. “Precious Helena. Exalted child. You had but to crook your finger at anyone, be it man, woman, or child, and they would quickly come to do your bidding.” Helena’s body trembled. Maude’s tone was so menacing and hate-filled. Would she go so far as to see Helena permanently removed from her life?
“You are just like your mother,” Maude said, her face contorted in rage. “The best of everything came to you both, even though I was here first. You stole my place and took my father’s love.”
Helena moaned and pretended to be struggling to wake up. She hoped Maude would see this and decide to leave before her stepsister became conscious, but it was not to be.
“Poor Helena. Do your injuries cause you pain? I pray they do. I pray you find the same pain I did. The same pain you and your perfect mother dealt me as a child of seven. I was sent away,” she muttered, still staring down at Helena’s pale form. “They sent me away to foster in a convent, while you remained to nibble at my father’s heart until there was naught left for me. Now I will send you away and there will be no one to mourn your passing.”
“Maude!” It was Roger calling from the hall below. “Maude!”
“We will settle this matter yet,” Maude whispered and withdrew from the room to leave Helena trembling and afraid.
It was as if the angry words had taken what little strength Helena had. “What am I to do, Lord?” Her whispered voice was little more than a croak.
In the hall, Maude paced out a pattern on the rush-covered floor. Fresh herbs had been mixed in with the rushes just that morning, but the damp, stale odor of the closed-up manor hung thick in the air. It only served to add to Maude’s restlessness. She had come at her brother’s demanding calls, but found instead that he’d been distracted by a groomsman who needed his advice regarding the saddle sores of one of his cherished horses.
“I wait to do Roger’s bidding, while he concerns himself with dung heaps and festering wounds,” she muttered. Then as if speaking his name could suddenly conjure his form, Roger crashed through the door. It had started to rain and he was soaked from the exposure.
“Prepare me hot ale,” he said to a waiting servant. The man nodded and hurried away to do his master’s bidding. After the servant disappeared behind the screens that divided the kitchen from the great hall, Roger finally acknowledged Maude.
“ ’Twill be a beastly night,” he remarked, casting his drenched garde-corp to a peg beside the door. Freed of this outer coat, Roger found his remaining clothes to be fairly dry.
Maude motioned him to the far side of the room as tables were brought out and set up in preparation for the supper meal. Maude spoke in a low, hushed tone. “I can arrange for Helena to be taken from this house and delivered to the convent. You are the final authority, of course,” she said to placate him.
“You would send her out in this storm?” Roger questioned.
“Nay, ’tis unnecessary to endanger the horses,” Maude replied. She knew the lives of his horses were of the utmost concern to her brother.
Maude noticed Roger’s uneasy frown. “Fret not, brother dear,” she said in feigned sympathy, “the life of a nun is quite good. Our sister will be well cared for and work only six of a day’s hours. And those hours will be spent in choir practice—singing as she so loves to do. With a voice such as Helena has been given, surely she will be happy with her life there.”