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Authors: The Mistress of Rosecliffe

Rexanne Becnel

BOOK: Rexanne Becnel
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For Pam, Deborah, and Barbara,
friends who go beyond the call.
Thanks for the lagniappe!
Those that made me were uncivil.
They made me harder than the devil.
Knives won’t cut me, fire won’t light me.
Dogs bark at me, but can’t bite me.
 
—TUSSER
Pretty mouth to sing a song, eyebrows delicate
and long,
Bodies made for bodies’ bliss, sweet smooth faces,
warm to kiss,
Loving music, well they may, upon the lute or
tabor play,
Swift in love and swift in quarrel, and deliciously
immoral.
 
 
—FROM A MEDIEVAL
HAUSBUCH
ROSECLIFFE CASTLE, WALES
OCTOBER, A.D. 1154
 
ISOLDE STOOD AMIDST THE CLAMOR OF WORKMEN SWARMING the chapel, her face puckered in a faint frown of concentration. The improvements progressed anon. But every task seemed to take twice as long as she anticipated. Still and all, the workers made headway. When it was completed, the chapel at Rosecliffe Castle would be truly magnificent.
Her father had been reluctant to approve any changes to Rosecliffe’s simple chapel. But she’d been persistent, and eventually he had agreed. Now she meant to astound him with the transformation, and thereby ensure his cooperation in the other changes she envisioned for the castle.
Her frown eased into a smile as she visualized a series of continued improvements. A pleasaunce with a knot garden. An elaborate mantelpiece in the great hall featuring the wolf and rose motif her father had adopted. Tapestries framing the high table. More torchères—the new type with drip basins like those she’d seen at the mayor’s residence at Chester.
At the moment, however, it was the plaster fresco of Saint John and the first baptism that she needed to concentrate on.
She backed up, staring at the entire wall, but not focusing on any one spot, so that the details blurred, and only the larger shapes and groupings of colors registered in her mind. It was a trick she often employed in her embroidery and her small illuminated pieces. But it worked even better on a large scale, she’d discovered. She extended one arm, sweeping through the air with her hand as if she were painting the wall with a giant brush.
“The river must grow broader as it courses down toward the altar,” she said, more to herself than to the anxious artist at her elbow. “And the sun is too yellow. It should be a paler hue.”
“I used this very color for the sun on the panel I prepared for the Abbot of Chester,” the man retorted.
“But I want it paler,” she insisted. “‘Tis not truly meant to represent the sun, you see, but rather, heaven in all its radiant glory.” She took a thin pointed stick from its perch behind her ear and drew a faint line in the damp plaster. “Paler sun. Wider river. Like that.”
She glanced at him sidelong, daring him to contradict her, and after a moment he nodded, albeit grudgingly. He did not like taking orders from a woman, especially such a young one as she. Were she not daughter to the lord and lady of Rosecliffe, he would have dismissed her entirely.
But she was their daughter and this was her project, and he’d been hired at her behest. She meant to follow her own vision, no matter what the man thought. Besides, if he would not complete it to her satisfaction, she would do the task herself.
“How much longer until this final wall is complete?” she asked.
He shrugged and wiped his paint-stained fingers against his smock. “Another day and a half to paint. Two or three days to dry.”
“Very good. I will have Father Clemson say a special mass on Sunday. And I would like you and your helper to sit in the family box,” she added. “For this is to your credit, and I would have everyone recognize your talent.”
He shrugged again, but he smiled a little at her compliment.
She needed to be more generous with her praise, she reminded herself. In her preoccupation with her myriad projects, she too often overlooked that simple courtesy toward others.
Once the artist and his assistant were back at work, Isolde scanned the room. The carpenters had built six elaborate benches and a heavy new altar. The stone masons had carved a fine rail and one older fellow had created a handsome holy water font from a marble block her uncle Jasper had obtained
in Chester. Those items were now being installed. That left the crucifix.
She felt in her sleeve for the rolled-up parchment that held her sketch. Her mother wanted a Celtic cross to celebrate her Welsh homeland. Father Clemson wanted a classic design with the Son of God in his final agony, just before his resurrection. Isolde’s father had refused to intercede, reminding Isolde that this was her project and she must resolve this issue herself. He’d chuckled as he’d thrown her own words back in her face.
So Isolde had girded herself to face the disagreeing pair alone. She did not like to contradict her mother; nor did she care to anger the priest who assigned her penance. Father Clemson could keep her on her knees many an hour if he decided she was not properly respectful of the Lord Jesus. She could only hope they would both like the compromise she’d contrived.
The solution to her dilemma had come to her in the soft moments when she was first waking, in the faint light of predawn, before the lowing of the cows or the cock’s first crow. A Celtic cross, taller and wider than any cross she’d ever seen. The Savior would be carved into the wood center, but beyond him symbolic Celtic designs would cover the ends of the cross. Heaven above him, the earth beneath his feet. And on either side, fire and water. Each of them a gift, given to man by God. And in the center God’s greatest gift of all, his son, redeemer to all mankind.
Though her sketch had been hasty, she’d known at once that it was a good design, her best work yet. Still, she was nervous as she left the chapel in search of her mother and Father Clemson. She wasn’t sure whether to present her idea to them at the same time or separately. But she needed to do it soon. Even so, the crucifix would not be completed by Sunday.
As she crossed the bailey she was preoccupied with thoughts of ocher and olive, and how to mix a vibrant purple shade. She made no note of the several knots of people standing with their heads together, nor the pair of strange horses that two lads attended just outside the stable. Only when she pushed into the hall and spied Gwen and her bosom friend
Lavinia arm in arm, twitching with excitement, did she drag her thoughts to the present.
“Whatever has you two in such a state?” she asked her younger sister. “Where is Mother? And Father?”
“In the office, receiving a message. From the Duke of Normandy. The Duke of Normandy,” Gwen added dramatically. “Do you think he means to visit here at Rosecliffe?”
“Oh, but he can’t!” Isolde gasped. “At least not until the chapel is complete!”
Gwen gave her a disgusted look. At thirteen she considered herself quite the lady and had little patience with her elder sister. “She cares more for plaster and paint than she does for the sad state of her hair,” Gwen said to Lavinia. “And that gown.” She shook her head.
“What you mean,” Isolde countered, “is that I do not care merely for my hair and my gowns. We all hope you too will one day broaden your interests, Gwen. Until then, however, I suppose we have no choice but to tolerate your childish behavior.”
She strode away, ignoring Gwen. If Henry, Duke of Normandy had sent a message to Rosecliffe, she wanted to know what it was about.
The castle office was a small space with a heavy damask curtain hanging across the arched doorway. It needed a proper door with a small window and shutter, and a metal knocker, she thought. Better for security and for privacy. At the moment, however, she was glad there was only a curtain, for by leaning near it she could hear fairly well.
“When will the coronation be?” she heard her father ask.
“In mid-December at Westminster Abbey,” a man answered. “But he would confer with his barons before then and receive their personal pledge. Best that you leave within the next few days.”
Her mother exclaimed, “That soon? But Rand, I cannot prepare—”
“Now, Josselyn,” Her father said. “There is nothing to prepare. You will pack, and we will leave.”
“But what of the girls? And Gavin is at Ludlow.”
“We’ll send word to him to join us in London.”
London.
Isolde caught hold of the curtain with one hand. The entire family was going to London? To a coronation? Then the greater implication dawned on her. Earlier in the year Henry, Duke of Normandy, had been named King Stephen’s heir. If he was to be crowned, that meant the old king had died.
Her father’s voice drew her attention once more. “Mayhap my brother, John, will be there, for Aslin Castle is not so far distant from London. And if Halyard is there, we can discuss the matter of Isolde.”
As quickly as that, Isolde’s excitement fled. She’d never met her uncle, and a trip to London would be the adventure of a lifetime. But not if it would be used to wed her to Lord Halyard’s eldest son, Mortimer.
Without thinking, she yanked back the curtain and pushed into the crowded office. Heads swiveled and a half-dozen sets of eyes focused on her. Besides her parents, there were two men she did not know, as well as Osborn, captain of the guard, and Odo, the steward.
“Isolde,” her mother began in a chastising voice.
Her father pinned her with his glittering stare. “As you can see, I am occupied, daughter. Await me in the hall.”
“But Father, I do not wish to wed Mortimer,” she burst out. “You know that.”
His jaw tensed and at once she realized her error, for his patience had never been vast when it came to her reluctance to wed. “Await me in the hall,” he bit out.
The silence in the room was awful, yet Isolde could not relent, not on this subject. She sucked in a shaky breath and lifted her chin a notch. “I will await you in the hall. But I will never agree to so idiotic a plan.”
Someone gasped at such impertinence toward the great Randulf FitzHugh, Lord of Rosecliffe. But she did not linger to find out who. Angry and fearful, all at the same time, she turned and quit the chamber. Forgotten were the chapel and her efforts there. Forgotten was the parchment in her sleeve with its daring design. Isolde hurried into the hall, worrying one of her fingernails, and consumed with one thought only. They were going to London to see the new king crowned and to finalize her wedding to that bumbling oaf of a boy.
How could a day which had begun so well have turned so utterly vile?
He kept her waiting on purpose. By the time the messengers left, Isolde was jittery with nerves. When Odo and Osborn exited, she almost pushed her way back in. But she knew that would not be wise, so she gritted her teeth, and sat on her hands to avoid shredding her nails any further. From her perch in a window ell, Gwen gave her a haughty look, then ignored her.
Finally her mother came out and, spying Isolde, made her way directly to her. “Will you never learn how to deal with your father?” she scolded. “That impetuous display has made your task infinitely more difficult.”
“He is the one being difficult!” Isolde exclaimed. “He refuses to listen—”
“No more than do you! Have I not told you repeatedly that I will not see any child of mine unwillingly wed? Have you never heard me say that to you, Isolde?”
“Yes, Mama. But—”
“But you will not believe me and so you make the task harder still. Oh, Isolde.” She threw her hands up in frustration. “Are Gavin and Gwen and Elyssa to be as difficult as you?”
Chastened, Isolde bowed her head and stared down at her knotted hands. A bit of dried plaster clung to one knuckle, and she picked absently at it. “Is he very angry?”
“Furious.” Then her mother sighed. “You are fortunate that his anger with you is tempered today by his relief that after nineteen years, we will finally have a single, unquestioned monarch at the helm. But your sharp tongue has convinced him more than ever that you are in need of a husband’s guidance.”
“A husband’s guidance?” Isolde made a rude noise. “Is that what you have, Mother, your husband’s guidance? It does not appear so to me.”
Her mother’s lovely face softened with a faint grin. “I prefer to think of your father and me as a well-matched pair. He has his sphere of influence and I have mine. But I am his wife, Isolde, and you are his daughter. He is unable to view us in the same light. Indeed, he is hard-pressed to acknowledge that his daughter is of an age to assume wifely duties.” Her eyes
sparkled and her grin increased. “I think that may be why he has fixed his attention on Lord Halyard’s son, Mortimer. Despite the great advantages of a match with the Halyard family, to your father’s eye, the lad appears more a boy than a man.”
Isolde digested that information for a moment. “Are you saying he wishes to wed me to a man—a boy—who cannot perform his husbandly duties?”
Her mother laughed, then sat down beside her and took her hand. “No. But still, I wonder if there is a part of him that cannot stomach the idea of any man taking his daughter’s innocence.”
Isolde was amazed. She’d known for many years how things worked between men and women. Her mother was straightforward about such matters and answered any questions put to her with complete candor. That her father might be squeamish about those same subjects had never occurred to Isolde. “If that is the case, why does he push me to wed at all? Why can I not continue as I am, until I find someone I truly wish to wed?”
Her mother shook her head. “Isolde, you attempt logic, when your father’s reaction is not based on logic at all. He knows you must marry, and who you marry is vitally important to Rosecliffe. But in his heart he hates the idea, and so he welcomes Lord Halyard’s offer.”
Isolde crossed her arms. “Well, I don’t care how wealthy and powerful the Halyards are. I refuse to marry Mortimer. He’s slump shouldered, and skinny. And spotted. And he turns red in the face whenever I cast my eyes in his direction—which, I promise you, is not often.”
BOOK: Rexanne Becnel
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