Authors: Susan Carroll
Tags: #Fiction - Historical, #Romance & Love Stories, #France, #England/Great Britain
(Previously published under the name Susan Coppula)
To my children, Ricky and Serena
A Fawcett Gold Medal Book
Copyright © 2013 by Susan Carroll
First Edition Published in 1987 by The Ballantine Publishing Group under Susan Coppula
Manufactured in the United States of America
All the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
The wind buffeted the gray stonework like some giant hand seeking to batter down Winterbourne, the one place in all England Lady Melyssan had found shelter. As she struggled up the curving stair to the walkway atop the castle walls, the gusts tugged at her skirts and whistled past her ears, hissing a warning: "Escape. Escape before he returns." He—Lord Jaufre de Macy—the man whom his enemies named
Le Chevalier Noir Sans Mercie
—the Dark Knight Without Mercy.
She trembled in the gathering gloom of twilight and limped to an embrasure in the heavy wall. Down below, the dusty road snaked through the distant village, winding its way to the gates of Castle Winterbourne. The sun had nearly set with no sign of the tall, powerful man astride the black destrier. Lord Jaufre was not coming. She was safe for one more day.
Melyssan swept back the tangled strands of silken brown hair the wind whipped against the pale oval of her face. Aye, she was safe—but for how much longer if she remained at Winterbourne, dreading Lord Jaufre's return? And yet…
Wistfulness clouded her sea-green eyes as she looked again to reassure herself that the road was deserted. A small group of peasants cut across the fields to bear a long white bundle to the ditch. Even at this distance Melyssan knew it was a corpse enshrouded in a winding sheet.
Crossing herself, she murmured a brief prayer, her heart going out to the tiny figures below. Nearly four years had come and gone since anyone had had a proper burial in England. The pope's interdict had closed the doors of every church in the land. When King John had come last summer to the convent at St. Clare, Melyssan had been emboldened to plead with him, "My liege, is there nothing you can do? Surely what the pope asks is not so… I mean—that is—I have heard Stephen Langton is a very learned man."
She would never have dared to speak thus, except that John Plantagenet had seemed so kind, so pious, bringing his magnificent gift of a golden altar cloth to St. Clare. Melyssan had soon realized her mistake as his face darkened with anger.
"Langton will keep his learning out of England lest he wishes his neck stretched on a gibbet!" the king had shouted. "Rome will not dictate who will be my archbishop, not even if we all rot in hell first."
Shaking, Melyssan had retreated, but then the king's bad mood changed abruptly. His thin lips had twisted into a smile as he'd reached for her hand, his wide-set eyes glistening.
"But what serious counsel to come from the lips of such a lovely lady," he'd purred. "Come to my chamber at midnight, my pretty one, and we will discuss these matters further."
She had fled from the chapel, fled from the convent all the way home, praying the king would forget he'd ever seen her. But he had not. He had followed her to Wydevale.
And that was when her nightmare had begun.
Melyssan leaned on her staff and drew back from the opening to huddle behind one of the sheltering merlons. Despite her halting step, she moved with a certain grace born of seventeen years coping with a foot malformed from the moment of her birth.
As she clutched the smooth, rounded top of her cane, the band encircling her third finger dug into her flesh, a constant reminder of her dangerous deception. Even in the half-light of dusk the ring gleamed, the wedding ring she had placed there herself to give credence to her lie.
When Lord Jaufre returned, as she knew he soon must, he would likely yank the false symbol from her finger. And then what? The question that haunted her dreams now forced its way into her mind. What would he do when he returned and discovered that she had dared to pass herself off as his wife? Her younger sister, Beatrice, swore that Jaufre had ordered his lovely bride, Yseult, hanged without so much as charging her with a crime. Was that only more of Bea's exaggerations, or could there be some truth in the tale?
The tremor that shot through Melyssan's slender frame was not entirely due to the biting wind. Her hand flew involuntarily to her throat. The braided chain she wore there felt as if it were growing tighter. Would the Dark Knight show her no mercy as well? He had been her champion once in a time long ago, a time before Yseult.
Fingers crept from out of the shadows behind her to rest lightly on her shoulder. Melyssan gasped and twisted around, nearly losing her balance. Features confronted her, not so dissimilar from her own—the same aquiline nose, delicate jaw-line, golden-brown hair, and green eyes.
"Whitney! You frightened me."
"Did you not hear me approaching?" asked her brother. "I took no pains to conceal my footsteps."
"I—I—'tis only my thoughts were far away."
Whitney joined her behind the protective barrier. He tugged his mantle more closely around a pair of' shoulders too narrow, a consequence of the many times he had avoided his practice with sword and quintain. Though he was Melyssan's senior by two years, they were near of a height, and Melyssan often feared the strength of his limbs was no greater than her own.
"I have been looking everywhere for you,'" Whitney said. "No one would tell me where you had gone. That old badger Sir Dreyfan even had the boldness to say, if the lady was wishful of your company, she would have told ye where to find her.' " Her brother imitated the old knight's voice with great bitterness.
Melyssan placed a soothing hand on his arm. "I am sorry, Whitney. I am sure he did not mean to be churlish. He suffers from keen disappointment that Lord Jaufre left him here to command the castle garrison instead of accompanying my lord and his grandfather, the comte, on the mission to Saxony."
Whitney's eyes shifted nervously, as they always did at the mention of Jaufre's name. He continued to scowl, and she thought of remonstrating with Sir Dreyfan, only to dismiss the notion.
Her gentle interference would do naught to secure for Whitney the respect he must win for himself.
"What are you doing up here on the walls this late in the evening? I am not sure it is safe for you…" His words trailed off as his gaze lowered to her foot.
"I was looking out at the fields." She stepped away from him and stood in the embrasure, allowing the wind to blow her hair and shield her face from her brother. "A pretty sight, is it not? The harvest is going well."
Whitney reached out and drew her back to his side. He smoothed the curls from her brow. "You were watching the road again, Lyssa. You were looking for
She did not attempt to deny it, meeting his admonishing gaze with defiance. His fingers gripped her upper arms. "This is madness. When will you permit me to take you away from here? We could be with Enid at Kingsbury Plain within a fortnight."
Melyssan compressed her lips and shook her head. Although Enid, was her favorite sister, it had been several years since she had seen her.
"Enid is newly wed, happy at last. I have no wish to embroil her in my problems."
"Then let me take you home or back to the convent. Anywhere miles from here! Each day that you linger only increases your risk of being caught."
"Aye, we must leave soon. Mayhap… next week."
His hands dropped away from her. "I don't understand you. When we first came to Winterbourne, it was only to be a temporary escape from the persecution of the king. Yet you have made one excuse after another to stay. I've seen you becoming more and more involved with Lord Jaufre's affairs until I've become afraid you have run mad and think you truly are his wife."
"Nay, Whitney. I am sane enough." But as her eyes wandered past him to the darkened courtyard below, she acknowledged her own doubts. Although the buildings down in the bailey appeared as indistinguishable looming shapes, a summer spent in this stronghold on the Welsh border enabled her easily to identify them all. The large barns, the stables, the mews that housed my lord's falcons, the herb and flower garden, the great donjon whose dazzling white tower could be seen for miles… she knew the location of each as well as she had known any part of her father's estate. And in many ways, despite the danger she risked of being exposed as an imposter, she felt more at home here at Winterbourne than she ever had under the critical eye of her mother.
"… and I wish I could have such faith in your sanity." She became aware that Whitney was still scolding her. "We should have been gone the second day, not stayed out the summer."
"But after I had my lord's steward driven off—"
"That is another thing I still cannot believe you did, my sweet Lyssa. I was wont to think you were my quiet, gentle sister, and yet you are proving to be more foolhardy than Enid or Beatrice ever were."
"Pevensy was robbing Jaufre—I mean, my lord—blind. And he made Winterbourne not fit for pigs to live in."
"It was not your concern. Do you think Lord Jaufre will thank you for taking over his castle?" Whitney snorted, "if so, I suppose I must bow to your superior knowledge of the man, and we will merrily await his return. After all, you have spent much time in his company and I only met him once."
"I know him little better than you do," she said in a small voice. "I was with him perhaps a half dozen times." As she spoke Melyssan was assailed by a memory of Jaufre's beard abrading her skin as velvet lips pressed against the beating pulse of her neck. She quivered and hoped that the descending night concealed her flushed countenance.
Whitney removed his mantle and placed it around her shoulders. "You puzzle me greatly, Lyssa. You tell me you fear Lord Jaufre's wrath and yet you will not run away."
Melyssan reached inside her gown and drew forth the heavy ring she wore suspended from her chain. Lord Jaufre's seal. It had been there ever since the day she had discovered her sister Beatrice had stolen it. Bea had been Jaufre's choice for a second wife, but she had betrayed the Dark Knight, jilting him only weeks before the wedding, seeking sanctuary at St. Clare.
Melyssan traced the intricate design of the hawk on the flat surface of the signet ring. How strange that something so small should have had the power to alter her life. If she had never gone to the convent to recover the ring from Beatrice, she would never have fallen under the lecherous eye of the king. She would never have lied and claimed to be secretly wed to Jaufre, using possession of the ring as her proof. "I have been thinking," she said, "that perhaps the just thing to do would be to stay and face Lord Jaufre, try to explain to him."
"The just thing?" Whitney gave an incredulous laugh. "Oh, Lyssa. Your honor threatened by a tyrant king, your freedom, perhaps your very life, threatened by a lord who already has reason enough to loathe our family, thanks to Beatrice, and you talk of being just." He tucked the mantle more closely around her. "I would I had your courage, little sister." His voice grew bitter with self-contempt. "But then, if I had, you would not be in this predicament."
"What could you have done against the power of the king?" she protested, "it would have been so easy for him to have you accused of treason. Carry out the vile things he hinted. Jaufre’s name was all that could have saved us."
"That is what was so odd, my dear. You in your innocence believe the king did not dishonor you because he thought you a married woman. I know better. That never stopped him before." He frowned. "No, something else is at work here, something between the king and Lord Jaufre that we don't quite understand. You have dissuaded me long enough, Lyssa. Now I am going to do what I should have done months ago and get you away from here."
He swooped her up awkwardly in his arms to carry her to the gateway tower and down the winding stone steps. Melyssan stiffened, gripping her cane. She hated to be carried, hated the pity that the gesture implied; but when she saw the look on his pale face—determination tinged with fear—she held her tongue.
He set her on her feet when they reached the courtyard. Overhead, the clear black sky was lit by a crescent of moon and a scattering of stars, cold, distant, like Jaufre de Macy's eyes the last time she had looked into them.
"Mayhap you are right, Whitney," she said. "We will leave tomorrow."
But as she gave her promise, somehow she sensed that it would never be. She tucked the ring back inside her gown, feeling its weight chain her to Winterbourne even as my lord's falcon was chained to its perch in the mews. She could never escape.
Melyssan writhed amidst a tangle of furs and linen sheets as the fragments of a nightmare pierced her peaceful slumber. It was always the same—hands clawing at her, pulling her off balance. Hands that belonged to bodies without faces… except of late one face was beginning to emerge, a face with dark leering eyes, a cruel sensual mouth. John of England. Her dread sovereign lord, the king. The hands snatched away her walking staff and grabbed hold of her. Struggling helplessly, she was tumbled down into the filthy straw as the king's greedy fingers tore at her breasts like the talons of a hawk, drawing blood.