The first day of the new year dawned bright and crisp, the night's fresh-fallen snow touching all of Winton with its dazzling purity, capping the spires of the cathedral and the castle towers with white and lying in thick drifts against the city walls. Inside the castle, only the servants had begun stirring. The rich tapestries that hung over the windows in the king's chamber shut out the sparkling winter light and held in the night's still peace for the two nestled together in the luxuriant bed.
Philip Chastelayne, King of Lynaleigh, stretched his sleekly muscled shoulders and pressed closer to his wife's warm body, making an only-partially-conscious decision to go back to sleep. A solid thump from inside her rounded abdomen changed his mind.
"The baby is awake," Rosalynde said, sleepy amusement in her emerald eyes.
Smiling with one side of his mouth, he stretched the whole lithe length of his body, then laughed softly to feel another sturdy kick.
"Are you certain he is coming in two months and not two weeks?" he asked, caressing her stomach through the fine linen of her shift.
"Joan is of the firm belief that this one is a girl."
"What, with such a kick?" He laughed again. "Surely not."
"It would not displease you, my lord? I mean, were it to be a girl?"
"Faith, love, not a bit of it." He kissed her forehead. "God has given us two fine sons. Surely He best knows whether we need another." He turned towards her, looking into her sweet face, caressing the smooth, blooming curve of her cheek with the back of his hand. "Who am I to deny the world a copy of the fairest thing in it?"
She feathered her fingers through his dark tousled hair and nuzzled his cheek. "Sweet."
He pulled her into an awkward, tender embrace and her arms went around his neck.
"Sweet," she murmured again, pressing nearer, closing her eyes as she surrendered to his kiss. Then there was a discreet knock at the door, and with a rueful grin, he sat up.
"Come in, Rafe."
"They've begun to arrive already, my lord," the stockily built, brown-bearded old man said as he began setting out the bread and fruit he had brought for their breakfast. "Good morning, my lady."
"Good morning, Master Bonnechamp."
"And there are two young gentlemen who demand an immediate audience with your majesties."
"They demand, do they?" Philip asked, and Rosalynde smiled at his feigned displeasure.
"Well, I suppose such boldness commands our attention, does it not, my lady? By all means, Rafe, admit them."
A moment later Rafe returned, bringing two dark-haired little boys with him.
"Good morning, my angels," Rosalynde said, holding out her arms, and the children scampered across the room and began struggling to crawl into the high bed beside her.
"Take care, John," Philip said, lifting the younger boy over her, sitting him between them with a kiss. "And you, Robin."
He pulled the three-year old up into the bed, too, and was rewarded with a tight hug and a smacking kiss. Then Robin threw his arms around Rosalynde's neck and kissed her, too.
"Good morning, Mama," he piped, then he leaned over and pressed a careful kiss against the bulge in her middle. "Good morning, baby."
"Mornin', baby!" John crowed, patting her vigorously.
Rosalynde laughed, and Philip grabbed his hand.
"Shh, John, the baby is sleeping."
"Mornin', baby," John whispered as he nestled against his mother's stomach and patted it very softly.
"There's my sweet boy," Rosalynde said, putting her arm around him.
He put his thumb in his mouth and looked up at her, his big eyes as green as her own, and she cuddled him closer. "
My pretty baby."
He flashed her his father's bright smile and patted her again. "Pitty baby."
Philip smiled, too, and then he picked Robin up and sat him astride his chest.
"You and John are to come to court today, remember?"
"Because the people are coming?"
"Yes, and all of them will want to see you both."
Robin leaned down and propped his chin against his father's. "Why?"
"Because you are their princes and one day they will come to you for justice."
Robin considered this for a moment.
"I need to ride my pony," he confided finally, his dark eyes solemn.
Philip laughed and sat up, letting him slide down into his lap. "No pony for you today, Robin."
"Ride the pony," John gurgled, and Philip tugged his ear.
"Nor you, mite. Come now, both of you, let Mama and Papa have their breakfast." He hugged both boys once more and set them on the floor. "See Joan has them properly dressed, Rafe."
"I will, my lord."
Once Rafe had led them away, Philip pulled on his dressing gown and went to the window, not surprised by the sight he saw below him. Despite the early hour, people of all ranks and conditions were making their way towards the castle, well bundled against the cold that had not dampened their holiday humor.
"Rafe is right, Rose. They've come already. More of them than ever, by the look of it. Are you certain you feel well enough to–"
"You spoil me terribly, love," she said, taking a pear from the breakfast tray, and he got back into bed beside her and stole a bite out of it.
"Thief," she accused, pulling back from him, and, with a playful light in his blue crystal eyes, he stole a kiss instead.
It was the fifth new year of King Philip's reign and, in keeping with tradition, people had come from throughout the city bringing their homage, their good wishes, and their petitions before their young sovereign. It was tradition, too, to have all the royal family present for the occasion, so in the great hall, under the banner of the white saint's rose that was the emblem of all the sovereign Chastelaynes, alongside the king and queen and the two little princes, were the king's younger brother, Thomas, Duke of Brenden, and his wife, Elizabeth.
They were also expecting a child, this one their first, and, because her time was so near, Philip allowed Elizabeth to sit in his presence at the formal audience, a privilege usually granted only to the queen herself. By late afternoon, she was shifting uncomfortably in her chair.
"Let me take you upstairs, sweetheart," Tom told her as Philip finished hearing yet another supplicant. "You ought rest now."
She smiled at the concern on his face and at the little boy asleep against his shoulder.
"We'd not want to wake Robin, my lord."
"He'll scarcely notice, my lady," Philip told her.
Tom took her arm. "Come, let me help you up."
"Oh, not yet, my lord." She turned playfully pleading eyes to Philip. "Please, Your Majesty. I want to see this mysterious King of Reghed when he arrives."
"If he arrives. Surely, were he truly coming, some of his lords, his servants at the least, would have preceded him, to see all was in readiness for his coming. We should have had some word of him beyond the one message he sent."
"Perhaps not, my lord," Rosalynde put in, shifting John to a more comfortable position in her lap, careful not to wake him either. "We know little of Reghed's ways and, what I hear of their king, even they think him peculiar."
"Do you think the stories true, Your Majesty?" Elizabeth asked, and Tom shook his head, suppressing a smile.
"You ought not heed such macabre tales, Bess, much less take such delight in them."
There was a repulsed fascination in her dark eyes. "But do you think it true? That when he became king he truly dressed his dead mistress' bones in the royal robes and crown and forced his nobles to swear loyalty to her? Even to kiss her hand, though there was no more flesh left on it? Ooh, it chills my blood!"
"There's been nothing but such fables come from Reghed these twenty years and more since he became king and shut up all his kingdom's borders."
"Then why has he decided he must come to Winton now?"
Tom shrugged. "He's not said. Perhaps trade, perhaps defense, perhaps–"
"Perhaps we shall learn why now." Philip nodded toward the rear of the great hall.
"His Imperial Majesty, Sarto, King of Reghed," the herald announced, and the attention of the entire court was fixed on the hooded figure that swept towards the throne, attended not with the pomp and splendor of his courtiers but with a grimly armed guard, all marked with his emblem, the hissing, red-eyed dragon of Reghed.
"Your Majesty," Sarto said, his voice a low rumble in the silence of the great hall.
Wary, Philip returned a slight nod. "Your Majesty. You are welcome to Lynaleigh and to Winton."
For a long moment, Sarto said nothing more, did not move, did not lower the hood that concealed his face.
"Is there something Lynaleigh might grant Your Majesty?" Philip asked finally, exchanging an uneasy glance with his brother.
"Merely allow me a moment more to look upon heaven."
Rosalynde's eyes widened in surprise as Sarto seized her hand and pressed it fervently to his lips, then he lifted his head and the hood fell away from his face.
She took her hand from his and shrank back a little at what she saw. It was not that Sarto's features were particularly unhandsome. He had the sagging corpulence of a once-comely man who, through drink and dissipation, had grown fat. Now, as the last remnant of youth was waning into age, his flesh had begun to waste on him, but there was nothing unsettling about that. It was more his eyes, the dead gray-green of something cold blooded, that doubtless unnerved her.
"Your– Your Majesty is too kind," she murmured, pulling John instinctively closer, and Philip put one hand on her arm.
"It has been many years, my lord, since the king of Reghed has ventured beyond his own borders," he said. "We are honored."
Sarto spared him only a brief glance and then fixed his eyes again on Rosalynde.
"It is time our two lands benefited one another, my lord king. Reghed has prospered and I have heard much of your own kingdom's bounty." His piercing gaze moved from Rosalynde's face, down her body and again to her emerald eyes. "And beauty."
"Lynaleigh has many treasures," Philip agreed, keeping expression cool despite the man's presumption, "though not all of them for trade."
Their eyes met, and Sarto's intensity faded into an amiable smile. "Of course not."
"So you come to open trade with us, my lord," Tom said.
Sarto bowed negligibly, favoring him, too, with a glance. "Perhaps, my lord of Brenden. For now, I merely wish to become acquainted with my neighbors to the south."
Just then, Robin woke and blinked his dark eyes in sleepy bewilderment at the stranger that stood before him.
"Your child, my lord?" Sarto asked, and Tom held the boy a little more snugly.
"Prince Robert is my nephew, sir."
"You must forgive the error, but your lordship and his Majesty resemble so strongly."
That was true enough. Except for the fine scar on Philip's left cheek and Tom's eyes being brown rather than blue, the brothers might at a careless glance have been mistaken one for the other. The children, too, had the same look– fair skinned, dark haired, handsome far beyond the ordinary– the look of the royal Chastelaynes. Sarto's heavy lips curved again into a smile.
"But I see, my lord, you are at any moment to have a child of your own." He looked amused at Elizabeth's obvious awe of him. Then once more he set his eyes on Rosalynde, and his mild humor turned intense. "And His Majesty is yet again to be favored as well. It must please you, my lord king, to know that, should any mischance befall you, fortune forfend, your house shall not be lacking in heirs."
"I thank God," Philip said gravely.
"And to know that your lady is as fruitful as she is wondrous fair."
"Again I thank God," Philip replied. "My lord, is there something you wished–"
"Death to the tyrant!"
A gasp rose from the court as a man sprang upon the king of Reghed from out of the crowd. There was a brief struggle, the flash of a dagger, and then men from Philip's guard and Sarto's seized the assailant and dragged him to his feet.
"You are hurt, my lord?" Philip asked urgently, waving away the soldiers who had moved to protect him, helping his guest to stand. Sarto merely smiled again and pressed his silken handkerchief to his side, quickly staining it with blood.
"It is slight, my lord. Slight."
"Take the children to the nursery, Rafe," Philip commanded, seeing that Robin had taken in every detail of the incident and that it had wakened John as well.
"Why do they fight, Papa?" Robin asked, owl eyed, as Tom handed him to Rafe.
"You go with Master Bonnechamp now, son," Philip said. "We will speak of this later. Come, John."
The two-year old huddled closer to his mother. "Stay."
Philip gave him a stern look, and Rafe scooped him up, keeping his voice cheerful to ward off the tears that threatened.
"Come, my princeling. We will see if Mistress Joan has something nice for your supper."
"Some of you go with him," Philip ordered his guard, then he turned to the silver-haired courtier standing to his far left. "My lord of Darlington, take three or four of my men and see the queen and Princess Elizabeth to their chambers as well."
"Surely the danger is passed, Your Majesty," Elizabeth protested against Tom's insistent expression.
"Yes, surely, my lord," Sarto agreed. "I would not be the cause of these ladies' departure for all my kingdom. Take my assurance, my lord, there will be no risk to them."
Philip looked uncertainly at his wife. "Rose?"
She smiled faintly, and he turned again to his guest.
"Very well, Your Majesty. You must accept my apology that such an incident has been allowed in my court, perpetrated by one of my own people."
"No, my lord," the would-be assassin said, a proud lift to his head. "I am from Alderness . . . in Reghed."
"I have long dealt with such rebels," Sarto said. "I ask your pardon, my lord, that the ruffian chose such a place for his treachery." He picked up the dagger and turned to his attacker, a very tall, very thin man with fiery, reckless defiance in his eyes. "Well, knave, you've hit more chain mail than flesh. Trust me, my executioners shall not be so inept, nor shall their dealing with you prove so short lived."
"I would take such torture a thousand times over, butcher, for even the hope of ending your life."
"This is your king, man," Philip reproved. "Dare you speak so? After such treason?"
"I will not call him my king, Your Majesty, nor would your lordship call him so if you knew what we suffer at his hands."
"There are always malcontents, my lord," Sarto told Philip blandly. "Surely even in your own kingdom."
"But none, I think, would step so far in hate," Tom observed, studying the prisoner. "It takes a grievous wrong to fuel such passion, does it not, man?"
The man stared fiercely back at him. Then he swallowed hard and took an uneven breath. "I have been a loyal man, my lord, but there is only so much loyalty will bear."
"Ask him if he does not remember Alderness, my lord," the prisoner said, jerking his head toward the king of Reghed.
"The law was broken," Sarto said calmly. "I was bound to punish the guilty."
"All Alderness was burned, my lord of Brenden. With the people shut up in the church to burn with it. Were they all guilty? The children as well?"
"The punishment is set down in the law," Sarto replied, unmoved.
"The law you made!"
"What wrong was done, my lord?" Philip asked tautly.
"Tell them," the tall man insisted when Sarto made no answer. "No? It was a heinous crime, my lords, truly. One of the milkmaids dared laugh on the Day of Mourning."
Philip and Tom looked at each other, baffled.
"The Day of Mourning?" Rosalynde asked, and Sarto turned to her, surprise on his face as if she should not have had to ask. Then he smiled slightly.
"This is a matter for Reghed alone, my lord king. I will see this man never again causes such a disturbance in your court." He signaled his guard. "Take him."
Rosalynde looked beseechingly at her husband. "My lord–"
"It is beyond my sovereignty, my lady," Philip told her. "He says true. This is a matter for Reghed alone."
"Please, you're your Majesty." Rosalynde came to stand before Sarto, making an eloquent plea with her eyes. "Please."
"What would you have, gracious lady?"
"Mercy for this man, my lord, I beg you. Banish him to Lynaleigh if you will. I will stand surety for him."
"He is a traitor, my lady."
"Spare him the torture at the very least, my lord, for mercy."
"Reghed law is quite specific." He looked at the dagger he still held, then again at Rosalynde, that odd intensity rekindling in his eyes. "But if you would have him shown mercy–"
With one swift stroke, he cut his prisoner's throat.
Gasps of horror rose from the onlookers and Rosalynde hid her face against Philip's shoulder. He held her there, his blood near to boiling.
"Dare you, sir? In my court? Before my lady?"
Once more, Sarto looked surprised.
"I did not think–" Instantly, he was on his knee. "Please, gracious lady, forgive me. I would not by the merest thought offend you."
"By your leave, my lord," Philip said, forcing an even tone, banishing the urge to repay the murderer stroke for merciless stroke. "I will thank Your Majesty to withdraw from my court until such time as we are prepared to discuss terms of trade."
Sarto stood and bowed coolly, then he took Rosalynde's hand from Philip's arm, not seeming to mind that she did not lift her head. "Until such time."
She caught a trembling breath when his lips touched her skin, and Philip held her more tightly. With another curt bow, Sarto swept from the great hall.
"Dismiss the court, my lord of Darlington," Philip commanded over the murmuring of the people, and then he turned to his brother. "Tom, I–"
He stopped short, and now Rosalynde did look up. Tom was kneeling at his wife's side, supporting her in her chair as she stared at the blood-drenched corpse Sarto's men had left behind them.
She was clutching her stomach, sobbing and gasping, her eyes wide with sudden fear.
"Is it the child, Bess love?"
"Tom– Oh, Tom."
"Shh, sweetheart," he soothed, managing a shaky smile. He lifted her into his arms, then gave Philip a worried look when she cried out in pain.
Rosalynde patted Elizabeth's hand, her gentleness calming the other girl some. "Do not fear. This will be nothing to you once your little one is born."
"You remember when John came," Philip told his sister-in-law, making himself sound sure and hearty. "They sent messengers to bring me back from the hunt when my lady had her first pains and, when they found me and brought me home not three hours later, she and John both were fast asleep."
Elizabeth smiled wanly and then gasped as another pang hit her.
"Tom," she breathed, twisting her fingers into his shirt, clinging desperately to him. "Stay with me, Tom. Stay with me, do not leave me."
"Shh, Bess love. I will stay as long as I am allowed."
Philip watched him carry her up the stairs. Then he pulled Rosalynde into his arms, holding her just as desperately. "Are you all right, Rose? Sweet heavens, Sarto is mad!"
"I am fine, my love," she murmured, kissing his shoulder. "The baby is fine. But that poor man–"
They both looked at the lifeless form sprawled at their feet.
"Mercy and grace," Philip said, feeling some unnamed dread inside himself, "what a place this Reghed must be."
Rosalynde stooped down and whispered a prayer over the man, and then she squeezed Philip's hand. "Now you must let me go see to Tom's lady. She is frightened enough without all this other, and your brother will need you."
He gave a quiet order to one of the soldiers. Then he took her arm and helped her up the stairs. A short while later, only a dark stain on the stone floor bore witness to that day.
He stood watching the flames climb higher. It was only a small village church, and he knew it would catch quickly. He could hear the pop and crackle of the wood and see the smoke that billowed thick and black out of it, but, as close as he was, the heat did not scorch his skin, the smoke did not stifle him, the ashes did not sting his eyes.
He realized it was always that way, though he had never thought it strange before. Then he heard the pounding, desperate thuds against the flimsy wood of the church doors, and wondered why the ones inside did not simply break through them. They must not want out very badly, he thought, and then he noticed the iron bar across the doors. He could move the bar, but the flames were already licking at the metal. He might burn his hands if he touched it.
He turned his back, and the pounding grew louder. Too well, he knew what came next. Still it grew louder and louder and louder, and then-
Philip forced himself awake, exhaling wearily. It had been almost three months since Sarto's would-be assassin had told his tragic tale. Philip had dreamed it over and over since. Truly it was a terrible thing, but he had heard of worse. He had seen worse. Why should this come to him again and again? He had not mentioned the dreams to Rosalynde. The story of Alderness was an ugly thing he did not want her to remember.
The pressed anxiousness of the vision faded as he looked at her nestled there against him, her satin cheek pressed to his shoulder, one soft hand spread over his heart and the dark rills of her hair spilling over them both like a shared cloak. He whispered a prayer of thanks for her as he did almost every time he saw her, every time he touched her, every time he thought of what he might have become without her.
She was so small and dainty, barely up to his chin and, even after three children, still just the span of his hands about the waist. He could not fathom yet how such a delicate creature could hold such an inexhaustible wellspring of love through everything that came.
He touched his lips to her forehead, but she did not stir until the baby made the first hint of a cry.
"Mmm, yes, shh," she murmured without opening her eyes, and, feeling her moving to get up, he held her there.
"It's all right, love," he whispered. "I will go."
He slipped out of bed and took the tiny whimpering bundle from the cradle, cuddling it to his bare chest.
"Shh, my honey-love," he soothed as he crawled back under the warmth of the coverlet. Rosalynde smiled sleepily at the two of them, and Philip shifted her once more against his shoulder, putting one arm around her and using the other to cradle the baby against her breast. Soon he heard the little one's soft suckling sounds and Rosalynde's slow, contented breathing. She had fallen asleep again, trusting him to watch over them both. After awhile, he peeped under the coverlet. The baby was asleep, too, her rosebud mouth a perfect miniature of the one touching his shoulder, her baby skin hardly fairer or softer than what lay sheltered in his other arm.
He cuddled both of them closer, remembering how afraid he had been when this little one was born. The midwife and the physicians, too, had not expected the child for another two weeks, but she had come anyway, just at the dawning of Saint Valentine's Day. Rosalynde had been all night in labor and he remembered her lying there scarcely conscious, her delicate features almost ethereal, as if she were already no longer of this world. Then the weeping midwife had laid the baby in Philip's hands, blue and still, a tiny, perfect little girl without even a breath to make up her life.
"Oh, Jesus, God," he had murmured, too staggered to pray anything more than that. Then Joan, the woman who had brought him and his three brothers into the world along with countless others before and since, had bustled into the room, snatching the child from him, scolding the midwife for her incompetence. Without prologue, she dunked the baby into a basin of warm water. Then she breathed into her mouth and nose and dunked her again. After a third time, she turned her upside-down and gave her a smart swat on the bottom.
That was followed by a tiny gasp and the sturdiest baby cry Philip had ever heard. Gathering her up against his chest, dripping still, he had cried, too, and laughed.
"Faith, sweetheart, both your brothers together never made such a row."
That had been more than a month ago, six weeks after Elizabeth had lost her child, a baby boy, stillborn on that New Year's Day Sarto had come to court. She and Tom had been married more than five years now, and the loss after so long a wait seemed that much more cruel.
Joan had tried to save that child, too. She had been with the mother throughout her labor, knowing it was bound to be difficult after the shock the girl had been through that day, but that had made no difference. Elizabeth had yet to recover from her grief and it had cast a shadow over the joy the birth of the new little princess had brought. Philip had been almost afraid to show the baby to his brother, afraid of the new sorrow it might bring him, but Tom had come, eager to see his first niece. He had cradled her in his arms, looking into her face with moist-eyed longing.
"What do you call her?"
Tom had nodded. "It is lovely."
"A boy would have been called Thomas."
Philip had regretted the words the instant they left his mouth. Tom's little one had been buried under that name. Tom had closed his eyes, cuddling the new baby close, and was silent for awhile.
"What a miracle it is," he had said finally, looking up with a tight smile. "I am happy for you, Philip. I am."
"Tom–" Philip had faltered there, recalling his own fear for this child, too easily imagining his brother's pain. He had put one arm around Tom's shoulders. "I wish I knew what to say to you."
Tom had shifted the baby back into his arms.
"Just be thankful. Be very thankful."
Tom had walked away then and Philip had heard Robin out in the corridor.
Philip had looked out of the door and saw Tom scoop the boy into his arms.
"Are you sad, Uncle?" Robin had asked, a look of puzzlement on his little face.
"Faith, no," Tom had told him heartily. "How could I be sad on such a day? You are not sad to have a fine new sister, I'll wager."
Robin had made a face. "I had rather God gave Mama a brother for me."
"You have John already," Tom had said, managing a laugh.
Robin had considered that for a moment. "I know, Uncle. You should take the new baby to Aunt 'Liz'beth so she will have one and then God will give Mama another, this time a boy."
"I think He knows when best to give us what's best for us to have," Tom had answered him lightly, then he had carried him off to play, and Philip had stood there with the baby, watching them. He had hurt for Tom then, and then he had grown angry. He felt that anger again now, anger that Tom who had never wronged anyone should have such grief to bear. And Sarto was to blame.
Rosalynde shivered against him and he held her and the baby closer. It angered him, too, remembering the old tyrant's covetous eyes upon her and how he had, in the name of mercy, slit a man's throat before her face. Dare the barbarian come so to his court and expect to make alliance with him after that? The effrontery was not to borne.
Deciding he was perfectly justified in sending Sarto's most recent ambassadors back to Reghed unheard, he closed his eyes and hoped the dream would not return.
After he had spent most of the afternoon in court, standing at his brother's side as he dismissed the ambassadors from Reghed, Tom went to see Elizabeth. An hour later, he closed her door softly behind him and stood in the spring sunlight that flooded from the open doorway of the chamber opposite him, a welcome change from the dimness he had just left. He had tried to coax Elizabeth into leaving, too, into walking with him as she used to do in the forest or by the river, or at least sitting for a moment or two in the garden. But she had told him, as she did every day, that she could not yet. Perhaps tomorrow.
He had begun to fear that that tomorrow would never come. When she lost the baby, she had taken an intense fever, and he had feared he would lose her as well. For almost three weeks he had stayed beside her, listening to her call for him and for their child, realizing she did not know him when he was there, that she did not understand that the child was gone.
When the fever broke, she had asked again for the baby and the physicians attending her had told her as gently as they were able what had happened. It was the next day before they would allow Tom in again to see her, and then only with strict instructions that he was not to upset her with talk of the baby or with mourning or with anything but gentle cheerfulness.
He had agreed and had obeyed, even when it was almost beyond him to hold her as she wept and not weep with her, when his own heart was breaking and he could not share his grief with the one closest to him. Soon after that, she no longer wept, no longer clung to him, no longer took much notice of his comings and goings, and he felt more helpless than ever. She had taken notice of him today, but what she had told him had done nothing to bolster his hope that they would one day regain the happiness they had once had.
"Oh, God," he whispered, leaning his head back against the door, closing his eyes against the sun that seemed suddenly too bright. "Can You not make it right again? Can You not bring her back to me?"
From the very beginning, there had been little of the commonplace to their marriage. They had come to the altar as strangers, their fathers having agreed to give them only one brief week together until the war then being waged was brought to an end. It was more than two years after that that she had come back to him and their marriage had truly begun. Even then it had been turbulent, for she had been unable to believe upon such brief acquaintance that he could love her as truly and as deeply as he did. Her mistrust had left her vulnerable to seduction and adultery and he had almost died in a duel to win back her honor. He still carried the scars of that day, in his side and across both palms, but they were well worth it to him, for they were irrefutable proof of his love and forgiveness and had won her to him, heart and soul.
Even now he did not doubt her love for him, but he feared that it was so drowned in grief that it would be too weak to ever again struggle free. If only she–
He looked up, realizing he was no longer alone. A thin, dark-haired girl dressed in the plain, neat garments of one of the castle servants stood a few feet away, watching him, looking as if she were trying to summon up the courage to speak to him. He rubbed his eyes and tried to make his expression more pleasant.
"Did you want something of me, Molly?"
"Pardon me, my lord, I did not wish to disturb you." She hesitated, and then she came closer to him, pity in her eyes. "Forgive my boldness, my lord, I know it is hardly my place to speak of it, but I could not help seeing– I thought perhaps I might– My lord, I am sorry about your lady and about the child."
He nodded in acknowledgment, fearing that if he said anything he might break down here before her. She reached out her hand, as if she wanted to comfort him, and then she drew back.
"Is there nothing I might do, my lord?"
"Pray," he said thickly.
Before she could say more, he walked swiftly to the end of the corridor and disappeared down the stairs. His step did not slow until he had left the palace and was in the courtyard.
As he passed the forge and neared the stables, he decided that perhaps a ride would clear his head and settle his nerves. In these past weeks he had faced many days such as this, days when his grief seemed to take on a will of its own and he was helpless against it. But those days had passed and he had survived them, and each one had less of a hold on him than the one before. He reminded himself of that now, reminded himself that no pain was forever, but he could not help thinking, too, that he could have faced the pain better had he not faced it alone.
No, he was not alone. There was a deep knowing inside him that would not let him believe he was alone. It gave him comfort, that knowing, but it was comfort for his spirit, for his soul. It was nothing he could cling to in the night, nothing that could take him in its arms and hold him close, nothing that could lie beside him in the darkness and keep the pain at bay.
"Oh, Bess, I need you," he whispered, but, after what she had told him today, he feared that his marriage was buried in Winterbrooke Cathedral along with his son.
For a moment he stood unmoving, listening to the mourning bell clang of the blacksmith's hammer. Dead. Dead. Dead. The black word pounded again and again inside him, like the dull pain in his heart. Dead. Dead. Dead.
The clanging stopped when the smith saw him there.
"You honor me, Your Highness," the big man said with a lumbering bow.
He wiped the glistening sweat from his face and waited for Tom to speak. When he did not, the smith went back to his work, his muscles bunching, then stretching as he pounded the heavy hammer against a red-glowing horseshoe.
"Might I do that?" Tom asked abruptly and again the clanging stopped.
"So please you, my lord," the man said quizzically, handing him the hammer.
The weight of it felt good in Tom's hand and he brought it down again and again against the anvil, harder and harder, until he, too, was drenched in sweat.
"Whatever enemy you have laid out on that anvil, I'd not take his place for all the world."
Tom looked up. "Philip. I did not see you there."
Philip took the blacksmith's tongs and picked up the horseshoe, looking at it with a critical eye. "I should like to see the horse that was made for."
It was pounded almost flat, completely useless. Philip laughed and Tom smiled tightly and gave the hammer back to the smith.
The big man bowed and went back to his work.
"Were you seeking me, Philip?" Tom asked as they left the forge. "I did not think the council met until Thursday."
"True. Can I not speak to my own brother except on a matter of state?"
Tom smiled once more, a little more genuinely. "Of course."
"How is your lady these days?"
Tom's smile tightened again. "No better, I fear."
"I want you to think on something. I know it would please the queen if we went to Westered for a time, to her father. Robin's grown so, and Lord James has not even seen John or Alyssa yet. They're children such a short while." He faltered there, a tinge of regret in his eyes. "I thought we might spend the summer there and perhaps you both would come along. It might would help your lady to come away from her sorrow awhile, to not always be reminded."
"She will never agree," Tom said, forcing his voice into calm evenness.
Tom could only shake his head.
"She is afraid," Tom said tautly. "She is afraid it will happen again."
"Nonsense," Philip insisted. "Your next child–"
"There will not be another child."
"Of course there will be, then you shall–"
"She's sent me away from her, Philip. She told me today she cannot bear to lose another child and there can be nothing more between us."
Anger flashed into Philip's eyes. "After all you've suffered for her sake, she dares to–"
"You do not understand." Tom could hardly say the words for the pain they cost him. "There were two others as well. Three summers ago and then the fall before last."
"Tom, I am so very sorry."
"She was not far along enough for it to really show those times. She did not want the court to know. But we thought this last time, since she carried him so long, we thought sure..."
"Why did you never tell me?" Philip asked after a silent moment. "What is a brother for?"
Tom looked up at him. "To help pick up the pieces?"
Philip squeezed his arm around his shoulders. "Come with us to Westered. Rosalynde always says there's healing in the sea air, perhaps for hearts as well."
Tom exhaled heavily, then nodded. "I will ask my lady."
It took Tom until after supper to summon courage enough to go back to Elizabeth. Even then he turned back twice on his way to her chamber, telling himself that it was too soon to speak to her yet, that she would be already asleep, that she would not want to hear what he had to say. But he knew he had to try. He could not lose her altogether. He had almost reached her door when he saw Molly there at the end of the corridor, her arms full of towels and her dark eyes humbly downcast. He knew from the tinge of red in her cheeks that she had been watching him again.
"Where are you off to then, Molly?" he asked kindly, hoping as he walked over to her that a touch of the everyday world would steady him a little before he faced the task he had set himself.
"The nursery, my lord." She smiled shyly and the color in her cheeks intensified. "Mistress Joan was bathing the boys and Prince John pulled most of the towels we had right into the tub. Then Prince Robin thought he'd best see to dousing the rest."
He smiled, too. "And you thought my brother was rewarding you by moving you from the laundry to the nursery. Perhaps you'd as soon go back."
"Oh, no, my lord." She clutched the towels more tightly against her, a look of genuine alarm on her thin face. "Please, my lord, do not send me away unless–" She ducked her head once more. "Unless the king has thought again and decided it is not fitting I should help tend his children. Or– or if you think it so."
"Now, no fear of that, Molly. You know he would never have given you such a charge if he did not think you fit for it. It is little enough payment for all you've done for us and for the kingdom."
"I could never do enough to repay all the kindness you've shown me, my lord," she said, not lifting her head.
He was well aware that it was not the desire for less rigorous work that made her so averse to returning to the laundry, but he did not have the heart to scold her for it. Despite the roughness and ill treatment she had known before coming to Winton, she had a gentle nature and he knew she would most likely wilt before his mildest reproof. Besides, even with the awkwardness he felt, there was something flattering in this girlish infatuation that had never sought more from him than a kind word, something that seemed to soothe his weary spirit a little.
It pleases her, he told himself, and there is no harm in it.
"Well, perhaps you'd best take those on then," he said, "before the little rogues make some other mischief."
"My lord, I asked you this morning if there were something I might–"
"Keep us in your prayers, Molly," he said, the heaviness coming back into his heart. "There is nothing you could do that would give me more comfort."
"I will, my lord," she promised. "Always."
When she was gone, he went back to Elizabeth's door and knocked tentatively. Nan, the tall, sturdy redhead who attended his wife, gave him a quick, hopeful little smile when she saw he had come and immediately shooed the other servants from the room, leaving him and Elizabeth alone.
"Have you a moment for me, Bess?"
She looked up at him listlessly, then turned again to the window.
"You should have come to supper, love," he said, sitting beside her. "We had a venison pasty from that buck Philip took yesterday and those cinnamon cakes you favor so much. Shall I have some brought for you?"
"I've eaten, my lord."
There was a plate on the table near the hearth, piled high still with meat and fresh bread and even some of the cakes, showing signs of no more than a slight rearrangement of its contents. He sighed and slipped his arm around her shoulders, noticing not for the first time how thin she had become. She seemed to notice nothing but the darkness outside her window.
"You should have seen the gown Lady Clarissa wore tonight at supper," he told her airily, remembering the interest she had always shown in the styles the other ladies of the court wore. "Faith, it was cut so low in front I think Philip would have dismissed her from the hall except, she being a woman of more than three-score years, he did not wish to–"
He broke off, realizing he was heard by no one but himself.
"Bess?" He slipped his hand from her shoulder to stroke her arm. "Bess love?"
She finally looked up at him with her dark, hollow eyes. "You were saying, my lord?"
"What is it that holds you there, love?" he asked. He could make out only a few shadowy shapes in the night – the guildhall, the armory, the cathedral, little more.
"It looks different in the mornings," she said. "And in the spring."
"Morning will come again," he assured her, "and spring is already upon us."
"It will be summer before long." He slipped his hand further down her arm, linking his fingers with hers. "Philip and his lady are going to Westered soon, Bess, to visit her father, and I thought perhaps we might–"
Her body tensed. "I must stay here."
"Think on it love," he coaxed. "The sea and the mountains and–"
Again she stared out the window, not hearing, and sudden realization put a hot, strangling tightness in his throat. The cathedral was down there, the cathedral with its marble saints, with its relics, with its tombs–
"I must stay here," she repeated. "With the baby."
He squeezed his eyes shut, fighting the quick, stabbing pain.
"It stops, Bess." His voice was low and stiff. "It stops now. I have let this carry on too long. Now there must be an end of it."
"I cannot leave him."
"He is dead!" Tom cried, shaking her by the shoulders, then crushing her against him. "He's dead, he's dead, he's dead!"
A tearing sob warped his words, choked them down inside him, and she began to cry, too, inconsolable, brokenhearted mourning that cut him through with remorse.
"Shh, love, shh." He held her closer, rocking her against him. "Forgive me, forgive me."
"Let me stay," she begged, lifting her tear-stained face, clasping her hands in entreaty, pleading as if for her life. "Do not take me away from him."
"Shh, you shall not go. You shall not." He kissed her forehead, her eyelids, her face. "Please, Bess, I love you. Do not cry anymore. Please, love."
He brought her clasped hands to his lips and a single tear fell on her wrist. She stared at the place, quieting with a sudden, shuddering sob, and then she brushed her fingers across it.
"You never wept," she whispered, brushing her fingers across his wet cheek, too, and he closed his eyes.
"I am sorry, love," he said, struggling to draw steadier breaths. "It is only that sometimes–"
"You never wept," she said again, a look of bewildered realization on her thin face. "Never all this while."
"I meant to be strong for you, Bess. I did not want to grieve you more–"
She put her arms around his neck, clinging to him, crying again. "I thought you did not care, that it meant nothing to you, my losing him."
"Oh, Bess," he murmured. Then he held her closer and told her how very much it did mean.
In the shelter of his arms she had finally fallen asleep. Now, long past dawn, she woke to find herself still there, still sitting with him in the window, with the morning sun pouring its warmth over them both. There had been something clean and healing in the tears they had shared, and, here in the light, the darkness of the night before seemed very far away.
"You should have slept," she said, hesitantly touching his cheek, wondering if, in all this while, sleep had not been as rare a visitor to him as to her.
"I wanted just to hold you," he said softly. "It has been so very long."
Last night for the first time she had seen past her own grief into his. It had been written there all along, she realized, in his tired face and in the loneliness he could not always hide. She laid her head again on his shoulder.
"Will you forgive me, my lord?"
"For what, sweet? You know I understand."
"For all those times you held me and would not cry, all those times you grieved alone and had no one to comfort you, for all those times–"
"Shh," he whispered, stroking her hair. "It does not matter now."
He kissed her forehead, then, very gently, her lips. She pressed closer, hardly realizing it when she slipped her arms around his neck, barely aware of the way she was nuzzling his cheek. It seemed only natural, kissing him as she had countless times before, holding him closer, feeling the quickening beat of her heart.
He responded hesitantly at first and then, when she did not object, with growing passion.
"Tom," she murmured, melting against him, then, without warning, she stiffened and pulled away. He shook his head, bewildered at the fearful pleading in her expression.
"Please, Bess, we must go on now. We've lost our child, don't let's lose each other as well. If we both of us grieved together all the rest of our lives it would not bring him back to us." He took her hand in his. "He is dead, sweetheart, but you are not. I am not. Remember him. Love him. I will. But I will go on living, too."
"Tom, I do love you, you know how I want you, I would never wish to hurt you again, but you must understand– As I told you before–" She pressed his hand to her face, fresh tears in her eyes. "You do not know how I've longed for you to come to me, to hold me as you used to do, to kiss me until I could forget the pain even just a little, to make it the way it was, but it can never be. It can never be again."
She was crying in earnest now, and he took her back into his arms to soothe her.
"You needn't decide such a thing now, sweetheart," he told her. "In time we will speak of this again and perhaps–"
"No," she sobbed, "I cannot. If we had another child, it would be the same all over again and I could never bear it."
He was silent for a moment.
"And this is truly what you want?" he said finally.
"No. It is not what I want."
"But it must be so, my lord. It must be so." She reached up to caress his cheek, brokenhearted determination on her face. "But I'll not play dog in the manger. I'll make no complaint if you wish to seek solace elsewhere."
He said nothing for a stunned moment and she dropped her hand, but he caught it up in both of his, cradling it against his heart.
"You could never mean that, Bess. Please tell me you would never want that."
"No," she breathed, "but it is hardly fair for me to expect–"
He drew her to him again, pain-tinged understanding in his dark eyes.
"Do you love me, Bess?"
That was all he asked, all he had ever asked. She was scarcely able to answer him for the sharp pain in her heart.
Tears brimming in his own eyes, he pressed a kiss into the auburn curls that were piled on top of her head.
"Then we will be all right, sweetheart. We will be all right."
She knew he meant it as comfort, but it only made her cry.
Copyright 1998 ~ DeAnna Julie Dodson
Illustration - "I Am Half Sick Of Shadows" by John William Waterhouse