A Lady in Waiting (by Aigneis)

Summary:
Category:  Covington Cross
Genre:  Medieval
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  11,730


 

“I can’t believe Sir Derek is actually coming here,” Eleanor exclaimed as she watched Cedric practicing his archery. “After what he did to Richard, I don’t know how he can show his face here.”

“He and Father were good friends once,” Armus replied. “You are aiming for the target, are you not, little brother?” he chided Cedric.

“There are too many distractions,” Cedric moaned. “Richard, tell these two how important it is for me to concentrate,” he shouted to his brother, who had just come out of the stables and was now heading his way.

“Concentrate on what?” Richard said absent-mindedly as he drew an arrow and hit his mark without breaking his stride.

“Never mind!” Cedric moaned. He held his bow taut, his jaw firmly set, his brow furrowed. Then holding his breath, he let his arrow fly. Once again it missed its mark, and his siblings cringed slightly before laughing good heartedly. “Well, how am I ever to learn when you’re all having so much fun teasing me,” he said with a solemnity better suited to the abbot.

“Now, now, wee one,” Armus laughed. “We will help you . . . eventually.”

“Just not now,” Richard added, trying to contain his laughter, but then his demeanor changed drastically. “Sir Derek will be arriving in moments, and father wants us to be on our best behavior.”

“He has a nerve coming here,” Cedric exclaimed. “You were almost hung because of him. Does he think we’ll all just forget that little detail?”

“He believed I killed his daughter,” Richard replied, a knot forming in his throat even as he spoke the words.

How he had loved Miriam, had hoped to make her his wife, but Derek had forbidden it. A more profitable match for his daughter was the excuse he had given, but that match had murdered her and framed Richard for the crime. Though he had tried to forgive Derek, there was a part of him that just could not forget all that had been lost. Both Miriam and her child had perished, and though he was told it was not his child, Richard could not help but wonder. It was like some deep secret that the others held, never allowing him to see.

“But you didn’t kill her!” Eleanor noted with emphasis. “You loved her, and now he expects us all to forgive and forget.”

Richard was staring out toward the target, holding his bow in his hand, not saying a word. In truth, it was as if he were in a different shire.

“Richard!” Eleanor exclaimed as she shoved her brother’s arm.

“What!” he asked, jarred back to earth by the sudden movement. He drew on his bow and released the arrow with a vengeance, splitting the one he had previously unleashed. “No, I didn’t . . . but Derek has apologized and asked my forgiveness more times than I care to remember. How can I not oblige him?

“That arrow was not fired in forgiveness, brother,” Armus noted, though Richard ignored the statement that pointed out the all too obvious truth.

“Father asks that we be on our best behavior,” Richard said as he pulled another arrow from his quiver, “and I shall.”

“That would be a unique occurrence,” Armus teased, but once more Richard chose to ignore his brother’s remark.

“Bet you can’t split that a second time,” Cedric grinned, the underlying current of the recent conversation somehow missing its mark where he was concerned.

Richard did not say a word, though the corner of his mouth drew up in a mischievous smile. He drew back on his bow once again and fired, shattering the two former arrows and leaving them splintered on the ground. Cedric just sighed in disgust and threw his bow down, storming off to the castle in an enormous pout.

“What?” Richard asked, for his brother and sister were staring at him with silly grins plastered across their faces.

“Come brother,” Armus chuckled, “now that you’ve let all that anger out, you should be fine to meet Sir Derek.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Richard argued. “I was fine before.”

“Of course you were,” Armus agreed, though they all knew he was just humoring the boy.

*****

“The carriage is approaching, m’lord,” the sergeant at arms informed Sir Thomas moments before the clatter of hoof beats could be heard in the bailey.

“Now remember what I said,” Thomas cautioned his family. “All is forgiven…even if not completely forgotten. I want a new beginning here.”

“Yes father,” his children replied with varying degrees of conviction before following their father out to the courtyard.

“Derek!” Thomas exclaimed as his one time good friend disembarked from the carriage.

“Thomas!” the man replied, his voice choked with a heartfelt warmth. He placed his hands on his host’s shoulders, deep gratitude and sincerest apologies written in his eyes. “It is so good of you to welcome me in your home once again. I can only hope our friendship can be as easily rekindled, for the loss of it was solely my fault.”

“It already has been, my dear friend,” Thomas grinned. “Now come in and rest yourself.”

Derek nodded agreeably but turned away momentarily to lend a hand to the lady that was even then disembarking from the carriage.

“Looks like the old goat’s got himself a young one,” Cedric teased softly with a note of playfulness in his tone, but the look on his brother’s faces was quite different.

“Matilda!” Armus whispered as he let a soft breath pass his lips.

Richard knew what the fair lady-in-waiting had meant to Armus. Though he knew there could never be anything between his rugged brother and a mere servant girl, he had seen the sparks nonetheless. Of course, being the responsible one, Armus had bowed to his station as eldest son and never mentioned the love he had felt for the beautiful woman, a love she would have gladly returned had she too not been true to her station. The thought of Sir Derek taking the girl for his bride made Richard’s blood run cold. He turned to his brother, but the tightly clamped lips and clenched jaw told him that words were best left unsaid.

“Of course, you remember my daughter’s lady-in-waiting, Matilda,” Derek smiled lovingly as he helped the young girl from the carriage. “After Miriam’s death, she was all I had left to comfort me. Without her, I surely would have died.”

“And well you should have,” Armus muttered through clenched teeth, though only loud enough so that Richard could here.

Richard glanced at his brother, still not knowing what to say, a condition that afflicted him only on the rarest of occasions. Derek had not known of his brother’s feelings for the girl, of course, but still . . . to take a bride so young. “The old fool . . .” Richard mumbled. “Blast him if he hasn’t thwarted true love again.”

Armus heard and slowly expelled his breath. “It could never have been in any event, brother, and besides, Sir Derek could not have known.”

They both looked back toward Sir Derek, who now had Thomas by the shoulder as they walked toward the keep. His conversation seemed both animated and confidential, though by no means of a negative nature. Miriam stood, with her eyes toward the ground, not even daring to cast a glance in Armus’ direction as she waited for someone to escort her into the Great Hall. Richard did cast a glance at his brother, however, and seeing that the large man showed no sign of movement, he quickly grabbed the lady’s arm and led her into the castle. He smiled at her politely, and she nodded in return, but he could not help see the huge tears that hovered along the rims of her eyes.

*****

“Show Lady Matilda to her chambers, won’t you, Eleanor,” Thomas instructed his daughter. “Sir Derek and I have some important business to discuss, and I’m sure the lady would like to freshen up after her journey.”

“Yes, of course, father,” Eleanor replied. She turned to Matilda, motioning her up the stairs and the young girl followed demurely, not saying a word as they walked along the castle hallways.

Eleanor, however, chirped on incessantly. “I hope you had a pleasant ride. The weather can be so unpredictable this time of year. Of course, if it’s too dry, the dust can be nearly suffocating when you’re stuffed in one of those carriages. That’s why I prefer horseback myself. You’re much more comfortable in the long run.”

Finally, they arrived at Lady Matilda’s room, but as Eleanor was about to leave, the lady sank down on the bed in a flood of tears.

“What is it?” Eleanor asked, concerned that she had somehow offended her guest, though she could not imagine how. She had avoided all talk of Miriam and Richard and Derek’s horrible behavior not six months before.

“I’m so sorry,” Matilda muttered. “Please tell Sir Armus, I am so sorry, but my lord has made up his mind, and he has been so good to me, I had not the heart to speak. Nor was it my place, for he only seeks what is best for all concerned,” she added with the tone of one reconciled to a fate not far above that of death.

“Tell Armus you’re sorry?” Eleanor queried. “About what?”

“He will know, my lady,” Matilda replied. “Please, I cannot bear to face him.”

Matilda wiped her nose, controlling her tears once more, and Eleanor nodded dubiously.

“Are you sure you’ll be all right?”

“Yes, my lady. Thank you. It is, after all, what my lady Miriam had so desperately wished for. How can I feel anything but thankful for this opportunity to serve her this one last time?”

“Yes,” Eleanor smiled warily. In truth, she was almost livid. Here she had been going out of her way to avoid all mention of Miriam’s name, and this wisp of a girl thought nothing of it. “If there’s nothing else I can get you then, I’ll leave you to rest.”

On a brief nod from Matilda, Eleanor left the room, closing the door behind her. I wonder what that was all about, she asked herself as she headed down toward the Great Hall in the hopes of finding Armus and getting to the bottom of it.

****

Instead, she found Richard, sitting all alone, staring into the fire.

“Where is everyone,” she asked.

Richard took a deep breath, then blew it out again. “Well, Cedric went to see that the horses were being properly tended to, Lady Elizabeth is with the kitchen staff, Father and Lord Derek are still in conference, and Armus . . . “

“Armus is where . . .” she asked, her curiosity overflowing.

“Armus went for a ride,” he said cryptically.

“A ride?” Eleanor exclaimed. “Father will be furious if we’re not all here for luncheon. You know how important this is to him.”

“Is she truly his wife?” Richard asked, ignoring his sister’s statement.

“What?” Eleanor exclaimed. She had no idea what was going on but was more determined than ever to get to the bottom of it. If nothing else had piqued her curiosity, the fact that her steadfast brother had deliberately ignored a specific directive from their father would have been enough.

“Lady Matilda! Did she truly marry the old buzzard,” Richard snapped.

“You liked her, didn’t you?” Eleanor giggled.

“No!” Richard replied, as if the thought was thoroughly absurd, then he took a deep breath and continued softly. “If you recall, it was her mistress I cared for.” His eyes took on a faraway look, and Eleanor wished she had never uttered such an insensitive query.

“I am sorry, Richard,” she mumbled apologetically. “It’s just that . . .” She thought for a moment, choosing her words carefully. “Well, you did seem overly concerned about her marital status.”

“If you tell anyone . . .” Richard started to reply with the truth, but then thought better of it. What good would it do to tell his sister about the feelings Armus had for this girl? It would only complicate matters.

“If I tell anyone what?” Eleanor repeated with a girlish delight.

Richard hesitated for a moment, standing and walking toward the fire in an effort to buy himself some time. He had a quick mind though, and not a moment later, turned to face his sister with what he thought sounded like a viable explanation.

“If you tell anyone how abhorrent I think it is that the old goat has taken her for his bride, “ he said matter-of-factly, “I’ll make sure everyone knows about you recent late night wanderings down toward the mill. Father wishes to make peace with Sir Derek, not inflict fresh wounds.”

Eleanor gasped, then pressed her lips tightly together before speaking. She must choose her words carefully, she thought, before the all too obvious occurred to her. “Wait a minute! What were you doing up at that hour?”

“I’ve had my own distractions to attend to,” he replied as if it were expected. “That does not excuse you.”

“Oh, it’s alright for you to have clandestine meetings,” she snapped, struggling to keep her voice under control, “but I’m supposed to live as if I were in a nunnery.”

“Judging by your recent behavior, sister,” he stated thoughtfully, “perhaps you should be.”

“And what about you!” she growled. “Does your behavior dictate that you should indeed be sent off to the abbey?”

“No, of course not,” Richard replied incredulously. “It’s expected of a man.”

He could see the anger building in his sister’s eyes, and not being a complete fool, he decided to change the subject. “Now, has Lady Matilda settled in all right?”

Richard could not have timed the question any better, for it had the effect of throwing a bucket of water over the angry flames that were fanning his sister’s fury.

“Well enough, I suppose,” she answered begrudgingly. She felt a bit annoyed at her brother’s ability to rob her of her indignation; however, he would undoubtedly stumble across that path again, and for the moment, there was another line of inquiry to follow. “She did want me to convey her apologies to Armus though. I can’t imagine what that could be about, can you?”

Richard’s eyes widened slightly, though as long a she could remember, her second brother had been adept at hiding his true emotions. That small gesture could mean anything from utter surprise to complete ignorance about the subject raised.

“No, not at all. What did she say exactly?”

“Just to tell Armus that she was sorry, and that he would understand what she meant.”

“Well then,” Richard exclaimed feeling much like a fish who had been let off the hook, “I suggest you ask Armus. I’m sure it’s nothing though,” he added as an afterthought.

“That’s what I had intended on doing,” Eleanor replied in annoyance, “but he’s gone out riding, now hasn’t he? Did he say when he would return home?”

“No, but you know Armus.” her brother answered. “If Father said to be here for luncheon, he will be here for luncheon.”

“Yes, but that won’t give me any time to speak with him alone, now will it?”

“No, I suppose not,” Richard answered, but her observation had given him an idea. “You’ll just have to wait until later then.”

She began to protest, but it seemed Richard was no longer listening, for he had begun to ascend the staircase. “Richard!” she shouted. “Now where are you going?”

“To the privy, if you’ve no objection,” he answered casually. “I’ll see you at luncheon then.”

He had no need of the privy, however, and taking care to make sure his inquisitive sister had not followed him, he ducked through to the postern and headed for the stables. He had to make sure he got to Armus first, so he could warn him about the potentially embarrassing questions he may not want to answer.

*****

Thomas sat down behind his desk and waited patiently as a page poured out two glasses of wine. Then he nodded to the boy pleasantly and settled back in his chair. “Now what is it, Derek, that is so important it could not wait until you had settled in properly.”

“I owe you a great deal, Thomas,” Derek began, but his friend just waved it off.

“Nonsense, Derek,” Thomas said, incredibly convincing given the fact he still felt a pang of anguish at the thought of his beloved son dangling from a rope. “All is forgotten. You were under great duress.”

“It was all of my own making, I fear,” Derek replied. “Had I let Miriam and Richard marry . . . but I cannot change that now. I can, however, make recompense to the boy . . . and at least bring some small happiness to my daughter.”

“My dear friend, Richard expects nothing. Just knowing that Miriam’s true killer has been punished and that her father realizes his innocence is compensation enough for the boy. He truly has forgiven you.”

“All the more reason, I must make it up to him, but first, I must tell you about my dear Matilda.”

“Yes, please do,” Thomas encouraged the man. He thought it absurd that he should marry one so young, but it was a common enough practice among nobility and peasant alike -– though, to marry a servant was quite another matter. Still, if it made the poor man happy, who was he to judge?

“She has been a great comfort to me in these last six months,” Derek said with tenderness. “No one was closer to my dear Miriam, not even I. So it was, in honor of Miriam’s memory, that I have made the child my ward . . . no, my daughter . . . and my heir.”

“Your ward!” Thomas exclaimed gleefully, relieved that his friend had not married the girl out of desperation. “What a marvelous idea. I’m sure dear Miriam would be pleased.”

“I shall not make the same mistakes with Matilda that I have made with Miriam,” Derek said, a tender smile touching his lips. “She is a beautiful young woman, like my dear Miriam in so many ways. In truth, she was more like a sister to my daughter than a servant girl.” He stopped for a moment, joyful tears coming to his eyes. “So it is that I give her hand in marriage to Sir Richard, as recompense for the love I have kept him from. May they have a long and happy life together,” he exclaimed as he lifted his glass to Thomas.

Stunned beyond words, Thomas lifted his glass as well, not quite sure how he was going to handle this. To reject the proposal would seem to be a rejection of Derek’s friendship. An acceptance on the other hand, would quite possibly mean condemning his son to a loveless marriage. Then again, his own marriage was arranged, and as Derek had pointed out, she was very much like Miriam. Thomas took a sip of his wine then smiled at his friend uncomfortably.

“I’m sure Richard would be honored,” Thomas ventured, “but there’s no need to feel obligated to . . . “

“I assure you, my friend, it is not out of obligation alone that I do this. I have thought long and hard about what needs be done and feel this is what is most fair and just for all involved. It is not Richard’s happiness alone that is at stake here.”

“I don’t understand,” Thomas replied, his brows creased in concern, for a great sadness had passed over his friend’s face.

“The Earl of Marlborough stopped on his way to London a month or so ago,” he uttered. He rose from his chair and began to pace, making it obvious that the story he was about to convey was one that caused him great trepidation. “Naturally, I made him welcome,” he went on, “introducing him to Miriam as the young mistress of the house. To my great dismay, he became enamored with the girl, ultimately asking for her hand in marriage.”

“Oh dear!” Thomas exclaimed, recalling just how old the Earl was, as well as the reputation he had garnered for the lack of respect he had shown his many wives, all of whom had met untimely deaths. He was the King’s uncle, however. One who still exerted a great deal of influence.

“Yes, you see my dilemma then,” Derek went on. He reached over, pouring himself another glass of wine and downing it in one gulp before continuing his tale. “I had to think quickly and remembered how Matilda has always spoken so kindly about the knights of Covington Cross. No, more than that, there is a tenderness in her eyes whenever your sons are mentioned. I recalled too, how much of a risk she had taken to save Sir Richard, and it suddenly dawned on me. Miriam was not the only one who loved the boy!” he exclaimed. He stopped suddenly, his eyes taking on a glow of joyous excitement, the kind that is reflected in any parent’s eyes when he sees his child happy.

“What could be better?” Derek said softly. “It was a way to give my new daughter her heart’s desire and, at the same time, make amends for the abhorrent treatment your son suffered at my hands. She is so like Miriam, how could he not love her as well?” Tears came to the man’s eyes, and he walked over to gaze out the window. “I informed the Earl that she was already spoken for and headed that very night for London to speak to the King. He approved heartily, and thus the dear child was saved from the clutches of that fiend.”

Derek smiled warmly, turning back toward his friend and taking him by the shoulders. “So you see, Thomas, all has worked out for the best. I’ll leave you to give Richard the good news then,” he added as he filled his glass one more time and drained its contents. Then, returning it to the desk, he headed for the door.

“Yes,” Thomas replied, “you have no idea how I look forward to it. No idea at all,” Thomas added as he thought of his son’s reaction, then drained his own wine glass in one gulp.

*****

“Armus,” Richard shouted as he round the bend through the thick set trees, coming out in a small secluded grove that sat beside the river.

“Yes, what is it?” his brother asked without even looking up. He was sitting against a large rock, tossing pebbles into the water and looked as if the weight of the world had descended upon his shoulders.

Richard came up next to him and sat by his side, pulling one leg up so that he rested his arm upon his knee. “It was so much easier when we were children,” he said with a deep sigh.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Armus replied. “I seem to remember you coming out here to pout when the fair Catherine rejected your affections for those of . . . who was it now . . . Peter Browning.” A slight smile touched his lips, though Richard could still detect the sadness in his eyes.

“That runt!” Richard exclaimed. “She must have taken a good knock in the head or something for her vision to be so impaired.”

This time Armus chuckled heartily. “That she must have, brother, or surely she would have been in awe of my prowess.”

“Your prowess!” Richard exclaimed, feigning indignation. “You were the saddest excuse for a squire I’d ever seen.”

“I was, wasn’t I,” Armus replied, causing both boys to laugh. “But at least I was a squire, not just a lowly page.”

“Yes well, even the longest journey . . . as Father would say.”

“You’ve come well along that path, brother,” Armus said, his demeanor turning serious once more.

“As have you . . . “ Richard replied, than suddenly he broke off and said what he had come there to say. “ . . . Armus, I don’t think she married him because it was what she wanted.”

“I know that,” the older knight replied, “but it doesn’t hurt any less . . . I suppose I always thought that I could figure out some way for us to be together. Now, even that hope is lost.”

“For what it’s worth, brother,” Richard said, his voice soft and sympathetic. “She is sorry. She told Eleanor to let you know . . . she also told her you would understand what it was she was sorry about. That’s why I’ve come. Eleanor is determined to . . . “

“. . . find out just what that is,” Armus interjected, finishing his brother’s sentence.

Richard nodded. “I thought you might want to avoid her for a bit, or at least have time to make up some story. I didn’t think you’d want the whole family knowing how you felt . . . especially now,” he added with a deep sigh.

Armus took a deep breath, then released it slowly. He did not speak for a moment, but looked out across the rippling water. Then he turned back to his brother.

“She did marry him, didn’t she?” he remarked matter-of-factly.

Richard gave him a strange look before he replied. “Yes, I suppose she did. Why else would he have brought her along?”

“No,” Armus chuckled sadly, “not Matilda . . . Catherine. She ended up marrying Peter Browning, didn’t she?”

“Yes, I think she did,” Richard beamed back. “And I hear now, she’s about two stone overweight and could take down the blacksmith with one fell swoop.”

The two boys rose, still laughing at their description of the fair Catherine, and Richard headed back for his horse. “Don’t be late for luncheon, brother, or Father will skin you alive.”

“I won’t,” Armus replied, “and Richard, thank you for the warning.”

“It’s the least I could do.” He nodded solemnly, then spurred his pony and rode back for Covington Cross.

*****

“Yes, Father, Evan said you wanted to see me,” Richard queried as he entered Thomas’ chambers and came to stand before him.

“Yes, Richard, I do,” Thomas replied. “Please, sit down.”

The solemnity in his father’s voice caused a chill to run down his back, a chill that he had not felt for a very long time. It was not the severity of an impending scolding, or the tenor of a lecture. No, this was the more subtle tone he used when he had to instruct his children to do something he disliked, but had no choice about.

Richard sat down cautiously, on the edge of the seat, not relaxing comfortably in the chair the way he usually did. “What is it, Father?” he asked, almost holding his breath.

“Sir Derek feels the need to compensate you for the losses you suffered as a result of his actions,” Thomas began. He seemed to be struggling for each word, but Richard had no idea where he was heading. Why should Sir Derek’s feeling the need to make it up to him cause his father such anguish? A bit of money or a parcel of land was hardly a cause for anxiety and far from uncalled for.

“It’s certainly not necessary,” Richard replied. “Of course, I shouldn’t insult his offer by rejecting it without some consideration. And if it rids Sir Derek of even a portion of the guilt he feels, it would be callous of me not to accept it and ease his suffering.”

“Really Richard,” Thomas said, a twinkle returning to his eye. “I’m glad you feel that way. It certainly makes my task much easier.”

“Not at all, Father,” Richard stated. “May I ask what form this compensation will take?”

“Yes, of course,” Thomas replied, finding his son’s overly-generous response bordering on the comical. “He’s giving you his daughter.”

“His daughter!” Richard exclaimed, finding no humor in the statement.

“Yes, it seems he’s taken the Lady Matilda as his ward and feels he can do you no greater service than to give you that which he had previously denied you – his daughter’s hand in marriage.”

Richard’s mouth opened and closed like that of a fish who was gasping for air. “But I didn’t ask for Lady Matilda’s hand. I was in love with Miriam. You can’t just substitute one for the other.”

“Apparently, Sir Derek believes it is the least he can do.”

“Well, tell him I thank him for his gesture but decline just the same,” Richard replied hastily, on the verge of sheer panic. “Tell him no compensation is required. I have forgiven him.”

“But that would be an insult,” Thomas noted, suddenly enjoying the sight of his sometimes arrogant son squirming like a grounded fish. “No, you must accept his kind offer. He says she is very much like Miriam and is sure you would get on just the same.”

“That’s absurd! No, I won’t! . . . I can’t!” Richard blurted out.

“You will!” Thomas exclaimed, annoyed by his son’s open defiance.

“But you don’t understand, Father,” he pleaded.

“Oh, I understand all too well, Richard,” Thomas bellowed. “You’re only concerned about the welfare of others when it is to your advantage. When the prospect of money or land was involved, your concern was all too apparent, but now . . . now you think of no one but yourself. You have had your way far too often, Richard. Now it is time to do your duty, and you will perform it as a dutiful son should. Do I make myself clear? There are things at stake here of which you are not aware.”

“Than perhaps I should be,” Richard replied, daring to push a bit further than he knew it was his place to do.

His father, however, took a bit of pity on the boy. “Sir Derek is convinced that the girl cares a great deal for you,” Thomas said. “As he stated, why else would she have taken such a risk to clear your name.”

“Perhaps because she . . . “ Richard began, but then he stopped short. What if he was wrong and she did not feel anything for his older brother? Was it to be Charlotte all over again? Would Armus want him to say anything about his feelings for her? The questions raced through his head.

“Perhaps because she what?” Thomas snapped, growing impatient at his younger son’s tendency to argue every point with him.

“Nothing,” Richard mumbled, his eyes cast toward the ground and his mouth firmly shut.

“No, that is exactly right,” Thomas growled, angry at the boy for daring to contest his decree and yet furious with himself for having to issue it. “There is no reason for you to reject this proposal.” Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath, then looked up toward his son once more, his heart softened. “If not you, Richard, she will be betrothed to the Earl of Marlborough.”

“But he’s older than you!” Richard declared, regretting the words as soon as they had escaped from his lips. “I mean . . .”

“I know what you mean, Richard,” Thomas grumbled, “but this time you are right. Would you condemn this girl to such a life?”

“That’s not fair, Father!” Richard exclaimed. “The King should . . . “

“The King will do what he must,” Thomas cautioned, feeling his son was at times a bit too forthright for his own good. “The Earl has a great deal of influence among the nobility.”

“And so he would sacrifice this young girl to that evil . . . “

“Enough, Richard!” Thomas bellowed. “It is time you learned when to keep your thoughts to yourself. Consider it a practical exercise in the vow of obedience you took toward your king.”

Richard was stunned. He knew nothing he could say would alter his father’s decision, at least not at the moment. “Yes, Father,” he mumbled, anger seething just below the surface.

“Good, now leave me while I consider what needs to be done.”

Richard bowed stiffly to his father, a sign of respect that had long since become an indication that their conversation had ended on an angry note, with Richard feeling himself no more than one of his father’s armed guards. Thomas knew the symbolism, but chose to ignore it, telling himself that the boy would get over it, though in truth, he wished he did not have to demand such a price from his son. How he wished Anne were there. She always knew the right thing to say to calm her son’s rebellious nature. He, on the other hand, saw far too much of himself in the boy, an observation that only complicated the given situation.

*****

Richard stormed out of the keep and across the tilting yard, an arrow from Cedric’s bow barely missing him. “What’s the matter with you!” he shouted. “You’re supposed to look where you’re aiming, not just fire wildly. It will be nothing short of a miracle if you ever become a knight.”

Cedric dropped his bow by his side. He never minded Richard’s light-hearted teasing — he knew it was all done in fun — but this, this was mean-spirited and came from the heart. This cut Cedric to the quick, for he looked up to Richard, dreamed of one day being like him.

Armus could see the pain in his youngest brother’s eyes and took exception to it. “What is the matter with you, brother!” he bellowed back at Richard. “Only a complete fool walks in front of a target. Now I believe you owe Cedric an apology.”

“Yes, of course, whatever,” Richard muttered as he continued on his way, causing Armus to snort in annoyance.

“He’s right, isn’t he, Armus?” Cedric moaned. “I’m beyond all help, too much for even you or Richard to train. I might as well go into the church. Maybe there I’d be of some use.” He lifted his quiver over his head and dropped in on the ground, then turned and walked away, his shoulders slumped and his spirits depleted.

“Cedric!” Armus cried, but the boy kept walking. The elder boy knew there was nothing he could say at the moment to lift his youngest brother’s spirits. It was Richard who had rendered the brutal judgment, and Richard who must repair the damage. With that in mind, he followed his disagreeable brother across the tilting field and into the stables, where he found him saddling his horse. “What’s gotten into you, Richard?” he asked.

“Nothing, why?” Richard replied, his tone still sharp and curt.

“Because you just crushed Cedric’s dreams as easily and thoughtlessly as you would an acorn,” Armus stated bluntly. “I’ve known you to be painfully frank from time to time, but never have I witnessed you display such a mean-spiritedness.”

“The boy’s useless with a weapon,” Richard retorted coldly. “He may as well just admit it and get on with his life.”

“He’s only a boy,” Armus snapped. “It seems to me I remember when you barely had enough strength to draw a bow, let alone hit a target.”

“That was different! I was only a page. Cedric should be a squire by now and well able to handle a bow.”

“Sometimes, little brother, I would like to tie you to the whipping post and flog you myself,” Armus hissed, trying desperately to retain his composure, for he was sure there was more to Richard’s offensive behavior than met the eye.

“You and who else!” Richard grumbled.

“I dare say Father, if he finds out how foul you’ve been to Cedric.”

“Father wanted him to be a cleric,” Richard noted matter-of-factly. “Cedric should be a dutiful son and obey his command . . . just like we all must.”

“So that’s it!” Armus exclaimed. “What is it Father wants you to do now that you find so disagreeable? Really, Richard, you can be so transparent at times.”

“Really, brother,” Richard stated, “then you won’t have any trouble figuring it all out by yourself.” With that, he mounted his chestnut steed and headed out across the bailey at a full gallop, leaving Armus covered with dust.

“Someday, little brother!” the older boy threatened as he dusted himself off.

*****

Richard sat down by the old willow tree, throwing pebbles into the passing current. There was a chill to the air, and he watched lethargically as random leaves landed upon the rippling waters. He wished he could float away that easily. Then he would just leave and solve everyone’s problem, but no, that wouldn’t solve Matilda’s problem. Unless. . . , he thought . . . the key lie in substituting Armus for himself. He was sure his burly brother would be more than happy to marry the girl. Perhaps they could just change places at the ceremony, but no, that would be a bit obvious, Besides, that old goat, Neville, Earl of Marlborough, would probably call it foul and declare himself the winner by default. No, there had to be another way, but how?

If he refused to marry Lady Matilda all together, it would be the equivalent of a death sentence to the young girl, as well as an unforgivable slap in the face to Sir Derek. That was not even taking into account the dagger it would drive into his father’s heart. That dagger, however, would be but a toothpick to the sword it would thrust through his brother’s heart if he did marry her. Armus loved the lady; he had no doubt of that. Only their stations in life had prevented the older boy from asking for her hand that previous spring. Yet, how could Richard refuse the proposal now? The lady had saved his life, risking her own to reveal the real murderer. Only an ungrateful lout would not accept her hand. But the lady loves Armus, he argued, surely she would see that I was only rejecting her so that she would be free to wed Armus . . . or would she? He put his head in his hands, resting his arms on his knees. I wish mother were here.

Just then a butterfly fluttered past his nose, and he watched it dreamily. I wish I could fly away like that, he though, and it was then that the idea hit him. Suppose he was absolutely dreadful to the lady. He could pretend to be a drunkard, talk to her as if she were no more than the lowest of servants, be a complete pig about it. Armus would come to her rescue, Sir Derek would be glad of it, and his Father may be angry, but he would come around in time. No one would fault Sir Derek for rescinding his offer, or his father for attempting to repair the ill feeling. Not even the Earl could interfere in such a delicate matter. Once Armus and Matilda had taken their vows, he could return to normal, apologize for his abhorrent behavior, and wish the happy couple a long and prosperous life.

He sat back against the hearty old tree and smiled, pleased with himself. Then he thought of Cedric. He really did owe the boy an apology, and maybe a lesson or two in archery.

*****

“Armus,” Eleanor called as she walked toward the stables. He was busy brushing down his stallion, but stopped momentarily as she grew nearer, taking a deep breath in anticipation of what he knew was coming.

“Yes, what is it, Eleanor?

“I have a message for you from Lady Matilda,” she muttered curiously. “She said to tell you that she was sorry, that Sir Derek had made up his mind, and she did not have the heart to say anything. Do you know what she was talking about?”

Armus found it hard to swallow, let alone speak. “No,” he croaked. “I can’t imagine.”

Not one for being kept in the dark, especially when the information might be used later as leverage against her brothers, Eleanor pressed the issue. “Funny, Richard seems to think you’ll know exactly what she meant.”

“Did he?” Armus declared, knowing his brother had said no such thing. “Perhaps Richard needs a few lessons in the art of discretion then,” he added casually. “It must be difficult enough for Lady Matilda as it is. She doesn’t need to be the subject of any reckless castle gossip.”

“What do you mean, Armus?” Eleanor asked coyly. “I’m sure they’ll be some talk about her marriage to Sir Derek, but surely the lady knew that when she married him. After all, why would such a young girl marry someone Father’s age, unless it was for wealth and station?”

“Perhaps because she was not given a choice!” Armus growled, forgetting himself “Not everyone has the luxury of turning down a marriage that has been arranged for them, Eleanor.”

“I know that, so do you think she might actually be in love with someone else then?”

“I wouldn’t know!” Armus replied, turning back to his horse and brushing him vigorously.

“I wonder who it could be?” his sister pressed still further, determined to force her brother to admit what was in his heart. “And why apologize to you so earnestly, as if she had done you some great wrong.” Eleanor pretended to be considering the matter while Armus curried his horse with increasingly heavy strokes. “You spent quite a lot of time with her when we were last at Strattingford Glen, didn’t you?” she finally added.

“What is that supposed to mean!” Armus asked, striving desperately to attain a measured tone.

“I don’t know, Armus,” Eleanor grinned playfully. “What does it mean?”

“The lady is now married,” he said with a stiffened jaw. “Whatever may have been then no longer means anything.”

“But what was then?” Eleanor queried.

“Friendship, nothing more!”

“Oh, Armus!” Eleanor sighed in frustration. “You’re beginning to sound like Richard. It’s not like you to deny what you feel. Why can’t you just admit that you care for her?”

“Because the lady’s honor is at stake,” Armus stressed. “Just leave it alone, Eleanor.” He returned to combing his stallion, and realizing she would get nothing further out of him, Eleanor turned to head back to the castle. Before she went, however, Armus called out to her. “Tell Lady Matilda, I do understand and bear her no ill will.”

Eleanor nodded then turned to walk back to the castle. She could not help but feel a bit sorry about the way she had teased her eldest brother, for it was obvious his heart ached for the lady. Even more obvious was the fact that the fair maiden was no longer within his reach.

*****

Everyone assembled for the evening meal that night as required. Sir Thomas sat at the head of the table as usual, with Lady Elizabeth on his left and Sir Derek on his right. Richard stood awkwardly, waiting for his father to instruct him where he was to sit, as their guest was in his usual seat and he was unsure where Lady Matilda would be placed.

But Sir Derek spoke up first. “Richard, please do me the honor of being seated by my side.”

“But the Lady Matilda, sir . . . ,” Richard replied politely.

“Shall be seated on your other side,” Thomas responded sternly, growing impatient with his son’s obvious reluctance to take his appropriate place.

Richard took his seat, albeit with suppressed annoyance, but his discomfort was mild compared to that of Matilda, who kept her eyes firmly on the roast goose that had been placed in the center of the table. Conversation went on as usual about them. Richard and Matilda answered politely when addressed, but neither spoke otherwise, even though Armus did try to engage the lady on a number of occasions. Finally, just before dessert was to be served, Thomas rose and tapped his knife against his goblet, clearing his throat so that his family would take notice.

“We are all well aware of the tragic events that took place at Strattingford Glen just six months ago. Today, we put those events behind us and begin anew. As such, a marriage proposal has been set forth in the spirit of this renewed friendship, as a way of healing old wounds. In lieu of the daughter whose love he was once denied, Sir Derek has given Richard the hand of his ward, the fair Lady Matilda. Let us all raise our glasses in a toast to the happy couple. May they know nothing but happiness from this day forward.”

The floor beneath them almost shook, so great was the anger building in Armus at the announcement of the proposed marriage. In spite of it, he tried to sit quietly, taking deep and measured breaths as he shoveled lime custard into his mouth to keep from cursing his brother’s very name. How could Richard have accepted such an arrangement? He, of all people, knew how they felt about each other, and now to find out she was heir to a nobleman, only to discover that Richard had once again plucked love from his grasp. To make it worse, his brother had come to him that very morning, feigning ignorance of the matter. The usually mild-tempered knight could barely contain his fury.

Neither Richard nor Matilda dared look up. Eleanor continually did, expecting to see her gentle giant of a brother explode into a thousand pieces. No one else took any notice, however, until, at last, Armus stood abruptly. “You will excuse me,” he said as he struggled to keep his temper under control. “Something at the table has left a bad taste in my mouth, and I feel rather ill.”

“It’s no wonder,” Cedric chimed in innocently, “the way you were scoffing down that custard.”

“Be quiet, Cedric,” Richard cautioned. He should have known better than to say anything, for that was just the opening Armus needed.

“Leave the boy alone, brother!” Armus bellowed.

“Armus I . . .” Richard began, but before he knew what was happening, Armus had thrust his fist at his brother and sent the boy sailing back across the fieldstone floor, rivulets of blood streaming from his nose and lip. Then without another word, the elder knight stormed out the door and down toward the stables.

Matilda gasped and ran to Richard’s side, and though she acted nothing less than his betrothed outwardly, inwardly her heart was filled with joy over the way Armus had reacted. He truly had loved her and was willing to fight for her. But what use would that do? she thought as she tried to press a cloth to Richard’s battered lip. Richard pushed her hand away and stormed up the stairs. All she could see was that she had started a war between two brothers who cared for each other more than they could ever care for her. What chance did she stand with either of them?

*****

While Thomas tried to bring peace back to what was left of the evening meal, Richard slipped down a back staircase and over to the stables where he found Armus polishing his saddle.

“Leave me be, brother,” Armus said with an ominous scowl as he spied Richard at the far end of the stalls.

“Please, Armus, it’s not what you think,” Richard pleaded. “I never asked for this.”

“No, of course you didn’t!” Armus hissed. “Poor little misunderstood Richard. You never ask for any of it. You didn’t mean to fall in love with Charlotte either, did you? It just happened. Don’t you think it just a bit strange how everything is always out of your control, and yet somehow you end up getting exactly what you want each and every time.”

“Charlotte never loved you; she never really loved either of us,” Richard snapped. “You should be thanking me for taking that arrogant little witch off your hands. It was all a game to her. She played us off one against the other, and it was working until I saw through her little plan. You’re better off without her.”

“Oh, my savior!” Armus said mockingly. “If you don’t mind, I am quite capable of taking care of myself. And who are you to call anyone arrogant?

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means you’re spoiled, brother,” Armus grumbled. “You always have been. I should have known better than to confide in you, should have never allowed a word of my feelings for Matilda to reach your ears. Oh, you weren’t interested in her as long as you knew there was no chance we could be happy together, no chance for me to find true love. Her being Sir Derek’s ward has changed all that now though, hasn’t it? Tell me, Richard, will you actually go through with this wedding, or do you have no other purpose in mind than making sure you keep her from me?”

“Oh I lie awake at nights thinking of nothing else,” Richard replied. “Do you truly believe I don’t wish for your happiness?”

“I believe the only happiness you’re concerned with is your own,” Armus bellowed as he threw the currying comb at his brother’s head. “Now leave me be. I need hear no more of your lies.”

“Please, Armus,” Richard pleaded, seeing the pain in his brother’s eyes. “I truly did not ask for this.” He had not even finished his sentence before a harness came flying his way. “I have a plan, but I need your help.” Next a horseshoe whizzed past his ear.

“Leave me, brother,” Armus growled, “before I come over there and stuff you in this bucket.”

“It’s you she loves, Armus,” Richard persisted, not managing to duck fast enough for the said bucket to miss him entirely. “Ow!!!” he howled as it crashed into his shoulder. “For godsake, Armus. It was Sir Derek’s idea, not mine, and I need your help to convince him that it’s you Matilda should be promised to.”

Armus had just lifted a bale of hay over his head when Richard’s words finally reached his brain. “What?” he asked, dropping the hay at his feet.

“This whole thing is Sir Derek’s way of compensating me for everything he’s taken from me. He thinks by giving me Matilda’s hand, it can make up for denying me Miriam’s.”

“And can it?” Armus asked sternly.

“No, it can not,” Richard replied, his voice somehow sad and distant. “Besides,” he added, his tone brightening a bit, “it’s you she loves . . . and you she should be with, but we need to make Sir Derek see that. I have an idea, but I’ll need you’re help.”

“What is it?” Armus asked cynically, for he was well aware of some of his brother’s hair-brained schemes.

“We’ll need to let Matilda in on it as well, elst she would surely be hurt.”

Hurt!” Armus exclaimed. “I’ll not put Lady Matilda in any danger, no matter what the cost.”

“No!” Richard cried. “Just listen. “I’ll treat her abominably, less than a servant. I’ll pretend to be constantly inebriated, or near to it and make sure Sir Derek knows how I like to be with other women. He cares a great deal for Matilda. I’m betting he won’t risk her happiness.

“But why not just explain the whole situation to him?” Armus asked.

“Oh . . . I suppose we might try it,” Richard replied, scratching his head as if he had never considered anything so obvious. “Who should do it then?”

“I think it must be you,” Armus noted casually. “After all, it’s your refusal he may deem as an insult.”

“Father’s not going to like this,” Richard cautioned his older brother. “It’s more involved than just a simple refusal. There’s still some intrigue that must be carried out.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s not important at the moment, not if I can convince Sir Derek to go along with it.”

“Then use that charm your always bragging about and make it happen.”

“I don’t brag,” Richard replied indignantly. “I can’t help it if women find me irresistible.”

“And what exactly do you call that statement then?” Armus queried.

“Honesty, brother,” Richard replied quite innocently. “’Tis not bragging to speak the truth.”

“Well, when you speak it,” Armus replied, his good nature returned at the thought of holding Matilda once again, “you will let me know, won’t you?”

Richard began to protest, but his brother pushed him toward the castle. “Now off with you,” he urged the younger knight.

*****

The two boys reached the bailey just as a visitor was arriving with his entourage, consisting of an elaborate coach and no less than eight horsemen.

“The Earl of Marlborough!” Richard hissed.

“Yes,” Armus agreed as he peered over his brother’s shoulder. “I wonder what he’s doing here?”

Richard turned around abruptly, pushing his brother back toward the stables. “That was the thing that wasn’t important a moment ago.”

“Well, what is it?” Armus inquired, standing as if rooted to the spot below his feet, and Richard knew no amount of physical persuasion could move him. He turned instead to a verbal plea.

“Please, brother, just this once, do as I ask without any argument,” Richard begged. “Believe me when I say, Matilda’s welfare may depend on it.”

Armus could see the truth in his brother’s eyes, and so, followed the boy to the stables, where they both mounted in silence and rode out to their secret grove. “Now what is this all about, Richard.”

As usual, Richard leaned up against the old tree, while Armus sat on the large rock. It was as if they were young boys again, and he felt sure his younger brother was about to tell him that he had broken the Earl’s favorite goblet or something of the kind. What his brother told him, however, made his blood run cold.

“I’ll not allow it,” Armus bellowed. “We’ll speak to Sir Derek and make the arrangements.”

“He won’t change his mind,” Richard stated, and for once, it was he who spoke logically, and Armus who spoke from the heart. “He’s intimidated by the Earl. Besides, if I reject the proposal, Lord Neville’s offer will be the next one on the table. Sir Derek will never refuse it.”

“Then we’ll go with the other plan,” Armus said with determination. “You be the rogue you were planning on, and I’ll rescue the lady.”

“That would have only have worked if there was time for you to marry before the Earl got word of it,” Richard said with a desperate sigh. “I don’t know what to do, Armus, but whatever it is, I fear it must happen quickly. What I don’t understand is why he’s here now?”

“That’s easy enough to answer,” Eleanor said as she stepped out from between to large yew trees.

“What are you doing here?” Richard asked, not sure just how much Armus or his father had told her.

“Looking for the two of you,” she said casually. “We have a guest.”

“Yes, we know,” Richard answered, the thought suddenly occurring to him that she knew exactly where to look. “But how did you know where to find us?”

“I’ve always known where to find you,” she replied with a twinkle in her eye. “I used to follow you out here sometimes, just to see what you were up to.”

“You what!” Richard exploded, but Armus had more important things on his mind.

“It’s not important, Richard,” the elder knight scolded his younger brother. Then turning to his sister, he continued. “Now why is it that the Earl has deemed to visit Covington Cross at just this time?”

“First, what exactly is going on?” Eleanor demanded.

Seeing her tenacious nature had come to the fore, and knowing neither of them stood a chance against it, both brothers agreed that the quickest way to get their questions answered was to answer hers first. So it was that Richard gave a rather condensed version of their predicament, touching on all the important aspects along the way. Eleanor was stunned, but she gave a dreamy sigh as she sat down next to her eldest brother and took his arm.

“That’s so romantic,” she said. Armus and Richard looked at her in exasperation, their expressions bringing her back to her senses, and she straightened up, letting go of her grip on her brother’s arm. “But what are you going to do?” she asked, trying to sound reasonable. “The Earl has come for the wedding.”

“The what!” both boy’s exclaimed simultaneously.

“The wedding,” Eleanor repeated. “It’s to take place in the chapel tomorrow afternoon. Word has gone out to everyone. By this evening, the castle will be full of guests.”

Richard and Armus looked at each other, neither really knowing what to say. It was Eleanor who finally spoke up.

“There’s only one way to sort this out,” she stated, surprised that her usually resourceful brother’s had not already suggested it. “You’ll have to steal her away and marry her.”

“But that would be kidnapping,” Armus exclaimed.

“Not if Matilda consented before the fact,” Richard said. A smile was beginning to cross his face again, only to be dowsed immediately by his sister’s next statement.

“Oh, that might be a problem,” she uttered thoughtfully.

“Why?” Armus protested. “It’s me she loves, isn’t it?”

“Of course it is!” Eleanor moaned at her brother’s lack of confidence. “It’s just that she feels obliged to Sir Derek and may not want to do anything to cause him trouble.”

“Then you’ll have to convince her otherwise,” Richard said, stating the obvious. “It is the only way.”

“It would be a clandestine marriage in any case,” Armus argued. “The King could seek to have it annulled.”

“But it’s not likely if it was already consummated,” their sister pointed out.

“Really, Eleanor!” Richard scolded. “A young lady should not be speaking of such matters.”

“Oh really, Richard,” the girl moaned. “Do you think I don’t know what takes place in the marriage bed?”

Richard went to reply, but Armus stopped them. “I don’t know. It would cause quite a scandal.”

“It would be so romantic,” Eleanor lilted dreamily.

“And possibly our only chance,” Richard added. “I assure you, brother, as lovely as Matilda is, I have no desire to wed her.”

“When then,” Armus exclaimed. “We’ll need time for Eleanor to speak to her.”

“Tonight!” Richard exclaimed. “It’s the only logical time. By tomorrow afternoon, it will be a moot issue.”

“I hate to admit it,” Eleanor added, “but Richard’s right, the sooner the better.”

“But where will we go?” Armus inquired, still not quite sure it was the right course of action.

“Do you love this girl or not, Armus,” Richard asked, taking his brother by the arm. “If you do, then you have to rescue her.”

“I love her with all my heart,” Armus replied.

“Then let there be no further doubt, brother,” Richard assured him. “This is the right course to take.”

 

*****

“I don’t know, Eleanor. Sir Derek has done so much for me,” Matilda said. Her voice quivered as she spoke, and Eleanor was certain that, unlike herself, this lady had never even thought of doing anything so bold.

“Yes, that’s why you must do it,” Eleanor urged the girl. “He loves you and wants what’s best for you. He just doesn’t know it’s Armus and not Richard.”

“But he wanted to make it up to Sir Richard . . .,” the girl began.

“More than anything, I think he wanted to save you from that ogre, the Earl of Marlborough,” Eleanor smiled. “I doubt he’ll care who carried out the rescue, just as long as it is accomplished and you are happy.”

“Oh, do you truly think so, Eleanor,” Matilda said with a desperate sigh.

“I know that’s what my father would want,” Eleanor said, smiling softly, “and Sir Derek is not all that different from him.”

“Then let us be about it, sister,” the girl whispered shyly, “for every moment we hesitate is a moment longer I am away from my love’s arms.”

“First you must declare your consent to the kidnapping,” Eleanor stated, as she opened the door and let Richard in.

“She’s agreed then,” he asked.

“Kidnapping!” the girl exclaimed. “But he could be hung.”

“I thought you explained it,” Richard moaned in annoyance.

“Oh, not that part exactly,” Eleanor replied, then she quickly took Matilda by the hands. “It’s not a crime unless you don’t consent to it beforehand. That’s why you have to sign this document before witnesses, stating that you do consent.”

“And that will keep Armus out of trouble.”

“Yes, it should,” Richard nodded, “now please, we don’t have much time. Just sign this parchment.”

“I do consent,” Matilda said whole-heartedly as she leaned over the paper pausing for a moment, “no, more than that, I wish it.”

“Then so be it, my lady,” Richard said, bowing to kiss her hand. “Now follow me.”

Matilda grabbed a small parcel of clothing that she had hastily thrown together and took Eleanor’s hand, squeezing it tightly as they crept along the deserted hallway. At last, they came to the postern door. Richard lit the smallest of torches and led the way down along the outer wall to the river. There, along the tranquil bank, they found Armus pacing nervously, not far from the two horses he had tied to a nearby tree. The small group had no sooner emerged from the thicket then he ran to Matilda and took her in his arms, embracing her tiny form within his own, in a sense foreshadowing the way he would care for her for the rest of her life.

“You really must be on your way,” Richard whispered. “Here are the instructions. They’re from the Friar himself.”

“You told the Friar!” Armus hissed.

“Who else do you think we got to bless the marriage? He’ll meet you there in an hour. True love shall prevail.”

“But what will he give as a reason for his leaving?”

“Old Mistress Cummins isn’t feeling well at all.” Richard smiled mischievously. “She’s certain this is the end.”

“She’s always certain this is the end!” Armus exclaimed. “You didn’t tell her as well.”

“She thinks it’s rather romantic,” Eleanor replied.

“How can we ever thank you?” Matilda said as she squeezed her soon to be sister’s hand.

“By getting on your way before we’re all caught at it,” Richard interjected.

He and Eleanor watched as the young couple disappeared into the night, then they returned to their chambers and waited for the storm they knew would arrive in the morning.

*****

Richard woke to the sound of pounding on his door and the echo of his father’s voice ringing in his ears. Still drowsy, he stretched his arms, yawning to shake off the last remnants of sleep, and rose to encounter the first wave of the oncoming deluge. “Yes, what is it, Father?”

“Where is she?” Thomas bellowed, as he pushed his way past his son and glanced around his chambers.

“Where is who?” Richard said, feigning complete innocence.

“Don’t test me, Richard! I can still take the strap to you!” He grabbed his son by the shoulders and gazed deeply into his eyes, causing the boy to cast his gaze downward. “I thought as much. Now where is she? So help me if you’ve harmed that girl in any way . . . “

“Father!” the boy exclaimed. “Do you think so little of me?”

The man’s heart softened, and he loosened the tight grip he had on his son’s shoulders, though he did not release him completely. “I need to know where she is, Richard. What did you possibly think you could accomplish by hiding her away?”

“Has the Friar returned from Mistress Cummin’s?”

“Your confession can wait until later!” Thomas grumbled. He was loosing what little patience he had left and shook the boy slightly. “Richard!”

“Just answer me that one question, Father, and I will tell you what you need to know.”

“Yes, all right, he returned an hour ago! Now where is the Lady Matilda?”

She’s safe with Armus,” Richard replied. He let out a deep sigh, then continued. “By now, she’s his wife . . . in every sense of the word.”

“What!” Thomas’ eyes nearly popped out of his head. “So help me, Richard!”

“He’s the one she loved, Father, not me. So last night they ran off together.”

“With your help, I suppose!” Thomas began to pace back and forth across the room, but Richard dared not say a word. If silence was indeed consent, his father had all the answer he needed. Finally, the man stopped before him once more. “Get dressed and be in my chambers within the hour . . . and pray this bit of treachery does not cost you or your brother your heads.”

*****

“Is it true that you took part in the kidnapping of your betrothed,” the Earl said. He sat regally in the chair Thomas would ordinarily have occupied, yet for all his royal blood, he made for a poor substitute.

 “If she was my betrothed, my lord,” Richard replied with an arrogance that caused Thomas to cringe, “I fail to see how it could be called kidnapping.”

“What would you call it then!” the Earl snapped. “Word has it that she has been taken by your brother, married him and lain in his bed.”

“I suppose I would call it love, my lord.” Try as he might, Richard could not rid himself of the tone of disgust that seemed to filter into his voice.

“What do you know of love, whelp! We’ll see how arrogant you are when your head is rolling about a scaffold.”

“On what charge, my lord? The lady went of her own free will. I have the signed affidavit right here.”

“Free will!” the earl laughed as if to mock the very thought of it. “She has no free will. She is a peasant, no more than the chattel of Sir Derek.”

“She is his daughter!” Richard snapped. “Not even you can change the King’s law.”

“Richard!” Thomas exclaimed as he shot his son a warning glance. “You’ll have to excuse my son, my lord; he is young and sometimes forgets his place.”

“Yes,” the man sneered, “that is obvious. He’ll soon learn it in the King’s prison.” With a wave of his hand he called his guards. “Take him away.”

“On what charge, my lord?” Thomas asked as he stepped between his son and two very ominous looking guards.

“Robbery, of course. She is Sir Derek’s property. I thought I’d made that quite clear.”

“She is a noblewoman!” Richard replied, correcting the Earl’s assessment of the situation.

“Enough, Richard!” Thomas snapped. “As you say, my lord, she was Sir Derek’s property,” he continued, totally ignoring the look of outrage his son gave him. “However, he did promise her hand to my son, thus transferring those property rights as it were. Was it not then my son’s right to do what he pleased with his property? The fact that he chose to give her to his brother is his affair, is it not my lord?”

The Earl stood up, his dark eyes glaring at Thomas. “The wedding vows had not been taken!”

“No that is true, however, the betrothal was sworn to and all the proper arrangements made. If Sir Derek and his daughter have no complaints about this slight alteration, I fail to see where any crime has been committed.”

“We shall see about that! My nephew shall hear of this treachery!”

“He already has, my lord,” Cedric said as he came to stand before the scruffy looking old noble. “He asked me to give you this.”

The man snatched the scroll from the boy’s hand and read it carefully. With a snort, he rolled the document back up and tossed it into the fire. “Have it your own way and good luck to you. She’s too scrawny for me anyway.” With a huff and a rustle of velvet, he swept out of Sir Thomas’ chambers and out of their lives.

“You spoke to the King?” Thomas inquired. “I don’t understand.”

“We were afraid something like this might happen,” Richard replied, “so we sent Cedric to speak to the King on your behalf.”

“My behalf!” Thomas’ temper erupted once more. “I knew nothing of this treachery . . . and yes, it is treachery!” he added as the boy opened his mouth to protest.

“It’s not treacherous, Father, it’s romantic,” Eleanor said as she walked into the room, followed closely by Armus, Lady Matilda and Sir Derek.

“I had no idea, Thomas,” Derek apologized, “elst I would have done things right to begin with.”

“What did that note say anyway?” Richard inquired. He tried plucking it out of the fire, but it fell to bits as the poker touched it.

“Something about a certain lady up in Cheshire who claimed something or other. . .” Cedric shrugged with a laugh. “It was sealed after all.”

“So,” Sir Thomas smiled cautiously. “I have a new daughter, have I? Then this union must be performed properly. I’ll have no clandestine marriages in my household. The ceremony shall take place here at Covington Cross, as it should.”

“But the Friar had already married us, Father,” Armus said as he wrapped his arms around his tiny bride.

“Then he won’t mind doing it again, now will he?” Thomas said, a huge grin crossing his face. “Then we can all give Lady Matilda a proper welcome into our family.”

“Yes,” Richard agreed, his eyes lighting with enthusiasm. “After all, the arrangements have already been made, and the guests have arrived. No sense in letting it all go to waste.”

“Oh, and don’t for one moment think I’m through with you, Richard,” Thomas noted, his brow drawn together in a scowl. “After the ceremony, we will have a very long talk.”

“Yes, Father,” Richard replied, a shiver running down his spine as he noticed that his father seemed to be fidgeting with his belt a great deal more than he usually did.

“But you’ve forgotten the best part,” Cedric beamed. “After the feast, it’s off to bed. . .”

All at once, every eye in the room centered on Cedric, conveying some form of mild reprimand. “Really, Cedric!” Thomas said with a frown.

“What,” he exclaimed innocently. “After the feast, we can all get a good night’s sleep. It’s a long ride to London and back you know, and the wedding is in an hour, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Cedric.” Armus chuckled, realizing his brother truly had nothing vulgar in mind, “I think we could all use a good night’s sleep,” he added, with a mischievous wink that only his bride detected.

***End***

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