An Unexpected Visit (by Aigneis)

Summary:
Category:  Covington Cross
Genre:  Medieval
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  13,201


 

The small, curly haired boy ran along the river bank, trying to catch a butterfly with gilded purple wings. Not watching where he was going he tripped and fell into the verdant grass and could only watch as the winged insect fluttered before him and landed on his knee. He clapped his hands in glee, but when he went to touch its flittering wings, it took flight once more.

“Mother!” he cried, but she was no where to be seen. Instead, his Father stood before him, a silver locket dangling from him hand.

“She’s gone, child,” he whispered, his eyes fraught with pain. “Over there, see.”

The boy turned to see the butterfly drifting away. As he did, the locket fell from his father’s hands into the tall grass.

“No!” the boy cried as he searched amongst the dew covered blades, the scent of lavender filling his senses. “Don’t go, Mother! —-Mother —“

Richard woke with a start, the brow beneath his darkened curls wet with perspiration. The distant scent of lavender lingered on the air, and he looked around the room, still dazed by the shards of daylight that had begun to permeate his window. He put his hands to his head, running his fingers through the damp waves. Just a dream, he thought as he flung his legs off the side of his bed and sat up, still visibly shaken. It was the third time that week he had dreamed about her. Almost within his grasp, she had always eluded him. A tear ran down his cheek as he went to look out the window. The gray veil of night was just beginning to lift, and for a moment he thought he saw her in the mist.

“Mother?” he whispered, but a knock at the door tore him from his reverie.

“Yes, what is it?” he snapped.

“Are we going fishing this morning or not, little brother?”

“Armus! Yes, of course.” He opened the door to find his brother standing there fully clothed, fishing pole in hand.

A look of amusement lit up Armus’ face as he eyed his brother’s apparel. “Going like that are we?”

Richard realized that he was standing there in his long nightshirt, hair still tousled from sleep. He closed his eyes and sighed in exasperation. “Give me a minute, and I’ll meet you downstairs.”

“If you don’t hurry, they’ll be no fish left.”

“Very funny, brother! Now go downstairs and I’ll meet you there momentarily.

*****

True to his word, Richard met Armus downstairs minutes later. His hair, still tousled had been combed carelessly, but he had donned a tan tunic covered by a green one and topped it off with a brown jerkin and britches.

“I didn’t know you could move that fast,” his brother taunted as they walked alongside the riverbank.

“There are many things you don’t know about me, brother. You’ve been away too long.”

Armus’ voice softened as he sat down on a hardened mound of grass covered dirt. “It’s good to be home, brother. I missed our little fishing expeditions. I don’t suppose you’re any better at it then you were before I left.

“Actually, I am,” Richard stated with a broad grin. He flopped down alongside the meandering water, and resting his back against a large rock, he bent his knee so that he could rest his pole against it. Then he sighed deeply, letting the early morning sun warm his face. It had only been a few moments, when a lovely lavender butterfly came to rest upon his knee. Taken aback by its resemblance to the one in his dream, he gasped slightly, his body freezing rigidly where he sat, much to his brother’s bewilderment.

“It’s only a butterfly, Richard! The last I knew, they weren’t poisonous, or have you become frightened of them of late. You used to chase the things as I remember.”

“What! Oh, no, it’s not that. Just a dream I’ve been having?”

“About fire-breathing butterflies no doubt.”

With that comment, Richard came to his senses and flicked his leg so that the butterfly flew away. “Still the wit of a sage, I see!” he moaned with playful sarcasm.

The morning went by quickly, the boys talking about there childhood mishaps, Richard’s rise to knighthood, and Armus’ experiences in the Holy Lands among other things. They had a lot to catch up on, Armus having only returned a few months before. The first real day of summer, the two brothers had taken advantage of it to spend some needed time together.

“We should be heading back, I suppose,” Armus stated, almost as if he did not quite believe it himself. His sun-kissed hair fell into his eyes, and he pursed his lips, blowing up to knock it aside. The sun shone directly overhead, warm and inviting. Though he knew there were things that needed to be tended at the castle, he could not help but want to lie back and absorb its tantalizing rays. Be certain you are back no later than twelve, his father had instructed them the night before. I need you to assist me with the overseeing of some lumber that must be readied for deliveryI’m counting on you, Armus.

Intending to do their father’s bidding, they began to walk home, but on coming to the village, the smell of freshly roasted meat filled their nostrils and tantalized their appetites.

Richard handed some fish to a small village boy, smiling as he mussed his unkempt hair. “We should have something to eat,” he remarked, trying to convince himself it was the right thing to do, for although he could easily dismiss other duties, he had learned to take those having to do with business quite seriously.

“Yes, I suppose we should,” Armus agreed, with even less conviction than his brother.

Both young men could hear their stomachs grumbling, and having already missed the noon meal, they feared having to do without until evening tide. They were still debating the issue half-heartedly as a carriage pulled into the village, but as they were busy struggling with their consciences and not expecting anyone in particular, they took little notice of its occupants. Then, like a whisper floating upon a summer breeze, the elder of the two heard his name being called.

Armus looked around, but seeing no one coming his way, he turned to his brother for counsel, hoping that his conscience had not gotten the better of him. Richard could only return his gaze, the same puzzled look filling his stunning green eyes, for seeing no one, he could do no more than shrug his broad shoulders and scratch the sandy waves that cascaded across his collar. A moment later, the whisper came again, but this time Armus caught sight of a dark haired woman standing in the shadow of the carriage. Her ebony curls twisted and spiraled in a haphazard manner, framing her pale face and highlighting her sable eyes so that she looked as though she had just stepped out of a painting.

“Armus,” she lilted once more. “Is it really you?” Her French accent was soft and seductive, her smile as warm as the sun that shone above. A tenderness transformed Armus’ face, and he whispered her name, almost as if in a dream.

“Marie! Can it be possible?”

He felt as if he wanted to say more, but no words came to mind. His tongue seemed dry and far too large for his mouth. In desperation, he looked to his brother for assistance. Richard always had something to say, he thought, but having no idea who this dark-haired beauty was, Richard too was at a loss for words and simply smiled foolishly, hoping that Armus would give him some indication as to her identity.

“I have taken you . . . off guard, have I not? I should have written first but thought it better to come in person. I need speak to you alone, my lord, if you would do me the honor.” She looked to Richard for a moment, but then bowed her head. Tears touched the corners of her dark eyes as she closed them, and Richard got the distinct impression she was embarrassed by something. A moment later, he began to understand what, for though her finger bore no ring, a small boy climbed down from the carriage and clung to her skirts. His large blue eyes stared up at Armus with an innocence found only in the face of a child.

Richard was not sure what it was all about, but his instincts were telling him it was nothing good. “Armus!” he muttered, barely moving his lips, for his brother stood transfixed on the spot, as if he had been bewitched. “We really need to be on our way. Father is going to be furious.”

Ignoring Richard as if he had not heard a thing he said, Armus directed his reply to Marie. “Yes, of course. We could talk in here,” he said, a gentle smile revealing fond memories too long buried.

Still not quite sure what it was all about, Richard began to follow his brother into the inn, but a strong hand swung against his chest, barring him entry.

“Wait here, Richard,” Armus all but commanded. “I won’t be a minute.”

Though he started to protest, intent on claiming it was a public place, the look in his brother’s normally gentle eyes warned him this was not an idle threat. Not wanting to cross swords with him in the middle of the village, Richard reluctantly waited outside, impatient as usual. He ran his hands through the tousled waves that covered his boyish face. Just what was this vixen up to? he wondered. When they came out a few minutes later, he looked to Armus for an explanation, but none was given. Neither was any reason given about why the young woman and her child were to accompany them back to Covington Cross.

Richard took the boy’s hand while the young woman walked with Armus, her arm entwined with his and her head leaning against his broad shoulder, more like that of a lover than an unidentified visitor. Hardly a word was spoken on the walk home, in spite of Richard’s prompting.

“Have you just arrived from France, madam?” Richard asked politely.

“Oui,” she replied, ducking her head into the heavy suede of his brother’s jerkin.

“A fine young man you have here. He is your son, is he not?”

“Oui,” she muttered.

“What is his name?”

“Enough, Richard,” Armus finally warned, his face firm and stoic, though his eyes were uncharacteristically animated.

“What! I thought the lady might like some pleasant conversation.”

“She doesn’t!”

“I think she’s quite capable of speaking for herself, brother.”

“Her English is limited. She’s tired, and I’m sure she’d appreciate not having to concentrate on translating useless dribble.”

“She didn’t sound as if she had any problem to me.”

“That’s because you are an insensitive lout at times.”

“What did I do now?”

Armus sighed and shook his head in desperation. “Just please be quiet, Richard. For once in your life, do something without having to have a detailed explanation.”

With that, he picked up his step and walked on ahead. Richard hesitated for a moment, then followed suit. Moments later they strode through the arched gate of Covington Cross. Much to his chagrin, Richard still had no idea as to the mysterious woman’s identity.

*****

After seeing Marie and her son to their chambers, Armus returned to join his father and Richard in front of the large fire in the Great Hall. His forehead was crinkled in concern, and he sighed deeply as he sat upon the large bench by the table and began to fiddle with some fruit. He seemed to be lost in thought, his eyes staring at the air in front of him.

Thomas and Richard looked at each other. It was as if they were not even there. Finally, Thomas cleared his throat, and Armus jumped slightly before looking his way.

“May I ask who this young woman is, Armus?”

“He doesn’t want to say,” Richard chimed in. “It’s a big secret.”

“Richard!” Thomas sometimes grew impatient with his second son’s impudence. “At least tell us how you know her, Armus.”

“I met her in France, shortly before I left for the Holy Lands.”

“And . . .” Richard prompted.

“And nothing, brother. Perhaps you should be more concerned about your own affairs and stop interfering in those of others.”

“What are you hiding, Armus?”

“Stay out of my business, brother.”

“What is she doing here?”

“That is none of your affair!”

“That’s enough . . . the two of you!” Thomas shouted. “Sometimes I question just how old you really are!” Then sighing, he continued. “Armus is right, Richard. This is his home, and he is entitled to invite whomever he chooses. However, I do hope he would confide in us if there were any trouble.”

Armus looked back to the bowl of fruit for a moment, pushing a large apple across the table. For once, Richard stayed quiet, casting a meaningful glance in his father’s direction. It was not like Armus to be this hostile when asked about a visitor.

Finally, Armus looked up, sighing deeply before speaking. “I knew Marie before leaving for the Holy Lands.”

“Yes, you’ve said that,” Richard interjected with his usual impatience.

Armus sighed again. “For someone so arrogant, you certainly can be naïve, brother. I said I . . . knew . . .her.”

Richard threw Thomas a quizzical glance before the true meaning of his brother’s words finally dawned on him. As they did, his eyes widened, their verdant irises dancing with flecks of gold as they reflecting the light of the fire, and his lips turned up into an impish grin. “Oh! You mean you bedded her.”

“Must you always be so crude, Richard,” Thomas chided.

“The boy, “Armus muttered, almost as if he could not believe the words himself, “is my son.”

“Oh, dear!” Thomas exclaimed. “You will have to do right by them, of course.”

Richard, however, was not so accepting. “How can you be sure?”

“I know what I did, brother. Unlike you, I recall my dalliances, and I have no intention of shirking my responsibilities.”

“What do you mean by that? I’ve fathered no children.”

“How can you keep track?”

“And you call me rude!”

“What I call you, brother, is an inconsiderate rake. Do you even remember the names of the maidens you’ve bedded?”

“Of course, I do! I don’t go from village to village, forcing myself upon unsuspecting maidens indiscriminately, you know.”

“And what would you do if one of those privileged young damsels appeared with a child she claimed was yours?”

“I wouldn’t just take her word for it, that’s certain. How old is the boy? Does he look anything like you?”

“The date of his birth coincides with out tryst and as for any resemblance; I should think that was obvious. You’ve seen him, Father. Is their any doubt that his features bear a remarkable likeness to my own?”

Thomas said nothing; he just raised his eyebrows and sat down in the large high-backed chair by the fire, sighing deeply, his hands crossed as in prayer. No words were necessary.

“Yes, I thought so,” Armus continued. “So you see, my dear impetuous brother, I have not come to my decision lightly.

“What decision?” Thomas asked. “You don’t mean to marry her?”

“What would you have me do, Father? She’s searched for me for almost seven years. Can you imagine the shame and hardship she’s born? She deserves better.”

“Wait a minute!” Richard protested. “If she’s been searching for so long, how is it that she did not find you before now? It’s a bit peculiar, don’t you think, how all of a sudden she comes upon you just months after your return home.”

Armus looked at his brother in disbelief. “I fail to see how you call seven years all of a sudden, but I will answer your question nonetheless, if for no other reason than to put you in your place. Two months ago, our dear cousin Malcolm was visiting France. He recognized a locket I had given to the lady, and after speaking to her, directed her to Covington Cross. It took all of her savings to come here, and I will not turn her away.”

“Locket! The one you had given to Mother?”

“It was mine to give to whomever I saw fit!”

“So you gave it to a common tavern wench? That was Mother’s locket! Did it mean nothing to you?”

Armus was rarely driven to anger, but Richard somehow had the uncanny ability of accomplishing the feat far too often. The older boy could feel the heat rising in his rounded cheeks, like molten lava pushing its way to the surface. In a last ditch effort to bring his emotions under control, he pressed his lips together with such intensity that he was forced to breath through his nose, bringing to mind a very large fire breathing dragon. If he did not succeed in this attempt to quell his anger, he would surely send his brother sprawling across the floor.

Thomas stepped in just in time, for Armus had closed his large hands into fists and was moments away from using them as battering rams against his younger brother’s saintly features.

“That is quite enough, both of you!” Thomas stated. “I understand your feelings Armus; I just question whether you should act so rashly. As my eldest son, you have a responsibility to the family name. Give it a few weeks at least before you exchange your vows.”

“He is my son, Father. Would you have him remain a bastard?”

“No, Armus, I would not, but . . .”

“There is no argument here, Father. We will be wed on Thursday next. I hope to have your blessing, but with or without it, I will marry Marie.”

“Armus,” Thomas pleaded, “be reasonable. I could deny you your inheritance, you know!”

Armus looked deeply wounded and almost immediately Thomas regretted his words, for in truth, he had no intention of threatening the boy with such action.

“As you will, Father, but I will take Marie as my wife nonetheless.”

“Armus I didn’t mean that!” Thomas exclaimed. “Of course we will welcome her to the family.” Then casting a warning glance toward Richard, he added. “We all will.”

*****

Richard cast a disapproving glance at the young lady who walked arm in arm with Armus toward the garden, laughing as if she had not a care in the world. “I don’t trust her,” he said to Eleanor as they practiced their archery.

“You never trust anyone,” Eleanor replied.

“And I’m usually right, am I not?”

“No, not always; you just turn things around so that it seems as if you were.”

‘That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Neither do you. Armus appears happy enough. In fact, he seems quite pleased about having a son, so why must you go out of your way to try and upset everything.”

“Because I don’t believe she is what she says.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Armus admitted they’d been together.”

“I don’t mean that. It’s the child I don’t believe. All that time and no contact. Surely he told her where he was from. Even if she couldn’t find him, why wouldn’t she have tried to get in touch with Father?”

“We didn’t know exactly where he was most of the time either. Anyone with an ounce of brains would know that.”

“But if you had someone’s child, wouldn’t you want their family to know?”

“Maybe she was afraid we wouldn’t believe her. Foolish, girl, that would never happen here, would it?”

Richard shot her an irritated glance. “Just shoot, would you. You’re holding things up.”

Back in the garden, Marie spoke softly. “I’m so sorry I brought this upon you, Armus, but I thought you had the right to know about Jean Paul. There is no need for you to take me as your wife.”

“Of course there is. I love you Marie. I want you to be my wife. I want us to be a family.”

“Your brother. . . Richard, yes?”

“Yes,” Armus moaned, “what about him?”

“He does not trust me.”

“He’s just hates to see things change. He would never admit that, but it’s true.”

“I do not want to come between you.”

“Why should you be any different,” Armus laughed. “Richard and I are constantly at each other about something, but in truth, it is just out of concern. He’s head-strong and arrogant at times, but he means well, I suppose. He’ll come around in time.”

“You are the eldest, are you not?”

“Yes, why?”

“I just meant you seem so much more . . . grown up, yes.” She covered her face, laughing at her poor attempt at English.

Armus smiled, his blue eyes bright. “Richard would say I was too serious.”

“Someone must be, no?”

“I suppose they must.”

“As the eldest, you will be responsible for so much more. He can afford to behave like a child. He does not have your responsibility.”

“Actually, he has quite a lot, and I must admit he is much more suited to the life than I. I sometimes wonder if there was a mistake at birth, for when it comes to managing our

estates, he takes to it quite naturally.”

“Then he is a good steward, but you are the one who is to be lord of the castle, as it should be.”

“I doubt Richard sees it that way.”

“It is not for him to say. We are all born into this world with a role to play. His must always be subservient to yours.”

Armus smiled politely, but he could not help feel a bit troubled by the way she looked at things. Granted, it was the way many nobles viewed younger sons, but it had never been that way in his family. He would inherit most of his father’s estates, that was true, but Richard, William and Cedric, even Eleanor for that matter, would never be left wanting. There was plenty to go around, and his father had always intended that none of his children be left paupers. Richard had done an excellent job managing his father’s estates while Armus had been away, and Thomas had rewarded him with extra holdings. Armus had never resented that. In fact, it alleviated some of the guilt he had felt about going off to the Crusades in the first place. Richard had been barely fourteen when he left, a newly appointed squire in the home of their mother’s brother, Stephen. Still, in his free time, he had managed to return to Covington Cross to help his father whenever possible. In truth, Richard had experienced very little time to spread his wild oats in those days. No wonder he had become so wild after he was knighted just four years later at the unprecedented age of eighteen.

“What is it, Armus? Marie whispered, disturbing his reverie. “I have said something to offend you.”

“No,” Armus, replied, his smile returning, “I was just thinking about how quickly Richard had to grow up after I left. I suppose he deserves to be a bit wild now and then.”

“And you blame yourself for his behavior.”

“Some of it, I suppose. If I had stayed here, he would not have had so many demands placed upon him at such a young age.”

“And you would be free of me.”

There was a sadness in her voice, and Armus took her small hands in his. His voice was soft and reassuring as he spoke, his touch sure and steady. “Of all the things that came out that part of my life, you are the only one I can truly look on with fondness. I’m only sorry that I left you to face such a burden by yourself.”

“Jean Paul is no burden. He is the most wonderful part of my life. . . He has kept my heart from despair these many years.”

“I did not mean Jean Paul, Marie. I meant the shame you must have been forced to endure because of my absence.”

“But that is over now, my love, yes.”

“Yes, Marie. I will never again let any shame come upon you.”

*****

“Richard, you arrogant rogue,” Malcolm of Trendle cried. “What are you doing here? Surely you haven’t lost your way.”

“No, cousin, I’ve come on my father’s business. We’re in need of some pigs to slaughter and word is that none are better than those found in Trendle.”

“A likely story, but I’m glad to see you anyway. Come let us have a drink while we negotiate. Will the inn be acceptable?”

“I’ve never found one that wasn’t.”

“Now,” Malcolm whispered, leaning over two pints of dark ale. “What exactly do you want?”

“I told you. I’ve come to purchase some pigs.”

“All right, what else have you come for then?”

“Can’t a person visit their cousin without being accused of having an ulterior motive?”

“Most could, but we’re speaking of you here, dear Richard.”

“I’m cut to the core, cousin. When have I ever offended you?”

“Let’s see, there was last summer at the Mid-summer celebration, then at the Harvest Festival in the fall, then . . .”

“You offend too easily, cousin. I meant no disrespect.”

“No, sadly, I’m aware of that. You just have the uncanny ability of blurting things out at the most inopportune moments. Still, I don’t believe for one second you’ve not got something else on your mind, so let’s get to it.”

“There is one question . . .”

“Ah, here it comes.” Malcolm grinned, much to Richard’s chagrin.

“Never mind then! I’ll ask someone else.”

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous. If you’re asking me it’s because there is no one else, so get on with it before I tell that young lady you’ve been eyeing that you have the pox.”

“You wouldn’t!”

“Surely you know me better than that, cousin.”

“I suppose that’s why we get on so well. All right, I was wondering if you’d been to France of late.”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I have, a few months ago. That was simple enough; surely there must be more.”

“A bit.”

“I should have known. Go on.”

“While you were there, did you ever happen upon a dark-haired young woman about the same age as Armus?”

“You’re joking, of course. I came across quite a few dark haired maidens, if you know what I mean. Did you have a particular one in mind?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I did. Her name is Marie, and she has a son named Jean Paul, about six or seven, I’d say, with blond hair and blue eyes. She wore a locket and may have been asking about Armus.”

“Yes, I do remember her, a serving wench at an inn just outside of Paris. It was the locket that drew my attention. I believe it once belonged to your mother.”

“Yes, Armus had given it to her the summer before she . . .”

Richard’s voice trailed off a bit as he thought of his mother’s death. It was still painful for him even now after eight years had passed. He was only thirteen then, a page in the house of his uncle, yet he remembered clearly the day his aunt had come to fetch him, to take him home. Word had come of his mother’s illness, and Thomas had asked that both boys be sent for immediately. He would never see his mother again, never hear the lilt of her voice across the garden, for they were not allowed to see her. She died that next day, a victim of the plague. Richard remembered crying himself to sleep, alone in his room, fearing his tears would be seen as a sign of weakness. He had never said goodbye to her, and sometimes, when the wind whistled across the garden path, he would go to sit among the roses, her roses, and wish he had died with her.

He was not alone in his grief. Thomas had taken it hard, putting up a brave front for the sake of his children, but Richard could see the strain in his eyes. Cedric, William and Eleanor cried readily, being too young to feel any shame in it, but they moved on quickly, as children often do. Armus, however, was nearly a man, almost eighteen years of age. A gentle boy, not overly tall for his age, he had struggled terribly with his emotions. Thomas insisted that he finish his training, but Armus was so devastated by his mother’s death, that he attached himself as squire to another uncle and left for the Crusades almost immediately. That’s what bothered Richard so much now. Given his brother’s state of mind at the time, how could he possibly have given their mother’s locket to a woman he hardly knew? Anger at the thought of Marie wearing the locket strengthened his voice once more and he continued speaking. “Did you speak to her?”

“Yes, I asked if she knew Armus.”

“And what did she say?”

“She said she had and asked if he was well.”

“And what did you say then?”

“I told her that he was safe at home. Why are you asking? It was such a trivial conversation. In fact, how did you know about it?”

“She didn’t ask where that home was?”

“Well, yes, I suppose she may have. I was a bit inebriated at the time. Besides, I couldn’t see what harm it would do.”

“Do you know anything else about her, about her son?”

“Her son? Oh, you mean that poor waif that was following her around. No, not really.”

“He’s not her son then?”’

“I don’t really know. I hadn’t thought about it. What concern is this of yours anyway?”

“That tavern wench just showed up at Covington Cross, with the boy, and she claims that Armus is his father.”

“Oh, dear!” Malcolm exclaimed, sighing before taking a long hard drink of his ale. The foam adhered to his dark brown moustache, and he wiped it away with the side of his hand. “It is possible I suppose? He was very young then, but love him as I do, he’s no saint. Not quite as lecherous as you, but he did try desperately to forget your mother’s death, and what better place to accomplish that than . . .”

“Yes, yes, he admits to all that, but . . . there’s something about her that’s not right. I just don’t believe the child is my brother’s.”

“Maybe you don’t want to, Richard. I saw your face when I mentioned the locket. Could it be that you just resent the fact that Armus gave it to her?”

“It was his to give,” Richard replied with a distinct coldness.

“Yes, well, that’s never stopped you before.”

“You hold me in very low regard, cousin.”

“On the contrary, I know how close you were to your mother, but you must let Armus do what he believes is right.”

“Yes, but . . . why didn’t you think the boy was her son?”

“I don’t know. I suppose because she didn’t pay very much attention to him, too busy entertaining the customers, if you know what I mean.”

“So the child could have been anyone’s.”

“Yes, I suppose, but isn’t that something for Armus to decide?”

“What if doesn’t know about her . . . unladylike behavior?”

“For god sake, Richard, it never ceases to amaze me how so much innocence and so much arrogance can be penned up together in one body. How do you think he came to know her in the first place?”

Richard looked at his cousin for a moment, his brow creased and the corners of his mouth turned up in annoyance. He knew Malcolm was right, yet he was determined to see this through. Besides, he thought, if the child really did belong to Armus, then his investigation would prove it beyond the shadow of a doubt. “I just don’t want to see him hurt,” he muttered, his concern for his brother’s welfare apparent.

“Armus can take care of himself, Richard. Let this go before you have your entire family angry with you . . . again.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“You’re too impetuous, cousin. You stick your nose in where it is not wanted, lovely as it is.” Then on a more serious note, he added. “Leave this be, Richard. Armus is wise enough to sort this out for himself.”

“And if he is not?”

“You never give up, do you? Leave it! Now, what about those pigs?”

“Right, the pigs . . . And what do you mean lecherous!”

Richard spoke no more about it, but he was definitely not going to let it go. This was not an innocent maiden who had come to snare his brother, but a woman who had known the touch of more than one gentleman. If Armus was to commit himself to marriage and fatherhood, Richard was going to do everything in his power to make sure it was not with the wrong family.

*****

Richard slumped at the table in the Great Hall, moping conspicuously as Armus sat and spoke with his father and Marie before the open fire. Eleanor sat across from him, trying to repair a crossbow that Cedric had gotten overzealous with, while his youngest brother tried to catch up on some lessons he had let fall behind in his enthusiasm to best his sister at just about everything; not succeeding very well, of course.

Richard did not say a word; he did not need to, for his thoughts were causing quite a stir all by themselves. One would have to have been deaf not to hear the accusatory remarks being bantered around beneath his steady, yet distinctively audible, breath. Thomas tried to remain jovial, diligently attempting to ignore his son’s obvious objections to his future sister-in-law, but Armus was growing more and more irritated by the minute. Then, all of a sudden, he pushed a chair aside and pulled Richard up by the jerkin.

“I don’t care what you think, brother. Marie is to be my wife, and you will treat her with dignity and respect, or I will meet you on the field of battle, is that understood?”

“You’d choose a woman you barely know over your own brother?” Richard spat.

“I know her well enough, far better than I know you at times. Stay out of my affairs, Richard, or you will rue the day I ever returned from the Crusades.”

“Perhaps I already do!!!” Richard countered, the more unseemly side of his character showing through.

“Armus!” Thomas scolded, as the older boy removed one hand from Richard’s collar, drawing it back above his own shoulder in a fist. He would pummel the spoiled little brat, Armus thought.

As usual, Thomas spoke up, determined to put an end to any violence between his two eldest sons. In this case though, it was more of a plea than a scolding he sent his eldest son, because he knew Richard was completely out of line. In fact, his own hand faltered on his strap momentarily as he considered the prospect of using it on the boy for the first time since he was about eight.

Armus hesitated, his blue eyes filled with rage, but then did his father’s bidding and let go of his brother, emphatically smoothing his jerkin with his large hand. “Let me be, Richard.”

“It’s your life! Far be it from me to keep you from ruining it.”

Richard looked around the room. His brother and sister, even the servants, stared in disbelief at what they had just seen and heard. Frustrated by the inability of anyone else to see what was so painfully obvious to him, he straightened his jerkin, and stood erect. “Fine!” he spouted. “Have it your own way.”

With that utterance, Richard swept across the hall and up the wooden staircase to the upper chambers. He had seen the smirk on Marie’s face as Armus had caught him by the collar. She had won, and she reveled in it. He almost kicked open the door to his chambers, then slammed it firmly behind him. Like a scolded child, he threw himself down on his bed, determined to remain there until someone came looking for him. Just moments later, the expected knock came upon his door, and childishly, he waited a moment before answering, until his visitor knocked again. “What is it?”

“It’s Geoffrey, m’lord. May I speak with you?”

Annoyed that it was not one of his family, Richard opened the door nonetheless, assuming that perhaps they had sent a servant to ask him to return. He sighed audibly, waiting for the expected message, but it did not come. Instead, the small servant stood before him, fidgeting nervously, unsure he should speak. His dark eyes darted to his sides, and Richard could see the sweat beneath his long straight hair. Troubled by the man’s obvious discomfort, he finally spoke, his attitude considerably altered. “Yes, Geoffrey, what is it? Is something wrong?”

“I’m not sure, m’lord. I don’t want ta speak out o turn or nothin’. Ye won’t hold it against me none, will ye, Master Richard?”

“No, of course not, now what is it?”

“I saw what happened down there, an I figured if I was ta speak ta anyone it would be you, m’lord.”

Richard’s green eyes narrowed. “What did you need to speak to me about?”

“I don’t mean any harm by it ye understand. I’ve been a loyal servant for many a year . . .”

“Your loyalty is above reproach, Geoffrey; now please, tell me what it is that’s troubling you so?”

“Ye know I have that brother over by Allerton. Well, I went ta see him a few weeks ago, an sure if I didn’t see the mistress there.”

“Armus’ betroth. . .” the words caught in his throat. “You saw her? Was she with anyone else?”

“Yes, Master Richard, but . . .”

Just then, they heard a noise on the stairs, and Marie turned the corner. The servant’s already pale face turned a sickening gray, and he looked as though he were about to pass out. Not wanting to arouse her suspicion, Richard thought quickly. “I’d like that bath about six in the morning, Geoffrey. See that it’s ready.”

“Yes, m’lord,” the servant responded, thankful that his young master had such a quick wit, especially when it came to member’s of the fairer sex. He bowed as he passed Marie in the hallway, and then went nervously on his way. Richard remained in the doorway, his emerald eyes suspicious beacons as she came near.

Though unnerved by his stare, she stopped before him, determined to have her say. “I do not wish to put hostility between you and your brother, m’lord. Whether you believe me or not, I care for him and do not wish to see him hurt. If you are angry with him, then he is not happy. Is it so impossible that we get along?”

“Why did you come here?”

“Armus had a right to know of his son. Do you hate me so much that you would deny him that?”

“No, mistress; in fact, I care for him so much that I would risk his anger to save him from the clutches of a she demon.”

His blatant honesty caused Marie to catch her breath. She had not expected such candor, but she recovered quickly, her dark eyes unwavering as they stared into his, equally steady. “I hoped we could put our animosity behind us, for your brother’s sake, but that is obviously not possible. Be forewarned, Sir Richard, I will win your brother’s loyalty. It would serve you better to remember that.”

“Keep your petty threats to yourself, wench. I’ll uncover your game, and when I do, Armus will have nothing to do with you.”

“We shall see about that!”

With that, she turned and strode down the hallway as if she owned the entire castle. How Richard wished Armus had heard their discourse. After all that had happened, however, he was certain the older man would never believe him.

*****

Richard rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, squinting as the golden rays of morning sun filtered through the glass of his window. The morning air was cold, and it would feel good to sink his chilled body into a hot bath. As he rolled over, sitting up on the edge of his bed, he was annoyed to find that no bath had been readied after all. Had Geoffrey thought he had just been covering their conversation, he wondered. He sighed in resignation. It was too late to call for one now. He was sure breakfast would already be on the table, though he had no desire to face everyone again. The brightness of the morning only emphasized how badly he had behaved the night before. Though he still believed he had been right, he regretted being so vocal about it and resolved to apologize to Armus as soon as he arrived downstairs. Much to his surprise, however, the breakfast table was empty and everyone sat solemnly around the fire, including the sheriff.

“What’s happened?” Richard asked warily.

“It’s Geoffrey,” Thomas replied. “It seems he’s met a violent death, right here within our own walls.”

“Geoffrey?” Richard swallowed hard. What if their meeting had something to do with his death? To be sure, anything he said would be viewed as nothing short of an accusation against Marie. “What happened?” he muttered in frustration.

“We’re not sure. He was found bludgeoned to death in the stables. Poor man, he wouldn’t have harmed a soul. What on earth was he doing in the stables?”

“Perhaps Sir Richard can shed some light on the reason for the poor man’s whereabouts,” Marie suggested, her eyes glinting wickedly.

“Richard!” Thomas uttered in surprise.

“Oui, m’lord; I saw the two of them speaking last evening. Their conversation seemed rather secretive.”

The wretched whore was trying to frame him, Richard thought, almost amused at her feeble attempt. Now more than ever, Richard was certain she was up to no good; if only he could convince the rest of the family of her deceit.

“There was nothing secretive about it, m’lady. Perhaps if you had not been creeping around the hallways in such a fashion, you would have known that.” Then directing his comments to his father and the sheriff, Richard continued. “I had a long day yesterday. If you recall, I was overseeing the crop distribution. I was too tired last night, but thought a bath would be more than welcomed this morning. I asked Geoffrey to see to it for me. He is one of our servants, after all.” Then to emphasize his fondness for the man, he added, “Oh! I did ask him about his brother over in Allerton as well.”

“Did you see where he went after that?” the sheriff asked, hoping Richard might supply him with some information that could lead to his murderer.

Richard did not know what to do. To speak in front of Armus would only cause more hard feelings between them. That was out of the question. To go to the sheriff behind his back, however, would be construed as betrayal. His only alternative was to speak to his father alone, hoping that he would be objective enough to hear him out. But when? He had to be discreet about it, lest Armus figure out what he was about nonetheless and probably throttle him for it. He would be playing right into the witch’s hands.

“No, I’m afraid not. The last I saw of him he was heading toward his quarters. Of course, I couldn’t be sure, as Lady Marie stopped to bid me good evening after that.”

“Marie was down here moments later, brother,” Armus protested, hearing the accusatory tone in his brother’s voice.

“I did not mean to indicate that she was not; only to explain that I was unable to see just where Geoffrey went.”

The look on his father’s face even at the hint of such an allegation, told Richard that even speaking to him about such things was not an option. He would think him a spoiled, vengeful little boy, and no doubt discount anything he might say. He thought of riding to Allerton himself to see what he might find, but he lacked a viable reason, other than the one he dared not speak. Then, even as he debated the alternatives, Thomas supplied him with the perfect solution.

“Richard, I want you to ride to Allerton and break the news to Geoffrey’s brother. Bring back any of the family who are able to come. They will be welcome guests in our home. Stay the night if you must, but pray do not tarry any longer, for the poor man must be laid to rest soon.”

“Yes, Father, I’ll leave at once.”

Thomas lifted an eyebrow. Having prepared himself for an argument, he was surprised at Richard’s unquestioning obedience. Perhaps he should allow Armus to shake some sense into him more often, he thought as he watched his son put on his cloak and head out the door.

*****

The ride to Allerton was a long one, plagued by everything from desolate marshes to rogue infested forests. Ordinarily, Richard made the trip once or twice a year to survey some fields in the outlying areas of their estates. He always stayed at the inn of Geoffrey’s brother, Robert, where he was treated to good food and pleasant company. This trip was not to be as congenial, he thought as he pondered how he would tell the man of his brother’s death. In some ways, he almost felt as if it were his fault. He would tell Robert everything, bear it silently if the man accused him, but there was one question he needed to have an answer to. Who had Marie LeFarret been there with? Whoever it was may have been Geoffrey’s murderer.

It was late afternoon when he arrived, and as usual the children came running out to see if he had brought them anything. Smiling broadly, Richard handed them small toys he had fashioned out of word and a rag doll Eleanor had made for their youngest daughter. One son, Francis, was especially pleased with his gift, a wooden sword. He secretly hoped to be Richard’s squire one day and saw him as a hero, a roll the latter was not entirely comfortable with.

“Master Richard, ye spoil them,” Robert’s fair haired wife exclaimed as she stood in the doorway of the inn.

Richard smiled, though there was a sadness in his voice that could not be overlooked.

He had known their family since he was a child. He would accompany his father on his many sojourns to Allerton and always looked forward to a fresh fruit tart right from the oven on his arrival. Robert and his wife were not long married when he first joined his father on the journey, and they had fussed over the curly-haired youth as if he were their own first born. Now, he had news that might alienate their affections forever. Still, he would not conceal the truth. His heart was heavy as he jumped down from his steed. “I doubt they are spoiled, Mary. Is you husband about?”

“Aye, o course, m’lord, but would ye not like a nice hot raspberry tart first and a bowl o stew perhaps. Ye look weary from yer ride.”

She was right. The stress of his task weighed heavier on him than he had imagined. Dark circles ringed his luminous eyes, and the bright green of their irises were marred by an unnatural redness. Even the prospect of Mary’s fare, ordinarily a welcome treat, somehow turned his stomach.

“Not now, Mary. It is urgent that I speak to your husband forthwith.”

“Yes, o course, m’lord,” she replied, her brow constricting at the solemn tone of Richard’s voice. “I’ll fetch him at once.”

Richard slumped down on a bench by the window and let out a great sigh. He did not look forward to what he must do. For a moment, he closed his eyes, letting his long lashes shut out the summer sun. It was low in the sky now. Before long the children would be called in, guests would be arriving for supper, it would be too chaotic to say what he must. If he did not do it now, it would have to wait until the wee hours of the morning, and he hoped to be asleep by then, for they would have to rise early to reach Covington Cross before dark the next day.

“Sir Richard!” a hearty voice exclaimed from across the room.

Robert was a much larger man than his sibling, with a round face and jovial disposition, the complete opposite of his shy, retiring brother. Still, they had been extremely close. Richard swallowed hard, trying to steady his nerves. “Robert, I need speak to you and Mary in private as soon as possible.”

His voice sounded strained and solemn, not the tone they were used to hearing from this particular Grey. Immediately, they sat down across the table from him, shades of concern already clouding their ruddy complexions. Richard could feel his heart pounding, and he blinked rapidly to keep the tears that had gathered in his eyes from rushing forth.

“It’s Geoffrey. I fear I must inform you that he’s been killed . . . no, he’s been murdered, and I fear it is my fault.”

For a moment, the couple said nothing. They frowned, confused by the words they had just heard, hoping they had misunderstood. What he suggested was incomprehensible. Richard could feel a wave of nausea encompass him. Did he need to repeat the words? Just as he opened his mouth, Robert spoke.

“Whatever the circumstances, m’lord, I’m certain you’re not ta blame in any way. How did it happen?”

“A few days ago a woman arrived at Covington Cross with a small child. She says the child is my brother’s, and he has agreed to marry her.”

“Little Cedric! Dear Lord, he’s still so young . . .”

“No, not Cedric . . . my brother Armus. Geoffrey must have mentioned he’d returned from the Crusades a few months ago.”

“Aye, he did, but what has that ta do with me brother?”

“I don’t trust this woman, and as usual I have been quite vocal about my suspicions. Last night, your brother came to me. He told me that he had seen the woman here on his last visit, but before he could tell me anything else, we were interrupted. I hoped to speak to him this morning, but on rising, I was confronted with the horrible news. Geoffrey had been found dead in the stables. So you see, I am to blame, for if I had not been so outspoken, he never would have come to me . . . and she never would have suspected him.”

“If he saw her here, then she saw him as well. It was only a matter o time before she made sure he was silenced. Ye have nothin ta blame yerself for, m’lord, lest ye fault yerself for being a good brother.”

“I wish I could believe that, but I will always feel in some way responsible. If I can ever do anything to help you or your family. . .”

“Sir Richard, you and yer father have been more than kind ta us. Ye gave me brother work when others thought him too feeble, ye spoil me children, and flatter me wife. ‘Tis I who am indebted ta you, Sir.”

“You are a good man, Robert, and deserve no less.” Richard sighed, a deep painful sigh. “We have arranged to have your brother buried at Covington Cross and hoped that you and your family might be able to accompany me there to gather his belongings.”

“Aye, o course, m’lord, but I’ll come alone if you don’t mind. It will probably be best that way, given the circumstances. Me eldest can help Mary tend the inn in me absence.”

“Perhaps you’re right. We should leave at first light. The trip is long, even at full gallop, and I wish to arrive home before dark tomorrow night.”

“As ye wish, m’lord.”

“I do have one question, Robert. Forgive me, but it is about this woman.”

“Anything that I can tell ye, m’lord,” Robert replied, a cold resolve in his voice. “If she’s responsible for me brother’s death, I’ll see her dancing beneath the gibbet.”

“Geoffrey said she was here a few weeks ago. She is a dark-haired French woman, going by the name of Marie, and has a child with her, about six or seven.”

“Her son, she said,” Robert replied, nodding his head. “Aye, I remember the poor thing. They’d lock him up in that room all day, at times.”

“You said they! She was with someone else then? Geoffrey started to mention it, but we were interrupted.”

“Oh, aye, that she was, m’lord, a scraggy looking rogue about your height.”

“Nowhere near as pretty though, m’lord,” Mary interjected, bold as brass.

Richard blushed, but Robert took his wife’s hand, breaking into a soft smile. Another man might have been indignant about such a bold pronouncement from his wife, but both he and Richard knew Mary looked on him more as a son than a lover. She had patched his knees, washed his dirty face, and yes, even dried his tears a time or two over the years. There was no denying the fondness they felt for the boy. They had, on occasion, been introduced to his siblings, but it was Richard who accompanied his father most, and Richard who had endeared himself to their family. Feeling awkward, Richard quickly steered the conversation back to Marie.

“Is there anything else you can tell me about him? Is he still here?”

Oh, no, Sir Richard! In fact, if not for the boy, I’d o thrown them out that first night. Noisy they were, if ye know what I mean, an with the lad in the room an all. Truth is, if I hadn’t thought they were married, I’d never have allowed it. I have my own wee ones ta think of.”

“They weren’t . . . married I mean?”

“I don’t rightly now, m’lord, but I suppose they were in some form or another.”

“Why is that?”

“He called her wife, didn’t he, m’lord. Don’t think the boy was his, though. I’ve never know a father ta treat a son the way he treated that boy, and her watchin’ on, not sayin’ a word. I can just imagine me Mary standin’ for such as that.”

“It’d be yer head!” Mary replied with a mischievous grin, one that Richard could not help but respond to with a smile of his own. “Now, that’s better,” she lilted. “I’ll have no more o yer gloom, m’lord. Geoffrey never would have wanted it that way. What you need is a meal under yer belt and a good night’s sleep, and I’ll not take no for an answer . . . m’lord,” she added with a slight grin.

She would not have to. Relieved of at least a portion of his guilt, he felt his stomach grumble in hunger and the lids grow heavy above his eyes. After having his fill, Richard groaned with pleasure, rolling into bed and letting Morpheus whisk him away to the depths of slumber.

Before the sun rose, Richard was up and dressed. He was anxious to return to Covington Cross and confront the lying wench who had entangled Armus in her snare. Geoffrey had paid a dear price for her wickedness, and he intended to see that she and her accomplice paid in kind.

“I want ta thank ye again, Sir Richard,” Robert announced as they rode along the narrow path. “For the first time in his life, Geoffrey felt he was good at something. Covington Cross was his home and ‘tis right that he’s laid ta rest there. He would have wanted it that way.”

“It is the least we can do, Robert. He risked his life to save Armus from that wretched witch. I shall not let him die for naught.”

They rode in silence for awhile, but Richard’s mind raced. He still could not shake the horrible belief that he had in some way been responsible for Geoffrey’s death. He wanted to make up for it somehow, to offer some small gesture in atonement, as it were. “Francis has grown quite tall in these last few months, has he not?” he finally uttered, the true tremor in his voice covered by a false nonchalance.

“Aye, m’lord, that he has, and he wants to be just like you. He’s gotten quite good with a sword, I might add. Though I have to say, his weapons look more like sticks.” Robert gave a hearty laugh.

The image of the boy pretending to ward off imaginary foes at the point of a stick eased whatever tension Richard was feeling, and he could feel his muscles relaxing. “I’d be no good for him, you know. Rash and arrogant, my father calls me. I have a cousin over in Cheshire though. Francis is nearly fourteen now, old enough to be a squire, if that’s what you wish.”

“But m’lord, Francis is not of noble birth. He is the son of a poor innkeeper. How could he ever hope to be a knight?”

“One does not have to be born to nobility to gain the station. If they are sponsored by a knight, it will do just as well, and I will sponsor him. But the decision must be yours.”

Robert thought for a moment, nodding his head in acknowledgement but clearly needing time to think. Another might have been incensed to think that the man was not thrilled by the opportunity, but Richard knew how heavy the thought of separation weighed upon Robert’s heart. Such an agreement would mean sending the boy away for months at a time. It was not an easy decision to make. Still, his son dreamed of nothing else.

“He looks ta you as his hero, ye know. I’m not sure he’d take ta another.”

“I have too many faults,” Richard noted, in a rare moment of humility. “Besides, it is not my castle, but my father’s. My cousin is a kind and generous man, though I loath admitting it to him. His has a gentle wife, and a daughter not too much younger than Francis,” he grinned. “It was under his father’s tutelage that I gained my knighthood, as he did from my father. I promise I would go to visit Francis, serve as a friend, not a master. The boy would not be alone.”

“I must speak to Mary o’ this, m’lord. I dare not make such a decision on me own, lest I care ta find a frying pan moldin’ itself ta me head.”

“Of course,” Richard agreed, a broad smile crossing his face. “I would have it no other way.”

They had not quite ridden half way and were talking casually about Cedric’s desire to be a knight, when an arrow whizzed past Robert’s ear, causing him to fall off his horse. Richard immediately jumped from his own steed, drawing his sword as he surveyed the surrounding forest. All was quiet, not even a twig snapped, only the squawk of a harrier off in the distance. Then, out of nowhere another arrow, but this one hit its mark, burying itself in Richard’s right shoulder. Furious, he broke the shaft and raised his sword, grabbing Robert and taking cover behind a tree.

“Come out and face me like a man, coward.”

“I’ve no need to,” a voice replied. “I can pick you off from here, one limb at a time.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m afraid you don’t need to know that, m’lord. Suffice it to say your interference has cost you and your friend your lives.”

“You’re that she demon’s husband!”

“Yes, well, she does as she’s told, and her appearance is not totally repulsive. You should have heeded her warning.”

“I never have listened very well, especially when threatened by a common whore. If I’m to die, at least let me know if my suspicions have been accurate. Is the child my brother’s?”

“I don’t really know, nor do I care. It was only the inheritance I was interested in. Suffice it to say, the righteous Sir Armus will meet a tragic death not long after the nuptials.”

“My family will come looking for me. You’ll never get that far.”

“Do you think that will hinder my plan? These woods are filled with thieves. They’ll think you were just another victim and hang some poor fool for your death.”

Richard knew the man was right. He turned to Robert, taking him by the shoulder. “I want you to mount my steed and ride as hard as you can to Covington Cross. Stop for nothing. No matter what you might hear or see, you must keep going. It is our only chance.”

“But m’lord . . .”

“One of us must go, elst we will die here together. I’ve been trained for this, Robert. I stand a fighting chance. Now, get on my horse, and don’t look back. Swear it!!!”

Robert did not know what to say. He knew Richard was, in effect, sacrificing himself. There was no way he could get out of there alive. Still, what else could he do? He had not been trained to handle a sword, and his bowmanship, while adequate for hunting small game, lacked the precision to target human prey.

“At least take this,” he whispered, handing Richard his small crossbow. “I’m afraid I’m not very good at it. Believe it or not, Geoffrey was a far better hunter.”

Richard smiled and nodded his head. “Remember, no matter what, ride as hard as you can. I will keep him occupied here.”

With timeless precision, Richard slid from behind the tree and fired, while Robert jumped on his horse and began riding. Robert could hear arrows flying through the air, planting their deadly tips in the surrounding trees. One, he was sure, had feathered itself in flesh, but as he had promised, he did not turn to look, but kept riding as hard as he could. Both their lives depended on it.

Richard slumped down along the trunk of the tree he had been using for cover. A second arrow protruded from his left leg, and he winced as he broke the shaft close to the flesh. Sweat was beginning to pour from his forehead and upper lip, and his vision seemed blurred. He shook his head in an effort to clear his sight, and then readied his bow once more. He could not be sure whether or not he had hit his mark, or even if there was more than one of them for that matter. His throat felt dry and parched, but he dared not risk exposing himself to retrieve the flask of water tied to Robert’s saddle. He licked his lips, attempting to quell the thirst.

“Had enough, m’lord,” the voice shouted from the other side of the tree.

Richard decided it would be wise not to answer, to feign unconsciousness, even death, in the hopes of drawing the knave out. It would be dangerous, but he saw little alternative. He could hear his heart pounding as he listened to the deadly silence. This was no petty thief. This man knew what he was about, an assassin perhaps, but paid by whom? Blood had begun to seep out onto his tunic and britches, leaving unsightly stains. He wondered how long before he simply bled to death. The rogue could just wait him out, let him drain like a Christmas pheasant. Hearing a noise to his right, he ducked just in time to avoid another arrow, one that would have surely impaled itself in his throat. Without a moment’s consideration, he slid around to the north side of the tree.

“Not finished yet, hey, m’lord? We can play this game all day.”

“Come out and face me like a man, rogue!” Richard shouted, trying to discern where the slimy worm had slithered to, but he did not answer. This man knew what he was doing, had no doubt done it many times before. Perhaps if he appealed to his vanity… “How many have you murdered this way? It can’t possibly be your first.”

“Not likely, but I must say, you are one of the more stubborn ones. They don’t usually take the time to think it out. They come charging at me like the heroes they think they are. I’m surprised, actually. I had heard you were far more impulsive. You’re proving to be harder to dispose of than I thought.”

“You can’t believe everything you here, you know. I figure I can just bide my time. My companion will arrive at Covington Cross and tell them what happened. My father will spare no expense hunting you down, and your female accomplice will be hung before my body is cold in the grave.

“Don’t count on that, m’lord. I must admit, I didn’t intend on letting your companion escape, but Marie will be on the lookout. If she cannot get to him before he contacts your father, she will simply disappear. We are good at what we do, m’lord.”

“And just what is that?”

“Use your imagination, Sir Richard. A role in the hay with a young nobleman. A child born out of wedlock. God bless chivalry. Your brother’s been a hard catch though. We’d actually thought we lost him. Now, enough talk.”

With that another arrow shot past, grazing Richard’s neck before embedding itself in the tree. The young nobleman moved once again, to the south side of the tree this time. As he did, a scraggly looking man came running at him from the brush to his left, knife in hand, thinking he had caught the boy off guard.

“I’ll put an end to you, m’lord, and my wife will dance over your grave.”

Richard, however, was renowned for his quick reflexes. The pain in his arm was excruciating, still he lifted his sword. It felt as though it belonged to someone else, oddly detached, but he held firm. He parried the man’s short blade once, then again, but it was by instinct, not a calculated move, for his wounds had begun to take a toll on him. He sliced at the rogue’s arm and tore his shirt. Infuriated, the bandit lunged at Richard, pinning him against the trunk. Richard pushed him away, plunging his sword through the knave’s stomach, but not before he had felt the man’s knife bury itself within his own.

The rogue’s eyes grew wide with surprise as he looked down to see the blood flowing from his open wound. A confused expression covered his face, and he looked to Richard for an explanation before collapsing on the ground before him. Richard cast his eyes down to his own blood covered jerkin as he slumped down against the tree once more. Odd, he thought, that he did not feel any pain, and where was that music coming from?

He closed his eyes and laid his head against the rough bark.

“Richard,” a soft voice whispered.

It was a voice he knew, one he had not heard since he was thirteen years of age. No, it could not be, he thought, unless, of course, he was dead. If he opened his eyes, he would have his answer. For a split second, he hesitated, but then she called again, and he did not care if death took him. It would be worth it to see her again.

“Mother!” he answered as he opened his eyes.

She was standing there before him, looking as beautiful as he remembered her. Her long brown hair hung in subtle waves over her shoulders and her green eyes sparkled in the sunlight that filtered through the trees. She knelt beside him and gently brushed the tawny curls from his sweaty brow.

“I’m so cold, Mother.”

“Yes, I know, darling.” She leaned over and kissed his forehead. “Come rest you head upon me. Mother will make it better.”

Obediently, he did as she instructed. He felt no fear, and snuggled into her bosom as if he were a small child. If this were death, he would surrender willingly. Still, he could see the blood pouring from his middle section onto the heavy brown jerkin.

He didn’t know why, but he had to ask. “Are you happy, Mother?”

“Yes, Richard, more than I have ever been, though I miss you all terribly.”

“Am I dead, Mother?”

“What do you think, child?”

He looked down at his jerkin again, to the blood that stained its heavy suede. This was one of my favorites, he thought as he looked at the long clean slit the knife had made. Then he glanced back up at his mother.

“I’m not, am I? Why doesn’t it hurt then?”

“You are beyond pain, my child, deep in slumber, but you have not yet left the world as I have.”

She took the scarf from around his neck and pressed it into the wound in his stomach, then laid her hand across it to hold it in place.

“I don’t want you to leave me again.”

“I have never left you, my son.” She rubbed her hand against his face, and he felt safe and secure. “I have watched you these eight years, grow and mature into a man I could be proud of. Never doubt that, Richard, or my love.”

“I never learned to curb my tongue.”

“No, you never did,” she replied with a tender smile. “I did not expect a saint, little one. You must not blame yourself for this. Your heart was in the right place.”

“But Armus is furious with me.”

“He is good and kind of heart. He will see what was in yours. In truth, he knows you better than you know yourself.”

He began to shiver violently, and he wrapped his arm around her waste, snuggling closer. As she brushed her hand along his brow, he could smell the lavender in her hair and feel the soft velvet of her skin. If this were a dream, he never wanted to wake. “Don’t leave me, Mother!” he cried as a tear slid down his cheek, and she bent over to kiss it away.

“Shhh, my love, sleep now. I am always with you, deep within your heart. Remember that.”

“I don’t want to sleep. I’m afraid you’ll leave me again.”

She sighed deeply, and pressed his head against her. Of all her children, she knew it was Richard who had missed her the most. In spite of his arrogant, self-assured attitude, she knew the tenderness that lay inside.

“You know I must, Richard.”

“Why have you come then?” he said, pulling away, the pouting child who had failed to get his own way.

“I’d forgotten how moody you could be.”

She smiled again, running her hand through his tangled curls. He looked away, pretending he was angry with her, but in truth, it was not anger, but his heart breaking all over again that forced him to look away. She sensed what he felt, and drew him back to herself, rocking him in her arms as she had when he was a baby.

“I want you to fight for your life, Richard. I’m here to help you do that. You’re badly injured. You know that, but you can win this struggle.”

“But I don’t want to fight, not if I can be with you.”

“Do you truly wish to break my heart? I thought you cared for me more than that.”

“Would I be with you, if I didn’t fight it?”

She nodded her head solemnly as a tear filtered through her long lashes. “Please, Richard, there is so much ahead for you. Do not surrender it so easily. Let me live within your heart.”

“I miss you so much,” he had begun to cry again, and he stifled the tears in her bosom, emitting soft sobs as she stroked his tangled waves.

He could feel a subtle ache returning to his stomach, but he was no longer sure what the cause of his pain was. Was it the sting of the arrows and blade, or was it the pain in his heart, knowing his mother would leave him again. He nestled closer, hoping to be able to hold her there.

“Shhh, sleep now, my darling and know I love you. I always have and always will. Look for me in your heart, for it is where I shall ever be. Sleep now, Richard.”

“Richard! . . . Richard!”

“Mother!” he said, blinking in the filtered sun, but it was not his mother who stood over him, but his father.

“We’ll get you to safety, son. Hold on just a bit longer.”

Thomas put his arm beneath his son’s bloodied body, to lift him from the ground, but Richard resisted. He did not want to be moved, did not want to leave the spot where his mother had cradled him in her lap. Couldn’t they understand that?

“Please, Richard,” Thomas coaxed, assuming his son’s reluctance was due to pain. “I know it hurts, but we need to get you someplace where you can be comfortable. There’s a small farmhouse just ahead. I’ve already sent word for the physician to meet us there.”

Still, Richard resisted. He began to sob, tears flooding his pallid cheeks. His eyes searched the clearing desperately, hoping to see her there, but he could not find her. He felt himself gagging as a wave of nausea overcame him, and he bent over, spewing blood across the dampened ground.

“Mother! Please don’t leave me,” he sobbed, as he gasped for air between bouts of retching.

Finally, the nausea passed, and he settled back against a tree, certain he would die in that very spot. He could feel sweat and tears dampening his hair, matting it against his cheeks and forehead as if held there by an invisible force. He knew he must rise, do as his father had urged him. Setting his jaw against the pain, he bent one knee, preparing himself to be lifted. Just then, a beautiful lavender butterfly came and rested upon his bloodied britches. He began to cry again, his hand shaking as he reached out to touch the illusive insect. Though its wings fluttered, moving it slightly, it came to rest on his fingers.

“Richard,” his father whispered, thinking his son had all but given up, “they’ll be time to play with butterflies later, son, after you’ve healed.

Richard nodded, a slight smile touching his lips. Then he clenched his fists and took a deep breath as Armus helped his father lift him to his horse. Thomas mounted behind him, his arms embracing his son’s weakened form, encouraging him to lean back against his chest. They had wrapped his wounds as best they could, but Thomas knew he was in dire straights. He needed to get him someplace warm, where the wounds could be cared for properly.

“Mother,” Richard muttered, “she stayed with me.”

“Yes, of course she did,” Thomas replied, not really listening to what the boy said, for his mind was too troubled to hear.

“You don’t believe me.”

“Of course I do, but you need to rest now. We will talk more when you are able.”

“Armus! That wench . . .”

“Yes, we know, Richard. It’s all been taken care of. Now rest.”

Richard lay back and let himself drift away. He was incredibly tired, but he wanted to live, to love, to experience all life had to offer. It was what his mother wanted for him, and so, what he wanted for himself.

*****

“Good morning, brother,” Armus chirped merrily as he set a tray of food down on the bedside table. “You gave us all quite a scare.”

“What happened?”

“Someone used you as a pincushion it would seem, but you speared him before he could put an end to your ornery hide.”

“Marie, she’s . . . did Robert get to you?”

“Yes, I’m ashamed to admit I was beguiled by her. It was all a rouse, perpetrated by her and her husband.”

“But the boy?”

“Her step-brother, it seems. Her father was devastated by the whole affair. He had no idea what his daughter was up to.”

“How did you find me so soon?”

“Soon? It was the next day, brother. How you survived is beyond me. The physician was amazed, given the amount of blood you’d lost. He said you must have had an incredible will to live. If you hadn’t thought to put your scarf in that wound, he is certain we would have found a corpse.”

“Armus. . .”

Richard hesitated for a moment, not wanting to listen to his brother’s taunting, but then he remembered his mother’s words. He is good and kind of heart. . . In truth, he knows you better than you know yourself. Trusting his mother’s guidance, he willed himself to continue.

“It was Mother, Armus. I know it sounds as if I’ve lost my mind, but she was there with me. She wanted me to fight. It was she who wrapped my wound. I could not have done it alone, for I passed out right after he drove his knife in me.” e looked at the large man warily, wondering if he was going to simply laugh or suggest he be committed.

For a moment, neither of them said anything, but then Armus sat down on his bed, deep in thought. “I have heard of such things. Men surviving, apparently on shear will, reporting deceased relatives who had come to them.” Now it was his turn to hesitate. “Richard, . . . did she . . . say anything?”

“She said that she loved us, and if we wanted to find her, we need only look to our hearts.” He stopped for a moment, not sure he should say anything more, then taking a deep breath, he continued. “She said I could always confide in you. That you understood me better than I did myself.”

A soft smile touched Armus’ lips. “She always was an incredibly wise woman.”

Richard smiled and gazed out the window. He would keep the rest to himself, at least for the moment. A soft breeze blew in, caressing his cheek and bringing with it the scent of lavender. He was not alone. He never had been. His smile broadened as he turned back to his brother, pointing to the bowl of porridge he had placed on the table.

“So tell me, brother, just what is that ghastly looking excuse for a meal. You don’t expect me to eat it, do you?”

Armus just shook his head, relieved that Richard was on the mend. “Ah, the appetite and the arrogance returned all at once. Welcome back, little brother. I’ve missed you!”

***End ***

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