The Cost of Courtly Love (by Aigneis)

Summary:  Richard is once again in trouble. I adapted parts of this from another story I wrote for a later period. There is no intent to infringe on the copyrights held by ABC, Gil Grant or any other holder of the Covington Cross copyrights. No profit is being made from the story in the version it now stands. Hope it meets your approval.
Category:  Covington Cross
Genre:  Medieval
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  13,326


 

Richard sat sprawled upon the hard dirt floor of his straw-covered cell, his face throbbing from where the hilt of a sword had met its mark. He still could not comprehend the circumstances which had brought him to such a despicable end. Steel rings bound his neck, wrists, and ankles, so that at every move he was reminded of what his fate was to be. In two days time, he would be dragged out before the crowd and tossed in a wagon of hay like some sort of animal. Stripped of his name and title, he would meet his end dangling from a rope, no more than a commoner, a disgrace to his family and his king.

He bowed his head, bringing his hands up to cover his eyes as pools of tears burst forth from beneath the long lashes. The Lady Miriam was dead, along with her child, his child they contended, and he could not even remember what had transpired the night before. He had met her in secret, knowing that her father meant her for more noble a husband, but being drawn by her beauty none the less. It had been the lady herself who had summoned him to her chambers, though he did remember how surprised she had seemed by his presence. Still, it had not stopped her from embracing him within moments of his arrival. They had planned such trysts before, each finding the other’s presence mildly enjoyable, to say the least, but a tankard or two of ale had somehow blurred most of the activities that had taken place that night. He wiped the tears from his grime covered face, leaving pale streaks where his hands had passed, and he bit his lower lip. Was it possible he could have been so angered he drew his knife against her? He stared into the darkness, trying to recall what events had led up to the wretched predicament in which he now found himself.

They had arrived at the home of Miriam’s father, Sir Derek Radcliffe, the day before. An old friend of Thomas Grey, he had invited the family to spend a few days at his castle, as he always did to open the summer season. Richard had immediately sought out the lovely Miriam, and they had spent an extremely pleasant afternoon together by a small lake located on his lordship’s land. Throughout the day, various guests had been arriving, among them Sir Rhys Montacute of Tandy Hall. He had arrived early in the evening, and Richard was soon appalled to learn of his proposed marriage to the young mistress of the household. Miriam could barely look at Richard after that, though it was painfully obvious that the arrangement was not one of her making. Sickened by the thought of such a union, Richard had retired to his chambers relatively early, but had not been there more than a few minutes when a page appeared at the door bearing a note from none other than the future bride. Reluctant at first to respond to her summons, he had quickly relented as the memory of the pompous Sir Rhys soured his stomach. He would attend the lady if only to comfort her, he had told himself as he crept though the halls to her chamber later that evening. They had known each other since they were children and had become fast friends, though of late that relationship had blossomed into something more. So much so, in fact, that Richard had requested permission to court her the winter before. Much to their dismay, however, Derek had refused, maintaining that his daughter could do much better than the second son of a knight, landed though he may be. Both he and Miriam had been devastated but had continued to meet clandestinely whenever possible in the hopes that her father would someday relent. Now that seemed impossible, for he had in effect given her hand to Sir Rhys. Though no contract had as yet been signed, the matter had all but been concluded. In fact, it appeared that it had been decided earlier that spring. It was only Rhys’ business affairs that had delayed the inevitable this long.

Richard recalled once more Miriam’s surprise when he had arrived at her chamber door. Though she had not hesitated to invite him in, she had seemed confused about his being there. That confusion had soon dissipated however as he closed the door and wrapped his arms around her shapely body. She had responded in kind, entwining her fingers in his thick waves and parting her lips to meet his. He knew then he should not have been there, knew he should have pushed her away, but the feel of her tears upon his cheeks had only heightened his excitement. He remembered with rapture the feel of her silken thigh as he lifted her skirts and ran his hand along the velvet skin. Then as quickly as she had welcomed his touch, she had drawn away, her chest heaving erotically between the sobs.

“I should have run away with you, Richard, last winter when we had the chance,” she had stammered as she struggled to catch her breath.

“We still could, Miriam,” he had answered, all sense of reason distorted by the passion he felt raging deep within his soul. “We could go tonight before anyone was the wiser.”

She had been unable to look at him, staring down at the floor instead, her long luxurious lashes damp with tears. “I fear it is too late for that.”

She had taken him by the hand and led him to her bed, where she sat, pulling him down by his side, and he had gone, her willing servant. “Lie with me tonight, Richard, this one last time. I want to remember this night for the rest of my life.”

Richard remembered that he had been all too eager to oblige her, though he could recall nothing more after his second tankard of ale. Miriam preferred wine and had consumed a glass or two herself, but knowing Richard’s preference for ale, she had summoned her lady-in-waiting and asked her to send for some so that he might quench his thirst. Had she not realized that she herself was the only thing that could truly satisfy his desires?

That was the last thing he remembered before waking up that morning. His head had been throbbing, but the pleasant memory of Miriam’s touch had eased the pain. Once again, a page had come to the door, but this time he bore a message from Sir Rhys Montacute, requesting that Richard meet him in the garden on a matter of grave importance. Surely, he had no knowledge of what had transpired between them, he had pondered as he hastily donned his clothes. How could he? Puzzled by the summons, but having no real reason to avoid the man, he had eaten a light meal, then meandered out along the winding paths of Strattingford Glen until he came to a small opening, ringed by stone benches. He had met Lady Miriam there on more than one occasion, and the pleasant memories had brought a mischievous smile to his lips. It was then that Sir Rhys had stepped out from amongst the bushes, and without any explanation, pounded him thrice with the hilt of his sword, rendering him quite dazed. Moments later, the small retreat was bustling with Sir Derek’s men. Rhys had unsheathed Richard’s knife and was holding up the blood covered weapon, shouting that he had found Miriam’s murderer. Stunned by the blows, Richard had been able to do little but shake his head in confusion. Had he not just come from Miriam’s chambers hours before?

Richard felt an intense wave of nausea enveloping him. Had he been angered by Miriam’s pronouncement that she was carrying his child? Had he become so incensed that he drove his knife in her tender bosom to silence her? NO! he muttered, his voice low and dry. Never!! Tears had begun to swell from his swollen lids once more. He was a knight of the realm. No matter how angry he had become, no matter how intoxicated, he would never have raised a hand against a lady, let alone plunged a knife into her. He had been wrongly accused, and somehow he knew Rhys was behind it. Proving it, however, was another matter.

Just then he heard the door of the cell swing open and looked up to find his father standing there, arms folded and brow crinkled. He wanted to shrink into the stone that lay beneath him and instinctively used his heels to push himself further up against the wall. Without a word the tall man closed the door behind him and came to stand over his son, pulling him up by the collar and brushing off his muddied, straw covered jerkin.

“So,” he said, his expression still troubled, “would you like to tell me what happened last night.”

“I’m not exactly sure, Father,” Richard stammered. “I’m afraid I had a bit too much ale, and . . . “

“Were you with Lady Miriam last evening?”

Too humiliated to speak, Richard barely nodded his head. Though such clandestine meetings were not considered unchivalrous as long as the lady approved, admitting them to ones father was quite another matter. It was one thing to speak abstractly about some unnamed tavern wench, but quite another to acknowledge such a rendezvous with a lady of noble birth. Growing impatient, Thomas spoke again.

“Answer me Richard. Were you with Lady Miriam last night?”

“Yes, Father, though as I said I remember very little about the meeting.”

“Tell me what you do remember, son,” Thomas whispered, his tone softening considerably. As angry as he was, he was more concerned for Richard’s welfare, and the thought of losing his son to the scaffold terrified him. He might want to chide him for his thoughtless actions, but he certainly did not want to see him disgraced and put to death, by the rope, no less. He would not even have the dignity of a noble death beneath the axe. As impulsive and short-tempered as Richard could be at times, he would not see him meet such an end, especially when he knew in his heart the boy was incapable of such treachery.

Richard swallowed hard before beginning, his voice somehow strained and dry. “The lady had sent a message to my chambers, asking me to meet her in her own . . .” He hesitated slightly, then continued, his face tingeing with red. “It was not the first time, Father.”

“So this child of hers could have indeed been yours,” he sighed, his brow creasing even further.

Richard could only nod. “But marrying her would not have been such a horrible fate, Father. She is . . . was quite beautiful and fairly agreeable by nation. I could not have done such a hideous thing . . . could I, Father?”

The desperation in Richard’s voice caused Thomas to wrap his hand around the nape of the boy’s neck. Such doubt in the son he had always considered so self assured reminded him that in many ways he was still very young. Rarely did Richard turn to him for advice, preferring not to reveal his vulnerability to the man he held in such high esteem. The fact that he had done so indicated the seriousness of the situation.

“No, Richard, you could not. No matter how angry I’ve seen you become, never have I seen you inflict a blow on any because of it, save John Mullen’s men, of course.” He smiled, trying to alleviate some on the strain. “But that’s quite understandable, even if not always prudent. I have seen your words pierce the hearts of certain ladies you found rude or calculating, but even there, you have always fulfilled your knightly duties. I have no doubt that you would have here as well.”

“But I remember nothing, Father, not even leaving Miriam’s. I must have been in quite a state.”

“Yes, one of the servants saw you stumbling through the hallways sometime around three. He said you offered to buy him a drink.”

Richard closed his eyes and sighed. He had made a spectacle of himself, and while most servants would never breathe a word of what they had seen outside of their own community, this case was different. His mistress was dead, murdered by the hand of one of the guests at her father’s castle. He would be honor bound to say what he had witnessed.

“What else did he see?” Richard moaned.

“You leaving the lady’s bed-chambers,” Thomas replied, a touch of admonition in his voice.

Richard hung his head, bringing his fists up to his forehead. “I’m doomed. I’m sorry I’ve disgraced you, Father.”

“You have never disgraced me, Richard. Embarrassed me from time to time, been a bit of a disappointment on occasion, but never disgraced me.”

Though the words were meant to soothe, they inflicted more pain then Thomas could have ever imagined. At that moment, Richard would have gladly given himself to the hangman if that act of repentance could have erased the shame he had brought upon his family. Even worse was the nagging thought that he had, in a fit of rage, caused the death, not only of Miriam, but of the child she carried inside her. His child, he thought, and he felt a sorrow run through him with the intensity of a lightning bolt.

“Dear God!” Richard sobbed. “Could I have been so callous as to take the life of my child and its mother? I am not fit to call myself your son.”

Tears streamed down Richard’s face at the thought of it. Try as Thomas might to console him, to convince him he could never have committed such a monstrous act, the fact remained that Richard remembered nothing of the night passed his second tankard of ale. Yet he had remained to the wee hours of the morning. How could he fault anyone for thinking him guilty. Then there was the knife, his knife, covered in blood. If not Miriam’s, than who’s? He just wanted to be alone, to spend his last hours in shame and misery. He deserved no better.

“Leave me, Father,” Richard muttered, as sudden calm overshadowing him. “I am not worthy of your concern.”

“Stop that, Richard!” Thomas chided. “I don’t believe you could have harmed that girl anymore than I. There is treachery here, not of your making, and I plan on exposing the true culprit.”

“But how?” Richard asked, his voice veiled in a hopeless sigh. “The weapon is mine. There is no doubt I was with the lady, and the fact that she was with child may in some circles be construed as reason enough to murder her. My lack of recollection concerning the events of the evening only supports those accusations.”

“Be strong of heart Richard. You have never been one to lack a certain . . . faith . . . in yourself.”

“You mean I’m arrogant.”

“At times,” Thomas smiled, “but never at the expense of others. Pray try and rest. I will return in the morning.”

“I’ll have plenty of rest in a few days, Richard thought as he pulled his legs up before him, resting his arms upon them. The chains around his wrists rattled loudly as he did. They had begun to wear on his flesh, causing sore red blotches to appear beneath his sleeves. A sudden noise caused him to look to the door, where a plate of food and tankard of ale had been carelessly shoved.

“Eat up, m’lord,” the gaoler snickered. “It’ll be one of the last meals you taste.”

Though he thought of letting himself starve to death, he knew it was a pointless exercise as he would be hung long before the results ever took effect. He grabbed the bowl of pottage from the wooden tray that held it and began to slop up the bread and stew that had been left. As he did, he spied a small piece of parchment lying on the tray, obviously placed beneath the bowl so as to escape detection. Never one to neglect his curiosity, he picked it up and read its scribbled lines.

I saw what happened, my lord. You are innocent, though I can say no more. May God save you, for I fear I cannot.

Richard starred at the small scrap, uncertain how to react. Was this someone’s idea of a cruel joke? If he were innocent, why had they not spoken up? Perhaps they had not liked what they saw and sought to punish him, intending that he die believing himself innocent. The questions raced through his head throughout the night, barring sleep from enveloping his weary body. So it was he met his father and eldest brother the next morning with dark circles under his eyes and his face drawn and pale.

*****

“Dear God, Richard, did you get any sleep at all last night?” Armus queried on seeing his usually well kept brother in such a state.

His tawny curls, often tousled but usually fairly free from debris, hung in knots around his face. Here and there, spittle and sprigs of straw stuck to it, causing it to lump together in great wads, while varying degrees of dirt marred his saintly face. Smudged streaks of pale flesh mixed with the soot, evidence of tears that had escaped during the night. Even his clothes were torn and disheveled, so that he looked more like a pauper than the son of a noble lord.

“I couldn’t sleep,” he exclaimed, his voice fraught with anxiety. “Father . . . I found this under my plate of food last night. Someone saw what happened. They say it wasn’t me!”

Somehow relieved by sharing the revelation, he stood up, handing the paper to Thomas. All three stared down at the words scribbled across its surface, not certain what to make of it, hoping somehow to discover a clue as to who its mysterious author was.

“But what good does it do,” Richard finally exclaimed in exasperation. “A scrap of paper isn’t going to stay the hangman’s noose. We don’t even know who wrote it, or why they haven’t spoken up. Maybe it’s all just a cruel joke.”

“Why would anyone resort to such chicanery, Richard,” Thomas replied, trying to cheer his son’s spirits. “I’m sure that’s not it.”

“Then why hide who they are? Unless they want to see me hung. What if it was Sir Derek? If he knows what was really taking place between Miriam and I, he may think I deserve to hang, regardless of whether I killed his daughter or not.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Thomas declared, a forced smile upon his lips. “Do you think he’d allow the real murderer to go free just so he could punish you?”

A horrible thought suddenly occurred to Richard. “He would if the alternative might bring even more shame upon his family. Bad enough his daughter had a tryst with a nobleman, but what if she had one with a peasant as well? She was not happy about this union, Father; she may have turned to someone in desperation. If Sir Derek found out about it, he could blame me, while quietly disposing of the real culprit himself. He’d have his satisfaction on us both that way.”

“Richard! Thomas exclaimed, pretending he thought the whole scenario impossible. “I’ve know Sir Derek since we were children. He would never do such a thing.”

Armus gazed askance at his father, while rubbing his fingers across the surface of the tiny missive. Was his father truly that naïve, or was he just trying to keep Richard’s spirits up? Either way, he had to think of something to say before his brother pursued that theory any further. “Perhaps they’re too frightened to come forward,” he suggested.

“That doesn’t make any sense!” Richard protested. “They’d be far better off if the guilty party was found and put to death.”

“Not if they thought their word would be counted less than his,” Armus quickly pointed out.

“Who would worry about such things” Richard queried, still not convinced his brother had a viable explanation. “We’re all of noble birth, from well respected families.”

“Not all,” Armus replied, his mind deep in thought.

“Who then? Surely not a common peasant?” Richard argued. “The writing is too refined, the hand too skilled.”

“Perhaps not,” Armus continued, “but there are servants, ones who may have spent much of their time with their mistresses.”

“Matilda!” Richard declared as if a sudden candle had been lit in his head. “Her lady-in-waiting! Of course, it’s obvious. She was there when I arrived. Even if she didn’t see who it was, she might know something. Miriam confided in her.”

“I see the old Richard has rejoined us,” Armus stated with a sarcastic grin.

He clipped his brother’s chin and shook it, causing Richard to respond with a sharp slap and a look in his eyes that suggested he might consider murder after all, just this once. Armus found it amusing and tousled his brother’s tawny curls. “Welcome back, little brother.”

Though still annoyed, Richard knew his behavior of late had caused Armus worry, just as it had his entire family. As if to assure them that he had returned to his usual self, Richard replied bluntly. “When was the last time you washed those things. I swear I smell last night’s supper on them, not to mention . . .”

“Richard!” Thomas exclaimed, actually pleased to shout his name for so trivial a matter. “We have more important things to discuss.”

“Yes, like saving my neck.”

“I’ll go to speak to Lady Matilda at once,” Armus stated. “I’ve spoken with her on many occasions and no one will find it out of the ordinary.”

“Oh, really,” Richard grinned. “Is there something we should know?”

“Yes!” Armus replied with a wry grin. “When to keep your mouth shut, but I fear that is a hopeless cause.”

“Never mind that,” Thomas exclaimed, choosing to ignore his son’s banter. “While Armus is busy with Lady Matilda, I shall go to the sheriff and show him this correspondence.”

“It’s hardly correspondence, Father,” Richard noted. “I barely even noticed it.”

“Still, I’m sure he’ll take it under consideration,” Thomas replied, though in reality it was more of a prayer than a statement of fact.

All at once, Richard closed his eyes, sighing deeply. A melancholy had come over him again, and he wavered slightly, causing Thomas to catch him by the arm. Armus too grabbed his brother, and they sat him down upon the dry straw of the cell floor.

“We’ll get through this, Richard,” Thomas assured his son. “You are innocent.”

“What if it’s not enough?” Richard stated with calm resolve. “There’s less than twenty-four hours. I need you to promise me something.”

“Yes, of course,” Thomas said as he gently rubbed his hand along his son’s tear stained face.

“If they hang me . . . if my neck does not snap . . .

“Richard!” Thomas exclaimed, not wanting to even consider the possibility.

“I have to face the facts, Father! There is a very real chance tomorrow may be my last day on this earth. If my neck does not break . . .” Richard closed his eyes, considering his words carefully. “I want you to pull hard on my legs. I don’t want to linger, Father. Swear you’ll make sure it’s over quickly.”

Thomas could not speak. There was a hollow space in the pit of his stomach, a huge knot in his throat. The thought of his second born hanging at the end of a rope, his virile body limp and lifeless, was too much for him to bear.

Armus saw his dismay and answered for him. “If need be, I will pull with every ounce of strength in my body, brother, but it will not come to that. You are innocent, and I will not see you pay for another man’s crime. They will have me to contend with if they think they’re going to . . .”

“No, Armus,” Richard protested. “Would you have Father loose two sons? You can best serve my memory by finding the murderer of Lady Miriam and my unborn child. Once that is done, put your anger to rest. I shall be with my family.”

Armus hated to see Richard so subdued, so ready to accept the fate that had been laid before him. He longed for the arrogant banter he had come to know so well. This was a side his brother kept concealed, a side he only allowed to surface when his defenses had become so depleted he could no longer keep up the facade. It was a side rarely seen by any but those whose hearts he trusted with complete abandon.

“I shall find Lady Matilda,” Armus said, struggling to hold back his emotions. “She is good of heart and will not see you sacrificed.”

Thomas bent over, resting his hand on his son’s shoulder, then the two men called for the guard and left to be about their business. Richard closed his eyes, leaning his head against the cold stone wall, and prayed quietly.

*****

“Lady Matilda,” Armus called to the fair haired young woman walking along the garden path. “May I accompany you, my lady?”

“Of course, Sir Armus, it would be an honor,” she replied, her cheeks blushed with the pale pink of the roses that lined their path.

“You do not fear being seen with the brother of an accused murderer?”

Though his words were not meant to condemn, there was no mistaking their sharp edge. Matilda said nothing, bowing her head in shame. She could sense Armus knew something, and a coldness enveloped her body, causing her to shiver in spite of the day’s warmth.

“You are cold, my lady,” Armus noted with the hope his words had stuck a chord. “Perhaps I should fetch my cloak.”

“That will not be necessary, m’lord,” Matilda replied, an offensive tenor to her voice. “I grow weary and plan to return to the castle forthwith.”

Wary about how she would react, but certain it might be his only opportunity to speak to her alone, Armus broached the question preying so heavily on his mind.

“It was you who wrote the message, was it not, my lady.”

Not a very good actress, Matilda lost the little color that had so recently graced her cheeks. “I know not of what you speak, Sir.”

“Please, mistress, my brother’s very life is in your hands.”

“I do not know how that can be, Sir,” Matilda replied, an over exaggerated reserve in her voice, “for I know nothing of his treachery.”

“What you know, m’lady, is that the treachery was not his,” Armus replied on the cusp of anger.

“I know that he came to my mistress’ chambers of his own accord, that he lay with her till the wee hours of the morning,” Matilda replied in kind. “I know that the child she carried was indeed his.”

“Richard would never harm his child, or the woman who bore it,” Armus pressed. “Whatever disgrace he had to bear, he would have born it. You know that, m’lady, elst you would not have sent him that note.”

“I sent nothing of the sort! Now you will excuse me, m’lord. I fear I am taking a chill.”She turned to walk away, back toward the castle, and in desperation, Armus did the only thing he could think of. He fell down upon one knee, taking her hand in his and bowing his head before her. Taken aback, she stopped where she stood, her feet frozen to the spot.

“I swear my allegiance to you, my lady. I will act as your knight protector, guarding you from all who would seek to do you harm. I ask just one thing in return. Tell the sheriff what you know of this despicable situation.”

Tears welled up in her soft hazel eyes. She was speechless, breathless, never before had she been so honored, and yet, she dared not speak the truth. Her duty was to her mistress, even in death. She pulled her hand away, turning and running up the walk before Armus could stop her. If his offer of protection could not sway her decision, he knew not what would.

*****

Thomas knew there was little chance it would alter his son’s verdict, but never-the-less he planned on exploring every possibility available. He found the sheriff in the Great Hall, warming himself by the fire.

“Sir Thomas,” the official said, nodding his head and rising as Thomas entered.

“Please, Gideon, let us sit down,” Thomas beseeched his old friend. “I would speak with you if you would so oblige me.”

“Yes, of course, m’lord,” he replied with sad resolve, “but I must caution you, I can do little to alter your son’s sentence. The evidence is overwhelmingly against him, I’m afraid. A woman is dead, a woman that carried Sir Richard’s child. He was seen with her late into the night, and the murder weapon is his.”

Thomas laughed ever so slightly, a sadness in his tone. “You still refer to him by title, Gideon. I thank you for that.”

“I have always liked Rich . . . your son, Sir Thomas,” the sheriff noted. “I can’t remember the amount of mischief I’ve pulled him out of, but he has always been good of heart. If not for the evidence, I never would have believed this possible. I’m afraid I cannot intervene for him here, m’lord.”

“What if there was a witness,” Thomas explained, a hopeful spark lighting his azure eyes, “someone who actually saw the true perpetrator of this heinous crime?”

Gideon jumped to his feet. “Who is this informant? If I had even the slightest inkling of Sir Richard’s innocence, you know I would act upon it immediately.”

Thomas’ mood brightened and a smile crept across his lips. Perhaps he had been mistaken about the value of such a minute piece of evidence. His hands shook as he took the tiny scrap of parchment from his pouch and turned it over to the sheriff.

Gideon stared at it, a darkness covering his expression. “But you said you knew of a witness, your lordship. This is no more than a few scribbles on a scrap of parchment. Sir Richard could have written this himself.”

Thomas’ smile dropped away as suddenly as it had come. “And where would he have acquired a writing implement?”

“From you, or Sir Armus. The fact is my Lord, I could have written this myself. Without so much as a signature, this is as worthless as if it were blank. Where did you say you came by it?”

Thomas sighed, pinching his fingers against the bridge of his nose. His head was beginning to throb for fear he would yet loose his son. The desperation of what he was about to say seemed all too apparent now. “Someone slipped it under Richard’s plate last night. He gave it to me this morning.”

“Sir Thomas!” the sheriff exclaimed, his eyes filled with a combination of pity and disbelief. “I would not have expected such behavior from a knight of your standing.” Then softening a little, he sat down by his side. “I understand your determination to clear your son’s name, but to resort to such trickery.”

“There is no trickery, Gideon,” Thomas snapped, indignant at the suggestion that he would devise such a farce in order to free Richard from the gallows. “My son told me it was delivered to him last night, and upon my honor, I believe him!”

“Forgive me, Sir Thomas,” the sheriff replied, immediately regretting his rash retort. “I should not have accused you of such chicanery, but your son may be more desperate than you know. The prospect of the hangman’s noose tends to make men do things they ordinarily would not.” Not sure he should continue, but feeling obliged to present the possibility to Thomas, he continued. “If he requested it, the gaoler would have given him pen and ink. I’m sorry, m’lord, this proves nothing.” He handed the parchment back to Thomas, then shaking his head sadly, he placed his hand upon his friend’s shoulder. “I am truly sorry, Thomas.”

Left alone in the large room, Thomas sat for a moment staring into the fire. Tears were welling up in his pale blue eyes as he placed the insignificant piece of paper back in his small leather pouch. What else could he do? Perhaps Armus had been more successful with Lady Matilda, he thought. Still, Richard’s words kept resonating in his ears. He would if the alternative might bring even more shame upon his family . . . Sir Derek could blame me, while quietly disposing of the real culprit himself. While he had dismissed the suggestion at the time, Thomas knew the boy may very well have a good point.

Derek had always been concerned about his image, ever since he was a page. He and Thomas had virtually grown up together, training within the same household throughout most of their youth, but Thomas was certain Derek had never forgiven him for attaining knighthood before him, even though it was Derek who was the elder of the two. More concerned about his appearance than his skills, he had neglected practice on a number of occasions, and as a result, was forbidden from taking part in the ceremony until the following year. He pretended it had been long forgotten, but from time to time a careless comment would escape, reminding Thomas of the incident. Though he never spoke of it openly, Thomas had always suspected that was at least part of the reason Derek had declined Richard’s request to court Miriam the previous year. The desire for a more advantageous marriage may have been part of it, but there was really no need for it. Derek knew Thomas would be generous with the boy, and he had, in fact, acquired an estate or two of his own, due to service he had rendered on the king’s behalf. The king had even indicated, on more than one occasion, that he would not be adverse to Richard building a castle of his own one day. In truth, Richard would have been an excellent match for his daughter, a conclusion their children had obviously already arrived at. Still, Derek had forbidden the union, choosing instead to give her hand to the feckless eldest son of Sir Reginald Montacute. Part of him blamed Derek for the whole affair, for had he allowed his daughter to follow her heart, perhaps Richard would have been preparing for his wedding day instead of awaiting his execution.

Though he dreaded the thought of confronting his one time friend, Thomas knew he must. It was the only way to gage whether or not the man knew anything of this treachery. To do so would require a great deal of strength and humility on his part. Still, his son’s life was at stake here, and to save it, he would have gladly given up his own title.

*****

Thomas sent a page to announce his arrival then paced back and forth nervously. A moment later, the boy returned and nodded that he should enter. Taking a deep breath, he swallowed his pride and strode into the study of Sir Derek Radcliffe.

“Thomas,” the man said politely as he rose to greet his guest. “Please, do sit down.”

Though he was cordial enough, there was a crispness to his voice that Thomas could not help but notice, and yet he could not blame him for it. If he truly was innocent in all of this, how could he not feel a measure of disdain for the father of the man he believed had murdered his daughter? Keeping this in mind, Thomas tried desperately to control his emotions.

“Thank you, Derek. I want to say how sorry I am about your daughter. It is a tragedy beyond my comprehension.”

“Yes,” Derek replied, his voice trembling as he spoke, though Thomas could not discern if it were from grief or utter hatred. “A double tragedy it seems. My grandchild was lost as well.”

“Yes, that is true. It would, however, be even more devastating if an innocent man were sent to the gallows. Surely, Miriam would not have wanted that.”

Derek’s nostrils flared as he tried in vain to control his temper. “I cannot fault you for trying to save your son’s life, Thomas, but he is far from innocent. He prowled my halls, arranging clandestine meetings with my daughter, even though he knew full well it was against my wishes. Then he proceeded to seduce her, on more than one occasion apparently, and when he’d planted his unholy seed within her, he ruthlessly took her life to save himself from the annoyance of an unwanted commitment. I will see him hang in disgrace if it is the last thing I do. His body will wither and shrivel outside my walls, the vultures dining on his flesh daily, until there is nothing left of him. His name will be slurred and his memory obliterated from the rolls of honored knights. He is to blame for my daughter’s death.”

“Perhaps it is you who are to blame,” Thomas shouted, unable to control his anger any longer. “Rather than see your daughter happy, you soothed your bruised ego by forbidding her to see my son. There would have been no secret trysts, no unchaperoned moments, if you had not let your pride keep them apart. My son could no more have plunged a knife through your daughter’s heart than he could have mine. You know that, Derek, but you would sooner see Richard die, than admit it.”

Derek looked as though he was going to explode. His cheeks grew red and his eyes wide and watery, but then suddenly, he burst into tears and collapsed on his desk, a weak and broken man. “Don’t you think I know I’m to blame, Thomas,” he sobbed. “If it were all in the open, perhaps this could have been avoided, but it was not my pride that caused my rejection of Richard’s proposal. I truly hoped for a better union, an eldest son. Was it so wrong of me to want the best for my daughter?”

He looked up to Thomas, trying with tremendous difficulty to compose himself, hoping for a consoling word, but Thomas just stood there, astounded by the man’s confession. As much as he hated to admit it, this was not an act. Derek truly believed Richard had murdered his daughter. He felt incredibly ill, for this revelation dashed all hopes that Derek had framed his son.

“I am truly sorry for your loss, Derek,” he said with little emotion. “It is a tragedy for us all, but I cannot believe my son would commit such an unspeakable act, no matter what the consequences. It was his child after all.”

“Leave me, Thomas,” Derek said, too weary to argue. “We have nothing more to discuss.”

Thomas turned and strode out of the castle. He needed air, needed to clear his thoughts. He headed for the gardens, thinking the peaceful surroundings would calm his shattered nerves, but the sight of Armus only made things worse. There was no need to ask what had transpired during his conversation with Matilda. It was painfully obvious by the look of despair etched on his son’s usually tranquil face.

“She says she knows nothing of the note,” he muttered, realizing his father was standing beside him. “I even offered to be her protector. God, I would have offered to marry her if doing so would have cleared Richard’s name.”

“You did the best you could, son. That is all Richard could hope for.”

Thomas sat down next to his son. “I never thought it would come to this,” he muttered reflectively. “He’s always been a bit impulsive, I know, but he’d never do anything to harm another soul without just cause.”

“No, of course not, Father. Arrogant and thoughtless as he can sometimes be, he is true to the code of chivalry. If she had told him about the child, he would have done the honorable thing, whether he liked it or not. He might have moaned considerably,” Armus added, with a sad smile, “but he would have done what was expected of him.”

“There is no one else to speak to,” Thomas stated, his utter hopelessness apparent. “I think we are lost.”

“Perhaps not,” Armus hypothesized, his face gaining back a portion of its color. “What about Sir Rhys? I’ve been wondering how he knew about Richard’s knife. There’s something else as well. Richard said he was summoned to Lady Miriam’s chambers, but Matilda swears the lady did not request his presence. If she is telling the truth, and I’ve no doubt that she is in that respect, then someone else wanted him there. I need to find the page who delivered that message to see if he remembers who gave it to him.”

A smile returned to Thomas’ face. There was hope yet. He slapped his son on the back and stood up. “Well, let’s get to it, son. We’ve not much time. I’ll find the page. You speak to Sir Rhys.”

*****

Rhys Montacute was at the stables, preparing to go riding, when Armus caught up with him. Not an overly large man, he seemed to shrink into his surroundings when standing next to Armus, almost as if he were an insignificant little weasel. He must have thought the larger man were going to strike him for bringing the law down upon his brother, for on seeing Armus, he drew his sword, ready to defend himself.

“Put down your weapon, womb,” Armus bellowed. “I just want to talk to you, but I swear, if I find out you’ve lied to me, I’ll see you skewered and served up for Sunday dinner.”

“I have nothing to lie about, Sir,” the pretentious wretch asserted “You may not like what I said, but it is the truth.”

“Really!” Armus exclaimed. “And how, may I ask, did you come by this knowledge? Unless, of course, you were actually there, which raises the question of why.”

“That, Sir, is a private matter between myself and the lady!”

“The lady is dead.” Armus noted with emphasis. “I doubt very much that she would object, especially if you’re information led to the apprehension of her murderer.”

“It already has, Sir Armus!” Rhys replied as if stating the obvious. “Your brother, caught red-handed.”

“Yes, so it seems,” Armus countered, “but that brings us back to the question of how you knew it was him.”

“Oh, very well!” Rhys whined, as if the whole affair was really no more than an annoyance. “After I discovered Miriam’s body, the servants told me Richard had been there. I put two and two together and came up with . . .

“Three!” Armus interjected, not impressed by his counterpart’s smugness. “Now, may I ask why you were in the lady’s chambers in the first place? One could just as well surmise that it was you who murdered Lady Miriam.”

“Perhaps,” he replied smugly, “but it was your brother’s knife that was covered in blood.”

“Yes,” Armus remarked, his tone cold and derisive, “how astute of you to figure that out so quickly. You must have examined the lady rather closely to deduce that she was murdered with a knife. Why not a sword, for instance?”

“It didn’t seem practical,” Rhys stated with an analytical logic. “If he were there to seduce her, he probably removed his weapon.”

“Who said he was there to seduce her?” Armus asked, his eyebrow raised ever so slightly.

“Oh please, don’t mock me,” Rhys countered, an air of contempt in his voice. “Every petty servant in the castle new of their affair. One last fling on their part, I suppose.”

“I suppose,” Armus conceded, “but wouldn’t it then follow that he would have removed his knife as well. Maybe he even left it behind in his drunken stupor.”

Armus could see the rings of sweat forming around the knight’s brow. It was Rhys who had murdered Lady Miriam. He could sense it. But how would he prove it? The slimy little worm had covered his tracks well. Perhaps if he could jar his nerves just a bit more, he would say or do something foolish, revealing his own guilt.

“Maybe you entered the room and found the knife,” Armus continued. “But why did you kill her?”

“You’re insane!” Rhys declared. “You’ll concoct any story to free that murdering brother of yours, but it will not work. I had no reason to attack Lady Miriam. She was mine for the taking as Sir Derek announced just last night. The arrangement had been struck. All I had to do was accept it.”

“So seeing Richard in her bed must have incensed you,” Armus pressed, “. . . perhaps to the point of murder.”

“Then it would have been he who lost his life, Sir,” Rhys contended, “and rightfully so, I might add. As it was, however, I never saw them together. I didn’t know about their little rendezvous until after it was all over. You are correct about one thing though. In his haste to leave, Richard did drop his knife. I simply returned it to its rightful owner, making sure the sheriff and his men were present, of course.”

“You lying little swine!” Armus shouted as he grabbed Rhys by the collar and pinned him up against the outer wall of the stables. “You planted that knife on Richard.”

“Look at it however you like. The fact remains that he used it to murder Lady Miriam. Whether it was in her chambers or on his person is of little consequence. The knife belonged to him,” he added with emphasis.

“Then why return it?” Armus snorted.

“To make sure it wasn’t overlooked,” Rhys countered, suddenly gaining his courage. “Go on! Why don’t you murder me as well? Then there can be a double hanging. Two Greys for the price of one.”

“I wouldn’t waste my time on a slimy creature like yourself,” Armus replied, his face contorting so that it looked as though he had suddenly smelled something foul. “No matter what you say, I know it was you who murdered Lady Miriam and her child, and you used Richard’s knife to do it. What I don’t know is why. If she was to be yours, what threat did Richard present? The lady was honorable. Once your vows had been exchanged, she never would have violated them.”

“Precisely!” Rhys snarled, his voice full of contempt. “So you see, there is no reason why I should have taken her life. Your brother on the other hand, had every reason. He would have been disgraced. For someone so arrogant, the blow must have been devastating.”

“Or perhaps discovering the child she carried was not yours was more than you could bear,” Armus suggested, hoping the mere mention of it would cause Rhys to spout something incriminating.

“What difference would that have made to me?” Rhys snorted with disgust. “Her father never would have considered such a marriage, child or not. I am a man of practicality, Sir Armus. Her dowry was far too appealing to pass up over such a trivial matter. A simple lie would have covered her indiscretion. I would not have contradicted it. Now, if you will excuse me, I have business to attend.”

With that, Rhys squirmed free of Armus’ grip, straightening himself up and brushing off his crumpled jerkin. A sinister grin touched his lips as he mounted his horse and headed out across the bailey. As he did, a rustling in the stable caused Armus to turn just in time to see Matilda scurry from one of the stalls.”

“My lady,” he shouted as he cut in front of her. “Why have you been listening to our conversation?”

“I know nothing other than what I told you,” she replied, her voice quivering.

“I think you do, mistress,” Armus countered, his face returning to a gentler state, though the state of worry was still etched indelibly across his brow. “Would you see my brother hang for an act he did not commit?”

“No matter what Sir Rhys told you,” she declared, “the child was Sir Richard’s.”

“Rhys believed it was his?” Armus queried in surprise. “He stated no such thing to me.”

She began to stammer, fearful that she may have already said too much. “I only know that the mistress told him it was, m’lord, for the sake of the child. She knew her father would never approve of a marriage to Sir Richard, no matter what the circumstances, and did not wish the child be born illegitimate.”

“And both Sir Rhys and Sir Derek accepted this lie?” Armus asked, unable to believe either man would have been so naïve.

“It was convenient for them,” Matilda replied, “far more acceptable than the alternative.”

“But they’re willing to admit it was Richard’s now,” Armus pointed out, convinced that it was the lady herself who had been mistaken.

Matilda looked up into his the deep cerulean eyes, a sadness encompassing her very being. “Circumstances have changed, my lord. Now the truth does not matter to Sir Rhys. He is the injured party, and Sir Reginald has been quite generous with him.”

“So he acquires a nice settlement with or without your Lady,” Armus exclaimed as if the light had suddenly dawned.

 Matilda shook her head on the verge of tears. “I have said too much, m’lord. I must return to the castle.”

“Your word could save my brother’s life,” Armus pleaded.

“My word could change nothing, kind Sir,” Matilda exclaimed, “and bring only more disgrace upon my mistress.”

She bowed her head and hurried back toward the castle. Armus could hear the strain in her voice, yet he knew of nothing else he could say to change her mind. She was terribly distressed, though he was no longer certain what the cause of her fear was. Until he could be sure of that, there was little he could do to free her from it.

*****

Thomas needed to speak to the pages, but without Sir Derek’s approval, they would probably tell him little. There was only one alternative, but that required speaking to the knight himself once again. Taking a deep breath, he approached his former friend in the Great Hall, sitting down across from him and warming his hands by the fire.

For a moment, neither of them said anything, and then Derek broke the silence. “What is it this time, Thomas?” he uttered, his emotions drained. “I have allowed you to visit your son, listened to your pleas for mercy. I know your pain, but you must also know mine. When will you let me grieve in peace?”

“It is not my intent to trouble you during this time of mourning, Derek,” Thomas answered, a twinge of pity in his voice, though he remained determined, “but surely you must understand my need to do whatever I can to prove my son’s innocence.”

“Yes, what is it now?”

He sat staring into the fire, a shell of the man he once was. His blue eyes, ordinarily so alive and animated, seemed dim and vacant. His ruddy complexion had a pale sallow color to it, causing him look as if death were consuming him even as he sat before the large hearth. If not for Richard, Thomas would have left him to his grief, but there was another life at stake here, one that Thomas held dear to his heart.

“I’d like to speak to your pages, if you would not mind. There is a question about who summoned Richard to Lady Miriam’s room.”

“She did, I suppose,” Derek stated as if it were all too obvious, “to tell him about the child. Foolish girl, how could she have known what would become of her.”

“May I speak to them, Derek?” Thomas persisted.

“Yes, of course. What difference does it make now?” Derek relented. “My arrogance has cost us both a child. Do what you must, Thomas.”

Thomas stood to leave, but Derek lifted a hand, signaling him to pause. Out of respect for this man who was once his dear friend, he did so. Derek closed his eyes for a moment, and then spoke what was on his mind. “After it’s done, I will not demand his body,” he uttered, the sadness in his heart pouring forth upon his lips. “You may take him home, Thomas. Give him a proper burial. Miriam would have wanted it that way, I’m sure. They’ll be together, Thomas. Even I cannot prevent that now.”

Thomas nodded solemnly, then went to find the pages, managing to locate the russet haired youth who had delivered the note without too much trouble.

“Can you tell me, son,” Thomas inquired, an urgency in his voice that even the child could discern, “who it was that gave you the note you were to deliver to Sir Richard the night before last?”

“No one did, m’lord,” the boy responded, surprised by the question. “I found it upon my table, with a message that I was to deliver it to Sir Richard immediately. I did so at once, fearing I may have already been too late with it.”

“Why is that?” Thomas queried.

“I tarried longer than I should have in the yard, I fear,” the boy admitted.

“But you did deliver it to Sir Richard,” Thomas asked, “and all was well with it.”

“Yes, m’lord. He seemed quite pleased by its contents,” he added with a slight grin.

“Do you know what it said?” Thomas asked, hoping a clue might surface as to its origin.

“No, m’lord, but it was stamped with my lady’s seal.”

“Was Lady Miriam in the habit of leaving messages on your table?” Thomas inquired.

“Oh, no, m’lord!” the boy protested. “In fact, I’m sure she must have gotten someone to deliver it for her, for it would be unseemly for a lady to enter our quarters.”

Holding his breath, Thomas asked, “Did you or the other pages see anyone mulling about that may have delivered it?”

“No, m’lord. Only the squires and one of the knights.”

“Which knight might that have been, son?” Thomas queried, though in his heart he already knew the answer.

“Sir Rhys, m’lord,” the boy replied.” He was showing some of the squires how to handle a sword.”

“Was he?” Thomas declared, his suspicions confirmed. “Does he come to demonstrate his skill often?”

“No, m’lord,” the boy replied. It was clear he found some humor in the question. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen him out here before.”

“Thank you, son, you may go now,” Thomas stated, an appreciative twinkle in his eye.

“Yes, sir.” The boy started to leave, then stopped and turned around, hesitating momentarily before speaking. “M’lord . . .”

“Yes, what is it, lad?”

“Sir Richard . . . “ he replied with all the seriousness his ten year old voice could muster, “he would come out here a lot. I don’t believe he hurt my lady. In truth, Sir, I think he cared for her a great deal.”

“Yes, I believe you may be right,” Thomas smiled. Thank you, son.”

So, Thomas thought as he headed back to the castle, Rhys had made an unprecedented visit to the squires’ quarters, but what was the real purpose of his visit. To lure Richard to Lady Miriam’s chambers no doubt, with every intent on blaming him for her murder. Just then, he remembered something Richard had mentioned. He had not realized until now how strange the statement sounded. The boy had claimed no recollection of what had occurred that night beyond his second tankard of ale. That was not at all like the Richard he knew. If nothing else, the boy could hold his ale. Thomas had seen him drink thrice that amount and barely slur his speech. The realization of just how calculated the treachery had been caused Thomas to stop in his tracks. He knew Sir Rhys Montacute was responsible for the death of Lady Miriam and her child, yet he was helpless to do anything about it. There was, in reality, nothing to point to him as her murderer. He would need more than unsubstantiated suspicions to bring about Richard’s release.

Hurrying across the bailey, Thomas caught sight of Gideon at the stables, having just returned from the magistrate. Clutching at straws, he approached the man once more, well aware how desperate his request would sound. “Gideon,” he shouted, and the sheriff sighed with a weariness that comes about when such unpleasantness concerns one you have deemed a friend.

“Yes, Thomas, what is it?”

“The cup Richard was drinking from the night before last,” he ventured, however hesitantly, “is it still in Lady Miriam’s chambers?”

Gideon’s eyes reflected the pain he felt for his friend, for he thought the wear of the last two days had caused him to loose his mind. “The strain has been too much for you, Thomas. Perhaps it would be better if you returned home. I will see the boy’s body is returned as soon as . . . ,” his voice drifted off, “. . . I will not tarry, Thomas. You have my word of honor.”

Thomas knew the man meant well, but his insinuation annoyed him. “I have not lost hold of my senses, Gideon! Answer me this? Have you ever known Richard to become intoxicated after only two drinks?”

“Now I know you’re in need of rest, my friend,” Gideon replied, placing him arm across Thomas’ back and steering him back toward the castle. “I’ve seen Richard consume more than that just to quench his thirst.”

“Exactly!” Thomas shouted, stopping dead in his tracks and turning to grab Gideon by the shoulders. “Don’t you see, Richard says he remembers nothing after his second tankard of ale. He was drugged!”

“Do you hear yourself, Thomas,” Gideon responded, placing a sympathetic hand upon the others shoulder. “Richard said! What else could he say? Don’t you see the shear absurdity of his statement condemns him all the more? He can’t account for what took place without convicting himself, so he claims he can not remember.”

Thomas brushed Gideon’s hand from his shoulder, his jaw firmly set. He had no intention of even entertaining the idea that Richard may be guilty. “The tankard, Gideon!” he responded with determination. “Will you at least consider it?”

Gideon sighed, seeing there would be no reasoning with the man. “Yes, Thomas, all right, but don’t expect too much. Even if what you say is true, there’s little chance it could be detected. Rest, my friend, or I fear two Greys may be dead by the end of the day tomorrow – one out of utter exhaustion.”

*****

No word had come from Gideon, or Matilda, and so out of time and possibilities, Thomas and his family paid one last visit to Richard’s cell. They found him on his knees, praying a rosary. He looked so angelic kneeling there, his saintly face lit by rays of early morning light, his eyes closed in prayer. Thomas almost hated to disturb him. Finally, he cleared his throat, causing Richard to start.

“Father,” Richard said hopefully, but he could see by the look on the man’s face that the news was not good. “You did the best you could. I have sinned, and now I shall pay for that sin.”

Thomas shook his head, peering deeply into his son’s emerald eyes. Even now, there was a sparkle in them, a light that would soon been dimmed by the executioner’s rope. He swallowed hard before speaking, a tremendous cry lodged in his throat. “Your indiscretion does not warrant such punishment, Richard. If it did, many a knight would end his days beneath the gibbet.”

“I did love her, Father,” Richard assured him. “I would have gladly married her and raised our child.”

“I know that, son.” Thomas replied, choking back the tears.

Eleanor had begun to cry openly, and Armus put his arm around her as if he could shield her from the pain. Richard had not seen her shed tears since their mother had died eight years before, and the sight brought a painful lump to his throat.

“It’s all right, Eleanor,” he whispered, the older brother consoling her one final time. “I’ll be with Mother soon, and Miriam, and my child. My only regret is that I will not join them as a knight.”

“You shall always be a knight,” Cedric exclaimed, his voice quivering as he tried to hold back the tears. “The Lord knows you are innocent, and he will welcome you as one.”

“I’m not so sure, Cedric,” Richard replied with a hollow laugh. “I deflowered the lady, not a very chivalrous thing to do.”

“It would only be unchivalrous, brother, if the lady protested,” Armus noted, “and it is my understanding that she did not.”

“She was pure and chaste of heart, Armus,” Richard snapped. “I will have no one defile her name. What she did, she did because she cared for me. If not for her father . . .”

“No one will so much as whisper a slur against her name while I am around, brother,” Armus stated, resting a reassuring hand on his sibling’s shoulder. “I promise you that.”

Richard nodded, tears welling up in his eyes. He was trying valiantly to hold back the flood of emotion that was engulfing him, but he could not keep a few stray tears from sliding down his cheek. Lady Elizabeth bent down and kissed his forehead, then turned to leave the cell. She could not stand to see him in such a state. Her heart was breaking, for in the years since she had come to Covington Cross, he had become as close to her as her own son.

One by one, the others left as well. Eleanor kissed his cheek, hugging him so that he thought she would never let go. Cedric’s hand shook as he rested it on his brother’s shoulder, too afraid to give him a hug for fear he might forget himself and break down in tears like a child. Armus, however, had no fear of appearing weak. He wrapped his arms around his brother, tears flowing freely from his slate blue eyes. “I shall miss you, brother. Forgive me for failing you.”

“You have never failed me, Armus,” Richard replied, a faint smile touching his lips. “Forgive me it I ever gave you reason to think otherwise. You have always been my hero. Think how arrogant I might have been if you had not been there to put me in my place.”

Armus hugged his brother one last time then joined the rest on the other side of the dungeon door. Only Thomas was left facing his son. He too was trying with every ounce of strength to hold back the tears that lingered just below the surface. His hands shook as he cupped them around his son’s cheeks.

“You listen to me, Richard. You are a loyal and faithful knight of the realm. Through God’s grace you achieved this station, and no man can take it from you. Derek has agreed to let us take you home. I promise you will be given a knight’s burial. You will forever be remembered at Covington Cross as Sir Richard Grey.”

Richard’s chin had begun to quiver, the strain of the last two days and the reality of what was to come finally overwhelming him. He fought to hold back the tears, but they followed a path of their own, bursting forth from his eyes and flooding his cheeks in streams of soot and grime. “I don’t know if I can do this, Father. I would not disgrace you anymore than I already have.”

“There is no disgrace, child,” Thomas uttered in disbelief. “I have never been more proud of you then I am at this moment. Do not forget that. Hold your head high, Richard, and remember who you are.”

“Yes, Father . . .” Richard nodded , closing his eyes to steady himself, then taking a deep breath he continued, “I would speak to the friar before I go.”

“Yes, of course,” Thomas replied, his voice cracking, for he knew his son sought to cleanse his soul before he died. “I’ll summon him at once.”

Thomas realized it was time to leave. The dim rays of light that streaked through the dungeon window were becoming brighter, and he knew that they would soon be coming to take Richard away. The Friar was waiting patiently outside with the family, not wanting to disturb a father’s last moment’s with his son, so giving Richard one final hug, Thomas turned and called him in. Then, he closed the door behind him, affording his son the privacy of the confessional.

*****

The morning had turned dark and gray by the time they pulled Richard from his cell, hands and feet still bound. A donkey cart stood waiting for his final ride, one that would be punctuated by jeering crowds and rotten fruit being tossed his way. At least they could have let him wash his face, he thought, or given him clean clothes to wear, but then he remembered his station, no longer a knight of the realm, but a common murderer. He just wished it were over. He wanted to be sick, but he would not give them something else to laugh over. He may have been stripped of his title, but he would die with dignity none-the-less, content in the knowledge that he had committed nothing so wretched as the crime for which he stood convicted.

It was strangely quiet as he moved along the road to the gallows. Here and there a voice cried out for justice, but mostly the crowd just whispered quietly, shaking their heads now and then as he passed. One or two pieces of over ripened fruit found their mark, but the crowd was surprisingly subdued. Then again, he had come to this village many times as a child, when they’d come to visit Sir Derek and his family. As far as he knew, he was always well liked there. Maybe a bit too well liked he thought as he looked out over some tavern wenches, who had begun to cry uncontrollably. What must they think of him now, he mused as the cart came to a stop.

They pulled him from the hay strewn platform and dragged him toward the scaffold, right passed his family. Eleanor was still crying hysterically. Losing all pretense of bravery, she grabbed her brother around the neck, sobbing his name and telling him how much she loved him. It took two guards to separate them, but on command of the sheriff, they did so gently. Cedric’s chin quivered as Richard passed. He could not bear to look him in the eye, not because he was ashamed of him, but because he was afraid he too would be reduced to tears. Fighting the urge, he finally relented and hugged his brother before letting him pass. Thomas looked old and frail as Richard approached. As expected, the sheriff had denied his request to stay the execution, regretfully indicating that he would need more than unsubstantiated tips and anonymous slips of paper to alter Sir Derek’s verdict. Now, every year shone in the older man’s face as if they had been carved there one by one. He too hugged his son, one last time, and memories of the mischievous child flooded his senses. Lady Elizabeth stood at his side, her arm entwined about his. Though Richard had not always liked the idea of someone replacing his mother, he had grown to care for this woman a great deal.

“Take care of Father,” he managed to utter, his voice raw and strained.

She nodded tearfully, turning her head to look at Armus. Richard stopped before his eldest brother. “Remember your promise, brother,” he said, his tone solemn and controlled. “Quickly!”

Armus could do no more than nod as they led his brother to the steep ladder where his life would end. Before he started up the steps, the friar came to his side and pressed a string of beads in his hand. Richard closed his fist over the small spheres, gripping them tightly.

“Have you any further sins to confess, my son.”

“More than I have the time to name, Friar, but I swear, as God is my witness, I did not take Miriam’s life.”

“Do you ask forgiveness for your sins, my son?”

“Yes, Friar.”“Then I absolve you. In nomonie Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen. May God have mercy on your soul, my son.”

Richard felt as if he could not breathe. In moments he would come face to face with his maker. He had never truly thought much about it before. He had attended mass, and said the rosary, believed that his prayers were heard, but the certainty of death had never been real to him. Even when he’d been injured, inches from taking his last breath, the actuality of it had never truly crossed his mind. A shove from one of the guards woke him from his contemplation, and he started up the narrow ladder, squeezing the beads in his hand, praying for the strength to die an honorable death.

Moments later the rope was tightened around his neck and a black sack slid over his head. Plunged into darkness, he was momentarily distracted by the sound of his breathing as it resonated off the rough black material. He could hear the muffled sound of his sister’s sobs. The steady drone of the friar’s petitions echoed in the background, and he joined in those prayers.“Ave Maria, gratia plena, dominus tecum . . .,” he whispered as he felt the ladder slip from beneath his feet.

Somewhere amidst the thoughts of childhood and gasping for air, he felt strong arms clasp his legs. Armus had been true to his word. It would be over soon. He could hear his mother’s laughter, Miriam’s laughter. He would be with them soon. I dub thee, Sir Richard, a voice echoed. Have you said your prayers, Richard? his mother chided.

“Yes, Mother”, he answered halfway between life and death, for he had begun to slip away. A wave of contentment was enveloping him, peace moments away, then suddenly he felt himself falling, caught by four powerful arms.

“Richard! Richard!!” Thomas shouted. “Give him some air!!!”

Richard could feel the rope being loosened from around his neck, and instinctively, he gasped for air as the black hood was pulled from his head. Still groggy, he opened his eyes to see his father and Armus standing over him, the rest of his family not far behind.

“What hap . . . “he tried to speak, but his voice was lost.

“Don’t try to say anything, Richard,” his father instructed. “You need to rest. We’ll explain everything when we get you back to the castle.”

“I don’t . . . “

 “Be quiet, Richard,” Armus commanded, “for once in your life do as Father tells you.”

Too weary to argue, he let Armus and his father lift him to the cart. This time he did not ride alone. His family accompanied him, and he lay, half dazed, with his head upon Eleanor’s lap. Her hand felt cool and reassuring as it brushed along his fevered brow. For a moment, he could have sworn it was his mother gazing down at him. He had never realized how much Eleanor looked like her. He took a deep breath, the soreness in his throat still making it difficult, and Thomas quickly bent over him.

“Are you all right, son?”

Richard just nodded drowsily and watched the clouds pass overhead. No crowds were watching and no fruits being tossed this time, but now and then, somewhere off in the distance, he could hear a voice calling his name. Praise the Lord, you’re all right, Sir Richard; God bless you, m’lord; heaven protect you, Sir Richard.

Was he a knight again? Had they found the true murderer? Too tired to think anymore, he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep. He would think about it later.

*****

Richard woke to the sound of Lady Elizabeth whispering to a servant. His throat still burned, but he was determined to find out what had transpired.

“My lady,” he croaked, surprised by the raspy sound that came from his throat.

“Shhh, you must be quiet, Richard,” Lady Elizabeth cautioned. “The physician said you would be fine in a few days, if you rested your voice.”

“But . . .”

“Be quiet, Richard,” he heard his father’s deep voice bellow from the doorway. “Eat your breakfast, and we will tell you exactly what happened, but you must remain quiet.”

Richard nodded and began to down the plates of breads and fruits that were placed before him. He never knew anyone could feel so hungry. Though the bread felt a bit scratchy going down his throat, the fruit seemed to sooth it. Finally, he looked up at his Father, waiting for an explanation. His father hesitated momentarily, and Richard opened his mouth to speak.

“All right! I see you’re back to your normal impatient self,” Thomas laughed, “but I think Armus can explain it better than I.”

“It’s very simple really. Lady Matilda relented at the last moment. It seems she could not see you hang for another’s crime, no matter what her fears. You owe your life to her, brother. Luckily, Sir Derek holds her in high regard, elst her word would have meant little when put against the word of Sir Rhys Montacute.”

“Montacute murd . . .”

“If you cannot be quiet, Richard, this conversation will end here,” Thomas chided his son once more.

Richard huffed in annoyance, but said no more. A nod of his head expressed his wish for Armus to continue.

“Not only did he murder Miriam, but he framed you.” Armus stated. “The sheriff found the pitcher of ale you’d been drinking from and suffice it to say, his dog has been acting quite unusual since imbibing its contents. It appears Rhys ultimately acted out of jealousy, though it all began because he discovered Miriam was carrying his child.”

“His . . .”

“Richard!” Thomas cautioned once more.

“She may have fancied you, brother, but she knew her father never would have approved of the marriage. Resigned to her fate, she succumbed to Rhys’ demands, and shortly after discovered that she was to have his child. Rhys, however, had never really intended to marry her. Seeing the two of you together that afternoon gave him an idea of how he could release himself from the arrangement and still come out ahead. He knew Miriam had always fancied you, so he summoned you to her chambers that night. His plan was to expose your little tryst and thus claim he had been slighted and demand reparations from Sir Derek. At first, he simply thought to disgrace you both by placing the child at your door as it were. In a way, it would lend all the more credence to his demand for reparations, but then he saw the two of you together and his pride was wounded.”

“He was watching . . . “

“Be quiet, Richard!” Eleanor scolded her brother as she sat down next to him and took his hand.

“He saw enough. It was quite all right when he thought you saw her much the same as he did, a passing fancy, but the moment he realized how deep your feelings went, how natural it was for you to be together, he became incensed. He resolved then that he would do more than just disgrace the two of you; he would end your lives as well. He waited until you left that night, and then returned to her chambers. Miriam begged him not to harm their child, but he felt nothing for it. At first, he was going to beat her to death, make her suffer for her betrayal, but then he discovered your knife upon the bedside table and saw it as an opportunity to seal your fate.”

“But why . . . Matilda . . .”

“She not only feared Sir Derek would not believe her; she feared what Montacute might do to her as well. She’d practically seen him murder her mistress, though she could do nothing to stop him, and feared he might do the same to her. More than anything though, she feared tarnishing her lady’s memory even more than it already was. To have lain with one man was bad enough, but two . . .”

“We never . . . “Richard lied, but he knew it was for a good cause and prayed the Lord would forgive him.

“I didn’t think so,” Armus grinned, “and that is precisely what I told her Father. You were childhood confidantes and nothing more.”

*****

The physician had gauged Richard’s recovery time correctly, and a few days later, he was up and around, his usual arrogant self having been restored to full strength. Sir Derek could not have be more hospitable, insisting that they remain until Richard felt well enough to make the ride back to Covington Cross. Feeling responsible for the young man’s poor treatment and near death, he overlooked the popular opinion that he and Miriam had ever been anything more than good friends.

As for Armus, he had grown quite fond of Lady Matilda, and though the prospects of it going any further were dim, given their respective stations in life, they enjoyed each others company none the less. They could be seen every afternoon, making the rounds of the garden, walking arm in arm.

“I have to ask you one question, m’lord,” Matilda whispered one lazy summer afternoon. I will never dispute what you say, for your lie has spared my mistress further disgrace, and I am grateful to you for that, but there is one thing I do not understand. Why did you hide the truth from your brother as well?”

Armus looked back toward the castle. For a moment he did not answer, but Matilda waited patiently, trusting he would reply in good time. Her eyes followed his, coming to rest on a tree lined grove where Richard knelt to place some flowers. Finally, Armus turned to her, a touch of sadness marring his gentle expression. “Just as my lie spared Miriam from further shame, so too it spared Richard’s heart. Knowing it was he who had fathered her child would have accomplished nothing, and he would have only blamed himself for its loss. The child is dead. I pray you will bury this secret along with it.”

“You have my word, m’lord. I owe Sir Richard that much at least, but I wonder, do you think, within his heart, he knows the truth?”

“I’m certain of it, but at least our small ruse permits him to think otherwise, even if only outwardly. In a sense, it allows him to deceive himself, so that the pain is not unbearable.”

“She loved him, m’lord, of that I am certain. You’re secret is safe with me.”

With that, Matilda sealed her pledge with a kiss and the couple continued on their afternoon walk. Never again would they speak of the truth both concealed within their hearts, or the secret that protected two people they held dear.

***End***

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