by Roberta Gellis
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Alinor Devaux's parents drowned on their way back from Ireland when she was 2 years old, leaving her the mistress of the great keep of Roselynde and an enormous estate. She was raised by her grandparents who, to protect her, taught her to be the perfect medieval "lord" so that she could rule her vassals and hold her lands. When her grandfather died, her overlord was locked in a death struggle with his son and had no attention to give to Alinor so she escaped being thrust into marriage. Richard Coeur de Lion triumphed in that struggle, and his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine took England into her hand to hold for him. The queen took Alinor into her hand also. Since Alinor expressed a violent distaste for marriage for political purposes, promising to search for love in a husband's heart with the point of a knife, Queen Eleanor made her a ward of King Richard--which would bring her large revenues into the king's purse. She appointed Simon Lemagne, a man she would trust with her own life, to be Alinor's warden. Only Alinor soon decided she, too, could trust Simon with her life, with her lands, with her heart, and with her virginity.
New Review: Romance Junkies 4 1/2 stars
- A RICH AND MASTERFUL HEIRESS
- Alinor Devaux was rich, beautiful, and accustomed to ruling her lands and the men who were her vassals. She had no intention of marrying any man who did not win her heart ... and who was not prepared for her to continue to be her own mistress. When she found that man, however, she did not intend to let anything so insignificant to her as a king's and queen's displeasure stand in her way.
- AN HONEST AND VIRTUOUS WARDEN
- Simon Lemagne was a man who lived by his honor and was the perfect warden for a rich estate and a beautiful heiress. He had never taken anything by stealth and chicanery in his whole life, so he was totally unprepared to deal with a clever woman who wanted him and did not in the least care what methods she used to get him. But the worst of it was, he wanted her as much as she wanted him.
- THE KING AND QUEEN
- Both Richard Coeur de Lion and Eleanor of Aquitaine opposed the marriage of Alinor and Simon, but for different reasons. Queen Eleanor wished to keep Alinor unmarried as long as possible so her revenues would support Richard in the expensive role of king. Richard loved Simon and did not wish to see him hurt; he was sure that Alinor would break Simon's heart. In their struggle to be united against the political obstacles in their path, Lady Alinor and Sir Simon were swept from the Court in England into the Crusade and through the exotic lands of Byzantium right to the Holy Land.
Excerpt from ROSELYNDE
It was fortunate that once the Queen decided to take Alinor with her, she began to make use of her. Only a very few of the ladies-in-waiting would accompany her. Some were too old; some did not ride well enough; most had husbands and children in England. Alinor was the youngest and also the most competent of those who were going. She was made responsible for the Queen's personal effects, her dresses and her jewels, partly because her fifty men-at-arms could be used to guard them at no cost to the Crown.
In addition there were the letters to write, farewell notes, notes to old friends to say the Queen would be in a certain area at a certain time and inviting a visit, and notes to the Queen's regular correspondents to inform them of where to direct future letters. Alinor had little enough time to consider her own clothing and jewels and furniture and none at all to spare on Simon's intentions.
Her relative calm was encouraged after Simon's return because he was, if anything, busier than she. Nor was he long at Court. After a day to determine the size of the cortege, he was off again to arrange shipping. Returned from that task, it was necessary for him to assign each group to a ship, determining how many men, how many horses, how much baggage each vessel could accommodate.
Only twice did Simon and Alinor have any contact. On the day he returned, Simon sought Alinor out, ostensibly to ask how many men would accompany her. For the first moment, panic gripped her. There was so sweet a smile on Simon's lips, so tender a glance in his eyes that Alinor turned her own gaze to her fingers while she answered his questions.
In the midst of a question, his voice checked and he said, "Alinor?" gently, pleadingly.
She did not reply nor look up, frozen more by her impulse to yield before he asked than by any continued panic. The moment had passed, however, both for yielding and asking. Simon's question flowed on; he received an answer and took a polite leave.
Their second meeting was even more businesslike. A winter passage of the Channel was always dangerous, and the Queen's goods were to be divided so that if one ship foundered not all would be lost. In the largest and soundest vessel, the Queen, Alais of France, two of the Queen's ladies, and all of their serving women would travel together with a small portion of their possessions, horses, and about half of Simon's men-at-arms under his steady master-at-arms. The next best vessel would carry the remainder of the Queen's ladies, including Alinor, the remainder of the Queen's possessions, Alinor's men-at-arms, and Simon. Lesser ships carried the rest of the men-at-arms, servants, and horses.
This time there was no need for Alinor to look at her fingers. As Simon arranged when and where he would meet Alinor and her people after he had seen the Queen safely aboard her ship, there was nothing in his manner to indicate he had ever met Alinor before.
For the remaining two days before departure, a leaden weight lay on Alinor's heart. Obviously Simon would neither force nor plead his cause. Nor it seemed, was he willing to maintain a relationship of simple friendship. If Alinor wanted him, on his and the Queen's terms--a lover outside of the bounds of marriage--she could have him. If not, he was willing to remain a courteous stranger.
Nothing could have been more suitable to Alinor's mood than the weather through which they traveled from London to Dover. The skies wept soft ice which clung to cloaks and hoods to melt with the body's heat and soak all in freezing water. There was none of the bright joy of snow that lay lightly and beautifully upon the limbs of the trees and sheltered the sleeping earth under its white mantle.
Even when the sun at last came out, the bare bushes and straggled stalks of the previous autumn's reaping did not glitter and sparkle. They hung twisted and distorted under the weight of melting, transparent ice, naked and unseemly. The roads were a morass of frigid, glutinous mud that sucked at the horses' hooves so that they made their way painfully with hanging heads. Worse, it bogged the carts so that the men-at-arms, cursing and groaning, had to dismount and put their shoulders to the half-buried wheels to aid the laboring oxen.
Sometimes Alinor roused herself to speak a word of encouragement to her men, but mostly she just stared in silence, barely remembering to give Beorn Fisherman a few pennies to buy dry firewood. She remembered little of that ride, only misery of body and mind, only that her fingers and feet froze and cracked even in their furred gloves and boots so that her skin, although it had been well rubbed with goose grease, split and bled.
To be cold was a misery, to be warmed by a fire was a sharp agony because the chilblains stung and stabbed when the numbing cold was gone. She remembered too that the Queen had praised her for her stoic endurance when Alais and her other ladies bewailed their state. Alinor had merely laughed. A physical pain, she had discovered, was a very little thing in comparison to an unquiet mind. It was a relief to think about how her hands and feet hurt, to wonder whether she would be able to find dry clothes and to consider the horror of having again to put on her wet, mud-weighted garments if she could not. Anything at all was a pleasure so long as she did not have to think about Simon.
The port, which was strange and interesting to most of the ladies, could not divert Alinor. She had seen similar ships with their rows of benches for rowers and the great sweeps for steering hove in at the town that huddled under the gray walls of Roselynde. These were at their least attractive too, with their sails rolled and their crews emptying the stinking bilge.
Alinor shuddered as she saw them preparing to stretch a canvas across the prow of the ship to act as a protection of the ladies. Inside there would be some relief from the cold and the spray and a little warmth from the braziers of charcoal which would be lit if the sea was not too violent. There would also be acrid smoke, shrieks and prayers, and the ugly smell of vomit.
Although Alinor had never crossed the narrow sea, she had been sailing often enough. She was fortunate in not being given to seasickness unless the water was very rough, but the choice between freezing in the open or sharing the confined discomforts of the tent, each horrible in its own way, reminded her of choosing between a Simon she did not want or no Simon at all. In these choices there seemed no middle way. The choice between good and evil was easy. The choice between two goods was difficult. But the necessary choice between two evils was bitter indeed.
When they came to the appointed ship, Alinor dismounted and stood leaning against her horse, watching the men-at-arms leading and sometimes forcing their trembling, blindfolded mounts into the bottom of the ship. Dawn and Honey were already aboard and, at last, Beorn came to take Cricket, the study little mare Alinor had been riding. He looked around at the naked area, shook his head, and signaled to three of his men.
"You stand between the wind and the mistress, understand?" And then to Alinor, "I don't know what else to do, my lady. I cannot take you aboard before the horses are settled."
Alinor glanced at him rather blankly. "Never mind, Beorn. I am warm enough."
In fact, she was so numb that she did not feel cold, but she was suddenly aware of a different kind of chill. The other women were looking at her. Alinor flushed with shame. The men were hers, but there were more or less in the Queen's service now and, thus, for the protection of all the ladies. She told Beorn to send more men so that the windbreak, such as it was, would shield the whole group.
A larger group of men-at-arms hurried back off the ship and formed a semicircle. It did not occur to Alinor that the women in their fur-lined cloaks were already better protected from the wind and cold than the men in their steel and leather armor and sodden wool mantles. The men's purpose was to serve their betters in any way that was necessary, whether by helping to transport furniture, push mud-bogged carts, fighting and dying to protect them, or by shivering in the wind so that they should be a degree or two warmer.
The condition of the men-at-arms did not cross Alinor's mind. She did her duty to them, and better than most masters, she prided herself. They ate well, they had sound armor and good horses; when they were sick, she saw they had medical attention and, if she had time, even came herself to be sure they were well cared for. Their wives and children, if they had any, were protected as long as they served and, should they die in service, would be life-settled, the sons to be trained in arms if they were suitable and the daughters to be married or taken as servants in the keep.
What troubled Alinor was her momentary neglect of a proper courtesy to women less fortunate than herself. The ladies who were traveling with the Queen were not the wives and daughters of great magnates who had their places and their duties in England. These women were largely widows who, although still relatively young, were no longer desirable marriage prizes. Their world no longer had a place for them. Most often they had children who were entitled to their dower properties so that they had nothing beyond a life interest to bring to another husband. Besides, if more children were born of the second marriage, war might result between the two sets of heirs. Sometimes the children were grown and wanted their mother's property now; most often the women were not strong enough to rule and manage their own lands and a male guardian was set over the children. In either case, the women were no longer welcome in what had been their homes.
Other ladies were even less fortunate. Minor heiresses, whose parents had not been foresighted or who had judged wrong in their selection of guardians or who simply were not powerful enough to protect their daughters. These girls had been disseisined by some unscrupulous male relative. They had nothing; they were fortunate not to have been murdered. Totally dependent on the Queen, they were kept out of pity or as weapons to be used at need against their dishonest menfolk.
This situation, too, Alinor had become aware of only after her arrival at Court. When she saw it, she thanked God anew with gratitude for a grandfather and grandmother who had wrought so well that strong men meekly bowed the knee to her.
Just as Alinor was trying to shake off her morbid mood and make converation, a man-at-arms spurring a lathered horse came down the road. He pulled up, came back, and dismounted. Then he approached the group of women hesitantly, peering to see the faces under the close drawn hoods. His face lit.
"Mistress!" He approached Alinor, knelt in the mud. "Thank God I have found you." He opened the neck of his jerkin and drew out a packet. "From Sir Andre."
Obviously they were letters. Alinor could feel the stiff parchment through the wrappings. She was aware of the increased hostility of the women. Her man had spoken English and she had understood. She gestured to the messenger to rise. Out of respect he had thrown off his hood so that Alinor could see his face. She knew the man.
"Does Sir Andre desire an answer, Adam?" Alinor asked.
"I do not know, mistress. Sir Andre did not say there would be any answer. He bade me hurry and, if needful, to follow you to Normandy, but he did not say about an answer."
Pride glowed in him. His lady knew him. Many men served her yet she knew him. Alinor did not think about the effect "knowing" her man would have. It was an art drilled into her from early childhood. When she thought with gratitude about her grandparents, she thought about how they had trained the men. She never realized how well she had been trained, molded into a model feudal lord, for she was certainly not a model lady.
"Very well, then, Adam, you may go."
A farewell, Alinor told herself, it must be a farewell. Nonetheless a small nagging feeling of guilt was added to her misery. She knew she should have read the message at once. Surely it was trouble, but Alinor did not want any more trouble. She thrust the packet into her belt where it would be hidden by her cloak, just as Simon and the remaining half of his troop came slogging back through the mud.
Simon's eye had become almost as quick as Ian's with regard to Alinor. He did not miss the swift, almost surreptitious disposal of a packet that could only be letters. To his mind it needed only that as a fitting conclusion to the last few days, which seemed to have been compounded of every horror that could overtake a man responsible for a traveling party. Why else should a woman hide letters unless they were from a lover, and an unsuitable lover at that. Simon turned on the leader of his half troop a face that made that hardened and steady soldier become pale.
"Get the men and horses aboard that ship in all haste," he said softly.
The man wondered briefly if it was worth the chance to ride the horses aboard. That would be the quickest, and most of the animals would behave with a man in the saddle. However, there were a few young men in the troop who were not yet capable of controlling their mounts. Frankly, he thought some of the men were as frightened as the horses. It would not do. One more accident would turn his lord into a madman.
He shuddered himself as he dismounted and called orders to his men, remembering the screaming, hysterical maidservants, the weeping and pleading menservants that had to be driven or sometimes carried aboard. One man had wrestled himself free and had fallen between the ship and the dock and been crushed. Several others had ended in the water, needing to be caught with grappling hooks and hauled aboard. He glanced at the ladies whom Simon was approaching. Birth showed. They were not afraid.
The man-at-arms was quite wrong. The gentle ladies were merely trained not to display their fear in inappropriate ways. They were just as frightened as the meanest maidservant and for the same reason. None of them had been aboard a ship before. In the normal course of events, the ladies of the Queen of England would have made innumerable trips across the narrow sea. But the situation had not been normal. Queen Alinor had been a prisoner. Although she was allowed some freedoms, crossing the sea to her own domains was naturally not one of them. Thus, her ladies had also been restricted in their movements.
Now as Simon approached, they vented their nervousness in excited questions about the ship, about the sea, about sailing. Simon did not attempt to free himself from several pairs of clinging hands, but his smile was a stiff formality.
"You should ask Lady Alinor," he replied. "I have crossed some four or five times, but I know little of the sea or of sailing. I can assure you that the ship is sound and the sailors experienced. If such things can make us safe, we will be. Well, Lady Alinor, what have you of sailing."
"That it is a greater joy in the hot days of summer than now," Alinor got out, thanking God that her voice had not broken as she feared it would.
"Have you been sailing often?" one of the youngest women asked, her fear conquering her resentment of Alinor.
"Yes, quite often. It is very safe and pleasant, especially on a calm day, as it is now."
"But I have heard one dies of sickness."
Alinor shook her head. "No, one never dies of it." Her lips curved into a smile, "Although I remember one time when we were smitten by a suddn squall that I begged my vassal most earnestly to let me die. In fact, if I remember aright, I pleaded with him to throw me overboard so that it might come about more speedily." Alinor laughed affectionately at the memory. "It is nothing. A little discomfort. Besides many are not taken with the sickness, especially on a day like today."
Alinor had no sooner stopped speaking than her maid Gertrude broke away from the men-at-arms who were shepherding the servants aboard and flung herself at Alinor's feet, weeping and pleading to be sent home.
"Get up," Alinor said to her, "and go quietly or what will befall you will be worse than drowning."
Simon stiffened as he heard a whimper come from the group of women. Whatever good had been done by Alinor's speech was being undone by her servant. Hysteria was violently contagious. Before Simon could decide whether it would be worse to have the whole group screaming and throwing fits or to enrage Alinor by disciplining her servant, Alinor solved the problem herself. She threw back her cloak and launched a blow with the back of her hand that took Gertrude in the face. Alinor's ring tore the girl's cheek so that blood streamed from it and the force of the blow knocked her flat.
"Pick her up," she said to one of the men-at-arms, "and cast her in, and not too gently. I have no time to whip her now, that will come later, but I desire that she be well bruised. I would bid you cast her in the sea, except that I have need of her." She raised her voice. "The next man or maid of mine that makes one sound, one, will feel the lash. There is no danger. The ship is sound. I am with you." She turned to the other women. "Come, let us go aboard. If the maids see us, they will follow more willingly."
"It would be most helpful, my ladies," Simon urged, bowing and stepping back.
He could have knelt down and kissed the mud where Alinor walked, he was so grateful to her. When it was necessary, hysterical maids could be knocked down and carried but the Queen would be most annoyed if her ladies were used in that fashion--even though she would no doubt have ordered it herself if they behaved that way in her presence. Simon watched Alinor go aboard, her step giving lithely to the movements of the plank. His spirit was washed over by an unutterable weariness and bitterness.
He had been so happy for those few days. He had done his duty against his will, advising the Queen to take Alinor when he thought he would be left behind. Then he had been ordered to come also. It had seemed, after Alinor's softness, that God's will was to bring them together. That was only delusion. Alinor's softness was kindness, not love. She wanted to be friends. But it was too late for that, Simon found to his horror. He could not be Alinor's friend.
The loading was finished. Simon, the last aboard, took a quick look at the landing. Nothing large had been left, and anything small must be gone for good. The ship was well-stowed, not surprising since about half Alinor's troop had been fishermen before they were taken into her service. Beorn was conversing earnestly with the captain of the ship, his face wearing an expression of serious delight.
The sailors pulled in the planks, cast off the ropes, and settled to their oars. The ex-fishermen men-at-arms were hastily pulling off their steel-ring reinforced leather armor and urging the others to do so also, explaining it was better to be cold than to drown. Then they crouched down, huddling together, the innermost men, who would be warmed by the bodies of their companions, contributing their cloaks to make double and triple layers on the outermost men and as a covering for the whole group.
Simon walked slowly forward, suppressing a sensation of envy for the warmth and companionship they had. He made his way along the raised walk that bounded the cargo area, glancing down at the sweating, neighing, terrified horses. They were shackled so that they could not kick each other, but little more could be done for them.
The ship rose and fell in the easy swell. Simon staggered a little and moved more quickly. He was not prone to sickness from the sea, but he was no sailor either and he wished to be out of the way of the men who would soon have to raise the sail and fasten the lines. There was a small clear area in front of the women's tent, and here Simon stopped. He had been considering sheltering himself from the wind inside the tent. He considered it no longer.
Above the noise the horses were making, he could hear the sobs and prayers from inside. It was one thing to be brave on terra firma. It was quite another to maintain one's composure when one's footing rose and fell and tipped from side to side. There was an ear-splitting shriek followed by a slap almost as loud. Simon grinned even as he swallowed tears. That was undoubtedly Alinor. He hoped it was one of the maids she had slapped and not one of the ladies, but he feared from the outraged cries he was now hearing that his hope was in vain.
The case was proved a few moments later. Simon had just laid his shield down in a safe corner when Alinor erupted from the cabin. "God," she spat at Simon, not seeing who he was in her rage but knowing from his garments that she was not speaking to a commoner, "helps those who help themselves. I have done all I can. I hope they tear each other to bits." Then her eyes cleared only to light with anger again. "What are you doing in that mail?" she asked furiously. "Was not one near drowning enough for you?"
Simon opened his mouth and then closed it again. Any word he permitted to pass his lips, flooded as he was with the sweet memory of those weeks at Roselynde, would be inexcusable. Silently he unbelted his sword, took off his helm, undid his cloak, and unlaced his hood. Alinor had looked at him, the anger in her eyes replaced by shocked hurt. When he began to struggle to remove his hauberk, however, two small, strong hands pulled at the hood. By the time the hauberk slipped from his body as he bent double, she was no longer there. He glanced once at her back as she stood beside the raised side of the ship, and then busied himself with carefully folding his hauberk and laying all his accoutrements together on the shield.
Then there was nothing else to do. Simon wrapped himself in his furred cloak and went to the port side where he sat down with his back to the planking. Again his eyes strayed to Alinor. The ship was moving steadily, but it was not that which made sickness rise in Simon's throat. Alinor was rereading her precious letters. Determinedly Simon closed his eyes. He wished he could close his ears too, to keep out the caterwauling of the other women. Perhaps if he went in, he could calm them, he thought guiltily, but he could not summon the courage for that.
"Simon!" Alinor shrieked.
Overboard! Simon thought, attempting to leap to his feet. Tangled in his cloak, he toppled forward, right into her arms.
"Not now!" Alinor spat, pushing him back. Her eyes were aflame with leaping gold and green points; her cheeks were blazing. "Look at this letter," she cried, thrusting it into his hands. "Oh, mea culpa, mea culpa!" she mourned. "I am punished for my weakness, justly punished."
Her lover is dead, Simon thought, with a vicious sense of satisfaction, or he has betrayed her. He hoped she burned and ached as he had all these months. Then his eyes fell on the signature and seal, and laughter roared out of him. He should have known! There was no lover. The only thing that could move Alinor into such a passion were her estates. In the scribe's careful hand beside a spluttery X was the name, Sir Andre Fortesque.
"You laugh!" Alinor screamed, beside herself. "You laugh?"
"No, no," Simon soothed, "not at the letter. I have not yet read it."
Nor was there anything to laugh about. Sir Andre had received notice from the Chancellor, William Longchamp, that, since the King's warden was called away upon the Queen's business, he would appoint another warden in Simon's place. Worse yet, Longchamp also planned to appoint a new sheriff in Sussex.
Simon's first reaction was to wonder whether Sir Andre could have misunderstood what Longchamp meant. Although Simon knew Sir Andre very well now and was completely convinced of his honor and good sense, it was easier to believe that Sir Andre had turned into an idiot than to believe what Longchamp intended to do. Such acts would tear apart the whole fabric of service to the royal family.
The King and Queen rewarded those who served them with appointments, such as Simon's appointment as Alinor's warden, from which a profit could be drawn. If the appointee was forced to remain in residence to attend to his appointment, he would be effectively removed from the King's service. Thus, it was understood that any appointee could choose a deputy who would perform his duties while he was away on the King's business. The absolute right to appoint a deputy was important because it made the deputy responsible to the appointee, not to the King, or the Chancellor, or anyone else. Since the appointee could remove the deputy at will, or punish him for dereliction of duty, he was assured that his profit from his appointment was secure. Without that assurance, the original appointment would be worthless.
"Mea culpa," Alinor sighed again. "I should have read the letter while we were ashore. I should--"
"What good would that have done?" Simon asked irritably. "Do you think the Queen would have given me permission to return?"
"But what are we to do?" Alinor cried. "If Longchamp gets his hands upon my lands, I will be beggared. My people will starve. What is more, I doubt I would ever get them back."
"Be still!" Simon snapped, "while I read this again. I cannot think while you howl in my ear."
Alinor drew in an enraged breath and then let it out again. Simon was perfectly right. Since they were already at sea, losing her temper and crying mea culpa were both profitless. She moved around to where she could reread the scribe's clear script over Simon's shoulder.
Both sighed with relief when they came to the end of the letter and took in what they had been too angry to see previously. Sir Andre did not plan to yield tamely. He had written already to the Bishop of Durham, who would assuredly confirm his appointment as Simon's deputy if only out of spite of Longchamp, and to William Marshal, who would just as certainly support him. To Longchamp he had replied flatly that he would yield neither the position of deputy sheriff nor the entry into any of Lady Alinor's keeps without specific instructions from his lord, Sir Simon, or his lady.
"It is very fortunate that you did not read these before we embarked," Simon said after a thoughtful silence. "I will take this to the Queen and have a letter from her to send back to Sir Andre. And, as soon as we come to the King, I will have his letter too."
"Yes, and a week later, Longchamp will send to the King again and have a letter with a later date. Or-- why should he send to the King at all. He has the seal. If he signs the King's name, who will know it is not Richard's hand?"
"Signs the King's name!" Simon exclaimed. "He would not dare."
"Would he not? Who will call him to account?"
"Alinor, what are you saying?"
"It is rumored in the Court that he has done it already. Where is the danger to him? He holds the letters he says he has received from the King. If some chance should bring Lord Richard back or if some complainant should go to the King, Longchamp need only destroy the forgery and say the man lies, that the whole was fabricated to damage him in the King's eyes. What is more, Simon, the King will not care. You know what he thinks of the English barons. He said it aloud in Court. He will be well pleased if Longchamp wrests our livelihood from us."
"Not from me or you," Simon said. "If the King tells me before my peers that I must yield, I will. It is my duty. But I do not think the King will look me in the face before a concourse of barons and take from me what he has only just given me and what you have barely paid for." His voice stopped abruptly. "I am sorry, my lady, that you have been troubled," he said flatly. "I will see that you suffer no hurt from this."
"Simon, Simon," Alinor whispered, catching his hands, "I will do what you want, anything you want. Do not be so cold to me. I love you."
She had not realized how much she loved him until they were again involved in working together to keep her lands safe. She would give anything to keep that warm rapport, that ready understanding. He is a man, she thought, and he does have honor. It is only that the honor does not reach as far as women.
"You love me!" he replied bitterly. "For how long this time? In the name of God, Alinor, cease from tormenting me. I swear I will serve you just as honestly, just as faithfully. I will not cheat you whether you love me or not."
"Torment you? I have tormented you? And what do you mean, how long this time? I could not love you longer than I know you. I have loved you almost from the first day. How much longer could I love you?"
"I do not understand you at all," Simon said quietly. "Are you pretending that you did not think better of this foolish love while I was in Wales, and pay me my due--and very lavishly you paid with a rich shire. I will say, Alinor, that you are not niggardly. It was the finest horse and armor with which you paid Ian for his service, and it was a fair, rich shire with which you paid for mine."
"Paid for you service? Simon, you are a fool! I have told you before that I bought you that office to protect myself and my people. What has that to do with a horse and armor for a boy? What has that to do with whether I love you?"
"Has it not to do with that?" Simon said uncertainly. Then his voice firmed. "No. You will not take me unaware again. I will not have my heart torn out, then patched up at your pleasure and put back so that it can be torn out again. When I came to Court, I thought it might be as you say. You spoke my name in such a voice and tried to hold me-- But by the time I returned and wished to ask if you loved me still, you would not even look at me." He rested an elbow on his knee and dropped his head into his hand. "Let me be. I am too old to play your games. Young hearts crack a little and then heal. Old hearts are like old bones. When they break, they do not knit together very easily."
"I am sorry, Simon," Alinor said dully. "I did not mean to hurt you. I see now I held my value too high when I desired you in wedlock. I have been well lessoned. I hold myself more lowly now. If it will besmirch your honor to strive for me as a wife, appoint me a time, and I will come to your bed."
Tears filled Alinor's eyes and slipped silently down her cheeks, but she did not sob. Her voice was only a little lower. "Will you make me say it again? You are a hard master, Simon. I said I would come to your bed at your pleasure. Say me when. Here? Now?"
"Are you mad?"
"No, I suppose this is not a suitable place. When we come ashore?"
Because Alinor's eyes were tear-filled and downcast, she did not see the slap that knocked her down. Simon knelt over her, his face purple with rage.
"I wish I had some cleansing herbs to wash out your mouth!" he roared. "I wish I knew what could be used to wash out your mind! Where did you come by such a thought? How dare you say such filth to me?"
Alinor lay silent, her eyes staring wide, completely dumbfounded. Simon seized her by the shoulders, lifted her, and shook her until she thought her head would snap from her neck.
"If you ever say such to me again, I will beat you witless," he bellowed. "Who taught you such a thing?"
"Oh, Simon, stop," Alinor gasped, beginning to struggle against him. She was laughing and crying at once. "Stop. It was the Queen."
This time the level of Simon's voice was such that Alinor released his arms, which she had been attempting to hold to reduce the impact of his shaking, and clapped her hands to her ears. Fortunately the shock also checked his activity before he broke Alinor's neck.
"If I answer you, will you shake me again?" Alinor asked cautiously.
Simon's hands dropped from her shoulders. "Do you mean to tell me that the Queen said I wished to take you-- That I wished to dishonor the girl entrusted to my care?"
"No," Alinor admitted, smiling through her tears. "Mayhap I could use a cleansing of the mind. The Court is no wholesome place, but I swear, Simon, I will never take its ways to be yours again. And I will thank God for that on my knees every day of my life."
"Well," he temporized, "I am no saint. I have sinned my sins, but they are nothing to do with you. Now, how came the Queen into this affair?"
Alinor rubbed her cheek. The hood of her cloak had cushioned the blow, but Simon was a strong man and her jaw ached. "Will you grow angry again if I speak the truth?" she asked.
"Probably," Simon growled, "but I will not hit you if you do not insult me again." He stared at her expression and his own changed from anger to revulsion. "Alinor, do not tell me you're of those who take joy in being beaten!"
Her clear laugh rang out. "No, indeed, and if I deserved it less, I would have made you sorry for it."
"You would have made me--" Simon began angrily, bristling as he always did at a threat. Then he looked aside. "Ay, I have no doubt you have the power to do that. But," he continued, looking at her sidelong, "you have not the power to lead me round by the nose. I ask again, how came you to name the Queen when I asked who gave you such a thought of me?"
Alinor's mind had been very busy. It would be easy enough to lie and say she had built the idea from some talk she had with the Queen regarding one of the Court ladies, but it seemed better to tell the truth. In the end it might be necessary to get herself with child by Simon in order to force a marriage. If she planted the idea that the Queen had hinted approval of such a plan, Simon's strict sense of honor might be somewhat assuaged. It was the Queen, after all, who had made him her warden and essentially his loyalty was to her. Alinor did not for a moment believe that the Queen had marriage in mind, but she was not one to boggle at bending the truth in a good cause.
"I was very unhappy when I thought you were angry with me of the purchase of that office," Alinor began, and then said hotly, "Well, how should I know you were such an idiot as to think I would part with a huge sum of money because I did not love you? That I should give you a gift because I did love you is reasonable. The other way is--is--"
"Never mind that. Come to your answer."
"I am coming to it. The Queen-- Simon, it is very cold on this deck," Alinor said, shifting uneasily.
"Alinor!" Simon warned.
She hunkered up and rubbed her behind. "It is hard, too. Let me sit in your lap."
Belatedly aware that their position was not exactly private, Simon glanced around uneasily. They were, however, more secluded than he had thought. Sometime during the argument the sail had been hoisted and it effectively blocked the forward section from the main body of the ship. The crew and the men-at-arms were huddled as low and as close together as possible for the sake of warmth. What was more, between the noise the women were making and the noise the horses were making, it was unlikely that anyone had heard Alinor and him screaming at each other.
Simon folded his legs to make a comfortable cradle. "Very well. Sit."
Alinor moved promptly and rested her head on his shoulder. "That is much better," she sighed.
"Yes, and it is a great pleasure to me also," Simon replied, "greater, perhaps, than is meet or fitting. Nonetheless, I have not forgotten my question."
Alinor glanced up at him mischievously. "But I will wager I could make you forget. No, Simon! Do not push me off," she giggled. "Indeed, I wish to answer."
"Then do so, and quickly."
"Listen, beloved. I misread what the Queen said to me because--because I was not so old or so wise as I thought I was. What I saw among the ladies and their gallants sickened my mind so that I began to doubt all men."
"There I was a fool. I should have warned you." He saw the set of Alinor's mouth and, even though her eyes and half her face were hidden, he guessed at her thoughts. "I was never a part of that. I do not say I am a monk, but whispering in corners and sighing love songs is not my forte. I cannot sing. Besides, my shoes are too big. Had I been taken unawares, I would be too easily known."
That made Alinor laugh, as he had intended. Also the lightness somehow lessened the revulsion with which she had regarded cheating for the sake of the sick excitement it generated.
"I would like to hear you sigh a love song," she teased.
"You are more like to hear me box your ears. Will you come to this answer you say you wish to give me?"
"As I said, you made me unhappy, and the Queen saw that and questioned me straitly. I avoided what I could, but her eyes are keen and she saw easily where my heart was. She said she could not help me, but if it did not keep you from your duties with her, that I could deal with you as I pleased and that what was impossible to avoid might easily be forgiven. You came from her chamber with such joy, I thought she had said the same to you. Forgive me, my love, that I thought you wished to have it both ways--that like those others you could have me and yet my lands could be free to the Queen's use."
Had Alinor expected any reaction, she would have been disappointed. Simon neither spoke nor moved.
"I should have realized that she did not mean what I thought," Alinor continued.
"Are you so sure?" Simon asked in a rather constricted voice.
"Yes, I am," Alinor lied cheerfully. "She knows you and must know you would have no part in such a thing. She has spoken to me often of how you have not been fittingly rewarded for your loyal service, but she has so many differences with the King on the right management of the realm that she dare not press for small matters."
"That is God's truth," Simon sighed. "If Longchamp continues as he is going there will be bloody war in England."
"Yes, and the King will hear no ill of that toad. But, Simon, if it should come about that I needs must marry, and in haste--"
"And how," Simon asked with dangerous softness, "could such a thing come about?"
Alinor decided it would be safer to advance circuitously. "My family was seisined by William the Bastard," she said ingenuously. "There is nothing in our charter to say an heir must be born in wedlock. To the firstborn male, it says, or failing male heirs, to the females of the blood, in perpetuum."
Simon knew better than to argue with Alinor on any subject pertaining to her estate; nonetheless, he said, "You jest!" Such a charter could lay endless heartache. A boy's peccadillo with a serving wench could throw the succession into doubt. If an heir did not have to prove legitimacy, the estates might become entangled in endless trouble.
"I do not jest," Alinor said indiglantly, and then began to laugh. "The first Lord of Roselynde was a bastard you see. That was not important, but so was his favorite son. And my grandfather was a very near thing, I understand, although the priest was said to have finished the service in time. You need not be so worried. It is not a thing generally known, but it could be used if needed."
"No!" Simon said explosively, and then more quietly, "I have never taken a thing by stealth in my life--good war practice excepted--and I will not now, though every part of me, brain, soul, and body, cries out for you. Do not torment me, Alinor."
"No, I will not. Mayhap things will grow easier between the King and the Queen. At least she knows now and has not driven us apart."
Alinor was quite content with her afternoon's work. She had never expected Simon to agree, nor did she expect that he would ever deliberately make her pregnant with the intention of forcing a marriage. All she had wanted was to plant the idea that the Queen would not disapprove or be disappointed in him if their passions ran away with them. She was in no terrible hurry. If it seemed that marriage would be possible in a year or two, or even if a promise of it could be obtained for a further distance of time she would be satisfied to wait. There was no reason, however, to forgo the limited joys allowed them.
"The sun is going down," Alinor remarked, "and it is getting colder and colder."
Simon cocked his head at the tent. "The women seem quieter now. Do you want to go in?"
"Not till they forget, if ever they do, that I knocked Lady Margaret endwise. She was just about to cast herself on the deck and begin drumming with her heels."
"Yes," Simon said drily, "I heard you putting a stop to it." He reached up to unfasten his cloak. "Here take my cloak."
"Do not be so silly," Alinor replied. "You will freeze. Besides, I want a warm body, not a cold cloak. Do but open it, Simon, and take me inside."
He began to laugh. Sir Andre had warned him about Alinor's persistence. Unless she was convinced a thing she wanted was wrong, she would continue to strive toward it, backing and filling, seeming often to yield, but always gaining inch by inch until she had her way.
"You will get no good of it," he warned, nonetheless loosening the folds so that Alinor could slip under.
Quick as a striking snake, her cloak was open also and slipped up over Simon's shoulders under his own so that they were pressed breast to breast. She tilted her head back, her eyes light and laughing.
"I will get warm," she murmured, sliding her arms up around his neck and pulling his head down. "For now, beloved, that will be sufficient."