Bethany House Publishers
The South of England
A t the foot of a sprawling elm slumped a boy, barely into his majority of age. Tears tracked through the dust of travel on his smooth young face.
He'd tried to be a man about it all, but how much could even a battle-scarred knight be expected to take? Philip de Tollard was only eighteen, after all. Forced from his only home in shame was galling enough, besides being penniless and constrained by more failures than he wished to count to take the lowliest of positions. And now this latest humiliation.
He was neither a knight nor could he ever hope to be one! Another miserable fate for him to bemoan.
Nevertheless, he hated himself for his present weakness. Tossed out like spoiled meat, he would surely be vanquished--as they all no doubt wished--if he didn't gather back the raveled threads of his wits. Sniffing loudly, he dragged a sleeve of coarse homespun across his nose. Then, as if to mock his paltry attempt at manliness, he felt a moist, hairy pressure against his left ear.
"Oh, you miserable beast!" He turned a sour look at the white face of his erstwhile companion. "Don't try to make it up to me now," he railed at the horse. "'Tis your fault I am in my present fix."
Dumpling nuzzled him again, and this time, with a wan smile, Philip ran a hand over the white patch set in the midst of the animal's silver gray nose. I am low indeed, Philip thought, if I dare blame my troubles on this fine beast, the only true friend I have, the only thing I can claim as my very own. Would that I could thrash those truly at blame! His fists balled at his sides, but no ready target presented itself, and he would not harm an innocent beast.
Nay, only I am the cause of my woes, myself and--no, not even can I blame him! Myself and myself alone.
Wiping his hands over his face, hoping to obliterate the traces of his childish emotion, he lurched to his feet. Lame horse or not, he still had to get to his destination before nightfall. This was his last chance for any semblance of a life, low and mean though it promised to be. He'd hoped to ride to his new position perched proudly upon his fine mount. Now, after walking the remaining miles in his journey, both he and his horse would limp into Cassley Manor in a most unspectacular display.
What would it matter anyway? Who but the servants would give a second glance at a mere groom?
Feeling emotion once more knotting up inside him, he turned his attention to Dumpling. His thoughts had reminded him that now he was indeed a groom, and not by mere chance but because he'd always had a way with horses. He examined each of Dumpling's hooves until he found the faulty one. With his belt knife, he gently probed until the tiny pebble, no larger than a pea, popped out from under the shoe.
"You spoiled beast!" He held out his palm, containing the pebble, before the animal's eyes, as if Dumpling could truly perceive it or, if he could, give a farthing about the sight. "I have heard of destriers riding in battle with arrows and sword gashes in their flanks. Yet you, a mere palfrey, are felled by a pebble."
Reaching into his saddlebag, he withdrew a jar of salve. The head groom at his father's estate swore by this ointment, containing ragwort, for all manner of skin irritations. The fellow even rubbed it on his own rheumatic joints. Philip applied it sparingly on the offended hoof. No sense wasting it on such a minor abrasion.
"There," he murmured. "You are treated like a war-horse in any case. But now you owe me, beast. I will ride you the last miles to the manor."
The animal snorted, as if to say, "Ha! You are lucky to possess a horse at all. And I am a fine mount for a palfrey."
"And I must be half crazy talking to a horse and imagining answers. If I hadn't been dismissed from the university for disrupting the general tranquillity, they would have soon declared me demon possessed."
Unwittingly, his thought dredged up more unpleasant memories. His last day at Oxford, though weeks ago, still curdled up inside him like milk left in the sun. But were Father Dumbarton's words prophecy?
Philip, along with Colbert Laughton, son of Lord Haliford, had been fairly dragged before the priest by the scruff of his collar. Still feeling the heat of his fury, Philip had struggled and kept trying to wring his classmate's neck even as they were hustled before the headmaster.
Laughton had started it ... more or less. Philip hadn't been watching where he was going as he hurried down a cloister, late for his Latin lecture. The two young students had inevitably collided, with Colbert sprawling indecorously upon the stones and bringing scattered laughter from several passersby. This, of course, fired up the young lordling more than the fall itself. When Philip extended a hand to help him to his feet, Colbert had glared at it as if it were a sword poised to vivisect him. Crashing into Laughton was a pure accident, but his classmates, most of them at any rate, never lost an opportunity to deride Philip's tenuous position in society. Colbert was no different, especially now spurred on by his perceived humiliation.
"You clumsy misbegotten whoreson!" the young lord had sputtered.
Laughton had chosen just the right insult. Had he merely called him clumsy, Philip could have been reasonable about it. But after almost two years the boys knew just the right things to say to goad Philip into violence. Even then, however, Philip tried mightily to ignore them. The last fight, less than a week ago, had put him perilously close to expulsion.
"I'd stop now, Laughton," Philip warned, "while you are merely fallen upon the floor rather than made part of it!"
Colbert Laughton laughed as he lumbered to his feet. "I'd like to see you try, bastard! Prove once and for all that you do not belong among decent society."
Philip's fingers twitched, and he felt his cheeks go as red as his hair. "Leave me alone!" He started to turn away.
"Bastard and coward! Now I know why even your father won't claim you."
White-hot fury replacing the red in his face, Philip spun back round with fists flying.
By the time two teachers had rushed in to break up the melee, both young men were bruised and bloodied. There had not been time to declare a definite winner, but for Philip these brawls had little to do with winning. Father Dumbarton seemed to agree.
Philip finally calmed when standing before the headmaster. Dumbarton was strict and stern, and most of the boys feared him more than they feared God. Why he had put up with Philip's discordant behavior for so long was a mystery, but Philip was certain it wasn't out of a benevolent spirit. More than likely Philip's father had paid off the priest to keep the boy in school, though his father doing such a thing was harder to perceive than a kindly headmaster. No doubt it was merely a means of keeping Philip out of Lord Hawken's hair.
Dumbarton grilled the boys at length before ferreting out the cause of the squabble. Then he sent Laughton away with a mere week's detention. Philip remained standing before the priest, awaiting his doom.
"You have disrupted this institution for the last time, Philip de Tollard!" the priest stated.
"I don't start these fights." Philip tried to defend himself.
"I don't care about that. You prove your base birth every time you succumb to idle words."
"Quiet!" boomed the priest. "In two years you still have not learned that words are not weapons. If you were a true man, a true gentleman, you would know that by now. You are not the only bastard I have seen within these walls, but I have never seen one with so much of the devil in him. I believe you are truly possessed with the demon of anger. You are proof that it is possible for evil to be spawned from wicked liaisons. Well, I am through with you! It is time I purge these sacred halls of your wickedness."
In a way, leaving Oxford would be a relief. Despite what Father Dumbarton might think, Philip hated the fights and the discord. Though he would have liked to continue his studies, for he enjoyed them greatly, he questioned if it was worth it. And if he truly was an evil spawn, was the Church really the best place for him? Dumbarton's words frightened him. Could they be true?
In complete disarray of mind, he had stumbled from the headmaster's chamber and encountered his second mishap of the day, one nearly as disconcerting if not as violent.
"Friar Bacon!" Philip exclaimed. "I am sorry."
The friar in question caught his balance and kept to his feet. "'Tis nothing, lad."
Philip thrust out a hand to help steady the man. Philip would rather have been smashed to pieces by Colbert Laughton than to be the cause of the great Roger Bacon's bruising himself upon the cobbles.
"Are you sure?" sputtered Philip. "I am clumsy and probably an evil spawn, as well."
"What's that?" Bacon peered at him. At forty-nine the friar had the squinted appearance of one who had spent a lifetime reading and copying many manuscripts. His robes, brown for the Franciscan order, were faded and a bit unkempt.
"Nothing," said Philip, not wanting to trouble the great man. "I was just in to see Father Dumbarton."
"Ah, I see." Bacon frowned for a moment, chewing his lip, then added, "Have you a moment, de Tollard? You appear as if you could use some refreshment."
Bacon normally kept to himself in his tower room near Folly Bridge, a room where many of the man's naysayers whispered that he practiced the black arts. He had a few loyal friends, and there were a few students whom he had taken under his wing. For some reason Philip was one of these--perhaps the friar did worship Satan in his tower and liked to be surrounded by "evil spawn."
"I should be packing my things, Father."
"Packing, you say?"
"I have been expelled."
"It is not often I have a student of your caliber. I regret that you must leave."
"As do I."
"At least walk with me as far as the common."
"I would be honored, sir."
The day was blustery and gray. Rain came in fits and starts, but at the moment the clouds were retaining their moisture.
"You mustn't place too much credence in all Dumbarton says," Bacon said. With a wry snort he added, "Truth be told, I wouldn't place credence in anything he says! The man would see evil in an innocent baby with a harelip."
"Then why do I sometimes burn inside?" entreated Philip. "Why do my fists often itch to smash the faces of my detractors? If not evil in my heart, then what?"
"I'll not deny you've a lion's share of anger, lad."
"Isn't anger evil?"
"If so, then we are all evil, for what man hasn't entertained anger?"
Surely Bacon knew of what he spoke, for he had never been one to restrain his own ire. It was said he had once even lashed out at the pious Thomas Aquinas. But despite the accusations of his enemies, Bacon did not seem evil to Philip. In fact, Bacon was one of a mere handful to have ever shown Philip compassion.
"I wish I could be at peace," Philip confessed.
"Peace is over-flaunted. Isn't it just the other side of complacency? Perhaps you should embrace your anger as that which drives you, motivates you. Would you have excelled in your studies if you did not have something to prove?"
Philip had tried to cling to that wisdom and to eschew Dumbarton's words when he departed Oxford. He knew he would need some positive interpretation on the matter to get him through what lay ahead once he got home. And still, several weeks later, he continued to need it, for it seemed that woe was determined to dog his every step, even to the point of his horse going lame just when he was trying to open a new chapter in his life.
He wrapped Dumpling's reins around a low branch and, in spite of himself, said, "I will rest you a bit longer, and then we must be off."
For himself, Philip was too restless to take his ease, and he was more anxious to be at his new home than he'd thought he'd be. He began pacing about the small knoll dominated by the huge elm where he'd paused. All around and slightly below him spread meadows fresh and verdant with the new growth of spring. Green shoots of leaves were evident on the scattered trees, and on his ride he had noted a few colorful blossoms of primroses in the grass. This was pretty country, the back reaches of his father's estate--Hawken, it was called.
Of course the boundary between the Hawken and Cassley estates had been in dispute since the Conquest. But the Marlowes of Cassley were of Saxon blood and should be content to have any land at all. It was said that two hundred years ago, the daughter of the then Lord of Cassley forestalled William's conquering armies by offering herself to Durand d'Aubernon, the first Norman lord of what was now Hawken. She had been, the story went, a maid whose beauty was praised in songs of the era, but regardless of her countenance there was no doubt her courageous actions saved Cassley Manor from sure destruction. True, d'Aubernon could have taken both the maid and her father's estate at will, for he had already established himself as a ruthless warrior. But at the time the Marlowes were quite powerful, and d'Aubernon, also a crafty politician, saw more advantage in allying with the Marlowes than in fighting them. It turned out to be a wise move, for over the years he managed to gain much of the Cassley holdings anyway, but by craft rather than war.
Shading his eyes from the midday sun, Philip thought he saw a rider in the distance. Yes, and approaching at great speed. In a few moments he could make out details and, to his surprise, noted it was a female. A lone female, and racing over the meadow as if chased by the demons of hell. Yet he saw no other riders in her wake.
He thought she must be in trouble to be riding at such speed. Perhaps she had lost control of her horse. Yet before he could think of any action, he was mesmerized by the picture she presented. If there had been demons chasing her, she would indeed have been an angel in full flight. The wind lifted her golden locks straight out from her head, and rather than fear on her face, he was certain he detected glee. He was further shocked when he saw her strike the magnificent ebony beast's rump with her crop. She appeared to be in perfect control of the situation!
She giggled with delight, despite knowing she would pay later if her father found out she was riding astride like a man and racing over the hilly meadow. But she would worry about that later.
"Faster, Raven!" she cried to her mount, lightly tapping its sleek black rump with her crop.
Beatrice Marlowe might be a daughter of nobility, rigidly trained in the demure strictures of ladyhood, but she was in no way prisoner to them. She loved nothing more than to ride fast and free, even if it meant eventually facing her father's ire. But why should he be angry when it was his fault that she craved such activity? Had he not placed her on the back of a horse when she was barely a year old? Had he not taught her to ride astride as well as sidesaddle? Had he not indulged her wild spirit nearly all her life? That is, until the cursed blossoming of womanhood had begun to take hold of her. Only then did Edmond Marlowe, Lord of Cassley Manor, begin to regret his toleration.
At nearly sixteen Beatrice was causing her father to fear it was too late to repair the damage.
With hardly a contrite laugh, she murmured, "Poor Papa."
Her father likely feared he would never marry her off. Already she had been passed over by his two prime candidates, both of whom had found wives of more sedate nature. Because Edmond was a minor baron, choices were limited. And, unfortunately, eligible men--or rather, their parents--were less interested in beauty than in the more practical considerations of prospective wives. Secretly Beatrice believed her father was not pursuing his daughter's marriage with total enthusiasm. They were close. It had been just the two of them for most of the time since her mother died ten years ago giving birth to a baby who also died. Her father had remarried, but his second wife gave birth to a stillborn son, and then the woman died a year later while giving birth to a second son, who died a few hours after his birth. These deaths, especially of his sons, had greatly demoralized her father, and he resigned himself from then on to being alone.
Except for Beatrice, of course. He took special delight in her, accepting the fact that the spirited girl, who was almost as good as a son, would be his only progeny. For that reason, and somewhat because of economy, he had not sent her off to another noble estate to be raised, as was the common practice among the nobility. Her departure from their home, the inevitable result of marriage, would not be easy for either of them when that time came.
Suddenly Raven stumbled. Beatrice lurched forward, but skillfully gripping the reins, she managed to keep her seat as the horse tottered dangerously. Her skill as a rider surely saved both their necks when the mare finally went down, pitching Beatrice from the saddle. The soft grass helped to break her fall.
Rolling twice, skirts askew, she came to an ungraceful stop within inches of a large rock. Shaken and fully cognizant that she could have broken her neck or split open her head on the sharp rock, she was, however, concerned foremost about her horse. Springing to her feet, she winced and, feeling woozy, nearly crumbled back to the ground. Gulping in several breaths and forcing herself to stand straight while favoring a painful hip, she hobbled over to where Raven was already attempting to gain her feet.
"Are you all right?" came a voice from nearby.
Jerking around and then groaning at the sudden movement, Beatrice saw a young man jog toward her. Dressed simply in woolen breeches, homespun shirt, and leather jerkin, he was not much older than she. His brow was creased with concern.
"I'm fine," she replied. "It is my horse that worries me."
"'Tis a shame you did not worry earlier while you rode her near to death." A slight sneer curling his lips, he gave Beatrice a cursory look, presumably to be certain that she was not hurt, and then he hurried past her toward the horse.
"Why, you--you have your nerve!" Beatrice sputtered, scurrying at his heels as fast as her bruised body would allow.
During the course of this exchange, Raven had risen to her feet. After taking a moment to let the horse grow accustomed to him, the fellow gently rubbed the animal's sleek neck, murmuring softly in the horse's ear.
"There, there, fine beast." He then carefully slid his hands from Raven's neck down the expanse of her shoulder to her right forearm and then down the entire leg. He palpated the leg, as if he knew what he was doing, then repeated the examination with the other legs. His slim hands were sure in their touch, his fingers probing with confidence yet with gentleness, as well, sliding over Raven's sleek black coat as if handling the finest Cathay silk.
Beatrice watched in silence. Oh, she'd see that this insolent fellow regretted his earlier rudeness to her soon enough, but not before she was assured that Raven was unhurt. Observing the young man's perusal of the horse, she gave no thought to interfering. She could have taken care of Raven just as well herself, for she was as skilled as her father's stable lackeys in the care of horses, but she had never seen the animal submit so placidly to the touch of a stranger before. Even the stable hands had difficulty with Raven. And no one had ever ridden the mare besides Beatrice.
Raven was standing quietly now, passively submitting to the lad's ministrations. Why, the animal even nuzzled the young man's head when he was close!
Apparently satisfied with his inspection, the fellow straightened up, turning toward Beatrice. "She seems to be unscathed except for a stone in her hoof. I assume that must have been the cause of her mishap."
Beatrice quickly shook away her awe, her ire flashing alive once more. "Assume? Of course that was the cause--"
"Driving her as you were ... who knows what might have happened!"
"I was not 'driving' her! Raven adores racing and needs little encouragement from me to do so." Beatrice recalled using her riding crop, but she made no such admission to this stranger.
He shrugged. "At least you are both unhurt." He must have belatedly realized the error in debating with his betters.
"You can be on your way, good sir." Her tone was more smug than grateful.
He briefly cocked a brow, perhaps expecting some thanks. Well, he had done absolutely nothing, really. Why should she thank him?
"Are you far from home?" he asked.
She arched her brow. "Why do you inquire?" It suddenly occurred to her that this man, young and green though he appeared, might be some brigand just looking for a lone woman, far from home, to rob and molest.
"The stone is too deeply imbedded for me to remove without proper tools," he replied. "And I could not condone your riding this animal any distance."
"I can walk, thank you very much!" In truth it was a good four miles to Cassley, and she did not relish the idea of walking that distance, even on so fine a spring afternoon.
However, as if to prove her declaration, she started toward Raven. But she had stood still too long, and her bruised limbs had begun to stiffen. As she stepped forward, her leg, the one with the sore hip, began to buckle. She would have had a second spill had the stranger not responded so swiftly. Jumping forward, he caught her neatly in his arms. She could do little else but throw her own arms around his neck.
"Goodness!" she cried.
"I've got you." His voice was as soothing as when he had spoken to Raven.
"Really, I don't need--"
But he was already hoisting her fully into his arms. She was somewhat surprised that he lifted her so easily, because, though he was tall, he was hardly a mature, well-muscled man. He was, in fact, rather slim. But she was petite and light of figure, so he staggered only slightly under her weight. Once he steadied himself, he carried her up a low knoll to a large elm, which would provide a good resting place for her. As he set her down against the tree, she noted a dappled gray horse tied to one of the branches.
Smiling--a kind smile really, with less acerbity and more gentleness than she probably deserved--he said, "My lady, mayhap I should ascertain if you have any broken bones?"
"What? Oh no. Goodness no!" The very thought of his hands touching her body as he had her horse sent a shiver through her. She tried to convince herself that the sensation was one of disgust. In truth, she suddenly envied Raven.
"My lady, though it is obviously difficult for you, I would suggest you tolerate my assistance, for a short time, at least. I assure you, I mean you no harm."
"And I assure you, I have no broken bones!"
He grinned. "I shall defer to your judgment in the matter then."
She took a moment to study this peculiar young man. Though dressed coarsely, his speech and bearing indicated he was not of peasant stock. From his accented English she thought he was of Norman lineage, perhaps even fresh from across the Channel. Supporting that theory was the fact that she knew most of the local noblemen and their sons. She would surely have remembered this one. In spite of the way he had perturbed her, she found him to be rather nice to look upon. His hair, darkly red like the roan coat of a horse, was clipped shorter than the current style, perhaps in an attempt to tame unruly curls. His wide-set green eyes could be filled with wry humor, and she'd already seen them flash like sunlight striking emerald. Yet, conversely, they held a gentle aspect, as well, and softened the long, straight formidability of his nose. His well-sculpted cheeks bore only peach fuzz, as did his rounded chin with its intriguing cleft. His features were clearly conflicted between boy and man. At present, "boy" was dominant, only briefly revealing "man" in a glint of the eye or a twist of his lips.
"Is something wrong?" he asked suddenly.
Beatrice's cheeks flamed at being caught staring so boldly. "Nay, 'tis nothing."
"I promise I won't touch you."
"You most certainly won't!" she exclaimed, but she tingled once more at the thought. Taking a steadying breath, she changed tack. "Is that your horse?" She nodded toward the gray.
"You must have a generous master to allow you to ride such a fine mount." Though hardly a war-horse with its short legs and less than regal nose, it was still more than most peasants had.
He bristled, then defensively bit out, as if gnawing old meat, "Dumpling is my own horse! I am no horse thief!"
"Dumpling?" A little snicker escaped her lips before she could stop it.
"You degrade me and my horse?" he demanded, his fists curled, white knuckled, at his sides.
She had a feeling that had she been a man, she would have found herself taking her third spill of the day, and this no accident. The earnestness of his tone forbade any further jests the animal's ridiculous name might have prompted.
With equal solemnity she said, "I do no such thing, nor do I accuse you of thievery. I was merely curious."
"That is not what your words imply." For a moment it looked as if he regretted coming to her aid.
She quickly added, "I'm sorry. I meant no offense." She was not accustomed to making apologies, but she felt vulnerable, alone, and far from home. She did not wish to antagonize this stranger, yet she realized that was not her only reason for her words. She had sensed almost immediately that he was no thief, no peasant, not even a mean knave. What was he, then? Her curiosity grew intense.
Sweetly she asked, "May I inquire who you are, good sir, that I may put a name to my rescuer?"
As though he understood how difficult the contrite, almost placating, tone was for her, he smiled wryly. "I am Philip de Tollard. And you, my lady?"
"Lady Beatrice Marlowe."
"Ah yes, the daughter of Lord Cassley." He bowed gallantly, unlike any peasant.
"You appear to be familiar with my family, but I do not recognize the name de Tollard. You are not from these parts?"
It seemed as if a shadow passed briefly over Philip. His features, thus far fairly pleasant and friendly except when she raised his ire, tensed again. Then he seemed to shake away the gloom. "I am of Hawken Castle."
She shook her head. "I'm sorry, I still don't--"
"I thought perhaps you might recognize my name because I am on my way to take up a position as groom on your father's estate."
Hiding her surprise at his revelation that he was a mere groom, she said, "It is odd that my father said nothing, especially with regard to the stables. You see, I consider them my special domain."
"The stables, m'lady?" he said in astonishment.
"I suppose you think a woman should be relegated solely to the hall?"
"I have no particular opinion on the matter, but 'tis the usual way of things."
"I happen to like horses far more than kitchens and kettles and such." Tilting her head back to give him the full effect, she dared him with her eyes to dispute her.
"We have something in common then, m'lady."
Deflated that he did not take up her challenge yet pleased, too, she finally let her lips relax into a smile. "I suppose so. And because of that I shall forgive you for your earlier rude words."
"Perhaps I was more harsh than I should have been. But I cannot bear the mistreatment of animals."
"I was not--!" she began hotly, then stopped, reminded once again of her previous guilt in using the crop. "I guess I could have gone easier on Raven, especially over uneven ground but ... Excuse me, Philip, could you please sit? My neck is getting a crick from looking up."
"Forgive me, m'lady!" he replied with the earnestness of a peasant, then dropped quickly to his knees beside her.
She found it extremely peculiar that his bearing seemed so conflicted between nobility and commonness.
"You were saying, m'lady?"
She glanced at the animal grazing placidly, as if the whole afternoon hadn't just taken a dramatic and unexpected detour.
"I am afraid I simply lost myself in the unfettered sensation of racing across the earth," she explained with sudden seriousness. "It is the only time I feel truly free. But you can't possibly know what it is like to be bound by rules and expectations. Sometimes a woman's skin is nothing more than a dungeon to imprison her."
"But such a lovely prison."
Quickly he added, "I am sorry again, m'lady. It was wrong of me to make light of your feelings." Pausing, his gaze wandered off toward Raven. When he drew his eyes back to Beatrice, they were filled with such a depth of understanding, almost of empathy, that it made her tremble a bit. "I have an idea of prisons, m'lady, prisons not made of walls."
Impulsively she reached up and touched his arm. "I am sorry I have been so cross with you, Philip. I believe you do understand, though I don't know why."
He glanced down at her hand, then moved his own hand as if he would touch hers in return. But he stopped it midair and hurriedly tucked it back at his side. It made her aware of the disparity of their social stations. Yet she had never felt such camaraderie with the grooms or servants at home. Whatever he was, Philip de Tollard was no common servant.
"We best get you home before your father starts to worry," he said. "We can ride my horse and walk Raven behind."
Sitting in front of Philip, snuggled close to his warm chest, made for a disquieting ride home. Beatrice did not want it to end yet reminded herself that Philip would be a regular fixture at Cassley now. She could find him any time she visited the stables, which for her was often. A most pleasant thought.