| Midnight Magic |
By Shari Anton
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WHEN THE ROYAL TEMPER RAGED, prudent men held their peace.
Alberic of Chester considered himself a prudent man. With his helm securely tucked under one arm, he stood quietly near his fellow soldiers, holding a sword still too bloody to sheathe.
Chilly rain mingled with sweat to soak his hair and trickle down his neck to seep under the layers of chain mail, padded gambeson, and linen shirt. His chain mail weighed down on shoulders beginning to stiffen from exertion, his body too weary and spirit too heartsick to feel victorious.
A skirmish shouldn't have been fought in this field, where sprouting oats were now ruined. So many men shouldn't have died today. A frightful waste.
Alberic yearned to return to the austere comforts of the royal army's camp, where everyone from the lowliest pikeman to exalted King Stephen had idled away weeks while laying siege to Wallingford Castle. There awaited him a canvas tent where he could get out of the rain and, if the supply wagons had arrived, drink enough ale to drown out the wails and moans of the wounded and dying.
Except he dared not move until given the order. So Alberic watched tall, robust King Stephen pace the road alongside the freshest battlefield in the ten-year dispute over the rightful possession of England's crown. Unconcerned for either the rain wetting his woolen cloak or the mud splattering his leather boots, the king focused his fury on two men: Ranulf de Gernons, the earl of Chester, the living, stoic target of his wrath; and Sir Hugh de Leon, a baron who lay facedown in bloodsoaked grass, beyond hearing and earthly cares.
"An unfortunate death, Chester." The king's deceptively placid statement reeked of ire and accusation.
With nearly as regal a mien as the monarch's, Chester retorted, "His death could not be avoided, Sire. Sir Hugh refused to surrender when given the chance."
The king gestured toward a young, fair-haired man sprawled not far from the baron. Alberic tensed, aware of whose blood dried on his sword, and prepared to acknowledge his part in the senseless carnage if need be. But the king continued to address the earl.
"The son, also?" "Young William followed his father's foolhardy example. Had they allowed, I would have captured both and held them for ransom."
"So instead you allowed both to die!" Chester tossed a hand in the air, his usually unshakable composure fraying. "Their goal was to attack the camp and take you as their prisoner. What would you have us do, Sire? Not defend our own lives? Stand aside? Perhaps allow them to escape and return to Maud's service?"
"We would prefer our land-rich subjects be captured and brought before us! Sir Hugh might have been turned to our service if given sufficient enticement."
The twitch of Chester's jaw made Alberic wonder how long the recent, brittle alliance between the earl and the king would last. Chester's reputation for acting only in his best interest was well earned and widely known. And given the king's mistrust of Chester, a breach could come at any time, for any reason, the alliance split asunder by either man.
"As I said, Sir Hugh gave us no choice," Chester stated, firmly indicating he would argue no more.
Wisely, King Stephen didn't push the earl further. Instead, he glanced at the field littered with dead, at the wounded men-at-arms being tended, and finally at the poor souls who'd been taken prisoner: those of Sir Hugh's small force who'd survived.
Too small of a force to have a prayer of prevailing against the earl's. Alberic still didn't understand why Sir Hugh, who had been vastly outnumbered, hadn't surrendered. Or why William had fought on with such vicious zeal knowing his father had fallen and their mission was doomed.
All pondering over the de Leon men's actions halted when King Stephen's gaze settled on him. Alberic endured the full force of the dark-eyed, measuring stare for several uncomfortable moments before the king asked of Chester, "Your whelp?"
Alberic almost smiled at the earl's obvious chagrin. For several years now, Chester had dismissed the familial similarities between himself and Alberic as slight and utterly no proof of paternity. To have the king notice the resemblance so quickly and accurately must be irritating. Alberic also knew better than to hope for the answer he'd waited nigh on half a lifetime to hear-full acknowledgment from Chester. Even so, his heartbeat quickened.
"So his mother claimed," Chester finally answered. "Have you provided for him as yet?" "He has a place in my household."
A place grudgingly given and not the one Alberic had hoped for as a lad of twelve. After his mother's death, having no means to support himself, he'd shown up at Chester's castle and confronted the earl. While Chester hadn't acknowledged Alberic as his son, neither had the earl tossed him out the gate. Disappointed, but needful of shelter and sustenance, he'd responded to Chester's scant generosity by working hard to earn the earl's respect, if not his affection.
Most days Alberic believed he'd made strides in winning Chester's acceptance. On others he suffered pangs of sorrow for that skinny lad, raw with grief, needing to belong somewhere and fearful he never would. "Is he knighted?" the king wanted to know.
Alberic's heartbeat kicked up another notch. That coveted honor hadn't occurred yet, though he'd long since passed beyond the age when most squires acquired their knighthood. Chester, however, was decidedly reluctant to bestow the honor. "Not as yet."
Then Alberic wondered why the king took so pointed and unwarranted an interest in the baseborn son of the earl of Chester. Especially now, when more important matters begged attention.
Discomfited, Alberic watched King Stephen squat beside Sir Hugh and slide a large gold ring from the baron's limp hand, pausing to study it before clenching it in his fist.
"The seal of the dragon," the king said softly. "We remember the first time we saw this unusual ring many years ago, on an occasion when Sir Hugh attended our uncle's court. He said he wore the ring in honor of his wife, a Welsh princess, whose family claims lineage from that of Pendragon."
Pendragon? The fabled King Arthur?
All around him Alberic heard both awed murmurs and snickers of disbelief. The muttering stopped when the king rose from beside Sir Hugh.
"Disbelieve, do you?" Stephen called out. When no one answered, his attention again returned to where Alberic didn't want it. On him.
"What of you? Do you believe?" Alberic considered his answer carefully, well aware he was being judged.
"I know naught of the descendants of King Arthur, Sire, so cannot give you an informed opinion on the matter."
The king came toward him, his steps purposeful, his intention impenetrable, stopping a mere arm's length away. "What is your name, young man?" "Alberic of Chester, Sire." "On your sword dries the blood of William de Leon?"
Asked mildly, but with an undertone of cold steel. Apparently the messenger whom Chester had sent to camp to inform the king of the skirmish had described how the baron and his son had met their end. "Aye, Sire."
"Do you now consider yourself the better man?" Alberic glanced over at William de Leon-young, fair-haired, and damned good with a sword. "William fought with both zeal and skill. He had already vanquished several others before he and I crossed swords. I consider myself blessed to have come away the victor."
"His equal, then?" Only by citing legitimacy of birth could anyone make a case for William de Leon's superiority, and Alberic chose to ignore that unfortunate circumstance of birth whenever possible.
"As you say, Sire." The corner of the king's mouth twitched with humor, and approval softened his eyes.
"As we say, is it? Then we believe you may be ripe for what we have in mind." The king drew his sword, a fighting weapon instead of the fancy blade one might expect a royal personage to wield. "Kneel before your king, Alberic of Chester."
Doubting Stephen had lost his wits and intended to behead a man who'd committed no crime, Alberic could think of only one other reason for the king's drawn sword and the accompanying order.
Knighthood. Alberic hesitated, overjoyed at the prospect of receiving the coveted rank, but wary of why King Stephen had singled him out. Kings didn't confer knighthood as an act of kindness, nor had Alberic done anything on the battlefield this day to warrant a field knighting. Therefore, the king had an unfathomable motive of his own-not good.
And Chester frowned in stark disapproval. Alberic knew their fragile relationship might suffer if he accepted the king's offer. Dare he risk what the earl might consider betrayal?
But hadn't Chester taught him by example that only dolts refused to seize an opportunity to gain honor, or land and wealth, and then hold tight to the favor and grants given?
And hellfire, Alberic wanted this. He'd craved the honor and rank of knighthood from Chester, and been loyal and patient only to be denied. What he hadn't received from his father, he'd be a fool to refuse from King Stephen.
Misgivings brushed aside, ignoring the unrelenting drizzle, Alberic knelt in the mud and soon felt the weight of the king's sword on his right shoulder.
"We dub thee knight, Alberic of Chester, with all the rights and responsibilities that come with the honor. We charge thee to uphold the laws of our beloved England, to serve as protector for widows and orphans, to hold fast to the teachings of the Holy Church and praise Almighty God for His blessings. Do you so swear?"
His mouth dry as dust, he answered, "I do so swear." The sword lifted from his shoulder and he tensed, steadying for the colée. The king's open-handed buffet to the side of Alberic's head nearly knocked him over, eliciting a cheer from the soldiers and thus serving its purpose-to fix in the witnesses' memories the events of this day, of the oath given to the king when Alberic of Chester became Sir Alberic.
Through the ringing in his ears he heard the king continue. "And now, Sir Alberic, we propose to grant you a living to support your new rank. Upon swearing your homage and fealty to our royal person, we shall bestow upon you Sir Hugh de Leon's castle at Camelen, along with all his other holdings."
Stunned, Alberic stared at the ring the king held out, eager to grasp it but wary of accepting. "What of Sir Hugh's widow?"
"His Welsh princess died many years ago. William was his only son. Three daughters remain. We charge you to take one as your wife, send another to our court, and give the last to the Church."
Alberic's curiosity nearly burst with questions about Camelen, which he knew lay somewhere south of Shrewsbury, and the extent of the estates and the income he could expect. Verily, for wont of a simple oath the king meant to make him a rich and powerful man.
He gave fleeting thought to the daughters. Surely one of the females would be tolerable enough to wed and bed, and thus produce an heir, firmly establishing his claim to Camelen.
Only a witless fool would hesitate longer or argue further.
Alberic put down his sword and helm, slipped on the baron's ring, then raised his clasped hands for the king to enfold. When next he stood, only two men within sight outranked him: the earl of Chester and the king of England.
Ye gods, how quickly men's fortunes rose and fell given the vagaries of war.
The king slid his sword into an intricately tooled leather scabbard belted at his waist. "Take de Leon and his son home. Bury them with the honor due them, then hold Camelen in our name."
"As you say, Sire." King Stephen smiled wryly. "'As you say.' Do you hear how easily and sincerely he says the words, Chester? You could learn much from your own get."
The king spun and headed toward his horse, and the unease Alberic felt earlier returned. Why in the name of all the saints had the king granted knighthood and the wealth and power of a barony to the earl of Chester's bastard?
Something was definitely amiss here. He stared down at the uncommon gold ring King Stephen called the seal of the dragon. A sparkling garnet graced the face of faceted black onyx, the mounting held securely by gold prongs fashioned as dragon's claws.
Oddly enough, though sizable, the ring didn't sit as heavily on his hand as Alberic thought it should. Odder still, it fitted as though a goldsmith had made it especially for his finger-loose enough to twirl but snug enough to stay on.
"A handsome gift," Chester commented, still frowning in disapproval. Though the earl stared at the ring, clearly he meant the entire royal gift.
Alberic bent over and wiped the blood from his sword on the long grass, his stomach tightening as it always did when he spoke to Chester.
"A handsome gift, indeed. My mind would be easier about accepting it all if I knew what game the king plays."
The earl shrugged a broad shoulder. "Simple enough. He believes he has now purchased your loyalty, and thereby firmly fixed mine."
Then the king believed wrongly, the grandiose gift given for naught. Alberic glanced at the bodies of the baron and his son. The two had fought and died together for the same cause, loyal to each other to the very end. With either father or son, the king might have struck a bargain and gained the cooperation of the other. The same steadfastness could not be assumed regarding Ranulf de Gernons and his bastard.
"Then the king does not know you very well." "Nay, he does not. I wish you good fortune in claiming your prize."
The earl walked off, shouting orders to his men to fetch carts to carry the wounded, to begin burying the dead, to march the prisoners back to camp.
Prisoners Alberic would soon have to take charge of.
He took a deeper than normal breath, the problems associated with his new position beginning to surface. The faces of the men he'd recently fought against twisted with varying degrees of defeat, anger, resentment, and despair.
He needed only one of Sir Hugh's soldiers to lead him to Camelen. Would it be the pikeman who sat crosslegged in the mud, his head bowed into his hands, or the elderly knight who might understand that a man submitted to shifts of circumstances and accepted the changes wrought by war? Surely, if one man of Camelen swore allegiance to the new lord, others might, too, if only for the chance to return home.
Not that he could wholly trust the word of a one of them.
Accepting the king's gifts had been as easy as taking an oath; gaining possession of them wouldn't be so simple. Not only did he have to get to Camelen, but somehow get through the gate without someone on the battlements taking umbrage and shooting an arrow through his heart.
Alberic again inspected the ring, the garnet winking at him from atop the onyx, the dragon's claws seeming to dig deep into his gut. He'd come by the ring and Camelen fairly and honestly, but he knew others would feel he'd stolen them.
Too bad. Camelen was now his, and he would make his claim. How to go about it merely required a bit of careful thought and planning, something he was very good at.
Atop Camelen's battlements, Gwendolyn de Leon adjusted the ill-fitting helm in a vain attempt to keep the nose guard from interfering with her sight.
She understood Sir Sedwick's insistence that she wear the helm-and the shirt of chain mail her brother had worn as a young squire-whenever she ventured onto the battlements. During times of war one took precautions against threats. Except she saw no immediate danger to either Camelen or her person, merely two knights atop palfreys riding over the field separating the castle from the woodland beyond. One of the two, Sir Garrett, she had no trouble identifying.
For a few moments she focused on the woodland, hoping either her father or her brother would emerge, too. Neither did.
"I do not like the looks of this, my lady," Sedwick grumbled from beside her.
Her attention forced back to the field, Gwendolyn conceded that Sir Garrett shouldn't be here, but rather with her father and brother defending Wallingford. "Perhaps Father sent Garrett home with a message." In answer to her conjecture, Sedwick snorted through the battle-marred nose on his round face. "See you any sense of urgency? And why send two knights, one of whom we do not know, when a runner would have done? Nay, my lady. The very air stinks of trouble."
"Then send someone out to learn their purpose before they come closer."
"Without knowing who Garrett brings to our gate? His lordship would have my head on a pike were I to be so foolish. We will wait for Garrett to explain."
Gwendolyn bit her bottom lip to hold her peace. She might be in charge of the household in her father's absence, but Sedwick, her father's steward, currently held sway over the defenses. The knight's dour, suspicious nature made him perfect for the position, though she thought his current stance against lowering the drawbridge overly distrusting.
Sir Garrett certainly meant Camelen no harm. As for the knight who rode by his side, how much damage could one man do against thick stone walls and an armed garrison? He surely posed no menace.
The knight was tall, certainly, and young, she judged from the lack of bend to his back and his solid yet fluid seat in the saddle. His broad shoulders carried the weight of gleaming chain mail with ease. The belt of his scabbard circled a trim waist over narrow hips. Black leather riding gloves covered his hands.
He wore a helm, of course, concealing his hair, the nose guard obscuring his facial features. Except his jaw, which was both square and bold.
As the men traversed the field, Gwendolyn's curiosity kept pace with her rising impatience until, finally, the men had no choice but to halt at the outer edge of the moat. She caught herself wondering further about the coloring of his hair and eyes when Sedwick's shout halted her silly musings.
"You return to Camelen in strange manner, Sir Garrett."
Garrett removed his helm and ran a hand through his steel-gray hair. Sweet mercy, the man looked weary unto dropping from his saddle!
"Not the manner of my choosing, Sedwick." The weariness in Garrett's voice matched his appearance, and for the first time since she'd been called to the battlements, Gwendolyn felt a twinge of apprehension. "We bear news best not shouted over the wall, so I would be most grateful if you would lower the drawbridge." Sedwick made no move to signal an affirming command to the guards posted near the giant winches that controlled the bridge's thick chains.
"Who do you bring with you?" "Christ's blood, Sedwick, I will explain all after-" Abruptly silenced by the young knight's hand to his forearm, Garrett's visage turned grimmer than before.
"I am Sir Alberic of Chester," the knight answered, his voice deep and clear, easily carrying up to the battlements without strain. "By my oath, I mean Camelen and its people no harm."
"And I shall vouchsafe his oath," Garrett stated. Sedwick's eyebrow arched sharply. "My lady, if this Sir Alberic is of Chester, then he is a king's man and so our enemy. Yet Garrett bids us allow him entry! I like this not."
All true and worrisome. Her father firmly believed in the right of King Henry's daughter, Maud, to the English crown. He considered King Stephen the usurper and traitor for having swiftly claimed his uncle's crown at Henry's death. Ranulf de Gernons, the earl of Chester, had recently thrown the weight of his earldom behind King Stephen, infuriating her father, who'd vowed to present Chester's head to Maud on a gold platter.
Nay, Sir Hugh de Leon wouldn't be pleased if a man of Chester were allowed inside Camelen. And yet, Sir Alberic came in the company of Sir Garrett, a man her father trusted completely. And the young knight was willing to enter a hostile, fully garrisoned castle, so he must have a very good reason. The news the two wished to impart must be important and, she feared, grave indeed. "Truly, Sedwick, what harm can come of Sir Alberic's entry? Garrett vouches for him, and I doubt any knight is slow-witted enough to challenge an entire garrison. I say we allow him inside."
Sedwick hesitated a moment more before tossing up a hand, signaling the guards to lower the drawbridge. The winches groaned and chains clanged as the heavy door of wide planks began its decent.
Gwendolyn swiftly headed for the gate tower stairway, removing the helm that had pressed hard against her thick braid and giving her head instant relief. She handed the detested headpiece to the page who'd held her veil and circlet, deciding to leave on the chain mail. Time enough to take it off after she heard Garrett's news. The bridge thudded to the earth, sending her scurrying down the stairway, Sedwick and several guards close behind. By the time she reached the bailey, Garrett and his companion had crossed the bridge.
She halted at the base of the gate tower, her curiosity centered on the young knight who'd removed his helm, which struck her as arrogantly confident he wasn't in any danger.
And sweet mercy, Alberic possessed a riveting countenance. He looked about him, taking in his surroundings with eyes as green as summer grass. Wheat-blond hair skimmed the wide shoulders she'd noted earlier, and framed a swarthy-skinned visage that had undoubtedly quickened the beat of many a careless maiden's heart.
Gwendolyn wasn't careless, having learned from her parents the importance of holding her heart on tight rein. So she appreciated Alberic's handsomeness as if admiring a finely sculpted statue, choosing to ignore the faster beat of her pulse.
She could tell nothing of his thoughts during his perusal of the castle and contents of the bailey. Then he turned to look at her, and his eyes narrowed in disapproval at the sight of her chain mail.
Understandable, she supposed, and of no importance. What he thought of her strange garb mattered not.
Garrett, who'd looked weary from a distance, looked nigh on haggard up close, but not for all the gold in the kingdom would she embarrass the proud knight by fussing over him.
The knights dismounted, Garrett with the difficulty of age, Alberic with the grace of a skilled horseman. Garrett attempted a smile. "Thought that was you on the battlements, Lady Gwendolyn. A welcoming sight to these unworthy, weary eyes."
Now wasn't the time for smiles and gallantry. "You bring news, Garrett. What has happened?" Garrett took a long, steadying breath. "The worst news, I fear. My lady, I am given the sad duty of informing you that your father and brother have . . . fallen."
Nay! Sweet Jesu, nay! For several long moments Gwendolyn could only stare at Garrett, unable to breathe, struggling to deny what she couldn't possibly have heard. Then Sedwick cursed, mocking her feeble attempt at disbelief. Grief hit hard. Tears welled up and spilled down her cheeks. To keep herself upright, she grabbed hold of Garrett's forearm.
"Fallen? Both?" she asked, almost choking on the words.
"In battle, near Wallingford." Briefly her thoughts flew to her sisters. The elder, Emma, and the youngest, Nicole. Orphans, all of us. But not poor, and not without resources. Father had been most specific on her course of action should the worst happen.
Gwendolyn palmed away her tears, forcefully setting aside her grief. Later she would mourn, but now she must see to her duty to her loved ones, and then to the legacy. With her father gone, she alone could ensure the safety and continuation of the legacy.
"Where are they?" she asked of Garrett, relieved to hear her voice sounded stronger.
"On a cart in the woodland." Then he sighed and put his free hand over Gwendolyn's. "We brought Hugh and William home for burial. However, we cannot bring them into the castle until we are assured all at Camelen are prepared to accept their new lord."
Shock left her speechless. Gwendolyn soon reasoned out who that new lord must be.
Sir Alberic of Chester. She glared at the knight she'd witlessly allowed entrance. "You have no right to Camelen. My father's will clearly states that if William does not survive him on his death, Father's estates should be divided between his three daughters. Emma is entitled to the castle as her dowry, and Nicole and I to our proper portion of manors and fees. I suggest you seek your fortune elsewhere!"
"In time of peace, or had Sir Hugh supported the rightful king, then his will might have been honored," Alberic said in his deep, rumbling voice that now held a surprising and unwanted note of sympathy. "Unfortunately, your father rebelled against the king from whom he held the charters for his estates, which gives King Stephen the right to seize and dispense the lands as he chooses."
Garrett's hand pressed down on hers where she still clutched his arm. "Sir Alberic is right, my lady. I witnessed the gifting. We have no recourse."
She snatched her hand away, distraught Sir Garrett could so blithely abandon his loyalty to her father in favor of an upstart knight.
"What if we do not accept this new lord, Garrett? What stops us from tossing him out the gate and raising the drawbridge?"
Garrett, damn his hide, looked to Alberic, who answered.
"The king kindly allowed a company of royal soldiers to accompany me. They are in the woodland, guarding the men of Camelen who survived the skirmish and the cart bearing your father and brother. If I do not give their captain the signal to bring all into the castle, he will take everyone back to Wallingford for King Stephen to dispense with at his whim."
Gwendolyn's heart sank. "You dare hold the bodies of the lords of Camelen hostage? My father deserves a lord's burial in the church! My brother beside him! 'Tis unconscionable for you to deny them-"
"I do not deny them, my lady. Too many men of Camelen have already been lost-" "How many?"
His countenance softened. "We bring sixty-three survivors with us, many with wounds. That I know of, five chose not to return and went on their way. Three were wounded too severely to chance the trip. I expect they will be buried at Wallingford with the others." Gwendolyn quickly calculated, her heartache deepening. She looked to Garrett for confirmation. "Thirtytwo men lost?"
He nodded. "One knight, several squires, including your father's and mine. The rest foot soldiers."
Sweet Jesu! So many. So very many. Alberic continued. "So you see why I wish a peaceful transfer of lordship, my lady. Once done, you are free to bury Sir Hugh and William with all the honor and ceremony they deserve." Then he turned to Garrett. "Tell the captain of the guard to disarm the garrison. Until I am assured of the men's loyalty to me, only royal troops will carry weapons. Any man not willing to swear loyalty must leave by nightfall on the morrow."
Garrett bowed. "So it shall be, my lord." My lord. God's blood, Garrett had truly gone over to the enemy! All those lives lost fighting an enemy of which Alberic had to be one, all for naught. How could he?
Gwendolyn opened her mouth to protest; Sedwick's hand landed gently on her shoulder.
"My lady, your father always knew he might one day suffer retribution for his part in the rebellion. It appears the day has come, and 'tis we who must pay the price. If what Garrett and Sir Alberic say is true, then we have no choice but to bow to our fate."
Gwendolyn closed her eyes and willed tears of anger and despair not to fall. If both Sedwick and Garrett, two of her father's most trusted retainers and advisers, conceded the battle to Alberic, then he'd won the day.
She glared at the knight who usurped her father's estates, and damned his cruelty in holding those she held dear as hostages against her cooperation.
Someday, when Maud won her crown, justice would be served. The usurper displaced. Camelen and its lands returned to the rightful heirs: she and her sisters. For the nonce, she had no choice but to acknowledge Alberic of Chester's lordship of Camelen, but swore she would never, ever recognize him as her lord. Thanks to the same father who'd lost Camelen to another man, she had resources of her own with which to flee and a safe haven awaiting her.
Soon after she retrieved the ring from her father's hand, she must leave Camelen. While leaving her home and sisters behind would hurt deeply, go she would. The legacy, and the fate of all England, might depend upon her success.
Excerpted from Midnight Magic , by Shari Anton . Copyright (c) 2005 by Sharon Antoniewicz . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top