A Bit of Heaven on Earth – Lauren Linwood

A Bit of Heaven on Earth - a medieval romance novel by Laurel LinWood

A Bit of Heaven on Earth by Lauren Linwood

“There are several great plot twists that make this tale an interesting read beyond the romance. If you enjoy a well-written story filled with poignant scenes of deep emotion, then you will love A Bit of Heaven on Earth.”
– Romantic Historical Reviews

*****

When Gavin of Ashgrove and his closest friend are captured in a fierce battle during the Hundred Years’ War, their captors demand a hefty ransom from their fathers for their return. Robert is quickly set free, but Gavin’s father refuses to pay for his son’s release, leaving him to rot in a squalid French prison. Aided by a sympathetic priest, he escapes and returns home to England, only to find he has been proclaimed a bastard and disinherited.

With nowhere to turn Gavin journeys to Kentwood, where he fostered as a boy, hoping Lord Aldred will take him on as a knight in his guard. The old warrior is close to death, but he soon realizes Gavin is his son. Aldred plots to have Gavin inherit Kentwood and marry his much younger wife, Elizabeth, a famed and opinionated beauty who remains a virgin after a decade of marriage.

Will the king recognize Lord Aldred’s first request of a marriage between Elizabeth and Robert, uniting Robert’s estate with Kentwood—or will the temperamental Edward reward Aldred’s years of service and honor a dying man’s final request?

*****

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PROLOGUE

England, 1347

Elizabeth of Aldwyn plopped down upon the hearth, stretching out her long legs as she carefully concealed the breeches she wore under her borrowed kirtle. She yawned wearily, tired from her day of riding and exploring. The fire warmed her back and would hopefully dry her auburn hair, heavy from the summer shower she’d been caught in that afternoon. She ran a hand through her thick mass of curls, using her fingers to pull any knots free.

“I will have no more of this, Elizabeth,” her father roared. “You ignore me at your peril.”

She steeled herself for their usual argument. “Then quit parading suitors before me.” She tossed her head, the wild auburn curls spilling about her shoulders. “’Tis a waste of their time and yours, not to mention mine.”

She ignored his murderous glare and continued slipping her fingers through her tangled locks, hoping a servant would interrupt her father with a situation that needed his immediate attention. If so, she could slip away from the Great Hall and avoid this entire conversation.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Instead, her father began pacing the room, his voice bellowing as she imagined it did on the battlefield when he shouted out orders to his loyal knights. She thought it loud enough that possible King Edward in London might be able to hear of her wrongdoing.

Fayne paused in front of her. “You think you can control your hair? I would but wish I could tame those devilish red locks. ‘Twould be a start to taming you.”

“My hair has as much brown as red in it, Father.”

He threw his hands up in despair. “That’s not the point, Elizabeth. I swear it’s the Devil Himself in you causing you to act the way you do.”

Though she knew where the conversation headed, she couldn’t help her retort. “And besides my shade of hair, what fault do you find with my behavior?”

Fayne fisted his hands at his sides and took a deep breath. “You cannot run off every time I summon an eligible man to Aldwyn.”

“Why not?”

Her father began harping again, his long strides carrying him back and forth across the Great Hall. Elizabeth tuned out his lengthy tirade. After ten and seven years, she knew her list of transgressions from heart and could recite them from memory. On any given day, her father’s litany of her misconduct might go on for hours. It usually began with the fact that she was too headstrong. Unmanageable. Stubborn. Willful.

Then he’d move on and claim that she’d run wild, as if she were some hound that should be bent to a strange master’s will. Fayne always managed to point out that no suitor pleased her. Ever. Elizabeth took secret pride in the fact that two had even asked to be released from their betrothal to her because of her strong will.

But his next words did not fall on deaf ears.

“ . . . so in that case I have no choice, Daughter. I will force you into a convent and wash my hands of you.”

She smiled sweetly, ready to meet any challenge he threw her way.

“Then I shall merely plot my escape. Run away.” She placed her elbows upon her knees, resting her chin upon her fists. “Admit it, Father. I am incorrigible. You cannot make me do anything, especially find a convent that would want me. I would surmise that within a week the good nuns and their mother abbess would push me outside and lock the gates to keep me from returning to their fold.”

She stood and dusted the front of her man’s dark brown tunic, one she had swiped from where it lay drying in the sun. She left a gold coin in its place, knowing the owner would come out the better in the trade.

Fayne looked at her solemnly. “Just as I thought you would say. Which is why I now produce this.”

Elizabeth watched warily as he walked to an oak chest and lifted its lid. He removed a thick scroll. She knew exactly what that meant.

“Sweet Jesu, Father. Not another betrothal contract?”

“Hush,” he commanded. “This time you’ll see a marriage through. ‘Tis to a much older man. He will settle you down. He has had two previous wives and already has three children by them, though the eldest died last year in the French wars. He will know how to discipline such wayward behavior. Hopefully, he’ll get you with child and keep you that way for the next dozen years or more. Lots of babes will take all these wild notions from your head.”

“Wild notions? Simply because I refuse to behave like a simpering—”

“Watch what you say, Elizabeth. Do not tread lightly on Thera’s memory.”

She frowned. “I do not tread upon my mother’s memory. I have no memory of her. How can I blacken what I have no knowledge of?”

But Elizabeth did know.  Thera, from the descriptions she gleaned from servants over the years, had been full of sweetness and light, attending to Fayne’s every whim. From an early age, Elizabeth knew she would never live up to what her gentle mother had been, so why begin to try?

Instead, she’d become the exact opposite. She was unladylike, volatile, and had a stubborn streak combined with a will of iron. She believed she would make an excellent commander on the battlefield. Quick-witted, able to size up people in a matter of seconds, she’d been at war with her father for her entire life.

Usually on the winning side.

Why would she wish to have another, older man aim to tame her, breaking her spirit like that of a lively horse? No, thank you. She was happy having already bent her father to her will. At least most of the time. He would get over this latest idea of fancy. Eventually, she would make him see that marriage was not a part of what she wanted.

***

“Bloody hell,” Elizabeth swore softly under her breath.

Now married, she sat at the head table in her wedding finery. Her father must have planned this marriage for quite some time, for her cote-hardie and sideless surcoat had been made from the finest of silks. The rich scarlet and gold of both had delicate embroidery so intricate, she knew that a skilled seamstress had labored many months over its completion. Even her jeweled belt could be seen as a work of art, its golden chains embellished with rubies and freshwater pearls. No expense had been spared for this wedding attire. She viewed it and her generous dowry as a bribe from her father to her new husband. Fayne of Aldwyn dressed his daughter up as a rare prize, but he was more than happy another man now took her off his hands. With the distance between Aldwyn and Kentwood, she doubted after today that she would ever see her father again.

The interminable feast progressed as slowly as the labor of a woman’s first babe. She’d lost count of the number of courses served over the last few hours. Duck, venison, roasted pig and goose, stewed apples and plums, cheeses and cakes abounded.

Many were her favorite foods. She supposed her father had passed word along to the Kentwood kitchens, trying to appease her in no small way. She did love to eat. But not today.

Her wedding day.

She glanced from the corner of her eye to the old nobleman seated next to her. Her husband. He was well over six feet, with broad shoulders and a thatch of thick, white hair to match his equally white beard. She couldn’t place his age although she’d recognized his name the moment she heard it.

Aldred.

Aldred of Kentwood. A legend throughout England for his warrior’s skills and cunning. Troubadours sang of his valor and victories as if he were a god. She doubted if there was a single person in all of England who hadn’t heard of his prowess on the battlefield.

Yet this gallant soldier, a favorite of King Edward, must be at least three score, maybe more. Her groom, who used a walking stick to lean upon as he got around, was much older than any suitor her father presented in the past, and it worried her beyond measure.

Elizabeth wished both Aldred and her father would fall over dead on the spot. She wondered idly if she would be entitled to any of Kentwood’s wealth if that small miracle occurred in the next few minutes.

Fayne had outsmarted her, after all. Instead of the wedding party arriving at Aldwyn and the marriage taking place from the bride’s home, her father had brought her to Kentwood and this elderly bridegroom with the help of Aldwyn’s healer. She would love to know what had been placed in her drink at the evening meal. She’d lost two full days’ time after consuming it.

She awakened miles away from home with heavy limbs and a throbbing headache. What little she’d seen of the property from her window was impressive, she admitted to herself, but she did not want to be at Kentwood. Did not want to be married to an old goat. Couldn’t begin to imagine what awaited her upstairs in the marriage bed.

She shuddered and reached for her goblet. Maybe the wine would dull her senses. Or mayhap if she drank enough of it, she’d have no recollection of what would take place this night.

Suddenly a hand rested upon her wrist. “I would guess you have had enough, my dear.”

Elizabeth finally looked into the eyes of her new husband for the first time. Aldred. His voice was gentle, but the stern look he gave her was enough to make her set the golden cup down. She bit her lip in frustration. This was going to be far more challenging than she’d thought. Aldred might be advanced in years, but steely resolve ran through him. She was sure of it.

“I think we’ve both had enough of the merriment, don’t you agree?”

For a moment, she detected a mischievous glint in his eyes, then it was gone. Had it been a mere shadow? She gripped her hands tightly in her lap.

She lowered her eyes demurely. “Whatever you say, my lord.”

Her new husband chuckled. “You need not be meek with me, Elizabeth. I know a strong-willed woman when I see one. I have even heard a few tales about you. Quite interesting ones indeed.”

She looked at him quickly. “What tales?” She studied him carefully. “Mayhap you are not as wise as I was led to believe, my lord, if you heard such tales and still chose to marry me.”

He suppressed a smile. “Oh, I believe I know exactly what I have gotten myself into, wife of mine.” He rose and offered her his hand. “Come.”

They made their way through the Great Hall, drunken revelers shouting their good wishes to them. Elizabeth met her father’s eyes defiantly before turning and ascending the stairs with her husband.

Her husband.

Her stomach lurched, bringing a wave of nausea. God in Heaven, what would come next? Actually, she had more than an inkling of what would be expected of her. When a child, she’d caught couples on three separate occasions in the stables, naked as newborns they were, caught up in their lovemaking. She’d thought the act disgusting. Besides, she knew it must be quite hurtful, as both the men and women cried out and quivered and moaned as if in great agony.

She’d also seen babes born on a few occasions. If that kind of pain was the result of a quick coupling, she decided long ago to have none of it. Her own mother had died in childbirth when Elizabeth was but two. The babe that came from her lived only a few hours. Why would women put themselves through something of that nature?

No, Elizabeth decided long ago that physical love was not for her. She’d had no mother to correct her assumptions. She liked her life exactly the way it had been. Why ruin it? She didn’t need or want love. Instead, she desired more than anything to learn. To travel. A thousand experiences would be more gratifying than the act of love.

Yet here she was, ready to do the very thing she found loathsome. She knew nothing she could do or say would prevent her new husband from exercising his rights by law. Any independence she’d once possessed ended with the vows she uttered in front of dozens of witnesses. She was little more than chattel to Aldred of Kentwood, and beyond the ample dowry her father provided, she had no value to this man.

Aldred led her down a large hallway lined in stone and lit by sconces. Her heart pounded with each step she made, echoing in her ears. They reached the solar all too quickly, and Aldred opened the heavy wooden door and motioned her inside. She quickly took in that her personal possessions had been transferred from her chamber while she’d been at the ceremony and subsequent feast. Her brush lay on a table by the bed. Her blue bed robe had been draped across a chair.

Elizabeth’s stomach rebelled at the thought of sharing intimate details of her life with anyone, much less losing all privacy to a stranger—especially one who would force her into all kinds of vile acts. She knew from experience to show no weakness, whether to friend or foe. She sucked in a quick breath and then exhaled slowly, hoping it would calm her.

She held her head high. She would dance to Aldred’s tune in the bedroom if she must, but she refused to lose herself. She could learn to control this new husband of hers, learn to placate him, even live a separate life from him. She’d heard many couples did just that. Beyond the bedroom, they rarely even spoke. She hoped Aldred would subscribe to this kind of marriage. She doubted she could tolerate more.

“Have a seat, Elizabeth. Let us talk and get to know one another a bit. We have not been given time to do so, in part due to the haste in which Fayne insisted that our marriage take place.” A shadow crossed his face. “I am sorry for the way you were brought here. ‘Twas not my wish to see you come to Kentwood in such a manner.”

He gave her a small smile. “Please. Come and sit. I would take care to know my new wife.”

Though her legs were a bit wobbly, she managed to glide to the proffered seat as if being alone with a strange, old man was the most natural thing in the world. Aldred took the seat opposite her, slipping off his shoes and propping his crossed feet upon the hearth.

“Good idea,” she proclaimed, and she did likewise. He looked shocked at first and then laughed with approval.

“Your father said you were . . . high-spirited.” His eyes glowed with unspoken approval. “I think we will do quite well together, my dear. Let us speak frankly and learn about one another.”

He poured wine for them both, and Elizabeth let him talk on a bit as she sipped the sweetened liquid. Aldred explained that he’d been married twice before. She’d met his two children earlier at the marriage feast, a son who was his mirror image and a shy wisp of a daughter with raven hair. The long day was such a blur she couldn’t even recall their names now. As he spoke, she gradually began to relax a little. He seemed a decent sort. Maybe this act of love could happen quickly and be done with.

Aldred reached over and took her hand in his gnarled one. “I made both my wives happy, Elizabeth. I hope I can make you so.”

Her stomach knotted as Aldred stood and gently pulled her to her feet. He kissed her forehead with surprising tenderness and led her to the curtained bed.

“I know this is awkward, my dear. I shall leave you to prepare. I will return in—”

“No,” Elizabeth interjected. If he left, her fears would grow. She might even try to slip out of the castle. She wouldn’t cause him the embarrassment of having to track down a runaway bride in front of all his guests, not when he’d already tried so hard to be kind to her.

“I am ready to do my duty now, Husband. Simply tell me what ‘tis expected. I had no mother. I fear I am ill-prepared in this venture.”

He studied her. The flickering shadows from the candles played across his lined face. She locked her knees together and stood her ground. She took a deep breath and steadied herself.

“I see. Loosen your hair, then pull the curtains back and climb upon the bed. I will do my best in initiating you into the mysteries of marriage.” He touched her cheek and stroked it. “Do not fear me, Elizabeth. You have great spirit. I would not see that change.”

His words brought her some comfort. She did as he instructed, pulling the caul from her head and unbinding her mass of curls. She pushed the curtains away and thought she should at least remove her surcoat and cote-hardie. Without turning, she wordlessly slipped out of them and tossed the garments aside, though she wouldn’t part with her kirtle. The thought of his old, weathered hands touching her bare skin caused her to tremble. She eased upon the raised bed and settled onto her back. Her heart raced. Her limbs felt stiff and heavy.

Despite the amount of wine she’d drunk, she found her mouth had gone dry. She bit her lip again as Aldred went about the room, extinguishing candles, leaving the fire as the only light in the room. As he began to disrobe, she closed her eyes. She swallowed hard as he joined her upon the bed, drawing the curtains.

Aldred talked to her softly, murmuring words of comfort as he explained what they both would do. Elizabeth nodded, her voice failing her. She could do this. She would do this.

It didn’t go as he said it would. Oh, he touched her face and kissed her gently, caressed his hands up and down her body, cupped her breasts as she lay there, wishing herself far away. Yet when it came time for him to enter her, something was wrong.

Fearing his wrath, she said meekly, “I am sorry, my lord. Perhaps I did not quite understand what I am to do. This doesn’t seem to be going according to your plan.”

Her husband sighed and rolled from atop her, coming to rest beside her. He stared blankly up at the ceiling. Elizabeth lay motionless. Then her natural curiosity could stand no more. She turned to her side, propping her head upon her elbow.

“What am I doing wrong, my lord? If you will but explain things again, ‘tis certain I will get it right this time. I have always been a quick learner.”

Aldred’s head turned. His eyes took her in. Elizabeth saw a trace of a smile play about his thin lips.

He reached out and touched her hair, smoothing it. The gesture comforted her. “’Tis nothing you’ve done wrong, child. I cannot make love to you.”

She was puzzled. “Why not? You are the one that knows how. You have done this many times in the past. If we are to accomplish this deed, then I must follow your lead. Of course, once I have mastered the task, I’d be happy to take the lead upon occasion.”

Aldred’s laugh was rich and deep. He reached out a hand, and his thumb brushed against her cheek tenderly. “Ah, my sweet wife. My very own Elizabeth.” He sighed. “‘Tis an apology I must make to you.”

He cupped her face in one hand. “I am old, my dear. And when men reach my age, many times they cannot perform the marital act. It becomes physically impossible. I thought a young, beautiful girl would make a difference. Now, in my folly, I see that it does not.”

Elizabeth tried to hide her growing excitement. She wouldn’t have to couple, after all. She sought to reassure Aldred, for whom she already felt a strong fondness. “’Tis all right, my husband. If we cannot do this thing, then so be it. My loyalty remains with you.”

He shook his head.

“No, ‘twould not be fair to you, child. You are young and have a lifetime ahead of you. ‘Twill be babes you’ll soon want. ‘Twill be a man’s love that you’ll need.”

He sat up. “I shall see that our marriage is annulled. ‘Twill free you for another, one closer to your own age.”

“No,” she said firmly. She pushed up till she was in a sitting position and took his rough hand in hers, holding it tightly. “I refuse to see you humiliated in such a way, my lord. I swore before God and guests to this marriage, and ‘twill be so.”

Aldred squeezed her fingers. “No. I cannot ask this of you. I have already been fool enough.”

She smiled shyly. This new husband of hers was considerate and not quite the monster she’d conjured up in her mind. He seemed most reasonable. Mayhap she could strike a bargain with him.

“Actually, my lord, ‘twould be you doing me the favor. You already have children, and I can be mother to them. As you said, we seem to suit. I would stay and learn from you.”

A look of puzzlement crossed his face. “Learn from me?”

“Yes.” Elizabeth looked at him in earnest. This would be her chance to escape her father’s constant nagging. She could not return to Aldwyn, especially since she knew better than to trust him. She would not be forced to marry against her will, especially a man that might not be as reasonable as Aldred.

“I can read and write a little. Would you be willing to teach me more, about all manner of things? Help me learn all about Kentwood and how to run a household? Allow me to be independent? I would answer to no man but you alone?”

Aldred eyed her and then shook his head. “It would not be fair to you.”

She smiled sweetly at him. Often, her smile convinced her father when nothing else could. “In exchange, I will show you the utmost respect and affection, both in private and before the world. I shall never share what has passed between us here.”

He sized her up. “You drive a hard bargain, my lady. So you would stay with an old man till my time is up?”

She took both his hands in hers, eager for him to agree to her proposal. “’Tis my fondest wish, my lord. I promise to be with you always, caring for you, even until the end.”

He laughed aloud, the sound of his mirth like sweet music to her ears. “I suppose ‘tis not every day a man of my age gets such a magnanimous offer.” He kissed her cheek. “You have your bargain, my lady. I will hold you to it. I will be your teacher and your closest friend. I will cherish you till my dying day and do whatever I can to please you in every way.”

He lay back upon the pillow, pulling her down to rest next to him. “Let’s get some rest, Wife,” he whispered softly.

Elizabeth lay next to him, awake for some hours, while Aldred snored softly. It made her slightly uncomfortable being so close to him, but he was clean, had most of his teeth, and she knew he would never mistreat her. She finally fell asleep, dreaming about all the things she would do—the books she would read in his library, helping him run his estate, maybe even learning swordplay. Excitement filled her at such prospects.

And if she had to mother his children, so be it. How difficult could that be?

 

CHAPTER 1

Ashgrove, the north of England, 1355

Gillian groaned as pain racked her body yet again. Cold sweat drenched her hair and the very bedclothes. She wanted it to be over. Twinges and tingles had turned from dull aches over the past months to this jarring pain, something far worse than childbirth all those years ago.

She smiled, thinking of Gavin, and wished he could be here at the end to hold her hand. The thought of her brave, handsome son brought the only comfort she’d known in days. With his image, though, guilt flooded her, as strong as any of the suffering that flowed through her now.

“What might I do to comfort you, my lady?”

She despaired as Father Michael, the doddering priest who barely knew his own name nowadays, leaned over her solicitously.

“You cannot give me physical solace, Father, but you can let me go to God with a clear conscience.”

The priest looked confused. “My lady has always been most pious in her devotions. I have often thought a cloistered life would have suited you well.”

Gillian sucked in her breath as another shot of agony, hot as liquid fire, poured through her withered body. God punished her now for the sins of her youth. She had spent a lifetime trying to make it up to Him. Apparently, her devotion hadn’t been enough to please Him. Mayhap her final words would.

“’Tis time, Father, for my last confession,” she managed to say. “Then the last rites.”

Suddenly, her husband stormed in. Berwyn was the last person she cared to see at her dying moment. She closed her eyes, willing him to go away. What if her wasted body expired before she could make her peace with God?

“Out, man!” Berwyn proclaimed.

She opened her eyes to see him pushing their priest out the door. If she were destined to rot in Hell, she was certain Berwyn would be there to keep her company.

“Can you not get this over with, Wife?” he demanded, not bothering to chastise her in quiet tones. “How long does it take a devout woman to die? Surely God is anxious for you to come to Him.”

He narrowed his eyes and studied her, his thick lips curling in contempt. “You spent more time in conversation with God than you ever did in our marriage bed or even caring for this household. You already have one foot in the next world. If not for Gavin, your time on earth would be worthless. Hurry up and die. I wish to marry again, a woman who shall be a true wife to me.”

Gillian tried to wet her cracked lips in order to issue a quick retort but failed. Berwyn sneered at her weak effort. He left the room, brushing against the old priest who stood just outside the door.

***

Berwyn continued down the dimly lit passageway, barely restraining his fury. He did what his father commanded years ago and married Gillian. The old man hadn’t lived a twelvemonth afterward. At least Berwyn had enjoyed the wealth Gillian’s dowry brought to Ashgrove. It had allowed him to expand the estate and make numerous improvements over the years.

The worst was that Berwyn found himself saddled with what might as well have been a nun for a spouse all these years. She’d produced the required heir within the first year of their union and then promptly lost all interest in carnal things.

And he was a very carnal man.

“God’s teeth!” he roared. He’d gone into the chamber that smelled like death in order to fetch a bauble for Clarine. He’d promised her a jewel after their lovemaking last night and knew he could not go to her again unless he presented the trinket. Berwyn angrily paced down the hall again to retrieve a gem from his wife’s casket. She never wore them and would probably be dead by the time he placed a necklace about Clarine’s luscious throat.

Father Michael no longer stood guard outside. Undoubtedly, he had gone in again to offer solace to Gillian. Berwyn pushed open the door, grimacing at the stench of stale vomit that greeted him again.

Before he could take more than a few steps in, however, he halted. Gillian’s faltering words forced him to a stop.

“ . . . and so Gavin is not Berwyn’s son. In truth, Father, ‘tis Lord Aldred’s blood that runs through his veins.”

Shock caused a physical reaction. Bile rose in his throat. He swallowed quickly and took two steps back so as to remain out of sight. He’d fostered with Aldred of Kentwood when but a youth, worshipping the man far more than his own father, who was Aldred’s closest friend. Lord Aldred taught him how to ride and use a sword. How to wench and drink. Now, Berwyn learned a score and four later that the famed nobleman had cuckolded him?

When had it transpired?

He thought back to the earliest time in his marriage. Gillian delivered a son to him eight months after their vows. She told him many times first children came early, and he hadn’t any reason to question her. Gavin had been perfect in every way.

Now, he saw in an instant how much Gavin resembled his true father. Berwyn had wondered where Gavin’s height had come from and his unusual eyes. Why had he been blind to the truth all these years? Rage rushed through his veins.

“He might have been a score more than I, yet he was the kindest man, despite his war-like attitude. Gavin is just like him, Father. He has Aldred’s eyes and smile and his gentle disposition.”

Gillian moaned softly and panted like a dog would before she continued. “I have seen Gavin nurse a mare in labor with tenderness, yet ‘tis fierce and unhesitating he is with his sword. A son any mother would be proud of. I have kept my secret all these years, Father. ‘Twas my sin to bear. I have suffered in silence so that my son would become lord of Ashgrove.”

The priest murmured soft words of absolution, but Berwyn blocked them out. He forced his clenched fists to open and took a calming breath. His face now a blank mask, he strode through the room and placed a hand on the clergyman’s back.

“Forgive my earlier outburst, Father. I regret the harsh words I spoke to my wife. I have come to beg her forgiveness, as she is so near to death.”

He gave Gillian a soft smile before looking again at the cleric. “Would you allow us some privacy?”

Father Michael turned and shuffled from the room, shaking his head as he mumbled to himself. Berwyn waited till he heard the door close before he looked at his traitorous wife.

Her beauty had faded long ago. Only her eyes burned brightly in her shriveled face. They held his, questioning, unsure why he would offer her an apology.

“You’re right, my dear,” he said almost tenderly. “I won’t beg your pardon.” Berwyn moved closer to the bed, breathing from his mouth so as to keep the scent of death from him.

He placed his hands upon her bony shoulders and gripped her tightly as he brought his face close to hers. The fear in her eyes brought a smile to his face.

“I am here to tell you one thing, Wife. Your bastard child will never be master of Ashgrove. Never.”

Tears sprang to her eyes as he watched the realization seep through her.

“Yes, I heard your confession.” Berwyn lifted a hand from her shoulder and wound his fingers around a lock of her graying hair. “I may have been fooled for years, but no more. Gavin is as good as dead to me.”

He smiled at her. “As are you.”

With a swift movement, Berwyn pulled a pillow from behind Gillian’s back and pressed it to her face. She struggled briefly, but the disease that ravaged her body had robbed her strength. When she ceased moving, he lifted the pillow and returned it from where it came.

She lay with eyes open, full of fright. Berwyn steeled himself and brushed his palm across her face, closing her lids. He straightened the bedclothes and then went across the room. Opening the casket that contained all of her jewels, he pawed through the contents, choosing a circlet to place inside his tunic. Clarine’s golden tresses would look lovelier than usual now.

He returned to the bed and knelt next to it. He took one of her hands in his. Already it was cool to his touch. He bit his tongue hard to give him a pained look, one that he hoped would pass for sorrow, and bellowed at the top of his lungs.

“Sweet Jesu! Come quickly! My wife is dead.”

 

CHAPTER 2

France, 1356

Gavin of Ashgrove awakened quickly, as always, his body instantly tense, hand upon his sword. Well before daylight, he would once again follow the Black Prince into battle against the French.

At five and ten years, he had stood as large as any grown man a decade ago when he acted as squire to Lord Aldred, who gave him permission to ride into the skirmish that lay ahead.

“If young Edward can lead troops into battle only a year older than you, Gavin, I suppose the time has come for you to ride by my side.”

Gavin fought valiantly that day, Aldred serving as his guide. Young Prince Edward had been far outnumbered by French troops, yet the royal youth guided the English lines into holding their position on the hill and on to victory. Gavin continued the fight until Edward’s army, weakened by illness, was forced into battle by a vastly superior French army. Fortunately, the English longbow had again triumphed at Crecy, before the English had returned to England.

Gavin itched for war again these past ten years, when a lull in the fighting occurred. The Great Pestilence swept across Europe, and no man was safe on the battlefield from its long arm. He’d spent the time at home, happy to be back at Ashgrove learning how to run a large estate, keeping his father’s army of knights ready to fight at a moment’s notice.

Finally, his time came again. Today. Gavin, now officially knighted, would once more follow the Black Prince into the fight against the French. Gone, however, was Aldred, who remained at Kentwood. Age had taken its toll on the gallant warrior. Since Gavin left his service, Aldred had married for a third time, almost half a score ago. The union had produced no children.

It was unfortunate because Aldred’s elder son died in the taking of Calais several years before, while his younger son fell from his horse while hunting. Paralyzed for two years, every breath an agony, the boy succumbed to the same fever that also took his younger sister. Gavin knew of these events from missives received by his father. After the deaths of Aldred’s two remaining children, no news came.

He shook himself from the past, wondering why he always became so contemplative before battle. It pained him to think of Aldred’s troubles, for he loved the old lord to his core. His own father, Berwyn, never seemed more than a distant relative.  They had little in common except their connection through Gillian.

Gavin smiled at the thought of his beloved mother. Though she spent much time in prayer, she’d never been the remote parent his father had. She lavished him with love from his earliest memories. An English victory today might mean he could return home. Her health, always delicate, caused him some concern. He prayed she was well and then rose for the day.

Dace, as usual, appeared from nowhere. The loyal squire anticipated his every thought and action. Gavin knew the boy would make a steady soldier one day. High-spirited, with boundless enthusiasm, Dace was as much family to him as Robert.

“Here’s a loaf of bread and a bit of ham, my lord.” Dace handed over the food and removed a wineskin gripped under his arm. “Wine, too. A good soldier needs his strength to enter battle.”

Gavin smiled indulgently at his retainer and ruffled the boy’s hair affectionately. “Right you are, Dace. When your time comes, you will be more than ready.”

Dace’s eyes gleamed at the thought of entering battle.

“And did you start the morning feast without me?”

Gavin turned and saw Robert standing there. “Good morn to you, my friend. I trust you slept well?”

Robert laughed. “Like a babe, Gavin. The thought of battle may terrify most, but somehow ‘tis a sense of peace that falls over me the night before a conflict begins.”

Gavin handed him the wineskin, and Robert took a swig. “Nectar from the gods. These French know how to do something right, after all.”

The three chuckled, and Gavin tore a hunk of bread from his loaf to share with his trusted companions. They talked for a few minutes before Dace reminded them they must prepare themselves for the fight ahead.

As the squire dressed Gavin and Robert for battle, Gavin looked fondly upon them both. Dace he’d known since the boy was a tot, but Robert came from a manor in the south, close to Aldred’s estate. They’d met years ago and had renewed their friendship when Robert rushed to Gavin’s aid in battle. They’d fought side by side ever since. An established trust between them made Robert the brother Gavin never had. He couldn’t conceive going into war without the steadfast Robert next to him.

“Ready?”

Gavin adjusted his cuirass and nodded to his friend and then issued his usual warning to Dace to stay far back from the action. “I can care for myself and if trouble should arise, Robert will be there to aid me. You are to remain here, Dace. Understood?”

The boy nodded his head, but Gavin had his doubts whether he would listen this time. At four and ten, Dace was eager to enter battle and prove his prowess. He also had a sweetheart back home. He’d confided to Gavin that he couldn’t wait to tell her tales of his bravery against the French. Knowing that, Gavin thought Dace might become a little careless, thus he always reminded him of his duties.

“Yes, my lord. Your horses are ready.”

The noblemen followed Dace to their warhorses. Gavin smelled the excitement in the early morning light, hovering across the multitude of men gathered to fight. The Black Prince, heir to England’s throne, inspired courage and loyalty amongst his men. Those present were eager to prove their worth to their royal commander whose black armor gave him his nickname.

Robert slapped him on the back. “We have God upon our side, Gavin. He’d not have given us victory at Crecy and allowed us to take Calais, nay, even control of the Channel itself, were not we on the side of right.”

Gavin nodded, agreeing with Robert’s words. He longed for this fight to be over, for England to take the south of France and allow the Black Prince to rule in Aquitaine. King Edward, still in good health, looked to be upon the throne in England for many years. ‘Twould be only right for young Prince Edward to have his own place to rule, as part of English territory and reward for the great service he’d given both his father and country in their conflict against the bastard French.

He looked about him. Archers, pikemen, light infantry, and cavalry were all in sight, as they had been years before at Crecy. This combined force had proven effective. He was surprised that the French clung to their old-fashioned ways of fighting after that humiliating defeat. He predicted a quick victory for England today.

Gavin mounted his horse. Dace handed over his sugarloaf great helm, and he slipped it over his head. Most of the early morning light ceased, the slit only allowing in a small portion of the sun’s rays. Last, Dace gave him his shield. He gripped it firmly in one hand, the reins of his warhorse in the other. He looked to Robert and nodded as they trotted their coal-black destriers onward.

***

Another wave of arrows whizzed over Gavin’s head. Everywhere he looked in front of him, men fell left and right, their cries of pain ringing in his ears. The French forces easily outnumbered the English soldiers gathered here. His heart pounded loudly, and he knew it wise to retreat before more casualties occurred.

“Could it be any worse?” Robert shouted through his helmet, above the din.

They’d abandoned their horses in favor of their feet. Dace quickly appeared to spirit the animals from harm’s way. Gavin yielded his sword in one hand, his mace in the other, both clutched tightly as he made good use of them.

“Fall back!” The order sounded several times across the battlefield. He sensed the English forces gradually moving behind him.

He signaled Robert. Both men retreated, only swinging their swords a time or two. It seemed like fighting would be called off for the day.

They arrived back where they’d started so many hours ago. Gavin pulled the heavy helmet from his head, every muscle in his arms and back strained to their limits, calling for respite.

Dace ran up, his face betraying bad news. All color had rushed from it, leaving him deathly pale. Out of breath, he stopped before them, his breath coming in long gasps.

“Easy, Dace,” he told the squire. He reached for a wineskin and offered it to the young man. “Drink slowly. Your news ’twill keep.”

Dace did as instructed, dribbling wine down the front of his tunic despite Gavin’s warning. He did not venture to speak till he could be understood.

“’Tis a bargain the Black Prince stands to make.” Dace pushed his hair from his brow with a forearm. “The French force has overwhelmed us, my lord. His advisers said to maintain dignity, much less leave with our lives, ‘twould be the only way. ‘Tis too many we are up against.”

“What says this bargain?” asked Robert.

Dace shook his head, his mouth gone sour. “The Prince himself wrote it. Called for parchment and ink, he did. Said ‘twould come from his hand and his alone, to go straight to King John the Good.” The squire spat in the dust. “He means to leave French soil. Not to fight for seven years.”

“Seven years?” echoed Gavin. He’d known how heavily they were outnumbered in the field this day, but to leave France for so long a time? That might prove a disaster in the long run.

“And,” Dace continued, “the prisoners already taken are to be surrendered, along with the spoils won.”

He quickly cut his eyes to Robert. Both men realized with Dace’s words how desperate the situation had become.

“I wonder how soon ‘twill take King John to answer?” mused Robert.

Gavin raked his fingers through his hair, a nervous gesture he’d never been able to rid himself of. “I doubt we’ll wait long. With their advantage, France would do well to press it quickly.”

Rumors circulated the camp for less than two hours before word reached them. Again, Dace brought it, his mouth a thin line as he hurried toward them. It struck Gavin how young the boy seemed at that moment.

“France has rejected all,” the squire revealed. “Ye must be quick, my lord. Even now, French knights advance on foot.”

Gavin had anticipated such news, not trusting the French to back down so easily. He and Robert had readied their rested destriers, and they now mounted them quickly. He checked to see that he had all the weapons he required, daggers and swords, his shield and his mace.

“My lord?”

He looked down at his squire, who held his helmet high. “The mail coif will do, Dace. I’d like as much vision about me as I can.”

“But, my lord—”

“No buts, Dace.” He winked at the boy, trying to bolster his own courage as he reassured the squire. His heart hammered in his chest loud as the cannons that had gone off at Crecy. He touched his hand to his head and gave a brief nod before turning his horse.

He and Robert rode through a field of blood. Heavy losses had occurred. Gavin blocked out the agonizing calls for help, the pitiful cries, the torn and mangled bodies that lay all about them. The smell of blood filed the air, heavy now with despair, as they joined up with others who resumed the fight.

Then they were upon French foot soldiers, and his concentration began in earnest. He fought from atop his destrier for some minutes, the height giving him some small advantage. While distracted to his left, though, an enemy soldier plunged his sword high into his horse’s throat.

As Gavin heard the gurgling scream, the horse started to falter. He threw a leg over and leapt from the beast before it took him down. A primeval shout poured from his mouth as he swung his mace. It connected with the head of the offending Frenchman. The man dropped dead to the ground, his own scream trailing off before he made contact with the dirt.

Gavin threw himself into the fight full force, his sword punishing every man in his path. His ears rang with the musical clanging of sword against sword, sword upon shield. Sweat poured into his eyes, stinging them, clouding his vision for a moment.

It reassured him that Robert fought next to him. No braver man had Gavin met than his friend. If they came out of this, ‘twould be together. If one fell, the other would catch him. And if by chance they died this day, they would know they’d taken a good number of French bastards into death with them.

Robert brushed up against his back suddenly. Gavin looked over his shoulder to see they were slowly being surrounded. Back to back they fought, lashing out at those who pressed closely.

“You bastard!” shouted Robert.

“What’s wrong?” answered Gavin, forcing his sword into another man’s chest, then ripping it from the body as his foot kicked the man away.

“The bloody fool sliced my arm. God’s wounds, but it hurts.”

“The right or left?” called Gavin, knowing Robert was left-handed.

“’Tis my left,” Robert muttered.

He stole a quick glance and saw the bright stream of blood pouring down Robert’s arm, which now hung at his side. His friend’s shield thrusted upward, warding off blows. Gavin knew their time was running out.

As he turned back, a dark swirl met him. Blindsided, the shot caused the world to go stark white. As Gavin blinked several times, trying to get his bearings, a curtain of darkness began to descend.

His world went black.

*****

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