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A Dove at Midnight
By Rexanne Becnel
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Rexanne Becnel
All rights reserved.
Castle Manning, England Summer, A.D. 1209
Sir Rylan Kempe, Lord of Blaecston, strode unannounced into the great hall of Castle Manning, but his entrance was noticed at once. Sir Evan Thorndyke, Lord of Manning, was mildly surprised. Rylan took every opportunity provided publicly to oppose King John and his careless treatment of his subjects, particularly his strangling taxes and his obsessive need to control his barons' every move. As a result, Rylan had become more cautious about visiting his friends, especially those who managed to keep up a friendly relationship with the king.
Several of the lords who gambled at dice now that the meal was done raised their brows at Kempe's entrance. His politics were well known, and although most of them might affect to deplore him when at the royal court, privately they lauded his courage and sense of honor.
The ladies also remarked on his approach, for Sir Rylan Kempe was nothing if not impressive. Tall and well formed, he had earned his reputation in the lists as well as in the battles for Normandy. He was known as a bold and fearless fighter, and it was said that his disgust with his king sprang from John's abhorrent leadership, which had resulted in England's complete loss of Normandy to King Philip of France. It was whispered as well that Kempe's near death at Valognes was just as responsible for his enduring resentment toward the king. However, no one had ever been known to broach that idea to Rylan Kempe directly.
But no matter why he opposed King John, the very fact that he so openly displayed that opposition only increased his reputation for unswerving valor. He was a man to both fear and respect.
His hair, which he wore unfashionably long, added to that image, for it gave his already dark countenance a decidedly dangerous cast. More than one man had been struck silent when Rylan Kempe turned his piercing stare on him. The ladies at court and elsewhere much discussed why his arrogant disregard of fashion nonetheless increased his appeal. But no matter their opinion, Sir Rylan did not seem in the least concerned. He could be incredibly gallant or ruthlessly determined where women were concerned. And although he had a wide reputation for leaving women in his wake, that did not lessen his attractiveness. He was unmarried and very rich. Even were he as ugly as sin, he would still be considered an outstanding match. However, he seemed in no hurry to take a bride.
After a slight pause, the buzz of conversation resumed in the hall. Sir Rylan received a goblet of red wine from one of the serving lads, nodded politely to one or two acquaintances, and then made his way directly to where Sir Evan sat at the high table. With only a sharp glance Rylan dismissed the man who had thought to speak to Evan, and without preamble he pulled a chair out and seated himself.
"Had I recalled you were entertaining," Rylan said, "I would not have bothered myself to seek you out."
"I'll admit I am more than a little surprised to see you here. Is something amiss? No, I can see something is. Shall we adjourn to discuss it more in private?"
"I'd like nothing better, but there is your reputation to maintain as a supporter of our liege lord," Rylan answered sardonically.
"Yes, there is that," Evan agreed with a rueful smile. "However, fewer and fewer barons support the man, much to your credit—though you surely know that. The king would not be unduly alarmed should I be visited by one of his foes; after all, he has so many. Why, you could no doubt discuss whatever it is that presently disturbs you before this entire company and not fear to have it repeated in John Lackland's ear."
Rylan shot him a mocking look. "We shall see whether you hold to that sentiment after you hear what news I bring."
As they left together—the one man so dark and menacing in bearing, the other redheaded and affable—the whispering began again, but neither of them showed the least concern. Gossip was a given among the nobles, but more so in these unsettled times of King John. Uncertainty bred unease, and for the past few years no one could be trusted. It was only now, when John's policies were wreaking havoc on everyone without exception, that the barons were beginning to unite. The king knew it, and as a result, his politics had become even more divisive. But it could not go on forever, Rylan thought. More and more the king was referred to snidely as John "Softsword," and not only for his poor military leadership. The man was ineffectual at everything; England would soon be in ruins if no one forced him to mend his ways.
"Now, what is afoot?" Evan asked as soon as the door closed behind them. "After declining my invitation to the summer solstice feasting, you show up unannounced with lowered brow and thunder in your eyes. 'Twould take a lack-wit not to implicate our good king in your black mood."
"Aye, you know our liege well. Only this time he has not yet caused any trouble. That does him no credit, however, for I am certain it is only because he has not yet heard the news. Or if he has, he has not yet devised a way to put that news to his best use." He rubbed his brow restlessly. "Or perhaps he does not know about her."
"Her?" Evan gave Rylan an impatient look. "Pray tell, who is 'her'? And what precisely is this all about?"
"Ring for ale and I shall begin, for we have a long night of it ahead, Evan. A long night."
Once they were well fixed with ale, a wedge of cheese, and a loaf of bread between them, Evan settled back. Rylan drank and then paced before sitting down as well.
"Aslin is dead. His wife and son also, so I am told."
"Preston? Aslin Preston, Lord of Oxwich? By damn, but that is a surprise. But how?"
"A fever, they say. At least a dozen more of his people are lost also."
"Well, I am sorry of that. Not that he was any friend to me, but he was of no harm either. But now that he is gone—and his one heir as well—that is something to consider. Who stands next to inherit Oxwich?"
"That is what has me so bedeviled! No man is so close to the family as to have a strong claim. That means John may set any lackey of his choosing at Oxwich, directly in the midst of Yorkshire! God's blood, but I will not have it! He will overset all my work to bind the lords of that area together. Bad enough that all of England is in turmoil, but we in Yorkshire are beginning slowly to come together. We've a lords' council to put an end to all the unnecessary suspicion and accusations. But John sees any attempt at peacemaking without him as an attack on the crown. By God, but he will plant some fool at Oxwich and the entire countryside will be cast to the devil!"
Rylan had risen to pace once more during his tirade, while Evan watched him thoughtfully. "You have a plan, I suspect. You did not come to me for advice but for approval. Am I right?"
This insightful comment drew a smile at last from Rylan's dark face. "I have come by a useful bit of information—one that I hope the king does not have. At least not yet. But eventually he will find out. It behooves me, therefore, to act swiftly."
"By damn, will you be out with it then?"
"Aslin Preston has another heir."
"Another heir? A bastard, I presume. And an infant."
"No, a daughter older than his boy. He was married once before. There was some nasty business about the first wife's death. And there was a daughter, only she has not been at Oxwich in near a half-score years."
"Is she wed?"
It was a clear answer, and the one Evan would have hoped for. Yet the inflection in Rylan's voice alerted him. "There is more that you have not said."
Once more Rylan's grin was out in full force, lighting up his harsh face and softening its often menacing cast. "That is why I so enjoy your company, Evan. I need say only half of what I'm thinking—you divine the rest quite on your own."
"Go on with it. What is the problem with the maid? Is she malformed? Or an idiot that no one will have?"
Rylan sighed. "If only it were that simple. The unfortunate truth is that she is a nun. Or at least she plans to take the veil as soon as she is of age. Because her father refused to provide her with a dowry, no order would take her save the Gilbertines."
"Quite fortuitous, wouldn't you say?"
"Perhaps. However, in the case of Aslin Preston, 'twas more than likely due to a tight fist than any foresight on his part."
"Be that as it may, are you certain then that she has not already assumed the veil? There are severe penalties for leaving any order of nuns, even the Gilbertines."
"Do you forget the papal interdict so easily? Even if she has taken up the veil, the church will not honor it until Pope Innocent and John come to an agreement."
"So you mean to search her out, carry her back to her home castle, and somehow convince her that your choice of a husband for her is best. By the by, who do you have in mind for her?"
Rylan shrugged. "Any number of game fellows will do, assuming she's not too dreadful on the eyes. Perhaps even you." He grinned. "Oxwich is a fine little castle, with good fields and a well-populated village."
"Perhaps you should consider her for yourself," Evan replied with a disgruntled scowl.
"I've another wench in mind, thank you. With far more important properties even than Oxwich." Rylan drank deeply of his ale, then banged his pewter goblet down on the table. "And the Lady Marilyn is at least a known quantity. Unlike Aslin's little nun."
"Lady Marilyn?" Evan started forward. "Egbert Crosley's girl?"
"Aye, the same," Rylan admitted as he poured himself more to drink. "But save yourself any congratulations for another day. My agreement with her father is not yet common knowledge, and anyway, she is not a part of this discussion."
"No," Evan agreed, although reluctantly. "The king shall be apoplectic when he learns of it, though, for he has worked diligently to join Egbert's properties to those of one of his own supporters. When he learns that you and Crosley conspire to circumvent his authority ..." Evan shrugged. "Well then, has Preston's daughter a name?"
"Joanna. Lady Joanna Preston, late of St. Theresa's Priory, but soon to be mistress of Oxwich. I've no doubt she will be well pleased to find herself an heiress once more."
Evan was quiet a moment. "When you marry Lady Marilyn you will control enough estates that John may not ignore you any longer. And if your plan works and you find a husband for Lady Joanna, all of Yorkshire will be firmly set against him. That is, assuming the chit goes along with you."
"She will. 'Tis clear her father sent her to the priory once he had got himself a son. Now she's to inherit. Why should she not go along?"
"John will not stand idly by, you know. He'll fight you for her, especially after learning he has lost Lady Marilyn to you. He will want to marry this Lady Joanna to a man of his own choosing. After all, she is rightfully a ward of the court. 'Tis the king's place to make a match for her, not yours."
"Perhaps, but once the deed is done and she is safely ensconced in Oxwich Castle, with a babe growing in her belly and a determined husband to defend the place, it will be much too late for John to do more than rant and rave. I ride tomorrow to St. Theresa's to get the maiden, and I'll hold her at Blaecston until the marriage is well consummated. John dares not attack me in mine own castle. He has no allies in Yorkshire to support him and he knows it."
"Do your allies know what you plot?"
Rylan laughed out loud. It was clear he enjoyed the game he was embarking upon. "They all agree that we must have one of our own at Oxwich. They will not balk at my means once the girl is in my hands."
Evan let loose a great sigh. "All right, Rylan. It appears you have it all planned, very likely to the exact hour at which this marriage shall take place. What is it you want of me?"
"No more than the usual, my friend. Keep a close ear to John's court. They move to Ely soon, not seven leagues from here. 'Twould be only proper for you to do him honor. Be alert for any rumors. Keep him appeased as best you can. But once the bird is loose—and eventually he will hear of it—then send word to me at once."
"You shall be at Blaecston?"
"Once I see the deed done I shall be at Blaecston, tending my sheep and seeing to my fields."
"And plotting against John."
Rylan lifted his goblet. "And plotting against John."
King John fixed the Bishop of Ely with the most imperious of his stares. "As long as she has not taken the final vows, the church will not interfere. We are correct in our assumption, are we not?"
The bishop nodded so eagerly that his fat jowls quivered in obscene ripples. "Of course, your Highness. Of course. The good sisters of St. Theresa's are ever eager to bend to the royal will. If this maiden has not yet taken up the veil ..." He trailed off as his king's stare grew colder and shifted his gaze uneasily to the queen, searching for some aid in that quarter.
With a small, very feline stretch, Isabel bestowed the full force of her smile on the bishop, then turned to her husband and placed her hand upon his arm.
"If she has taken up the veil, then we can claim her lands by royal decree."
King John frowned. "'Tis messier that way. 'Twill be far easier if I can simply wed her to someone of my choosing."
"So it would." She practically purred the words. "However, we do at least have other options."
"Kempe will challenge me if I claim the lands from the priory."
Isabel sighed and rubbed his arm reassuringly, though the bishop could have sworn impatience was the stronger of her emotions.
"Instead of fretting endlessly on this matter, simply send someone to fetch her. Now," she added.
The king nodded. "All right. So be it. See it done," he snapped at the man who ever trailed him, awaiting his least command. As the fellow scurried away, however, John rose to pace anew.
"How long shall it take?" he asked in a voice as petulant as ever.
"If the weather holds, no more than a week," Isabel answered. "Come, John," she added. "No good comes of this pacing."
The king whirled and the furious expression on his face caused the bishop to shrink back in alarm. But Isabel's poised features did not alter in the least. As always, the bishop wondered at her aplomb.
"Kempe will be after her." John swore. "He is just the shifty sort of snake who would steal her from the priory and wed her to someone against my will. He cannot be trusted!"
Isabel waved the bishop away, and he left the royal couple gladly. He counted the queen a great ally. The king, however, was too unpredictable for comfort. God pity Rylan Kempe if he crossed the king in this matter.
As for Preston's daughter, the stout bishop did not spare her a thought. She would do as duty bade. If not duty to God, then duty to her king.CHAPTER 2
Joanna knelt on the cold granite. Her posture was humble, her head was meekly bent, and her hands were clenched together, her fingers twisted almost painfully. To all appearances she was immersed in devout prayer as became an aspirant to the Gilbertine Order. Even the prioress gave a curt nod of approval to see the intractable Joanna at her prayers.
Yet Joanna struggled inside. More than anything else she sought an inner peace, a calm that might sustain her when one of her moods came upon her. But she found no solace in prayer. Her soul resisted, as if the devil had taken root within her breast. The prayers she knew by rote were so much muddle in her head, and when she searched for her own words, they would not come.
You are not one to judge your betters, she silently chastised herself. Or even your equals.
How she longed to shift her weight. Her left leg was cramping, yet she stubbornly stayed as she was. Who are you to think your sin any less than hers? she reviled herself. You who are so proud? Yet the fact was, she had spied one of the other aspirants meeting a man near the small pond in the woods, and she had judged the woman at once.
Joanna had been collecting arrowroot in the damp places beyond the pond when she had seen Winna and the fowler, and she could not help but stare. How they had clung together—their bodies pressed close, their mouths seeking each other's. How familiarly they had touched each other, then sunk down in the thick ferns where she could not see any more of them.
Excerpted from A Dove at Midnight by Rexanne Becnel. Copyright © 1993 Rexanne Becnel. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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