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Queen Eleanor's Court at PoitiersMay 1171
'You should be grateful for your freedom.' The hard edge of warning beneath Queen Eleanor's words was unmistakable.
Lady Sarah of Remy felt the Queen's glare against her back as she walked toward the chamber door. Icy fingers of dread clutched her spine at Eleanor's implied threat.
Unmindful of the voice inside her head urging her to leave the chamber without comment, Sarah turned to face the Queen. Eleanor's relentless stare prompted Sarah to temper her response. 'Marriage to a brutal stranger is not worth more than my freedom.'
'I know you well, Sarah. A temporary marriage to Bronwyn will prove less of a trial than rotting in a cell.'
Sarah trembled at the mere mention of his name. William of Bronwyn was too large and frightening, his shoulders too broad, his manners too coarse. She closed her eyes against the memory of being found naked in bed with him.
The task assigned to her had seemed so simple. Yet, like a bad dream spinning out of control, it had all gone so horribly wrong.
Bronwyn and his friend Earl Hugh of Wynnedom were somehow involved with King Henry. Ever since Archbishop Becket's death last year, the Queen had become suspicious of anything her husband the King did. Especially when she hadn't been consulted. Even more so when his secret dealings took place on her lands.
King Henry had been seen with Bronwyn and Wynnedom near the castle. The three men had met with a foreigner unknown to Queen Eleanor and she wanted to know why.
Unfortunately, her questioning of the Earl had produced no suitable answer. In fact, the man's arrogance had angered her more than his unwillingness to provide the information she wanted. Determined to serve him a taste of his own insolence, the Queen had devised a plan that would place him firmly under her control.
He would be caught compromising one of her favoured ladiesSarah. Eleanor knew that the Earl's honour would convince him to wed Sarah, making him a member of her court. She'd been certain that he would then be more willing to share his secrets with her. The Earl of Wynnedom would prove an excellent informant once he realised the benefits of bending to the Queen's will.
Something Sarah knew well. As the Queen's spy, she had successfully completed every assigned taskthus far. This task should have been no different.
'You failed me, Sarah, and left me no choice.'
Sometimes she wondered if Eleanor could read her mind. 'I didn't know the Earl was married to Adrienna until it was too late.'
'Then you should have discovered it sooner.'
And how was she to have done that? While Adrienna was also one of Eleanor's ladies-in-waiting, it wasn't as if they'd been fast friends.
'Instead, you let yourself be found in bed with his friend.' The Queen rose and walked toward her. 'Sarah, we have been through this already. Even had Bronwyn forced you to do so, he offered marriage.'
'Offered?' He hadn't offered marriage. After the Queen had ordered the four of themher, Bronwyn, Wynnedom and Adriennato leave her court, he'd nearly commanded that they wed.
Waving off her question as if it were nothing more than a flea, Eleanor countered, 'While the delivery might not have been to your liking, the end result will be the same. You will wed Bronwyn.'
Sarah had been with the court long enough to know that once Eleanor's anger at being foiled lessened, the Queen could be convinced to see reason. That was why she'd slipped away from Bronwyn in the first placeto hopefully change the Queen's mind. However, were she to leave the court, how would she ever gain another audience in which to plead her case?
'No!' Eleanor's shout dissolved Sarah's complaint before it left her mouth. 'Wed him. Get me the information I seek and then you will have your freedom.'
The Queen paused in front of her and asked, 'Do you understand me?'
Unable to speak past the lump thickening in her throat, Sarah nodded.
'Now go. See that you, your new husband and his friends are gone from my court before morning.'
'What more could one expect from Eleanor's whore? She is getting no less than what she deserves.'
Sarah held her tongue as she walked quickly past the darkened alcove on her way to the chapel. She heard the snide remarks of the other ladies, just as they'd intended. But she knew any response would be foolishit would only add strength to the vipers' tongues.
It wasn't as if she'd not heard the same spittle repeated numerous times during her prolonged stay with the Queen's court. So, why now did it sting as much as her father's hand slapping her face? Sarah held her head high. She'd give no one the satisfaction of witnessing her pain.
Once beyond the alcoves and away from the biting words, Sarah dragged her feet, seeking to delay her arrival at the Queen's private chapel. She wondered if this was how a condemned man felt as he walked to his death.
Did a sick dread churn in his stomach as he approached the executioner? Did the blood flowing through his veins slow as if thickening from the icy touch of fear?
Regardless of her failure, it wasn't supposed to happen like this. She'd been promised moreso much more. For countless months, Sarah had held fast to the sworn promise of a grand marriage.
And now her treasured dreams had turned into a nightmare of doom. Sarah choked back a threatening cry.
It wasn't that she didn't want to wedshe did. As a young girl, she had come to Queen Eleanor's court, hoping for many things. Like the other girls and young women sent to court, she had grown up hoping to eventually find a husband.
Not just a husband, but a knighted lord. An honourable man who would care for her, protect her, give her children, a place to call home and a life worth living.
But most of all, she wanted to hold tight to the things she'd gained at courtrespite from her father's sharp tongue and easy rage. And freedom from the harshness of life in a poor keep occupied only by men-at-arms. She couldn't return to living a life of fear.
Sarah fisted her hands at her sides. She wanted to rail at the unfairness. She'd willingly ruined her reputation by posing as the Queen's whorefor what? A worthless vow?
Her arrangement with the Queen had seemed simpleif Sarah wished to leave the court under better circumstances than which she'd arrived, she only had to use her appearance of fair-haired innocence, and her wiles, to convince specific lords and ladies to speak freely. Any information gleaned was then relayed to the Queen, who would use the knowledge to her benefit.
In return, Sarah had been promised a wealthy, titled lord as husband. One who could provide the security and safety she'd never had.
Instead, Queen Eleanor was forcing her to wed Bronwyn.
The tears choking her throat were as much from fear of William of Bronwyn as they were at the thought of leaving the court.
Even though she had little reason to believe the Queen's latest promise, Sarah clung desperately to the slender thread of hope that this time Eleanor would keep her word.
Since the plan had gone so awry, Sarah needed only to marry this man, find out all she could about him and the Earl, and then discover their dealings with King Henry. Once Eleanor had the information, the Queen swore she would ensure Sarah quickly became an eligible widow, with enough gold to entice any man of her choosing.
Sarah's steps faltered as Bronwyn stepped away from the shadows darkening the corridor and into the light gleaming out from the chapel's entrance. It was one thing to dupe a man she did not know and would not see on the morrow. But she would see this man every day and every night.
She held his stare, in a show of bravado, as she resumed her walk down the long corridor. But the thought of being his wife, even for a brief period of time, made her insides tremble.
William of Bronwyn was not just largethe top of her head barely reached his shouldershe was built of solid rock beneath his flesh. He could easily maim, or kill her, with one blow.
Sarah wanted to faint into oblivion. But fate would not be that kind.
Every fear she'd ever experienced, every memory of harsh cruelness she had ever faced, raced back to grip her chest in a crushing hold. She struggled to breathe, then wondered why she bothered. Would it not be easier if her breath simply ceased for ever?
She stopped just out of his reach, ignoring his extended hand. 'My lord.' She couldn't help the coolness of her tone. At the moment, coolness was the best she could muster.
'I was not certain you would come.'
'What choice had I?' At his frown, she wondered if perhaps he regretted his demand for this marriage. Hope flared anew. She stepped closer. 'There is no need for us to wed.' If the Queen would not see reason, perhaps William of Bronwyn could be convinced to do so.
To her dismay, he disagreed. 'I will not take you from here without the benefit of marriage.'
'Why not?' She sought desperately to correct his flawed reasoning. 'There is no need to concern yourself with my reputation. You can do nothing to ruin it further. That was accomplished long before you arrived at this court.'
William shook his head before directing her towards the chapel's door. 'Belittling yourself will not change my mind.'
He made light of her reputation? Did he believe she degraded herself to him out of hand? The questions racing through her mind gave her pause. No man of self-worth would willingly take a harlot to wife.
She knew nothing of this Bronwyn except for the fact he was at court. And while he possessed no title, he was on friendly terms with the Earl of Wynnedom. From what the Queen had claimed, both men were involved in something with King Henry.
Without making it obvious, Sarah studied him. The man was clean. Even though his hair was overlong, light from the wall sconces reflected off the recently washed strands.
The two of them were close enough for her to smell sandalwooda beguiling scent that called to her senses. Ignoring the effect that scent had on her, she took in his court clothing and well-heeled boots.
The leather wrapping on the scabbard hanging from his side was new. And the hilt of the sword was far too ornate to belong to a lowly man-at-arms.
Oh, yes, this man was drenched in self-worth from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet.
Sarah drew her gaze to his face. From the intensity of his piecing stare, she knew he'd been studying her as well. She needed to be careful and make certain he would discover nothing she didn't wish him to see.
This could be her last chance to convince him to change his mind. She lowered her head and looked up at him from beneath her eyelashes. 'My lord, I seek not to belittle myself.' She softened her voice to a whisper, beckoning him to lean closer. 'I wish only to warn you of the truth.'
Sarah peered up, making certain she'd captured his attention, then continued, 'You are the Earl's man. As such, marrying the Queen's whore can do little to help your status.'
'Status? I care nothing for what others may think.'
In all her years at court she'd yet to meet one person, man or woman, who cared naught about the opinions of others. She tried again. 'You may not care at this moment. But some day you will.'
Sarah placed a hand on her chest and glanced into the chapel before appealing to his common sense. 'Would you have your children know their mother was rumoured to be nothing more than a harlot?'
He stood upright and answered her question by rolling his eyes briefly to the ceiling, before saying, 'If all rumours were true, I would be a monster from Hades.'
The sudden look of terror distorting her features at his comment surprised him. Surely she didn't believe such nonsense? 'Lady Sarah, fear not, for I am human born.'
She remained silent and he wondered for a moment if perhaps he had made a mistake in demanding this marriage. He cared little if his wife-to-be held any regard for himit would be easier if she didn't.
While she might consider this entire episode a failure, for him it had provided an opportunity he couldn't let pass. He wanted someone to help run his household, and bear his children.
His blood warmed at the thought of this woman in his bed. He would gain more than a wife for his keep. He would also have a woman who was not only pleasing to his eyes, but one rumoured to be well versed in bed.
The one thing he didn't want was a wife who feared him. He could live with her disdain, and cared not if they never found any tender feelings for each other. But he'd had enough of fear.
When he'd left Sidatha's Palace with Hugh and the others, he'd vowed to put that life behind him. No more would he suffer the taste of the lash. No more would he kill to put food in his belly. And no more would he intentionally seek to make another fear him. Especially not his wife.
One of the women already inside the chapel to witness this union raised her voice. 'It is only fitting that the whore be given to such a lowly brute.'
Another woman snickered, then added, 'His rough treatment of her will not be harsh enough in my opinion.'
The urge to give these women the tongue lashing they deserved was wiped away by the look of resignation settling on Sarah's face. She'd heard the spiteful words and had chosen to ignore them. How many times had she been forced into this same situation?
From the lack of surprise, or outrage, on her part, William could only assume the answer to his unasked question would bemany times.
But something the paleness of her face, the odd brightness shimmering in her eyes told him she was not immune to the barbs directed her way. The women's comments bothered Sarah a great deal.
His resolve to see this marriage through strengthened. No, he hadn't made a mistake. Even if she feared him now, Lady Sarah was alone in this court. She was without a champion, without a friend.
He'd been a captive all of his adult life. He knew what it was like to be alone in the world. Taken captive before he'd had a chance to be anything other than an overgrown youth, he'd soon learned to keep to himself. He'd quickly been taught to trust no one.
William turned to stand at her side and offered his arm. 'Come, Lady Sarah. We were ordered to be gone from court by sunrise. But before we join Lady Adrienna and Hugh, we have a marriage to make.'
She stared at his arm without moving. 'I wish not to wed you.'
'Sir William, we are not suited. Would you not rather have someone of your choosing?'
Not suited? They were well suited from his perspective. She'd been given the choice of a cell, or leaving the court. Lady Sarah needed someone to protect her. A woman alone would not fare well outside these walls. Regardless of its appearance, this court was little more than a jewel-encrusted prison, where one did what they were told to do.
'We are suited for each other more than you realise, Lady Sarah. And if you remember correctly, I did choose you.'