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Shropshire, England 1453
'Sweet Jesu!' Beatrice Matravers moaned with her usual peevishness, raising a quaking white hand to her high, unlined forehead. 'This infernal bumping will be the death of me!' As if acknowledging her curse, the cart lurched violently, causing Beatrice to reel against the padded interior. There she stayed, supported by the side of the cart, her eyes shuttered, her mouth twisted into a forbidding expression of grim dissatisfaction. Her maid, Joan, lolled at her side, deep in a comfortable sleep.
'Take heart, Mother, try to rest.' Alice Matravers leaned forwards, smiling, patting her mother's knee by way of encouragement. The elaborate gold embroidery decorating Beatrice's gown rasped against her fingertips. Alice sat back, raising one small hand to part the thick velvet curtains that covered the opening, trying to establish their location. Stifled by the warm, tense atmosphere of the cramped interior, she pushed her face out beyond the curtain, relishing the fresh morning air on her skin. Outside the day was clear, bright; the beech trees, dressed in their gaudy autumn colours, towered up and over the narrow track that ran through the forest, their trunks smooth boles of dark grey wood.
A thin trail of annoyance threaded Alice's veins, the result of this long journey coupled with her mother's continuous whining since they had left Bredon earlier that morning. She sighed. Her mother would have been far happier if Sir Humphrey Portman had found Alice more amenable, more fitting as a potential bride. There was no question that he had found her distinctly lacking in all the qualities needed to become the lady of a manor; why, he had positively scowled when Alice had marched confidently up to the top table, greeting him with a broad smile. The day had lurched downhill from then on.
'We should be home by the four o'clock bell.' Alice sagged back against the feather cushions, blinking rapidly to adjust her eyes to the dim, shadowed interior once more.
'That is some consolation, I suppose,' Beatrice replied faintly. Her wide blue eyes, the image of her daughter's, swept over Alice with a mixture of irritation and puzzlement. 'Of course, we would still be there if Sir Humphrey had found you more accommodating. I had hoped this time after our little talk ' Beatrice's words drifted off, disappointed.
'I am sorry, Mother,' Alice apologised. Guilt scraped at her insides. Her parents only held her best interests at heart: to see her happily married to a wealthy husband, a brood of smiling children clutching at her skirts. She wished for that as well, but with a man she could truly love, someone who would give her the freedom and independence to which she was accustomed, not some elderly suitor twice her age who would curb her ways in an instant!
'Well, there's always Edmund.' Beatrice smiled wanly. 'He's keen to marry you, and he's due to come into his inheritance quite soon. Although it will be less than all your previous suitors possessed.' The blue shadows under her mother's eyes seemed deep, heavy, evidence of countless nights without sleep. Even now, with the war in France at an end, there had been no news of Alice's brother, who had left to fight for his country two years previously, and had still not returned.
'Edmund's a good man,' Alice agreed. 'It's just that ' How could she tell her mother that the prospect of marrying Edmund filled her mind with insipid pictures of unending dreariness? Comfortable, aye, but dull. She had known Edmund since childhood; she liked him, he was a good companion, but she did not love him. But her mother's ravaged face forced her to reconsider; it would make both her parents so happy if she married.
' it's just that, I don't love Edmund,' she blurted out finally.
Beatrice fixed her with red-rimmed eyes. 'I've told you before, my girl, love does not, should not, come into it! We need coin, coin that your useless father fails to provide, and a rich marriage for you is the only way to acquire it.'
Alice bit her lip, frowning. In comparison to Sir Humphrey, Edmund appeared a far better prospect. And maybe, if they married, love would blossom between them. The weight of responsibility dragged at her shoulders. Abruptly, she stood, clinging on to the curtain for support. 'I'm going to ride for a bit; I need some fresh air.'
As Alice swung down from the lumbering cart, her soft leather slippers sinking into the spongy ground, she half-expected her mother to call her back, to entreat her not to ride in the elaborate, fashionable dress that she had worn especially for this visit. But Beatrice seemed subdued, forlorn even, caught up in her own thoughts, and Alice was happy to leave her to them.
Seeing her spring down lightly from the moving cart, one of the escort soldiers shouted a brief command for the entourage to stop. Alice smiled gratefully up at him, picking her way carefully through the muddy ruts to the back of the cart where the soldier led her dappled grey mare. She knew, without looking down, that the long sweeping hem of her gown dragged through the mud; as she stuck her toe into the stirrup, the claggy earth smeared the bottom three inches of the beautiful green silk.
'May I be of assistance, my lady?' The soldier leaned forwards as if preparing to dismount, the smooth metal plates of his armour gleaming in the filtered sunlight.
'Nay, no need,' Alice reassured him hastily, swinging herself up into the saddle to sit astride. The soldier turned his face away, hiding a smirk; the lady Alice was well known for her tomboyish ways, which never ceased to cause amusement among the many members of the royal entourage.
'Er you may want to ' The soldier indicated the vast bundle of skirts bunched around her slight figure.
'Oh, yes, of course.' Alice grinned, wriggling in the saddle so that she could pull out the back of her gown, and then the back of her cloak, to lie flat across of the rump of the horse. 'I'm not used to wearing these sort of clothes.' Turning around, she shifted her balance as the entourage set in motion once more, pleased that she had possessed the forethought to wear a cloak for the journey, something her more fashionable mother refused to do.
Yet despite the cloak's heavy folds, after the cloying heat of the cart she still shivered in the chill autumn air. Her mother had insisted upon her wearing an elaborate gown, sewn from an expensive silk velvet. A silver gilt thread formed the weft of the material, so the dress sparkled with every movement, but the lightweight material offered little protection against the outside elements. Accustomed to wearing more understated, practical clothes, Alice baulked against the ostentation of the garment. It represented everything she hated about living at court with King Henry and his French wife, Queen Margaret of Anjou: the vanity, the constant sniping and bickering of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting, of which her mother was one, and the long hours frittered away in pointless needlework. Thank the Lord for her father, a physician to the royal court, who also found time to tend to the poor outside the royal circle. Much to her mother's disgust, Alice would accompany him on these trips, dressed in her older brother's clothes so as not to draw attention to herself. Thomas! Her heart squeezed painfully at the thought of her brother, his bright, laughing face flitting through her mind. As children, they had been constant companions, running wild through the royal forests, riding bareback, climbing trees. Thomas had forged a love of the outdoors in her, how to relish the wind in her hair, the fine rain on her skin. How she missed him!
Her mother's head poked out from the cart, her jewelled U-shaped head-dress sparkling in the sunshine, the vivid material strangely at odds against the drab colours of the forest. The side pieces, attached to this padded roll, were each fashioned from a net of thin gold wire, covering her ears. Alice knew her mother's hair to be the same burnished blonde as her own, but the fashion of the moment dictated that every scrap of a woman's hair should be hidden. Alice stifled a giggle as she watched the head-dress snag on a loose thread of the curtain; this type of fashion was completely impractical for travelling.
'Alice,' Beatrice's fractious tone whined over to her, 'I need to rest for a bit. I feel sick.'
Alice's heart sunk a little. She had hoped not to delay the journey any longer than was necessary, and was surprised her mother wanted to stopthere might be news from Thomas at home.
'Could we stop here?' Alice lifted her wide blue eyes up to the soldier beside her. 'Maybe have something to eat? My mother needs to rest.'
Exasperation crossed the soldier's face, swiftly suppressed.
'I'm sorry,' Alice mumbled, catching his expression. 'I realise you and your men wish to return to Abberley as quickly as possible.'
'No matter, my lady.' The soldier's face cleared. 'But these are troubled times. I would not wish to tarry too long.' He ran his eye along the serried rank of beech trees that crowded in along the sunken track. 'There's a clearing up ahead,' he announced. 'I'll ride on and tell them to stop.'
Lady Matravers perched bolt upright on the woven wool rugs that Joan had spread out in the forest clearing. Now the servant was busily drawing out the many muslin-wrapped packages prepared for them by the staff in Sir Humphrey's kitchens. He might be a miserable old bore, thought Alice, but he certainly didn't stint on food. Her stomach growled at the sight of roasted chicken legs, rounds of creamy cheese and crusty bread.
At the sight of all the open packages, Beatrice shot her a loaded look, as if to say, 'Look what you're giving up'. Never had her mother's disapproval been more apparent, more tangible.
'Here, mistress, take some food, it will make you feel better.' On her knees in front of the wicker basket, Joan passed across to Beatrice a flat pewter plate laden with delicacies. 'And the same for you, my lady?' The servant turned her well-worn features towards Alice, who loitered on the edge of the clearing.
'Maybe later.' Her limbs felt pinched, stiff after the long hours of sitting in the cart. Riding her horse had eased the feeling slightly, but the experience had been curtailed too soon to have any real benefit. 'I think I'll take a little walk.'
The dangling pearls attached to her mother's headdress swung violently, as Beatrice's head bounced up, her eyes narrowing. 'Then take a soldier with you.'
'Oh, Mother, it's not something I want a guard to see.' Alice said, implying that her walk involved a matter of a more delicate nature.
'Ah, I see then Joan.' Her mother floated one pale hand in the direction of the servant.
'Mother ' Alice smiled ' I'll be careful. I'll not go out of earshot. It's perfectly safe.'
As she stepped away from the clearing, and her mother's piercing regard, Alice drew in a deep lungful of the verdant forest air. Beech husks crackled beneath her slippers as her footsteps sank into the soft mass of decaying leaves and rotting vegetation. For the hundredth time that day, she cursed the inadequacy of her footwear; when she ventured out with her father, she always wore stout, laced boots.
Every now and again, the sunlight managed to pierce the thinning canopy above, sending a column of spiralling light down to the brown earth. Occasionally the sun's warm fingers touched her face, reminding her of the balmy days of summer, making her want to shut her eyes and turn her face up to the light. Above her head, birds fluttered and chirruped, darting in and out of the branches, hardly heeding her quiet steps. The strain across her shoulders and neck began to diminish, released by the exercise, the tension of the past few days beginning to ease. At her back, she could still hear the low guttural tones of the soldiers as they ate their midday meal at the side of the track; she determined not to venture too far.
Over to her right, she caught the faintest sound of water: the high, bubbling notes capturing her interest in an instant. She pushed off the open path, through the undergrowth, all the time checking back to make certain of her direction. Brambles caught at her cloak, low branches snagged at her simple head-dress, but Alice would not be deterred.
And there it was. Water gushed over a rocky outcrop, bundling and frothing down into a small pool, trickling away into a narrow stream. The noise of the water drowned out all other sounds in the forest, and she felt herself mesmerised by the melodic bubbling and churning of the water, enchanted by its supine fluidity.
A sweaty hand clamped over her mouth. 'Got you!' A rough voice jagged at her ear, as she was pulled unceremoniously backwards, away, away from the water, away from the track where the cart and her mother waited.
A searing panic vaulted through her limbs, her blood slackening with fright; she wrenched her shoulders first one way, then the other, trying to loosen the man's fearsome grip. An odious stench of masculine sweat overlaid with a clinging smell of stale grease assailed her nostrils as the man hauled her backwards, her heels bumping, dragging uselessly against the earth. Thick clammy fingers dug into the softness of her cheek, the palm clenched so tightly across her mouth and nose that she found it difficult to breathe. A huge arm circled the upper part of her body, clamping her arms firmly to her sides, preventing her from trying to raise them up to dislodge the hold.