Chapter 1 A delicate brew shimmered as it was poured forth from a newly opened bottle into a gracefully made cup. It was subsequently swirled about, admired, sniffed appreciatively by a nose that was consummately accustomed to sniffing those kinds of things to judge their quality and ingestability. The mixture was sampled, hesitantly, on the off chance that it wouldn't taste as good as it smelled. That sampling was followed by a quick imbibing, then a refilling of the cup by a loyal handmaid who stood nearby. It was a scene that no doubt could have been repeated at any number of keeps in France on a night such as this, a simple scene, a scene that no soul would have considered out of the ordinary. Only the imbiber, Sybil of Maignelay-sur-mer, was not a drunkard, despite how frequently and fully her cup was refilled. Her ladies were not exactly ladies, but serving wenches elevated in station to care for the last of Maignelay's eight daughters on the night before she was to leave her home and ride off into the gloom to meet her betrothed. And the soul leaning against the wall watching the proceedings was not a brave knight prepared to defend the lady Sybil against all enemies, but rather a girl hiding behind mail and hose for the express purpose of avoiding the matrimonial fate Sybil had neither the courage nor the wit to avoid herself. Alienore of Solonge leaned against that wall, fair to dropping with fatigue and worry, and wondered how it was she found herself trapped with creatures who seemed bent on stretching out the torture of the day as long as possible and thereby, wittingly or not, inflicting as much suffering upon her own sorry self as possible. Why couldn't these girls become fully and happily inebriated so she could escape and at least forget her own desperate straits by plunging herself into a few hours of peaceful sleep? Her day already seemed endless, what with all the fetching of foodstuffs, the carrying of sewing, the delivery of sundry messages, and more fetching of foodstuffs that she'd been required to do. But those were tasks that allowed her to keep herself mostly far from others in the castle, and for that she was grateful. After all, keeping herself hidden was the way to keep herself alive, and she shunned no opportunity to continue to enjoy that condition. For now, she supposed she should be content to lean against something sturdy, watch her charges consume what she'd just fetched for them, and hope that they wouldn't require anything else from her that night. Unfortunately, such leisurely loitering gave her ample time to consider not only Sybil's future, but her own. And given the fact that her own limited bit of freedom would vanish with Sybil's when they both became the property of Sybil's new husband, was it any wonder that she found herself suddenly tempted to flee screaming down the passageway and through the gates? Her life, which for the past several years had been just a smidgen above unbearable, seemed destined to become perfectly intolerable. And if that weren't enough torment, a ferocious itch had just sprung up between her shoulder blades. She angled her offending back so it pressed against the doorframe of the solar and rubbed vigorously. Her mail set up a horrendous squeak, causing her to cease all movement abruptly lest she draw Sybil's attention and find herself sent on some other ridiculous errand. How was it men managed to attend to these sorts of itches? She supposed a stick might have served her well enough, if she'd had one to hand. Unfortunately, all she had at present was her sword, and she doubted she could pull it from its scabbard with any success, much less slide it down her back and scratch without cutting herself to ribbons. She leaned back against the wood with a sigh and tried to ignore her discomfort. There was certainly no use in complaining. Her situation was of her own making and she was not ungrateful for it. It was surely preferable to the alternative, which was marriage to the most abhorrent, terrifying man England had ever produced. Aye, she could itch far into her old age to escape that. ''Sir Henri,'' Sybil croaked, holding up her cup and staring blearily at Ali, ''the bottle is empty.'' Ali blinked, then realized she was being spoken to. By now her alias should have come more naturally to her, even though her choice hadn't been a particularly thought-out one. After her flight from her home, she'd been comforting herself by thinking on the bravery and cleverness of her namesake, Alienore of Aquitaine. To give the name of Alienore's rather ruthless English husband, Henry Plantagenet, to the first person who'd asked had seemed logical. ''Sir Henri?'' Sybil prompted. ''The bottle? And the cup is empty as well.'' She held out her cup, her arm waving about unsteadily. ''Aye, my lady. I can see that.'' One of the serving wenches stomped her foot and gave Ali a glare. ''Go fetch her more,'' she demanded. ''Can you not see that she is desperate?'' Ali could see many things, and one was that Sybil's most vocal of attendants could have used a lesson in manners. A pity she could scarce wave her sword about with any success, else she might have taken on that task herself with pleasure. ''More wine,'' Sybil whispered weakly. ''And some of Cook's tender pasties, if possible. I daresay I'm feeling rather faint.'' Ali nodded and escaped the solar before Sybil's list could lengthen. At the very least, being sent on an errand meant she would not have to listen to any more speculation about whom Sybil stood to wed, the horrors of marriage, or the possibility that Sybil's new husband might not have a properly stocked larder. The last, of course, being Sybil's worst fear. She walked down the passageway quickly, casting aside her usual caution, eager to have her errand over with so she might see Sybil put to bed and then perhaps have a bit of rest herself. There was no telling where Sybil might come to roost, given the fact that Sybil's sire had been completely silent about his choice of husbands for her. It would be wise to have as much rest as she could, whilst she could. The saints only knew how her life might change on the morrow. She should have had a plan. It wasn't as if she hadn't tried to fashion one--for she'd certainly had ample time to do so during her two years at Maignelay-sur-mer. Unfortunately, concocting plans was not something she did well, nor gladly. In her youth, she'd never had a need to. Her circumstances had been those of dozens of other lords' daughters, where her most pressing decisions had been limited to what color thread to embroider with, or whether to wear the gown with the longish sleeves or the one with the pointed, beruffled ones. Her mother had died when she'd barely reached her tenth summer, causing her choices to suddenly become limited to merely one: to elude the woman her father had subsequently wed. Then had followed nine hellish years of doing all in her power to avoid Marie of Solonge's vicious tongue and even more vicious birch rod--all whilst her father buried himself inside himself and noticed not a thing that went on around him. Ali had assumed her life could not worsen. She'd been quite wrong. Marie had announced one eve two years earlier that Ali was about to enter into the pleasant state of matrimony with an Englishman. The Butcher of Berkhamshire, to be exact. Ali's memories of what had transpired after that were still a bit unclear. She was fairly certain she'd burst into tears. She was almost sure her father had escaped the chamber and left Marie to the unpleasant task of convincing Ali that such a choice was the best one that could be made. Ali was almost positive that Marie had gone about her convincing in her usual manner. She'd had the welts across her back for a fortnight to show for it. What she did remember with perfect clarity was the terror of the next several days. Marie had lost no opportunity to remind her of every rumor that had ever been spewed forth regarding Colin of Berkhamshire, every tale of horror, every whisper of his limitless cruelty. And after having heard them all, and having no reason to doubt anything she'd heard, Ali had taken the only path left to her. She had fled. She'd done it at night, when Marie had been well into her cups. Her first happy bit of fortune had been finding one of her brothers senseless and naked in the stables, where he'd no doubt been about his usual occupation of tumbling a serving wench. Ali had helped herself to his mail, his sword, and his horse. That pleasure had been followed directly by the agony of having to bribe the gate guards with a necklace her mother had given her--the only thing of value she possessed. The rest of that journey was likely better forgotten, for it had seemed endless. She'd had no choice but to set her brother's horse loose after a pair of days, lest his mount be recognized-- She shook her head sharply to clear it of the memories of those very perilous few days. They were better left in the past, where they belonged. What was worthy of memory was how she'd been rescued by Sybil's mother, who had been out on a hunt. Ali had been invited to come back to Maignelay-sur-mer, where the lady Isabeau had given her the less-than-taxing assignment of being Sybil's keeper. Aye, there was aught to be grateful for in that. But now that she wouldn't be under Isabeau's watchful eye, who knew what her future would hold? It hardly bore thinking on. She thumped down the stairs and was halfway across the great hall before she realized that the hall was not as empty as she would have expected it to be at this time of night. Worse yet was the identity of the occupants. Humbert of Maignelay-sur-mer sat at his high table, a cup in his hand. Nearby sat Ralph of Beaumont, Humbert's staunch ally, with his own cup. And next to him, completing the trio of powerful lords, was none other than Denis of Solonge. Her lord father. Ali skidded to a halt, then looked about her frantically for somewhere to hide. She found nothing but inadequate shadows. Well, better that than loitering in the midst of the chamber. She began to ease toward her right. The lord of Beaumont cleared his throat and pointed at her. ''You, there,'' he said imperiously. ''Come pour me more wine.'' Ali found quite suddenly that not only could she not move, she couldn't breathe. All she could do was stare at Beaumont in terror. If he should recognize her ''Damnation, man, come here,'' Beaumont said impatiently. ''I'll not stick you, though the urge is powerfully strong at present.'' Ali realized she had no choice but to do as he asked. She approached the table with the same amount of enthusiasm she might have for a field full of angry knights bent on attacking her. She came around to stand behind Lord Ralph, then reached for his bottle of wine. She managed to get it close to his cup without incident. Just a moment or two more, then she could escape--before her father looked up and noticed who was serving his comrade, of course. ''So, Solonge,'' Beaumont said, with a hearty belch, ''since Maignelay won't tell us whom he's betrothed Sybil to, let's discuss your gel Alienore. How long is it since she fled? Two years?'' Ali flinched sharply. Wine sloshed over the sides of Beaumont's cup and began to liberally cover the table. Beaumont cursed as he brushed aside the spilled wine. ''Clumsy fool,'' he complained, throwing her a glare. Then he looked at her more closely and frowned. ''Why, this one looks hardly old enough to be a squire, Maignelay. Are you knighting boys scarce weaned these days?'' Sybil's sire shrugged. ''My lady found him with spurs in hand. He didn't balk at guarding my gel. That was reason enough to keep him.'' ''Girl-faced, pampered puss,'' Beaumont began. Ali made Lord Maignelay a low bow, then fled before Beaumont could comment further on her very cherubic and unmanly features--liberally smudged with dirt and soot though they might have been--and before her father could look up and decide if Beaumont had it aright or not. She hastened to the kitchens as quickly as she could, obtained the required items, then paused at the entrance to the great hall. How was she to avoid these three again? The saints be praised that her sire never traveled with Marie. Ali suspected an encounter with that one would result in more being spilt than just wine. And then a miracle occurred. The men rose and stretched. Apparently their wine was finished and so were their conversings. She watched as they slapped each other several times on the back, then quit the great hall. She, however, found that her poor form was unequal to carrying her quite so easily across that expanse. Her only choice seemed to be to lean back against the wall and wait for her knees to stop quivering underneath her. By the saints, she'd been a fool to think all danger had passed and that mail would keep her safe. Well, at least she would be escaping with Sybil on the morrow. She would find a way, somehow, to make a life for herself far away from both her stepmother and her erstwhile betrothed. Though how she was to do that with no skills and no coin, she couldn't have said. She watched the great hall until she was certain no one would come back to enjoy its minimal comforts, then took what courage remained her in hand and walked through it. She made her way up the stairs and down the passageway toward the solar, wondering if her night could worsen before she managed to seek her bed. She paused before the solar door, lifted her hand to knock, then found the door pulled back before she could do so. ''Sybil, my love, I can only wish you the best for your nuptials.'' Marie of Solonge began to come out of the chamber. Ali flung herself into an alcove as her stepmother left the solar and stepped out into the passageway. She wondered quite seriously if she just might be heartily sick. How had Marie come to be here? And why now, when she herself was so close to having escaped the woman for good? ''Marie, a good night to you,'' Sybil's mother said. ''We're so pleased you came with your husband.'' ''How kind you are, Lady Isabeau,'' Marie said, in the voice that Ali easily recognized as the one she used when trying to pass herself off as the grand lady she wasn't. ''I'm so pleased to be here to see Sybil off on her journey. Wherever that might be.'' ''None of us knows,'' Isabeau said with a small laugh. ''Humbert is very closed-mouthed about this.'' ''No doubt Sybil's husband will be a fine one. After all, what parent wouldn't want the best of all men for his girl?'' Ali suppressed a snort. The only thing more astonishing about Marie than her cruelty was her ability to hide it. Then she found herself ceasing thought abruptly as Marie came down the passageway toward her. Her mouth went dry. ''Marie! Do wait, my lady!'' Ali watched as Isabeau rushed down the passageway to take Marie by the arm. ''I'll see you settled,'' Isabeau said pleasantly, blocking Marie's view of Ali. ''Such a chill in the hall still, aye?'' Ali held her breath until the pair passed by, waited until she could hear them no longer, then bolted for the solar. ''Here,'' she said, shoving her burdens at one of Sybil's handmaids. ''The lady Sybil should be abed now, don't you think?'' Sybil moaned weakly from the chair. ''I must eat a bit more, I think. To keep up my strength.'' Ali suppressed the urge to curse. Would these silly wenches never tire? Then again, when they went to bed, she would have to go to bed and that meant a pallet in the alcove she'd just hidden in. Too accessible by far to Marie's investigations. Ali sighed, turned to close the door, then jumped at the sight of a body there. Relief flooded through her as she realized it was just the lady Isabeau. ''My lady,'' Ali said. ''Ah, Sir Henri,'' Isabeau said, inclining her head. ''Heavy labors today?'' Ali shook her head. The day, nay, her very life at Maignelay could have been so much worse, and that it hadn't been was due completely to the intervention of the woman standing before her. Isabeau had sheltered her, fed her, and kept her far from the lists and the great hall as often as possible. A boon indeed when visitors came to call. Well, at least she could look back over the list of guests and not count Colin of Berkhamshire amongst them. He'd never come looking for her in France, and she'd heard no rumor that he intended to in the future. She fervently hoped that he'd given up waiting for her to be found and concentrated on getting himself another wife. Surely after so long, he would have resigned himself to the idea that said wife would not be she. ''Heavy?'' Ali repeated, dragging herself back to the present. ''Nay, my lady. Easy tasks, for which I am most grateful.'' Isabeau smiled. ''You never complain, do you? For that, I think you should be rewarded tonight. I'll see Sybil put to bed. Why don't you seek yours now? You'll no doubt be awake for days on your travels.'' Ali wondered how Isabeau could be so calm, not knowing where her daughter was going to be sent--or if she would ever see her again intact. Perhaps she had more faith in her husband than Ali had had in her own father. Or perhaps it was that Sybil would likely not notice if she had a good husband or bad. It wasn't as if she were endowed with an overabundance of wit. And she was also the last of eight daughters. Perhaps Maignelay was merely glad to be rid of her, and as cheaply as possible, and Sybil expected no more of him than that. ''I daresay you will not be traveling in France,'' Isabeau said quietly, too quietly to be heard over the feasting going on inside the solar. ''My lady?'' Ali asked politely. ''Humbert intends to wed her elsewhere. In England, no doubt.'' Ali considered that. Well, at least it would mean she would be out of the wet, unless by some unhappy bit of fortune Sybil's new keep would be on the shore as well. Nay, with luck it would be inland, on some sunny bit of soil where Ali might finally lose the mold that seemed to be growing between her toes. That would be pleasing enough, to be where other things might grow, perhaps a place with a garden Then she realized the truth of it. She might be near those things, but she could never enjoy them. Suddenly, the whole of her life stretched before her, her life as Sybil's guardsman, forever hiding who she was. It was enough to make her want to seek out her bed and never rise again from it. She blinked, startled, to find that Isabeau had pressed something into her hand. Ali could feel without fingering it overmuch that it was a bag of coins. ''Go to England,'' Isabeau said softly, ''and buy yourself a new life, far from France, far from where Sybil will come to rest. I wish I had more to give you, but Humbert would notice otherwise.'' Ali felt her jaw slide down of its own accord. ''My lady?'' ''Go,'' Isabeau said, motioning toward the door. ''Seek your bed in the stables, where 'tis safe.'' ''But--'' ''The lady Marie might rise from her bed during the night, as we all do from time to time, and I daresay you wouldn't want to encounter her,'' Isabeau continued. ''Such an unpleasant woman, don't you agree?'' Ali could only shut her mouth and endeavor to swallow in something akin to a normal fashion. But before she could comment further, she had been turned around and pushed out of the solar. The door was shut firmly behind her, leaving her no choice but to do as the lady Isabeau had bid her. She fetched a small bundle of belongings from her spot outside the girls' chamber, then made her way to the stables. The lads there were used enough to seeing her, given that 'twas in the stables she loitered if Sybil had no need of her. The stable master only grinned at her. ''Out of favor with the gel, eh?'' ''You could say that,'' Ali agreed. ''Up there you go, then,'' the man said, pointing to the hayloft. ''You could wish for a poorer bed, no doubt.'' Ali could have wished for much poorer indeed, but she didn't say the like. She crawled up into the hay and made a place inside her clothes for the little pouch of coins she'd been given. As she put it away, she realized there was more than coins inside. The note was difficult to read in the gloom, but she managed. For that gift of knowing how she could thank her sire, for, despite Marie's protests, he'd insisted she be educated along with her brothers. Of course, she'd paid for the privilege with Marie's displeasure, but those were memories better left unexamined at present. My dearest Alienore, Take this gold and find yourself a place far from those who would see you harmed. Would that I could have aided you more, for your mother was my dear friend and it has been my joy to have the keeping of her daughter for this too short time. I have told no one of your secret. Be well, my girl, and may God grant you peace and safety. Isabeau Ali found the last words hard to read, mostly because the tears had blurred everything before her. By the saints, how had Isabeau known? Then again, Isabeau had been the one to find her after she'd fled Solonge, half-dead from exhaustion and hunger, sporting her brother's gear and pretending to be a knight. Perhaps being surprised by the woman's clarity of vision was foolish, given the circumstances. But if Isabeau had recognized her, who else had? She forced herself to breathe normally. If anyone else had known, they would have exposed her long before now. She knew she could trust Isabeau. Indeed, hadn't she unknowingly done so for the past two years? Ali tucked everything back into the pouch. On the morrow, she would hide herself in the crowd as well as she could, pray she could avoid Marie's assessing gaze, then ride off calmly in Sybil's company. She would travel to England and see Sybil safely delivered to her new husband. Then, her duty done, she would make a new life for herself, just as Isabeau had said. Aye, a new life, one where she could move about freely, without fear of discovery, without fear of a knife between her ribs, far from France. A life of peace and safety. Any kind of life, actually, would be far better a life than the one she would have had as the bride of the most feared man in England. --Reprinted from From This Moment On by Lynn Kurland by permission of Berkley, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002, Lynn Kurland. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.