Most love stories begin in May sunshine, with secret glances at a dance or feast, or stolen conversations in a hidden garden. But mine begins in winter, with a funeral, when my heart's love was sealed into the tomb forever. It was only duty then that kept my soul from following Master Kendall's into that long sleep. Nothing but the tears of the two little daughters he had left me bound my unwilling heart to the earth. So I resolved to stay yet a while for Cecily's and Alison's sakes, but to give myself only to their upbringing, and never to another man. For having once been wed to Master Kendall, who would be the spouse of a lesser man? There were others who were lords in rank, but who more lordly in manner than Roger Kendall, mercer of London? And who could ever be his equal in kindness, or greatness of spirit? His memory strengthened my resolve against the ever growing numbers of badgering suitors who hoped to obtain his fortune by marrying his widow.
But what men cannot achieve by cozening or guile they will have by force. Master Kendall's memorial was scarcely set into the wall at St. Botolphe's when I found myself stolen from a house spattered with the blood of failed contenders and would-be heirs by the most shameless, fortune-hunting family in the entire realm: the impoverished, quarrelsome, pretentious tribe of the de Vilerses. And worst of all, it was I myself who had foolishly let the first of them into my house, in the form of a scapegrace younger son, a failed monk and poetic scribbler who went about town under the name of Brother Gregory. For it was through my intervention that he'd got himself retained by my husband as a clerk. And now, grief, self-pity, and rage at my own weakness contended for first place in my heart when I found myself wedded to him by the sword in the chapel of his father's house.
It was one of those gray, drizzling days in early spring, when the sky seems that it might almost touch the ground. Here and there the snow, standing in unhappy piles crusted by slippery ice, broke apart to reveal a bit of dead grass or frozen mud. Along a rutted track that wound across a frozen meadow and through a village of thatched huts, a party of riders approached their destination: Brokesford Manor, a fortified house built in the old Norman fashion, half hidden behind a tumbledown wall at the end of an avenue of bare-branched trees. At the village, a dozen peasants, barefooted in the icy mud, stood in a cluster by the road, while children peeped out of the windows to see the spectacle. It was mid-February in the Year of Our Lord 1356, and the Sieur de Vilers was returning home from an adventure to which he had ridden out at full canter less than a week before, followed by his sons, squires, grooms, and an arms-laden packhorse.
A murmur went up from the group as the party came closer. It was not the same group that had set out. At its head, it is true, rode old Sir Hubert himself, straight and arrogant, on his tall red palfrey, followed by his eldest son, Sir Hugo, on the bay. Then a groom, leading the packhorse. But--after that--something different altogether. Robert and Damien, the two esquires, were riding double. Before their saddles were the small figures of two children. Girls, by the look of them, though they were heavily bundled. Behind them, in a shapeless gown and sheepskin cloak, rode Sir Hubert's younger son, the one who'd been seized by a religious mania and run off heaven knows where for years, causing his father untold trouble. But the most delicious scandal of all was that he'd got a young, pretty woman riding pillion behind him. A frail-looking, pale-faced woman, with red, swollen eyes, wearing a rich, deep black cloak and gown. Even before the grooms at the end of the party were within the gates, the gossip had spread that the woman was a wealthy widow, an authentic heiress from the City, rescued from certain death by the bold lords of Brokesford.
But the best part, the part that set up clucking speculation around every hearth in the village, was that she was to be married on the instant, without even publishing the banns. And not to old Sir Hubert, who had long been a widower, or even to Sir Hugo, who really ought to be producing a legitimate heir by now, but to Gilbert, the lunatic who wasn't fit for anything better than looking in books. How had he found her anyway? Perhaps Gilbert was more his father's son than they'd thought. Imagine the opportunity for a man of religion to slip into married women's houses by the back door. Exactly like the rascally friar in the ballad! And everyone knows that the women who live in London have no morals. To think he'd been loose in a whole city full of shameless women. After all, the old lord and his eldest between them had at least a score of unacknowledged bastards spread all the way from the Cinque Ports to the Scottish border. It was a great joke that the runt of the litter might have outdone both his father and elder brother.
But in the bustle of the return, the widow had seemed to have been forgotten. She'd been fussy about setting her fancy slippers in the mud, so they'd lifted her off at the stair before the horses had been led off to the stable through the churned-up muck of the courtyard. There she stood, a black bundle silhouetted against the low, arched door, her little girls clutching her skirts.
Not until he'd seen that the horses were off and sent for the chaplain did the old lord remember to offer her his arm, and the hospitality of his house, leading her into his hall with a flourish. She sat shivering in her damp cloak on a bench by the fire, while the squires cleaned up the bloodstained breastplates and chain mail and went to stow them upstairs. The old knight called for drink and turned to eye his younger son up and down. The young man was nearly a head taller than his father, rawboned and dark-headed, with arched eyebrows over brown eyes that glittered with intelligence. With a shrewd, appraising blue eye, the old man took in the sandals with ragged leggings wadded beneath, the worn, ankle-length gray gown with the blood splashes dried all down the front, and the atrocious, matted sheepskin.
"You're not getting married in that," the old man said.
"There's nothing wrong with it. Getting married was your idea," said the younger.
"Insolent as ever. Don't any of those books you read tell you 'honor thy father'? I'm telling you now, you're not getting married in that. You're in my house now. Remember that, and quit acting disgracefully."
The young man looked truculent. His father called for a bath to be drawn in the kitchen that lay behind the screen at the end of the hall. Then he sent one of the lounging housegrooms to look up a suit of clothes in the solar upstairs. The stone walls of the hall were twelve feet thick, and as damp and cold as a cave. Puffs of frosty air could be seen coming from the old lord's mouth as he spoke.
"I don't want a bath."
"You've gone soft, living in the City." The old man prowled around his son, looking at him from all angles, as if to assess which side had grown softest. The widow turned her head to watch, her face impassive.
"I don't need one. I don't want one. Getting married ought to be enough to satisfy you."
"There are four times in a man's life when he should wash--in your case three. When he is born, when he is knighted, when he dies, and--WHEN HE'S MARRIED! And if you don't yet know your duty, I'll call six men to show it to you, even at the risk of your drowning!" The old man's voice was thunderous. The son drew himself up to his full height with a graceful, catlike dignity.
"As usual, father, your command of logic has convinced me."
"Serpent's tooth," growled the old man as he followed him into the kitchen.
The widow had looked about her, where she sat by the great fire in the center of the room. She was still clutching the cup she'd been given, but the ale didn't look touched. She had wrinkled up her nose when she first smelled it, but luckily no one had seen her do it.
Beyond the screen, in the tall, rain barrel-shaped bath by the kitchen fire, things had proceeded as the old man had commanded. The widow could hear the splash as the manservant poured cold water over the standing occupant of the tub. The old man's voice, never a soft one, carried beyond the screen.
"Don't you dare turn your back on your father. . . . Turn around and look me in the eye.--Hmm, who laid those on? He had an even hand. A priest? That accounts for it then.--What for? A book? You went and wrote a book? Damn fool thing to do. That's what you get for messing with books. And they burned it, too, you say?--Well, knowing you, it's probably better off burned. I've never known you to have a sensible idea yet. You should have listened to me. If you'd done the respectable thing and stayed in the military, instead of giving yourself over to this ridiculous God-chasing and scribbling, you'd be carrying your scars on the front, like an honorable man, instead of on your back. . . ."
Margaret sighed, put down the cup, and clutched Cecily and Alison to her. It didn't seem like a very auspicious way to begin a marriage.
It was early in Lent, on the eve of the Feast of Saint Matthias the Apostle, and scarcely more than a fortnight after my hasty and dreary wedding, that I began to suspect I was being followed by something that was--well, not entirely natural. Sorrow and loneliness can play tricks on us. And sometimes, too, God makes wonders for our consolation, as when a friend of Robert le Tambourer received, in the midst of remorse over a great sin, a visitation of Saint Bartholomew that was fully twenty-five feet high and glowed with a color like flame.
But this visitation was no handiwork of God's; it was an eerie unsettling feeling, very like being watched in an empty room. It followed me in the day and lay with me in the dark. When I sat, all wakeful in bed beside the stiff, stubborn form of my sleeping husband, who, in his rage against his father, still refused to consummate the marriage the old lord had ordered, I could hear a strange whistling sound, soft, like the blowing of wind in the night stillness of the room. So I fell into despair that the Evil One might be watching me secretly, and redoubled my prayers in the cold, ill-furnished little chapel of the new father-in-law's house. What did I pray for, besides my deliverance? Most of all, I prayed for the soul of my lost husband, good Master Roger Kendall, who had died so swiftly, he had not been shriven.
The fearful watching began after my new husband and his relations returned from that first trip they made to London after the wedding. For no sooner had the vows been said than they were off again to get their hands on the property that had been left to me, and on my girls' dower-funds, if they could. There was other necessary business too: seeing lawyers and bribing the judges in the case concerning the murder of my stepsons, which they claimed was entirely justified as self-defense. I suppose in a way it was, depending on how you look at it, since my stepsons had tried to kill a member of the de Vilers family first. Of course, as Master Kendall's sons by his first marriage, they had expected to inherit everything until, in his old age, he had married me and produced new children to suck away what they thought was their due.
Now Master Kendall was very fond of me and always interested in my improvement, so he hired Madame for my French teacher and Brother Gregory for my reading tutor. That's what gave them their chance. First they tried to get him to put me away by telling him I had disgraced his name with Brother Gregory. But Master Kendall just laughed at them and then disowned them entirely for their insolence. Everyone in the household knew Brother Gregory was too prickly for that; he was touchy because his family had come down in the world and women were nearly as high on his list of dislikes as merchants, money changers, lawyers, purchased knighthoods, and forged genealogies. But what no one knew at the time was that because he had needed the work, he hadn't bothered to tell anyone that his abbot had thrown him out for his unbearable quarrelsomeness, and he wasn't a Brother anymore, or a Gregory either, though I still call him that when I forget.
But then when Master Kendall died, his sons plotted to be rid of me again, and when Brother Gregory discovered the plot and tried to help me, they would have been rid of us both if his family hadn't finished them off. So you see I counted Gilbert de Vilers as a friend, at least until his family decided they would reward themselves for their pains with Master Kendall's fortune and make off with me as if I were a bride in a story. After that he wouldn't talk to me, and every glance was full of resentment for the marriage his father had forced on him. And as for me, the more I saw of his family, the more I counted him as one of them--a hypocrite, a shameless tomb robber in a false monk's gown.
Then in the midst of this bitterness came the watching, the strange flitting chill that left me with a feeling I was on the verge of madness itself. It was a week after the wedding--the day they came back from London with my things--I remember that very clearly.
"Well, sister," said Hugo, striding into the room ahead of two churls carrying a chest, "we've brought your things from the City. Father says he doesn't want to see a new bride moping around the house in black, so he says you are to wear color to supper tonight." I can't tell you how much Hugo irritates me.