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The Knight of Rosecliffe
I crowned her with blisse, and she me with thornes. I led her to chambre, and she me to dye ...
--anonymous medieval verse
Rosecliffe Castle, Northern Wales April 3, A.D. 1144
Jasper FitzHugh sat in a high-backed wooden chair with his legs outstretched and his booted feet crossed. He was biding his time, sipping but sparingly of his wine, as he played a halfhearted game of chess. But he kept a close watch on his brother Rand. A messenger had arrived shortly after the midday meal. A messenger from Simon LaMonthe.
Jasper knew that Rand did not trust LaMonthe. But a summons by a representative of old King Henry's daughter Matilda was not easily ignored. Matilda wanted the support of the Marcher lords against her cousin, King Stephen, who she said had stolen the British crown from her and her young son.
How would Rand respond?
Jasper watched his brother pace the width of the great hall, passing in front of the massive carved fireplace. His shadow fell, dark and long, across his children who played on a rug near the warm hearth. But they were unfazed. To his men Rand was a formidable knight. To his adversaries, a fearsome foe. But his three children saw him only as a warm and loving father. They did not pause in their game of Odd Man Throw, save to glance up with a grin.
Jasper sighed and drank from his pewter cup. Ten years now he'd been at Rosecliffe Castle. Ten years laboring in the long shadow his brother cast. And though he knew he was Rand'sequal on the field of honor--and perhaps even better--that no longer satisfied him. He was restless. Of late he'd become more and more unsettled. He had a home for life; he had women enough when he wanted them. He had good hunting and plenty enough victuals, and Rosecliffe's alewife was a magician with hops and malt and barley. But it was no longer enough to content him.
"No, no!" Gwendolyn's shrill cry broke the evening quiet. "Mine," the three-year-old asserted.
"Begone from here," Gavin ordered, blocking his younger sister's access to the game he and Isolde played.
"Mine!" Gwen demanded. She shoved him but the seven-year-old boy only scowled and held his ground.
"You cannot play, Gwen. You're too little." Then, turning to Isolde, he said, "It's your turn."
"Mama!" Gwen began to wail. But Josselyn was upstairs helping one of the maids restring a loom, so baby Gwen turned to her older sister.
"Come here, Gwennie," Isolde said. She held out her arms, then settled the pouting child on her lap. "You can help me play, all right?"
Jasper studied the scene, which was restored again to harmony. When his brother stooped over and ruffled the baby's riot of dark curls, then murmured a few words to each of his children, Jasper frowned. Rand was truly blessed: a loving wife, adoring children, and a sturdy castle that had become a warm and welcoming home, a haven from the trials of the world. Though Jasper might equal his brother in physical prowess, he had none of the rest.
Not that he'd ever wanted a wife and children in the past. But sometimes ... He turned away and quaffed the rest of his wine. It was long past time for him to seek his own place in the world, he realized. For Rosecliffe no longer was it. It never had been. His brother's castle was meant only to be a way station for him--but on the way to where?
He pushed to his feet and crossed to where Rand stood. "I would go to Bailwynn in your stead."
His brother looked up. "You wish to parlay with Matilda's representative?"
"Why should I not? I'm as like to fight for her cause as are you."
Rand's dark features darkened further still. "I would rather not be drawn into either Matilda's cause or Stephen's."
"You cannot avoid the conflict between them, brother."
"Mayhap not. But I can work to delay any battle that might involve mine own people." One of his hands swept the room. "I do not labor daily to build Rosecliffe Castle in order to foster war. I do it to maintain peace."
Jasper shrugged. "You cannot alter the whims of royalty."
Rand shook his head. "Mayhap I can. 'Tis the reason I must be the one to attend Simon LaMonthe's gathering."
He tossed LaMonthe's missive on a table and turned toward the stairs. But Jasper caught him by the arm. "'Tis plain you do not wish to go. Meanwhile I am more than eager. Why will you not trust me to do this?"
"'Tis not an issue of trust."
Rand met Jasper's angry gaze without any returning anger, but that only served to anger Jasper all the more. Was Rand patronizing him? He poked a finger in his brother's chest. "I want to go. You do not."
Rand shoved him back. "You misunderstand my motives. LaMonthe cannot be trusted except to yield to a greater strength than his own. I am Lord of Rosecliffe. I am the one to remind him of that fact."
"And what am I to do here? Ride these hills, chasing the damned elusive Welsh rebels through the woods, startling hunters and wood gatherers and Welsh brats at their play--"
He broke off, but not soon enough. Rand's gaze had turned to frost. "I meant no insult," Jasper swore. "You know I meant no insult, Rand, least of all to mine own nieces and nephew. I care for them as deeply as if they were my own."
Rand nodded curtly, accepting Jasper's apology. "Do you never wonder whether those Welsh brats you refer to are not your own? In the past you have been known to spread your seed far and wide." He shook his head, returning to the subject."No, brother. You will remain at Rosecliffe Castle. I trust you to protect Josselyn and the children from any harm. I place them in your care because I know the affection you have for them--Welsh blood or no. I trust you as I trust no other. Do you understand?"
Jasper did, though he resented his older brother's reference to his profligate ways. Would Rand never see him as more than a foolish younger brother? Still, he was mollified by the sincerity of Rand's words. Rand loved his wife and children with a ferocity Jasper could only marvel at.
Would he himself ever feel such a deep and abiding love for anyone--for a wife and babes of his own? There were times when he wanted to. And yet he feared he could never find one woman to bind him that dearly.
There were other times, however, when he was grateful for the freedoms of his bachelorhood.
Rand slapped him on the back, then looked up when Josselyn descended the stairs. Jasper saw the appreciation in his eyes, the love that had grown ever stronger in the ten years of their marriage. That Josselyn returned his love was no secret, and when she smiled at Rand, Jasper felt a stab of jealousy.
He wanted what they had, he admitted to himself. He wanted it. It was plain, however, that he would not find it in the hills of northern Wales. He knew all the women of these lands--and had sampled more than his rightful share of them. Yet not one of them had laid a claim to his heart.
For now he must perform his duty: protect Rosecliffe and the people of the demesne during Rand's absence.
But upon his brother's return he would discuss this matter further with Rand. Perhaps he would visit their brother John at the family estate in Aslin. It had been ten years since last he'd seen him. Or perhaps he would take service elsewhere, in a place with heiresses who owned lands aplenty.
No matter where he went, however, the change would be for the best.
The next morning, as the chapel bells rang prime, the whole of the castle folk turned out to bid Rand farewell. The meeting of the border lords was to take place at Bailwynn, Simon LaMonthe's fortress on the Divernn River, fully three days ride south. The contingency from Rosecliffe included eight mounted knights and a dozen foot soldiers.
Josselyn held Gwendolyn in her arms as she hugged her husband close one last time. "Give me your solemn vow, Rand, that you will be careful. LaMonthe is not a man to be trusted."
"You have my vow," he assured her. Then he turned to Jasper. Nine-year-old Isolde clung to her uncle's arm. Gavin straddled his shoulders. Rand grinned at his brother. "I see I need not request that you have a care for my family."
"Gavin and I will guard Rosecliffe from any blackguards who dare venture near, will we not, Gav?" He jiggled the boy, making him laugh.
"We will slay any knave who threatens," Gavin crowed, waving his wooden sword about.
"You, my boy. Look to your sisters. And do as your uncle bids you."
"You may count on me, Father."
Rand hesitated a moment, glancing at his wife before addressing his son once more. "While I am away, 'tis my plan to inquire after a suitable household where you may be fostered."
Gavin hooted with delight. But when Jasper glanced at Josselyn, he saw she was less pleased. The Norman custom of fostering their sons in the households of others did not appeal to her Welsh sensibilities. It was one of the few matters she and Rand disagreed on. Over the years Rand had made many concessions to the Welsh residing within the limits of his demesne, and all on account of his Welsh wife. But it appeared that on this particular issue, he would stand firm.
Rand kissed his girls and solemnly shook Gavin's hand. His last words before parting, however, were for Jasper. "You should get you a wife to give you babes," he said. "Methinks you have a talent for it."
Jasper watched, bemused, as the column of men rode over the bridge. Bright and warm, the day was filled with the cries of choughs and woodcocks. The brilliant morning light glinted on harness and weapons, but the heavy thud of the destriers' hooves was a somber reminder of the seriousness of the men's mission.
The masons hanging upon the sheer stone walls of the castle paused in their labors as their lord departed. But from the quarry beyond the western walls, the sharp tap and crack of the stonecutters carried on the wind. "Let us climb up to the wall walk," Isolde suggested. "We'll be able to follow Papa's progress past town. Past the domen, even."
Gavin was off in a flash, racing to get there first while Gwendolyn trundled in his wake. Isolde went slower, walking in the ladylike manner she'd begun to adopt. As Jasper watched her go, Josselyn put words to his thoughts.
"Rand plans also to make inquiries regarding a husband for her." Josselyn's pretty face settled in worried lines.
Jasper shrugged. "Eventually she must wed. It is not too soon to consider her choices."
"She is but nine! I do not understand your bloody English customs."
Jasper circled her shoulders in a brotherly manner. "You may not like our bloody customs, but you certainly like our bloody curse words."
That drew a reluctant smile from her. "I never said the English were completely bad. I wouldn't have married your brother if I thought such a thing." Then her smile faded. "It's just that I cannot bear the thought of her leaving here. Of any of them leaving."
Jasper tightened his grasp. "Gavin will return and one day he will be lord of Rosecliffe. As for the girls, they must eventually be wed. 'Tis unlikely they will find acceptable husbands at Rosecliffe."
"Rand says that Gwendolyn may wed a lesser lord, the son of one of his knights, or what have you. But as for his eldest daughter--and eldest child--he insists that Isolde must marry well. But I will not let her go too young. Nor too far," sheadded. She sighed, then tilted her head to look up at him. "Methinks Rand would be better served putting his efforts toward finding a suitable mate for his brother."
"Oho. You're that anxious to be rid of me?"
"There's nothing to say you must leave us when you wed. You can bring a wife here to live at Rosecliffe."
"And how is there a benefit in that? I am a landless knight. If I must shackle myself to a woman she might at least be an heiress."
She studied him a moment, then shook her head. "Ah, you English. I had hoped you'd been long enough in Wales to learn that the choice of a wife--or husband--need not be dependent solely upon politics and property. You are not content, Jasper. I see that very well. Have you not considered that it may be love more so than land which you need to soothe the restlessness in your soul?"
Love? Jasper was saved defending himself against that remark when Gavin shouted down to them. "I can see Father! He approaches the domen. I can even see Newlin!"
"God shield me, child! Do not lean out so far!" Josselyn called back to the grinning, waving boy so high above them now. "Oh, that rogue," she muttered. "He will not rest until he turns every hair on my head gray."
"Once he is fostered out you will not have to worry so." Josselyn shook her head and shot him an exasperated look. "You do not understand a mother's heart. If anything, I will worry more. Is he mistreated? Is he well fed? Is he lonely for his family? No. Fostering Gavin away from his home will break my heart--as will pledging Isolde to some distant lord. Were the decision mine, they would all wed people from Rosecliffe--or Carreg Du," she added, referring to her home village not two miles away. She sighed. "I had better fetch them down, ere one of them tumbles over the side."
Jasper watched her go. She was still nearly as slender and youthful as when she'd wed Rand. Rand had done well with a Welsh wife, and yet he preferred his children wed English citizens. But that was only practical, since league by league, it was the English who controlled Wales. Even Jasper, whofound Welshwomen a handsome, lusty lot, was not likely to marry from among them.
Then he ran his hand roughly through his disheveled hair. What had caused all these maudlin thoughts today? Why did he moon over the idea of marrying and settling down? It was plain he needed something to lift his spirits, something to remind him of the pleasures of bachelorhood.
Leaving orders for the guard, he filled a wineskin from the cellar, fetched his horse, Helios, then rode out into the little town slowly growing below the castle walls. In the past, Maud the blacksmith's daughter had always been good for a tickle and a laugh. And if she could not slip away, Gert the dairy maid might be available.
Blood rushed to his loins at the thought of Maud's lush breasts and Gert's pink, rounded bottom. Two lusty wenches, one English, one Welsh. Yes, he'd been far too long without a woman. As he urged his horse on, he wondered if there was a way to have the two of them, both at the same time. Now, wouldn't that be a night to remember?
Though small, the town of Rosecliffe was busy. Three women, their heads covered with couvrechefs, gathered at the well, drawing water. Two old men basked in the sun, whittling arrow shafts as they talked of times past. A dog loped by, then ducked around a newly built waddle-and-daub house, with a pack of urchins fast on his trail.
The children skidded to a halt when they spied Jasper, and they stared curiously at him, so tall astride Helios. There was no fear on their faces, though, and Jasper knew Rand would be pleased by that fact. His brother's plan to build a fortress that promised peace to all, both English and Welsh, was working. But though some Welsh people had moved into Rosecliffe village, living side by side with English settlers, they remained in the minority. For the most part, the warlike Welsh still harbored the hope of expelling the English from their borders.
Jasper knew, however, that it was a fruitless hope. The English were too strong and too organized for the fractious Welsh ever to defeat them. The change to English rule might come slowly across Wales, but come it would. Rand's marriage toa Welshwoman had begun the change in northern Wales, and there had been several subsequent intermarriages since then.
Should he consider doing the same?
The answer was simple: Not if he wanted lands of his own.
He found Gert at her churn with her mother. The mother handed him a jug of buttermilk, then crossed her thick arms and watched him with narrowed gaze until he departed.
At the smithy's open-fronted shop, Maud worked the bellows while her father and brother labored painstakingly, beating out points for new lances. Her arms were bared in the heat of the fire. Her magnificent bosom bounced and jiggled every time she leaned forward shoving the bellows up and down. Her skin glistened with sweat and her thin blouse, damp with the heat, clung to her breasts, revealing enough to torture even a blind man.
Her father looked up at Jasper, glanced at his daughter, then grinned. The man was not above tempting his liege lord's brother with his enticing daughter. But Jasper knew he was holding out for marriage. He had one son and seven daughters. Maud was only the first whom he must find a match for.
He handed a finished point to Jasper. "'Tis fine and hard, milord, and still warm to the touch. Here, feel it."
Jasper did not linger there. He didn't want to marry Maud, just bed her. Only that was proving more and more difficult to do--and he was getting hard just remembering the pleasures of the doing.
Who else? But there was no one else, not at midday. Though he was restless and in dire need of some distraction, it was clear that today, at least, a woman would not be it.
He ought to return to the tilting yard, he told himself, and work out his frustrations with lance and sword. But no one gave him adequate contest save for Alan and Rand, and they were both gone to parlay with LaMonthe.
So he turned to the third choice left him, and rode to the alewife's brew shed. Between the jug she provided him and the generous wineskin already tied to the saddle, he was certain to drown his woes.
He urged his mount through the village and past the towngate, waving to the watchman who sat in the sun, twisting twine that later would be braided into rope. He followed the hard-packed road down the hill. Below and to the left the shepherd boys trailed behind their woolly charges. To the right the cool woods and the River Geffen beckoned. Between him and the river stood only the domen, the ancient burial tomb avoided by most of the Welsh and all of the English, save for Rand.
True to his poor luck this day, Jasper spied the little bard Newlin. The deformed old man sat on the flat stone that topped the domen and stared fixedly at Jasper. Or at least he seemed to stare at Jasper. His eyes did not always focus in the same direction, so Jasper could never be certain where the odd little fellow was looking.
Though he was not in the mood to parry words with the strange old man, Jasper felt keenly his responsibility now that Rand was gone. He would speak to Newlin briefly, then be on his way.
Newlin rocked back and forth, a slight movement, both mesmerizing and irritating. His beribboned cloak wafted and billowed about him as if some mystical breeze cavorted about the man. Jasper halted beside the stone, eye to eye with the ageless Welsh bard.
"Ah. The young lord." Newlin spoke softly, in English today. "Surveying your lands."
"They're not my lands. They never will be."
The bard smiled. "Perhaps they already are."
Jasper shifted in his saddle. Osborn, Rosecliffe's captain-of-the guard, and most of the rest of the English, were afraid of Newlin--or at least viewed him with a superstitious eye. Rand and Josselyn, by contrast, often sought his company. Jasper himself neither feared the man nor found his obtuse maunderings particularly interesting. "Unlike you Welsh," he replied, "we English have clearly defined lines of inheritance. These lands will go to Gavin, not to me."
Newlin smiled, the sweet, gentle smile of a simpleton. Jasper knew, however, that he was anything but simpleminded. "Who shall keep the order in these hills may change," Newlinsaid. "The wind blows, sometimes from the south, sometimes from the north. We Cymry, we endure. As for this land, it shall ever remain in the possession of those who are, in turn, possessed by it."
"I keep the peace in my brother's absence. That is all. I am neither possessor or possessed. Soon enough will his son perform that task."
"His son," Newlin echoed after a moment. "The sons of sons haunt these hills. And their sons too. Have you a son?"
"You know I do not."
"Perhaps soon you will." He stared off toward the forest as if the conversation were finished.
But his last remark had caught Jasper's interest. Though he did not credit visions and predictions, he couldn't help asking, "Am I soon to wed and have a son?"
Newlin's interest remained fixed on the horizon. "The day will come when you will teach a child the chant of these hills."
This time Newlin did not answer. He closed his eyes and his rhythmic swaying deepened. No music played, and yet the wind seemed to chant through the trees.
When stones shall grow, and trees shall no' ...
Jasper remembered bits and pieces of the song the Welsh taught their children, reassuring them that no English would ever rule Wales. There were three predictions, but he couldn't recall the other two. Not that it mattered what sort of foolishness the Welsh chose to believe. The stones had grown. Rosecliffe castle was proof of that. Nothing else the Welsh might predict concerned him overmuch.
He stared closely at the bard, but Newlin had retreated into his own visions. Jasper stifled a curse and wheeled his horse about. Enough of this. These damned Welsh and their damned country were supposed to have provided him with adventure and opportunity. He'd left the smothering life of the Church only to find life at court boring. When Rand had needed his help in Wales, he'd come willingly. The Welsh were said tobe a fearsome lot, and he'd looked forward to testing his mettle in battle against them.
But after only one troublesome year, there had been little enough excitement, only the occasional raiding of some disgruntled Welshman or two. And now, when King Stephen and Matilda, the old king's daughter, promised some sort of confrontation, he was left here to the unchanging boredom of Rosecliffe.
He reached the river and dismounted, letting Helios browse freely while he took both ale jug and wineskin and clambered onto a boulder. The only good thing in the whole of his brother's considerable holdings was the quality of its ale and wine, he groused. He took a deep pull of the wine and settled onto the boulder. Being left behind by Rand was the final indignity, he told himself. The river rushed by, dark and cold. A perch broke the surface with a silvery flash. A crow's raucous cry echoed; another answered it. And all the while Jasper brooded and drank and subsided into morose daydreams of adventure denied and daring suppressed.
When his brother returned, Jasper knew he must leave. He would attach himself to Stephen's army--or Matilda's. He didn't care which. He would fight battles and win rewards, and if he died, he didn't care about that either.
He drained the wineskin, then tossed it aside. What was a knight but a noble warrior? What was a man but a creature of blood and bone? He would fight with honor; he would win with honor; he would die with honor.
So he drank and he dreamed and the sun moved across the sky. It lit the opposite riverbank and cast him into shadow. He needed to relieve himself but he could not move. He was too relaxed. Had the rock not been so hard, he could have slept.
He squinted at the diamond reflections on the river. If he kept his eyelids half-closed, one of the twisting willow trunks on the opposite bank very nearly resembled a woman. Slender and strong. Supple in the breeze.
Then the tree stepped nearer the water and into the sunlight, and Jasper blinked his eyes. The tree was a woman. A woman.
He pushed up onto his elbows and tried to focus. At his movement she looked up and spied him. He froze, praying she would not flee. A woman, and alone as far as he could tell.
His head began to pound from the effort of staring so hard. But he remained still, sprawled upon the boulder, no weapon in his hands. Perhaps that was what reassured her, for after a moment she advanced farther into the sunlight. Her hair was long and dark, as black as a raven's wing. It gleamed in the waning sunshine. And she was young. Her waist was narrow and her breasts high and firm. Jasper felt portions of his own anatomy begin to grow firmer too.
She saw him and yet she did not shy away. Fifty paces and an ice-cold river full with snowmelt protected her. It emboldened her, it seemed. As he watched, she put down the bundle she carried, then began to remove her dark green mantle.
Slowly Jasper sat up.
She stretched her arms high to let down her hair, then shook it out and began to finger-comb the thick, luscious length of it.
He was mesmerized. Was she real, or was she a lovely dream, some fanciful conjecture created of wine and ale and restlessness?
Then she removed her short boots, and tucked her skirt up, baring her pale ankles and legs. His heart stopped, then started again at full force. She waded into the water. Did she mean to cross over to him?
He jumped to his feet--an unfortunate movement, for he'd consumed more spirits than he realized, and on an empty stomach. But he refused to succumb to his spinning head or to his traitorous stomach, for her breasts were such lovely thrusting things, and her legs were long and shapely. She wanted to wrap them around his hips. He was convinced of it.
God, but he must have her!
Across the river, Rhonwen was shocked by her own daring. Baring her legs to a hated Englishman! But it had caught the scurvy knave's attention, for he stood now on the flat rock that jutted into the river. He stood there swaying and she thought he would lose his balance and topple over. What waswrong with the man? Though her feet were turning numb from the ice-cold river, she squinted at him. Was he drunk?
Suddenly she gasped. It was him! Brother of Sir Randulf. Jasper FitzHugh, whom she'd first laid eyes on when she was but a child and he a newly dubbed knight.
At the time, he'd been the captive of Rhys's father, Owain. Now, ten years later, Owain was dead by Jasper FitzHugh's hand, and Rhys had become the scourge of the English. Meanwhile, Jasper FitzHugh had no claim to fame, save as English sot and despoiler of Welsh womanhood.
She'd seen him once or twice in the intervening years, but only from afar, like now. But there were few as tall and broad-shouldered as he. Even from this distance, she could see the square jaw and straight nose that lent his face a comeliness no man should possess. Especially an Englishman.
Yes, it was Jasper FitzHugh. Would he recall the wild little girl who had stopped Owain from severing his hand? He'd lost only a finger instead, but he'd lived though the ordeal. Would he remember her?
She snorted. Not likely.
Had she the opportunity to do it all over again, would she save him a second time? Absolutely not!
Ten years ago she had saved him but only so he could be exchanged for her friend Josselyn, who'd been taken hostage by Randulf FitzHugh. But Rhonwen's efforts had all been for naught, for Josselyn had eventually wed her captor. Jasper FitzHugh had recovered from his wounds and stayed to become one more Englishman oppressing her people.
Across the river, FitzHugh raised a hand to her in drunken salute. Rhonwen frowned. The past was past. She could do nothing to change it. But the present ... the present demanded that she act. So she waved back at him, all the while wondering what Rhys would do were he here.
The answer was uncomfortably clear. Rhys passionately believed that Wales should be purged of the English by whatever means necessary. Those who would not leave willingly must be killed.
The FitzHughs had long ago made it clear that they did not intend to leave.
So she steeled herself to do what she knew any true Welsh loyalist must do. Slowly she reached back for the small hunting bow she carried. Carefully she eased an arrow from the quiver that hung at her waist.
Then, not allowing herself time for doubt, she swung the bow into place, notched the arrow, and let it fly.
Copyright © 1999 by Rexanne Becnel.
Posted December 31, 2006
The Formula: A beautiful, but wild Welsh loyalist. A handsome, but jaded English knight. A torn land under two banners, and a battle of both arms and hearts. Becnel continues the story of Rosecliffe ten years after 'The Bride of Rosecliffe.' Rhonwyn and Jasper are the proverbial 'unlikely pair' who find that though their hearts are forever entwined, their loyalties will forever tear them apart. A wonderful story with all the elements of a quintessinal historical romance!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 13, 2000
Some parts of it I had to skim over. Too much detail. And if you don't like romance books being historical don't buy it. How could it hurt if you get it at the library? Other than that, I liked the book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 29, 2011
No text was provided for this review.
Posted January 4, 2012
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