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By Shari Anton
Warner ForeverCopyright © 2005 Sharon Antoniewicz
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEngland, 1145
WHEN THE ROYAL TEMPER RAGED, prudent men held their peace.
Alberic of Chester considered himself a prudent man. With his helm securely tucked under one arm, he stood quietly near his fellow soldiers, holding a sword still too bloody to sheathe.
Chilly rain mingled with sweat to soak his hair and trickle down his neck to seep under the layers of chain mail, padded gambeson, and linen shirt. His chain mail weighed down on shoulders beginning to stiffen from exertion, his body too weary and spirit too heartsick to feel victorious.
A skirmish shouldn't have been fought in this field, where sprouting oats were now ruined. So many men shouldn't have died today. A frightful waste.
Alberic yearned to return to the austere comforts of the royal army's camp, where everyone from the lowliest pikeman to exalted King Stephen had idled away weeks while laying siege to Wallingford Castle. There awaited him a canvas tent where he could get out of the rain and, if the supply wagons had arrived, drink enough ale to drown out the wails and moans of the wounded and dying.
Except he dared not move until given the order. So Alberic watched tall, robust King Stephen pace the road alongside the freshest battlefield in the ten-year dispute over the rightful possession ofEngland's crown. Unconcerned for either the rain wetting his woolen cloak or the mud splattering his leather boots, the king focused his fury on two men: Ranulf de Gernons, the earl of Chester, the living, stoic target of his wrath; and Sir Hugh de Leon, a baron who lay facedown in bloodsoaked grass, beyond hearing and earthly cares.
"An unfortunate death, Chester." The king's deceptively placid statement reeked of ire and accusation.
With nearly as regal a mien as the monarch's, Chester retorted, "His death could not be avoided, Sire. Sir Hugh refused to surrender when given the chance."
The king gestured toward a young, fair-haired man sprawled not far from the baron. Alberic tensed, aware of whose blood dried on his sword, and prepared to acknowledge his part in the senseless carnage if need be. But the king continued to address the earl.
"The son, also?" "Young William followed his father's foolhardy example. Had they allowed, I would have captured both and held them for ransom."
"So instead you allowed both to die!" Chester tossed a hand in the air, his usually unshakable composure fraying. "Their goal was to attack the camp and take you as their prisoner. What would you have us do, Sire? Not defend our own lives? Stand aside? Perhaps allow them to escape and return to Maud's service?"
"We would prefer our land-rich subjects be captured and brought before us! Sir Hugh might have been turned to our service if given sufficient enticement."
The twitch of Chester's jaw made Alberic wonder how long the recent, brittle alliance between the earl and the king would last. Chester's reputation for acting only in his best interest was well earned and widely known. And given the king's mistrust of Chester, a breach could come at any time, for any reason, the alliance split asunder by either man.
"As I said, Sir Hugh gave us no choice," Chester stated, firmly indicating he would argue no more.
Wisely, King Stephen didn't push the earl further. Instead, he glanced at the field littered with dead, at the wounded men-at-arms being tended, and finally at the poor souls who'd been taken prisoner: those of Sir Hugh's small force who'd survived.
Too small of a force to have a prayer of prevailing against the earl's. Alberic still didn't understand why Sir Hugh, who had been vastly outnumbered, hadn't surrendered. Or why William had fought on with such vicious zeal knowing his father had fallen and their mission was doomed.
All pondering over the de Leon men's actions halted when King Stephen's gaze settled on him. Alberic endured the full force of the dark-eyed, measuring stare for several uncomfortable moments before the king asked of Chester, "Your whelp?"
Alberic almost smiled at the earl's obvious chagrin. For several years now, Chester had dismissed the familial similarities between himself and Alberic as slight and utterly no proof of paternity. To have the king notice the resemblance so quickly and accurately must be irritating. Alberic also knew better than to hope for the answer he'd waited nigh on half a lifetime to hear-full acknowledgment from Chester. Even so, his heartbeat quickened.
"So his mother claimed," Chester finally answered. "Have you provided for him as yet?" "He has a place in my household."
A place grudgingly given and not the one Alberic had hoped for as a lad of twelve. After his mother's death, having no means to support himself, he'd shown up at Chester's castle and confronted the earl. While Chester hadn't acknowledged Alberic as his son, neither had the earl tossed him out the gate. Disappointed, but needful of shelter and sustenance, he'd responded to Chester's scant generosity by working hard to earn the earl's respect, if not his affection.
Most days Alberic believed he'd made strides in winning Chester's acceptance. On others he suffered pangs of sorrow for that skinny lad, raw with grief, needing to belong somewhere and fearful he never would. "Is he knighted?" the king wanted to know.
Alberic's heartbeat kicked up another notch. That coveted honor hadn't occurred yet, though he'd long since passed beyond the age when most squires acquired their knighthood. Chester, however, was decidedly reluctant to bestow the honor. "Not as yet."
Then Alberic wondered why the king took so pointed and unwarranted an interest in the baseborn son of the earl of Chester. Especially now, when more important matters begged attention.
Discomfited, Alberic watched King Stephen squat beside Sir Hugh and slide a large gold ring from the baron's limp hand, pausing to study it before clenching it in his fist.
"The seal of the dragon," the king said softly. "We remember the first time we saw this unusual ring many years ago, on an occasion when Sir Hugh attended our uncle's court. He said he wore the ring in honor of his wife, a Welsh princess, whose family claims lineage from that of Pendragon."
Pendragon? The fabled King Arthur?
All around him Alberic heard both awed murmurs and snickers of disbelief. The muttering stopped when the king rose from beside Sir Hugh.
"Disbelieve, do you?" Stephen called out. When no one answered, his attention again returned to where Alberic didn't want it. On him.
"What of you? Do you believe?" Alberic considered his answer carefully, well aware he was being judged.
"I know naught of the descendants of King Arthur, Sire, so cannot give you an informed opinion on the matter."
The king came toward him, his steps purposeful, his intention impenetrable, stopping a mere arm's length away. "What is your name, young man?" "Alberic of Chester, Sire." "On your sword dries the blood of William de Leon?"
Asked mildly, but with an undertone of cold steel. Apparently the messenger whom Chester had sent to camp to inform the king of the skirmish had described how the baron and his son had met their end. "Aye, Sire."
"Do you now consider yourself the better man?" Alberic glanced over at William de Leon-young, fair-haired, and damned good with a sword. "William fought with both zeal and skill. He had already vanquished several others before he and I crossed swords. I consider myself blessed to have come away the victor."
"His equal, then?" Only by citing legitimacy of birth could anyone make a case for William de Leon's superiority, and Alberic chose to ignore that unfortunate circumstance of birth whenever possible.
"As you say, Sire." The corner of the king's mouth twitched with humor, and approval softened his eyes.
"As we say, is it? Then we believe you may be ripe for what we have in mind." The king drew his sword, a fighting weapon instead of the fancy blade one might expect a royal personage to wield. "Kneel before your king, Alberic of Chester."
Doubting Stephen had lost his wits and intended to behead a man who'd committed no crime, Alberic could think of only one other reason for the king's drawn sword and the accompanying order.
Knighthood. Alberic hesitated, overjoyed at the prospect of receiving the coveted rank, but wary of why King Stephen had singled him out. Kings didn't confer knighthood as an act of kindness, nor had Alberic done anything on the battlefield this day to warrant a field knighting. Therefore, the king had an unfathomable motive of his own-not good.
And Chester frowned in stark disapproval. Alberic knew their fragile relationship might suffer if he accepted the king's offer. Dare he risk what the earl might consider betrayal?
But hadn't Chester taught him by example that only dolts refused to seize an opportunity to gain honor, or land and wealth, and then hold tight to the favor and grants given?
And hellfire, Alberic wanted this. He'd craved the honor and rank of knighthood from Chester, and been loyal and patient only to be denied. What he hadn't received from his father, he'd be a fool to refuse from King Stephen.
Misgivings brushed aside, ignoring the unrelenting drizzle, Alberic knelt in the mud and soon felt the weight of the king's sword on his right shoulder.
"We dub thee knight, Alberic of Chester, with all the rights and responsibilities that come with the honor. We charge thee to uphold the laws of our beloved England, to serve as protector for widows and orphans, to hold fast to the teachings of the Holy Church and praise Almighty God for His blessings. Do you so swear?"
His mouth dry as dust, he answered, "I do so swear." The sword lifted from his shoulder and he tensed, steadying for the colée. The king's open-handed buffet to the side of Alberic's head nearly knocked him over, eliciting a cheer from the soldiers and thus serving its purpose-to fix in the witnesses' memories the events of this day, of the oath given to the king when Alberic of Chester became Sir Alberic.
Through the ringing in his ears he heard the king continue. "And now, Sir Alberic, we propose to grant you a living to support your new rank. Upon swearing your homage and fealty to our royal person, we shall bestow upon you Sir Hugh de Leon's castle at Camelen, along with all his other holdings."
Stunned, Alberic stared at the ring the king held out, eager to grasp it but wary of accepting. "What of Sir Hugh's widow?"
"His Welsh princess died many years ago. William was his only son. Three daughters remain. We charge you to take one as your wife, send another to our court, and give the last to the Church."
Alberic's curiosity nearly burst with questions about Camelen, which he knew lay somewhere south of Shrewsbury, and the extent of the estates and the income he could expect. Verily, for wont of a simple oath the king meant to make him a rich and powerful man.
He gave fleeting thought to the daughters. Surely one of the females would be tolerable enough to wed and bed, and thus produce an heir, firmly establishing his claim to Camelen.
Only a witless fool would hesitate longer or argue further.
Alberic put down his sword and helm, slipped on the baron's ring, then raised his clasped hands for the king to enfold. When next he stood, only two men within sight outranked him: the earl of Chester and the king of England.
Ye gods, how quickly men's fortunes rose and fell given the vagaries of war.
The king slid his sword into an intricately tooled leather scabbard belted at his waist. "Take de Leon and his son home. Bury them with the honor due them, then hold Camelen in our name."
"As you say, Sire." King Stephen smiled wryly. "'As you say.' Do you hear how easily and sincerely he says the words, Chester? You could learn much from your own get."
The king spun and headed toward his horse, and the unease Alberic felt earlier returned. Why in the name of all the saints had the king granted knighthood and the wealth and power of a barony to the earl of Chester's bastard?
Something was definitely amiss here. He stared down at the uncommon gold ring King Stephen called the seal of the dragon. A sparkling garnet graced the face of faceted black onyx, the mounting held securely by gold prongs fashioned as dragon's claws.
Oddly enough, though sizable, the ring didn't sit as heavily on his hand as Alberic thought it should. Odder still, it fitted as though a goldsmith had made it especially for his finger-loose enough to twirl but snug enough to stay on.
"A handsome gift," Chester commented, still frowning in disapproval. Though the earl stared at the ring, clearly he meant the entire royal gift.
Alberic bent over and wiped the blood from his sword on the long grass, his stomach tightening as it always did when he spoke to Chester.
"A handsome gift, indeed. My mind would be easier about accepting it all if I knew what game the king plays."
The earl shrugged a broad shoulder. "Simple enough. He believes he has now purchased your loyalty, and thereby firmly fixed mine."
Then the king believed wrongly, the grandiose gift given for naught. Alberic glanced at the bodies of the baron and his son. The two had fought and died together for the same cause, loyal to each other to the very end. With either father or son, the king might have struck a bargain and gained the cooperation of the other. The same steadfastness could not be assumed regarding Ranulf de Gernons and his bastard.
"Then the king does not know you very well." "Nay, he does not. I wish you good fortune in claiming your prize."
The earl walked off, shouting orders to his men to fetch carts to carry the wounded, to begin burying the dead, to march the prisoners back to camp.
Prisoners Alberic would soon have to take charge of.
He took a deeper than normal breath, the problems associated with his new position beginning to surface. The faces of the men he'd recently fought against twisted with varying degrees of defeat, anger, resentment, and despair.
He needed only one of Sir Hugh's soldiers to lead him to Camelen. Would it be the pikeman who sat crosslegged in the mud, his head bowed into his hands, or the elderly knight who might understand that a man submitted to shifts of circumstances and accepted the changes wrought by war? Surely, if one man of Camelen swore allegiance to the new lord, others might, too, if only for the chance to return home.
Not that he could wholly trust the word of a one of them.
Accepting the king's gifts had been as easy as taking an oath; gaining possession of them wouldn't be so simple. Not only did he have to get to Camelen, but somehow get through the gate without someone on the battlements taking umbrage and shooting an arrow through his heart.
Alberic again inspected the ring, the garnet winking at him from atop the onyx, the dragon's claws seeming to dig deep into his gut. He'd come by the ring and Camelen fairly and honestly, but he knew others would feel he'd stolen them.
Too bad. Camelen was now his, and he would make his claim. How to go about it merely required a bit of careful thought and planning, something he was very good at.
Atop Camelen's battlements, Gwendolyn de Leon adjusted the ill-fitting helm in a vain attempt to keep the nose guard from interfering with her sight.
She understood Sir Sedwick's insistence that she wear the helm-and the shirt of chain mail her brother had worn as a young squire-whenever she ventured onto the battlements. During times of war one took precautions against threats. Except she saw no immediate danger to either Camelen or her person, merely two knights atop palfreys riding over the field separating the castle from the woodland beyond. One of the two, Sir Garrett, she had no trouble identifying.
For a few moments she focused on the woodland, hoping either her father or her brother would emerge, too. Neither did.
"I do not like the looks of this, my lady," Sedwick grumbled from beside her.
Her attention forced back to the field, Gwendolyn conceded that Sir Garrett shouldn't be here, but rather with her father and brother defending Wallingford. "Perhaps Father sent Garrett home with a message." In answer to her conjecture, Sedwick snorted through the battle-marred nose on his round face. "See you any sense of urgency? And why send two knights, one of whom we do not know, when a runner would have done? Nay, my lady. The very air stinks of trouble."
"Then send someone out to learn their purpose before they come closer."
"Without knowing who Garrett brings to our gate? His lordship would have my head on a pike were I to be so foolish. We will wait for Garrett to explain."
Excerpted from Midnight Magic by Shari Anton Copyright ©2005 by Sharon Antoniewicz . Excerpted by permission.
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