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The King's Pleasure
By Heather Graham
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Shannon Drake
All rights reserved.
The Castle of Aville Fall, 1336
"I know how to breach the walls," Adrien MacLachlan said.
No one heard him. Edward was in a rage. Sweeping his great mantle behind him, the towering Plantagenet king shouted again in fury. "By God, this is madness! I, Edward, the warrior king, cannot breach walls held by a woman!"
Around his campfire, the king's most illustrious knights held silent against his wrath, deeply frustrated themselves. They were muddied, weary, bloodied, and cold. It had seemed a simple enough measure to take Aville, a small fortress situated on land within Edward's own duchy. A fortress held by Lenore, daughter of the late Comte Jon d'Aville, a second cousin to the Valois king.
It was rumored that the French king hid within the walls, and thus, King Edward's preoccupation with taking the fortress, despite the countess's talent with boiling oil, flaming arrows, and other methods of defense.
"Can't someone give me advice?" the king demanded.
"Sire!" Adrien cried. "I know how to breach the walls."
Edward, hearing the boy at last, spun around. His ward, the Scottish lad, stood at the entry to the tent.
The boy was just ten, but he was already tall and showed great promise of strength in the breadth of his shoulders. His golden eyes were steady and shrewd, and along with his growing prowess with arms, he had a keen desire for knowledge, spending many of his free hours with his head buried in books. He also showed great courage, Edward thought, to come upon this gathering at his tender age—and offer advice.
"Ah, the Scots lad is going to advise us!" Brian of Perth groaned angrily. He was in a foul mood, having received a burn on his shoulder that day. "Get on out of here, lad!"
"Wait!" the king commanded, his cold blue gaze putting Brian in his place. "The Scots have been known to teach us many a lesson! Come in, boy. I'll listen to any piece of tactical advice at this time!"
Adrien MacLachlan stepped into the center of the circle, closer to the fire. He kept his head high, his shoulders straight, aware that he must give an impression of wisdom and strength far greater than his years allowed. His father had taught him well.
"A poor man, even one with noble blood, must be a strong one, boy. If you would survive these troubled times, my lad, I would create a great warrior of you. Most importantly, impoverished men—aye, even defeated men, such as ourselves!—must excel, and thus, in the end, become the victorious. Never accept defeat, my son. Not when you fear a stronger opponent. Not when you have taken the first blow. Never surrender, for the only surrender there can be is death itself. Fight hard, boy, fight with your wits as well as your brawn. Never be afraid to learn. Then fight for honor, fight to carve a place for yourself in this fine harsh world of chivalry and death. Fight hard, and so, my boy, you will conquer even kings!"
Not long ago, Carlin, chieftain of the clan MacLachlan, had said those words to him. Grandson of a Scottish earl, kin to the family of the late, great Robert the Bruce, he was then suffering the defeat of the forces of Robert's son, David II, as Edward of England set another pretender, another Baliol, upon the throne of Scotland. Because of that unrest, it seemed to Adrien that he had been born fighting. Constant battle with the English had stripped them of crops and livestock. Baliol was on the throne, but the MacLachlans fought for David II.
But one day, as battle ebbed, he had seen his father in the midst of a group of well-armed knights. One mounted man stared down at his father; he recognized that man as his greatest enemy—Edward III. Adrien had been certain that the English king had come to kill his father. And so, nothing, not even life itself, had mattered.
He ran across the fields, his small dirk in his hands. With a cry of rage, he had flown at Edward and nearly toppled him from his horse. He'd had his dirk at the man's throat, ready to strike, when his father pulled him from their enemy.
"Nay, lad, nay!" warned Carlin.
"Hang the boy!" a man cried. "Your Grace, he all but slit your throat."
But the king dismounted and came forward, tipping up his visor. Adrien saw a pair of bright blue eyes, a handsome face framed by golden hair.
"Hang him? This son of so valiant a warrior himself, a man come to make his terms with me? I think not! The lad has just shown more courage—and skill, I might add—than a score of you, my finest!"
There was a bellow of laughter from some of the men.
"Laird MacLachlan!" the king continued. "We are well met—your honor is thus preserved. If it is your will, this fine son of yours will reside at my court and be raised with my oldest son as his constant companion. I will keep him safe, and you will no longer harry my northern borders."
"Aye, Edward, King of England!" Adrien's father agreed.
"Nay, Father, I'll not leave you—" Adrien began, but his father closed his lips with his hand, and later, in the ruins of the family fortress, Adrien was told the truth of it.
"My boy, we've fought him good and long and hard, but he's an enemy I respect. He doesn't realize that the Scots will never accept a Baliol upon the throne, but one day, I warrant, David Bruce will be back. But we starve here. I need you at the king's court. I need to know what happens among the Englishmen, I need them to take on the expense of training and arming you. I pray that you will go now and give the King of England all the loyalty and obedience you have shown me. I love you, son. I couldna' be prouder of you."
Soon after they had ridden south, the king of England had summoned Adrien to stand before him again. He had stood, grave, his hands behind his back. "Your father was one of the finest fighting men I knew, boy. You must always be proud of him, for all men respect his memory, Englishmen and Scots."
"He sent you with me and made peace because he knew he was dying. And among your unruly tribesmen there were many who might have been willing to kill you for your family holdings—such as they have fallen to be! Lad, your mother was Lady Margaret of Meadenlay. Her brother has just perished in battle—his son succombed to fever last week. You have inherited English lands in the south, and are now, my boy, the Count of Meadenlay and Laird of Reggar. By your father's will, I stand as your guardian, and you will remain in my service."
And so, he became to be with Edward now, and dared to speak to the knights here. He had taken part in some of the assaults against the walls. The king's men grudgingly acknowledged his abilities—some gained in Scotland, and some learned from the same master swordsmen who trained the king's own sons. But their assaults were all for nothing. Like the others, he had seen the beautiful Lenore d'Aville upon the ramparts, ordering down the rain of flaming destruction which had fallen on the English. They had called her a witch, a temptress, seducing men to their deaths. For it was true. Great knights stared up at her, captivated by the sight of her ebony hair blowing in the wind, and death had fallen upon them. Even Edward raged, claiming his men were bewitched.
"Speak up, Scotsman!" the king commanded.
"We must dig a tunnel," Adrien said.
"A tunnel!" Sir George scoffed.
"Would you continue sacrificing men to the boiling oil and oatmeal the countess casts down each day? When we could so easily dig beneath her defenses, get a man in to open the gates, and fight then in fair hand to hand combat?"
"Bah! We keep up the battering ram, break the portcullis!" roared William of Chelsey, an experienced knight.
Adrien spoke swiftly. "Think again! Hear me! At what great loss, sire? And what if there is a double portcullis, with murderer's slits above? More men will die, trapped in agony as the countess rains oil or arrows upon them."
Robert of Oxford, an older knight who had long served the king, spoke up in the boy's defense. "He has studied the architecture of these castles, sire," he said quietly.
Edward eyed the boy. "I'll see more of this plan. You will draw it out for me. Robert, get parchment. Show me, boy, show me what you have in mind."
With Robert supporting him, Adrien did so, explaining how such strategies had worked years before for Roman and Greek conquerors on different types of structures.
"Sire, I do suggest," said William of Chelsey, "that our young Scots lad—with all his book knowledge—he be the one to enter the castle, and thus bring about its downfall."
"He's but a decade on this earth!" Edward snapped.
"But willing to go, sire!" Adrien said excitedly. He trembled, afraid, and yet eager. Fear was not a bad thing; letting it defeat courage was. He longed to be the warrior his father had told him he must be. He was anxious to prove himself to the king—and to himself.
In the end, it was determined that he would go.
Preparations began; Adrien's strategy was put into play. Men slinked to the walls in the cover of rain and night. Miners tunneled deeply. If they were discovered, they would surely perish, for the defenders of the castle would flood their tunnel and drown them all.
But the tunnel was not discovered, and Adrien managed to get within the walls, unseen. Under the cover of darkness, he chopped the ropes that held the gates, and the English troops came charging through.
Caught within the castle walls himself, he fought that day against a dozen Frenchmen determined to place his head on a spike above their walls; he fought desperately, for his life, and he fought afraid.
But he did not let the fear defeat him, and that night, though the English knights and nobles and infantrymen teased him, they toasted him as well.
Within the castle walls at long last, Edward III, King of England, watched the flames dance. Christ's blood! He was weary. He had never expected to fight so exhaustingly here—only to discover that the French king was not in residence here after all!
He swallowed down the contents of a chalice of fine claret as he stood before the hearth, easing his tensions somewhat. But then, Robert of Oxford entered behind him.
"I have brought the countess," Robert said.
The countess! the king thought furiously. Despite his many good points, Edward III was a Plantagenet king, and all knew that the Plantagenets were a passionate and rare breed of men, prone to rages. In a rage, he was formidable. He was a towering man, a warrior king who held his power in his own two mighty hands.
He had learned early that it was necessary to do so. His grandfather had been the great King Edward I—the Hammer of the Scots. His father, the unfortunate Edward II, had lost Scotland to Robert the Bruce. Edward II had been a weak ruler who had formed intimate liaisons with evil and crafty supporters—and fallen prey to an invasion of his country by his own queen and her lover. Edward II had been captured, forced to abdicate to his son, then cruelly murdered.
Crowned King of England when he was fifteen, Edward had not been unaware of his position, or his past, or of the sins of either of his parents. His father had been weak, his mother had been called the she-wolf of France. His mother's lover, Roger Mortimer, the Earl of March, had held complete sway with her, and Edward had not been king long before being warned that Mortimer wished to seize the throne himself. But the people, nobles and the commons alike, were up in arms against Mortimer.
And so, when Edward was eighteen, Mortimer met his death, hanged on the common gallows at Tyburn. Edward knew from that time on that he must be a strong king. His first son, Edward of Woodstock, was born that same year. He swore to himself that he would build a powerful monarchy, restore respect for the royal family, and rule with both power and compassion. He was blessed with a good queen, Philippa of Hainault, and though she was no great beauty, she was warm, intelligent—fertile, the good Lord bless her!—and quickly beloved of his people.
Yet not even Edward's best intentions, nor his affection for his wife, could change the fact of his Plantagenet blood, and tonight, he paced with an energy and tension to match that of the leopards of his blazon and arms.
It had been nearly three hundred years since the Conquest of England, nearly two hundred since Henry II and Eleanor had brought the titles of their own French lands into the English monarchy. Granted, John of England had lost a great deal of the English royal holdings and prestige in the first years of the thirteenth century, but certain lands had remained strongholds. Kings of England had been calling themselves kings of France for many years, yet Edward had a better reason than most to do so, for his mother, Isabella, she-wolf of France that she might have been, had also been the daughter of Philip the Fair. Three of her brothers had taken the French crown; all three had died childless. Claims through the female line had been debarred by the parliament in Paris, and the crown had gone to Philip of Valois, a cousin of the three deceased Capetians, then to Edward himself. Edward argued that although females themselves might be barred, he was a male, and a more direct descendant of Philip the Fair.
Edward knew he hadn't really the strength of men and arms to seize the French throne, but Philip was now after the duchy of Acquitaine, perhaps the most important English possession left upon French soil. Philip also threatened Edward that there would be no solution to the problem of Acquitaine until Edward granted the Scots their rights, and he'd be damned if he'd let the French dictate to him about the Scots!
So Edward had come here to do battle with his French cousin—and done battle with a woman instead.
"Bring her in," he commanded now to Robert.
As she was led into the room, Edward awaited a cry for mercy, a word, but her head remained high. Her hair was blacker than the night, streaming free down her back. Her gown was a soft purple, hem, neck, and sleeves trimmed in fur. Her eyes were green, a blazing emerald, meeting his with no apology, and certainly no plea for mercy. She was slim and lithe, the gown molding to her. The soft, clean scent of rose petals seemed to surround her; her face and gown were perfection. He didn't know if it was the sweet scent sweeping over him, or perhaps the one sign of her agitation, the wild rise and fall of her breasts beneath the fur-trimmed bodice, that suddenly created a new emotion within his anger—desire. Fierce, powerful, undeniable.
Her face was perfectly sculpted. If he touched it, he thought, her cheeks would feel like silk. Her long, ink-black hair would tease and arouse the senses.
She stared at him with calm, defiant contempt. Even now she hadn't the sense to beg mercy. Perhaps she felt that her noble blood would protect her. Dear God, but she was wrong.
He took a step toward her, furious that he could want her so when she had so blatantly defied him. By God, he had the power to execute her if he chose!
"Witch!" he charged her, and his hand cracked hard across her face, so hard that it startled her from her imperious stance, sending her down upon a knee. He stared down at her, a moment's remorse seizing him. But then her face raised to his once again, and her eyes seemed to gleam with the brilliance of a thousand gems.
She rose to her feet, cheek reddened, and cried out, "You are no king here! The great Edward, the great warrior! Making battle with children, burning crops, slaughtering animals. You may take what you will, but no one will surrender to you, no one here will beg mercy from you!"
And with those words, she threw herself at him, nails clawing for his face. Stunned that anyone, man or woman, would dare take such action, he threw his arms up just in time to defend himself. Still, her impetus brought them both crashing down upon the wooden floor before the hearth. Fighting desperately now, she sought to free herself from his weight. The fire blazed all around them. It caught upon the blade of the tiny knife she drew from her pocket to use in her defense, and in doing, so sealed her fate ...
He caught her wrist, seized the weapon, sent it flying. He took hold of her beautiful mauve gown, and the sound of the fabric tearing seemed incredibly loud in the otherwise silent room. The blazing green fury in her eyes seduced him anew, along with the feel of her now naked breasts.
She let out a cry as a demon light in his own eyes clearly told her that she had lost her battle. Her fists rained upon his shoulders, denial tore from her lips.
Excerpted from The King's Pleasure by Heather Graham. Copyright © 1998 Shannon Drake. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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