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Chapter: The Welsh Marchlands, 1280
Legends were born here.
With good reason. High in the hills, the mountains took on odd shapes like that of King Arthur's crown, the Devil's giant hand, or even God's profile. Ancient stone rings with mysterious pasts marked the countryside. It was here where the Druids once roamed, and the fairies had been known to bury their treasures under old oak trees the ones with branches that looked like they were trying to climb clear up to heaven.
Sometimes, when the wild wind blew down from the hills, the trees in the woods sounded as if they were singing, the stars fell right down from the sky, and people's lives could change over the space of one night without them ever knowing it.
If you looked down from the tall mountain called Craig y Ddinas, the sleepy hamlet of Bleddig appeared to be nothing more than a cluster of neatly thatched roofs threaded with winding paths, the colorful splash of a garden here or there, and large, square patches of farm fields.
But this was Wales.
The village that sat there so innocently was surrounded by rolling hills and thick, dark woods. Above it stood a plateau, where a ring of giant blue stones had towered over the whole valley for as long as anyone could remember.
If the superstitious villagers happened to look up and see a young woman walking toward that huge and eerie stone ring, they would cross themselves and mutter the names of all the saints, for that was the place, they whispered, where Teleri of the Woods conjured up her evil magic.
Did you know she could call down healing powers the same way witches called down the moon? Aye, she could. She hadclaimed it was the stones, but they, the villagers, knew better. Wicked, that's what she was.
Some of the villagers had threatened to stone her, because they sought to kill anything that was different.
Others didn't threaten; they did throw stones.
Whenever the wild young woman named Teleri looked at her reflection in the water of the brook or in a glassy forest pond, she saw a small, star-shaped scar just below her right eye where a sharp rock had struck her. It was a scar that went so much deeper than just the white mark on her skin.
She talked to the forest animals, because animals didn't hurt a person just to make themselves feel better. Unlike people, animals only attacked to protect their young or if they were cornered and feared for their lives.
She stayed away from the village of Bleddig. Instead she lived deep in the darkest part of the Brecon Wood, a place where the fireflies danced wildly on dark summer nights, where the trees would moan from the wind, and insects sang so loudly they scared the world away.
Over time, Teleri of the Woods became part of the local folklore. The villagers claimed she stalked them on moonless nights to steal their souls. If the wheat grew slow, they would say 'twas because she walked past the field. She had cloven feet, you know, like the Devil Himself.
It was easier for them to make up tales and spread lies than to understand a young woman who was so pure of soul that she could simply look at them and see the malevolence hidden deep inside their hearts.
Some of the village children scared young babes with fearful tales they would tell in their beds on dark winter nights:
If she looks at you during a full moon, you will change into a statue of stone. If her tall shadow crosses your path, you will become a wild bird, destined to forever chase after the sun. Her kiss is so wicked just the touch of her lips can turn you into a toad.
Sometimes the children made up cruel rhymes which they sang at the edge of the woods, where they chanted and threw sticks and stones. "Be leery of Teleri!" they called out. "Run! Run! Or you will be done!"
She was the Devil's spawn!
The daughter of Satan!
But Teleri of the Woods was not the daughter of the Devil, for if she were, she would have known who her father was.
Her mother had been Annest, daughter of the Druid woman Gladdys, and a wild beauty that no mere man could conquer, though many had tried. One day Annest had just disappeared.
'Twas said that a mysterious knight in a golden helm rode down from the hidden caves in the Welsh hills on a wild white horse with a mane and tail blacker than the River Styx. The knight had reined in the horse the moment he saw the fair Annest. His horse had reared and pawed the air as if in protest. But the knight only leaned down and held out his hand to her.
She calmly placed her hand in his and rode off with him toward those high dark hills, only to come home months later alone and heavy with child.
On the very day Teleri came into the world, her mother Annest left it, taking with her the one secret Teleri longed for. Her father's identity.
Brecon Beacons, Wales
Sir Roger FitzAlan rode across the Welsh Marches by order of the King, an honor that today he did not welcome. For Roger had a weakness. He loved women, the wrong women. And last night he'd spent too long in bed with one.
Today he had a duty to perform: to eye the land King Edward himself had chosen for the building of his newest castle on the border in southern Wales. Roger also had been given the select honor of overseeing construction. Once done, the castle would be his.
Yet at that moment he didn't feel like building anything but a pile of pillows for his throbbing head.
Behind him a few paces rode his men-at-arms, one of them carrying his pennant, which snapped loudly in the gusty wind, then snapped again, and again, sounding as loud and as final as the crack of a mace handle when it breaks in battle.
The snapping sound made his eyes throb. His head already ached from lack of sleep and the incessant, tinny jingle of a brace of golden bells on his mount's trappings, an annoying royal ornament that actually did serve a purpose. Those ringing bells told anyone with half an ear that he rode at King Edward's command.
Ring! Ring! Ring!
Hallo world! I am Sir Roger FitzAlan. I am on the King's business!
Ring! Ring! Ring!
King Edward wants another border castle built!
Damn! Damn! Damn!
Sir Roger wanted a new head.
He reined in and let his mount rest, leaning down to give the beast a stroke. He almost slipped from his saddle and had to quickly hook his leg around the pommel.
He looked down and groaned.
I must look like one of the queen's ladies.
He put his boot back in his stirrup and stood. He was studying his saddle when Sir Tobin de Clare, the newly knighted son of the Earl of Gloucester, rode up to him.
Roger gave him a quick glance.
De Clare stiffened in his saddle the way he always did before he said something that made Roger want to clout him. De Clare's face held that quick, easy-to-anger look that mellowed with a man's age and experience. "Are you trying to drive every last one of your men into the bloody ground, sir, or just me?"
"You?" Roger laughed; it was a brittle sound even though he hadn't meant it to be. He sat back in his slippery saddle and rested the reins on his leg. "Why would I want to do anything to you?"
"Elizabeth is my sister."
"An unfortunate accident of birth for which I've never blamed her."
"God's eyes, but you can be an ass!"
"Aye," Roger said in an indifferent tone. "My father trained me well in the art." He fingered his reins absently, then rested an arm on his pommel and leaned closer to the dark-haired young knight. "My father also taught me how to take care of lads who have more tongue than sense. And speaking of asses, de Clare," he added pointedly and almost laughed when de Clare scowled at him, "it's my ass that concerns me. I'm trying to keep from falling on it."
De Clare looked confused. Still annoyed, but confused, too. 'Twas easy to play with the young man's mind. An enjoyable game Roger would have continued if he did not have to worry about keeping in the saddle. He adjusted his seat again, then mumbled to himself. "This blasted saddle feels as if it's been slathered in goose grease."
De Clare made a strangled choking sound and looked suddenly away.
Roger eyed him for a moment. "You find that amusing?"
De Clare was looking off toward the hills. He did not answer him.
"Look you. Because Earl Merrick is my friend, and because you are here with me at his request, we are stuck with each other for the next two years. Until then, I am your liege."
The young knight turned back around. He had more arrogance than wit. The fool was grinning. "Aye, sir."
"Surely you would not be so foolish as to laugh at me."
"Then what is so bloody amusing?"
"As I recall, Thwack polished your saddle this morning."
"Ah," Roger said, nodding. He had his answer. Thwack was a good-hearted lad, a ward of the Lady Clio, Merrick's wife. Thwack also created disasters with the same frequency that rabbits created offspring.
"I'll wager he did use goose grease." De Clare was still wearing that stupid grin. "Do you want me to ride back to Camrose and fetch him?"
Roger dismounted. "Lady Clio and Lord Merrick both would have my head on a pike if I chastised the lad. No doubt as usual he was trying too hard and only meant well." Roger inspected the ground, then grabbed a handful of grass, which he began to smear on his saddle.
"Aye, sir. He usually does!"
"Just before one of his good intentions comes crashing down on one or all of us." Roger finished smearing grass and dirt on his best palfrey saddle. "And now, unless this mud works, I'm stuck with the distinct possibility of finding myself lying in the road like a tavern drunkard." He dusted off his gloves. "'Twould not be the most dignified position for a knight of the realm, particularly one who is on the King's own business." He mounted his horse.
De Clare was quiet for a moment, as Roger remounted, then said, "Sir?"
"About Elizabeth "
Roger raised a hand to cut him off. "Not now." He took the reins as his horse shifted back a pace. "Not ever. I do not want to talk of Elizabeth with you or anyone else. Wait for the men." He tapped his spurs to his mount and took off down the grassy hills, leaving Sir Tobin de Clare and the others behind.
He rode hard over the low hills. The King's blasted bells still rang clear through to his teeth. Cursing, he grabbed the bell strap and tore it from his trappings, then tossed it away into the high grass the way one flings away an apple core. A fortune lying in the grass for some lucky soul to find.
But Roger did not care about fortunes. He had made one of his own, and his teeth had stopped ringing. Thank the Almighty. The sudden silence was almost better than a good night's sleep. Almost.
He leaned low as his gray horse sped over the ground, leaving the king's golden bells far, far behind. He would be the luckiest of men if he could only leave behind what was truly eating at him. De Clare had known what bothered Roger, had seen through his gruffness, even if he refused to admit it to de Clare's face.
Elizabeth had broken off their affair.
She was the first woman other than his mother and sisters that Roger had ever loved. And he had loved her since he was fifteen, had wanted the fair Elizabeth de Clare since he had first laid eyes upon her at a Twelfth Night feast, where the two of them had been made King and Queen of the Bean.
Had it been luck he had chosen the cake slice with the bean? To him it had been fate.
But his father had laughed at that idea and called him foolish, then refused to agree to a betrothal. For two years Roger tried everything, anything. Baron FitzAlan would not betroth his only son to Earl Gilbert's daughter.
The day Elizabeth de Clare was betrothed to someone else, Roger stopped speaking to his father. The day of her wedding, Roger left England for the tourneys in France, then on crusade with his friend Merrick de Beaucourt.
It had been years since Baron FitzAlan and Roger had crossed paths. He only returned home to visit his mother and sisters when he was certain his father was not there.
So today he rode hard, trying to outride his own devils. Up the green hills they flew, man and horse, with his small troop of a dozen men following at the same thunderous pace. The earth trembled beneath his mount's churning black hooves the, same way that war drums made the air tremble just before a battle.
Now this was a sound Roger felt akin to. It was not the foolish tingling of bells, like some court jester tumbling for the King, but instead a deep pounding sound. One that held power and freedom.
He shifted. Again he almost slipped, so he tightened his thighs, pressed his heels down and concentrated on staying in his bloody saddle.
He wore heavy mail that day; it further weighted him and seemed to drag his legs lower when he was forced to halfway stand in his stirrups. It was like being stretched on a dungeon rack. Mail was a strain when he was tired. But far worse was full armor, which felt as if he had a prized ox hanging onto his back and neck.
Over his mail he wore a surcoat of the FitzAlan colors: gold chevron device over a blue field quartered with the emblem of the first FitzAlan to achieve knighthood: a black hawk which stood for bravery slashed with a bar sinister, the mark of a bastard.
An illegitimate son of Alan, Comte de Caux, the first FitzAlan won his title and lands by cunning and sword, then had the good fortune to marry the sister of the English king and set about producing legitimate male heirs and generation after generation of kin who had close ties to the Crown.
Roger proudly wore the FitzAlan colors and emblem, except he had altered his device from his father's. The chevron was upside-down, a brash act of public defiance that proclaimed he was not like the Baron Sander FitzAlan.
Roger's mount sped up. He realized suddenly that his whole body was tight with anger at the thought of his father. The poor horse was only thinking he was urging it onward.
A split second later he laughed bitterly at himself, at the ironic fact that the mere thought of his father could still make him feel anything. He didn't want to feel contempt. He wanted to feel nothing. Yet his laughter hung around him in the air, mocking, until wind and distance swallowed all but the bitterness of the sound.
Roger turned his face into the cool air as if to prove he did not weaken to such mundane and human things as exhaustion and reason.
Riding helmless into the autumn sunlight kept him awake.
Riding helmless let the cold wind whip all thoughts of caution away.
Riding helmless across the wild Welsh borders was dangerous; it was something his father never would have done. So Roger did.
A figure atop a horse stood still as stone against the western horizon. Neither horse nor rider moved, but the sun broke through a white cloud and glinted off the rider's dark hair and the same black color of the horse's mane.
The rider raised one hand to block out the glare of the sun, then watched Sir Roger FitzAlan and his horse ride over the Welsh hills. Roger's red hair gleamed like a copper penny as he went down into the valley of Brecon, south of the high Black Mountains and north of the vast forest of Brecon Wood.
You took freely what was not yours to take, Roger FitzAlan. And I vow I will see you dead because of it. I will see you dead.
But the rider did not go after him, only sat atop the horse on that hill where one could see everything from the mountains to the distant sea, and as Roger became little more than a small, dark silhouette in the distance, the rider raised one fist to the sky and laughed.
Copyright © 1998 by Jill Barnett Stadler