The Roselynde Chronicles, Book Two
Now alone, despite her exquisite beauty, Lady Alinor is physically and emotionally deprived of love--until her amorous desires are stirred by the dark, sensuous Lord Ian de Vipont. Trapped in a maze of treacherous power plays and volatile liaisons, she is irresistibly swept into an intoxicating passion for a man whose forbidden love promises only pain and peril. A strong-willed woman desperate in her quest for love, Alinor will not heed even the most torturous obstacles in her path.
From the brutal battlegrounds of France to the rich pageantry of English courts, Alinor's turbulent adventures and romantic passions weave a breathtaking tale of danger and desire.
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Ellora's Cave Publishing, Incorporated
November 13, 2009
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Excerpt from Alinor by Roberta Gellis
A lone knight in full armor spurred a tired, lathered horse up the winding road toward Roselynde Keep. That sight was so unusual in this year of our Lord 1206, the seventh year of the reign of King John--the accursed, as some called him--that the guard in the tower rubbed his eyes as if to clear his vision. Times had been bad periodically during the reign of King Richard because Richard did not love England, and the officers he appointed to rule and tax the land were often harsh. However, there was little lawlessness, and old Queen Alinor had been alive and had moderated any dangerous extremity in Richard's demands.
In 1199 Richard had been fatally wounded by an arrow at a siege he was conducting in one of the innumerable wars he waged. John, his youngest brother, the last of Henry Plantagenet's wild brood, had come to the throne. Although John actually loved England the best of all his possessions, he was driven by political necessity to even greater harshness than Richard and, to make all worse, he was a vicious man. Then, in 1204, the old queen died, and a strong force for balancing necessity against unreasonable taxation disappeared. The spite and exactions of the king then fell so heavily on so many that marauders prowled the land, and the roads were unsafe. In these days, men who had stitch or stick about them rode in armed groups.
Within the bounds of Roselynde's demesne, this was less true. Sir Simon Lemagne and his wife Lady Alinor had kept the peace on their own lands for a time, but Sir Simon had been stricken with a violent disorder of pains in the chest and arms more than a year past, and in late June he had died. Sir Giles had come from Iford when Sir Simon first fell sick, but his wife was not of the stuff of which Lady Alinor was made, and he had had to return to his own lands lest they fall into total disorder. Lord Ian had come also, but the king had summoned him away to the wars in Normandy. Beorn, Lady Alinor's master-at-arms, did what he could. There was still peace, although not what it had been in Sir Simon's time. Nonetheless, the guard knew that this knight did not come from the lands around Roselynde. It was plain from the state of his horse and his garments that he had ridden far and hard.
At the edge of the drawbridge, the knight pulled up his horse and shouted out his name. The guard's face lightened, and he called an order down the tower. The portcullis was raised as swiftly as possible; this was a welcome guest. The guard's surprise diminished when the knight said his troop followed and they should be passed when they arrived, but he still wondered what had brought his late lord's friend so far and in such haste that he outstripped his men. It was, however, no business of his to ask questions. He turned back to his duty of watching as the knight rode through the outer bailey, across the smaller drawbridge, and under the inner portcullis into the inner bailey.
Here a groom ran forward to take his horse, and a grizzled man-at-arms rose to his feet from a cask on which he had been sitting and watching two children, a girl of nine and a boy of seven, at play. The children looked up and tensed when they saw the true mail of a knight instead of the leather of a man-at-arms. Then they shrieked with joy and ran forward.
"Ian!" the boy cried.
The knight dismounted in one smooth movement, pushed off his helmet and shield, and bent to gather them to him, one in each arm. He kissed them both, then suddenly buried his face in the boy's hair and began to sob. The children, who had been wriggling with delight, quieted at once.
"Are you weeping because Papa is dead, Ian, or is there more bad news?" the girl, who was the elder, asked gravely.
Simon's daughter, Ian de Vipont thought, struggling to control himself. She is as like him as if she had no mother.
"Did you only just hear of it?" the boy asked. "It was in June. It is a shame you could not come to the funeral feast. Everyone enjoyed it greatly."
The boy stood quietly, his arms around Ian's neck, one small hand patting the knight's shoulder consolingly. His voice, however, was cheerful, irrepressible. In the midst of his tears, Ian choked on laughter. Alinor's son. Kind enough to wish to offer comfort but with a spirit that could not be quenched. He squeezed the children to him tightly once more, then stood upright and wiped his face with the leather inside of his steel-sewn gauntlet.
"No, no more bad news," he said to Joanna, and then, smiling on Adam, "I heard in July, but I was with the king in France besieging Montauban, and I could not get leave to come."
"Tell about the siege--tell!" the boy cried.
"Oh, yes, Ian, please tell," the girl begged.
The sun came out from behind a cloud, lighting green and gold flecks in the boy's hazel eyes and turning the girl's hair to flame. They were totally unlike in appearance, as if the mother's and father's strains were each so strong they could not be mixed, but that was only in coloring. Adam's hair was straight and black, his skin startlingly white, like his mother Alinor's, but his frame was sturdy and already very large for his age. That was his heritage from Simon, and a good heritage it was. It might be needful, Ian thought sadly, in the bitter times that loomed ahead, if King John did not mend his ways.
Ian had not known Simon when his hair was as red as Joanna's, but her eyes, a misty gray sometimes touched with blue, had cleared and brightened just as Simon's did when he was angry, eager, or happy. She was slighter than her brother but still sturdily made, no frail flower. No frail spirit, either. The eager expression on Joanna's face mirrored that on Adam's.
"Did you scale the walls?" she asked.
"Did you burst through the gates?" Adam echoed.
"Master Adam! Lady Joanna!" the grizzled man-at-arms protested, "can you not see Lord Ian is dirty and tired? You shame our hospitality. A guest is bidden to wash and take his ease before being battered with questions."
"Beoth hal, Beorn, Ian said in English.
"Beoth hal, eaorling," Beorn responded, "wilcume, wilcume. Cunmth thu withinne."
Adam's eyes grew large. Beorn was an important man in his life. He taught the boy the fundamentals of sword and mace fighting. Adam could dimly remember that his father had started his lessons, but in the last year Simon had barely been able to come down to the bailey to watch and offer breathless and halting advice. Adam knew Beorn spoke a special language of his own. Adam could even understand some words, but Beorn would never address him in that tongue and would never permit him to speak it.
"Ian, Beorn answered you," the boy said.
The man-at-arms flushed slightly, and a faint frown appeared on Ian's brow. He made no comment, however, merely saying that it was time he went in and greeted their mother. After refusing the children's offer to accompany him and assuring them he would see them later, he strode into the forebuilding and mounted the stairs to the great hall, unlacing his mail hood and stripping off his gauntlets as he went. He looked up at the stair that led to the women's quarters, but he did not pause. Lady Alinor was as likely to be anywhere else in the keep as there, and he was sure someone had run ahead to announce his arrival.
In that supposition he was quite correct. Before he had crossed the hall to the great hearth, Lady Alinor came running from a wall chamber. She seized the hands he held out toward her and gripped them hard.
"Ian, Ian, I am glad at heart to see you."
"I could not come when I first heard. I begged the king to let me go, but he would not."
"You do not need to tell me that."
Suddenly her eyes were full of tears. She stepped forward and laid her head against his breast. Ian's hands came up to embrace her and then dropped. He fought another upsurge of his own grief. Alinor uttered a deep sigh and stepped back to look up at him.
"It is good to have you here," she said, only a trifle unsteadily. "How long can you stay?"
"I do not know," he replied, not meeting her eyes. "It depends on--"
"At least the night," she cried.
"Yes, of course, but--"
"Never mind the buts now. Oh, Ian, you look so tired."
"Our ship was blown off course. I meant to land at Roselynde, but we were blown all the way to Dover. We were attacked three times on the road. I could not believe it. In the worst days of Longchamp, things had not come to such a pass. I rode through the night. I had to--"
"You have bad news?" But Alinor did not pause for him to answer. "Do not tell me now," she said, half laughing but with a tremor in her voice. "Have you eaten?" He nodded. "Come, let me unarm you and bathe you." It was customary for the lady of the manor to bathe her guests, although Alinor had not usually done so for Ian.
"My squires are with the troop," he protested. "I rode ahead."
At that Alinor laughed more naturally. "I have not yet grown so feeble that I cannot lift a hauberk. Come." She drew him toward the wall chamber from which she had emerged. "The bath is ready. It will grow cold."
For one instant it seemed as if Ian would resist, and Alinor stopped to look at him questioningly. However, there was no particular expression on his face, and he was already following, so she said nothing. Something was wrong, Alinor knew. Ian had been her husband's squire before they were married. After their return from the Crusade, Simon had so successfully advanced his prot�g�'s interests that Ian had been granted a defunct baronage that went with the estates Ian had Inherited from his mother. He had been a close friend all through the years and a frequent visitor, particularly attached to the children. His fondness for them, coupled with his resistance to marriage had once made Alinor ask her husband whether Ian was tainted with King Richard's perversion. Simon had assured her that it was not so, that Ian was a fine young stallion, and he had warned her seriously not to tease the young man.
Alinor had been careful, because, despite being 30 years her senior--or, perhaps, because of it--Simon was no jealous husband. Indeed, until his illness, he had no cause to be jealous; he had kept Alinor fully occupied. Thus, when Simon warned her against flirting playfully with Ian, it was for Ian's sake. Alinor acknowledged the justice of that. It would be dreadful to attach Ian to her, dangerous, too. There was violence lurking behind the young man's hot brown eyes and, although Alinor had loved Simon and been content with him, she had never denied that Ian was a magnificent male animal who could be very attractive to her. Ian had been careful too, seldom touching Alinor, even to kiss her hand in courtesy.
Nonetheless, they had been good friends. Alinor knew when Ian was carrying a burden of trouble. Ordinarily, she would have pressed him with questions until he opened the evil package for her inspection. Alinor had never feared trouble. Simon had said sourly more than once that she ran with eager feet to meet it. That was because she had never found a trouble for which she or Simon or both of them together could not discover a solution. Trouble had been a challenge to be met head on, trampled over, or slyly circumvented--until Simon died. Now, all at once, there were too many troubles. Alinor could not, for the moment, muster the courage to ask for another.
The afternoon light flooded the antechamber with brightness, but the inner wall chamber was dim. Ian hesitated, and Alinor tugged at his hand, leading him safely around the large wooden tub that sat before the hearth. To the side was a low stool. Alinor pushed Ian toward it, grasping the tails of his hauberk as he passed her and lifting them so he would not sit on them. She unbelted his sword before he had even reached toward it, slipped off his surcoat, and laid it carefully on a chest at the side of the room. Ian gave up trying to be helpful and abandoned himself to Alinor's practiced ministrations, docilely doing as he was told and no more.
In a single skillful motion, Alinor pulled the hauberk over his head, turned it this way and that to see whether it needed the attention of the castle armorer, and laid it on the chest with the sword. Then she came around in front of him and unlaced his tunic and shirt. These were stiff with sweat and dirt, and she threw them on the floor. Next, she knelt to unfasten his shoes and cross garters, drew them off, untied his chausses, and bid him stand. Again Ian hesitated. Alinor thought how tired he was and was about to assure him he would feel better after he had bathed, but he stood before she could speak. Still kneeling, she pulled the chausses down and slipped them off his feet. When she raised her eyes to tell him to step into the tub, she saw the reason for his hesitation.
There could be no doubt now that Simon had been right. Ian was a fine young stallion, and he was displaying the fact with startling effect. Alinor's first impulse was to laugh and make a bawdy jest. A flickering glance at Ian's face checked her. He was certainly well aware of the condition he was in, but he did not think it was funny. Briefly, Alinor was hurt. During the many years she had bathed high-born visitors to her keep, the reaction Ian was having occurred with other men once in a while. Sometimes it was deliberately produced by men who thought Alinor had to be dissatisfied with her husband because he was so much older than she. They had underestimated Simon, and from Alinor had received such icy courtesy that the deliberate provocation did not occur a second time. With those in whom it was an innocent accident engendered by too long a period of continence or an inadvertent physical contact, it was best to make a jest, laugh, and forget.
It was usually best, but Alinor somehow knew she must not laugh at Ian's stony-faced refusal to acknowledge his condition. She rose from her knees and stepped back, and for the first time the full impact of his beauty hit her. The black curls that usually tumbled silkily over his forehead were lank and flattened, but that did nothing to reduce the luminous quality of his large, dark eyes. The nose was fine, the lips both sensitive and sensuous. He was very tall for a man, head and shoulders both topped Alinor, and he was surprisingly hairless--just a shadow of dark down at the end of his breastbone and a narrow line from the navel to the pubic bush. His skin was very dark, very smooth, where it was not bleached and knotted by scars of battle.
In the year that Simon had been ill, Alinor was too tired and too worried to think of herself as a woman. After his death, the fatigue and worry had only intensified. Now, without warning, she became aware of her long starvation. The blood rushed from her face to her loins. She put a hand on the tub to steady herself, and thanked God that Ian was staring past her into nothing.
Had Ian been in any condition to notice, Alinor's voice would have given her away. However, he was having his own problems and was grateful that they would be hidden if not solved so easily. He stepped into the rub and eased himself slowly into the water, which was rather hot. Alinor moved quickly to stand behind him. She wondered whether she could bear to touch him, and decided it would be simpler and safer to run away and send a maid to wash him. She could always say she had remembered something overlooked in the excitement of his arrival. Even as Alinor tried to steady her voice to excuse herself, her eyes were drawn back to Ian. They rested briefly on the strong column of his neck, dropped to his broad shoulders.
"Ian! Holy Mother Mary, what befell you?"
Right across the shoulder blades, a large section of skin looked as if patches had been torn away. The wounds were not deadly, but they were horridly ugly, and gave evidence of having been reopened and rubbed raw more than once. Ian twisted his head, saw where her eyes were fixed, and laughed.
"Oh, that. A barrel of burning pitch blew apart. I was like to be a torch. My men doused me with water, but when it came to taking off my clothes, some of me went with them." His voice was normal, light, laughing at a stupid mishap. "I was ill enough pleased at it because we had taken the keep the day before, and I had not a mark on me from all the fighting. No one noticed that the barrel was afire, I suppose."
"But that was in August," Alinor exclaimed, also completely back to normal. "You idiot! Did you not have anyone look to you?"
"There were no physicians. The leeches treated me--for all the good they did. To whom should I have gone?" Ian snapped irritably. "To Queen Isabella?"
Alinor made a contemptuous noise. "At least she is not so bad as the first queen. Isabella might refuse to soil her hands on such a common slave as a mere baron, but Isobel of Gloucester would have rubbed poison into your hurts. Oh, never mind, I will attend to that later. A warm soaking will do the sores good. First I want to wash your hair. Wait, you fool, do not lean back yet. Let me get a cushion to ease you. You will scrape your back against the tub."
"You will ruin the cushion if you put it in the bath."
"It can be dried. The maids are too idle anyway."
She went out. Ian closed his eyes and sighed. An expression of indecision so intense as to amount to fear crossed his face, changed to a rather grim determination. Alinor returned with a maid at her heels. She slipped the cushion behind Ian, and he slid down against it and tipped his head back. He could hear the maid laying out fresh clothing and gathering up his soiled garments. Alinor reached over him to scoop up a ladleful of water, poured it over his head, and began to soap his hair.
"Tell me something pleasant," she said.
"Well, we took Montauban," Ian responded a little doubtfully, but at a loss for anything to say that Alinor would consider pleasant. "And a truce between Philip and John is being arranged."
"What is pleasant about that?" Alinor asked disgustedly. "It means the king will return here. Oh, curse all the Angevins. Richard loved England too little, and John--" She gave Ian's hair a rough toweling so it would not drip in his face. "Sit up and lean forward."
"Yes, Alinor, but John does love England." Ian elevated his knees, crossed his arms on them, and rested his forehead on his arms.
"Most assuredly. Like a wolf loves little children. He could eat three a day."
Alinor began to wash Ian's back very gently. She felt him wince under her hands, but his voice was steady.
"That is his nature. Like a wolf, he is dangerous only when running loose."
"And who will cage him?"
There was a long pause. Ian jerked as Alinor touched a particularly painful spot and then said, a trifle breathlessly, "I have much to say about that, but not here and now. To speak the truth, Alinor, I am tired and sore, and that is no condition for me to match words with you."
"With me? What have I-- No, never mind. I see you are about to engage in some harebrained enterprise, but I will not fret you when you are so tired. There, I have done with you for the moment. Sit up. Do you wash the rest while I go and get my salves."
Alinor handed Ian the cloth and soap. She could, of course, have told the maid to bring the medicinal salves she needed, but she was afraid to wash the rest of Ian's body. There was too much chance of arousing him and herself again. By the time she returned, he was out of the tub and had drawn on a pair of Simon's chausses. Alinor was surprised they fitted so well. She knew Ian and her late husband were much of a height, but Simon had always seemed to be a much heavier man. Perhaps it is the coloring, she thought, and the lack of body hair.
"Sit," Alinor directed, and then, "no, go lie on the bed on your face. This will be a long piece of work, and there is no need for my knees to be sore from kneeling."
"Do comfort me," Ian laughed. "Torturer."
"You will feel much better when I am done," Alinor remarked without the slightest sympathy. "Now, what other news is there?"
"None I care to tell--oh, yes, one thing. There is a rumor that the queen is at last with child."
"Poor thing," Alinor commented. "With such a father and mother, I wonder what it will be."
Ian laughed. "Do you expect horns and a tail? Do not be so harsh. There is good blood on both sides. The child need not be exactly like to the parents, although God knows yours are like enough. And now I think on it, there was something I wanted to ask about. Did you forbid Beorn to teach Adam English?"
"Forbid it? No."
It was the first time Ian had said his name. It had slipped out quite naturally, but he tensed, fearing Alinor's reaction. There was none.
"I cannot imagine why he should. Why do you ask?"
"Because I think--ouch! Alinor, leave me what little skin I have. Give over a minute. Let me rest." He turned to the side so he could see her. "I think Adam wishes to learn, and it is no bad thing to understand what those beneath you say."
"Of course not. It is most necessary. I understand English myself, although I cannot speak it. Thank you for telling me. I will speak to Beorn. Sometimes he is overcareful."
"There is something else. Beorn is a good man, but--" Ian's voice checked as the sound of childish laughter came in the doorway.
"Oh, you are here, are you?" Alinor called. "Come in then. You might as well be of some use. Ian, lie flat again. Adam, hold this pot so I do not need to bend for it each time. Joanna, look you here. See how I clean this. It is not proudflesh, which must be cut away, as I showed you aforetime. When the wound is of the skin, rather than of the flesh, wide and not deep, it must close all at once rather than from the inside. It is needful to be most gentle or the new, tender growth will be torn. See, here, where the shield strap rubbed? There is no mending this. It will heal hard and shiny--and belike tear again."
"Were you wounded in the siege?" Adam asked excitedly. 'Tell, Ian. You promised to tell."
"Mother, look here. What is this?" Joanna asked.
"Pox take it! That is an old scar torn open. That will need to be cleaned deeper."
"Ian, you promised," Adam insisted louder.
"Yes, in a moment," Ian gasped, stiffening as Alinor directed Joanna to spread the lips of a pus-filled sore so she could clean it thoroughly.
"Adam, be still!" Alinor snapped.
"But Mother-- Oh, Mother, may we sit at the high table for dinner? May we?" the irrepressible Adam demanded, jiggling up and down.
"May we, Mother?" Joanna echoed, unwisely looking up from her task so that a finger slipped and Ian jerked and groaned.
"Joanna, you careless girl! Adam, stand still! Sooner than reward you both, I will send you dinnerless to bed."
"Alinor," Ian said sharply, "do not punish them the first day I am here. They are excited. If you will be quiet, Adam, I will tell you at dinner."
"I am sorry, Ian," Joanna whispered.
"Never mind, love," he soothed, "it is nothing. Just do as your mother tells you. Do not be frightened. I will not die for a prick."
"One more sound from either of you and all Ian's pleading on your behalf will be naught. If I must speak to either of you again, I will make good my first threat and add a whipping to your dinnerless state," Alinor warned.
With her helpers properly subdued, Alinor finished her work quickly. Over the medicinal creams she spread a thin layer of grease to prevent the bandages from sticking to the sores, told Adam to pack the pots carefully and take them away, and instructed Joanna in wrapping Ian firmly but not tightly in soft, old linen. Then she sent the girl away also. Ian started to get out of the bed.
"For Mary's sake," Alinor exclaimed irritably, "lie down and sleep until dinner. If you show your face, those little devils will be at you."
"I do not mind," Ian said pacifically, then smiled. "It pleases me that they love me."
Alinor opened her mouth, shut it firmly for a moment, and then said, "Oh, go to sleep! If you do not, I will be at you, and you are too tired now to be of the least help to me."
"Alinor--" He reached for her hand.
"No, Ian. Let me be. Let me go."
He watched her run from the room and, after staring some time at the empty doorway, lay down again. The task he had set himself grew harder and harder. Somehow he had expected Alinor to be less affected, more like Adam. He had never known her to carry a burden of woe for long. Even when she lost children-- You fool, he told himself, she would not make a parade of her grief for you. There was Simon to comfort her.
"It is too soon," he muttered, but there was no way around that part of the problem.
Although Ian had craved leave to attend Simon's funeral, when that had been refused he had not, as he implied to Alinor, come as soon as he could. In fact, he had delayed as long as he thought it safe, until the terms of the truce between John and Philip were fixed and it was apparent that the king intended to sign and return to England. Simon had told Ian, not long before he died, that King John had some long-standing grudge against Alinor, which for Alinor's sake he could not explain further. The years of John's reign had been too troubled, even from the first, to permit him to vent his spite on so powerful a vassal as Simon, but now Simon was dead. Until now, the king had had more important things to think about, but if he returned to England and someone drew Alinor's defenseless state to his attention, he would work off that grudge in the most vicious way. John never forgot a grudge, and he was a vicious man.
One could not kill a woman outright or challenge her to mortal combat with a proven champion, but imprisonment and death by starvation was one of John's favorite methods of dealing with helpless prey. Ian would not give a pin for Adam's life either, and Joanna would be sold to the highest and vilest bidder, probably after the king had used her himself.
Ian groaned softly. It was hell to serve such a man, yet his faith was given. Even if he had been willing to besmirch his honor by violating his oath of fealty--and John had driven many otherwise honorable men to that pass--who else was there? Arthur of Brittany was dead. John had disposed of him, some said with his own hands. Alinor of Brittany, Arthur's sister, was kept tighter in the king's hand than his own wife, and in any case she was not like her grandmother, not a woman men would obey. The male line of Plantagenets was finished, unless John's wife bore a son. There was no one else except French Philip and his son Louis. Ian sighed. Not again. Not ever again a king who loved France better than England. There had been enough of that in Richard's day. Whatever John was as a man, he was King of England and his interest lay first with that realm.
There was no one else and Ian could not rebel, but he could keep Simon's wife and Simon's children safe from John's vengeance. He started to turn onto his back, and hissed softly with pain. Alinor was right. The sores troubled him so little now that he had forgotten them. Alinor-- Would she hate him when he told her what he had planned and had arranged? That would be unendurable, yet he must endure it for Simon's sake.
Simon was not Ian's father in the flesh, but in a more essential way he was the author of his being. Ian could remember his real father only dimly, and even that was too much. Simon had saved him from the hell of that dimly remembered existence, had taught him honor and pride and gentleness. It was a debt that could never be repaid, until now.
If only debt and desire were not so intermingled, Ian's trouble was that he wanted Alinor for herself. He had worshiped her from the day he had first seen her, almost 20 years ago, kneeling in the road to greet King Richard's mother. But one could not worship Alinor for long. She was far too real, far too much of the earth and the flesh, too kind and gentle, too hot-tempered and bawdy, to be seated on a pedestal. A man could only love or hate Alinor. Ian stirred restlessly, wondering again whether he was really paying his debt to Simon or reaching to snatch something he had always wanted.
It was no use worrying that bone again. He had been at it as soon as his initial shock of grief at Simon's death was over. His first rational thought had been that he could now have Alinor. Sickened by the exposure of that long-repressed desire, Ian had recoiled from the idea, but it returned again and again. Each time the notion seemed more reasonable. The children loved him, and he loved them. He would not steal their heritage or harm them as another might to gain absolute control of Alinor's vast estates. And as for Alinor--there was nothing Alinor could not have from him just for the asking.
In the privacy of her own chamber, a place she seldom sought now because it was redolent of happy memories, Alinor took herself to task. Of all the men in the world to lust after, Ian was the last. If she had such a need, there were a dozen men she could ask outright to service her. It would be a pleasure to them both and mean nothing to either. But not Ian. Simon had molded Ian into a mirror of his own uprightness. Not that Simon was a prude--far from it--nor that Ian would object in the least to mating casually with this woman or that. Considering what he looked like, there must have been plenty of women, particularly in John's lascivious court. The king was openly a lecher and preferred that his gentlemen and his queen's ladies should not be overly virtuous. Ian would not be horrified at bedding any lady of the court; he would only be horrified that Simon's wife could feel such a need so soon after his death.
Simon would not have been horrified, Alinor thought, chuckling while tears ran down her face. He would have bewailed her lack of morality aloud while his eyes laughed at her. Who would have believed that Ian was not old enough to accept that the flesh had its own laws, und they had little to do with the heart or mind? Yet look at his reaction to a most natural accident. Unless they were willing to use the common whores, men engaged in military actions were deprived of women. Alinor was fairly certain that Ian had little need to use a whore under ordinary circumstances; there would be plenty of willing fine ladies. She was also sure that he would recoil from using the filthy creatures that serviced the men-at-arms in a military camp. She understood that when a strong young man had been continent for months, the slightest thing, the lightest touch, would wake his body. She would have laughed and forgotten it had Ian himself not been so appalled at his reaction to "Simon's wife."
"I am not only Simon's wife," Alinor sobbed softly. "I am Alinor."
Some hours later and many miles away, across the narrow sea, a sweet, rich voice suddenly developed a snarl, interrupting itself in the midst of a sentence to ask, "What did you say about Pembroke?"
The man addressed did not blanch, even though King John seemed angry; he laughed. "I said, my lord, that we did not miss him in the taking of Montauban or in our other ventures. We did not miss him nor that mighty and sanctimonious man of his hands, Simon Lemagne, whom your brother leaned upon so heavily."
William, Earl of Salisbury, the king's bastard half brother, straightened from his bored slouch and shook his, head. He was a little the worse for wine, a condition not uncommon with him when the king and his cronies gathered. It was easier, Salisbury had discovered, not to hear too clearly when he was a little befuddled. Normally this was an ideal situation; it saved him from needing to reply and from the danger of losing his temper at what he heard. Moreover, nine times out of ten, nothing of any importance was said, the talk consisting of gross flattery of the king and gross conversation in general. Unfortunately, tonight was the tenth time. Salisbury knew there was something dangerous about the name Simon Lemagne, but at the moment he could not marshal his wits into remembering what.
"Lemagne is dead. Let him rest in peace," Philip Marc said idly.
The purring tone of the king's voice pierced the vague haze engendered by the rich Burgundy wine Salisbury had been drinking. He was still not sure where the danger lay, but when the king used that tone, someone soon suffered for it.
"There was a letter," Salisbury said thickly. "I remember, because it came the day de Vipont and I were planning the assault--"
His voice died. The mention of Ian's name suddenly brought the danger clearly to Salisbury's mind. He remembered the younger man's stricken face, his own anxious questions. Now he remembered the answers to those questions, and he was made dumb by remorse. He had said the worst possible thing in his drunken effort to divert John.
"You mean you were putting some small touches to the king's plan," Fulk de Cantelu growled aggressively. "The king told me the whole thing before ever you thought of it."
Salisbury lifted his bleary eyes from the stained table where he had been seeking a way of mending his drunken slip. In general, William of Salisbury was not a man given to hate. He tended, in fact, to blame himself for another's fault and to see the best in all men. However, he had learned over the years of his brother's reign to hate Fulk de Cantelu and the man who sat some places down from Fulk on the other side, Henry of Cornhill. It was not only that these cronies of the king were low-born, cruel, and greedy in themselves; they seemed to bring out the very worst in John.
It was not fair, Salisbury thought. There was much good in John. He was clever, he could be warm and loving and generous. That he did not often show that side of his nature was the fault of circumstances. John had been the youngest of a large and violent brood, unwanted by his powerful and magnetic mother, whom he adored, and spoiled by his father, who had already divided his vast possessions before John's birth. Thus, he had been called John Lackland, had been made the butt of jests, had been blamed for all the dissensions in the family. Salisbury knew that John felt that deep in his father's mind he had even been blamed for the rebellions and, finally, the death of his eldest brother. Although old King Henry had buried that thought deep and had been even more insistent about finding a suitable heritage for his youngest son, he could not completely conceal the canker in his heart.
Then Henry's frantic efforts to carve a kingdom for John out of Richard's domain brought about the rebellion of his second son. John was near demented. If Richard died, he would have the whole, because Geoffrey, the third brother, was dead of disease. He would also have the undying hatred of his mother, already imprisoned for her efforts in Richard's cause, and the no-less-bitter grief and hatred of his father, no matter how concealed. How much John wanted that kingdom no man, not even Salisbury, knew. At first he threw himself into the war on his father's side, but Richard was more than a match for the aging, guilt- and grief-ridden Henry.
John was clever. He saw there was more than one way to skin a cat. The kingdom could be inherited from Richard more easily than it could be wrested from him by war. John knew his brother Richard was not likely either to reign long or to breed up an heir to the throne. Richard was a lover of men; to prove himself no woman, or perhaps in some deep and concealed desire for a heroic death that would glorify his name and bring him peace, Richard fought constantly--in tournaments, if a war was temporarily lacking. What was more, Richard had taken the Cross and would go on Crusade. It was very likely that the diseases of the Holy Land would kill him if the warriors of Saladin did not.
John withdrew himself from his father's war. When the time was ripe, he went to Richard, received his indulgent brother's kiss of peace, wrested from Richard the promise of vast territories, and turned on his father. He turned on his brother, too. When it transpired that neither disease nor war had destroyed Richard, John had conspired with the ancient enemy of his family, King Philip of France, to murder Richard or, failing that, keep him imprisoned for life. That, too, failed. John's mighty mother was still alive, and she so bedeviled the Pope and the Emperor of Germany, who held Richard prisoner, that they set a ransom for him. Then, by draining the lifeblood from England and her own territories in France, she had paid that ransom and procured her son's freedom.
Now, Salisbury thought, John is being blamed for that also. Perhaps John's actions were not all that they should have been with respect to his father and his brother, but the taxes and fines that had brought such misery to England were not John's fault. Richard's Crusade and Richard's ransom had impoverished England. Richard's wars against Philip after he was freed had also cost money, and those wars were more often started by Richard than by Philip. On the other hand, it was Philip who had attacked John. John did not go looking for war, and it was not his fault if he had to pay for a war that was thrust upon him.
It was the need to pay that brought the like of Fulk de Cantelu and Henry of Cornhill into John's favor. There was no mercy in them, and they did not fear God. They would take a cross from an altar or wrest the last farthing from a starving widow with equal indifference. That was what made them valuable to John, who could do neither. From a distance, he could order the widow's property confiscated or the cross to be torn down, but he could not put his hand to such work.
The drink-muddled train of thought had brought Salisbury back to the danger of mentioning Simon Lemagne's death. It was Ian de Vipont who had told Salisbury that Simon's marriage had displeased John, who had planned to give the woman Simon married to another man. Ian wished to marry her himself now that Simon was dead, largely, Salisbury thought, to protect her children, who were the heirs to a very large property. Ian loved those children as if they were his own; he was never done talking of them, and he feared that another man might be tempted to deprive them of their rights or even, to enrich himself or his own children, do away with them. The letter Salisbury mentioned had been from the widow. It was a stupid thing to bring her into John's mind. Salisbury giggled drunkenly. For once he had reason to be grateful for Fulk's jealous spite, which would leave Salisbury no credit for anything in his brother's eyes. In Fulk's desire to deprive Salisbury of the honor of planning a successful assault, he had said what was most likely to divert the king's mind from Simon's widow.
While Salisbury's mind was in the past, however, the fulsome praise of the king had come to an end, and the end, unfortunately, brought Simon's name back into the conversation.
"He is no loss," John agreed, and he smiled.
It was a pleasant smile, if one did not look into eyes. The king was not an unhandsome man. He was growing stout, but that was characteristic of the body shape he had inherited from his father, short and very broad, with enormous strength. His coloring was his mother's, crisp, dark hair, graying very slightly now, cut evenly a few inches below the ears and growing from a decided peak on the forehead. His mouth was small and well-shaped, but the thin upper lip betrayed his cruelty, and the full lower one his lust. His nose was good and straight, the wide-springing nostrils would have warned of choler, but no man needed that warning.
All the Angevins had fierce tempers. John's, in fact, was less apparent than Henry's or Richard's. The former had been driven into such rages that he rolled the floors and tore at carpets and pillows with his teeth; the latter had more often broken furniture or heads. John was seldom violent. His temper seethed within him, gnawing at his vitals. Thus, it was not well to look into his large, dark eyes, which otherwise would have been his best and most beautiful feature.
A chorus of sycophantic laughter greeted the king's dismissal of a vassal who, if he had not loved John, had yet been faithful and had answered every call for military service until illness had made it impossible. Salisbury was saddened by his half brother's long-lived rancor, but he accepted it as he accepted John's other weaknesses, making what excuses he could for the baby brother he had protected and shielded all his life.
"He is dead, so forget him," Salisbury urged. "Tell me, brother--"
"But his lovely and wealthy widow is not dead," John interrupted, forestalling Salisbury's attempt to lead him to some other topic.
The purr was back in John's voice, and Salisbury shuddered inwardly, but he could not drive his wine-sodden brain to conceive a subject that would be more interesting. Suddenly John laughed.
"Poor woman, likely she was as glad to be rid of him as I. He must have been a useless hulk to her these many years. It comes to my mind that I would do the lady a favor by cutting short her mourning and providing her with a husband who would know how to use her abed and abroad. She is a little hot at hand--er--I have been told. Perhaps she would need a little taming. How would that sit with you, Fulk? Or you, Henry? Are either of you man enough to take such a task in hand?"
"You would do better," Salisbury said desperately, "to take a rich fine from her and leave her to her own devices. Every pound you gain will lessen the toll you must ask for from the kingdom at large. Any husband you choose will very soon bethink him that the lady's gold would go into his purse if it did not go into yours."
John looked at his brother, and for a moment the cruel mouth softened, and the hungry eyes grew milder. "You always see the best way for me, William. That was a shrewd reminder. Yes, indeed." He laughed uproariously. "I will offer the lady her choice, and when she has made it, she shall pay richly for the privilege. And you," his eyes swept the table, "my dear and loving friends, will be able to place no blame upon me. It will the lady's choice, not mine, that makes one man master of her estates."
That was not what Salisbury meant, but it was better than having John commit himself to any one man. Several would doubtless offer some bribe to get their names into the letter to Alinor. Doubtless John would wait a day or two to be sure that the bidding had ended. Then the letter must be written and sent. If John should fall into one of his periodic bouts of lethargy, and that was rather likely because he had been showing the signs Salisbury recognized of the onset of such a period, it might be weeks before he moved in the matter.
The fluctuations between periods of great energy and of total indolence that John suffered had been a puzzle to Salisbury--and to anyone else who knew the king--for many years. For weeks or months at a time, John would be busy every moment, riding from castle to castle, paying strict attention to the affairs of the kingdom, sitting in justice himself, and prosecuting every duty and pleasure to the fullest. It was not unknown in those periods for the king to come from the queen's bed to that of one of his current mistresses and even to go on to, or summon to his bed, still another. Then the intensity would begin to fade. John would show less interest in the details of governing; more of his time would be spent in sport or pleasure, in drinking bouts carried far on into the night. At last, even an active seeking of pleasure would end. John would fall asleep in his wife's bed after he serviced her, would lie abed late into the morning and spend much of the day in Isabella's company, hardly speaking, simply staring at her beautiful face and form.
In the depths of these periods of lethargy, nothing could rouse the king. Such a period had cost him Normandy. Even when he had been badgered and cajoled into moving toward the fighting, he could not be driven to take an active part in it. Then, for no apparent reason, John would become a little restless; sometimes he would withdraw from the court for a night or a few days. When he reappeared, he was bursting with energy again.
Salisbury had no hope that during his lethargy the king would forget what he had said about Alinor. There had been hate in his purring mention of Lemagne's widow. Salisbury did not understand that, but he knew his brother never forgot a planned revenge on anyone marked by his hatred. Salisbury would never hurt John, but if he could shield the woman without doing his brother any harm, he was willing to do so for Ian de Vipont's friend.