Baron Adam of Wynethorpe opened his eyes.
How long had he lain in this bed? Time had an unnatural feel. He no longer had any sense of it.
A tall nun leaned over and smiled at him.
Although her features were indistinct, he was certain he knew her. A memory flickered. Was it she who had come with his daughter and saved his grandson’s life many years ago?
He struggled to speak, but his words were unintelligible. Trying again, he failed and grew angry with frustration. Had he been bewitched?
“I am Sister Anne, sub-infirmarian from your daughter’s priory at Tyndal,” the nun said.
Adam tried to smile, but he could not feel one side of his mouth. That she had understood what he wished to ask was a miracle, he thought, for he was only able to utter grunts and gasps.
“I am here, Father.” This woman’s soft voice was at his ear. “Hugh should arrive soon, but the snows have kept Robert at Wynethorpe Castle.”
It was his youngest child, and he was relieved she was beside him. As much as he loved all three of his children, it was his daughter, Prioress Eleanor, who gave him the greatest joy. If he could not reply with speech, at least he was still able to nod.
His daughter took his hand and placed his palm against her cheek. “You have suffered apoplexy,” she said. “Sister Anne, Brother Thomas, and I came to Woodstock Manor as soon as we received word.”
In acknowledgement of what she just said, he blinked. His eyes were heavy with fatigue and he let them remain shut for a moment. It was then that the memory of what had happened to him returned.
King Edward, Queen Eleanor, and chosen members of their court had gathered at this manor in Oxfordshire before traveling on to Gloucestershire where the royal couple spent every March. Baron Adam was one of the few who always accompanied them to their secular retreat at Quenington, a manor actually owned by the Knights Hospitaller. One evening, while the king was in conversation with him, the earth inexplicably rose to smite Adam. His last thought, before all went black, was to wonder how this extraordinary event could even occur.
When he awoke from a strange sleep and even more pecu- liar dreams, he was lying in this bed. His grandson, Richard FitzHugh, was by his side. The youth smiled, then bent closer to say that Prioress Eleanor, her talented sub-infirmarian, and Brother Thomas had been summoned from Tyndal Priory.
Before he drifted back into an uneasy slumber that day, Adam felt relieved that his beloved daughter would be accompanied by Brother Thomas. If he was going to die, he wanted to confess and receive the comfort of the Church from a man of God whom he respected. Not only had Brother Thomas proven his loyalty to the Wynethorpe family, but he had become an advisor and confidant to young Richard when the lad’s own father was fighting in Outremer and Wales. Sometimes, Adam thought, his grandson was closer to Brother Thomas than he was to his actual father.
A chill struck him. Was he dying now? He opened his eyes wide.
The world he knew was still there.
Sister Anne lifted his left arm and ran something along it, then looked down at the baron.
He felt nothing. Assuming she had reason for this, he shook his head.
She gently laid his arm down and smiled, but her eyes lacked brightness.
Now he was certain he would not recover. Sister Anne’s smile was meant to convey hope, but her eyes betrayed her. Had he not learned to read a man’s true thoughts behind the public expressions, Adam would never have survived the court of kings, let alone won victories to benefit his family’s fortunes.
“Are you able to eat some soup?”
Looking at his daughter, he saw she held a bowl. Despite the crackling fire not far from him and the bright tapestries hanging from the walls, the room felt so cold. A light steam rose from the food. He managed to utter something that almost sounded like yes.
Sister Anne draped a cloth under his chin and over his chest. Eleanor sat on his right and dipped a spoon into the thick meat broth. “Sip it, Father,” she said. He could hear her tears even if she did manage to hide all other evidence of them.
As he drew the warm soup into his mouth, he felt a sudden panic. Could he swallow it?
“If you cannot eat, spit it out, my lord,” the sub-infirmarian said.
Once he relaxed, he was able to do so. After a third spoonful, he grunted.
His daughter understood he wished no more and gave the bowl to a servant to remove.
The soup tasted like metal, even if the smell suggested the broth had been made with fresh meat and pungent spices. If he could not taste food, he no longer cared to eat it. And the effort to suck up the three spoonfuls had exhausted him.
Although he slept, the rest never chased away fatigue. When he awoke, he felt as weary as he did when he fell asleep. Now, as he faded again into his world of curious dreams, he looked around the room one last time.
In the corners, there were odd shadows he hadn’t noticed before. Glancing at the window, he knew it was daylight. Perhaps, he thought, the sun is too weak to chase away all hints of Satan’s hour?
But his eyelids grew heavy as iron, and they closed against his will. There were people in the room, and he knew they must be speaking. Most assuredly, his daughter was praying, but he heard nothing except a distant mumbling. The hush weighed down on him like a great tapestry. In the past, this would have been frightening. Instead, it brought him a curious tranquility. Yes, he decided with relief, I am ready to die. I shall not fight against Death when he takes me by the hand and leads me to God’s judgment.
With that thought, Baron Adam of Wynethorpe fell into a sleep that some would call the harbinger of the eternity for which he now longed.
The sun tried to erase the memory of the great storm that had just passed through, but it failed despite the now-dazzling light. During the early morning hours, black clouds had turned the land dark with pelting rain, and winds howled like the damned in Hell. Outside the walls of Woodstock Manor, large branches lay scattered across the road like dead soldiers on a battlefield, and a few trees leaned sharply, victims to a fierce wind that rarely struck this part of England.
It also left foul mud, Brother Thomas thought with disgust, as he watched his feet sink into the tan muck. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Richard FitzHugh trudging back and forth with undefined purpose. The lad seemed oblivious to the mud covering his boots.
“I doubt your father will arrive this soon,” the monk said to the nervous youth. “The roads on which Sir Hugh will travel may not be passable.”
Richard looked down at the ground. They were standing in the middle of what was, only yesterday, a byway to the manor. Now a stream of rushing water gouged a path where horses and wagons must pass. As treacherous as the journey would be through this, it promised to be even worse when the earth dried into a surface so rough it might break a horse’s leg.
With a sheepish look, the youth nodded to the monk and turned back to the gates of the manor house. Brother Thomas followed. If I had had a son, he thought, as he climbed with Richard up the slight incline to the manor, I would have wanted the boy to be like him. Sir Hugh was rarely with the lad, and the monk had become like a father to him, a situation Thomas relished.
He loved Richard’s cleverness. At fifteen, the youth often thought like a boy, but he showed evidence of becoming a thoughtful and capable man. As a child, Richard had visited Tyndal Priory and delighted Prioress Eleanor and Brother Thomas with his harmless antics and surprising wit. He was also eager to learn, asking endless questions of the adults. Some might have found this habit annoying. Neither aunt nor monk did.
Richard was now grieving over the impending death of his grandfather, a man who might have frightened him at times but one whom he admired. Baron Adam was like a mythological knight to his grandson: loyal counselor to his king, brave in battle, faithful in both body and heart to his dead wife, generous to the Church, and fiercely devoted to family.
But something else was also troubling the young man, and Thomas did not know the exact cause. Baron Adam’s mortal illness did not completely explain Richard’s pale countenance and obsessive restlessness. These signs developed only after he learned that Sir Hugh was traveling to Woodstock Manor.
“Your father is traveling as quickly as he can,” Thomas said, concluding that the youth’s reaction might be fear that Sir Hugh would not be here in time for the baron’s death.
Richard shuddered and wheeled around. His eyes were dark with unmistakable terror.
Although the lad looked like Sir Hugh, with his height, broad shoulders, and muscular build, Thomas had never seen a fear so profound in the father’s eyes, even when he was facing death in a cave from an angry sea rising to drown him. There must be more worrying Richard than the need for a father’s comfort in the face of his grandfather’s death.
“Aye, Brother, he will.” Richard wrapped his arms around his chest.
Others might assume he felt the chill in the air. Thomas knew he was trying to calm himself.
“Since my Uncle Robert cannot be here, and Sister Beatrice is too frail to travel from Amesbury Priory to be at her brother’s bedside, my lord father will be here if he has to propel himself and his men through a great mud sea to do so.”
There was much pride in those words, but the monk also sensed a hint of disdain. Youths longing to attain the status of manhood often grew unsettled under the rule of fathers, but the monk hoped there was no possibility of conflict now between sire and lad. Hearts were bruised enough with sorrow over the baron’s pending death.
At the same age, Thomas had felt obliged to win his father’s high opinion. Since he was only his father’s by-blow, he knew from boyhood that he must earn his security. He succeeded and was sent to cathedral school so he might gain a fine position in the Church. Never once had the monk uttered a disparaging word or tone of voice when he spoke of his father. He knew how tenuous life could be for one born out of a brief tryst. Did Richard? Like Thomas, Richard was illegitimate.
A crow flew overhead and landed on a nearby tree limb. Clinging to the swaying branch, the bird cawed with braying sharpness as if determined to remind all living things that he was considered a harbinger of death.
The young squire looked up at the creature and trembled.
Thomas had counseled the boy in discretion when the youth was ready to leave his grandfather and Wynethorpe Castle for a position as a page in the king’s court. Since then, the lad had never shown any inclination to disregard this counsel. Had something happened recently to make him grow less amenable?
Richard stared at the crow for an instant longer and then continued on to the manor entrance.
Try as he might, the monk could not think of anything that had altered, other than Richard’s position from page to squire. When had he first noticed the change from shyness around Sir Hugh to this thinly masked discontent? Although Thomas had fallen from grace when he was caught in the arms of a man he loved deeply, he knew Richard did not suffer this particular torment. The youth had always confided his fears to the monk. Why had he remained silent about whatever was troubling him now?
Thomas stopped at the gate and found a rock against which he could rub his boots. The result did not make him happy. The anticipation of having to clean them thoroughly later did not please.
As they entered the courtyard, Richard stopped to talk to a young man of his own age who was surrounded by several playful young hounds.
Thomas raised his face to the sun. It had now grown surpris- ingly warm for the end of March, especially after that brutal storm. Opening his eyes, he realized that the windows of Queen Eleanor’s lying-in chambers were immediately above.
The young men gestured with enthusiasm as they began a debate over the merits of various hunting dogs.
Thomas turned his thoughts to the health of the king’s wife. He had heard that she was recovering apace.
By the grace of God, the birthing of a baby girl had gone well. The king had waited, pacing outside the chamber where his beloved wife was struggling to preserve her own life while bringing forth another. He refused to leave until he could see her and the child. From all reports, King Edward had looked down on little Mary in his arms with besotted adoration, suggesting she would be favored, as his daughters always were.
Considering the royal couple’s fondness for the tales of King Arthur, Thomas was surprised the little one had not been called Guinevere, in hopes that she would be the means by which the legends would be fulfilled. And wasn’t this bright sun an omen of a glorious future? He realized he was grinning over his idle musing. “Shall you share the joke with me, Brother?” Richard’s eyes were twinkling.
This was the boy the monk knew best, one who enjoyed a bit of gentle mischief. “I have decided that the sun might foretell the return to England of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere.”
Richard gestured at the departing varlet des chiens with his bounding pack of dogs. “My friend has recently become the assistant to the Master Huntsman and concurs with his master that the earth is growing warmer. As a consequence, our queen’s hunting dogs may be shifted soon from their higher beds to the oaken ones on the ground. Now which event do you consider more likely, Brother? The return of the legendary king or imminent arrival of summer?”
“You trust this young man’s reasoning?”
“When he was still the page to the kennel, and let me sleep with the dogs on occasion, he taught me how to heal their feet with salted water. I would trust my own feet to him before I would the court physician. Considering how much you walk, Brother, would you not have confidence in such a man?”
Thomas looked down at his booted feet, bearing the evidence of his march through the dense road mud, and then glanced back up at the sun. “As difficult as it is to believe your friend now, I suspect he is more likely to be right than those who talk of King Arthur returning from Avalon.”
The two laughed heartily as they walked into the manor where a warm fire and a fine mulled wine with honey and ginger awaited them in the dining hall.
Perhaps, Thomas thought, the youth would confide in him now.
# # #
Richard warmed his hands around the cup of wine. “I grieve over my grandfather dying.”
“He will have a good death,” the monk replied, noting the youth’s moist eyes. “All mortals are flawed, but your grandfather has been a far better man than most. God will surely be kind to his soul.”
“It was he who arranged for me to become a page in the king’s court.” Richard sipped at the cup, then put it down on the table, and gazed into the distance.
“It was also your father who…”
“He was with our current king in Acre. It was my grandfather who did this. I have tried to be worthy of his kindness.” The tone was brusque, but his smile softened it.
“And you are now a squire,” Thomas replied. “I have heard that King Edward will take you into his own service. That brings great honor to your family.” He had never tried to hide his pride in the lad’s accomplishments and did not do so now.
Richard stared at his cup with an expression of uneasiness he did not disguise.
“If you are thinking of your birth, you need not. Your father acknowledged you soon after you were born. Your grandfather could not have done more for you, had you been the child of a lawful wife. Prioress Eleanor, your uncle, and Sister Beatrice have taken you into their hearts. You are a Wynethorpe.”
“And you, Brother, what do you think?”
Thomas blinked. Should he ask Richard what had happened to cause this apparent unease or was the youth about to tell him? He chose to let the young man speak further if he wished. “My own father was of high rank, but my mother’s station was not,” he continued. “I do not even know her name, yet he educated me for the Church as he might any younger son. You have met others of similar birth who have proven themselves and received a father’s welcoming embrace into the family. That place is yours already. What cause do you have to doubt it?”
“That is not what I meant. Do you think I serve the family well?”
“Yes.” Thomas was emphatic. “And should I now fail?”
“We all must in some way. Even though we were created in God’s image, we are imperfect creatures. But if you adhere to honorable principles, remain humble to God, keep a kind heart, and obey your worthy father, you will bring honor to the family and repay the gifts bestowed upon you by your sire and grandsire.”
Frowning with his thoughts, Richard picked up his cup and drank.
Before any more could be said, a servant emerged through the doorway and ran to Richard. “Your lord father has arrived and expects your attendance!”
Sweat broke out on the young squire’s forehead, but he thanked the man and sent him back with word to Sir Hugh that he would come as required.
Thomas could no longer bear not knowing what Richard was suffering. He rested his hand on the youth’s arm to keep him seated a moment longer. “What is troubling you?”
The young man sighed. “I wish I could lie to you, Brother, but I cannot. Please wait until tomorrow before urging me to speak. I beg this favor of you.” His eyes filled with tears. “I own a secret that will make my father hate me and sever all contact between us.”
With that, the youth rose and walked swiftly away to meet the man he dreaded to see.