A Whisper Of Rosemary Page 1


England, 1126

“I cannot wed him!”

Allegra, Lady of Cleonis and Firmain, grasped at her lover’s hands, clutching them with her cold fingers. “’Tis you I love! Only you!”

He smoothed a hand down the side of her face even as pain thrummed in his temples. “My love, you must do as the king wills. And you know that I cannot wed with you, for I am promised to another.”

Tears glistened in her eyes and he thumbed one away, then reached to hold her hands with both of his own. He blinked furiously, squeezing his eyes closed, trying to force the pain away from his head, but it would not abate.

He must not think on the image that came always with the pain, the image of his parents lying, broken, on the ground beneath the tower. It had happened long ago, and there was naught he could do to save them—then or now.

“What shall happen when I couple with him? There will be no maidenhead to breach, and Lord Merle is like to kill me for leading him falsely!” Allegra’s tears fell freely now, and her voice held a clear strain of panic.

He strove to clear his mind, and to find a way to stem her weeping. For if he did not have relief, he would go mad. Mayhap he already was.

“I shall send to your maid a pig’s bladder filled with blood. You will hide it under your pillow, and when you couple with your new husband, you must cry out in hurt, as you did with me.” He tightened his fingers around her wrists, ignoring her gasp of pain. “And when he sleeps anon, you will break that bladder of blood and smear it over your thighs, and on the bed sheets. And Lord Merle will be none the wiser.”

Allegra’s blue eyes pooled with tears and grief. “Aye. And then I shall be wed with a man I do not love, whilst I carry the babe of the man I do.”

~ Part I ~


Eighteen Years Later

Langumont Keep

“Lady Allegra, a man has arrived below-stairs and wishes to speak with you.”

Maris looked up from the embroidery on which she had been trying to concentrate and eagerly dropped it to the table in front of her. “I’ll attend to the visitor, Mama. I’ve enough of needles and thread for the day.”

She rose, glancing automatically out the narrow window for a sign of approaching riders. There was naught on the horizon but snow-covered hills and sparse trees.

Her mother, Allegra, Lady of Langumont, gave her a vague smile and made no move to stir. “And if you continue to seize every opportunity to put your sewing aside, how will you finish your father’s surcoat by Christ’s Mass?”

“I’ll finish it in time, Mama,” Maris told her. And she would, too, for it was almost as if her father couldn’t return home in time for the celebrations unless she did. Yet, Maris glanced at the half-finished surcoat and wished she hadn’t chosen to embark on such a complicated project.

“Very well,” Allegra told her. “Greet our visitor in my stead and do what you can for him.”

It was the difference between she and her mother, Maris reflected as she hurried down the curving stone staircase. She moved with such alacrity that the tapestries billowed against the walls and wisps of her hair fluttered against her cheeks. Her mother had always preferred to wait for what would come, whilst Maris rode eagerly to meet trouble—or anything else of interest.

In the absence of Lord Merle, her father, Maris managed the fief, with the help of Langumont’s steward. Allegra was content to stitch on the many tapestries that decorated the walls, or to manage the sewing ladies. Mayhap, if roused, she would make selections of fabrics, or choose meats for the evening meals, but she did not bestir herself with managing the estate.

Such was gladly left to her enthusiastic daughter, the only child of Allegra and Merle, and the sole heiress to Langumont’s vast holdings. It was only right that a woman who was heir to such large holdings must clearly understand the management of them—from every home of each villein and tradesman, to which fields belonged to the overlord, and which were left to the villagers. She knew every inch of every acre of forest as well, and rode out with her father as often as he allowed.

When she was near the bottom of the stairs, Maris took a moment to adjust her headdress and wimple. The Lady of Langumont might be busy, but she never appeared rushed.

At this time of the day, mid-afternoon, when the winter sun sunk low to the trees, the hall was empty of men-at-arms and bustling with serfs preparing for the evening meal. A lone, stationary man dressed in fine clothing stood near the stone fireplace that stretched nearly the length of one wall. He appeared to be surveying the room, and when Maris came into his view, he turned to look at her.

She approached him with regal bearing. “I am Lady Maris Lareux. You are well come to Langumont Keep.”

He was not overly tall, but taller than she, and his small, sharp black eyes scored over her as if snatching in every detail in a large gulp. More of an age with Allegra than Maris, the man was mayhap one and a half score.

He was not unpleasing to look upon, with his gleaming black hair, fashionable moustache and neatly trimmed beard, and at first, he appeared neat and well dressed. Yet as Maris returned his bold gaze with one of her own, she noted the splotch of a stain on the midriff of his tunic and the frayed hem of the cross-garters on his left leg.

“I am Bon de Savrille, my lady. I had not expected...I was led to believe that the Lady of Langumont was called Allegra.”

“Lady Allegra is my mother,” Maris told him. “She has asked that I greet our guests and tend to their needs as she is otherwise occupied. May I offer you aught to eat or drink? If you have a message for my mother, I would be pleased to relay it to her.”

“Nay,” he returned, his gaze sweeping her again so that she felt the urge to look down and make certain the laces were tied at her bliaut’s bosom. “Nay, ’tis not she to whom I wish to speak.”

“But you did request to see the Lady of Langumont,” Maris pressed. “Do you bear a message of some sort? From my father?” A sudden fear seized her middle.

“Nay. I am merely in need of a pallet for the night, as I am traveling to my home. I asked only for Lady Allegra, as her name was familiar to me. I knew her once long ago, and had heard that she was lady here.” He smiled, and though he likely meant it to be a warm one, Maris thought it carried the greasiness of an undercooked hare.

The man was odd, but she did not fear him. Nay, she had no need to fear him, or any other man while in Langumont. At the slightest crook of her little finger, any number of men-at-arms would rush to her assistance or protection.

This single man who, even if he were armed could be wearing only a dagger or eating knife, posed no threat to her. Still. His expression caused Maris to step away, grateful for something to do other than to allow the man to rake her up and down with his eyes.

The look there was a mixture of complacence, interest, and cunning, and not for the first time did Maris wish she had Good Venny’s seventh sense for understanding people.

“You may have a seat at any of the tables, and there are pallets in the room below-stairs. If there is anything else you wish, please send for Ralf.”

Maris made a move to go, but the man stopped her. “My lady, there is one last thing. If you would give this to your lady mother, mayhap she will remember me.” She saw that he was working a tight ring from a middle finger that resembled a sausage more than an appendage.

At last it slipped free, and he dropped the heavy, warm gold into her hand. Maris closed her fingers around it. “I’ll give it to her and return with her message.”

“Indeed. And many thanks to you for your hospitality.” His gaze transferred from her to sweep the room, as if taking in its expansiveness and accoutrements.

Glad to be released from what had to be the oddest conversation she’d had since the daft miller Brander had passed on, Maris nodded and gave a brief bow before sweeping from the hall. Ralf would tend to Bon de Savrille if he had any further needs. She would take the ring to Allegra and see what her mother remembered of this bizarre man.

As Maris entered the room, she offered the heavy gold ring to her mother, saying, “Our visitor is named Bon de Savrille, and he sends this to you.”

To Maris’s shock, Allegra’s face drained of color. Her eyes grew round and her body stiffened. With fingers that shook, she took the ring from Maris’s hand, closing her fingers around it as if to imprison it.

“Mama, what is it? Shall I order him thrown out?” A wave of strength and protectiveness surged from Maris’s middle. If the man sought to hurt Allegra, or to threaten her in some way, he would be swiftly dealt with.

“Nay. Nay, my sweetling. ’Tis naught. I merely felt a bit light of head for the moment.” Allegra’s smile was a bit wobbly.

“But Mama—”

“Nay.” Allegra’s voice, rarely this harsh and strong, stopped the words from her daughter’s mouth. “’Tis naught, Maris. I am merely weary and wish to rest. You may leave me. Do you not give that man any further message or attention. I bid you leave him be. He is no one.”

As Maris left the chamber, Allegra’s heart was ramming so hard in her throat that she thought it might choke her. Her hands had become cold, and they were stiff with the chilling fear that filled her. She wanted naught more than to stay in this sunlit solar, to ignore the man from her past.

His arrival could mean nothing good.

But she knew she must speak with Bon. His summons had been implicit when he gave Maris the signet ring to show Allegra. She must find out why he’d reappeared after so many years, and what he wanted from her. And so she descended the stairs to the great hall, knowing he’d be waiting for her to appear.

Knowing that she’d come to him.

She wasn’t mistaken, for he was sitting on a stool near one of the smaller fireplaces, watching her from across the vast chamber. Ignoring him, Allegra sent Maris on an errand to the kitchen. She knew that her headstrong and directive daughter would be occupied for some time therein, for one of the cook’s children had taken ill. Before moving in the direction of her visitor, Allegra gave several more orders that would take most of the serfs, as well as the steward and the few men-at-arms from the hall as well. She wanted as few witnesses as possible.

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