A Lily on the Heath Page 1



April 1166

“I shall have her murdered!” the queen raged. The long, pointed edges of her sleeves brushed the stone floor, flowing and sweeping as she stalked across the solar. “When I find that woman who tempts my husband from my side, ’twill be her bitter end!”

Judith of Kentworth, Lady of Lilyfare, did not flinch at her mistress’s fury. It was not the first time she’d seen Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England and wife of Henry the Plantagenet, boiling with anger. Nay, she did not flinch or skulk or hide from the queen’s wrath as the maids and even some of the more spineless ladies did. She listened sympathetically, as a confidante and friend would do, for there were few whom the queen could truly count as both.

“I will have her banished,” seethed the queen. “Or married to a coarse Welshman and sent off to the mountains.”

“But my lady, your highness, surely no man would be tempted from the side of a woman as beautiful and wealthy as yourself,” ventured Lady Amice from the silk cassock on which she perched, edging as far from the raging queen as possible.

Judith barely kept from rolling her eyes. She would have turned on the boulder-headed Amice herself, but the queen, in as fine a fettle as Judith had ever seen her, was already shrieking at the hapless woman.

“You fool! Do you not have eyes in your vacant head? The whole of his court knows of his wandering eye and his pinching fingers. Get you out of here!” Eleanor cried. Now, true tears, not those born of rage, threatened her blue eyes. “Get from my sight!”

Judith pulled to her feet for ’twas past time to intervene. Glowering at Amice, the only other of Eleanor’s ladies to remain after she launched into her tirade, Judith snapped her fingers to send the foolish woman from the chamber.

She and the queen were alone.

“My lady…Eleanor. Do you sit. This raging cannot be good for the babe.” Judith gently took Eleanor’s slender arm, ready to release it if the queen wasn’t ready to succumb, and urged her toward a large chair piled with cushions. Any intervention with the queen must be done gently.

“The babe of my faithless husband,” Eleanor muttered, smoothing her hands over the small, tight bulge under her gown. But she heeded Judith’s advice and sank onto the bean-filled cushions.

“Some wine, my lady? Mayhap another apple?” The queen had shown a particular fondness for apples during this breeding time. This was a difficulty, as it was early spring and fresh apples were out of season. The dried, bruised ones kept in the cellars beneath the kitchens did not ease her longing, but the king had had several baskets shipped from the Holy Lands.

“See you, the king loves you, my lady,” Judith reminded her truthfully as she selected one of the red-orange fruit to slice in two. “Else he would not make certain that every ship from Jerusalem carries your apples.”

“Nay, ’tis his heir he loves,” Eleanor snapped. Her face, arguably the most beautiful in all of Christendom, shined with a streak of tear-tracks on each cheek. Rounder now, due to pregnancy, her countenance bore traces of harshness and anger. Her wide blue eyes narrowed, and a soft curl of honey-blonde hair had loosed uncharacteristically from her intricate coiffure. “He cannot keep his cock stuffed inside his breeches. ’Tis a wonder there are not thrice as many bastards as heirs in this court!”

That was saying quite a lot, for the king and queen already had a surplus of living children: Henry, Matilda, Richard, Geoffrey, and Eleanor.

Judith offered the queen a bejeweled salver, with the halved apple resting on it. “My lady, this truth I speak, and I know you will hear it from me…the king might have a wandering eye, but his hands and cock do not always follow. And indeed, ’tis always your bed to which he returns. And you on which his eyes settle. ’Tis you to whom he goes for advice. You have his head and his heart, your highness.”

Eleanor pushed away the plate, and Judith replaced it on the table betwixt them. She nodded, yet her eyes were sad. “Aye, Judith, I wish to believe you. Despite my strong ways, he does bear me some love. And ’tis my great cross that I must love him so, so that it pains me thus when he seeks release elsewhere.”

“But you are his queen, and ever will be,” Judith added gently. She lifted the errant wisp of blond hair and smoothed it into place, rearranging a jeweled pin to hold it as Eleanor sighed.

The queen nodded, and Judith, who had only seen her so sad and lost once before, was relieved to see a spark of determination flare back in her eyes. “Aye. Though I grow large with child, and longer in tooth, I am still Hank’s queen, and I remain his partner. ’Tis true he comes to me for advice as oft as he does his Chancellor. ’Tis a cross I must come to accept, then. His wandering hands.”

“Longer in tooth? My lady, you are hardly over two score. The king’s mother Matilda still lives, and she is nearly sixty years.”

Eleanor smiled and reached to pat Judith’s arm. “Thank you, my dear. You have done your duty and pulled me from my sulks. You know that I count you as friend as much as attendant, Judith.”

“I am most privileged, your highness,” she replied.

But Judith could not help but compare the benefits with the drawbacks of such a position. Being close to the queen was a double-edged sword, and she must step lively to assure she did not meet the wrong side of it.

“Should I live to be such a ripe age as Matilda, I’ll have skin trailed with wrinkles and breasts sagging to my belly, but now I am still young enough to turn the heads of the men both young and old. If Hank does not tend to his queen, mayhap she will find another lion of her own.”

Being witness to such a threat was an example of the wrong side of the sword—the one that Judith did not want slicing into her flesh, literally or nay. Though the king might sow his oats wildly, he would not accept being cuckolded himself. “My lady, I know this has been a difficult breeding for you…mayhap once you have birthed this babe, you will feel differently.”

Eleanor’s laugh held a raw edge. “Aye, after I have birthed this babe, Hank will no doubt eagerly find his way back to my bed.”

“’Tis where he belongs, my lady. An’ he knows it too.”

The queen sighed, smoothing her hand over her belly once more. “Aye. Thank you, Judith. I am relieved I can trust you to listen even when I rage.”

“You ever have my loyalty, Eleanor,” she replied. “That I vow.”


Fourteen months later

June, 1167

“And thus it begins.”

Malcolm de Monde, Lord of Warwick, drew on the reins and halted his horse. They were on a small rise overlooking the walled castle at Clarendon, where King Henry, Queen Eleanor and the royal court were currently in residence.

From here, he could see countless tendrils of smoke rising into a clear blue sky from the walled cluster of buildings. The castle rose above them, and men at arms watched from the roof. Carts and wagons trundled in and out of the main gate, men-at-arms in groups clattered over the drawbridge, and peasants and tradesmen hurried about their business in the town below.

“I detest court,” Malcolm added as he glanced over at his squire, who’d brought his horse up next to him. But Mal’s grumbling was unnecessary, for Gambert knew precisely how his master felt about the necessity of leaving Warwick in order to immerse himself in the false niceties, manipulations, and stifling closeness of the royal court.

But he had no choice. Sarah had been dead these four summers, and it was past time for him to take another wife and beget an heir. Although he could certainly do the latter without royal permission—and he was considering a particular Lady Beatrice, the heiress of Delbring—a vassal of Mal’s stature couldn’t wed without the blessing of the king unless he wished to be taxed and fined up to his eyes for such an impudence. Henry had to fund his continuous warring here in England as well as in France—where he and his wife had massive land holdings. Thus the king took any opportunity to impose fines and taxes and liens upon his vassals.

A shadow overhead caught Mal’s attention and he looked up in time to see a golden-brown merlin hawk shooting down from the sky. Entranced by its grace and speed, he watched as the bird skimmed over a small meadow to the north, grazing the tops of its grasses, and then with the slightest hitch in its long, low arc, jerked and then swooped back up. Now, a small creature—rabbit, most likely—dangled from its beak.

Mal watched as the hawk darted toward the edge of the meadow, likely to settle in a treetop nest to tear its meal into edible pieces. Or mayhap it was a hunter bird, trained by a royal falconer, and would return to settle on a leather cuff worn to protect the falconer’s skin from the talons. Malcolm found himself rising in the stirrups to see where the bird went—out of curiosity as much as to delay the inevitable of riding onward.

His procrastination was rewarded, for the slight addition to his height gave him a better view into the small meadow cupped by stands of pines, oaks, and other thick trees. At the edge was revealed two men, one in a slouching hood and the other bareheaded. As Mal watched, the handsome raptor landed on the ground near his master, catch still firmly in its talons. The hooded hunter knelt to retrieve the kill before the hawk finished it off. Moments later, he stood, and then, with a shimmer of wings, the raptor flew up and settled onto his outstretched hand. Even from here, Mal could see the merlin eating its reward—likely a chunk of rabbit or squirrel—from the fist of its master.

The sight couldn’t help but remind him of a girl he’d known once, when he was a squire hardly older than Gambert. Quick-witted and vivacious, with a beacon of red-gold hair that was as bold as her personality, Judith of Kentworth had nevertheless been mild and patient with the hunting birds her father bred and trained. Mal had fostered along with Gregory of Lundhame, Judith’s betrothed, at Kentworth. He’d felt the quick edge of her tongue more often than he’d landed on his arse during sword practice—and that was saying a lot. Mal was shy, light of weight and much too gangly in those years, and he’d spent more time than he cared to admit on the wrong end of a practice sword. More often than not, it was one held by Gregory.

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