Authors: Johanna Lindsey
|Shefford's Knights |
|Harper Collins (1999)|
Setting: England, 1214
Wulfric de Thorpe was betrothed at age 13 to 6-year-old Milisant Crispin, daughter of his father's best friend--a "good" match for both families--but their first and only meeting was a disaster. They unwittingly injured each other when he was badly bitten by her falcon and Milisant received a broken ankle in the resulting chaos. Needless to say, the two have fiercely disliked each other ever since. Now 25, Wulfric reluctantly arrives at Dunburh Castle to claim his bride. To his dismay, he finds that although Milisant is now 19 and stunningly beautiful, she is still a sharp-tongued, untamed tomboy who refuses to obey her beloved father, dresses in male clothing, is an expert archer, and has a magic touch with animals of all sorts. Wulfric gloomily decides that his hope for a biddable lady wife is doomed. Just as pessimistic, Milisant fears that marriage to the handsome, powerful Wulfric will mean that "he would smother me, try to break me." Neither Milisant nor Wulfric want to wed, but the two can't bring themselves to refuse and disappoint their respective fathers.
Thrust into each other's company, a powerful attraction grows between them, despite their difficult past. But darker forces have political reasons for preventing the wedding, and they'll stop at nothing to succeed, including murdering Milisant. Will Wulfric be able to keep his new love alive long enough to marry her?
Walter de Roghton sat
in the antechamber outside the king’s chamber, where he had been left to wait. He was still hopeful that he was to have the audience that he had been promised, but as minutes turned to hours and still he was not summoned, it was doubtful that it would be tonight. Other lords had gathered, other hopefuls like himself who wanted something of King John. Walter was the only one among them who didn’t appear nervous. He was; he just managed to conceal it much better than the others.
And there was much to be nervous about. John Plantagenet was one of the most hated kings in all of Christendom, one of the most treacherous and deceitful. A king who thought nothing of hanging innocent children who’d been held as hostages when he needed to set an
example for his enemies. As an example, it had failed. As a heinous act, it had served to turn John’s barons even more against him, in fear and disgust.
This was a king who twice tried to wrest the crown from his own brother, Richard Lionheart, and had twice been forgiven that treason due to their mother’s intervention. And once the crown was his upon Richard’s death, he’d had the only other claimant to it, his young nephew Arthur, killed, and Arthur’s sister Eleanor imprisoned for more than half her life.
Some had pitied John as the youngest of King Henry’s four sons. There had been nothing left of Henry’s kingdom to give to John after it had been divided among his older brothers. Thus the name that had long followed him of John Lackland. But there was little to pity about the man who had become king. There was nothing to pity about the man who had put his country under excommunication for many years because of his war with the church, a ban that had only just been lifted. No, there was much to hate about this king, and much to fear.
Walter was making himself more nervous thinking about John’s many misdeeds, though he still managed to appear calm to any who might glance his way. For the thousandth time he wondered, was it worth it? And what if his proposed plan went awry?
Walter could, in truth, live out the rest of his days without ever coming under the king’s notice. He was a minor baron, after all, one who had no need to frequent the king’s court. But
there was the rub. He was of little import … yet he would have it otherwise.
It should have been otherwise years ago, when he had discovered the perfect heiress and diligently courted her, only to have her stolen from him by a lord with a greater title. The woman who should have been his wife, Lady Anne of Lydshire, would have brought him great wealth and power with her dower lands. Instead she had been given to Guy de Thorpe, the Earl of Shefford, more than doubling de Thorpe’s holdings, thereby making
one of the more powerful families in England.
The wife Walter did finally end up with had been a bad choice all around, as it turned out, which only added salt to the wound of his resentment. The property she had brought him had been acceptable at the time, but was unfortunately located in La Marche, and so lost when John lost most of his French holdings. Walter could have retained the land if he’d been willing to swear allegiance to the French king, but then he would have lost his keep in England. And his property in England was the larger.
Additionally, his wife had given him no sons, and only one daughter. Useless, that woman was. His daughter, Claire, however, he finally had a use for, now she’d reached the marriageable age of ten and two.
Thus Walter’s visit to King John was twofold, revenge for that long-ago slight, when he had been overlooked as a suitor for Anne, and to finally wrest her property and more from Shefford by marrying Claire to Shefford’s only son and heir.
It was a brilliant plan and the timing for it was ideal. Rumors were flying that John was soon going to make another attempt to seize the Angevin lands he had lost so long ago. And Walter had a carrot to dangle in front of John—if only he could lay the plan before him.
Finally the door to John’s chamber opened and Chester, one of the few earls whom John still trusted completely, ushered Walter in. He made haste to kneel before the king, was impatiently waved to his feet.
The chamber was not empty as Walter had hoped. John’s wife Isabelle was there, with one of her ladies-in-waiting. Walter had never seen the queen this close before, and spent several bemused moments in awe when he did glance at her. Verily, the rumors of her were indeed true. If she was not the most beautiful woman in the world, she was surely the most beautiful in England.
John was more than twice her age—he had married Isabelle when she was just ten and two. And although that was an age to marry, most nobles who took brides that young chose to wait a few years before they actually consummated the marriages. Not so John, for Isabelle had been ripe for her age, and too beautiful to resist for a man whose wenching had been notorious prior to this marriage.
Not as tall as his brother Richard, but still handsome at two score and six, John was the dark one of the family, with black hair now liberally laced with gray, and his father’s green eyes and somewhat stocky build.
John smiled indulgently when he noted the
direction of Walter’s gaze and his incredulity, a reaction he was most used to and pleased with. His young wife’s beauty did him proud. But his smile was brief, the hour late, and he did not recognize Walter, had only been told by his clerk that one of his barons had urgent news for him.
So his question was bald and to the point. “Do I know you?”
Walter blushed to have been distracted from his cause for even a few moments. “Nay, Your Grace, we have never met, for ’tis rarely I come to court. I am Walter de Roghton. I hold a small keep from the Earl of Pembroke.”
“Then mayhap your news should have been given to Pembroke, who could have relayed it to me?”
“’Tis not of a nature to entrust to any other, m’lord, and—and ’tis not exactly news,” Walter was forced to admit. “I knew no other way to explain to your clerk when he did ask me for the reason I was here.”
John was piqued by the cryptic reply. He was himself a man who dealt much in subtleties and innuendos. “Not news, but something I should know, and not entrusted even to your liege lord?” John smiled now. “Verily, keep me in suspense no longer.”
“If we could speak in privacy?” Walter whispered, again looking toward the queen.
John made a moue, but still directed Walter toward the window seat on the far side of the room from the ladies. He spoke of many things with his lovely young wife, but he allowed some
things were best not discussed with a woman known to love gossip.
John carried a glass of wine with him. He had not offered Walter the same. And his impatience was palpable.
Walter got right to the point as soon as they sat facing each other in the deep window embrasure. “You are likely aware of the betrothal, contracted years ago with your brother Richard’s blessing, of Shefford’s heir and the Crispin girl?”
“Aye, I believe I have heard mention of it ere now, a match foolishly made due more to friendship than gain.”
“Not exactly, Your Grace,” Walter said carefully. “Mayhap you are not aware, then, that Nigel Crispin returned from the Holy Land with a veritable fortune, and a good portion of it comes with the bride to the marriage?”
John’s interest was thoroughly aroused now. He had always lacked the funds to run his kingdom properly, since Richard had drained the realm coffers for his bloody crusading. But a fortune to a minor baron such as Walter likely would not be anywhere near a fortune a king would take note of.
So he wanted clarified, “What mean you a fortune? A few hundred marks and some gold cups?”
“Nay, Your Grace, more like a king’s ransom several times over.”
John shot to his feet, incredulous. Any king’s ransom that was mentioned in his day could only refer to the one demanded in ransom for
his brother Richard when he had been captured by one of his enemies on his return home from the Holy Lands.