Read My Lady's Guardian Online

Authors: Gayle Callen

Tags: #Romance, #Fiction, #General, #Love Stories, #Contemporary, #Historical, #Historical Fiction, #England, #England - Social Life and Customs - 1066-1485

My Lady's Guardian

BOOK: My Lady's Guardian
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MY LADY'S GUARDIAN

GAYLE CALLEN

Prologue

England, 1475

Through his narrow window, twelve-year-old squire Gareth Beaumont watched the inner ward burn. The night was dark, lit only by the flames. The shrieks of women and children, the groans of men as they fought the blaze, filled the air.

He had seen this, in his nightmares and his waking visions. Everything had been muddled, but the fires had raged in his mind for days. He should have known it meant attack!

He wanted to bang his head against the wall to shake out these incomprehensible visions that haunted him. But he couldn't escape his legacy, the Beaumont Curse. Why did he have to be different from everyone else?

Now Wellespring Castle's stables and outbuildings were alive with flames. It was just like his parents' fate all over again: they'd died three years before in a fire, leaving Gareth with nothing but painful memories.

But at least this time he could do something. He flung open the door to his room and raced down the corridor.

The inner ward was a nightmare of smoke and flames, and the screams of horses and men. The gatehouse held firm, keeping out the invaders, while fire illuminated the archers manning the battements. At the stables, Gareth joined the line of men passing buckets of water from the well to the fire.

His eyes watered from the smoke, and his lungs ached with the need for fresh air. Although his skin was hot, a sudden chill of foreboding worked through him, and he wanted to groan aloud his denial. Not now!

The vision began as but a sound, a child's sob. Sometimes he could pretend he didn't see the visions. It made the headaches worse, but that was better than knowing useless information he couldn't understand.

But this time he knew who it was—Margery Welles, the eight-year-old daughter of the viscount.

In the mists of his mind he saw her impish face contort in a scream of terror. She wasn't with the women, as she was supposed to be.

He broke from the line of men and raced through the inner ward, dodging soldiers. He finally saw Lord Welles by the gatehouse. The viscount was a tall, broad man with gray peppering his dark hair, and a craggy face that always looked in control.

Gareth came to a stop before him, coughing from the smoke. "My lord, your daughter—I fear she's in danger."

The firelit ward retreated as he was caught in the formidable gaze of Lord Welles. They stared at each other, and for an instant, fear touched His Lordship's eyes.

"Gareth, she is with the women. Do you know otherwise?"

Before Gareth could respond, he heard a great rending of wood and a sharp crack.

Lord Welles caught his arm and dragged him away from the swarm of soldiers who rushed to defend the gatehouse. "Baron Hunter and his men have broken through the first doors. There will be a battle. Saints above, I wish my sons were here—but you will do. Get Margery away."

"But my lord, how—"

Lord Welles leaned into Gareth's face and spoke in a hoarse, urgent voice. "Take her into the undercroft below the great hall. You'll find a stack of barrels in the north corner, and a hidden tunnel beneath them. Lead Margery out into the forest and await my word."

"I'll find the women and take them all—"

"Margery first!" Lord Welles said, grabbing Gareth's arms and giving him a quick shake. "If you get her out to the forest before the castle itself is invaded, then you may return for others. I can't take the chance that Margery could be harmed. You must protect her. Promise me!"

"O-of course, my lord," he stammered.

"Now go!"

When Gareth searched the great hall and didn't find her, he knew Margery would go where she felt safest. He found her alone in her bedchamber, leaning out a window to watch the destruction below. He hauled her away from it and closed the shutters, weak with relief at having found her unharmed.

She looked at him solemnly, all dark hair and wide blue eyes. She wore white billowy nightclothes. "My father will win, won't he, Gareth?"

"Of course," he gasped, still breathing hard. He found garments hung on pegs and brought them to her. "But he wants me to take you to a safe place."

"You have to leave while I—"

Ignoring her protests, Gareth pulled her smock over her head. She was soon dressed and well- wrapped in a cloak.

He led Margery down through the levels of the castle to one of the entrances to the undercroft. He lifted the trap door, grabbed a torch off the wall, and descended into the darkness below the main level, holding her hand.

Wooden beams arched overhead, dripping cobwebs. Barrels of salted meat and foodstuffs were stacked high. He led Margery to the north corner and had her hold the torch while he started to drag barrels away.

"Gareth, what are you looking for? A hidden treasure?"

"A secret tunnel." Above them, he suddenly heard the pounding of many booted feet and a distant scream. He threw himself at the next barrel. Where was the tunnel?

He glanced at Margery. He could see tears glistening in her eyes but still she held the torch high.

As he dragged a fifth barrel aside, Gareth heard the clash of steel over their heads. By the saints, was the entire castle overrun? In despair, he realized he wouldn't be able to rescue the other women. If he tried he would most certainly be captured, and Margery would be alone.

Lord Welles's words echoed through his mind. You must protect her.

Gareth would prove himself worthy of his lord's trust. He would never let any harm come to Margery.

Feeling a sudden draft of cold air at his feet, he shoved the last barrel aside and saw the outline of a trap door. When he lifted it, dust and dirt billowed through the air.

He quickly took the torch and led her down a short staircase. The tunnel was made of earth and damp rock, carved out of the ground, braced with rotting wood. When they'd walked at least a hundred paces, tree roots began to poke through the ceiling. Soon all he had to do was push past the roots of a tree, and they were in the forest.

Gareth knew they were only a few hundred yards from the castle. He could hear shouts, weapons clashing, and the hissing roar of fire. He put his arms around Margery and led her back into the tunnel.

He used the sputtering torch to light a small fire near the entrance. Still kneeling, he turned and saw Margery gazing bleakly back down the tunnel.

Gareth didn't know the first thing about comforting a little girl. Feeling awkward, he held out his hand and she took it, crouching beside him. She stared into the fire as one tear slid down her cheek. Swept by a feeling of tenderness, he put his arm around her. She leaned into him.

"What else did Father tell you?" she murmured.

"He told me to keep you safe, and that he would send for you as soon as he could."

"You won't leave me?" She turned teary, pleading eyes up to him. "You're always trying to get away from me."

He hugged her closer, and pushed the tangle of hair from her eyes. "This isn't like our games," he said, feeling a stab of guilt. "I promise I won't leave you."

Gareth awoke to the chirping of birds outside in the forest as the sun rose.

With a gasp, Margery sat up straight. "Father?"

"Not yet," he said reluctantly. "Are you hungry?"

She shook her head.

"Of course you're hungry. Do you know how to fish?"

She looked at him out of the corner of her eye, and he saw some of her liveliness return. "I tried to follow you the last time, but you sent me home."

He sighed, feeling another ache of guilt. "Your voice scared away the fish. I'll wager you still can't be quiet."

She gave him a teasing glare and shoved him aside. "You just show me how to fish, Gareth Beaumont."

He dug his fishing hooks and string from the pouch at his belt, and soon they were lying side by side on the embankment of a small creek, dangling their hooks in the water.

Gareth pulled in a small, wriggling trout.

Margery lifted her chin. "I shall get a bigger one."

He barely kept from smiling. "I'd like to see you

try"

And try she did. He was impressed, even as he cooked his own fish. She perched on the embankment, fishing mightily, ignoring him as he smacked his lips and ate his trout. He saved half for her.

He needn't have. Soon she caught her own fish, and it was bigger, just as she promised. She took it

off the hook, learned how to remove the bones, and even cooked it herself, though she burned her fingers before she was through.

Side by side, they knelt at the edge of the brook and cleaned the fish smell from their hands. Something suddenly glittered beneath the surface. Gareth grasped the object and rose to his feet for the best light. It was just a gray stone, but imbedded in the center was a cloudy piece of crystal that caught the rays of the sun. Margery reached for it in delight, laughing.

In her haste, she knocked it from his hand, and it bounced along the rocky edge of the brook. As Margery picked up the two pieces of the broken stone, her breath caught on a muffled sob. Gareth knew that her grief had little to do with the stone.

"Margery, look, 'tis just as shiny as ever. And now there's a piece for each of us, so we can remember today."

She looked at the two stones, then gave one to him. When she lifted her face, he felt his heart give a painful lurch at the redness of her nose and eyes.

"I shall keep this always," he said.

A smile tugged at one corner of Margery's lips and she clenched the shining stone tightly in her fist.

Gareth's gaze rose over her head in the direction of Wellespring Castle and he tried to mask his worry. If he could keep Margery busy, she wouldn't have time to be afraid.

For three days, they waited for word from Lord Welles. They slept in a bed of leaves in the tunnel by night, and played games of survival by day. He taught her to snare rabbits, then how to cook them. They played hiding games in the forest, moving from tree to tree in an attempt to outwit each other. He made two pouches, so they could each carry their crystal stone on their belts. She was his first friend, and he pretended that someday when she found out about the Beaumont Curse, she wouldn't care.

On the fourth day, they heard soldiers riding through the forest. Gareth retreated to a little fort they'd built high in the trees and held Margery close. Hoarse voices called her name.

" 'Tis my brothers!"

He found himself rubbing the crystal stone in its pouch at his waist, and waited for her to climb down to her family, leaving him alone once more.

She took his hand. "Will you still be my friend when we go back?"

"Forever." The word reverberated through his soul like a blood vow. He had discovered what it was like to be a man, to take care of someone.

Margery descended from their perch and into the waiting arms of her brother Reynold, only three years older than Gareth. James Markham, Earl of Bolton, not yet twenty, watched Gareth closely as he reached the ground.

"My lords," Gareth said, bowing his head stiffly. "I hope all is well at the castle."

They hesitated, and he knew in that moment that his visions, though unclear, had not betrayed him.

Margery pulled away from Reynold. "Father?"

Her brothers looked grim.

"Not Father!" she cried. "But where is Edmund?"

"He is fine," Reynold said as she buried her face in his tunic and sobbed. "He is with Father's body."

Gareth felt a tight ball of grief clutch his chest as he watched her tears. Reynold guided his horse out of the clearing, taking Margery away.

James looked Gareth over. "When we arrived home, we searched the castle for Margeiy and found the tunnel open. How did you know to escape?"

Gareth grew angry at the inevitable distrust. He would be forever judged because of his ancestors, not for himself. What could he say? That strange visions haunted him?

"Your stepfather told me about the tunnel, Lord Bolton. He asked me to keep her safe."

"Well, my thanks to you," James said grudgingly.

"How did your stepfather die?"

"An arrow. We lost five soldiers, and others are wounded—but Hunter will never bother us again. I shall go to the king with this treachery."

Gareth soon came to realize that Margery's brothers did not quite believe his story. Within a week he was sent to another household to finish his fostering. Surely Margery would tell her brothers that it was all a mistake, that Gareth was her friend.

But they never came back for him.

Chapter 1

June, 1487

Gareth Beaumont gasped for air and came up on his elbows, wide awake in an instant. He bumped his head on the tent pole, and a shower of water leaked inside to splatter across his face. He ignored it, staring into the murky darkness, the dream still fresh.

Margery.

The old bitterness welled up in his mind. She and her brothers had abandoned him, setting his life on a path of desperation and loneliness.

He breathed deeply, trying to calm his pounding heart. ' Tis just a dream, not a vision.

But he knew better. A dull ache groaned to life behind his forehead, and his stomach gurgled with

queasiness. It was a vision all right, of Margery Welles—whom he hadn't seen in twelve years.

She was in danger again.

Gareth sat up, resting his head in his hands. She was not his concern; she had brothers to take care of her problems. Besides, she must be married already, even have children.

The past was dead, and he could never go back to it. Why would he want to? He certainly knew early in life that he could count on no one but himself. At his final foster home, he'd been jeered at, called Warfield's Wizard because of the visions he couldn't control. To earn respect, he'd become a fierce fighter. It kept people away, just like he wanted, and it also kept him from starving.

But he had become too good at his craft, and the noblemen tired of losing. He'd been forced to leave England when he was no longer allowed to enter tournaments and no one would hire him. He'd done some mercenary work in France these past few years, but his name and his curse had followed him even there. He had no land of his own, no family, no money. He was so close to poverty that he could smell the stench. The only things he hadn't sold were his armor and his horse, because without them, he had no chance of earning a living.

BOOK: My Lady's Guardian
3.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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