“Teach each child to ask blessing, serve God and to church; Then blesse as a mother; else blesse him with birch.”
Maidenstone Castle, Wessex
June 10, 1135
he second child must die.”
A small gasp came from the woman lying in the great bed beside them, but neither Edgar de Valcourt nor his mother, the Lady Harriet, noticed. The midwife worked silently, cleaning her newly delivered mistress of the after leavings of the lengthy birth. A pair of maids had bathed the two tiny infants, then wrapped them in linen cloths. The firstborn already lay in the cradle prepared for it.
The second babe had no cradle, however, and it was her fate Sir Edgar and Lady Harriet now debated.
“You would have my daughter killed?” he asked disbelievingly. “You would order it done so easily as that?”
“To save this family I would do anything,” the old woman vowed, not in the least cowed by her son’s angry tone. “’Tis known by one and all that babes like these, born of the same confinement, are cursed with but one soul between them. In an earlier age, both of them would have been drowned. Shouldst be glad I do not hold to such a pagan practice. Nay, but I am of a more enlightened mind.” She peered up at him, daring him to contradict her in this, a domestic matter he had no knowledge of. “Since the first babe hath received all the goodness of the soul they share, ’tis reasonable to spare her. She will be a blessing on Maidenstone Castle—mark my words on it—and a comfort to you in your old age. But the second one—” She broke off and sent such a frigid glare toward the tiny infant that the maid who held the child fell back a step. “The second one, ’tis cursed with a black and shriveled soul. Do you doubt me, ask the priest.” She turned her unflinching stare back on her son. “There is no other choice. You do the child and your family a boon to destroy it this very day.”
“But … but it goes against God’s law to kill a child … And against the code of knightly behavior—”
“Doth tell me, my son, that you have killed neither woman nor child in duty to King Stephen and to God?”
“Yea, of course I have. But that is different. That was war.”
“And this is not? This is a holy war, a war against the devil himself!” She snatched up the holy beads that hung from her waist and shook them in his face as if they were a divine weapon she wielded. It had the effect of making him drop back a pace from her. “You do but kill the devil’s spawn in that evil child.” Then her nostrils flared in disdain. “If you have not the stomach for it, then will I see it done!”
Though his wife’s cry was weak, Edgar turned to her in relief. In matters of war and land and politics he was adept. He made hard decisions without hesitation and dealt with the consequences, no matter what they might be. It was that strength of purpose that had pitted him with Stephen against old King Henry’s daughter, Matilda, and thereby won him Maidenstone Castle and the vast demesne it controlled. He’d profited well as Stephen’s man, having married a beautiful heiress and fathered two sons already. But this matter of twin daughters was something else entirely.
“Edgar, please,” Lady Ella pleaded with her husband in a voice little more than a faint breath in the dim and overheated chamber. He turned to her, anything to avoid his mother’s disapproving expression.
“’Tis for the best,” he murmured, taking her limp hand in his. “we will keep the good twin—”
“I would keep them both. Do not let her destroy my child. Please … I beg you … do not let her …”
Tears overflowed her eyes, making a wet trail down her pale face, to be lost in her fair hair. She was a beauty, his Ella, and he would do almost anything to make her smile. He’d long speculated that if he had not loved his wife so much, his mother might have liked her better.
“Calm yourself, my wife. You need your rest if you are to tend the child—”
“The children. Not one, but two,” she insisted. “We are twice blessed, Edgar, to have them both. Tell me, how do they look?”
“They look … like babies,” he said with a shrug, for he had not given them more than a passing glance once he’d learned they were not sons.
“Bring them to me,” she implored, clutching his hand. “Let me see my daughters.”
“Only bring the one,” Lady Harriet ordered, staying the maid who yet held the second child in her arms.
“No, both,” Ella pleaded, staring up into Edgar’s uncertain face. “I have already given you two sons,” she reminded him in a whisper only he could hear. “How can you deny me my two daughters?”
For a moment he wavered. The Church would not approve of killing a baby—although he
just abandon it in the forest. Still, that would practically be the same as killing it. Then Ella’s weak hold on his hand strengthened.
“I will give you more sons after this, my husband. I will fill your hall with strong sons. Only you must give me my daughters.”
Her eyes burned up into his, and her slender fingers moved along his wrist. At once his body reacted to her touch, for it had been weeks since she’d shared his bed. If he did not do this for her, she would grieve a long time, as she had when she’d lost their very first child. A girl, as he recalled. It had taken nearly a year for her to respond to him as she always had before, a year of frustration and unsatisfying nights which he did not wish to repeat.
“You will have both your daughters,” he promised her on impulse. When she smiled in trembling gratitude and tears of joy filled her eyes, his chest swelled with pride. Anything to keep his lady wife happy.
His mother let out an indecipherable curse, but he ignored it as he mentally calculated how long he must wait before he could bring Ella back to his bed. At his signal both infants were brought to their mother’s side, and as she bared her breasts to suckle them, he felt an urgent need that could not wait even a fortnight for her.
But as he left the birthing chamber, pleased with himself and intent on finding one of the dairy maids—the one who in figure and hair color most resembled his beauteous Ella—he was accosted by his mother.
“Art a fool to let her lead you by that mindless rod which rears between your legs!”
“She is my wife,” he growled, not eager to be caught once again between his wife and his mother.
“She is your wife,” she echoed contemptuously. “And her accursed child shall be your undoing some day!”
“I have made my decision! Begone from here!” he roared, shoving past her as all the pleasure he’d been filled with fled.
But Lady Harriet had never feared her son’s temper, nor did she now. “At the very least mark it. So alike they are, you must needs have some mark to set them apart. Mark the second babe, so we can know which of them to fear!”
He was later to regret what he did then, but in the years that followed he never once confessed to it. He swore the maids to silence with one threatening look, and if Ella ever suspected anything, she never confronted him about it.
He stormed back into the birthing chamber and bid the nursemaids bring both babies to him while his wife slept unknowing in her bed. The one babe, the first one whom his wife had named Beatrix, he examined thoroughly, noting every aspect of her appearance: tiny chin, full cheeks, dark eyes, and a faint fuzz of light hair.
The second one, as yet unnamed, was identical in every way, even to the arch of her fair brows and the creases in her tiny ears. So, unable to tell them apart, Sir Edgar did as his mother had demanded. Angry and frustrated, he heated his signet ring over a candle, and when the metal glowed hot, he pressed it to the second baby’s tender flesh.
She jerked and screamed, a startlingly loud cry that jolted the other baby awake and started her crying too. But Edgar de Valcourt did not flinch in what he did. Only when the smell of burned flesh assaulted his nostrils did he pull the ring away and view the damage he had wrought.
A smoking, purple scar now marred the perfect skin of the newborn’s leg, and that, coupled with the two babies’ hysterical crying, overwhelmed him with images of charred souls, writhing in the eternal fires of hell, screaming in endless agony. A shudder of horror ripped through him, and for a moment he contemplated just doing as his mother had originally demanded: ridding himself of the child completely, just in case there was any truth to her superstitions.
Then his wife shifted restlessly in her bed and once more he changed his mind. Ella would never forgive him. She would grieve and she would never forgive him for killing her daughter.
He handed the inconsolable baby back to the wide-eyed nurse with a furious warning glare. Then he turned and quit the chamber.
He’d given both his wife and his mother what they wanted. If that didn’t please them he’d give both of them the back of his hand.
Just see if he wouldn’t.
Maidenstone Castle, Wessex
April 1153 A.D.
he knew the castle could not hold out for long. Too many soldiers came over the hill. They poured in an unending wave, following the fluttering red pennant that depicted two black bears battling.
But in spite of that, Linnea de Valcourt spat defiantly past the solid stone crenellation, denying the frightening possibility of anything but a quick, decisive victory for the castle.
“The fools. They but waste their time—and their blood,” she stated, with a confidence she did not entirely feel. “Henry of Anjou cannot take Maidenstone Castle, nor any of Wessex. Nor any part of Britain,” she added with youthful defiance.
“They’ve already taken much of Wessex,” Sir Hugh, her father’s captain of the guard, muttered as he glared at the never-ending horde.
“But they won’t take Maidenstone,” Linnea vowed. Then her bravery wilted a bit, and in a more hesitant voice she added, “Will they?”
Sir Hugh did not take his eyes from the army that almost reached the village now. A steady stream of panicked village folk fled toward the castle, carrying their children and what few provisions they were able to gather in the scant hour since the alarm had sounded. Linnea saw his jaw tighten and flex, once, twice, and then again.
“Raise the bridge,” he growled at the soldier who stood at his side.
“No! Not yet!” Linnea cried without thinking.
But Sir Hugh’s murderous glare cut off any further protest from her. “Get yourself away from my battlements, lest ye curse what little there is left of us!” When the censorious gaze of the other soldiers around him joined Sir Hugh’s, Linnea fell back a pace, shattered by his words.
Sir Hugh must have spied the stricken look on her face, for his harsh features softened ever so slightly. “Go join your sister in the hall,” he ordered gruffly. “And tell your grandmother I’ll send word as soon as there’s anything to tell.”
Linnea nodded, gathering her plain plunkett cloth skirt in one hand as she turned to the steep steps that led down into the bailey. He hadn’t meant it about the curse. She knew he hadn’t. It was only that he was tense due to the attack. Sir Hugh had never been like so many of the others, staring at her with wary, suspicious eyes. He’d never crossed himself for protection if she came upon him unexpectedly. It was just this damnable war between King Stephen and that Norman usurper, Henry Plantagenet. First his mother, Matilda, now the son. Why couldn’t these warring magnates leave the people of Wessex in peace? she wondered, even as the grate of gears and creaking of the chains signaled the slow rise of Maidenstone’s newly constructed bridge.
A cry from the villagers stranded outside the walls rose up, a frightened, desperate wail accompanied by the first sting of acrid smoke on the wind. They were firing the village, she realized in alarm. The barbarians were putting the innocent village of Maidenstone to the torch!
“I curse you all to hell!” Linnea muttered as both fury and abject sorrow washed over her. “I curse you to hell, you of the black bear pennant!” she cried, wishing more than anything that she had the abilities so many attributed to her. For if she could curse all those invaders to hell, she would do so without a qualm. She would send them to burn in the fires of eternity, and thereby save her home and her people.
And her people would love her for it, she thought, imagining for one fanciful moment how things would change if she could only do something truly noble to prove herself to the people of Maidenstone—
“Get out of the way,” a crude voice demanded, bringing her abruptly back to reality.
She hurried down the last flight of steps, one of the castle guards hot on her heels. He’d not mistaken her for her sister Beatrix, but then, Linnea’s plain garb had always set her apart from Beatrix in her finer garments. Besides, Beatrix would not be outside in the midst of battle preparations. Only Linnea would do something so foolish. Beatrix would be in the hall, settling the frightened villagers, or organizing the kitchen, or some other necessary domestic task.
In the bailey Linnea paused, not certain where to position herself during the coming siege. Across the now crowded yard she spied her grandmother standing on the top step that led into the great hall, leaning on her walking stick with one hand while she waved orders with her other.
She would not go to the hall, Linnea decided on the instant. Her grandmother, the Lady Harriet, could barely stand the sight of her younger granddaughter under the best of conditions. Today her acid temper would not be bound by the normal limits good manners dictated.
Then Linnea heard her father’s hoarse shout, and after searching the seething throng a few frantic minutes, she spied him striding along the east parapet walk, calling orders and gesturing to his men as he assumed control of the castle’s defenses.
He was dressed in a leather jack today, emblazoned with the Valcourt family crest, a blue field with a golden griffin rampant. A short blue cape fluttered behind him and a heavy gold-encrusted belt spanned his generous girth, giving him the look of a powerful knight, much as legend made him. A man unparalleled in bravery, cunning, and strength. If she saw him as a man given more to food and drink than to battles and strategy, it was only because during the past ten years that was the only thing required of him. She did not remember the years when he’d fought for Stephen, helping him wrest the crown from the old king’s bastard daughter. She’d heard the stories of his daring, however, stories told and retold in the long evenings of winter. How he’d been knighted by King Stephen himself, though long before Stephen had become a king. And how he’d fought in Stephen’s elite guard. How he’d been rewarded for his loyalty with marriage to Stephen’s second cousin, Ella, the most beautiful woman in the land. How he’d taken Maidenstone Castle in the days just after the old king’s death and held it firm against every one of Matilda’s attempts to win it and the crown back from Stephen.
Today, however, it seemed Matilda’s son and his followers were making a more forceful attempt than ever.
Linnea shrank back into a sheltered corner, where one wall of the stone kitchen met the palisades fence that surrounded the herb garden. The bailey was thronged with people and dogs and nervous cattle. Above the mad crowd a churning cloud of dust eddied, choking her throat and making her eyes tear. But she nevertheless kept her gaze locked upon her father.
If only Maynard were here, she fretted, as her father limped to Sir Hugh’s side and they stared together out toward the fast-approaching enemy. Her brother was a cruel and obnoxious oaf at times, but he was as brave as ever his father had been, and a knight and warrior of considerable skill.
Maynard was in Melcombe Regis, however, with the bulk of their army of knights, archers, and foot soldiers. Maidenstone was defended only by the castle guard and what villagers had made it safely inside before the drawbridge had been raised.
A shiver of fear shimmied down Linnea’s spine and she hugged herself. Maidenstone could not hope to win, she thought once more, and it was a terrible thing to admit. They could not hope to win; therefore they must expect to lose.
At once she shoved away from her hiding place. It did not matter about her grandmother’s temper any longer. Linnea needed to find Beatrix, to be there with her in the event the unthinkable occurred. Beatrix would need someone to protect her and, as always, Linnea would do anything for her beloved sister.
Hiking her coarse skirt up in a manner far from ladylike, she dashed across the bailey, dodging frantic villagers and frightened children. The smell of smoke was stronger now, as was the wailing from both inside and outside the besieged castle.
Surely the world was coming to an end, she feared as the panic and confusion around her began to seep into her too. Surely this was hell and the black bear outside their door was the devil himself come to call.
Axton de la Manse sat astride his mighty destrier just beyond the village gates, staring up at Maidenstone’s sheer stone walls. Black plumes of billowing smoke turned the sky gray and made his boyhood home a perfect picture of hell. But it was only barns and outbuildings he’d fired, and an occasional shop or storage building in a strategic location. Still, as the acrid stench curled up and drifted from the village to swirl around the castle walls, it was enough to terrorize the hapless villagers—and enough to strike fear into the heart of Edgar de Valcourt and his family of two-legged leeches.
“The villagers are trapped between us and the moat,” said Sir Reynold, Axton’s captain and most trusted man.
Axton nodded. “Keep the fires going until the bridge is lowered and the gate raised. And bring de Valcourt’s son to the front.”
“He has fainted and is barely alive.”
Axton shrugged. “He fought a good fight—for a de Valcourt. If he should die, so be it. But it will not alter the outcome of this day’s work.” That he felt a savage satisfaction at having struck the disabling blow to Maynard de Valcourt’s arm did not have to be stated. Axton and Reynold had fought many a battle together and they’d lost many a valiant compatriot in the process. But that was a knight’s lot in life. To fight a good fight and then die from your wounds on the field of honor was as much as Axton and Reynold had ever expected of life. As much as they’d ever hoped for.
Now he wanted to live to a ripe old age, to put away the tempered steel of sword and dagger and the forged iron of mace and spear. He meant to win back his home this day, and though there would always be service to give his king—or scutage to pay in its place—he meant to settle down at Maidenstone, to bring what little remained of his family back to this place, and to regain everything they’d lost so many years ago.
Only they could not regain
His leather-clad fist tightened on the reins and his warhorse danced in a nervous circle. Christ’s blood, but his father should be here at this moment, to savor the victory that had been so long in coming. Likewise his brothers William and Yves deserved to be here to share in this triumph.
But they weren’t here. He was the only man left in the family. That meant he must savor the victory for all of them, he told himself as the cart bearing the younger de Valcourt rumbled forward. Four times over he would savor his victory this day, once for himself and three times for his father and older brothers. Four times the drinking. Four times the feasting. Four times the wenching.
He smiled grimly at that. He’d been weeks without a woman. If he weren’t so accursedly weary he’d call for four wenches in his bed tonight, all at one time.
He stared up at the castle walls. Soon they must surrender. It was just a matter of time, and that knowledge banished all thoughts of having any women in his bed. The time was at hand. His victory—and de Valcourt’s fall.
“He has Sir Maynard—”
“He holds the young lord—”
“Sir Maynard has fallen into the enemy’s vile clutches—”
The rumor spread from ramparts to bailey and through the terrified crush into the hall where Lady Harriet barked orders from her place on the raised platform nearest the hearth. Sir Maynard was wounded—dying, being tortured—just outside the moat, lying in an open cart for all to witness his downfall.
They had only to lower the drawbridge—and surrender the castle—to regain their hero and be allowed to tend his wounds.
Linnea heard the rumors just as the others did, and her reaction was much the same. What little hope she’d had disappeared entirely. Without her brother and his army, there was no chance they might hold back the ravenous horde beyond the outer walls of the castle. As long as he was fighting somewhere on King Stephen’s behalf there had been a chance, slim though it might be, that Sir Maynard might somehow hear of their plight and come to their aid. They could have held out against a siege for a couple of weeks at least, if they’d had reason to hope.
But now their last hope lay crushed and broken in a cart outside the wall.
“Poor Maynard,” Linnea whispered as she clutched her sister’s hand.
“We must pray for him,” Beatrix whispered back, and dutifully Linnea followed her lead, bowing her head and praying for the older brother who’d never paid either of them the slightest attention, except when he wanted to blame his “accursed sister,” as he’d called Linnea, for something that was actually his fault. He’d been very good at that as a child, and she’d suffered many a beating or other punishment for something he’d accused her of.
But that didn’t matter today, Linnea reminded herself as she tried to concentrate on the litany of softly worded entreaties Beatrix directed heavenward. “Please, God, save our beloved brother. Save our home and family and people from the vile beast who assaults us now. Please, God, help us, your humble servants, in our hour of need …”
It went on and on, as did a hundred other similar pleadings, filling the tapestry-hung hall with a rising and falling hum until the double doors flew open with a crash. Then Sir Edgar himself staggered into the packed chamber and the prayers fell away to an absolute silence.