Alista grew up, and her father did keep her safe, with Brother Paolo always nearby to watch over her as well. When King Stephen finally managed to drive his cousin Maud back to Anjou and her husband, he drove many of her supporters among England's noble class as well, and the home and holding of one of these, Brinlaw, was given to Mark as compensation for the loss of Falconskeep. By the time she was eighteen years old, Alista barely remembered any home but Brinlaw.
The bloody civil war was finally ended. Maud's son, Henry, had won many battles, while Stephen's son had died, so the beleaguered king made the peace by making Henry his heir. As one of Stephen's strongest and best-liked retainers, Mark first became the target of a certain amount of espionage, which he neatly avoided, and a great deal of charming diplomacy, which he returned in kind, doing much to reconcile the rest of the nobles to the prospect of a king born in Anjou. Now Stephen was finally dead; Henry was to be crowned; and Mark was leaving Brinlaw once again for the coronation in London.
"Tell me honestly, Papa, why must you go?" Alista asked, standing knee deep in snow beside her father in the courtyard as the final packing was finished. "I know how little you care for ceremony, and Henry has already heard your pledge. Geoffrey said he said as much himself before he sent the invitation. It's the middle of winter -- "
"So he's Geoffrey now, is he?" Mark teased, trying to change the subject. "Not 'Sir Knight' or even 'the King's cousin' any longer?"
"As if I should remind him," she retorted. Geoffrey of Anjou held no title of his own, but he missed no opportunity to mention his blood kinship to England's new king. "And you didn't answer my question."
"Didn't I?" he answered with a sigh. "Your friend Geoffrey also said that Old Brinlaw's son was back in London, renewing his friendship with Henry."
"What of it?" A groom led her father's horse into the courtyard, and she went and took the reins herself. "Why is that reason enough to leave us without you for Christmas?"
"Because in future I would prefer to keep my Christmases here," Mark answered, swinging into the saddle with an ease that belied his years. "Now that Stephen is gone and Maud's pup is to be on the throne, the boy means to reclaim his father's forfeit title, and I would think this castle with it." He patted the destrier's neck to calm his prancing. "'Tis what I would do in his place."
"But he can't!" Alista protested. "Henry couldn't -- "
"Of course he could; he is King." He swung the horse about, trusting Alista to get herself out of the way. "Particularly if I'm not there to remind him how dearly I do love him myself."
"And so you will be there." She stroked the horse's mane, trying to push her disappointment away. In all her eighteen years, she could remember only two or three times she'd had Christmas with her father, and now there would be one less, but she wouldn't whine and raging wouldn't help, not this time. "You don't really think we could lose Brinlaw, do you?"
"Not for a moment." He smiled down at her, this strong, young creature he loved before all else in the living world. "Go inside and tell your Geoffrey to make himself seen, or I'm leaving for London without him."
"Will you not go back inside to say good-bye to Druscilla?" she asked. Dru was her father's mistress, a beauty barely older than Alista herself, and she had been weeping piteously in fits and starts since Henry's messenger had arrived.
Mark suppressed a weary sigh. "I think best not," he answered. "Hurry, girl, before it starts to snow again."
Inside the Great Hall, all seemed to be chaos, but she knew it for a well-practiced ritual. Men-at-arms were being sorted into who would go to London and who would stay to guard the castle; cooks were packing enough hampers of food to supply a manna-less flight from Egypt; maidservants were running up and down the stairs with compresses and sweets to comfort the miserable Druscilla. All the regular business of a December midmorning continued on apace. Yesterday's rushes were being raked up and discarded by a team of boys while another team of women spread the new. The dog boy was frantically trying to keep Mark's hunting hounds from devouring Druscilla's ill-tempered spaniel bitch, perched on a cushion on the hearth bench and taunting them shamelessly with high-pitched yelps. Last night's guards, long delayed by preparations for their commander's journey, were finally breaking their fast with cold meat and bread, some near to nodding off in their cups of ale, others still fresh enough to pester the women with voices rubbed rough in the winter wind on the battlements. Alista looked around the teeming human hive with a sudden sentimental pang. What if her father was wrong and Henry did mean to give this holding to the traitor's heir? She knew all these people by name, had been cared for by them as a child and as a woman cared for them in turn. It was unthinkable that she should leave them, unimaginable that she could ever feel anything but misery anywhere else. But hadn't she felt the same at Falconskeep? She had known those people, too, as well as she knew herself, yet now she couldn't remember a single name or more than a single face from the life she'd led there. Even her mother's image had become little more than a dim shadow in her mind that only came clear in dreams. She remembered the horrible days she'd spent at Stephen's court before they came to Brinlaw, she the motherless mite pitied and ignored by the ladies charged with her care while her father rode away to war. If Brother Paolo had not been with her, she would almost certainly have grieved herself to death.
"Alista?" Brother Paolo was so near in her thoughts, his voice couldn't capture her attention. "My lady?" he persisted, shaking her arm.
Her eyes snapped back into focus, her mind coming back to the present. "Forgive me, Brother," she smiled. "I was thinking again."
"Of something very sad from what I saw," he answered, studying her. For a moment, every trace of childishness had flown from her face, and it made him feel old to see her so, a woman deep in contemplation. "What troubles you?"
"Nothing," she insisted. "Have you seen the Angevin knight?"
His heart sank even further. "Why?" he asked suspiciously. "What use do you have for him?"
"Little if any at all, but Papa sent me to find him." The hounds broke free of their attendant for another barking pass around the hall, scrambling over Alista's feet and tangling themselves in her skirts as they went by. "Peter, why don't you drive them outside?" she complained to the boy flying after them.
"Pardon, my lady," Peter begged, red-faced. "But if they should see his lordship on his horse, 'twould break their hearts when he left them behind."
"Aye, so it would," she relented, refastening her mantle. "Come, we'll take them out back." Druscilla's maid passed on her way to the stairs. "Jane!" Alista called, stopping the girl in mid-trot. "Tell Dru that if she wants to bid my father farewell, she must pull herself together and come down at once. And send someone to find Sir Geoffrey." She turned back to the Franciscan with a smile. "You need have no fear for me, Brother," she promised. "I have no real call to be sad."
Together she and Peter were able to herd the pack through the narrow pantry and out into the deserted back garden where they broke free, baying joyfully as they plowed through the night's fresh fall of snow. She had first come to Brinlaw in an early summer, and this garden had been magnificent, thick with colorful blossoms, many of which even Brother Paolo couldn't name. But Mark's servants were not the careful gardeners that whoever had planted the garden had been, and many of the plants had died before the next spring. For years only soft, green turf had grown beneath the ancient oaks, and now all was bare, black bark and blue-white snow under a leaden sky.
"Is that not the Frenchman you were looking for, my lady?" Peter asked, pointing out a figure in a pale blue mantle coming into the open from a thicker copse of trees.
"So it is," she sighed, resigned. She didn't dislike Geoffrey; on the contrary, she found him charming company in large groups, quite the most witty and cultured creature she had ever known. He was the usual intermediary between Mark and Prince Henry, and she had come to look forward to his visits to the castle. But whenever she found herself alone with him, she seemed to lose her mind, become utterly tongue-tied. She couldn't even keep a proper silence -- everything he said to her made her laugh, even when he obviously hadn't intended to amuse her. He was a courtier, a gentleman, and she couldn't help but find him a wee bit ridiculous. Try as she might, she couldn't quite think of him as a man. He was perfectly handsome, a paragon of current masculine fashion, with bright blond hair that curled slightly over his shoulders and a neatly shaped blond beard. He was said to have distinguished himself quite well on the battlefield, and he was preternaturally well-spoken. But even standing close to him, Alista couldn't help thinking of some cleverly whittled mannequin, all beauty with no spark. Tall for a woman, she was nevertheless accustomed to being towered over by her father and his men. Geoffrey's eyes were level with her own.
"My father sent me to find you," she explained without preamble when he reached her. "He says he's ready to go."
"So in an hour or so we may depart," he teased. He held out his hand, and she gave him her own to kiss in the French fashion. "The cold suits you, Lady Alista. You are quite aglow."
In truth, she was blushing, but she nodded her thanks for the compliment. "Papa says it will likely snow again before nightfall," she offered. She tried to retrieve her hand, but he had tucked it through his arm so that when she walked away, he walked beside her. Seeing this, Peter discreetly took his leave to busy himself with the hounds.
"I have no fear of snow," Geoffrey said. "I only wish your father would allow you to go with us."
She laughed; as ever, unable to help herself. "He didn't forbid me, Geoffrey," she explained. "I didn't want to go -- I've always hated being at court."
"That was when you were a child," he pointed out, undeterred. "I think you would find it very different now." He stopped and seemed to study her, stepping back to the length of his arm to peruse her face. "I can see you in a velvet gown the color of burgundy wine," he mused. "You would be magnificent."
"You have a vivid imagination," she teased. She tried to look away, but he touched her cheek, turning her face back to him, and she started, her eyes wide.
"Forgive me, my lady," he said, serious. "I didn't mean to frighten you."
"You didn't frighten me," she said, offended. "I was just surprised -- "
"Now that my cousin is finally to be crowned, I don't know when we shall see each other again," he went on, looking deep into her eyes but seeing nothing of her dismay. "I had hoped that if you would come to London for the coronation, I could convince you to stay."
"That seems unlikely," she said, laughing again. "Brinlaw is my home. I love it here."
"But what of when you marry?" he persisted. "Won't you leave then?"
Her laughter snuffed out. "I have no thought of that," she said, freeing her hand from his grasp and backing away. "My father has never mentioned -- "
"He cherishes you, Alista -- of course he would wish to keep you with him." He reached for her again, then let his hands fall before he touched her. "I have no castle, no lands of my own," he went on more gently. "But my name is good, and I have the King's favor. I could care for you, and for Brinlaw -- I would never ask you to leave here, to leave your father."
This sudden turn of the conversation was so unexpected that for a moment she could only gape at him, speechless. Geoffrey here at Brinlaw forever? Geoffrey as her husband? The very idea seemed absurd, like shutting up a peacock to lay eggs with the chickens. "I don't..." she finally stammered. "I had no idea -- "
"That I loved you?" He took her hands then, smiling.
"Love...me?" Her heart was pounding just as Druscilla said it must when confronted with one's beloved, but she couldn't get over the feeling that the whole thing made no sense, like a silly dream where only she knew she was dreaming.
"How could I not?" he insisted. "You're like an angel, all innocence and light -- "
"Hardly -- "
"Tell me, then, that you feel nothing for me." He unlaced the leather binding of her glove and pressed his lips to her bare wrist. A shiver ran over her, made her face turn hot again. "You don't even know what love is," he said, his voice soft but vaguely frightening, husky in a way she had never heard. "You don't even know what you feel."
She stared down at her wrist, trying to get hold of the sensation radiating through her to give it a proper name. "Geoffrey...my father is waiting," she finally said, avoiding his eyes.
He let her go, watched with secret amusement as she snatched her hands back, clasping them behind her like a child struggling with the urge to steal a sweet. "Promise me, Alista," he said. "Promise me you will think on what I've said."
Her wide black eyes turned on his. "Of course I will," she said. "How could I possibly not?"
The church bells of London were still ringing as the sun began to set on December 19, 1154, ringing in triumph for peace, for the crowning of handsome, young Henry II and Eleanor, his beautiful queen. Watching as the shadows grew long across the floor of the audience chamber, Mark of Brinlaw suddenly realized his head ached as if it had been split. "Shouldn't they be tired by now?" he mused softly to himself, meaning the bell ringers.
"They say King Henry has the stamina of a bull," a nearby baron answered in friendly incomprehension. "One assumes his queen can match him, but the rest of us may starve."
The King had indeed been busy that day, hearing his nobles' petitions almost from the moment the crown was placed on his head and for many hours since, long after Queen Eleanor had retired. But night was finally coming on; soon all would adjourn for the banquet, and the day's more serious business would be done. Perhaps Mark had worried for nothing; perhaps he had wasted a trip. Then he recognized the figure now approaching the dais.
"William of Brinlaw, Majesty," the young knight was saying, shouting it out as if he meant to address the throne of Heaven as well as England. "Will you hear my suit?"
Mark had seen Old Brinlaw's son from across a battlefield enough times to know him even without his armor. How old would he be by now? Twenty? Thirty? The face half-obscured by a dark, close-cropped beard suggested even older, but that hardly seemed possible. He'd been no more than a child when his father had turned tail for France. He was as tall as Mark or taller, broad-shouldered -- a warrior, no question. His clothes were plain, as befitted a newly returned Crusader, but not ostentatiously drab or poor. He was a noble, not a monk, an adversary worthy of caution. He had turned to look at Mark as he spoke the title "Brinlaw," daring the castle's true lord to dispute him, and hate burned unmistakably in his eyes. Mark had spoken to his new sovereign in private the night before and knew his claim was secure, barring any sudden change of royal heart. But it was clear this William would not give up without a fight.
"England holds you dear as my own heart, Will," King Henry answered with obvious affection, cutting short Mark's thoughts. "You know I am glad to hear you."
Will stopped and frowned. Something in this answer was wrong, for all the words were so pleasant. Ever since he was a boy of eleven, he had lived for two things alone: to see his friend crowned King of England as was his right and to reclaim his own father's lands. Now that one dream had at last come true after years of pain and bloodshed, the other seemed assured, this public request no more than a formality. But now that the moment was at hand, something in Henry's smile was wrong, a flicker of pity in his eyes. He turned and looked again at Mark, the old villain who had held Brinlaw for the dead usurper these many years. He looked like a statue of Zeus even without his armor, as imposing in a gown as he was astride his war-horse. He knew what Will would ask; he must, but he didn't seem the least bit concerned.
"I want Brinlaw," Will said aloud, suddenly too furious to feint and flatter through the forms of court. "My father was your mother's faithful servant, wrongly stripped of his title and lands. As his son, I ask my king for justice."
Many whose thoughts had begun to drift from the proceedings to the anticipation of supper suddenly snapped back to attention, and a ripple of whispers crawled around the room. Henry's smile dimmed but didn't vanish, and his tone when he answered was fond. "Your king believes you deserve far more than justice," he said. "You know the love I hold for you and for your father's memory." He turned and looked on Mark with apparently equal affection. "But Lord Mark has been a faithful servant of the Crown as well. Is it just for me to now repay him -- ?"
"A faithful servant of the Crown?" Will cut him off, sending a gasp of horror through the crowd. "In what way, Majesty? Was he serving the Crown when we faced his armies in battle not so long ago?"
"The rightful Crown of England, yea, sirrah, and well," Mark cried before the King could answer, other nobles making way for his approach. "I was protecting the sovereignty of England when you were a suckling babe." The phrase "sovereignty of England" was no more popular with the nobles looking on than Will's rudeness had been. No one had forgotten the new King was technically from Anjou. But Mark pressed on undaunted. "And I never left England or my children to save my own hide."
Will turned in a flash of rage like lightning, the King and England both forgotten. "My father did not break faith. He followed the queen to whom he was sworn -- "
"Your father was a traitor to his country and his king!" Mark shouted, his craggy face gone red with fury.
"Enough!" Henry's roar was as impressive as any feat he had accomplished so far, at least in the minds of the assembly. After more than twenty years of civil war, everyone's nerves were still rather tender, and the peace seemed as rare as rubies and fragile as glass. The last thing anyone wanted was to see it shattered by a pair of ingrates with no more sense or courtesy than to dredge up old quarrels over a backwater castle no one had ever heard tell of anyway. "I will have peace in this Hall!" Henry continued, fixing each combatant in turn with a baleful glare that belied his tender years.
Will needed every ounce of self-control he could muster and then some to obey, every muscle in his body drawn so taut it trembled. No man would call his father a traitor and live, Henry and his bloody peace be damned. But he would not force his sovereign's hand, not on the very day of his crowning. He glared at Mark's face, purple with rage, for another long moment, then dropped his gaze to the floor.
Henry relaxed a bit, though he kept his expression stern. He had known Will would balk at his decision, and he'd hoped to settle a better manor on him before he made a public fuss. But somehow he'd never found the time. At least the single-minded fool hadn't lost his head entirely -- no blood had been shed, and the situation could still be fixed. He even had a brilliant idea how. But now, when they were ready to slit one another's throats in the presence of every English nobleman and half those of France, was not the time to suggest it. "Lord Mark will keep his castle," the King said aloud. "I will not punish him for his loyalty and friendship with the loss of his lands."
"You prefer to punish me for mine," Will couldn't help but answer through clenched teeth, making the nobles murmur again in shock. Treason, they clucked like hens on their nests, their own futures secured, their own accounts well paid. He had no doubt that Henry meant to give him some manner of compensation for his loss, but nothing he had, not even his crown, would be enough. The wound he carried had burned and bled for fifteen years; nothing but to be master of Brinlaw would heal it. And Henry ought to know as much. If he didn't, Will would have to show him. "You are my king, and I will die in your service," he said aloud, speaking to his friend more than to his sovereign. "You know my love for you as friend as well as lord." He looked up, his expression cold. "But I will not accept this. I cannot."
Mark's head was pounding harder than ever, hard enough to make him feel faint, and he was still angry enough to spit in the eye of Satan. But something in these words touched him, made him feel a grudging respect for the stone-headed boy even as he despised him. "You needn't risk hanging for treason on my account," he said not unkindly. "If you would take my manor, lay siege to it. Attack me, not the King. I assure you, you will not succeed." He almost smiled. "To have Brinlaw, you will have to kill me."
Will looked at him, his face unchanged. "I can think of no better way."
As the sun was setting on coronation day, Alista finally worked up the courage to tell Druscilla about Geoffrey's odd proposal. "I thought for a moment he meant to kiss me on the lips," she finished, sprawling onto a chair in the solar, exhausted with relief from finally having it out.
Dru kept her eyes turned conscientiously on her needle. "You mean he didn't?" she asked.
"No, thank heavens. I told him Papa was waiting."
"Oh, Alista, really." Dru was a widow, born in Paris, so she considered herself wise far beyond her twenty-two years.
"He surprised me, I suppose." She pulled her dagger from its sheath at her waist and traced the swirling pattern of knots worked into the silver hilt. "You don't really think he was serious?"
"Of course he was," Dru laughed, an edge of bitterness in her usually dulcet tone. "You are a most marriageable maid."
Alista silently cursed herself for a blundering fool. Her friend's lack of a husband was the great ill of her life. The knight who'd widowed her had been no great prize to hear Dru speak of him, and he'd been a fool as well, refusing to give up plotting mischief after Henry's peace was made and losing his wooden head for his trouble. Mark had first seen Druscilla when he arrived at her London house to supervise the confiscation of all her worldly goods. Moved to pity by her plight, he had offered to escort her to a convent and pay for her entrance there, but on the way she had convinced him he'd really rather keep her for himself. But he would not marry her, nor would he ever. He had told his daughter as much. "Marriageable, eh?" she sighed, twirling her dagger with its point poised on the arm of her chair. "You'd never know it to look at me."
"No, in faith, you would not," Dru admitted, laughing in spite of herself.
Mark had feared for his daughter's safety to the level of obsession since he'd lost her mother. Consequently, he had insisted she learn not only to defend herself but also to take the offensive if necessary. Practice with her sword was as much a part of her daily routine as needlework and infinitely more to her liking. When her father was away, as he was now, she rarely even bothered with skirts at all, dressing like a squire with her long, dark brown hair tightly braided down her back. "The next time Geoffrey comes, I shall greet him dressed exactly like this," she grinned, sheathing her dagger again. "That should rattle some life into his brain."
"Milady, help!" Sophie, one of the serving maids, came in with an arm around the shoulders of Tom, the boy who kept the castle mews. He seemed to be covered in blood, and more streamed from beneath the rag he held against one eye.
"Tom, what happened?" Dru leapt to her feet, her sewing tumbling unnoticed to the floor.
"'Tis the Greenland falcon, the white," he explained as Dru lifted the rag and Alista and Sophie gasped as one. Deep gashes were scratched into either side of his face. "She broke her jesses, milady, I know not how."
"'Tis not so bad," Dru said, dabbing blood away with her white linen veil. "The eye is whole."
"I fear the bird will take more hurt than me," Tom said, allowing himself to be seated on a footstool by the hearth. "She is mad to be free, flying against the walls. I tried to calm her, and she gave me this." He winced as Dru probed his wounds. "Something has frighted her, but I cannot say what."
"I'll go see," Alista said, getting up.
"Alista, no," Dru protested.
"If she isn't quieted or freed, she will kill the other birds," Alista pointed out. "I'll take care, I promise."
A small crowd had gathered in the courtyard just outside the mews. Clarence the castellan was consulting with one of his bowmen, and the screams of the birds could be heard even through the heavy oaken door. "You can't mean to shoot her," Alista cried, running to join them, her feet sliding on the icy ground.
"I only wish we could," Clarence grumbled. "It's dark as Satan's pit in there, and she flies at any show of light."
"A white falcon is a creature of the devil," one of the cooks said sagely. "'Tis a priest we're needing, not a crossbow."
"Don't be ridiculous," Alista snapped. "Everyone step back."
"Oh, no, you don't," Clarence said, blocking her way. "I can't let you go in there. Did you not see young Tom?"
"You fear for my beauty, Clarence?" she grinned. "I have Brinlaw for my dowry; why should I need a pretty face?" A keening cry was suddenly cut short inside the mews. "She's killing the others, and she knows me well -- I must at least try to set her free." He didn't budge, and the expression on his face told her he was not convinced. "In my father's name, I order you to stand aside!"
Clarence obviously wanted to argue, but he nodded. "You heard her," he ordered, his jaw clenched. "Step away and douse the light."
As she slowly swung the heavy door open the smallest crack through which she could squeeze, Alista knew she should be afraid, but she wasn't. The Greenland falcon was her father's prize possession, fierce and beautiful with feathers so pale they seemed white. "Like my mother's hair," Alista had said when her father had first shown her the bird, stroking the soft breast as broad as his spread hand. Now, standing so still in the darkness she felt every breath, she cared only for saving the magnificent creature from harm.
The other falcons that still lived and Brother Paolo's owl had all fallen silent, sensing her presence. As her vision adjusted to the darkness, she could see the staring owl blink at her, hear the faint tinkle of a bell tied to a restless talon. Then suddenly over all, drowning every other sense, was the savage scream of the white. A fierce breath of air passed by Alista's face with a whir of beating wings. "All will be well, my lady," she called softly, holding out her arm, bare but for the thin sleeve of her tunic. "Come to me so I may set you free."
The scream faded to a sound like a woman's sigh. Alista could see the pale glow of feathers in the rafters just over her head. "Will you tell me your sorrow, my lady?" she crooned, sure somehow that the falcon understood. "My father would serve you himself, I know, but he is gone away."
At this, the cry sounded again, more furious than before and growing louder, deafening, as the bird swooped down to her arm. But the lethal talons were delicate, barely holding on as if loath to break her skin. "Thank you, lady," Alista whispered, moving toward the door.
Once outside, she motioned the others back, and Clarence made them obey, his face drawn with tension. "Only a moment more," Alista promised, her voice barely more than a whisper, as she untied the falcon's hood. One golden eye fixed on her face for a moment, then the bird took flight in a leap so powerful its force knocked Alista backward into the snow. The moon was full in a cloudless, starry sky, and she could see the white falcon climbing higher in a circle that seemed to shrink smaller and smaller until the bird was another, paler, star. Then a sound filled her ears, piercing, like the sound of an arrow leaving its bow, only louder, so loud she covered her ears with her hands as the shape in the sky grew larger again, coming toward her. The falcon plummeted toward the courtyard as if intent on a kill, and one of the women screamed, and Clarence ran to Alista, grabbed her arm to drag her to safety. But instead of extending her talons, pulling up her downward flight to attack, the falcon came on headfirst, crashing to the ground mere inches from Alista's feet.
"No!" Alista screamed, scrambling for the creature on her knees. The bird was stone dead, her feathers soaked with blood. Pressing her fingers to the carcass, Alista could feel no flutter of heartbeat, no sign of life at all. "No," the girl kneeling in the snow repeated, weeping with horror and a grief all out of proportion for the death of a falcon. She felt something warm falling over her and looked up to see Brother Paolo wrapping a mantle around her shoulders. "What is happening?" she demanded, as if she truly believed he knew. "Tell me what this means."
"Nothing, cara mia," he promised, lifting her to her feet. "It's only a bird, sweet love."
The church bells had finally stopped ringing by midnight, but the general air of celebration continued all through London. Even in this miserable Cheapside tavern, the air was thick with joy, every drunkard beaming with reflected glory. Every drunkard, that is, but one.
"Will, for the sweet blood of Christ," this melancholy creature's sole companion swore, thumping down his tankard with enough force to make their other empties dance. "You act dead and sour as old Stephen rotting in his tomb."
"Shut up, Raynard," his friend muttered, taking another long swallow. William of Brinlaw hadn't realized how completely he had counted on Henry until the new king, his boyhood friend, chose to break his hopes to bits.
"You oughtn't to be so surprised," Raynard said, signaling for more drink. "Henry has always been one to think first of his own want and hide -- 'tis why he's tupping the lovely Eleanor this night with the crown on a bedside table." The soldier meant no treason or even malice; indeed, it was this very self-preserving instinct that had drawn him to give up the mercenary life to follow Henry a decade or more past. But Will Brinlaw was his friend, the only real friend he could boast, and seeing him grieve so for a single plot of mud made Raynard want to crack open his skull to let some sense inside.
"My father died for him," Will answered, his blue eyes clear with a fury too powerful for any liquid spirit to quench.
"As did a thousand others, with his mother's count taken in," Raynard said, meeting his gaze. "'Tis naught but politics, nothing to do with you or your father, either." The barmaid set down two more brimming vessels and hurried away, chilled by the look in the big, pretty one's eyes. "The war is over, and old Mark is of more use."
Will knew Raynard was right; 'twas why he felt such pain. Henry saw him as no more or less than a weapon for battle, a well-wrought, lethal sword, invaluable in wartime, but in peace good for little more than gathering dust. Could the man with whom he'd shared so much truly know him so little? "You can't understand," he said aloud. "You've never known what it is to have a home and lose it, to lose a family." In his mind, he could see his mother cover her face with her hands to weep as King Stephen's troops escorted them from their home, could still feel the blood pouring over his own hands from his father's chest as both of them sprawled in the mud of a battlefield. "It all means nothing to you," he finished, speaking not to Raynard but to Henry, the boy to whom he'd sworn allegiance with his dead father's blood still wet on his hands.
"Aye, you must be right," Raynard muttered, drowning his own anger in another swallow. The boy was drunk and miserable; his words couldn't be held against him. "But what can this fine fellow want?" he said, glad to see a distraction heading their way.
The royal page had obviously taken great pains to disguise his office, his usual livery exchanged for a plain tunic, but the expression of horrified distaste he wore with it was a dead giveaway. He started to speak to Will, then, seeing his face, decided Raynard was the more receptive audience. "His Majesty the King sent me to find William of Brinlaw," he explained. "He said he must come to him at once, but all quiet."
"Well, lad, we'll be pleased to come," Raynard answered, lumbering to his feet with such force that his chair fell over with a crash. "But I can't promise we'll be quiet."
Paolo had been certain the falcon's death meant nothing, that the bird had simply been captive too long. "Its nature broke free of its wits," he had told Alista, hustling her off to bed. But his own dreams were troubled with falcons in flight and the memory of Bianca....She flew away, the child Alista cried from the misty cliffside of the dream as the sea roared far below. My child is yours, Fra Paolo, her mother spoke, urgent and fond, as if she stood just at his shoulder. You must not let her fall....
He woke to familiar darkness, his own warm room, but the chill of the dream seemed to hang on his sweat-slick flesh. He lit the candle and climbed out of bed to huddle at the hearth, building the fire back up into a blaze. The Lord in His mercy had given him little bodily hurt with the passing of the years, but suddenly he felt ancient, a lonely old man in the dark.
He and Lord Mark had quarreled in this room, the same old struggle grown more heated with time instead of burning out. Burning. Bianca's husband had said she must be burned, her daughter taught the heathen tongue. Blasphemy! Paolo had cried, but the knight wouldn't listen, would never hear.
"It is her nature, Brother," Mark had said again before he left for London, here, in this room before this fire as the daughter they didn't quite share slept in her room down the hall, a woman grown but innocent. "You cannot protect her from herself, even if there were need -- "
"There is every need!" Paolo had shouted, the old fear freezing his blood. Mark was blind, still, after all these years; blind with love, yes, but the horror was no less for that. "Alista's very soul is in danger -- "
"Her soul is pure, and it is her own!" Mark had shouted back. "Not yours, good Brother, not mine. We cannot even understand -- "
"Then what are we to tell her?" They had spoken these words to one another so many times, repeating them again seemed like a joke or a catechism, the meaning already soaked into their hearts. "What will you say -- you say you must tell her the truth? What is this truth that you would tell?"
"I will tell her who she is," Mark had answered, his tone suddenly calm. "What she might become. When I return from London, my daughter will be told."
All argument had ceased. Paolo loved Alista more dearly than life, but her father was Mark of Brinlaw. Now alone in the darkness, the monk gathered his robes more tightly around his shoulders. "Protect my child, dear Father," he prayed, his head bent toward the flames. "I commit to You her soul."
Down the hall in her own little room, Alista hadn't slept yet. She sat on a chest by the window that was no more than a narrow slit, the stars and moonlight just enough to let her see what she wanted. On her lap she had spread a paper, a piece of vellum creased and thinned from years of folding and touch.
"Alista" was written across the top, first in beautiful letters, then again more raggedly -- her own childish script. "Little bird," Lady Blanche had written beneath the names, spelling each letter as it was drawn while her daughter watched, enthralled.
Under the writing were two pictures. The first was a falcon in flight, its wings beautifully rendered, feather by delicate feather. "Lovely," Alista had whispered, making her mother smile. Then Mama had drawn a lady clothed only in her own long hair, looking back over her shoulder as little curlicues of sea-surf played around her slender ankles. "Who is she?" Alista had asked, studying the picture so closely its lines seemed to waver into life.
Her mother had kissed her forehead, gathering her against her side. "You are she."
Now the woman the child had become touched the drawing-woman's face, remembering the feel of her mother's kiss, the sweet smell of her gown, the softness of her cheek. Sometimes when she tried to remember these things, she felt like she was remembering the memory instead of the reality, as if her mother had been no more than a story told to her as a child. But tonight the past seemed very close, and this picture she had kept secret for so long, secret even from Brother Paolo and her father, seemed vitally important, a message from the past. Something was happening to her; she could feel it.
She folded the page again and tucked it back into its hiding place, a tiny crevice between the stones of the wall where she had kept it from the first night she had spent in this room. But the image of the woman and her falcon still burned in her mind like the shape of her own name.
Will and Raynard were taken to the King's private bedchamber. The heavy draperies were drawn around the bed, but Henry had obviously emerged from it only minutes before their entrance, and was still dressed in nothing but his hose with a fur-lined mantle flung over his shoulders. "That was quick," he said, grinning, as they came in. "So how drunk are you?"
"Not near drunk enough," Will answered sullenly, refusing to be charmed. "What is this, Henry?"
"That's Your Majesty the Bloody King to you, Brinlaw," Henry shot back pleasantly, filling three cups with his own hand as a squire struggled to coax a warmer blaze from the fire. "Here, have another drink."
Raynard took a swallow. "The vintage and company are much improved," he admitted, settling into a chair with his legs stretched long before him. "But the hour still makes a man uneasy -- a midnight summons from the King?"
Will was still standing, his expression as grim as before as he looked down on the friend who was now his king. "Will, for pity," Henry grumbled, kicking a chair toward him as he sat down himself. Will sat and grudgingly reached for the last cup. "That's a fine way to behave when I'm about to grant your heart's desire."
The wine cup froze halfway to Will's lips. "How so?" he asked, still wary, and even Raynard's lazy pose tensed up a bit.
"Brinlaw," Henry replied, taking a satisfied swig. "I'm going to give you Brinlaw."
For a moment, Will thought he must be the butt of some cruel joke, and he waited, still scowling, for the cream of the jest. "What of Mark?" he heard Raynard ask.
"Dead," Henry answered, leaning forward to look Will in the eye. "Dropped dead as a stone not two hours past, and none do know it but his own squires and we three." He smiled again, as if Mark's death were a gift he had himself produced for his friend's pleasure. "May God assoil him."
"So you mean to claim his holding." Will's own voice sounded distant to him, the voice of a stranger in another room. An hour before, he had been plotting treason, a war that would be like suicide but inescapable nonetheless. Now the cause was to be won without a fight? "What of his heirs, his son -- "
"No son, just a daughter." Henry flung a roll of parchment across the table. "I witnessed his will myself and am charged with her protection."
"And this is how you mean to fulfill your office?" Even Raynard was shocked, and he thought he knew how little conscience their friend possessed. "By depriving this woman of her inheritance?"
"I mean to deprive her of nothing," Henry protested. "I will give her the greatest gift any woman can receive."
"Oh, no," Raynard laughed, understanding.
"A husband," Henry finished.
Will's momentary confusion at the King's sudden burst of generosity cleared up in an instant. His kind but faithless king had a stake in his success after all. Not that it mattered, so long as he had Brinlaw, but still..."You think I will marry Mark's daughter and hold his district loyal," he said aloud.
"I think you can if you hurry and keep it quiet," Henry answered, the good-humored boy giving way to the man with a design. "Mark's daughter is now one of the richest heiresses in England, and once the word gets out, the road to Brinlaw will be churned to mud with would-be husbands. As King, it is my duty to see her appropriately wed, and I intend to do it by keeping my faith with you. I will endow you with your father's title, then you and your men will escort Mark's body back to Brinlaw. You'll leave before first light."
"So Will is to wed and bed the wench before any other contender can reach her." Raynard raised his cup in salute. "Sometimes, my liege, your wit can astound even me."
"I thank you both for your good wishes," Will answered sarcastically. "But what if Mark's daughter won't have me?"
"Then you must convince her." The softly accented voice came from the bed. Emerging from the draperies was Queen Eleanor, as exquisite as her legend proclaimed her, even -- especially -- in her nightshift with her long, black curls in disarray. "Her name, by the way, is Alista," she went on, taking a sip from her husband's cup. "I dare say Henri has forgotten."
"She'll have who I send her, whatever her name may be," Henry grumbled.
Eleanor gave him a fond smile. "Of course she will, my love," she agreed. "But if William truly wants what he has always claimed, he will do far better to win her heart." She turned to Will, her eyes serious. "You say, my lord, that you wish to reclaim your home, to rebuild your family. You will need an ally, not a slave."
Will flushed red, not with embarrassment but with new rage. How dare Henry discuss his private hopes with this woman? Henry couldn't know Will's reasons for thinking so little of his queen, but just knowing she knew his desires made the betrayal seem even more ill meant. Were his life's hopes no more to his friend than pillow talk? "I thank you, Majesty, for your good counsel," he said with perfect courtesy.
"But you don't believe it," Eleanor answered with a world-weary sigh. "I wish you good fortune, Lord of Brinlaw."
At Brinlaw, the snow had turned to a hard, cold rain that drove every human creature indoors. Druscilla had set up her loom in the relative light and warmth before the fire in the castle's Great Hall, giving her an excellent vantage point from which to watch Alista's training. "Clarence, no!" she shrieked as the castellan swung his broadsword in a whistling arc, missing the other girl's head by inches as she ducked into a crouch and rolled to safety.
"Hush, Dru, or he shall kill me indeed," Alista scolded with a laugh, leaping to her feet in an instant.
"I will if you don't have a care," Clarence agreed, already behind her to give her a solid slap to the behind with the flat of his sword just to get her attention.
"Bloody varlet!" Alista swore, happily furious as she turned on him again.
"Alista!" Dru cried.
"'Tis true, you know," Clarence said as their swords clashed again. "Such language is hardly ladylike." She was advancing on him steadily, but not fast enough, and mischief danced in her eyes. He feinted with an upward stroke and lunged, meaning to push her off her feet, but she neatly avoided the blow, stepping back and up on a bench, then up again on the table, momentarily out of reach. "And now you're walking on the furniture," he continued.
"Shocking, isn't it?" Alista agreed, pleased to see her acrobatics work so well. Clarence had been her teacher since she was a child, but he had only recently begun to spar with her himself. A full foot taller than she was and outweighing her two to one, the great Viking had probably worried he'd accidentally break her to bits. But if her usual bruises and currently stinging dignity were any indication, he had finally decided she could manage, and she was quite pleased with herself. "'Tis a good thing I have no fear of heights," she laughed, leaping back from another swing of his broadsword with nimble grace.
"Maybe you should." Before she could lift her sword, Clarence suddenly reached up and grabbed the front of her tunic, dumping her unceremoniously face first on the floor.
"Mon Dieu!" Dru scolded, running to her fallen friend. "Clarence, you should be ashamed!"
"Yea, Clarence," Alista agreed, rolling onto her back, her wind still knocked out from the blow. "I hope your conscience pricks you."
"Dancing works better for jesters than it does for fighters, my lady," Clarence said, unmoved. "A battle is never a game."
Shouts from the battlements interrupted her reply -- men beneath the Brinlaw banner were riding over the drawbridge. "Papa!" Alista cried, scrambling to her feet and racing for the door.
"Alista, wait, you'll freeze!" Dru called after her. "Think how you're dressed!"
Alista barely heard her, so intent was she in reaching her father. Ever since the death of the white falcon three nights before, her fears had run colder than the rain, fears only the sight of her father would dispel. She ran out into the courtyard just as he was climbing off his horse.
Riding into the outer bailey of Brinlaw, Will had been surprised at how little he felt, how dim his memory of this place had grown in the fifteen years since he'd been forced to leave it. In the drenching downpour, the gray walls looming over them could have belonged to any castle in England. But when they entered the courtyard and he saw the Brinlaw dragon hanging over the arching door, such a sense of belonging and vengeance washed over him he felt sick. "Not much of a day for a triumphal entry, is it?" Raynard teased, then he turned his horse about to give the order to dismount. Will swung down from his own horse and was pushing back the hood of his chain mail when a young boy ran down the steps from the front door and threw himself into his arms.
As soon as Will touched her, he knew this boy was no boy, and she obviously knew he was not whomever she'd expected. He felt a fleeting press of feminine curves against his chest and arms around his waist before she recoiled so quickly she fell backward on the mud-slick stones. "Who are you?" she demanded, the rain plastering loose strands of dark hair to an elfin face and thin muslin to pale pink skin. "Where is my father?"
Father? he thought, incredulous. This was his intended bride, this sodden, unseemly creature in boots and hose? If he hadn't been so lost in his own chaotic thoughts, he would probably have been less blunt, more quick to realize that Mark's death would be a matter of far greater personal import to this girl that it was to him. As it was...
"He's dead," he answered. Another girl, this one blond, pretty, and wearing a proper dress, was coming out the door and let out a blood-chilling scream, but the baggage on the ground just stared at him, deathly pale in the weak and watery light. He had seen that look many times before on the battlefield, the stunned shock of a corpse who in the first moments after the blow can't believe he's really dead. He bent down and offered his hand, beginning to regret his lack of tact.
"Sweet saints, Will," Raynard muttered, echoing his thoughts.
"Will," Alista said, her reeling mind catching hold of the word like a drowning woman grasping at reeds. "Who are you, Will?"
"William of Brinlaw, Lady Alista." He gave up waiting for her and grasped her hand, a tiny, trembling thing. "King Henry has sent me to you."
Copyright © 2001 by Jayel Wylie