It had been necessary. Still, Garr Wulfrith felt the stain of young Jonas’s death.
He reached for the hilt of his misericorde and too late realized he no longer possessed it. That had not been necessary.
Berating himself for the foolish gesture, he lifted a hand to his cheek where Jonas’s shrew of a sister had scored his flesh. So the girl who looked and behaved like a boy had also turned. Though Artur Bretanne remained loyal to Stephen, somehow his brother’s children had found Henry. For that, Jonas was dead. And hardly an honorable death as told.
Remembering what he had done the morning he found his squire strung from a tree, he told himself it was better that the truth of the betrayal die with the betrayer. No family ought to suffer such dishonor, not even a family that boasted one such as Annyn Bretanne. Thus, he had falsified—and now felt the brunt of God’s displeasure.
Save me, O Lord, from lying lips and deceitful tongues, his mother would quote if she knew what her firstborn had done.
For this, Garr would spend hours in repentance and pray that this one lie did not breed, as lies often did—that after this day, he would know no more regret for having told it.
He looked over his shoulder. Though it was the receding Castle Lillia he sought, Squire Merrick captured his gaze. A promising young warrior, if not a bit peculiar, he and Jonas had served together in squiring Garr. At first there had been strain between the young men who both aspired to the standing of First Squire, but it had eased once Jonas was chosen. In fact, the two had become as near friends as was possible in the competitive ranks of the forty who sought knighthood at Wulfen Castle. But, as Merrick now knew, friendships often had false bottoms.
Garr shifted his gaze to Castle Lillia. He pitied Artur Bretanne. The man would be a long time in ridding himself of his niece, if ever, for who would take to wife that filthy little termagant who had but good, strong teeth to recommend her?
Of course, what man took any woman to wife other than to get an heir? Women were difficult, ever endeavoring to turn men from their purpose. However, as with all Wulfrith men who preferred warring over women, especially Garr’s father, Drogo, Garr would eventually wed. Forsooth, he would have done so three years past had his betrothed not died of the pox.
He turned back to the land before him. Once Stephen secured his hold on England, Garr would find a wife of sturdy build whom he could visit a half dozen times a year until she bore him sons to raise up as warriors—men who stood far apart from ones like Jonas.
An image of the young man’s death once more rising, he gripped the pommel of his saddle. How could he have been so wrong? Though he had sensed Jonas’s allegiance to Henry, he had used it to put heart into the young man’s training. After all, how better to make a man than to give him a powerful reason for becoming one? The aim was not to turn one’s allegiance, though sometimes it happened. The aim was for the squire to give his utmost to his lord, which was of greatest importance in battle.
But the strategy had failed with Jonas—fatally. A mistake Garr would not make again.
Telling himself Jonas Bretanne was in the past, dead and soon buried, he released the pommel. As for Annyn Bretanne, she would put her loss behind her. All she needed was time.
Castle Lillia, Spring 1153
Castle Lillia was taken, blessedly without loss of lives. From his bed, Uncle Artur had ordered the drawbridge lowered to admit Duke Henry’s army. Now they were within, wafting their stench upon the hall and sounding their voices to the rafters.
Holding the high seat on the dais was Henry himself. However, it was not the vibrant man who carried Annyn’s gaze time and again. It was the squire who sat at a lower table.
The talk of the hall was that, though destined for the monastery, the deaths of his brothers in the wars between Stephen and Henry had made the boy heir. Of a family strongly opposed to Henry’s claim on England, he had been captured by the duke’s army a sennight past while en route to Wulfen Castle. Such hopes his father must have that Wulfrith could turn him from a sickly pup into a wolf, but it would not come without much effort and pain. And now that he was to be held at Lillia, it might not come at all.
Annyn peered closer. He was slightly taller than she, who had risen to five feet three inches in the four years following Jonas’s death, and his hair was nearly as dark as hers. There was not much to his build, as there was not much to hers.
“My lady,” a warmly familiar voice spoke at her elbow.
She met Rowan’s gaze. Regardless of the years that aged his eyes, there was something more to them than she had ever seen. The man he would have sit on England’s throne had been let into Lillia. “Rowan?”
“The Duke requests your attendance.”
Henry would see her? During his three hours at Lillia, he had not acknowledged her though she directed the servants and had done her best to look the lady of the castle.
Bitter humor tugged at her. Lady of the Castle, and yet beneath her mother’s chainse and bliaut—dragged on as Henry came into Lillia—she wore tunic and hose. And for it she perspired.
She tugged the bodice off her moist skin. “I am presentable?” she asked in a voice that was more husk than the scratch it had been four years earlier.
“As presentable as a boy turned lady can be.”
Wishing there was time to work her mess of hair into braids, she blew breath down her small-breasted chest. “Then to Henry I must go.” She started past Rowan but halted. “Pray, hasten abovestairs and tell my uncle I shall attend him shortly.”
Hoping Uncle Artur, who had been abed these past months, did not fret his failing heart over the happenings belowstairs, she traversed the hall. As with an increasing number of those who had long sided with Stephen, the intervening years were wrought with disenchantment for her uncle, though more for fear of the king that Stephen’s son, Eustace, would one day make.
She settled her gaze on Henry. Poise befitting a lady, she reminded herself, small steps, small smile, small gestures, small voice, small talk. While inside, her heart beat large.
She ought to have been born a man. No matter how she tried for Uncle, it was not in her to be a lady. Would it ever be? If Jonas had lived, perhaps, but his murder left little for the woman’s body into which she had been given.
Lifting her skirts, she sidestepped the sots whose bellies sloshed with Uncle’s wine and ale. As she ascended the dais, Henry paused over the rim of his goblet and regarded her with large grey eyes.
She curtsied. “My lord.” When she straightened, a faint smile lifted his freckled cheeks above his beard. He was handsome, though on other men such a square face and feverish red hair would be less pleasing.
“The lady Annyn.” He gestured to the bench beside him. “Sit.”
Realizing her skirts were still hitched to her ankles, Annyn dropped them and came around the table. As she lowered to the bench, Henry studied her with such intensity she feared he saw beneath her bliaut and chainse to the tunic, hose, and—
Wafting the scent of wine, Henry sat forward. “Something is amiss?”
Feigning a cough, she wiggled her toes beneath her skirts. She had forgotten to exchange her worn boots for slippers. Had anyone seen?
She tucked her feet beneath the bench, summoned an apologetic smile, and patted her neck. “A tickle, ’tis all.”
He eased back into the high seat. “You are not uncomely, Lady Annyn.”
Though his words were unexpected, she maintained an impassive expression. What response did he seek? She could agree she was not uncomely, but neither was she comely. Plain was the better word for one whose face was unremarkable beneath pale freckles, whose breasts were not much larger than apple halves, and the span between waist and hips was nearly unchanged.
“Why are you not wed?”
She flinched and immediately berated herself for failing to conceal her feelings. Jonas would have been disappointed.
“Be assured, Lady Annyn, though you are of an age, I shall find a fitting husband for you when I am king. One who will lord Aillil as it ought to be lorded.”
Though her anger was more for his plan to wed her away from the freedom she was allowed, neither did she like being spoken of as if she were an old woman at eight and ten. Old women did not swing swords, tilt at quintains, or hunt. And they certainly did not wear men’s garments. Perhaps Henry would not make a good king after all.
He chuckled, and she realized she had revealed herself again. “Ho, you do not like that!”
Careful, he shall soon be your king. Still, she could not acquiesce as Uncle would have advised and Rowan would have desired. She retrieved a small smile befitting a lady. “Do you wish the truth, my lord, or a lie?”
Henry grinned. “That is all the answer I require, Annyn Bretanne. Now, where does your loyalty lie?”
She released her tight smile. “You have my fealty, my lord.”
“As I had your brother’s, eh?”
Feeling the color pull from her cheeks, she asked, “You knew of Jonas’s stand?”
Though he shrugged, she glimpsed in his eyes what looked like plotting. “A good king knows his subjects, Annyn Bretanne, and a good king I shall be.”
And no more would he speak of Jonas. She clenched her hands. “I am certain you shall, my lord.”
Henry grabbed a loaf of bread and wrenched off a bite. “What does your uncle think, Annyn Bretanne?”
It was curious, but he had not ordered Uncle Artur from his bed, nor gone abovestairs to confront the lord of the castle. It was as if Uncle was of no consequence. And perhaps he was not. Not only had he stood down from Henry, but he would not be much longer in this world. That last made her ache.
Though she had never found her name offensive, it vexed that he was intent on speaking it in its entirety. She lowered her gaze. “Though I cannot speak for my uncle, is it not enough that he did not subject Castle Lillia to siege?”
Silence, and the longer it grew, the more fearsome it was felt.