The Whitsun morning was beautiful and warm but Agnes was in dire straits. Since she had woken up her lady to prepare her for the imminent wedding which was to be attended by the King himself, she was fretting for her ward. Lady Heather sat on her bed, still in her night-gown and when she raised her head to look at her nurse, Agnes could see how tired and stressed she looked. The dark circles beneath Heather's eyes of the day before had become more prominent over night and her pale skin had the colour of ashes.
'Oh, my dear child, what has happened?' she exclaimed and went over to her.
'Nothing, Agnes, I have come down with a slight fever that is all,' Heather murmured and stood up shakily. She felt dizzy and as she stepped over to the bathtub Agnes had prepared for her she almost felt sick to the stomach.
'I am ready soon, so do not worry!'
'Heather, if it is the marriage you are concerned about I will get your uncle who will excuse you with Lord Duncan and postpone the marriage...'
'No!' Heather cried. 'No, I will marry Duncan De Gael! I caught a cold when I sat at the open window. Besides, Lord Duncan and I had a long talk last night and we agreed that we cannot go against the king's wishes...'
'Last night?' Agnes called out. 'You have met a man last night in this very room?'
'Agnes!' Heather said. 'He will be my husband in a few hours!'
'Fie! You are a lady of noble birth, you cannot entertain a man in your room in the dead of the night,' her nurse said again and shook her head.
'I did not entertain him, Agnes," Heather said and when she noticed the stern look of her nurse, she rubbed her face wearily and sighed, before she continued to elaborate, "He thought I had fallen asleep at the window and we talked, nothing happened,' Heather commented, trying to block out the memory of the heated kiss, the sharing of passions so powerful and yet unwilling that it had given her nightmares of another nature afterwards.
"They say he is a bastard son, and who knows what such a man will pursuit in the dead of night. A bastard-son, Ha! When I took a good look at his crest on his dented shield I could detect the black bar on the right side. What does the king think to give your hand away to such a man?" Agnes watched the young woman sternly but did not say a further word, nor did she expect Heather to answer her. She left the young woman as Heather stepped into the bathtub but eyed her suspiciously under lowered lids.
Heather felt awful and she was sure she was coming down with more than just a cold. Her uncle had told her that Duncan De Gael was a bastard son, so Agnes had not told her something new. After all it was common knowledge among the gossipers of Court that the old Lord of Penfrey had favoured his younger son to become his successor. Such behaviour would always lead to speculation on which side of the bed Duncan De Gael had been fathered. Perhaps, she mused, his father was a Welsh rebel. It might be Sir Angus, even. He is the right age to have fathered Lord Duncan, but then something in their countenance would surely give it away, she thought, conjuring up an image of both men and comparing each man with the other, but even her keen eye could not find any similarities, even of the faintest kind.
But she was not in the least swayed or concerned about her future husband's ancestry. The bar sinister was upon a many fine shields nowadays, with lords and nobles, even the king, distributing their seeds and giving their strong offspring land and title of their own, despite or because of their bastard status. She might be innocent to most wordly matters but her uncle had made sure she knew about such things as to whom and where her noble suitors, even the small number there had been over the years, had come from. And now she was to marry such a man. But that was the least of her concerns, even though it seemed to be a concern to her nurse, though not overly much. Heather could still hear her mumbling under her breath in the far corner of her chamber where she busied herself. What concerned her even more was the obvious emotion that was between her and De Gael.
How could she tell Agnes that the feelings De Gael's kiss had evoked in her both utterly devasted and aroused her? That she had felt more than she had ever in her entire life? And that the mental bond she obviously shared with De Gael, might kill her if she was not careful. After De Gael had left her, she had long thought about the unwelcome bond with her future husband. Only once had she encountered such a bond, and that had been between her parents. Had her mother not cried out in pain and died shortly thereafter when the sword of the bestial De Belleste had pierced her father's heart? They had shared a bond stronger than anything her mother had told her about the lore and knowledge of the Learned Ones, and Heather was afraid that with the emotions she seemed to share with De Gael a similar destiny was bestowed on her. De Gael was a ruthless warrior, and he surely had great many enemies. His scars and recent endeavours bore justice to the fact that he was a man of violence. What would become of her if he was ever to be wounded, or killed?
Heather closed her eyes, letting the warm water seep into her. Surely, there won't be such a deep attachment. After all my parents' marriage was a love match, she scolded herself silently. Not that she was afraid of her own death as so many others of her peers. After all as a healer she knew a person's life span depended on so many things, sufficient food, no illness or accidents, or war. She was not afraid to die, for she knew sooner or later death would claim her like anything else great or small on the face of Lord's Earth. But she had always prefered to leave later than sooner, especially with her failing uncle to look after. The young woman thought about this, still remembering the beseeching words of De Gael the night before. He had known, she mused, re-playing their conversation, and had tried to warn her that with him a warrior she might not survive the first year of their marriage. At first she had thought it strange, but now upon reflection, she knew he had meant their bond.
He feels, it too, she told herself silently. Perhaps not as keenly as I but he feels it, shares the passions and fears. She wondered how and why.
When the king's page bid Lord Duncan to the royal chambers, Angus frowned slightly as he helped Duncan into the black tunic. Since his days as mercenary the young man had worn the simpliest garment, and even now as Lord of Penfrey he still wore garments bare of all embroiderings. The fabric of his attire were of high quality but devoid of any trimmings the court was so fond of, and Angus thought it was unwise to affront the king this much. But as he knew his foster son he kept his tongue and watched as Duncan bid him good bye to go before the king.
Henry Plantagenet was not a tall man, not by any means, but his whole stature as well as the wild wisp of red hair he wore like the Romans in a short crop around his patrician head seemed to surround him with an aura of authority. He stood by the window when his page led his marcher lord into his private suite of chambers and with keen grey eyes he watched the taller, younger man.
"De Gael," he said after the younger man genuflected towards his liege, a fist pressed over his heart like most of the mercenaries greeted their lord of pay.
"My liege," Duncan replied, and after he straightened himself, he watched the king patiently.
"I heard you had to postpone the marriage due to some troubles at the marches?"
"Aye, mylord. We had a band of Welsh attacking the smaller sheeping farms, but I have dealt with them."
"I hear you caught yourself quite a ransom?" Henry eyed the young marcher lord. He had known the late Earl of Penfrey and seeing his son, even the bastard son, it gave him quite a jerk that even though this man here was no blood relation to De Gael, he had the same posture, even the way he held his head and met his king's eyes in this straightforward almost daring way, reminded him of the old Lord of Penfrey. He wondered fleetingly if the fact of being submitted to a certain family and its surroundings bore more influence than blood ties to form a man.
"Aye, my liege, I caught the boys of Doncaster and Du Merac, they are the pages of your lords Ferrer and Montigny," Duncan replied, eyeing the king before him. What he was implying was dangerous, but he had learnt early in his life that the king much preferred the truth of the going ons in his realm than softening the blow with lies and deceit.
"Is that so? Oh well, then I shall have a word with them, though Montigny already paid me a visit telling me his page ran away. Ferrer, on the other hand, is said to be fled to France, to Lille."
Duncan jerked at that. This obvious hint at Ferrer joining Young Henry's ranks against the King had surprised him. He had never thought Ferrer, being the son of the influential Bishop of York would be so stupid as to pledge his course to the young son of Henry Plantagenet, even if this course was a noble one.
"Perhaps he had urgent business, my lord," De Gael replied in a gruff voice and the King laughed at that.
"No doubt, De Gael," Henry replied with a smirk and sat down on one of the chairs that stood in front of the fireplace. This one was richly carved and made from hazel nut, the form reminding Duncan of the stools of Roman times that could be found here and there. Chairs were commodity of the rich and powerful in England, and highly priced. When the king motioned him to take the other chair opposite him, Duncan almost delicately settled down. He much preferred the sturdy work made of oak he had commissioned for his own home.
"Have you had a chance to talk to your bride to be?"
Duncan, momentarily thrown off guard with such a question, shook his head. How could he relate to the king that he had only talked a few hours earlier, in her bed chamber alone, and had taken a few liberties of himself. And apart from that he had not talked to Heather Du Lac, other than ogling her figure against the light of the fireplace in his bed chamber.
"Has Robert Du Lac asked for a postponement of the marriage?" Duncan asked after a while.
"Why should he? My request was implicit was it not? And why should Du Lac have anything against this marriage. After all he will be related to one of my most trusted lords," Henry said and picked up one of the figs that stood in a small bronze bowl on a table between the two seated men. "A sad business he and his brother would fall in love for the same woman, but then again I was told Lady Amber of Builth was an exceptional beauty, even though she was Welsh. It is rumoured she was a witch..."
Duncan eyed the king curiously and tried to gauge the intentions of the man. It was common knowledge that Lady Amber, daughter of Gryffud of Builth castle had come to the marches as ransom. When the younger brother of Robert Du Lac had seen her, he had immediately wedded her, thus ensuring long years of peace on Du Lac's property. It had even been rumoured that Robert welcomed his Welsh relations with open arms, even did so still.
"As the lady in question is dead these past 15 years, I doubt it has any influence on the impending marriage."
"Aye, it doesn't have any influence, especially not on you. But the Welsh might. Besides, I hear that Lady Heather is a healer with an exceptional and great gift. The Welsh might try to capture her, and given your main castle Penfrey is so near the Welsh marches, perchance she returns to her savage relations."
Duncan frowned and asked himself what the king was playing at. It had been his idea for him to marry the Lady Heather. What was going on in that sharp mind of Henry Plantagenet?
"Over the years, I had great many requests for the lady's hand," Henry popped another fig into his mouth. "Even De Belleste asked for her hand in marriage."
Now Duncan raised his eyes towards the king again. "De Belleste?"
"Aye, he offered me quite a sum, but given the circumstances of the lady's parents' demise, I don't think it would have served any purpose. Perhaps De Belleste wanted to repay the lady for her loss ..."
"My liege, if De Belleste offered for Lady Heather ..." De Gael started, but was overruled by the king.
"De Belleste is no marcher lord and with Young Henry rebelling like the spoiled boy he is, I need my English shires under control. You are the best man for it. The Welsh will think twice before giving me any grief once Lady Heather is your wife. Or do you prefer to give her up to De Belleste?"
"Nay!" Duncan exclaimed before he thought about it. It was a gut reaction, not conscious thought. To think, to imagine Heather in the mercy of his bastard father ... He wagged a mental finger at himself. She was but a highborn woman, and yet he cared already more about her than he had ever done about any other high born woman, his mother included. "Nay," Duncan repeated, more controlled this time. "Perhaps Lady Heather's presence will give me a reprieve with the Welsh, as you suggested."
"Well, that is settled then. De Belleste has to find himself another wife. Perhaps he will find one already among the congregation, he will attend the wedding. But then again, he might wait for the Lady in question. No one knows what a marcher lord may befall, so beware of your back, Duncan De Gael." With this the king dismissed Duncan who needed all of his control not to stare dumbly at his liege. Stalking out of the chamber, De Gael walked down the corridor until he was certain that he was alone. Then, with more force than he intended or had anticpated, he slammed his right fist into the stury stone wall.
His father was here! And he had wanted Heather. Duncan was so angry it quite escaped him that the king had made a veiled threat.
A little while later, Duncan paced the floor in front of the altar of the Tower's chapel. The chapel was actually situated in the inner ward, smoothed smartly against the inner garter wall. It was related and anticipated that even William the Conqueror had added stone or two towards its erection. The small chapel was filled and even the king himself, his closest noblemen and his constable's family were present and speculated if the bride would appear or not. Duncan doubted that the guests had only come to witness a nobleman's marriage, they were spectators who wanted one thing: a scandal if the bride did not show.
'My lord De Gael, please calm down, you are after all in the house of the Lord!' the bishop said but after Duncan had shot him a warning glance the man fell silent. He knew that he had to be careful around De Gael for he had witnessed his son's fall from grace.
Angus watched his foster son intently. The day before he had pressed Duncan to visit a tavern or whore-house and he had been relieved to see that he had turned into his chamber late at night, but today he doubted that the young warrior had found the release he had hoped because ever since he was nervous and irritated. The old soldier detected the first tell-tale signs of a headache advancing on his foster son and he was concerned about this. He stepped over to Duncan and positioned himself beside him.
'Lady Heather is late...' Angus said in a low voice and Duncan De Gael shot a glance towards the old man. 'Aye, but I have no doubt that she will arrive soon...' Angus frowned at this remark but before he could press him any further, the doors to the chapel opened and there was a hush going through the congregation as the king and Lord Robert Du Lac, followed by a third lord entered it. Duncan's tall figure tensed as he watched the three men advancing, especially when he recognized the tall, black haired man who followed the King to his throne to the side of the altar.
"What is he doing here?" Angus asked under his breath and from the way Duncan held up his hand, Angus knew that Duncan was not uninformed of De Belleste's stay at the King's court. When Robert Du Lac reached him breathlessly, Duncan reached out his hand to steady the quivering man. After the older nobleman had genuflected towards Henry and paid his dues to the cross on the altar, Duncan turned towards the old man again who seemed to collapse any minute now.
'You must come with me, my lord! My niece does not feel well and she needs some assistance...' Sir Robert rasped and Duncan frowned.
'Does she want to recall the marriage?' he asked calmly with a look towards the king but Robert shook his head.
'I told you, Heather does not feel well...' Robert answered, with a slight look towards De Belleste.
For a moment Duncan could not think of how Du Lac had found out about his peerage when something crossed his mind. After he had first gotten the king's request of marriage he had made small inquiries about Heather Du Lac and had come to know about her parents' untimely demise. De Belleste ... Of course seeing the butcher of her parents free to move in the presence of the king must have upset Lady Heather greatly.
"Mylord De Gael, is anything the matter?" Henry, king of England and Normandy inquired, eyeing both his lords closely. When Duncan turned the king could see the contained anger in the younger man's eyes when unrelenting eyes fixed the stature of De Belleste at the king's side.
"Nay, my liege," Duncan replied calmly. "My bride only seems slightly indisposed..."
"Is that so, De Gael?" The king asked with a barely hid grin. "Well, I gather you must get her then, you know wenches are all the same, all fuss and stubbornness."
"Aye, my liege," De Gael replied almost automatically, after all his own mother as well as the king's consort had shown what kind of ways women had to ensure their own way of thinking. But he doubted that Lady Heather was falling back on her word. "I pray let me get Lady Heather, my liege, I'm sure this is only a minor infraction and can be dealt with in no time."
The gathered congregation was surprised as they watched when the three men left the chapel with long strides after the king had waved at De Gael dismissively. Outside the chapel Duncan squinted in the sun and when his eyes were accustomed to the glaring blaze, he saw that Lady Heather was seated on the steps to the keep and her nursemaid hovering over her, the young lady obviously ill.
"How much does she remember of her parents' deaths?" Duncan suddenly asked, catching both Angus and Robert unawares.
"All of it," Du Lac replied and with a sigh, he wiped at his sweaty brow and it seemed he too needed to sit down like his niece on the steps to the keep. "She was found in a small alcove behind her parents' bed after the killing. She had seen De Belleste, but as she was only 8 years old, the king let the matter drop ... I can't understand why the King has bid that man to attend the wedding. That he reprieved him was already painful, but this ..."
"The king's designs are not partial to me, but he has reason, I believe," Duncan replied, his jaw set. So that was the king's way of ensuring a wife's loyalty to her husband, he thought. But why does he do it? Why confront Heather and Du Lac now, after so many years? With strong steps he crossed the yard and when he approached the two women, he saw that Lady Heather indeed did not look well.
'Good Lord!' Agnes exclaimed when she saw the set face of the young warrior. 'He is in a bad temper!' But Heather did not share her thoughts, tiredly she watched her future husband coming towards her with resolved calm. When Duncan reached her, he squatted down beside her and watched her intently.
'You are not well, my lady?' he inquired and Heather nodded.
'I am sorry, my lord. Usually, I am not as frail as it seems but I think the passed days have worn me out...' she said, trying to hide how shaken the sight of De Belleste had left her.
"Nay, niece, he knows," Robert wheezed out, suppressing a cough.
Looking up first at her uncle and then at Duncan De Gael, Heather bit her lips. "I ... I can't be in the same ... same room with him," she choked out and her limbs began to tremble. Without thought she reached out and put her hands on Duncan's shoulders to steady herself.
'We will postpone the marriage then,' he said gently and put his hand on her own delicately. Heather felt compassion and concern in his voice and a flutter of the same ran through her when skin met skin and their bond came into play. It was not discomforting her and she could sense that he was careful to shield his emotions from her.
'You are ...a Learned One...' she whispered surprised and only Duncan did hear her words. He shook his head in response and gently released her hand.
'Lord Angus will accompany you to your chamber, Lady Heather. I will inform the king of the postponement!' He wanted to stand up but Heather held him back.
'Nay, my lord. We cannot go against the king,' Heather said, willing him to understand. "What if he takes acception to it? Perhaps even wants it?"
Duncan stared at her, momentarily shocked at what she was suggesting. The king wanted them to go against his wishes? Aye, he thought. It would make sense and would give him an incentive to cut down one of his influential lords, but for what? He already had lord of the realm deserting him to join young Henry's ranks ... unless ... De Belleste wanted either his position and the king wanted Heather, or vice versa. Duncan's eyes flashed with anger and he could feel Heather drawing in her breath with a hiss.
"This is madness. If the king is so foolish ..." Duncan started but Heather shook her head.
"My lord I pray thee, we have to marry," Heather whispered beseechingly and stood up with shaking limbs, deliberately holding out her hand to him. 'I feel quite better, Lord Duncan. It would be a pleasure to become your wife this morrow!' she said firmly and Duncan bowed his head in reverence. De Gael sent Angus to assist Robert Du Lac to return to the chapel while he tried to shield his emotions from his bride to be, but everytime he felt his control slipping, he could feel her hand grasping his more firmly, silently reminding him of their bond. The congregation, but especially the king, was surprised to see the bride at last. He flashed De Belleste a frowning look, then turned his attention towards the couple again. The King eyed the couple closely and he had to admit that they were evenly matched. The bishop sped the marriage ritual up a little bit when he saw the pale face of the bride. He felt pity with the young woman for he knew what kind of reputation her husband had.
Duncan held the hand of his bride firmly in his own hand, all his senses accutely aware of her. He could feel her fear, her terror at seeing De Belleste standing beside the king. He could feel that her terror was building, and for a short moment he felt a strange sensation rushing through him. It was only a flash, a memory, but all the more terrifying. De Belleste, face contorted and bent over a lifeless form of a woman. When their vows had been spoken, their kiss of peace was imminent. Duncan bent down, his hand still grasping her fingers and he could feel her trembling. He knew they were not supposed to exchange a passionate kiss, the peace offering more a custom than something born from love matches. So when his lips laid cooly over her mouth he emptied his mind of anything, keeping his anger strictly in control.
Heather closed her eyes upon his intent gaze and the cool brush of lips against lips did not have the same reaction as his first kiss had. But she could feel the tight control on his emotions, the almost painful void that she could feel in him, but nonetheless she cherished his effort. With a shy smile, she inclined her head before she turned with him towards the gathered congregation which greeted them with hails. Heather swayed and Duncan, out of instinct, was able to catch her before she could fall to the stone-flagged floor. He picked her up into his arms and walked out of the chapel. Duncan carried his bride to her chamber where Agnes had prepared some portion of camomile. After he had assured himself that his bride was cared for, he returned to the hall were the guests had already started to dine.
The young knight sat down on one of the benches, side by side with his men, and stared down into his cup of wine. He felt confused. Though he had sworn himself that he would not show any sign of kindness to his wife, over the passed days he had behaved quite civil towards her. And his plan to send her to one of his many keeps after the marriage was quite forgotten. He had to admit that he rather enjoyed her company and that he was strangely drawn towards her. But then he remembered that she was a Learned One and from what he knew about this strange clan from the Disputed Lands, he assumed that Heather's special empathic powers had evoked this.
But try as he might, his thoughts revolved around the bedding of his wife. The talk around the tables became more lewd by the minute and Duncan was no stranger to women. When he had come of age and certain needs had to be met, Angus had provided him with a trusty, sturdy widow not unknown to the carnal pleasures of the flesh. She had taught young Duncan, a tall gangly lad of but fourteen years, how to pleasure a woman and himself. She had been far beyond the age of carrying any child but after she had learnt, no less from Angus, that Duncan did not want to sire any children, she had taught him all about withdrawal. How to give the woman much pleasure and yet not spent himself. Her loving care of the boy he had taken with him and refined over the years as knight and later as a noble lord. No child had been begat off him and yet all women had been left satisfied with his skill and even he had found his pleasures, though most of the time in another orifice altogether than a woman's fruitful womb.
In disgust Duncan shook his head at the turn of his thoughts. He had made himself a promise not to bed Lady Heather and yet that one kiss they had shared had wavered his determination. He had the skills to withdraw from her, had he not? Why not enjoy his wife until she got her own lover. He was almost pushing himself to his feet when something else intruded his brain, reminding him that even a touch of him was painful to her. Raging passions aside, she was empathic enough to uncover his most guarded secret and then what? He had heard and seen through her eyes that his father, how he hated this word by now, was responsible for her parents' death. How would she react if she knew she had married the son of the very man who had killed her father and on her deathbed had even defiled her mother?