Rivals for the Crown, by Kathleen Givens
- ISBN: 9781416509936 | 1416509933
- Cover: Paperback
- Copyright: 5/20/2008
Loch Gannon, Scotland
Margaret MacDonald MacMagnus lifted her head and let the wind blow through her hair while she caught her breath. Even after all these years, she still climbed to the top of this headland to wait for her man to come home. Two ships today, and neither of them his, but there were still hours of daylight left. She was not worried, for Gannon MacMagnus was a man to trust. He'd said he'd be home this day, and home he would be.
She'd missed him. Wasn't that absurd, to live with a man for nigh on thirty years, then miss him terribly when he'd only been gone a few days? He'd not gone anywhere unusual or dangerous, only to Skye to visit her brother Davey, then down to Ayrshire to visit their oldest son, Magnus, who lived on the lands the king had granted to Gannon so many years ago.
And there it was, the sail she'd expected and had hoped to see. Gannon's ship was approaching rapidly from the south, its rail almost under water, its white sail mirroring the foam at its bow as the black hull sliced through the dark blue water. But it was not alone on the sea, for there, in the north, was a second sail, one that made her draw her breath in sharply. A dragon ship. A longship, of Viking design, its wide beam and shallow hull bringing back a flood of unwelcome memories. Dark storm clouds billowed behind it, putting the square sail, red with yellow stripes, into high relief. She clasped her arms and ignored the chill that swept through her, reminding herself that it was not a warship -- those days were over forever. It would be a messenger from the north, nothing more. Still...She looked south, where Gannon's ship was nearing the entrance to the sea loch, and was comforted. Whatever the news the dragon ship brought, she and Gannon would face it together, as they had everything else life had brought them.
She turned to start down the slope, then took a moment to look over the glen that was her home, where she and Gannon had built a life together, binding the remnants of her family and clan into a thriving community. The sea loch was now known as Loch Gannon, which never failed to amuse her husband. But the honor was appropriate, for without him, none of them would be here. Across the usually placid waters, ruffled now by the wind, the mountains rose to the north and the east, protecting them from the world beyond. Below her the fortress grew out of the rocky promontory on which it rested, and to which she now hurried, hearing the horns sounding twice, first with the familiar notes that let all below know that the laird of the glen was coming home, then again, with the message that a ship was approaching and that it was not one of their own. Gannon had the men of the clan well trained, and her staff would know to prepare a meal to welcome him and his men home. But she would greet him -- and the visitors -- herself.
Rory, her younger son, tall, strong, and ready for the world, met her on the path to the postern gate, his blond hair catching the light, the same pale shade as his father's. He was so like his father. He had Gannon's chin, Gannon's blue eyes, his wide shoulders. And his impatience.
"Mother! Do ye ken who it is? Da and who else?"
She shook her head, not wanting to betray how breathless her headlong dash had made her. She often forgot that she was no longer young, but her body never did. "Aye, yer father's coming. But the other is a dragon ship."
Rory's eyebrows drew together, just as his father's always did when he turned thoughtful. "From Orkney? Perhaps with news of the queen's progress?"
Margaret's mood lifted at once. Margaret, Maid of Norway, only seven years old, was on her way to accept the throne of Scotland that she had held since she was three. "Of course. That's what it is. Drason did say he'd let us ken when she stopped in Orkney on her way to London. I'll just -- "
"Go to meet Da," Rory finished with a laugh. "As if ye dinna always do that?"
"And someday, my lad, if ye are as fortunate as yer father, yer own wife will do the same."
"Ye'll have to teach her to adore me, as ye do Da."
"Adore! He's been spreading rumors again, has he?"
She laughed with him and led the way into the fortress that Gannon had built to keep them all safe. Wooden walls at first, replaced over the years with thick stone walls, filled with rubble to withstand siege machines. And unable to be burnt to the ground, as both Inverstrath and Somerstrath had been. But she would not remember that now, any of it. Those memories belonged to a time past, when she and her sister Nell and young Davey had faced horrors no one should have to endure. When Gannon had entered her life and changed it forever.
She'd been Gannon MacMagnus's wife for twenty-seven years, had borne five children and seen two live to be grown men. Magnus, already married, was learning how to manage lands and people. And Rory was young, but Rory would do well, for Rory excelled at everything he attempted. All he needed -- eventually -- was a home of his own, and a woman to love and, yes, to adore him, for he deserved it. But that would come in time.
Gannon's Ladysailed into Loch Gannon under full sail, her husband at the helm. Margaret stood, as she always did, at the end of the dock, waiting for him, Rory at her side. The sky was darkening and the wind rising, bringing the smell of the storm with it. This one would be more than simple showers, for already the mountaintops across the loch were obscured, and the seabirds were flying inland, seeking shelter. The autumnal equinox often brought fierce storms, and this one, coming nine days later, looked to be no exception. Rory's hair was whipping around his head, and he brushed it back with a gesture that was so like his father's that she smiled.
And then Gannon himself was calling to her, his tall form alive with movement. As always, she saw nothing else. He wore the clothes of a Scotsman, plaided trews, knit leggings, and a saffron overtunic. He'd abandoned his Irish clothing long ago. Sometimes she herself forgot that he was of Ireland and not a native of the western shore of Scotland that had always been her home. But the painted carvings along the railing of his ship, Celtic symbols and Norse runes painted gold against the black of the rail, reminded her that he was her gift from the sea, Ireland's loss and Scotland's gain.
She waved in return, her smile wide. Her man was home and all was well...for a moment at least, for there, rounding the last turn through the barren entrance that hid Loch Gannon from the world, came the dragon ship. She recognized it as Drason's at once. The Orkneyman had been their friend since their fateful meeting that long-ago summer of 1263. Their friendship had begun strangely. They'd been enemies who quickly discovered that they were united in their hatred of Nor Thorkelson, Drason's uncle and the man who had murdered her family. They'd joined forces and had finally defeated Nor in a mighty battle on the Isle of Skye that was still talked about all over Scotland. Drason waved, but not with his customary exuberance, and her heart lurched. Whatever news he brought was not good. She was certain it did not concern Magnus, or her brother Davey and his family, for Gannon had just come from them. And surely not Nell, who was in Stirling to greet the child queen, nowhere near the Orkneys nor the sea.
But something had happened.
"Lass," Gannon called, as his ship neared the dock. "Ye do see Drason, aye? Send word to bar the door to the wine cellar. He'll drink us out of house and home."
She smiled, but saw Gannon's eyes narrow as he looked at the dragon ship and knew he saw the same tension in Drason's stance, that she did. Drason was wearing leather armor and a leather helmet that hid his blond hair. Not the garb of a man simply visiting friends, but what a prudent man might wear in uncertain times. She kept her silence, waiting while the clansmen caught the ropes and securedGannon's Lady. She wrapped her arms around Gannon when he caught her in his embrace and kissed her for all the clan to see, his ardor never failing to please her.
He smiled down at her. "I missed ye, Margaret. How are ye?"
"Wonderful now that ye're here," she said.
She laid her hand along his cheek and kissed him again. He was no longer young, this splendid man of hers. There were lines around his sea blue eyes and gray at his temples now, but he still moved quickly and his back was still straight. He was still the most handsome man she'd ever seen, and she was the most fortunate of women to love this fierce warrior and have him love her in return. She smiled again as Gannon embraced Rory, clapping the boy on his shoulder.
"Tell me it's ye growing and not me shrinking," Gannon said to his son.
"It's me growing, Da," Rory said, and they both laughed.
"All is well here, love," she said. "It's good to have ye home. How is everyone?"
"Well. Everyone's well," Gannon said. "Magnus is learning how to run his own home, and Jocelyn is the same as she always is."
Which meant, Margaret thought, that their daughter-in-law, difficult at best, was as prickly and spoiled as ever. Magnus was a good man, but serious and cautious, and Margaret had hoped he would marry a woman with laughter in her soul, rather than a woman like Jocelyn. Still, she pleased Magnus, and what else could a mother want for her son?
"Yer brother sends his love," Gannon told her. "His pile of rocks is beginning to look like a castle instead of a rubble heap. It'll be a good fortress when it's finished. Davey wants ye to come and see it soon. Everyone there is fine." He looked at Drason's ship and his tone deepened. "We'll see what news he brings. Ye've heard nothing?"
Margaret shook her head. "No. Rory thinks it must be about the queen's journey from Norway. She was to stop in the Orkneys."
Gannon wrapped an arm around her. "That must be it."
"Drason himself," Rory said. "Must be important."
"We've not seen him here for four years," Margaret said quietly. "Since we lost King Alexander."
Gannon met her gaze. "Aye, since we lost the king."
The longship slid alongside the wooden dock, and Drason leaned forward over the rail. He yanked off his helmet. His gaze swept across them.
"She's dead," Drason said. "Your queen is dead in Orkney."
Margaret gasped. "Are ye sure? The wee lass is dead?"
"I came as soon as I heard," Drason said. "The word is just getting out. I knew you'd want to hear it at once."
"Oh, the poor child!" Margaret cried.
Gannon reached to clasp Drason's hand. "Aye, ye're right. And I thank ye for bringing word yerself, my friend. Now come inside and tell us all the rest of it."
"What does it mean?" Rory asked. "What will her death mean?"
"There will be a struggle for the crown," Margaret told her son, shaking her head. "And there's no assurance that the winner will be the best leader for our people."
"It means," Gannon said, "that the wolves will be coming out of their lairs. And the leopard in the south will wait to see who wins. God help Scotland now."
There was not much more for Drason Anderson to tell than the stark news of the child queen's death on her journey to claim her throne. She'd been called the Maid of Norway because her father had been King Erik of that land, but her grandfather had been Scotland's King Alexander III, and she had been the queen of Scotland since she was three. The Maid, the daughter of Alexander's daughter, had been the last of his line. And now she, too, was dead, and the succession was left unclear.
Margaret sat with Gannon and Rory near the huge stone fireplace in their Great Hall, listening to Drason. The years since she'd last seen the Norseman from Orkney had changed him. Drason was younger than Gannon, but his blond hair was ribboned with gray. He looked weary beyond words, and she felt a wave of affection for their staunch friend. Drason had left his own wife and family to bring the news to them. There were good men in the world -- even in Orkney.
"It's said she became ill on the voyage," Drason said. "Some say, of course, that she was poisoned, but I've heard she was sickly. And in truth, there is no reason for the Norse -- nor us Orcadians -- to have the child die on their watch."
"Nor does it benefit King Edward," Gannon said. "This will change his plans."
"A child should not be a pawn in games of power," Margaret said. "What was her father thinking to let her leave him? She's just a wee lass." She paused. "She was just a wee lass, poor soul."
"Her father was thinking that he'd signed the treaty with Edward of England, pledging her to his son," Gannon said. "And King Erik's a mere lad, only twenty, I think. Edward is a force to be reckoned with. Lesser men have crumbled before him. I'm not surprised that Erik let Edward have his way."
"Foul thing, that," Drason said, "to wed your son to your sister's granddaughter."
"And as foul to have the Pope approve it," Gannon said. "But approve it he did. And now there is no clear heir."
"It'll have to go back generations," Margaret said. "The Balliols will claim the crown is theirs. So will the Bruces. And my Comyn cousins certainly will have opinions." She sighed, thinking of the measures her cousins might take to assure that their position of power was not diluted. "And there are a host of illegitimate royal children who could make claims."
Drason frowned. "Surely they'll have no success? I'm no expert on Scottish politics, but I cannot remember a bastard taking the throne."
"Actually," Gannon said with a laugh, "many a bastard has taken the throne. But no, I canna see one of the earlier kings' bastards getting the crown. What's the talk in Orkney? What are yer people thinking?"
Drason smiled ruefully. "That they wish she'd died elsewhere. Some are thinking this will bring Erik of Norway's wrath on Orkney, although Erik's men were with her. Others are afraid that the Scots will blame us and take revenge, or that Edward of England will. And although no one's saying it straight out, some are wondering if she was as ill as she was made out to be."
Gannon's brows furrowed. "Murder?"
"Unlikely, but not impossible," Drason said. "Show me a country where men cannot be bought or frightened into betraying someone who trusted them. There are evil men in every land. As we know."
Gannon nodded. "There is a kingdom at stake. That will bring out the greedy ones, and Scotland, like everywhere, has its share."
"What will Nell do?" Margaret asked, turning to Drason. "Nell and her oldest, Meg, were to serve the queen. They're at Stirling, waiting for her arrival."
"Well," Gannon said to Margaret, "now Nell willna be going to London with the queen. Despite the reason for it, that should please ye, lass."
"Aye," Margaret said, comforted by the thought. The Maid was to have stopped in Stirling and Edinburgh to greet many of Scotland's nobles, then travel to London, to live at Edward's court and await her marriage to Edward's son. Nell was to have accompanied her, with her daughters. "I wonder if Nell will stay at Stirling while the king is chosen. What if she hasna heard yet? We must get word to her."
"I'll go," Rory said eagerly, drawing her gaze. "I'll go to Stirling and tell her."
Her son's face was alight with the possibility of the journey, and Margaret felt a stab of fear. She would lose him. She'd always known they could not keep Rory at Loch Gannon forever, that its peaceful life was not enough to hold him. They'd taken him on their travels to Ireland and throughout Scotland and he had accompanied Gannon to the Continent and to London. But Rory was ready now for more. Or thought he was.
Gannon looked at his son thoughtfully. "They'll be hearing before we can get ye or anyone there, but it might be a good idea to send ye. I'd like to know what is being said at court"
"I could leave in the morning," Rory said.
"Ye'd need others to go with ye."
"Not many," Rory said, naming a few young men.
Margaret listened to them discussing the journey. Rory's manner betrayed his growing excitement, and she hid her own dismay. Why could Rory not have ventured into a peaceful Scotland, as his brother had? Why now was he hearing the call to join the world, when once again Scotland was about to plunge into turmoil? Or was she being ridiculous? She leaned close to her husband.
"Gannon, I fear this," she whispered. "Am I wrong, love, to worry so?"
Gannon kissed the top of her head. But he did not answer.
"There will be men," Isabel de Burke's mother said, bending to examine the hem of Isabel's skirts. "They will test you, you know. They are the hunters."
"Yes, Mother," Isabel said.
She had heard this lecture many times before. The men whom her mother called "the hunters," preyed upon young girls foolish enough to exchange their virginity for a few baubles. Invisible in her demure clothing, she'd watched these men lean over a shoulder, caress a cheek, kiss a neck. And never notice her watching. But those days were over. Now she would be one of those pursued.
"Most of the men are married," her mother said, adjusting the fall of the silk gown Isabel wore. "But even those who are not do not have honorable intentions. Some of the girls are foolish enough to think what they're being offered is true affection. They do not see it for the game of hunter and prey that it is." She straightened and looked into Isabel's eyes. "Those girls do not realize that they are nothing more than a prize, a name for these men to brandish before their friends and then be forgotten. Many a young girl has mistaken lust for love and bartered away her only value. You will not be one of them."
She knew the answer her mother wanted to hear. And truly, she had listened and learned, knew the price of such foolishness. She was taking the place of a girl from a good family who had suddenly left the royal household after weeks of vomiting at strange times, obviously with child. Isabel would not be so foolish.
"Remember this day," her mother said. "Nothing will ever be the same. You have been invited to serve Eleanor of Castile, by God's mercy the Queen of England and Ireland and Aquitaine. Over all the others, she chose you, an English girl, instead of one from her own land. It is a high honor. And an unexpected one, given who we are."
And while the honor could not be declined, neither could it be explained. Her mother was convinced it was because of their ties to the throne, but that had been generations ago, and the family had been all but ignored in the years since. Isabel's great-grandmother had been seduced by a king who had never acknowledged the child -- her grandmother -- and who had been disowned by her family, left to fend for herself. Happily, the king had given her great-grandmother a house of her own in the City of London, where she had raised her daughter alone, and done it well.
It had helped, of course, that Isabel's great-grandmother had been a beauty and had passed those traits down. Isabel was fortunate to have inherited her mother's clear skin and green eyes and thick brown hair. She had her mother's long fingers and, her mother told her, her father's height. Her mother's expression softened, and she turned Isabel to face their luxury, the long mirror from the Continent that had been a gift from her grandfather.
"Look at yourself."
Isabel looked at her image, wavy in the glass, and saw a young girl who put on a brave face. She was ready for this new part of her life, but she was terrified of it as well. She was not afraid of the work, although she knew she would be asked to do the least pleasant tasks, those things that the queen's older and far more powerful ladies would not deign to do. What terrified her was that, after all these years of being unseen, she would suddenly be highly visible, a topic of discussion, of speculation. There would be many who would question why she, of all those at court or in the nobility, had been chosen by the queen.
"I wish your father were here to see this," her mother said fiercely.
"And I as well. He would have been so pleased."
Her mother raised an eyebrow. Her mother did not mourn the loss of her father as she did. Mother rarely spoke of him, and never with fondness. Isabel had only dim memories of a man lifting her into his arms, his laughter merry, his embrace comforting. She missed him, even after all these years.
"You must never trust any of them," Mother said. "Listen, learn, laugh. Flirt. But never, never trust."
Isabel nodded again. She knew what the court was. She'd been born in the shadow of a royal palace, where her father had been a clerk of the Wardrobe. Despite its name, the entity had little to do with clothing. The Wardrobe handled all the financial dealings of the king's household. The servants, garments, and accoutrements of the king and queen, of course, but much more, for the Wardrobe equipped not only the royal household but the king's armies as well. The Wardrobe was responsible for purchasing, dispensing and storing large supplies of armor, bows, swords, spears, lances, and other weapons, as well as the horses and the servants to care for it all.
Her mother was head seamstress for the queen, with a staff of five, and rooms at Windsor and here at Westminster. Isabel had spent most of her young years roaming the halls of royal palaces, invisible to the royal family and the nobles who frequented those halls. She had watched them with fascination, as a child mimicking their accents and manners for her mother's and grandmother's amusement. But all of that had changed now, for she would serve the queen.
Eleanor of Castile was wife to King Edward, a lion of a man. Once Isabel had admired him. Now she hated him. Edward was a pitiless king, one year a champion of the Jews, another year expelling them from their homes. She would never forgive him for his casual cruelty. Eleanor, on the other hand, had taken the time occasionally to talk with her seamstress's daughter. Isabel had heard stories that with others -- especially the tenants on her lands -- Eleanor was not so pleasant, and she certainly was not a popular queen with the people.
"What I do not understand," Isabel said, "is why I was chosen. The queen has always been kind to me, but we've not spoken a great deal, and I would not have thought she could even remember my name."
"There was a sudden opening, remember. She has known you all your life."
"Mother, Queen Eleanor certainly does not know me."
"Are you questioning your good fortune, Isabel? Most young girls would be delighted to have been offered this position. Most women in England would be delighted! You have the chance to reclaim our family's name, and perhaps to make a brilliant marriage. Why do you have to examine everything? If the queen does not know you well, time will remedy that."
"When I have become settled," Isabel said, "when the queen does know me, I will talk to her about King Edward expelling the Jews. Surely, if I explain it well, that the king was too harsh, that they did nothing wrong and have lost everything simply because a handful of Londoners complained about them, surely she will talk to King Edward. He could easily rescind his expulsion order."
Mother straightened, her eyes blazing. "You will not!"
"But I will, Mother. The king is only looking at it from one point of view. Christians are forbidden to lend money, and that's why the Jews were brought to London. A few years ago the king himself defended them, and now this!"
"The king had them put into the Tower and demanded they pay a fine to be released, Isabel! You will be silent on this."
"Rachel's family was driven out of London like cattle. You did not see it. I did. And what did they do -- prosper? Is that their sin?"
"They refuse to acknowledge Christ."
"As do the Moors, but they are allowed to stay."
"There are not so many of them."
"They have not the wealth that the Jews have. Had. Do you not see this as an injustice, Mother? How can you not see this? I have lost my dearest friend -- because of money!"
"It was time for that friendship to end, Isabel. It was unnatural."
"Unnatural! We were little girls together. There is nothing unnatural about that. She was my friend when others scorned us. She did not care that Grandmother was illegitimate and I did not care that she was a Jew."
"You must tell no one that you were friends with Rachel de Anjou! No one! And you will not approach the queen with any complaint, let alone this one. You risk more than a rebuke, Isabel, you risk your very life. And mine. And your grandmother's. Do you understand who you are, who the queen is? With one word she could have us all imprisoned or put to death. Your grandmother could be punished for allowing your friendship -- encouraging it, even, and keeping it from me. You know I never approved of you being friends with her. I would lose my station, at the very least. You risk our lives!"
"If she is so harsh a queen that no one can talk to her, then why do I want to serve her at all? What loyalty do I have to King Edward, whose grandfather chose not to acknowledge his own child? How easy it would have been to acknowledge her!"
"You speak treason, Isabel!" Mother took a step back from her. "It is not for us to question the dealings of kings. I know you are young, and losing Rachel has wounded you, but you cannot ever speak of these things again. Ever! We have no choice in this. This is your grandmother's fault, letting you roam and mix with all sorts of people." Her expression softened. "Child, I know how steadfast you are, and that this has been difficult, being neither here nor there. I ask you now to be loyal to me, and to your grandmother. You have been chosen to be elevated. It is a great honor, and God's plan for you. Do not question it. I pray you, child, keep your silence. Promise me that you will not confront the queen on this! You hold our very lives in your hands."
"Do you really believe that, Mother? That for merely questioning the king's expulsion of the Jews, we could all die?"
"Have you learned nothing in all your years at court? Why would you think that the queen would not agree with her husband in this? They are in accord on everything else, child. And if she were to complain to Edward of you, what think you of our chances then? Does he seem the kind of king who would enjoy being questioned? Do you think he would hesitate to have us removed from his presence? Do not question this, Isabel. Dislike it if you will, but say nothing. Promise me that you will say nothing."
"Mother -- "
"Promise me!" Her mother burst into tears. "Go, then! Go. I cannot do more with this hanging between us." She wept into her hands.
Isabel sighed. Her mother never took the middle road on anything. All was perfect or it was unsalvageable. There was no other choice. She'd become accustomed to her mother's swings, the suddenness with which her moods changed. People once considered friends had been cut out of her life forever, but Isabel had never understood it. She could not imagine abandoning Rachel -- who would have laughed at Isabel serving the queen. Isabel sighed, missing her friend even more and knowing she would not speak of this to the queen. Yet. She was sure there would come a day, when she and Eleanor were alone, when she could talk of all this.
"Promise me at least that you will not risk our lives, Isabel."
"No, Mother. I will not risk your and grandmother's lives."
"Or yours. Promise me!"
"I promise to be cautious."
Mother wiped her tears away. "Good. When the Court is at Westminster, you will live with the queen's ladies and I will see you every day. Where the queen goes, you will go, of course. When she travels, you will travel. You will take an escort with you when you visit your grandmother. Remember to ask for it and don't go dashing off by yourself."
"I don't need an escort. I've been walking London's streets all my life."
"Not alone at night you haven't. Promise that if it is late and there is no one to escort you, you will stay in the Tower."
Isabel nodded. That would be no hardship; she liked the Tower, with its two hundred years of history. She wondered what it would have been like to have lived then, when William of Normandy, Conqueror of the Saxons, had built the magnificent structure and surrounding walls to protect his men and court from the hostile local population. Her mother hated the Tower, and although she'd never said why, Isabel thought she knew. Her father's office had been there. The very buildings must be a painful reminder of her loss.
She watched her mother sew and thought of all the years her mother had served the queen, all the years she had been invisible at court, all the years she had cared for Isabel alone. And now, by a twist of fortune, Isabel had been given this golden chance. Somehow, she told herself, she would find a way to reconcile the two, to talk with the queen and still not endanger her family. She was sure she could. Somehow, strange as it seemed to her, she had caught the eye and the favor of the queen. She would be a fool not to make use of that.
"Name the queen's ladies," Mother said.
Isabel did, their faces coming to her mind with their names. Important women from important families, wives and daughters of important men. And Isabel, of no importance at all. But every one of them would know why Isabel had been included, and once again her great-grandmother's one sin would be recognized, but never discussed.
"Lady Dickleburough," her mother said. "You forgot her."
"Oh, yes," Isabel said, nodding, thinking of the aging courtier with distaste. Lady Dickleburough behaved as though she were young and desirable, but those days, and years, were long past, although she gave no sign of recognizing that.
She wore clothing appropriate to a much younger woman, her very low necklines revealing deep wrinkles on her neck and décolletage, her sunken breasts no longer able to hold the bodice in the correct position. During the day sunlight cast shadows in the deep wrinkles around her mouth and eyes, and made the kohl she used to hide the gray in her hair all too visible. Isabel's mother often said that Lady Dickleburough pulled the coils of her hair tightly to the top of her head to draw her skin up to hide some of her wrinkles, but the attempt failed. Her skin, surrounded as it was by the white silk wimple she wore, was pasty. Her small brown eyes looked beady behind the folds of skins that threatened to hide them altogether. Her husband, a baron of little note from East Anglia, was neither influential nor wealthy, and his family was certainly not noteworthy. Isabel thought her repulsive.
"Why is she still at court? Does she have some importance I don't know?"
Mother laughed. "In her youth she was attractive enough, in a sly and furtive sort of way. She was a...very willing companion."
"Is it true that she was mistress to several important men? Several!"
"It is. And some were willing to pay to have her stay at court rather than risk her talking of all she knew. They gave her rooms in which to live, bought her clothing and jewels to keep her quiet."
"What does her husband think of all that? Did he know?"
"Do the waves on the shore recede and return? Of course he knew. He prospered because of it, was content to look aside and take other men's leavings. There may be no one willing to pay for her favors now, but there are those who are willing to pay for her silence. She can smell a secret miles away. Never trust her with anything you do not want all of London to know. She can be an interesting ally, for she knows everything about everyone. Now, you will need to be alert when you travel with the queen. The roads are not safe, and even with the king's men guarding you, you must be careful."
Isabel nodded, thinking of Rachel and her family. No word since they'd left. Isabel had not truly expected to hear from her friend, but it was so hard not to know what had happened to them. She sighed.
"I wonder where Rachel -- "
"Yes, yes," Mother said. "I know you still worry. But we may never know what happened to them. Her father will have thought of somewhere to go. It's been but three months. Rachel and her family have no doubt found a haven somewhere."
"But where would they go? They had to leave England!"
"There is a world outside England. There are many places where a man like Jacob de Anjou could find a position."
"I should ask Lady Dickleburough," Isabel said with a laugh. "If, as you say, she knows everything, she'll know where they are. Or know who knows."
Mother did not answer but looked at her with a strange expression. Then she put her needle down and stared at Isabel's skirts. Isabel watched her uneasily.
"It was a jest, Mother. I will not ask her about Rachel."
"Isabel," Mother said, an odd note in her voice.
"And I promise to stop talking about Rachel. I know it's not wise even to acknowledge that we were friends. I do love her, but I will stop talking of her."
"Isabel." Mother did not look up from the hem. "There is something you need to know." She stood now and put a hand on Isabel's cheek, then sighed and walked across the room. "I would rather you never knew, but you need to know the truth, and I would have you hear it from me rather than from Lady Dickleburough, or someone else at court. They would never mention it in front of me, but now that you will be among them, someone is sure to tell you." She sighed again.
"Mother, I know all about great-grandmother's...folly. I know that Grandmother is illegitimate. I've known that for years."
Her mother shook her head. "It is not that, Isabel. I know you've known about that. But...there is more that you need to know. And I do not know how to tell you." She turned to the window, tracing a finger along the leaded glass.
Isabel waited, her heart beginning to pound. What could it be? Was Grandmother ill? Was that why Mother wanted her to visit her more often? Another possibility occurred to her.
"Are you ill, Mother? You look well, but are you...?"
"No, no. It is not me, child. Or rather, it is. You see, your
father...I..." Mother turned from the window, her chin raised. "I was very young, not much older than you are now. He was so handsome and charming, and I believed everything he told me, that I was beautiful and that he loved me and that he would always love me and always be with me. He won my heart. I thought he loved me. And so I...I became his lover. And you came from that union."
"But there is no shame in that, Mother! Men and women always declare their love and marry and have children. It is the way of the world."
"The way of the world." Mother's laugh was unpleasant. "I should have known better, Isabel. I knew the stigma of being a bastard. I knew the things said about my grandmother, that she was a king's whore. I knew that my mother suffered for her mother's mistake and that her family disowned her. And still I learned nothing from knowing all that."
"But, Mother -- "
"Hush! You need to hear this, and if I do not tell you now, I may never tell you. I am throwing you into a pit of wolves and I have just realized how ill-prepared you are." She took a deep breath. "I have misled you. Your father is not dead. He is alive."
Copyright © 2007 by Kathleen Givens
Excerpted from Rivals for the Crown by Kathleen Givens
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.