Grace, Lady of Cassio

Grace, Lady of Cassio

Book Two, The Lovages of Cassio

England 1331. What was it like to live at a time when love was not a reason to marry, and husbands had the right to thrash their wives with a rod no wider than their thumbs? Spirited, compassionate, seventeen-year-old Grace is about to find out if her marriage will be made in heaven or hell? Her mother, Countess of Cassio, arranges for her to wed Jocelyn, Lord Lovat, Baron Montford. Grace knows marriage only founded on romantic notions is unacceptable. She agrees to tie the knot with Jocelyn to increase her family’s prestige and political alliances. Nevertheless, she is terrified of sharing a bed with the stranger she will be wed to on the day after they meet for the first time.

Until she arrives at her bridegroom’s manor, Grace has only experienced unconditional love. She is shocked by Jocelyn’s spiteful, widowed sister, and is puzzled by her own inexplicable power to see auras and know when someone she loves is in danger. Grace is even more troubled when she overhears her former nurse’s deathbed confession about the countess. Unable to decide if Nurse’s allegation is false, Grace is tormented. Fulk, her beloved twin, does not believe it is true. He ensures the other witness, a priest, will not repeat it

A handsome husband, prestige and wealth are not enough to compensate Grace for the severe trials, including brutal murders, she must come to terms with to find happiness.

Chapters One to Three

Chapter One

Cassio Castle Southeast England

April 1331

After the herald announced her beloved twin brother, Fulk, Baron de Valcoln would arrive before supper, dread overwhelmed Grace. Without a second’s hesitation, she raced up the steep, circular stone stairs to the hundred-foot-high battlement.

Grace stared up at slate-coloured clouds gathered overhead, dark as the imaginary one which threatened to suffocate her. She dragged in a deep breath and fingered her coral rosary beads. No need to be frightened, she reassured herself, while she waited for a fanfare of trumpets to announce Fulk’s imminent arrival at the island fortress.

She gazed at their favourite place beneath a willow tree where she and her twin would share happy days again. Concealed by branches dipping toward the Cassio River, when they were mischievous children, they watched boats, with unfurled sails billowing in the wind, beat their way against the turn of the tide. Gytha, their nurse, scolded them for hiding, when they escaped from her on hot summer days to splash each other with water from the ornamental pond in the pleasance. Moreover, she lectured them in autumn, when they munched on stolen juicy apples and pears in the orchard or plucked succulent grapes from the vineyard.

Two years ago, when she was fourteen years old, she cried for weeks because they were parted for the first time after when Fulk went to court to serve as one of the young king’s squires. Since then, she prayed for his safety every day. This evening, her hands raised, rosary beads dangling from palms pressed together, she entreated the blessed Virgin Mary, and Saint Christopher, patron saint of travellers, to safeguard Fulk. The dark clouds dispersed. White-gold sunlight shone on the surface of the dove-grey river which rippled and sparkled as though sprinkled with diamonds.

Despite the warm summer sunshine, an unnatural cold which preceded vague premonitions, enveloped Grace. Slowly, two unsubstantial figures appeared. First, the shade of her mother’s brother faced her. By his side stood her father, who died during the battle at Bannockburn. They did not speak, but their presence reinforced her fear that someone, or something, endangered her twin. Both apparitions faded away like early morning mist before she could question them.

Her legs trembled violently. Grace clutched a parapet for support. “Don’t panic,” she muttered, breathing deeply to force herself be alert and calm. Perhaps the danger could be averted. Second sight was a blessing if used to help others, a curse when foreknowledge was obscure.

During early childhood, Grace assumed everyone saw ghostly apparitions and possessed second sight. Eight years ago, she discovered she was mistaken after she told her mother, Yvonne, Countess of Cassio, she had chatted in the pleasance to Demoiselle Clarice, who drowned in the river on the previous day.

“Hush, Daughter!” Yvonne had said fiercely. Her brilliant blue eyes wary, she had scanned the solar where her gently born demoiselles and ladies worked at the loom or plied their needles, while one of them played the lute and sang The Cuckoo, a round song, which others joined in.

Maman had stooped towards her. “Thank the Lord child because I doubt you were overheard,” she murmured, her mouth close to Grace’s ear. She straightened, gripped Grace’s wrist as tightly as a manacle with her right hand. “Come.” At a leisurely pace, as though naught was amiss, Maman led her to the bedchamber she shared with Papa.

“Come here. Don’t be frightened. If you submit, other than piercing your maidenhead I shall not hurt you.”

They sat on a padded window seat below a window fitted with glass so expensive that only the king and his wealthiest magnates could afford it.

Perched on the edge of the seat, Grace rubbed her sore wrist while she scrutinised her mother’s costly azure samite gown, the silk material interwoven with gold thread. While she waited for her to speak, she observed every detail of her Maman’s fair hair in plaits decorated with jewels arranged on either side of her beautiful face and admired a gold fillet studded with sapphires around her head. Until then, she was never fully aware of her lady mother’s prestige, rank, and wealth. Struck hard by the realisation, she could not breathe. Alarmed by her mother’s stern face, Grace looked away. She gasped afraid she would receive a rare punishment for having admitted she spoke to a shade. Grace took another deep breath and took solace in the fact that the countess never allowed any child in her care to be beaten with a rod.

Slowly, gently, Maman questioned her and concluded, “Few people share your -” she hesitated, then continued, “your rare power, which I believe can work for good. But it is a secret you must never speak about because most people believe it is evil.”

Since then, whenever Grace heard the first line of the Cuckoo Song, Summer is icumen in, she remembered those words.

Now, waiting for Fulk to arrive, she fully understood how terrified Maman was for her safety. She shuddered. Even wise women such as Gytha, who never harmed anyone, could be accused of heresy, and be burned at the stake.

No, surely, I will never be accused of being a witch, but if I were my judges would hesitate to convict me because my powerful mother would fight to prevent my life being forfeited. Grace forced her tense muscles to relax. Since birth, Maman protected her. For certes, Fulk and I are fortunate because she refused to follow the custom of sending very young sons and daughters away to be bred up by other noble families. Maman also refused to allow her to be betrothed as a child to a stranger, whom she might dislike when they married. Despite her fear for her twin, she should thank God for His mercy and pray for Fulk’s well-being with the fervent hope that danger could be averted.

Chapter Two

Followed by his retinue, Fulk cantered along the broad path through the forest. Mounted on Valiant, his powerful black courser, he knew he looked magnificent protected by armour, over which he wore his surcoat emblazoned with his coat of arms. He would arrive with time to spare before supper at Cassio Castle, which, if he survived his mother, Lady Yvonne, Countess of Cassio, whom he adored, he would inherit it. He grimaced. God forfend, that would not be for many years.

He looked forward to seeing her, his twin sister, and stepfather, Nicholas Nevynne, Baron de Lacey, whose chivalry was legendary. Inspired by him, and his father, who died in battle at Bannockburn shortly before his birth, Fulk did not fear fighting to the death. He often dreamt he charged into battle and achieved glory for God, country, and his king, the third Edward.

Nearly seventeen-years-old, he intended to copy his liege lord, who had wrenched control of his kingdom last year from his mother and arrogant Mortimer, who had ruled in his name after the second Edward’s abdication. If such a young king could seize his realm and govern wisely, Fulk was confident he could gain control of his inheritance, Valcoln Castle, and his other manors.

His mouth in a grim line, he did not understand why his father, Guy, Baron de Valcoln, was one of the previous king’s loyal supporters. He could never be faithful to a ruler who treated low born subjects as equals and loved to thatch a roof or dig a ditch with them. His thoughts veered away from gossip and speculation about the second Edward’s precise relationship with his male favourites.

Fulk scowled. The English army led by the ineffectual late king, determined to conquer Scotland, had suffered a shameful defeat at Bannockburn. His teeth clamped together so hard that his jaw hurt. His father sacrificed his life for nothing. Regardless of the consequences, he would never squander his.

The sun cast dappled shade through the canopy of branches stretched overhead. Wood pigeons cooed, a squirrel chattered, and a fox barked. Glad to be alive and in superb health, Fulk banished gloom-laden thoughts. Before he sought fame in battle, he should marry and sire a son, who would inherit his title and estates. His face relaxed as he smiled. God willing, his heir the future Baron de Valcoln, Earl of Cassio, would become one of the wealthiest and most powerful magnates in England.

Fulk spurred his horse forward toward the whitewashed walls of Cassio Castle where he would be introduced to fourteen-year-old Maud Clifford. He savoured the thought of meeting the heiress, Baron Barnet’s only child, who his mother hoped he would tie the knot with. He trusted her judgement. Unless he discovered a serious defect in the maiden, he would consent to her hand in marriage.

The forest yielded to a road through cultivated land and pastures where horses, mules, cattle, or sheep grazed. White as a cloud in a clear blue sky, the glorious castle seemed to float in the distance. At ease on the saddle, Fulk allowed Valiant to gallop toward the river. A twitch on the reins. The stallion slowed. Hooves clip-clopping, Valiant carried him over the wide timber causeway. He rode across a stretch of land where he had participated in a joust for the first time. Soon he passed the tilt yard where he practiced at the quintain, and armed combat. Ahead six towers seemed to reach the sky. He smiled again. In all seasons, from the top of them, he and his twin had surveyed their mother’s lands to the east, west, north, and south even when a shroud of snow lay thick as ewe’s fleece, and the icy stairs were treacherous.

Fulk doubted anyone could understand the close bond which linked him and Grace. He knew that when they were apart, his twin felt as incomplete as he did. Yet their futures would lead them along different paths. By now most sixteen-year-old females had married and given birth once or twice. Fulk sighed. Why had she rejected every proposed marriage? Mayhap it was time for Maman to insist on Grace agreeing to a suitable alliance.

Valiant trotted across the level stone drawbridge over the moat on which swans glided, ducks dived to catch fish and moorhens dabbled. The courser halted in front of the barbican set in the wall around the castle. Although Fulk and his retinue must have been seen and identified, his herald sounded a trumpet. Impatient to enter the inner ward, Fulk waited for the portcullis to be winched up.

“Walk on,” Fulk ordered his horse. Valiant broke into a trot across another drawbridge and came to a standstill before the second barbican where another portcullis was already being raised.

The horse fidgeted, sensing his rider’s impatience. Fulk stroked Valiant’s satin smooth neck to calm him. His back straight, pride surged through him. In the past, the castle withstood every attempt to capture it. The stout oak door studded with iron studs opened. Valiant walked beneath the gatehouse. Fulk looked up appreciatively. Even if besiegers had reached it, they would have been bombarded with boiling fluids from the vault above and felled with arrows.

He led his men into the outer ward past the barracks, stables, and blacksmith’s forge. They dismounted. Grooms hurried forward to take care of the horses. Valiant whinnied. Fulk spared a moment to soothe him then strode through a second gatehouse to the inner ward suddenly desperate to be reunited with Grace.

Chapter Three

Her skirts held above her ankles, Grace raced down the stairs in the West Tower which contained private chambers above the chapel. Breathless, she. waited for Fulk, who would disarm and bathe before he presented himself to their mother and stepfather. Footsteps clattered from below. She peered down at her twin and two sturdy squires. One held Fulk’s helmet, the other his shield. They made way for menservants carrying iron bound wooden buckets of steaming water to pour into her brother’s bathtub.

Skirts held above her ankles as she hurried to Fulk, grateful to God for his safe arrival, although still afraid for him, she made the sign of the cross.

Fulk scratched his thick, black curly hair. “By all the saints, I shall be glad to be rid of the pests which latched onto me during the journey from St Albans.” He looked up. “Grace, there you are. Why were you not in the inner ward to greet me?”

“For fear I would disgrace myself by crying with joy.” Decorum dictated she was too old to hasten down the stairs in full view to hug him in public.

“There are tears in your eyes. If someone has ill-used you, I shall avenge you.”

Despite the weight of his armour, regardless of convention, Fulk rushed toward her and gently embraced her. She breathed in the aroma of sweat and his horse mingled with a spicy scent that must have been purchased from an apothecary. “No one has mistreated me. I am so heartened by the sight of you that I am trying not to shed floods of tears.” Her reply contained only half the truth. She could have wept with relief because Fulk had survived the journey She tried, without success, to convince herself he was no longer in peril.

“By my faith, I am pleased to see you, but I am not about to weep.” Fulk teased her. “I thought I knew you as well as I know myself, but you are as mysterious as every other female.”

She withdrew from his embrace and wiped her cheeks. “I doubt you will consider Maud Clifford mysterious,” she said, too quietly to be overheard.

Her twin raised his arched eyebrows. “You dislike her?”

“No one could, she is as…as wholesome as freshly baked bread, and a drink of fresh water on a hot summer’s day,” she said when they reached his bedchamber door.

Fulk’s eyebrows twitched. “Fulsome praise. It seems you like the lady.”

Servants entered the room, tipped the water into a half-barrel bathtub, lined with a cloth, that had a seat in it.

Fulk cupped her elbow with his hand. “Bear me company, Grace.”

Side by side, they crossed the threshold.

A squire propped the shield against the wall beneath a tapestry of David and Goliath. The other put Fulk’s helmet on an oak chest, the lid and sides carved with intricate patterns. Grace sat on the window seat. The squires divested Fulk of his surcoat, armour, and padded gambeson. His upper torso and feet bare, Grace looked down at tiled floor.

“Leave us,” Fulk ordered the squires.

A splash and the sound of water sloshing followed the youths’ departure.

“Being here gladdens my heart,” Fulk said.

Grace smiled. “I understand because I think we will always think of Cassio Castle as our home. Nevertheless, when you marry, your wife will be the lady of Valcoln Castle. Your childhood days are over. It is time for you to take control of your stronghold and other properties.”

“And you should wed. Before he died, God save his soul, our father said he wanted you to marry an older man who would protect you. Why did you reject each worthy suitor Maman introduced you to?”

A knock on the door heralded the arrival of Fulk’s squires, and servants burdened with Fulk’s baggage, which they put on the floor, glanced at her, then left.

“Shall we unpack your garments and-” a squire began.

“No. Leave us.” Fulk waited until the door closed behind them before he spoke again.

“Grace, you did not answer my question. Despite the minstrel’s ballads about knights winning fair ladies’ love, we know we must marry to strengthen connections to other noble families. Yet it does not mean you are to have no choice. Tell me true, among the many guests who visit our mother and stepfather is there a suitable lord you want to wed?”

Grace shuddered at the thought of her most recent prospective husband, a thirty-two-year-old knight banneret entitled to command other knights and men at arms under his own banner. During his visit to the castle, they had conversed in the pleasance seated on a turf seat within sight, but not earshot, of the countess and her ladies.

Their nostrils filled with the scent of bluebells, they watched water from the fountain soar up in the still air and listened to birdsong and bees that hummed contentedly. The knight, a widower, spoke first. “Demoiselle, I doubt not that your heart is soft, therefore, I would depend on you to give a mother’s tender care to my daughters and our sons.”

Hell’s fires would be doused before she agreed to marry that man whose only reason for wanting a wife was to beget sons. To avoid looking at his florid face, she had stared down at her hands clasped together on her lap.

Maman had assured her he was a wealthy, godly man who had not mistreated his late wife. Her stepfather had praised his courage on the battlefield. She did not question those attributes, but she would not marry any nobleman who spoke only of his expectations.

“Grace? Please answer my question.” Fulk’s insistent voice drew her back to the present.
She shook her head. “You don’t need to remind me my marriage cannot be founded on romantic notions.”

“What do you believe its base should be?” A hint of impatience entered his voice.

“It should be rooted in the wife’s honour and the husband’s chivalry.” She hesitated, then continued. “I accept a knight’s reason for living is to fight courageously,” she said, her voice tremulous. Her stomach lurched in response to fear over what might befall Fulk. “I want my husband, my own knight, to have superior skill in battle, but to exercise moderation in all things,” she said forcing herself to speak calmly. “I also require him to be courteous to high and low born people and be loyal to me, his king and country.”

Rueful, she smiled. “Will I ever meet such a paragon? Our sovereign lord is compared to Arthur, who sat at his round table with his knight errant. If such noble men exist today, mayhap I shall marry a knight who is one of our king’s companions.” She shrugged.

“Enough! I have confided in you. Tell me what knights such as you seek in a wife?”

“The lady should not be ill-favoured.”

“Appearances are often overlooked if she is an heiress.”

“What of Maud? Is her appearance pleasing?” Fulk asked.

Fair-haired ladies with pale complexions were considered the epitome of beauty. Did her twin seek such a wife?

“Grace. Why don’t you answer me?” Fulk sounded irritated.

She swallowed before she spoke. “Her hair is black as yours, and she has eyes as golden brown as amber, but that is not a reason to reject her.”

“No, it is not,” Fulk agreed in a flat tone. “The countess would not have chosen Maud to be her daughter-in-law if-”

“If what?”

“The demoiselle is not modest, humble, pious, courteous and submissive,” Fulk explained. “And I assume she is soft-hearted and well-educated.”

“My dear brother, I pray you will remember the messages in the romances the countess enjoys reading and listening to.”

“Which are?” Fulk asked with a challenge in his tone.

“To be worthy of his wife’s love the husband should be chivalrous, and the wife should only give her love to a gallant husband. Have you thought Maud might consider you ill-favoured?” she asked mischievously?”

“No, I have not,” he spluttered.

“Ah, you believe ladies must be humble, but noblemen may be proud.” Grace chuckled. “Perchance she hopes for a kind husband who resembles an angel with fair hair and large grey eyes,” she said demurely. Then she shuddered while her own anxiety came to the fore. “If the lady marries you, she will not need to fear you would correct her with the use of a rod, which the law permits, if it is no thicker than her husband’s thumb.”
She wrapped her arms around her waist. Maman had never allowed her nurse to smack her, and neither she nor Fulk had ever been beaten. To be married to a man who ruled by fear would be intolerable.

“Is that why you refuse every suitor?”

Grace had almost forgotten how closely they were attuned. She rolled her eyes and nodded. If only her second sight allowed her to see and judge everyone in accordance with the colour of their halos.

“Don’t be so downhearted. Maman told me our father never beat her and our step-father dotes on her too much to ever hurt her.” He tapped his damp, cleft chin with his forefinger. “I shall always protect you.”

Grace trembled, terrified the black cloud that threatened her twin might result in his death at such a young age.

“We cannot be bound by our father’s dictate that you marry a much older man. There is a gentle-hearted, handsome baron, who is twenty-four-years old. His wife will be fortunate. I shall ask our mother to negotiate your marriage to him. Trust me. He will never harm you. Now, Grace, please leave. I must don my clothes then pay my respects to Maman and Papa before the evening meal.”

She glared at him. The wretch had dismissed her without revealing her prospective husband’s name. Wretch he might be but if ill befell him her heart would break. She would go to the chapel and pray to God for mercy.