Dauntless by Tamara Leigh
Castle D’Argent upon Valeur
The Year of Our Lord 1036
Two things this day would remedy. Of greatest import was bestowal of the Barony of Valeur on its rightful heir. Of lesser import was an end to hostilities between the family D’Argent and the family L’Épée. The first would be achieved by way of combat, the second through marriage. What both entailed held no appeal but would be finalized before sunset.
“God help us,” rasped the one face down before the altar, then he rolled to his back and opened his eyes on the bounded ceiling of his mother’s private chapel and wished himself outside beneath the boundless blue.
Though the priest had assured the boy he had been that prayers were as easily heard through weighty stone and wood as weightless air—the same as desperate beseechings of the mind—Godfroi yet imagined the Lord straining to catch words spoken here. And that seemed a great imposition for one whose intercession was sought, especially when the petitioner was not as faithful as he should be.
Turning his face toward the small window unshuttered following his brother’s departure, he knew from the cast of light he had missed the breaking of fast in the hall. Not that he of great appetite could boast that this day. Too much depended on these next hours to fill his belly with viands washed down with quantities of ale and wine that would slow his thoughts and reflexes. Unlike his brother, his body lingered over alcohol, and that it could not afford to do this day.
He did not startle to find he was no longer alone, but it disturbed he had not heard her enter. Holding his gaze to the sky visible through that narrow opening, he said, “You ought not be here. Your blessing was given last eve. I need no more.”
Slippered feet moved from his left to his right, and now he glimpsed skirts.
“Mother, this is not in accord with what was decided is best. You must leave.”
“I was the one who decided what is best,” she said, then with a rustle of skirts, lowered to her knees and sat back on her heels.
Her stern face blocking his view of the outside, he pushed onto his elbows and raised his eyebrows. “Then either you come from a private audience with Hugh, else you shall seek him out when you are done here.”
“Non, I seek only you, my son.”
He frowned. This was out of character for Lady Maëlys who had determined to raise her boys without benefit of a father to replace the husband who died under questionable circumstances when Godfroi and Hugh were ten.
Unlike most widowed noblewomen with lands and children in need of protection, she had not wed again, relying on her youngest brother and a garrison of chevaliers and men-at-arms to impart skills needed to transform her sons into warriors worthy of swinging steel. There had been a terrible price for that, of which she had paid the greatest portion, but it cost her sons as well, forcing them into manhood before boyhood was fully behind them.
“Why me alone?” he asked.
She gave a shrug that was no fit for the forceful, decisive woman he had longest known, then said, “Love.”
In that moment, she looked so fragile that when he pushed to sitting, it took restraint not to catch up her lax hands. “You make no sense.”
“There my burden—holding close this love so it not turn soft the sons of a great man.”
Godfroi did not question her sorrow over abandoning that beautiful side of her known to him and his brother before attainment of their eleventh year. What he questioned was her recall of where she had buried it and that she had dug it up this momentous day.
“Here and now, I am a mother again as is necessary have I hope of not losing the joy of the day I delivered two boys worthy of the chevalier who took me to wife.”
Godfroi began to understand, but before he could seek confirmation, she gripped his hand. “You are the stronger warrior,” she whispered as if fearful of being heard and with the urgency of having little time to impart what must be told. “Hugh is formidable, but best he excels at speed and sensing an opponent’s vulnerabilities.”
Godfroi knew that, having trained alongside him and daily tested his skills against his brother’s. Then there were the battles fought side by side since attaining their youth to prevent vultures from devouring D’Argent lands. The bond of brotherhood first forged by their sire was their greatest strength, as had been imperative to one whose relations with his own brother had been weak and severed when the eldest was passed over as heir due to a penchant for drink that could lead to unwarranted violence.
Turning his hand up in his mother’s, Godfroi squeezed hers. “It almost sounds you favor me though a show of preference is to be avoided.”
“I do not show preference!” she exclaimed. “My feelings for you and Hugh are different in some ways, but they are of the same strength. For that, this day you must gain the title.” She pulled her hand from his and set it on his jaw. “You wish to be your sire’s heir, do you not, Godfroi?”
“It is what I have trained for, not only to keep our lands from those prowling them, but to prove worthier than Hugh.”
“And you will, oui?”
He frowned. Were he without sight, he would not believe this his mother—indeed, would pride himself on senses sharper than the blind Isaac of the Bible who was fooled into giving his blessing to his younger son.
“Mother, this is not at all like—”
“You must win!” Her eyes moistened, another rarity. “Therein the greatest chance both my sons shall survive this day.”
Inwardly, he groaned. He had hoped she shrugged off whispers of those who, having long anticipated this contest, expected the worst—that the twin who prevailed would slay the other to prevent future challenges, whether by the defeated or his children. Losing would be a blow, but just as Hugh could believe Godfroi would not intentionally slay his brother, Godfroi believed his greatest friend would not seek to end his life.
He drew his mother’s hand from his jaw, kissed it, and lowered it to her lap. “I shall do my best to gain my sire’s title, as will Hugh. At the end of the contest, there will be anger and sorrow, but you will have both sons and, in time, acceptance and adjustment—one of us Lord of Valeur, the other captain of his guard.” Then as that which their father had impressed on his sons was ever near in thought, he added, “First, in between, and in the end, we are D’Argents.”
She reached and pulled fingers through hair prematurely silvered the same as Hugh’s, that peculiarity passed to the twins by their sire who had taken the surname D’Argent to denote they were of the silver.
A sound of distress escaping, she closed her eyes, moved her lips in silent prayer, then said, “I pray it so, Godfroi.” Standing, she drew near again the mother he knew better these twelve years as if that one had merely fallen from her shoulders like a mantle and caught in the crooks of her arms. “Make ready, and remember this is not only a contest to determine who rules.”
He knew that, as did Hugh. Thus, it was no private event, invitations sent out across Normandy to allies and enemies. Allies would be provided a show to assure them they chose well in siding with the D’Argents, while enemies would learn what to expect from the new baron and the brother made his right-hand man should they persist in encroaching on this demesne.
Recalling the arrival of the son of one of those enemies on the day past—Arn fitz Géré whose reputation told he was to be as distrusted as his sire—Godfroi shifted his cramping jaw as he gained his feet.
“No quarter given and blood to be shed,” his mother said and strode to the door. However, as he straightened tunic and chausses of much acquaintance with the floor, she came around, and he saw some soft about her again.
“Think on this difference between Hugh and you. Still you are here seeking guidance for the contest ahead while he has satisfied his hunger and enjoys the company of women eager to give aid in donning his garments.”
It was true, and one of many differences between the brothers, but if this one was more godly, it was only because he believed it possible to persuade the Lord to intercede, whereas Hugh suspected the Divine was but an observer leaning forward on His throne to watch His creation do with one another as they would—the same as whoever had created chess must have done when he introduced his game to others.
Seeing his mother awaited a response, Godfroi said, “Be assured, he was still at my side at dawn.”
Her eyebrows rose. “Praying or sleeping?”
“Mostly praying, I guess, since several times I succumbed to sleep.” Hoping to stiffen her spine again, he added, “As for the aid given him in clothing himself, soon I shall seek the same diversion.”
He liked that she rolled her eyes, even if it was an attempt to find humor in his claim which she knew was true. Women liked him, and he liked them.
Turning stern again, she said, “Indulge if you must, since if you prevail, you will be a married man and there should be no indulgence thereafter.”
When she stepped into the passage and went from sight, he considered again that other thing which must be remedied this day—the alliance that was to make peace between his family and the L’Épées. Distasteful, not only because the young woman was the daughter of an enemy of special note for how often he trespassed on D’Argent lands, but she was eight years younger. If he proved the victor, no time would he have for a girl-wife.
On the day past, as Lady Robine’s entourage set up camp outside the walls, from a distance he had looked upon her and found it difficult to believe the pretty little thing of blackest hair was nearly ten and four and felt what he imagined he would for a sister—one he did not like. Hugh had seen something different, commenting that when he gained the barony, she would be a nice prize with which to end the day.
“God help us all,” Godfroi said again and went in search of ones whose fluttering about him as they fit him for combat would calm this turbulence.
* * *
“God above!Wretch below! She is gone again. And does my husband care how it inconveniences me? Non! She is your responsibility, he says.” Lady Delphine gave a huff of disgust. “I did not squat her out, and it is not as if I do not have my own children to raise.”
“Ah, Herleva, if only she were as well behaved as your William! Praise the Lord soon she shall be the problem of an accursed D’Argent.”
Robine L’Épée would have tested the breadth of her smile if not for that last. This day she would be the wife of the victor, and this eve the last plank of the bridge between girl and woman would be walked by one of her sire’s adversaries.
From what she had glimpsed of Godfroi and Hugh, it mattered not which of those known for their dark, silvered hair took her to wife. Even were she given a choice of whom to wed, what choice was it? She had seen no differences between their faces and bodies. All she knew was they were men of such size that the woman she became with the onset of her menses would be lost in the shadow of whomever she wed as commanded by her sire who had not allowed her to rethink her earlier rejection of entering a convent.
“You must needs find her,” said Herleva who all knew was a lady only because Robert, the Duke of Normandy, became entranced with the tanner’s daughter and made a son on her. His rank too high to wed a commoner, he had matched her with a favored nobleman to ensure her a good life. Unexpectedly, their illegitimate son—the duke’s only issue—had succeeded his sire when Robert died during pilgrimage last year. Though William, whom the disaffected named Le Bâtard, was under the guardianship of Alan of Brittany, it was questionable how long the eight-year-old boy would keep hold of his duchy.
“They will open the gates soon to fill the stands with spectators,” Lady Herleva warned in carefully articulated speech Robine’s stepmother said was an attempt to hide the coarse of her.
“Oh, pity me!” Delphine bemoaned.
From where Robine had slipped beneath one of many tiered stands erected for those attending a contest whose planning had begun shortly after the birth of the D’Argent twins, she saw her stepmother stamp her feet and skirts swing as she rose.
Certain she would not dirty her slippers to look here, Robine decided once the woman who was no replacement for her mother was gone several minutes, she would return to the side of William who had spoken little to her but grinned when she pressed a finger to her lips and nodded at her stepmother on the other side of Herleva.
Robine did not know if it was possible to like the boy duke, but she pitied him. He was too young to wield power, and her sire said his guardian made use of his position to advance his own interests. And then there were others who sought to gain control of Robert’s heir, causing unrest in Normandy, though these past months had been relatively quiet.
“Mother, why is Lady Delphine so angry?” William asked. “Robine is only playing a game.”
Herleva laughed. “Is she, Wills?” she said in a brisker, less refined voice. “And are you, also much given to games, part of hers?”
He returned to drumming his boots on the planks, that annoyance a lesser reason Robine had escaped the stands. “A small part.”
“I am glad of it. I do not like Lady Delphine. Praise the Lord your father did not give you a stepmother.” Her voice turned more serious. “Remember that, my son. Wed a good woman strong of body so less likely your children endure a substitute mother like Lady Robine suffers.”
“Are all stepmothers bad?”
“Non. Though most are more concerned with their own babes than those of another—and that is to be expected—some greatly bless the motherless. But which ones, hmm? Certes, Lady Delphine is among those who cannot even like the children of a husband’s first wife, there being no doubt she wishes to kick that little bird out of a nest she believes hers alone. Poor Robine.”
“Poor?” William questioned. “Being unwelcome in her own home, this day she gains a better one regardless of which D’Argent wins.”
Herleva sighed. “If only it were that simple.”
What sounded pitying words caused the hands keeping Robine’s skirts clear of dirt to tighten on lustrous red material purchased to make her appear a bride more worthy than her groom. As the L’Épées and D’Argents had agreed to set aside their differences, and the best way to ensure each party stayed true to the agreement was to seal it with a marriage alliance, she had expected vows spoken this day would make this a better home for her.
“Why is it not that simple?” William asked what she could not.
What followed was a lengthy silence with which Robine was surely more familiar than the boy six years younger than she—that of an older person thinking on whether or not to expose an innocent to another truth about life beyond childhood.
My life, she thought and tried to calm her breathing so she not miss Herleva’s answer, it being difficult enough to hear with William’s boots beating the planks.
“What do you think of this contest, Wills?” Herleva said with false lightness.
His boots stilled. “Naught at the moment since we are not speaking of it beyond those who are to fight each other.” It was said with annoyance. “As it does not matter who wins, one brother being much the same as the other, what I want to know—”
“Ah, but it is quite the story, one begun twenty-two years ago that shall conclude this day.”
“I know of it, and who does not? The midwife neglecting to mark the firstborn, the Baron of Valeur decided if both sons lived to adulthood, a contest would be held to decide his successor. And should the brothers grow into the same likeness, each was given a different tattoo so one could be known from the other.”
Robine nearly gasped. As they had grown into the same likeness, she had guessed there was a means of knowing one from the other, but that babes had suffered needle and ink to permanently mark them…
“Ah, Wills,” his mother bemoaned. “Having seen you little this past year, I did not expect you to be so changed.”
This time he went silent, then almost gently said, “You have much to occupy you since giving De Conteville a son.”
“And you a brother. Is not Odo beautiful?”
A coo sounded, and Robine guessed the infant’s mother shifted him to afford a better view.
“Not even girl babes are beautiful,” he said, “but he is not unsightly.”
He cleared his throat. “No longer should you call me Wills. I am William, Duke of Normandy.”
“But still you are my—”
“I have not been a child since father’s death. Count Alan says if I wish to live to an age to rule Normandy alone, it must be this way. Thus, no longer do I play with toy soldiers. I attend to the movements of real ones, especially those who name me names and make themselves my enemies.”
A strident breath sounded. “Forgive me…William.”
He groaned. “Neither do I like it, Mother, but it is how I must think if I am to do great things—how all must think.”
“Now tell me, why is it not simple Robine will be better here than in the power of Lady Delphine?”
“It is a marriage of alliance.”
“As are many.”
“Oui, but what this one seeks to rectify may be impossible if what is only rumor has blackened the hearts of the D’Argents or shall blacken them if ever the truth lands on the L’Épées.”
“What rumor?” her son asked what Robine also wished to know.
“Twelve years past, Godfroi and Hugh’s sire died under peculiar circumstances. As it happened near the demesne of the L’Épées and at the height of their warring with the D’Argents, much suspicion was cast on Lady Robine’s sire.”
Robine nearly choked. Her father might have killed the sire of the man she would wed? Impossible, she wanted to assure herself, but it was not. Though once he had been somewhat affectionate, following his first wife’s death, that affection was absorbed by greater affection for warring. Not until recent years had his fondness for swinging blades waned, and only because his muscled body began weakening from various ailments such as that which made him forego the contest and his daughter’s wedding.
“Do you think he slew Baron D’Argent?” William asked.
“It is not for me to think one way or the other. I but question whether peace between the families can be achieved through marriage and what price that young woman will pay living under the rumor, even if never confirmed.”
“I will protect her,” William surprised. “The D’Argents and L’Épées are my vassals. Whether Hugh or Godfroi take her to wife, I will command she be treated well.”
Then he will leave,Robine thought, and the boy who believes he will be heeded will never know what goes behind closed doors.
“You are sweet, my son.”
“I am not sweet. I but exercise my right to impose order and peace for the good of Normandy.”
Robine had heard enough. Though Delphine would be angered her stepdaughter was not in her place of honor when the contest commenced, she could not bear to remain. This day she would wed a man likely to abuse her over the possibility her sire had slain his. That she could not avoid, but this she could. All she needed was a hiding place distant from the training yard transformed into an arena for the hundreds who came to witness brother fighting brother and, possibly, the death of one.
Or both, she thought and silently rebuked herself for the sinful hope such tragedy would save her from replacing the name L’Épée with D’Argent.
Upon stepping forward, she discovered she had released her skirt. Too, without permission her hand had delved the purse on her belt and now held a doll.
Halting alongside the canvas curtaining the rear of the stand, she raised the toy fashioned by the mother who was the only one to truly love Robine—unless she included the cat Delphine had refused to allow her to bring to Valeur. The doll was not much bigger than her hand, but once this hand had been far smaller.
“Would that you were here, Mother,” she whispered.
Without looking whence that angry voice issued, she pushed through the canvas, certain her stepmother would not sacrifice her dignity to give chase. Another would be sent to retrieve Robine, but by then she would be lost among spectators now being let through the gate as told by the rising din.
And then where? she wondered as she ran the backs of the stands, causing workers to jump aside as she distanced herself from the contest that would make a prize of Valeur as well as Robine, the former coveted for its power and wealth, the latter as a giver of peace.
“Or revenge,” she whispered and, coming to a break in the stands, found herself in the thick of men and women converging from camps and castle. Pausing amid the jostling, she looked back the way she had come. And glimpsed a L’Épée warrior set after her sooner than expected.
She pushed her way through the lesser crowd coming off the drawbridge. This was not how she was to have entered her new home, one of her sire’s beautiful mares given as a wedding gift to convey her from the contest without to the chapel within. However, this was the way forward, even were it the wrong one.
Knowing she drew attention wearing the finest of gowns and heading opposite the others, she was grateful she was not the highly anticipated spectacle—merely a curiosity to entertain one’s thoughts when the D’Argents had done all they could to enthrall the masses.
Just inside the walls, the crowd thinned, and she jumped to the side, freed a slippered foot caught in her skirt, and turned all around.
Might she hide in the stables? Non, those lingering near would point the way to her, and neither would the workshop of the smithy nor the carpenter serve, both open to the bailey on three of four sides.
The dovecote opposite the hawks’ mews, she decided, but as she started forward, two servant girls came around the granary, arms hooked and a skip in their steps as if bound for a festival rather than a bloodletting.
Robine turned again. Seeing the door on the gatehouse’s eastern side was ajar, she hastened forward and peered through the gap at the empty room before slipping inside.
The furnishings were too bare to provide cover, but light bending around a corner ahead revealed a passage. Dare she venture farther?
The decision was made when the voice of Delphine’s man sounded from the bailey, demanding whether a young lady was seen coming over the drawbridge.
Robine ran and turned the corner into a passage narrowed by numerous crates stacked on one side as revealed by light shining from the doorway ahead. Amid hesitation, she heard the turning of hinges behind. Though she longed to believe that sound was fear-induced imagination, she flew down the passage. And into a room far from empty.