My Lady Faye
Faye braced outside the hall where happy voices spilled into the corridor. Two days shy of St. John’s Eve, almost a year to the day Gregory had brought her and her boys back to Anglesea. He’d left before the great bonfires lit that night were extinguished.
Gathered for the evening meal, Anglesea folk eagerly anticipated the festival marking the summer solstice. So many chattering, laughing people, many of them linked to her by blood and service, yet she still felt like an interloper in her childhood home. She couldn’t stand out here all evening. Lady Faye, daughter of Sir Arthur of Anglesea, Countess of Calder, was expected to present herself for the evening meal and show a pleasant face.
Calder. Wrenching her thoughts away from the cruel brute she’d married, Faye straightened her shoulders and drew a deep, soothing breath. Calder was the past, and it behooved her to face forward and embrace what the future brought. Faye smoothed her frown away with her fingers. Only old shrews wore their vexation on their faces.
A cooling breeze from the hall’s open casements brushed her cheeks, stirring the great tapestries adorning the towering stone walls. Fresh rushes, scented with lavender at Mother’s insistence, crunched beneath her feet as she wove her way through the trestle tables.
“Evening, my lady.” A man-at-arms nodded his greeting as she passed.
More greetings followed her passage, and she returned them all with a smile. What a happy place this hall was, filled with love and laughter and a thousand different memories of a different girl. As a child she had imagined fey folk flitting and peering down at them through the mighty oak beams crisscrossed into arches along the ceiling.
A journeyman minstrel, his beard still a smattering of fuzz on his chin struggled to push his voice above the noise. He beamed a huge smile at her, strummed a chord, and paused for effect with his hand in the air.
A serving maid passed in front of him and ruined his brief flourish.
“Such beauty as was never seen,
In golden hair, sapphire eye and lily skin,
As Fairest of Fairest Faye’s as has ever been,
And for her love my heart shall pine.”
Heat climbed her cheeks as a handful of grinning people turned toward her. Of all the ballads penned to her as a girl, he’d chosen that one. Been and pine, the words didn’t even rhyme. The misguided lad had eight ballads to choose from. Eight!
How her foolish girl’s heart had swelled with pride as she patted herself on her golden head. Stupid girl. Stupid, aye, but that girl’s life had spread before her like a banquet of endless possibilities. Somewhere between her wedding night and her escape—
Good Lord, she was frowning again. At this rate she would be as wrinkled as Nurse by her thirtieth year. No dwelling. Forward. The rise and fall of merriment wrapped around her and eased her irritability. She smiled as Tom turned to greet her approach. He had grown larger since Faye last saw him. Nurse’s son was not so often found in the hall since he had been gifted his allotment by her father. “Good evening, Tom.”
“Good evening, Lady Faye.” Predictably he flushed to his fair hairline at the sight of her. It was sweet, this little tendre he’d harbored for her since he was a boy. Tom was a special friend of Beatrice’s, but Faye was always glad to see him. “And how is your farm?”
His lanky frame had filled in with muscle very nicely, and he had a pair of shoulders on him that rivaled Roger’s. Light blue eyes beneath heavy brows held her gaze for a moment before he dropped his chin to his broad chest. “Very well...um...my lady. Thank you for asking.”
Ivy appeared at his elbow. Tiny and dark, Ivy possessed the sort of delicate beauty and cool distance that kept the men of Anglesea at her heels. Even William failed to thaw the lovely Ivy.
Tom’s regular features split into a huge smile.
“Tom is preparing his north field for planting in the spring.” Ivy put her small hand on Tom’s arm. It lay against the rough sleeve of his tunic like a feather in a pile of wood shavings.
Tom’s wide shoulders straightened. “Aye. I shall have the entire allotment planted by next harvest.”
“Did you manage to finish the irrigation trenches?” Ivy’s pale cheeks bore a delicate flush.
Apparently Ivy was not as immune to all male charm as it would appear.
Over Ivy’s head, Henry sent Faye a grave nod from the far end of the hall where he spoke earnestly to a man with a glazed expression. The poor man had her sympathy. Her youngest brother’s fondness for delivering lectures to any recipient who would stand still long enough to receive one was well known throughout the keep.
Ivy and Tom’s conversation moved on to animal husbandry. Farming bored her so Faye excused herself.
“Faye.” A boisterous kiss from Roger and the herb-honey waft of mead announced him well into his cups. Roger’s light eyes danced at her, a flush suffusing his broad, rough-hewn features. Many a lass sighed over her brother Roger. “Come and explain to William why he should be married.”
“Dear sister.” William’s fine features broke into a smile. Faye couldn’t imagine him relinquishing his position as keep heartbreaker in the near future. He bent his dark head and kissed her cheek.
“Should you be married?” Teasing William was always fun.
“Who would have me?” He quirked a dark brow and drained his cup of mead. If he tried to keep pace with the bigger Roger, he would be rolled out the hall before dinner ended.
“Look at that pretty face.” Cupping William’s carved jaw in his paw of a hand, Roger grinned at her. “There is not a girl for twenty leagues that would naysay our William.”
“Leave him alone, Roger.” Lord, they would be at each other’s throats in a moment. They’d been doing it since they were lads. Roger toddled and William toddled faster, or at least near broke himself trying. It nearly always ended with fists flying.
She gave them a repressive stare as she slid past. It would accomplish nothing. Her brothers had too much time on their hands to get into mischief. Time they were married. Father hinted in that regard. William and Henry were rather sanguine about the idea. Roger had developed a case of deafness. She might take him in hand. Then again, she was hardly in a position to advocate the benefits of matrimony.
Her mother and father were settled at table and Faye took the seat to her father’s left. As the first girl, born after Roger and William, she’d been accorded a special place in her father’s affection.
His craggy face split into a grin. “Beautiful Faye.” He kissed her cheek. “Tell me how you have been spending this day.”
She dreaded the question. He asked it every night and every night she burrowed deep for some interesting morsel that wouldn’t make her day seem as stale as old bread. “I am working on a new set of bed linens for Beatrice’s baby. As we do not know the sex of the child, I thought green was a good choice.”
“Marvelous.” Her father rubbed his hands together.
She loved him for the attempt, but honestly, the mighty Sir Arthur of Anglesea had as much interest in bedding as, well, she did.
Twined up in each other like a pair of clinging vines, Garrett and Beatrice entered the hall. Beatrice waddled under the weight of the child she carried. Garrett strutted and preened like the first man to ever conceive a child, hovering about Beatrice constantly. So in love, it made her wish for things she couldn’t have.
Nurse leant forward from beside Lady Mary. “She carries a boy, you mark my words.”
Faye itched to adjust her wimple. Nurse wore it so low and tight, it pressed her face inward and gave her the look of a spotted pudding.
“It is in the shape of the belly.” Nurse made a circle with her hands. “If it is round like that, it’s a boy. You were the same and your mother before you.”
Oh, spare her Nurse and her predictions. Both times Nurse had sworn up and down Faye bore a girl. She merely smiled at their resident oracle and accepted a goblet from a serving woman. At least the wine at Anglesea was always good.
Speaking of her confinements, Simon and Arthur should be back by now.
“Nurse, have you seen the boys?” She leant far forward to see past her father and mother. She had told Sir Arthur they should commission a curved table at Anglesea. It was one good thing she had taken from Calder Castle.
Nurse’s bodice dropped in her trencher as she replied. See there, a curved table would be a mercy to silk everywhere. “Nay.” Nurse frowned. “I thought they were with young Oliver.”
Oliver, the squire charged with watching the boys. There were so many around Anglesea, their names blurred into a crowd of eager young faces.
“Oliver missed weapons practice this evening.” William took the seat beside her.
Why he did it baffled her because Roger would only insist he move one down. Men. Oliver should not have missed practice. Everyone knew Sir Arthur ran a disciplined keep, and squires did not miss practice. Not unless there was a problem. A tendril of alarm curled in her belly.
“I saw them heading for the beech thicket.” Roger rumbled from behind. He clapped William on the shoulder, his knuckles whitening as he increased his grip.
“The beech thicket? Did you not stop them? They told me they would go to the stream at the bottom of the hill. They were to remain in sight of the keep guards.”
“I thought they had your permission.” Roger won the battle with William and wedged huge shoulders in beside her.
Roger was so thick sometimes, sitting there sipping his mead as if naught was amiss. She had told her boys right before him the thicket was not allowed, even accompanied. Her brother would be well served if she poured his mead over his thoughtless head. Roger should have stopped them. The beech thicket spread all the way to the village and the boys could be anywhere. Best she start looking. Already planning the stern word she would have with her oldest son when she found him, she got to her feet, Simon forever led the way into mischief with little Arthur at his heels. She should never have let them go this morning.
Sir Arthur rose. “Faye?”
“Forgive me.” She managed a tight smile for the table. “If you will excuse me, I will go and find my sons.”
Garrett stood. “I shall come with you.”
“I am sure there is no reason for concern.” She kept it light. Boys were boys and she did try not to coddle them, but for their bellies not to lead them to dinner was unusual.
“I will come.” Garrett motioned for Beatrice to stay. “Where would you like to begin?”
Beatrice had a treasure in her husband. Faye gave him a grateful smile as she led the way out of the hall.
A bench scraped and William called out. “Hang about, Faye, we can split up and cover more ground.”
Remain calm, Faye. A screaming frenzy would not find Simon and Arthur any faster.
The boys were not in their chamber, or the hall. The kitchen drudges hadn’t seen them and neither had the keep serving women. As a last resort, Faye even tried the chapel. Father Thomas shrugged and looked regretful, but the boys had not been there either. It had been a guess, at best. Two young boys could not disappear into the air.
“They are not in the laundry.” William dashed another hope.
The long summer evening gave way to full dark. The entire keep joined the search as it moved outside into the bailey. A tight knot of anxiety grew in Faye’s chest as face after face turned down in regret. They must be somewhere.
Tom and Roger checked the stables. Nothing.
Lady Mary led the keep to Vespers. “We will pray you find them soon.”
Simon could be anywhere. His sense of adventure needed to be curbed with some good sense. Last spring, he led Arthur into the forests surrounding Calder while they played knights and dragons. They lost track of time in their game. Several anxious hours later, Faye found them, filthy and tired with Simon still engrossed in killing his dragon with a makeshift sword and Arthur fast asleep under a tree. But they had never been gone this long before.
Torches flickered across the faces of the men gathered in the bailey.
Taking charge, Sir Arthur divided the men into groups to cover the area outside the walls. “Never fear, sweeting.” Her father hugged her. “They have lost track of time while about their mischief and got turned around in the dark. I am sure we will find them huddled together and telling grisly stories.”
Stories like the ones Gregory told. Gregory. The name rocked through her. Gregory would know exactly where to look. Except, Gregory had left her. Left them.
Faye gave Sir Arthur a wan smile. She had naught more to give. Her boys were out there in the wicked dark. Please God, let Simon not have gone anywhere near the sea. Only last summer, the smith’s youngest—
She needed to concentrate on finding her boys. A good mother would have noticed they were gone long before now. And what had she been doing while her sons were lost? Embroidering countless flowers and swirls on yet another piece of fabric.
Heedless mother, thoughtless woman.
Beatrice slipped a warm hand into hers. “Let us search the stables.”
“They have already searched the stables.” Faye returned the pressure, grateful for her sister’s presence.
“Aye, but men could not find their asses with both hands.” Beatrice had picked up all sorts of unladylike expressions from her husband.
It drew a reluctant chuckle from her. Anything would be better than standing here waiting. Her father and brothers had forbade her joining the search outside the keep walls. Even Garrett turned mulish.
Beatrice tugged her toward the stable, their pace slow due to Beatrice’s girth.
Hay and mud littered the floor of the stable and Faye picked up her skirts as they tried the grain storage and hayloft first. They even peered into the great rain barrels kept beside the door. The horses stirred and stamped at the intrusion as she and Beatrice checked each stall in turn. Hay, water troughs and horses but empty of two, no doubt, dirty little faces.
Faye’s stomach ached from keeping it clenched. The boys were too little to be out there on their own. The smith’s youngest child had wandered too close to the cliffs—
Claws fastened around her chest until each breath labored. They found the boy in the morning, his perfect, little body broken by the jagged rocks below. How did a mother bear such a thing? To live beyond your child, to never hold them in your arms again.
Beatrice stilled and raised her hand. She cocked her head as if listening to something outside.
“What is it?” Faye’s heart drummed in her ears.
Shouts rang from the bailey. The men were back.
She left Beatrice in the stable, not able to bear her sister’s slower pace.
William led a group of searchers through the gate.And there, sweet merciful God, was a little form pressed against his shoulder.
They were found. Tears blurred her vision as she ran. She reached for her child, to hold his solid weight in her arms.
Arthur’s face peered at her, streaked with dirt and tears, brown eyes huge and dark against the pallor of his skin.
Faye near wrenched him from William’s arms. She wrapped his warm, little body beside her heart and buried her nose into his neck. She drew in deep, soothing breaths of his treacle, little- boy smell. Her tears wet both their faces. Safe. Thank you, God. He was here and he was safe.
William stood before the men, his face grave.
Nay, his face was all wrong. He should not cast his gaze to the ground like he bore grim tidings.
None of the men in the party would meet her eye. They shifted and murmured to themselves, their faces half-obscured by the dark.
“Simon.” The name dragged up her throat like a rusty blade. “Where is Simon?”
William shook his head.
The edges of her vision darkened. Any moment now, William would grin, tug her braid and say he jested. She stared hard at William’s face. He needed to smile, now, and tell her Simon was with him.
Arthur squirmed in her arms.
She squeezed until he whimpered, but her arms wouldn’t release him. Spots danced in her vision. Nay. Simon was with them, must be with them.
William held out his arms to her, but she stepped back.
“Where is Simon?” Speech proved difficult past the pounding in her chest, robbing her of breath.
“They took him, Mam.” Arthur’s high, baby voice reached her down a growing tunnel of black. “The men came and took him. They hurt Oliver, and he fell down and I couldn’t wake him.”
Her knees hit the ground. She must have fallen or stumbled. She gripped the sides of Arthur’s face.
“Who? What men?”Arthur’s face crumpled and his breath hiccoughed.
“Faye?” William touched her arms. His hands pressed on her, weighty, ponderous, and she shook them off.
Arthur wriggled in her hold and tried to back away from her.
“Who, Arthur? Who took Simon?”
William crouched beside her. “You are frightening him, Faye.”
Dear God, she was scaring her baby. She stared at her hands in horror. She had never lifted a hand against either child. Red marks on Arthur’s sweet baby-soft cheeks shrieked condemnation at her.
Arthur’s mouth twisted as he wailed, big eyes screaming her betrayal at her.
“I am sorry.” She choked. The bailey dipped and swayed around her. She had to stop. Think. Sweet Jesus, they had Simon. “Mama is sorry, baby.”
William gathered Arthur and handed him to Roger.
Her arms ached with the loss of her child. Another woman’s child was also in peril. “Oliver?”
“Oliver will recover. He took a nasty blow to the head trying to defend the boys.” William gripped her by the shoulders.
“Defend the boys? What happened? Merciful God, William, what happened?” She curled her fingers into his tunic, forcing him to look at her.
“Faye, Calder has Simon.” Grim, his mouth harsh as a death mask.
Bile rose in her throat. It was not possible. She shook her head to clear the buzzing in her ears.
William was still speaking and she had to hear what he said. “We will need Oliver to tell us what happened, but it appears they lured the boys into the thicket and took Simon. This was pinned to Arthur’s tunic.”
Parchment crackled in William’s hand.
“Calder cannot write.” It couldn’t be from Calder. She grasped at the sliver of hope.
William shook his head. “He must have had a scribe write it. It bears his seal.”
Faye snatched at the parchment. Tidy, sloping letters danced around the page, defying her attempt to make sense of it. She thrust the parchment at William. “What does it say?”
William stared at her. “It says, ‘An heir belongs with his father.’”
The ache in Gregory’s knees brought him closer to God. Hunger gnawed at his belly and reminded him of his connection with the Lord. For three days, he had fasted and prayed, waited for God to show him the way to enter into service.
God remained silent.
He must pray harder and keep at it until he had his answer. God’s way was not always the way of man and His divine timing did not always answer the impetuous call of sinners.
Something clattered through the bars of his cell.
Gregory started, but kept his eyes closed. He could afford no distractions in his wait for God to deign to speak with him. Sweat broke out on his brow. He bowed his head. “Dear Father in Heaven...”
Another skittering across the floor and Gregory opened his eyes.
A pebble lay almost within reach at his knees, a pale trespasser against the dark stone floor of his bare cell. A thin pallet rested against one wall, stripped of linen except for a rough blanket. On the opposite wall a tiny barred window overlooked the fields were they worked each day. Above it, a stark wooden cross served as a reminder that all here was by Grace alone. Beneath the casement stood a plain wood table and a bench.
The Abbey bell tolled Terce over the undulating chant of the monks reciting the second of the Little Hours of the Divine Office. Father Abbott had understood his need for private meditation, but he would be expected at Lauds.
Not God at all, unless the Almighty had grown a set of large hands and gripped the bars of his cells so tightly His knuckles turned white.
A dark head popped over the lip, followed by dark eyebrows and the sharply drawn planes of a face many a lass considered handsome.
“Garrett?” Gregory’s knees creaked as he rose. Sharp pain lanced through his long-frozen muscles. Three days, most of which spent on your knees, would turn any man’s limbs into a grandfather’s. “Is that you?”
“Aye?” Garrett blinked away a sweat droplet that snaked down his brow and into his eye. His face turned redder. “Only could you come down, I am not sure how much longer I can hang on.”
“Did you climb the side?”
Teeth clenched, Garret said, “Aye and I am about to go tumbling on my ass, so get down here.”
Garrett’s head disappeared from view as he scrabbled down the side of the two-story dormitory.
If Garrett was here, something was amiss at Anglesea. Sir Arthur might have sent him with news. My Lady Faye. His blood thrummed in his ears. Fresh sweat prickled over his skin as he wrenched open his door and trotted down the empty corridor. He took the stairs three at a time. Unease spurred him into a run.
From the chapel the monk’s voices called and responded in prayer as he entered the kitchen yard. Singing voices reminded him he had left his former life behind, but he needed to check all was well.
Garrett appeared out of the dark shadows around the dormitory.
The smell of incense hung heavy in the air.
“What is it?” Gregory closed the distance between them.
Garrett’s expression was grim, his shoulders tense. “You must come.”
“Aye.” Garrett turned and motioned him to follow.
Gregory took a step and froze. He couldn’t go with Garrett. Outside these walls was not his life anymore. His calling lay here at the Abbey. “I cannot.”
Sharp strides driving divots into the soft, bare earth, Garrett strode back to him. “You must come. Sir Arthur sent me for you.”
Sir Arthur would not have sent for him if it weren’t urgent. Sir Arthur had sponsored him as a postulant to the Abbey and he owed the man for that. But he owed God his obedience and he had put his former life aside. “My place is here now.”
“Your place is where you are needed.” Movements sharp and jerky, Garrett gestured to outside the Abbey.
He didn’t want to ask the question. It did not concern him. Yet, his stubborn gut demanded an answer. “What has happened?”
Garrett clasped his arm. “It is Faye.”
“What?” His muscles bunched in response. The words rasped from his throat. Dear Father, please do not let her be...
What? Hurt, or worse, reconciled with Calder. He grabbed the other man’s tunic, twisting his hand in the fabric.
Garrett shrugged him off. “I will explain as we ride.”
He couldn’t go. He couldn’t not go. Again, the same tussle within him. Faye or the Abbey, his lady versus his God. It never ended.
Garrett stepped closer until his face was inches away. “Beatrice is worrying herself sick. She carries our first child and if I have to tie your saintly ass on a horse, you are coming with me. Faye needs you.”
Faye needed him. The confusion cleared. It was all Garrett need say. Clean, crisp purpose flooded his being. “Do you have a horse for me?”
Garrett’s grim face softened into a smile. “Come on, before one of your monks catches sight of me and tosses me in there.”
The tide washed close and crashed over the large rocks beneath Faye’s casement, back and forth it went, in an endless draw and suck. The walls of her chamber closed around her, robbing the air from her.
Women whispering all around her, driving her closer to the dark place. Like hens in a battery—Bea, her mother and Nurse—heads clustered together and clucking over her near untouched dinner. They didn’t understand. Calder had her boy. That monstrous brute had her child and she could not rest, could not eat. She sprang to her feet and paced over to the hearth.
A roaring fire warmed her bedchamber, but left the ice within her untouched.
Her father wouldn’t help her. Couldn’t help her, he said. Her teeth ground together. The vaunted Sir Arthur of Anglesea would not act to save his grandchild. She hated him. Nay, she loved her father. Her hatred belonged with Calder. They didn’t know, didn’t understand, the darkness within Calder and the lengths to which he would go. Only she really knew, and Gregory.
A dark, tousled angel amidst a feminine whirl of embroidered flowers and rich blue silk, Arthur slept on her bed. She wouldn’t allow them to take him from her sight. She was all that stood between him and the devil who had his brother.
“Faye.” Lady Mary caught her arm. “You must eat, sweeting.”
“Aye.” Faye tugged free. She had not the strength to argue with them. They offered her food when she needed an army to rain vengeance down on Calder’s head. Her Arthur needed her strength for him. She must gather her inner resources and conserve them for the battle to win Simon. A hot shaft of anger wrenched up from her feet until it vibrated through her. She clenched her hands into her bliaut to hide their shaking. She was alone in this. Sir Arthur would not help her.
“You will make yourself ill if you carry on in this manner.” Lady Mary’s eyes filled with tears.
“Do not cry.” Tears were useless. No more tears. She turned her back on her mother and went to check on her son. Sleeping, his cheeks flushed.
Whispering from the door. Talking about her. Casting their soulful, pitying glances in her direction. Her eyes smarted, gritty from lack of sleep. She dared not sleep. If she closed her eyes for a moment, they would come and take Arthur as well. Never. She forced her legs to walk. She must stay awake like the tide, alert to danger.
A knock on the door.
She jerked to a stop. The knock must mean news of Simon. She stared at the door.
Beatrice went to answer, cracking the door open and peering through.
More infernal whispering. They thought she’d lost her mind. They kept her confined to this room like a madwoman. Her eyes burned from staring and she blinked.
Beatrice’s face relaxed into a smile.
It must mean they had Simon, or news of him. Her throat felt raw from holding in the tears and her voice came out as a harsh rasp. “Is it Simon?”
“Nay.” Beatrice’s brow creased and her mouth dropped.
Faye turned her back. The hope was almost worse than the constant fear. It was harsh in its flicker of life and left her only raging disappointment like a hook dragging through her lungs.
Arthur stirred in his sleep.
She went to him, touched the silk of his dark head with her hand. So warm and so alive, his soft breath raising and lowering his chest. They would not take him. Not while she still breathed.
Simon. She hunched her shoulders, hiding her face from the whisperers. The rawness inside her left her gasping for breath.
The door opened. Footfalls thumped the flags. The air stirred with a new presence.
The hair on her nape rose. His voice, like a hot blade to an open wound. She had lost her mind. They were right. She could not turn and face the bitter anguish of the lie.
“My Lady Faye?”
Damn her legs! They turned her to face the door. Her head came up last, heavy on her stiff neck.
Strong, beautiful, outlined by the light in the corridor beyond. She had forgotten how tall and how broad. And his face. A crack opened in the hard ice within. Those eyes, darker than ebony in the harsh planes of his face. Her salvation. Her hope. The fissure widened and the anguish flooded in.
He walked toward her, his postulant robes fluttering about his powerful legs.
She would tear that robe to pieces. It had taken him from her, but the resentment was tiny, inconsequential, beside the rending asunder within her.He was here to make Arthur safe, to bear her pain and her gnawing fear. Gregory would never let them take her boy. She could rest. Her legs buckled.
He caught her, his arms like steel around her as he drew her against his strength.Faye rested there and drew in the scent of wool and horse and Gregory. A hundred images buffeted her, dark eyes so caring and sure, her anchor, her one safe point. Her fingers dug into the wool and touched the hewn strength beneath.
The first sob shook her.
His arms tightened.
She pressed her cheek to the rough homespun of his robes and absorbed the heat of him. The awful noise in her head stilled beneath the steady thump of his heart.
“My lady,” he murmured against her hair. “My own lady.”
“They took Simon,” she said, the words muffled by his chest.
“I know and I am here.”
His warmth curled into her and ice shattered and splintered, driving hard into her wounded heart.
And Faye cried.