Thursday, 15 January 2015

The Crusader's Widow


THE CRUSADER'S WIDOW

CHAPTER ONE
 
Lady Isabella Carrington, Countess of Whyford, locked the door to the master bedchamber and carefully tucked the key into the space between her wrist and her elbow, concealing it among the folds of her sleeve. She would lose no time in hiding it in the secret recess beneath the hearthstone in the great hall, a recess only she and Philip knew about. She had no doubt that Roger would be furious, would be likely to make her life a living hell until she gave in and unlocked the chamber, but she could not care very much. That chamber had been for her and her husband, and no other man was going to lay his head on that pillow, share that bed with her.
She did not want this marriage; it had been only six months since Philip had given his life defending King Richard in the Holy Land, only six months since her excitement and joy at the anticipation of having him back in her arms, had turned to bitter resentment and heartache when Roger had returned without him.
As she moved quietly and quickly away from that bedchamber, her heart twisted painfully to know she would never step inside it again, never see the beautiful tapestries which Philip had commissioned just for her, never see the beautiful silk coverings he had ordered made by the nuns in the local convent. When she had come to this house as a child, to be raised by Philip’s parents to be his bride, those things had helped to make her welcome in her new home. Now she would never look upon them again, now the memories which they aroused only served to fill her with despair.
She recalled her elation on hearing the news that King Richard had drawn a truce with Saladin, that he was on his way home. That meant Philip would also be on his way home.  The news spread rapidly throughout the Kingdom – a truce had been called in the Holy Land, Saladin had agreed with King Richard to allow access to the Holy City to Christians. King Richard was on his way back to England and so were his soldiers, including Lord Philip Carrington, Earl of Whyford.
Lady Isabella woke each day with an excited flutter in her heart, hoping this would be the day her beloved husband would arrive. She had no idea how long the journey from Jerusalem would take, but he had been gone for two years and she could not wait to see him.
She imagined how surprised he would be to see his daughter, to see how tall she had grown, to see the tiny buds of womanhood blossoming. A beautiful young woman was fast emerging where their little girl used to be. She was now thirteen years old, and Isabella was so proud; she knew Philip would be too. And when he returned, they could give themselves up to trying once more for a son, an heir to Whyford.
That image set her heart aflutter once more and produced a little throb of desire deep inside her body. She had always loved her nights with Philip, ever since that very first time when they were both so young and naïve, and she had no idea how she had lasted all this time without his comfort. She could not wait to renew their passion, their love.
Before he left, he had begun negotiations for a marriage for their daughter and Isabella had continued those arrangements in his absence. Sarah would soon be a bride and her mother had wondered how long they should wait for her father to come home before the wedding could take place.
Word that King Richard was on his way home changed everything. Now Isabella looked forward to Philip being there to escort his daughter to the church porch, to give her hand to her new husband. The young man was the son of an important earl and he had a pleasant nature, was polite and seemed to Isabella to be caring. She hoped the young couple would find the love she had found with Philip.
She had been very fortunate to be wed to a man she could fall in love with and who loved her in return. When King Richard called for volunteers to accompany him to Jerusalem, to try to recapture the Holy City from the Infidel, Isabella thought little of it. She believed it to be a hopeless cause as she had heard their leader was as fierce and skilled a warrior as King Richard himself. This would be the third crusade to the Holy City, the third time the Christians had tried and failed to secure it permanently. Should that not tell them that God was not on their side?
But it was of no importance to Isabella. Her world consisted of her husband and her daughter, of running the household and making a home for those two special people. She thought only of giving Philip a healthy, living son, something she had failed to do in the years since their marriage. She was content with her routine, with her day to day activities and with the tenderness she shared with the man she loved. What could it possibly matter to her if the King wanted to waste his time on yet another battle?
They had retired for the night and were getting ready for bed when Philip told her he was joining the crusade; she was so angry with him, she wanted to lock him in his own dungeon and throw away the key.
“You cannot!” She cried. “Why do you want to go and risk your life?”
“It is something all Christian men should do,” he replied. “Jerusalem is God’s own city; it should not be in the hands of these Infidel.”
“Why? Don’t they have as much right to it as anyone else?”
He shook his head calmly and smiled, a benign but patronising smile as though telling her she could not possibly understand. That made her even angrier.
“What of Sarah? What of the negotiations for her marriage? She needs you to be there for her?”
“I will be back long before the marriage takes place. It will not take long to overcome the Infidel; God is on our side.”
And just as she had been thinking just the opposite.
“Philip, you cannot leave me. I love you, I will miss you too much. Please, if you ever loved me, do not go.” She took a step toward him and wrapped her arms around his waist, kissed his chest where his shirt fell open and whispered seductively: “We have sons to make.”
A shadow of sadness crossed his features. Their two sons had not survived more than a few hours and it was painful for him to remember. He knew it was also painful for her, but she would use any argument to make him change his mind, even that one.
He pulled her into his arms, held her face against his chest and kissed the top of her head.
“And my reward for joining this crusade might well be the birth of a living, healthy son.”
“Your reward? From God?”
He nodded.
“What sort of God,” she demanded, “would want you to risk your life and leave the two people who love you more than anything in the world, the two people who cannot live without you?”
“Do you not think it might help?”
A bitter line formed on her mouth.
“Even the Almighty cannot give you a son if you are not here to conceive one,” she said stubbornly. “Unless you think it is my fault, is that what you are saying?” Her voice rose angrily. “I have failed to give you a healthy son and now you must go and risk your precious life because of me?”
“You know perfectly well I have never blamed you,” he assured her. “But one or both of us must have done something to offend the Almighty, else why give us sons too weak to live? Whatever it is, this crusade will earn His forgiveness.”
She shook her head despondently. She could not argue with his logic, but that made her feel no better. She was rather have no sons than lose Philip.
He kissed her then, that arousing kiss which only he could give, and began to remove her clothes and let them drop to the floor. He crushed her against his chest and kissed her neck, trailed his lips along her shoulders and down to her breasts. She shivered with pleasure, gave herself to him completely as she had done at every opportunity since their wedding night, blotted from her mind the horrible thought that he would not be here to love her like this for a very long time.
Once spent, he laid on his back and folded her into his arms, holding her warm flesh against his own as he held her tightly.
“How can you think of going away after that?” She said. “How will I manage without that love, how will you?” She paused and turned on her side to look up at him. “You will not, will you?” She asked him. “You will find some whore to satisfy your needs.”
“Never,” he answered quickly.
“You will. I will be here alone and lonely, longing for your touch, and you will be paying some prostitute to service you.”
He pulled her to him and kissed her deeply, a long kiss which went on for minutes, which sent shivers of longing throughout her body.
“I promise you,” he said. “This is a holy battle for which I go to fight. There will be no woman for hire. I would never do that to you; I have been faithful to you since the day we met and can never be otherwise.”
But the seasons changed, the bare branches sprouted green leaves, the spring blossom turned to fruit and the grass grew longer, but still he did not come. The summer sun warmed the walls of the house, the summer insects feasted on the people, the children played in the river with their dogs to keep cool, yet still he did not come. The mists of autumn dampened the air, frost covered the ground and turned to heavy snow, yet still he did not come.
The waiting tormented her more even than missing him. In the small town stood a tall torch reaching up into the sky, taller than any man. Every town had one; it was how people learned of important news. When a new monarch was crowned for instance, a torch would be lit in London and the people in the next town to see it would light their own torch, and so on until the whole country knew there was great news. Isabella eyed the torched enviously, wishing such a thing could be done to tell her that her beloved was on his way home.
But she had no idea if he had even landed in England or if he had contracted some foreign disease and lie in a fever in some foreign house. He had not written, or if he had his letter had gone astray, had failed to reach her.
She made sure she was always ready for him. She had no wish for him to arrive and find her unprepared to take up her role as his wife and his lover. She bathed each day in rose scented water, despite the servants’ disapproval. She overheard them muttering about having to carry the heavy water buckets up the staircase every day, so she decided on a compromise.
“If you promise to stop complaining,” she said with a smile, “I will have my bath in the small sitting room. Just post someone beside the door to make certain I am not disturbed, unless it is His Lordship who disturbs me, of course.”
The maids gave her a puzzled frown. She knew they thought her overly familiar, but she was too happy to be anything else. Neither of them smiled in return; they thought bathing every day to be unhealthy, even believed it might make her ill. What did they know about being ready for the man she loved, after such a long time?
Isabella had worried while Philip was away that he might have grown weary of the celibate life, might have taken an eastern woman to himself, to give him comfort during their separation. He had promised her there would be no woman for hire, but he had not promised there would not be a more virtuous woman, one who could be as a wife to him. Or had he? That last night was vivid in her mind, but not for its conversation.
She would forgive him if he had succumbed to temptation, because she loved him so much she would forgive him anything, but she hoped he would not ask forgiveness. She understood a virile man’s needs, how he would want the comfort of a woman, but she would rather not know. As long as he was hers alone when he was here with her, that was all she cared about.
She sat and watched her daughter’s nurse as she struggled to brush Sarah’s hair, followed the small, blonde head as it pulled away from her and the pouting lips of the little girl. She was really too old now to need a nurse, but the woman had grown to love Sarah and Isabella was not about to ask her to leave. Besides, she hoped one day to need her services again, so she stayed on in the capacity of maid to both Sarah and her mother.
She would be an honoured guest at Sarah’s wedding regardless of the social distinction. She loved Sarah and Sarah loved her.
“Sarah,” Isabella said, “please be still for Nurse. It will all be over a lot quicker if you let her do your plaits.”
The child folded her arms and the pout grew stronger.
“Why must I have plaits?”
“Because your father will be home any day and he wants to see the pretty girl he left behind, not an untidy urchin he could not distinguish from a peasant.”
The girl eyed her mother sceptically, but stopped squirming at last.
“You said that yesterday,” she said, “and the day before. In fact you have said it every day for weeks now, and still no sign of him.”
Isabella smiled at the grown up way her daughter argued and wondered what Philip would think of such adult talk from the child. She had allowed a lot of laxness since he went away and now she wondered if she had done the right thing. She wanted and needed someone to talk to, and her daughter had filled that role perhaps more than she should have. She had allowed the child to gradually become more forward than a girl her age had any right to be.
“He will come,” she replied at last. “The Holy Land is very far away, it is a long journey and we have no way of knowing when he left. We only know the King is on his way home so your father will be close behind him.” She paused for a moment and waited until the nurse had gathered her things and left the room. “Are you looking forward to seeing him?”
The child shrugged.
“I hardly remember him, Mother,” she said.
“It has been but two years, Sarah. Hardly long enough to have forgotten him.”
“You forget, Mother, I did not know him that well before he left. He is my father and I love him, of course I do, but I did not really know him.”
Isabella felt her lip crease in dismay. It had never occurred to her that Sarah would not know her own father, but then she had been a child when he left and had little to do with him. He was a good father, but his time was very much taken up with running his estate. A son would have ridden out with him, got to know the tenants and learned how to manage things himself when his time came. A daughter was a different matter; she was groomed and trained to become someone’s wife, to be somebody’s countess or even Duchess. She would not ride out with her father to meet the tenants and learn the ways of running the estate; that was man’s work.
Isabella had prayed for a son with three pregnancies, but two of those pregnancies had ended in frail little boys who lived but a few hours. Sarah was the only living child she had managed to produce and she often wondered if Philip resented that, although he always denied it. But she knew it to be one of his reasons for joining this holy crusade; had he not told her so with his own lips?
She was so anxious for his return, she could hardly recall what he had said or what she might have imagined. Philip was always more devout than his wife, although she never told him that, and he was convinced the Lord would bless him with a healthy son as a reward. But there would be no son, healthy or otherwise, if he did not soon return to share himself with her again.
He was also sure he would spend less time in purgatory if he went to fight a holy war. That is what all the crusaders had been told; that is why most of them had gone with the King, with only a few whose main motive was to take back the Holy City. As far as King Richard was concerned, any war was a war worth fighting and Saladin must surely be a formidable foe to entice the King to agree to a truce. She had heard a rumour that the King of France, with whom Richard had gone on this crusade, had given up and gone home. It was likely King Richard realised the futility of trying to take the city without him.
Now she felt that resentment rising again. It had all been futile, no point in going at all when they were only going to give up and go home. For two years she had been deprived of Philip’s love, for two years his daughter had grown without his counsel and guidance, all because of some war thousands of miles away.
But no more. As soon as she got Philip home with her, she would make quite certain he would never want to leave again.
She smiled at the thought then turned to see Sarah watching her curiously, as though her mother’s thoughts were showing on her face. She hoped they were not, for they were not thoughts suitable for a child to see.
From the window she could see the new mother mastiff playing with her litter in the yard. She smiled at the scene. The puppies were so cute and two of them would be the perfect gift for Philip when he returned. She had bred them specially, hoped he would be home before they grew too big, and now she could not wait to see his face when he saw them. The bitch was older now; it was high time to teach new puppies how to hunt. They were fascinating to watch, to see how spontaneously they followed their mother about as though afraid of letting her out of their sight. Would Philip arrive in time to witness that, to savour the joy of seeing the six baby dogs together with their mother? He loved that bitch; he would be thrilled.
Isabella could only hope there would be no more holy wars for him to fight; she did not want her son risking his life in a futile war as well, and she was certain that this time she could give her husband a son.
What right had Christians to decide theirs was the right way to worship, anyway? Why was their claim to Jerusalem greater than that of the Muslims or the Jews? It was everybody’s ancient Holy place, not just theirs. She had heard the prophet Mohammed had believed in sharing the city; why could they not do the same?
She watched Sarah sorting through her embroidery silks for a few more moments before she heard the sound of hooves trotting toward the house and her heart skipped painfully. Philip! She turned to look down from the window in time to see the back of a huge horse disappearing beneath the arch which led into the courtyard.
She lifted her skirts and ran out of the chamber, down the spiral, stone staircase, impatiently cursing the structure of the stones which made it impossible to hurry. She did not stop for breath when she reached the ground, but rushed out to the courtyard. She arrived just as the rider was dismounting, her heart skipping with excitement and ready to throw herself into his arms, to be held tightly against his chest, to feel those arousing kisses at last. But as the rider turned, the disappointment almost overwhelmed her and she felt her muscles weaken.
There before her stood the tall, dark figure of her husband’s cousin, Sir Roger Farley, who had travelled with him to join the King on crusade two years ago. His black hair was wet with grease and hung almost to his shoulders, his beard thick and unkempt and his clothes were covered in dust and muck from the road. She hardly recognised him.
Her eyes moved passed him to the open gates, searching for the blonde head of her husband, her senses keenly waiting to hear the sound of more hooves, but there was only silence.
As Roger turned, she noticed his sombre expression, the downturn of his lip beneath his moustache, and she watched with mounting panic as he turned back to his horse and removed the sword which hung from the saddle. She recognised it at once, with its gold hilt and Whyford family crest, the embedded ruby glinting in the sunlight.
“Roger?” She said his name, taking a step toward him. Her glance moved passed him once more, into the distant hills beyond, the empty hills beyond. “Where is Philip?”
“Isabella,” he answered, “I am so sorry.” He held the sword with its hilt away from him and passed it to her, waited until she had clasped it in both her small hands before bowing his head and taking a step backward. “Philip is dead.”
 

 


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