“I cannot believe you did such a thing. What were you thinking, my lady?”
Lady Eleanor, dowager countess of Wellesworth, turns from the window, a supercilious smile upon her lovely face. She is beautiful, this mistress of mine, a fact of which she is keenly aware and which affords her great pleasure. Her expression now though radiates the disdain I have grown accustomed to seeing depicted in her perfect features. After all, what does my opinion matter? I am but a lowly servant.
She raises an elegant eyebrow. “What was I thinking? And that concerns you how exactly, Linnet? By what right do you question my actions?”
“I meant no offence, my lady. It is just… there will be consequences.” Grave consequences, if I am any judge.
“Will there? I think not. My lord the earl of Egremont is hundreds of miles away and likely to stay there, buried alive in his Westmoreland castle. He can languish there alone, for I will not marry him. The betrothal is terminated. The messenger has been dispatched.”
“But—” I halt, my words stemmed by the countess’ fierce glare. She is not above delivering a hard backhanded slap when crossed.
She strides across the room, the skirts of her kirtle swishing across the flagged floor. Despite her terse words to me, she does seem inclined to explain herself. I fold my hands at my waist and listen without offering further comment.
“My husband is dead, killed in this senseless war in the Holy Land. My brother too, in all probability. I may be just twenty-two years of age but I have survived one marriage and that is enough. Unless the king intervenes, I have every intention of managing my own destiny from now on and I am not about to shackle myself in servitude to another man, most especially not one I have yet to lay eyes upon. I prefer to select my own pleasures.”
Would that we might all be so liberated. His majesty’s intervention seems unlikely since he is also embroiled in the foreign conflict, more intent upon subduing infidels in Jerusalem than unruly noblewomen in Gloucestershire. That just leaves me. Buoyed up by the promise of safety offered by the length of the chamber which now separates me from the immediate expression of my mistress’ wrath, I elect to try again.
“My lady, perhaps if you were to meet the earl you might find this alliance more to your liking. I recall both the St. John brothers were fine young men and I daresay will have become more handsome still with maturity. Either would make an attractive marriage prospect.”
“What do you know of handsome men, little mouse, or of marriage prospects for that matter? A few weeks spent toiling in the kitchens at Egremont castle would hardly bring you into close proximity with the heir to the keep. Any man with all his limbs intact can look fair, from a distance.”
“Of course that is true, my lady, but—”
She waves me to silence with an imperious swipe of her hand. “A dynastic marriage is a matter of property, of political advancement. I find myself in need of neither. I possess sufficient wealth to maintain an independent existence and if I should desire the company of a handsome man, that is easily come by without the requirement to mortgage my future to achieve it.”
I know my efforts are likely to fall on deaf ears but feel compelled to try regardless. “Before he left to join the king, your brother negotiated your betrothal to Ralf St. John, the earl of Egremont. The documents were signed. You are bound by that contract. The earl will surely seek to enforce it.”
Lady Eleanor emits a most unladylike snort, her derision at that prospect obvious. “He will have to drag himself and his ragbag army over two hundred miles south to do so. I doubt he will be minded to take the trouble.”
I am not so sure. “He is likely to consider himself slighted by your refusal to honour the betrothal contract, my lady. Men will go to considerable lengths when their pride is threatened.”
She waves her hand in exasperation. “Let him try. Wellesworth castle is impregnable. And since I inherited the castle and lands from my poor dear Henry, this keep and all within is now mine. I refuse to share it, even less will I hand my property over to some northern earl only to see Wellesworth reduced to a mere outpost to his estates. Even less do I relish the opportunity to remove myself from the home I love to take up residence in the middle of some God-forsaken, barren moorland on the Scottish borders. There will be no marriage between myself and the earl of Egremont and there lies an end to the matter.”
“I see.” In truth, I doubt the matter will conclude here but I discern no merit in debating the issue further at this stage. Lady Eleanor is irritated at my remarks already and perilously close to the point of ordering me to bend over the linen chest as it is. I opt for a more prudent course. “Would you like me to have the water for your bath brought up, my lady?”
“Yes, and you can bring some more logs for the fire too. It grows chilly in here.”
The chamber feels perfectly warm to me but I welcome the excuse to absent myself, if only for a few minutes. Lady Eleanor is an exacting and volatile mistress. I have already provoked her ire by questioning the wisdom of her actions. In her present mood she will not hesitate to take a switch to me for the slightest cause.
Fortunately, although she is often quick to anger, she is equally quick to cool down. Judging the situation to be safe once more, I return after a quarter of an hour with an armful of logs. As I expected, I find her ladyship’s equanimity quite restored.
“Ah, thank you, Linnet. See to the fire if you would, then you can play to me whilst I bathe.”
“Yes, my lady.” I deal with the matter of warmth as other servants troop in and out of the chamber bearing buckets of hot water. When the bath is filled to my lady’s satisfaction, the others are dismissed and I aid her in disrobing. Once she is settled in the tub, her long, dark tresses carefully arranged over the edge to remain dry, I position myself in the corner of the room, by the harp.
I pluck several strings, tightening as required to ensure perfect tone, then commence playing.
It is my skill with this instrument which has elevated me from the ranks of those toiling in the kitchens and sculleries to the lofty station I now occupy. Lady’s maid to a countess is a coveted position and one to which I could not have aspired had my father, an itinerant minstrel, not managed to pass on some musical ability to me. Part nature but mostly through hard work, I have become a decent enough musician with the harp, the lute, and at a stretch, the harpsichord. It pleases the countess to hear me play to her. That I can also manage her wardrobe, her toilet, and dress her hair are added benefits. I am far from indispensable but I know my services are appreciated.
As is my silence.
I am well aware the countess’ refusal to marry Ralf St. John is not born of any dislike of men. Indeed, she entertains an enthusiastic fondness for most of the male gender, as far as I can see. She is currently particularly enamoured of one of the archers who help to guard our stronghold. She takes far more interest in the readiness of our armoury than is strictly necessary and makes frequent nocturnal visits to the battlements to enjoy the company of this fortunate bowman. I prefer not to dwell upon what might transpire up against those cold stone ramparts—rather her than me.
Lady Eleanor’s nocturnal habits do hold certain benefits for me. When she has it in mind to go cavorting around the castle at night, she always insists I sleep in her chamber to create the illusion that the room is occupied, should any other servant have cause to enter. I find her secretive attitude puzzling given her penchant for adventure and usual careless disregard for convention but such are the ways of the nobility I suppose. I have no cause for complaint; her accommodations are considerably superior to my usual pallet on the floor outside her door. That any inquisitive skivvy could readily discern that my pallet is not slept in and arrive at the obvious conclusion is a complication Lady Eleanor is disinclined to consider.
I cannot comprehend Lady Eleanor’s reluctance to even consider Ralf St. John as her husband. Most women would throw themselves at his feet for the opportunity. Either he or his brother, Piers, would represent an excellent catch. She is quite mistaken in her view that I could not possibly have seen the St. John brothers at close quarters during the time I spent at Egremont as a child.
My grandmother was cook there and I lived with her after my parents died of the influenza. The brothers were regular visitors to the nether regions of the castle in search of sweetmeats and tasty morsels and my grandmother’s apple dumplings were the stuff of legend. Of course, they would not have noticed me, even less would they remember me now. It was over ten years ago and I was just a tiny girl of eight summers who balanced on a stool to reach the sink.
The St. John brothers were gods, or so I thought then. Golden-headed, beautiful giants of sixteen or seventeen summers I suppose, full of life and vigour, noisy, always hungry. My grandmother called them by their Christian names and would set aside their favourite treats. She could never tell them apart, of course. No one could, not even their father. I expect my grandmother got their names mixed up as regularly as everyone else did. They never took issue with her though. As alike as two peas in a pod, they enjoyed the sport of deliberately confusing the household. I recall it puzzled me at the time; they were indeed remarkably similar in appearance but not identical as far as I could see.
Ralf was the older brother, so the heir to the earldom and he was also the most handsome in my opinion. I recall one wet morning which saw me scurrying across the castle bailey, dodging puddles as best I might since my shoes were not watertight. Sir Ralf and Sir Piers emerged from the stables on horseback, accompanied by several other men at arms. The group cantered across the cobbles. I was slow to shift from their path but Ralf reined in his mount as I sought to scuttle out of his way. Had he not I would certainly have been soaked to the skin by the splashes sent up by his horse’s hooves, or possibly injured.
He smiled at me as he passed. I fell in love with him in that moment.
Ralf was the more even-tempered of the brothers or so my grandmother always said. She believed he would make a good lord when the time came and looked forward to serving him. But it was not to be. One winter morning she tripped on the narrow spiral stairs leading from the cold store beneath the kitchens. The stone was icy, and accidents were frequent. My grandmother’s body was discovered by the castle bailiff who immediately promoted the first scullery maid to the position of cook. The matter was closed, apart from the decision to ship one small, orphaned child to the estate of Sir William Marwood, earl of Wellesworth where help was required in his kitchens.
The houses of Wellesworth and Egremont had become connected by a dynastic marriage several decades earlier, which resulted in Sir Henry being cousin to Ralf and Piers. The kinship was distant as far as I am aware but Sir Henry’s mother, Lady Marwood and the late countess of Egremont had been great friends. When an unfortunate fire in the servants’ quarters at Wellesworth left that household somewhat depleted, the countess was pleased to make several surplus Egremont servants available to help ease the inconvenience. I was included in that number, offering a useful solution to the dilemma of what to do with a child no one really wanted to claim.
I have served here since and made a relative success of it. On her marriage to Sir Henry some three years ago, Lady Eleanor selected me to be her personal maid on the basis of my skill with the harp and with a hairbrush.
It is a decent enough existence though I confess, the prospect of merging our household with that at Egremont holds its attractions for me, even if it would reduce me to the status of a mere servant worshipping her lord from afar. Alas, though, it is not to be. I know my mistress well enough to be sure she will not change her mind now. The betrothal is off.
“Please pass me a cloth, Linnet. The water cools and I am starting to resemble a prune.”
The terse command interrupts my reverie. I cease playing and jump up to do my mistress’ bidding. The next couple of hours are spent seeing first to my lady’s personal toilette, then to clearing away the debris from her bath while she descends to take her evening meal in the great hall. My own meal will be eaten in the kitchens later, when no doubt I will be regaled by questions from the rest of our household regarding the countess’ latest folly.
I have long ago learnt that it is best not to share her secrets. My comfortable existence depends upon it.
“Linnet, you may remain in here this night.”
“I see, my lady. Thank you.”
It has been a little over a month since Lady Eleanor’s dismissal of her northern suitor and there has been no response from Westmoreland. I know she considers the matter closed and I have seen no merit in raising the issue with her again. I put the finishing touches to the complex arrangement of light blond curls then proceed to more or less conceal my handiwork entirely beneath the elaborate headdress favoured by Lady Eleanor. “Do you require anything further from me this evening?”
“I think not. I am unlikely to return before dawn. You may make use of one of my silk nightdresses, I think. It will be more convincing should you be seen. My bath water is still tepid. You may use that too before having it removed.”
“Yes, my lady.” I gather up the hairbrush, comb, and a few remaining pins and tidy those away. I offer a small curtsy as the countess sweeps past me on her way to this latest assignation.
Her wide featherbed looks comfortable and I know from experience that it is cosy, a cocoon of warmth and rest. I have been working without a break since before six o’clock this morning and I am bone tired. The opportunity to sleep in such fine nightwear is a welcome and unusual bonus. I normally just remove my wool skirt and over-tunic and make the best of it. The lukewarm bath is another rare treat and I wish I were less fatigued in order to enjoy it more. Still, beggars cannot be choosers, as my grandmother was fond of reminding those under her authority who ever dared to complain of their lot.
I strip quickly and sink into the cool water before it chills yet further. Lady Eleanor did not forbid me to make use of her scented soap so I make free with it. The luxury is seductive. I wash my hair too, even knowing it will delay my sleep as I must dry it thoroughly before I can climb into the soft bed. Fortunately I have placed a good stock of logs beside the fire so I bank up the flames and kneel before the hearth to brush my unruly tresses into some sort of order. Satisfied, at last I secure my hair back into a plump plait, drape the silken chemise over my body, and climb into bed.
I am asleep almost before I lay my head on the pillows.
“Open your eyes, my lady. Now.”
I shift, attempt to roll over. I am immobile, quite unable to move.
“Wake up, countess, unless you want to descend the outer wall unconscious. I assure you, it is of no consequence to us.”
What? Still half asleep I wriggle, attempt to open my mouth to question. There is pressure, tightening. I cannot breathe.
“Ah, I see we have your attention at last.” The pressure lifts, just a little. I gasp in a welcome breath as I open my eyes.
Blond hair fills my vision, the colour of corn in sunshine. Rich brown eyes, a wide, full mouth, one side lifted in a parody of a smile. It is a mouth I have not seen for over a decade. The chamber is too dimly lit for me to discern the long, curling eyelashes, or the dimple I know still adorns the earl of Egremont’s firm chin.
“I see you recognise me.” He lifts his eyebrow, relaxing his grip on my jaw just enough to allow me to offer a brief nod. His palm remains across my mouth though and I cannot make a sound.
“Then you will know why we are here?”
We? I dart my gaze around the dark chamber, seeking the other, the one who is always close at hand. He emerges from the shadows of the room, a bundle of my mistress’ clothing in his arms. The same blond hair, eyes the exact shade of dark mahogany he shares with his older brother.
The St. John brothers. Ralf, now earl of Egremont holds me pinned in the bed, his hand across my mouth, the other arm across my chest preventing me from moving. Behind him, Sir Piers tosses the clothing across the coverlet.
“We need to move. Is she coming quietly?” Piers murmurs the words to his brother but they are no less menacing than if he had bellowed them at me. I have always hated shouting but the low tone terrifies me every bit as much.
The earl leans over me again, tightening his grip. I cannot breathe.
“My lady, we have business to conduct, you and I. You do know this, don’t you?” Again he relaxes his hold, enough to restore my meagre supply of air and enable me to nod my response.
“But not here. You are leaving with us. Now.”
My features must betray my confusion since he offers more information in settlement of my unspoken question. “The same way we entered, through the window.”
We are four floors in the air, the walls outside are sheer, a drop of fifty feet into the freezing, filthy moat. I whimper behind his hand.
“Fear not, my lady, we will see you safe down to the boat.” He shifts a little, enough to release the bedclothes which hold me trapped. He keeps his hand pressed over my mouth as he draws the covers away to expose the pale silk of my nightdress.
“Ah, very pretty. I suspect married life will prove pleasant enough, for me at least.” He turns to glance over his shoulder at his brother. “Bind her wrists.”
Sir Piers grabs my hands and uses one of Lady Eleanor’s scarves to secure them together in front of me. Stunned, I offer no resistance.
“That’s good. We cannot risk you making a sound and raising the alarm. You will understand the need to gag you, my lady.”
I shake my head, attempt to wriggle free. It is to no avail.
“Eleanor, I am about to remove my hand from your mouth for a moment. If you make so much as a murmur I will have no hesitation in rendering you unconscious. Do you understand?”
I can only stare at him, bemused. They have mistaken me for the countess. I need to tell them of their error, then surely they will leave and allow me to remain unmolested. I shake my head, trying desperately to form words under the earl’s palm.
His fingers tighten around my jaw. His grip is painful, choking me. I lie still.
“One sound and you will regret it. And the outcome will be unchanged. You are coming with us. I ask you again, do you understand?”
I am shaking. Violent tremors course through my body. I have never been so afraid in my life. But amid the terror he holds my gaze, his expression grim, determined. His intent is clear—if I make a sound he will render me unconscious. I have no choice, at least, not for now. I nod and close my eyes, tears streaming down my cheeks.
He releases his hold on my jaw and I gulp in several deep breaths. I am hauled to a sitting position.
“Open your mouth, my lady.” This voice is different, though only very slightly. A fraction deeper, the merest hint of a rasp.
I lift my eyelids to see Piers is the one now holding me. He has another of Lady Eleanor’s scarves in his hand. He gives my shoulders a light shake and I obey.
As soon as I part my lips he shoves a rolled-up scarf into my mouth. He secures that in place with another length of silk. My lady will be furious when she notices the disappearance of her belongings as well as her maid.
I know a brief moment of near hysteria as I realise she will assume I ran away and worse, that I have stolen her property.
“Stand up.” Piers tugs on the scarf binding my wrists and pulls me from the bed. I stand before them, my mistress’ sheer silk nightdress doing little to protect my modesty from their gaze.
“I had expected her to be taller.” The terse remark is made by Piers as he allows his gaze to travel the length of my body.
“She compensates in other areas.” Ralf’s appraisal is curt. He is intent on stuffing a gown, leather shoes, and several chemises into a rough sack. Lady Eleanor will be livid. The earl ties the top and throws it to his brother. “You go first. I’ll follow with my sweet little bride.”
His words and the immediate prospect of being forced out of the window, spur me into further desperate protests. I try to scramble back into the bed, shaking my head violently. It is to no avail. Ralf grabs me and hauls me up against his body.
Piers moves to the window and sits astride the sill. “It would be a shame to bruise her but do what you have to do. We cannot risk her alerting the guards.”
“Aye. We’ll be right behind you.” Ralf cups my chin in his hand, tilting my face up toward his. “Eleanor, I want you to lift your arms above my head and loop them around my neck.”
I shake my head again but with less conviction.
“Do it of your own volition, or I will do it for you. You know what that will entail.” His tone has hardened. This is it.
Defeated, I lift my bound hands and reach up to slip them over his blond waves. His hair brushes his shoulders and it is soft against my numb wrists. As soon as I am holding him as he instructed, he shifts to lift me in his arms. With two long strides we are at the window. I crane my neck to see Piers a couple of feet below me. He is holding fast to a stout rope, his feet planted firmly on the dark grey masonry. He flashes us a grim smile, his teeth glistening in the thin moonlight.
“Ralf has you and you are safe, my lady. But know that I am just below and will catch you should either of you slip.”
I whimper, the sound lost in the silk gag. Ralf lowers his face to my ear.
“Do not be afraid. Trust me. Trust us. We will not let you fall. You are, after all, to be my bride.”
I am rigid in his arms, clinging tight around his neck.
“My lady. Eleanor—it will be all right. I promise you.” It is Piers again, his low, calm voice penetrating the haze of fear which threatens to overwhelm me. I look down again, meet his sure, confident gaze and I manage a little nod. I have no option but to trust them with my life.
“I am going to seat you on the sill now and climb past you. Do exactly as I say.”
I shake my head and try to hang on even more tightly. How my perspective has shifted in the last few moments.
Ralf positions himself astride the sill as Piers did a short time ago. He places me on the edge, my bare feet dangling in the cold night air. Carefully he inches around until he is in front of me, my arms outstretched around his neck. He has hold of the rope in one hand and he leans away from the wall, his feet firm against the stone.
“Come forward and wrap your legs around my waist. Keep in close to my body.”
No. No. No! I cannot do it. I just cannot.
“Madam, remember the alternative. I can and will carry you down, with or without your assistance.” His voice is cold, dispassionate, and dripping with certainty. The fingers of his free hand are clenched into a fist. I know what comes next. Unless I obey.
I shuffle forward. Sobbing behind the gag as the safety of the window becomes just a memory.
“Wrap your legs around me, Eleanor.” He uses his free hand, no longer clenched, to adjust the bottom of my nightdress, hitching it up around my knees to free my lower legs. The icy bite of November wind against my exposed skin causes me to shiver even more.
“Once down you will have a cloak. Come, let us be quick.” His tone is encouraging now, warmer. I abandon any hope of escape at least for the moment and hug his body as tight as I can. I hook my ankles together and press my cheek against his broad chest.
“Mmm, that feels nice, sweet bride. I regret your reluctance to marry me but trust in time I will be able to convince you of the merits of the idea. Certainly, I have no doubts regarding our compatibility. I am sure you will have realised that by now.”
He starts the descent, the movement of his hips causing me to rock against him. I am naked under the flimsy nightdress. My exposed quim pressed into his midriff. The swell of his erect cock nudges my bare bottom, the only barrier between us the rough wool of his breeches. I am under no illusion at all regarding his enthusiasm for the married state.
For myself, the imminent prospect of a watery grave has dampened any ardour I might otherwise have felt for this object of my childhood devotion. That and the less than chivalrous treatment meted out to me thus far. I hang onto him, my eyes shut tight. I know if I look down I will lose whatever remains of my shattered wits.
I fight down the mounting panic, each step my captor takes bringing me closer to safety. Or not.
He has made it clear he intends to marry the countess. His intentions toward her worthless servant are far less clear. He is likely to just toss me into the moat anyway, as soon as he learns of his mistake.