Merlin’s Descendant’s #2
[Editor’s note: The Magna Carta, which was signed on this date in 1215, underlies this volume of Irene Radford’s Merlin’s Descendants Series. Her book on the document itself, Magna Bloody Carta, is also available from Book View Cafe and is on sale in honor of the anniversary.]
“Shush, no need to alarm her,” Lady Hilary whispered to Sir Edmund as I descended to the hall from the sleeping apartments on the top floor of the tower keep. What news would alarm me? Who had found me? I’d seen death and destruction in my dreams.
I surveyed the occupants of the Hall—most of the inhabitants of this isolated castle. All activity centered around the Hall, the only room large enough to accommodate more than three or four people. But except for meals I kept to my room, a tiny alcove set into the wall of the keep behind the lord’s bedchamber. I could not expect servants to serve me separately. They had enough work to do. Nor could I hope to receive my food anywhere near warm in any room but the Hall, directly above the ground-floor kitchen.
I proceeded to the side table to wash my hands, pretending I had not heard Lady Hilary. I gnawed my lip, wondering at the dire news Lady Hilary chose to hide from me. A page poured lavender-scented water over my fingertips, more ritual than cleaning. The warm water felt like silk on my skin and eased the tension in my fingers after a day spent plying my needle and waiting for the return of one of my messengers. I said a brief prayer as I relished the play of water over my hands. The sweet flowery scent reminded me of better days. The sparse amenities of this defensive outpost did not boast enough open space for a garden or free-flowing spring. Any flat area within the palisade belonged to training ground for the soldiers. Open ground beyond the protective walls belonged to the Welsh mists, dieflyn, ghosts, and raiders.
Food, clothing, spices, everything had to be imported into Mendip Mor from the town of Wells three hours’ hard ride away—half a day or more by cart. In bad weather the steep track became a roaring stream, and we were cut off.
No one should be able to find me here. What did the lord and lady of the hall have to hide from me? I made a pretense of drying my hands. Then I thanked the servant with a nod and turned back to the high table. Sir Edmund considered his table “high” only because it rested perpendicular to the trestles set up for the rest of the household, and not because it rested on a dais to honor the lord’s family.
I plastered a smile on my face. A false one, but I could not let this good and gentle lord and his lady know I had overheard them. Safety lay in silence. Two months I’d been here in this old and crumbling castle on the edge of nowhere. Two months and not a word from home. My messengers had not returned.
I had thought my years of running from convent to convent, always one step ahead of anonymous searchers, had ended last year. My relatives had made peace with King John. I went home. I stayed there but a brief time. Two months ago the remnants of my family had sent me running again. Now I resided with Edmund Fitz Gyr, a minor marcher lord who obeyed his king.
Newynog, my half-grown and half-trained wolfhound pup, pressed against my legs with a soft whine. She had been a gift from the family almost as soon as I had walked through the gates. She knew the evening repast awaited us. She was hungry even if I wasn’t. But then, her name meant “hungry” in the old tongue. I clasped the thick ruff of fur around her neck and tugged in rough affection. She turned her head back toward me, tongue lolling in doggy laughter, drool catching in her beard. If any of my unease penetrated her senses, she did not convey it back to me.
I approached the high table and made my curtsy to Lord Edmund. In another time and place, my family would outrank him and I’d not need anything but a polite nod. But now… my family was scattered, our honors, titles, and our lands left open to the man with the biggest bribe to the king.
The men streamed into the one large room of this remote bastion overlooking the Severn River and the Welsh border. I welcomed their stern prowess if not their sweaty closeness and foul manners because I knew they would defend this castle and therefore me with their lives. Few enemies could hope to storm the motte and bailey arrangement of this castle protected by these veterans—if they could find Mendip Mor even with a map.
Servants brought the bread trenchers and the pots of stew to ladle into them. Tough mutton again, made chewable by long hours in the pot with onions and turnips. Poor peasant fare, but all that Mendip Mor could provide. I dug my silver spoon from my scrip, as did the lord and the lady. Most of the men made do with their own carved wooden utensils.
Newynog thumped her tail, letting me know she was willing to share my meal with me. I scratched her ears in reply. When Lord Edmund and Lady Hilary reached for their wine cups after eating almost half their meal, I dared probe for what troubled them. “Did any couriers arrive today?”
“No, Lady Ana. No messages arrived,” Lord Edmund said, looking anxiously to his wife. The worry lines about his eyes deepened.
“I thought I heard a rider approach just after noon,” I said.
All the men below us at the long trestle tables looked at each other, at the floor, at the high ceiling, anywhere but at me.
“A horse returned to our stables, but the rider was dead,” Lady Hilary whispered.
“Who was the rider?” I swallowed deeply, trying to force it down rather than have it come back up and disgrace me.
“The messenger I sent out three days ago.” Lord Edmund’s words rang around the suddenly silent room.
“Three days. He hadn’t time to… Did he still carry the missive I gave him?”
“No, Lady. His saddlebags had been emptied, his weapons stolen along with his life.” Lord Edmund patted my hand.
“How did he die?” With my free hand I groped for Newynog. She scrambled to her feet and rested her heavy head upon my thigh.
Irene Radford has been writing stories ever since she figured out what a pencil was for. She and her husband make their home in Welches, Oregon where deer, bears, coyotes, hawks, owls, and woodpeckers feed regularly on their back deck. An historian, Irene has spent many hours prowling pioneer cemeteries deepening her connections to the past. Raised in a military family she learned early on that books are friends that don’t get left behind with a move. Her interests and reading range from ancient history, to spiritual meditations, to space stations, and a whole lot in between.