What She Wants Chapter sixteen

Willa stared down at the letter in her hand, almost afraid to read it. Her gaze slid to her husband. Hugh had moved to stand at the window overlooking the bailey. Lord Wynekyn shifted, drawing her gaze. He seemed both anxious and a touch impatient. She supposed he was wishing he'd read it before giving it to Hugh. They were all anxious to know what it said. But Willa was afraid, too.

Her gaze slid to Baldulf. The man was sitting up in the bed, reclining against furs someone had rolled and set behind him. When her old friend nodded, Willa took her courage in hand, settled on the edge of the bed and opened the scroll. The state of the parchment was somewhat surprising to her. It was obvious someone had opened and read it many times. She doubted if that had been Lord Hillcrest. The person who had hit Baldulf over the head must have read and reread it. There were smudges and water stains, as if some clear liquid had been dropped on it. Tears? she wondered.

"My dearest child, Willa," she read aloud, aware that Hugh was now turning from the window to look at her. She supposed he hadn't expected her to read aloud, but it seemed only fair. It also seemed more expedient than each of them taking turns reading the letter.

Willa cleared her throat and continued.

"First, I should like to say that I love you. I could not love you more had you been of my own seed. I love you as a daughter, and as such, it breaks my heart to tell you the sad tale to follow. Pray, forgive me for being too much a coward in life to hurt you with the telling. I am hoping that Hugh can somehow soften the blow to come. He is a good man, Willa. I have followed his progress through life. Give him the opportunity and I believe he could be the best of husbands."

Pausing, Willa glanced toward Hugh. His face was expressionless, carved in stern lines. She glanced back at the letter.

"Now, to the sad tale of how you ended up my daughter. Willa, the secret is in your name. I named you Willa because you were, in effect, willed to me. Your mother gave you to me with her dying breath and begged me to keep you safe. I told you that your name was Willa Evelake. Forgive me that lie. I will tell you your proper name later, but first, your mother was Juliana Evelake. She was a beautiful woman. In all ways. You look very like her except for your coloring. Your mother had long chestnut tresses. Your fiery blonde coloring comes from your father.

"Juliana's parents sent her to my brother's wife to be trained. My brother, Pelles, and his wife, Margawse, were much in demand for training while at Claymorgan. Pelles was one of the best warriors England has ever produced and Margawse was as accomplished a wife as could be found anywhere. As I say, they were much in demand. I even sent my own son, Thomas, to train with Pelles and this is where Juliana and my son met.

"I do not know all the particulars of their friendship, but I do know that there was nothing in it to shame anyone. Their affection for each other was like that of a brother and sister. They were the dearest of friends for nearly ten years as Thomas trained to be a warrior and Juliana was trained to handle her wifely duties. Then, shortly after her sixteenth birthday, came her wedding day. The match had been arranged for years. Ten years. Her betrothed was Tristan D'Orland, a fierce and much lauded warrior. He was nearly twenty years older than she, and Juliana - Thomas later told me - had feared that she might find him an abhorrent old man. I smile even now at this memory. To the young, someone twenty years older often seems ancient. But Tristan was far from old. At five and thirty, he was in the prime of life, a strong and healthy specimen. He was a handsome, skilled warrior and carried himself with confidence. I believe Juliana fell in love with him the moment she beheld him. 'Twas a very auspicious beginning. Everyone assumed they would do well together. Everyone but me."

Willa paused to clear her throat, murmuring a thank you when Jollivet rushed to refill Baldulf's meade from the pitcher Eada had brought up, and handed it to her. She took a sip, then another. Then - aware that everyone was waiting most impatiently - she cleared her throat again and continued.

"You may not believe me when I say that I foresaw trouble ahead, but I did. I was there when Tristan arrived for the wedding. Juliana and Thomas had been walking together in the bailey and I had been seeking my son to ask him something. What 'twas I cannot even recall now, but it matters little. What matters is that I was standing perhaps a dozen feet away when Tristan D'Orland rode into the bailey. His traveling party was large, his banner unfurled and he led his party into the bailey as if charging an enemy. 'Twas obvious he was eager to claim his bride. He had waited ten years. Everyone paused to stare at the spectacle. Even I. I knew the exact moment when he spotted Juliana. Even from where I stood I could see his eyes light up. He knew her at once, so I can only assume that - though she had claimed never to have seen him - he had seen her over the years. But then a dark cloud of fury obliterated the light in his eyes and I glanced toward Juliana in confusion. 'Twas then I saw that, in her nervousness, she had clasped Thomas's hand tightly in her own. 'Twas a common occurrence, they were very close, but that action was what had put the scowl on the man's face. I think he would have liked to strike Thomas to the ground right then. But of course he could not. I joined my son and Juliana as he rode to them and dismounted. Juliana, too, must have seen his displeasure, for she was quick to introduce both Thomas and myself and explain that Thomas was her best friend, the brother she had never had. D'Orland seemed to relax then and was pleasant to both my son and myself. But I watched him closely during those few days leading to the wedding and though he hid it well, I could see the jealousy in him. He loathed my son. He wished him gone from Juliana's side. I feared trouble ahead, and I was right.

"Oh, things went well enough at first. The wedding went without a hitch and Juliana and Tristan were very happy as they left for Orland together. Thomas returned to Claymorgan to earn his knight's spurs and I returned to Hillcrest, and things trundled along. I had meant to talk to Thomas, to warn him to be careful of his friendship with Juliana, that he might cause her trouble did he not exercise caution. Had I done so, perhaps the tragedy that followed could have been averted. However, I got caught up in arguments and disagreements with my brother, Pelles, over the running of Claymorgan and quite forgot the matter, so Thomas became a frequent visitor to Orland. Then came the trouble.

"I swear to you, dear child, there must have been something in the air that day. I rode to Claymorgan to have yet another argument with Pelles over the running of the estate. This time was not like all the others, however. This time I pushed Pelles too far. The disagreement blew up into a battle that ended with his gathering Margawse and Hugh and riding off in search of fortune as a warrior for hire. He would suffer no more because of my petty jealousy.

"I should like to confess now to Hugh - should he be reading this letter - that Pelles was right. There was no reason for these arguments other than jealousy on my part. I lost my wife to the birthing bed with Thomas and was envious of the comfort and happiness your father had found with his Margawse. He accused me of this at the time. I denied it then, but I confess it now. He was right. The faults I found with his running of Claymorgan were the result of petty jealousy. I drove him away, Hugh. I sent him on the quest that made yourself and your mother so miserable and I am sorry for it."

Willa paused in her reading to peek up at Hugh's face. He had turned away while she read and all she could see was his stiff back. She wished she could comfort him somehow, but Jollivet was pushing the cup of meade at her again, apparently hoping she would continue. She took a quick drink, handed the meade back and read on.

"Pelles had barely herded Hugh and Margawse out through Claymorgan's gates when Thomas rode in. I was angry and upset after my argument with Pelles, but it took little more than a glance to see that Thomas was more so. We retired to the great hall and he told me the tale.

"All was not well at D'Orland. I knew Thomas had been visiting Juliana and Tristan there, but I had not known just how frequent and prolonged those visits were. It seemed that Tristan's nephew, Garrod, was D'Orland's seneschal. He had befriended Thomas on his first visit and encouraged him to stay longer than he had planned and to return sooner than he would otherwise have dared. Thomas had thought himself and Garrod the best of friends. He had enjoyed his visits, but had begun to notice during the last of them that Juliana seemed a little less happy. She still obviously loved her husband, but she seemed anxious and nervous in Thomas's presence. They had often walked together, always in the open as was proper, but away from others so that they could speak privately. But Juliana was evading such talks. In fact, she evaded Thomas altogether, talking to him only when her husband or Garrod were present and then with a stiffness that left him bewildered.

" 'Twas not until he earned his knight's spurs and visited to share his success that he was able to corner her alone and ask what was wrong. That was when he learned how little a friend Garrod was to either Juliana or him. Garrod had learned of Tristan's jealousy. Rather than reassure Tristan, he had been exacerbating his fears. All the time that Garrod had been encouraging Thomas to stay longer and visit more often, he had been using those frequent and prolonged visits to needle Tristan, fanning the flames of his jealousy. He was making Juliana's life hell.

"Thomas left directly after that conversation and returned to Claymorgan. He was wretched over the misery Garrod was causing Juliana, but the only way he could think to aid her was to stay away and allow Tristan's jealousy to ease. He determined to join King Richard on crusade. The king and his men had assembled with King Philip and his soldiers in Vezelay in July. 'Twas September now, and the English were outside Messina in Sicily. The news was that they were expected to remain there for a while. King William II of Sicily had promised to provide a fleet for the crusades, but William had died in November and there was some dispute over the succession. Tancred of Lecce had placed Queen Joanna under house arrest and confiscated the treasure meant for the crusade.

"Thomas determined to sail for Sicily in the hope that the rumors were correct. He hoped to meet the crusaders before they set sail. I did not wish him to go, but he was a man now, and a knight. I could not stop him. My hope was that they would leave ere he arrived. As it turned out, luck was with him - or against him, as the case may be. Both the English and the French were forced to winter outside Messina. Thomas wintered there with them.

"The next eight months passed slowly. I had driven away my brother and his family, and my son had gone on crusade. I had found a new seneschal for Claymorgan, but Pelles was impossible to replace. The new man needed constant attention. My seneschal at Hillcrest had been with me for years and did not need as much supervision. I was spending most of my time at Claymorgan. So it was that I was there when the messenger arrived with the news that my Thomas would not return from the crusade. He had not even made it to Acre. They had set sail from Messina April tenth. His ship was one of two that were wrecked off Cyprus.

" 'Twas a crushing blow for me, Willa. I had loved my son dearly. I sank into a pit of despair. It seemed to me everything had been taken from me at that point. I had lost all. For days I sat staring at nothing, feeling nothing, concerned with nothing. Then one of my men rushed into the great hall, where I had taken to sitting, staring into the fire. He was shouting that a woman was approaching alone on horseback. A lady. This was sufficiently unusual to stir me from my misery long enough to go out to the bailey to see who 'twas. I recognized Juliana. She was heavy with child and in some distress. She was weeping copiously and her first words were to ask where Thomas was. When I said he was dead, she paled a more frightful white, clutched her belly and whispered, 'Dear God, we are lost.' Then, she fell limp from her mare.

"I had her moved inside and laid in Thomas's room. I thought it a mere faint and that she would recover soon enough, but she woke moments later, clutching her belly and screaming. She was in labor and Lord knows how long she had been. She should not have been riding in that state. I knew no woman would choose to do so. I sent for Eada and, the moment Juliana stopped screaming, asked what had happened. She told me the tale between gasping breaths. Thomas's absence had eased Tristan's jealousy... until it became obvious that your mother was with child. Tristan had at first been joyful over the news, but then, quite suddenly, his feelings had changed. He had grown morose and angry, his eyes following her with accusation and glaring at her belly with an unnatural loathing. Juliana suspected that Garrod was behind this change as well, but was helpless to understand. All she knew was that her husband was drinking more each day and that her fear was growing in conjunction with it. Then her maid came to her in a panic. As she had feared, Garrod was behind this latest problem. He had pointed out that her getting with child coincided with Thomas's last visit and hinted that perhaps it wasn't Tristan's child at all. The maid said that Garrod encouraged him to drink, then whispered these evil lies in his ear, turning him against his wife as surely as he could. Juliana had felt indignation and rage grow within her at her husband thinking such a thing... Until the maid had asked uncertainly, 'They are lies, are they not, my lady?'

"Only then did she realize how her innocent friendship with Thomas had appeared to others. Juliana had considered confronting her husband when the maid told her that Tristan was even then soaked in ale and that Garrod was again whispering in his ear. Now he was encouraging Tristan to help his wife rid herself of Thomas's bastard. Did he wish the fruit of another man's seed inheriting all? Garrod was suggesting several ways to get rid of this child of uncertain paternity. Tristan could always get another on Juliana to replace it.

"Your mother was staggering under this news when she heard Tristan begin to roar in fury. When she realized he was climbing the stairs toward their chamber, she panicked and fled the room. Juliana hid in the chamber next door until he passed by in the hall. Then she slipped out and down the stairs. Garrod had still been seated at the trestle tables and yelled when she raced down the stairs and out the door, but hadn't given chase right away. Juliana supposed he had gone to fetch his lord. In the meantime, she ran for the stables, collected her mare and rode out of the bailey, forsaking a saddle for speed. She had ridden straight for Claymorgan in the hope that Thomas could keep her child safe.

"You were born moments after she finished telling this tale. Eada placed you in your mother's arms, then attempted to staunch her bleeding, but 'twas no use. Juliana quickly grew weak and, when she could no longer hold you, I took you from her. That was my downfall and my blessing. Even wrinkled and red-faced, you were a beautiful child. When your mother left you in my care and begged me to keep you safe and hide you from Tristan, I could not refuse. You became my new purpose in life. My only purpose."

Willa paused and promptly found the meade shoved at her again. She waved it away, then sniffled and wiped away tears. Lord Wynekyn promptly stepped forward, producing a handkerchief to wipe her eyes. Willa murmured, "thank you," as he finished, then found the cloth over her nose.

"Blow," he instructed briskly.

Willa flushed, but dutifully blew into the handkerchief. Lord Wynekyn nodded his satisfaction and wiped at her nose, as if she were a child, before stepping back and nodding for her to continue.

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"Little time passed after your birth and Juliana's death before Tristan rode into Claymorgan bailey with Garrod at his side and a hundred soldiers at his back. I hid you with Eada in my chamber and met them in the great hall. Tristan was angry and bold. When he demanded his wife, I led him to Thomas's room, where your mother still lay. I think he believed Juliana to be sleeping until I told him she had died giving birth to a stillborn child. I told him she should not have been riding in her condition and asked - as if I did not know - what had sent her fleeing Orland as if for her very life. His answer was a cry full of anguish I well knew. 'Twas the same pain I'd known at the deaths of my wife and Thomas. I almost felt pity for him at that moment, but his jealousy had killed Juliana and sent Thomas to his death and was still a threat to you. He never asked after your body, or said another word. He lifted Juliana in his arms, held her to his chest and strode out of the room, looking much older than when he had arrived.

" 'Twas not until they were gone that I learned Garrod had followed us above stairs. He did not come into Thomas's room and I worried that he might have been poking around the other chambers. Eada did not see him, but I feared if he had got too near my room, he might have heard you cry. My fear was not eased when I began getting reports that someone of his description had been seen about the village and even once in the castle bailey.

"I had lost everyone else, my sweet girl. I was determined not to lose you, too. I decided that you were to remain in Thomas's room and never to leave there until I was sure you were safe. I brought a wet nurse in from the village and she and Eada looked after you. But then one day Luieus, Lord Wynekyn, visited. We have been friends since childhood, as you know, and I was too proud not to flaunt you before him. I ordered a servant to have the wet nurse bring you to us. She did, and I quite enjoyed showing you off; then she took you back to your room. I was about to explain who you were and your presence at Claymorgan when the wet nurse started screaming. Luieus and I rushed to the room to find her clasping you tightly while gaping in horror at her own child. She had lain the babe in your cradle to sleep while she brought you to me. Her child was now obviously dead, her face blue from lack of oxygen.

"Babies often die for no reason. 'Tis as if they forget to breathe. Still, I felt a chill run down my neck as I looked on that child and thought it could have been you. These fears were not eased when I learned that a man fitting Garrod's description had been spotted descending the stairs and rushing out of the castle shortly before the death was discovered. I decided not to explain to Wynekyn and kept my own counsel on the matter. I was sure that the wet nurse's child had been smothered by Garrod. He must have mistaken her for you.

"I should have gone to the king then. But, of course, he was still on crusade and while John was running the country in his absence, I had no proof, merely suspicions. Perhaps I also feared your being taken from me - if not to be returned to your father, where I felt your life was in danger, then to court where royal nannies would raise you. I convinced myself that the best thing I could do was to remain quiet and keep you safe.

"You were just a babe, Willa. At first, 'twas easy to keep you a secret. I had you moved to the room next to mine and was more determined than ever to keep you above stairs. Eada and the wet nurse continued to tend you. I visited you daily.

"When you grew old enough to eat solid food and to find the bedchamber confining, I allowed you below. However, I instructed the servants that you were never to be mentioned outside the castle.

"The years passed and the time came when I should have explained these restrictions to you, but did not. I expected you to obey without question. It never occurred to me that you might wish to play out of doors as any normal child would. You had Luvena as a friend and I thought that enough. As time passed without trouble, my vigilance slackened, and so 'twas that - unbeknownst to me - you and Luvena were able to slip out of the castle to play. What happened to Luvena was none of your fault. You were children, acting as children do. What harm could you imagine in playing outside in the sun?

"Nay. 'Twas not your fault. 'Twas mine.

" 'Twas May of 1199, and you were not quite nine years old. King Richard had died in April and John was to be coronated. As earl of Hillcrest I was expected to attend the coronation and pledge my fealty to him. I did not realize it then, but you had already slipped out of the castle on several jaunts with Luvena. The two of you had avoided the village, no doubt for fear of word getting back to me of your excursions. However, you had been seen on one or two occasions anyway and the word had spread that there was a child; a young girl in rich clothing, running the woods with cook's daughter. The coronation was accomplished, I pledged my fealty, concluded some other business I had to attend to and returned home. Wynekyn traveled with me. When we arrived at Claymorgan, you and Luvena were missing.

"The whole castle was in an uproar and I only added to it. I was furious that someone had not noticed you slipping away. I stomped about, yelling orders and taking out my frustrations on the servants. I questioned everyone. When one of the things I learned was that a man fitting Garrod's description had been seen in the area again, my blood ran cold. He had been at court with Tristan when I first arrived, but I had not seen him during the two days after the coronation.

"Then you were found. My relief was boundless... until I saw Luvena wearing your gown and lying pale and still in Baldulf's arms. She was dead.

"I know at first you thought she had fallen, but the bruising told the tale. 'Twas not an accident. The bruises formed very distinct fingerprints on her arms and throat. I was horrified, crushed and - God forgive me - so very grateful 'twas not your life that was lost.

"I know it confused and hurt you when I sent you away with Eada. But 'twas the best I could do at that time. I spread the news that you had died, had you moved to the cottage with guards, and refused to see you myself. Not seeing you was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. But I feared leading him to you. The absence of your sweet face was my punishment for the lack of vigilance that had caused Luvena's death and once more placed your life at such risk.

"Now, as you read this, I can no longer keep my promise to Juliana to keep you safe. All I can do is place you in the hands of someone I think strong enough to do so. This is why I arranged the marriage between you and Hugh. He is strong and smart, an excellent warrior. You will need him, Willa. The moment you marry, your existence will be known. The marriage will be reported to the king. You shall have to accompany Hugh to pledge his fealty as the new earl. The news of your existence will travel through court like fire. Tristan will know you live and your life will again be at risk... from your own father, Tristan D'Orland.

"I can only think that he still believes you to be Thomas's child. He would know better if he had ever laid eyes on you. He could not fail to recognize himself in you. While everything else is Juliana's, you have Tristan's eyes and hair. Thomas was dark-haired, as your mother was. But I fear he will not wait to see whom you resemble, but send his nephew after you again. I pray to God that if he does, he will fail and Hugh will be able to keep you safe.

"Your loving Papa, Richard."

Willa let the scroll settle in her lap, and stared at it silently. She wasn't ready to face those standing so still around her. They all remained silent for a moment, then Lord Wynekyn cleared his throat and breathed, "Well... that clears things up."

"Aye," she heard Lucan agree quietly, then gave a start as something heavy settled on her shoulder. Turning her head, she peered at the large hand resting there, then followed it up to her husband's face. He was peering at her with silent sympathy. She quickly turned away, afraid she might cry otherwise.

"So," Jollivet gave a dramatic sigh. " 'Tis your cousin and father causing all this trouble."

Willa felt her mood lighten at once at his exasperated tone. She lifted a crooked smile to him and shrugged. "If my father is aware of Garrod's actions."

"Oh dear," Jollivet breathed, his expression becoming pitying. "Willa, you cannot believe the man could be unaware?"

Willa shrugged again and glanced down at the scroll in her lap to find that she was twisting it between her hands. She made herself stop at once and said, "He may not know. 'Tis possible."

She could practically feel the pitying gazes of everyone in the room, even Eada. They all thought her a fool. And perhaps she was. Perhaps 'twas just wishful thinking that she might have a parent who would care for her. Willa stood abruptly and moved toward the door.

"Where are you going?" Hugh barked.

"I think I should like to lie down," she said, and much to her relief, Hugh let her go. But she didn't go to her room to lie down. Not right away. First she had to speak to Alsneta.

She found the cook in her kitchen, tossing food about and shouting orders. Willa watched her from the door for a moment, then stepped into the room and crossed to her.

"Alsneta?" she said.

The woman turned to her with surprise, then smiled. "Hello dear. Did you come looking for a sweet treat?"

"Nay." Willa hesitated, then took a deep breath and said, "I came to ask why you wish me dead."
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