"Aye." Maggie sat a little straighter. "My daughter married the tavern keeper in the village ten years back."
Helen nodded. She knew the tavern owner and his wife, of course.
"And they have offered to take me in… but they must have your permission first."
Helen was silent for several moments. She was responsible for her land and everyone on it, and therefore, as the woman said, her permission was imperative before any new tenants were allowed to move in. Her first instinct was simply to nod and say certainly Maggie was welcome at Tiernay. But Helen had noted the woman’s odd tone as she had spoken of her daughter’s offer. There was no doubt that Maggie had worked her whole life. Losing her position inHoldenCastlemust have been extremely demoralizing. Her marriage and position as a farmer’s wife had saved her pride somewhat, but now she was reduced to accepting charity from her own child. Helen suspected it rankled the old woman greatly, and now, considering the matter solemnly, she shook her head. "Nay."
"Nay?" Maggie looked fit to burst into tears, and Helen mentally kicked herself for speaking her thoughts aloud.
"There will be no charity for you, Maggie. You are still strong and healthy. You can work. As it happens, I am in need of someone with your skills."
Maggie lost her tragic look, hope slowly filling her withered face. "You do?"
"Aye. Edwith used to be in charge of my chambermaids here. She died a month ago and I have yet to replace her. Ducky has had to fill that job as well as tend to her own duties. You would be doing both of us a service should you take Edwith’s place. It would relieve a great burden on Ducky."
"Oh!" Much to Helen’s consternation, the woman burst into tears. For a moment, she feared she had erred and Maggie wished to stay with her daughter. Then the woman positively beamed at her through her tears, and Helen relaxed.
"Oh, my lady. Thankyou," the new mistress of chambermaids breathed, positively glowing at the idea of being useful again.
"Thank you," Helen said firmly, then smiled at Ducky, who had appeared suddenly beside her. "Perhaps Ducky could show you around and introduce you to the girls who will be under your guidance."
"Certainly." Ducky beamed at the other woman, then glanced back to Helen. "Boswell says there is a party approaching."
"A party?" Helen raised an eyebrow in inquiry, and Ducky nodded.
"Aye. They bear the king’s standard."
Helen paused briefly, then smiled widely. "Good, good. If you should see my aunt on your tour, pray tell her the news." With that, she quickly slipped the last stitch through the ball, tied it off and broke the thread. Standing as the other two women moved away, Helen carried the ball over to the table where its owners were still eating and drinking.
"Here you are," she said cheerfully, setting the ball on the table. "Good as ever. Hurry up with your treats, then get you outside to play. ‘Tis too nice a day to be indoors."
Moving away to a chorus of the children’s agreement and thank-yous, Helen scurried to the door of the keep, brushing down her skirt as she went.
The travelers were riding through the gates of the bailey as she stepped out into the light. She waited for Goliath to follow her through, then pulled the door closed behind the dog and quickly smoothed down her hair. She felt nervous. This was a party from the king, Ducky had said, and Helen could see that her servant was right. Henry II’s standard fluttered there for all who cared to look – and Helen was looking.
This was a banner day. The king was likely responding at last to the many letters she had sent him regarding Lord Holden. That was the only explanation for this visit.
It did her heart good. Helen had been begun to fear that the king was entirely ambivalent toward the cold-hearted and even cruel behavior of her neighbor. She had been left feeling frustrated and helpless by her inability to do more than to take in Holden’s serfs and villeins who fled or made their way to Tiernay, and write letters of complaint. Why, once or twice she’d even had to go as far as to purchase Holden’s prospective victims to save them from his wrath. Lord Hethe, the Hammer of Holden, was most certainly a devil in human guise.
But finally the king had sent someone to handle the matter. At least, she assumed he had sent someone.
This entourage was far too small to count the king amongst it. Henry’s own traveling party could span for miles, as it included his lords and ladies, his servants, his vassals and everything he might need on his journey.
Nay. He had obviously sent a man in his stead to tend the matter, and that was fine with her. This affair was most likely beneath his attention anyway; it affected only those whom the Hammer abused.
Compared to an entire country’s hardships, this was a small problem. In fact, the people of Holden were very fortunate King Henry was looking into the matter at all.
That thought cheering her, Helen waited patiently until the group of men reached the bottom of the stairs; then she made her way down to greet them, Goliath at her side.
"Lady Tiernay?" It was the oldest of the train who greeted her, his expensive robes rustling as he dismounted and faced her. He wore a hopeful expression.
"Aye. You are from the king." She stated the obvious, and the gentleman nodded, a smile tugging at his lips as he took her hand and bowed to press a kiss to her knuckles. "Lord Templetun, at your service."
"You are welcome here at Tiernay, Lord Templetun," Helen said formally, then placed her hand on his arm and turned toward the stairs. "Pray, you must be hungry and thirsty after your journey. Allow us to welcome you properly with a meal and drink."
Nodding, Lord Templetun started up the stairs with her, calling orders over his shoulder as they went.
They had nearly reached the door to the keep when it burst open and the children poured out. Laughing and screaming one moment, they were wide-eyed and silent the next. At the sight of Helen and Lord Templetun, the group mumbled their excuses and moved solemnly down the stairs, only to burst into a noisy run once they were past. Headed back to the game she and Goliath had interrupted, Helen thought with amusement. She smiled and ignored the questioning glance Lord Templetun threw her.
Leading him inside, she urged the king’s man to the table the children had just emptied. Helen saw him seated in the head chair that her father had always occupied, then excused herself for a quick trip to the kitchens. She returned moments later with a passel of servants trailing her, bearing the finest food and wine available in Tiernay keep, on its finest silver trays. After nervously supervising the serving of Lord Templetun, at last Helen seated herself beside him and sipped silently from a mug of mead while he ate.
She was impatient to confirm his purpose in being there, but she knew it would be rude to do so before he had satisfied his hunger and thirst.
Fortunately for her state of mind, Templetun was not a man to waste time on savoring sustenance. He devoured a shocking amount of food – and even more of her finest wine – in a trice, then sat back with a satisfied sigh and beamed.
"I must compliment you on a fine table, my lady. That meal did you credit."
"Thankyou, my lord," Helen murmured, wondering how to broach the subject of his purpose. Templetun soon put an end to that worry by tugging a scroll from his voluminous robes.
"I bring news from the king." He set the parchment before her, then began to dig at his not-so-shiny teeth with the longish nail of the baby finger on his right hand as he awaited her perusal of it.
Her hands suddenly shaking, Helen broke the seal and quickly unrolled the scroll, her mind racing over the possibilities of how the king intended to punish her neighbor for his rough treatment of his subjects.
Appoint someone to watch over him? Fine him? Chastise him?
"Marry him?"The words seemed to scream out of the scroll at Helen as her eyes flew over its contents.
"Nay!" Her head was suddenly light and fuzzy. Feeling herself sway, she shook her head determinedly and peered at Templetun. "Surely this is a jest?"
She was so upset, she didn’t even notice that she was agitatedly tearing the scroll as she glared at Lord Templetun. Nor did she notice the sudden wary concern on the man’s face as he slowly shook his head.
"Nay, my lady. The king does not jest."
"Well, he must – He cannot – This is – " Helen’s stumbling monologue died abruptly at the sound of approaching footsteps. She turned, relieved to spy her aunt entering the room. Aunt Nell was ever the voice of reason. She would know what to do about this… situation.
"Aunt Nell!" Even Helen was taken aback by the desperate tone of her voice as she launched out of her seat and rushed to greet the woman who had served as mother to her since her own mother’s death some few years ago.
"What is it, my dear?" her aunt asked and caught her hands, her gaze sliding between the ripped and crumpled scroll Helen held and her niece’s pallid face.
"The king, he sent Lord Templetun here." Helen gestured at the man at the table. "And he – " Unable to even say it, she shoved the remains of the scroll at her older relative, silently urging her to read it.
Taking the torn message, Lady Nell uncrumpled it and slowly read its contents. Helen watched as her aunt’s eyes flew over the words on the page, then paused, went to the top, then flew over it again.
"Nay," the woman breathed with a horror as deep as Helen’s own, then whirled on the man still seated at the table. "Is this a jest, my lord? Because if it is, ’tis a sad one indeed."
"Nay, my lady." The king’s man shifted uncomfortably in his seat, looking oddly guilty. His gaze darted around the room, looking everywhere but its occupants, then he said, "The king dictated that missive himself and ordered me to bring it to you. I am to take another on to Lord Holden and bring him back here for the wedding. The king thought it would be good to allow your people time to prepare for the celebration."
"But – " Helen paused and shook her head, trying to gather her rather scattered wits. "But, this cannot be. Lord Holden is an evil, horrid, cruel man. The king cannot expect me to marry him !"
When Templetun remained silent, his head lowered, refusing to meet her eyes, Helen began to realize that she was indeed expected to do just that. Numbness crept over her, softening her horror, and she sank back onto the trestle table bench. She was to marry that horrid, cruel bastard neighbor of hers.
Hethe. The Hammer of Holden. The man who burned villeins out of their homes for no purpose. Dear God, what would he do when he was displeased with her ?
"There must be a mistake," Aunt Nell announced firmly, drawing Helen from her miserable thoughts.
"Surely the king would not be so cruel as to force my niece to marry that man. Perhaps he simply does not understand. We must travel to court and explain things to him. We must – "
"The king is no longer at court," Templetun interrupted solemnly. "He has gone to Chinon to see young Henry and remove some of the members of his court."
Helen and Nell exchanged startled glances at mention of the king’s son. It was Helen who murmured uncertainly, "Remove some of his court?"
"Mmmm." Templetun’s face was full of displeasure. "Aye. Henry wishes to arrange a marriage between the daughter of the Count of Maurienne and youngJohn. The count seems interested, but wants to be sureJohnhas prospects first. The king offered to invest him with the castles Loudon, Mirebeau and Chinon, but young Henry objects. He will only concede to this if his father allows him to rule either England,NormandyorAnjouin his own right."
"He wants more power." Nell sighed with disgust.
"Aye." Templetun nodded his head solemnly. "It was a mistake for the king to crown his son while he himself yet lives. The boy wants the power that goes with the title."
"But what has that to do with removing some of his court?" Nell asked impatiently.
"Ah, well, the king first thought to take Henry into custody as a warning, but he believes some of young Henry’s courtiers are sparking these ideas in him and hopes that after the removal of their influence, his oldest son will settle down." He spoke candidly, then, seeming to realize that he was gossiping, frowned and changed the subject back to the matter at hand. "In any case, seeing him would make no difference.
His mind was made up. He feels that you, Lady Helen, and Lord Holden should work your problems out between yourselves, and he wishes the wedding to take place at once. I am to see to it."
Helen lowered her head, her gaze landing on the scroll her aunt still held, proof of King Henry’s intent in the matter. It had been written plainly in the message, but for a moment her aunt’s words had given her hope. If she could but talk to the king, throw herself on his mercy –
Movement and a rustling just beyond her right shoulder drew Helen from her thoughts. Peering back, she spied Ducky. The maid was wringing her hands, grief and fear both twisting her face as she stared at her mistress. Obviously, the woman had heard enough to know what the message ordered, and she was no less horrified by the missive than her mistress. Straightening, Helen forced a reassuring smile to her face for the servant’s benefit, then glanced around with a start when her aunt – the sweetest, gentlest of ladies – suddenly bellowed like the veriest fishmonger.
"Where the Devil did he get an asinine idea like this?"
Helen spared a moment to gape at her aunt briefly, then turned to hear Lord Templetun’s answer. He did not appear eager to give it. In fact, he was looking quite reluctant. Guilty. The old man was nearly squirming in his seat with his discomfort. Helen was just starting to get the oddest inkling when her aunt suddenly spoke that suspicion aloud.
Templetun froze abruptly, the expression on his face not unlike that of a child startled while raiding the pantry.
"It was you," Helen breathed in horror, unsure whether to ask why or simply go for the man’s throat.
Before she could do either, Templetun was on his feet and easing around the far end of the table.
"Well, I should be getting on now. The king doesn’t like dawdling, and, while it is not a long ride to Holden, the day is waning and travel is so much more uncomfortable at night, is it not?"