Torch In The Forest
by Marcie Kremer
Beautiful young widow, Countess Eleanor, believes wholeheartedly in her Blystoke family motto of Honor et Fides, honor and loyalty, and works hard to live up to it, taking care of her younger sister, Mary, and of all her late husband’s estates.
Recently returned from the Crusade, handsome and arrogant, Lord Hugh, believes no woman is to be trusted and lays the blame for all the poaching in their forests at Eleanor’s feet, certain she is incapable and too naïve and trusting, to boot.
They can neither trust nor deny their powerful attraction as they clash over land boundaries and thieves. Conspirators abound to wreak havoc and danger. But no conspirator is deadlier than their own hearts.
Title: Torch In The Forest
Author: Marcie Kremer
Genre: Historical Romance
Length: 216 pages
Release Date: February 2013
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-62266-880-9
© 2013 Marcie Kremer
“There is no better paradise than having the sweetheart of one’s choice.”
– Le Roman de la Rose, 13th c.
“Milady! Milady!” a voice called.
Startled, Eleanor dropped her embroidery in her lap. Her favorite servant, Agnes, face red and gasping for breath, burst through the doors into Eleanor’s bedchamber.
Eleanor smiled. “Yes, Agnes?” she asked, as the servant curtsied quickly.
“Oh, no! Where is it?” Agnes moaned, looking frantically through the basket she held over her arm.
Eleanor waited for Agnes to find whatever it was she was so anxious to find. Thank goodness no one else was in the room to see that she had—once again—allowed a servant to burst in unannounced. It wasn’t really quite proper. Of course, other people would look down on her for it. It was so hard, though, to try and remember everything that she should and shouldn’t do. So many rules! Just barely eighteen and a widow for two years, Eleanor had to keep reminding herself that she had to fulfill the role of who she was supposed to be, no matter how hard it sometimes was.
“I must have dropped it on the stairs!” Agnes moaned. “I must find it!” She curtsied again and fled through the doors. Eleanor could hear her exclamations echoing down the stairs. She picked up her embroidery off the floor, and she drifted back into her thoughts.
A role to fulfill? Well, she was Eleanor, Lady Strathcombe, widow of Edgar, Earl of Strathcombe, and mistress of her late husband’s lands, wasn’t she? She had an important position—at least, others certainly thought so—and she must behave accordingly.
But she certainly didn’t care about letting Agnes in unannounced. After all, ever since Eleanor had arrived at Strathcombe Castle four years ago as a nervous, scared bride of fourteen, Agnes had been steadfast and true to her, comforting her and calming her, especially after that first, and only, session in the bedchamber with Edgar—a session during which nothing had happened to change her from a maiden into a married woman. Eleanor shuddered, remembering her anguish at his humiliating treatment—treatment that she was sure real marriage and true love could have nothing to do with.
But whatever marriage was supposed to be—and what she had heard whispers of from her ladies-in-waiting had certainly made her blush—was not what had happened to her. Her face burned as she remembered that awful evening. Edgar had been deep into his cups at their wedding feast, and by the time he lurched into their solar, he could barely stand upright. The knights had closed the doors, smirking, and Eleanor was left alone, staring at her new husband, her heart thudding and her stomach queasy.
He fumbled at his breeches, but to no avail, and stumbled toward her. Edgar reached out a hand and, grunting, grabbed at the neckline of her gown, ripping it to her waist. Eleanor gasped and tried to cover herself with shaking hands.
“Ah, my pretty,” Edgar mumbled, his words nearly incoherent, “give me your lovely hand, and I will show you how to give me much pleasure.”
Eleanor shuddered at the ugly memory. Then, after Edgar had released her—pushed her away, was more to the point—he had again staggered toward her and unceremoniously vomited all over her, spattering her with the remnants of his dinner and overmuch wine. This—this was marriage, she’d asked herself, trembling in shock. Where was the joy of which she had heard a few hints? The murmurings of love in her ear? The cosseting of adoration? These were obviously not to be, not that she wanted any such from the disgusting Edgar.
Stumbling to the bed, Edgar had thankfully passed out and had begun to snore. At her wits’ end and nauseated to the extreme, Eleanor, fighting to hide the anguish in her voice and choking back tears, called to the knights to please send her Agnes, her new servant.
Agnes had soothed her and washed her and brought her hot mulled wine, wrapping her in coverlets. Thus, in gratitude, she willingly forgave Agnes any interruption, just as she was willing to forgive others who were loyal to her. As for herself, she would hold to Honor et Fides, their Blystoke family motto. She would be loyal and honorable, even when despicable Edgar was neither. She had been brought up thus, and she would never flag in her dedication to her motto.
“Here it is, Milady!” Agnes exclaimed, hurrying back through the doors. “It had fallen on the stairs when I ran up in haste!” She thrust out a letter packet toward Eleanor. Eleanor took it and turned it over to see a red seal on the back, set with a signet ring whose crest she didn’t recognize. “A messenger just brought this from Wykeham,” Agnes said.
“Wykeham!” Eleanor exclaimed. A wave of foreboding rippled through her. She had never met Hugh, the neighboring Earl of Wykeham, because when she first came to Strathcombe, he had just left for the crusade with Prince Edward, his wife having died in childbirth. But she had heard tales from Edgar, as well as from Agnes and Lady Anne, her closest lady-in-waiting, about Hugh. As usual, Anne was delighted to carry all manner of tales to her about the handsome but arrogant Earl of Wykeham. He was supposed to be a hard man and trusted no one. Some said it was because his wife, Caroline, had often dallied elsewhere, and Anne had many lurid and vivid tales to share, as well, but whatever the reason, Hugh supposedly treated everyone with disdain and mistrust.
“Aye, Milady,” Agnes said. “The earl returned from the crusade with King Edward.” Her words tumbled out. “All the servants are talking about it. He’s very angry about what has been happening in his forest! But then,” Agnes added, shaking her head, “he’s always been angry. The Wykeham servants and even his marshal and chief forester have been dreading his return.”
“I’ve heard that, too,” Eleanor said.
“You know, Lady Eleanor, that some whisper he was even the cause of his wife’s death, because of his anger at her betrayal,” Agnes said.
“Agnes,” Eleanor answered, “you know well that gossip can fly faster than a fire through a thatched-roof village, and I can’t believe such a terrible rumor. Hugh would be a calloused man, indeed, to murder a wife for faithlessness!”
Eleanor herself could not even imagine what it would be like to be unfaithful. Despite her extreme distaste for Edgar, the thought of bedding anyone else had never even entered her mind. She was wed, although in name only, and so she would be loyal—she couldn’t even think of being otherwise. In this Year of Our Lord, 1272, with King Edward having just ascended the throne and many at court vying for his favor and jockeying for position, loyalty was at a premium, and Eleanor never discounted it. She knew some raised their eyebrows at her trust of others, calling her naïve, but she was more careful than they thought about where she placed her trust. She’d learned a hard lesson about whom to trust or not with the revolting Edgar, she grimly remembered.
Eleanor sat up straight and took a deep breath. She unsealed the letter with its florid W seal and read the jagged scrawl. His handwriting even looked angry, she thought.
Upon my return from the Holy Land, I have discovered that criminals and brigands have been poaching my game in my chase and breaking the Law of the Forest, established by the King. Your forest borders mine and I have good reason to believe the thieves are being given safe harbor in your chase. I am losing good income because of your neglect. I demand you apprehend and arrest them immediately, or I will hunt them down myself on your land. Look to Osbert de Fraunceys, your chief forester, for the cause of these poaching crimes. To him, I shall show no mercy.
I remind you that there is no excuse for not accepting responsibility for the good stewardship of the forest you hold in the name of William, Earl of Litchfield, your liege lord. I am quite sure William will not be pleased to hear of your poor management.
I will meet with you Tuesday next to take into custody those you have arrested, and I expect to deal with Osbert myself.
Hugh, Earl of Wykeham
The nerve! Eleanor thought. How could he? This Hugh of Wykeham’s letter was hardly the way to begin an acquaintance with one’s neighbor! Even though Wykeham Castle was a day’s ride away, their forests bounded one another, and good relations were important. This letter was like a slap in the face—and a challenge—a challenge she most certainly did not welcome.
She creased the letter in half and frowned. He wrote of William of Litchfield. What would this Hugh say to William about her? Since Edgar’s death, Eleanor now owed allegiance to William and he had control of her future, and she definitely had to stay in his good graces. Eleanor winced.
In fact, she had just received a letter from William a fortnight ago, saying that he would be coming to survey his lands at Strathcombe, and he would expect to stay for three days’ time. William had often visited Strathcombe, both when Edgar was alive and since his death on the Crusade two years ago, and she had always thought William a wily man, one without honor. Her father had thought the same, and had often told her to beware of him.
His visit, which should begin Wednesday next, would prove to be difficult, as usual. It would be even worse if this Hugh told him that Eleanor was incapable of managing the Strathcombe forest any longer. She could lose her chase entirely. Eleanor ran her thumbnail across the fold of the letter, creasing it into a knifelike edge. She had enough trouble with William as it was.
“What is it?” Agnes asked, wringing her hands and peering at Eleanor as if to try and read her thoughts.
“Lord Hugh thinks that the poachers are my sole responsibility and that Osbert is somehow involved,” Eleanor said, hotly. “He writes to me as if I were some sort of child!”
“He treats all with disdain,” Agnes said. “He trusts no one, not even his own household.”
Eleanor thought back. Her late husband had spoken of Hugh but rarely. There had apparently been bad blood between them. “A pompous swine’s head,” Edgar had pronounced him, when she and Edgar had first ridden together out into their portion of the forest and gazed through the trees across at Hugh’s chase bordering theirs.
Eleanor tightened her mouth. In truth, she had thought of Edgar himself as a pompous swine’s head, and, when word had come to her of his death at sea on the way to join Prince Edward for the Crusade, she had done the required mourning for what had been a loveless marriage, filled with unhappiness, and had felt an immense relief. He had not even died in combat, Eleanor snorted to herself, but had fallen overboard in a drunken stupor. Someone might have even given him a little push, Eleanor thought, seeing that he was most certainly not the most respected earl in all of England.
“What will you do?” Agnes asked. “What of Osbert?” She caught her lower lip.
Was Agnes taken with Osbert? Eleanor wondered, suddenly. How had she not noticed her favorite servant’s attraction to her chief forester? Alack, it could not be. He was far above her station in life. Poor Agnes!
“Nay,” Eleanor reassured her. “Remember, Agnes, Osbert was my own father’s chief forester, until my dear father died, and I trust him with my forest, as well. I cannot believe he has had anything to do with the poaching, and Hugh will not deal with him, if I can help it,” she vowed.
“Aye,” Agnes breathed. “Osbert is a—a fine man,” she stammered, her color deepening.
Eleanor smiled. “Have you sweet thoughts for Osbert, Agnes?” she asked, in a gently teasing tone.
Agnes reddened even more deeply. “Oh, Milady, it’s not my place to bother you with my own small worries. He is far above my station, and I dare not speak of it. Please, please,” she begged, “do not think on it.”
“Now, Agnes, don’t fret,” Eleanor said. “Your secret is safe with me.” She rose and patted Agnes on the shoulder.
“Thank you, Milady,” Agnes said. “I know when you make a promise, ‘twill happen. I thank you,” she repeated. “I await your will for the answer to Lord Hugh.”
“I have nothing for you right now, Agnes,” Eleanor said, “but I will write an answer to this—this—Hugh, and then you can take my letter to a messenger.”
Agnes curtsied and left; the knights outside opened and then closed the heavy doors behind her.
Eleanor shook her head. Truly, Osbert was far above Agnes’s station, and so it was a sad thing that Agnes cared for him. It must be so hard for Agnes to have those feelings and know they could never come to a happy ending. Eleanor herself knew only too well the rules of society regarding marriage—and who could be eligible for whom—and the political alliances that formed the underpinning of every marriage. After all, she would never have chosen Edgar—the pompous fool—for herself!
But, in her quieter moments, when she was alone, she longed for that unattainable, impossible goal of marriage to a man who would love her truly, worship her, adore her, make her laugh, and yet, respect her as well. The romances and poems like the Roman de la Rose that the troubadours sang in her Great Hall during the great feasts spoke of such love. Could that ever happen to her? She shook her head. Alas, that was most unlikely, given her situation. She would have to take what came her way, courtesy of William of Litchfield, her overlord. She knew she was thought beautiful by many, with her slender figure, dark brown hair, green eyes, and a mouth, some told her, in the shape of Cupid’s bow, but all of that was to no avail if she was already eighteen and a widow to boot, despite the lands that she would bring to a marriage. And love? That was a laughable thought, indeed!
She rapped the letter from this Hugh of Wykeham sharply on her knee. Tuesday next—and today was Friday. She could certainly not have any criminals in custody by then! Accuse Osbert of these crimes? Hugh must be mad.
Eleanor got up from her stool and found a quill pen. Recently, the poachers were becoming bolder and their trespasses more frequent. She frowned. She was certain that she and Osbert both were being seen in a bad light because they couldn’t capture the criminals. But there were just as many crimes committed in the Wykeham chase as there were in Strathcombe, so why did this Hugh take it upon himself to want to police her chase, as well? He should look to his own lands and his own chief forester!
Just last week, she had again called Osbert in to speak with him about the most recent poachings, and he had assured her that he had been sending his foresters into the forest regularly to patrol and into the hamlets to talk with the villagers in their crofts to see if they could learn any information, as she had asked him to do. As yet, nothing had surfaced, but, Osbert told her it was possible that the poachers were bribing the Wykeham chief forester, John de Bretton, for it appeared the poachers had melted back into the Wykeham woods, before anyone could apprehend them, leaving behind the bloody entrails of the fallow deer or a stag.
“But, why, then can’t anyone stop it?” she had asked him. “What about the Wykeham chief forester? Can his involvement with the poachers be proven? Can anyone deal with him?”
Osbert twisted his hunting cap in his gloved hands. “As you know, Lord Hugh has been away at the Crusade these many years, and I’m afraid that John de Bretton now thinks of the chase and the game as his own. Thus, he grants licenses to knights to hunt and he keeps the silver. He takes bribes from poachers as well—and lets them hide in his forest. When Hugh returns with Prince Edward, then there shall be a harsh accounting for John de Bretton,” he said. “Mark it well; Lord Hugh does not suffer indignities lightly, and he rules with an iron hand.”
A furrow appeared on Eleanor’s forehead, as she remembered the conversation. It was very frustrating, and she knew she would now have to take a more active part in arresting whoever was responsible. She couldn’t have people around the countryside thinking she was incapable—a “mere woman,” as some were wont to do, even though she knew she had done a good job managing Edgar’s estates. Managing one’s husband’s estate while he was away fighting for the King or visiting his other lands was what all noble ladies were taught to do from a very young age, and she wore the mantle of responsibility fairly well, she reassured herself. At least, everyone at Strathcombe seemed content, crops were grown and harvested, the rents collected, and affairs ran smoothly, as well as they did at Blystoke, her own dower lands which she also administered.
But now—what was she to do with this Hugh? She re-opened the letter and scanned the lines again. He sounded like a very irritable and high-handed man. What bad luck that he was her neighbor, she lamented to herself.
“Eleanor?” Her sister Mary’s soft voice interrupted her train of thought. The knights guarding the door stood aside and let her younger sister in, holding her favorite lute. Eleanor smiled to see her dear sister, with whose care she had been entrusted when her father died three years ago, her mother having died giving birth to Mary, a fate more common than not that befell women.
“Yes?” Eleanor asked, patting the leather-covered stool next to her. “Come, sit next to me and tell me what your pleasure is,” she said, with a smile.
Mary’s green skirts brushed across the stone floor and she sat next to Eleanor, clasping one of Eleanor’s hands in hers. Her face looked pale and her red ringlets tumbled over her shoulders.
“Oh, sister, dear,” Mary began. Tears filled her eyes, and she put her lute down on the stone floor.
“What? What is wrong?” Eleanor cried, drawing Mary to her in a hug.
“I just heard that the talk of all the servants is that when William of Litchfield comes to visit you,” Mary began, her face crumpling, “that—that he will talk to you about a marriage he has arranged for me with a French count! Do you think it’s true?”
Eleanor patted Mary’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, Mary,” she reassured her. “Yes, he is coming, as you know, but not, I don’t think, to discuss your possible marriage to France. He wrote that he wished to discuss the business of Strathcombe, as usual, not anything about a marriage.”
“Oh, how I hope you are right,” Mary said.
Eleanor smiled grimly. “He’ll want to discuss more than business, too, unfortunately! You know how his conversations with me always seem to be filled with innuendoes and double entendres involving the bedchamber that I have to ignore. Not only that, remember how he manages to brush his hand against me every now and then while we do the carol dances after the feasts in the Great Hall? I have to twirl and bob like a whirling dervish to try and stay out of his way.”
Mary giggled. “I can’t believe how he tries to peer down the fronts of our gowns!”
“Without a doubt, he makes my skin crawl, and I dread his coming. He can’t be trusted, you know that, dear sister—and he’ll act only in his own best interests and discard anyone who doesn’t further his own aims,” Eleanor added. “So, at least for the moment, although I am free—I will be free only until the time William sees fit to marry me off again to further his own political ends.” Eleanor sighed. “Thank goodness I am considered almost too old at eighteen!”
“But I am not,” Mary said. “I am fourteen—just the right age for marriage—but I can’t leave you—or Strathcombe—or England!” She wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her surcoat and sniffled.
Poor Mary! Eleanor thought. She had to calm her somehow. “You know well that many servants carry tales, Mary dear, so you shouldn’t put much stock in what they say. They have nothing better to occupy their minds while they are polishing plates or sweeping the anterooms. Those would be very boring tasks, don’t you think?” Eleanor asked, her eyes twinkling.
“Yes,” Mary agreed, still sniffling. “But why would the servants even think of that?”
“I’m not sure,” Eleanor admitted. “They know you are of marriageable age, and there is talk of your dowry and lands. We know you must marry soon.” She sighed. “But, even if William should bring up the subject of marrying a French count, don’t worry. I will take care of you, just as I promised our father I would, and I will make sure you are wed to an Englishman. I vow it. Remember,” Eleanor continued, “honor and loyalty, as our dear father had shown us all our childhood years, are worth their weight in silver. Honor et Fides, our Blystoke family’s motto.” She would not break her word to her father, and she would never abandon her only sister. Taking a deep breath, Eleanor lifted her chin and smiled at Mary.
“Thank you, dear sister,” Mary said, squeezing Eleanor’s hands. She brushed the hair out of her eyes and drew a ragged breath. She looked at the letter in Eleanor’s lap. “What is that? Is it from the Earl—from William?” she asked.
“It is from an earl, but from the Earl of Wykeham, not of Litchfield,” Eleanor sighed. She grimaced. “I’m afraid we have an autocrat as a neighbor, dear sister,” she said. “Hugh of Wykeham is not proving to be the sort of lord we would want to have bordering our lands.”
“Why? Why has he written you?” Mary asked. “I thought he was still on the Crusade.”
Eleanor shook her head. “He was, but, unfortunately, has returned, and he is in a state of extraordinary anger,” she replied, making a face. “He accuses our Osbert of taking bribes and allowing poachers in not only our chase, but his chase, too. Not only that, he accuses me of inexperience and mishandling of Strathcombe, and he says he is coming Tuesday next to meet with me and take the criminals into custody, whom, he says, I have to arrest by then, including Osbert. Such highhandedness—arrest my own Chief Forester!”
“Nay, truly?” Mary exclaimed. “But how can you arrest anyone?”
Eleanor shrugged. “Of course, it’s not possible—not by Tuesday, and certes not Osbert! These investigations take time, and Osbert and I have already taken new measures to try and discover the criminals. But, as of now, no talk has surfaced, nor have any poachers been found, though our foresters lie in wait in the forest, hoping to catch them.”
“What will you do?” Mary asked.
“I’m meeting with Osbert again this afternoon,” Eleanor said. “I’ll ask him to increase his vigilance—and perhaps, just by chance—we can find something soon. But, in any event, I will have to meet with Hugh next Tuesday and stand my ground. The fine Earl of Wykeham will not give me orders about what to do with my lands and with my chief forester!” Eleanor rapped the letter smartly on the leather-topped table.
Mary smiled and squeezed Eleanor’s shoulder. “You are stalwart, sister, dear,” she said.
“There is one more problem,” Eleanor admitted. Mary looked back up from her lute, which she had begun to tune. “Hugh writes that he knows William of Litchfield won’t be happy to hear about all the poaching and that William will think I am a poor administrator of Strathcombe.”
“Oh!” Mary gasped. “He will tell this to William of Litchfield? He is indeed an autocrat!”
Eleanor tightened her mouth. “Yes, he would seem to be,” she agreed. “I most definitely do not want to give William any reason for swiftly finding me a husband and taking me away from Strathcombe.” She frowned. “But Hugh will have met his match in me.” This Hugh would find himself more than a bit taken aback, she promised herself.
Mary nodded in agreement. “Next Tuesday?” she asked.
“Next Tuesday,” Eleanor repeated, straightening her shoulders. “Hugh shall discover just what kind of a neighbor he has, himself!”
Mary giggled, and Eleanor smiled back at her, but worry tugged at the edge of her mind.
Would she be able to deal with Hugh, the arrogant Earl of Wykeham?