AGE OF HONOR: Book Five ~ A Medieval Romance
Copyright: Tamara Leigh, 2023 Ebook ISBN: 978-1-942326-64-9 Ebook ASIN: B0CHM49QSX
THE WULFRITHS. FIRST. IN BETWEEN. IN THE END.
The late middle ages. England’s king seeks to recover the French lands of his ancestor William the Conqueror and claim the continental throne. France’s king aspires to seize the remainder of his royal vassal’s lands and retain his throne. So begins the Hundred Years’ War, the backdrop against which the formidable Wulfriths of the AGE OF CONQUEST and AGE OF FAITH series continue their tale
THE KING’S SPY
For years, Lady Vianne Wardieu has navigated the intrigues of the French court, supplying the English king with intelligence and preserving her cover at the ruin of her reputation. Entangled with the King of France’s advisor, danger and sacrifice shadow her every step. When her bid to return to England is thwarted and ensnares an innocent in her schemes, she vows to escape again. But her plans falter when a man from her past appears seeking revenge. Or so she believes. Discovering he was sent by their king to extract vital information, she forces an alliance, offering secrets for aid in securing her freedom. As their paths merge and they become bound by more than necessity, Vianne strives to shield her heart from her reluctant savior, certain just as her notorious past cannot be rewritten, neither can it be forgiven.
THE KING’S MAN
Commanded by King Edward to retrieve intelligence from his spy at the French court, Sir Warin Wulfrith’s disdain for the lady’s notoriety and anger over her endangerment of his sister tests his honor—and further when she sets terms for her cooperation. As they navigate treacherous terrain to outmaneuver her pursuers, his perception of her alters when he discovers great depth and vulnerability beneath her wild beauty. With the line between duty and the need to safeguard her blurring, he questions whether his fiercely-guarded emotions are at risk of falling under her spell. And if true salvation lies not only in escaping external threats but finding solace and redemption in each other.
From USA Today Bestselling author Tamara Leigh, the fifth book in a new medieval romance series set in the 14th century during The Hundred Years’ War. Watch for Perilous, the tale of Lady Fira Wulfrith in spring 2024.
There was advantage in being among the last to perform, it allowing more time in which to perfect and practice the delivery of words entirely composed in her mind. But there were disadvantages. The first was fatigue to which she was more vulnerable for advancing pregnancy entangled with fear and worry. The second was nervous anticipation that, dashed each time another performer was summoned ahead of her, heightened further.
When finally Vianne departed the chamber, she was so tense she questioned everything as her red skirt skimmed the floor and the tail of the black girdle set with silver, articulating scales lightly slapped her thigh.
How did she appear to the hundreds thronging the hall, some eager for another performance, others grudgingly pausing amid conversations to show polite interest as required?
Were her chin and shoulders level, footsteps gracefully unhurried, abdominal muscles sufficiently engaged so none suspected she was with child? Was her composition well enough fixed in memory its only fault would be the dark subject on an occasion that called for light? When she ascended the dais and took her place before the king whose chair was set back from it, could she present this work, or would she fold and recite something more pleasing to him—and Rollon?
The impatient one at the back of my tongue, she silently commanded as she neared the steps of what had been transformed into a stage and pinched up her skirt so her feet would not catch on the hem. Still, she nearly stumbled when Rollon appeared and took her elbow.
As he stabilized her ascent, he said low, “Do me proud, my love.”
In that moment accepting she must to sooner regain trust and freedom that could keep this child safe, she graced him with what was to appear a loving smile.
When she set foot on the dais, he released her. Center of the stage, she turned to face King Jean and his boot-licking subjects. Once the murmuring ceased and most eyes were on her, she smiled as if no greater happiness could be had, flared her skirts like crimson wings, and curtsied so deeply to those unworthy of bended knee it was hard not to scowl. To ensure she did not, she remained bent longer than necessary to compose her face, then whipped up her head as she straightened. And felt the pins fixing her hair at her nape fail.
As if the uncoiling of the braid down her back was part of an act, the faces of many lit, and she heard scattered applause. None from the women, of course, nor King Jean, though appreciation was in his eyes. It was the same with his sixteen-year-old son, Charles, who sat beside him. Though the young man now four years wed to his cousin continued to look down upon Rollon’s mistress, it was obvious he still wished a taste of what the royal advisor enjoyed.
“Entertain us, Lady Vianne Wardieu!” the king commanded.
She dipped her chin, and when she raised her eyes, saw Rollon move behind and to the left of Jean, and just beyond him were Aubert Marionne and Pierre.
Though she had decided to behave, the bore of the latter’s eyes flashed her with memories of the English brigands whose reward for betraying their country was that of being cast into the sea. She saw again their flailing as they were sent over the rails…heard their screams…
“We wait!” King Jean snapped as if she delayed minutes rather than moments.
Vianne opened her mouth, but it was her newest composition advancing across her tongue. She pressed her lips and, not daring to look to Rollon lest his expression make it more difficult to recall what she had written two days past, searched backward.
“Mayhap the lady overly imbibed this eve, my lord king,” Charles said loud, causing those too imprudent to wait on Jean’s reaction to chuckle. Then with the sickly smile he thought charming, the Dauphin leaned forward as if to search out further evidence of her inebriation. “As all know, it would not be the first time.”
Feeling her face aspire to the color of her gown, Vianne looked to the tight-lipped king, and certain greater humiliation would be had did she not begin, expelled her breath on the words, “For your birthday, King Jean, what I call The Chasm Between Us.”
His eyes narrowed. Though the title was no auspicious beginning to something expected to honor him, it was honest.
Though Vianne was not known for dramatic flair during a recitation, this eve was different. Finding courage in the sweep of an arm, she sent across the great hall, “What terrible sea is this? No warm embrace, no gentle kiss.” She touched her lips, leaned forward to peer at the floor before the dais. “Down…down…”
She straightened, and seeing she yet held the attention of those more given to conversation, continued, “Whence does it rise, whence does it fall? No soft passage, foul siren’s call.” She turned her ear out as if to attend to the call and leaned forward again. “Down…down…”
Continuing to peer into her memories and seeing the men swallowed by the sea, her next words were pitched high. “Why does it churn, its waves break?” She raised her eyes to the glowering Pierre whose hiked lip revealed crowded teeth. “No compassion, no pity’s sake. Down…down…”
As his lip hiked, she straightened. “Where does it flow, north or south?” She looked up, down. “No tide goes in, no tide goes out.” She glanced side to side and once more at Pierre. “Down…down…”
If not for movement from the king who followed her gaze by peering around, she would have remained fixed on the miscreant. To return Jean’s attention to her, she clapped her hands and demanded, “Who braves its winds, who trims these sails?” Putting back her head as if to look upon the flapping, fraying sheets, she recalled Pierre retching over the side in response to the ship’s lurching though his gut weathered well the casting of men into the sea. “No weak-kneed lord, none at the rails. Down…down…”
She moved her gaze over her audience. “When will it ease, when will it still? No land in sight, no more to kill.” She closed her eyes, shook her head. “Down…down…” Now she raised hands as if beseeching God and looked to random men and women at the rear of the gathering as she prepared to deliver the final lines. “How does one—?”
The remainder of the words jammed in her throat as one recipient of her gaze stared at her out of a face that should be hardly familiar for how brief their acquaintance, a light beard gone thick, blond hair grown long, and warrior garments exchanged for the lavish dress of a French courtier.
Vianne had thought never to see him again—had prayed the English knight she foiled with what she believed good cause would not risk entering the lion’s den of France to wreak vengeance on her. But Warin Wulfrith was here and, doubtless, was the one at the Norman table whose gaze she had felt and back she had seen before he was prepared to reveal himself.
“Forgive me,” she mouthed, not to him but Lady Dangereuse and Sir Rhys—the most recent tragedy for which she was responsible, both surely lost to the sea after she swam her horse to reach Pierre’s boat so she could be traded for Sir Warin’s sister. As she had drawn near, that lady had wrenched free of a brigand and jumped into the chill water.
Vianne had been unable to aid her, so cold herself she was only half conscious when dragged off the horse. However, she had met the floundering lady’s gaze and beseeched forgiveness before being dropped into the boat. As Lady Dangereuse had been distant from Sir Rhys who desperately swam to her and more distant from the shore where her brother and his men had slain most of the brigands, the two must have succumbed to the cold. And now Sir Warin was here to—
“If this painful silence is for show, Lady Vianne,” King Jean’s tone exaggerated boredom, “we have no patience for it.”
Having scant time to pen her part, she lowered her arms and smiled apologetically. “Forgive me. The illness it was feared would claim me continues to addle my thoughts. Do you give me a few moments—”
His hand slashed the air. “You work words well, but on the occasion of our birthday, I expected something better—uplifting, not dreary. You are done!”
She bowed her head and, turning toward the steps, looked sidelong at Rollon so she might know the depth of his anger. But hardly had she caught his eye than the king’s crooked finger had him bending near.
Though tempted to retreat abovestairs to avoid those to whom she provided more fodder to look down upon her and fairly certain the long night Rollon promised would be longer yet, she crossed to a side table.
As brothers who juggled all manner of items, including eggs, were ushered to the dais, she poured a cup of weak wine. And resisted trying to catch sight of Warin Wulfrith who, unless willing to risk death, could be of no danger to her in the midst of hundreds of enemies.
He but wished to strike fear in one he could not know was already fearful, surely believing she desired to return to Rollon as professed on that shore—a lie not for his benefit but Pierre and Aubert Marionne into whose hands she had meant to give herself despite Sir Warin’s attempt to thwart her.
“Exceptional, Lady Vianne!” called one who approached. Though she recognized his accented voice, she startled as if it belonged to Sir Warin whose own Norman-French accent was heavily diluted by the English of him as hers had been before she was sent to marry into French nobility.
She swung around, and there the man nearing middle age who had been seated at the Norman table—and unwittingly supplied her information over the years. Relieved he came alone, she wished she could recall his name. Unfortunately, some edges of a mind she believed sharp had become dull these months, likely due to stress as much as pregnancy.
When he halted, she returned his smile. “It is good to see you again.”
He arched an eyebrow. “I glimpse recognition, and though I recall your name, I believe you have forgotten mine.”
She nodded at the stage where the jugglers raked in expressions of awe and admiration not shown her. “Since my name was announced and spoken by the king, you have the advantage.”
“Had I forgotten it, but I did not. You are memorable, not only for beauty but compositions of which, alas, The Chasm Between Us is only the second I have heard.” He set a hand on his midriff and bowed. “Chevalier Joffrey Masse.”
“Pardon me for forgetting. As told the king, I am not thinking straight due to my recent illness.”
“And yet your gift to him, even incomplete, was exceptional.”
“And dreary,” she reminded.
He shrugged. “Only those of narrow mind find beauty in the joyous alone.”
Doubtless, that an intentional jab to the flank of the royal House of Valois. Just as the Duke of Normandy who took England’s crown three hundred years past had chafed beneath the rule of a king of France, still William the Conqueror’s people aspired to autonomy that was rarer with each passing century. Tight rule did not sit well with them, and less so now the eldest sons of French kings were titled Duke of Normandy, meaning grown men and seasoned warriors currently answered to the arrogant sixteen-year-old Charles.
“I appreciate your encouragement,” she said and, finding some solace in his company, took another sip. “Blessedly, the jugglers are talented, clearing the sight and sound of me from King Jean’s eyes and ears.”
The chevalier drew nearer. “Oui, Jean being less likely to perseverate on not being praised as if a God, and Charles soon to fall asleep with his blanket hugged close and a smile on his lips.”
She looked sidelong at him. “Careful, you sound almost as English as I.”
His mouth convulsed. “And here I feared I sounded more English than the special friend of the king’s advisor.”
She was no stranger to allusions about this English lady’s relationship with Rollon, and once before this man had acknowledged that notoriety, but as there was no useful information to cull from him in her current circumstances, she saw no reason to continue the conversation.
However, before she could politely disengage, he changed the subject as if realizing he overstepped. “The Dauphin’s wife, Joanna, admires your compositions.”
That she had not known, the duchess rarely looking her way while at court. Was what Masse spoke true? Or this an attempt to hold her here? No sooner questioned than she was struck by something she should have considered sooner. Warin Wulfrith had been seated at the end of the Norman table opposite this man, but that did not mean there was no connection between them. What if—?
“The Duchess tells an inquiry into your French ancestry yielded something interesting. Your mother, being among the ladies who accompanied Princess Isabella of France to England to wed the second King Edward, was of the family De Morville.”
Vianne knew where this was heading, as it had with many who discovered the French of her—that her ability to make verse of words was passed to her by the twelfth-century Elias de Morville whose works were treasured in both France and England.
“I would not argue my best writings are a result of my ancestor,” she said, then dipped her head. “Now as King Jean requires of his birthday gifts, I must move among the guests.”
Giving him no moment to catch her back, she set her cup on the table and worked her way toward young ladies who did not like her for being told they ought not but were more tolerable than those who warned them away. But when she saw they were also Prince Charles’ destination, she veered. Obviously having tired of sitting his sire’s side, he sought to use his royal position to gain the attention and admiration of women who would spurn him were he not France’s future king.
“My lady.” A hand touched her arm, and she turned so quickly her skirts swept tall boots belonging not to Warin Wulfrith but Ingerger le Grand, lord of Amboise as well as Chevreuse upon which Rollon’s manor house was situated.
The man with whom she had become fairly acquainted over the years for his appearance at court and more recently her extended stay at the manor, was attractive of face, but less of figure. Despite his surname, his height and build were unimpressive. And he seemed drawn to her as Rollon scorned each time he was obligated to entertain the lord who permitted him to take game from Chevreuse’s wood.
“You look vibrant this eve, Lady Vianne.”
“I thank you, Lord Le Grande.”
“And your composition…” He kissed the air between them. “Though the king deemed it dreary, I thought it hauntingly beautiful.”
He sounded genuine, but this was also flirtation of which she could make good use were she prying for intelligence. Since now was not the time, she said, “You are kind, my lord. How fares your wife?”
The flash of annoyance in his eyes was soon displaced by sorrow. “Her lingering illness tests my faith and that of our children.”
“I am sorry. I know you love her well.” Not so, though from the little she did know of his marriage, he was at least fond of the woman.
Regardless, her words served. He smiled, caught up her hand, and kissed her fingers. “As told, hauntingly beautiful. Good eve, my lady.”
When he disappeared among the many, further alteration of her course proved a blessing. She had not expected the doors of the inner courtyard to be open since April nights were cold, but the press of bodies in the overheated hall had seen them set wide.
She looked around to be certain none followed, including Warin Wulfrith who would be conspicuous among the gathering for his stature and blond hair. Since he was nowhere to be seen, she guessed he had departed, as was wise with Pierre and Marionne now moving among the guests. Though the former was unlikely to recognize the warrior who had led the attack against brigands in the pay of the French, despite Pierre and his keeper being offshore in the boat carrying Lady Dangereuse toward the waiting ship, the sharp-eyed Marionne might recognize him.
Believing herself unobserved, Vianne stepped through the nearest doorway onto stone that formed a walkway around a rectangular, lantern-lit garden.
There were couples holding hands and walking among vegetation that would be lush before long and one couple who appeared almost of one body for how close their embrace against a tree, but whereas they sought privacy in which to enjoy each other’s company, she sought it to pretend at freedom ahead of facing Rollon’s displeasure that she must suffer as calmly as possible to protect one other than herself.
Flinching over remembrance of his hand on her belly, she strode left and set her forearms atop a short wall cornering this section of the walkway. For the lanterns and being near the hall’s light escaping into the dark, she was visible, but as this had become a retreat for couples, likely she would be left to herself.
Fixing her gaze far right of the couple against the tree to afford them privacy for however much time they could steal from whoever would deny them, she whispered her own longing, “Freedom and safety.” And thought it almost tragic that eight years in France—only a third of her life—could wear her so thin she would hesitate to dispute any who said she was nearer an old woman than a young one. She ate, dressed, and lived well, but she might as well labor in the fields for how worn she was.
Almost immediately, she snorted with disgust over the presumption her life was as hard as those of common women, many of whom suffered as much or more for being controlled by a man they did not want—and having no soft landing upon the comforts nobility imparted.
If they can persevere despite sorrows that make them feel far older than their years, so can I, she told herself. And I will.
Footsteps. As they moved toward her, it felt as if her heart snagged on a peg passed by. Not because her solitude was interrupted. Because something she could not see, smell, nor touch revealed the identity of he who, the last time they were alone, had shocked her with his sudden appearance.
Dragging her tongue off her palate, she turned her face toward him.
Had Warin Wulfrith not allowed his beard to thicken, concealing burn scars on one side of his lower face, still he would be as handsome as he presented now—even with eyes harder than hard and darker than dark.
Halting a stride from her, he said in English, “An interesting performance.”
“Well come to Paris, Sir Warin,” she managed past the lump in her throat. “Rather, Chevalier Warin do you wish to continue passing as one who belongs inside the walls of Palais de la Cité.”
He looked to those wandering the courtyard, then in French and an accent far thicker than he possessed, said, “This day, it is Chevalier Warin d’Argent, Lady.”
On the surface titled with respect, but barely scratch the surface and there scorn with which she was accustomed when acknowledged by many of the French court. Refusing to respond to it, she left a forearm on the wall and angled her body toward him. “D’Argent, you say?”
“From whom the Wulfriths descended following Duke William’s conquering of England. Still they hold the Barony of Valeur in Normandy.”
She scrutinized his garments. “I see, and you make yourself one of them so…” She returned her gaze to his and, hoping he would not seek vengeance in the presence of witnesses, continued, “…you may exact payment for what you have lost despite what King Edward gained.” At least, what she hoped he gained from the intelligence she left in England. Unfortunately, because of her isolation at the manor, Rollon’s month-long absence, and having engaged in no meaningful conversations since returning to the palace, she had no way of knowing if the English had thwarted French trickery a fortnight past.
Braving his narrowing eyes, she pressed fingers into the hand tempted to her belly and prepared to ask for confirmation she had served her country well. Instead, she said what she should have thought through. “I never intended your sister harm, nor Sir Rhys and the people of Lillia. Truly, I am sorry—” She broke off.
He had not moved, but a distant look in his eyes told his attention was no longer on her. And when she looked past him, there the reason—an enemy at his back armed with weapons as not allowed King Jean’s guests.
Vianne rebuked herself. Despite skills honed to keep her alive and being aware the guard posted outside the apartment was also set to watch over her in the hall, just as she had caught no sight of Sir Warin before entering here, neither this man. Now he would report to Rollon what appeared a tryst.
Write the part! she demanded as he advanced, then scribbled it out behind her eyes and spoke it into words, beginning with hissed ones of regret. “Apologies, Sir Warin.”
The hand missing a sword hilt becoming a fist at his side, he said low and threatening, “For what, Lady?”
Her answer was a lunge and a slap, which he did not try to prevent though a well-trained warrior—even one garbed as a nobleman of leisure—could evade or retaliate against.
And you thought those eyes could not be harder nor darker, she rued as they stared into hers despite the slight turn dealt his head.
There being more to her act that must be played out to protect her unborn child, she spat, “Foul Norman!” then swept around him. Hearing the couples’ voices rise in response to their trampled bliss, Vianne hastened forward, causing the guard to falter.
“A lady alone does not a conquest make!” she called back, then said to Rollon’s man whose uncertainty was almost laughable for how great a brute he was, “Insult only, though I am certain your lord would think punishment due him—providing it does not disrupt our king’s celebration.”
Then heart thumping, she was past him. Upon entering the hall, she caught the sound of a struggle, curses, and flesh-covered bone on bone. She nearly turned back, but determinedly made for the corridor that accessed the wing where the apartment lay—all the while praying the guard heeded her only so far as her desire for retribution against Sir Warin convinced Rollon her venture into the courtyard was innocent.
Having seen the second eldest Wulfrith brother fight the brigands on the shore, she assured herself the ferocity of his swinging blade would also be felt in his fist. Then, though he would hate her more, he would abandon vengeance and depart France.
That is as likely as Rollon embracing this child when it delivers in four and a half months or sooner, she rebuked. You fool!