The Bastard (The King's Cousins Book 3)
1342 A.D. – Spirited away when his father, Adelard de Blays, commits treason, bastard Quill Cardon longs to reclaim his family name when he reaches manhood and reunite with his half-siblings, Landon and Katelyn. Winning the king's tournament at Smithfield and saving the life of Prince Edward leads to Quill being awarded an earldom and an estate of his own—but what he most desires is Lady Tristanna Willoughby, a woman he can never have.
Tristanna has served for years as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Philippa and has waited for the return of her betrothed, Jarrett Marsden, from the war in France. Tristanna dislikes Jarrett, who chases anything in a skirt, and longs to wed Sir Quill Cardon, an honorable knight who has captured her heart.
When circumstances change, Quill and Tristanna have a chance at happiness—until a man seeking revenge threatens to tear them apart.
Each book in The King's Cousins Trilogy is a standalone story that can be enjoyed out of order.
Book #1: The Pawn
Book #2: The Heir
Book #3: The Bastard
For those who enjoy romance on the high seas, you might enjoy the standalone prequel to The King's Cousins Trilogy. GOD OF THE SEAS is part of the Pirates of Britannia World and features Godwin de Blays and Melisent Winchester, great-grandparents to Quill, Landon, and Katelyn.
Release date: March 5, 2019
Publisher: Dragonblade Publishing, Inc.
Print pages: 266
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
The Bastard (The King's Cousins Book 3)
Blackstone Castle, Sussex—1325
Quill Cardon slipped from his bed and past his snoring father. Leaving the blacksmith’s shed, he headed toward the stables. The horse Lord Adelard let him ride today had tossed a shoe as it ran across the pasture. The earl had Quill dismount and walk the animal slowly back to Blackstone Castle, where his father had reshod the mount. Quill had then taken the horse to the stables. He wanted to check and see if the animal was all right. The earl had said it was important to learn as much as you could about your horse and care for it. The mount would never belong to Quill but he still wanted to visit it just the same and see for himself that the beast was fine.
He heard the sound of hooves before he saw the rider dart across the moonlit bailey at breakneck speed. The man vaulted from his steed and raced into the keep, a rolled up parchment swinging in his hand. Quill wondered what missive Lord Adelard would receive. He knew his liege lord was a very important man—and yet he still took time for a young boy like Quill.
That was something he hadn’t quite figured out.
Though he was only seven, Quill enjoyed observing others and learning all he could. As far as he could tell, the earl didn’t seek out other children at Blackwell and teach them as he did Quill. And Landon. Of course, Landon was the earl’s son and heir, as well as Quill’s closest friend. Mayhap, that was why Lord Adelard had Quill accompany him when he showed Landon how to do things. Together, Landon and Quill had learned to ride and hunt. Swim and fish. Lately, the earl had provided both boys with wooden swords and the two dueled in the bailey every chance they got. It made him feel special, getting to spend time with the earl, who was the kindest, most decent man of Quill’s acquaintance.
He entered the stables and lit the lantern hanging on the wall, using it to light his way until he reached the next to last stall. Greeting the horse, Quill hung the lantern on a hook and slipped inside the enclosed space. He stroked the sleek flank with both hands. Checking the shoe and seeing it held firm, he decided to brush the horse. Humming softly, he lost himself in the long brushstrokes and sweet smell of hay permeating the air around him.
He turned and saw the earl standing there, a searching look on his face. Lord Adelard looked younger and more vulnerable than Quill had ever seen. He didn’t appear to be the larger than life giant but, instead, a mere man.
In that moment, Quill knew. Something buried deep inside him that had struggled for years to surface finally did. He realized the man before him was his father. Though Quill called another man by that name, he had never felt any kind of connection with the blacksmith as he did here, now, in this moment with the Earl of Blackwell.
Yet, he knew without words being said that he could never call this man Father in private, much less acknowledge him in public. A wave of sadness swept through him.
“Quill, put down the brush. Come here,” his father said urgently.
He did and Lord Adelard enfolded him in an embrace that Quill wished could go on and on. For the first time in his life, he felt safe. Wanted.
Then the earl’s arms fell away and Quill saw tears swimming in the nobleman’s eyes. The security that had blanketed him vanished in an instant. Why would a grown man, much less a powerful nobleman, cry? Fear swept through Quill.
“I’ve come to say goodbye to you, Quill. We will never see each other again.”
Tears stung his eyes. “Why? Did I do something wrong? Please . . . don’t send me away from Blackstone. From you.”
The earl ruffled Quill’s hair with affection. “It’s nothing you’ve done. I am the one who has done something that I regret. I won’t share with you what but know that part of why I did it was for you. To give you a place in the world.”
He balled his fists. “My place is by your side, my lord. If you go, I’ll go with you.”
“You can’t,” the nobleman said, regret lacing his words. Then he clutched Quill to him. “My son. Oh, my dear, sweet boy.”
Finally, Lord Adelard had acknowledged the relationship between them. If Quill couldn’t remain by his father’s side, a thought struck him. “Can I go to my mother instead?” he asked.
“Nay.” His father knelt and placed his hands on Quill’s shoulders. “I loved your mother, Quill. She brought a lightness to me. A joy that knew no bounds. We wed in secret and I planted the seed in her belly that became you. You are my true heir. Blackstone Castle should be yours.”
His words confused Quill. Lord Adelard was wed to Lady Sybil. The countess hated Quill as much as she loved Landon and Katelyn.
“I don’t understand.”
Lord Adelard drew a deep breath and expelled it slowly. “I married your mother, Quill. I loved her beyond space and time. She died giving birth to you. I had to honor a commitment my father made in my stead and so I wed Lady Sybil even while your mother still lived and carried you in her belly. That’s why everyone assumes Landon is my heir. In truth, he’s the bastard and you are my legitimate son.” His father paused. “I wanted so much more for you but I doubt it will come to pass. I must go.”
“I’ll go, too,” he said eagerly. “I’ll never leave you, Father.”
“Nay, I have done wrong and you cannot be associated with it. They’ll have my head for my actions. I’m only sorry I couldn’t protect you more than I already have. The one good thing is that they don’t know the truth about you. No one does, except Walter. As far as the world knows, you are not of the nobility and your mother wasn’t Lady Cecily Elyot but some commoner. ‘Tis what is generally believed here at Blackwell.”
Quill repeated Lady Cecily Elyot in his mind. He did not want to forget his mother’s name, even if she had passed.
“You love horses, don’t you?”
“Aye,” Quill said. “They’re better than most people.”
His father laughed softly. “You’ll need to work hard. Respect Edgar Lacey for he will teach you everything about horses. Treat Edgar as your father. Give your allegiance to Lord Oswin Granville. I’m sorry—about everything.”
Rising, Lord Adelard took Quill’s hand. “Come. We must see you fast away before it’s too late.”
They left the stables. Quill supposed he should feel bitter that Landon was known as the heir when everything at Blackwell actually belonged to him. Yet, he’d grown up with Landon and liked him a great deal. He realized they were half-brothers and that Katelyn was his half-sister. The little sprite loved horses as much as Quill did. He wondered if Landon and Katelyn would ever know they were related and doubted it. When he left and Lord Adelard was gone, they would have no way of knowing all three of them share the same blood.
His father led him to the rear of the castle and paused before the postern gate.
“Sir Walter awaits you on the other side. He will take you far away, my son. You will start a new life, with Edgar Lacey as your father. It’s important that you forget me and everything about Blackstone Castle.” He paused. “Except for this.”
The earl took Quill’s hand and placed a leather pouch in his palm. “Hide this from everyone, my son. It’s the emerald necklace my grandfather, Godwin, gave to my grandmother, Melisent. No one must know you possess it or where it came from. Never sell it, no matter how desperate you might be. Instead, give it to the woman you come to love.”
Quill slipped it inside his gypon as his father opened the gate. Quill walked through it as if in a dream. It seemed like someone else had taken over his body and propelled him forward, against his will. He took a few steps and paused, glancing over his shoulder, afraid of what was to come.
“Go ahead, Son,” his father encouraged.
Quill couldn’t help himself. He ran back and clung to his father. “I don’t want to go.”
“You must. I told you why. Go,” the earl ordered. “Now. Before it’s too late.” His voice broke as did Quill’s heart.
He studied his father a long moment, committing Adelard de Blays’ face to memory. “I won’t forget you, Father. Ever.”
Quill released his hold and stumbled away. He heard what he thought was goodbye, the word carried away on the breeze.
Every step he took twisted a knife in his heart. Quill didn’t dare look at his newfound father again. It took all the courage he could summon not to do so. He heard the postern gate close behind him and he continued walking.
“Quill,” a voice hissed. “Over here.”
He moved to his right, where a man stood next to his horse. He recognized Sir Walter Taybard, his father’s closest friend. The knight scooped Quill up and set him in the saddle and then mounted behind him.
“Do you know where we go?” Sir Walter asked.
“To . . . Edgar Lacey. My new father,” Quill managed to get out as his throat thickened with emotion.
“Aye. Edgar is the head groomsman at Bondeville, home to the Earl of Bondeville, Lord Oswin Granville. ‘Tis far from Sussex, to the west. In Somerset. Lord Adelard and I fostered with Lord Oswin. The earl is a good man and Edgar will provide you with a home.”
“Why must I leave, Sir Walter? Is Father in trouble?”
The knight nodded. “Deep trouble, I’m afraid. The kind that will cost him his head. What he does now, Quill, he does to protect you. To let it be known that you are his son would be to condemn you. As it is, Blackwell will be forfeited to the crown. You, nor Landon, will receive it.”
Sir Walter gave him a long look. “Because traitors lose not only their heads but their lands and titles, my boy. And your father has committed treason. Even being a cousin to the king will not save him now. Anyone of his blood will be subject to harsh punishment.”
“Then . . . should Landon and Katelyn come with us?” Quill asked hopefully, not wanting to see his frequent companions hurt.
“Nay. Lady Sybil is a shrewd one. If anyone can keep Landon and Katelyn safe, ‘twill be the countess. She has a sharp wit and a smooth tongue. She may be able to save her children.” He paused. “But she would never save you, Quill. You would be the sacrifice she gave in order to keep the hungry wolves at bay.”
“I know now why she hates me,” Quill confided. “Because I am the real heir and her children are bastards. Father told me.”
Sir Walter’s eyes burned into his. “That is the last time you are to speak of such things. Do you understand? I am to smuggle you west. You are an orphan that Edgar Lacey will raise. The life you had at Blackstone is over. Is that clear?”
“Aye,” Quill said in a small voice.
With that, Sir Walter urged his steed on. They gave the castle walls a wide berth and then started down the road. After riding a few minutes, the knight pulled up. His body stilled and Quill knew he was listening for approaching riders. A faint rumble came from nearby, growing in sound. Without warning, Sir Walter broke for the woods and rode into them. Turning his horse, they waited. Quill knew not to make a sound.
Minutes later, two dozen men rode by, their horses galloping as if in unison. One carried a banner that was grander than any Quill had ever seen. Instinct told him it was that of the king. Once they’d passed, Sir Walter nudged his horse’s flanks and they crept to the edge of the woods. Quill saw the riders approach Blackstone and then ride through as the gates opened to them.
“Those are the men who will arrest Father?”
“Aye. Hang on, Quill. We ride now quick as the wind.”
Quill clung to the pommel and closed his eyes as the night air rushed past him, the last image of his father burned into his memory. He knew he would never again see Adelard de Blays alive.
The first thing Quill noticed when he awoke was the smell of salt in the air and he knew they must be near the sea. Walter had told him the first night they’d left Sussex that they headed west across England to the Bristol Channel. Westbury, their final destination, sat near the mouth of the Severn. It would be at Westbury where Quill would start again, an orphan to be adopted by a man named Edgar Lacey. He still had no idea who Lacey was or what his new life would be like.
He shifted and Walter asked, “Are you awake?”
Riding a galloping horse made conversation difficult, so Quill merely nodded. He studied the passing scenery, noting how green everything appeared.
Suddenly, Walter slowed the horse and led it from the road into the woods. Quill didn’t ask why. The knight wasn’t much for talking. Even when they’d stopped every night and made camp in the woods, little conversation occurred between them. Though Quill had wanted to ask questions about his father and mother, Taybard had shut down any talk remotely involving his parents. He reminded Quill—once—that he was never to speak of the pair again.
The look in the knight’s eyes had kept Quill from making that mistake twice.
The sound of water drew his attention and he knew a stream ran nearby. As they approached it, Walter brought the horse to a halt and swung down from the saddle. Quill followed him, stretching his legs after many hours of riding.
“Wash up. I want you to look presentable,” Walter ordered. The knight dug through a bag attached to his saddle and pulled out a comb. Offering it to Quill, he said, “Comb your hair once you’ve washed your hands and face.”
Quill did as instructed. The water he splashed on his face was very cold, despite the warmth of the April day. He scrubbed his forehead and cheeks and then hands before wetting his hair and then slicking it back from his face with the comb.
“Let me see you.” Taybard studied him. “Good.”
“Are we almost to Westbury?”
“Aye. You’ll be meeting Edgar soon. Mayhap even the earl himself. Lord Oswin will need to be informed of your presence and that you are Lord Adelard’s son. If he’s agreeable, then you’ll remain at Westbury with Edgar.”
Left unsaid was what would happen if the nobleman decided not to provide Quill refuge. He had no idea what would become of him then. He couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to his father after his arrest by the king’s men. Walter had said the earl would lose his head. Quill pushed that thought from his mind. He wanted to remember the good things about his father. His gentle, kind nature and patience when he taught Quill and Landon how to bait a hook or shoot an arrow. His laugh when something delighted him. How generous he was to his people. Those were the memories Quill would cling to, even if he could never speak them aloud.
“Let me give you a boost.”
Walter helped him back into the saddle once more and they left the woods.
“How did you know that stream was there?” Quill asked.
“One, I could smell it. Two, I bathed in it enough times with the other Westbury pages and squires.” The knight smiled. “I spent many happy times dunking my friends’ heads in that stream.”
“That means Westbury is very close.”
“Look.” Walter pointed as they emerged from the woods and started down the road again.
A large castle sat on a hill as the sun dipped behind it. Quill had noticed this part of England had many more rolling hills than the land in the east. He watched with interest as they approached the gates.
“Who wishes to pass?” called down the gatekeeper.
“Sir Walter Taybard. I fostered with Lord Oswin and have a missive for him.”
Quill knew of no missive and decided that was the ruse to get them inside. Walter was clever enough not to mention any names so no one would know they came from Blackwell. The gates swung open and the knight guided his horse through and then cantered along until they’d reached the stables.
“Fetch Edgar,” Walter said to a young boy with hair the color of hay.
They dismounted and a moment later, a man appeared. He was of average height and had blue eyes that smiled at them as much as his mouth did.
“Now, what would Sir Walter Taybard be doing here at Westbury?”
The two men greeted one another heartily and then Walter indicated Quill.
“This is the boy,” he said succinctly.
Lacey looked him over. “How old are you?”
“Seven. Almost eight,” Quill told him.
“You like horses.”
He beamed. “I do. Very much.”
Lacey looked to Walter. “You’ll have to speak to Lord Oswin. I haven’t shown him anything Adelard sent to me. I burned it, as he wished.”
“I’ll go now.” Looking at Quill, he said, “Stay here.”
“What did you say?” Taybard’s eyes burned into him.
Quill had given this moment much thought during the weeks it took them to cross England. “If it’s my future to be discussed, then I need to be present,” he said stubbornly.
Edgar Lacey chuckled. “Sounds exactly like Adelard.”
Walter looked at him sharply and Lacey’s gaze fell to the ground. “Sorry,” he mumbled.
The knight’s hand gripped Quill’s shoulder. “Come along, then. No talking. That will be for me and the earl to do. Keep quiet unless spoken to. Understood?”
“Aye, my lord,” Quill agreed happily.
Taybard handed his reins to Lacey, who winked at Quill. The knight strode off and Quill rushed to keep up with the older man’s long strides. They crossed from the outer to the inner bailey and Quill glanced at everything they passed, knowing this was to be his new home. Lanterns had been lit but he would have preferred to see the place in daylight. He hoped he would, come tomorrow.
They reached the keep and Walter opened the door, ushering Quill inside. He glanced through the archway to his right and saw the great hall still had several people inside, though the trestle tables had already been pushed against the walls for the evening. If this castle was anything like Blackstone, many of those left would bed down in the great room for the night.
A passing servant with graying hair noticed them and came close. “What might you be needing?” she asked and then frowned. “Sir . . . Walter? Is that you?”
“Aye. I’ve come with a missive for Lord Oswin.”
“He’s already retired to the solar. Follow me.”
They fell into step behind her and soon arrived. The servant knocked and went inside when bidden, leaving them in the corridor.
“Remember, I’ll do the talking,” Walter reminded the boy.
Before Quill could speak, the door opened and the woman motioned them inside. She left, closing the door behind her, and Quill stared at the large room. A roaring fire blazed at the far end. In the center of the solar, a man and boy sat at a table. The boy held a quill in his hands and had a curious expression on his face. They looked one another over.
Then Quill turned his attention to the nobleman, who now rose. Walter’s hand tightened on Quill’s shoulder and he marched them over.
“My lord.” Walter bowed and Quill followed suit.
“You have a missive for me, Sir Walter?” asked Lord Oswin.
“I do not,” the knight said flatly. “Adelard did not want anything committed to parchment. In case we were stopped along the way.”
“I see. Then come. Sit.”
He indicated a chair by the fire, which Walter took. Quill went to stand just behind the knight, gripping the back of the chair. The boy remained at the table, his attention riveted on them.
“Speak,” ordered Lord Oswin.
“Adelard is in trouble,” began Walter. “It’s because he was too trusting. You remember he was a cousin to the king?”
“I do,” said the earl. “What has he gotten himself into?”
“You know how much of the country is upset by the king’s overly friendly relations with the Despensers.”
“I’ve heard talk. Even this far west,” admitted the nobleman.
“Adelard fell into a group of men . . . upset . . . by the Despensers’ influence.”
Lord Oswin frowned and leaned closer. “Are you speaking of rebellion, Sir Walter?”
“I am. Not that Adelard would ever have gone against the crown. He’s a most affable man. Not political in the least.” Taybard’s face darkened. “But, these men used him. Offered friendship because of his relationship with the king. When Adelard realized seeds of rebellion were being planted and he refused to go along with their schemes, these same men altered certain evidence to make it appear that Adelard was behind the plot.”
“They’ve arrested him?” asked the earl.
“Aye. As Quill and I left. Not a moment too soon.”
Lord Oswin’s attention turned to Quill. “Step closer, boy.”
Quill did as asked, standing as straight as he could. He was still trying to understand the revelation that his father had been used by others, their crimes hidden while making it seem as if he were the guilty party. Adelard de Blays would be executed for something he’d never done.
Depriving Quill of ever getting to know the man who’d revealed he was Quill’s father.
The nobleman gazed at him a long time until Quill began to squirm. Finally, he said, “So, I’m to hide Adelard’s bastard?”
“Adelard hoped you would allow Edgar Lacey to take Quill in and raise him as his own. The boy has an affinity for horses. My lord, you must know that Quill is no bastard. Adelard wed Lady Cecily Elyot in London. He is their son. His later marriage to Lady Sybil is the one which was invalid. The two children of that union are the bastards.”
Lord Oswin’s eyes lit with interest. “Does Lady Sybil know about the boy?”
“He’s been raised by the blacksmith at Blackwell,” the knight responded. “The countess knows Quill is Adelard’s son but has no idea he’s legitimate.”
“And she would’ve fed the boy to the wolves to appease them while she protected her own brood.”
“Aye. You understand the situation well.”
Walter removed a pouch from his waist and handed it to the earl. “Inside is gold for Quill’s keep. For you and Edgar Lacey. Adelard knew you would be taking a risk harboring the lad but he hoped you would acquiesce because of his longstanding admiration for you—and Westbury’s distance from the royal court.”
Lord Oswin peered inside and then dumped the gold from the bag into his hands. “This is more than enough.”
“Adelard wanted to provide for Quill. It was his last gift to the boy.”
The nobleman sat back, idly turning a coin between his fingers. “Would he have to live with Lacey?”
“What . . . what do you mean?” stammered Walter. “Where else could he go?”
“What if I made Quill my ward and looked after him? The gold here would amply provide for him, including a knighthood ceremony when he is of age.”
Quill’s legs trembled. For as long as he could remember, he’d wanted to be a knight like the many he saw in the training yard at Blackstone Castle. When his father had put a sword into his hands, Quill felt as if he’d found true purpose. He eyed the nobleman, trying to hold in his expectations.
Lord Oswin glanced to Quill. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Quill? Becoming a knight? Serving the crown and others?”
No longer hiding his feelings, Quill beamed. “I have dreamed of becoming a knight, my lord. I had a wooden sword that I practiced with at Blackstone Castle.”
A smile flickered across the earl’s face. “I’m sure you’re quite good with it. You’re tall and move well, as Adelard did.” The nobleman’s tone grew serious. “We must never mention his name again, Quill. You’re to say your father was a distant cousin of mine. A baron. He’s passed on and you’ve come to Westbury to foster. You’ll learn everything you need in order to be an accomplished soldier. And when the time comes, you will have your own knighthood ceremony. Would that please you?”
Quill looked to Walter. The knight nodded encouragingly. He faced the nobleman before him.
“I would be most honored to be raised in your household, Lord Oswin.”
The boy who’d been sitting at the table rose and came to stand next to Quill. “Aye, Father?”
“You have heard everything that has passed between us this night. The words are to remain a secret within these walls and those of us present shall never mention what was spoken of again. It would be too dangerous for all involved if Quill’s true identity became known.”
“I understand, Father.”
“I do, too, my lord,” Quill added.
Lord Oswin rose and came to stand before them. He placed his hands on each of their shoulders. “You are to be as brothers, starting now. Watch out for one another. Have the other’s back, through thick and thin. Depend upon each other, in good times and bad.”
Quill turned and offered his hand to Ned. The boys shook, sealing the unusual bargain.
Quill had a new home—and a new brother—but he would never forget those he’d left behind at Blackwood.
Quill handed Ned a bowl of steaming stew and took a second one for himself. They left the long line of men waiting to be fed and wandered over to a group of soldiers gathered around a fire. He took a seat and Ned sat next to him. Quill lifted the wooden bowl and inhaled the savory contents. He tipped the bowl and poured some into his mouth. Though the meat was a bit tough, it was seasoned enough to give it some flavor. The vegetables were little more than mush and could be swallowed without chewing. After weeks of fighting, Quill was ready to return to England for a decent meal. Camp food left much to be desired.
“A long day,” said Sir Braxton Willoughby as he entered the circle of men and sat on Quill’s left.
“At least more of those French bastards fell under our swords today,” added Sir Jarrett Marsden, who followed Willoughby and perched on a log nearby.
Quill had met the fair-haired Willoughby and arrogant Marsden a month earlier. While he enjoyed Willoughby’s company, he found Marsden to be a braggart and unpleasant to be around.
He and Willoughby struck up a conversation about the fighting that had taken place that day.
“Do you think this conflict over the Duchy of Brittany will go on much longer?” Willoughby asked. “Vannes has changed hands so many times, I’ve lost count.”
“Each day brings us closer to victory,” Quill assured the younger knight. “I think in another few weeks, we’ll be setting sail for England unless the king sends the troops that are here to Gascony.”
Ned laughed and poked him in the ribs. “How will the women of Brittany get along without you, Quill? You’ll be leaving many broken hearts behind once we leave for home.”
The group of soldiers all chuckled and began teasing Quill. Though he was a respected knight, highly skilled with a sword and mace, his fondness for the fairer sex—and theirs for him—was widely known.
“I hear the women flock to you,” Marsden said. “I wonder why?” he asked idly.
“Mayhap because he acts coolly toward them, it causes them to burn for him even more,” Ned suggested. “Females have always been attracted to Quill’s wild, reckless nature as much as his good looks and charm. It’s been that way ever since we were boys. Why, he even had Cook twisted around his smallest finger. She’d make him any delicacy he wished for, just so she could be rewarded with one of his rare smiles.”
Quill shrugged modestly, though he hated becoming the center of attention. “I have nothing to lose,” he replied nonchalantly. “No fortune. No title. No grand estate. I fight for myself and the crown. If that makes me reckless, so be it.” He grinned. “And if the ladies find that attractive, what’s the harm in indulging in a few stolen kisses—or more?”
In truth, Quill had chosen to behave as if he cared for nothing and no one but the opposite was true. From the time he’d arrived at Westbury, he’d longed for acceptance and cared greatly for what others thought about him. His humble beginnings and the secrets he held had shaped his outlook on life. He’d striven every day to prove his loyalty to the crown because of his father’s actions, even as he dreamed of one day being able to claim his true surname. To be known as a de Blays and not Quill Cardon, an orphan with no family ties.
“I am with you in that regard, Cardon,” Marsden readily agreed. “I’m quite fond of the company of women. The more, the merrier. I can pleasure three at a time,” he boasted, “and that’s only with my hands and tongue. You should see how they clamor for my cock.” Marsden laughed loudly.
Quill noticed Willoughby stiffen upon hearing his companion’s comments. He stood. “I think I’ll get more stew.”
As he strode off, Quill decided to follow. He caught up with his companion.
“Is something wrong, Braxton?”
The knight stopped in his tracks. “Are you betrothed?” he asked pointedly.
“Nay. And I have no plans of becoming so,” Quill said truthfully. “I am destined to be on my own. My life lies in my loyalty to England’s king and upholding my knightly code. I may enjoy kissing a few women now and then but my code of honor is what I live by.”
Willoughby relaxed. “You are a skilled knight and have always seemed honorable to me, Quill.”
“Do you refer to the men’s teasing me about the ladies? I’ll admit that I do enjoy the company of the fairer sex from time to time but I would never lead any of them on. I am clear about my intensions from the start. I would never take advantage of any woman, noble or otherwise, nor force myself upon them.”
“I thought as much.” Willoughby sighed. “I can’t say the same for my future brother-in-law.”
“Marsden?” Quill guessed, suddenly realizing why Braxton became uncomfortable hearing Marsden’s pompous talk.
“Aye. He is betrothed to my only sister, Tristanna. They are to wed once we return from Brittany.”
Quill placed a hand on Willoughby’s shoulder. “I, too, would be offended if I knew my sister would soon wed to a man such as Marsden.”
“It was arranged long ago. My father and his fostered together. Our families’ estates are adjoining. Our fathers have always wished for the two to wed. I was sent to foster with Jarrett in order to strengthen the bonds of our friendship. He’s never been interested in being my friend—or anyone else’s. Jarrett Marsden uses others and takes what he can get. I’m only sorry Tristanna will be forced into wedding him.”
“Mayhap, once she provides Marsden with an heir, he will leave her be,” Quill suggested. He’d known other men like Marsden, who took their pleasure with other women despite their sacred vows. Tristanna Willoughby would be better served with her future husband dipping his wick in women beyond her.
“Oh, she’s hoping for that very thing,” Willoughby assured him. “We’ve spoken of it before. She knows Marsden chases anything in a skirt. She’s actually relieved that he does. That way, all of his attention won’t be focused on her. If you think I dislike Marsden, you should hear the language Tristanna uses when speaking about him. Only to me, of course. Father would beat her if he knew how disrespectful she was when discussing her betrothed.” He chuckled. “Sometimes, I wonder where she learned all of the foul words describing him. You’d think her a sailor. Or worse, a pirate.”
For a moment, Quill was intrigued by Tristanna Willoughby and wished he could meet her.
Willoughby shook his head. “Still, he’s to be her husband. Our estates will always be located next to one another. I suppose I’ll continue to be civil to him once our fathers are gone. At least my sister won’t be far away and I’ll still be able to see her often.”
“It’s good that she will have you nearby as an ally,” Quill noted. “She will need your support.”
“Quill? Is that . . . you?”
He turned and found himself rooted to the spot. A soldier approached him—but it was no ordinary man.
It was Landon de Blays.
The years seemed to melt away. Landon hesitated a moment and then clasped Quill’s elbows in his hands, as Quill did the same. Then the half-brothers pounded one another on the back enthusiastically.
Drawing away, Quill studied the grown man who’d been a mere boy of six the last time they’d seen each other. It surprised him how physically similar they’d turned out to be as they’d matured. Both were tall, though Quill had an inch on Landon. Each had a lean, athletic frame and thick, raven-colored hair that they’d inherited from Adelard de Blays. The biggest difference between them lay in their eyes. Landon’s shone emerald green, bright as their father’s, while Quill supposed his hazel eyes came from his mother.
“Can we speak? Alone?” Landon asked anxiously.
Quill glanced to Braxton Willoughby. “If you’ll excuse us.”
“Of course.” Willoughby turned and moved away from them.
Only then did Quill see another soldier accompanied Landon and stood a few paces away from them. The man was an inch or two under six feet, with a muscular build and broad shoulders. His blond hair blew freely in the breeze, while his dark brown eyes cut from Landon to Quill and back, full of curiosity.
“Let’s move away from the crowds,” Landon suggested. He looked to his companion. “Nicholas, come with us—but give us a few moments in private.”
The knight nodded and then followed them at a distance as Landon led them away from the camp. They reached the edge, where they waved off the whores that skirted the outer edges of where the English army was stationed, and continued until they were far from anyone who might overhear their conversation.
Landon came to a halt and embraced Quill again.
“I’ve wanted to search for you for a long time, Quill. Father warned me that night never to speak of you. Never let anyone know about you. I respected his wishes but told Cassiana I would eventually find you, as I did Katelyn.”
Quill’s pulse jumped at the mention of his half-sister. The little sprite had followed him and Landon everywhere they went, thinking she was an equal to them—and often proved she was, even at a tender age.
“You say find. Were you separated from Katelyn by the king’s soldiers?” he asked.
“Aye. She was taken to a nunnery and left to languish there for many years.” Landon’s eyes grew cold. “Lady Sybil had become the abbess and planned to use Katelyn as a pawn for what she wanted. She had already written the king to trade for her when I finally came along and took Katelyn away.”
“Your mother became . . . an abbess?” Quill thought a moment. “Somehow, that makes sense. Mother superiors are some of the most powerful women in England, more so than any noblewoman. I remember the countess enjoyed being in a position of power.”
“And I remember how awful she treated you, Quill,” Landon countered. “She did nothing to protect Katelyn or me when the king’s men came that night. Did you remain at Blackwell? With whoever became the new earl?”
“Nay. I was sent away that night. By . . .” His voice trailed off.
“You can say it,” Landon encouraged. “Our father. I understand now. He was your sire. We are half-brothers.” He laughed. “We favor each other quite a bit.”
“Sir Walter took me so the king’s men wouldn’t find me. Father told me that night that we were of the same blood but he didn’t want me punished for his actions.”
“He knew Lady Sybil wouldn’t have shielded you from harm.”
“You speak of her—”
“Not as my mother? She’s not,” Landon said flatly. “She did what she could for herself alone. Her children meant nothing to her. She never even knew what became of me. She cared that little for me. When I showed up at the convent to claim Katelyn, I proved an inconvenience to her since I thwarted her plans. Nay, the mother I once knew is dead to me. Forever,” he said vehemently.
“You look as if you’ve done well for yourself, Landon.”
His half-brother calmed. “I have. I wound up serving in Prince Edward’s household. It was calamitous, what with the queen taking a lover in France and then the two of them toppling the king and putting Prince Edward on the throne at a young age.” Landon paused. “I spent all those years trying to prove myself, Quill. That I was worthy. Not a traitor as Father was. Eventually, I did so and earned my own title and estate outright. And my Cassiana.”
“She’s your wife.”
Landon’s features softened. “Aye. The most wonderful woman in the world. We have a son, Gavin. He turned a year old just last week. How I wish I could have been there,” he said wistfully.
“You will return to them soon,” Quill guaranteed him. “We’ve had too many successes in the field. I predict that our troops will head back to England within the month.”
“When we do, you will have to come and visit us. Katelyn, too.” Landon motioned to the man standing at a distance and he closed the gap between them. “Quill, this is Lord Nicholas Mandeville, Katelyn’s husband and father to Ruston, who is two years of age, and Elizabeth. Is my niece six months, Nicholas?”
“Seven,” the nobleman corrected, offering Quill his hand. “And a beauty like her mother, though she’s proving more stubborn than Kate. I dread to see what she’ll be like once she’s walking and talking. She will rule Northmere and her brother with an iron fist.” He smiled. “’Tis a pleasure to meet you. May I call you Quill? Kate has spoken fondly of you, though always in private and to me alone. She and Landon have respected your father’s wishes to remain silent regarding your existence but I can tell you—both of them have been eager to find you.”
Quill shook the nobleman’s hand warmly. “I’m delighted to hear Katelyn is wed and has children. Is she still mad for horses?”
Nicholas laughed. “Indeed, she is, and teaching both our children to love them, mayhap more than they do humans.”
“I have good memories of her and Landon,” Quill said. “Of our times together at Blackwell.”
“What became of you, Quill?” Landon asked. “You know briefly what happened to us. Where did Walter Taybard take you?” He turned to Nicholas. “Walter was our father’s dearest friend. I didn’t see him in the chaos that ensued once the king’s men arrived but Quill just shared that Father charged Walter to take Quill to safety.”
“We rode the width of England, all the way to the Bristol coast. ‘Twas where Father and Walter fostered as boys. He believed it far enough away from the troubles and trusted Lord Oswin to allow me to remain. I was most fortunate. The earl made me his ward and I grew up as a brother to his son, Ned. Ned is here with me, fighting in Brittany.”
“So, they were kind to you?” asked Landon. “You weren’t mistreated?”
Something in Landon’s eyes told Quill that his half-brother had not had an easy time of things. That would be something they could address later. Or not at all. Sometimes, it was better to leave things in the past. What was important was that he’d found Landon after all this time. Then Quill remembered something Landon had said.
“Father was not a traitor,” he revealed.
“What do you mean?” Landon asked, suspicion in his eyes.
“You must understand that I have no proof to produce. Only what Walter shared with Lord Oswin the night we arrived at Westbury. I was quite young but what I gleaned from their conversation was that Father had trusted men who were plotting against the king, men who were angry about how the Despensers were influencing the monarchy. When Father discovered their scheme—or when they asked him to openly participate in the plot—he refused. Somehow, they manipulated evidence that made it appear he was the one behind the rebellion.”
Landon’s startled expression told Quill his half-brother had no knowledge of this.
“Are you sure? Would Walter confirm this?”
“He could if he were alive. He remained at Westbury and served Lord Oswin until he passed, nigh on two years ago, a year after I became a knight.”
Quill kept quiet about what else Walter had shared. It would serve no good now, him telling Landon that he and Katelyn were bastards and that Walter had witnessed Adelard de Blays’ union to Cecily Elyot. The knight had only mentioned Quill’s parents once after they’d arrived in the west, the day of Quill’s knighthood ceremony. He’d told Quill that the Elyot family had wanted nothing to do with her babe, despite Lady Cecily having married the father, which was why Adelard had brought his son back to Blackwell.
Instead, he said, “Come back to the army camp. I want you to meet Ned Granville.”
“I’m jealous this Ned had you as a brother for all these years,” Landon told him. He slung an arm around Quill. “Now that we have found one another, we must remain close.” Landon threw his other arm around Nicholas. “My brothers-in-arms, both by blood and by choice.”
They returned to where Ned had remained. Only a few other men were left in the circle. Quill saw the questions clouding Ned’s eyes.
“Ned, come along,” Quill encouraged, wanting to pull his foster brother aside from the others to share his good news. He was still wary of disclosing his relationship to Landon.
As Ned came toward them, arrows of fire began to rain down from the heavens.
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...