The Pawn (The King's Cousins Book 1)
1338 A.D. – Exiled to a convent after her father's execution for treason, Katelyn de Blays has fleeting memories of the man she adored and the outside world. When her brother's search leads him to find Katelyn after many years, she is eager to leave with Landon and begin a new life. He brings her to the court of her cousin, Edward III, who betroths Katelyn to a powerful earl of Northumberland, using her as a political pawn to show his continued support of his northern noblemen.
When Sir Nicholas Mandeville returns from patrolling his family's lands along the Scottish border, he discovers his father has died—and left a widow—whom his uncle wed Nicholas to by proxy during his absence. Angry at becoming the Earl of Northmere and having no choice regarding his wife, Nicholas vows to leave the widow untouched until he knows whether or not she carries his father's child.
As time passes and Nicholas loses his heart to this brave, young woman, he is astonished to learn Katelyn wishes for their union to be annulled. Can he convince Kate to remain wed to him—or will Nicholas sacrifice his own happiness and let the enigmatic beauty go?
Each book in The King's Cousins Trilogy is a standalone story that can be enjoyed out of order. Read for FREE in Kindle Unlimited.
Book #1: The Pawn
Book #2: The Heir
Book #3: The Bastard
For those who savor 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: February 12, 2019
Publisher: Dragonblade Publishing, Inc.
Print pages: 276
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The Pawn (The King's Cousins Book 1)
Blackstone Castle, Sussex—1325
Lady Sybil de Blays finished her instructions to the cook regarding tomorrow’s meals and then sought out the Blackwell steward. Finding him in conversation with their captain of the guard, she signaled for him to follow her to the records room. She quizzed the man thoroughly regarding the tying and winnowing that had been completed yesterday and was pleased with the answers she received. Thanks to her superb management skills, Blackwell thrived—no thanks to her worthless husband.
Lord Adelard de Blays was a handsome man. That was where his talents ended. As the third son of the Earl of Blackwell, Adelard had not been tutored in estate matters. He had fostered far in the north, near the Scottish border, and had attained his knighthood there. Sybil thought his sword skills merely adequate, though he did sit a horse well and passed along his love of the creatures to their daughter. Her husband spent the bulk of his day in the training yard, watching the men at their exercises, while she ran not only Blackstone Castle but the rest of the estate.
Though she had spent a good portion of her time at the royal court before her marriage seven years ago, Sybil actually had taken to country life. Instead of a countess, she thought of herself as the Queen of Blackwell—and expected everyone to bow before her.
Leaving the records room, she went upstairs to see her children to bed. A servant would already have them dressed in their nightclothes but Sybil liked to spend a little time with Landon and Katelyn before they fell asleep. She would ask about what they had done that day and use small moments to share her vast quantity of knowledge before telling them a bedtime tale. Both children worshipped her and Sybil adored them in return. She looked forward to this time, knowing it would only be the three of them together.
Without The Bastard.
Quill Cardon’s presence at Blackstone Castle was like a plague that clung to her, one she picked at and flung away, only to find it returned again and again. The boy was the only thing she had no control over. On that, Adelard stood firm. Her husband had proven to be timid around his domineering father and once the old earl succumbed to apoplexy only a week after she and Adelard wed, her husband had been easily cowed by his new wife.
In a way, that had pleased Sybil. She enjoyed issuing commands and found she had an innate sense of how to run a castle and estate. Thanks to her talents, Blackwell flourished. Adelard stayed out of her way, allowing her to make decisions usually left to men.
Except for anything concerning The Bastard.
Sybil never referred to the child by name. She had done everything to see him gone from Blackstone but her husband refused to budge. Apparently, Adelard had had an unnamed lover who carried his child. When his two older brothers perished within days of one another, he had been called home to Blackwell. Sybil had been betrothed to Bardolf, the eldest, who would become the future earl. When Bardolf succumbed to a raging fever, the second brother had become the new heir. Gunter, who was extremely close to his brother, had remained disgustingly drunk for three days and then fallen from his horse in what everyone graciously deemed an accident. She always thought Gunter, who idolized Bardolf, was fearful of trying to take his brother’s place and deliberately tried to make a jump impossible for a sober horseman, much less an inebriated one.
Having come to the castle to prepare for her wedding and get to know her future husband before the ceremony uniting them in holy wedlock, Sybil watched as the two brothers had been put into the ground next to one another in quick succession. Betrothal contracts had been hastily rewritten and she found herself suddenly wed to Adelard, who seemed to blend into the woodwork in every situation, afraid to draw any attention to himself.
When her father-in-law suddenly passed, Sybil knew she could assume the power that Adelard either didn’t want or refused to take. She’d been able to order or manipulate or cajole him into any decision—except ones concerning The Bastard.
Adelard brought the babe home to Blackwell even as Sybil found herself with child. He told her his lover had died in childbirth and it was up to him to raise their son. Sybil demanded that someone else assume care for the child. She didn’t want to know his name. For the first year, Adelard would disappear from the training yard and Sybil knew he went to see the boy. Once she gave birth to Landon, she demanded that The Bastard leave Blackwell lands for good.
Her husband refused.
Instead, Sybil eventually discovered that the child was being raised by their blacksmith, Will Cardon, and his wife. As Landon grew older, Adelard started including the two boys in outings together. He taught them to ride. Hunt. Fish. Always together. Nothing Sybil said would change her husband’s mind.
And so her hate grew, slow and steady.
Taking a calming breath and thrusting all thoughts of The Bastard from her mind, she entered the bedchamber and saw her beautiful children both sitting in their beds, eagerly awaiting her. Sybil told them a tale about a dragon slayer and then a second one about a knight on a quest for the Holy Grail. When they begged for a third story, she declined, telling them it was time for sleep.
“Mother, I forgot my sword in the great hall. May I get it? Please?”
The toy weapon was Landon’s newest obsession. Adelard had two wooden swords crafted, one for each of his boys, and the two constantly engaged one another in battle across the bailey. Landon took the sword with him everywhere, even resting it against his leg while he ate and propped against the wooden tub when he was bathed. He would never get to sleep without it next to him in the bed.
“Aye, you may fetch it. No dawdling, though. Retrieve the sword and then come back straightaway. Do you understand?”
“Aye, Mother.” Landon yanked back the bedclothes and scurried from the room.
“When do I get a sword, Mother?” Katelyn asked, annoyance obvious in her tone.
Sybil smiled down upon the girl and stroked her fingers through her daughter’s long, silky hair. Katelyn had both her father’s raven hair and his emerald green eyes, a combination that proved devastating. Already, Sybil could see glimpses of the great beauty that Katelyn would be someday. Her daughter also had a bold spirit and followed her two brothers across the estate, wanting to partake in whatever they did, even surpassing the two boys at times. She was far more adventurous than Landon and enjoyed riding above all else. While she resembled Adelard physically, with her looks and height, her intelligence definitely came from Sybil. At five years of age, Katelyn already grasped how to read. Sybil would make sure this daughter of hers learned not only how to manage domestic issues within the keep but ways to use her beauty to get whatever she wanted from any man.
“Mother, answer me! When may I have a sword like Landon and Quill?”
She kissed Katelyn’s brow. “Sorry, my little princess. My mind wandered a bit.”
“Where did it go?”
Sybil smiled, loving how curious this child of hers was. “You may have a sword when you turn six. Not before then so don’t think to ask me again. If so, I will change my mind and make it seven before you receive one.”
Katelyn nodded solemnly, her eyes as round as the full moon.
Adelard would call Sybil harsh for telling Katelyn this but, as a good mother, she knew how to balance severity with love. Because this was how she raised her children, Sybil knew Katelyn would think about the sword every day but never ask again. Her daughter would learn patience and understand that good things came to those who practiced it.
“Time to sleep, my darling. Close your eyes so you can dream of beautiful things.”
Katelyn did as she was told and Sybil looked at her daughter with love. It did bother her somewhat how much both children favored their father. Landon also had hair as black as night and the same mesmerizing green eyes. Like Adelard and Katelyn, Landon was tall, even taller than The Bastard, who was a year older. Sybil resented how, in a year, Landon would leave Blackwell to foster as all seven-year-old boys of the nobility did. That she should be separated from her son and still have to look at The Bastard while she missed her own boy would be punishment enough.
Sybil thought she would have to put an end to the outings the three children went on sometime soon. If she didn’t, Katelyn would expect to be in The Bastard’s company once Landon left Blackwell. Sybil did not want her daughter near the boy. Once again, hatred for Adelard’s oldest child swept through her. She worried if anything happened to Landon, Adelard might petition to have The Bastard inherit Blackwell.
She couldn’t allow that to happen. Even if it meant lying with Adelard again, something she hadn’t done since before their daughter’s birth. Though the thought repulsed her, Sybil would do what needed to be done to insure that a true de Blays became the next earl.
Glancing down, she saw Katelyn had fallen asleep. She picked up her daughter’s small hand and held it to her cheek, basking in her love for the girl.
The door opened and her husband entered the room. He came in each night to kiss the children goodnight. As Sybil released Katelyn’s hand and watched him cross the room, she knew something was wrong. Before she could ask him, he went to the bed and gazed longingly at Katelyn and then kissed her cheek.
The girl stirred and opened her eyes. “Father?”
Sybil resented how her daughter looked lovingly at this man. She wished Adelard would drop dead as his father had so she would be the only one the children turned to.
Adelard kissed Katelyn again and told her to go back to sleep but Katelyn begged him to go riding tomorrow. He assured her they would and she snuggled back against her pillow, falling asleep as Adelard brought the bedclothes around her.
“Where is Landon?” he asked.
Her husband still had a restless air about him. Something was in the wind, though she doubted he would tell her. They spoke as little as possible.
“He went downstairs to retrieve his sword. He left it in the great hall. You know how he takes it everywhere with him. I could not get him to climb into bed unless I allowed him to fetch it.”
A look of pain crossed her husband’s face. It gave Sybil a jolt. She could see his body tense even as he gave her a look of pity. The combination frightened Sybil to her core.
“I’ve done something terrible. At least that’s what others will say. You and the children will be the ones to suffer for it, though I’m guilty of no crime.”
Sybil wanted to scream at him, fool that he was. What idiotic scheme had he involved himself with, especially one severe enough to impact her and their children? Adelard wasn’t political, even though he was a cousin to the king. With the general feeling of mistrust spreading across England, thanks to the Despensers’ influence over King Edward, it wasn’t wise to claim a kinship with whoever sat on the throne.
“I won’t tell you what. The less you know, the better it might go for you. Just know that the king’s men are coming for me. They will be here shortly. Do your best to guard the children.”
Despite his serious words, Sybil couldn’t help but smile. Adelard, fool that he was, must somehow be mixed up with some plot against the king. That would be the only reason that he would warn her that the king’s men would soon arrive. Thankfully, she knew nothing. Neither did the children, who were too young to understand politics. This might be the chance she yearned for. Adelard would be gone. She would be in complete control of Blackwell and hold it in trust for Landon. She’d never have to couple with this man again.
And she could send The Bastard away. Far, far away.
Or have him killed.
“Farewell,” he said. “I am sorry I was not a better husband to you—but, in fact, I was no husband at all.”
At first, Sybil thought he referred to not pleasing her in love play. Then something in his eyes betrayed him. Cold fear gripped her.
“What?” she asked, afraid to hear his response.
“No one except for Walter knows. He witnessed my marriage to Cecily Elyot. Quill is my legal son. Landon and Katelyn are bastards.”
Sybil sprang from her chair and slapped him hard. Before he uttered another word, she raked her nails across his cheek. Adelard grabbed both her wrists.
“Enough,” he said harshly. “I know you will do what it takes to shield our children. No one need ever know. Keep the secret—from them and the world.”
Her eyes blazed at him. “And your . . . other son?”
“Gone. You’ll never find him.”
With that, Adelard released her and strode from the room
Sybil collapsed into the chair, breathing hard. She wasn’t legally wed. Her two children were bastards. Bastards! And all along, the true heir had scampered about the estate, blissfully unaware Blackwell would someday belong to him. He didn’t know. He couldn’t know. With Adelard sending the boy away, he might never know.
She vowed in that moment that Quill Cardon must never learn of his origins.
Landon still hadn’t returned, which worried her. Sybil rose and left the bedchamber. If the king’s men were to arrive at any moment, she did not want to be separated from her boy in the confusion. Adelard was right in that he knew she would do whatever it took to protect her children and their position within the nobility.
Cursing her false husband under her breath, Sybil rushed down the silent corridor. What had he done that would bring Edward’s men to Blackwell to bear him away? Her heart beat frantically as she reached the top of the staircase. Looking down, she saw Adelard embracing Landon.
Sybil glanced down and saw Katelyn had awakened and followed her. She swept the girl into her arms as the door to the keep crashed open. Dozens of soldiers poured in. Katelyn’s tiny hands gripped Sybil’s cotehardie as shouted orders came from below. She saw two knights latch on to Adelard and sweep him from Landon as a man began reading the charges against her husband.
Treason . . .
Quickly, Sybil retreated to the solar, a frightened Katelyn clinging desperately to her. Treason changed everything. The king would take all Blackwell lands and the earldom that accompanied it. Her boy—and his inheritance—were already lost to her.
She entered the solar and sat in a chair next to the fire, willing herself not to weep. Not to show any signs of weakness. Sybil looked at the trembling girl in her arms, knowing she would become a pawn to the crown. Waiting, Sybil heard the thundering of boots coming down the hall. The door was thrown open. Her gut lurched.
Life, as Sybil de Blays had known it, was over.
Convent of the Charitable Sisters, Colchester, Essex—1338
Katelyn de Blays sat alone as she broke her fast, the only time she would be allowed to eat today. Anger sizzled through her as she tore a piece from the small loaf of bread a postulate placed before her. She chewed without tasting it, finishing the bread and then downing the cup of weak ale. She closed her eyes, knowing she needed to harness the fury. She sensed others watching her and opened her eyes quickly, swiveling to her left. Two oblates stared at her, their eyes wide. As her gaze burned into them, they quickly dropped their eyes to the meal in front of them.
Immediately, her anger cooled. These young girls had done nothing to harm her. If anything, something damaging had been done to them. They were the latest oblates to have arrived at the Convent of the Charitable Sisters, daughters from noble families who gave their children to be raised as nuns. Katelyn never understood the multitude of reasons why any parents would do such a thing.
Of course, her own parents had no say in what had happened to their only daughter. As the child of a traitor, the king had banished Katelyn from the world she knew and sent her to one of silence and never-ending prayers. She vaguely remembered attending mass every morning at Blackstone Castle’s chapel, sitting next to her brother, but had some recollections of exploring the family’s estate. She’d only been five years of age when the king’s men came for her father so much of those childhood memories proved to be hazy. Even her father’s image had dimmed with time and she could no longer remember his features. Instead, he was a tall, lean man with a face hidden in shadows. She doubted she would ever recall exactly what he looked like.
But she would never forget how much she loved him.
Her relationship with her mother had been entirely different. Where her father was playful, letting Katelyn ride atop his shoulders and chasing her in games of fun, her mother had been stern. Katelyn knew she must always sit up straight and pay very close attention to whatever Lady Sybil said. Every word spoken to Landon or Katelyn was meant to instruct. Katelyn knew it was important to retain every lesson given.
The only time her mother let down her guard was when they were in private. She would tell grand tales of adventure at bedtime each night and Katelyn looked forward to that time. It was a side of her mother no one ever saw but it was the best part of each day.
Now, that very mother was making her life one of misery.
Katelyn rose and headed for the large hallway that led outside. Each day after Prime, the early morning mass attended by everyone inside the convent, she would break her fast and then care for the chickens, feeding them and gathering the eggs that had been laid before milking the goats. It was the only time she spent outdoors so she treasured it. Much of her early years had been lived outside, playing with Landon and Quill or riding horses with her father. Being locked away inside the nunnery for most of the hours in a day had been unbearable.
That’s why she’d run away so often.
She sensed someone following her as she reached the door and whirled around. As she suspected, Sister Martha shadowed her movements.
“If you wish to keep up with me, Sister Martha, you might want to stay closer. I’m sure the abbess has told you after yesterday’s incident not to let me from your sight.”
The nun hurried toward her, a deep frown on her face. “Mother Acelina is very angry with you, Katelyn.”
“Because I made it farther than I ever have before?” she snapped.
“Mother wishes to see you once you’ve finished with the animals,” the nun told her, a sly smile crossing her face. “I’m sure you’re to be reprimanded for your behavior yesterday. Even beaten again.” Now her smile turned broad. “And I hope I am the one chosen to carry out your punishment.”
Katelyn gritted her teeth, keeping the sharp retort from escaping her lips. Turning, she left the confines of the convent and stepped into the warm sunshine of the summer day.
On a regular basis for the last several years, Katelyn had sneaked away from the convent. She had no intention of taking a nun’s vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The abbess had informed Katelyn she had no plans to force her to become a good sister at the convent, but Katelyn couldn’t trust the woman who’d given birth to her.
Lady Sybil de Blays had been taken with her daughter to the same convent all those years ago but mother and child had been separated for a long period of time, one Katelyn could not assess since she’d been so young. What she knew now as postulates were the ones who had cared for her as she’d cried for her family and screamed for hours, wanting to go home to Blackwell. When Katelyn next saw her mother, Lady Sybil wore the garb of a nun, her habit tied around the waist with a cloth belt and her head covered with a wimple and veil attached to a scapula. A heavy cross on a chain hung around her neck. Her mother told her daughter that she had completed her postulancy and novitiate and had taken simple vows. She would now be known as Sister Acelina and would take her solemn vows in four more years.
It was as if a stranger stood before her and Katelyn had never been more frightened seeing what her mother had become.
In the years that had since passed, Sister Acelina had become an integral part of the nun’s community, being elected in a secret vote to serve as their abbess, a position she would hold the remainder of her life. Katelyn grew to understand that, for her mother, being named abbess of the convent was the closest thing Sybil de Blays could come to being a countess again. As Abbess of the Charitable Sisters, Mother Acelina would exercise considerable power and would be the equal to men who were secular or religious leaders. She would gain control over not only the convent but the secular life of the surrounding communities and act as a landlord and manager, even collecting revenue. Lady Sybil might have traded her identity as a member of the nobility to become Mother Acelina, but she now yielded as much power—if not more—as she had in her former life.
For Sybil de Blays, it had always been about power. Katelyn’s understanding had grown and as she matured, she realized her mother didn’t do what she did for God. Mother Acelina did it for herself. She was like an all-powerful goddess who expected everyone to worship her or suffer the consequences.
Yet, she had never forced Katelyn into the religious life. True, she was required to attend mass twice a day, Prime and Vespers, but she had been excused from the other numerous prayer services throughout the day that the other women attended. After Terce, when prayers were recited about two hours after the women broke their fast each morning, Katelyn spent the rest of her day teaching oblates and postulates to read. She enjoyed the time spent with others since reading required her and her charges to speak. Katelyn would read aloud during these lessons and ask those she tutored to do the same. If she hadn’t heard voices during these lessons, she might have gone mad long ago since, beyond prayers, silence was observed the remainder of the day, even at meals.
After gathering the eggs laid by the nunnery’s dozen hens, she scattered feed across the yard. Her chickens came rushing toward her, clucking noisily as they attacked their food with gusto. Katelyn leaned against the coop and watched them, smiling. One, her favorite, came and plopped upon her foot. She picked the hen up and cradled it, stroking the soft feathers as she closed her eyes. Once, she had done the same with horses. Memories of her running her hands along a horse’s flanks stirred. She could smell the horse as she buried her face in its side. Her fingers itched to stroke a long, velvet nose again. Loving horses had seemed so uncomplicated.
“Remember not to dawdle. You shouldn’t keep Mother waiting,” Sister Martha reminded her.
Katelyn had almost forgotten the nun had accompanied her to the yard. She placed the hen back on the ground and picked up the two large baskets filled to the brim with eggs.
“I’ll take these to the kitchen and then milk the goats. Then I’ll go straight to Mother’s office,” she promised the older woman.
Sister Martha’s eyes narrowed. “See that you do.” The nun stormed off without a backward glance.
For being a woman wed to Christ, Sister Martha wasn’t loving or friendly. In fact, Katelyn thought many of the nuns at the Convent of the Charitable Sisters seemed angry with their lots in life. She wondered how many of them had been forced by their families or some political action to take refuge within the nunnery’s walls and decided very few of the women present actually had a calling to serve God and the Living Christ.
Katelyn took the gathered eggs to the kitchen, glad that her duties did not include cooking or washing. She thought those the hardest tasks at the convent and was grateful that she had never been assigned to the kitchen or washroom. Returning outside, she milked the goats and fed them, enjoying watching the younger ones scamper as they hopped and butted heads with one another.
“Can we help?”
She saw the two girls who’d stared at her this morning had arrived.
“Aye. If you’ll each carry two buckets, I can go and set up for our reading lesson.”
Their eyes lit up.
“’Tis our favorite part of the day,” one confessed, a shy smile on her face.
“Mine, too,” Katelyn assured them. “Be sure to walk carefully so that no milk spills. I will see you after I have spoken to the abbess.”
She watched the little girls move away, carrying the buckets of milk. A wave of sadness hit her. This would be the only life these two ever knew, behind the walls of this convent. It made her all the more determined to try another escape. She loved God but wanted to see what the real world was like. A part of her hoped she might find Landon—and Quill.
Landon had been her brother. They shared the same bedchamber and sat together at meals. Quill, on the other hand, had been a part of their lives. He looked so much like Landon that sometimes it was hard to tell them apart, though Landon had their father’s emerald green eyes. Quill’s could be green or brown, depending upon his mood. Even at a young age, Katelyn knew Quill was one of them—but not. Her mother refused to hear Quill’s name spoken in her presence and she despised any time they spent with Quill.
Katelyn learned from eavesdropping on the servants that Quill was her half-brother and that his mother died. She never understood the hatred that her mother felt for Quill.
If she could find Landon, the two of them could look for Quill.
Katelyn bid her goats farewell and started toward the main building again. Her curiosity grew as she saw one of the nuns leading a knight and his horse. The knight, dressed in full armor, looped the reins of his magnificent horse around a post. Katelyn wondered what business he had at the convent. Sometimes, the nunnery would house travelers for the night, though she was never allowed to converse with them. The only other time someone came to visit was when the local priest arrived to hear confession and say mass or the bishop stopped to speak with Mother Acelina regarding Church business. Even then, they never had as grand a horse as the chestnut one now standing in the courtyard.
The lines of the horse intrigued her. She remembered riding one similar, her father sitting behind her. A flood of memories came rushing back as she clearly recalled his features for the first time in years. She glanced from the horse to the knight, whose stance seemed familiar. He removed his helm and she saw thick, raven hair. Again, so reminiscent of her father’s. A physical ache tore through her. Something urged her to speak to this stranger. Katelyn lifted her skirts and ran toward him.
She arrived too late, the man’s long strides already taking him inside, so she stopped next to his mount and stared at the animal’s physical beauty. It turned to look at her.
“Hello, my beauty. I am Katelyn,” she said softly, holding her hand up so the horse could sniff it. It did and snorted.
“I’m sorry I do not have a treat for you but I would love to pet you.” She kept her tone low and calm.
Reaching out a hand, she brushed it against the long nose and shivered in pleasure. Gradually, she stroked the horse and then wrapped her arms about its neck, burying her face in its coat.
“You smell divine,” she told the steed. “I would do anything to ride you.”
Though she longed to stay with the horse, seeing its master became more important to her. Mayhap, she could convince the knight to take her away from the nunnery. Katelyn stroked the horse a final time and rushed inside. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust after being in the bright sunlight for so long. The hall stood empty so she gathered the stranger had business with the abbess and had been taken upstairs.
Quickly, she set off for Mother Acelina’s office, seeing no one along the way. Katelyn pushed open the door that led to an anteroom and found it empty. The knight must already be inside, meeting with Mother. Fortunately, the door was slightly ajar and she had never been reluctant to eavesdrop. She tiptoed across the room and stood next to the oak door.
“This makes the ninth nunnery I’ve visited in search of my sister,” a deep voice said. “Both the king and I suspected a convent would be the logical place his father might have sent my sister. King Edward has given me half a dozen men and two months to find her before I must return to Windsor Castle. I beg you, Mother, to share with me if any woman here fits the description I’ve given you. I would do anything to be reunited with my sister.”
Katelyn heard the anguish in the man’s tone, even as a chill rippled through her.
Could he be speaking of her?
The knight had hair the color of Landon’s. His posture and gait had seemed familiar. A faint ray of hope touched her soul.
“I am surprised you do not recognize me, Landon,” her mother said.
Katelyn gasped and then threw a hand against her mouth, hoping the abbess hadn’t heard the noise. Her heart began pounding against her ribs as tears filled her eyes yet uncertainty filled her.
Would her mother let her leave the confines of the convent?
“I . . . am not sure how we would have met, Abbess.”
Brittle laughter followed. Katelyn thought her mother hadn’t laughed since their time at Blackstone Castle.
“Look closely, my son.”
A long pause ended when the knight asked, “Mother?”
“Aye, ‘tis exactly who I am, Landon.” She sighed. “You have matured in the years we’ve been apart but I would know you anywhere. You resemble your father a great deal. And here you are, a knight of the realm, Sir Landon de Blays. I suppose it was a good thing they forced the king to renounce his throne. It seems your cousin, the present king, has looked after you.”
“King Edward has been nothing but kind to me from the beginning. He also wants to extend that kindness to Katelyn. Please, Mother, I beg you to tell me. Is she here?”
Katelyn couldn’t wait any longer. She pushed the door open and rushed into the room. Her brother sprang to his feet, joy breaking out across his face as he recognized her.
She fell into his arms, laughing and crying, tears of happiness spilling down her cheeks.
“I have looked for you, Sister,” Landon said. He searched her face and then kissed her brow tenderly.
“I knew you were somewhere out there. I prayed the day would come when we would be reunited,” she said fervently. “I have fled several times, wanting to find you. She always had me brought back. Starved and beaten for disobedience.”
Landon released her and glared at their mother. “You have kept her here against her will? Have you forced her to take the vows of a nun, Mother?”
Mother Acelina gave them a cool look. “Nay. In fact, I now realize that your presence here is not in response to my missive to the king. You actually found your sister all on your own.”
“You wrote to the king about me? When? Why?” Katelyn demanded.
“Because you are a pawn, my dear daughter. A person others use to gain something. You’ve become of age to wed. I thought to use you as leverage. After all, you are a cousin to the king. And there are things I want.”
Landon’s arm went protectively about her. His presence gave Katelyn comfort—and the strength to speak out.
“You kept me here all these years, wishing to exploit me for your own personal gain?”
Her mother shrugged. “Exploit is such a harsh word. I would say use the advantage I had. You wondered why I never insisted that you take your holy vows. I was waiting for the right time to barter you to the king. I would return his cousin to him, in return for a favor or two.”
Rage filled her. “That’s all I am to you, Mother? A puppet in a game of power?”
The abbess sprang to her feet. “I have protected you all these years, Daughter. Kept quiet about where you were. Bided my time. I wanted to let you escape this place. I never will.”
“You are exactly where you want to be, Mother Acelina. As abbess of this convent, you have authority and control, not just of me, but over many lives. To think I once loved you. You love only yourself. You are spiteful and hunger for power. I doubt you ever loved Landon or me, much less Father.”
Her mother’s eyes narrowed. “Your father was a traitor,” she hissed. “His actions changed the course of all of our lives. We were stripped of everything, forced into new, unwanted lives. I did whatever I could to rise to the top again. I regret nothing I’ve done to attain my current position.”
“I am taking Katelyn with me, Abbess.” Landon’s tone turned cold and formal. “The king wants my sister brought to court and will make a good marriage for her.”
Mother Acelina fell back into her chair. “Then go. I have no need of either of you ungrateful children. I have my own flock that adores me. I will continue to minister to them.”
Katelyn exited the room, Landon following her.
Once they reached the staircase, he paused and said, “You need to collect your things. We will leave immediately.”
“I have no things, Landon. Thought I never took the vows, I have lived in poverty. I possess another faded kirtle but the wool has holes in it and the garment has grown too short. I doubt it’s something the king would want to see me in.” She placed her hand on his arm. “All I want to do is leave this place and never look back.”
Nicholas Mandeville raced across the meadow and into the forest, closely followed by men from Northmere and Ravenwood. It felt good to be hunting game and not fighting with the Scots, though their neighbors to the north had continued to slip across the English border and raid Northumberland of livestock and goods during the past year. King Edward might think he’d conducted his last campaign against Scotland but Nicholas felt in his bones that the English and those miserable Scots would clash until the end of time.
The group had met with the huntsman a short while ago as they broke their fast, listening to where he had seen a hart’s tracks. Based upon the broken branches and droppings spotted, the hunting party had a good idea where their quarry would be today. The huntsman had already predicted the path the hart would move along and placed relays of dogs along it. This way, the hounds wouldn’t tire before the hart and could aid the men in surrounding the quarry and pinning it down.
Nicholas slowed his horse as the trees thickened and listened carefully. He heard barking dogs to the east and urged Sunset on, knowing they must be close. As he rode and then met up with the first set of dogs, he caught sight of a tan flash ahead. The dogs now bayed madly and continued in pursuit of the deer, with the riders close behind them. The target led them on a merry chase, dashing and darting in long, elegant strides. After more than an hour of weaving in and out of the dense wood in pursuit, a horse sped past Nicholas on his right and he identified the blur as Favian Savill, his closest friend since their earliest days. With their families’ estates lying adjacent to one another, the boys had grown up together, first as playmates and then becoming closer than brothers when they fostered with Lord Bayard Stone at Stonegate.
Competitive as always, Nicholas bore down on his friend, determined to pass him and reach the hart first. He scrambled past Favian and a short time later entered a clearing. The tired hart had finally stopped and now faced the hunters, ready to defend itself against the band of humans. Both Nicholas and Favian signaled to the hounds so that they would hold in place and not attack the prey.
The rest of the hunting party arrived as the two men leaped from the backs of their mounts. As custom allowed, the most prominent man should make the kill with his sword or a spear. The dozen horses behind them halted as Nicholas gestured to his friend, words unnecessary between them. Each man fanned out in a different direction and approached the trembling hart. The panting beast looked from side to side and then turned to face one of them and then the other, unsure of what to do. Nicholas could see the deer’s heart thumping against its breast and felt a moment of pity for it.
With a nod to Favian, he made his move. The hart whipped around and committed itself, charging toward Nicholas. He quickly dispatched the prey with his sword. Favian had moved in to assist him if Nicholas had needed help. At times, he marveled how the two of them could think as a single being. He felt blessed to be close to this brother of his choosing.
Unlike his relationship with Bryce, his own flesh and blood.
Turning, he faced the group of hunters. “’Tis time for the unmaking. Who will help dissect this hart?”
Three men stepped forward. Nicholas pulled his sword from the deer and cleaned the weapon before sheathing it, reminding the men once they finished to reward the hounds with pieces of the carcass so that they would associate their effort today with this reward.
“I know Sunset could use a good watering,” he said to Favian. “Shall we take our horses to the nearby stream?”
They led their mounts to water and watched them lap greedily. Nicholas couldn’t imagine a more perfect day, full of sunshine and sport, one spent with a man he respected and adored.
“You look happy, Favian,” Nicholas noted.
His friend’s smile lit up his entire face. “I am, Nicholas. Catherine has made me so. I might have wed a stranger three months ago but now she is my everything. We are both good friends and lovers. I care for her and depend upon her opinions.” Favian leaned in. “In fact, I believe I am in love with her.”
A pang of jealousy struck Nicholas. Seeing the joy on Favian’s face made him want to share in that kind of happiness. He had been betrothed from a young age but the lady had died of a fever, along with her sister and mother, several years ago. Now that he was five and twenty, Nicholas decided he should approach his father and insist it was time for the heir to Northmere to wed. If his mother had been alive, Nicholas was sure a betrothal and nuptial mass would have already taken place. She would long ago have reminded her husband of this duty. Unfortunately, her untimely death had put his father into a dark state of mind the past few years. Since Lord Cedric had not brought up the idea, Nicholas determined he would do so. He might be as lucky as his friend and find a wife he would cherish.
“Come. We should rejoin the others,” he said. “That is, if you can stop thinking about Catherine long enough to mount your horse and return home.”
Favian grinned. “Tease all you want, Nicholas. I cannot wait for you to wed and enjoy marital bliss as I do.”
Nicholas swung into Sunset’s saddle and turned the horse. Without warning, a wild boar crashed from the forest, heading straight for them. Sunset whinnied and jerked to the right, almost unseating Nicholas, leaving Favian as the lone target of the charging boar. Before Nicholas could alert his friend to the danger, the animal reached Favian, who had one foot in the stirrups and his back to the boar. It gored Favian in his upper thigh. As blood spurted, he fell to the ground and the boar trampled him.
Vaulting from his horse, Nicholas drew his sword and arced it overhead. It cut through the air and sliced the head from the boar in one fell swoop. The animal collapsed, Favian under it.
Panic seized Nicholas. He shouted for help, hoping it would arrive quickly. Finding a reserve of strength beyond measure, he tossed aside his weapon and thrust his arms under the boar, scooping the beast from Favian and slinging it away.
Kneeling, he laid a hand on his friend’s brow and grasped his broken hand. A glance up and down revealed Favian covered in blood, his chest crushed and his breathing labored. Not even a talented healer would be able to save his life. Nicholas saw the dying light in Favian’s eyes. He recognized it from his time on the battlefield and knew the end was imminent.
Favian gave him a weak smile. “Take care . . . of Catherine . . . for me, Nick. She won’t forgive me . . . for dying. Promise . . . me.”
Nicholas squeezed Favian’s hand. “I promise.”
“Good,” Favian wheezed. He coughed violently and blood bubbled up, pouring from his mouth. Favian took a final, anguished breath and fell silent.
“No!” Nicholas shouted hoarsely.
He was dully aware of others arriving. Moving him away from the now lifeless body. Only moments ago, his friend had been full of life. In love with his new wife.
And now Sir Favian Savill lay dead.
What would he tell Lord Terald? And Catherine?
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