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Authors: Anne O'Brien

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Romance, #Medieval, #General

Marriage Under Siege

BOOK: Marriage Under Siege
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Marriage Under Siege
Anne O'Brien
MIRA (2012)
Rating:
****
Tags:
Fiction, Historical, Romance, Medieval, General
Fictionttt Historicalttt Romancettt Medievalttt Generalttt

Anne O'Brien has joined the exclusive club of excellent historical novelists.' - Sunday Express. 'Will you hold the castle for me, lady, in my name?' He does not know me. He does not trust me. 'Do you have to ask?' With staunchly opposed political views, the new Lord and Lady Mansell are not seeking love during a time of civil war. Francis offered Honoria his name in response to his cousin's will and the promise of £4000 a year. When their castle is held by Royalist forces Honoria must appear loyal to Francis's Parliamentarian cause. Working together to protect their lands, the vows made politically become something more. But where does her loyalty lie? Soon scandalous whispers of betrayal and double dealings land at Honoria's door. And when the prison keys of London start rattling, Francis must question whether the wife he saved has dealt him the ultimate betrayal?

Prologue

 

They drew rein at the
crossroads.

'So, Josh—what now? Ludlow
is closer than Brampton Percy and it has the guarantee of a welcome and a few
home comforts. Do you go home?'

'Perhaps not.' Sir Joshua
Hopton, eldest son and heir to one of the foremost Parliamentarian families in
Ludlow, tried without success to tuck his cloak more securely round him. Rain
dripped from the brim of his hat, but was ignored. They were so wet that it
mattered little. 'I have a mind to witness your homecoming as the new Lord—so I
will forgo the delights of Ludlow until tomorrow.'

'Well, then, let us go on.
You will no doubt be as welcome as I am.' A swirl of low cloud and mist hid the
faint gleam of cynicism in the cold eyes of Sir Joshua's companion as he
shortened his reins, slippery from the wet. 'More so, I venture.'

Without further
conversation, they turned their horses to the west, towards the Marches'
stronghold of Brampton Percy as a fresh flurry of rain, heavily spiked with
hail, pattered with diamond-bright intensity on men and horseflesh alike.

Their escort fell in
behind.

Chapter
One

 

An hour later the two round
towers, built to overawe the local populace and protect the gateway with its
massive double portcullis, loomed dark and forbidding before the small party of
travellers. The March day was now drawing to an early close with scudding
clouds and a chilling wind that whipped the travel-stained cloaks, tugged at
broad-brimmed hats and unsettled the weary horses. It was not weather in which
to travel, given the choice. Nor was the castle a welcoming prospect, but the
two men approached confidently, knowing that they were expected and that the
gate would not be closed against them.

It had been a long journey
from London to this small cluster of houses and its imposing castle of Brampton
Percy in the depths of the Welsh Marches. Days of poor weather, poor
accommodation and even poorer roads in the year of Our Lord 1643. The War, now
into its second year, had given rise to any amount of lawlessness, encouraging
robbers and thieves to watch the two men with their entourage and their loaded
pack horses with more than a little interest, but they had finally arrived at
their destination without event. Perhaps the air of determination, of
watchfulness and well-honed competence that surrounded the travellers,
together with the clear array of weapons, had kept the footpads at bay.
Certainly none had been prepared to take the risk.

More problematic had been
the small groups of armed forces that frequently travelled the roads in these
troubled times. It was not always easy to identify their affinity, to
determine friend from foe, Royalist from Parliamentarian. For these two
travellers and their dependants, a Parliamentarian force would have signified
a friend, an exchange of news, some protection if they chose to travel on
together. A Royalist party would have signalled at best instant captivity and a
hefty ransom after a long and uncomfortable imprisonment in some local
stronghold, at worst, ignominious death, their bodies stripped of everything of
value and left to rot in a roadside ditch. So they had travelled carefully and
discreetly, their clothes dark and serviceable, nothing to advertise their
economic circumstances or social standing other than the quality of their
horseflesh and the tally of servants who accompanied them.

On this final afternoon in
the rural fastness of north-west Herefordshire, the heavy showers of rain and
sleet had cleared, but there was no glimmer of sun or lightening of the heavy
clouds, making the sight of the gatehouse doubly welcome. The village street
was silent except for chickens scratching in the mud, the inhabitants taking
refuge from the elements and the uncertainty, but the travellers were aware of
watchful eyes as they passed. Their hands tightened on their sword hilts. No
one could afford to be complacent, even when the assurance of hospitality was
close at hand.

They made their way past
the darkened forge at the crossroads, the timbered inn, the squat shape of St
Barnabas's church with its square tower, until their horses' hooves clattered
on the wet cobbles before the gateway. Immediately they were hailed by a
watchman who had been posted to warn of their coming. After the briefest of
conversations one of the metal-studded gates was pulled back, allowing them
access across a wide dry ditch and beneath the fearsome metal teeth of the
portcullis above their heads to the relative sanctuary of an inner passage,
which led in turn to an inner courtyard. Someone had hung a lantern in
readiness. It guttered, flickering wildly in the draughts, and did little to
dispel the shadows of the inner court but yet was a sign of welcome to warm the
hearts of the travellers. Servants now emerged from the stableblock and from
the heavy wooden door that led from the top of an outdoor stone staircase into
the Great Hall of the main house. They were clearly expected. Horses were held,
baggage untied, the weary animals led away for food and grooming, servants
shepherded in the direction of the kitchen range, leaving the two men to stand
and take stock of their surroundings.

'An impressive
establishment.' Sir Joshua, the shorter of the two, looked around with
interest, trying unsuccessfully to keep his already saturated boots out of the
standing water that was refusing to drain from the cobbled courtyard. 'A little
medieval for my taste, with little prospect of comfort—but definitely
impressive. Built to keep out the Welsh, I expect, as well as the border
raiders. Do you remember much of it?'

'More or less, but I have
not been here for years. Lord Edward was not the most welcoming member of the
family in recent times.' His companion, taller, broader, pulled off his hat and
ran a hand through the heavy waves of damp hair that clung uncomfortably to his
neck.

'That's families for you.
And now it's all yours!'

'Mmm. But do I want it?'
The new owner turned on his heel and surveyed the claustrophobic weight of the
heavy stone walls that surrounded them on all four sides, the small windows
and the filthy cobbles, with a jaundiced air. 'There was some argument years
back. The story goes, according to my mother, that Lord Edward ordered my
father out of the house at the point of a blunderbuss and threatened to fire
without warning if he ever set eyes on him or my mother again. Or their
children! I believe he described us as hell-born brats. Which was, as I recall,
in all honesty the truth!' A flash of a grin lit his face in the sombre light.
'It did not trouble my sire overly. He never had any expectations of inheriting,
after all. And he hated Edward like the Devil.'

The two men turned towards
the outer staircase which would take them up to the main door.

'Medieval or not,' the new,
albeit reluctant, lord continued, 'I shall be glad to get out of this wind. I
presume you will stay the night, Josh.'

Sir Joshua Hopton laughed.
'Nothing would get me to travel on tonight. Tomorrow will be soon enough. Lead
on, Francis. As this is one of the strongest Royalist areas in the country, I
do not fancy my chances if I travel on alone and am recognised. My family is
too well known for its disloyal sympathies in this locality.'

'Come, then. I will be glad
to give you the freedom of Brampton Percy's hospitality. Don't look too closely
to your left, but the rat that has just run along the wall is as large as an
Irish wolfhound. Are you sure you wish to stay? Your bedchamber might boast a
similar occupant.'

On a companionable laugh,
the two men stepped through the doorway into a vast high-beamed room that had
been constructed as the Great Hall of the twelfth-century border fortress of
Brampton Percy. It was vast and echoing, still in the state of its original
construction with an open minstrels' gallery at the far end and any number of
wooden screens, strategically placed in an attempt to deflect the prevalent
draughts. Apart from a carved oak chest and two oak chairs with high backs and
carved arms, the room was empty.

'Welcome, my lord.' A quiet
voice spoke from behind them and a dark-suited individual emerged from the
doorway, which would undoubtedly lead to the servants' quarters, to bow with
grave courtesy and respect. He was of slight build, elderly, with close-cropped
white hair, clad in black. He addressed his next words to the new owner,
clearly recognising him. 'We have been expecting you, Sir Francis. My Lord
Mansell, as I should now say. You will most likely not remember me. I am
Foxton, Lord Edward's Steward. If I may say so, my lord, I remember you from
your visits here as a boy.' His face remained solemn, but the wavering light
from the candle that he carried caught the faintest of twinkles in his dark
eyes.

'Foxton. Yes, of course.' A
smile crossed Lord Mansell's dark features, lightening his somewhat bleak
expression as memories of happier times touched him. 'The years pass, do they
not? I believe I have one painful memory.' His smile took on a wry twist. 'Did
you not cuff my ear for breaking a pane of rare coloured glass in the chapel?'

'Indeed I did, my lord,'
the Steward replied with placid acknowledgement. 'Children can be most high
spirited. As you say, it is many years ago.' Foxton placed the candle on the
oak chest and stepped closer. 'Allow me to take your cloaks and hats.'

'This is Sir Joshua
Hopton.' Mansell indicated his fellow traveller. 'He will stay tonight and then
travel on to Ludlow tomorrow. I presume we can accommodate him?'

'Of course, my lord. There
will be no difficulty.'

They unfastened mud-caked
cloaks, shaking off excess moisture, and handed over hats and gloves. Mansell
looked askance at his boots and breeches, also liberally spattered and stained
with signs of hard travel. 'We are not fit for company, Foxton, but I believe
that food and drink would be most welcome before anything else—and a fire. We
have travelled far and fast today.'

'Not to mention a
comfortable seat.' Sir Joshua groaned as he stretched his arms, flexed his
shoulders. 'I was becoming welded to that animal to my detriment. Anything with
a cushion will be an answer to a prayer.'

'Of course, Sir Joshua. All
has been prepared in the old solar. Robert here will show you the way, my
lord, if you have forgot. I hope you will accept my condolences on this sad
occasion. All at Brampton Percy are relieved that you could come here so
rapidly, given the unexpectedness of Lord Edward's death and the dangers that
threaten God-fearing folk when they set foot outside their homes.'

'Thank you, Foxton. It is
good to be here.' Mansell's words were politely bland, but he refused to meet
Josh's eye, deciding that it would not be politic to inform his new Steward of
his true sentiments towards his inheritance.

'I doubt they will be so
delighted with your presence when they realise that your views on the present
state of affairs in general and His Majesty in particular do not match so well
with those of Lord Edward.' Josh's words were quietly spoken, for Francis's
ears only. 'Or those of the rest of this county.' His brows rose in
anticipation. 'It will be interesting to see the reaction when your neighbours
discover that they have acquired a Parliamentarian fox in their comfortable
Royalist hen-coop.'

'Very true.' Mansell
grimaced, but refused to be drawn further. 'I think that perhaps I will not
mention that tonight—it is likely to be an inflammatory subject, as you say,
and I have not the energy for anything more than food and a bed. Tomorrow, we
shall see.' He turned back to Foxton, who was preparing to carry off the
garments in the direction of the kitchens. 'Lord Edward's burial, Master
Foxton. Have arrangements been made for it to take place?'

'Indeed, my lord. The
Reverend Gower—the recent incumbent in the church here—has it all in hand. It
is to be conducted here tomorrow, Wednesday, at St Barnabas's, if that is to
your convenience.'

'I do not see any reason
why not.'

They turned to follow in
the wake of Robert—a soberly dressed servant whose lack of co-ordination and
interested glances towards the newcomers betrayed his youth—heading towards the
staircase at the far end of the Hall. Their boots sounded hollowly on the oaken
boards of the vast room.

'There is no need for you
to feel that you should stay for that event.' Mansell turned towards his
friend, returning to the previous conversation, understanding Sir Joshua's
desire to reassure himself of the safety of his family in Ludlow. 'And on first
acquaintance, I doubt that I can offer you much in the way of comfort here.' He
raised his head to take in the hammer beams above with their festoons of cobwebs
and shivered a little as the draughts permeated his damp clothes. There was
clearly no form of heat in the room, no warming and welcoming fire, in spite
of the vast cavern of a fireplace built into one wall. 'I would think that
nothing has been spent on this place, and certainly no major improvements made
since it was built—when?— over three hundred years ago.'

'Your first impression is
most astute, my lord.'

The voice, calm and well
modulated and distinctly feminine, took Mansell by surprise. He came to a rapid
halt and looked round, keen eyes searching the deep shadows. He could not see
the owner.

'Most of the castle dates
back over three hundred and fifty years, my Lord Mansell,' the observation
continued from his right. 'And I can vouch for the fact that there has been
little, if any, attempt to either improve, refurbish or extend it—to the
detriment of all comfort and pleasure.'

He swung round. And saw a
figure, certainly the owner of the voice, partly concealed in the shadows by
the carved screen that ran along the north side of the Great Hall. Her clothes
were dark; a glimpse of the pale skin of hands and face being the only sign
that initially caught his attention. Presuming that it was merely a servant
girl, if an unusually outspoken one, engaged in conducting her own household
tasks, he would have continued his progress with merely an inclination of the
head in her direction and a lift of his brows, but a discreet cough from Foxton
behind him drew Mansell's attention.

'My lord...'

The lady approached with
graceful steps to stand beside Foxton, her eyes never leaving Mansell's face.
As she emerged from the shadows he glimpsed a movement beside her which soon
transformed itself into a large hound. It remained close to the lady's skirts,
as if it sensed her need for protection, its pale eyes fixed on Mansell, its
lips lifted into the faintest of snarls, exposing long teeth. Mansell assessed
its elegant limbs, its rough grey pelt, its broad head tapering to a narrow
muzzle and allowed his lips to curl into a slight smile. So here was the
wolfhound itself! The dog growled low in its throat, only quietening when a
slender hand was placed on its head in warning.

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