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Authors: Roberta Gellis

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"Be assured," she said clearly, "that Lord Richard
means only good to your lady and to you all. To give weight and substance to
these words of good intent, he has chosen as Alinor's warden Sir Simon Lemagne,
who stands at my left hand."

Alinor, who was slightly behind the Queen, could not see Sir
Simon's face, but she could not miss the lift of the head, the sharply indrawn
breath, the sudden tensing of his heavy shoulders. The assignment was a
complete surprise to him. Was this the jest the Queen had spoken of when she
entered the keep? Obviously Simon was a trusted and much-loved servant. Was
that good or bad? At least Alinor was in no doubt about the feelings of her
vassals. She could hear almost explosive sighs of relief from Sir Andre and Sir
John.

The Queen gestured Sir Simon forward. For one short instant before
he bent his knee to her, their eyes locked. The Queen's lips twitched. She had
a feeling that Lady Alinor would not be the easiest ward to control.
Nonetheless, she remained perfectly grave and her voice did not quiver. The
Queen had long practice in subduing unseemly mirth.

"Do you, Sir Simon, swear to deal honestly and justly with
the vassals and lands of Lady Alinor, and, saving the King's grace and honor,
do all in your power to maintain her honor and benefit."

"I swear."

The face, which Alinor could now see, was as set and
expressionless as a steel mask, and under the weathered brown showed a like
gray shade that spoke of pallor. Alinor felt indignant. She could not believe
herself to be so onerous a burden. Sir Simon came to his feet and a crooked
finger brought Sir Andre and Sir John forward.

"Do you accept Sir Simon as King's warden?"

The voices answered in chorus. "Saving our lady's honor and
grace, I do so swear."

The Queen's lips folded hard. That was not the answer she desired
or expected. There was, however, no way to make them amend it to a simple
acceptance without dangerous resentment, not only in them but in all the
witnesses. The momentary pique passed, and she smiled.

"Well then, we have done our business. You are all free to
go." But she took Alinor by one hand and Simon by the other, keeping them
with her as the others withdrew.

As the Great Hall began to empty the Queen sank back into her
chair and turned her eyes to Alinor. "I hope you believe now that I spoke
the truth in your chamber."

"I can see that my vassals are well pleased, Your Grace. Thus
I do know that you have dealt kindly and truthfully with me." She
hesitated and then, as usual, spoke her irritation aloud. "Sir Simon,
however, does not seem exactly overjoyed at having me in his care."

"And should he be?" the Queen asked mischievously.
"He has had two long talks with Sir Andre and Sir John. Perhaps they have
told him you are no meek and obedient maid."

"If they spoke of me at all," Alinor answered stoutly,
"I am sure they spoke no ill. Meek, possibly I am not, but I am obedient
to reason."

"That is a round answer," the Queen acknowledged a little
too gravely, "and shows a most proper and touching trust in your vassals'
loyalty and prudence."

"Which surely I have good reason to trust." But Alinor
was over her momentary crossness. She was aware that the Queen was teasing her,
and her eyes laughed.

"Most surely. So then, Simon, do not look so black and
explain how it comes about that you have a misliking to this duty."

The lightness of the Queen's tone did not communicate itself to
her liegeman. He was no longer pale, but his face remained closed. "I can
assure you that it has no source in the Lady Alinor," he prevaricated.
"Her faith in her vassals is well founded, so far as I can tell, for we
did not speak of her at all. I did not know, you see, that I would soon be so
intimately connected with her affairs, and did not wish to ask questions about
what did not concern me."

Both women looked at him, Alinor really angry and the Queen
concerned. From Alinor's point of view she, if anyone, was the one put-upon.
Her property was well run. Until the last year of his life, her grandfather had
visited each and every holding, no matter how small. When he grew feeble, she
had gone with Sir Andre. The lesser vassals and castellans respected and obeyed
her chief vassal; they paid their dues promptly and in full. The serfs were
not, for the most part, starved or ill treated; they did their share—if not
willingly, at least they did not run away to the new, growing towns as the
serfs of many other masters did.

Having given the matter some calm thought, Alinor had brought
herself to accept the Queen's reasoning. It was all very well for her to
protest that she was honest and would pay the King his due. Words, after all,
were cheap. It was only reasonable to appoint a warden to be sure she
was
honest.
But such an appointment was a prize to be fought over. Alinor knew that royal
wardens were not paid. It was customary that a healthy slice of the estate
revenues would go into the warden's purse rather than the King's coffers. Since
it was dangerous to reduce the King's share by any visible amount, the extra
sum was either squeezed out of the estates or taken from the ward's share.

In some cases, where there had been disseisin or war, where the
vassals were trying to free themselves from their overlord, the warden's task
was hard. He might have to expend much of his own resources to build an army to
beat his ward's vassals into proper submission. In other cases where the land
itself was ill managed no one knew the true worth or who was responsible for
what duty, a warden might find himself in serious trouble by over- or
underestimating the revenue due the King or he might need to expend much time
and labor before the land could be made to pay a fair rental. Then, of course,
the warden's share was only a fair payment for his effort.

Alinor was angry because none of these things were true of her
lands. Sir Simon Lemagne had been given a rich gift. He had no more to do than
examine the account books—or, rather, Alinor thought a little contemptuously,
have his clerks examine them for, surely, the great warrior could neither read
nor write himself. Then his great labor would consist of opening the coffers
and taking from them the King's share and his own. What right had he to speak
coldly of her "affairs."

The Queen had not a thought to spare for Alinor or her feelings.
Never in all the years that Simon had served her had he shown such resentment
for a task laid upon him. And never, even when his temper had been aroused, had
he failed to respond to her teasing. His ready sense of humor had always
tickled him into compliance when he had been bested by her in a game of wits
and set to doing something he really did not approve of. All in all, Simon had
been acting very strangely since he had not promptly obeyed her on the road.

Of course, he might have changed over the years they had been
apart. No, that was not true. There had been no sense of strangeness, no sense
even of a break in their well-established relationship, from the moment he had
entered the keep at Winchester with the glad news of her release. The Queen's
eyes dropped to her hands and her gaze rested on the age-creased and mottled
skin. By the name of God, she thought, he is no longer a young man. I think of
him as a boy, because thus I knew him best when I was a young woman, but I am
an old, old woman now, and Simon is a man, also growing old.

"Child," she said gently to Alinor, "will you see
that a change of garments is laid ready for me? Something warm. These days I
feel the cold as the evening draws on."

There was nothing Alinor could do but curtsy and leave. She knew,
of course, that the Queen was sending her away so that she could talk Sir Simon
around in private. Had the Queen allowed even the smallest opening, Alinor
would doubtless have bitten off her nose to spite her face by saying she would
order her vassals to rescind their acceptance—or something equally silly.
Fortunately she had no opportunity to seem either spiteful or foolish and, by
the time she reached her chamber, she had reconsidered, swallowed her bile, and
was hoping sincerely that the Queen would be successful. One thing was sure.
Any man who could look with revulsion on being the King's warden for estates
like Alinor's was not out to line his purse with another's gold.

The Queen, however, was thinking less of cajoling Simon than of
trying to discover what was wrong with him. "Simon, what ails you?"
she asked as soon as Alinor left them. "Are you ill?"

"No."

The short answer was even more disturbing. Simon was in the habit
of telling her his troubles when she had time to listen to him. And that had
not changed, either. He had been full and fluent on the subject of the state of
England and the problems that state had caused him in the last years of Henry's
reign. The Queen put out her hand and grasped Simon's wrist.

"You must believe I had no thought that you would not welcome
this. I thought of it as a jest because that child is a hellion and will run
you a merry race, but I thought you would be pleased. I thought I had found one
part of a fitting reward for the good news you brought and for your long
faithfulness."

"Pleased? You thought I would be pleased that you laid
another heavy burden on my back?"

"What heavy burden?" the Queen asked, so stunned by
Simon's inaccurate description of what she knew was a profitable sinecure that
she could feel no resentment at the rebellious tone. After all, what were
liegemen for but to bear burdens?

"You think I will be welcomed here? This land needs a warden
as I need a second head. Anything I do or say will be bitterly resented."

"Of course," the Queen agreed, frowning in worried
puzzlement. "There is naught for you to do but judge what the income from
the lands should be so that the King receives his rightful due. And for this
light duty you may take a tithe— which is rich pay for little labor. I ask
again, what ails you? What mislike you in this duty?"

"I will take no tithe from the pittance that will remain to
the King's ward," he snapped. Then, horrified at the implication of his
words, he passed his free hand over his face. "I beg your pardon, Madam. I
know you mean to do the best in your power for Lady Alinor."

The apology was welcome, but he had not answered her question and,
it appeared, had no intention of doing so. The Queen shrugged angrily.
"Very well. It is some embarrassment to me, but I will not press an old
friend into an unwelcome task. I shall seek out another warden."

"No!" Simon exclaimed forcibly.

The Queen gaped at him and then shook her head. She could swear
that he was as surprised as she by what he had said. "Will you deign to
tell me, then, what it is you desire?" she asked furiously.

Simon had not answered the Queen's question because he had no idea
what answer to give. He did not know why he should resist what anyone in his
right mind would scheme and beg and pay richly to obtain. He knew, indeed, that
Queen Alinor had chosen him because she had taken a liking to the girl, because
she trusted him not to rob an innocent child. A rapacious warden could ruin
even such rich lands as these and oppress the vassals until they turned
rebellious. But the Queen had been considering his good also. A careful man
could recompense himself richly from such a post without damaging the ward's
heritage or cheating the King.

To refuse such an offer was both unkind to the helpless girl and
uncivil to the generous Queen. Still something in Simon shrank from a close
association with the lovely Lady Alinor. Something told him that pain and
heartache would be his portion from this wardship. Yet when the Queen said she
would find another to guard that prize, he could not endure the idea. His heart
had answered before reason could control his tongue.

"I desire that you will forgive me, Madam," he said
huskily. "I will accept this ward, and thank you for the appointment—most
humbly."

CHAPTER 4

When Lady Alinor woke in her own bed two mornings later, she was
at first disoriented. Then, when she realized the Queen was gone, she suffered
an odd sinking sensation. This was so unusual for her, because normally she
woke full of energy and enthusiasm for the tasks and amusements of each day,
that she lay still to think about it. There were no unpleasant duties on hand
that she could remember. In fact, the servants had been so busy and so awed by
the Queen's presence that they had been unusually well behaved. There were no
hangings or maimings to be done. Alinor always forced herself to go because she
felt that she must be recognized as the true authority behind Sir Andre, or
whichever of her vassals was dispensing the justice. That gave her a sinking
feeling, but it could not be the cause of today's sensation.

She thought over the day's work in more detail. Mass and then
breakfast—nothing unpleasant there, surely—and then to oversee the spinning,
weaving, and sewing of the maids. Alinor surprised herself by sighing. Surely
it was most necessary to check upon them. She had not looked at their doings
for three days at least and doubtless little had been accomplished, and that
little all awry. The maids had all been too busy peeping at the great lady and
hoping they would be called to do some minor service for her to pay attention
to their ordinary work.

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