|Subject: Honor on the Field, 24 and 25 - of 25.
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Date Posted: Sunday, November 27, 09:48:17pm
In reply to:
's message, "Honor on the Field, con't." on Wednesday, November 16, 09:49:08am
~*~*~*~*~*~*~ Chapter 24~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Samuelle left almost immediately, pausing only to gently squeeze Nikita’s fingers one more time before seeking out Sir Phillip to announce his plans for taking Nikita two days hence, and then to find his own retainers and let them know to prepare themselves for the next stage of their travels.
When he stepped out into the hall, he caught sight of a hunched-shouldered, hand wringing Michelle hovering nearby. Staring somewhat grimly at her, he asked, “is there something I can do for you?”
“No, my lord.”
Samuelle started to turn away, when Michelle’s voice stopped him. “Well, actually, my lord…”
“Yes?” Samuelle turned back and looked at her.
“How is my sister?”
“I’ve seen her happier,” he replied frostily.
Michelle flushed and dropped her eyes. Her voice nearly inaudible, she said, “I would apologize to her.”
Nearly rolling his eyes at the foolish woman-child before him, Samuelle said with asperity, “You would do better to offer your sincerest thanks and warmest gratitude. You should acknowledge a debt you can never fully repay, and not just for what she does now, but for all she has done for you.”
Michelle looked up in some surprise. “Oh. You think so, my Lord?”
“That is my advice.” Samuelle bowed and turned on his heel, knowing he needed to escape before his urge to shake the silly girl and order her not to bother her sister got the better of him. The fleeting thought that Hugh Barbant had perhaps won exactly the wife he deserved was enough to bring a smile to his lips as he headed for the sound of Sir Philip’s voice.
Michelle watched Lord Rouen disappear around the corner, his distinctive, loose-limbed, shoulder-swinging gait holding her gaze even as she turned to knock on her father’s door. Just as she raised her hand, the door opened and Nikita prepared to step out.
Nikita’s voice sounded wary and Michelle bit her lip in sudden nervousness.
“Looking for our father?”
Gazing into her sister’s normally warm blue eyes, now as cool and remote as Sir Phillip’s, Michelle shivered and momentarily lost her courage. “Um, no, actually, I was, um, looking for Hugh.”
“He and Sir Phillip left some time ago. I assume you will find them in the great room.”
Nikita nodded her head in acknowledgement and started to slip past her.
Nikita stopped and looked inquiringly over her shoulder.
“I’m…” remembering just in time Rouen’s advice not to apologize, Michelle licked her lips. “I wish it could all be different.”
Nikita closed her eyes briefly then opened them, and this time Michelle saw her sister’s sadness and disappointment.
Nikita’s voice was very soft. “Me too, Michelle. Me too.”
Nikita turned and continued on her way, and knowing she was about to fail in her mission to repair the fragile bond between them, Michelle called out quietly, “thank you, Nikita, for everything.”
Nikita paused without turning her head, waved her hand in acknowledgement, then hurried on her way.
Slowly following in Nikita and Rouen’s footsteps, Michelle made her way into the great room, and there Hugh informed her that she would be a bride in less than a day and be traveling to her new home in southern France within the week. The rest of the afternoon and evening passed in a blur of activity as Michelle struggled with the enormity of uprooting her life; deciding what she would take with her, what to leave behind, how to pack, and all the time, worrying about the true nature of the man she would marry.
To Michelle’s surprise, supper that night was much improved by the presence of Rouen. He was in an expansive mood and quickly instigated a boisterous conversation among the men about the pratfalls of the last tournament season, all with the apparent aim of coaxing her sister into laughter. He finally succeeded with a story about Robby Clarendon getting the better of Harold Peplow in a battle of nearly evenly-matched wit.
It was first pleasant conversation Michelle could remember since the whole awful reality of her pregnancy had set in.
She said as much late that night to Hugh, during his usual, semi-clandestine visit.
“Rouen can afford to be pleasant. He is the only one of us without regrets for what is to happen tomorrow.” Hugh replied.
Despite, or maybe because of the gentle fingers stroking her naked spine, Michelle started to cry. Instead of quickly vanishing, as had been his practice whenever she’d shown the smallest inclination to weep in his presence in the past, Hugh pulled her closer against his chest, rested his chin on her hair and let her sob. When her tears eased, Hugh kissed the top of her head. “We’ll make the best of it Michelle. We neither of us want a marriage of misery. We’ll find a way to contentment. I promise.”
Hugh held her until she slept and slipped away without waking her.
Michelle woke that morning hungry for the first time in what seemed months and decided that the end of her period of nausea was an excellent omen for the future.
Not long after several maidservants arrived to help prepare Michelle for her wedding, a knock on Michelle’s door ushered in Belinda, carrying a gown Michelle had never seen before, under-dress and mantle alike made of fine wool the same deep shade of violet as Hugh’s knightly colors.
Belinda held out the gown. “Nikita made this for you, Miss Michelle. Said you ought to have a new dress for your wedding.”
Michelle was speechless at the gift, so Belinda laid out the gown on the bed, revealing that she also carried a small casket.
“Sir Phillip has sent along your mother’s jewelry as well,” Belinda said as she put the box down beside the gown.
Michelle looked at Belinda and asked, in a very small voice, “do you think she’ll forgive me, Belinda?”
Belinda stared at her for so long, disapproval written all over her face, that Michelle felt her eyes pool with tears, again, and dropped her gaze to the floor.
Belinda sighed and reached over and raised Michelle’s chin, just as she had when Michelle was small.
Michelle raised her eyes to find Belinda smiling sadly at her. “No more of that, miss. You are her only sister in the whole world. She will. Just give it some time.”
Her lip trembling, Michelle said, “She’s all I have too.”
Belinda only nodded and patted her check.
Michelle called out as Belinda was leaving the room, “Will Rouen be kind to her?”
“He will be as kind as any man can be,” Belinda said as she vanished through the door.
With that enigmatic answer, Michelle had to be content.
~*~*~*~*~*~*~ Chapter 25~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
The wedding took place as Phillip had decreed. Just before midday, Michelle Wirth, daughter of the Baron of Marlborough and Lord Hugh Barbant, Count of Albret exchanged their vows inside the doors of the village church. Her father, her sister and Samuelle were their witnesses. A crowd of residents of the manor and village also gathered to observe the marriage that shaped their own futures as much as it did Michelle’s, and Sir Winston and Lady Margaret, Phillip’s closet noble neighbors were by default the only formal guests.
Samuelle thought Michelle looked remarkably well, all things considered. As slim as her sister and nearly as tall, she was wearing a dress that matched Barbant’s colors, trimmed with an elegant, heavily embroidered border. She even managed to look happy, her light brown hair glossy and her cheeks pink with health, and despite the slight bruising that was the visible reminder of yesterday’s scuffle with her sister. Barbant looked every inch the dashing Knight and champion he was as he solemnly agreed to love, honor and cherish his bride. In this moment, however they had come together, they were a striking couple.
The wedding was soon over. The local priest was obviously both faintly disapproving, and faintly in awe of not one but two high nobles of France, and so he added no flourishes and the vows were quickly exchanged, the blessing brief and the mass inside afterwards equally short.
After waiting until all the congregation had filed out of the nave, Samuelle handed a full purse to Phillip, who, after gracefully accepting it turned to Nikita and said, “the keys, if you will, my dear.”
Nikita, her blue eyes wide with too many emotions for Samuelle to identify, thrust her hand into her skirt and pulled out the heavy ring of keys to the various storerooms of the manor, keys Samuelle knew she had carried since she was a girl of twelve, and carefully placed them in her father’s outstretched palm.
Pushing the keys into his own pocket, Phillip opened arms to his daughter and Nikita stepped into his embrace, a faint hitch in her breathing the only outward sign that something momentous was taking place. Hugging her tightly, Phillip said, “I will miss you more than I can say.”
Then he kissed her brow, released her and turned and walked away without a backward glance.
Michelle touched Nikita’s arm. “Thank you. Thank you for the dress, thank you for everything. I will always be in your debt.”
Nikita smiled weakly at her. “Thank you, dearest.”
Michelle fell into Nikita’s arms then, openly weeping. Nikita, her own eyes glassy with tears, held her sister tightly and never made a sound.
While Nikita and Michelle embraced, Samuelle contemplated Barbant’s profile as Barbant studied his wife with a faintly quizzical expression on his face, and considered the implications of the new tie between Rouen and a vassal of England. Samuelle wondered, not for the first time, just what sort of bargain he had just made with the Count of Albret.
When Nikita stepped back, Barbant said, “Come Michelle.”
He offered her his arm and escorted her after her father.
In the silence that fell after their exit, Nikita and Samuelle exchanged long look. To Samuelle’s eye, Nikita looked suddenly fragile and lost, and absolutely, furiously determined not to succumb to tears.
Nikita was the one to break the silence. Her voice a little hoarse from strain, she glared at him and said, “don’t you dare apologize.”
Samuelle, who was on the verge of doing just that, stood open mouthed for a second, then laughed softly. “That has become a bad habit, hasn’t it.”
Nikita lifted a corner of her full mouth in a brave attempt at a saucy smile that made Samuelle’s heart ache with pride for her. “Overweening too, my Lord, to assume you have some power over things quite beyond your control,” she said.
Suddenly feeling light with happiness, Samuelle grinned at her. “I am glad you are coming with me, Nikita.”
“You weren’t so glad yesterday.” She cocked her head at him. “What made you change your mind?”
Placing his hand on her back to guide her out of the small village church, Samuelle replied, “beside the obvious? I clearly need someone around to remind me of my limits.”
“Oh. Well, I promise very faithfully to do that for you, my lord.”
Relieved to hear the faintest bit of laughter in her voice, Samuelle caught her eye and smiled at her as he said, with all seriousness, “Thank you, milady.”
The nuptial banquet, such as it was, with only the priest, Sir Winston and Lady Margaret and two of the village’s principle merchants in attendance was a strange affair as everyone tried very hard not to notice the absence of Nikita, who had presided over Phillip’s house as recently as breakfast, and was now banished from the table. It was hard to do. Her presence was everywhere missing. Michelle kept glancing at Nikita’s customary spot and hastily looking away again when she accidentally caught the eye of the merchant sitting there. Sir Phillip ostentatiously refused to look in that direction at all, forcing the poor guest to eat his meal in utter silence as his host never acknowledged his presence. For their part, the servants, either from confusion, tension, or as a form of protest, were slow, clumsy and sullen, the food cold and indifferently served by the time the diners received it. Even kind Lady Margaret’s bright attempts at conversing about the weather fell flat.
For his own part, Samuelle refused to do anything to make the situation better, feeling that he already had done all that had been required of him, and more than a little sickened at the way Nikita’s family was shaming her for bearing the burden of their own follies, especially as it seemed so unnecessary. He had not, would not, claim her in her father’s house and in less than a day he would take her away forever. He could not understand why they were in such a hurry to mark the alteration of her status. He could, however, now clearly understand why Nikita had been so desperate not to be left behind, and he was more determined than ever to find way to offer her not just refuge, but some happiness in the new life ahead of her.
Samuelle spent the rest of his day preparing for the trip to Dinan, du Guesclin’s seat in Brittany, overseeing the packing of his own belongings by his young German squire, arguing over the best route with Walter, and personally ensuring that their supplies were all restocked. He also made a special trip to the stables to see for himself that the horse Nikita would be riding was sound.
As he was leaving the stable, the head stableman, a sturdy fellow with graying hair, coughed to get his attention, and to his surprise, abjured him in a voice gravelly with emotion, to “take good care of our girl, milord. She’s a rare one, she is.”
Bowing his head, Samuelle solemnly promised that he would.
Nikita sought Samuelle out in late in the afternoon to show him the results of her own packing, two small trunks of personal belongings to be sent to Rouen, one set of full saddlebags for herself.
Taking the saddlebags from her to give to the stableman, he assured her they looked fine. “If it turns out you’ve forgotten something you need, we can purchase it in Dinan.”
Supper was an especially dreary affair. No one even made an attempt to talk; Nikita’s absence loomed even larger without the diversion of guests. Samuelle did take some perverse satisfaction in seeing that Nikita’s family, even Barbant, were at least momentarily quelled by the consequences of their decisions.
The cold spring dawn found Samuelle and his party, including Walter, his squire, and three men-at-arms, as well as Sir Phillip’s head stableman with Nikita’s horse, all milling around by the manor’s front steps. In the steadily growing light the gray bulk of manor house slowly resolved into heavy half-timbered walls rising above stone footings as they waited for Nikita.
The early morning birds were singing and the horses were stamping and snuffling impatiently, the metal of their saddles and bridles jingling with their movement. Steam was rising from the horses’ nostrils in the cool damp air and his men were slapping their hands and arms against the chill. Swinging themselves one by one into their saddles, their morning grunts and ritual complaints accompanied by the creaking and shifting of leather harnesses and straps added to the familiar sounds of departure.
Nikita appeared just as the sun lifted over the horizon, her chin held high as she closed the big manor door softly behind her. She stood a moment, gazing out over their heads, absorbing her last look at the dawn breaking over her father’s estate as though she had all the time in the world to imprint her home on her memory. Not wanting to rush her, Samuelle studied her lithe form, wrapped closely in a fur-lined cloak, her bright hair uncovered and glowing in the light, and thought again that she was one of the loveliest women he had ever seen. Her wide, intelligent eyes slowly scanned the lands before her, and then she looked at him, her expression was a study of mixed emotions, regret, sadness, and excitement all flickering across her face. Samuelle realized with a start that she was everything he had ever wanted in a woman, though he had never known it until he knew her.
Nikita was alone as she came down the steps and gracefully mounted her horse, quietly thanking the head stableman who was holding him for her, and after a moment, Samuelle realized to an accompanying spike of fury that no one from the household had come to say farewell to her.
His first impulse was to storm back inside and drag her family out by their necks and force them to do their duty to her, but a quick glance at the rigid set of her jaw was all he needed to know that making an issue of it would only increase her anguish over the way her family had so thoroughly established the boundaries of her new station.
Samuelle never truly forgive Phillip for his behavior that morning, and it was only years later after learning that Barbant had prevented her from coming down, that he unbent at all towards Michelle.
Seeing that Nikita was settled on her horse, Samuelle prepared to give the order to leave, when the manor door jerked open and of all people, Nikita’s nurse Belinda stalked out and let it slam behind her. She was dressed for traveling and carrying bundle. “I’ll be coming with you, mistress. My lord.”
Nikita cried, “Belinda! What are you thinking?”
Belinda drew herself up with great dignity. “Your father put Cook in charge! And, you need a woman with you.”
Nikita opened her mouth, but no sound came out.
Samuelle agreed wholeheartedly with this sentiment, he’d even been considering the idea of hiring Nikita a maidservant as soon as they landed in St. Malo, and he was immeasurably relieved by the idea of Nikita having her own woman with her, and yet irritated, for now their departure would be delayed while he went and rousted out Phillip to buy a horse.
Then the head stableman whistled and a stable boy appeared at a trot, leading a saddled horse. “Excuse me, sirs, my lady. Sir Phillip told me to have old Peter ready, case your party grew.” The man looked up at Samuelle. “He’s a good horse, my Lord, he won’t slow you down none.”
Nikita, moisture leaking out of her eyes, leaned down and gave her nurse a tight hug and a whispered ‘thank you’ while Belinda’s pack was secured to old Peter’s saddle, and in almost no time at all the nurse was swinging up onto her mount with a familiarity that surprised and delighted Samuelle.
At Samuelle’s nod, the party swung into motion. No one protested when he immediately set a quick pace, and as far as he could tell, Nikita never looked behind her as they rode away.
Thank all of you who read along, and for the many wonderful comments. Posting this story, after all this time, has been a blast.
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