This story is set in the 12th century keep of Striguil, known today as Chepstow Castle and situated on the Welsh (Celtic) side of the river Wye in Britain. At that time, King Henry Plantagenet was on the throne and his warring sons, Henry, Richard and John managed to create vacuums of authority, which rebel Celts from both the north (modern day Scotland) and the west (modern day Wales) always used to their advantage.
Alais sat in the bower with her ladies, stitching an undershift with cramped fingers as rain lashed against the great keep of Striguil Castle, sat overlooking the River Wye and one of the frontier holdings of the Marcher lands. Her father had died in service to King Henry the year before and her mother had passed on years ago, following the difficult birthing of her youngest brother, Harold. Alais, the only surviving child of a largely loveless marriage, was under the care of a warden, one of King Henry's most trusted knights. Sir Walter administered her lands and saw that the crown was free to milk their profits until Alais was safely married off. King Henry himself would decide who her husband was to be, so great was the dowry of land she held. To her knowledge and despite all the fighting between Henry and his sons, only two other young, fatherless heiresses had more wealth and land to bestow upon a prospective husband and only one was of a marriageable age. Under normal circumstances, she would be safely walled up in the Tower of London until attention could be given to her marriage and the allocation of her estates. However, there had been so much trouble in London and the south since she had lost her father that even though there were men at arms enough to escort her, the journey had been deemed too hazardous. She had turned eighteen just a few weeks ago and although her ladies had done much to mark the occasion, it was not the same with her father gone and Sir Walter strutting about the place as though he owned it.
Sir Walter had often looked upon her with something other than the cursory duty of a castellan. It was embarrassing enough that her breasts had suddenly budded and required her to order more cloth to let out her shifts and gowns in the bodice and hips and even to stitch some new ones. Just a few days since, he had stopped her in a deserted hallway to admire her work with embroidery around a new green bodice sewn into a dress of brown twill. It had made her flesh crawl to look at his whiskery features softening at the sight of her modestly rounded bosom and she had hastened to excuse herself. Now that she was aware of the encumbrance of her developing womanhood and the overly watchful eye of Sir Walter, Alais had taken to braiding her thick red curls and binding them up in a more mature style. She no longer ran about the keep with the laughing freedom of a street urchin. Her dresses now fell properly to the floor and Alais no longer hitched them up and displayed her hose and shoes when she was impatient or in a rush. It was all very confining and she knew that it would be all the more so once she had been married off to some arrogant knight who wanted her for the trophies of her beauty and wealth and to use her as a brood mare. It was likely she would be given to a man twice her age, one mature enough to manage such a large estate and whose loyalty to King Henry was proven. They would have nothing common and she would rot within these walls until she died, or until he died and then if she did not marry again swiftly and according to the King's wishes, she would meet her end in walled up within a convent. It often made her wish ungratefully that she was a street urchin.
That morning, Sir Walter had ridden out to make an annual accounting to the King. The weather was such that he would have postponed the journey a day or two but King Henry was not the sort of man whom one kept waiting for any length of time. The increasing animosity between Henry and his sons was prompting him to take stock of the wealth he had dispersed about the land and what he could commandeer in the way of gold, men and supplies from his dukes, barons and castellans in the event of a civil war. It was also rumoured that he was seeking renewed pledges of fealty from his vassals, hopefully ensuring that they would not betray him and lend their aid to one of his sons instead. Alais had seen Sir Walter wished Godspeed at Mass and had also bade him a formal farewell as was proper. Now she had the luxury of a few days without his breath down the back of her neck, as he marked in a ledger every last little item that she purchased for her household. Warm braziers lit and heated the room, their fuel suffused with cinnamon to give the bower a cosy feel. The women worked quietly but there was also an air of celebration. A jug of mead was kept warm by the fire and a pot of leek and rabbit pottage bubbled merrily beside it, lacing the room with its aroma.
By the time night fell, all pretence at industriousness and propriety had been abandoned. The ladies sang, clapped time and danced, played at chess and even placed wagers of fripperies, ribbons and small coins upon merels. They drank a little too much wine and laughed a little too loudly but the weeks under Sir Walter's watery, condescending gaze had been arduous indeed.
A hesitant, unmistakeably masculine cough interrupted proceedings and all the ladies turned and stared, hastily endeavouring to compose themselves. A young man but recently knighted was stood in the doorway, uncertain whether to enter. He had on about half of his armour and would have cut an amusing figure, had his countenance not been so grave.
"My Lady, Celts have been sighted and already they are almost upon the keep. It is my sad charge to inform you that we are heavily outnumbered but father bids me assure you that every last man will do his duty. I must ask you all to accompany me to the dungeons immediately below the great hall as it is the most defensible place for you. Do you have your keys?"
Alais stepped forward and drew her heavy bunch of keys from among her skirts to display their place upon her belt.
"I have the keys but I do wonder that one as young as yourself, and only half armed, has been charged with us. Where is your father?" The lad's sire, John Marshall, was the head of Alais's men at arms and a formidable battle veteran who still sat his horse like a man half his age. He was a broad stone wall of muscle and scars with an angry countenance that concealed a gentle and generous nature, when peacetime allowed for it.
"He is rounding up men, weapons and horses. Every able bodied man will fight; grooms, servants, everyone. You will be safe below stairs, please tarry no longer, my lady."
With all haste, Alais descended below stairs with her ladies. The young knight, Jack Marshall, bounded in front of them, clearly frustrated by the slower pace of the women as they lifted their voluminous skirts and attempted to run after years of being taught that it was improper. Only Alais kept pace with him, tucking her skirts into her belt and displaying a truly scandalous amount of slim, stocking clad calf.
"Where are Sir Walter's keys? Who has them?" She asked.
"They were entrusted to Wigain, who does the book keeping. I have not seen him this afternoon." Jack's brow furrowed as he attempted to assimilate this new implication.
"You must take them from him and pass them to your father. He is the only man I trust to judge when to fight and when to yield. I would not have every last man here die in an unwinnable battle and I doubt we have the resources put by to last long in a siege, thanks to Walter's scrimping and fussing. You must see to this personally and you must tell him what I have said. My honour is not worth every soul in this keep."
"I will do as you command, Lady. In a few minutes, more experienced men will take my place here and I will go immediately to find Wigain."
"I thank you. Please have your father thank the men for me. If I get through this alive, I will personally see to it that the families of those who fall are provided for, with my gratitude. Please have him tell them that. God speed to yourself as well, may your youth and strength over reach your inexperience." Alais gave the lad an impulsive squeeze. Their ages were not dissimilar and they had known each other for years. He returned the embrace, surprised and flushed, before gently pushing her away and entreating her to hasten down to the dungeons with the other women.
In the hours that followed, the sounds that the women heard from above were hideous. There was really no way of telling how the battle was faring and Alais was simply pleased and impressed that the Celts' victory had not been a swift one. The half dozen ladies of her household comforted each other and organised the space in which they were confined. One small cell was being unwillingly used as a latrine. Seats and benches were gathered into the largest cell and as an extra precaution Alais locked them in, only opening the barred doorway when a lady was forced to answer a call of nature. If any enemy were to find them, their first ploy was to pretend that the knights had locked them in and they had no keys. Hopefully, they would have the opportunity to flee from their prison while the keys were being searched for.
Before long, they began to lose track of how long they had spent underground. There was no grate at ground level through which they could judge how far into the night they were. It was cold, dank and cramped in their little cell. Alais could not even pace away her worry and impatience.
Eventually, the door that led up to the hall was flung open and a group of men fell through it, John among them, swinging his sword with as much strength and conviction as if the battle had but just begun. It took three men to take him down and they did so in a protracted and bloody fashion, showing no mercy even when John lost his sword. The man mountain went down and lay on his back, his breathing ragged and blood welling up from his throat. It was clear that there was no hope for him. From his position on the floor he focused unsteadily on Alais and her women and gave an anguished cry.
"I am so sorry Lady, you are undone." He rasped, before his chest shuddered and fell still.
John's three assailants fell abruptly silent and stood to one side as another man swept into the cramped hallway, his sword drawn and bloody. He stepped over the body as though it wasn't there and approached the barred cell. He was tall and clean shaven with dark curly hair and a tanned complexion. His eyes glittered like obsidian and it was clear that he was still in the bloodlust of battle. Alais guessed him to be around thirty five years old. He assessed the women as though they were a herd of cattle and then turned away.
"Where are the keys? Surely somebody has managed to secure the keys by now?" The three armed men fled on the pretext of locating them and it was clear to Alais that their loyalty was bought by fear, rather than respect. The man spun on his heel once more and addressed the ladies in Gaelic-accented French. "My deepest apologies dear ladies, I have every confidence that we will be able to put an end to your confinement at any moment, there is, after all, almost nobody left alive to oppose us. Now, on the subject of remaining intact and unmolested, who would care to identify the Lady Alais for me?"
The women hesitated and Alais stepped forwards, aware of the futility of procrastination and afraid that one of her women would be foolishly loyal enough to offer herself as a decoy. Her head was held high but she was suddenly thankful for her full skirt as it concealed the slight tremble in her legs.
"The Lady Alais is capable of identifying herself. Who might you be and why have you shown no mercy to my people? There is no sense in conquering a lush oasis only to turn it into a desert."
The man's lips spread into a predatory smile and his eyes sparkled as he applauded her with gauntlet clad hands, mocking her dignity and sincerity.
"Oh very well done. Eloquent, imperious, earnest and just a little belligerent, you will do very well indeed." He looked her up and down. "I am Cynric, the son of old Huw-The-Bloody-Stubborn, I'm sure you've heard of him. He passed on a few months ago and I have taken up his mantle. I am also a humble suitor for your hand and intend to restore your lands to your people. Not the people who live here in shameless luxury but the real ones, those out there with Celtic blood in their veins and Druidic ancestry that goes back a long way further through the mists of time than your Holy Roman Church. We had enough of the Romans when they were here last and your Angevin Royalty would do well to remember it.
His indomitable father, Huw, had been a man in John's powerfully built mould. He had led the Celtic rebellion from the west for many long years but nothing had been heard of him for more than three seasons. He must have been well past his threescore years and to learn of his death was no great surprise to Alais. Her eyes widened and she momentarily baulked as Cynric casually announced that he wanted her hand in marriage. She switched effortlessly to the Celtic dialect of the local people, anxious to demonstrate that she was not unable to communicate with those under her rule and not as distanced from them as he might think.
"My people were happy under my father's rule. My appointed castellan, Sir Walter may be short sighted and a little greedy but the lands have been governed well enough in my stead. Were I able to act as a duchess in my own right, certain changes would be made but I am a loyal subject of King Henry and I will not marry a Celtic rebel. If you remember, when last your father came to besiege me, my people elected to fight at my father's side."
Again, Cynric laughed. He answered her in the same local tongue, gesturing flamboyantly for the benefit of Alais's ladies, who spoke only French.
"Yes and just look where that got your noble sire. You are behind the times Lady, even Henry's own sons are not his loyal subjects. Henry the younger is seeking support from Philip of France to usurp the throne, Richard is demanding to be named his legal heir because of young Henry's treason, John is watching them tourney and waiting to see whose side to choose and if all else fails, the old king still has a bastard son or two snapping at his heels and eager to cause trouble. I am not about to wait and see which worn out old knight in his dotage the King decides to wed you to. That is if he even has the time to look to your settlement any time soon amongst all this uncertainty. Whatever he decides, it is now likely he will not have his arse on the throne long enough to see it accomplished, especially if King Philip decides to stir the pot. I am here to see you settled today young Duchess, make no mistake."
Alais glared at him and started pacing the small cell and to her horror, her rapid, agitated movements caused her keys to jangle on her belt. He face flushed as Cynric chuckled once more.
"Oh, very good. Locking oneself inside a cell and playing the damsel in distress. Well I suppose you are in distress but time will reconcile you to your new situation. Hand them over." Alais hesitated and Cynric rolled his eyes impatiently and switched to French. "Hand them over or I shall have my archers start firing at your women. It will be messy and unpleasant but I daresay they are accurate enough to spare the parts that matter."
Alais's ladies gasped at such vulgarity but she quickly capitulated, flinging the keys through the bars of their cell with venom. Cynric retrieved them, approached the bars and addressed Alais once more, his voice low and menacing.
"That is the first and last fit of pique I will allow you, Duchess. From here on out the welfare of your ladies depends entirely upon your obedient and modest conduct. I advise you not to fail them." Alais's expression was mutinous in the extreme but she held her tongue. "Now would you care to tell me which key opens this door? It will save a great deal of time and frustration." Alais mutely indicated the correct key and then stepped back as the door was opened. They were led up into the main hall, where the terrified remnants of Alais's domestic staff were laying out something approximating a feast under the watchful eye of Cynric's woad painted men. They eyed Alais and her ladies greedily but a dismissive gesture from Cynric was enough to curb any outward signs of lust.
"Where is the priest?" Cynric demanded and Alais froze, shocked that everything was happening so fast. The old priest who had been her confidante and religious adviser since she was a child was reluctantly brought forth. He was elderly and frightened and she could see immediately that he would do nothing to prevent this farce of a marriage. Cynric's voice cut into her thoughts. "Ladies, if you would please stand by the altar there... in a row will suffice... thank you so much." He turned to Alais and stood before her, close enough to touch her, staring her down. She fought the urge to retreat and glared back at him. "Be advised my Lady that every hesitation or reluctance to complete this ceremony on your part will result in the sacrifice of one of your women. Just in case you count them as expendable, I also promise to go up to the highest rampart and give the order to fire every last little hamlet that I can see." He took her by the arm and brought her before the priest. The old man looked at her apologetically but he also had a knocked arrow trained on his brow. The ceremony was completed with the minimum of fuss. The priest then breathed a sigh of relief as the bow was lowered and he almost sounded pleased when he said,
"You may kiss the bride."
Cynric approached Alais, noting her revulsion with amusement. "I must seem an old warhorse indeed to one such as you." He said. Cynric put an arm around her, forcibly drawing her close and lifted her chin as he lowered his own lips. Alais was too afraid for her women to resist and they were now legally married anyway. At the very last moment, Cynric released her and turned away. "I may kiss her but I won't, she needs breaking and bridling first and there are other urgent matters to attend to." He turned to one of his men. "Escort my Lady to her chamber and see to her... comfort."
Cynric turned away and began putting his seal to letters announcing their marriage that had clearly been scribed in advance. Messengers were already waiting to transport them goodness knows where. Alais was escorted upstairs to the great chamber that had so recently been her father's.
"You should use the latrine." Her captor said and he waited with his back turned while she did so, bemused. He then took her to the bedchamber and drew his sword. "Remove all your clothes." He commanded.
Alais had been scared enough by the notion of being bedded by Cynric but this was more than she could stand.
"Cynric will kill you!" She announced.
"I'll be the judge of that. Take them off and then unbind your hair." Reluctantly, Alais did so. "Now get onto the bed." He ordered. Alais obeyed, shaking from head to foot and the man yanked the ties from the bedcurtains and used them to bind her wrists to the headboard. He straddled her in order to do this and his arousal pressed against her belly. "Such a little sweetmeat." He sighed. He ran his blade gently over her throat and her breasts. Alais watched him, immobilised by fear. Then, without warning, he leapt from the bed. His last act was to rip away all the bedclothes and throw them into a heap on the floor.
"Oh the things I could do to you." He announced. Then he turned and swept from the room.
Alais lay there, becoming cold, bored, thirsty and ravenous with hunger. The hours in the dungeon had already piqued her appetite. She started to shiver and to become light headed with fatigue, hunger and worry. Her arms ached through their numbness and she almost began to wish for Cynric to appear.