Alais's Settlement Ch. 02byVelvetDarkness©
Thank you to those who gave me positive feedback for chapter one. I apologise to those who thought it was a little too close to nonconsent for comfort. It was not my original intention but suited Cynric's desire to conquer and rule. I hope you enjoy the next instalment. All feedback and any constructive criticism will be well received.
Alais awoke to discover that Cynric had already risen. The curtains had been drawn back and weak sunlight shone into the room, from the overcast sky beyond the windowslit. Alais turned onto her back, although she had rested she was still fatigued and her limbs were heavy with a new lassitude. The previous day's events tumbled through her thoughts as she mustered the courage to rise.
This was her first day as a married woman. It might even be her first day as a pregnant woman, for ought she knew.
Alais retrieved her clothes from where they had been flung the day before and pursed her lips as she laced the crumpled gown smeared with dirt from the dungeon. She went to a coffer of her mother's old things in the corner of the grand bedroom. Her father had placed numerous keepsakes there and Alais rummaged carefully. After a few minutes she had found a brush for her hair, some combs and a wimple. There was no looking glass in the room as her father had been loathe to encounter his own reflection first thing in the morning but Alais managed to bind up her long red curls. She fastened the wimple and it felt alien and confining. She was a married woman now though, and a duchess. Alais would court no more attention than necessary from Cynric's men. Satisfied that she was respectably attired enough to risk leaving the bedchamber, she ventured into the hallway.
There was a high pitched scream. Then someone grabbed her.
Wulfhild, a formidable woman who had outlived two husbands and had been Alais's personal maid and attendant since before the death of her mother, flung herself upon the young woman's neck, sobbing into a damp kerchief.
"Lady! My goodness, you are alive and whole. What did that fiend do to you? You poor, poor dear." Wulfhild stepped back and examined Alais, keeping hold of her as though unconvinced that she might not be an apparition.
"Calm yourself Wulfhild. I am well enough, as well as I may expect. I have just awoken and am going to the kitchens to break my fast. Has Cynric been awake long?" She almost said, 'my husband' but checked herself. Alais needed time to adjust to the notion, despite the night they had passed together.
"Aye Lady and your new Lord has been dictating instructions and letters all morning so I am told. If I were you, I'd go and find out what he has done with your inheritance before you do anything else. Cynric and his trusted men have evicted Wigain from his scribing chamber so whatever they are plotting, they are being secretive about it." This was a fair assumption as such decisions were traditionally made from the dias in the great hall, before whichever members of the household were present. The maid suddenly coloured. "I was waiting until you rose, your bedsheet must be presented to the priest and then publicly displayed in the hall, as proof of your consummation and erstwhile purity." Wulfhild grimaced and then swept into the bedchamber.
Alais went to the kitchens and discovered that it was only half a candle notch shy of the lunch horn. She was furnished with a large wheat cob stuffed with cheese and devoured it along with a beaker of heather ale. Thus fortified, she marched to Wigain's rooms, knocked once and opened the door, striding through it with more courage than she felt.
"Good morrow husband, may one enquire with what great deeds my Lord fills his day?"
He regarded her neutrally as Alais sat down amongst the men and made it plain she was not about to leave. She recognised one man as Gawain, one of old Huw's trusted men, a pragmatic former mercenary who appeared to see no conflict in attempting to free the Celts from English tyranny while also raping and pillaging at will along the way. He eyed the incongruous pairing of her rumpled gown and securely pinned wimple with amusement.
"Has thy young wench not got a wet nurse to keep her from mischief?" He asked, rolling his eyes at Cynric.
"With any luck she'll be requiring the services of one before King Henry looks to unseat me." Cynric replied. He turned to Alais. "I am seeking vassals and pledges of fealty from my new Barons as well as gold and men from old allies in order to hold this castle secure. When I am sure of my position, I must travel to London and there I will pledge allegiance to the throne in the face of any foreign enemy. My lands will be mine to govern however, without interference or taxation from the crown. Given the threats floating across the narrow sea, I doubt Henry will refuse me."
Alais's eyes widened at his audacity but Cynric could see that she was impressed. Although she was aware of the disapproving stares from Cynric's assembled advisers, Alais pressed on, determined to remind him that his lands had been in her family for generations and she would not be kept ignorant of his intentions.
"And what of the lands you hold through me, are you making changes to the current statutes, rents and taxes?" She forced herself to hold his gaze. Cynric glanced about for a piece of paper and had a portion of the current law read to him.
So he could not read. That was interesting. When he had spoken to her in French, she had assumed him to be an educated man. Alais was fluent in written and spoken French and the local British dialects. She also had passable Latin, when she could bestir herself to labour over the unfamiliar tongue.
"I had planned to discuss those matters over dinner with you, Alais. You will want to move your things into our chamber and rest a little today I expect?" Alais nodded, her expression respectful but resolute. If Cynric thought she was some straw headed girl who could be manipulated by a few platitudes about governing with honour, he was mistaken.
"I would advise you to consider the families of those who fell during your attack. Masses and prayers are being said this evening and vigil will be kept this night before burials take place tomorrow. The grieving are your people too and I doubt you wish to commence your illustrious reign here as the heartless barbarian who slaughtered them all yesterday."
Cynric considered Alais's words, impressed at her shrewdness and encouraged by her apparent concern for his reputation.
"I will leave it in your capable hands. Compensate the widows and families as you see fit but do not be extravagant. I would also have you give a donation to the church and have candles lit and prayers said for their souls. I expect you to quash any murmurs of rebellion that you may hear, lest more of your people join those who perished, in whatever level of purgatory they may hope to expect."
She inclined her head in acknowledgement, then rose and withdrew, her eyes smarting at the chuckles that followed her from the room. Discretion was the better part of valour for the nonce.
Wulfhild volunteered to move her things and Alais was glad of the other woman's steady presence. The great bedchamber of Striguil Castle was divided into two large rooms. One was the bedroom, with a small alcove containing the great luxury of a private latrine. The other was a large sitting room where a couple could have some privacy and trusted guests and family could be entertained. The next room along the hallway was for an attendant, it was small but well kept and Alais insisted that Wulfhild move her things there so that she had a familiar face close by. Once that was accomplished, Alais changed into a fresh gown of pale green linen and went to the chapel. She had no desire to see the priest who had performed her wedding but Alais did want to see the mourners and say prayers for the dead.
Father Almaric moved quietly through the shrouded bodies, waving his incense burner and uttering Latin prayers in a low intonation that one had to concentrate on in order to comprehend. Alais moved among the mourners, offering her condolences and her heartfelt gratitude for the sacrifices that had been made in the name of her honour. She had wondered if those grieving would hold her partially responsible for yesterday's deaths and become angry with her but nobody did. Rueful congratulations and commiserations were made about her marriage and Alais tried to put a brave face on it, given that she at least was alive and whole.
Her eyes lit when she saw that Jack Marshall had managed to survive. He had a bandaged shield arm and was leaning upon his drawn sword a little heavily but he was there, standing vigil for his father. Alais drew beside him and crossed herself for what felt like the thousandth time. He looked so handsome, even with suffering and fatigue etched across his brow. The candlelight caught his dark blonde curls and the delicate down upon his chin. His tanned complexion from hours spent in the tiltyard was radiant and he seemed to her in that moment like the golden sun of a god. She took a moment to quell these thoughts before she mustered the courage to approach him.
"I am so sorry Jack." She whispered, knowing how inadequate a sentiment it was.
"It is well my Lady. If my father could have chosen his own end, it would have been fighting for you and for the family he served all his life. He was not built for retirement; he wouldn't have known what to do with himself."
Alais wondered if John would really have chosen to die at the hands of three woad painted heathens who had no notion of chivalry but she edited her thoughts.
"He was exceptionally brave and fought with valour and conviction to the last. He will be commended for his service, not just yesterday but for so many years."
Jack smiled and turned back towards the shrouded body of his sire. John Marshall had no adornments save for his wedding band. He lay with his feet upon his shield and his sword placed on top of him, pointing at his feet. His damaged hauberk, gambeson and helm hung from a wooden cross placed at his head. He would not be buried with his armour, it was part of Jack's inheritance. Alais moved away.
Father Almaric was relieved to hear of Cynric's planned donation.
"It will be gratefully received Lady. We have been stitching people into floursacks and I have precious little with which to pay a hoard of grave diggers, if indeed I can find enough able bodied men. The other churches are asking the local people for what assistance they can give but nothing has yet reached me here. Mayhap some men will lend their strength to the task.
Alais asked the priest to make an accounting of his costs and ensured him that the donation would surpass them. She also promised to search through the keep and return with more linen for shrouds.
"Cynric wishes to have candles lit and prayers said. I would not have him exhaust your supply of beeswax too. I will see how many men may be spared to assist with the burials. My Lord is expecting his sudden establishment here to be contested so he will want a full complement on guard duty. I will also require an accurate record of those who fell and what kin they had relying upon them. Compensation will be made accordingly."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The remainder of the day passed without incident and Cynric accompanied Alais to the Requiem Mass that evening. When the priest had finished his service, Cynric rose and addressed the packed congregation.
"It may seem insincere for me to offer my condolences but I do so unreservedly. I deeply regret the necessary force required to secure this castle. War is always ugly and littered with casualties and I gambled with my own life yesterday, just like those brave men who fell. All I wish to say to you is that I have a purpose in being here and in securing this duchy. I pledge to work to make these lands a better place to reside, a land free of the petty power squabbles underway between King Henry and his sons. While they tear each other down, I truly hope that we will build each other up. I pray that you will not judge me by one terrible day but by all the days henceforth. Thank you."
That evening Cynric and Alais dined in the main hall with the household. Her ladies eyed her sympathetically as she sat and shared a trencher with her new husband. Cynric was attacking the food with gusto while Alais nibbled here and there and sipped her wine, steeling herself to speak.
"My Lord, you did say to me this morn that we could discuss your governance of our lands over dinner. I am very anxious to know that the interests of the people will be protected and that they will not become casualties of King Henry's wrath when you ride south and make demands that will doubtless anger him to a pitch."
Cynric finished his mouthful of food and washed it down with a beaker of ale. He eyed her speculatively, as though judging how much he should say.
"I will change but little to start with. Their tax burden will be lighter because I will not be paying into the royal coffer. The surplus I shall use to make weapons and purchase horses and men. Gawain has an offer of mercenaries from the north and hopefully most of the local people will rally to my cause. I have already contacted our barons and they will be here soon, either to pledge their fealty or spit in my face. At least then I will know how much local assistance I may depend on. Some of them may elect to pay their taxes directly to Henry but it's a perilous journey south and I'm confident that I can arrange for the funds to become... waylaid. The lands to the west are sympathetic, as are the northmen. My eastern frontier should be under Prince Richard's command but he's in London petitioning his father, so I doubt they will attack. The south I can hold by force."
"How soon do you think you will travel to London?" She asked. Cynric shrugged.
"If London does not travel to me in the meantime, probably a month. Henry has more than enough on his golden platter without taking me as a side dish. He knows I won't burn the villages or fire the crops. He knows that when he does get around to challenging me, he will still have a land worth recapturing. All he will lose for the nonce is his revenue and a little pride."
The mood in the hall was subdued and one or two were weeping for their loved ones. Cynric soon tired of the atmosphere and the dark looks thrown at the dias where he sat in the Lord's chair that had belonged to Alais's father for so many years.
"Come Alais, let us retire. There is much to do on the morrow." He rose and offered her his arm. After a moment's hesitation, Alais took hold of his sleeve and allowed him to steer them through the hall and escort her to their bedchamber.
Wulfhild had done an admirable job. There was a fire burning cheerfully in the sitting room and a jug of spiced wine was warming on the hearth beside a coal filled bedpan. The rooms were immaculate and the bed was neatly made as though the previous night had never occurred. A bell had been placed on a stand by the door so that she could be summoned if required.
Cynric poured them both some spiced wine and settled down into a chair. Alais took a sip of hers and promptly spat it out. Cynric examined his cup before putting it down and moving towards the bell.
"What is it? Is the wine sour? I can ring for some more." He lifted the bell and rang it. Alais hastened over to the jug of water on the nightstand and swilled her mouth out, spitting into a matching basin.
"Don't drink it." She gasped, as the door opened and Wulfhild entered, looking thoroughly guilty and completely unremorseful. Cynric comprehended the situation and glared at her, pacing back and forth.
"Is this how you protect your Lady? Is all so lost that your only recourse is to deliver her to her maker?"
Wulfhild looked to Alais, who had recovered somewhat and was moving towards them, lifting her hands in a placatory gesture. The older woman said her piece.
"I never meant to harm her, Alais has never been a drinker. I just wanted to save her from this sham of a marriage and I'll not apologise." Wulfhild lifted her chin and folded her arms stubbornly. Alais cut in, afraid for Wulfhild in the face of Cynric's anger.
"Honestly Wulfhild, if I wanted him dead I could do as much myself. I may have been forced into my marriage but it is still binding in the eyes of God. If I won't sin in order to be free of him, what makes you think I would thank you for imperilling your soul?" Cynric opened his mouth but she raised her hand again and continued. "I will not have her punished, not even dismissed. I could walk a long way before I met anyone so loyal to me, who knew me half so well. Please Cynric. Let her be."
She turned to the older woman and spoke with affection as well as exasperation.
"No more Wulfhild, promise me. I want you to apologise to Cynric as well."
Wulfhild nodded her agreement and then offered Cynric a sullen apology, her arms still folded. He dismissed her and then threw the wine down the latrine with more force than was needful. The beakers and wooden jug went onto the fire.
"I hope you know what you're doing. If she makes another attempt on my life and fails, I shall kill you in cold blood for not having her charged with murder."
"I have known her almost all my life. She was closer to me than my mother and especially so since mother died. Her motivation was love, not hate and I believe that you are perfectly safe now."
"But it does not follow that you are also perfectly safe, Alais." Cynric pulled her towards him and kissed her, the hard ridges of his swordbelt pressing into her stomach. Without thinking, Alais reached down and unfastened the belt before moving to place it on his coffer. "So you are eager?" He said, raising an eyebrow suggestively. "I did not dissuade you completely last night? I must be losing my touch." Gently, Cynric pushed her away from him. He returned to his chair and sat there, beckoning her over. When she was about a yard away he motioned her to stop.
"Take off your wimple and free your hair. I want to see it." Alais complied, embarrassed by his scrutiny. Cynric leapt to his feet and rang the bell again and Wulfhild appeared once more, looking sheepish. "Find me a large looking glass. There must be one here somewhere." He closed the door in her face.
Cynric returned to Alais and stood behind her, running his hands through her waist length, dark red curls. He fetched the brush she had used earlier and started brushing it. "I love your hair, it is absolutely glorious." He planted kisses on her neck as he worked. "Unlace your gown for me, show me your breasts." Alais did so, lifting them free of the confining gown and her undershift. "Now touch them as I did last night, explore them and see how you can make them respond." Alais did so, caressing her breasts and rolling the nipples between finger and thumb. She pinched and squeezed, testing her reactions and warmth started spreading from her loins. She felt her sex starting to moisten already, in preparation for what was to come.
A knock at the door heralded Wulfhild and Cynric propelled Alais into the bedchamber before he went back through the sitting room and opened the door.
"This belonged to Alais's mother." Wulfhild said, huffing under the weight of a large, oval looking glass. Cynric took it from her and she left. The mirror was placed on a coffer at the foot of the bed. Cynric went to Alais and helped her to remove all her clothes until she was naked before him. He motioned her to get onto the bed and then had her kneel before the mirror.
He spoke to her as he removed his own clothes.
"This is your body, it is the key to all the pleasure that you will ever experience in your entire life. Look at it, touch it, examine and explore it. Find the places I touched you, the ones that made you climax. Look at yourself Alais. Do you see how radiantly beautiful you are?