Excerpt: The Maiden

Chapter One

1299 England

WILLIAM DE BOHUN stood hidden in the shadows of the castle’s stone walls and looked at his nephew, who sat in the window enclosure, Rowan’s golden hair bathed in sunlight, his handsome face frowning in concentration as he studied the manuscript before him. William didn’t like to think how much this young man had come to mean to him over the years. Rowan was the son he wished he had been able to breed.

As William looked at the tall, broad-shouldered, slim-hipped, handsome young man, he once again wondered how that dark, ugly Thal could have bred someone like Rowan. Thal called himself King of Lanconia but he wore animal skins, his long dirty hair hung past his shoulders, and he ate and spoke like the barbarian he was. William was disgusted by him and only allowed him to remain in his house at the request of King Edward. William had given the man the hospitality of his estate and had instructed his steward to plan entertainments for the loud, crude vulgarian, but William himself had stayed as far as possible from the hideous young man.

Now, looking at Rowan, William’s stomach tightened in remembered anguish. While William was busying himself far away from the barbarian king, his beautiful, kind, dear sister, Anne, had been falling in love with the odious man. By the time William realized what was happening, Anne was so deeply bewitched by the man that she was vowing to kill herself if she could not have him. The stupid barbarian king didn’t even seem to realize that Anne was endangering her immortal soul by the mere mention of suicide.

Nothing William said could dissuade Anne. Wil­liam pointed out the repulsiveness of Thal’s person and Anne looked at him as if he were stupid. “He’s not repulsive to a woman,” she had said, laughing in a way that made William slightly queasy as he thought of that dark greasy man’s hands on Anne’s slim, blonde person.

In the end, King Edward had made William’s decision for him. He said there weren’t many Lanconians but they were a fierce lot, and if their king wanted a rich English bride, he should have her.

So King Thal married William’s beautiful sister Anne. William stayed drunk for ten days, hoping that when he sobered it would all turn out to be his imagination. But when he woke from his drunken stupor he saw Thal, a head taller than his tall sister, swooping down on her, enveloping her fair loveliness with his darkness.

Nine months later Rowan had been born. From the first William had been inordinately fond of the pretty blond child. His own childless marriage made him hungry for a son. Thal showed no interest in the babe. “Bah! It screams at one end and stinks at the other. Children belong to women. I’ll wait until he’s a man,” Thal had grunted in that strangely accented English of his. He was much more interested in when Anne would be well enough to return to his bed.

William had adopted Rowan as his own, spending endless hours making toys for the boy, playing with the child, holding his chubby fingers as he took his first steps. Rowan was fast becoming William’s reason for living.

When Rowan was just over a year old, his sister Lora was born. Like her brother, she was a pretty blonde child, and looked as if she had inherited nothing from her swarthy father.

When Lora was five days old, Anne had died.

In his grief, William saw nothing but his own misery. He did not see the brooding emptiness of Thal. All William knew was that Thal was the cause of his beloved sister’s death. He ordered Thal from his house.

Heavily, Thal had said he would pack his men and children and leave in the morning to return to Lanconia.

William had not comprehended Thal’s words, but when he heard noise in the courtyard below, he realized that Thal meant to take Rowan and the new baby from him. William went berserk. A normally sane man, he acted out of rage, grief, and fear. He gathered his own knights from the barracks and attacked Thal and his personal guard while they slept.

William had never seen men fight as these Lanconians did. They were outnumbered four to one but still, three of them, including Thal, managed to escape.

Dripping blood from several deep slashes in his arms and legs and one across his right cheek, Thal stood on the castle wall in the pink light of dawn and cursed William and his issue. Thal said he knew William wanted Prince Rowan but he would never get him. Rowan was Lanconian, not English, and some­day Rowan would come home to him.

Then Thal and his men had escaped over the wall and disappeared into the forest.

William’s bad luck began with that night. Where once his life had been touched with gold, it soon turned to lead. His wife had died of the pox a month later, then the pox had killed over half his peasants, leaving the grain unharvested in the fields. An early snow left the fields rotting.

William married again, this time to a fat healthy fifteen-year-old who proved to be fertile as a rabbit. She gave him four sons in four years then convenient­ly died with the last one. William did not grieve since he had found that when his infatuation with her beautiful young body had worn off, she was a stupid, frivolous girl who was no companion.

William had the care of his own four sons and Anne’s two children. The contrast was stark. Rowan and Lora were tall and beautiful, golden-haired and handsome. They were intelligent, eager to learn, po­lite, while his own sons were stupid and clumsy, sullen and resentful. They hated Rowan and teased Lora viciously. William knew this was his punishment for what he had done to Thal. He even began to believe it was Anne’s ghost repaying him for his crime against her husband.

When Rowan was ten, a man came to William’s castle, an old man with a beard hanging to the middle of his chest, a circle of gold set with four rubies on his head. He said his name was Feilan and that he was Lanconian and that he had come to teach Rowan Lanconian ways.

William had been ready to run the old man through with a sword until Rowan had stepped forward. It was almost as if the boy had known the man was going to come and had been waiting for him. “I am Prince Rowan,” he had said solemnly.

In that moment William knew he was losing the most precious thing on earth to him—and there was nothing he could do to prevent the loss.

The old Lanconian remained, sleeping somewhere deep within the castle—William didn’t ask where— and spent every waking moment with Rowan. Rowan had always been a serious child, had always taken whatever duties William gave him seriously, but now it seemed that Rowan’s capacity for study was limit­less. The old Lanconian taught Rowan both in the classroom and on the training field. At first William objected because some of the Lanconian methods of fighting were, to a knight like William, entirely with­out honor. Neither Rowan nor Feilan paid him any attention and Rowan learned to fight on his feet with sword and lance, with a stick, with clubs, and, to William’s horror, with his fists. No knight fought except from the back of a horse.

Rowan did not foster as other aristocratic young men did but remained at his uncle’s castle and studied with the Lanconian. William’s own sons left, one by one, to live with other knights and train as their squires. They returned with their spurs and their knighthood, their resentment for Rowan even strong­er. One by one, William’s sons reached manhood and challenged Rowan to a tilt, hoping to lay him low and so gain their father’s esteem.

There was no contest as Rowan easily knocked each young man from his horse then returned to his studies without so much as raising a sweat.

William’s sons loudly protested their cousin’s pres­ence in their home and William watched as his ignorant sons put burrs under Rowan’s saddle, stole his precious books, laughed at him in front of guests. But Rowan never got angry, a fact that infuriated his loutish cousins. The only time William saw Rowan get angry was when his sister, Lora, asked permission to marry a lessor land baron who was visiting William. Rowan had raged at Lora that she was Lanconian and when she was called she must return to her home. William was stunned, partly by Rowan’s show of temper, but more so by Rowan’s referring to Lanconia as “home.” He felt betrayed, as if all the love he had given the boy was not returned. William helped Lora in her marriage plans. But her husband had died after only two years of marriage and Lora returned to her uncle’s home with her baby son, Phillip. Rowan had smiled and welcomed her. “Now we will be ready,” he had said, putting his arm around Lora and holding his new nephew.

Today William was looking at Rowan. It was twenty-five years since a golden child had been born to William’s lovely sister and in that time William had come to love the boy more than he loved his own soul. But it was over now, for outside stood a hundred of the tall, dark, scarred Lanconian warriors, sitting atop their short-legged, barrel-chested horses, each man wearing a grim expression and a hundred pounds of weapons. They were obviously prepared for a fight. Their leader rode forward and announced to William that they had come for the children of Thal, that Thal lay on his deathbed and Rowan was to be made king.

William’s inclination was to refuse, to fight to keep Rowan until he had no more breath, but William’s oldest son had pushed his hesitant father aside and welcomed the Lanconians with open arms. William knew defeat when he saw it. One could not fight to keep something that did not want to be kept.

With a heavy heart he went up the stairs to Lora’s solar, where Rowan sat in the window enclosure studying. His tutor, old to begin with, was now ancient, but when he saw William’s face, he eased his arthritic body from the chair and went to stand before Rowan, then slowly dropped to one knee. As Rowan looked at his old tutor’s face, understanding came to him.

“Long live King Rowan,” the old man said, his head bowed.

Rowan nodded solemnly and looked at Lora, who had dropped her sewing. “It is time,” he said softly. “Now we go home.”

William slipped away so the tears in his eyes would not be seen.