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“On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me… Eleven pipers piping…”
It’s off to a medieval feast in this scene from For King and Country, Book II of my Battle Scars series. It is late September 1193, and Lord Edward de Grey, Sir Henry’s father, has invited his villeins to celebrate the feast of St. Michael and his special announcement. There’s dancing, a vielle or two strumming, and minstrels, so there must be pipers, right? Sir Henry is not too thrilled, and he hasn’t seen his lover Stephan in an age…
From chapter 48
By nightfall, a huge bonfire lit the yard. Flames and sparks shot towards the stars. Torches lined the road from the mill at one end of the village to the cottages north of the manor house. Trestles overflowed with roasted goose smothered with savory sage and onions and garlic.
Edward sat at a raised dais overseeing the celebration. To his left was Father Eustace and Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln; to his right, Henry. “Let us celebrate,” Edward said, “and ask Bishop Hugh to bless this gathering and the food we share tonight.” Heads lowered and the bishop offered a prayer.
After the “Amen” Edward rapped the table. “Now, good people, raise your mugs and offer a toast to my son and heir, Henry.”
Henry looked at him, clenched his teeth. Why did he feel the world closing in around him?
“Tonight we celebrate his betrothal to the Lady Elle Weston. There’s to be a wedding in November.” Edward clapped Henry’s back. A huge roar and applause swept the village as he downed his ale.
Henry forced a smile, lifted his drink to the villagers. November? God help us…
The troubadour, a fine player, strummed his tunes a short while later. Edward’s fingers tapped to the rhythm of the music. There were jugglers and acrobats, a man who ate fire. The younger children gaped at his tricks, amazed. Henry took his father’s place when the dancing started. “This will be you and Robin one day,” he told Marian as he twirled her around. Every female from six to sixty demanded a turn. Everyone congratulated him on the news of his upcoming nuptials.
“It’s a good thing, you and Elle Weston,” Matilda Brewer said when she had a whirl with Henry. “Should you not be happy with her, you come to me.” She winked and kissed his cheek.
Her son Jack appeared out of nowhere and grabbed them both. “He’s mine, Ma.” He swung Henry away, launching him towards a table on the far side of the gathering. They sat and shooed away two young boys dicing. Jack poured Henry some ale. He pointed to a sandy-haired young man who had danced with as many girls as Henry. “Odo’s boy has an eye for the ladies.”
“He won’t be in any shape to enjoy their company.” Henry laughed. “It was good of Odo to send him in his stead, but I hope Odo doesn’t expect him back in Boston on the morrow. He shall need another day to sleep off your mother’s brew.”
Jack studied the faces around them, leaned closer to Henry. “Your friend—the ginger-hair—I saw him passing through Grantham two days past. Is it my own eyes telling me I’ve seen more of him of late riding with wagons crammed full of goods?”
Henry chewed his lower lip, nodded. Even a blind man would have noticed the change. The truce with Count John would end on All Saints Day, a few weeks hence. The number of wagons had doubled, though the guard detail had not. More wagons, fewer guards. Worse, Henry had learned provisions were also being stored at Westorby under Edric Weston’s protection.
Jack started to sing, his knee bouncing in time to the music. “Raise the song, beat the drum, drum, drum…” He paused, lifting his mug to his lips and taking a swig of brew. “Nice party, my lord. I shall expect even better at your wedding.”
Jack’s wife, Eve, drew up to the table and saved Henry from saying anything about Elle. She threw her arms round Jack’s neck. “What are you two whispering about? Rents are paid, king’s taxes, they be paid. We’ve a good and plenty harvest to celebrate. I have not yet danced with you, husband, and the night grows late.” Her hand slid into Jack’s and he leapt to his feet.
Henry felt a pang of jealousy. He’d never be able to wrap his arms around Stephan in a crowded room or dance with him at a celebration. Just the thought made him ache all the more.
Marian swished past him with a masked man on her arm. He wouldn’t have noticed but for the man’s focused gaze on him. The man whirled Marian round and his eyes—blue and sparkling from the firelight—met Henry’s every time. When the music ended, the man bowed to Marian. He looked at Henry again and then slipped around the side of the barn.
Henry thought his heart would burst. He took a step, his feet heavy. He was afraid it had been his imagination.
Leda Tanner caught his arm. “I’ve not had my dance with you, sir.”
“Dear lady, I must keep you waiting a while longer. There is something I must see to.” He begged off offers from two more girls while pressing his way through the dancers. Twisting, he avoided knocking over Hugh, his hands laden with a tray of ale.
Shadows engulfed the barn. The stink of horse sweat wafted into the sultry September air, but leather and musk—Henry knew that smell. He turned the corner and fell into Stephan’s waiting arms.
“I have dreamed of this moment,” Stephan said, unable to tear his eyes from Henry.
“The waiting has been dreadful.” Henry nuzzled Stephan’s hair and his close-cropped beard. His thigh parted Stephan’s legs to bring them close.
Stephan grinned, his hands planted firmly on Henry’s buttocks. “Far too much clothing between us.”
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Charlene Newcomb is the author of the Battle Scars series, 12th century historical fiction filled with war, political intrigue, and a knightly romance of forbidden love set during the reign of Richard the Lionheart.
Char also writes science fiction. Echoes of the Storm was published in July 2020.
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