A wave of stark terror swept over Rosamond Marshal, snatching her breath away. She began to run the moment she saw the dark horse and rider, knowing instinctively they would pursue her. Relentlessly! The rider was faceless. All she knew was that he was dark, but it was the horse she feared most. It was huge, black, and terrifying.
An icy shiver slithered down her spine. Her pale golden hair tumbled wildly about her shoulders as she pulled her skirts high, baring long, slim legs, in a desperate attempt to escape being trampled by the cruel hooves. Her lungs felt as if they would burst as she gasped for just one more breath that would carry her to safety. Her pulse hammered inside her eardrums, deafening her as she turned to look over her shoulder. Rosamond's eyes widened in horror and a scream was torn from her throat as she saw the black forelegs rise above her, then helplessly she tumbled beneath the murderous hooves.
Rosamond's eyes flew open. Slowly, she became aware of her surroundings. She was lying in her bed, her hair a wild tangle, her night rail twisted about her body so that her long legs were bared. Heaving a ragged sigh of relief, she sat up.
“Whatever is amiss, Rosamond?” Demoiselle de Montfort asked, throwing back her covers and padding barefoot across the spacious bedchamber they shared at Kenilworth Castle.
Rosamond tossed back her hair in a gesture of dismissal to reassure her young friend. “It was nothing, Demi.”
“But you screamed,” the young, dark-haired girl insisted. “Was it the old nightmare come back to haunt you?”
“No, of course not,” Rosamond said. She was seventeen, almost three years older than the Demoiselle, as everyone affectionately called young Eleanor de Montfort. The unusual nickname had been given to her by a French nursemaid because mother and daughter had the same name. Rosamond was determined not to alarm her friend. She laughed with bravado. “It would take more than a bad dream to frighten me.”
“Could we have a light?” The Demoiselle had always been afraid of total darkness, which was why Rosamond shared her chamber, high in the Lady Tower.
“I'm so sorry I disturbed you, Demi.” She lit the square, scented candle in its metal stand and tucked the Demoiselle back into bed. Back in her own bed, Rosamond offered a silent prayer of thanks that she was safe and secure at Kenilworth. Located in the midland county of Warwickshire, eighty miles from London, the castle was her haven, her refuge, where she felt protected from the harsh world. Rosamond watched the shadows flicker upon the wall. She hadn't had the trampling dream in a long time and had hoped she was free of it, but apparently she was not completely free. Though Rosamond knew what caused it, she never spoke of it anymore.
Because her parents had both died while she and her brother Giles were children, they had become royal wards. Since Giles was the same age as Prince Edward Plantagenet, he had joined the prince's household, becoming one of a dozen noble youths who were Edward's companions. Rosamond, however, had joined the household of the king's sister, Eleanor de Montfort, Countess of Leicester, because Rosamond was the niece of the late William Marshal, who had been Princess Eleanor's first husband.
The brother and sister had seen each other often because Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, was Prince Edward's godfather, and the young noblemen received their military training from the great warlord, reputed to be the ablest warrior in Christendom. By the time he was fifteen, Lord Edward, as the heir to the throne was called, had towered head and shoulders over the other men of the court. His companions were all high-spirited youths, guilty of excesses. Some of them were his cousins from Provence and Lusignan, who thought themselves above curbs and restraints.
Though King Henry had forbidden them to joust, Lord Edward and his companions had ridden over to Ware to take part in a tournament. That was the fateful day that Giles Marshal had lost his life in a jousting accident. Because Rosamond was only twelve at the time, the gory details had been kept from her, but she had heard whispers of the half-wild charger that had trampled his body. At first the nightmares had come every night, but with time, they had become less frequent, and she had been free of them for almost two years.
Rosamond remembered the months following the accident, how everyone had been kind to her. Giles's companions, led by Lord Edward, had been soberly contrite and extremely solicitous. Because she was all alone in the world, several had sought her hand in marriage, and at Lord Edward's insistence she had been betrothed to his dearest friend, Rodger de Leyburn, who held the coveted post of royal steward in the prince's household. Yet Rosamond could not help feeling a secret resentment toward Edward and his high-spirited companions.
Rosamond sighed. It had happened five years ago, yet still she thought of the prince and his friends as arrogant, lawless, spoiled young devils! And it was true. They had all been wild and courted trouble with a vengeance. She thought of the Demoiselle's older brothers, Henry and Simon de Montfort, who had been Lord Edward's first companions. They were no different. All they thought of were weapons and horses and tumbling the maidservants.
Her thoughts inevitably drifted to a more worthy knight, Sir Rickard de Burgh. He was the son of the wealthy and noble Falcon de Burgh, Lord of Connaught. Sir Rickard was a twin, and reputed to possess the mystic gift of seeing into the future. He was a mature man of middle years, not a dissolute youth, but maturity only enhanced his rugged good looks. His thick black hair had a distinguished touch of gray at the temples, and his brilliant green eyes had attractive laugh-lines at their corners. His voice, so low and melodious with its Irish lilt, had insinuated itself into Rosamond's heart the first time she heard it, and it made her sigh whenever he spoke.
To Rosamond, Sir Rickard de Burgh was everything that was honorable and chivalrous, for he had pledged himself to serve and guard Princess Eleanor Plantagenet when she was tragically widowed by William Marshal's untimely death. It was rumored that he remained unwed because no lady had yet touched his heart. Rosamond secretly daydreamed that perhaps she would be the one he would honor with his favor. Her pulse fluttered at the mere thought of Lady de Montfort's knight-errant. Her maiden's heart overflowed with awe and admiration for the handsome Irish warrior.
In the morning, Rosamond forgot about the dream as she and Demi dressed and learned from their tiring-women that Earl Simon had returned from Wales with a large group of knights. As she saw the joy transform her friend's face, banishing the worry Demi experienced whenever her father went on campaign, Rosamond was thankful she no longer had to live with such paralyzing fear. To love someone and lose them was the worst thing that could happen in this world.
The Demoiselle was eager to see her father, and Rosamond blushed, hoping that Sir Rickard de Burgh also had returned and not tarried in Wales at one of his castles. The girls spurned the head veils held out by their tiring-women, and like two hoydens, picked up their skirts and raced from the ladies' quarters of the castle down to the Great Hall.
Kenilworth was like a royal court in its size and importance. The household was a hive of activity, with Eleanor de Montfort, Countess of Leicester, presiding over it like a queen bee. She was the sister of King Henry of England, but she took as much pride in the title her husband had given her as she did in the title of princess. Though Eleanor now had grown children, she was still a beautiful woman. She was vividly dark, and far too vain to allow her hair to turn gray. These days, however, she wore her hair up, fastening the curls with jeweled pins or braiding it into a regal coronet to enhance her small, five-foot stature. She wore cosmetics, painting her mouth with lip rouge, and using kohl to outline her startling amethyst-colored eyes and to darken her lashes.
Eleanor prided herself on her slim figure. Her waist was almost as tiny as it had been before she had given birth to her children, and the necklines of her gowns were always cut to show off her beautiful breasts. Pride of blood showed in her every gesture. Eleanor was a vibrant woman who loved to laugh almost as much as she loved clothes and jewels. She was both a princess and a countess down to her fingertips. Her husband not only adored her, but also trusted her implicitly.
When Simon spied his daughter, he swooped her up in his massive arms and swung her about. “Can this young lady possibly be my little girl? Demoiselle, you have grown into a woman in the months I've been gone. You rival your mother in beauty; I just hope and pray you are neither as willful nor as wicked as she.” Simon's dark eyes found Eleanor's and gazed into them for a moment, deliberately reminding her of the passion they had shared when he'd arrived home in the middle of the night. Though he was in his fifties, Simon was still an extremely virile man, with a commanding presence. He had a soldier's body; the muscles on his six-foot, four-inch frame were well honed from the rigors of the Welsh campaign. Simon de Montfort also had a supreme air of confidence that drew younger men like a lodestone.
His daughter dimpled with delight and gave him an affectionate kiss of greeting. “The castle felt empty without you, Father.”
“It is filling up by the hour as the men return from Wales. No doubt it will burst at the seams when your cousin Edward arrives.”
“Lord Edward is coming?” Countess Eleanor raised a perfectly plucked eyebrow at her husband. Her brother King Henry and Simon de Montfort were almost enemies.
“I am Edward's godfather, Eleanor. Just because his father and I disagree on every conceivable matter doesn't mean that Edward and I cannot be friends.”
“I agree, darling. You have been a wonderful influence on him. My nephew Edward will make a magnificent king. I warrant he will put both his father and grandfather in the shade when it is his turn to rule.”
“In spite of their reputations as hell-raisers and carousers, he and his young nobles acquitted themselves well in the Welsh campaign.”
“Such wild boys!” Eleanor said indulgently.
“Boys no longer ... they are men, make no mistake.”
Rosamond rolled her eyes ceilingward and Demi giggled as they imagined the spoiled boys parading about like men. In truth, Rosamond found it hard to picture them at all, for a month after her betrothal, the royal family had traveled to Spain, where Prince Edward, heir to the throne, was married to ten-year-old Eleanora of Castile. The political marriage had taken place to ensure peace between England and Spain, and immediately after the ceremony, Lord Edward and his nobles had ridden to Gascony, where he had been installed as ruler. When he returned to England at twenty, Lord Edward had his own household at Windsor, which had been especially built for him. Rumor had it that the young nobles, influenced by continental ideas, were wilder than ever. Edward now commanded a large troop of young Gascons and was so eager for military action, it had been impossible to keep him from the campaign in Wales.
As the two friends broke their fast, Demi confided, “I don't remember much about Edward except that his hair was flaxen and everyone called him Longshanks because he was so tall.”
Rosamond's glance, which had been searching the hall for a glimpse of one particular knight, came to rest on Demi's pretty face. “That's because it has been five years since we've seen him ... thank the Lord!”
Demi laughed at her friend's irreverence. “I can't remember any of the young men in his household.”
“How very fortunate for you,” Rosamond teased. “They were a pack of uncivilized beasts, forever fighting and trading blows with each other. The only one I could tolerate was Harry of Almaine, and that's because his mother was Isabella Marshal and he's my second cousin.”
“What about Rodger de Leyburn?” Demi asked avidly.
“What about him?” Rosamond shrugged a pretty shoulder to show her complete indifference.
“He's your betrothed!”
“Not for long! I'll soon rid myself of the ugly devil,” Rosamond said lightly, licking honey from her fingers.
“Is he truly ugly?” Demi asked with compassion.
Rosamond's throaty laugh bubbled forth. “He left such an indelible impression upon me, I don't remember.”
The girls finished their breakfast and hurried off to their first lesson of the day. Eleanor de Montfort was a stickler for learning and would not excuse the Demoiselle from her lessons simply because her father had returned. They studied languages with Brother Adam, a learned Franciscan who had helped compile the library at Kenilworth. Both young ladies were fluent in French, and Rosamond had recently developed a flair for Spanish, while Demi preferred to learn the Welsh tongue. They also studied history and government, as well as music and art.
Along with this liberal education, each was preparing to become the proficient chatelaine of her own castle. They learned how to run a kitchen, a laundry, a stillroom, and a household of servants. They learned how to make herbal cures from the nuns of St. Bride's and were taught to stitch, cauterize, and dress the wounds of men-at-arms in case bloody action became necessary in times of emergency.
On top of all this knowledge, Rosamond had acquired something far more valuable. She had acquired a measure of self-confidence and was no longer the vulnerable, insecure child she had once been. Because she revered Princess Eleanor, Lady de Montfort had become her role model. She imitated the magnificent woman's sparkling wit, her full-bodied laugh, her exquisite clothes, and her regal demeanor. Eleanor could swear a blue streak with the stable boys or freeze the Queen of England with a haughty stare, and Rosamond Marshal was fast becoming the same sort of vibrant woman as the Countess of Leicester.
The next morning, Rosamond chose a lavender gown whose shade matched the color of her eyes. It was richly embroidered with delicate seed pearls on its sleeves and square-cut neckline. Her beautiful clothes not only gave her pleasure, they also lent her a great deal of confidence. She picked up the journal she was compiling on the medicinal properties of herbs and plants, and hurried to the stillroom, where she had been secretly experimenting with bayberries versus bay leaves to ease the pain and length of labor in childbirth.
The nuns had been outraged when they discovered Rosamond reading a medical journal from Cordoba, Spain, the world's undisputed center of medicine. It not only contained information on the painkilling properties of plants, but listed herbs that prevented conception, such as dragonwort. The nuns lectured that herbal remedies to ease pain should be reserved for men who received wounds in battle. Rosamond vigorously argued that from what she had seen, the pain of childbirth was so great, it was quite reasonable to use herbs to relieve it. The nuns, however, insisted it was natural pain, which should, indeed must, be endured, and Rosamond lost the argument. Undaunted, she continued to distill her syrups surreptitiously, providing the women of Kenilworth with the soothing concoctions that were much in demand.
Excerpted from The Marriage Prize by Virginia Henley. Copyright © 2000 by Virginia Henley. Excerpted by permission of Island Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.