A MARRIAGE OF EQUALS
The sudden gust of icy wind picked up the frail leaves, swirled them in a knee-high column and tossed them back onto the ground against the fence. Honoria stared at them. Tears sprang to her eyes, and she blinked them away. Nature did to her own what God did to his. She bit her lip and crossed herself instantly. Even Job didn’t curse God, and he had lost so much more than she. She shifted the young one to her other shoulder and tried to close the ragged blanket tighter around the child’s little body. Exhausted, she dropped her other hand, the one that had been carrying the little one for the last mile, to her side.
She felt something cold on her hand, and looked down. Her young sister, Philomena, slipped her cold bony fingers into Honoria’s hand. “When will we eat?” the little girl looked up into her face. The look was reproachful, sullen. Three, four days ago it had been hopeful.
“Soon,” she lied. “Soon.”
The girl looked forward up the narrow dirt road that lay between the thick tangle of skeletal trees. Honoria glanced over her shoulders. The three boys, (), was still following, several paces behind them, staring off to the side of the road, his feet dragging.
“Come, now,” she said. “It won’t be much longer. We’ll be at Aunt () and Uncle ()’s home soon. They will come to the door when we knock, and raise the lantern and say, ‘Why, who is it who comes to our house so late?’ And we’ll say, ‘Why, it’s us, the children of your sister, oh, aunt. We have walked all this way, nearly a hundred miles over these ten days to come to be with you as you asked.’ And they will say, ‘Oh, come in and sit ye down and eat your fill.’”
“And what will they have?” The little hand squeezed her tired one.
“To eat? Why, I should think mutton. Yes, a mutton shoulder.” She tried to sound cheerful, but it was like the cry of a crow, and she was ashamed of the sharpness of the sound.
“And bread. Loaves and loaves of bread?”
“Yes,” Honoria said. “Bread. She will have baked and there will be bread.”
“I should think so, yes.”
Their brother came up behind. He was a mere twelve years old, but his face had changed so much in just the time since she had died. He looked older, drawn, harsh.
“We won’t live to get there,” he said bitterly. “God has cursed us. He took them both. Both of them. In a month’s time. We will die on the road, sisters,” he said ominously.
crossed herself again and kissed her fingers quickly. “How can you say such a thing? And in this god-forsaken place?
“What? The world? The world?”
“Not the world,” she crossed herself again. Darkness was falling. Spirits came out at this time. “God will protect us.”
“Well, he’s not done a very good job of it thus far,” her brother scoffed.
“I should slap you,” she said bitterly. “You must not blaspheme.” The last red light was fading between the black trees and from the darkening grey clouds overhead, a few small snowflakes danced in the air. They walked for a few more minutes until they saw a glow from the woods and made for it.
It was a campfire, and around it there were several people warming their hands.
“Hello, good Christians,” Honoria said, coming slowly toward the group. There were several women, a number of men and a few children.
“Greetings,” one of the older women said. She came forward, still holding a little child in her arms. “Where do you come from?”
“From (), to the south.”
“Ahhh. You’re a long way from home. You look cold.”
“Aye, we are,” Honoria said wearily.
“Well, sit by the fire. We would give you something to eat, but we’ve naught ourselves. These are evil times.”
“Where are you headed?” Honoria shifted the little one again. She was so weak. She knelt down as near the fire as she could. The other children crowded around, trying to soak a little of the warmth into their bodies. Her hand tingled as she held it out toward the unaccustomed warmth.
“To (). To our aunt and uncle’s home. They have a small place there. He’s a cobbler there. Our…”
“Yes. It should be fairly close here.”
The woman shook her head. “You can’t go there, my girl.”
“We must,” Honoria said, taken a little aback.
“Ye must not. There’s sickness come to (). Near every man, woman, child stricken down with it. Them that aren’t sick will be soon enough. I don’t know what they did to bring this on, but whatever it were, God is smitin’ them good.”
“Please,” Honoria grasped at the woman’s gown. “Don’t say this. You are mistaken. Tell me…surely you are mistaken.”
“We’ve come from near there. The word is very bad.” The woman’s face softened. “I’m sorry, my girl. Are these yours?”
“They are my brothers and sisters.”
“I’m sorry,” the woman repeated. “I don’t know what you’ll do with them. Drought this past summer, third year in a row. Sickness, war, famine. Why is God doing this to us?”
Honoria closed her eyes and let her head fall back. When she opened them, she stared into the canopy of branches overhead, interlocking, interwoven like the ceilings of a cathedral she had been to when she was still a small girl. She remembered the gown she had worn, green silk, over a pure white underkirtle, and embroidered shoes, her perfect white whimple neatly in place over her plaited hair. So long ago. Before things became so difficult. Before, before, before. She could not think of these things. She felt dizzy, nauseated and looked down into the cackling fire.
“What will you do?” The second woman poked the fire.
Honoria stroked the young one’s shawl wrapped cheek. “I don’t know,” she said flatly. “I don’t know.”
The woman peered into her face. “You know, you’re pretty enough. Come with us to (). You can make a fine bit of change, I’ll trow, on your looks alone.” She nodded trying to sound cheerful.
Honoria rose unsteadily.
“You’re welcome to spend the night with us,” the first woman said. “We’ve nothing to eat, but you can stay the night and then travel on with us to the city.”
She wavered with indecision. Another night with nothing to eat against the security of having others nearby. But who were these people that they would suggest she throw away what shred of her honor and piety remained.
“We’ll go on,” she said. “Surely there will be others along the road. Perhaps we can find something to eat.” She summoned her strength to smile a little. “Thank you for the news, and for letting us share your fire.”
“Please yourself,” the older woman said, turning away. “I’d far rather stay warm and travel with fellow Christians that brave the night in the devil’s own woods alone.”
“Thank you,” Honoria said, taking her sister by the hand. “May God bless you.”
“And you, my daughter,” the older woman said.
“Come, boys,” she said. They set off down the road. In a few minutes they came to the crossroads. One sign pointed to (), the place they were going to begin with. The second pointed off to the west. She sighed and trudged forward toward the western route. The boys were grumbling.
“Hush,” she said sharply.
“It’s the middle of the night, Honoria,” her brother said. “Where will we sleep? What will we eat?”
“There will be something. God will provide.”
“God will do nothing for us. God has done nothing for us,” he said angrily.
“Fie on you,” she snapped. “Enough with your blasphemy. It had grown completely dark now, and she regretted not staying with those people.
“Enough. Where are we going, Honoria?”
“I don’t know.”
“What will we eat when we get there?”
“I don’t know that either,” she shouted and he glowered at her.
“I’m not doing this anymore,” he said.
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t know. I’ll find something. I’m old enough to find my own way.”
“We must stay together,” Honoria said quickly. “What do you mean?”
But he turned and ran in the opposite direction.
“Wait,” she cried. “Wait.” But it was too dark. She started to run after him, but her gown tangled in her legs and she stopped just short of falling. “Wait.” She cried his name over and over in the darkness, but there wasn’t an answer. Her sister took her hand again.
“Oh, now what will I do?” she cried. “What will happen to him? What will happen to us?”
They moved off to the side of the road, tried to make a little pile of their things and cuddle down as close as possible, the four children and Honoria, to stay warm. “Where will he go?” she wept, rocking back and forth. There was so much evil in the world, so much loss. There was a point where she couldn’t feel any more. “Tell a story, Philomena.” Philomena was forever making up stories, strange stories about princesses and ghosts and pagans and spirits and maidens escaping near death and falling madly in love with equally afflicted young heroes. She had absorbed every snippet of gossip that was to be had and wove it seamlessly into her stories so they were a blend of reality and total fabrication. But Philomena was exhausted, too hungry and too tired to speak. They stared at each other in the near dark and Honoria yearned to reach out and wipe the line of tears from Philomena’s cheek. But it was pointless. There would be another, and another, and her own cheeks were burning with tears in the freezing night.
She opened her eyes to a grey morning, colder even than the night before. He was still not there. She sighed, sat for a moment wondering how long she should wait. Slowly she rose. “Come,” she said to the others. “We have to go.”
“What about our brother?”
“He would have starved anyway,” she said bitterly. “We have to go on.”
They walked until nearly noon, when they came upon a small collection of huts. She threw herself against the door of the first one. A woman peered out of the wind hole and then opened the door.
“Good Christian,” she said. “We have walked so far, and have had nothing to eat for days except the end of a loaf of bread. Can you give us anything?”
The woman looked at them in silence for a minute, studying each one in turn, Honoria with the small child in her arms, and the three others. “Come in,” she said suddenly, quickly, extending her arm to them. “Come in. You must be freezing.”
“Thank you,” Honoria said, nearing tears again. The house was full of the smell of food cooking and it nauseated her.
“Come,” she motioned to the plank table and the benches sitting near it. “You sit.” She brushed a cat from one of the benches. Where have you come from?”
Honoria sat and pushed cloak from her head and the whimple back from her hair. It had been days since she had combed her hair, but she was past caring.
“Oh, my. They look to be starving,” the woman clucked at the children. She reached up on the sideboard, next to a large green eyed cat and pulled down a loaf of bread. She put it on the table and they tore into it quickly. “Look at the poor things.” She looked at the little one. “That one wants milk. Have you any left?”
“She is my sister,” Honoria said simply.
“Well, then you’ve not got any, I trow,” the woman laughed. “Come,” she put her arms out. “My youngest is two and still takes the teat once in a while. I’ve enough for this little one, too.” She took the little one from Honoria’s lap and sat down with a broad smile and put the little one to her breast. For a moment there was silence and then Honoria saw the little hand move and the sound of sucking. Tears fell down her eyelashes onto her cheeks.
“Goodness. You are a hungry little thing,” the woman said warmly. “Now, you, girl. Eat. Give them some of that,” the woman pointed to the pot on the fire. “There’s plenty where that came from.”
“How is it you’ve managed to avoid all the evils that have befallen the rest of the countryside?” Honoria asked slowly. “We hear everything is bad all over.”
“Well, God has blessed us,” the woman said. “For now. We’ve got all we need, and he’s not seen fit to visit us with plague. We had a difficult time with the drought, ‘tis true, but the Lord had blessed us with several good harvests in a row, and my husband, bless him for a prudent man, always put enough back that we would not want. We do not have everything, of course, and I have to be frugal, but still, I can’t complain.” Honoria ladelled the soup into the wooden bowls and handed it around to the children. She took some for herself and ate quickly. In a few minutes she felt sicker than she had even been in her hunger. She was on the verge of throwing up what she had eaten, when the door opened and a man strode in, followed by a lanky boy.
“Aye, wife, what’s this?” the large man said cheerfully.
“It’s a poor girl, husband, from (), and her brothers and sisters. They’ve come from () to () to live with their aunt and uncle, but they’re in () and dead or dying of plague.”
The man crossed himself. The boy merely stared from behind him. “Well, God bless you and welcome,” the man said. “Lord, woman, what’s that at your breast?”
She laughed heartily and patted the little one’s back.
“I swear to you, I leave this woman alone for half a day and she’s got a new dog or cat or a houseful of children.” He came alongside her and squeezed her arm. She smiled and he looked at the side of the little one’s face.
“Not very old,” he observed. He ladled out a bowl and tore off a chunk from a second loaf of bread. The lanky boy did the same and they sat down and ate heartily. “Well, you look exhausted,” he said.
“Yes. We have been traveling over ten days now to get to my aunt and uncles in ().”
“Too bad about that.” The man crossed himself, shrugged and belched. “Too bad. Well, what are you going to do now?”
“I don’t know,” she said quickly. “I don’t know what I can do.”
The woman stood up, handed her the little one again and adjusted her tunic. “Well,” she said pushing her hair up under her whimple. “You must find a place to settle and something to do for money, of course.”
“Yes,” she said slowly. In truth, she had not thought of what to do beyond getting a meal for the day and a place to lay down. “I only just learned last night of what befell my aunt and uncle.”
“Well, you must go to (). It is a great fine city not thirty miles from here.” The woman gestured off to the west. “You can find some work there or a nice man who’ll marry you. But now, you must rest,” she began pulling blankets and coverlets from a great chest and handing them around. “Come, come. You children are exhausted.” She motioned them to bed over in the corner. “We’ll not be needing it for hours. You rest.” She tucked the children under the covers and looked to Honoria.
“And you, rest too. Tomorrow’s soon enough to start out.” The woman bustled Honoria to a place by the fire and settled her in with a blanket and bolster. “There now. You sleep tight.” The woman patted her shoulder and she curled her hand arount the top of the blanket and held it tight against her. It was the first time in ten days that she had been without the child in her arms, and it felt odd. The woman sat on a stool, rocked back and forth and sang softly to the child at her breast. Her own little one had awakened from his nap and sleepily leaned against her thigh.
“You see? You were once this little, my (). Can you believe that?”
He leaned his head against her shoulder soberly and touched the little one’s hair. The woman went back to singing softly as Honoria closed her eyes.
When several days had passed, Honoria felt more like herself again. She made herself useful around the house, mending the clothing that the woman hadn’t had time to see to, and hoeing the garden. The wife had five children of her own, and cooked for not only her own but fed the men who labored with her husband as well, and provided food for several of the poor of the neighboring village.
She was always busy, always cheerful, though Honoria could tell the woman was frequently exhausted.
“You should rest more,” Honoria chided gently.
“Oh, I’m fine. I don’t need rest.”
Honoria smiled. “Well, all the same.”
“You know, my girl,” the woman said. “You look much better now than when you first came here.”
“Yes. Thank you. You’ve taken good care of us. But we should be going on.”
The woman folded the sheet she had just taken from the line and smoothed it over her arm against her belly. “Where will you go?”
Honoria looked off into the dark grey and lowering sky. “I’m not sure.”
“I’ll tell you,” the woman smiled, puttint the sheet down on the browned grass. “You should go to (). Thirty miles. Find a nice man.”
Honoria laughed a little. “And how would I do that? In rags and with four children on my heels?” She bit her lip at the memory. It should have been five, but they’d seen nothing of their brother since he ran off in the woods. Who knew what might become of him. She looked over and saw Philomena with the others, her own siblings and the children of the farm woman. Philomena was gesturing dramatically, telling yet another story of heroics and magnificent loves.
The woman pulled another sheet from the line as Honoria plucked down and quickly folded the towelling. It was freezing cold, but dry. She watched the woman’s red hands move quickly. “Leave them with me.”
“Leave the little ones with me. You can come back for them later.”
“You have so many to care for.”
“Ach.” The woman scoffed. “Nonesense. What’s a few more. A little more water in the soup. We can manage. If you can sew you can get work as a seamstress or an embroiderer or lace maker. Then come back and get them.”
“Will your husband mind?”
“He’s a good Christian man. He knows your need. Now, say nothing more about it.”
She could not stand to be parted from them all. She gathered them together and hugged and kissed them all. “You be good, now,” she said. “I will be back for you as soon as I can.”
They stared at her.
“Where are you going?” the youngest boy asked.
“To find a new home for us. Don’t worry. I’ll come back for you.”
She wrapped a shawl around her head. The farm woman adjusted it on her hair. “I wish I could give you more,” she said.
“You’ve given us so much,” Honoria said. “Thank you.”
“God will bless you, girl,” the woman struggled to smile. “I know he will.”
Honoria picked up her pack. There was a noise behind her. She turned to see Philomena, dressed as warmly as their rags would allow.
“Philomena, whatever are you doing?”
“I’m going with you, sister.”
“You can’t,” Honoria sighed.
“I won’t let you go alone,” Philomena said stoutly.
“You must stay here and look after the others,” Honoria said.
“Our good lady should not have to look after so many of us, and who will look after you?” Philomena retorted.
“Philomena,” Honoria sighed. “How…”
“Take the child,” the farm woman said. “You will be better off with two of you than one. Go on now. You’ve a long journey before you get back here.”
They arrived in () by nightfall. But there was nothing to be had in the way of work and she quickly found herself as miserable as she had been on the road before meeting the farmer and his wife.
“But surely there must be something I can do,” she begged. “I can sew. My stitches are…”
“Girl, every maiden can ply a needle,” the woman of the shop said. “There’s not a shortage of likely girls for that, and ones who have actually worked too. The famine and disease have filled our shops.”
“Then what am I to do?”
“I don’t know, girl. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Go to (). See if they have anything there. I’ve a cousin who went there some months ago and settled in well.”
“Thank you,” Honoria bowed. (). It was another twenty miles away from the farm and the children. Still, what choice did she have? She walked slowly. The winter was coming on now. There would be nothing but misery and hunger from now on and she would die on the road like a dog.
() was a cheerful looking little town, with smoke rising from clay chimneys, and women and boys crying wares in the street. But there wasn’t any work there either. People told her to go to other towns. She set off, miserable.
They trudged on, until she thought her feet would not carry her another step. They crested a hill and looked down into it’s gnarled nest of trees. At the base of the hill, there was a small stone building.
“Let’s go down there,” her sister said. “Maybe someone lives there who can give us something to eat.”
“There should be light in the windows,” Honoria said. “If anyone was home.”
“Come,” the little sister grasped her hand and pulled her forward. Without a path, they crunched through the dry and frozen summer grasses. Honoria stopped.
“Sister, this is a mausoleum.”
“It’s a grave for wealthy people, a place of burial.”
“I don’t care,” the little girl pouted. “It’s a building. It must be warmer than being outside. We can go in and warm ourselves. Please, sister. I’m so cold.”
Honoria stopped at the metal door and crossed herself. “There may be spirits…”
“Honoria, please,” the little girl begged. Honoria grasped the door and pulled on it. There was a chain around it. Her sister brought a rock, and she bashed it against the chain, over and over again. The chain stayed firm, and she was almost relieved, terrified of what they might find inside.
“One more time, sister. Try one more time,” the little girl said.
Honoria, frustrated, struck the chain, and hit the lock from the side. It sprang open. She stared at it for a moment and then took the now warm lock into her hand.
“Hurry, Honoria,” her sister said, reaching around to tug on the door. “Let’s go in.” Honoria unwrapped the chain from the door and pulled on the door. It remained stationary. She turned back to her sister.
She pulled but still nothing. The sister looked down and pulled some of the dirt and grass that had grown up since the door was last opened from underneath it. They pulled again, and this time, it came open. The air that rushed out possessed a strange comingling of scents, something sweetish over something dry and acrid smelling. They stepped inside and Honoria had to admit it was warmer.
“Close the door quickly,” her sister said, and they were in complete darkness. She wrapped her arms tightly around her sister and squatted down next to the door, too terrified in the darkness to move away from its safety. Her sister soon stopped shivering and lay still in her arms.
“God,” she thought. “What have you done? Why have you brought us here?” For a long time she turned the words over and over in her mind until finally she drew her rosary from around her neck and began praying.
When she awoke, there was a thin line of light coming from under the door, and from the chinks in the stone. It was insufficient to see anything inside the chamber. She awoke her sister and pushed the door open a few inches. Outside, the hillside was covered with white frost that had made diamonds on the ground and silvered all the upright grasses. The sun was brilliant and for a moment, she almost forgot the pressing pain in her stomach.
She turned back. Her sister was burrowing into something.
“What are you doing?” she hisses, as if fearful the deceased would hear her.
“Look,” her sister said. “Clothing. Jewelry.” She held something up. “A mirror.”
“Vanities,” Honoria said. She began the same prayer she had been praying the night before. “Oh, God, deliver us.”
She looked back. There were a number of people laid out in berths along the walls, and in rows along the floor. Maybe there were a dozen people, the oldest looking of them merely skeletons in ancient looking robes. The most recent had still been dead for a great many years.
“There must have been a house or a villa near here at one time,” Honoria said. She came to where her sister was, at the feet of a well dressed woman in a white robe. But there were several gowns and jewelry in a neat pile. It was all of excellent quality. Whoever had laid these things out had spared nothing in the way of details. The underkirtles were white silk, as was the whimple and the chin strap was done with fine embroidery. The gown was a pale green, cut in the old fashioned manner but only in the details. So the shoulders weren’t structured but she would wear a cloak over them, and who would notice such an insignificant detail? The jewelry was mostly of beaten gold with intricate borders of flowers and interlocking geometric designs.
“Try it on,” her sister said.
“Not I,” Honoria said briefly. “Wear the clothing of a dead heathen woman?”
Honoria looked at the gown and then down at her own ragged one. “Yes,” she said. “Perhaps God has ordained this. He led us here, didn’t he? And opened the place for us.”
“Yes,” the girl said eagerly. “So he must have wanted us to have these things.”
They dressed quickly, put on some of the jewelry and then made a bundle of the rest of it. “You look like a princess,” the little sister said.
“And you as well.” Honoria smiled. The clothing felt odd on her body, somehow disgusting, and yet at the same time, it was heavy and warm.
They set out again, closing the door and wrapping the chain around it as carefully as possible. They walked in silence for a while.
“We need food,” the little girl said. “We can sell some of these baubles in the next town.”
“Maybe,” Honoria said. “But how do we explain where we got them?”
“I don’t know,” her sister said.
The opportunity to know presented itself soon enough. They entered the next town with a considerable degree of apprehension. But hunger is a great motivator and they made their way to the little inn just off the square.
They entered quietly and the innkeeper greeted them. “My ladies,” he said sweeping a bow. “What can I get for you this evening?”
Honoria smiled at him. “We are quite hungry. Are you a Christian?”
“Indeed, lady. Most folk are in these parts, ever since St. () came into these parts some forty years past. There are still some pagan sites, ‘tis true. But they shan’t be a bother to a good Christian lady like yourself. Stay away from the old temple of Venus, though. They’s still strange goings on there from time to time they say.”
Honoria nodded. “Then, if you will, bring my sister and I something to eat. But I must tell you, I haven’t money to pay you.”
“But I will give you this for a night’s lodging and meals through tomorrow.” She pulled out a small gold ring and showed it to him. He turned it over in his hands and held it to the candle light, then bit it. He examined again, and whistled low.
“My lady, do you not know anything of the value of things?”
Honoria looked down at her hands. “I have more, if you should want it.”
He laughed and motioned for his wife to bring food and seated himself across from Honoria. “Now, maiden, I don’t know where you’ve come from, or how much food and lodging costs there, but you are offering me as much as I should have to pay for an entire cow for one night’s lodging. You could stay here a week, a fortnight for that.”
She looked at the little ring with wonder.
He narrowed his eyes at her. “How have you come to be in this place, just you two girls alone?”
“I…we…” Honoria picked up the spoon and quickly began eating. Her sister was pulling bits from the bread and devouring them quickly. “We are travelling from () to (), my sister and I.”
He crossed his great arms on the table and leaned his chin on them. “Why?”
“Why?” She smiled weakly. “Because we have kinsmen in ().”
He nodded. The door swung open and a group of men bustled in the door. “Shut it, shut it,” he bellowed. “It’s colder than…” He looked at the two girls. “Never mind, just shut the damned door.” He smiled at them. “Pardon, ladies.” He bowed and Honoria returned the bow. “You were telling me how you came to be here. Did you bring horses or come by coach?”
Honoria looked at her sister. She hadn’t any answers. Her sister set down her spoon and smiled. “Well,” she said. “My sister has lost her husband. So sad. He was so young, so handsome.” Honoria looked over at her sister. Her eyes were shining. The innkeeper’s wife had come over and stood behind his shoulder, holding a trencher of stew.
“You don’t say?”
“Yes, it was so sad. She can’t even speak of him,” Philomena sighed. “Not without bursting into tears, even after so many days without him.”
“Ohhhh,” the innkeeper’s wife cooed. “So sad.”
“Yes,” Philomena continued. “He was a young noble man, who had gone away to the wars so far south of his home, and he was injured there, and lost his fortune trying to redeem his fellows who had been taken prisoner by pagans.”
“He lost everything?”
“Well, almost, and then he started back, with only one squire and nothing more and he came to out town, unable to go on. He collapsed near the old fountain, and my sister found him, and brought him home and nursed him tenderly.”
“Ohhhh,” the woman said gently. “Was he very badly off?”
Honoria, dumbfounded nodded. “Well, they fell deeply and passionately in love,” Philomena continued quickly. “And were married…”
“But he died?” the man volunteered sympathetically.
“Ohhh, not yet. They were together and very happy for months and then he went out riding after a boar and fell from his horse. They bore him back home and he had only enough time to kiss my poor sister’s fingertips and tell her to go to his people in () before he breathed his last.”
“Ohhh,” the woman wiped tears from her shining round cheeks. “Ohhh, you poor dear.” She poured more wine into Honoria’s glass and weakened it with water.
“Yes, it was. So we left our family and home, our security and love and to honor his last request and go to his people. We set out with horses and servants. But we were beset upon south of here a few days ago by a band of pagans.”
“Yes, who, because of our love of God, slew all we traveled with and took our horses and left us with only these things and this one ring,” She held it up.
“Oh, that’s terrible,” the man said.
“Yes, but my brave sister said, ‘We cannot go back home. We must go on to my husband’s people, since I made a solemn vow to them.”
“Gracious. What was your husband’s name, my dear?”
Honoria opened her mouth. She didn’t know what she would say.
“Guy. Guy of ().”
The couple sat back. “Why, yes,” the man said. “I believe I’ve heard of him.” He nodded enthusiastically and looked up over his shoulder at his wife. She put her hand on his shoulder and nodded a little.
“I believe so,” she said.
“Yes, yes,” the man said eagerly. “Well, you’re going to them?”
“Yes,” Honoria said faintly. Lying did not come easily to her.
“They are a fine house. Yes. Well, come, you must be exhausted. Wife, show them to the finest room in the house.”
“Just a moment,” she curtseied. “I’ll see if it’s free.” She trotted off toward the narrow stairs and up into the loft.
“Wonderful woman,” he said as if delivering himself of a confidence. “Just wonderful. Sees to everything.”
There were sounds from upstairs, footfalls overhead and then angry voices and the sounds of rustling and banging. There were more footfalls and then the sound of a number of people hurrying down the stairs, the wife shooing them ahead of her as if they were chickens. “But we’ve paid for our lodgings through tomorrow….” The man pleaded.
“Oh, get along with you,” the wife chided. “Enough whining. Go on. Out.”
“Wonderful woman,” the man beamed.
She came back to the table and curtsied again. “Your room is ready, ladies. Will you come this way?”
Dumbfounded, the two girls rose and followed the innkeeper’s wife up the narrow stairs. She swung the door open and they stooped to enter. The ceiling inside the room was a little taller, but it was still not much over their heads. “I’ll get you clean linens in a moment. You make yourself comfortable,” the woman bustled, tearing the sheet up off the pile of hay and straw that lay on the floor. She smiled still nodding and backed out of the room, closing the door behind her.
Honoria whirled on Philomena. “Where did you come up with such a tale?” she said reaching out as if to pull Philomena’s hair. Philomena drew back quickly to avoid Honoria’s hand.
“I don’t know. I just open my mouth and these things come out.” She grinned. “It was a great story, wasn’t it?”
“Oh, a fine one. Who is that man, the one you named?” Honoria went to the tiny windhole and pushed the board from in front of it. A breeze flowed into the stuffy room like a cool spring meeting a greater stream.
“I don’t know. Maybe I heard the name somewhere. Maybe I made it up. I don’t know. I hear things and remember them. Then they show up in stories.” Philomena put her hands on the sill and thrust her head out of the windhole. She sucked her breath in and held it. Turning back to Honoria, she let it out in a gasp. “Well, we’re here, aren’t we? We’ve got a room and a meal. What more do you want?”
“We’ll be done up for sure as thieves.” Honoria whispered quickly.
“But we’ll be full ones,” Philomena said.
“What of our souls?” Honoria whispered. “What of the sin of lying?”
Philomena turned from the windhole and smiled sweetly. “Why, sister, in a choice between two sins, is in not better to commit the lesser on?”
“Well, yes,” Honoria said quickly. “I should think so.”
“Then consider this. If we don’t die, we’ll starve. And if we starve when there was a way not to that’s almost the same as doing oneself in by one’s own hand, isn’t it? So if it’s a choice between lying to live and committing suicide, is it not preferable in the eyes of God to lie?”
Honoria heard the woman returning with the sheets. "You, Philomena,” she hissed. “You are too clever for your own good.”
They found that they were welcome nearly everywhere as time went on. The innkeeper, knowing () in the far north to be their ultimate destination, gave them the names of his cousins in some of the intervening towns, and had the village priest write letters that included introductions to the relatives, and lavish praise. He also lent them the use of his cart and his somewhat dull son as a coachman in order that they might reach the next town in relative comfort and with good speed.
But it wasn’t only the innkeeper’s relatives who welcomed them. The innkeeper’s relatives’ friends were also quick to make appearances. They never dined alone and were always in the company of others. In fact, as time went on and they wended their way toward (), the company they kept improved considerably. Everyone, of course, was desirous of putting themselves on the best footing with the ()’s.
It didn’t take long for Honoria to find herself equally as enthusiastic as Philomena about the story. It was a fine story, with as much truth in it as it could possibly hold. The home they grew up in was just like the home they grew up in, and their kinsman in the fabrication, just the same. It was only the presence of this windfall, this wounded Lord who came and wooed and died, that was a lie, and even so, he came to take on the attributes of the best men they had ever seen or heard of, and so, at length, even he seemed real.
‘What was his name?” A shining faced lacemaker asked.
“Guy of (),” Philomena said, and Honoria, so affected by hearing his name, felt a tear slip down her cheek. “Oh, my poor sister.” Philomena leaned toward her. “Every day, the same sadness.”
“You loved him a great deal,” the older woman shook her head.
“I did,” Honoria lowered her eyes modestly.
“I know what it is to lose a goodly man,” the woman said. “Come, milady, you must stay with us tonight in my house.”
“I can pay you only a little for your hospitality,” Honoria said, holding out a few coins in the palm of her hand. People had been very generous with loans in the hopes of repayment by the grand ()’s.
The woman scoffed. “Ah, milady. I couldn’t take anything for giving you a bed and food. Only remember me kindly when you come to your great fine house and you are enjoying your grand meals and fine clothing again.”
Honoria nodded. “I will.” So it went everywhere. Their clothing and accoutrements had increased dramatically. People seemed to enjoy giving them things. “Oh,” one woman had clucked. “Such a shabby cloak you have. If you’re going to see your fine inlaws you should have better so they don’t think you just an unseemly peasant girl.” And so Honoria had a new cloak. There was a haircomb from a woman in (), a tiny vial of scented oil from another in (), more substantial shoes from a cobbler in (), and a great many other trinkets from people who begged to be rememered to Honoria’s esteemed relations. Honoria lay in bed beside Philomena that night and plucked at her arm until the younger girl awoke.
“What is it?” Philomena flipped her braid away from her face.
“Have you thought about what happens when we get to ()?”
“()?” Philomena snorted.
“Yes. Where the ()’s live.”
“Perhaps we could start back south with a different name and a different story, and a different husband.”
“We would have to go by a different route.”
Philomena shrugged. “I’m sure there’s something we can figure out but not a this hour.”
In the morning, they came to break fast with the woman and her children. While they were eating, there was a knock on the door and the woman let in a modestly clothed and serious looking man.
“You have a woman staying here by the name of Honoria?” he asked.
The woman curtseyed a bit. “Yes, your lordship.”
“I’m not a lordship,” he scoffed. “I’m his lordship’s lackey. Where be the woman?”
Honoria and Philomena sat absolutely still. Dread was rising in Honoria’s throat. The lace maker motioned toward the table.
“Lady Honoria ()?” the man said, striding over to her.
“Yes,” she said faintly. She glanced at the very white Philomena.
“Come with me, please. And your sister, too.”
They rose, barely able to breathe.
“What is it, good sir?”
“I’m to take you to Lord ().”
“He’s in ().” He looked at the woman sharply. “Get their things. They’ll not be returning here.”
Philomena slipped her hand into Honoria’s. They stood together tightly, near the door. Honoria’s stomach churned. Everything she had eaten in the weeks seemed bitter now. They were finished. She turned toward Philomena, but Philomena, anticipating her reaction, dug her fingers into Honoria’s arm. Honoria smiled a little at the man.
“Is it a long ride?” she said gently.
“Not long, milady,” he said. “I have brought horses for you and your sister that are both small and gentle. I trust the journey will not be uncomfortable for you.”
Honoria smiled. Her first flush of fear was gone. He was deferential to her, as if she was a real lady. Perhaps things would not go so badly after all. The woman of the house, having packed their belongings, brought them down and the man nodded sharply to her, put a coin in her hand and strode to the door, standing alert. Honoria smiled to their hostess, embraced her and blessed her for a good Christian woman. Philomena followed and they went out into the morning sun.
The ride was fairly uneventful. The man was not particularly talkative, for which she was quite grateful. But then, if he was a servant, and she the wife of a beloved son of that house, he shouldn’t have addressed himself to her familiarly.
“Are we going to ()?”
“To (),” he answered briefly. “My lord, (), sent me to fetch you.”
Honoria looked at Philomena. Escape would be impossible. He was on a much larger horse than either of them.
They followed, Philomena staring in to the man’s back and Honoria fingering her beads and praying as fast as her mind could carry her through the words. The ride seemed mercilessly short. They were conveyed into a good solid looking house. A boy took their horses and the two girls stood close to each other silently, holding each other’s hands in the tangle of capes.
“This way,” the man said. They followed silently, into the house and up the stairs to a room that overlooked the street. “Wait here,” he said.
Horatia covered her face with her hands and blew her breath out like a weary horse. “Oh, Philomena,” she breathed.
They heard the heavy tread of men and the door swung open. A man entered, with a number other men at his heels. He was large, but not overly so, and very well dressed. He wore a sword at his side that rivaled any she had ever seen, and certainly ever been this close to.
“So,” he said definitively. “You are travelling to…”
“To (), good sir,” Honoria said timidly.
“Yes. So I’ve heard. My information is that you seek the house of (). That you are the grieving bride of the late ().”
“Yes, sir,” she said weakly.
“Come now, answer up,” he said brusquely, gesturing at the company of men. “These men all wish to hear your words as much as I do. For they share the same allegiance to the house of () that I enjoy.”
Honoria dropped her gaze to the floor and then looked up into his face. He was a pleasant enough looking man, well fed, and well bred. “Yes, milord.” They would swing for certain.
His smile was slow, disengenuous. “We had, of course, learned of his death through dispatches a few months ago, but not of a wife.” He came closer and studied her face. “I wonder why you weren’t mentioned,” he mused.
She bit her lip a little.
“’Twas an honest marriage?” he asked.
“Yes, milord,” she said.
“Ah. And well consummated.”
“Yes, milord.” She kept her gaze firmly on the ground.
“You were not raised to this sort of thing were you. You’re a simple girl, a country girl.”
“Yes, milord,” she said quietly.
“Little education, except in the pious and domestic arts, I’m sure.”
“Yes, milord.” She felt the nails of Philomena’s fingers against the palm of her hand. She felt as if everything was suddenly very large and she quite small. She closed her eyes and when she opened them, he was staring at her again, his head a little to the side.
“Are you unwell, lady?” he asked quietly.
“I am quite well, thank you,” she answered weakly.
“Ah. You’re journey has tired both you and your pretty sister. This is your sister, isn’t it?”
He nodded. He turned to one of the old women who was crowding into the room. “Take our two guests,” he pronouned the word carefully. “To a nice room, and settle them there. I will talk to you later, when you are more rested. In the meantime,” he pointed to another woman. “You see that they want for nothing. Give them something to eat now and let them rest until dinner.”
They curtseyed a little, and he swept out without looking at them again. They were taken to a room and fussed over. “Is this his house?” Honoria asked the woman.
“Lands, this is the house of Goodman (). Lord () is a guest here, though what a guest.” She leaned close and whispered. ‘He runs the town, I’d say. Everyone running about after him, trying to curry his favor, trying to get what they can of ‘im. Pitiful to see people debase themselves in the hopes of getting to the fine folk, isn’t it?”
She nodded quickly. The woman busied herself with a thousand little useless tasks trying to converse with the girls about anything before finally bowing out.
They laid down together on the soft straw stuffed bed and pulled a counterpane over themselves. “What are we to do?” Philomena asked.
“I don’t know.”
“We should throw ourselves on his mercy, sister,” the younger girl said. “I don’t know how we will survive this.”
“Nor I. But say nothing yet. Follow my lead. I will say that you are not my sister, and that I found you in the first town I was in.”
“Not my sister? But we are much alike in the face.”
Honoria fumbled for Philomena’s hand under the counterpane. “Then you are my cousin. But that you have nothing to do with this.”
Philomena put her cheek beside Honoria’s. “What life would it be for me if you were to hang and I was to live?”
“It would be life, Philomena,” Honoria said sadly. “It would be life.”
They lay together in silence, the first time they had been truly warm in weeks, lying on a bed finer than any they had every been in before, in a room far more sumptuous than any they had dreamed of. “God’s plan is beyond our understanding,” Honoria said finally. “Has he brought us so far up to drop us so far?”
“At the end of a knotted noose?” Philomena said bitterly, and Honoria swiftly crossed herself. Honoria shuttered, and, nauseated, turned onto her side.
There was a soft scratching at the door, and they both sat up. A woman entered. “I will ready you for dinner,” she said, putting down a bundle of linen on the table. She was a portly woman, her hands red and cheeks red. They changed clothes into the new and fresh ones, and she brushed their hair out, plaited it and covered it with whimples of fine linen. Honoria pinned her chin strap tightly and the sisters regarded each other.
“You’re very pretty at that,” the woman nodded. “Come, dinner will be ready.”
They followed her to the dining hall, a cozy, candlelit room in the center of the house. It was a little smoky. At the end of the table, sat the man. He rose, and nodded to them. They curtseyed and he gestured to a place on his right hand. Honoria slipped quietly into the seat and her sister beside her.
He watched her for a long time as she stared at her hands. “Tell me,” he said at last. “What did you say your name was?”
“Honoria is my Christian name,” she said quietly.
“Honoria.” He smiled. “A beautiful name. What did you call my brother?” He speared a piece of meat and brought it to his mouth.
“Your brother?” she said. He motioned for a boy to fill her plate.
“My brother,” he took a great draught of wine from a tall glass. “Yes. I didn’t tell you before? I am (), and your husband was my brother. How long were married? Upon what date did you marry?”
“It was Lammas Day.” She said faintly.
“Lammas Day,” he took another bite and leaned back in his chair, taking a deep breath in delight. “Excellent meat, my good host.”
The mousy man nodded politely. “I’m glad it pleases your grace.”
“It does indeed. Lammas Day. Right after the harvest.”
She strained her mind thinking of last Lammas Day, when they took loaves of freshly baked bread to the priest in lieu of the first fruits of the harvest, as people had done since time before time. If only it was true. If only it was true.
“And he died…’
“In mid-September, sir,” she answered, sickened.
“Not a very long marriage,” he said, sadly. “So what did you call him?”
‘I called him…” Damn. Damn Philomena. Struck with the sudden horror of what she had said, she mentally crossed herself. What was the man’s name? She looked at her trencher. “I called him, ‘my husband’, of course.”
The smile on his face was slow and somehow superior. He wiped his mouth with a cloth.
“Ahhh. He was quite recovered, then, when you married him?”
She bit her lip again.
“You haven’t much of an appetite, sister,” he said precisely.
“Talking of him makes me sad,” she said quickly. “I cannot think of food and him at the same time.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Really.”
“Milord. Nonsense. I am your brother, am I not?"
“So, was he well?”
“Yes, milord, he was recovered.”
“I believe so.”
“Then I wonder that he didn’t send us word…”
“You?” He leaned forward, his glass suspended between his fingers. “Yes? What about you?”
“I haven’t an answer for that,” she said. “I do not know what he had in mind.”
“He talked of us? He told you of me?”
“I knew that he had…he spoke little.”
“And yet, speaking little, you and he managed to fall in love and wed without the approval of any of his great house?”
“He was a man, milord. He knew his own mind. I am but a woman. I cannot know his mind.” She knotted her fingers in her lap, and prayed for the ordeal to end soon.
“You cannot be insensitive, my sister,” he said delicately. “That there are those here who have pronounced you a complete fraud.”
Her eyelids fluttered a little, and she felt Philomena go stiff next to her.
“There are many who disbelieve a great many things. We have a saint at home, St. Eus…”
“Enough with your saints,” he said sharply. “I didn’t call you hear to speak to me of saints, but to explain yourself and your story. You expect to go to our traditional home, to insert yourself into my line without so much as a how do you do, and be accepted, feted, fed, and put to bed, to rise and set with our suns, do you not?”
She gasped a little. She could feel the eyes of the assembly on her. “Do you not?” he repeated.
“Milord. He told me to go to (). I set out for that place. I have not yet arrived. If you are averse to my placing myself in that locale, I will certainly return to my home. It was not my idea to come here, but his desire.” She felt a hot tear roll from her eye to her lashes and lie suspended there like a raindrop on the end of a bowed twig. She could not bring her hand up to wipe it away for fear he would know she was crying.
“You cannot tell me his name. You cannot tell me a name by which he would call himself among those closest to him. You cannot tell me about his home or those closest to him. Do you expect me to believe he would not have mentioned me, his own brother?”
“Milord,” she turned her tear streaked face to him. “I cannot answer that.”
He asked her a great many questions. Why wasn’t she in mourning? She had been, she said, but the rigors of the road had worn her garments and the people had provided her with other ones. Did she not have as much as a lock of his hair? She did, but she had lost it when their goods had been swept away when she slipped going over a fast running stream. He threw question after question at her. She gave answers that were quick, general, vague. He had a slow, methodical manner about him that unnerved her, yet he never seemed to be pressing, only circling slowly, head down, like a wolf. He could afford to be patient.
“Then I have one more question,” he asked in a harsh tone. “Tell me about his person. Were there any marks upon his body? Everyone knows that members of my line have a mark upon their breast. Did he have such a mark?”
“In truth, sir, he may have but…”
‘You don’t remember?”
“Are you going to tell me that in all that time you didn’t see him without a tunic? That you could not see such a mark? Tell me its shape.”
She turned her head. “Good milord, I can remember nothing of a mark. Perhaps the man I knew was not honest. Perhaps he was not the man I thought he was and I have erred.”
He sat back. He took a deep breath while she sat quivering with sobs. He leaned forward and took her hand. She was reluctant to let him draw it toward himself but did. He kissed her fingertips gently.
“Quiet yourself, dear sister,” he said. “My brother hadn’t a mark on his breast.” He rose and pulled her gently up beside him. “Gentlemen,” he said. “I am convinced she is an honest woman. I have asked her questions that a lesser woman would have fabricated tale after tale to answer. Yet she has answered simply and honestly.”
The entire assembly relaxed as if one body. She looked up into his face and for a moment, their eyes locked. He smiled slowly. He was not as young as he might have been. There were tiny lines beside his eyes, but his face was still good. If he was so handsome, surely his brother must have been as well, and she felt a new pang of grief.
Dinner proceeded apace, then, and the conversation was light and cheerful. She glanced at Philomena who could barely suppress her relief.
They spent the night, then a week, then a fortnight at the home of the burgher. () was courteous to her, slow and precise in his behavior and yet, somehow always managing to exhibit a certain excellent humor. He spoke often of returning to the ancestral home soon. Dates for departure were set, and yet, somehow things persisted in arising that thwarted his plans. He would storm and rage, and then settle back into the routine of life at the village, which he alternately praised and derided.
For her part, Honoria was never completely comfortable. The ladies of the village were nothing short of perfectly hospitable to her and she soon had almost constant company from them. They sat together in the morning and stitched on fine linen with silk thread. Everyone understood that she had been a virtuous peasant girl who had managed a love match with the lord, and taught her ladylike skills as quickly as possible. Philomena too, was treated with great respect and affection by everyone.
In truth, () had a great many things to recommend him. He was charming, handsome, perfectly mannered, fearsome in anger but somehow even that was a comfort. He would be their great defender. But she harbored a fear in the back of her mind that it would all go awry with one false step. Still, there couldn’t be any doubt that her pulse quickened when she heard his tread or when she caught sight of him in the yard below. One afternoon, he and his companions clattered into the cobblestoned yard and she, as was her custom, rose from her chair and looked out the window. The others dismounted, but he, still astride, looked up to her window, and their glances met. A smile flickered on his lips, and she knew, somehow, that he had feelings for her warmer than those of a proper brother. Their conversations seemed deeper now, more intense and he stood entirely too near her and she was entirely too reluctant to step back.
“Oh, Philomena,” she cried. “Oh, sister, whatever am I to do? We are all undone.”
“Why?” Philomena held her until she quieted.
“I feel something for him that I ought not,” she said.
“Well, you ought not if you were his brother’s wife, yes. But you are not and never were, so there isn’t any sin in that.”
“But I desire him,” she said. “I love him.”
“You may love, and love deeply,” Philomena whispered. “But keep your own counsel or tell only me. We are undone if you should give your feeling voice to him.”
“I think he feels the same.”
“A man might sin in his thoughts. But you must not encourage either his sin or your own. Women must be strong when men fail.”
“Oh, but Philomena,” she moaned. “I want to fail. I want with him what I have told so many people I had with his brother. If only…if only we had met under different circumstances…”
“He would not have looked twice at you, sister.”
Still, as the days went on, she knew a burning that she had never felt before. The world had suddenly become devoid or anyone but him. He was the only living being in it. All the others were puppets, clay dolls, nothing but things that intervened betwixt herself and him. Food lost its taste, and when she laid down, she merely felt sick.
He for his part, seemed pale though pleasant. They gazed at each other at dinner, in church, across the garden. She blushed at some of his looks, but their commerce had ceased to be easy or light. He avoided her at times, and at others seemed too present.
She lay in bed, sleepless, beside the peaceful Philomena. It was true, he wasn’t a brother to her, and yet to admit that would be to exchange his weary, yearning looks for something far worse, his anger and censure. They would be at risk again, of death. Fretful, she threw off the counterpane, wrapped a coverlet around her shoulders and walked went out into the icy garden. Her feet were bare, but in her feverish state, the cold stones comforted them. She stood shivering for a moment and then turned back toward the house. He was there, suddenly. How long he had stood there, she could not guess.
“Pardon,” she whispered. “Did I disturb you?”
“Completely,” he said. “Disturbed and disordered.”
“How so, good Sir?”
She passed beside him and he turned and followed her. He took her hand quickly and led her into his chamber.
“Sir,” she whispered. “Brother.”
He pushed the coverlet back over her shoulders and looked at her. She closed her arms over her chest. He did not move to touch her, holding the coverlet behind her, but only looked at her with a combination of sorrow and boldness that made her blush. He sat down, then, on the edge of the bed, letting the coverlet drop to the small of her back.
“You should be my lady,” he said finally, softly. He drew the coverlet tight against her, drawing her by small increments between his knees.
“Oh, milord,” she whispered, her blood pulsing through her body. It pounded quickly as if she had been running. “I should not…”
“Yes. You should not…” he looked up into her face. “You should not tempt me.”
“In faith, milord, I do naught to tempt you.”
“You do all to tempt me.”
“Milord, I know nothing of the arts of dissembling, of artiface.”
“You, my beauty, haven’t need for artiface. But you tempt me constantly. From the way you speak and the way your eyes shine, to the way you reach to pick up a flower or touch a child’s face.”
“I swear to you, sir, it was not my intention.”
“You want my touch,” he said quietly. “I can read it in your face, in your smile, in your quivering and your blushing.”
“You can see nothing in my face, now, milord,” she said, drawing back a little. “It is night, the candles are burned down and we are in near darkness. If I blush, it’s the play of the last candleflames. If I quiver, it is because of the cold.”
He dropped the coverlet and replaced it with his hands. He let them slip from the small of her back to her buttocks. She closed her eyes. It was a touch she had dreamed of, yearned for, and yet it was sinful, not only because it was in itself a sin, but she was believed to be his sister. God had allowed her that deceit, she must honor his will. Yet these were not the imagined hands of a lordly husband. These were the warm hands of his living brother, and she closed her eyes. He pulled her close and laid his cheek against her belly and her hands, slowly, with reservation found their way to his dark curling hair. He drew her onto the bed, on top of him, and pushed her hair aside. He gazed into her face, though neither could see well, it was well enough to see the perfection in the other’s face and form.
Overwhelmed, she sighed and pulled back.
“Where are you going,” he said. “You pull away and all the warmth between us goes cold again. It’s taken weeks to get here. Don’t leave now. Give me something.”
“There is nothing in power to give you,” she said miserably.
“Give me yourself.”
“It would be a grave sin,” she said quickly. “I must go back to my room.”
“Stay,” he said.
“I am a guest here, and you as well. How can we dishonor our host by such things under his roof?”
“A kiss then.”
He leaned up, his tunic falling open, so that in silhouette she saw the shape of his chest, softly mounded under a firm nipple. He reached out toward her, but though she hungered, she withdrew.
“I cannot. We are kin now, siblings.”
“A brother and sister might kiss, beautiful one, without incurring sin.”
“Not as you would kiss me.” She said miserably.
“Or you, I,” he retorted hotly. She slipped from his hold and to the door. From there she could hear the cock crowing. He threw himself back on the bed with a sigh.
“Morning is come,” she said. He leaped from the bed and took her in his arms.
“One kiss, then,” he said. “One, and I’ll not ask for more tonight.”
She closed her eyes and he pressed his mouth against hers, filling it with such sweetness as she had never dreamed possible. Her fingers found his shoulders, pressed into the mass of hard muscles surrounded by scant softness, and down his arms, feeling the cording of strength move under her touch as he fondled her. Her senses were filled with him, the sight of his form, his taste and smell and the sensation of his limbs against her, of his heat, the sound of his breath, of the insistent mews and gasps that escaped his body in his desire, to which her own were added.
He turned his back to the bed and tried to draw her to it again, but she slowly, gently pushed back on his chset. “Don’t go,” he said.
“I must,” she whispered. “Day has arrived. There will be servants abroad.”
“Stay,” he said again, and she closed her eyes, moved to follow his word. But she would be all undone then, either guilty of incest or fraud.
“I must go,” she said and slipped through the dining hall to her upstairs room. She repeated the words over and over to herself, “I must go, I must go,” until she realized they were truth. She must go. She must leave this house before either the truth was discovered or she sinned yet further.
She roused Philomena. “We must leave. Today.”
“He is too close for comfort. He would woo me himself, knowing or thinking I am his brother’s own wife.”
Philomena started from the bed and dragged the brush through her hair, braiding it quickly. She went to the casement and threw open the window. “Alas, sister,” she said. “Look.”
Honoria sped to the window. There was snow falling. It had been falling all night, by the looks of it, for it stood halfway to the knees of the men who were shovelling it from the path. Honoria covered her hands with her face.
“’Tis nearly spring. How is this possible?”
Philomena shrugged. “I know not,” she said.
“We must fly from here as soon as possible. There isn’t any other way. He will know that I am a fraud or a woman without morals. Oh, Philomena, if he tempts me to see if I will fail, he will have be turned over to the church and I will find my reward in death at the hands of the church I have loved so well.”
“You think he is doing this to trap you?”
“Ohhhh, I can but guess,” she groaned.
There was a rap on the door. “Will you come to break the fast, miladies?” the serving woman asked.
“We will stay here,” she said quickly. “I am not feeling well this morning.”
“We cannot stay in the room forever,” Philomena said practically. “I shall go eat and you shall suffer in silence.”
“Don’t leave me,” Honoria begged, but Philomena pushed her hands away gently.
“I will bring you something. Lay down and rest.”
Honoria threw herself on the bed, but could not close her eyes. She stared up into the coffered ceiling without managing a coherent thought. There was another small scratch on the door and she sat up, her hair all awry. What did it matter? “Yes?” she said timidly. The door swung open a bit and he stepped in, fully dressed and freshly shaved.
“Oh, you,” she gasped, holding the sheet up in front of her. She was still in her night clothes, her hair undone. He crossed to her bed in an instant and had her in his arms. He pressed his face into her throat and she let her head drop back, half giddy with the sensation. She wanted his mouth, wanted to feel that hitherto unfamiliar feeling again. It seemed so natural, like the attraction between a magnet and a piece of iron. She nuzzled at his cheek until he turned his mouth, panting to hers, and she felt his lips and tongue united with hers, as if they had always been meant to be together like this. Dizzy, she lay back on the bed and he followed, slipped on top of her. She felt him pressed against her, his weight a welcome thing. She opened her lips to him again and savored him, her hands running down his doubletted back.
‘I want you,” he said simply.
She moaned. “We cannot be together. Brother…my love, I must leave here.”
“Not that,” he said. “Why?”
“Because this temptation is too great. Because I cannot sin like this. I am your brother’s wife.”
He was pressing against her, moving his hips against her in a way that made lightening heat flow through her body.
“I don’t care,” he said, almost petulantly. “I don’t care who you are. I want you.”
“Then I must leave to keep you from this sin.”
He rose quickly and threw himself toward the door and shot the latch. He turned back to her, his face dark, his eyes brilliant with desire.
“Lie with me.”
“I cannot,” she begged. “I cannot.”
“Please,” he crossed to her again, sat beside her and stroked her hair. “I will wed you.”
She drew back and clutched the blankets again.
“You cannot. It would be a sin,” she repeated. He kissed her deeply and she melted in his arms. “Oh, my lord. Would that you could.”
“We will go from this place together, then,” he said. “We will find some country parson who will marry us and we will be husband and wife forever. These last weeks with you have proved to me that I will not find a woman to excel you in beauty, in wisdom, in modesty. I want only you.”
Tears sprang to her eyes, down her cheeks and onto the blanket. “Oh, if only…”
‘If only what,” he whispered. He took her chin in his hand and traced kisses around her mouth.
“If only things were not as they are.”
“Do you trust me? If I promise to wed you at the first opportunity will you give me what I want?”
“If you were to marry me I would give you everything,”
“Give it to me now,” he sighed. “On my promise.”
She laughed a little and looked into his face. “Oh, how many a girl has laid in bed alone and wept for the broken vows of men? If all was as it could be, I should still have you married to me first. But, we cannot.”
“Why,” he kissed her deeply again, his hands slipping down her throat and across her chest to find her warm, smallish breast.
His fingers sent waves of sensation through her body and she welcomed him to her again. She could feel the tautness of his body, the animal hardness of him. “I will send for a priest,” he said. “I will wed you this morning.”
She slapped the bedding. “You cannot. I am your brother’s wife.”
“I will send for the priest and he will marry us in secret.”
“It is not enough. In the eyes of God, there will be a sin more horrid than many others. Our marriage will be unfavorable if we do persist in this.”
“You surely don’t believe that,” he said bitterly. “Wait here,” he added, and slipped from the room. He returned in a few minutes. “I have sent for a friar from the monastery. He will not know either of us.”
“I still will not marry you,” she said. “You are still my brother. What will you give him a false name?”
“I will not,” he said simply. She sat up, and he slipped behind her and ran his hands smoothly down her front. She was awash in conflicting feelings, terrified at the risk she was taking but excited by his nearness.
“Then if you will not, what…”
“I will tell him that I am ().”
“(),” he kissed her shoulders, her collarbone.
“Who is that?” she asked.
“It is I,” he said quickly. She arched her back, pushing against his hand.
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“Do you love me?” he asked.
“Yes, yes. I do,” she said miserbly.
“Do you love me because I am a titled gentleman or because you love me?”
“Because I love you,” she said quickly. “And what rank your dear self holds is not of consequence to me.”
“Then you must hear me out. There isn’t a sin in our relations.”
She sighed. “You know that there is.”
“I know that there is not.”
“You are my brother,” she argued.
“I am not.”
“Fine. You are the brother of my husband.”
“I am not that either.”
She sat still, suddenly awash in a new terror. “What did you say?” He was a clever one. He had manipulated her into the clinches, and now she was caught.
:”I am neither brother nor brother in law to you. We are not related in any way, not by blood or marriage.”
She closed her eyes slowly and wondered how long she would have to live after he revealed her secret to the world. She felt hot weary tears in her eyes. It was just as well. The deceit had worn on her. Too many lies, too much fabrication. His hands were suddenly on hers again, and she opened her eyes.
“I swear to you, I’ll make it right,” he whispered. “Have faith in me and we’ll manage somehow. I’m sorry. It wasn’t my intention that it should go like this. It got out of hand, and I couldn’t quit. It was like it took on a life of its own.”
“What are you talking about?” she whispered. He was quiet for a moment.
“Can I trust you?”
“Yes, of course,” she said quickly.
“I…lied to you. To everyone. I am not the brother of (), nor his cousin, nor his nephew, nor any other relation of his. I grew up around him, my father worked for his father. He was a laborer actually. I met him a few years ago and somehow he took a fancy to me. We were close friends for a while, when we were but boys. I knew him well and was welcomed into his circle. I would have gone with him on campaign, too, had I not fallen from a horse and injured myself badly enough that I couldn’t go.”
“You are not kin to him?” she asked incredulously.
“I am not. When he left, I was thrown out of the household. Not for any wrongdoing, but there wasn’t much of a purpose to keeping me. I had acquired manners and some education and a little property in the way of gifts, which I quickly had to sell off to live. Obviously, a laborer’s son who has grown accustomed to a better life is not going to return easily to life behind an oxen.”
He pressed her hands against his face. “I went far enough from their seat that I wouldn’t be recognized and yet the name would be well known, and began to pass myself off as his brother. It wasn’t all that difficult actually. I was in a number of places, but this one seemed most hospitable. I have lived off this poor gentleman now for months.” He fell silent. “Will you keep my secret? For surely I will swing if you reveal it. But from the first moment I saw you, I knew that I wanted you above all over all other women in the world. You were but a peasant too, and came to know him, though, in truth, I don’t see how you could have enchanted him unless he had a great change of character whilst he was gone.” He wove his fingers through hers. “I know you are a lady of virtue. I knew that from the start. If we are not brother and sister, can you marry me?”
She sat silent for a moment. She could almost feel herself telling him that she, too had lied, but hesitated. He had relieved her of the burden of relatedness. She could have him and retain her piety. She reached out for him and drew his head to her chest. “Can you forgive me? Can you forgive me for lying to you? For deceiving you? I swear by all that is holy I will never lie to you again,” he whispered hoarsely.
“Yes, my love,” she whispered back. “Yes. I forgive you. I do forgive.”