"This is the third proposal you have rejected in as many months, Aline, and the fifth in total. When are you going to do your duty and choose a husband as you know you must?"
The Duke of Leavingham and High Lord of the Five Provinces settled back in his chair with a frown. Lady Aline returned his stare, ignoring the whispers of the assembled council seated round the heavy oak table. She let out an audible sigh and glanced once more at the thick parchment lying on the table.
"My lord, if the offer was from the Count himself I would consider it. On behalf of his son however my answer is no. The boy is nine years old!"
"Most young women would consider themselves honoured to ally themselves with such a wealthy and respected family," remarked a dark haired man seated at the end of the table. His voice was abrupt and Aline's cheeks reddened at the discourteous tone. She adopted a well-practised smile she did not feel as she faced the speaker.
"Baron Hennessey, as I have explained, the terms of the proposal are generous indeed, but there are those of you here who believe rule of Leavingham should not pass to a woman. Would you prefer it to pass to a child instead?"
A shaft of watery sunlight broke through the clouds and Aline's eyes drifted to the window as she half listened to the murmurs of agreement. In the stableyard her groom would be waiting patiently with horses. The unexpected summons had already made her late for her daily ride. The prospect of missing one of the few chances for a long expedition before Autumn turned to Winter was almost unbearable. She straightened her shoulders and brushed back a strand of ash blonde hair, running through different ways to bring the audience to a conclusion.
"My Lords, I know I must marry and I will. Had my brother lived to be heir my choice of husband would barely have mattered, however the man I marry will rule not only Leavingham, but the whole of the Five Provinces. I will not make that choice lightly."
Silence hung in the air, then the High Lord chuckled. "Well said, granddaughter."
Out of the corner of her eye Aline caught a wink of approval from Sir Godfrey, her brother's friend since childhood. Quinter, the High Lord's chamberlain leaned in towards the old man and whispered in his ear. Aline knew she had won. She walked round the table and took hold of her grandfather's hands. "Please, Grandfather, you will not force me to accept him?"
"No, Aline, you need not accept this proposal. Remember however, there are barely four months until your twentieth birthday. One of the pledges I made when I named you heir was that you would be wed by then. I suggest you find any future offers more appealing or I shall have to make the choice for you." The High Lord lowered his voice, "You may leave us. I know your mind is elsewhere today. Enjoy your ride, my dear."
Aline curtseyed deeply to the assembled men and left the room, her heart beating rapidly. She ran up the winding staircase that led to her chamber, instructed the waiting maid to braid her hair and changed into her riding gown. Examining her reflection in the polished bronze mirror she was pleased with what she saw. The deep green linen set off her grey eyes perfectly, the tightly laced bodice emphasised the curves of her figure, and the full sleeves of her under-tunic rippled as she moved.
Aline made her way down to smaller of the castle's two halls, fastening the clasp of her green riding cloak around her neck as she went. The hall was alive with activity as groups of courtiers sat around the trestle tables drinking and servants moved purposefully between tables. A piper's reel floated across the room and Aline took up the tune, humming to herself, her feet treading the steps of the dance as she moved through the corridors. Halfway to the low door that led to the stableyard she recognised familiar footsteps and slowed to greet Godfrey.
"I do not know what you are thinking but I doubt the High Lord would approve!" he said as he stroked his short beard, a look of mock severity on his face.
Usually Aline would have responded with a lighthearted retort to her friend but after the morning's audience she found she could not summon the energy. "You know I give him no cause for disapproval," she replied defensively. "I read all the dusty old histories and treatises on diplomacy I am tasked with learning. I sit for hours listening to the council discuss matters of the province and beyond. I am a gracious hostess and a dutiful, modest lady of court. I play every part he expects. There is nothing he has asked of me that I have not done!"
"I know, Aline, I'm only teasing." The young knight held his hands out in mock supplication then put his hands on Alines shoulders. "I'm sorry. Your father would have been proud of you, your brother too. You will be a great High Lady when the time comes."
A familiar ache clawed Aline's heart at the mention of her family. Six years on she still missed them dreadfully. Her fingers moved instinctively to the necklace she always wore, a smooth amethyst set into a filigree of silver; the legacy of the mother who had followed her husband and son to the grave barely a year after their deaths.
"You do want to marry don't you?" Godfrey asked, linking his arm in Aline's as they strolled into the chilly morning air.
"Of course," Aline replied, "I'm not so naïve to think I will be allowed to choose for love, though I hope to at least like my husband!"
Godfrey laughed gently, "Matilda was not my first choice but we are happy. You will be too."
They had reached the archway leading to the stableyard and said their farewells. Aline watched as Godfrey returned to the castle, only slightly regretting that when she had been his first choice she had said no.
The sky had lightened as Aline made her way round the inner wall to the stable yard where an unexpected sight made her pause in surprise. Instead of Robert, her usual groom, a younger man stood holding the reins of the two horses that stamped their hooves impatiently.
"Greetings, my lady," the man said with a sweeping bow.
"Who are you and where is Robert?" Aline asked him cautiously.
The man raised his eyes to Aline's, pushing a lock of sandy coloured hair from his face. Now that she had time to study him the man's face was familiar and Aline recalled she had seen him absorbed in tasks around the stables once or twice over the past few weeks. "My name is Dickon, my lady. Robert apologises that he cannot attend you today but an unexpected malady of, how shall I say it, a 'delicate' nature' has left him unable to move far from the privy."
Aline laughed at his tale, instinctively liking him, though doubt crept into her mind. Robert had been her escort for as long as she remembered; he had been the person who lifted her onto her first childhood pony and was well trusted to accompany her alone. Riding unchaperoned in the company of this young man would be highly improper. Her grandfather would have plenty to say if he ever found out.
"I'm not sure… Perhaps we had better not ride today," Aline began.
The groom tipped his head to one side and his lips twitched into a half-smile. "If you wish, though I for one would be sad to miss such a fine day, especially when I had thought my only company was to be horseflies and the saddle-grease pot!"
A well brought up and respectable lady would send for a maid to accompany them, but none rode as swiftly as Aline did and she so wanted an exciting day. Dickon's steady brown eyes were watching her earnestly. The morning's audience with the council sped through her mind and a spark of rebellion that had been growing since Godfrey's teasing flared inside her. She lifted her chin.
"We'll go," she announced.
Dickon helped Aline onto her grey mare, a broad smile on his tanned face as he put his hand out to steady her. Side-by-side they trotted through the wide streets of the city to the main gate, talking idly of their plans for the day.
Aline was used to riding far and fast, and she was delighted to discover Dickon well matched and equally fearless. They galloped far across the moorland, daring each other onto greater speeds, jumping fences and streams.
By late morning they came upon a small village where an ale-wife stood at her gate, broadcasting her wares loudly. In unspoken agreement the riders dismounted and sauntered over to buy a flagon, drinking down the cool liquid gladly. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve Dickon spoke. "If you would care to wait here and finish your drink, my lady, I will buy lunch in the market."
Aline agreed and watched him depart, a swagger in his step that caused her pulse to quicken. Children were playing and lovers walking arm in arm. Aline walked between the brightly covered stalls, nibbling at a handful of cobnuts and looking for Dickon, enjoying the chance to be among people without ceremony. She finally spotted him as he appeared from behind a hut, his saddlebag slung carelessly over his shoulder. Bowing again he held out an arm for Aline. They walked together through the village, Aline acutely aware of the nearness of Dickon's body. Unbidden her mind drifted back to the conversation with Godfrey. As was the case for all highborn women, her husband would be the first man to bed her. In moments of honesty she admitted to herself that she was not without curiosity: sometimes, watching other couples in the court laughing and dancing she longed so much for someone to seize her up in an embrace that the sensation was almost painful. She was glad when they returned to the horses and she could push such inappropriate thoughts away.
The sun had started to descend before the riders stopped for a late lunch. The purple heather of the moorland had began to thin and clusters of trees appeared, providing some welcome shade from the sun. Aline had not been keeping track of the direction, leaving it up to Dickon to choose the route. They had ridden far enough to be close to the forest close to the borders of the province. Now as she dismounted Aline's stomach fluttered uneasily at being so far from the castle with only one groom for security.
Tethering the horses to a tree she scratched them between their eyes while Dickon unloaded his pannier. He handed Aline a goblet of cool wine and she drained it thirstily, pushing her worries to the back of her mind. The day was unexpectedly warm so they removed their cloaks and gloves and sat lazily against the trunk of a tree, sipping the wine and picking at bread and cheese. Dickon was easy company, though the talk never moved much beyond horses and the amusing snippets of gossip about the goings-on of the castle staff.
Dickon refilled Aline's goblet once more and she lay back in the warm heather, eyes closed, sleepily enjoying the chance to leave behind her duties and lessons. Somewhere not too far away a hunting horn sounded and she idly wondered who it might be. She tried to pull herself upright to see but found her body felt heavier than usual. Her head started to swim.
"It didn't taste strange in the slightest did it, my lady?" Dickon said, his mouth twisting into a smile but his eyes cold. The look on his face terrified Aline more than anything she had ever experienced and she sensed instantly something was deeply wrong.
"What do you mean 'taste strange'?" she asked, alarmed to hear her voice sounded a long way off and not her own. Dickon leaned over and picked up the goblet from Aline's side. She flinched as his hand brushed her arm.
"The wine. It tasted no different from usual but you've been drugged, my lady. By me, I'm afraid. I put Rock Poppy juice in your wine. Not the most sophisticated of drugs but highly effective. As you have already discovered it paralyses the drinker quickly and sleep follows soon after," he explained.
"What do…" Aline tried to make sense of what the man was saying but was finding it hard to concentrate. "What have… you… done?"
"I just told you, I've drugged you," Dickon explained matter-of-factly. "The Duke of Roxholm has paid me very well to hand you over to him. In a short while a number of his guards will be here to take you to the Citadel of Roxholm."
He sat back on his heels. "I will of course manfully try to defend you from their 'surprise' attack but sadly I will be no match. I will be found with some minor but alarming looking injuries, wandering near to Leavingham Keep, dazed and with a ransom letter some time this evening."
Comprehension dawned and with growing alarm Aline tried again to sit up. "No! You filthy traitor, you hang…for…this…" she tried to snarl, though her voice barely broke the silence surrounding them.
Dickon's response was a smirk. "Ah, my lady, so fierce! Do you think I would tell you any of this if I thought there was a chance that might happen? I shall be far overseas by the time your fool of a grandfather has negotiated your return."
He knelt down beside Aline and spoke softly in her ear, "I'm sorry we have to part like this. But as attractive as you are, the price I was paid was even more so." He started to run his fingers through Aline's hair, pulling the combs out and unwinding the long braid. Aline tried to push him away but her arms felt weighted and numb. She gave a scream that in her head sounded loud and piercing, but which came out as half gasp-half sob.
"Still," Dickon continued as though he had heard nothing, "as this will be the last time we meet we may as well say our goodbyes thoroughly. I imagine we have some time before my associates arrive. I've been longing to do this since I first saw you."
With that he began with one hand to pull at the laces of Aline's bodice, moving closer so that his wine-scented breath was warm on her face. Aline had not thought she could be any more horrified but at his touch she felt as though hot knives were being drawn across her skin. She tried again to scream but before she could cry out his mouth was on hers, his lips crushing her own and his tongue forcing them apart. Instinctively Aline bit down hard onto his lip. The groom pulled away with a cry of surprise, a trickle of blood leaking from his mouth. He grabbed a handful of Aline's hair and jerked her head sharply to the side then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
Aline cried out at the pain which shot through her head but again found that her voice was no more than a mewl. She glared at him, her face full of hate but her eyes pleading with him to stop.
"Lady Aline," Dickon reproached her, "your modesty is charming but you know you find me desirable. I've seen it in your eyes so don't be so coy. We must take our pleasure while we can."
Dickon moved so swiftly he was astride her almost before Aline realised, one knee forcing its way between Aline's legs, the weight of his body crushing the breath from her chest. His mouth worked roughly down her neck while his arms pinned her own to the ground. By now Aline's body felt leaden and the blood was pounding in her ears. She could no more fight his assault than she could prevent the wind from blowing. Her mind revolted at the prospect of what was about to take place. Her only hope that the unconsciousness he had promised would come quickly and save her from knowing.
She made one last futile effort to throw her assailant off, kicking her legs wildly, but the effort sent her head reeling. Her vision began to blur. From what seemed like a great distance she heard the sound of hooves followed by raised voices. A black clad figure loomed above them, a dagger glinting at Dickon's neck.
"Stop that or I'll slit your worthless throat," a harsh voice snarled.
The pressure of Dickon's body lifted from her and Aline drew a rasping breath. The figures spun like puppets before Aline's heavy eyes; the groom in his rough brown jerkin and a dark haired man, the severity of his black leather broken only by a slash of wine coloured cloth at his neck. Her last memory was of piercing blue eyes flashing in her direction, before blackness closed over her and she was lost to the world.