The Hidden Heart, 11/99
Where the Chronicles begin . . .
An excerpt from The Hidden Heart
The Welsh Marches, Spring 1213
Gillian de l'Eau Clair leaned over the curtain wall of l'Eau Clair Keep and stared down at the new grass covering her father's grave. Nigh two months gone, yet the pain of his loss had scarce eased. And now to find this among her father's papers! She crushed the unsigned betrothal contract clasped in her hand with all the strength of her aching heart and cursed the man who'd scrawled his stark refusal where his acceptance should have been.
Rannulf FitzClifford--once the friend of the child she'd been, later her heart's desire. As she had been his, so he'd led her to believe. The date on the agreement remained etched upon her brain--her seventeenth birthday, more than two years past--not long after his visits to l'Eau Clair had suddenly ceased, as if he'd vanished from her world forever.
It seemed her father hadn't allowed that fact to prevent him from trying to further his plan to see her and Rannulf wed.
She raised her arm to toss the useless document away, then paused and let it fall to her feet. She dropped to her knees and pressed her cheek against the uneven stones as she fought the despair threatening to overwhelm her.
She'd sent word of her father's death to her godfather, the earl of Pembroke; her kinsman, Prince Llywelyn of Wales; everyone she thought might help her fight off the unknown foe who had harried her people and her lands since her father's passing. She stifled a bitter laugh. By the Virgin, she'd even sent a messenger to her overlord, King John, though she hadn't a bit of hope he'd bother to fulfill his duty.
Though it had been two months, none had bothered to reply.
In her desperation, she'd thought to put aside her wounded pride and contact Rannulf. She had searched through the documents stored away in her father's chamber for some hint of how to reach him.
What she'd found destroyed that plan, for 'twas clear by his words he wanted naught to do with her.
The icy wind beat against her, whipped her unbound hair about her face and sent the crumpled missive skittering toward the edge of the wooden walkway. "Nay," she cried, and lunged to grab it. The parchment grasped tight in one hand, the edge of the crenel in the other, she rose to her feet and let the cold, powerful gusts blow away the fear and cowardice she'd allowed to beset her.
She smoothed out the contract and forced herself to read the hurtful message once more. She'd keep it as a reminder, lest she forget yet again that the only person she could depend upon was herself.
Rannulf strode through the dark and silent streets of London, taking care to avoid the noisome puddles, more easily smelled than seen in the fitful moonlight. He'd rather have waited till morning to obey his overlord's command, but
judging from the message he'd received upon his arrival in the city, Lord Nicholas would be put off no longer.
He'd managed to escape meeting Nicholas Talbot for nigh two years, sending his men under the able command of his lieutenant whenever Talbot required his aid. He'd served Talbot's uncle, the previous lord of Ashby, long enough to know he'd no desire to deal with another Talbot if he could avoid it.
Raking his hand through his still-damp hair, he paused before the prosperous-looking merchant's house Talbot had hired to billet his troops. He'd not arrived too late, alas, for light still showed golden through the shutters. 'Twas past time to learn if this Talbot would prove to be another branch of the same twisted tree as his uncle had been.
The servant who answered his summons led him through the barracks set up on the ground floor--full of men tossing dice and swilling ale--and up a flight of stairs at the far end of the room. The lackey thrust aside the curtain covering the doorway at the top and motioned Rannulf into the room. "'Tis Lord Rannulf FitzClifford, milord," he said.
The tall man who rose from the settle before the fire and turned to face him wore the look of both warrior and courtier--a dangerous combination seen all too often in King John's court. Rannulf bit back a groan and shoved his travel weariness aside. It seemed Lord William Marshal, the earl of Pembroke, had the right of it when he warned Rannulf he'd best be on guard in his overlord's presence. Nicholas Talbot would bear watching.
Rannulf stepped into the chamber and bowed. "My lord."
"FitzClifford." Talbot motioned him to a chair before the fire. "'Tis a pleasure to meet you at last." He picked up an intricately chased ewer from a nearby table. "Wine?" he asked as he poured a measure into a silver goblet.
"Aye, thank you." Rannulf took the drink, casting a swift look about him while Talbot poured himself wine and resumed his seat on the settle.
The lord of Ashby enjoyed his comforts, from the look of it, for his garments appeared as costly as his surroundings. Gold threads shimmered in the fanciful design embroidered about the neck and cuffs of his deep green tunic, and his boots and belt were the finest leather. Rannulf sipped his wine--a vintage worthy of the cup, he noted without surprise--and glanced down at his own much simpler garb. Though the soft wool and well-worn leather were of good quality, he'd never felt the need to adorn himself in the vivid colors and elaborate embellishments so popular at court.
Besides, why should he bother? He'd no desire to draw attention to himself, be it from his peers--or from women.
He'd no place for either in his life.
Why, then, did the mere thought set up a deep yearning for all he'd lost?
He quashed the hint of weakness and buried it once again. He deserved nothing more than this new life he'd fashioned for himself--one of duty, of honorable toil, of atonement for his sins.
Though it would never be enough, he could do naught but try.
Rannulf forced himself to sit back in the chair and bring the chalice to his lips, to savor the wine and smile with pleasure at finally meeting his overlord.
"I'm pleased you're able to join me at last, FitzClifford. I've need of your men, 'tis true, but I'll be glad of your company as well." Talbot's mouth curved in a wry smile as he shook his head. "Especially in this latest venture the king has set me upon."
Interest piqued, Rannulf straightened. "And why is that, milord?" He raised his cup and took his time draining it, watching Talbot closely all the while.
"It seems I've angered the king yet again." Talbot thumped down his goblet on a side table and leaned forward.
"Yet again?" Rannulf asked. "'Tis a habit, I take it?"
"So it seems," the other man muttered. "Although perhaps 'angered' is too strong a word. Our liege finds me more of an annoyance, a fly buzzing along the fringe of his notice." He grimaced.
"'Tis dangerous to upset the king, milord, no matter the degree. Best pray he doesn't decide to slap away the annoyance with the blade of his sword." It wouldn't be the first time their liege had dealt thus with his own nobles. But Talbot must know the king well enough to realize that fact. "I'm surprised you're still here to tell of it."
Talbot sighed and glanced up, meeting Rannulf's curious gaze. "I'll not be here for much longer," he said wryly. "Nor will you. By the king's decree, we've been banished to the hinterlands--at least until his anger abates, or he grows bored and calls me back."
By Christ's bones, was he to be tarred with the same brush as Talbot? Rannulf bit back a groan of frustration. While 'twas his intent to stay close to Talbot for the nonce, he'd no desire to draw King John's attention.
Though he had no intention of sharing that bit of information.
"Where are we bound, milord?" he asked, though the answer mattered to him not a whit. He had his orders and his obligation to his overlord to consider as well. 'Twas idle curiosity brought the question to his lips, nothing more.
Talbot rose and crossed to the table to pour more wine, then set his cup aside untouched. "I've the writ here someplace," he muttered. He opened a plain wooden box--conspicuous in its simplicity--that sat next to the ewer of wine, and shuffled through the jumble of scrolls before drawing forth a beribboned parchment. "The king leaves little to chance," he said, moving closer to the fire. "My orders are set forth here, couched in such terms as to make it appear that I deserve congratulations on my good fortune. I'm to be warden of a keep, and guardian of its lady." He unrolled the missive and scanned it. "Of course, judging by the king's mood when he bestowed this upon me--" he brandished the parchment in the air "--'tis just as likely that condolences would be appropriate." Scowling, he cast another glance at the decree, then held it out to Rannulf. "What do you think this means?"
Rannulf rose and took the scroll, turning the document into the light as he held it open to read.
The words shone dark and clear to his disbelieving gaze before the shadows he'd thought locked deep within his heart broke free and jumbled the letters into a meaningless scrawl.
But that one brief glimpse had been time enough to etch the image upon his brain--and his heart.
Talbot had become guardian of the lady of l'Eau Clair. . .
Rannulf could have sworn his heart ceased to beat for a moment from the shock of seeing her name. It took several attempts lips. "Congratulations, milord," he said, his hearty tone at odds with the sense of panic rushing through his veins. "A Marcher keep, it says." He reached for his drink and brought it halfway to his mouth before he remembered 'twas empty. Biting back a curse, he pretended to drink, then set the cup aside and scanned the words again. He'd best proceed with care, lest he reveal more information than the brief missive contained. "And a noble lady." He glanced up at Talbot, who stood poised by the fireplace, worry--or was that confusion?--written on his handsome face. By sheer force of will Rannulf curled his mouth into a careless grin. "Just think of the possibilities."
"Believe me, I have." Talbot sat down abruptly, slumping into the chair, his fingers clasped tightly on the carved arms. "Given the king's mood, l'Eau Clair Keep is likely naught more than a crumbling ruin, and its lady a crone stooped and withered with age." He grabbed his wine from the table and gulped it down. "Or a babe still wrapped in swaddling bands. Either way, 'tis no prize I've won, FitzClifford. Of that I have no doubt." He stared into the flickering fire, his expression grim.
Rannulf's mind reeled. If Talbot knew the truth of the situation, they'd have left London already. He could only be grateful for his overlord's ignorance.
But such good fortune couldn't last. Talbot could scarce avoid the king's command for long. Rannulf considered ways to elude this trap before Talbot was ready to set out for l'Eau Clair, but even as his frantic brain sought shelter from his predicament, he knew there was no escape.
He had his orders, to stay with Talbot at all costs, to observe this crony of the king's. 'Twas a stroke of luck that the man was his overlord, giving him the perfect opportunity to obey Pembroke's command. Even if it were possible to send word of the situation to Pembroke, Rannulf knew his orders would not change. Indeed, he could well imagine Pembroke's pleasure that fate had placed Rannulf in the perfect position to not only keep a close eye on Talbot, but on Pembroke's godchild as well. Pembroke could not have arranged the matter better had he set it up himself.
Had Pembroke arranged it thus? He bit back a curse. Nay, his foster father would have told him of Lord Simon's death, warned him that Talbot was bound for l'Eau Clair. Besides, wouldn't Pembroke have arranged the wardship for himself, had he any say in the matter? Despite his quarrels with the king, he was Gillian's godfather. Who better to protect her, after all?
By Christ's bones, he sought plots where there were none!
He closed his eyes for a moment, then blinked them open again to dispel the image of Gillian that rose to fill his mind. The mere thought of her held the power to addle his wits. Time and hard-won maturity had not changed that fact, it seemed.
He glanced at Talbot, still enthralled by the fire. His displeasure at his fate would be short-lived, Rannulf had no doubt, for once Nicholas Talbot arrived at the mighty stronghold of l'Eau Clair and caught sight of his beautiful ward, the man would count himself twice blessed.
And Rannulf would be cursed to a purgatory worse than Satan himself could devise.
'Twas his lot in life--why expect change now? He'd a job to do. He stood, poured himself a generous measure of wine, then topped off Talbot's goblet and held it out to him.
"Come, milord, drink to your good fortune."
Talbot looked up, his strange violet eyes still troubled, and accepted the wine. "Easy for you to say," he muttered. "You're not the one who might be saddled with a child, or an old woman past her prime."
Aye, but I'd gladly be burdened with the lady of l'Eau Clair. 'Twas all Rannulf could manage to hold back the words. "It cannot be any worse than you've surmised," he said instead.
Talbot rose. "I pray you're right, FitzClifford." He raised his goblet. "To Lady Gillian," he said. "May she be a beauty beyond compare, a paragon among women . . ." He drank.
Rannulf brought his wine to his lips and sipped the heady brew, then nearly choked at Talbot's next words.
" . . . a meek, sweet, silent dove with not a thought of her own." Grinning now, Talbot quaffed the rest of his wine and slammed the goblet down on the table.
Rannulf set his own wine aside. Unless Gillian had changed--drastically--in the past few years, his overlord could not have been more wrong about the woman who would be his ward.
He'd not have a moment's peace between here and the Marches, he could see that clear enough. And once they arrived at l'Eau Clair . . . Rannulf shook his head. It appeared his time in purgatory had already begun.
Reviewers' praise for The Hidden Heart:
"In The Hidden Heart Sharon Schulze has recreated the timeless story of love, and she does it with great skill. I look forward to reading more of her work."
"Sharon Schulze writes a character that thinks with logic and acts with determination... Fast-paced, the novel swirls around the need to determine loyalty and love, ferreting out spies, and securing the future for those strong enough to shape it."
"The Hidden Heart is a Medieval romance bound to break your heart then mend it good as new . . . Ms. Schulze's writing is crisp and passionate, clearly making The Hidden Heart a tale worth venturing into."
"The Hidden Heart is filled with strong characters and a solid storyline that will hold you enthralled from the first page. It is a must-read for fans of medieval romance."
"After three tales of the l'Eau Clair family saga, Sharon Schulze tells the "first couple's" courtship in The Hidden Heart. At her father's graveside, Gillian de l'Eau Clair vows she will depend on no man--certainly not Rannulf, who was supposed to have been her husband. In 13th-century Wales, a marriage contract is to be honored, which is something that Rannulf fails to do. But it is Rannulf she must rely on for rescue from Nicholas Talbot. And thus are dynasties--and delightful stories--begun."
"The Hidden Heart makes the reader a promise on the first page and keeps it to the last. Full of warmth, Gillian and Rannulf's love story proves itself a rich addition to medieval readers' shelves."
"A wonderful tale of love and intrigue, this book was a real page turner. Ms. Schulze is an author to watch."
"The Hidden Heart, which continues the l'Eau Clair Chronicles series, is a well-crafted, leisurely-paced romance that is sure to please medieval fans. Explicit sensuality and a plot woven with danger add a provocative edge to this story."