Scarborough Castle, Scarborough, North Riding of Yorkshire
Scarborough Castle was a majestic sight, stood proudly on the headland overlooking the North Sea with the town sprawled before it. Protected on three sides by the cliffs and sea, the fourth side, the only approach to the castle, faced the town and was guarded by a huge ditch, spanned by a wide, wooden bridge that lead through the enclosure gateway, passing under the great tower.
Alice, riding over the bridge alongside Guy, looked upwards in awe at the tower that loomed overhead. She had never been so close to the castle before, but had visited the town as a child with her mother, and had dreamt of Scarborough's great fortress afterwards. It had a magical quality that Alice had never encountered before; or at least, her childhood memories had imbued it with such.
She was filled with a mixture of nervousness and excitement, yet her face was a frozen mask of trepidation. She was about to meet Prince John. THE Prince John, brother to the king of England. Not only that, he would be accompanied by the Sheriff of Yorkshire.
Alice felt quite breathless with agitated anticipation. Looking sideways at Guy to find him already watching her, she gave him a scared smile and he raised his eyebrows, reading her expression accurately.
"Relax," he said, his voice low and soothing. "I'll be right by your side at all times."
She nodded and concentrated on diminishing her tension, taking deep breaths and exhaling through her nose like her mother had taught her. She didn't want to embarrass him in any way, but this was the first time she had ever entered a royal residence as a member of the nobility, or at least, as a consort of Guy's, who, as a knight and the Earl of Huntingdon, was definitely a noble.
Life had certainly changed for Alice in the past few months. Gone was the head scarf, and the maid's uniform, and an existence played out in the shadows of other people's lives. These days, Guy insisted she wear her hair down and uncovered, and purchased her gowns of the most beautiful materials to wear every day. He had the most exquisite taste, seeking out the very best of outfits to accentuate her petite figure, pale, creamy skin, and flame-red hair, yet without drawing too much attention to her, which he knew she would hate. It suited him, too; he was fiercely possessive of her, which she knew was a result of his time spent wooing, and being constantly rebuked by, Marian. She was happy to reassure him on a daily basis that she was his, but didn't have to work hard at it. They were constantly together, and, if they weren't, he generally knew exactly where she was. She wasn't used to being the object of someone's intense desire, but she felt the same way about him, and so it worked. Their union was quiet and content, yet fervently passionate behind closed doors, and Alice felt that she knew him better than she knew herself. She would happily follow him wherever he lead, even if that involved facing a member of royalty.
Her stomach fizzing with nerves, Alice allowed her mount to follow Guy's black horse through the gateway and into the inner bailey of the castle. The guards at the gateway acknowledged Guy and allowed them and their small convoy to pass through without incident. Alice assumed that they were expected, after the Sheriff had sent Bradshaw on ahead the night before to alert the Sheriff of Yorkshire and Prince John to William's plans to burn Filey Manor. Part of her wondered why nobody had arrived in Filey to stop him; however, it didn't matter, as Robin had been there, and he had sent William packing with his tail between their legs.
Alice had been overwhelmed with relief; riding away had been the hardest thing she had ever done, when all she wanted was to find Roana and embrace her in joy. But, she was beginning to realise, her love for Guy had placed a huge barrier between her and Roana, and she wasn't sure how to find a way around it.
Inside the inner bailey, they came to a halt outside the castle keep, and servants ran to take their horses as they dismounted. Devereux, the Sheriff of Yorkshire, was waiting for them, an expansive smile on his face. Beside him stood Dulcina, Baroness of Scarborough, Devereux's second wife. Tall and regal with a mane of chestnut hair and coldly beautiful eyes of the brightest blue, Dulcina's nickname was the Ice Queen and she played up to the role admirably. Rumour had it that Devereux discovered her in a backstreet brothel and brought her home, but there was no sign of this in her haughty composure and cut-glass accent. She had worked hard to pull herself out of the gutter, if the gossip was true. She was now the most feared woman in Yorkshire, and it was fancied that her ice-cool stare could freeze a person just as completely as her words that could cut like glass.
Alice felt herself begin to tremble. If the idea of meeting Prince John had scared her, the thought of spending time in Dulcina's company terrified her beyond belief.
Sensing her reticence, Guy took her hand, guiding her forward to meet the two imposing figures, his grip tight yet reassuring.
"Sir Guy!" The Sheriff of Yorkshire's tone was jovial as he approached them, his smile widening as he took in Alice, a step behind Guy. "And friend. I don't think I've had the pleasure. Do introduce me, Guy."
"This is Alice," Guy introduced, keeping her hand firmly in his. "She is my.. companion."
Devereux regarded her, his grey eyes calculating. "It is a pleasure, my dear. It is about time Gisborne found himself a.. companion."
"My lord." Alice curtsied, and Devereux looked delighted.
"Have you seen this, Dee," he addressed his wife over his shoulder. "You could learn a thing or two about respect from this young lady."
Dulcina looked bored, but glided forward on beautifully embroidered cloth slippers. She looked Alice up and down, coolly, paying particular attention to the beaded detail on the green gown Guy had bought her. "Hello, my dear. Welcome to Scarborough. That dress is divine. You must tell me who designed it."
She caught Alice's eye, and Alice startled at the faint glimmer of warmth she saw within the cool depths. Maybe the Baroness was not such an Ice Queen after all. Alice would reserve judgement.
"Where is my idiot of a son?" Devereux was saying. "And that nephew of mine. I received word that you were arriving together, no?"
Guy cleared his throat. "They should be here tomorrow. They had business to attend to."
"I hope it has nothing to do with Filey Manor," Devereux stated with a scowl. "Prince John will be furious if he has set fire to the property without his permission..."
"And what have we here?" An imperious voice interrupted him, and everyone's attention was drawn to the doorway of the keep, where Prince John was framed.
Alice gazed in awe, her nerves forgotten for a moment. He was truly majestic, with his sweep of auburn hair and green-blue eyes, a frock coat in a multitude of colours accentuating his leanly muscular build. He emerged from the door with a faintly querulous expression on his face.
"Is that you, Guy?"
"My liege, it is I." Guy bowed, respectfully. He stood a head taller than the prince, and looked down on him when he straightened. Prince John smiled up at him, widely, showing surprisingly white teeth.
"It has been too long, Guy. Has that ogre Vaisey been keeping you busy?" Spotting Alice, he lost interest in any reply. "And who is this delightful girl?"
He approached Alice quickly, staring down at her intensely, and took her hand in his. Alice's breath caught in her throat and she began to tremble again.
Guy moved to stand beside them. "This is Alice, my liege. She is with me."
"Ah." The prince raised his eyebrows, continuing to gaze into Alice's eyes. "She's with you. How unfortunate." He kissed Alice's knuckles, his eyes still riveted on hers, before Dulcina, stood beside them, cleared her throat very deliberately. He broke the contact swiftly, dropping her hand and moving on.
"Where is Vaisey? And that idiot William?"
Blinking like she had just come out of a trance, Alice looked at Dulcina, who rolled her eyes. Alice glanced at Guy. His expression was tight, mask-like, but he softened as he met her gaze and afforded her a small smile.
"They are following on, my liege," Guy explained, patiently. "They should arrive by tomorrow."
"I hope William is behaving himself," Prince John declared, dramatically. "I cannot believe he took it upon himself to burn a perfectly good manor house down. We all need to have a serious talk once they arrive tomorrow. There are important plans to execute."
With that, he whirled around and made for the castle doorway. "Come, come. I am thirsty. Devereux, I would like some wine. Can you arrange that for me?"
Devereux shot after him, surprisingly nimble on short, stocky legs. "Of course, my liege."
Dulcina looked at Alice from the corner of her eye and raised her eyebrows very slightly before following them at a more sedate pace, her hips swaying in a confidently seductive manner.
Guy approached Alice and offered her his arm. Alice took it, gratefully. "What plans?"
"I don't know," Guy replied, grimly. "I'm sure we will find out soon. But I can't imagine it being anything we will like the sound of."
Filey Manor, Filey, East Riding of Yorkshire
Allan was waiting for her when Roana stepped out of the manor house the following morning. She had had a restless nights sleep, managing to grab only scraps of rest. As a result, she wasn't feeling on top form. Allan, it would seem, was in a similar place. He was pale and tired-looking, his beautiful eyes appearing slightly bruised with fatigue. He gave her a weary smile, looking bashful. Roana assumed it was because of his disappearing act the day before, and his subsequent alcoholic binge.
"Hello, stranger," she said, and gave him a smile when he looked at her to show there were no hard feelings.
"Ro," he said, and stepped forward into her embrace. They stood for a moment on the doorstep of the house, enfolded in each other's arms, and then he groaned. "I feel terrible."
"Too much wine?" she asked in an amused tone, and he groaned again.
"Please don't mention wine ever again." He buried his face in her collar bone in despair, yet she could hear a hint of a smile in his tone. "In fact, don't ever let me out of your sight ever again."
"I don't intend to," Roana replied. "Now that my uncle has accepted you."
Allan looked up at her, his expression one of shocked surprise. "What?"
Roana laughed in delight. "He's accepted you. That's why I was trying to find you yesterday, to tell you the news. We don't have to hide this from anyone anymore. We can be together."
A tumult of emotions passed over Allan's features; amazement, delight, exhilaration, before his face suddenly dropped and he let her go, taking a deliberate step backwards.
Alarmed, Roana stared at him. "Allan, what is it?"
He shook his head and rubbed his face with one hand, his gaze lowered. "Aww, Ro. I've got something to tell you."
His dejection was so complete that fear pierced her heart with an ice-cold tip. She drew back, wrapping her arms around her body. "Go on."
Allan sighed deeply and reached out for her hand. "Walk with me."
"Just tell me." Roana's voice was pure steel, yet inside, she was filled with distress. What was he going to say? Had he had second thoughts about her?
Allan grabbed her hand anyway. "I want to be honest with you, so you need to know this, even though you won't like it. But please believe it was not my doing."
Roana looked at him steadily, reading the sincerity in his gaze, and nodded once.
"Yesterday, I took myself off beyond the far barn to drink on my own. I just needed to be alone for a while, after what your uncle had said. I was confused, Ro." He appealed to her, beseechingly, and Roana relented, squeezing his hand a little. He went on. "Only, one of the servant girls decided to join me. I didn't ask her to," he added, quickly, seeing Roana's expression freeze. "Honestly, I tried to get rid of her. But she insisted on staying, and I carried on drinking and talking about you, and then.." He petered off, clearly wondering how to continue. "Well, I woke up and she was on top of me."
Roana gasped in horror, yanking her hand away from him. "You.. you..?"
"No, Roana. No." His voice was firm. "She was kissing me, and she had her hand... in my trousers! I pushed her off straight away, Ro, I swear to you."
"She.. she touched you?" Roana gaze travelled downwards, then back up into his face. "You won't do anything with me, yet you let her touch you?"
"I didn't let her do anything, Ro," he said, fiercely. He grabbed the side of her arms and pulled her to him. "I swear to you. She knew I was with you. I spoke about you non-stop. She took advantage of me when I was asleep, and I pushed her off me straight away and got out of there. You have to believe me." He stopped and looked at her, his blue eyes clear and passionately candid. "I love you, Ro."
Roana looked back at him, her heart and mind in a turmoil. She felt a clash of emotions within, fighting for supremacy. Dismay, jealousy, anger, love. She did love him, and she believed him. But she needed to take a step back and examine her feelings before she reacted. Fury was her dominant emotion right now, and it wasn't directed at him.
"Who is she?" she asked, her tone deceptively calm.
Allan shook his head again. "Just some kitchen girl. Laney, or something."
"Blonde hair, brown eyes?" Allan nodded at her description, surprised, and Roana smiled, grimly. Of course. The girl that she had seen coming out of the guest barn on their first morning in Filey. The one who had looked at her askance.
"I have something to do," she said in a tone that brooked no argument. "I'll find you later and we will talk."
Allan's face fell and he nodded in resignation. "I do love you, Ro. Please don't let this come between us."
"I know you do." She softened slightly and put a hand to his cheek, stroking her thumb down his sideburn gently. "I love you, too. But I'm angry right now. I'll find you later, I promise."
Giving her a sad smile, he turned and walked back to the guest barn, taking a detour when he spotted Auden, who called to him. Roana watched him join Auden and engage in conversation before she hurried towards the side kitchen door. She and Laney needed to have a little chat.
"Trouble in paradise?" Auden asked with an amused grin as Allan joined him. He nodded in Roana's direction. "I believe you've been up to your old tricks."
"What are you on about?" Allan said in an impatient tone. He wasn't in the mood for Auden's cryptic conversations. He was worried about Roana and the future of their relationship, which he felt was under threat. He could have omitted to tell her about the night before, and saved this uncertainty. But to have kept the truth from her wouldn't have felt right. For once in his life, he wanted to be completely honest with someone - with Roana - but, in doing so, he feared that he may have driven her away. He had to believe that the truth would win out. He had to trust that she believed him.
Allan had never had such intense feelings for another person before. He was unused to it. He loved her with a passion, yet coming to Filey and facing Robert's disapproval had filled him with doubt and awoken all of his insecurities. Allan had so far lived life with a devil-may-care attitude, rarely worrying about other people's opinions of him, rarely examining his own thought processes and emotions in any great depth. He had lived from moment to moment, never attaching himself to anyone or anything, and so never leaving himself open to attack. But now, he had met someone who he cared for more than himself, and who featured prominently in the future that he wanted, and it had accented all of his fears and vulnerabilities. Did it scare him? Yes, it did. Did he want to run and leave that fear behind, as he had done so many times before? Not in the slightest. Roana was the most important person in his life, and he wasn't going to give up on her. He only hoped that she still felt the same.
"You know exactly what I mean." Auden gave a cynical laugh. "Laney told me everything. Can't believe you gave a piece like Lady Roana up for a roll in the hay with a servant."
Allan turned on him, suddenly. "I don't what she's told you but it isn't true, alright?"
"Whoa, whoa," Auden laughed, provocatively, pushing Allan back. He was a head taller than Allan, but the shorter man was intimidating in his fury. "That's not what Laney told me, is all I'm saying."
"I'm not being funny but why would you believe anything that comes out of her mouth?" Allan reined himself in, realising that Auden was attempting to rile him, and that it had very nearly worked. He scoffed in Auden's face. "I reckon you're just jealous, mate, because you can't get yourself a decent woman."
Auden laughed, this time genuinely. "Alright, alright. You've got me. I was just kidding. No hard feelings, Allan?"
"I'm not really in the mood, Auden." Allan went to turn away but Auden put a hand on his arm.
"Come on, mate. I was only joking," he said. "Maybe I am a bit jealous. I mean, Roana is gorgeous." Allan scowled. "I mean, you're a lucky man."
The bell in the tall oak tree at the entrance to the courtyard began to ring, cutting short their conversation. A magpie erupted from the branches, chattering loudly, and flew off in a flurry of wings. Allan and Auden exchanged glances, disagreement forgotten.
"Lads?" Robin, who was stood outside the guest barn, talking to Much, called to them as he began to walk over.
"It's alright, we've got it," Auden shouted, giving him a thumbs-up. He looked at Allan. "Come on."
They set off along the track leading up to the manor entrance, concealing themselves amongst the trees to the side of the track as they neared the gate, moving as quietly as possible.
"There's no one there," Auden whispered, hunkering down to peer through the wooden fence.
"What's that?" Allan craned his neck to see properly through the thick foliage.
There appeared to be a sword and a small money bag lying on the ground on the other side of the gate. However, the area was deserted with no sign of human life.
"Is that a money bag?" Auden hissed. "Looks like a decent weapon too. Go and fetch it, Allan."
"Why don't you go?" Allan argued, hotly. Auden looked at him, blankly. Huffing, Allan straightened and pushed his way through the trees. He made his way to the gate, hesitantly, looking around. The sword and pouch appeared to have been abandoned, for the whole area was empty. There was a small copse of sparse-looking trees just beyond it, but he didn't think it was big enough to hide an assailant.
He quickly scaled the gate and dropped down on the other side, glancing from side to side. Drawing his sword, he walked over to the discarded objects and picked up the money bag, weighing it in his hand. It was heavy, and he pulled it open.
"It's full of coins!" He turned to call to Auden, but he was out of sight, still hidden in the trees. Shrugging, Allan sheathed his own sword and turned to pick up the weapon on the floor. There was movement just out of the periphery of his vision and, before he could react, something hit him heavily on the back of his head. Everything went black.