"Mistress Tewdwr, Mistress Tewdwr!"
Belle Draper, known in Concaradine as Belle Tewdwr, turned reluctantly from the counter of medium quality woolens, breathing a small prayer for patience and fixing a smile on her lips. Agnes Corviser, the biggest gossip on the street and most tiresome among her acquaintances, pushed her way past the other pre-Christmas shoppers to arrive breathless before Belle, little blue eyes bright in the round red face, ample breast expanding with importance beneath its good broadcloth gown.
"Have you heard the latest news from Gwynedd?" she panted.
Belle's heart sank. These last years the news from Gwynedd had been uniformly bad, a sorrowful tale of misgovernment and atrocities that made her grateful she wasn't trying to raise her family there - and that her only living kinsman was snug behind monastery walls, safe from any molestation. "No." she said, bracing herself.
"King Imre's fallen and there's a Haldane upon the throne again!" Agnes cried happily. "Isn't that good news?"
For a moment Belle was struck speechless, then anger sent a surge of blood to her cheeks. The last male Haldane, her nephew Nicholas, was in holy orders. This could only be some imposter! "Impossible. The Haldanes were all murdered by Festil I." she snapped.
Agnes shook her head. "Not so. The tale is one of the younger princes was saved by a servant and lived out his life as a merchant in Valoret. This King Cinhil is his grandson. Just think, Belle, you might have known them!"
"I might have." she agreed mechanically. Cinhil was Nick's royal name, Cinhil Donal Ifor Haldane, could it be?
"It's been proven, they say. This Cinhil has the backing of the Church, of the Michaeline Order and of the Earl of Culdi and all his faction."
"Then it must be so." Belle said slowly. "Well that's good news for Gwynedd then."
"And for you." Agnes reminded her. "No need to fear going home to settle your father's affairs now."
"That's true too." Belle agreed.
She ordered the necessary rolls of blue and yellow cloth for the new years' liveries and arranged for their delivery, then wended her way homeward, her normally long and swinging stride slower and more thoughtful than her usual wont.
Belle's late husband had been a successful merchant in this city of merchants and left his family a fine stone house on the Rialto, the main avenue of Concaradine stretching straight and broad from harbor to the cathedral square. Belle eased her way through the busy foot traffic of a stone arcade, raised well above the street, its arches faced with red marble beneath the fretted white stone of the house fronts and supported by pillars of honey colored marble, their green malachite capitals carved with acanthus leaves. Shops spilled their goods into the walkway; hangings and rugs from Kheldour, the gold and silverwork for which Concaradine was famous, Eastern silks and velvets, rich furs from the icy northlands, wines and spices and other dainties from the south. Maelor ap Tewdwr had been a dealer in the last and sweet odors breathed from the open front of the small shop incorporated in his house.
His widow entered by the brazen dwelling door. A narrow, paneled passage ran straight back to a fine newel stair, dimly lit by windows at the end and light filtering through the open doors on the right side. The sound of Belle's young daughter's piping voice, sober with responsibility, came from the kitchen as she conferred with the cook raising a faint smile through her mother's preoccupation.
She went up the winding stair to the hall and through it to the septagonal oriel overlooking the street that was her favorite retreat. A low, well cushioned chair was set near the tall windows, inset with heraldic motifs of jewel toned glass, a round well stuffed hassock tucked beneath and a small table near at hand with book and work basket upon it. The tiny room was warmed by the sunlight falling freely through its many windows. Belle sat herself in her chair unfastening and pushing back her fur lined cloak.
So Nicholas had succeeded in reclaiming the throne of their ancestors. How proud her father, his grandfather, would have been. And how surprised! Belle knew very well Daniel Draper, once Prince Aidan Haldane, had long ago given up any hope of returning to his rightful estate. He would scarce have welcomed the entry of his sole male heir into the religious life otherwise. And he'd been as glad of Belle's marriage to a merchant of the Free City, taking her safely out of Gwynedd and out of reach of the Festils.
The same consideration had struck Belle herself, though she'd have gone with Maelor had he been a charcoal burner in the forest instead of a respectable merchant. The abortive rebellion of a distant, distaff cousin and the bitter reprisals it brought had frightened her, and her father too. Better by far to be out of Festilic writ!
And in simple justice Blaine, for all his severity, had been a good, fair ruler. His son however was a far different matter. Belle, mother of three fine sons with Haldane blood in their veins, had felt more than a little guilty, and cowardly too, at leaving Gwynedd in such hands. But it had never once occurred to her that Nick, secure in his vocation, might suffer the same doubts obvious as it seemed now.
How, cloistered as he was, he could have so much as met Earl Camber much less enlisted his aid was a deep mystery to her. But somehow he had done so, and between them they had driven out the usurping Festil. It was a wonderful thing for Gwynedd - and for her? What did this mean for herself and her children? Should it mean anything at all?
Granted she was royal, the Princess Isabel Maire Michaeline Haldane of Gwynedd, but she had lived forty-two years as Belle Draper, daughter and wife of wealthy merchants, and was very well satisfied with her life. Her pride rebelled against appearing as a petitioner at Nick - Cinhil's - court, she needed no favors! And yet it was foolish to go on hiding when there was no longer need.
And what of her children, royal Haldane on the mother's side? Granted all were well provided for and more than able to forge their own ways in the world by ability alone - as their father and grandfather had done! - and yet for all that had she the right to deny them the privileges and opportunities due their blood?
She sat, torn first this way then that, hands wrestling in her lap reflecting the tangled thoughts in her head, until roused by sounds from the hall. Looking in she saw Bertred, her manservant, setting up the trestle table for supper and Jestyn, the steward, standing by with the linen cloth to cover it and napkins to lay at each place. A glance behind at the windows showed the sun had disappeared behind the roofs of the houses across the avenue though the sky was still lit by its afterglow.
She collected her cloak from the chair and went in. "Has Master Alroy come home yet?"
A brief grin flashed over Jestyn's face. "No, Madam."
Belle rolled her eyes. "That boy! Very well, I'll go and fetch him - as usual!" She started for the stair, slinging the cloak around her shoulders.
"Shall I come with you, Madam?" Bertred called after.
"No thank you." she answered, setting foot on the steps, "I'll take Jack as escort - and to carry the young master's impedimenta."
Alroy was her second son, and like Nicholas he had early set his heart on the Church. Now fifteen, and a cleric in minor orders, he was studying grammar, rhetoric and dialectic at the University. Students and masters alike were privileged to return home for the major feasts but it was quite normal for Alroy to become absorbed in book or thesis forgetting all else until somebody, usually his mother, came to fetch him away.
He lodged in a house just outside the walls of the Old City, where the ancient buildings of Scholae and Collegia stood in carefully groomed gardens. It belonged to a widow who supported herself in her declining years by taking in boarders. Belle followed by Jack, the shop apprentice, climbed the familiar stair and knocked before entering the second floor hall. It proved an unnecessary precaution, the great room was empty if not clean. The bed frames had been stripped and pushed against the wall but a litter of empty bottles and wooden trenchers showed beneath. The table top leaning against the opposite wall was marred by tankard rings and stained with food and wine. The book cupboard had been carefully locked but quills and yellowing rolls of parchment were stuck higgly-piggly in the cubbyholes of the writing desk and a large inkwell stood, uncapped, upon the slope.
Shaking her head Belle picked the lid from the litter and tamped it down tight over the still semi-liquid ink before passing into the inner room belonging to her son. Unlike the outer chamber it was appointed with some comfort if not luxury. The walls were hung with red wool curtains and the ceiling tented with the same fabric shutting out drafts and providing some sound proofing. The narrow bed also had its scarlet coverlet and a fur rug folded at the foot. There were sheepskins to cover the board floor; washbasin, ewer and a pile of used towels on a bench; a chest for linen and a many armed perch draped with Alroy's spare cassock and heavy outer cloak.
The boy himself sat in chair under the window, squinting over his writing board in the fading light, scribbling away on a wax tablet as if life itself depended on it. Belle exchanged a resigned look with Jack. Grinning the apprentice pulled the linen chest from its place at the foot of the bed and began packing spare clothing, dirty towels and bedding into it. Belle moved closer to her son, but paused to give him a loving maternal look before touching his arm.
Alroy favored his father as to feature, though the hawklike profile and hollowed cheeks she remembered so well were softened by youth in his son, but the straight, thick hair with the small tonsure showing white against its blackness was hers - as were the wide, startled gray eyes he turned to her.
"Mother?" awareness of guilt brought red to his pale, slightly stubbly cheeks. "Uh, late again?"
"As always." she looked over his shoulder at the flowing uncial script. "What is it this time? A point of dialectic?"
He nodded. "A sudden inspiration. I lost track of time."
"I've heard that before." she remarked, but indulgently. "Come along home, you can write as well there as here!"
"Yes, Mother." the young cleric quickly packed tablets and stylus away in his desk box and took it under his arm, checking to be sure his book chest was securely locked. He didn't need to take them with him, they had copies of all at home.
Jack hoisted the linen chest on his shoulder and the two young men followed Belle through the outer room and down the stair to the street. Dusk deepened around them as they, like their fellow pedestrians, hurried to get safe home before full dark.
The table was laid and ready when they got there; pewter plates, silver spoons and saltcellar glimmering mellowly in the fire and candle light. Deep blue curtains, powdered with praying angels embroidered in gilt thread, shut out the chilly December evening and the Kheldish tapestries draping the walls enclosed the assembled household in jewel toned warmth.
Belle's two younger children were there, thirteen year old Aidan, a very reluctant scholar at the Cantiloupe Chantry school; and nine year old Elysabel, self-important little housewife for a day, her borrowed keys jingling importantly at her girdle. Both black haired and grey eyed as their elder brother but with their mother's smoother, less angular, features. Only Belle's eldest was absent, still at the court of Count Johan of Travlum where he was a squire.
Jestyn stood by, the grey in his brown hair catching the light as he watched Bertred and Rannild the kitchen maid lay out food and serving dishes on the sideboard. Branwen, the young chambermaid, who was Jestyn's daughter stood modestly at her place near the foot of the table. Her mother, Susan the cook, was beside her keeping a careful eye on kitchen maid and serving man just like her husband.
Jack came from the hall chamber where he'd deposited Alroy's chest to stand behind his own seat next to Helwise, his mother, who was Belle's maid. She was watching Elysabel out of the corner of her eye, hiding a smile.
The little girl studied the table closely, mouth pursed in concentration. Satisfied nothing had been forgotten she relaxed, beginning to glow with the knowledge of a task well accomplished.
Next to her Aidan surreptitiously tore a corner from his trencher of bread and nibbled it hungrily.
Belle moved towards her place at the head of the table. Jestyn, seeing this, left off his supervision of the servers and went to hold the great chair for her. As she sat those waiting did too, in their due places on the long benches flanking the table. Rannild slipped into her seat next to Branwen as Jestyn offered basin and towel to Belle, then continued round the table until all had washed. He retreated to the sideboard, next to Bertred, as the assembled family bowed their head for a Latin grace said by Alroy.
Belle had decided not to mention the news from Gwynedd at table as it could not be discussed freely before the servants who, long serving and trusted as they all were, were ignorant of their mistress' secret. She intended they should remain so until and unless she decided to claim her royal rights. It did not occur to her that she might not be the only one to have heard the news.
Having finished the carving and laid the platters of meat and vegetables on the table Jestyn and Bertred took their own seats, the steward's next to Alroy on Belle's right hand, as all helped themselves from the dishes near them.
Only then did Jestyn turn deferentially to his mistress and say, "Madam, have you heard? There is good news from Gwynedd." Belle's startled look was taken for interest and he continued; "King Imre has been overthrown and a king of the blessed line of Saint Bearand put on the throne in his place."
"How can that be?" Alroy asked his neighbor, shooting a quick look at his mother. "The last Haldane claimant and all his kin died nearly twenty years ago."
"This is an heir of the direct male line, or so they say." Jestyn anwered, warming to his theme. "The tale is a younger son of King Ifor was saved from the slaughter to live hidden and unknown. This King Cinhil is said to be his grandson."
Alroy tensed, and on Belle's left hand her two younger children stared round eyed. They knew their ancestry - and the royal names of both mother and cousin.
Jestyn shook his head wonderingly. "It is a strange story altogether. King Cinhil they say was a monk until King Imre's enormities roused him to claim the throne of his fathers. The Primate of Gwynedd, the Earl of Culdi and many other lords spiritual and temporal have given him allegiance and there seem none left to challenge his right."
"That is good news." Alroy agreed, eyes still on his mother. He raised his cup in a toast. "To King Cinhil Haldane, may his reign be long and glorious and may he bring peace and justice to his realm!"
"Amen." said Belle, and drank.