The Mistress of Moonacre

Chapter Twelve

Robin's grandmother was so old and frail that she hardly ever left her tower bedroom, having long since given up trying to negotiate the numerous stairs. She had also gone half blind in her old age and suffered from arthritis. It was a lonely existence, Robin often thought, living to such an age whilst being confined to one room, so he visited her as often as he could, listened to her stories which he had heard a hundred times before, read to her and occasionally even aided her with her knitting (his father would surely sneer at him if he became aware of that particular fact).

Today she was sitting bundled up beside the fire, knitting a pair of little white baby socks while Robin lay on his stomach upon the hearth rug at her feet, reading Doctor Faustus again.

"I'm knitting these for your Aunt Oonagh." his grandmother informed him over the rhythmic clicking of her knitting needles. Despite her blindness, Nerissa de Noir was an accomplished knitter, having learned the skill from her nursemaid when she was a small girl and thus memorised the required hand movements after so many years of performing them. Whenever a new baby was expected amongst the De Noirs, she took pride in knitting the child something.

"I thought she'd just had a baby not so long ago?"

"Yes, a little girl. She's expecting again. It isn't healthy if you ask me, to be with child so soon after another." Robin, who, at the age of eighteen, had really no opinion on the matter of babies and the like, turned back to his book.

"You always were a strangely quiet boy, my dear Robin-redbreast. Like a closed book. You barely even cried as a babe. Shall I tell you what my maid tells me of you?"

"Does your maid still spy for you about the castle, grandmother?"

"Well, an old woman trapped in her room needs someone to tell her the goings on of this place. No one else bothers to keep me informed. Mark my words, if I hear so much as a whisper of dissension in this castle, I shall summon your father to me immediately and give him a good talking to. I shan't have the castle nor the clan falling to ruin."

"For fear of incurring your wrath, I doubt it would dare."

"I often worry how things will turn out when I am dead and gone. We can't have standards slipping now, can we? Fie! I've quite forgotten my train of thought! What was it I was saying before?"

"You were telling me you'd enlisted your maid to spy on me."

"To merely keep an eye on you. Ah yes! She tells me you are still a quiet boy, prone to periods of thoughtfulness and solemnity. Some days you will run wild about the forest with your cousins, and then other days you hide yourself away on your own - most likely with a book, I imagine?"

"Yes."

"She tells me that your father despairs of you sometimes."

Robin shifted uncomfortably, "I think you mean all of the time. He's ashamed to call me his son. I often fear that he will go against convention and name someone else as his successor, perhaps Henry instead." he muttered.

"What? That dunderhead?"

"Grandmother! He's your grandson!"

"I only spoke the truth, he is a fool. And your father would be an even bigger fool if he chose him for his heir."

"David, then. He'll probably choose David."

"David doesn't possess half of your brains. Don't fret, my boy. You'll make a fine Coeur when your time comes."

"If it comes." Robin added ruefully.

"Oh hush! Anyway, back to what I was saying before. My maid also mentioned that, although Richard has a new girl on his arm with every new moon, you spend your days surprisingly bereft of female company. Though it is not through lack of female interest, you're a handsome boy and most of the girls in the castle would give their right arm for the Coeur's heir to favour them."

"I…umm…" Robin blushed and stammered nervously.

"Cat got your tongue, Robin red-breast?"

"I don't understand why people are making such a fuss over the fact I don't dally with the maids or serving girls. I'll probably just end up marrying some distant cousin anyway so I don't see how what I do or don't do with someone now matters."

"Do you know why we have that tradition? That the Coeur must always marry a De Noir cousin or some other distant relative? To keep the bloodline pure. To ensure that the De Noir clan does not die out. Of course, your father went and messed the whole thing up by marrying your mother. A simple farmer's daughter! Yes, he was always a wilful boy, I can't say I was all that surprised that he did such a thing."

"So who do you suppose I'll end up with?"

Robin's grandmother fell quiet, she lowered her head to gaze unseeingly down with a furrowed brow at her ever twitching knitting needles. Finally she said delicately, "Your father and I have several possible matches in mind." Ah, Robin thought, so they're already talking about it. Hell, knowing my grandmother, she'll have been planning this since the day I was born!

"Don't I get any say?"

"Perhaps. If I can convince your father, that is. He is more focussed on what would be the most advantageous marriage. I, however, am more concerned for your happiness."

"Remind me to thank you on my wedding day." Robin said, unable to keep the sarcasm from entering his voice.

"You need not take that tone with me! We all have a duty to do things which we would rather not. Need I remind you of the sacrifice I had to make for the good of this clan?"

"No, grandmother. I apologise."

"Well, I am going to tell you anyway. A Coeur cannot be reminded too many times of his duty and of the history of the illustrious clan of De Noir."

"But I'm not a Coeur yet." Robin said half-heartedly, knowing full well that nothing could dissuade his grandmother from telling this bloody, tragic tale which she was so fond of retelling, despite the fact it caused her great pain.

"My older brother Greyson de Noir was heir and named successor to clan De Noir. He was destined to become Coeur upon the death of our father. My brother was probably the handsomest boy in all of England; hair as black as a raven's feathers, skin like alabaster, his eyes two dark pools flecked with silver starlight. Oh, what a lovely, rare creature! A heartbreaker. But Greyson was a lot like you, Robin-redbreast, solitary. He didn't take much interest in the girls of the castle and spent much of his time off on his own in the forest.
My mother planned for him to marry our cousin Penelope de Noir - her brother Lorcan is David's grandfather, remember? Whereas I, not being the heir to the clan, was blessed with a little more freedom and choice in the selection of my future husband. As it turned out, I had fallen in love with a young man named Henri de Villeduval, the friend of one of our French cousins who was staying with us that Summer. Henri reciprocated my feelings and intended to ask my father for my hand before he was due to return to France at the end of the Summer.
One night though, just as I was getting ready for bed, Greyson came to me in my room and told me there was something which he needed to confess to me. He confided in me that he had fallen in love with a young woman and was blessed to have her love in return. I told him that our parents intended for him to marry our cousin, in keeping with the old tradition, and it was his duty to do whatever was required of him for the good of the clan. Greyson looked heartbroken in that moment and quietly bade me goodnight. He placed a kiss upon my forehead - something which he had not done for many years - then turned and walked out of my room without a backward glance. That was the last time I ever saw him, my beautiful brother Greyson.
It was discovered the next morning that he had gone missing, had taken his horse from the stables and rode out in the dead of night. Not even the sentries on the walls had seen him leave. My father sent riders out to search for him and all day I cried and worried until the riders returned with their black news. They returned later that evening with my brother Greyson in a coffin and a letter from Sir William Merryweather. It turns out that the girl Greyson had spoken to me about, the girl whom he loved was none other than Sir William Merryweather's only daughter, Lisette. Of course, Lisette Merryweather, hailed as the loveliest girl in all of England, a girl whom plain, freckled young me had felt sick with envy of after seeing her just once in Silverydew - who else could capture Greyson's heart if not her? The letter explained that she had confessed everything to her father, that she and the young De Noir heir had encountered one another on the road to Silverydew and thus started a secret passionate love-affair. It suddenly made sense why Greyson had spent all his days alone in the forest. They had made plans to elope and had agreed to meet at midnight at what was seemingly their regular meeting place, a clearing in the forest with a large oak tree standing at its centre. But the Merryweather girl never loved my poor brother, it was all just a ploy to do away with the only heir to the De Noir clan, and so she handed over all of Greyson's love letters to her father and confessed the whole thing. And what was waiting for my poor, handsome, lovesick fool of a brother when he rode out that night to the clearing? Not Lisette Merryweather, but her three older brothers, all armed to the teeth. They killed my brother. Cut his pretty head straight off.
With no other sons to name as successor, my father was forced to betroth me to my cousin, the son of his elder sister, Crispin de Noir. And so my wedding took place the day after my brother's funeral - as you can imagine, it was an extremely sad affair - and Henri de Villeduval returned to France at the end of the Summer."

A long silence stretched for several minutes. Robin's grandmother was crying a little, as she always did when she spoke of her brother, so he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it into her hand.

"Ah, thank you, my dear. I tell you this story for two reasons. Firstly, we all must make sacrifices for the good of the clan - the Coeur most of all - so if you intend to be a greater man than your father, you had better start making those sacrifices now. Secondly, so that you may know the true nature of the Merryweathers. They have been our sworn enemies for hundreds of years for a reason, Robin. Their trickery and deceit knows no limit. And remember, even the loveliest face can conceal a serpent beneath - my poor brother Greyson learnt that the hard way."

Robin was barely listening, for an idea had quite suddenly occurred to him. He remembered his dream from before and what the Merryweather girl had said to him in it: "You don't want to catch me, Robin de Noir. You want to win me.". Lisette Merryweather had been clever, she had known Greyson's infatuation with her and used it to her advantage. But what was to say that he couldn't pull the same trick? Befriend the Merryweather girl and win her trust - make her love him, even - and, when the time was right, take the pearls from her.

"You have gone very quiet again, Robin-redbreast."

"Just thinking."

"Well, you can make yourself useful while you think. Here, give me your hands and help me wind my wool."