TAPESTRY OF DREAMSby Roberta Gellis
Lady Audris was the true mistress of Jernaeve, Old Iron Fist, but her uncle Oliver Fermain ruled in her name. Audris did not resent this; she loved her uncle deeply, so deeply that she had resolved never to marry because her husband would have the right to take the rule of Jernaeve out of Oliver’s hands. This was only just in Audris’s opinion. After all, her uncle, unlike nine out of ten other men, had not killed her when he arrived at the property he believed he had inherited and found her alive and well only a few years old. And Audris was very strange; the people of Jernaeve did not call her witch only because they loved her and feared her in equal measure. She did much good, she was a near miraculous healer, and she often foretold drought and flood so that her people were warned. Nonetheless when the redheaded knight bearing the unicorn on his shield came to Jernaeve, Audris was enchanted. Enchanted and torn apart; she could not take Jernaeve from her uncle and yet she had to have Hugh Licorne.
Knowing any woman summoned to the king would spend some time putting on a new gown and recombing her hair, Stephen had expected a delay. He was relieved that Oliver had not persisted in keeping the heiress mewed up and held out his goblet for more wine. He intended now to ask how old Audris was so that he would have an opening to say directly to her that it was time she married. Four of the gentlemen who had accompanied him had been asked specifically because he felt they would make suitable partners—suitable from his standpoint because they were penniless and out of gratitude would be devoted to his cause; suitable from Audris’s, he assumed, because the gentlemen were young,
strong, and not of repulsive appearance. But before Eadmer could refill the king’s goblet and return it, the maidservant came running back to Eadyth. “Oh, I feared to go in,” she gasped. “The Demoiselle is weaving.”
“Holy Mary,” Eadyth breathed, “again? So soon?”
“Eadyth,” Oliver’s voice overrode the last three words his wife said, “go yourself and bring Audris down.”
“Take her from the loom?” Eadyth whispered.
“The king has asked to see her,” Oliver snarled. “Just tell her that her presence here is required.”
A new surprised silence had fallen, and although Oliver also felt a wave of uneasiness, he told himself that Eadyth was only a superstitious fool. No doubt Audris had not realized she would be summoned down, had assumed the guests would be with them for several days, and had merely started an ordinary picture to occupy her time. In any case, he wanted no rumors that Audris was…He checked the thought without finishing it and shrugged casually as he turned toward the king.
“Women are damned fools,” he growled. “My niece is a weaver of surpassing skill. I sell her pictures for a good price, but she only weaves when she chooses, so I have given orders that she is never to be disturbed when she is at the loom. But women… Even my wife does not seem to understand that a rule may be broken for an exceptional circumstance.”
“Woven pictures,” Stephen remarked, distracted from his intended question about Audris’s age. “They are not so common. I have seen my grandmother’s great work, which shows the destruction of the usurper Harold and William’s conquest of this country, but that is embroidered. I would like to see Demoiselle Audris’s work.”
“I have not any to show you,” Oliver replied, trying to subdue his uneasiness. He was worried about what Stephen would think if he saw his own coming pictured. No one could believe Audris had woven the piece in the short time the king had been in Jernaeve. He did not want to be caught in an outright lie either, and went on, “I believe my niece finished weaving a piece a few days ago, but something more must be done to it, I understand, before it is truly complete. I must confess, Sire, that I have never inquired about it. When Audris is finished, she brings the work to me, and I send word to those who are interested in buying.”
“The Demoiselle Audris seems to have many talents,” Stephen commented.
Sir Oliver laughed, his hard expression softening for a moment. “Not many, for I suspect she does not know boiling from baking, nor sewing from spinning. Eadyth used to complain that we would all starve and be in tatters if the running of Jernaeve were left in the girl’s hands. She would not learn any other woman’s skill from Eadyth, only weaving, and she will not do plain cloth, only pictures. No, I am wrong, she is also skilled in herb lore, Eadyth says.”
This answer, which was perfectly truthful, quite unplanned, and actually bred of Oliver’s sometimes exasperated fondness for his niece, only made Stephen more suspicious because it seemed to denigrate Audris as a wife. But the king was saved from needing to make a reply by the unexpectedly swift arrival of Audris and Eadyth. Because she had been the subject of the conversation—and because four of Stephen’s companions had a special interest and the others knew or guessed his plans for her—all the seated men turned to stare at her as she walked toward them.
Hugh had been watching the door ever since the maid had first gone up, and thus was the first to see Audris. Clearly she had not been given time to prepare herself. Her braids, pale as moonlight, showed no glint of pearls or golden threads, not even a bright ribbon to support her spirit and give her some assurance of being fine. Her dark blue tunic and pale blue bliaut were of fine wool but unadorned by embroidery or jewelry, and they were speckled with short threads of different-colored yarn from her work. She seemed very small when compared with Eadyth, and it looked as if she were being pushed along by her aunt’s more massive figure behind her. It took all Hugh’s self-control not to go to her and whisper a kind word. Catching a glimpse of the king’s face, Hugh felt that Stephen probably regretted demanding that the Demoiselle come down. The king could, Hugh thought resentfully, have gone up to see the shy child and spared her this torment. But then he reminded himself of the king’s purpose in bringing Demoiselle Audris down. Sir Walter had told Hugh he was sure Stephen intended to marry the girl to one of his own men to guarantee that the holder of Jernaeve would remain loyal to him. Hugh felt a twinge of odd and inexplicable anger, but fought it, telling himself he had nothing about which to be angry. Demoiselle Audris’s fate had nothing to do with him. The heiress of Jernaeve was far, far beyond his reach.
Besides, there was nothing real to arouse the ridiculous protective urge he felt toward her. The king was probably doing the girl a favor. Hugh knew Sir Walter suspected that Oliver had refused all offers for Demoiselle Audris—of which there had been many—and prevented the Demoiselle from marrying because he wanted to keep Jernaeve in his own hands and possibly wanted his son to inherit it from his cousin. In addition, Hugh told himself impatiently, Stephen was being kind in presenting several suitors to the Demoiselle Audris, all of whom were young and pleasant-faced. And not one of them, Hugh thought with a fresh spurt of anger, had any more than he—except the knowledge of who had fathered them.
Hastily he buried that foolish notion by recalling Sir Walter’s comments on the unusual idea of offering Demoiselle Audris a choice. Ordinarily a husband would be chosen by a male guardian to suit himself. The very last and least consideration, if the subject were considered at all, would be whether or not the woman would like the man to whom she was given. But in this case, Sir Walter had said, the king must induce the lady to oppose her uncle.
“If the girl wants a husband and Oliver has been refusing decent offers,” Sir Walter had said, frowning unhappily, “she has a right to be married, and I will not stand in her way, but I wish Stephen did not so openly intend her for one of those landless hangers-on he brought with him.” Then he sighed. “Well, I suppose he thinks a man who owes him everything can be better trusted. But I am not so easy in my mind about replacing Oliver with a young man bred in Blois or France who does not know our ways and who might be greedy as well as poor. No, I do not like it, and I am going with the king to Jernaeve and taking a few friends, too, to make sure Demoiselle Audris is not forced into marriage with Stephen’s man.”
So, Hugh thought, his eyes fixed on Audris, who had threaded her way through the benches and was nearing Stephen’s chair, the king dared not give the impression that he was usurping without cause Sir Oliver’s position as Demoiselle Audris’s warden. Hugh’s lips twisted. Of course, that was why the Demoiselle had to come down. The king needed witnesses that she wished to marry and that Sir Oliver’s refusals of all offers for her were a violation of her rights.
Hugh’s mind had been so busy that it took a little while to register what his eyes were seeing. But now he noticed that Demoiselle Audris’s quick, light gait was eager. Actually, the swift approach changed his feeling that she was being pushed forward; now it appeared as if the small, quick figure was towing the larger, reluctant form of Lady Eadyth behind it.
Nor, Hugh saw, did the Demoiselle Audris seem to cower away from the stares of the attentive men or to be at all disturbed by their silence. And when he could see her face clearly, he perceived that her eyes were bright with interest and her lips curved into a half smile as she sank to the floor in a deep curtsy. Could she have guessed the king’s purpose? If so, it seemed Demoiselle Audris would jump at the chance of being free of her uncle’s domination and would gladly choose one of the four young men with Stephen. A disappointment as unreasonable as his earlier resentment made Hugh draw back farther behind the king’s chair.
“I do beg your pardon, Sire.” Audris’s head was bent in seeming submission, but her voice, low and sweet, held, to Hugh’s surprise, a note of merriment, and her next words shocked him. “I was taken of a sudden notion for a new picture, and I quite forgot we had so exalted a guest.”
“Audris!” Eadyth exclaimed, horrified.
“No, do not scold her,” Stephen said kindly.
Although Hugh could not see the king’s face from his new position, he was certain Stephen was delighted that Eadyth’s remark had given him the chance to show himself as a protector against Audris’s oppressors. Now Stephen had reached out and cupped Audris’s chin in his hand to lift her face. Her head came up without resistance, and her smile had broadened so that her rosy lips displayed her teeth, a trifle too large to be delicate, but strong and white.
“You are merciful, Sire, to forgive me so easily,” Audris said, spoiling the deferential words by a confident chuckle. “But to show my true contrition, I have brought you a gift.”
She rose and peered behind the benches, then nodded and gestured. Fritha hurried to her side, holding a rolled tapestry in her arms. Oliver stiffened, inwardly cursing his wife for being such an idiot as to allow Audris to show this work, but he did not rise or speak. It would be worse to protest against displaying the picture than to pretend indifference to it. The best way to protect Audris now was to act as if there were nothing out of the ordinary about the panel. Audris herself, Oliver realized, did not seem to attach any significance to the piece. She had asked for someone tall to hold up the work and was waiting with a pleased smile for Stephen’s opinion.
The king’s first word was “Beautiful!” but as he took in the subject, he glanced at Oliver and frowned.
Oliver merely nodded his agreement with Stephen’s judgment, seeming not to see the expression that had followed the word.
Stephen’s lips twisted. “So,” he said softly, “my coming was not a surprise. This cannot have been woven in a few hours or even a day. Who—”
Audris’s smile had frozen on her lips. She had noticed the way her uncle had stiffened and realized that bringing down the tapestry had been a mistake. What a fool I am, she thought, not to have seen that my aunt was troubled by more than a fear of foretelling. I should have tried to learn what was going on beforehand. I could have sent for it later. And she blamed herself all the more bitterly because she had not stopped to think through the results of offering the gift to the king. She had only wanted to be rid of the piece, which made her uneasy.
“Oh, but it was a surprise!” Audris cried, interrupting Stephen. “I swear I did not know you intended to come here. The picture was only what I hoped for—wished for. Bruno had told me that he was going to you to find help after Summerville threatened to take Jernaeve by force when my uncle would not yield. And I was… afraid.”
That was not true; Audris could not remember fear, only a concentration on the work she was doing, and because she was unaccustomed to lying, her voice shook, immediately convincing everyone that she had, in truth, been terrified. “So I wove a picture to comfort myself,” she finished.
Stephen was smiling again, for Audris’s explanation was both reasonable and flattering. He nodded at Oliver, but it was to Audris he spoke. “I did not mean to frighten you, child.”
That drew a return smile. “I am no child, my lord. I know I am small, but I fear I will grow no larger. I am near three and twenty.”
“And still unwed!” Stephen exclaimed. “How does that come about?”
Audris had seen the trap, but only after she had fallen into it. Stephen’s too great satisfaction with her answer was betrayed by the slight preening of his body, by the way his fingers moved and his head tilted, even though he had kept all but an expression of sympathy from his face. That satisfaction told her of his intention before his words defined it. The king, like Bruno a few weeks ago, was going to blame her uncle for keeping her unmarried. But the king, who had power, could call her uncle neglectful and give her a husband of his own choosing.
For an instant panic held Audris frozen; then her quick mind found a solution. So the king wanted to trick a poor, ignorant girl and force a husband on her, did he? Audris was sure her uncle had the right to choose what man she should marry, and if it was not his fault she was still a maiden, Oliver’s right could not be taken away.
“Alas, Sire”—Audris sighed, dropping her head guiltily—”it is through my own overgreat particularity, I fear. My poor uncle must be near to wringing my neck, for it is he who must bear the wrath of those I refuse. He has brought a bushel of offers to me, but I could not, among them all, find a man to please me, and Uncle Oliver is too kind and too fond to force me.”
This time it was Stephen’s smile that froze on his face. Hugh, who had been drawn forward again in his desire to see the tapestry clearly, had seen the stiffness around the king’s lips. He was not surprised that Stephen was somewhat stunned. Hugh could hardly believe his own ears. He had been certain, when Demoiselle Audris’s head bent, that her next words would be the traditional, “I do not know why, Sire, but I will have a husband according to your wishes.”
Now Hugh held his breath, torn between a delight whose cause he refused to recognize and anxiety that the king would react with rage.
But Stephen had no chance to reply. Walter Espec laughed loud and heartily. “Demoiselle, I think you have been made naughty by overindulgence. Still, if your uncle is willing to put up with you, it is none of our business.”
The words were addressed to Audris, but the last phrase was clearly a warning to the king. Had Sir Oliver given some sign of reluctance to accept Stephen, Espec and the other northerners might have accepted his ambivalence as an excuse for the king to press the issue of the heiress’s marriage. The warmth of the welcome Sir Oliver had extended, however, closed that loophole.
But Stephen had recovered from his surprise, and if he was aware of the hidden warning, he gave no sign. “I do not think the Demoiselle naughty,” he said. “One who can produce work of such beauty”—he gestured toward the tapestry—“may indeed have a particular taste. Perhaps among my gentlemen she will find one to suit her.”
Another trap. Panic rose again in Audris. All she wanted was to escape. If she could save herself now, she swore that she would disappear into the hills. It would be safe enough now that the danger of Scottish raiding parties was gone. The weather was still too cold to make roaming all day and sleeping out-of-doors pleasant, but there were shelters aplenty, and she hoped the king could not spare more than a day or two. Jernaeve was strong, and the lands, under her uncle’s care, had grown wide and rich. Still, Jernaeve must be a small matter when compared with the affairs of the whole kingdom.
Audris clasped her hands nervously and then opened them as if in supplication. “But I do not wish to marry,” she cried. “I am happy as I am. And if my wish alone does not merit your indulgence, Sire, still you cannot believe after what I have said of my uncle’s kindness that I would marry any man who did not have his goodwill. Sir Oliver alone can judge whether the lands of your gentleman would be well fitted to mine.”
“All women wish to marry,” Stephen said, his voice growing sharper. “And lands are not all in all. These gentlemen have my favor, and a king’s favor is worth much.”
The sharpness of Stephen’s tone brought both Bruno and Hugh forward. Hugh stopped after a single step, again crushing down a surge of protective rage, but Bruno took the chance of coming right to the back of the king’s chair and shaking his head in warning. When Audris had first approached, Bruno had deliberately placed himself out of sight, for he feared Audris was so heedless that she might run to him before she greeted Stephen. Now, however, he felt it more important to stop her from saying any more. She might anger the king by further argument when she could safely leave her case in the hands of the northern barons, who, Hugh had told him, did not want to see her married to Stephen’s penniless henchmen any more than Sir Oliver did.
Fortunately, Bruno’s motion caught Audris’s eye, and instead of saying rebelliously, “Such favor is not of much worth to me!” she cried aloud, “Bruno! Dearling!” and then clapped her hands to her mouth, but almost at once she removed her muting fingers to say in tumbling haste, “Oh, I am sorry, my lord. I will think on what you have said most dutifully, but I beg you to give me leave to speak to my brother, Bruno. I thought I had lost him again, and you have brought him back to me.”
“Brother?” Stephen repeated, glancing at Oliver. The displeasure smoothed from his face, and he turned back to Audris and smiled. “I must just ask if you know what it means to do homage.”
“Yes, my lord,” Audris replied, infinitely relieved that the subject of marriage seemed to have been put away. “I did homage once—no, twice it was—to King Henry.”
“And are you willing to do homage to me?” Stephen asked.
A flicker of her eyes had caught her uncle’s urgent nod. “Yes, with all my heart,” Audris replied. “Shall I kneel now?” She started to bend and then looked anxious. “Oh, but our token is not ready.”
“It will be readied by the time the evening meal is eaten,” Sir Oliver said, rising to his feet and bowing to Stephen. “Eadyth, see to the folding of Audris’s picture in oiled cloth and then in leather so it will be safe for the king to carry with him when he chooses to leave us. And you, Audris, curb your time with Bruno. You must be fittingly dressed if you are to do homage. It is no wonder if King Stephen thought you neglected. You come down like a beggar maid, all besmottered with stray threads. For shame. I am grateful I have not been accused of starving you.”
Audris had turned her bend into a curtsy to Stephen and now whirled to throw her arms around her uncle’s neck and kiss his cheek. “I am sorry, uncle,” she cried, laughing. “Aunt Eadyth bade me change my gown, but I thought it better to mend my first rudeness by coming quickly than to delay to be fine.” And on the words she was away, to throw herself into Bruno’s arms.
“I have told you over and over—” he began, but Audris, clinging tight around his neck, whispered into his ear, “Come away. Come away.”
Bruno was so startled by Audris’s urgent whisper that his eyes flew to Hugh, and he made a beckoning gesture.“Do not call me brother, Audris—”
“It is too late to worry about that,” Hugh said, “since Demoiselle Audris named you brother to the king’s face. Moreover, you must not deny it because—”
“No!” Bruno exclaimed, not loudly but with great force. “My mother—”
“Hush, Bruno,” Audris interrupted. “I do not need to hear that stupid excuse again, and I think what Hugh wants to say is to my benefit, not to yours.”
“Yes, it is, and to the benefit of Jernaeve and the northern shires as a whole. Bruno, you do agree that it would be better for Jernaeve to remain in your uncle’s care than for the Demoiselle to be given against her will to Warner de Lusors or Henry of Essex or—”
“Yes, I agree,” Bruno growled. “I have tried to tell the king that the companions he brought are not best suited to holding a keep like Jernaeve. He has seen that the north is not like the south, but as for Jernaeve, he thinks I say the holder must be a northern baron out of loyalty to Sir Oliver. But still I do not think he would try to trick Audris into marriage—”
“No, nor does he need to try it as long as he thinks he has a suitable master for Jernaeve in you, Bruno. No, do not interrupt me.” Hugh held up a hand. “I am not implying any dishonorable threat to Sir Oliver, but surely you must realize, Bruno, that your uncle”—he shook his head at the instinctive, mumbled protest and continued—”is not a young man. If some ill should befall him and the next holder be less trustworthy, then you can be brought in to contest the honor of Jernaeve.”
“Oh, Bruno, stop shaking your head,” Audris urged. “I have told you before that I would rather have you hold Jernaeve for me than have some greedy boar of a husband take it away from me. But Hugh, are you sure the king has given up the notion of marrying me to one of his friends tonight or tomorrow? Bruno has so soft a heart that he trusts everyone.”
“I do not deny the king would like to see one of his hungry gentlemen settled in Jernaeve.” Hugh answered Audris’s question as if Bruno had not spoken. “But he did stop pressing the subject of your marriage as soon as you called Bruno ‘brother.’ There is an easy way to be certain no false claims can be made, though. Bruno and I need only make sure you are never alone, Demoiselle Audris. Bruno’s evidence might be suspect, but I do not think I could be considered to be serving Sir Oliver’s purpose.”
“And speaking of Sir Oliver, Audris,” Bruno remarked wryly, “he is glaring at me right now. I think you had better go up and change your clothes.”
“We will walk to the tower entrance with you,” Hugh offered, “and wait below for you to come down. You need not then fear to find an unwelcome escort.”
Audris reached out and took Hugh’s hand. “I thank you,” she said softly. “Your care for me, a stranger, is gracious and generous.”
“You are no stranger to me, Demoiselle Audris,” Hugh replied gravely. “Bruno is my friend, and you claim him as brother. I owe you my care.” He hesitated, then laughed. “And is it not the duty of the unicorn to protect the fair maiden?”
“The unicorn,” Audris repeated. “My unicorn.”
She remembered then the tapestry she had begun, the unicorn saluting the maiden in the tower, and a faint chill passed over her as she recalled herself saying that the subject was a fantasy into which no meaning could be read. Another foretelling? But she did not release Hugh’s hand until they reached the stairs to her tower, and when she looked over her shoulder from the seventh stair, he was still standing there watching her go up. She smiled down at him, marveling at the bright beauty of his blue eyes and wondering why she had first thought him ugly.