WINTER SONGby Roberta Gellis
Cerridwen Press October '09
ISBN (E Format) ISBN: TBA
ISBN (Trade Paper) TBA
Alys of Marlowe thought that Raymond d’Aix was a penniless knight who had come to her father’s keep seeking a livelihood. He was brave and courteous, intelligent and hardworking, and he thought she was a miracle among womankind. What was irresistible was that he did not value her for her beauty, for which many other men admired her, but for her common sense and practicality. Knowing he was not a proper match for her, Alys tried to resist but was soon head over heels in love—and Raymond with her despite his own knowledge of unsuitability and resistance. Raymond was no penniless knight. He was the eldest son and heir of the Comte d’Aix.
Young love was fortunate. Politics, a threatened war, King Henry’s constant need of money and love of intrigue made available suitable properties to bestow on Alys so that she and Raymond could marry. Danger lurked in all the king’s gifts, but the greatest danger of all was within Raymond’s family. There a fierce struggle for power exposed old sins that could tear the marriage apart.
Alys turned from the burnished metal mirror in which she had been examining her wedding dress and stepped out gladly, the women falling in behind the queen and her sister. For a wonder the weather had held fair, and it was not even very cold. The church was outside the walls, but not far enough to make it worthwhile to go on horseback. The whole way was lined with people, peering from behind the men-at-arms and making a joyous noise, for they knew there would be food and wine for the taking at the castle after the wedding.
As was proper, the men were waiting. William came forward to meet his daughter. He did not want to lose her, yet it was impossible for him to damp the joy that showed in her face, and he smiled as he took her hand and led her on and up the steps to where the Archbishop-elect of Canterbury, the bishop of Bath, and the bishop of London waited with Raymond, who was flanked by the king and Richard of Cornwall.
So deep had Raymond been in his consideration of what mischief Henry was brewing up that he had been only minimally aware of passing along the road and arriving at the church door. The increase in the noise as the people cheered the coming of the bride grew slowly, and therefore was not startling enough to draw his attention. It was only the movement of the men around him, as Henry and Richard made way for Alys and her father, that made him look up. His eyes fell on Alys.
At once the tenseness disappeared from Raymond’s face. His smile cleared his brow, lit his eyes, and then curved his lips. His hand reached out for Alys’s and hers met his halfway. Everyone within sight of them smiled, their mutual trust and joy was irresistible. Alys in particular was uplifted. She had seen that Raymond looked worried and unhappy as she came up the stairs, and for one awful moment her smile had frozen on her face and her heart plummeted. Then he had seen her, and his pleasure, the way his hand went out to her as if for relief and succor, washed out all fear and multiplied her happiness.
There were no faint or quavering voices. The archbishop-elect bellowed out the service so that the last and least on the edge of the crowd could hear, and both Alys and Raymond called their responses so that no witness could ever say there was doubt or reluctance. When they were sealed to each other, the crowd roared out their Fiat! Fiat! with hearty goodwill. Most were not sure why this wedding gave them so much enjoyment, since it was only distantly connected with their personal affairs. However, there were others of a more perceptive nature who realized that it was singularly pleasant to have a groom who was sincerely enthusiastic and a bride who was neither bruised, bloody, in tears, nor on the verge of fainting with terror.
All ceremonies complete, Raymond led his bride back toward Wallingford. Men and women now mingled, the king walking with his wife, Richard with Sancia, William with Elizabeth. Talk was general, and the common folk cheered with even more enthusiasm, knowing that the feast would now begin, and fell in behind the group of nobles. The gates of Wallingford would be open to all today. Carcasses of oxen, sheep, and pigs roasted in the bailey and great tuns of beer had been broached. Mountains of bread were piled on clean sheets, and casks of salt and smoked fish stood open. No one would be turned away, and no one would be hungry, for one day, at least.
Under cover of the noise, after walking some time in silence, Alys said, “You are troubled, my lord and husband. What has happened?”
“Troubled?” Raymond had been alternately glancing at his bride and around at the smiling crowd and beautiful countryside. He had honestly forgotten, for the moment, the problem posed by the king’s brief conversation. “And what is this lord and husband? Have you forgot my name?”
“No,” Alys sighed, “but it is so nice to say—my lord and my husband.”
Raymond’s fingers tightened on her hand. “So, my lady and wife…yes, you are right. It is nice to say.”
“And it is a true thing to me,” Alys insisted. “Now we are one flesh, one blood, one bone. What falls upon you, falls upon me. Do not hide trouble from me, Raymond. Share I must, will I nill I, but truly it is my desire to be one with you in trouble as in joy.”
Raymond looked down into the lovely face turned up to him. So fair, so delicate, but the chin was firm and the eyes steady and fearless, and that was more important. To Raymond’s mother and sisters, no word of trouble was ever said lest they be overpowered with fear, so a man needed to smile and listen to love songs and talk of tales and feastings no matter how heavy his heart. Alys’s question had, by now, recalled to Raymond his unease, but already it seemed less of a problem.
“It was something the king desired I do,” he said softly, “but now is no time to talk of it.”
“No, indeed,” Alys agreed promptly. There was a good deal of noise, but Henry was close behind them. “Only, must you answer him at once?”
“I do not know that I need answer more than I have, but it is not the answering I fear. It is what takes shape in his own mind.”
“How wise you are,” Alys said softly, “but if I hang on you, which is not unreasonable during this time, he will say no more.”
“And I will have much pleasure.” Raymond’s eyes gleamed. “I give you leave to hang on me every day, here and elsewhere.”
Alys had forgotten her shyness, but the glitter of her husband’s eyes brought it all back. She blushed deliciously and hung her head. This naturally inspired Raymond to further teasing. For the first time in her life, Alys had no smart replies, finding herself as tongue-tied as any girl who had never met her husband before the day of her marriage. How long the sweet modesty would have lasted under continued provocation was questionable, but they had reached the keep and were greeted with fanfares, which made either teasing or reply impossible until they were seated at the tables.
Concern for the dishes wiped out any other consideration in Alys’s mind for a time, but she need not have worried. For this first course, each group of cooks had outdone itself to make its particular portion of the dinner more succulent and savory than that of any other group.
First came the boars’ heads, mouths propped open to show tusks and tongues, decorated with curls of pastry. The servant carrying this dish was flanked by two others, one bearing the whole haunch of an ox, swimming in a sharp sauce, and the other a rich pudding, spicy-sweet with nuts and raisins. A second set of servants followed with baked swans, roast capons, and pheasants, the swans and pheasants dressed in their own outer feathers. The third triad bore fish, baked sturgeon, boiled pike, and eels in jelly.
Good humor lent good appetite also, especially at the high table where each couple was content both with one another and with their neighbors. Eyes gleamed as each pointed to what he or she wanted. Squires in their lord’s colors served, and pages, also brightly dressed, ran to and fro carrying portions to be laid upon trenchers and—the height of elegance—upon silver plates. The butlers, King Henry’s and Earl Richard’s, poured the wine into golden and, equally precious, glass goblets. The fanfares that had accompanied the serving of the dishes quieted into more gentle music of lute and psaltery as health, long life, and many sons were wished for the bride and groom. Then all gave their attention to the food.
Delicious food makes stuffing inevitable; stuffing brings repletion. When the sound of conversation rose to a deafening level, the trumpets called again to herald the arrival of the first subtlety. Winter Wedding, it was called, a towering confection of pastry and crystallized honey, depicting the wedding party before the church doors. It was carried right around the hall for each table to see and enjoy before it was placed on a sideboard. At the end of the dinner, all four subtleties would be compared and praised, broken up, and distributed among the guests. Now the minstrels in the gallery struck up a livelier time, servitors scrambled to clear the center of the great hall, and the bride and groom rose to head the dance. In deference to full stomachs, the stately danse au chapelet came first, Raymond raising cheers and stampings when he kissed Alys on her lips rather than decorously on the cheek as required.
By the time the fourth course was carried in, enthusiasm for more food was minimal, but the cooks had been prepared for that. Dainty dishes predominated, tiny roast birds, lark and snipe, little birds’ eggs hard-boiled and set in a spicy jelly, small fritters and fancy sweetmeats and pastries. The subtlety recognized the mellow mood of the ending day and portrayed Autumn Fulfillment, man, wife, and cradled child beside a cheerful fire near a table laden with the fruits of autumn.
When that masterpiece of varicolored pastry had gone the round and been admired, all the others were brought forth. The cooks were summoned, and Raymond gave each a gold coin. Then the high table descended and began breaking apart the subtleties. The king seized the images of the archbishop-elect and the attendant bishops, saying that it was the only time he was likely to have the Church in his hand. William took the golden-haired bride and Elizabeth the heavily pregnant figure, for she ardently desired to give her second husband the son he needed as heir to his lands. When the high lords had chosen, the guests at large rushed upon the pastries and tore them apart.
During and after this mêlée, servants hastily cleared the tables and removed them. The guests mixed more freely, talking, dancing, and playing games. Eventually torches began to gutter and the lamps to bum low. Someone, Alys could never remember who, called the party to order. The men gathered around Raymond, the women about Alys. Everyone capable of doing so began to cheer and laugh. The bedding ceremony was about to begin.
Alys knew what was to happen, of course, and she was certainly not ashamed of her lovely body. She was also well aware of the purpose of exposing her naked to all. It was proof that she had no hidden defect for which her husband could repudiate her. Still, she was young and, until a few months before, had been a person of little account in the world. Had she married the son of a neighboring knight, or even someone a little higher on the social scale, there would have been fewer guests, and she would have known most of them. Now it seemed that a host of strangers surrounded her, jesting, laughing, and making pointed remarks as her clothing was removed.
There were so many witnesses that they could not fit into the bedchamber, so the disrobing was carried out in the hall. It was cold, despite the best efforts of the roaring fires. Alys had begun to shiver, and Elizabeth, noting the strain on her face, had faded from her side and suggested to Richard that he keep William away. The bond of father and daughter was unusually close and sympathetic. Whereas most fathers would have been amused by the fear and embarrassment of their daughters, William would be greatly distressed. He might even interfere in some way to protect Alys, which would be unfortunate all around.
Richard was quick to take the hint and draw William away. Elizabeth, Sancia, and the queen were the ladies actively engaged in disrobing Alys. The result for Alys was that there was hardly a familiar face in the crowd around her. She was too proud and too courageous to weep aloud and hang her head like a craven, but tears stung in her eyes and the milk of her skin was deep-dyed with blushes. Thus, when the cries, “Look on your husband!” and “Look on your wife!” rang out as the naked couple was brought face to face, Alys shrank away from the unfamiliar, staring eyes into the shelter of Raymond’s arms. This produced more laughter, cheers, and jests, but Alys cared little for that. She had been received in a willing, protective embrace. She now felt comforted and sustained. Although she still blushed furiously and hid her face in Raymond’s shoulder, her trembling ceased.
It was this pretty picture that William saw when he was attracted by the ceremonial cries that capped the ritual and pushed his way through the crowd. Relief and gladness filled him. The trust his daughter felt in her husband and the eager yet gentle way Raymond held her augured well for Alys’s future happiness. William was soothed. He could not take pleasure in the forthcoming separation, but he did not need to fear for his daughter, either. He joined his wife, the king and queen, the Earl and Countess of Cornwall, and several other great magnates in accompanying the bridal pair into the bedchamber, and assisted Alys into the bed with a fond pat and a low-voiced, “Be a good girl.”
To which, to his delight, his daughter responded pertly, “It is too late for that.”
Alys’s balance had been restored by Raymond’s ready, smiling reception. Protected, she had been able to recognize the friendliness in the voices and eyes of the crowd. No matter that they were strangers, they all wished her well. The final assurance that everything was just as it should be was her father’s all-too-familiar admonition and the calm on his face and in his hazel eyes.
A spate of final admonitions, none as innocent as William’s followed, but at last the bed curtains were drawn closed and the witnesses withdrew, leaving the couple to themselves. Raymond uttered a loud sigh and turned toward his wife. Alys’s retreat into his arms had had a powerful effect on him. Her fear and shame and the trust in him she had unconsciously demonstrated roused the deepest and strongest protective instinct in Raymond.
Yet there was nothing he could do to protect her. A maiden must be broached to be a wife, and that was never easy. William’s words came back to him, also. They were true, Alys was very small. He could barely see her in the dim light that filtered through the openings in the bed curtains, only a soft paleness, which was her body, and a golden gleam here and there on her cascade of hair—but even sitting he needed to look down on her.
“Alys,” he said softly, “do you know what comes now?”
“You will make me your wife,” she replied. “Is that what you mean?”
“Yes. To breed children, we must couple, but I fear I must hurt you, my love.”
He could feel her nod. “Elizabeth warned me it might be so.” Her voice was low, but calm. She paused, as if to consider, and then said briskly, “Very well. I am ready.”
Raymond uttered a shaken laugh; he was rather shocked. “But I am not, beloved. I fear your pain more than you do, it seems. To cause you hurt…the thought unmans me.”
She turned more fully toward him and put her arms around his neck. “I have seen the beasts couple,” she remarked, “but they are always ready in season. Is there something I can do to help? In this I am very ignorant.”
“And so you should be,” Raymond exclaimed.
Of course, he did not desire a shrieking, struggling, terrified bride, but there were moments when Alys could be too calm and practical. Still, her body was warm and pliant against him, and although he could not see her expression, her face was raised trustfully to his. He lowered his head a few inches to bring their lips together, and Alys sighed and tightened her arms around his neck as he slipped his hands under her hair and stroked her silken skin. Raymond leaned forward, and she fell back, but his arms were around her, and he eased her down gently without breaking their embrace.
Extricating his hands and tipping himself sideways, Raymond began to touch a firm but well-developed breast, and then the soft curves of her belly, hip, and thigh. Now that his weight held them together, Alys slid one hand from his neck over his shoulder and down his back. She could feel his shaft, hard and full, pressing against her. Ignorant of elaborate technique though Alys might be, she was not so ignorant as to be unaware of what that meant. Raymond was now ready.
Knowledgeable only in the ways of beasts, Alys expected him to turn her around and mount her. She was not at all frightened. A warmth seemed to be spreading over her from the places Raymond touched with his hands and from their joined mouths. Her skin was all tingly, almost ticklish, but it generated no desire in her to laugh or flinch away. Raymond lifted his lips from hers, but before Alys could murmur a complaint, she used her breath to gasp with pleasure. His warm lips were running down her throat, pausing a moment in the hollow where her pulse beat fast and hard, moving again until they fastened on a nipple.
Involuntarily, Alys cried out softly and clutched Raymond tighter. Every sensation she had felt before was greatly heightened and, inexplicably, the sucking at her breast waked a pulsing heat between her legs. Instinct instructed ignorance. Without explanation Alys knew that she had been wrong when she first said she was ready. She was not actually thinking, of course. The growing intensity of her physical sensations blocked coherent thought, but some interior process recognized that Raymond had known she was wrong, and gratitude added to her joy and confidence.
Alys was, however, crediting her husband with rather more than he deserved. It was his own pleasure rather than his knowledge of Alys’s lack of readiness that was making him prolong his foreplay. Nonetheless, his pleasure did come from an awareness of Alys as a special person and thus both a recipient and giver of special pleasure.
Although Raymond had initially been transfixed by Alys’s beauty and was astonished anew by it each time he saw her after an absence, quite truly his desire to spend his life with Alys did not rest on her appearance alone. And, although strength, honesty, and good sense are not what a man thinks about in bed, there still remained a sense of something different and special about her which lent an added fillip to the way she sighed and cried out and kept Raymond playing with her. He abandoned one breast for the other, running his fingers playfully up and down her body, through the curls on her mount of Venus, and down between her thighs.
Part of Raymond’s pleasure in Alys’s response was that she showed so much surprise as her passion increased. It was very apparent that no man had handled her before, nor had she ever experienced the sensations his hands and lips were awakening in her body. Deliciously, she did not seem to know what to do, clutching distractedly now at his head or his hands or his body, moving instinctively in response to his fingering and kissing, and uttering little moans and cries.
Since this evidence of his success in stimulating his bride’s desire was equally stimulating to Raymond, it was not very long before he mounted her. She sighed with pleasure at first when he positioned himself, the preliminary touches soothing an urgent need, but his first hard thrust brought a cry of pain, and Alys’s body stiffened. The abrupt change startled Raymond into a clear awareness of the realities. Moreover, he was conditioned by the situation in his family to regard noblewomen as fragile and to treat them with gentleness and consideration.
He paused and murmured, “I am sorry, dearling, sorry, but there is no other way.”
As he spoke, the tension went out of Alys’s body. She had been surprised by the sudden pang, for she had forgotten everything while Raymond caressed her. This was the pain she had been warned of, she remembered. “Yes, my lord,” she whispered, “but kiss me again.”
Enthralled by her innocence, Raymond complied and also inserted a hand between their bodies to play with her breast, all the while pressing himself into her. There was an obstruction, which yielded but did not give way under the steady pressure. Raymond withdrew slowly, still caressing her. Alys’s hands, which had been gripping his back, began again to stroke his sides up and down. Nibbling her lips, her throat, and again her lips, Raymond thrust hard again.
He gained some depth and this time Alys did not cry out, although she grew tense. Then her hands slid down his back and pressed him harder against her. He tried, but the pressure alone did not succeed. Raymond had a sudden horrid memory of a jest which had gone round the court of Navarre concerning a man who could not broach his bride.
He lifted his head and shoulders to give himself leverage, drew, and thrust with all the force he could muster. Alys gasped and Raymond himself uttered a pained oath, but when he came to rest he was sheathed to the hilt.