Chapter 1: The Lady at Ainsworth
She was determined to beat the hell out of the dogs.
Lady Genevieve watched from atop the battlements of Ainsworth castle as the ill-trained soldiers scampered away like whipped hounds with their tails between their legs. Their leader, a burly-looking man with a distinctive shock of white hair, wore two arrows on his backside thanks to Genevieve. The few soldiers with her, no more than a hundred, cheered as they won another invasion. Since Lord Ainsworth's capture, many had tried to ransack the castle and plunder their goods and women, but they underestimated who was left in charge of the holding since the great Lord Ainsworth was brought to the court for trial. Lady Genevieve looked across the horizon; these vast lands are now being coveted by dirty noblemen as if her father's already dead.
“We bested them, Genevieve! I always knew you are a great commander." Winston, a faithful vassal and childhood friend of Genevieve said with triumph in his voice. He did not care about calling her 'my lady' because he knew Genevieve will not like it.
“More are coming, Winston. A holding without a master is like an unguarded gem to a thief's eye. I hope father comes home soon; our provisions are already low and I can't afford to open the gates for market at this time." Genevieve said with worry in her voice. Winston knew that she was tired of holding off their enemies, and even if she is a strong woman, a month of waiting patiently for news from court is something that burdens her more than the task of defending her home from invaders.
“I checked at our crofters yesterday and they assured me that we will have food supply until the next month. I am sure Lord Ainsworth will be back here by that time and the accusations will be dropped." Winston said as he watched the soldiers going down from the spiral stairs. A few archers remained to watch out for any more attacks. He then looked at Genevieve, who appeared tired and worried.
“You must rest." He finally said. Genevieve took a deep breath to calm her raging insides. A month ago, she was standing there, at the same spot where she is now, talking to her father about managing their northern lands. She was fresh from Scotland and the English ways felt a bit foreign to her. She asked him if farming in England is the same as how they did it in Scotland where she lived the past ten years of her life. Lord Ainsworth was about to answer her when they spotted a small contingent nearing their estate. They were holding the most important banner in the land.
“Why are they here, father?" Genevieve asked. Lord Ainsworth looked worried, but he said nothing. She eyed the king's guards as her father went down the stairs to meet the contingent. Genevieve felt ill about this sudden visit. She hurried down to her father and joined him in the castle entrance. She watched as a knight descended from his horse. He was a tall man with a pale face and hazel eyes. He did not look happy to visit Ainsworth.
“Viscount Ainsworth." He said in a grim tone. Her father nodded in acknowledgment. Genevieve eyed the scroll that the knight was holding. It looked official. She braced her self for an announcement that she honestly dreaded to know. By the look of all the people around her, she sensed a bad news coming. The knight cleared his throat.
“My lord, you are called to the court immediately to answer to the allegation against you, which is treason by allying with Edgar the Ӕtheling in an attempt to conquer the north and by plotting against the king's life." The knight announced in a loud voice although he looked as if he did not believe what he was reading. Genevieve was so shocked. She wanted to rip the scroll to pieces, but she stood on her ground. She will not be hysterical. Not now.
“How about you, young Timothy Greene? Do you personally believe that I will commit these crimes against our king?" Lord Ainsworth asked the knight. Timothy Greene looked surprised that his opinion mattered, but he quickly recovered. He averted his eyes as he gave his answer.
“I am sure that my opinion will not matter in or out of court, my lord. The jury will give an enlightened decision." The knight replied. Genevieve wanted to smash a stone against the skull of this man who dared read out false allegations in front of her father. Obviously he did not believe in the accusations, but why would he speak like they never knew each other at all when her father looked at him like he is his own son? Surprisingly, she saw her father smile at the knight. He even patted the younger man's armored shoulder.
“You've learned well, Tim. Keep it up because you will need all this strength if you want to survive at court." Lord Ainsworth said. The knight nodded vigorously like a young boy being scolded and Genevieve thought she heard a sniff.
“Genevieve, can you please call a squire to pack my things? I am leaving in an instant." Lord Ainsworth said as he walked down the paved stairs of the great door. Genevieve lost her composure.
“Father, I know these are lies! Let me come with you, please!" Genevieve said. Lord Ainsworth did not look back at her when he answered. “You will take my place here in Ainsworth. Defend our home and wait for my return." He said in a stern voice. Genevieve knew not to disobey him; else she will embarrass both of them in front of the king's guards.
“As you wish, father." Genevieve said calmly and went inside the castle. She had the stable master saddle her father's horse and prepare the wagons to be used in the journey. She had the kitchen maid prepare food provisions, and in less than an hour, Genevieve was standing alone in the great door as her father and his men rode with the king's guards to London.
It was the last time she saw him since.
“Genevieve," Winston said when after three nudges Genevieve still did not respond to him. “He will come back, of that I am sure. My lord is as strong as an oak tree, and so is his daughter. You are an Ainsworth, and you should behave like one. Your father will not like to see you dazed like that." He added. Genevieve blinked away her tears.
“The news is slow to reach us, with all the brigands and raiding parties along the way. Messengers at court may not even go here for fear of danger." Genevieve said. Winston thought of contradicting her; she and her father are important people and if there is news for them, it will definitely come with or without the outlaws on the way.
Aye, she was feeding herself some explanation to Lord Ainsworth's delayed return and Winston did not have the heart to shatter his lady's hope. For all he knew, hope is the only thing that kept her going.
“Let's go down the hall and tend to the sick and injured…and hope that no one died this time." Genevieve said in a low voice as she picked her skirt up and walked down the stairs. Winston went after her, thinking of how he saw the new vassal named Frederick stabbed right through the heart in the heat of the battle.
It was already three weeks and one month since her father left for court, and Genevieve cannot wait any longer. She called Clifton, another trusted vassal of theirs, to go to London and gather news about her father. Clifton quickly obeyed and was about to leave the holding when the men manning the battlements alerted them of a contingent of king's guard. Genevieve rushed to the great door and waited patiently for the men in gold to reach the holding's entrance. They were wearing helms which prevented her to see their faces. When at last they stopped in front of Genevieve, a man dismounted and removed his helm. He's the knight named Timothy Greene.
“Lady Ainsworth." He said and bowed. Genevieve managed to curtsy.
“Sir Greene," she acknowledged. “Are there any news? Where is my father?" Genevieve asked as she controlled her shaky voice. Her palms were sweaty and her heart beat so fast and hard it will shoot out of her chest any minute now.
“I am sorry. Lord Ainsworth was executed for treason three days ago." The knight said. He was looking at the lady and waiting for her to swoon just like all the noblewomen receiving this kind of news, but she did not. She looked shocked, but she did not fall to her knees.
“How come I never received any news? I should have been there for him!" she said in a strong voice. Timothy Greene took a step forward and Genevieve saw in his eyes that he too, was grieving.
“He did not want to bring you to the attention of the jury. The serious accusations against him may implicate you, which was why he did not send anyone to deliver any news. He was thinking of your safety, my lady." The knight explained and took another step forward until they were close enough for a whisper.
“Please swoon, my lady!" He said in an urgent whisper and then added in a loud voice, “We should head back to London now, my lady."
Genevieve acted fast. Timothy Greene has something for her, she knew it. Timothy looked at her sternly, as if nudging her to do what she was asked. In a flash, Genevieve fell unconscious. Timothy swiftly caught her in his arms.
“Open the door!" he shouted to the startled servants. “Stay where you are and wait for me!" he then said to his men who were also surprised. The servants opened the door wider as Timothy carried Genevieve to the nearest comfortable room that the maid led him into.
“Fetch a healer for Lady Ainsworth, quick!" Timothy said as he laid Genevieve on a bed. The maid flew out of the room and Timothy quickly latched the door. When he walked back to the bed, Genevieve was already sitting up.
“What do you want?" she asked in a whisper. Timothy took something from his breastplate. It was a sealed letter, and the crest looked familiar.
“This is a letter from your father, Lady Ainsworth. He asked me to deliver this to you in the event that he dies. He wanted you to keep it in a safe place – the safest place you could find – and do not open it yourself. He said that you should only open it when you find someone powerful and trustworthy to help you bring justice to his death. Until then, do not open this letter and keep it in a safe place." Timothy whispered and handed Genevieve the letter. She hid it under her belted skirt. The letter felt warm from the long confinement inside Timothy's breastplate. She could only imagine the fear in Timothy's heart as he carried a letter for a person deemed as traitor.
“You can be hanged for this." Genevieve said with concern in her voice. Timothy looked at her sadly and she quickly realized that her judgment of him on the day he read out the accusation was wrong. This knight loved his father enough to risk being caught helping a traitor.
“He was like a father to me. I am from the lesser nobility with only a name to hold and no gold. I squired for a baron who treated his men like dogs. Lord Ainsworth saw the baron beat me while we were traveling, and he stepped in in my favor. The baron released me from service and your father let me join his men. I squired for him, and he trained me to become a good knight and loved me like his own. When I was knighted, I left his stead and a year later you came back from Scotland. He was always very proud of you, my lady." He said. Genevieve wanted to cry, but she will not. She was about to tell something more when hurried footsteps echoed outside the room. Timothy need not tell her to feign unconsciousness. She looked as still as dead even before Timothy could blink. The maid knocked on the door and Timothy quickly opened it.
“Here is the healer, my lord." The servant said. Timothy's voice suddenly became serious again as he watched the healer minister his deed. He let Genevieve smell an awful-smelling salve, and Genevieve opened her eyes more from revulsion rather than awakening.
“My lady!" The servant exclaimed. The healer moved away from the bed and propped up some pillows on Genevieve's back. Genevieve almost rolled her eyes.
“Thank you for your help, Sir Greene. I do not know what I would do were you not here." Genevieve said meaningfully. Timothy bowed. “I am your knight in service, my lady. If you ever need any help, please just send for me." He added. Genevieve nodded and watched as the knight bowed and left the room. Another servant arrived and told them that the king's guards already left.
“Such a chivalrous man, Sir Greene is." The maid said. It was obvious that the girl was smitten. Genevieve threw her a disgusted look.
“All men are chivalrous and desirable to you, Mary!" she said. The maid just chuckled and then stopped abruptly when she remembered that her mistress had just learned of her father's death. She murmured an apology and left the room. Genevieve liked the solace and spent the whole day thinking about her father, Timothy Greene, and the letter she now had. It felt like it will burn her skin. For a second, she wanted to break the seal and read the contents but she quickly stopped herself before she can even reach under her skirt. She trusts that her father knew what he was doing, and his decision to not let her read it right away will always be in her favor although Genevieve thought of the fact that her father practically asked her to look for a protector. All her life, she never needed a protector and Lord Ainsworth made sure that she learned how to fend for herself. Aye, her father knew that and the contents must be dangerous enough for him to doubt Genevieve's ability and safety.
“What do you want me to do?" Genevieve murmured as she watched the sun set from the small window. She knew she had to be strong but losing her life's pillar cost a big chunk of her strength and hope. She is now alone in the world and a land as big as Ainsworth is as desirable to the greedy as a rotting flesh is to a vulture. She wanted to run away, away from all problems and responsibilities, but she needed to remain calm and tough for Ainsworth. There are many people relying on her and as the lady of the holding, she had no choice but to continue her life. Pulling the letter out from her skirt, Genevieve thought of the safest place to hide the thing that Sir Greene risked his own life to deliver to her. After a long moment of thinking, Genevieve hid the letter inside her sleeve and went out of the room.
Aidan Brandon sat in the great hall with his father, Earl Augustus Brandon. Viscount Ainsworth's death did not come as a surprise for them; betrayal and treason are a few of the court's favorite things to do aside from forbidden romances and frivolities. The earl was quietly sipping on his ale while Aidan finished his fill a while ago.
“His head is on display in the gate of London. I am bothered that you did not stand for him. Lord Ainsworth was a good friend to you." Aidan said in a flat voice. The earl smiled sadly. “Aye, he was. Charming and honest man, William was. We squired together. In our years as friends, I had never beaten him in a joust. He was as strong as an old oak." Lord Augustus replied. Aidan looked away. Lord William was so tough it took the executioner five times to whack the lord's head off his neck.
“What will happen to the Ainsworth lands? Her daughter cannot claim his title and his lands and holding might as well pass to his nearest kin. I heard that the man next in line is not even an ideal candidate for the viscounty." Aidan asked. Lord Augustus took a deep breath before replying.
“Yes, his half-brother Griffin Beaumont, although I doubt if the king will let a bastard become the lord of Ainsworth, and a traitorous bastard lord at that. He was said to have sworn his allegiance to Edgar the Ӕtheling a few years ago, but there was no sufficient evidence to try him for treason. Lord William backed that knave up, too." Lord Augustus said as his fist clenched tightly around his goblet.
“If I were Lord William, I will do the same. I cannot let my
nearest kin be killed and risk the title to be tossed around like some trinket
after my death." Aidan muttered. His father nodded in the logic of his
son's remark. “My trusted spy told me this morning that a secret meeting was
Lord Dalton's estate a month ago. They were looking for a paper that went missing. The spy's information was incomplete, but it was clear that this paper disappeared days before Lord William was captured and imprisoned." The older man said. Aidan's brow cocked up.
“And you suspect that Lord William had it which was why they accused him of treason to stop him from exposing this treachery against the king?" Aidan asked. The earl smiled at his son's intelligence.
“Yes, that's what I think. However, he did not expose the evidence even if it can bring the right people to the scaffold and save his own head. Why? Why would William do such a thing?" Lord Augustus said more to himself than to his son. Aidan thought for a long moment.
“He was protecting someone." He finally said. Lord Augustus looked at Aidan with wonder.
“Why would you say that? No one tried to help him and when I offered my help, the stubborn man refused. His ward, the newly-knighted Timothy Greene, even offered to testify to his innocence. William declined the boy's help, too. If he was protecting an ally, he should have called for help. Instead, he practically let his enemies put him to death without sweating!" the older Brandon said in disbelief. Aidan remained calm.
“A daughter. Isn't it that Lord Ainsworth had a daughter?" Aidan asked. Lord Augustus seemed to counter that remark, but then his eyes flew open when he remembered.
“Yes, he does! I forgot the girl's name. The last that I heard was that he sent her to Scotland. What was her Scottish kins' name again? MacAlistair?" Lord Augustus recalled. Aidan fell into deep thinking. His daughter was safe with her powerful kin in Scotland, so Lord Ainsworth should not be worried about her and just had to procure the evidence in court and fight for his life, unless…
“Lord Ainsworth's daughter is here in England." Aidan finally said as he voiced out what his mind was saying. His father looked at him as if he was being silly, but when Aidan was done explaining his theory, Lord Augustus almost stood up from his chair.
“Good lord!" the earl exclaimed.
Genevieve slipped into her daily life with grace, although her heart was broken and beyond repair after her father's death. She also discovered that her social status changed after Lord William's passing. No one from her father's friends came to express their sadness on her loss, except for Timothy Greene who swore to help her when she needed him. Winston said that she was already branded as “the traitor's daughter" and the shame of her father's crime had tainted her reputation and lessened her value in court. She should not expect an invitation even from the lesser nobility. Genevieve flared up.
“What value? Am I to be judged on a crime my father did not
commit? I am Genevieve, daughter of William Ainsworth and Ellyn MacAlistair,
and no one should dare disgrace me like I am some lowly wench!" she said
viciously. Sometimes, Winston thinks that Lord Ainsworth was wrong to have sent
Genevieve to the Scots. She became fierce – a tad too fierce for an English
lady like her. To him, Lady Genevieve is the most beautiful of the English roses but also the thorniest of them all.
“I am merely telling you what is happening outside the Ainsworth walls, Genevieve. They say it's only a little while before this holding falls into some attacker's hands, or in a better light, you can be thrown to a nunnery. I daresay you should be grateful to get the second option." Winston said. Genevieve grunted. “I will repeat this to you, Winston. I am Genevieve, the only child of William Ainsworth. I will spend the rest of my life defending this holding and I will die doing it!" she swore. Winston shook his head. He was about to retort when Clifton rushed to them. She almost hit Genevieve in his haste to run.
“Genevieve, your uncle is here to see you!" Clifton said in between breaths. Genevieve's mind was blank for a moment. “Uncle?"
“It could be your father's half-brother, Lord Griffin Beaumont." Winston interjected. Years of staying beside the now dead viscount helped him learn the ins and outs of court life and know this family and that. Genevieve was still shocked until she remembered the name. She was only five summers when she last saw her uncle Griffin, and even before then, she did not feel any sadness in parting with her uncle. Lord Beaumont was cruel and standoffish especially toward her. She first felt anger in her heart for him when he was hunting in the Ainsworth grounds and shot Genevieve's dog instead of the deer. Her father consoled her by telling her that her uncle did not mean to kill her companion, but Uncle Griffin later confessed to her, in his wicked smile, that he meant to kill the dog just because he despised her.
“I don't want to see him. Lead him out." Lady Genevieve ordered but Clifton stood still. She saw the restless darting of Clifton's eyes and it annoyed her. She was about to repeat her order when a booming male voice pierced through the quiet air.
“When I saw that flaming red hair in the distance, I immediately knew it was you, my dear. I had hoped to see you sooner, but I see you're still distraught. I trust that you are coping well?" he asked. Genevieve tried to look civil before turning around to face the man she loathed the most.
“I am doing fine, uncle." She replied. She thought she was tasting bile in her mouth when she said the word 'uncle'. She looked at the man's face and believed that the years had been unkind to him. Lord Beaumont was never attractive, but he looked even worse now. He's fat and barrel-shaped. His big, reddish nose shined with sweat and his unruly, thick stubble was left unshaven. Freckles tattered his pale round face. He limped on his left leg and he looked drunk. If he was not dressed pompously like a king, he would have been mistaken to be a drunkard in some smelly brothel.
“That is great! Should we enter the great hall now? We have loads of things to catch up!" Lord Beaumont said and then quickly took Genevieve's arm. She wanted to tear her arm away from this monster but Winston looked at her with a warning. Genevieve shut her mouth and let her uncle take the lead. When they reached the great hall, Lord Beaumont quickly ordered the servants to prepare a grand meal for him.
“We cannot afford a feast, uncle." Genevieve contradicted. “Your arrival was unannounced and we are under constant attack, so-"
“So I will eat whatever I please, am I right, Genevieve? As the lord of Ainsworth, I have the right to a good fill especially after a long journey. Have the cook prepare the best meal she can, and make it quick. My men are starving." Lord Beaumont said and then occupied the chair at the head of the table. Genevieve clenched her fist and threw dagger looks at her obese uncle who looked like he was born a pig.
“What do you mean you are the lord of Ainsworth, uncle?" she asked in a low but hard voice. Lord Beaumont looked at her as if she was some silly girl asking a silly question.
“Because my brother died and as the nearest male kin, I am his successor! Don't you know that, or did they teach you in Scotland that it is fine for women to ask such frivolous questions?" Lord Beaumont said in pure irritation. One of the things he hated most apart from dissatisfying meals is a person asking too many questions. Genevieve cannot bear it any longer.
“My father is the lord of Ainsworth, and as his daughter-"
“Was! William was the lord of Ainsworth but he is dead now. Yes, you are his daughter but it does not change anything, my dear. I will be the new Viscount Brandon and you will be…what? The traitor's daughter." Lord Beaumont said. Genevieve's ears pricked up upon hearing her uncle's cruel remarks.
“My father was an honorable man." She replied in a low voice. Lord Beaumont chuckled.
“Of course, of course. William was loyal to a remarkable degree. It's a shame he died to soon without a male heir but there's nothing to worry about. Ainsworth will flourish and remain strong under my care. As for you, it's high time that you settle down into married life with some nobleman fit for your status." Lord Beaumont said in a sly voice. Genevieve cannot stand this monster acting like a lord.
“I assume that you are extremely thankful, uncle, that I was not born a male." Genevieve said in a cold and high voice. Lord Beaumont stood up. How dare this woman threaten him? He was about to give a retort when he thought that he needed the girl to build an alliance. The passing of the viscounty to him is not yet assured, and he heard that the king was reluctant to give him the viscounty. Damn those careless allies of Edgar the Ӕtheling for almost bringing him to the scaffold and destroying the king's trust on him in the process! Griffin's fists clenched upon remembering his fragile position. Yes, he needed this stubborn daughter of his brother.
“You are just exhausted, Genevieve. You need to rest." Lord Beaumont replied in a horrible fatherly voice. Genevieve's brow cocked up in sarcasm but she said nothing. Griffin would give anything in the world to be able to wipe that smirk off this woman's face, but he controlled himself. For now, she is his ace.
“Have a maid accompany you to your room. The past months
have been too much for you I'm sure." Lord Beaumont pressed when Genevieve
remained as still as statue. He saw that she was boiling from her insides but
like him, she was holding herself in. Good, Griffin thought. He did not need
any of her undisciplined Scottish ways in his holding. He always thought that
William had been very lenient in training his daughter on being proper. Hell,
the girl did not even have an English governess when she was a child! Instead,
she had young squires and stable boys as
companions, and look what happened to her now.
“The cook will prepare a meal for you, uncle. Good day." Genevieve said and then turned her back without waiting for her uncle's response. Griffin smirked. The wench did not even curtsy at him!
Lord Beaumont enforced drastic changes in Ainsworth since he took over the holding. The cook prepared grand meals every day. The serfs were forced to give more produce. The number of soldiers tripled as Lord Beaumont's men went with him to the holding, which forced the crofters to barely keep up with the food demand. He put more furnishings in the great hall and along with the costly adornments were castle whores who pleasure the men in the evening and double as ornaments in the day. Genevieve, on the other hand, was to perform her duties as the lady of the holding. She was also not allowed to ride her horse, Alpha, or practice archery. Instead, her uncle forced her to learn embroidery and English social graces. When one morning Lord Beaumont introduced a governess who will keep an eye on her training, Genevieve lost her patience.
“I am not a child anymore, uncle! Aunt Matilde taught me these things a long time ago!" she erupted in the great hall. The governess was scandalized by Genevieve's unladylike manners. Lord Beaumont's porky face reddened.
“And what did your bulky Scottish aunt teach you? How to till the lands? How to milk cows? I daresay you were so ill-trained based on what you are showing me now. Am I right, Lady Fairland?" her uncle said as he turned to the stunned governess. The prim-looking old lady cleared her throat. “I am in complete agreement with you, my lord. Your niece needs assistance. A year of training will correct her flaws." She seconded in a carefully toned voice. Genevieve held her chin up.
“I can curtsy. I say that's enough to cover social graces. I am sorry Lady Fairland, but your service is not needed here." Genevieve said as she inclined her head and left the great hall. Lord Beaumont muttered some explicit under his breath as he looked at his niece walking so proudly outside. He hated the way she always disobeys him, but then he smiled. Who cares how she behaves? All he needed from her is an alliance from another noble family and her looks can bring that to him in a silver platter. Griffin may be bitter toward Genevieve, but he cannot deny the fact that his redheaded niece is definitely a looker. He had seen many women in court but they're nothing compared to Genevieve. Her flowing red hair and piercing blue eyes can captivate even the pickiest nobleman. Already, many vassals and minor lords had asked for her hand in marriage but Lord Beaumont refused their offers. He wanted her to capture a slightly higher ranking nobleman, a baron or a knight at least. He's not expecting for someone in the higher nobility to ask for a traitor's daughter's hand in marriage even if she was a viscount's daughter, so he should at least squeeze her of her uses as hard as he can.
“Isn't she beautiful, my lady?" Lord Beaumont asked out of the blue. Lady Fairland looked at him with surprise. A while ago he was fuming and now he's staring at his niece as if she is some precious jewel. “She does not look English at all. She's too…rowdy and blunt. Her red hair and blue eyes are too intimidating. English noblemen liked their women pale and submissive. Did you say she was brought up by the Scots?" Lady Fairland asked. Lord Beaumont nodded.
“Yes, her mother was a daughter of a Scottish laird. Genevieve is different. Her beauty will outshine the pale faces in court. I daresay that's enough for her to catch a good marriage proposal." He answered. Lady Fairland just shrugged as she thought of Lord William's daughter and wished Genevieve's future husband all the luck in the world.