Extraordinary Women of Courage - Box Set (6)

COUNTESS JACQUELINE

An Epic Medieval Romance

Gail Meath




This is a work of fiction as there is limited factual detail documentation.

Yet, it is based upon true events that occurred.




Copyright @ 2019 by GRM

All Rights Reserved

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electric or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems without written permission from the author except for the use of brief quotations in book reviews.



Chapter I

May 1414

Philip, the eldest son of Duke John of Burgundy, rode his steed across the meadow and all eyes fell upon him. “I see no youngster wench among these Dutch,” he whispered to his two companions. “I hoped to at least catch a glimpse of her before my father so hastily seals our fate.”

“Have faith in Milord’s decision,” Renard advised. He and Geoffrey were first squires to the Duke and close friends of Philip. In contrast to both, he was a handsome youth with crystal-blue eyes and sun-painted hair cropped short. “The Duke’s plan to gain control of the Netherlands through your marriage to Lord William’s daughter is ingenious, one that will surely force France to surrender and place Burgundy on equal ground with England.”

“I understand his plight…” It was the route his father chose that pricked him. “Geoffrey told me plenty about the spoiled and unruly Countess.”

“And what would he know of it? I was born and raised near these heathlands yet heard no such talk. How could the beastly squire know more than I?”

Geoffrey overheard Renard’s remarks and wedged his mount between them. “One of these days, Fox, I’m going to cram that sneering tongue of yours down your pretty throat. While others spoke of her, you undoubtedly were too busy crowing about yourself to hear anything else.”

“And I’ll wager my trusted horse that you inflated the truth again as you so often do for attention,” Renard threw back, undaunted by the enormity of his red-headed friend or the fury in his seething green eyes. “Well, out with it. What ridiculous tale has Philip so upset?”

“It is not a tale! One of the Countess’ own soldiers described her as a fire-spitting she-devil who curses like a heathen and explodes into violent fits when denied her pleasure. And she rules a flock of mammoth creatures that feed upon the blood of humans.”

Renard burst out laughing. But in the next moment, he heard a strange noise coming from the forest and abruptly halted his steed.

He turned and caught sight of a huge bird flying swiftly, yet gracefully through the trees. A hawk, he surmised, yet it was of incredible size with double the wingspan and twice the speed. He watched in awe, wondering how the raptor survived such a treacherous flight, and a faint rumbling came next, like distant thunder but at ground level. Soon, he recognized it as hooves pummeling the muddy earth at a ferocious pace.

The goshawk suddenly burst forth from the trees, swooping low across the meadow and soaring high with its shrill ‘kareen’ piercing the air. The crowd gasped with surprise as the mammoth bird circled the open field in a pomp and circumstance manner before perching in the tallest tree.

“God’s wounds!” Geoffrey gasped. “That bird’s talons are larger than my hands.”

“He is searching for his master,” Philip observed. “I wonder which brave noble lays claim to such a magnificent hunter?”

As everyone stared at the hawk, Renard’s focus remained within the forest where he spotted a white Arabian stallion charging through the heart of it. The steed veered to the left then right around tree trunks, kicking clumps of dirt high into the air, although his movements were so swift and agile, it seemed his hooves barely touched the ground at all. Riding atop the silver flash was a girl of slight size, almost miniature in comparison. She straddled the animal’s broad back and lay low, dodging low-hanging branches. A thin bow draped her shoulders and the dagged sleeves of her ivory coloured gown flapped behind her like the wings of an angel. When she left the shadows and entered the sunny clearing, her long dark curls shimmered with crimson.

The crowd turned to watch her now as she dashed across the level sod at an even faster pace. The goshawk took flight again when she appeared, flying in shallow circles over her head and calling to her as it went. A sleek greyhound in full career followed close behind, barely winded by the hearty gallop or the hindrance of a dead snake clenched tightly between his teeth. Though Renard would be hard pressed to admit it, he had never witnessed such an impressive sight. The girl appeared more like a mythical faerie queen, glowing white and fearlessly charging across her domain with the beasts as her protectors.

She maintained her lightning speed and intentionally headed for the thick of the crowd. As she closed in, she seemed unconcerned about the women shrieking in panic and scurrying for cover. Rather, she appeared to enjoy such sport and even flashed a victorious smile.

When she suddenly sat upright, her horse instantly stopped in his tracks, an arm’s length away from a group of male elders. She tossed her head back with a delightful song of laughter and raised her gloved arm to receive her hawk.

She was a petite maiden with fair skin and cheeks flushed pink from the hearty ride. Her thick auburn hair fell in ringlets down the length of her back, contrasting greatly with her white fitted gown, pinned up for riding. Under different circumstances, Renard never would have taken notice of her, since no maiden in his mind compared to his beloved Raissa. Yet, the girl’s reckless and flamboyant entrance gripped him.

With similar intrigue, Philip charged forth to join his father.

Jacqueline sent her bird into flight and slid off her horse. Spitefully, she snatched the adder dangling dead in her greyhound’s mouth and marched toward her father with both her dog and horse obediently trailing her steps.

“Forgive me for tarrying in the forest too long, Father.” She kissed Lord William’s cheek in greeting, yet her icy glare remained planted on the Duke. “This impudent viper was skulking in the woods thinking he could corner me.” She lifted the bloody snake up then dropped it at Duke John’s feet. “Kosmos had a grand time thrashing him to death.”

The Duke frowned. “I see you haven’t lost your boyish ways, Lady Jacqueline. Yet that should come with maturity.” He turned to his son. “I would like to introduce you to Philip. He is sole heir to my reign and preparing for knighthood. His combat skills surpass those of his own teachers and already he is one of the best archers in Burgundy.”

Philip stood proudly by his father’s side and bowed to her. “I am honored to meet you, Lady Jacqueline. Perhaps you will allow me to prove my worth as a hunting companion one day soon.”

“Why not now?” She glanced around. “There is a rancid quince dangling from that bush across the meadow. Why not impress me by plucking it from the branch with your arrow?”

Philip tipped his head in confusion. “I beg your pardon?”

“If you are as skilled as your father boasts, the task should be simple for you,” she challenged.

The crowd fell silent, waiting for him to accept, but Philip was busy contemplating the great distance between himself and the quince.

“It’s a might far,” Geoffrey whispered to him.

“Yet possible,” she returned.

Geoffrey glared at her. “There’s little meat to it!”

“Shall I choose an easier target?”

“Nay!” the Duke yelled. “My son could strike it blindfolded.”

Philip snapped out of his trance and grudgingly reached for his bow and arrow. As he prepared his weapon, he considered the tremendous humiliation that would surely come if he missed, which seemed more likely than not. Yet, he didn’t dare let his father down and prove himself a coward for not attempting the feat. With those thoughts hounding him, he eyed the minute target, cursed his brazen challenger and lifted the bow. With every eye upon him, he slowly drew the arrow back and held his breath to steady his aim. He kept that stance a moment longer, praying he wouldn’t miss.

Another arrow whizzed by his ear, struck the target dead center and felled the quince.

Philip swung around.

“You were taking too long.” Jacqueline slid the bow back over her shoulder. “Had it been a rabbit, it would have escaped halfway to Paris by the time you took your shot.”

Everyone burst out laughing, except the visitors.

“If your daughter is through poking fun, William, I would like to continue our discussion in private,” the Duke stated.

“Certainly. Run along, Jacqueline,” William instructed, trying to contain his amusement. “Show our guests to the feeding table. There is plenty of roasted venison and pheasant for all.”

“I’ll not leave, Father. My place is here with you.”

“Do as you are told,” William said more firmly, although his voice was still laced with pride and affection. “I promise our conversation will be brief.”

It was the way her father spoke rather than the words themselves that silenced her and her dimples caved with another wicked thought. She sweetened her tone, innocently batted her long, black lashes at Philip, and posed, “Shall we take a short ride instead? Our heathlands are quite beautiful this time of year.”

Philip hesitated, as did Geoffrey. The two brave squires stood there contemplating every dreaded consequence while studying her, the dead snake on the ground and the mammoth hawk perched in the tree above their heads.

She quickly mounted her horse and spat, “Or is the next ruler of Burgundy too much of a coward?” And she dashed off.

Without thought or permission, Renard leapt upon his steed and chased after her. He had never acted so impulsively, yet he never refused a challenge either. And hers was irresistible. So, he followed close behind her into the forest and drove his horse hard to narrow the distance between them. It was his most exhilarating ride ever. His steed whisked past the tight maze of trees, smashed through dense thickets, and leapt over fallen logs. He never once glimpsed behind him, so whether his companions kept up the frantic pace or had even mounted their steeds yet, he couldn’t know.

All he saw was the feisty wench in front of him and her huge silver beast that seemed more like a powerful arrow skillfully plucked from its bow and shooting through the forest. Luckily, his horse was youthful and strong enough to endure this rigorous exercise. Yet, he didn’t want to trail behind her. He grew intent to surpass the girl. He was used to the win, thrived upon it, and his vast experiences had taught him that there was more than one way to achieve victory.

He noticed Jacqueline dart around the trees and brush as though she were following some uncharted path. That theory urged him to take a closer look at these familiar surroundings. They headed west along the crest of the hills. Ahead of them would be a grove of sharp, needled evergreens too dangerous to navigate at this hearty pace. That being the case, she would veer south down the slope to the narrow brook they had crossed earlier. Since her route backtracked, he could easily reach their destination by cutting straight across with plenty of time to spare.

Renard smirked and guided his horse off her trail. He lost the hawk, the dog and the silver beast. For a few minutes, he feared he lost his bearings, too, but when he spotted the brook, he knew the race was his.

He waited there upon his steed, all puffed up with pride. Only then did he question his reasons for accepting her childish dare. He’d acted no better than a randy buck, and he knew Geoffrey would never let him hear the end of it. Still, the girl surprised him…stunned him really. No doubt much of it had to do with Geoffrey’s harsh description of her and how she had so smartly put both Philip and Duke John in their place. He doubted anyone else had ever found the courage to stand up to either of them, let alone a girl of thirteen.

The hawk alerted him of her arrival and he waited there, gloating, knowing she would be furious when she saw him there. And he looked forward to being the recipient of her cat-eyed glare this time. She thrived on the win, too, which was her purpose for this chase. Other girls would have submitted weakly or allowed their father to fight their battles for them. The future countess of Holland did neither. She stood up for herself and, in all fairness, deserved credit for her efforts.

That thought caused him to rethink his desire to win this race and his cocky smile washed away. Suddenly, besting her at a time when the Duke was attempting to manipulate her for his own gain seemed as unfair as slipping a potion into the opponent’s drink minutes before the joust.

She descended the slope with the same incredible speed. Her horse dashed by him and soared over the brook with all the grace of a white-tailed deer, easily clearing it and halting on the other side. Jacqueline remained silent for a moment, mentally grasping how he had come to be here first. Renard said nothing either, for he was wishing he could do this over, differently.

“Where is my dear cousin Philip and the buffoon wearing the horned helmet?” she asked.

“My guess is three miles back, scouting our trail.”

Her eyelids grew heavy, yet pensively rather than with disdain as before. “Who are you?”

“Francis Renard Borselen, first squire. Renard to my friends.”

“Borselen...” she considered. “Are you related to the Lord of Metz?”

Renard nodded. “I am his son.”

She smiled and sighed with relief. “Ah…you know this land, then. I thought either that or you had the powers of God.” She freed sticky strands of hair from her neck, then dismounted and led her horse to the stream.

“I took advantage and found a shortcut,” Renard admitted, still waiting for her defenses to surface.

“There were no rules, you won fairly.”

Her response surprised him. She not only lost her anger when he was sure it would go the other way, but she also seemed relaxed, almost casual with him, as though chatting with an old friend. “Would you say the same if Philip was in my stead?”

“You pose no threat to me.”

“Neither does Philip, I expect. From what I hear, you get your way on all things.”

She picked up a long, broken twig and swirled the tip of it in the water. As the circles spread wide, she became mesmerized by them. “The freedom of my people comes first above all else. If marrying Philip guaranteed it, I would agree regardless of what was in my heart.”

Again, she tripped him. He wondered if that was the reason for her betrothal to the Prince of France. Whereas her marriage to Philip would secure the northern borders of Burgundy, marrying Prince John, heir to the French throne, would guarantee the Netherlands similar security. Yet, he wasn’t about to press the issue, for certainly it was none of his concern.

He swung his leg around and dropped to the ground. Though the brook separated them, her horse began snorting and stomping his hoof, warning him to keep his distance. “You have impressive followers.”

She cooed to her steed and pet his cheek to ease his restlessness. “They were precious gifts from my father. Feodor was an orphan colt and only a few days old when my father found him in the forest not far from here. A knight at our castle trained him for me. Feodor gave him quite a hard time and Dag still insists he is too unpredictable to ride, but he obeys my every command.”

“The horse or your knight?” Renard chuckled and she caught her first smile.

“People are far less cooperative.” She glanced at her dog sitting obediently by her side on the water’s edge. “Kosmos is the most sensible of us. He quickly grows tired of our frolics and prefers the hunt.” She glanced upwards with a look of complete adoration. “Above us flies Kineta.”

Renard grinned and recited, “A flash of light and beauty, then only my Kineta’s perfume...”

“You know the poem? You surprise me, fair-haired squire. You hardly seem the type to memorize such tender verses.”

“My mother favored Alexander’s writings. The last verse in Burning Heart is inscribed on her gravestone.”

“Truly? She must have been quite dear to you. You have my sympathy.” Jacqueline suddenly removed her pointed felt shoes, gathered the folds of her skirt into her arms, and trudged through the stream to join him on the other side.

Her horse and dog trailed behind her. Her movements were lumbering and awkward, lacking every graceful lesson taught to young girls of nobility. Yet, when she stood before him, she appeared quite fetching indeed, as she held that same look of adoration on him now.

“Do you remember the secret hideaway in the Cascade of Divinity?” she whispered as though someone might hear. “I found such a place, Renard, where the brook flows over a magnificent rock ledge into a steamy pool of water. The olive trees are missing, but otherwise it’s the same. Even the air is richly fragrant with hyacinth. And it is so well hidden, I am certain no one else has discovered it.”

His head was filling with her fragrance, a sweet-smelling perfume that was light and familiar to him, yet indiscernible. “Are you thinking the place is enchanted like the poem suggests?”

“I was there earlier today. I cast a stone into the waters exactly as it was written and made my wish,” she confessed.

“Did your pebble skip five times?” When she nodded, he assured her, “Then your wish shall come true, no doubt. Yet…I wonder what you wished for. You seem to have all that anyone could want. Even the countship of Holland will be yours one day.”

She fell silent.

“Could it have something to do with your desire to rule France, too? I met Prince John a few times, and, if you don’t mind my saying, he does not seem a suitable match for you.”

In the blink of an eye, her mood shifted again. “And you think Philip would make a better match? Honestly, I see no need to secure my country through any marriage. We are peaceful people without rich resources to share with the world. We thrive because we are left on our own. Things would be quite different if France or Burgundy were given any say in how we lived. Our heritage and traditions would be lost forever, causing our people discontent. Holland would no longer exist as a small and peaceful country in the north, but simply a partition of a more powerful and intrusive entity.”

“Duke John worries about invaders arriving by sea. An allegiance with Burgundy would guarantee the security of your shores.”

“We have no need for any security other than our own soldiers,” she returned with a glow of pride. “They are a fine lot. Perhaps stronger in determination than in numbers, but that can win battles, too, can it not?”

Her words and the conviction behind them captured his senses.  He’d never heard such a loyal speech from a mere child. She showed tell-true signs of a great leader. “Honestly, after this meeting I agree that both you and your country would do far better on your own.”

Her eyes suddenly caught fire and looked like two golden gems glistening in the sunlight. “Come with me to the wishing pool, Renard. I have been aching to share it with someone, but only you would appreciate it as much as I do.”

“Now?”

“We are halfway there as it is, and it is such a wondrous place.”

Oddly, he considered it for a moment. But he heard voices drifting from the hill. “Philip is coming...”

“If my wish comes true, you will regret not making one of your own,” she added quickly.

With all his heart, he wanted to traipse through this wonderland with her, the young filly with golden eyes. She didn’t possess Raissa’s beauty, but she had bedeviled him upon sight with her unbridled spirit and mystical charm. And if Philip hadn’t called to him just now, he might have taken flight with her again and dealt with the consequences later.

“Blast it all!” Philip shouted. “We had a hell of a time finding you. I am covered head to toe with dirt.”

“I expected to find you as mangled as that snake,” Geoffrey yelled.

“Coward…” Jacqueline whispered as she turned and mounted her horse.

“My duty lies with Philip and his father, Milady.”

“They are both pompous idiots!”

Philip approached. “What did she say?”

Renard winked at her and climbed upon his own steed. “Lady Jacqueline is gloating in the fact that she outran us all.”

“Even you, Fox?” Geoffrey slapped his knee with laughter. “Ah, this is rich! Someone finally bested the crafty fox and it was neither a trained knight nor a skilled soldier. The great future Lord of Borselen Hall was beaten by a mere...”

“A mere what, you overgrown buffoon?” Jacqueline yelled. “At least he was in the running. The two of you couldn’t keep pace with a slug.”

Philip dragged his neck cloth across his brow. “Please, Lady Jacqueline, we are all feeling the stress of this situation.”

“And why should you? This situation, as you call it, is entirely your fault. I rejected your letter of proposal and yet you appear unannounced during our holiday to press the issue. You must have a grossly high opinion of yourself if you think for one moment I would disregard my pledge to Prince John for the likes of you.”

“It is a matter of politics! And this trip was my father’s idea, certainly not mine.” With his harsh words, Kineta shrieked and Kosmos started snarling at him.

“You would be wise to hold your tone in check when you speak to me,” she warned. “My friends might think you intend me harm.”

Philip lowered his voice. “Frankly, you could use a good swat on your behind. You act no better than a toddler spoiled rotten, and I thank my lucky stars your father refused the proposal. Someone should have taught you how to act like a lady.”

“You’ll be glad I haven’t grown into a lady quite yet.” Carefully, she unleashed her bow from around her shoulder, slid an arrow from her purse and took aim.

Geoffrey panicked. “Bejaises! What’s she doing?”

“Put that weapon down, Lady Jacqueline!” Philip ordered.

Renard remained calm. “I suggest you sit still and let her take her shot.”

“Have you lost your mind?” Geoffrey yelled. “She’ll kill us all!”

“Not kill...just wound,” Jacqueline corrected.

Hysterically, Philip and Geoffrey fumbled around like scatterbrains, yelling at her and each other as they tried to find their weapons and snatch them in hand before she fired. But Jacqueline took quick and careful aim and sent her arrow swishing between the two of them, into the leg of a wild boar descending upon them from the hills. With her command, Kosmos charged after the wounded animal and chased him back into the woods.

Renard smiled and nodded his approval. “Well done, Milady.”

She swung the bow over her shoulder. “After what Philip said, I should have let the swine devour him.”

“Now you can add compassion to your list of qualities.,” Renard kidded.

“She undoubtedly sent the boar after us in the first place,” Philip muttered. “She befriended every other wild beast around here.”

“You are angry that I bested you thrice today,” Jacqueline quipped. “In archery, horseback and a rejection of marriage.”

“I have had my fill of this childish banter.” Philip steered his horse back the way they came and Geoffrey followed him.

Renard remained where he was. He rested an elbow on his knee and held a tender smile on her. “Meeting you this day was an unexpected pleasure, Lady Jacqueline. Grant me one favor.”

She tossed her hair back. “Perhaps...”

He waited a moment until he caught her flippant gaze. “Make a wish for me in your enchanted pool.”

“And what shall I wish for?”

“Find the smoothest, shiniest pebble and skip it across those steamy waters five times exactly. Then…wish for our paths to cross again.”

She tried to conceal her delight, yet her eyes deceived her. “I shall do so, Squire. If it comes true, perhaps then you will find the courage to ride with me to that magical place...” And she dashed away on her silver beast with wings.

“Are you coming, Fox?” Geoffrey called out.

Renard watched her until she was out of sight. “‘Illusive girl of mythical fame, seen only by dreamers and poets...’”





Chapter II

April 1417

Hedda twisted her lady’s bulk of hair into two thick braids. She coiled them above either ear and grabbed the hairpins from between her teeth to secure the style.

“Upon entering French court, you must look directly before you,” Hedda instructed. “Keep your eyelids low and fixed, gazing forward at the ground no more than one fathom ahead. Never change your look from one place to another as you so often do. And above all else, hold your tongue no matter what goes on around you, especially if you disagree with something said.”

“You sound too much like my governess,” Jacqueline grumbled, yet she sat still and erect at the dressing table like a subservient child.

“Had you learned anything from that poor woman, I would be spared the task of having to instruct you on these proper courtesies,” Hedda told her. “You are a lady well-bred and your husband became heir to the throne over a year ago. Now that he wants you to join him in France, it will serve no purpose to be booted from his country the moment you arrive.”

“I cannot leave Den Hague...”

Hedda stopped her fussing and sat down on the bench beside her. “You have drifted along nearly two years now, seemingly unbothered by the fact that your marriage has yet to be consummated.”

“I am perfectly content with how things are. I have no love for him in my heart, so his brotherly manner and long absences have been a Godsend.”

“Arranged marriages are rarely out of love, but why should that stop you from finding pleasure? I should think you above all others would have used your dogged determination to make your dreams come true rather than resigning yourself to a life of celibacy like some feeble old maid.”

Jacqueline shot to her feet. “Enough of your opinions! Whereas you thrive on the affections of every male passerby, I long to retain the freedom of our people and the preservation of the rich soil that spreads from the North Sea to Ardennes. I have no hidden desire for the grossly intimate things you speak of.”

“Have you never wished to be loved by a brave knight, like those in your poems?”

The question silenced Jacqueline for a moment. “Marrying the King’s son for the good of our country is more important to me than knowing love. Yet, I treasure Holland more than my life and leaving here feels like someone gutting me with a dull-edged blade. If loving a man is as torturous as this, I choose never to know of it.”

“Oh, Milady...” Hedda wrapped her arms around Jacqueline and pulled her close. “There is always a risk of pain when loving anything, but there is greatness in it, too. If only you had married a man of strength and character, one who feared nothing but the thought of losing you.”

“Tell me the God’s-honest truth, Hedda. Did you make the decision to come with me to France all on your own or was it out of pity? Halden will be lost without you here, as will my father, and I would despise myself knowing you left Binnenhof and your family only to ease my heartache.”

“Nay, I look forward to the change of scenery.” She reached up to straighten Jacqueline’s bonnet. “Now, we must hurry. The carriage leaves at noon.”

Jacqueline collected her hair things and tossed them into her bag. “I do not understand the rush. It makes better sense to remain here through the spring holidays.”

“There is a grand celebration in Rethel next week bringing visitors from as far away as England. Father says traveling will be safer if we complete our journey beforehand.” She glanced around the room. “I feel like we are forgetting something. Oh look! I hung your finest dresses to keep them from wrinkling and nearly left them behind. What a dolt I am.” She scurried over to the closet and carefully gathered the gowns together. She snatched her bags and tried to balance her load as she headed for the door.

“What celebration?” Jacqueline asked.

“Such hullabaloo for a toddler. Imagine how spoilt he’ll be when he’s grown.”

“Hedda, what are you talking about?”

“Lord Renard Borselen is sparing no expense celebrating his son’s second birthday,” she replied.

Jacqueline smiled in remembrance. The young squire from Metz had left quite an impression on her that day in the heathlands. So much so, she inquired about him afterwards and heard some months later he fought courageously in the battle at Agincourt. Yet, he had also taken a wife and started a family, so eventually she put him out of her mind.

“It is such a shame about Lady Borselen,” Hedda went on. “I imagine that is the reason for all the fuss and why they are celebrating in Rethel rather than in Metz.”

“His wife is ill? I hadn’t heard,” Jacqueline stated, feigning disinterest.

“The woman passed away two months ago. She was bedridden with an unexplainable illness and never regained strength.”

Those thoughts lingered on Jacqueline’s mind as she wandered downstairs. Yet, her dreamy trance was broken when she noticed the door to the great hall had been left open and an enormous crowd had gathered inside to bid her farewell. Hundreds of candles were lit, spotting the backdrop like a starlit sky, and the tables were crammed with mouth-watering cakes, pastries, venison, potatoes and barrels of ale.

The scene crushed her. This is my family, she silently repeated to herself. She loved everyone standing before her. She belonged here, not with strangers in a foreign country married to a man who was even more distant. Her people felt the same, she could tell. They each held a sad and deploring look on their face and the room remained so silent, only the bells chiming at the docks in her honor could be heard.

Halden stepped forward wearing his ceremonial cloak and hood. He placed an arm about her shoulder, embraced the heraldic shield of Holland in his other hand and began his speech. “As head clerk of Binnenhof, I speak on behalf of all Flemish. We have enjoyed great prosperity these years despite the tug-of-war between our ruler and the late Duke John of Burgundy. We have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are proud people and loyal to our heritage. William, ruler of Holland and the low countries, has kept his promise to retain our liberty. Our daughter, Jacqueline, married into the French royal family to secure that promise. And although she leaves us now it is not without our eternal love, trust and devotion.” He held a sad smile on her. “To prove our loyalty, Lady Jacqueline, we gift you with the stronghold of our country, the protective shield of our hearts and freedom.” He slid the royal shield into her grip and held a sweet kiss upon her forehead. Then, he placed her hand into her father’s.

William’s eyes teared up as he gazed at her and he seemed lost in thought for a moment. “My dearest daughter…let the shield of our homeland guide you and keep you safe from harm,” he said simply. He wrapped her arm in his and proudly promenaded her around.

Jacqueline clutched her father tightly and managed to hold back her own tears. Only when she stood before Dag, the young knight in charge of castle defenses, did they stream down her cheeks uncontrollably. Dag was dear to her and had trained her beloved pets, yet he was forever teasing her and treating her like a small, misbehaving child. But today, he spoke softly and kissed her hand as a knight would a lady. She held the cherished spot to her lips and was then met by Royd, Aselma, Olav and the rest of the castle family.

By the time she reached the entranceway again, her knees gave out from grief. She pressed her back against the door for support and closed her eyes. The room fell silent again. She wanted to scream out loud that she could not go through with this. She desperately wanted to make them understand that whatever they expected her to accomplish by going to Paris, she could do tenfold by staying here at Binnenhof. They needed no support from France or Burgundy to guarantee their freedom. Within themselves, they had the capability of crushing any intruders who attempted to violate their rights. Their strength was not in numbers, but in the powerful loyalty they had for their country and for one another.

Jacqueline finally lifted her chin purposefully. She turned toward her friends and rested her gaze on their familiar faces. Her breaths came quick and her chin quivered as she struggled to hold back her tears. Somewhere from the very depths of her soul, she found the strength to raise the shield of Holland high into the air.

The room thundered with cheers.

The husky proprietor, built like a two-legged beast of muscles, hauled the drunken man up by his collar and hose and tossed him out the door. In the far corner of the small, dimly lit tavern, a group of boisterous men were throwing dice across big oak tables and a rather unsavory woman, scantily dressed, slipped out the back door with a customer after stuffing his payment down the front of her blouse.

“Did you see that, Hedda?” Jacqueline squawked.

“See what?” her friend asked with a mouthful. “I am far too enraptured in this sweet-tasting venison.” She pointed her silver knife at Jacqueline’s plate. “Are you going to eat that?”

Jacqueline rolled her eyes and pushed the plate toward her.

“We will arrive in Paris by mid-morn,” William said, taking his daughter’s hand. “The city is far more civilized than these smaller villages.”

His words did little to soothe Jacqueline’s anxiety, especially when she saw her husband strutting back to the table with an uncommon air of authority. He wasn’t acting himself at all this evening and it was grating on her nerves.

“My man had a bit of trouble with the accommodations,” Prince John announced as he took his seat. “The available rooms house six or seven tenants each.”

“Good God, that won’t do,” William hissed. “Tell the escorts to ready the horses and we will move on.”

“Nay,” the Prince replied harshly. “I tended to the matter.” He leaned back comfortably, and his purple cape puffed out, making him appear more like a billowing peacock with a too-small head. “After I gave the owner a few extra livres and passed my name on to him, he eagerly gave us access to private rooms, one for my wife and me and another for yourself and the nuisance duenna.”

Jacqueline’s horror was met by Hedda’s fury.

“Do you think it wise to toss your name about in such a place?” William asked.

“I haven’t the energy to travel any farther.” He fanned himself with his lace handkerchief and motioned to the proprietor for another goblet of brandy to be brought around.

Jacqueline sat there like a frightened hare staring back at a pack of hounds. Her heart pounded wildly, and a cold sweat dampened her brow. How was she to manage this turn of events? Had John asserted himself on their wedding night or even a month later, it might have gone differently. But to suggest it now and in a village tavern filthier than the horse stables?

“I…I shall need a few moments to...” She snatched Hedda’s arm and dragged her to her feet. “Which rooms are ours?”

“The first two at the top of the stairs,” John replied. “I will join you shortly.”

Jacqueline lowered her eyes and stared at the ground no more than a fathom ahead while towing her companion along. And she didn’t shift her gaze one bit when the men at the stairwell hooted vulgar obscenities at them or when Hedda kept grumbling about John’s comment.

“How dare he call me your nuisance duenna. Prince or not, he has no right to insult me like that.”

“Oh, Hedda, what shall I do? He cannot expect me to comply tonight after all this time.”

“Do not get yourself into a dither. There are dozens of excuses wives use to dampen their husband’s affection. You could convince him you have a piercing headache, or the food disagreed with you so badly you might puke. Having your monthly flux doesn’t always stop them. Has he ever seen you naked?”

Jacqueline threw her a look of confusion and shook her head.

“Well, judging from the filth in this place, the condition of the bedchambers alone will undoubtedly serve as a splash of ice water on his manhood,” she said giggling.

Hedda led the way now and when they reached the top of the stairs, she swung the door open. The room was too dingy to see much of anything, yet the stench pinched their noses at the doorway as though the furniture had been soaked in urine and left to dry. They entered slowly, and with the candle lit it appeared worse than it smelled, with shredded curtains, stained rags thrown atop the straw mattress on the floor, a broken washbasin and a small, dark wooden dresser caked thick with dust.

“I hope the pillows are of down,” Hedda muttered. “Otherwise, I won’t get a wink of sleep.”

“Hedda, please! He’ll be here soon, and I don’t know what to say.”

“Say good-night to your duenna,” John suggested from the doorway.

Hedda shot him a curtly glare. “I am not her duenna!” And with the folds of her yellow gown in hand, she stuck her nose into the air and stomped past him. “I am a lady-in-waiting, not some prune-faced old ninny.”

“Insulting her was the only way to be rid of her.” John closed the door. “Have you noticed she is by your side constantly, as are your father and Dag Klaussen?” He gulped down another hearty swig of brandy and set the half-empty goblet on the dresser. “Our chambers may not be trimmed with white lace and gold, but this atmosphere sets my mood far better than the formalities at Binnenhof.”

A drop of the red liqueur drooled down his chin as he started toward her, one determined step after the other. He was only a hand’s width taller than she and his frame was slight with no outward sign of strength, but his expression held great determination. He began speaking to her in soft, low tones, reminding her of his patience, that she was like some untouchable goddess taunting him and no other man would have shown such restraint.

“I intend to finally claim what is mine.”

Jacqueline squeezed her fingertips against her temples. “Not this night, I beg you. My head is splitting.” She backed away from him until she felt the hardness of the sitting bench against her legs.

“It is simply nerves, Cheri.” He came toward her, undoing his cloak and belt along the way and dropping them to the floor. Then, he wriggled out of his doublet to expose his frail chest, as smooth and hairless as an egg. “I promise to take my time and make it enjoyable for you.”

“My head aches terribly,” she tried next. “So much so, I feel sick to my stomach as though I might...”

He took one last stride and she plopped down onto the wooden bench, the only place left her in this tight corner. He bent down toward her and pressed his hands against the wall on either side of her head to trap her there. She choked on his hot breath that reeked of brandy as his moist lips grew closer. Frantically, she tried to recall the other excuses Hedda had mentioned.

“I have my monthly flux!”

He stopped and stared at her, but his wide eyes had suddenly taken a fog to them, blanching their crisp brown colour, and his left cheek twitched rapidly. Seconds later, he groaned out loud and collapsed to the floor.

“Sweet Jesus!” She quickly pulled her legs up under her and stared dumbfounded at his still body. As the realization set in, she hopped up on her knees and hung her head down over him, her curls dangling loose. “John, can you hear me?”

He remained still as a doormat.

Jacqueline clasped her hands together with glee. The fool had overdrunk and passed out, she realized, and with perfect timing. This was one excuse Hedda neglected to think of. If John were anything like her father, he would be out cold until morning, and tomorrow, spending an intimate moment with her would be the furthest thing from his mind.

Yet, he looked so terribly uncomfortable there, sprawled on the cold, dirty floor. The straw bed was only a few feet away and he was slight enough for her to drag him there. Then, for added security, she would spend the night in Hedda’s room. With that decided she climbed over his still body and slid her hands underneath his shoulders. She tried tugging him several times, but he was far heavier than he appeared.

Finally, she hurried across the hall to fetch Hedda. “The saints have blessed me. John overdrank and collapsed right in front of me. Isn’t that rich?”

“And well he deserves such a fate after his name calling.”

Jacqueline led her into the room and pointed toward the corner. “One minute he was hovering over me like a vulture, then down he went.”

“My, he certainly is out of it. It hardly seems he’s breathing.” Hedda ventured over to him. “I will take his arms and you grab his legs.”

“Hurry up. I do not want him to wake up until I am safely tucked in your room.”

Hedda reached under John’s body, yet quickly caught her hands back. “There is no need to hurry. I think he is dead.”

“Dead?” Jacqueline backed away. “He cannot be dead. Only a few minutes ago he….” She dared to look at him again. “Are you sure?”

“Quite sure,” Hedda returned.

“What happened? He was fine at supper.”

“Yes, he was, wasn’t he? Young men rarely collapse to their death without some sign of illness beforehand.” Her hand flew over her heart. “What if he was poisoned? It happens, you know, especially in royal families.”

“Poisoned?” Jacqueline glanced over at the goblet on the dresser and pieced two separate thoughts together. “Father said it was foolish of him to give his name to anyone, as though it might be dangerous. Do you think something was in his drink?”

“If so, whoever put it there undoubtedly wants the blame to fall upon you.” Hedda marched across the room determinedly. She grabbed the cup and studied its contents, swirling it around and sniffing it. Then methodically, she lifted the bedcovers, poured the remaining contents over the weaves of straw and waited for the juice to soak through. She wiped the goblet clean using her skirt and replaced the object on the dresser.

“Help me put him upon the mattress to make it look like he died in his sleep,” Hedda stated. “By the time someone discovers him, we will be well on our way back to Holland. Depending upon what poison was used, the doctors may never detect it. If they do, Lord William can explain that we fled out of concern for your safety.”

Jacqueline frowned at her companion. “You act as though you’ve done this before.”

“Only in my dreams. Now this will be difficult. Just close your eyes and try to think of something more pleasant while we drag him onto the bed.”

An hour later they were riding in the coach heading east. While the others slept, Jacqueline rested her head against the black canvas top as her mind busily ran through the tumultuous events that had occurred these past two days.

They had managed to slip away from the tavern without notice, leaving her husband behind half-naked and sprawled on that poison-soaked casket. There was sure to be some horrible repercussion from their callous deed, although her father said not. Like Hedda, he was convinced they could explain their thievish departure to everyone’s satisfaction whether the Prince died naturally or was murdered. Their relations with France were strong enough and they had no motive whatsoever to dispose of the Prince in such a haphazard manner.

Yet, even if this went smoothly, her problems were far from over. She had been miraculously freed from her unrequited marriage. She was relieved of all responsibility to France, and they were returning to her home, where she belonged. Still, an even darker cloud hovered overhead. Her father insisted upon finding another husband for her as soon as possible, to secure their domain. And no matter how fiercely she argued that point, he remained firm on the matter.

So, she was left brewing over who her second husband might be and whether he would have less patience than John or take her even farther away from her homeland.