Sassenach Bride – Ashe Barker

“This makes three weeks spent on the road worthwhile.” Robbie McGregor, heir to his father’s title and the next Laird of Skye, regarded the scene that surrounded him. His appreciative grin betrayed both relish and gleeful anticipation, which he made no attempt to disguise. His gleaming gaze took in the crowds of richly dressed courtiers, the forest of gaily coloured pennants fluttering from the posts marking the perimeter of the jousting arena, the myriad stalls offering everything from steaming game pies to trinkets of silver and gold, from tankards of strong ale to posies of spring blooms. Everywhere was hustle, people rushing about, shouting to each other, greeting friends, bickering and bargaining, all vying for attention, all jostling to be seen. James McGregor, Earl of Ingram and master of Etal Castle in the north of England as well as Lord of Mortain in the lowlands of Scotland, gripped the reins of his horse in one hand and gentled the destrier with the other. The animal snorted his disgust and pawed the ground in frustration at being forced to stand still when surrounded by the heady scents of lusty mares, stallions, and geldings. “Easy, Thor. We shall have our sport soon enough.” Jamie shared his younger brother’s sense of anticipation. Their journey from the Scottish borders had indeed been arduous, the road where it existed little more than a muddy quagmire. They had postponed the trip as long as decently possible, but ultimately had no choice but to travel to the capital to pay their respects to the new Tudor monarch. Young Henry Tudor had ascended to the throne just two years previously on the death of his father, the seventh Henry. In truth, the McGregors should have attended to bend their knees before their new sovereign rather sooner than this but they did not much relish the prospect. London was five hundred miles or several weeks of hard riding away and events at court felt to be of little relevance to their life in the borders.

Eventually they had run out of excuses though, and the inevitable day had dawned. They had ridden south to present themselves and swear loyalty, intending to make the return journey as soon as they decently could. But their plans had suddenly changed. There was nothing either man enjoyed more than a bout of rowdy mock combat. Wrestling, sword play, racing their massive destriers across the lowland moors—both were keenly competitive and their rivalry seemingly endless. They had had the extreme good fortune to arrive at court on the second day of the king’s grand tournament. Half the nobility of England had assembled in the meadows surrounding the monarch’s palace at Greenwich to enjoy the spectacle. Robbie grinned at his brother. “I have entered our names in the archery contest, the quarterstaff, and of course the joust. We missed the wrestling and the hurling, but I believe there is to be a competition using swords and battle-axes.

I could not find the steward organising those, but we shall.” “Aye, we shall,” Jamie agreed. “Which event is first?” “Archery,” Robbie replied. “Over here.” Both men mounted their stallions and started to make their way through the milling throngs in the direction of the section of meadow allocated to the display of bowmanship. Already several archers had collected in readiness, their longbows slung across their backs. The more ambitious among them strode the length of the arena to inspect the targets set up a couple of hundred paces away. Arms were raised to test the strength of the breeze, the light carefully assessed, the keenest arrows selected. This might be mere sport, but every man present knew what was at stake. The prize was a valuable purse from the king himself, not to mention the chance to bolster one’s reputation, the opportunity to impress those in authority or posture before inferiors.

All sought the glory of victory, hoping to wallow in it for days or weeks to come. Jamie and Robbie were both better than average with a longbow. Their father had seen to that. Still, neither claimed to be exceptional archers. They did not expect to win but were determined not to be disgraced. “Hey, you. Yes, you, lad.” Jamie summoned a youth who was lurking close to the edge of the arena. When the lad approached, Jamie slid easily down from the saddle and flung the reins to the young man. “Here’s a penny for holding our horses while we take part in the archery.

There will be two more for you at the end.” The lad caught the coin that Jamie flicked in his direction, bit on it, then pocketed the money. He accepted Robbie’s reins with a nod and clung on tight as the two stallions sought to follow their masters. “Do you suppose he can hold them?” Robbie wondered as they marched away. “I do not relish the prospect of having to retrieve my horse from some pasture full of juicy mares.” Jamie shrugged. “I expect he will. I paid him well enough and where else could he earn the price of a week’s food for just an hour’s work?” Satisfied, Robbie fell silent and both men’s attention was turned entirely upon the pressing matter at hand, that of propelling a slender arrow through the air to embed itself as close to the bullseye as they could. “Fifth,” Jamie snorted an hour later. “Only fifth.

” “You did better than I, brother.” Robbie had managed seventh place, though he remained adamant that he had been robbed. The swaggering popinjay who had bested him to sixth place had coughed just as Robbie loosed his arrow. The young McGregor heir insisted it had been done on purpose. “We shall do better in the sword-fighting,” Jamie offered, slinging an arm across his brother’s shoulders. “But first, we retrieve our mounts and I shall treat you to a mug of ale.” Jamie was right. They did indeed fare better in the sword-fighting arena where they managed a creditable third and fourth place. Having come third, Robbie received a purse from none other than the golden young monarch himself. Henry Tudor, the eighth of that name, smiled beatifically at the men as he handed them their prizes.

Naturally, the king himself had gained first prize, an achievement that both McGregors found less than credible. Henry VIII was a decent enough swordsman but not an exceptional one. He had ‘beaten’ far better men than himself, including both of them. “Sycophants and lapdogs, all of them,” Robbie observed. “They let him win because he is the king.” “Aye, well, that is the way of it in the Tudor court, is it not?” Jamie wiped the blade of his sword before sliding it back into its scabbard. “The king prides himself on being the finest athlete, the greatest swordsman, the most accomplished musician, the most light-footed of dancers. It is a dangerous pastime indeed to best him at anything.” “Idiots, the lot of them. Cowards all.

” “Keep your voice down, brother,” Jamie admonished. “We do not wish to spend the rest of our sojourn here in the Tower of London.” Robbie snorted his disgust. “I see His Majesty is entered in the quarterstaff also. In that case, there is no point exerting ourselves for the outcome is already known.” Jamie laughed softly. “All here are aware that the true winner will be the man who comes second. Come, let us enjoy the day for what it is and do not let Henry’s arrogance ruin it for us.” Still muttering under his breath, Robbie allowed himself to be steered in the direction of the quarterstaff contest. The king had already stripped to his waist by the time they arrived on the field and was receiving the congratulations of his closest circle.

If any considered such accolades premature, no one troubled to mention it. Jamie managed second place having remembered only just in time to allow His Majesty’s wild swing to catch him across the shoulders in the final bout. He sank to his knees, panting and holding his palm up in feigned surrender. The king was all smiles, offering the victorious royal hand to haul his vanquished opponent to his feet. Jamie accepted the gesture and suffered Henry’s hearty back-patting with decent enough grace. The purse he received as his prize was generous, so the day had not been a complete disappointment. Neither of the brothers was especially enthusiastic about seeking out the steward to secure their places in the battle-axe. They retired to the closest ale stall to wait out the couple of hours until the grand finale of the day, the joust. Naturally, Henry had entered. No one expected any other outcome but that he would emerge the victor.

The king had not failed to win a jousting contest since his sixteenth birthday and there was no cause to suppose this occasion would be any different. In truth, Jamie thought, as he observed the proceedings from his position in the queue, Henry was a fine horseman and held a good, steady lance. He unseated his first two opponents fair and square. His victory against the third man, a huge knight on a massive grey stallion, was less clear cut. The man dropped the point of his lance at the final moment, allowing the king to catch him a glancing blow in the chest. The knight toppled from his mount to a chorus of cheers and groans from the spectators. “Your turn,” Jamie muttered to his brother. “Good luck.” By which he meant, try not to break a limb when you hit the ground. Robbie survived his encounter with their golden monarch with all four limbs intact though Jamie suspected that the same might not be said of his ribs.

Still, such was the life of a subject of King Henry. Robbie picked himself up and trudged the length of the field to retrieve his mount as Jamie took up his position ready to sacrifice himself to the king’s glory. He lowered his visor, raised his lance, anchored the shaft firmly in his armpit and angled the length of it slightly upward in readiness for the charge. At the signal from the steward to his right, Jamie dug in his heels and muttered, “Go, Thor.” That was enough to send the eager stallion into a flat out gallop. Hooves thundered, the ground rolled away beneath, the distance eaten up in mere seconds. Jamie angled his neck in order to give him a narrow line of sight through the slit visor of his helmet. The king’s mount charged toward him, the monarch seated upon his back, lance directed inexorably at Jamie’s breastplate. Fuck, this will hurt… He had watched this done a couple of times now and believed he had the hang of it. It was vital to judge the moment of impact and drop the point of his lance an instant before.

Too early and it would appear contrived. This would not suit Henry. The king insisted upon at least the appearance of a fine victory. Jamie wondered, irrelevantly, whether Henry actually believed in his own infallible prowess. Had he not allowed himself that momentary distraction, and had the sun not chosen that precise moment to emerge from behind a cloud and cast one searing beam down upon those below, and had that beam of sunlight not momentarily dazzled Jamie, then he might have accomplished his plan. He might have lowered his lance, taken the glancing blow, and allowed himself to be unseated. But he missed the exact moment. His lance remained steady for a second too long, his aim true. He caught the royal breastplate full on and sent His Glorious Majesty sailing through the air to land in an undignified and distinctly unregal heap upon the grass. There was a collective gasp from the spectators, then silence.

Jamie hauled on the reins, brought Thor to a stop, then turned to survey the scene behind him. Stewards and courtiers already surrounded the fallen monarch. Willing hands hauled the king back to his feet where he stood, tall and glistening in his highly polished and—until now—barely scuffed armour. A babble of solicitous inquiries reached Jamie’s ears. “Are you injured, sire?” “Such bad luck, sire. Your aim was true, you would have felled him for sure.” “A lucky blow, sire, no more.” Jamie urged Thor into a steady canter and returned to where his king swayed unsteadily on his feet. Perhaps His Majesty would take his defeat in good part. After all, no knight, however skilled, could expect to win every competition.

He leapt from his mount to drop to one knee before the king. “I thank you for your generosity, sire. Truly, you permitted me to win, I see that, as do all your courtiers. Your grace is beyond measure. I —” “Get out of my sight, Scottish cur.” The king’s usual jovial tone had lowered to a venomous hiss. Jamie ventured a glance up into the king’s handsome features and encountered only burning rage. Still he continued his attempt to repair the damage done to the fragile royal ego. “Sire, my apologies. I was momentarily blinded by the sunlight, and—” “I commanded you to be gone.

Do not let me set eyes upon you again.” “But, Your Majesty, I did not—” “You took me by surprise. I was not ready. All could see that. You are a cheat and without honour. There is no place here for such as you. This is a place for men of courtly manners and chivalry, not false Scottish adventurers. This may be the manner in which you conduct yourselves north of the border, but it will not be tolerated here. Be gone. Now.

” Jamie started to bristle. He could fawn and flatter as well as the next man—well, nearly—but he would not accept an accusation of cheating. “Your Majesty, you are mistaken. I…” “Our apologies, sire. My brother is tired, the sun, you see.” Robbie grabbed his elbow and tugged hard. “But—” “We have travelled far, Your Majesty,” Robbie continued backing away from the enraged monarch and towing his brother along with him. “And the ale here is strong. Perhaps we could attend you in your receiving chamber at your early convenience to swear our loyalty…” The king merely scowled. His handsome features twisted in petulant rage.

He waved a dismissive arm and turned to the courtiers closest. “Who were those two? See to it that they do not gain admittance to the palace, not in any circumstances.” “Scots, Your Majesty,” the red-robed cardinal who was Henry’s closest adviser could be heard to explain. “The sons of Blair McGregor. They will be banished from the field and you need not lay eyes upon them again.” Neither of the McGregors objected to that outcome. Within the hour they were leaving Greenwich and heading north to the relative sanity of the borders. * * * Ashingburn Manor, Dorset, England January 1513 “Aaaagh!” Eleanor let out a high-pitched shriek and declared herself quite convinced her body was about to split in two. “There, there, my lady. ‘Twill soon be over.

” The midwife, Nellie Bloom, whose duties involved helping out in the kitchens and laundry when there were no babes to be birthed, offered such comfort as she might. She was a kindly enough woman but her fussing and solicitous mopping of Eleanor’s brow was doing little to expedite matters. Eleanor screamed again as another cramping pain wrapped her belly in an iron vise of sheer agony. As the contraction receded she managed to pant, waiting for the next, which was not long in coming. “The pains are frequent now. It cannot be much longer,” Nellie observed. “It has been the best part of a day already,” came the anxious response from the woman who waited at the foot of the bed. Lady Elisabeth Falconer, Countess of Ashingburn, wrung her hands and peered helplessly at her labouring daughter. “Do you not have some potion that would speed matters up?” Nellie shook her head. “The Lord decides how long this will take.

He will guide us in our travails…” The countess let out an inelegant snort. A devout woman, her faith in the judgment and benevolent intent of the Almighty had been sorely tried these recent months. First, her precious daughter had been summoned to Greenwich to attend the young Queen Katherine, despite having no experience of life at court and no relatives there to support or guide her. Or, as it turned out, to protect her. Within three months of taking up her duties in the queen’s service, poor Eleanor had attracted the attention of a certain Richard Culpepper. Despite being already married, Culpepper had made no secret of his desire for the newest lady in waiting. At twenty-one, Eleanor was past the very first flush of youth but even so, she was completely lacking in experience in the ways and wiles of men and had no notion whatsoever of the lengths they might go to get what they wanted. Culpepper wanted Eleanor, and he had taken her. In the gardens at Vauxhall, after a night-time banquet and soiree. He had contrived to separate Eleanor from the rest of the ladies and as soon as he had her alone and in a secluded alcove he had forced her to the ground.

Too frightened to scream for help, Eleanor had submitted to her attacker’s demands. After, he had straightened her skirts and accompanied her back to the ladies’ apartments in the palace where he took his leave as though nothing amiss had occurred. Lady Falconer had heard all of this from Eleanor when the girl arrived home in disgrace. Weeping, betrayed, and pregnant, as soon as her condition became known the queen had demanded an explanation. Eleanor had supplied one, only to be called a liar and a whore. Richard Culpepper, one of His Majesty’s closest friends and part of the royal inner circle, flatly denied any coercion and instead claimed that Eleanor had flung herself at him. None doubted the word of a close associate of the king himself and Eleanor was promptly banished. Her reputation in tatters, her future ruined, the earl and countess nevertheless welcomed their daughter back and saw no cause to disbelieve her account of the events at Vauxhall. And now, six months after her unexpected return, Eleanor lay writhing in her bed, labouring to bring forth the bastard planted in her by the king’s crony. Eleanor let out another unearthly shriek and the countess rushed to her side.

She took her hand and squeezed, urging her daughter to push at the same time as Nellie delved beneath the blankets for sight of the emerging infant. “The head! I see the head,” Nellie announced. “It will be soon now…” Eleanor screeched again, and Nellie let out a triumphant shout as though she and not the sweating, exhausted girl in the bed had done the hard work. “It is here. I have it. A girl. A beautiful, healthy girl.” Nellie dumped the slippery, bloodstained scrap of humanity in the startled countess’s arms and proceeded to do whatever remained needful beneath the blankets. Stunned, Lady Elisabeth peered down into the crumpled features. She had dreaded this moment, half-expected to detest her grandchild on sight given the vile nature of her conception and the dire consequences for her beloved daughter.

Instead, she was at once consumed by a wondrous and all-encompassing love. The baby girl was perfect, quite, quite exquisite. “Mama, can I hold her? Is she all right?” Eleanor reached for her baby and Lady Elisabeth relinquished the now squirming infant. Eleanor held the child to her breast and guided the tiny rosebud of a mouth toward her nipple. The baby needed little in the way of urging and within moments of entering the world was taking her first meal. “She is beautiful,” Lady Elisabeth breathed, barely able to comprehend this day’s events. “An adorable little girl. What shall we name her?” “Cecily. She shall be Cecily,” Eleanor murmured, already half asleep. “Yes,” Lady Elisabeth agreed.

“That would suit her very nicely.” A granddaughter, perfect in every way. And her daughter, safely delivered through her ordeal. Perhaps God was merciful after all. The countess sank into a chair beside the bed and allowed her tears to fall freely.


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