Season of Honor – Alexa Aston

DARALYS MARİLLAC SAT beside Lady Anne’s bed as the baroness slept. The noblewoman lost another babe a week ago and would never regain her strength. Daralys knew Lady Anne would not see the new year. Even someone without Daralys’ gift would realize the noblewoman’s body had finally given out. At least she had done her duty to her worthless husband and given him three healthy sons over the last decade. Dipping a cloth into a bowl of nearby water, Daralys bathed Lady Anne’s face again, hoping to calm the fever that raged through her depleted body. “Daralys?” the baroness croaked. “’Tis you?” “Aye, my lady. I’m sorry if I awakened you.” She helped the noblewoman sit up and brought a wooden bowl to her lips. “Drink,” she urged. Lady Anne sipped the broth and then pushed it away. She fell back against the pillows. “I’m dying, aren’t I? You can tell me.” “You are,” Daralys said softly.

“The healer and I have done all we can for you.” “Take my hand.” She did as asked, knowing what Lady Anne wanted. The truth—about the future. Daralys had been different from birth. At first, she could help others locate something they’d misplaced. All she did was close her eyes and see where the object lay. As she grew older, she sensed things about people and if she touched them, she knew events that had occurred in their past and those that would take place in the future. It started small, seeing that Cook would burn her hand or that her father’s horse would throw a shoe. As she grew older, her gift expanded.

She’d told no one about it over the years. Her mother died giving birth to Daralys’ brother. Her father had no time for a girl and sent her to foster with Lord Harold and Lady Anne from a young age. She hadn’t been home in more than three years, remaining at Vauville Castle even during the traditional Christmas and summer breaks. The only reason her father called her home three years ago was to allow her to meet her betrothed, a handsome young man of ten and nine. Her intended had grasped her shoulders and bestowed a kiss upon her cheek—and Daralys had known he would be dead within the year. Still, she had smiled at him and allowed the betrothal contracts to be signed, knowing no one would believe her if she spoke of what she knew and if she did, they might call her a witch. Her father sent a missive that told her of her betrothed’s death six months later. Daralys couldn’t read so Lady Anne had read it to her. When she didn’t react to the news, the baroness asked her why she wasn’t upset.

Daralys let slip that she had known it would happen. The noblewoman pressed her and, finally, Daralys confessed to what she’d always kept hidden in her heart. Lady Anne was the closest thing she had to a mother and she desperately needed to tell someone before she went mad. The noblewoman had been interested in all Daralys shared and they’d grown closer, thanks to the shared confidence. Lady Anne never asked anything about herself, only allowing Daralys to use her gift to help others in secret. She’d been able to tell the castle’s healer to go to a tenant who was giving birth and having a difficult time, which helped save the lives of both mother and child. She encouraged Lady Anne to send for her second son and have him brought home two weeks early from where he fostered. The boy arrived safely even as a fever and whooping cough broke out where he’d come from, killing several of the pages and squires who fostered beside him. It even helped to find the son of Vauville’s gatekeeper. The boy turned up missing and his distraught parents had informed the baroness of his disappearance.

Lady Anne had taken Daralys with her to visit the couple in their cottage, giving her time to touch a ball the boy played with. Immediately, Daralys saw the child in the forest, his leg badly broken. She’d spoken up, urging the baroness to send a search party to the woods. The boy had been found and carried home, his leg set by the healer. As she took Lady Anne’s hand, she closed her eyes. Images flooded her. She saw the baroness as a child, laughing as she chased a butterfly. The panic she experienced the first time her courses came. The kiss sealing her vows to Lord Harold. The pain and then joy that followed the birth of her first child.

Then death, the darkness closing around her. Daralys forced her eyes open and saw the gentle gaze of the dying woman beside her. “I do not need to know about my death. It comes for me. I cannot prevent it. I merely want to know if my sons will be happy.” She took a deep breath and held fast to the baroness’ hand, allowing her thoughts to drift, seeing what would unfold. Opening her eyes, she pressed a kiss to Lady Anne’s hand. “The war with France will heat up more than a decade from now. Your three sons will fight with the Duke of Lancaster as he invades France.

” She paused. “Your oldest and youngest will survive. They will wed and father eight children between them. Your middle boy will die bravely on the battlefield.” Lady Anne’s face crumpled. She fell back against the pillows, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I am glad two of my sons will go on. I will be waiting for my other boy and greet him with open arms. Thank you for telling me.” “I hope knowing what you do will give you some peace in your last days.

” The baroness smiled weakly. “And what’s to become of you, my sweet Daralys, once I am gone?” Her eyes flicked over her charge. “You have not told me of who hurt you and I have been too weak and ill to ask. What will your father say when you return to him in your condition?” Daralys sensed her cheeks heating with shame. “I thought I had kept it from you, my lady.” “You have done a good job of hiding it. I’m sure no one else has guessed since you’ve rarely left my side during my confinement and after the birth. You have been not only my companion and nurse but a daughter to me, my child. I only wish I could have protected you more.” She paused, her breathing more labored.

“Go. There is nothing more you can do for me. Take care of yourself now.” Her eyelids fluttered and closed, giving Daralys time to compose the fear running through her. She had ignored the early signs when her monthly flow ceased and her breasts grew tender. Then her belly began to swell and she could no longer ignore what would occur. Soon, she felt the babe’s kicks and would rub her hands in small circles, trying to calm the life within her. The gift which she used to help others without their knowledge had never been one available to her. She had no idea what her future held. What her father would say when she returned to his household carrying a babe created in anger.

Daralys could only hope it would be born in love. Suddenly, a peace descended upon her and she knew this babe would have a home. It was called Kinwick. She knew the name. The castle lay two estates east from her father’s. A place called Wellbury stood between them. Daralys had no idea why she was supposed to go there but the urge to leave at once filled her. Mayhap her babe was supposed to be born at Kinwick. She knew from Lady Anne how long it took for a babe to come. Counting backward, she knew her time to deliver drew near.

She needed to leave Vauville. Today. Returning to her small bedchamber, Daralys looked about. She had a chest of clothing and an old pair of boots that she’d outgrown several years ago. She would need to travel light and decided to take nothing with her. She would leave tonight and decided that the gatekeeper might help her in this endeavor. Leaving the keep, she made her way to the blacksmith. His family and the gatekeeper’s shared rooms above the smithy’s shed. She nodded at the blacksmith, who gave her a ready smile as he pounded away, creating a new horseshoe. Daralys made her way up the stairs and knocked on the door.

The gatekeeper’s wife opened the door and drew her into an embrace. Somehow, the woman knew without being told that Daralys had seen exactly where her boy was as he lay injured in the forest and always treated her warmly. “I have need of a favor,” she told the woman. “Anything. My husband and I owe you a great deal.” Quickly, she explained what she needed and when she wanted to leave. “I will speak to my husband. It will be as you ask.” The woman pressed her lips together, no questions asked. “Thank you.

” Daralys returned to the keep and waited inside her bedchamber until it was time for the evening meal to commence. She made her way downstairs to the great hall, which filled with tenants, soldiers, and servants, and approached the dais where Lord Harold sat. “My lord? May I speak with you?” He stared at her a moment, as if trying to place her. Though she’d been under his roof a good ten years, Daralys was plain of face. The lord of Vauville only chased the skirts of the comely. Then he nodded, as if he’d finally realized who she was. “Aye, my lady. Does this regard my wife? Has her health improved?” “Nay, my lord. I fear Lady Anne is fading fast. You might wish to spend time with her this evening.

She will soon depart for Heaven.” The baron came to his wife’s chambers once or twice a week in order to get more sons off her. Once the noblewoman conceived, he rarely stopped by and hadn’t come to see her since she’d lost the last babe a week ago. Daralys despised the man but kept her face neutral, not revealing her feelings. He frowned. “I see. What do you need?” he asked impatiently, as if she prevented him from something more important as he took a sip of wine. “My father has requested that I return to Goldwell. He has found a husband for me.” “Is he sending a guard to escort you home?” “Aye.

They should arrive in the morning before mass.” Lord Harold looked relieved to be done with her. “Safe travels, then,” he said briskly, dismissing her as a servant arrived with his trencher. Daralys curtseyed and went to the kitchen. Cook had a tray prepared for her as she did every evening. “Lady Anne any better?” the stout woman asked. “Nay. She is most ill.” “I will pray for her. She is a good woman.

” Daralys took the tray to her room and ate both the meal intended for her and the bread and broth that was Lady Anne’s. The noblewoman hadn’t eaten bread in a week and only took a sip or two of broth each day. She wouldn’t miss this and Daralys could use the extra portion. After the meal ended and people returned the trestle tables to the walls, she took the tray down to the kitchen. She removed a small round of cheese and another loaf of bread when no one was looking and took these to her room, tying them into a scarf. Daralys wrapped her cloak about her and crept down the corridor to enter Lady Anne’s chamber a final time. The baroness lay sleeping, her breathing sporadic. Daralys doubted the noblewoman would last the night. She bent and kissed the woman’s brow and then left the room and the keep. Returning to the smithy’s shed, the gatekeeper’s wife awaited her.

Without a word, they went to the stables where the gatekeeper met them in front, a horse already saddled. “I’ve left young Bill at the gates,” the man said. “I told him my stomach was cramping and I’d be back shortly.” He hoisted Daralys onto the horse’s back and she tied the scarf around the saddle horn. “Are you sure you want to leave this way, my lady?” he asked. She nodded. “It’s what I’m meant to do. I have come to trust my instincts.” He patted her knee. “Your instincts brought our son home to us.

We can never repay you for helping to bring our boy home.” “You are now, by helping me to leave Vauville.” “I worry about you. Out on the road alone.” “God is with me,” she said with certainty. “Come.” He took the reins and led the horse across the bailey. His wife parted from them, returning to their rooms. As they came close to the front gates, he paused. “Wait here in the shadows.

I’ll send Bill to fetch the healer to find something to ease my stomach pains. Once he’s out of sight, I’ll open the gates enough for you to get out. Keep close to the castle walls and then break for the woods so no sentry will see you.” The gatekeeper returned to his post and, soon after, she saw a figure between a boy and a man hurry across the bailey. She waited until he rounded the corner and nudged the horse with her knees, turning him toward the gates. As Daralys approached, they swung open a ways and she moved through them quickly, keeping to the wall as suggested. With England at peace, Lord Harold only had a few men on duty at night, one watching in each direction away from the castle. That would be her saving grace. The soldiers stationed along the wall walk looked to prevent men from invading and didn’t watch for anyone leaving. The cold night was full of clouds blocking the moon from sight.

Daralys crept along the wall until it was time to make for the forest. She walked the horse out several paces and glanced over her shoulder to see if she could spy the sentry on her side. She did—and found him at the far end where the south and east walls intersected. He stood with his back to her, another soldier next to him. Thankful the two men conversed as they stared out to the east, she clicked her tongue and trotted the horse into the nearby woods. Their carelessness had let her escape without being seen. Since she’d told Lord Harold her escort party would arrive and depart before mass, he wouldn’t give her another thought. The feeling inside her told her she would be safe until she reached Kinwick. She knew home lay a few days to the south. From there, she would head east to her destination.

The babe kicked hard within her and she placed her hand across her belly. “You are going home, little one, to someone who will love you very much,” she promised. Daralys wondered who that someone might be.

.

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