by A. K. Naten
For disclaimers, etc., see Intro.
Gwynneth sat in the library holding a thick book of prayers and meditations, her eyes only half reading the words in front of her. They had just concluded the evening meal and although the Marchioness was tired, she was too restless to retire to her chambers for the evening. For the past two days she'd had an uneasy feeling in the back of her mind, and she was scarcely able to sleep or even think about anything except Anton's whereabouts, and his well-being.
She glanced over at her mother-in-law who sat in another chair, reading a similar book. A tiny smile tugged at the young Lady's lips as she thought about how much Marina's attitude toward her had changed. The older woman had become gracious and kindly with her, even motherly as she inquired after Gwynneth's health and offered bits of advice when they talked about her pregnancy and the baby. Truth be known, Gwynneth was glad to have another woman – especially another mother – to talk to about the impending birth. She was nervous about it and had at least a hundred questions and fears. She was becoming increasingly uncomfortable as she grew bigger and bigger, but Marina calmly reassured her that everything would be fine.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the castle steward's knock on the library door. Both she and Marina looked up at the thin man who stood in the doorway.
"Begging your pardon, My Lady," Albert said, nodding toward Gwynneth. "There are two gentlemen here to see you."
Gwynneth frowned and glanced over at Marina, who met her gaze with equal surprise and concern. "Did they say what it was regarding?" Gwynneth asked.
"No, My Lady. Only that it was most...urgent." Albert's eyes nervously flitted over to the Marchioness Dowager.
Gwynneth's stomach immediately clenched and an intense feeling of dread seized her by the throat. Tossing her book aside, she rose out of the chair and followed Albert to the great hall, Marina right on her heels.
The two noblewomen entered the hall, finding two armed warriors waiting for them. Marina immediately recognized them as Weldon guardsmen, men who were under Anton's command, and her heart plummeted.
"Lady Gwynneth, Lady Marina," the elder of the two guards greeted as both men bowed to each woman, "My sincere apologies for disturbing you."
Marina waved the notion off, "Quite alright. What urgent business brings you here at this hour?"
The younger man's eyes danced back and forth between the two women. "W-We bring you news of the war—"
"Where is Lord Anton?" Gwynneth interrupted suddenly.
The older guardsman looked at her mournfully, "Forgive me, Milady...but...uh," he hesitated, truly hating to be the bearer of the news.
"Out with it man! Where is he?" Lady Marina spat impatiently.
"I-I'm afraid that Lord Anton has fallen in battle."
Marina gasped and brought a hand to her mouth. Gwynneth stood stock still, unable to grasp the meaning of the horrible words. Then she began shaking her head slowly. "No," she finally said, her voice low, "No, it can't be true," she rasped tremulously, "it's not possible."
"I'm so very sorry, Milady, but—" The guard began to offer meekly.
"NO!" Gwynneth suddenly shouted, shocking everyone in the room. Tears began to fill her eyes and she shook her head more vigorously.
Marina reached out to grab her shoulder, "Gwynneth..." she began, but the blonde angrily shook off her hand, whirling and shouting at everyone.
"No! No! This cannot happen! I shall not accept it! I shall not accept that he's gone!" Gwynneth cried out loudly.
"He isn't gone, Milady!" the guard interjected. Gwynneth spun around to look at him with huge eyes. "He's badly injured, but he is alive."
Tears spilled down her cheeks and Gwynneth stared at the men before bringing her hands up to cover her face, trying to reign in her feelings of devastation.
"The rest of the war party should be arriving the morrow. Sir Richard suggested we come ahead to ask you to ready your physician to receive and treat Milord's grievous injuries."
Gwynneth didn't answer, she just stood with her hands on her face, trembling and staring at the floor, trying to comprehend exactly what was happening.
Marina stepped toward her daughter-in-law and placed a reassuring hand on her back as she turned back to the men. "Thank you, good sirs. We shall make sure that everything is ready for Lord Anton's arrival."
The guards both nodded to her and bowed again as Marina directed her attention back to the stunned Gwynneth. Pausing a moment, Marina turned back to the guardsmen, "Gentlemen, would you..." she hesitated, her own emotions barely under control, "Would you please see to it that my son's transport is carried out swiftly, and with the utmost care." Her voice quavered uncharacteristically.
The guardsmen could only guess what the woman must be feeling. The elder man crossed his arm over his chest as he spoke, "You have my word, Milady," he said, bowing to her fully.
As the two men turned and left them, Marina placed both hands on Gwynneth's shoulders and gently began to steer her away. They'd only taken a few steps when the blonde's knees buckled and she collapsed, fainting dead away in her mother-in-law's arms.
Marina stood up at the tower parapet, a brisk breeze chilling her as she watched the party of warriors and knights approach Weldon Manor from a distance. They moved slowly, the two horsemen in front carrying Weldon's flags, announcing their arrival. As they crept closer, Marina could make out a horse-drawn cart in the center, surrounded by knights. She wondered if Anton was still alive.
She had somehow managed to convince Gwynneth to stay in her room, knowing that the young Lady could not be present when Victor examined the man who was actually a woman, but also knowing that Gwynneth was in too fragile a state and wouldn't be able to handle the situation. If Anton's body was badly mangled, Marina wasn't sure that she would be able to handle it either. She did not know what to expect. Closing her eyes, Marina drew a deep breath and released it unsteadily before turning and heading down to the courtyard, determined to bravely receive her injured daughter and personally oversee her care.
When Marina reached the courtyard, Victor was already at the cart barking orders to some of the men. Richard informed Victor that they had tried to remove the imbedded crossbow arrows, but when Anton began to bleed excessively after removing the one from his thigh, Richard decided they should stop. Instead, they just broke off the ends of the wooden shafts and left the two remaining arrowheads intact. Victor responded with agreement, telling Richard that his decision was a wise one. Had they yanked all the arrows out, Anton would have certainly bled to death by now.
"When I give the word, lift altogether and place him quickly onto the stretcher, like so," the elderly physician motioned over the canvas stretcher. The four servants holding the narrow cot looked on fearfully as Victor pulled them closer to the cart. "Don't jostle him, and for God's sake, don't drop him!" Marina's sudden appearance gave Victor pause. "My Lady," the old man acknowledged as all others bowed their heads respectfully.
Marina didn't acknowledge them though. She walked around to the open end of the cart, her eyes only interested in seeking out her daughter. A soft gasp escaped Marina's lips and she raised a hand to her mouth as she beheld her injured child.
Anton lay in a bed of straw, still dressed in her chain mail and tunic. She was covered by her cape, the bright royal blue and white material now discolored by ominous stains. It was gruesomely obvious where Anton's injuries were. Large splotches of sticky-looking dark red seeped through the material of the cape, staining the left shoulder, left side, and right thigh area. Streaks of dirt and speckles of dark red covered the cart, and the pale straw beneath Anton's body was discolored with blood.
"Begging your pardon, My Lady, but you should not be here, witnessing this." Victor gently placed a hand on her arm.
"I had to see. I had to know." Marina choked out as tears began to make their way down her cheeks. She turned to Victor, "Tell me, does he live?"
"Yes, My Lady, but barely. We need to get him inside quickly."
Marina nodded and backed away from the wagon, watching mutely as Victor calmly gave his orders and Anton's body was lifted from the cart and into the stretcher. Marina walked behind as the men carried their Lord into a chamber that Victor had readied. Settling Anton onto the bed, Victor thanked everyone and then quickly shooed them out of the room.
Marina stepped up to the bed, gazing at her daughter's ghastly countenance. She bit her bottom lip as she reached out to push a lock of Anton's dark, damp hair off her forehead. Her face was pallid and her skin cool to the touch. She had small abrasions and bruises on her chin and forehead, and a small cut on the bridge of her nose. A jagged cut marred her left cheek, the now dried blood from it having mixed with dirt to leave messy streaks across her face.
"You and I are the only ones who can treat her." Victor's voice cut through the silence. "Are you up to the task, My Lady?"
Marina turned to look at him woefully, "I have to be."
Victor nodded. "Then let us get started straight away."
The task of removing the arrows from Anton's body was a grisly one, and it took its toll on both Victor and Marina. Anton's body was covered with numerous marks; whether all were made by arrow strikes or something else, they didn't know. Thankfully, only three arrows seemed to have completely penetrated her chain mail to do serious damage. Only three, but those three were plenty.
As far as Victor could tell, the wounds were deep, but by some miracle, none had severed any major arteries nor punctured any vital organs. The arrow bolts were equipped with short bodkin tips, meant for piercing chain mail and armor. Whoever had fired the arrows meant to injure or maim their prey very thoroughly. Had Anton not been wearing mail, she'd have been dead many times over.
The upper thigh wound was fleshy but very deep, and it bled profusely. The shoulder wound was not as deep, but the arrow had imbedded itself in the soft tissues between the bones, and Victor feared that there could be unknown damage to the ligaments and/or nerves. The chest injury could have and should have been much worse than it was, but again, by some stroke of luck, the arrow seemed to have hit and been deflected by some of Anton's lower ribs, which stopped it from piercing her lungs or even her heart. The chest injury was complicated by several of the ribs being broken, and Victor worried that Anton's lungs may have been punctured or damaged anyway. For now, all he could do was watch the young Lord carefully and try to stave off infection as best he could. It would not be easy.
Marina sighed as she exited Anton's room. She closed the door and leaned against it for a moment, closing her eyes wearily. She was exhausted. For two days and two nights, she'd kept vigil at her daughter's side, watching and waiting. For two days and nights, Anton hadn't made a sound nor moved a muscle. Victor warned that the young woman had lost a lot of blood, and that she may have lapsed into a coma, possibly never awakening again. But Marina refused to give in to that thought. She knew that Anton was strong – not only physically, but mentally as well – and she knew that if there was anyone who could battle back from injuries like these, it was her Anton.
Victor had sought out Sir Richard, who informed the physician and Lady Marina of the circumstances that caused Anton's injuries. Both were shocked to learn of Gerrod's treachery and betrayal, and Marina was furious. She didn't know Gerrod, but she'd never trusted him, nor did she trust his father, the Earl, and their supposed alliance with Weldon. She had already told Anton this; she had warned her not to trust the young knight, even though he was Gwynneth's brother. Now that her instincts had proven correct, she wanted to rail against someone for not heeding her warnings. If Anton were lucid and well, she would take her frustration out on her. Seeing how that was not the case, however, she knew she had to hold her fury in check. Marina told herself that the important thing right now was just to get Anton well again. She was not the type of person who prayed frequently, but as she wiped a hand across her face and gathered her thoughts, she decided that she would go to the chapel and pray. She had only taken two steps when a soft voice called to her.
"Lady Marina?" The Marchioness Dowager turned to find blue-green eyes peering at her worriedly.
Gwynneth had stayed away from Anton's room for the past two days. At first she did so willingly. She was still reeling from the shock of Anton being so terribly injured, and she felt quite sick and unwell in general. Both Marina and Victor had managed to persuade the young Lady to keep her distance, insisting that it was too gruesome and would therefore be too stressful for her. But now that a few days had passed, Gwynneth decided that she wanted to see her husband, needed to see him. She had to verify his condition for herself and find out what was going on. She trusted Marina and Victor, but she also knew that they tended to be a little over protective.
"How is he?" Gwynneth queried, taking in Marina's uncharacteristic haggard appearance.
Marina straightened herself and affected an air of confidence and calm, despite being caught off guard by her daughter-in-law. "His condition is unchanged, I'm afraid. Still no movement of any kind. Still not awake."
Gwynneth closed her eyes and nodded. She didn't know much about caring for injuries or medical practices, but she knew that it was not a good sign that Anton had not awakened. Opening her eyes, she lifted her chin, "I'd like to see him."
Marina tensed. She wasn't prepared to let Gwynneth into the room yet. She wasn't sure that Anton was properly covered up and her body concealed. "I don't think that would be wise, Gwynneth. I don't think—"
"I know you don't think I'm prepared to handle it," Gwynneth said, "but I assure you, I am ready to see him." She looked Marina squarely in the eyes. "I need to see him, My Lady. Please."
The look in Gwynneth's eyes was a mixture of desperation and determination, and Marina knew that she would not be able to keep the young woman at bay. "Very well, but just for a moment." She sighed, "Allow me first to go and make sure that he is...prepared. Or rather, that there is nothing...too unpleasant..." Marina stammered as she struggled for a reason to go in and make sure Anton was at least covered. "Nothing that you don't need to witness, I mean. Just give me a moment to inform Victor." She quickly opened the door just enough to slip inside, closing it in Gwynneth's face.
Gwynneth frowned at her mother-in-law's strange behavior. It gave her an uneasy feeling and she suddenly feared that perhaps Anton was worse than Marina and Victor had been letting on. They hadn't given her a full explanation of the nature of Anton's injuries – what if he had been horribly maimed? What if he was near death and they had been hiding it from her? The young Lady didn't have time to contemplate further as the chamber door opened and Marina told her to come in.
She walked into the darkened room with trepidation. It smelled of bloody gore and stale perspiration and Gwynneth's stomach churned. The canopy drapes were partially drawn around the bed, giving her only a glimpse of Anton's body. Slowly she walked up closer, her eyes widening and her hand going to her mouth as she drew in a shaky, breathy gasp.
The man lying on the bed looked nothing like her husband. The pale, thin, lifeless looking person that she beheld was nothing like her strong, robust, vital Anton. "My God." Gwynneth whispered, her voice quavering as tears quickly filled her eyes.
Her gaze darted all over Anton's body. Though he was covered with a light blanket, it was obvious where his injuries were. His shoulders were exposed, and she could see the blood-spotted dressing wrapped around his left shoulder. Victor had the blanket pushed aside at his right thigh as he attended to an injury there, and Anton's chest looked lumpy, indicating a probable injury or bandaged area there as well.
Gwynneth looked up to Anton's face. The face she once held so dear and youthfully handsome was now sickly gray and marred with cuts and bruises. She shook her head as tears began to slip down her cheeks, "What happened to him?" her voice was no more than a raspy whisper.
Victor and Marina exchanged looks with one another, knowing that Gwynneth was not aware of the events that lead to Anton's injuries. "He was hit with several crossbow arrows, My Lady."
The young woman frowned, "Crossbow arrows?"
"Yes, My Lady."
Gwynneth looked at Victor with wide, tearful eyes. Her emotions went from sorrow to horror as she thought about the dream she'd had so often. In her mind's eye, she'd seen Anton being shot by arrows, and now she was standing here, hearing that it had all come true. A niggling feeling of dread also stirred inside her as she remembered other aspects of the dreams as well. She returned her gaze to her husband. "Was anyone else injured like this?"
Again Victor hesitated as he flicked his eyes to Marina's. "No, My Lady. Just My Lord."
Gwynneth's eyes widened further and she turned back to Victor. "Anton was the only one injured? Are you certain?" Victor nodded solemnly and again looked to Marina for help. Gwynneth noticed and turned to regard the Marchioness Dowager. "Do they know who was responsible for doing this?" She had to know if her dream was completely true.
"Oh yes. They know." Marina stepped toward Gwynneth. "But it wasn't just one person. Anton was ambushed."
Gwynneth's eyes fairly bulged. "What?" Her voice revealed her dismay.
"Yes. Apparently the battle was over when someone began shooting at him from a nearby wooded area. He rushed into the woods and was immediately surrounded and shot to pieces by an entire regiment of crossbowmen." Her voice was hard and her eyes glittered as her anger began to rear its head.
Gwynneth's mouth opened in shock. Hearing Marina's words, she knew immediately who was responsible for her husband's dreadful injuries. She knew that her greatest fear had come true without even hearing another word. But as Marina stepped closer to her, she realized that she was about to hear the confirmation.
"Anton was intentionally targeted. He was lured into the woods, like a lamb to slaughter." Marina's eyes barely concealed her fury. "He was set up and ambushed by your brother, Gwynneth."
Gwynneth let loose a gasp of disbelief and she shook her head, not wanting to hear the rest.
"Yes, it's true. Richard told us everything." Marina continued, "Gerrod drew him into the woods and then instructed his own mercenaries to loose their arrows on him."
Marina's words assaulted Gwynneth's ears and she brought her hands to her mouth as tears streamed from her eyes.
"Gerrod tried to kill Anton." Marina's voice quavered slightly as she ground the words out through clenched teeth. She locked eyes with her daughter-in-law, her anger lashing out at the young woman. Marina knew Gwynneth wasn't to blame, but it was so difficult to reign in her feelings of hurt. She wanted to punish someone for the cruel injustice done to her daughter. "For whatever reason, your brother wanted Anton dead." She turned her eyes toward Anton's motionless body. "And he may yet succeed."
Gwynneth was speechless. She could only stare at her husband's body as Marina's words spun round and round inside her head. Only when Marina's burning eyes came back to again hold her in silent, angry contempt did she manage to find her voice. "I...I-I must go and find Richard. I must hear for myself what happened." She turned and quickly fled the room.
Once alone, Marina came and sat down on the side of the bed. Victor watched the Marchioness Dowager for a moment, weighing his words before he spoke. "You shouldn't take your anger out on her, My Lady. I highly doubt that she had any knowledge of her brother's treachery."
Marina sighed and picked up a damp cloth, dabbing Anton's forehead lightly. "I can't help myself, Victor. Her flesh and blood is responsible for this, this...butchery." her hand motioned over Anton's body. "I am only thankful that Richard succeeded in slaying the bastard. I hope he rots in Hell." She sniffed as tears made their way down her face. "If Anton doesn't live...I don't know what I'll do." The words came out in a whisper.
Victor reached out to touch Marina's shoulder, bringing her eyes to his, "I plan on doing everything in my power to save her, My Lady. But you must banish your anger and instead, have faith." His eyes gently beseeched her.
She nodded. "I am trying, Victor." She turned her gaze back to Anton. "I am trying."
Rather than go and find Sir Richard right away, Gwynneth instead retreated to her private chambers. The sight of her injured husband and the news that her brother had made good on his threat to harm him made the young Marchioness sick to her stomach. Gwynneth felt responsible, somehow, for the turn of events. She felt as though she should have told Anton everything Gerrod had divulged to her. Perhaps if she had, Anton could have done something, anything. Perhaps he would not be in the condition he was now. She laid on her bed and cried for a long while, relenting only when her body insisted.
It was more than obvious to Gwynneth that Lady Marina was upset and angry, and although it seemed unfair for the older woman to vent her frustrations on Gwynneth, the young Lady understood. She was angry and upset also, and she wanted Gerrod to be found and punished for what he'd done. She didn't blame Marina for feeling the way she did, but she hated to think that the relationship they had been carefully building between them would now be destroyed because of Gerrod's ruthlessness. She didn't want to be at odds with her mother-in-law. With Anton being so badly injured, Gwynneth knew that she and Marina would need to help each other and pull together, not apart. They needed to concentrate on Anton, and they needed to do it in harmony.
Gwynneth needed to go and find Richard. She had to find out exactly what had happened to Anton, but she also hoped to find out whether or not Gerrod and his hit-men were being pursued, or captured, or what. If she could prove to Marina that some kind of justice was being carried out and she could show that she was in favor of Gerrod being punished, then perhaps the older woman would see that Gwynneth was on her side and that they did not need to be at odds.
Gwynneth sent a servant boy to go find Richard and request him to come to the Manor to speak with her. A few hours passed until Richard finally appeared, and they went to one of the small sitting rooms to talk in a more private, casual atmosphere.
Richard was a little apprehensive and feared that the Lady Gwynneth blamed him for her husband's injuries, and that perhaps she had requested an audience with him so that she might reprimand or punish him in some way. Being Lord Anton's friend and his most trusted knight, Richard felt responsible for the dire situation his Liege and Lord was now in. He felt as though he'd let all of Weldon down.
The Marchioness excused the servants and directed Richard to sit, but as she sat down, Richard unexpectedly came and stood before her. "Milady, before you begin, I...I feel that I need to apologize," Richard began, his hands nervously clenching at his sides.
Gwynneth frowned up at him, "Apologize, Sir Richard?"
"Yes, Milady. 'Twas my fault that My Lord was injured. I should have been at his side, and I was not; therefore, I take full responsibility."
Gwynneth pursed her lips together, "Sir, before any kind of blame or responsibility is assigned, I think you should tell me everything that happened, alright?" She was calm and composed, wanting to make the knight feel at ease.
"Yes, Milady. Of course." Richard remained standing stiffly in front of Gwynneth. "The battle was all but over when—"
"Richard, please, sit down." Gwynneth interrupted, reaching out and gently touching his arm. "I don't wish for us to be so formal. This is not an inquisition. I just wish for us to speak openly, as friends."
The knight audibly sighed and nodded, "Yes, Milady. Thank you." He eased his tall frame down into one of the large chairs. "As I was saying, the battle was over, for the most part. We were out on the open field, assessing the carnage and looking for survivors. I heard someone cry out and looked up across the field, realizing that it was My Liege. He had his sword raised and was yelling as he charged off into a wooded area. I assumed he had spotted a fleeing enemy and was pursuing him." He paused, looking regretfully at Gwynneth, "He did not call to me to give chase, and I did not follow him. I assumed that there was not more than one person, and that My Lord would easily be in control. I know now that I was quite dreadfully wrong."
Gwynneth could feel the tears welling in her eyes, but still she nodded and encouraged Richard to continue.
The knight drew a deep breath before going on. "My Lord disappeared into the woods and I turned my attention back to the field. But then I heard...noises...a commotion. I heard the frightened whinnying of My Lord's steed...someone shouting out. I sensed that something was very wrong." Richard's gaze dropped to the floor and he spoke in a quiet, flat tone. "When I rode into the woods, I saw several crossbowmen standing at the ready, and I saw My Lord kneeling on the forest floor, arrows protruding from his body. And standing above him holding a sword, was Gerrod." Richard looked up at Gwynneth. "Your brother, Milady. He held his sword in his hands above his head, preparing to bring it down upon My Lord's neck."
Gwynneth bit down on her bottom lip and closed her eyes, tears spilling out as she absorbed the words. Images from her dreams flashed through her mind and she felt like she wanted to scream from the horror of it all.
"I reacted in the only manner I could, Milady. I had to defend My Liege." Richard's voice was unsteady. "I hurled my sword at Gerrod and speared him with it." Gwynneth's eyes flew open and she gasped. Richard nodded at her sadly, apologetically. "I slew him, Milady."
The Marchioness could not speak. The news that her brother was dead was yet another shock in a seemingly never-ending chain of horrific surprises.
Richard felt remorseful for the first time as he watched Lady Gwynneth cover her mouth with her hand and try to remain calm. "I am truly sorry Milady." Richard whispered. "I had to do it."
Gwynneth closed her eyes again, moving her hand to her chest. She could feel her heart pounding and she took a moment to gather her thoughts. "Do not...apologize for meting out a punishment that was well-deserved, Sir Richard." Gwynneth swallowed against the lump in her throat and sat back in the chair, trying hard to control her surging emotions. "Gerrod surely knew what the consequences of his betrayal were, do you not think, Sir?" she said, finally looking up at the knight.
"Yes, Milady. I'm quite sure he did. But still, he was your brother—"
"Do not call him my brother!" Gwynneth snapped, her eyes suddenly flashing. She closed her eyes, calming herself before returning her gaze to the steely one of the knight before her. "He tried to murder my husband. I disavow any blood relation who is a ruthless, traitorous, murdering heathen. I disavow them, and I demand retribution for their crime."
"Gerrod has paid for his crime, Milady." Richard said solemnly, his dark eyes holding Gwynneth's. "He has paid with his life."
Gwynneth nodded and she blinked her eyes long, trying to chase away the tears. She rose from her chair and came to stand behind it, resting her hands on the high back and gazing up at the ceiling as her mind swirled with a hundred different thoughts. "My father needs to be informed of these happenings." She finally said, almost to herself.
Richard drew a deep breath, hating that he was going to have to give the Lady even more dire news. "Ah...M-Milady," he began as Gwynneth looked at him. "Again, I am truly sorry, but..." She frowned as he hesitated. "I regret to inform you that your father passed on, some time ago." Gwynneth's mouth dropped open and the color completely drained from her face. "I had already begun inquiring about your father, you see, knowing that he would need to be informed of his son's death." Richard's voice was soft. "I was told that he died several fortnights ago, and that Gerrod had already installed himself as Earl."
The young Lady just silently stared, her hands tightly gripping the chair. It was all too much to absorb. "I...I can't believe it." she finally murmured. "How could he have died? H-He wasn't ill...I don't understand. Why wouldn't Gerrod inform me of this?" She looked up at Richard, confusion clearly written on her face.
Richard looked back at her with sympathy. "Milady, from what I could gather...I fear that Gerrod may have had a hand in your father's death."
Gwynneth's face paled again and she placed a hand on her chest, feeling that her heart was about to tear itself in two.
"I believe he intended to keep it a secret from you, from everyone." The young Lady began to sway, looking like she was about to faint, so Richard quickly came to her side, reaching out to steady her carefully. He guided her back to the chair, sitting her down and then kneeling in front of her, "Milady, there is no way anyone could have foretold these events. Gerrod was conniving and elusive. I have been told that he was responsible for putting many people in their graves, all because he was obsessed with power and control. He wanted far more than Clarendon could offer."
Gwynneth stared at the floor for a moment, "R-Right before Anton left for battle, Gerrod told me that he'd had Aldred killed." Her voice trembled as she continued to stare, her eyes not blinking. "H-He told me to keep quiet about it. He threatened me...and Anton. But I still tried to warn Anton about him. I feared Gerrod would try to harm him. ...And he did." Tears slid down Gwynneth's pale cheeks as she began to weep.
Richard nodded. "You mustn't blame yourself for any of this, Milady. Gerrod deceived everyone." Richard took in the Lady's shocked, disbelieving face. "No one was aware of what he had been doing. I did not know. Lord Anton did not know." Gwynneth looked up. "If we had known, we would have stopped him long ago. You must believe that."
Gwynneth nodded slowly, "I do." They were silent for a long moment. "What becomes of Clarendon now?" she thought aloud. "Who was in charge while Gerrod was away?" She directed her gaze back to Richard, wondering if he had the answers.
Because Richard had already investigated the situation, he did. "Someone by the name of Percival. I believe he was Gerrod's steward."
The Lady frowned and shook her head, "I know of no one named Percival. Henry was my father's steward."
"I'm certain that Gerrod installed his own staff at Clarendon to do his bidding, Milady. Surely your father's servants are all gone by now."
Gwynneth nodded slowly. "Yes, I'm sure you are correct, sir." She sighed and relaxed back into the chair, staring off again as she contemplated the situation. Gwynneth realized that she was now the only remaining heir of Clarendon – unless of course, Gerrod had sired a son, or even a daughter, with someone – but she had no way of knowing that. Still, she knew that it would be difficult, even dangerous, for her to go there and assess the situation personally. She certainly could not go now, given Anton's condition and her very pregnant state of being. Even if she managed to secure the small kingdom and bring it under her control, she could never rule there permanently. Her home was here, at Weldon.
Turning back to Richard, Gwynneth fixed him with a grave look. "Richard, I wonder if I might ask your assistance with something."
Richard saw her serious, determined countenance and stood up. "Of course, Milady. What is it you require of me?"
Gwynneth drew a deep breath. "I cannot leave my husband's side right now and I am, obviously, in no condition to travel to Clarendon and investigate the circumstances there." Her hands swept across her protruding belly. "It seems likely that Gerrod's people will be governing it as he directed, which, I expect, is far different from the way my father would have governed. And, I also expect that his vast following of knights and mercenaries have returned there, although, now that Gerrod is dead..." She looked at Richard with question.
"I know not what became of his men, Milady. I can only imagine that Gerrod had designated someone as his second-in-command, and that this person has perhaps taken over as the leader of Clarendon. I'm certain they don't expect you to come back and attempt to make a claim on it, Milady."
Gwynneth pursed her lips and looked away for a moment. "Sir Richard," she began, looking back at the knight with determination, "would you do something for me? Something of great importance."
Richard crossed an arm over his chest and bowed slightly. "I am at your service, Milady."
"Would you take some men – as many knights and warriors as you might need – and go to Clarendon, on my behalf, and win it back for me?"
Richard stood to his full height, "Lady Gwynneth, I would be happy to bring Clarendon back into rightful hands." He bowed again, "And it would be an honor to do this for you."
Gwynneth nodded at him. "Thank you, good sir. I realize that what I'm asking of you is difficult and dangerous, but if you succeed, I promise to reward you well."
"No reward is necessary, Milady. Seeing Clarendon and its people under your control will be reward enough."
"We shall see, Richard. We shall see."
...To Be Continued...
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