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Authors: The Lady of the Castle

Iny Lorentz - The Marie Series 02

BOOK: Iny Lorentz - The Marie Series 02
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ALSO BY INY LORENTZ

 

The Wandering Harlot
(Marie series)

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

Text copyright © 2005 by Iny Lorentz

All rights reserved.

 

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

 

The Lady of the Castle
by Iny Lorentz, represented by Verlagsagentur Lianne Kolf, Tengstrasse 8, 80798 Munich, Germany, was first published in 2005 by Droemer Knaur, as
Die Kastellanin
. Translated from German by Lee Chadeayne. Published in English by AmazonCrossing in 2015.

 

Published by AmazonCrossing, Seattle

 

www.apub.com

 

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and AmazonCrossing are trademarks of
Amazon.com
, Inc., or its affiliates.

 

ISBN-13: 9781477826720

ISBN-10: 1477826726

 

Cover design by Faceout Studio

 

Library of Congress Control Number: 2014911330

PART ONE

BETRAYAL

1.

Marie glanced at the gathering of hunters, letting her eyes settle on her husband. Casually sitting astride his horse as if it were part of him, he held the reins in one hand, his other hand gripping a crossbow at the ready. Riding next to him was the host of the inaugural fall hunt, Konrad von Weilburg, an equally fine figure of a man. Both stood tall with broad, muscular shoulders, but while Weilburg already displayed a portly paunch, Michel still had the slim waist and narrow hips of a young man. His face, with its bright falcon eyes, strong chin, and wide forehead covered by dark blond hair, also appeared more animated than that of his host. Konrad von Weilburg wore his customary skintight leggings and an artfully embroidered jerkin, while Michel was dressed in long, comfortable riding pants and a plain leather vest with half sleeves over a green shirt. Solid boots shod his feet, and only his beret decorated with two pheasant feathers showed he wasn’t a servant but the castellan of a noble lord.

Sensing Marie’s eyes on him, Michel turned around, energetically waving his crossbow and smiling fondly at her before spurring his horse and disappearing among the forest’s colorful autumn foliage. Marie couldn’t help but think back to the day of her wedding ten years before at an island monastery. During the marriage ceremony, no one had even asked her to give her consent, but since then she’d become so happy with her childhood friend Michel, she’d gladly acquiesce at any time of day or night.

Irmingard von Weilburg steered her black mare toward Marie’s horse and gave her a conspiratorial wink. “We really can’t complain. Our husbands are both handsome, strong men. But let’s return to the meeting place. I dislike shooting at animals as much as you do. In my view, hunting is men’s work, just like warfare.” It was the custom in that part of the country for one of the lords and his lady to celebrate the start of the hunting season by inviting their neighbors from the surrounding castles, and this year’s host, Lady Irmingard, was now thoughtfully licking her lips. “Plus, I wouldn’t mind a cup of mulled wine, although I’m certain it won’t be as delectable as what you served us last year.”

Marie laughed. “Oh yes, that wine really was excellent. My friend Hiltrud, the goat farmer, mixed the herbs for me. She knows the secrets of many plants and can tell which of them will heal and which simply taste good.”

“I know the goat farmer,” replied Lady Irmingard, patting her mare’s black mane. “A while ago, she gave me a potion that helped my colicky mare make a complete recovery overnight.”

Marie was pleased to hear that. After all, the goat farmer was more than just her best friend. Years ago, she had picked Marie up from the side of the road, more dead than alive, nursed her back to health, and helped her through the five worst years of her life. Only her Michel, with whom she shared a love that grew greater every day, was closer to her than Hiltrud.

When her mount impatiently tossed its head, Marie suddenly realized that Lady Irmingard was still looking at her expectantly. “I’m more than happy to watch the hunt from the meeting place. Unlike you, I’m not a skilled rider and don’t enjoy galloping over hill and dale.”

That was quite an understatement, as Marie preferred to travel good roads at a gentle trot on the calm mare Michel had bought for her. Growing up in Constance, where she could walk to the marketplace and to church or take a boat to visit nearby towns, she’d never once been on a horse. Later, during her years of exile, she had walked many thousands of miles, but now as the wife of a captain of a castle, she had to either use a carriage or climb into the saddle when she wanted to visit a neighboring castle or Hiltrud’s goat farm. Because she didn’t want to call upon the servants to hitch up the coach every time she left Sobernburg Castle, she had asked Michel to teach her how to ride, but she still didn’t feel particularly at home in the saddle.

Lady Irmingard prattled on unperturbed while Marie remained lost in thought. The mistress of Weilburg Castle came from a noble family, just like the other lords and ladies assembled here that day, whereas Marie and her husband were of
middle-class
backgrounds. That hadn’t stopped Ludwig von der Pfalz, the count palatine, from raising Michel above the social standing of most of the men gathered here by appointing him castellan of Rheinsobern. Irmingard and Konrad had become their friends, and they had a neighborly relationship. Almost everyone in the Rheinsobern district had also accepted Michel’s position, and the few who sneered at the couple’s origins didn’t do so publicly, because no one wanted an enemy as high in the count palatine’s favor as Michel Adler. It was only a matter of time, after all, before Lord Ludwig would confer the honor of knighthood upon his loyal liege man.

Irmingard looked at Marie, who had become too quiet. “Your new dress suits you wonderfully. Would you show me the pattern?”

“Of course.” Shaking her head free of daydreams, Marie gave her patient hostess a grateful smile. Other ladies soon joined them, and they all gossiped animatedly until reaching the clearing below Weilburg Castle, where everything was prepared for celebratory drinks and a generous meal. Marie and her companions had barely gotten off their mounts before pages dressed in the Weilburg colors handed them cups of hot mulled wine. Despite the bright sun shining down on them from a nearly cloudless sky, the October air was rather chilly, and a warm brew was more than welcome.

“A drop of this always helps,” Lady Irmingard said contentedly, holding out her empty cup to a page. Marie drank just one cup and watched the servants arriving with an impressive amount of killed game, enough to fill the storeroom in the basement of Weilburg Castle, still chilled with ice from the last winter.

When the first hunters returned and there was no sign of Michel, Marie began to worry that he might have been injured. But a short while later, he turned up at his host’s side, looking
good-humored
. Marie ran toward him, passionately throwing her arms around him as soon as he’d dismounted.

Michel responded to his wife’s public display of affection with a laugh, then gently pushed her away and tickled her nose. “Well, my darling, how many stags did you shoot today?”

Marie snorted. “None, as you very well know!”

“Don’t be sad, Frau Marie. Your husband shot enough for the two of you. There is no doubt he is today’s King of the Hunt.” Konrad von Weilburg gestured for the huntmaster to come over, took the wreath made of pine twigs from him, and placed it on Michel’s head.

In the meantime, the other hunters had already downed their first cup of mulled wine and were asking for seconds. Michel likewise emptied his cup to be sociable, then pulled Marie close and kissed her on the cheek. “Let the other women shoot stags. I love you just the way you are.”

“That’s what I call the word of a man.” Konrad von Weilburg winked at Michel and planted a kiss on Lady Irmingard’s lips. She giggled and didn’t resist, but also pointed to the crowded tables.

“You’d better think about your guests rather than your pleasure. Hunting builds quite an appetite, and you don’t want people saying Weilburg didn’t feed his guests.”

“Indeed, I don’t want that. Dear guests, the meal is served. Please take a seat! Anything you could wish for is on the table.” Herr Konrad picked up his wife and carried her to her place at the table. “Now try saying I don’t pamper you,” he declared cheerfully.

“I’ll grant you that today.” Lady Irmingard blew her husband a kiss; then a silence, broken only by the smacking of lips and belching, fell over the table while everyone enjoyed the repast. As soon as the guests felt halfway satisfied, they were eager to discuss the hunt, praising the successful hunters while mocking others’ mishaps. After a while, the older men started talking politics.

One lord looked at his empty plate with a forlorn expression and sighed. “I hope next year we can still sit together like this and enjoy ourselves.”

“And what could prevent us from doing that?” the host asked with surprise.

“This cursed uprising in Bohemia! The kaiser will ask our Lord Ludwig for military assistance, and he won’t be able to say no this time, because it concerns the Upper Palatinate. I’m afraid a few of us will be longing for our beautiful homeland next fall.”

“Or be dead,” someone else added in a hollow voice. The man was a known pessimist, but most people winced at his words nevertheless. The Bohemian uprising wasn’t just any rebellion by disgruntled noblemen, or a peasant revolt easily crushed, but a bloody war between Kaiser Sigismund, king of Bohemia, and the Hussite heretics, who had won almost every battle so far.

“Let us hope that the count in his wisdom won’t call us to arms, but will instead find volunteers who value glory and booty more than a cheerful hunt at home.” Konrad von Weilburg raised his cup to his guests, hoping to lift the dark shadow that had descended on the party.

2.

The feast lasted until the bells tolled midnight, and numerous guests had to be carried to their rooms by servants and maids. Marie and Michel hadn’t indulged in as much wine as the others, and they enjoyed a hearty breakfast the following morning. Afterward, they bid farewell to their hosts as they prepared to return to Rheinsobern.

“Visit us once more before the snow makes the roads impassable,” Sir Konrad urged them as Michel lifted Marie onto her meek brown mare. Michel also mounted his horse, waved to the Weilburgs and the assembled guests, and rode through the gate. Marie followed closely, while Michel’s servant, Timo, an older, burly man with a
snow-white
scar stretching from his forehead, across his nose, and down his right cheek, lagged behind to allow the couple privacy.

Michel set a leisurely pace so that Marie could ride next to him and they could talk. Before long, they reached the Rhine plain and saw the city of Rheinsobern ahead of them atop one of the foothills of the Black Forest. Under their management, the town had become a bustling little trade center. Its church towers greeted travelers from miles away, and its walls Michel had extended to allow for new houses. On the hill stretching into the city stood Michel and Marie’s home of the past ten years, Sobernburg Castle, a
rough-hewn
, gray block that didn’t quite fit into the bucolic surrounding landscape now covered in autumn’s yellow and red foliage.

Marie’s eyes wandered to the north, toward her friend Hiltrud’s large goat farm. She could get there in no time on Bunny, her mare, and for a few moments fought against the temptation of doing so right then. She would have loved to spend a few hours in Hiltrud’s comfortable kitchen, drinking strong tea and chatting with her friend. But as the mistress of Sobernburg Castle, Marie had duties to fulfill. They had been away for three days, and she had first to make sure everything was in order before she could think of her own amusement.

“Why so quiet?” Michel asked, gently stroking her back.

Marie gave him a smile. “I’ve decided to pay Hiltrud a visit this afternoon.”

“If you don’t mind, I’ll come with you. Lady Irmingard’s mulled wine wasn’t bad, but it couldn’t quite measure up to Hiltrud’s.” Leaning over with a laugh, Michel planted a kiss on her cheek. “I love you, my dearest.”

“I love you, too.” Marie delighted in the deliciously warm feelings Michel’s caress had aroused and hoped he would follow her to their chambers. Their servants, especially their housekeeper, Marga, would think of her as wanton if she went to bed with Michel in broad daylight, but she was yearning for a quick tussle between the sheets. Michel returned her inviting glance with a grin, and she urged Bunny into a faster gait.

Their plans were spoiled, however, as just outside town Marie spotted a couple kissing passionately as they stood in a close embrace underneath a mighty beech tree. Recognizing the girl, Marie instinctively reined in her mare.

Michel also slowed down. “What is it?”

Marie pointed to the couple, who were too preoccupied to notice the riders. “I wonder what Ischi thinks she’s doing, secretly meeting a boy like that.”

“You can’t exactly call this secret!” Michel exclaimed with a laugh. But he understood Marie’s outrage even without her angry snort. Ischi was her handmaid and her declared favorite among the castle servants, and so far the girl hadn’t given her cause for complaint. Seeing her in the arms of a young man visibly shocked his wife since she was responsible for the
well-being
and morals of her maids, and any maid who ended up pregnant would be beaten with sticks and often driven out of town. In such cases, Marie would be lectured by the priest, paying for her negligence as mistress with prayer and repentance.

As Marie angrily waved her riding whip through the air, Michel quickly grabbed the reins she had carelessly dropped and talked soothingly to the nervous horse. “You have to first control yourself when you’re in the saddle. Bunny may be a gentle horse, but she’s no sack of straw.”

“I’m sorry.” Marie briefly lowered her head in contrition, then immediately glared at her handmaid again. Previously certain of Ischi’s loyalty, she was now asking herself if she could still rely on a girl who ran around with men behind her back.

“I have to sort this out. You should go ahead without me.” Any thought of the pleasant hour she’d wanted to spend with Michel left her mind as she steered her mare toward the couple. Watching her, Michel shook his head in disappointment, then beckoned to Timo. The servant was waiting a little way behind, and they both spurred their horses on.

The young couple started as they heard Bunny trotting toward them. Ischi looked less guilty than Marie had expected, but her anger was directed less at the maid than at the young man, Ludolf, the successor of Rheinsobern’s master lather and one of the city’s dignitaries. The boy’s intentions were no doubt dishonorable, as he and his friends used maids as a pastime, casting them off after a short while. This was especially true if the relationship bore consequences, for which only the girl would be harshly punished. In Marie’s opinion, Ischi was too good to be led astray by an unscrupulous lad, and so she was determined to give both of them an earful.

Her face must have reflected her grim thoughts, because Ludolf stared at her as if about to fight a losing battle. “My lady, we must have given you a very bad impression, but please let me assure you it’s not what you think.”

Pushing past him, Ischi took hold of Marie’s stirrup. “My lady, please don’t be mad! Ludolf and I are in love, and, God willing, we will marry.”

“Is that what he promised so you would give yourself to him?” Marie asked mockingly.

Ischi shook her head vehemently. “No, my lady, Ludolf never asked for anything like that. I’m still as pure as the day I was born. Let the midwife examine me if you don’t believe me.”

As Marie read nothing but honesty in the girl’s eyes, her expression softened and a smile flickered on her lips. Sensing that her anger was abating, Ludolf stepped to Ischi’s side with a sigh of relief and put his arm around her. “My lady, I swear I will only touch Ischi once she’s my wife. It won’t be easy to get my parents’ consent for this marriage, but if you talk to them, they’ll have to say yes.”

“Please, my lady, do it for me. Haven’t I served you faithfully all these years?” Tears welled up in Ischi’s eyes at the hopelessness of her situation.

But Marie thought the two were a good match. Short and petite, Ischi had large blue eyes set in a lovely face framed by dark blond hair. Only half a head taller, Ludolf still had a youthful build, though there were already hints that he’d fill out later. His hands, however, which could produce true masterpieces on the lathe, would remain slender and flexible. He had a face more honest than handsome, and what Marie read in his bright eyes also suggested he was reliable.

“All right, I’ll see what I can do for you, although I’m not particularly delighted about eventually having to find a new handmaid.” Nodding as she spoke, Marie was rewarded by the couple’s joyfully beaming faces. But she wasn’t going to make it that easy for them.

“But first I want to ensure that your affection is lasting. If you still want to marry in one year’s time, I will help organize your wedding. But until then, you will meet in all honesty and decency, and I don’t want to hear a bad word about either of you. Is that clear?”

Taking Marie’s hand, Ischi held it to her lips. “Thank you, my lady,” she exclaimed with great emotion. Ludolf also thanked her profusely, swearing to respect Marie’s wishes and meet Ischi only with her permission.

Marie impatiently motioned for them to stop talking. “Share one last kiss and then get back to work. Ludolf’s father will be more inclined to give his blessing if the prospect of this wedding lends wings to his son’s hands.”

“You’re right, my lady. I’d better make haste if I want to fulfill all my duties today.” Ludolf pulled Ischi close, kissed her on the lips, and hurried off toward the city.

The girl watched him for a moment and then shyly looked up at Marie. “Please forgive me, my lady, for not speaking to you sooner. I know how kind you are.”

“Oh, I can be nasty if need be,” Marie answered with a smile. “But let’s return home together, or do you want me to open the hooks on my riding dress myself?” Suddenly remembering that Michel could have been the one undressing her, she was annoyed at herself for not going home with him.

Turning into the castle courtyard, they saw four young maids talking and laughing in the shade by the gate tower. Marie looked them over, wondering who might become her new handmaid. Ischi was a rare gem and not easily replaced, so she was glad she had a whole year to make her choice and train a new girl.

“Has my husband arrived yet?” she called out to the
still-giggling
maids.

“Indeed, my lady. He said to tell you he’s awaiting you in your bedchamber,” one of the girls replied cheekily.

“Then I had better not keep him waiting.” Marie directed Bunny to a bench along the wall and dismounted without help, then threw the reins to the girl who had spoken. “Take my mare to the stables and give her to one of the stable boys.”

The young maid curtsied, cautiously took the ends of the reins, and stared warily at Bunny, as if she might bite. Laughing, Marie turned away and hurried up the stairs to the main building. Ischi followed right behind her, so neither of them saw the darkly clad
middle-aged
woman come around the corner, chiding the startled maids.

“Get back to work, you lazy, irresponsible riffraff! Have you already forgotten my orders?”

Frightened looks quickly replaced traces of merriment on the maids’ faces. “No, Frau Marga, we . . . we . . . ,” one of them stuttered.

The housekeeper of Sobernburg Castle raised her hand as if to strike the girl. “You’re supposed to work here, not jabber and fool around. If I catch you all cackling in the courtyard one more time instead of following my instructions, I’ll replace you with obedient maids!”

As the four girls fled from the housekeeper, Marga’s eyes wandered up to the windows of the master and mistress’s rooms, and she twisted her lips. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the maids were so laggard and disobedient, considering the dissolute lifestyle her master and mistress were leading.

Meanwhile, Marie had reached the great hall and was about to climb the stairs to their chambers, when she noticed Michel in his chair at the head of the table, staring at a sheet of parchment and looking concerned.

“What’s wrong? Bad news?”

Exhaling deeply, Michel nodded. “Though I could also feel honored. A messenger from Lord Ludwig delivered this letter yesterday. The count is ordering me to raise and equip a group of soldiers over the winter and set out with them to Bohemia next spring.”

BOOK: Iny Lorentz - The Marie Series 02
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