Monday, October 4, 2010

Her Majesty's Maiden by Michelle Houston

Trying not to stare around her in awed shock, Margaret Dudley waited patiently on the outskirts of the Queen’s privy chamber until she was granted at audience. When her uncle had informed her father that he had secured Margaret a position in Her Majesty’s personal quarters, it was too much to believe. As an illegitimate daughter, her chances for marriage were slim, certainly for a beneficial one. Despite her light green eyes, auburn hair, and lithe body, she was a by-blow, the result of an illicit affair with a widow, and was unworthy of any of the peers of the realm. She had been acting as lady’s maid the last five years for her stepmother, ever since she had reached the marriageable age of fourteen.


Certainly she had never entertained the idea of marriage herself, as none of the men available to her had caught her interest. The only prospects she had so far were lecherous old men looking for a third or fourth wife, well past the point of caring about the circumstances of her conception. Thankfully, her stepmother seemed to care about her, and was unwilling to allow any such marriage.

Her stepmother, her father’s lady wife, had been gracious enough to allow her to be raised with her own children, but Margaret had always known she wasn’t one of them, that she was the result of her father’s indiscretion while his wife was having her laying in with child. It helped some that her stepmother encouraged her father to seek his pleasures elsewhere, and that Margaret’s own mother had died in childbirth. Guilt, she had learned very early in life, was a wonderful motivator.

Unwilling to settle for less than her sisters, regardless of the circumstances of her birth, Margaret had almost resigned herself to taking vows with the Church when her uncle informed her father of an opening in the queen’s chambers, and the need for a young woman who would be faithful and true to the queen. Despite the unfortunate details of her birth, Margaret had been raised to owe her loyalty to country, God, and family.

With her uncle’s backing, she had been presented to Lady Catherine Ashley, the queen’s chief gentlewoman. Meeting her approval, she would soon be presented to Her Majesty. So far, the sights and sounds of the royal palace had done nothing to convince her that her position was any better off than if she had taken the vows of a nun.

It was only upon entering the queen’s chambers that her life changed. On first glimpse of the Virgin Queen, she was ready to drop to her knees and swear her undying devotion. Not pretty in the feminine sense, Elizabeth had a presence that made Margaret feel lightheaded and drunk, despite not having indulged. With her red-gold hair and her dark eyes set in a narrow and pale face, the queen was both majestic and princely. Unlike with the few men who had tried to tempt Margaret into matrimony—all of whom had left her feeling cold—simply being in her majesty’s presence made Margaret feel warm and ticklish within her core. A feminine awareness flooded her that she had hereto never known.

“And where is my young lady, come to serve me?”

Jerking her head up at Her Majesty’s words, Margaret shyly stepped forward when the crowd of ladies around the queen parted. Aware of every eye in the room focused on her, she faltered, coming to a stop. Catherine Ashley, the queen’s former governess and now chief gentlewoman of the privy chamber, grasped her elbow and half pulled, half pushed her forward.

Legs trembling, Margaret swept into a deep curtsey as she reached Her Majesty, holding it until she was bidden to rise. A firm, long-fingered hand cupped her chin, tipping her face up. As she lifted her eyelashes, Margaret shyly looked into dark Boleyn eyes, and felt her pulse leap. Up close, the queen’s presence was even more overwhelming. Although midway through her fourth decade, Elizabeth still retained her slim figure. Her facial features, while lacking true beauty, were pleasing to look upon when coupled with the almost mischievous sparkle in her eyes. Margaret had already been treated twice to Her Majesty’s booming laughter as she held nothing back in her joy.

“Is this our young cousin, Kat?” As she turned her attention to Lady Ashley, Margaret allowed her gaze to briefly flitter about the queen.

“Indeed, Your Majesty. She is Margaret Dudley, the illegitimate niece of your master of the horse.”

Dark eyes suddenly turned to her, and Margaret found herself trapped within the queen’s gaze, completely tongue-tied. “And are you a loving cousin, Margaret, willing to be devoted and serve your queen?”

Margaret clasped her trembling hands together in front of her as she struggled to collect her thoughts. Unable to help herself, Margaret looked away from her sovereign’s eyes as she spoke, her voice almost whisper soft but filled with conviction. “Your Majesty, it would please me to serve you, with faith and devotion, should it please you to have me.”

Her answer was a lively laugh that sprang from the queen’s lips without any warning, then a soft kiss placed upon her cheek. “You are indeed a loving cousin, and a welcome addition to my ladies. Kat, show young Margaret to her quarters and make sure she is ready to serve her queen.”

After giving her order, Her Majesty settled back into her throne-like chair and turned to other matters. Dismissed, Margaret followed the Lady Ashley out of the room, her whole body quivering with fear and delight. Resisting the urge to press a hand against her cheek where the flesh still tingled from the queen’s kiss, she followed the chief gentlewoman through a labyrinth of corridors until they reached a simple, yet elegantly decorated room. Three beds filled half the room, with chests at the end of each and a row of wardrobes dominating the far wall. A small seating area had been placed before the fireplace, giving a cozy atmosphere to the room.

“If I may, my lady?”

“Yes?”

Margaret could see the faint impatience crossing the older lady’s face, her eyes darting about the room even as she held herself still. Margaret knew she had to have things she needed to attend to, but she couldn’t help asking. “Her Majesty called me her cousin, but I am not.”

Kat’s soft chuckle filled the room with a muted mirth. “Ah, young one, we are our queen’s family, our first duty to love her and be devoted to her. In that regard, we are as her cousins, family of a sort, but never too close. Now…

“You will be sharing this room with two other girls for the time being. Should your service please Her Majesty, she had been known to reward her ladies with their own chambers, as well as gifts of her pleasure. The rules of service are fairly simple, but must be followed at all times. You are to always be clean within Her Majesty’s presence. A bowl of water is kept fresh in the antechamber to Her Majesty’s privy room for a quick washing, should you need it.

“You are not to dally with any of the men at court, without Her Majesty’s permission. Should someone catch your eye, you are to come to me, and then Her Majesty. Marriages have and can be arranged, should you wish.

“And finally, discretion and faithfulness is expected at all times. You will be caring for Her Majesty’s person, as well as her belongings. Anything you may overhear or see while in service to the queen, you are expected to remain silent about. Her Majesty’s expects discretion among her ladies.”

Margaret barely had time to murmur her consent before Lady Catherine Ashley swept out of the room, and her two roommates entered.

The Consort by Misty Malone

Chapter One

“King Urien wishes to see you, Your Highness.”

Of course he does. Accolon acknowledged the bowing page with a dismissive wave of his hand. The page scurried away, his hurried steps overloud in the quiet chapel. Accolon shut his eyes and closed the prayer book, kissing the leather binding as he prayed to the Lord for serenity, and stored his rosary in a pocket. He already knew how this conversation with his father would go. Urien’s summonings never led to anything good.

And this was one he’d been avoiding.

He rose and left the small thatched-roof chapel, eyes stinging as a cloud of smoke from a nearby spit fire blew across his face. Across the courtyard, his father’s soldiers littered the training grounds, sharpening hunting knives, sparring, boxing the ears of errant squires. Their bare chests were sweaty, broad arms corded from hours of swordplay, legs tensed as they dodged and lunged and danced away from oncoming blows. The new recruits were coming along well under his cousin Fennick’s command. Better than Accolon had hoped, in truth. Just three weeks ago, the Saxons struck a heavy blow, sending too many Welsh souls to meet their Lord and Savior.

Including Owain.

Accolon sighed and made the sign of the cross, whispering a prayer in his older brother’s name. He nodded to his guards, then followed the well-worn path up the hill from the chapel back to Rheged Keep, wondering what the old man wanted this time. Another palaver about Accolon’s new duties to the kingdom? Remind him that no one, not even his own father, believed he had any worth beyond a rosary and prayer book? Or perhaps he just wanted his pillows and blankets rearranged.

Stop it. The scolding tone was his mother’s...or as she might have sounded, had she lived past his tenth year. Urien is your father, and deserves your respect.

Even if he hadn’t earned it. “Honor thy father and thy mother,” Father Adlam always taught, “that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord God giveth thee.”

Accolon walked through the barbican and into the outer bailey. Several soldiers sat near the gray stone walls and turned the spoils of their latest deer hunt on a spit over an open flame, singing and laughing in the Old Tongue as they toasted the pagan gods in drunken exuberance. They leaned on one other, reaffirming bonds of kinship and solidarity.

He looked away. Accolon had never felt those bonds for himself. He loved his people fiercely. He’d do anything for them. But his calling never spoke to a sword in his scabbard or blood on his hands. They were the marks of the man his father wanted him to be.

The man he never could be.

But still, the soldiers’ closeness and camaraderie made something inside him ache in a way Accolon did not understand.

The heady scent of roasting meat teased and tempted his grumbling stomach, but he turned away. He would not be good company at the moment.

Besides, Urien awaits.

He had put this conversation off long enough. There were no funerals or recovery efforts to hide behind now.

Accolon hurried inside the keep and climbed the narrow stairwells to the upper floors. Tall iron sconces held beeswax candles and oil burners, filling the halls with flickering, smoky light. Several chambers branched off the main corridor, leading to libraries and studies, and to the solariums and senate rooms that Accolon avoided as much as he could. Owain always said council was no place for a man of the cloth.

Thick tapestries detailing the history of his House hung on the walls. His forefathers stared at him from those woven visages, their disapproving glares judging him, finding him lacking.

Accolon landed two quick raps on the door to his father’s chambers, then entered without waiting for permission. He disregarded the servants in the sitting room, bowing and mumbling honorifics in his name, and headed straight for the bedchamber.

The stuffy, stale air made him cough and his eyes water. He rubbed his face with a chapped hand and shook his head to clear it of the sickly-sweet stench of medicinal herbs.

“Took you long enough.”

Accolon dropped into a shallow bow. “Father.”

“I know who I am, boy. No need to remind me. Now, sit.”

Accolon took the chair at his father’s bedside. Urien didn’t look much worse than he had the previous day, despite the ridiculous jaunty cap and stained undershift he wore. His cheeks were flushed, probably due to the roaring fire and closed drapes on three sides of the massive bed. His father scratched his white scruffy beard and scowled as Accolon fidgeted under the weight of his disapproving glare.

“May the Lord keep and protect His Majesty all his days,” he mumbled, mostly to break the silence. Accolon glanced down at the hands folded in his lap, determined not to let his father see them shake.

“You are three-and-twenty years, my son—”

“Five, Father. Five-and-twenty.”

He carried on as if Accolon had not spoken. “Would to God Owain had lived. We might not have such a disaster on our hands.”

Accolon ignored the throb in his chest at the mention of his brother’s name. “What ‘disaster’ do you speak of, Father?”

“You, of course!”

No matter how many times he’d heard such disparagement from the old man, it never got any easier. Accolon’s shoulders tensed. His fingernails bit into his palms. “What have I done to displease you now, Sire?”

“Look at yourself!” Urien waved his hand, as if brushing dirt away from him. “Tunic to the floor. A monk’s hood. Fingers stained with ink rather than the blood of those savage Saxons. For God’s sake, boy! Your brother has been dead and cold not even one month gone, and what have you done to fulfill the duties he’s left undone?”

Accolon swallowed past the lump forming in his throat.

“A lifetime of work, of treaties and contacts binding the lands of Orkney to our own,” Urien growled, “wasted because of your failure.”

Why did the old man have to keep reminding him of this? It wasn’t Accolon’s fault that he hadn’t gotten the report in time. His brother’s men were already at Glywysing when a scout brought news of Saxon forces setting fires to trap them. Fennick had been injured in the battle. Owain sent a plea for help, but it came too late. Accolon had been taking the evening mass when the runner arrived. Urien was indisposed, suffering a fit. That left Accolon as the only one of royal blood who could issue orders.

Accolon wasn’t a military man. He’d never led a campaign or fought at the front. By the time Accolon had prayed for guidance on what to do, he’d been too late.

They’d lost half their border scouts, archers, and spearsmen. By the time Accolon sent a second wave of soldiers to the borderlands, the Saxons had been pushed back, but at too high a cost. Only the smoldering remains of the camp and town were left in their wake, surrounded by hundreds of corpses, all lying nameless, headless, lying forgotten in the bloody mud.

Urien sneered at him. “It’s bad enough that your brother’s blood stains your hands, but what have you done to set to rights all you nearly destroyed?”

“I’m studying for the church.”

“Hiding behind books and icons instead of doing what you were born for: rebuilding the list of allies we’ve lost, adding to Cymru’s glory and gold, preparing yourself to take my place as king, loathe as I am to leave this land to a wretch like you. Your weakness sickens me.”

The blow of his words struck like a fist to the stomach. “Father, I—”

“Shut your mouth!” Urien’s cheeks reddened and blue veins stood out starkly from the flushed skin. “You listen to me, boy. While your brother lived, I saw no problem with selling you to the church. Where better to ship off a spare? You might have actually brought prestige and political power to our House if Rome had accepted your appointment. But now we have no choice.”

His father’s silence churned in Accolon’s gut, heavy and hard like a blacksmith’s anvil.

“Father?”

Urien downed the contents of the goblet on his nightstand. The blue lines retreated from his flushed face, but the anger in his eyes only grew. “Elaine, daughter of Lot of Orkney. Your brother’s betrothed. I’ve ordered the marriage contracts redrawn. By All Saints Day, you will marry the Princess Elaine and secure the line of my forefathers and the chain of Cymru’s kings.”

“Elaine is a shrill cow best suited for a deaf dullard!” The words jumped from his mouth before he had the chance to regret them. “I’d rather saw off my own hand than willingly give it to that harpy in marriage!”

“Now you listen here, boy,” Urien said, voice low and cold. “My grandsire’s grandsire built Rheged with his bare hands. My ancestors bled and died for this land, and I will not have your cowardice destroy what we have built!”

“I have taken a vow of chastity.” Accolon’s took a deep, shaky breath. “Father, I’ve spent my whole life studying for the church. You said as soon as Owain married, I could take my vows.” He felt himself slide to his knees. “Please, Father. Please don’t take this away from me. It’s all I’ve ever known.”

“Oh, get up.” His father’s tone was one of disgust, of dismissal. “You pathetic churl. If you were half the man your brother was we wouldn’t be having this—” He coughed into his meaty fist. Flecks of red-tinged spittle stained his fingers.

Accolon shut his eyes and took a deep breath. The man was dying. He owed his father fealty, no matter what it cost him. Lord in Heaven, grant me strength and serenity to endure this. Save his soul, and mine.

Besides, he’d always known of his father’s disappointment in him; his wish that Owain had survived the Saxon skirmish instead of him. None of that was new.

It didn’t stop the sting of it, though.

What he wouldn’t give for just one person to see him as Accolon, rather than a prince or a worthless second son.

Someone who didn’t blame him for every mistake made.

In his darker moments, Accolon thought he’d sell his soul just to find one place where he was truly wanted and cared for. Someplace he could call home, somewhere he belonged.

“Are you listening, boy?” he wheezed at last, wiping his hand on the heavy bedding. “Sign the contract, Accolon. Take your place as heir, or I will strike at you in any way I can.”

“H...how?”

Urien laughed. “Deny your application to the church. Confine you to the keep until you agree to my terms.”

Revulsion rolled through him. A wife! Accolon had never entertained thoughts of taking a woman for his own. He had pledged his heart and soul to the church since before he could see over the pews. All his studying, all his devotion and beliefs...

“By this time next month, you will wed and consummate nuptials to Princess Elaine of Orkney. The marriage contract will be signed before I leave this earth or I swear I’ll—” Wet, rattling coughs shook the old man’s body.

Accolon helped him sit upright as the healers had taught him. He grabbed a nearby goblet and put it to Urien’s lips. “Drink slowly, Father. The herbs should help.”

Urien took three swallows before pushing the vessel away. He panted for breath. A sheen of sweat soaked his round face.

He is dying, isn’t he?

“H...hear me, and hear me well, Accolon,” he wheezed. “You will do your duty...and secure the line of kings. Prove yourself a man...and not a child still at his mother’s teat. Sign the contact, or I will strip your tithing from the church.” Urien took a rasping breath. “You bring no dowry, they’ll dismiss your application and throw you to the streets. Only the fleas and rats will know your name.”

A blade of panic twisted in his gut. Accolon sank back into his chair. “You would deny me my only calling?”

“You deny me my legacy. I think the trade only fair.”

Not by any means could that be called fair. God called him. How could he not answer?

“You would make me give up all I love, all I am,” Accolon said, hating the tremor in his voice, “just to see me bend to your will?”

“I am King. You are not.”

Accolon knew that was all the answer he would receive.

“Will you accept your birthright?”

Grief suffocated Accolon, a tangible river of doubt and hatred and hopelessness. “What choice do I have?”

“So you accept?”

Accolon bowed his head, jaw clenched, knuckles white.

“Say it, boy. Swear it before your Lord and God.”

“I...I swear.” The words lodged in his throat, not like wounds, but like blades, or broken glass, or rusting nails. “By the next moon, I shall wed Elaine of Orkney. I...I will sign the contract, accept my place as your heir...secure your line.”

For the first time in his memory, his father looked pleased with him.

Accolon couldn’t stand it.

He leapt to his feet, sending the chair behind him crashing to the floor. Without bowing, without another word or a glance back, he ran from his father’s rooms. He needed air, needed sky.

Needed a last taste of freedom.

Accolon ran to the stables. He pushed blindly through the rush of activity that surrounded him as he dismissed his guards with a glare and ordered the stable boys to saddle a horse. The wooden walls crushed him, moving closer with every breath he took. He ran shaking fingers through his thick black hair as the stable-hands checked the horse’s hooves and tied the tack and set the bit.

Finally, Owain’s stallion stood ready, dark coat gleaming. Accolon pushed the stammering stable boy away and mounted Boddur, digging heels into the horse’s flank and spurred him into a frenzied gallop.

“Run, Boddur. Run!” He kicked his heels again. The horse flew over the rocky terrain, hooves kicking up dirt and mud and clouds of clay as Rheged Keep faded to a gray speck in the distance. Accolon’s heart pounded in time with the stallion’s pulsing gait, racing through his body like living flame. Wisps of wet fog whipped at his face and bare hands. His eyes stung from the cold and wind.

On he rode.

Accolon clenched his thighs tighter against the horse’s flank, keeping balance. His groin rubbed against the saddle, the friction making his shaft awaken and stir. He wrapped the leather rein around his gloved wrist and threw his head back, for once not fighting the urges of his body, calling him to sin. Drops of frozen rain struck his cheeks and forehead. He bared his naked neck to the sky. That tight coil in his belly wound tighter, sending tendrils of warmth through his veins and blood. His body thrummed as the stallion ran.

Accolon did not understand the sudden rush, but welcomed the distraction nonetheless.

He half-crouched, half-sat in the saddle, spurring Boddur on with sheer force of will. Ever faster. The world passed by in a colorless blur. He snapped the reins, urging more speed.

Maybe if he rode fast enough, everything would fade away. Slain brothers, dying fathers, forced promises, the empty wound inside him that never seemed to heal.

Sea-spray splashed his face, salt staining his lips and burning his eyes. Were they that close to the cliffs?

Though reason beat against it, Accolon spurred the stallion on. Exhilaration coursed through him, sped his heart, stole his breath. Through the fog he could see the edge of the earth, the rocky precipice before the fall.

Closer. Closer...

At the last moment, Accolon wrenched Boddur’s reins to bring the screaming stallion to a halt. The beast panted from their furious run, spittle foaming on its muzzle.

Accolon climbed off the horse and stared off the edge of the cliff, hundreds of feet above the Môr Iwerddon Sea. Waves crashed against the white bluffs, their thunder rumbling in his chest. Seabirds cried on the air currents, diving and dancing wherever the wind took them, soaring into the heavens, closer to the Divine.

I would give anything to have that kind of freedom.

His head spun in dizzying circles and his stomach lurched. He closed his eyes, willing his lungs to draw breath.

Was it a sin to entertain thoughts of what it would have felt like, flying free of the earth’s fetters, if only for a moment? Even if the flight ended in his death?

The need to feel something real overwhelmed him. Accolon ripped off his brown robe and long tunic, then lay down in the half-frozen grass. A frigid cold seeped beneath his fevered skin, a welcome relief to the burning grief within him.

An image filled his mind of a bare, sweat-soaked chest, a broad shoulder and soft hair, a strong hand grasping his, then trailing lower. No faces, but deep voices, singing and laughing, much like the soldiers he’d seen that morning on the training green.

A strong wind blew over the bulge straining the laces of his trousers. Accolon looked down. He hadn’t realized he was hard. Why did that keep happening to him? Men of the church didn’t succumb to such bodily weaknesses, Father Adlam had taught him. All energy should be devoted to His service.

And yet, Accolon continued to sin.

Lord in Heaven, grant me guidance. Please, help me.

He clenched his fists in the grass below him. An icy breeze blew over him, spiking the small hairs all over his body. Wind and soft rain kissed his flushed skin. Breath hitched in his chest as his father’s words echoed in his brain over and over again. Gods, what he wouldn’t give to forget, to shut out the world for just a brief moment in time.

Another phantom hand stroking his cheek. Words whispered between soldiers in hidden shadows came to his mind.

A warrior’s release. That’s what I need. All the men talk of how they find self-solace the night before a battle. Surely I could...

No. It was a sin. Surely he would go to Hell for even considering such a thing.

But he could not deny the urges rising within him, the siren song of his true calling slipping into the sea, out of his grasp.

Before he could talk himself out of it, Accolon slipped off his leather gloves, then untied his leggings and pushed them past his knees. Dew dampened his skin. Another breeze whipped around him and his shaft thickened in response even as his body shivered with both cold and anticipation. Hand trembling, he grasped his length and stroked it, arching at the sudden sensation.

How many evenings had he sat with Fennick and his troops, hearing tales of midnight conquests and spoils of war? Word for word, he could recite Owain’s stories about the adrenaline of release. Accolon was no novice; he kept returning to his sin. Hellfire awaited him, as surely as the Saxon’s flames had swallowed his brother.

One hand circled and pulled and rubbed while the other clenched the earth beneath him. A surge of fire shot through his body, long legs spreading in response, inch by inch. His shaft throbbed and pulsed, hardening with each hurried pass of his hand. Pressure spurred on his approaching release. Pleasure had the power to make him forget.

He tried to picture a face amid the fury, a name he could cry as climax came. There were none. Only images of the men on the training pitch. Visions of soldiers breathing hard as their coiled bodies sprung to deflect attacks. Strong arms and sculpted legs running and lunging, dancing over the fields. Veins sharp as knives underneath tanned, sweat-soaked skin.

Accolon groaned. A line of sweat trailed from his temples to the hollow of his neck, merging with the drops of soft rain dampening his skin. Tremors ran down his spine. The rough contact of his chaffed skin on his pulsing shaft drove him past thought, past madness.

With his thumb, he spread the first drops of seed over his length. Sticky, smooth, he increased his speed. He needed the friction, craved the rush. His breath hitched and his hips jerked, sensation silencing his control.

Accolon’s body screamed for release. He spared a blasphemous wish that it were someone else’s hand bringing him to completion, a warm body beneath his, taking him deep, clenching around him, welcoming him home.

A relentless surge raced from his groin to his belly, down his legs, made his thighs clench in anticipation. He bit his tongue to keep from crying out as the crest swept over him. Accolon twisted like a fish in the talons of an eagle. The rapid approach of his climax was one of the best things he had ever felt in his life...

...only superseded by the orgasm itself as it seized him, wrung him, broke him. It stole every breath in his body, every thought in his head. Flashes of fire roiled in his gut and burst into flame. Accolon let out a strangled, savage cry as he flew and raced and drowned and burned.

He came hard, body spasming off the earth, his voice a broken scream. Hot seed burst from him, coating his bare belly and trembling legs. It streamed harder, faster, unending as his body arched and soared.

All too soon, the fire banked. The cool air of the coming night collided against his flushed skin.

Accolon remained there, waiting for his body to calm, his breathing to return to normal. His pulse slowed with each finger of sunlight that disappeared behind the horizon.

The wave receded. The world returned.

And with it, the end of Accolon’s freedom.