Guiscard: Chapter 1
Guiscard de Poitain paused at the entrance to the arbour, carefully smoothing down his houpplelonde where it had become wrinkled. He was a young man, no more than eighteen. Tall, slender but well made, with blonde hair and blue eyes. By the finery of his dress an observer would have labelled him a nobleman's son, which was indeed the case.
When he was satisfied with the condition of his clothing he peered carefully through the archway of climbing roses into the arbour. The Lady Naenia was within, as he had known she would be. His brother's ideas of the duties of a suitor might end with turning up to the ceremony of betrothal, but Guiscard had taken the time to learn her habits so that he could arrange 'accidental' meetings, like this one. He saw her sitting on the stone bench, her dark hair woven in fine braids that were laid in coils upon her head. She was wearing a fine white dress that seemed almost luminous in the early morning light that filtered through the trees. His brother's betrothed. The woman he loved.
Guiscard had been born into a life of wealth and privilege. His family was a noble one, able to trace its lineage back through dozens of generations. He had grown up learning the noble arts of hunting and war, as well as the pleasures that go with rank. His life had been one of indolent ease and languid pleasure. Until the Lady Naenia...
He stepped through the archway, wondering for the thousandth time why he tormented himself like this. She was betrothed to his brother, and no power that Guiscard possessed could change that. At his approach she turned away from watching the birds in the trees, smiling as she caught sight of him.
"Guiscard. Good morning to you." He bowed in return.
"Good morning to you, my lady," he answered. After a slight pause he added, "I fear my brother rode forth very early this morning on the hunt. He will likely not be back before nightfall."
"Oh," she said. Was it only his wishful imagination, or was there a lack of any real disappointment in her voice? Almost happiness? It could not be so, he told himself firmly. But it was not enough to quench the yearning in his heart. "It is of no matter," she went on, her voice more controlled now. "The wedding is only a few months away. I suppose he should be allowed to enjoy his last days as a bachelor as he wishes." She paused again, looking up at him. The smile that had graced her lips when she first saw him returned, but there was something almost shy about it now.
"Will you sit with me a moment?" she asked softly.
"Of course, my lady," he answered, schooling his voice to calm politeness while his heart thudded in his chest as it always did in her presence. He seated himself on the bench, close to her, but not too close. The warmth of the morning sun melded with the warmth of her nearness. It was moments like this that he sought her out. Moments when he could fool himself that she might love him as he loved her. Moments when his brother did not exist.
"Why is it that you did not ride out with them?" she asked, after they had sat together in silence for a few moments. "I am not the hunter that my brother is," he answered. Guiscard's brother was a large man, famed for his feats on the battlefield and on the hunt. In years to come his heavy frame might turn to fat, but now he was in the prime of his life and his stature and the overbearing personality that came with it filled any room.
"It was not always so," she said, the smile becoming a touch mischievous. "When first we met you seemed addicted to the pleasures of the hunt, and the table. And wenching," she added, her nose wrinkling as though it had smelled something unpleasant. Guiscard frowned inwardly, his mind going back two years to their first meeting. She had been a woman of sixteen. Poised, beautiful, intelligent and gentle. And he had been merely been the second son of a nobleman, a boy on the path to becoming a dissolute youth. The scorn in her clear grey eyes when she saw him had lashed him like a whip.
"I was young," he said awkwardly, wondering if she knew how much that look had affected him. How much it had made him want to be better than he was. To be worthy of her. Since their first meeting she had often come to stay at the estate of her husband-to-be's family. Through her he had discovered a love of learning that he never knew he possessed. His manners too had absorbed something of her gentleness and refinement, which set him further apart from his brother.
"You are not young now," she said. "You have grown into a fine man. I... I have been very glad of your friendship over these past two years. As I shall be glad to call you my brother," she added quickly, turning her gaze towards the ground as she finished speaking.
"I have been honoured to be your friend, Naenia," he said, using her name for the first time. "I am sorry that my brother has not been more attentive to you," he continued, choosing his words with care so as to stay the right side of propriety. “Though if I am truthful, I am glad that you have been so often forced into my company.” She lifted her head to look at him and smiled, though it seemed a little sadly.
“If I am truthful, “she said after a pause, “I am glad of it as well.” Guiscard felt his heart leap within his chest. This was as close as she had ever come to admitting that her feelings might mirror his own.
“Naenia… I…” He had started speaking before he could stop himself, but he felt his mouth dry and his tongue fail before his lips could frame the feelings of his heart. He took a deep breath, trying to will himself to continue but she placed a silencing finger on his lips before he could speak again.
“Don’t say it,” she said softly. Her eyes searched his for a moment. “I know how you feel,” she continued. “I know because I… I feel the same way.” His eyes widened at her words.
“You… you do?” She nodded.
“I wish I had the strength to deny it. It would be easier on both of us I think.” She shook her head, as though trying to clear it. “But I have my duty to my family. This marriage is in too many interests to be stopped merely because I have fallen in love. In three months I shall be your brother’s wife, and that will be an end to it.”
He looked at her dumbly, unable to speak or act. He had dreamed of this moment often over the past two years but never had he anticipated the sickening realisation that she was still as far away from him as ever. He wracked his brain, trying to think of something to say. But there was nothing. She looked at him, her eyes welling with tears.
“Mitra forgive me, but I wish you had been born first. I could go to my marriage with a happy heart then.” At the sight of her tears something broke inside him. His arms wear reaching for her, holding her in a gentle embrace, before he was conscious of having decided to do so. There was a moment when he was only comforting her, a moment when they could still both convince themselves that they were true to their duty. The she turned her face up to look at him, her eyes shining despite the tears and both he and the moment were lost. His mouth descended, his lips claiming hers in a kiss that contained all of the pent up longing of the last two years.
At length they parted, both left gasping by the storm of passion that had passed through them.
“I almost wish we had not done that,” she whispered softly. “Before I only thought I loved you. Now I know that I do.” Then she was pulling him back down into her embrace and there was no more need for words.
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