Note: This story contains potential spoilers if you haven’t read Winds of War.
Note: This story contains potential spoilers if you haven’t read Winds of War.
“My lord, did you find him?” Norman called eagerly.
Jurian shook his head as he hastened down the worn, cracked steps of Castle Fairborough’s keep. “No, he’s not here. We must go to the village.”
Norman nodded as he held the carriage door open for his master. After Jurian had stepped inside, the servant shut the door and mounted the box beside the driver.
As the carriage rumbled out of the snow-dusted courtyard along with its escort of four knights, Jurian leaned back against some cushions and sighed. Closing his eyes, he reflected on what had brought him here.
It had all started a week ago with a rap at his study door. “Jurian, I must speak with you,” his wife called.
“Come in,” Jurian replied, laying aside his book.
Rosanna entered, carrying their son Philip, a chubby baby with rosy cheeks and his father’s raven hair. At the moment, Philip was busy playing with one of his mother’s blond locks, much to her annoyance.
“Jurian, take him,” Rosanna ordered. “I can’t stand him any more.”
The lord smiled as he took Philip and settled him in his lap. He bounced Philip on his knee, while Rosanna sat down opposite them and cleared her throat.
“Jurian,” she said crisply, “I need a favor.”
“What is it?” Jurian asked, noticing the frown creasing her brow.
“I need you to help a child.”
“A child?” Jurian echoed in surprise. “Whose?”
“Tyrell’s? Why would Tyrell’s child need my help? Did something happen to his father?”
Rosanna hesitated. “No, Tyrell is fine. But his son needs help.”
Jurian frowned, suspicion growing inside him at his wife’s strange manner. “Why? Surely Tyrell has enough money to support the boy.”
“Yes, but he doesn’t want to.”
“Why not? Is the child ill? Was he injured in some sort of accident?”
“No, but his father doesn’t want to keep him.”
“Why not?” Jurian demanded. “Speak plainly, Rosanna. You know how I hate to play this sort of game.”
Rosanna took a deep breath and plunged right onward. “The baby was fathered out of wedlock. That’s why Tyrell doesn’t want him.”
“Out of wedlock!” Jurian exclaimed. “But Tyrell is married!”
“Yes,” Rosanna said hastily, “that’s why it’s so awful. I was talking with Lady Edith this morning and she told me that Baroness Ada has already left her husband. And that’s not even the worst of it.”
“It gets worse?” Jurian muttered, wondering how that was possible.
“Yes. The other woman gave birth to the baby close to a year ago. But it was only this past week that she revealed who his father was. Tyrell must have bribed her to keep quiet. How else could she have borne the shame?”
“People will do anything for money,” Jurian said darkly.
“Lady Edith said that the neighbors think the boy’s mother is a drunkard,” Rosanna continued. “Some even say that she’s insane.”
“Then how could she care for a baby?”
“I don’t know, but we must help him. He cannot be left to suffer.”
Jurian nodded and glanced down at Philip, who was contentedly sucking on his fingers. Unconsciously, the lord wrapped his arms tighter about his son, grateful that Philip wasn’t in that other boy’s situation.
“Jurian,” Rosanna said impatiently, “are you going to do something for that boy?”
“Yes, certainly. I’ll find someone to care for him. Maybe one of the villagers will take him in if I pay his keep. He will be a great help in the fields when he’s older.”
Rosanna released a sigh of exasperation at her husband’s shortsightedness. “Jurian, I wanted you to do a little more than that.”
“More?” Jurian echoed warily.
“I want you to take him in and let him make his home here with us at Castle Willington.”
Jurian started up in his chair, jostling Philip and causing the baby to cry out. “Here!” the lord exclaimed.
“Yes. I don’t think it’s right to put him out in the fields when he’s the son of a baron. Also, I thought he would be a good companion for Philip.”
“No,” Jurian answered sharply, shaking his head and patting Philip’s back to soothe him. “We can’t do that, Rosanna.”
“Why not?” she retorted.
“He’s an illegitimate child. We can’t associate him with ourselves. People would see it as our giving approval to his parent’s adultery.”
“No, they wouldn’t. They would see it as an act of kindness. Besides, it’s the right thing to do. It would be unjust to hold a baby responsible for his parents’ actions.”
“No, Rosanna, I won’t do it. I pity the boy and I will try to find a suitable situation for him, but I will not take him in here at Castle Willington and let him be connected with my son.”
Rosanna’s mouth set in a thin, stubborn line. Without a word, she rose, picked up Philip, and stalked out of the room. As the door banged shut behind her, Jurian sighed with relief, glad that the conversation was finished.
However, as he quickly discovered, the matter was far from settled. Over the course of the next few days, Rosanna fought to wear down his defense with a constant assault in the form of little remarks and observations.
“It’s a pity there aren’t a lot of children here at Castle Willington, Jurian. Philip will be so lonely when he’s older.”
“Philip is very fortunate to have such a nice home. If only other children were as lucky as him.”
“Do you think it’s just allowing other children to suffer when we possess so much? We really ought to do more to help them.”
Jurian maintained a stubborn front for as long as he could, but at the end of three days he grew weary of the nagging and broke down. And so here he found himself on the road to the village to meet the child and see what he was like.
Jurian’s dark brows gathered into a frown as he wondered what he would find. Already, he wished that he hadn’t wasted a day on this errand. After all, the child’s place was not with him. To take him in at Willington would only create problems.
The next moment, however, Jurian rebuked himself. No, he was being foolish. It was only just that he give the child a chance. Besides, if the boy later proved unfit, he could always find another home for him.
The knight’s voice startled Jurian out of his reflections. “What is it, Sir Osbert?” the lord asked as he glanced out the window at the knight.
“We’re almost there,” Osbert replied, pointing to the outskirts of Fairborough village.
Jurian nodded and ordered a halt. Dismounting from the carriage, he turned to his men, who regarded him with curious eyes.
“Stay here,” Jurian ordered. “Norman and I will go on alone.”
“Are you sure, my lord?” Osbert asked. “You don’t know how they’ll receive you.”
“Yes, I am sure. I want this business to be quick and discrete,” Jurian added. “That is why you are staying here.”
“As you wish, my lord.”
A biting wind gusted across the open countryside as Jurian and Norman strode down the cold, muddy road towards the village. As they drew near it, Jurian turned his footsteps in the direction of a lonely house that stood right at the village outskirts.
“Is that the place, my lord?” Norman asked, casting an uncertain glance at the small, crumbling hut that lay ahead of them.
“Yes, unfortunately,” Jurian muttered. “The steward told me that it was the house closest to the village outskirts.”
“Perhaps he was mistaken,” Norman murmured.
The two opened the rickety gate and trod up a stone path overgrown with dead weeds and grass. They entered the hut’s single, dark room, only to be overwhelmed by the stench of alcohol. Norman coughed and put a hand to his face, while Jurian wrinkled his nose in disgust.
As their eyes adjusted to the darkness, they saw that the room was strewn with an assortment of old, decrepit furniture. Clothes, broken dishes, and other objects lay scattered everywhere, and no fire burned in the grate despite the chilly temperature.
“Pardon me, my lord,” Norman said, “but are you sure this is the right place? It looks abandoned.”
“No, it’s inhabited,” Jurian replied shortly, gesturing to a half full dish of porridge discarded on the floor.
“But where is the child? I don’t see him.”
Jurian frowned and glanced about, but caught no sight of the boy. He and Norman quickly searched the hut, but the only sign they found of the child were some clothes of his.
“This is strange, my lord,” Norman remarked as they stepped back outside into the clean winter air. “Do you think he is with his mother?”
“He ought to be. It is a mother’s natural instinct to keep her child with her.”
“Do you want to go look for her?”
“Yes, but let’s return to the carriage first. We may need the men,” Jurian added darkly.
Norman nodded and hurried back up the garden path with the lord. They were at the gate when Jurian suddenly froze.
“My lord, what is it?” Norman asked in puzzlement.
Jurian shook his head and motioned for the servant to be still. There was several moments’ silence, then they heard it. A thin cry carried to their ears on the crisp air.
Immediately, the two men turned back. Splitting up, they began searching the garden.
Jurian had almost reached the far end when he caught a glimpse of movement from by the stone wall. Running over, he bent down and gasped.
There, lying half-concealed among the tall weeds and grass, was a child.
Jurian stared at the boy, unable to believe his eyes. A child! Out here?
A shudder went through the baby’s body as he gave another feeble cry. Jurian tore off his woolen cloak and bundled the child in it, wrapping it close about his thin, shivering frame. Scooping the boy up, he hastened back towards the garden gate.
“Norman!” he yelled. “Norman!”
The servant came running, only to stop short and gasp at the sight of the baby.
“My lord!” he cried. “Is that him?”
“Yes. Make haste, Norman. He needs food and warm clothes.”
Norman nodded and held the rickety gate open for his master. Together, they left behind the small hut and hurried along the muddy road towards the village. As they neared the first house, Norman turned his footsteps in its direction, but Jurian cut him off.
“No, not that one.”
“Why not, my lord?”
“There’s no smoke,” Jurian said shortly. “We need a fire.”
“Aye, of course!” Norman exclaimed. “How could I forget that?”
Glancing about, the servant spotted another house, a sturdy stone cottage with brightly lit windows and a chimney puffing out a cloud of smoke.
“There, my lord,” he quickly said, pointing towards it. “They have a fire.”
Jurian nodded and turned up the stone path leading towards it. Norman rapped at the door, while Jurian stood, tapping his foot impatiently.
“Harder, Norman!” he snapped.
The servant knocked again, and a plump woman clothed in a blue-checkered dress opened the door. As her gaze landed on the baby, she drew in a sharp breath.
Stepping forward, she snatched the baby out of Jurian’s arms and carried him inside. She bore him over to the fire and began rocking him back and forth, while issuing directions to the men.
“Fetch me some clean blankets,” she ordered. “They’re in that chest in the corner. And make some porridge. You can find the oats in the cupboard.”
The men leapt to do the woman’s bidding, while she remained by the fire, cuddling the whimpering baby and cooing to him. As she wrapped Lief in the blankets, Jurian stared at the baby, noting with fresh anger the child’s dirty rags, which stunk of alcohol.
“Is this Baron Tyrell’s child?” he demanded.
“Yes,” the woman answered as she picked up the child. “His name is Lief. Linota gave birth to him last April.”
“April! That means he is ten months old. Do you mean that he has been left in this state that long?”
“Yes. I and some others have tried to do what we can,” the woman said fiercely, “but Linota won’t let us near him. She is insane. She hides him in the most awful spots—out in the garden, under a bed. Once I even found him in the fireplace.”
“The fireplace! He could have died if he’d been left there!”
“Yes, I know. Who are you?” the woman added, frowning at Jurian.
“Lord Jurian. And this is my servant Norman.”
“Lord Jurian!” she cried. “But then you are the Earl of Willington! What are you doing here?”
“My wife Rosanna sent me. She heard about Lief’s plight and asked me to look for him. And your name?” Jurian added.
Jurian nodded and glanced at Lief, whose blond head had dropped on Beatrice’s shoulder. Drowsiness was overtaking the baby now as tiredness began to win out over his hunger.
“Norman, is that porridge ready yet?” Jurian asked impatiently.
“Yes, my lord,” Norman answered quickly as he poured some of the warm, sweet porridge into a bowl.
The servant brought it over to Beatrice, who took it and sat down in a chair with Lief propped up in the crook of her arm. As she slipped the first spoonful of porridge in his mouth, the baby’s gray eyes opened, and he hungrily gulped it down. Jurian and Norman both smiled, while Beatrice quickly placed another spoonful in Lief’s open mouth.
“Ah, that’s better, my lord,” Norman remarked with an air of satisfaction. “Look, the color’s already creeping back into his cheeks.”
“Yes, I see,” Jurian replied as he patted Lief’s warm head. Inwardly, though, he grimaced at the sight of Lief’s fleshless cheeks. It would take a long time for this baby to heal.
The door banged open and the group spun around to find a wild-looking creature dressed in rags storming into the house. Catching sight of Lief, she raced towards them, shrieking:
“Stop it! Stop it! He’s mine, I tell you! Mine!”
A terrified cry from Lief split the air as his mother tore the spoon out of Beatrice’s hand. Linota tried to snatch her son away from Beatrice, but Jurian grabbed her arms to restrain her. Screaming, she turned on the lord and sank her teeth into his wrist.
Jurian gave a cry of pain and loosed his hold. Seizing her chance, Linota leapt away from him, but Norman caught hold of her tangled black hair and gave it a sharp tug. Linota howled with rage and pounced on the servant, scratching at his face with her long nails. Jurian sprang after her and grabbed her by the shoulder, while Beatrice darted towards the door with Lief.
Together, the two men fought to pin Linota’s arms behind her without success. She struck out, bit, scratched, and kicked until Jurian was finally forced to strike back in self-defense. As his fist slammed into Linota’s jaw, her legs buckled, and she fell dazed to the ground.
Jurian breathed a sigh of relief and brushed his blood-stained hand across his forehead. He turned away to go find Beatrice when Norman gave a cry.
“My lord, look!”
Jurian whirled around to discover Linota having a fit. Violent convulsions racked her body as she started to choke. The men knelt beside the woman, trying to help her, but it was no use. One final spasm shook her body, and she lay still.
Jurian stared at Linota in disbelief, then placed a hand on her heart.
“Well?” Norman asked anxiously.
“Dead,” Jurian murmured.
The two men shook their heads and rose shakily to their feet. They headed to the door, only to find Beatrice waiting outside with Lief and a collection of neighbors. The baby was crying uncontrollably in Beatrice’s arms, his whole body shuddering with sobs.
For a second, Jurian remained frozen, then he turned to Norman, clutching his injured wrist painfully. “Fetch the carriage,” he ordered. “We are leaving.”
“But the woman, my lord. What about…”
“I’ll take care of her,” Jurian snapped. “Now get the carriage. We are leaving.”
“What about Lief, my lord?” Beatrice’s quavering voice interrupted. “What about him?”
Jurian stared at the crying baby, hesitating. Would it be right to take the child? Perhaps he should leave him here instead. Beatrice could take care of him. After all, she seemed to love him.
But what about Rosanna? If he didn’t bring the boy home, she would never cease to talk about him. Yet on the other hand, if he took the child, what then? Would he have to care for Lief for the rest of his life?
And what about Lief? What would he think someday many years on when he learned what had passed on this awful day?
“My lord,” Beatrice repeated, “what will you do with Lief?”
Jurian hesitated a moment longer before hurrying over Beatrice. “I will take him,” the lord said quietly. “You need not worry about him any longer. I shall take care of him.”
Beatrice nodded, silent tears dripping down her cheeks. She stared at Lief, then kissed his forehead and pressed him tightly to her breast.
“Thank you, my lord,” she murmured as she handed the baby to Jurian. “I’m sure you and your wife will love him very much.”
“We shall try.”
Turning to the other villagers, Jurian addressed them. “Your neighbor Linota is dead,” he explained. “I am taking Lief back with me to Castle Willington to care for him. Please, do me a favor and bury Linota. I shall repay you for your trouble.”
A murmur went through the villagers as they nodded their assent. Jurian started away with Norman, then abruptly stopped and turned back.
“Miss Comstock, may I ask one more favor of you?”
“Yes, my lord?”
“Would you please finish feeding Lief? A proper meal might go a long way towards stopping his crying.”
Beatrice smiled and eagerly stepped forward to take the baby from Jurian. “Of course, my lord. Anything for Lief.”
Beatrice hurried towards her house, only to stop short as she remembered the body. “My lord, I’m sorry, but I don’t…”
“I’ll get you the porridge,” Jurian cut in. “We can go to one of your neighbors to feed Lief.”
Beatrice breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you, my lord.”
Half an hour later, Jurian’s carriage and escort were drawn up in the village square, awaiting their lord’s return. Inside another cottage, a knot of women stood gathered around Beatrice and Lief, patting the baby’s head and cooing to him. By now Lief had stopped crying, but his body was still tense, and his gray eyes were full of anxiety.
Meanwhile, over in another corner, Norman had just finished bandaging Jurian’s injured wrist. “I hope that’s better, my lord,” Norman said. “Those wounds looked very painful.”
Jurian grimaced. “They are. It is not pleasant having an insane person sink their teeth into your wrist.”
Norman smiled weakly as he touched the cuts Linota’s nails had inflicted on his face. “I would imagine not.”
“Thank you for your help, Norman,” Jurian continued. “I do not know what I would have done without you.”
“You’re welcome, my lord. We would not want to disappoint Lady Rosanna, would we?” Norman added, his smile deepening.
“No,” Jurian remarked wryly. “I’d rather fight ten insane people than face her wrath.”
Norman laughed. “A wise choice, my lord.”
Jurian rose and looked over at the group of women, wondering how he’d ever free Lief from their motherly clutches. Fortunately, Beatrice caught sight of his glance and, rising, walked over to him with Lief.
“You are ready to leave, my lord?” she asked hesitantly.
“Yes, it is time. You can carry Lief to the carriage,” Jurian added. “I’m sure he is tired of constantly being touched by everyone.”
Beatrice just smiled, grateful to Jurian for giving her a little more time to hold and cuddle Lief.
As they stepped outside into the biting wind, some men were walking by, carrying Linota’s body. Beatrice shuddered, while Jurian bowed his head.
“I’m glad she’s dead,” Beatrice muttered as she wrapped a blanket closer about Lief’s head. “It is better that way.”
Jurian frowned and placed a hand on Beatrice’s arm. “No, do not say that. She may have been only a poor wretch, but she was Lief’s mother. He will never have another one.”
“No, my lord, but you and your wife will take far better care of him than Linota. She never really loved him. She only cared for herself. Her life never had any value.”
Jurian shook his head. “No, that’s not true. A life is always precious, no matter how tragically it ends. Or begins,” he added with a glance at Lief.
“Perhaps, my lord,” Beatrice murmured.
The two walked over to the carriage, where Beatrice gave Lief one last kiss before placing him in Jurian’s arms. She turned away, tears pricking at her eyes, but Jurian’s voice stopped her.
“Miss Comstock, one more thing. Please, allow me to repay you for your kindness towards Lief. He wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for you.”
Beatrice, however, was already shaking her head. “No, my lord. No repayment. It is enough to know that Lief will be loved.”
“You are sure?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Very well. But do not be surprised if my wife visits you someday to thank you. It is only because of her that I am here.”
Beatrice glanced back at Jurian, smiling through her tears. “I shall look forward to her visit, my lord. Only tell her to bring Lief. I shall miss him very much.”
Jurian nodded. “I’m sure you shall.”
Beatrice stood by while the lord mounted his carriage. As it rumbled out of the village square, Jurian leaned back against the cushions, sighing.
Finally, he had Lief.
Now what would Rosanna think of the boy?
“Philip, stop it,” Rosanna said impatiently. “My necklace is not a toy.”
Philip ignored her and reached again for her necklace, fascinated by the bright coral gemstones. Sighing, Rosanna pulled his chubby arm away.
“My lady, shall I take him?” a maid offered. “It is growing very late.”
“No, I’ll take care of him, Dimia. You may go to bed if you wish. I know you are tired.”
The maid bobbed her head gratefully. “Thank you, my lady. Call if you need anything.”
Rosanna nodded and remained where she was, while the maid hastened back up the keep steps. As the door banged shut behind her, Rosanna shivered in the chilly night air.
“I wish you father would come home,” she murmured to Philip. “Whatever is keeping him?”
Philip just sighed and snuggled deeper inside his blanket. Rosanna rocked her son back and forth, humming quietly to him. But even while she did this, her mind remained fixed on the other child.
Had Jurian found the boy? Was he bringing him back? Had the boy’s mother fought with Jurian over the child? Or had she given him up peacefully?
At this last thought, Rosanna bit her lip. Ever since Jurian had left that morning, she had been having doubts about whether it was right to take the boy away from his mother. If the stories were true that the woman was a drunkard, then it did seem the right thing to do.
And yet was it?
For, drunkard or not, the woman was a mother and the boy was her son. To force her to give up her baby—a woman’s most precious treasure—was heartbreaking, even cruel.
Yet the boy, what about him? He could not be left in the care of a drunkard. And surely his needs came before his mother’s. He was only an innocent baby, after all.
Tears crept into Rosanna’s brown eyes as she imagined having to give up Philip. Such a thing was not possible, she thought. Not without her dying of sorrow, at least.
A tug at her necklace startled Rosanna back to the present. Glancing down, she gave a cry of disgust.
Her son looked up at her, his dimples turned up in a smile as he sucked contentedly on the necklace. Rosanna quickly pulled it away from him, grimacing at the drool covering the gemstones. Taking Philip’s blanket, she wrapped it close about her son, trapping his tiny hands inside it.
“There, that’s better. Now keep your hands there or I’ll tell your father that you’ve been drooling on my necklace.”
Philip just smiled again and giggled.
“Now what are you smiling for?” Rosanna asked. “Are you laughing at me? Or are you thinking of the surprise we have in store for your father?”
Philip did not reply of course, so she continued. “I wonder if he’ll like it. Probably not, but it had to be done. I could not stand those drapes any longer.”
Shouts from the battlements interrupted the countess’ musings.
“Open the gate! Open the gate!”
Rosanna’s heart leapt inside her. “Philip, he’s home!”
As she watched, the portcullis grated open and a carriage escorted by four knights rumbled inside the moonlit courtyard. As it drew up before the keep, Rosanna hastened breathlessly down the steps. Words of greeting sprang to her lips, but were silenced by the sound of crying.
Rosanna frowned as Norman opened the carriage door and Jurian dismounted, carrying a small bundle in his arms. Stepping forward, the countess peered inside the blanket and gasped.
Before Jurian could answer, Rosanna thrust Philip into his arms. Snatching up Lief, she turned and hurried away, cuddling the crying baby close to her breast.
Jurian stared after his wife, not knowing what to say. Beside him, Norman laughed.
“Well, my lord, you need not worry about Lief any longer. He will never escape your wife’s arms.”
“No, now I just need to worry about Philip. Poor boy,” Jurian added dryly. “Abandoned by his own mother.”
Norman laughed again as he glanced at the baby. Philip’s hands had escaped the blanket and were now eagerly reaching for the silver clasp of Jurian’s cloak.
“Careful, my lord. You will not want to remove that clasp if your son touches it.”
Jurian took heed of the servant’s warning and stuffed Philip’s hands back inside the blanket. Turning to his escort, he dismissed them with a few words before hastening up the keep steps with Norman. As they entered the keep’s main corridor, Jurian glanced at his servant, a request on his lips. Norman, however, beat him off the mark.
“My lord, shall I bring you something to eat? You haven’t had any food since this afternoon.”
Jurian nodded. “Yes, thank you. And please make some porridge for Lief. He woke up hungry on the way home.”
“And what about this scamp?” Norman asked with a wave at Philip. “Do you think he’s hungry?”
“No, he is fine. He weighs quite enough already, I assure you.”
Norman chuckled and patted Philip’s plump, rosy cheek. “He is chubby, my lord. Lady Rosanna’s arms must be very strong for her to carry him wherever she goes.”
“Indeed,” Jurian replied, before striding off towards the torch lit staircase.
As Jurian walked up the uneven steps, Philip wriggled about in his arms, trying to free his hands from the blanket. Jurian groaned and shifted his son from one shoulder to another. Philip certainly weighed a lot, he thought with a wry smile. Perhaps Rosanna fed him too much.
The next moment, Jurian’s smile disappeared as he remembered cradling Lief in his arms. Every bone in that baby’s thin, starved body seemed to stick out. Hugging Philip close, he breathed a prayer of thanks that his son was not like Lief.
Upstairs, Jurian laid Philip in his cradle and began to rock him. Sleep, however, was not on Philip’s mind as he rolled about in his cradle, gurgling and cooing. After several minutes, Jurian gave up and departed, leaving his son babbling to himself.
Jurian headed across to his own quarters and opened the door, only to stop short in shock. “Rosanna!” he cried.
“Yes?” her sweet voice called.
“What have you done to our quarters?”
“I rearranged them. Don’t they look better now?”
Jurian’s dark brows drew together in a frown as he stepped inside, shutting the door behind him. Glancing over at the fireplace, he saw his wife curled up in chair, feeding a bowl of porridge to Lief.
“Rosanna, what have you done?” he demanded. “Why did you rearrange our quarters?”
His wife didn’t bother to look up at him. “I didn’t like the blue drapes,” she said evenly. “The crimson ones I hung are far prettier.”
“Crimson!” Jurian exclaimed, glancing over at the windows. “Why on earth did you pick crimson?”
“Because they are pretty, Jurian.”
“No, they are not,” Jurian retorted. “They are the ugliest things I’ve ever seen.”
“Then I’m very sorry for you. It is sad when a man lacks any sense of taste.”
“Yes, taste. My mother always says that you are too stiff,” Rosanna added.
“But what about our bed?” Jurian rejoined. “Why did you move it over to that wall? Wasn’t it fine between the two windows?”
“No, I don’t like it there. I prefer to feel the warn sunshine on my face when I wake up in the morning.”
“Then what about my chair? Why did you move it away from the fireplace? Now I’ll be chilled when I read.”
“But you’ll also have plenty of sunlight for your reading. Besides, the winters are not really cold here in the south. And summer will arrive soon enough.”
Jurian groaned, his dark eyes filling with despair as he looked around the room. He’d only been gone a day and already his home was thrown into chaos.
A tap at the door.
“My lord, are you there?” Norman called.
Jurian opened the door for the servant, who bore a tray of food. As Norman entered, his eyebrows shot up in surprise at the sight of the rearranged quarters.
“My lord, you didn’t tell me that you were planning this change,” he remarked.
“I wasn’t aware that it was happening,” Jurian muttered.
Norman smiled as he carried the tray over to a table by the fireplace. “Ah, it was a surprise. Well, it is a good one, for it has certainly caught me off guard.”
“Do you like the arrangement of the furniture, Norman?” Rosanna asked. “I think I did a fine job, don’t you?”
“Yes, a very fine job, my lady.”
“Except for the crimson drapes,” Jurian broke in. “Those are going tomorrow.”
“No, they are not,” Rosanna retorted.
“Yes, they are. You don’t have to rehang the blue drapes, but I won’t have crimson ones.”
“Yes, you will. Stop fussing, Jurian. You’ll grow fond of the color in time.”
“No, I wil…”
“My lord,” Norman exclaimed quickly, “look at Lief! Doesn’t he seem far better now?”
Jurian glared at the servant before shifting his gaze to Lief, who was gobbling down the porridge. As Lief ate, porridge ran down his chin and dripped on the bib that covered his fresh change of clothes. Frowning, Jurian picked up a cloth and bent down to wipe Lief’s chin. As he did so, he was surprised to catch the scent of something sweet.
“Rosanna, are you wearing perfume?” Jurian asked in puzzlement.
“No, that’s Lief. I added some lavender fragrance to his bathwater.”
“Yes. Doesn’t he smell much better?”
“Yes, I suppose,” Jurian muttered, though inwardly he grimaced at the thought of poor Lief being doused in perfume. Would the suffering never end for this child?
Just then, Rosanna noticed the bandage binding her husband’s wrist. “Jurian, what happened to your wrist?” she asked. “Did you hurt it?”
“Yes,” he said shortly. “Don’t worry about it. It’s nothing serious.”
“You are sure?”
“Yes. Norman, please leave,” he added. “And thank you for all your help today. I am in your debt.”
Norman nodded. “You’re welcome, my lord,” he replied, before scooping up the empty porridge bowl and departing.
After the servant left, Jurian settled himself in a chair and set to work on the tray of bread, pears, and cheese that Norman had brought him. Across from him, Rosanna cuddled sleepy Lief in her lap and watched her husband with curious eyes.
“Jurian, you are very quiet tonight,” she remarked after a little. “You haven’t breathed one word about your journey.”
“I was too shocked by the sight of my quarters to think about it.”
“How did you find Lief?” Rosanna asked. “Was it difficult? Was his mother reluctant to give him up?”
“Yes, quite reluctant. The reports about her were true. She was an insane drunkard.”
Rosanna drew in a sharp breath. “An insane drunkard! But then how did she care for Lief?”
“I do not know. Don’t press me,” Jurian added sharply. “I do not want to think any further about the events of today.”
Rosanna bit her lip and shrank back in her chair, cradling Lief closer to her breast. She stared into the crackling fire for a minute before speaking again.
“Jurian,” she said quietly, “what happened to Lief’s mother?”
“Dead! But how…”
“It was an accident,” Jurian snapped. “She attacked us when we refused to let her have Lief. I had no choice but to strike back.”
“But surely you didn’t actually…”
“No, not intentionally. After she slumped unconscious to the floor, she had some sort of fit. The blow, combined with her drunkenness and insanity, was simply too much for her to bear.”
“I’m sorry,” Rosanna murmured. “I did not know something so tragic had occurred.”
Jurian remained silent, relieved that the conversation was over.
A short time later, though, as he finished eating, he noticed tears dripping down Rosanna’s cheeks. He wondered what was wrong, then sighed as it occurred to him that his short temper had probably upset her. Laying aside his napkin, he went over to his wife and kissed her cheek.
“Rosanna, forgive me,” he whispered. “It was wrong of me to grow angry with you.”
Rosanna smiled weakly. “No, no it wasn’t,” she said. “I landed you in this awful situation by telling you to look for Lief. If anyone should be asking forgiveness, it’s me.”
Jurian smiled. “What about Lief? Shouldn’t he ask forgiveness since he’s the cause of all this trouble?”
“Jurian, no! You surely wouldn’t hold an inno…”
“I was joking, Rosanna,” he replied dryly. “Though I may hold him responsible for the rearrangement of my quarters. If it weren’t for him, you never would have had this opportunity to redecorate.”
“Philip helped as well,” Rosanna rejoined. “He was quite happy to take the blue drapes for his own quarters.”
“You gave my blue drapes to Philip!”
Rosanna shrugged. “Why not? I couldn’t just throw them away; they are far too costly. And I thought the blue is perfect for a baby boy.”
“Well, at least you didn’t give him pink ones,” Jurian muttered. “Are you going to put Lief to bed?” he added. “It’s time for us to retire.”
“Yes, in a little while.”
“Where will you have him sleep?”
“Do not worry. I will find a place for him.”
Jurian nodded. Yawning, he rose and headed over towards the wardrobe, which Rosanna had moved to a corner near the bed. As he walked around the bed to reach the wardrobe, Jurian accidentally knocked his knee against something. Looking down, his stomach sank at what he saw: a cradle.
“Rosanna, what’s this cradle doing by our bed?” he demanded. “It’s not for Lief, is it?”
“Of course it is. Who else would it be for? Not you,” she added jokingly.
“Rosanna, this is not funny,” he replied sharply. “You are not keeping Lief in our quarters. I do not need a crying baby disturbing my rest.”
“We kept Philip in here before and you didn’t object to that,” she retorted.
“He is our son. And you were nursing him. You needed him close by.”
“And I need Lief close by too. Don’t complain, Jurian. It will only be for a short time while he gets accustomed to his new home.”
“No, I tell you, we are not…”
“Jurian, enough!” Rosanna cut in. “No more. If you don’t want a baby in our quarters, then you may sleep elsewhere.”
Jurian heaved a sigh of exasperation. Already, he regretted his decision to bring Lief home with him.
“Rosanna, is he ever going to stop crying?” Jurian grumbled. “Or is he determined to create another Winding Willow with his tears?”
Rosanna frowned at her husband and wrapped her arms closer about Lief, who was sitting in her lap, whimpering. “Jurian, be kind to him,” she said sharply. “He’s just a baby.”
“Yes, I know,” Jurian retorted. “But I still don’t understand why he’s crying. You changed his diaper, you fed him breakfast, and you’ve offered him every other comfort. Why is he sobbing then?”
Rosanna ignored him and bounced Lief on her knee, cooing softly to the baby. Across from her, Jurian released a sigh of exasperation as he took a sip of tea and glanced at Rosanna’s full plate of food. He had finished his own breakfast a few minutes ago, while his wife still hadn’t eaten a bite of hers. Shaking his head, he set down his mug and reached across the table for Lief.
“Rosanna, give him to me,” the lord ordered. “You need to eat.”
The countess shook her head, refusing to listen. “No. Lief needs comforting.”
“Then I’ll comfort him.”
“You?” Rosanna echoed doubtfully.
“Yes,” Jurian replied impatiently. “Now give him to me and eat. And when you’re done, perhaps you can go check up on Philip. I’m sure he’s wondering why his mother hasn’t come to fetch him like she usually does.”
Rosanna hesitated before reluctantly yielding up her precious treasure. As Jurian took Lief from her, the baby squirmed and began crying harder.
“Oh, Jurian, now he’s more upset!” Rosanna exclaimed.
“Eat,” Jurian rejoined. “He’s fine.”
As Rosanna picked up a slice of bread and buttered it, Jurian patted Lief’s back and tried to think of a way to soothe him. He glanced at the baby’s bowl of porridge, thinking more food would help, but Lief had eaten everything. Then his eye landed on a plate of miniature seed cakes.
Scooping up one of the sticky, honey-glazed cakes, he broke off a tiny piece and popped it in Lief’s mouth. Instinctively, Lief gulped the food down. As Jurian popped another bit of cake in his mouth, Lief abruptly ceased crying.
Seeing that Lief was interested in the food, Jurian put the next piece of cake in the baby’s hand. Lief proceeded to stick it and his entire hand in his mouth, sucking on both with satisfaction. Across the table, Rosanna laughed with relief and delight.
“Jurian, how clever! What made you think to try that?”
“Philip,” Jurian said dryly. “Have you ever noticed how much food he eats?”
“Oh, he doesn’t eat that much.”
“Yes, he does. Soon he’ll be too big for you to carry around.”
“Well, that’s all right. Then he’ll walk and I’ll carry Lief.”
Hearing this, Jurian sighed. Already, Lief had enchanted his wife.
Shaking his head in annoyance, he glanced down at Lief and offered the baby another bit of cake. By now Lief’s tears had dried up and his hands were covered with sticky honey and drool. Seeing his messy face, Rosanna smiled.
“Isn’t he adorable, Jurian?” she remarked.
Jurian nodded, though inwardly he grimaced. Adorable? This frail wretch with his dirty, tearstained face was not adorable. Pitiable perhaps, but not adorable.
After Rosanna finished eating, she wiped off Lief’s sticky hands and face. Scooping him up, she started for the door, only to be halted by a question from Jurian.
“Rosanna, where are you going with him?”
“To see Philip, of course.”
At this, Jurian stiffened. “Are you sure that is a good idea?”
“Yes. Why do you ask?”
“I only thought that they might not like each other.”
“Not like each other!” Rosanna exclaimed. “Jurian, what a ridiculous thing to say. Of course they’ll like each other. Philip likes everyone he meets.”
“I wasn’t thinking of Philip,” the lord muttered.
“Jurian, why don’t you come with me?” his wife suggested. “It will ease your mind if you’re there to observe them.”
Jurian nodded and, picking up a book, followed her across the way to Philip’s room. There, they found Philip playing with a collection of blocks, while Rosanna’s maid Dimia sat nearby, mending.
Seeing Jurian and Rosanna, Dimia quickly rose and curtsied to them. “Good morning, my lord and lady. May I do anything for you?”
“Yes, please leave,” Jurian said abruptly. “We’d like to be alone with Philip.”
Dimia, glanced at her mistress, who nodded, and slipped out of the room. As the door closed behind her, Rosanna sat down on the floor with Lief in her lap.
“Jurian, would you get me some blocks?” she asked.
“Blocks? What for? I thought you were going to introduce Lief to Philip.”
“I am, but in a quiet way. Now please fetch me some blocks.”
Jurian shook his head in bewilderment, but did as Rosanna asked. As he gathered up some of the blocks, Philip glanced up at him and gave him a wide, dimply smile.
“Boc!” he cried, holding up one of the blocks.
Jurian smiled and patted Philip’s downy, black hair, pleased that his son had learned a new word. “Yes, block,” he repeated, before returning to Rosanna and Lief.
Rosanna stacked up the blocks and tried to get Lief to play with them, but he showed no interest, even when she knocked the tower down. Next she wiggled his fingers and toes, counting off their number to him, which again produced no reaction. Even her attempts at tickling him did not make him smile.
“Oh, Lief, what’s wrong with you?” she murmured. “How can you not know how to play?”
All through this, Philip had been busy with his own play. Now, though, he grew tired of his blocks and glanced around for a new source of amusement. The next instant, his gaze landed on Lief.
Immediately, Philip’s dark eyes lit up, and he crawled over to meet the strange new person. As he drew nearer, Lief huddled closer to Rosanna for safety.
Philip stopped just short of his mother and stared at Lief in fascination. Rosanna smiled and, pulling Philip forward, settled him in her lap beside Lief. For a moment Philip studied his tense companion. Then he laughed.
At the sound of his laughter, Lief smiled and giggled, while Rosanna gave her husband a triumphant smile.
“See? I told you they’d like each other.”
Jurian merely nodded and pretended to be absorbed in his book. Inwardly, though, his mind was coursing with worry.
Was this right? Should he let his son be associated with Lief? Might not people think it strange or wrong for the bounds of rank to be broken in this way? Perhaps he should end this now before things went too far.
But then he heard another giggle and saw Lief smiling again. At the sight of the child’s happy countenance, Jurian’s resistance crumbled. No, things would all right for now. They were only babies. Later, he could separate them if people started to say things.
For now, though, he’d leave them together while Lief healed.
The lord and his steward glanced up, startled, as the door was flung open and Rosanna flew into the study. Catching sight of his wife’s flushed face, Jurian started to speak, but Rosanna cut him off.
“Jurian,” she cried, “he’s done it!”
“Done what?” Jurian echoed in bewilderment.
“Lief! He took his first step.”
Jurian frowned, annoyed at having his business interrupted by such a trivial announcement. “Very good,” he said shortly. “I’m glad to hear it.”
Rosanna, however, was not satisfied by this response. Hurrying over to his desk, she placed a hand on his arm.
“Jurian, don’t just sit here,” she said. “Come upstairs and see Lief.”
“Rosanna, I can’t,” he retorted. “Berman and I are attending to business.”
“Oh, forget your business! This is more important.”
“No, I need to…”
“My lord,” Berman broke in, “forgive me for interrupting, but if you wish to go see the child I’ll gladly wait for you.”
Jurian glared at his steward, irritated by the offer, but Rosanna smiled. “Thank you, Berman, you’re most thoughtful. Come, Jurian,” she added, “it will only be a few minutes.”
With a sigh of exasperation, Jurian reluctantly rose and followed his wife upstairs. There they found the boys playing in what had now become Lief’s room as well as Philip’s, much to Jurian’s vexation.
While Philip rolled about a toy wagon filled with a cargo of wooden blocks, Dimia knelt beside Lief, encouraging him to try walking.
“Well, Dimia, has he walked any more?” Rosanna asked eagerly.
“Yes, my lady,” came the proud reply. “He took three more steps while you were gone.”
“Three!” Rosanna exclaimed, clapping her hands together joyfully. “Oh, that’s wonderful. Before long he’ll toddle about like Philip.”
“Though he doesn’t seem interested in doing so right now,” Jurian added, gesturing to Lief, who was engrossed in examining his toes.
Rosanna caught the twinge of annoyance in her husband’s tone and hastily knelt down on the floor, holding her hands out to Lief.
“Come, Lief,” she cooed. “Walk for Mother.”
Lief ignored her, while Jurian stiffened. “Mother?” he echoed sharply.
“Shush,” Rosanna replied without looking up at him. “You’ll distract Lief.”
Jurian fell silent and folded his arms across his chest, while Rosanna scooped up Lief and set him on his now plump legs.
“Come, Lief, walk,” she crooned. “It’s not hard.”
Lief just sucked on his fingers and stared at her with his big gray eyes.
Rosanna softened her voice more until it grew sweet as honey. “Lief, come along. Don’t dawdle, dear. The earl’s impatient.”
Lief gazed at her for several moments, then, ignoring her urging, plopped back down on the floor, much to Rosanna’s disappointment. The countess glanced up at her husband, an apology on her lips, but Jurian had already turned to leave.
“Thank you, Rosanna,” he said dryly. “That was delightful to watch.”
As the door banged shut behind the lord, Dimia glanced at Rosanna’s crestfallen face and smiled. “Don’t worry, my lady,” she murmured. “He’ll understand in time.”
“He better,” Rosanna muttered. “Whether he likes it or not, we are keeping Lief.”
An hour later, Jurian was downstairs in his study writing letters. As he scratched away at the paper with his quill, some of Rosanna’s words echoed in his mind.
Come, Lief. Walk for Mother.
At the memory, the corners around Jurian’s mouth tightened. Mother? Rosanna was not Lief’s mother. Nor would he let Lief call her that. He couldn’t. After all, if Rosanna was “Mother,” then sooner or later that would make him “Father,” a title Lief had no right to use.
Frowning, Jurian unconsciously began to write faster in an effort to ease his frustration. As he lifted up his quill to dip it in the inkwell, he accidentally knocked the latter over, spilling ink everywhere.
Cursing, Jurian leapt to his feet, narrowly saving himself from the river of black ink flowing off his desk. He tossed down the quill and turned away, clenching his hands into fists, when a knock at the door caught his attention.
“Who is it?” he called sharply.
“Rosanna,” his wife’s voice answered. “May I speak with you?”
Scowling, he strode over to the door and opened it to find Rosanna standing outside, dressed in a bonnet. Beside her, Philip held his mother’s hand, while Lief sat securely perched in the countess’ free arm. Both the boys wore little sunbonnets, and Philip’s face was lit up by a cheery smile, which did nothing to ease his father’s frustration.
“Rosanna, what is it?” Jurian demanded. “I am trying to work.”
“I was going to take the boys down to the river for a picnic. Do you want to come?”
“Picnic? Do I look like I have time for a picnic?”
“No, but you certainly seem to need one.”
“No, I do not,” Jurian retorted. “Now please leave. I have letters to write.”
Rosanna stiffened and, turning on her heel, departed without a word. Jurian locked the door behind her and went back to his desk, groaning. After wiping up the ink and burning the ruined letter, he sat back down to write, but found that he had no energy for the task. Laying aside the quill, he leaned back in his chair and rubbed his forehead wearily as he thought of all the work still to be done.
Letters to answer, accounts to total up, bills to pay, a list of tasks for Berman to take care of…
Remembering all this, Jurian groaned. If only there weren’t so much to work to do. What a pleasure it would be to have just one afternoon free to read or go for a ride or spend some time with Rosanna. It would be so…
A tap at the door startled Jurian.
“My lord, are you there?” Norman’s quiet voice called.
“Yes, one moment,” Jurian answered as he rose and plodded over to the door. Opening it, he found Norman outside, holding a covered basket.
“Norman, what is it?” Jurian asked tiredly.
“I only came to ask you something, my lord. Lady Rosanna asked me to bring this basket down to the river for her, but I thought you’d rather take it instead. You’ve been shut up in here all morning and I thought you might enjoy the walk.”
“Norman, I’m busy,” Jurian rejoined. “And I don’t appreciate your taking sides with Rosanna against me.”
Norman just smiled and placed a kind hand on Jurian’s arm. “I do not take sides against you, my lord. I only suggest what is good for you. Go down to the river, my lord, and rest. You’ll feel better afterwards.”
Jurian hesitated, then sighed. Without a word, he took the basket from Norman and headed downstairs.
On his way out of the castle, he met many nobles and servants, who threatened to stop him with friendly greetings or questions. Jurian, however, merely nodded and hurried past them before they could catch him in conversation.
As he left the castle and walked down to the river, the hot June sun beat down on his bare head, sending a trickle of sweat running down his neck. By the time he reached the Winding Willow, his shirt was soaked through and the remainder of his energy had been sapped away.
Pausing at the river’s edge, he glanced up and down, searching for Rosanna. A moment later, her cheerful voice called to him.
“Jurian, over here!”
Turning, he spotted her relaxing in the grass beneath some willow trees, while Philip and Lief played nearby with a collection of stones. As he strode over to them, Rosanna smiled and patted the ground beside her.
“Tired of paperwork?” she asked.
“No, I’m tired of walking. What are you doing out here by yourself?” he added. “You know that I don’t like it when you leave the castle alone.”
“I didn’t leave it alone,” Rosanna said, gesturing to Philip and Lief.
“They don’t count,” Jurian replied flatly. “They’re babies.”
Rosanna merely sniffed and turned her head away as he sat down in the grass beside her. A long, tense silence lingered between the couple before Jurian spoke again.
“Why did you come out here on such a hot day?” he grumbled. “Couldn’t you have stayed at home?”
“No, it’s far more peaceful out here.”
“And far hotter too,” Jurian muttered.
Rosanna released a sigh of frustration in response and rose to her feet. Scooping up Lief, she started away, but a complaint from Jurian stopped her.
“Must you always carry Lief around? Couldn’t you give our own son some attention instead?”
Rosanna gritted her teeth to restrain an angry retort. For a moment she stood, clenching her hand into a fist. Then she reached a decision.
“Fine,” she said coldly. “I’ll take Philip and you can watch Lief.”
Before Jurian could protest, she plopped Lief in his lap, picked up Philip, and stalked off down the riverbank.
As she stormed off, a fire flared up in Jurian’s dark eyes. Blazes, this was getting to be too much. He did not mind providing for Lief, but he could not stand to have his own son neglected in favor of this child. If this continued any longer, Lief would have to go.
A whimper cut in on his thoughts. Glancing down, he saw that Lief’s lower lip was trembling. Quickly, he began bouncing Lief up and down on his knee, hoping to forestall the approaching tears.
If the baby had been sanguine Philip, Jurian’s tactic might have worked. Sensitive Lief, however, was not to be soothed by such easy measures. The more Jurian bounced him, the more he whimpered, until finally the tears came and he broke down crying.
As Lief’s sobs filled the air, Jurian felt himself losing patience with the child. He was ready to call Rosanna, but stopped himself. No, she’d only forget about Philip and become entirely absorbed in Lief. If this problem was to be resolved, then he’d have to try another solution.
Scooping up Lief, he carried the baby down to the river’s edge and dipped his toes in the water. As the warm water swirled about his toes, Lief paused mid-cry and stared down at the gurgling river with a mixture of fright and fascination. Jurian smiled a little and dipped Lief’s feet deeper in the river, while the baby continued gazing at the blue-green waters.
After a minute, he set Lief down on the bank beside a fallen log. “Better?” Jurian asked dryly as he wiped Lief’s dripping nose with a handkerchief.
Lief just sniffed and rubbed his teary eyes.
The baby’s attention remained fixed on the flowing river until a drumming caught his attention. Turning, he saw a bird perched on the log, hammering at it with his bill in search of insects.
Immediately, Lief crawled over to the log to investigate the strange new creature. To his disappointment, the bird flew away, so he shifted his attention to examining the log. Running his hand over it, he discovered that its rough bark was covered with a delightfully soft moss. With a smile, he grabbed hold of a branch sticking out of the log, using it to pull himself to his feet.
While Lief was thus engaged, Jurian had been observing the boy with interest. Now he held out his arms to Lief and called to the child.
“Lief, come here!”
Lief glanced at the lord, wondering what he wanted. Jurian called again.
The child leaned against the log, sucking on his fingers, then took a cautious step forward. Jurian smiled and opened his arms wider, repeating his command. As he watched, Lief took another couple of steps, using the log as support.
When he reached the end of the log, Lief hesitated. He looked at Jurian uncertainly, and the lord’s smile deepened.
“Come, Lief!” he encouraged.
At this, Lief let go of the log and stepped forward. One, two, three more steps and he was safe in Jurian’s arms. Laughing a little, Jurian hugged Lief, while the child snuggled close to him.
“Ome!” Lief cried.
“Yes, come,” Jurian repeated. “Very good.”
When Rosanna returned later with Philip, she was surprised to find Jurian holding Lief and smiling. She asked him why he was so happy, but Jurian refused to explain. In truth, he could not tell himself. After all, Lief had only taken a few steps.
Yet those baby steps were the start to a new road.
“Jurian, I must speak with you,” Rosanna announced one afternoon as she strode into the study where her husband was reading.
At the sound of her crisp voice, Jurian glanced up from his book, a distrustful frown clouding his brow. “What is it?” he asked.
Rosanna walked over to his chair and pulled the book out of his hands, much to his annoyance. Laying it aside, she drew up another chair beside his and rested a firm hand on his arm.
“Jurian,” she said, “I have something important to say.”
“I want you to take in another child.”
“Yes. It’s a little girl. I do not know what the exact problem is, but she needs a good home. You’ll help her, won’t you?” Rosanna added quickly.
Jurian sighed and drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. Another child. Was this a good idea? He’d already taken in Lief. If he accepted another child, everyone might start bringing their children to him and turn Willington into a home for troubled youths.
Yet on the other hand, he’d sheltered Lief for over a year now without disastrous consequences. And it was only one more child. And she was a girl. Rosanna had always wanted a girl.
“Jurian,” Rosanna said urgently, “please listen to me. One more child won’t be that much trouble, especially if she’s a girl. And surely you’re not afraid to accept her after seeing how well Lief has flourished here.”
Jurian frowned and stroked his full, black beard thoughtfully. “What’s her name?”
“Yes. Isn’t it a pretty name?”
Jurian nodded, smiling a trace. “Yes, it is. It’s one of my favorites.”
“I’m glad you like it. Now you will take her in, won’t you?” Rosanna coaxed.
Jurian glanced at her earnest face, hesitating, then nodded slowly. “If she really needs my help. But tell me more about her. Whose daughter is she?”
Jurian’s heart jolted and he leapt out of his chair, staring at Rosanna in shock. “Ours!” he cried.
Rosanna laughed, clapping her hands triumphantly. “Yes, ours! She’s arriving next January! Isn’t this wonderful, Jurian?”
“How do you know the baby’s a girl?” Jurian exclaimed. “What if he’s a boy? You can’t name a boy Gemma.”
“No, but I’m hoping for a girl. And if I’m wrong, then I’ll let you name the baby.”
“And what about this game of yours?” Jurian demanded. “What do you mean by playing that trick on me? Are you trying to drive me mad?”
“No, of course not. It was only a little test. I wanted to see if you had changed.”
“Oh, don’t you remember last year when you opposed taking Lief in? But now look, I suggest the same idea again and you agree to it.”
Jurian stiffened and glared at his wife. He wanted to make some suitable retort, but none sprang to mind. Frowning, he sat back down and, scooping up his book, pretended to read.
Rosanna just smiled, not at all discouraged by Jurian’s cold reaction. Leaning over, she gently shook his arm. “Jurian?”
“What?” he grumbled.
“Don’t be upset; rejoice with me.”
“Are you going to play any more tricks on me?” he retorted.
“No, I’m quite happy now. You’ve changed, and it’s for the better. Don’t you agree?”
Jurian remained silent, but inwardly agreed with her. Though he hadn’t realized it before, he now saw that he had changed—hopefully for the better. And it was all because of Rosanna.
Closing his book, he glanced up and saw the smile still lingering on Rosanna’s lips. As he gazed into her brown eyes, so full of hope and joy, Jurian’s own sternness faded. Smiling, he bent over, brushed back her blond hair, and kissed her warm cheek.
“You’re right,” he murmured. “I’ve changed, and it’s all because of you.”
“And Lief,” she added. “I asked you to bring him home, but that was all.”
“No, not all. You’re the one who has cared for him. Your love is the reason he’s so happy now.”
Rosanna shook her head, her smile deepening. “No, it’s not just my love. You love him too, and as the years pass you’ll love him more and more. Soon enough, he’ll be a second son to you.”
Jurian’s brow wrinkled slightly, but he kept his doubts on the matter to himself. “Why don’t we go see the boys?” he suggested. “They aren’t napping yet, are they?”
“No, but they will be soon. Lief always tires quickly after eating dinner.”
Jurian nodded and, rising, left the study with Rosanna. As they walked upstairs, he slipped an arm about her waist—an unusual gesture of affection from him. Sighing, she leaned her head on his shoulder, enjoying the precious moment.
Outside the boys’ quarters, however, the peace was shattered by some wails. Jurian and Rosanna hastened into the room to find Dimia holding a sobbing Lief and scolding Philip, whose face, hands, and clothes were blackened with soot.
“Dimia, what is this?” Rosanna exclaimed.
“My lady, I…I’m sorry,” the flustered maid cried. “I only turned my back for a moment, but it was enough. Before I knew it, one had tripped and banged his head against a chair and the other was digging through the ashes in the fireplace. It’s just too much, my lady! Too much!”
“Dimia, calm down,” Jurian ordered. “Here, give us Lief and go attend to some other work. Lady Rosanna and I will look after the boys.”
Dimia gladly handed over her crying charge and hastened out of the room. While Jurian cleaned up Philip, Rosanna rocked Lief in her arms and murmured soothing words to him.
“Hush,” she whispered. “Mother has you. There’s no need to cry.”
Meanwhile, another storm raged across the room. Philip, usually so cheerful, was not in any way cooperative that afternoon. He fussed during his bath, tried to crawl back in the fireplace, and refused to lie down peacefully for a nap. Finally, Jurian lost patience with his son and handed him over to Rosanna, while he comforted Lief.
The lord laid Lief down for a nap and, kneeling beside the cradle, patted the boy’s head. As he did so, Lief cringed and whimpered. Frowning, Jurian brushed back the boy’s downy, blond hair and found a lump on his head.
At the sight of it, Jurian’s dark eyes softened and he kissed Lief’s red, tearstained cheek. He stayed there, rubbing Lief’s back, until finally the toddler’s gray eyes closed and he fell asleep.
Philip was also subdued by this time, brought under control by many motherly caresses and a few firm words. As he lay babbling to himself in his cradle, his parents slipped out of the room, breathing sighs of relief.
“Oh, goodness,” Rosanna murmured outside the boys’ closed door, “what a troublemaker Philip is. And poor Lief, banging his head on a chair. Do you think he’ll be all right, Jurian?”
“He should be. He had a lump, but it will go away in time.”
“You were very patient, rubbing his back and waiting for him to fall asleep. One would have thought that he was your own son.”
Jurian stiffened and turned away, but she caught his arm. “Jurian,” she said quickly, “I know you don’t like me saying this, but you ought to let Lief call you ‘Father’. Just think of how much it will mean to him when he’s older.”
“No,” Jurian answered sharply. “I cannot let him do that. He’s not my son, Rosanna, and I will not deceive him into thinking that he is.”
“But it would be such a kind thing! Just think of how he’d love you if…”
“No, it’s not kind; it’s cruel. The people here at Willington already know about Lief’s past, Rosanna, and as he grows older, more will find out about it. I am not going to add to the child’s sufferings by treating him as my own son when I cannot grant him the same privileges as Philip.”
Rosanna drew breath to reply, but Jurian cut her off.
“Rosanna, I cannot do this. Please, do not ask me any more about it.”
A lump rose in Rosanna’s throat as tears of frustration pricked at her eyes. How blind her husband was! He was a father, yet he could not see how much love Lief needed. How would Lief ever heal if he only had a mother’s tenderness and never experienced the strong love of a father?
Jurian spotted the tears in Rosanna’s eyes and quickly wrapped his arms about her. “Rosanna,” he said quietly, “don’t be upset. I’m only seeking to do what is just. Would you really have me deceive Lief? Would you really have him call me ‘Father’ when I know it’s wrong?”
Rosanna remained silent a moment before replying. “Perhaps it is wrong,” she whispered. “Wrong because you do not love him yet with a father’s love. But mark my words, Jurian, someday you will. And when that day comes, your heart with soar with gladness to hear Lief call you ‘Father’.”
With that, she pulled free of his embrace and walked away, saying, “I’m going out riding now. I’ll come home before the boys wake up.”
As she disappeared down the staircase, Jurian sighed and shook his head, wishing that Rosanna wouldn’t be so stubborn.
An hour later, he was talking with his steward in the Great Hall when a guard burst inside, shouting. “My lord, come quick! Lady Rosanna has had an accident!”
“Yes! She was thrown from her horse. Hurry, my lord!”
Jurian asked no more, but raced for the door. Out in the courtyard, he stopped short in horror as he found a crowd gathered around a knot of men and a horse. From the horse’s back, the men were lowering his unconscious wife.
Jurian remained frozen, his heart thumping wildly. Then he gave a cry and rushed forward into the knot of men, yelling orders.
“Back! Get back all of you! Leave her to me. I shall take care of her.”
“No, my lord, please!” a guard cried. “Let us carry her.”
“Stay back, my lord,” another begged. “You are not fit to help.”
Others added their pleas, but Jurian ignored the men and shoved them aside. Placing his arms about Rosanna, he scooped her mangled body in his arms. He staggered towards the keep, his eyes full of desperation as he faltered under the weight of Rosanna’s body. He might have dropped her had not Norman suddenly appeared and lent his help.
Together, the two bore Rosanna upstairs and laid her on her bed. The castle’s healer came and examined her, while Jurian hovered at his elbow, pale with fear.
“Well?” he asked in a quavering voice.
The man shook his head sadly and placed a hand on Jurian’s arm. “My lord, I can do nothing,” he murmured. “She is too badly injured.”
The healer said more, but Jurian did not hear it. His vision blurred and a wave of sickness swept over him as he stared at his unconscious wife. Even as he watched, her breathing grew more strained. A few minutes later, she was dead.
What happened next, Jurian could never clearly remember. The words of the healer, the crying of others in the room, Norman’s attempts to console him… All he recalled was his own anguish as he wept over Rosanna and the lost child whose existence only he knew about.
Finally, Norman, ever the faithful servant, ordered everyone from the room and shut the door, setting himself as guard outside it. Often, someone came by, hoping to see the deceased countess and her husband, but Norman refused to allow any intruders inside. When night came, though, everyone grew concerned.
“Norman, he’s been in there all day. Perhaps we ought to check on him,” the steward said nervously.
“He’s so silent,” a noble muttered. “Do you think he’s all right?”
“What do you think he’s doing?” a lady whispered to her friend. “You don’t think that…”
Her companion shivered and wrapped her arms closely about herself. “I hope not. But it was so sudden. And the way he wept… Lord Jurian has never shed tears in front of anyone.”
Norman remained silent, but he too was growing afraid. Perhaps he ought to take a peek inside the room. It would not hurt.
But when he tried the door, it was locked.
“There!” a woman choked. “He’s locked the door! Something must be wrong.”
“Get the guards!” someone cried. “We must break down the door.”
“No!” Norman snapped. “No one is breaking down the door.”
“Norman, don’t be a fool! This has gone on long enough.”
“Guards! Guards!” one of the ladies screamed.
Feet thundered on the staircase as guards stormed upstairs, demanding to know what was wrong. Norman leapt to his feet and picked up his chair as a weapon, while others began shouting.
“Guards, break down the door!”
“We must save him before he kills himself!”
“No, leave him alone,” the steward cried. “Norman is right. The lord is fine.”
“No, he isn’t. Break down the door!”
“No,” Norman yelled. “I will not let you in. You will have to…”
The confusion was abruptly ended as the door swung open. Jurian emerged, pale, stiff, and quite alive. He did not say anything, but gave them a withering look that made everyone except Norman flinch.
“My lord, may I get you anything?” Norman asked. “Would you like any food? You haven’t eaten since…”
“Prepare the empty room downstairs for me,” Jurian interrupted coldly. “Rosanna’s body will remain in this room until tomorrow. And send a message to her parents. The funeral will be held in three days’ time.”
Norman nodded and slipped away. Behind him, Jurian dismissed the others with a wave of his hand, before heading across to the boys’ room.
To his surprise, only Philip was there, talking to himself in his cradle. Philip smiled when he saw his father and giggled. As the lord picked up his son and listened to the toddler’s cheerful babbling, pain wracked his heart.
It was awful enough that Rosanna and their baby were dead. But to see Philip and hear his giggling and know that the boy would never remember his mother or possibly even miss her was unbearable.
Laying Philip back in his cradle, Jurian departed to go find Lief. After some searching, he found the boy hidden away with teary-eyed Dimia in a disused chamber upstairs. Dimia was vainly trying to soothe the toddler, who was sobbing wildly.
“Dimia, what’s the matter?” Jurian demanded. “What are you doing in here?”
“Oh, my lord,” she cried brokenly, “I’m sorry, but no matter what I do, I can’t quiet him. I would have stayed downstairs, but I was afraid he’d wake Philip or disturb you, so I brought him up here.”
Jurian nodded and gritted his teeth as he listened to Lief’s sobs. Would this boy never stop crying? Was he always going to be a weak, unhappy child?
“My lord,” Dimia begged, “please take Lief. I can’t bear his crying any more. It’s too much.”
Jurian heaved a sigh of exasperation, but did as Dimia asked. He carried Lief down to the room Norman had prepared and locked the door. Setting the toddler in a chair, he stood by a window and waited for Lief to stop crying.
As he stood there, listening to Lief’s sobs, Jurian clenched his hands into fists. Blazes, Dimia was right: this was too much. For a year now the boy had had love showered upon him, yet still he cried. And now there wasn’t even Rosanna here to comfort him.
Perhaps it was time to find another home for Lief. It would be easy enough. All he had to do was take the boy back to Beatrice. She’d love Lief, and he’d be spared the duty of caring for this needy child.
Jurian flinched and glanced at Lief, who was still sobbing.
As he heard Lief’s cry, a bolt of pain shot through Jurian’s heart. Mother! Lief was crying for Rosanna.
Bending down, he picked up Lief and rubbed the boy’s back to soothe him. As Lief’s tears soaked into his shirt, Jurian remembered how the toddler had lost his first mother. And now Lief’s adopted mother had died as well. Perhaps the boy did have a good reason to cry.
Just then, a favorite ballad of Rosanna’s drifted into Jurian’s mind. When they were first married, she had taught it to him, saying, “Remember this one, Jurian, and know that if you ever have to leave me, I will be singing it for you.”
Smiling bitterly, Jurian began singing the ballad to Lief in his soft, deep voice.
As Jurian finished singing, Lief’s crying ceased. He snuggled close to the lord, and Jurian smiled a trace. As he wiped away the boy’s tears, Jurian suddenly decided on something: he would keep Lief.
He’d never love the child like Rosanna, but he’d take care of Lief and shelter him. And perhaps in time Lief’s past would fade into a dim memory and a bright future would open up for him.
“Don’t cry any more,” Jurian murmured to the toddler. “You have nothing to fear in this home of yours.”
Lief sighed and closed his gray eyes. At last he was safe.