Isle of Wight
"Give me one good reason why I cannot go. That is all I ask."
"You know very well I have my reasons why. I will speak of this with you no further, Jacqueline."
Jacqueline Montacute repressed the urge to stamp her foot in frustration. Her mother was being stubborn, but Jacqueline could be just as stubborn when pushed.
"I know why it is you do not want me to go, Mother. He is going to be there, is he not?"
Elizabeth Montacute, Countess of Salisbury and Lady of Isle of Wight, sighed deeply. "Aye, your father will be at Windsor. That is the main reason I forbid you to go to the tournament with your brother."
Her father, William Montacute, Earl of Salisbury and the absent Lord of Isle of Wight, was seven and ten years older than her mother, who hadn't been her father's first choice for a bride. His first marriage had been to Lady Joan Plantagenet, who was also known as the Fair Maid of Kent. In 1349, William married Elizabeth, eldest daughter of John, Lord Mohun of Dunster. After impregnating her, her father had left her mother on the Isle and never returned, which suited her mother very well. Theirs was no love match by any means.
Jacqueline felt nothing but disgust at the mere thought of her father. The stunt he'd pulled two years before still left a bitter taste on her tongue.
Thinking to further himself, he had contracted marriages for both his children. With her brother, William, and herself being twins, their father decided, at the age of nine and ten, they were both of an age to wed. William's marriage had ended up being a blessing. Her brother loved his young wife dearly. And Beth FitzAllen was devoted to William.
The earl had contracted the marriage of his only son with Beth's father, Richard, Earl of Arundel, without the knowledge of his wife. He had also done the same for his daughter. The match had not been to her liking, nor had Jacqueline's mother been prepared to meekly accept what her husband had done.
Her chosen bridegroom had been thirty years older than her nine and ten. He was Forwin De La Mare, Earl of Somerset. Besides being older, Forwin was obese and known for his cruelty to his past wives. All four of them.
Jacqueline was exactly what he preferred in a wife, beautiful and in the peak of health. With her waist-length wavy auburn hair, vivid turquoise blue eyes, and a perfect face to match, Forwin had found her ripe for the picking. He practically licked his lips in anticipation when he came to look her over before signing the marriage contract. That Jacqueline, at five feet nine inches, towered over him by three inches had not concerned him at all.
She had felt physically sick when Forwin had presented himself at the castle. She had known in that instant, that she would never bind herself to such a man.
So her mother had come up with the ruse to foil her husband's plans. It had been drastic, but it assured Jacqueline would never be bothered by any such goings on again.
They faked her death, even going so far as to place a headstone in the family cemetery with her supposed date of death inscribed upon it. It was assumed by all concerned that Forwin would want proof, and they were correct in their thinking. A week after receiving word of Jacqueline's supposed demise he arrived at the Isle to see for himself. It had not taken much effort on her part to avoid him. The man took one look at the headstone and then promptly left.
Now, to the rest of the world off the Isle, Jacqueline Montacute was no more.
"But, Mother, I can do what I have done in the past when I have been to other tournaments with William and Beth. No one has ever questioned whether I was Beth's maid or not." She had never been to Windsor and was determined not to miss out on experiencing it.
"Jacqueline, I know you have been forced to miss so much of life outside of the safety of the Isle. But what was done, was done and cannot be undone."
Reaching out, her mother tucked a wayward curl back behind her ear and looked into her eyes. Jacqueline knew that look. It meant her mother would not be swayed, no matter how much she tried to push her to do just that. "You look so much like I did at your age. Both you and your brother look so much alike. I still remember the stunt you both pulled by switching clothes to see if anyone would notice, and how delighted you both were when no one did." Her mother sighed. "Jacqueline, no more of this. The discussion is pointless. The other tournaments were different. Your father was not present, and they were only small affairs compared to what Windsor will be. Now go and leave me in peace for a while."
Leaving her mother in the hall, she went in search of her brother and his wife. If they could be swayed to her side, maybe the three of them could change her mother's mind.
Carisbrooke Castle was the only home Jacqueline knew. The castle itself was seven acres, including the earthworks surrounding it, and had been built atop earlier Roman and Saxon defenses. Inside the walls were a keep, chapel and a one hundred and sixty foot deep well, situated in the middle of the bailey.
Jacqueline now skirted past the well, and knowing where her brother and his wife were, she headed straight to the tilting grounds. Sure enough, as she drew closer, she could make out Beth's form standing on the sidelines.
Moving to stand next to her sister by marriage, Jacqueline watched William take a run at the quintain. He hit the target with his outstretched lance. He must have hit it squarely, if not the weighted arm would have swung around with enough velocity to unseat him. William went past still firmly seated in his saddle as the arm swung harmlessly aside.
Both women cheered for him when he turned about and rode to where they stood watching. Dismounting, William pulled off his helmet. Finding his sister next to his wife, he began to chuckle.
"No luck with mother I see."
Jacqueline huffed and shook her head in response. "She will not be moved by any of my reasons for going with you."
William flashed a brilliant smile. "I wonder why not. Maybe it is because she knows you never think far enough ahead to see the trouble you get yourself into."
Balling up her fist, Jacqueline punched her brother in the arm. She instantly regretted it when she made contact with the steel plating of his armor. Shaking her bruised knuckles, she glared at him when he chuckled once more.
"Are you saying you agree with her, William? I thought you of all people would take my side in this."
Wrapping his arm around her shoulder, William pulled her to his side. "Jacqueline, mother is right. Windsor is too risky. There will be too many people there. All it would take would be one of them to see how closely my wife's maid and I look alike."
Jacqueline could not argue with that. Though he was male, William only stood an inch taller than she. They both had the same turquoise blue eyes and slightly wavy auburn hair. Jacqueline wore hers to her waist. Her brother kept his trimmed to the nape of his neck.
Being twins, they were very close. When younger, they had been inseparable. Whatever the one did the other had to try as well, with Jacqueline being the more adventurous of the two.
At one and ten, she thought nothing of putting on William's clothes and taking part in lessons in swordplay. Such activities had come to an end the year before. Lady Elizabeth could no longer abide her only daughter dressing as a man or acting as a knight would.
"And you, Beth, do you agree with William and mother?"
Beth, only ten and eight could make Jacqueline feel much younger than she was. All it took was a certain look Beth used when she thought Jacqueline was being unreasonable. A look most mothers seemed to develop in their dealings with their offspring. Though Beth and William had no children, Jacqueline could only guess how her sister by marriage came by it. Standing at only five-feet four inches, Beth seemed not to care that she had to look up at Jacqueline to give her such a look, either.
"Jacqueline, there will be other tournaments. Think of how your mother would feel if anything happened to you."
"Must you do that, play upon my emotions like I am some thoughtless child?"
Beth's tinkling laughter filled the air. "If not me, then who else would?"
Jacqueline could not help but join in Beth's laughter. She could never bring herself to be annoyed with William's wife. She was one of those people who were just as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside. Jacqueline loved her as a true sister, and had from their first meeting. Just as William had. He had not been able to stop staring at her beautiful heart-shaped face, small pert nose and ruby red lips. Massive amounts of long light blonde hair and pure green eyes made up the rest of Beth.
In exasperation, Jacqueline threw up her arms. "Fine, you all win. I will stay on the Isle with mother. But I will miss you both terribly."
William once more pulled his sister to his side and kissed her lightly on the cheek. "It is not as if we will be gone forever. It is only for a fortnight."
"Just promise me, William, you will be careful. I have a feeling not all will be as it should. If anything happens to you--"
Placing a finger on Jacqueline's lips, William silenced her before she could complete the sentence. "I am coming back, Jacqueline. I promise you."
William kissed the tip of her nose. "I swear."
She knew something was wrong. It was just a gut feeling she had, but it would not go away. Jacqueline had felt on edge ever since the day William and Beth had left the Isle. In the beginning, she had come to the conclusion this feeling was caused by the separation from her twin. But now, almost two weeks into her brother's absence, it was even stronger.
Trying to quell the foreboding feelings, she climbed up to the top of the castle walls. William was to have returned home two days ago. Hoping to catch a glimpse of his return, she walked the walls for hours at a time.
Pacing in a gown was not a particularly easy thing to do, either. Jacqueline missed the freedom of the male clothes she wore during arms training. Every time she turned, she had to push the skirt of her gown out of the way, or she would become entangled in its length. Besides, a gown was too stifling to wear in early August with its too many layers. Bad enough the gown had tight fitting long sleeves, which helped to keep her body heat in, but to have to don an under gown beneath it made it all that much worse. If given the choice, Jacqueline would gladly never wear a gown again, ever. She much preferred the tunic and hose in which William, and every other man, garbed themselves.
After completing her first circuit of the walls, she stopped at one of the twin towers attached to the gatehouse. She searched for any sign of travelers approaching the castle. Squinting against the sun's bright rays, Jacqueline focused intently on what were slowly becoming discernable shapes in the distance. Realizing her eyes were indeed not playing tricks on her, Jacqueline raced down the steps to the bailey below.
Setting off at a run, she crossed the bailey and went to find her mother who was inside the hall. Seeing her daughter enter the large room out of breath, Lady Elizabeth smiled. "William has returned?"
Jacqueline took a few deep breaths, trying to still her rapidly beating heart. "I did not see for sure, but who else can it be? We are not expecting visitors."
Lady Elizabeth took her daughter's hand. "Now you will see all your worrying was for naught. William was more than likely delayed for a very good reason."
"I suppose you are right, Mother."
"I know I am."
Releasing Jacqueline's hand, both women left the hall and went to stand in the middle of the bailey. They did not have long to wait. A few minutes later, the men-at-arms who had accompanied William to Windsor, passed through the raised portcullises. Following behind was Beth. William was nowhere to be seen.
Grabbing the bridle of Beth's horse, Jacqueline pulled it to a halt. "Where is William? Is he back with the baggage cart again making sure his precious armor is not getting scratched?"
Her sister-in-law did not respond, causing Jacqueline to look up into the other girl's face. It was then she noticed the trail of tears streaming down Beth's face.
Jacqueline felt her gut clench. Her feelings had not been so unfounded after all. Something had happened to William. "Where is William, Beth?" When the girl still remained silent, she released the bridle and took hold of Beth's leg and squeezed it. "Answer me! Where is William?" she shouted up at her.
At the rumbling sound of the baggage cart entering the bailey, Jacqueline released Beth and rushed over to it. The closer she came the more intensified the feeling of having lost a part of herself became.
Her whole being centered on the covered form lying in the middle of the cart. It felt as if the world had fallen away with only her and the cart in existence. Jacqueline vaguely noticed her mother had come to help Beth to dismount and then pulled the girl into her arms. She barely heard her mother softly crying. All that mattered was what lay in the cart.
With a shaking hand, Jacqueline pulled back the blanket that completely covered what the cart carried. As William's face was revealed, she knew he was dead. His face was too pale. It showed none of the laughter he was always so quick to share. Feeling as if her heart were being ripped from her body, Jacqueline slowly backed away from the cart. She could not accept this. That could not be William.
"Nay...nay, William cannot be gone. He promised to come home to me. He has never broken his word to me, ever."
Her mother tried to take her into her arms, to offer comfort, but Jacqueline roughly shrugged out of her embrace. Seeing Beth standing on her own she grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. "Tell me! Tell me how this happened!" When Beth did not answer promptly, she shook her again.
Her mother stopped her from shaking the girl again. "Enough, Jacqueline! Can you not see she is distraught? She just lost her husband. She grieves as much as we do."
"I need to know, Mother." Jacqueline was very close to falling completely apart. She found it hard to breathe, and her heart seemed to beat painfully in her chest.
"Beth, I think it best you tell Jacqueline." Holding back her own tears, Lady Elizabeth once more held her daughter by marriage in her arms.
Beth wiped her tears away, only to have more flow. "William was unseated when his competitor's lance shattered. A large piece of it managed to enter his neck just where his helm and the collar of his breastplate met." Beth swallowed as if she were fighting back the urge to dissolve into a fit of weeping. Once she seemed to get some control, Beth continued. "A physician removed the piece of broken lance, he even said William would recover, but wound fever soon set in. When William's condition began to deteriorate even more, I had him placed in the baggage cart. I thought if I could just get him home to the Isle all would be well again." Beth could say no more as her grief overtook her. Turning in her mother-in-law's arms, she buried her face in Lady Elizabeth's shoulder and started to weep in earnest.
Jacqueline had stood dry-eyed as Beth related the details of William's death. She still could not shed a tear. If she did now, she knew she would never be able to stop. Someone had to be the strong one. Someone had to keep their head. Even though it seemed Beth had told the whole tale, she had neglected to tell the most relevant piece of information--against whom had William tilted with and paid with his life?
"Beth, who did my brother tilt with?" she asked in monotone.
The girl brought her weeping back under control once more. Looking into Jacqueline's eyes, Beth said, "William tilted against the earl, your father."
Lady Elizabeth gasped as all the blood seemed to drain from her face. It was as much a blow to Jacqueline as it was to her mother. The earl had to have known who William was. How could he have jousted with his son, his heir? She could understand William wanting to meet the earl in the list, wanting to prove to their father he was a man, but the earl was another story. He had nothing to prove. He already held sway over William.
Jacqueline kept her face as still as a mask. With no inflections in her speech, she finally spoke in a low voice. "He will pay for this. By God, I will make him pay."
Her mother shook her head in denial. "Jacqueline, let it go. There is nothing you can do. No matter what you may plan to do to the earl, William will still be gone from us. It will not bring him back. You must accept this."
"I know that, Mother. But I will still have my revenge."
"And just how do you expect to do that? To your father, you are dead and buried." A look of worry settled on her mother's face.
"It is quite simple, Mother. I am going to meet father in the lists myself."
Lady Elizabeth shook her head once more. "It is not possible. How could you survive going up against a seasoned knight? You have never jousted with a mounted man. Besides, they would never allow a woman to compete."
"Oh, I will compete. From what Beth has said William was still alive when they left Windsor. No one knows of his death yet. So I will become William. As for surviving against a seasoned knight, training for the earl's next tournament will now be my life. There is nothing else that matters anymore. The earl killed a part of me when he took William's life. My only reason for living now is making the earl pay for what he has done."
Both her mother and Beth wore shocked expressions. When Jacqueline received no response from either woman, she turned her back on them and headed back to the hall. There were plans to be made, and there was no time like the present to begin.
Two days later, William's funeral service was held. Only those who dwelled in the castle were in attendance. Both her mother and Beth had tried to steer her from her course of revenge, but she had to do this. Standing at the open grave as William's body was lowered into it firmed her resolve even more.
The priest said the final words in the service, and those in attendance slowly began to walk away. Soon, only the three women of the Montacute family were left standing as mourners.
Elizabeth gave her daughter by marriage a hug and motioned for her to head back to the keep without her. Jacqueline watched as William's grave was slowly covered with dirt by two of the castle's men-at-arms. She did not look up when her mother came to stand next to her.
"Is there nothing I can do or say to make you change your mind? I fear I will lose my daughter. I have just lost my son. Must I go through this pain again?"
Meeting her lady mother's eyes, Jacqueline found them red and puffy from crying. Her own showed no such marks of mourning. She could not, would not let such weakness have reign with her. It would assuredly defeat her.
"You know my answer to both those questions. I will not be put off. I would save you from the pain you feel now, Mother. I cannot think of how my taking William's place might affect you should I fail. Please understand, I will do this."
Her mother sighed as if she knew she was wasting her breath with Jacqueline. "Fine, Jacqueline. I can see there is no changing your mind. If you are set on doing this, I will bother you no further about this matter. You are no longer a child. I have to respect your decision, even though it kills me to think what can happen to you. I will keep William's death a secret from the mainland, and from your father. I only ask you do not attempt to go up against your father until you are deemed ready by Sir Guy. He will oversee your training."
"I will gladly have Sir Guy train me, but I will decide when I am ready."
Her mother's voice was tinged with anger. "If you do not allow Sir Guy to decide, I will stop you in any way possible. All it will take is a missive sent to your father informing him of William's death."
"How could you do that knowing how I feel?"
"Quite easily, my girl. I will not stand by and let my remaining child knowingly go and commit suicide, because that is what it would be. Now do I have your word, Jacqueline?"
Not liking it one bit, Jacqueline allowed her mother this small victory. It would not change anything. She would go and no one would stop her. "You have my word. Sir Guy will have the final say when I go."
The next day found Jacqueline on the castle's tilting grounds. Once more she donned a man's clothing. Today was her first day of training with Sir Guy, the castle's castellan. He had trained William in the knightly arts. He had even trained Jacqueline in the limited amount she had been allowed to learn.
Sir Guy was fifty but was built as sturdy as any oak tree. At just slightly over six feet, he was formidable looking even without his armor. He possessed piercing hazel eyes, which did not miss very much. His midnight black hair was slightly peppered with grey, making him look distinguished. Not that Jacqueline would ever tell him. He was also more of a father to William and herself than the earl ever would be. Jacqueline loved Sir Guy. His gruff exterior hid a soft-hearted man, one who had taken pity on the fatherless twins and treated them as his own children.
At this precise moment, he was very much playing the role of father figure, pacing back and forth before Jacqueline, a deep scowl upon his face. He was making her edgy and well he knew it.
"Stop looking at me like that. You can give me menacing looks all day if you wish, but I am not going to go away."
Sir Guy stopped his pacing, and clasping his hands behind his back, he rocked up and down on his toes. "I am just trying to see if you are as mad as I think you are. Planning to pull this stunt would qualify you as exactly that."
Jacqueline could not help but roll her eyes. "You know I am not mad. You of all people should know what I am capable of."
"I will give you that. You do excel at riding at the rings. But catching a suspended ring on the tip of your lance is nowhere the same as hitting a fully armored and mounted knight."
"I am not exactly some weak, pathetic female."
"No, you are not, Jacqueline." Sir Guy's words were spoken with affection. He had been proud of what she had accomplished in the previous training sessions. If she had been born a man, he had said he could have easily completed her training. He would have arranged for her to be knighted when she had reached the age of twenty.
Falling silent once more, Sir Guy studied Jacqueline intently. "Come, I have your armor for you. Some is from what we used in the past and some pieces were William's." Turning on his heels, he headed to the quintain. Under it sat a pile of armor.
Jacqueline cleared her throat, pushing back her emotions. Raw pain shot through her with the knowledge she would be using parts of William's armor. Swallowing back the lump in her throat, she ran to catch up to Sir Guy. How could she possibly fail now? She would have something of William with her when she faced her father. Hopefully, William would be with her in spirit.