The Lady Of Haigh

 

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Suitable for younger readers, The Lady of Haigh is a novella that introduces Lady Mabel de Haigh and William Bradshaw, the characters I wrote about in An Honourable Estate. I give it away for free as often as I can on Amazon. It works out at a few days each month, so keep an eye on the pages here and here if you can’t afford 99p/$0.99

 

Meanwhile here’s the first chapter:

 

 

The Lady of Haigh

Chapter One

Betrothal

Mabel de Haigh leaned forward to pat the dappled neck of her pony Lyard. The hard muscles and the texture of the coarse springy mane under her bare hand were reassuringly familiar.

“It isn’t far now,” she told the animal as she looked down at Bradshaw Hall. “I’m sure we’ll like it when we get there.”

Her mother, with tears brimming in her eyes, had begged her to be brave and not cry, but as Mabel touched her heels to the pony’s flanks all she wanted to do was to turn around and go home. She wanted to go back in time to before her father died and her mother told her that she must go with Sir Richard Bradshaw because she was now his ward.

The tall fair-haired man turned in his saddle and she briefly met his eyes. He reined in his horse until he was level with her and smiled down encouragingly as he held back the big bay’s pace to match that of her mount.

“Are you very tired?” he asked. His voice was kind and although he wasn’t a complete stranger to her she had only seen him briefly on the days when he had come to discuss business with her father and stayed to dine with them in the great hall at Haigh.

Mabel shook her head, knowing that if she tried to speak it would come out as a sob. She would be twelve soon and that was considered to be a grown up. She had been looking forward to it, but now she wished she was still a child and could run to her mother and feel safe in her arms. When she had been small and had fallen, and bruised her knee or bumped her head, her mother had always taken her onto her lap, waving away her nurse, and had rubbed her where it hurt until the pain went away. But the pain she felt now could not be soothed. Being taken from her mother and her home and everything that was familiar to her was almost more than she could bear. All she had was her pony and her belongings packed into two travelling coffers that had lurched and squeaked on a cart behind them all the way from Haigh.

“You’ll soon get used to us,” said Sir Richard in a clumsy attempt to be kind. Mabel nodded and he allowed his horse to lengthen its stride again. As she watched his straight back and broad shoulders under his woollen cloak, Mabel reflected that her father had looked just as strong. He had never been ill before and when he got the splinter in his thumb no one had given him much sympathy. Her mother had applied a mustard poultice and bound it with a strip of linen and told him that when the bandage came off the offending sliver of wood would come with it. She had merely sighed in exasperation at his constant complaints about the pain until one evening, as they were sitting by the hearth after supper, she had unwrapped the cloth. Mabel remembered her sharp intake of breath when she had seen her father’s thumb, fiery red and swollen to almost twice its normal size, and that had only been the beginning. The wound poisoned the whole of his body and although the physician came and bled him and prepared potions and tinctures it did no good. Within a week her father was dead, and now nothing would ever be the same.

Bradshaw Hall looked unwelcoming in the dusk. It was built from dark stone with a tiled roof and the windows were all shuttered. The only light seeped out weakly from the open door and Mabel saw shadows gathering to welcome them as they crossed the wooden bridge over the moat, where a pair of ghostly swans patrolled the banks.

Sir Richard dismounted and handed his reins to a stable boy. Then he came towards Mabel to help her down, but she slid quickly from the pony and stood holding Lyard, unwilling to see him led away by a stranger. But Sir Richard nodded to the boy to take the animal and held out an arm to usher her towards the woman waiting in the pool of light at the door. Lady Bradshaw was dressed in a dark coloured gown and a plain wimple, but her face was friendly and she smiled down at Mabel and kissed her cheeks.

“You are welcome in our home,” she said.

As if moving through a dream, Mabel followed her into the great hall. It was smoky and smelt of a mixture of burning logs in the central hearth and faint aromas of fish and spices.  The top table was covered in a white linen cloth and already set with cups and spoons and the salt dish.

Behind her the two coffers were being dragged in through the door and as she turned to watch Mabel saw three boys lurking in the shadows ˗ two slightly older than her and a younger boy.  That they were brothers could not be disputed.  Apart from their different sizes and the way that their hair had become darker with age they were almost identical.

“My sons John, William and Richard,” said Sir Richard and the boys in turn inclined their heads towards her. Mabel returned their formal greeting with a slight curtsey, her gaze lingering on the middle son, William, to whom she was to be betrothed. He returned her interest and they stared at one another for a moment longer than was polite before William looked down and Mabel gave her full attention to his mother.

“I will show you your bed before we sit down to supper,” Lady Bradshaw was saying.  Mabel followed her to the far side of the hall and through a heavy door to the ante-room of a sleeping chamber. There were two small beds and Lady Bradshaw pointed to the one beneath the shuttered window. Her coffers had been brought in and one was at the foot of the bed and the other beside it. “This will be yours,” she said. “My maid, Agnes, sleeps in the other bed and she will attend to you as well. My lord and I sleep in the main chamber through this door and my sons have a chamber on the other side of the hall. It may not be quite what you are used to but I hope you will be happy here.”

Mabel nodded. She felt so tired that she would have been thankful to lie down anywhere and sleep, though she still had the ordeal of supper in the hall to face before she could do that.

After handing her cloak to the maid and using the small privy, behind a curtain, Mabel followed Lady Bradshaw back to the hall where she was shown to a seat beside William. A servant came with a basin and jug for hand washing and as she held out her hands for the scented water to be poured over them she saw that she was trembling with fatigue. She dried her hands on the clean white cloth and watched as the steaming dishes were carried in and placed on the table. The aroma made her mouth water and she realised that despite her misgivings she was in fact hungry and she hoped that the food would not seem too strange to her palate. She listened as the chaplain said grace and blessed the food and then the covers were removed. As it was a Friday it was a fish day and beside her William unsheathed his eating knife and asked her what she would like.

“It’s cod,” he told her, “and the sauce is one of my favourites.” Mabel nodded and watched as he moved a portion to her trencher then offered her the bread and poured wine into her cup.

“Thank you,” she said when he had finished serving her, under the watchful eye of his mother. He seemed nice, she thought, with a degree of relief as she glanced again at his darkening blond hair and serious hazel coloured eyes. It was obvious that he was on his best behaviour and, from the way both Sir Richard and Lady Bradshaw kept darting warning looks in his direction, Mabel gained the impression that his manners were not always so impeccable. But, despite her weariness and homesickness, she found herself thinking that she might enjoy getting to know him.

 

Although Mabel had been relieved when Lady Bradshaw had asked if she would like to retire to bed, now that she had been helped into a clean linen nightgown by Agnes and the curtain had been drawn across her portion of the small chamber, she was finding it impossible to sleep. Strange voices were talking and occasionally laughing in the hall, somewhere outside a dog was barking incessantly and the bed felt peculiar and the bedclothes didn’t smell like the ones she was used to at home.

She turned over once again and watched the night candle flicker on the coffer beside her as a sudden breeze drafted from somewhere. The shutters on the window rattled and outside she heard rain begin to fall. Mabel wondered whether her mother was missing her. She too had to leave Haigh Hall and return to her dower lands now that she was a widow. Sir Richard intended to rent the manor to a tenant until Mabel was old enough to inherit. Until she was twenty-one. That was nine years away, she thought. It seemed an impossible distance into the future though she would have gladly forfeited the years in between to find that she was of age on her next birthday. Nine days rather than nine years were as long as she wanted to wait until she could return home.

After a while she heard Sir Richard and Lady Bradshaw come quietly through the chamber on their way to bed. Their voices whispered for a while beyond their door then she heard Lady Bradshaw laugh softly as her mother often had when her father was home. Then the house fell silent, except for Agnes’ heavy breathing on the other side of the curtain.

Mabel thought that sleep would never come, but eventually her exhaustion overcame her grief and she must have slept because she woke to find sunlight shafting in a narrow beam through the shutters, and it was a moment before she gathered her thoughts and remembered where she was. She sat up and moved the curtain aside a fraction. Agnes’ bed was empty and the covers were neatly folded. The door to the main chamber was part open. The hangings on the bed were tied back and the room was filled with sunlight. Outside she could hear voices and movements in the yard and she realised that she had been allowed to sleep late.

She was wondering what to do next when the latch on the outer door clicked open and Agnes came in. She greeted her with a smile. “You were so sound asleep that my lady said not to disturb you,” she said. “I’ll go and fetch some warm water for you to wash and then I’ll help you dress.”

“Thank you,” whispered Mabel, wondering if she would ever grow accustomed to her new life. She opened the shutters slightly and looked out whilst she waited. The chamber overlooked the main courtyard and there was a flurry of activity outside as a herd of honking geese hurried eagerly towards the pasture, their webbed feet slapping on the ground as a girl shooed them along from behind. Sacks of grain were being carried into the brew house and the bake house door stood open to allow the heat from the oven to escape. It seemed so familiar yet strange at the same time. The same things would be happening at Haigh, but there the faces would have been familiar and she would have known their names.

“Which gown would you like to wear?” asked Agnes behind her as she put the jug and basin down beside a clean towel. “I’ve hung them over the pole here,” she went on. “Some seem a little creased but this one is good.” She shook the russet coloured gown that Mabel’s mother had sewn for her and Mabel stared at the embroidery around the neckline and sleeves as she remembered her mother sitting by the window working the pattern. Agnes looked up in concern as she choked back a sob and brushed a hot tear from her cheek. “Oh come now, don’t be upset,” she soothed. “I know what it’s like. I felt the same when I left my home in the village to come and live here at the hall. I was just a kitchen maid then and I cried for a week, but it passed and I’m happy now. My lord and lady are good, kind people,” she reassured her as she laid the gown on the bed. “Come, wash your face and then we’ll get you dressed and braid your hair, and you’ll see, things will seem better soon.”

Mabel allowed Agnes to help her. She was a plump woman, probably in her twenties and she had a motherliness about her that comforted Mabel who wondered why she wasn’t married with a husband and babies of her own. But it seemed impertinent to ask so she sat quietly as the woman plaited her long fair hair for her.

“There,” she said at last as she secured the ends in a clip, “you’ll do. Breakfast has been cleared from the table but I can fetch you some bread and honey if you like, though it’s not long until dinner time.”

“Then, I’ll wait,” said Mabel.

“Well I’ll get you a drink at least,” said Agnes, bustling off with the dirty washing water.

Mabel went into the hall and was looking around at the tapestries that covered the white plaster walls when Agnes came back. As she was drinking the cup of small ale, Lady Bradshaw came in through the outer door.

“Mabel!” she said and came across to kiss her cheek. “How are you this morning?”

“I am well, thank you, my lady,” she replied with a curtsey.

“Good. It will be dinner time soon,” she said as the servants came in to set up the trestles. “Afterwards William will show you around. It will be an opportunity for you to get to know one another.” She smiled. “He’s a bit of a rogue at present, but a good lad for all that. I’m sure you’ll come to like him – and I know that he will like you.”

Mabel nodded. Although there had been vague talk of betrothals in the past it was not something she had ever paid real attention to. Of course she knew that one day when she was grown up she would become betrothed and then married, but it had all seemed so far away as to be irrelevant. But when her father had realised he was dying he had sent for Sir Richard Bradshaw, whom he had known all his life, and made a will that appointed him as her guardian.

“You will be betrothed to William, his second son,” he had told her as she’d stood beside his bed, repulsed by the stench of vomit from the pail beside him and not wanting to look at the oozing sores that had broken out all over his body. “It’s a match I’ve been considering for a while now,” he’d gasped as he fought for breath, “and there’s no one I trust more than Richard Bradshaw to care for you and your lands until you come of age.”

“But you’re not going to die, Papa!” she’d protested, believing that if she couldn’t comprehend it then it wouldn’t happen.

“Maybe not, pet, but I’ve made arrangements, just in case, and it’s only fair you know what they are.”

Despite her disbelief her father had died two days later and now she was here at Bradshaw Hall and there was to be a betrothal in just over a week’s time, on her birthday. When the marriage would follow had not yet been arranged, but Mabel knew that a betrothal was binding. Her future was arranged and there was nothing she could do to change the course of it. When she was twenty-one she would be allowed to take possession of Haigh, but as a married woman it would be her husband who would actually control the manor. Everything that her future held depended on the boy who had just burst in through the doorway with a blunted practice sword in one hand, a shield in the other and a vivid red mark across his cheek that was sure to become a black eye before the morrow.

“William!” said his mother with a mixture of censure and concern.

“It was John’s fault,” he told her. “Father is dealing with him now.”

Mabel’s stomach lurched with fear as a grim faced Sir Richard pushed his eldest son through the open doorway into the hall.  John Bradshaw was silent and subdued as he went to put away his own weapons. Richard, the youngest son followed them in, wide-eyed, and the family took their places at the table for dinner. As they began to eat Mabel saw Lady Bradshaw raise an eyebrow towards her husband.

“Weapons are not for fooling about with,” he said with a penetrating glare at his eldest son who writhed on the bench. “You’re lucky not to have taken Will’s eye out and luckier still that I didn’t beat you harder!”

Mabel chewed and chewed at the piece of bread in her mouth, unable to swallow it. As an only child and a daughter, the household at Haigh had always been gentle and refined. She had spent most of her time with her mother, learning to spin and sew and keep the accounts. Her father had dealt with the boys, and what servants and pages and squires there were had been kept at a distance from her so that she only met them in a formal way and she had never witnessed anything like this at the table.

She saw Lady Bradshaw nudge her husband and glance in her direction.  “Have a care,” she said. Sir Richard looked across at her and his face softened slightly.

“I apologise on behalf of my sons, Mabel,” he said. “I’m afraid they have a lot to learn.”

At last she managed to swallow the bread with a copious drink of ale, but the atmosphere at the table had taken away what appetite she had and her trencher was removed with the food almost untouched.

When the tables had been cleared and John sent to work in the stables as extra punishment, Lady Bradshaw reminded William that he was to take her on a tour of the manor. Mabel fetched her cloak and overshoes from her chamber and followed him out into the fresh air. His face had been bathed and a salve applied which had left one side of it shiny.  His left eye was swelling and half closed.

“Do you want to see the lambs?” he asked and without waiting for an answer led her across to the enclosure where the newborns were with their mothers, their long tails all aquiver as they sucked on the ewes’ milk.

“What happened?” she asked as she saw him raise a hand to his sore face.

“My brother resents the fact that I’m a better swordsman than he’ll ever be, even though I’m twelve months younger,” he said. “We were supposed to be training and I’d paused to tighten the strap on my shield. John came at me when I wasn’t paying attention and almost poked me in the eye with his sword. He might have got away with it, but father was watching. I wouldn’t have told on him though,” he added, turning to face her. “I don’t tell tales.”

Mabel wasn’t sure how to respond. She knew that telling tales was frowned upon and William wanted her to think well of him, but boys and their codes of honour were a mystery to her. She glanced towards the other side of the yard where there was a windmill, a small orchard, a barn and farm buildings, probably stables and pens where the geese and poultry were secured for the night.

“Will you show me where my pony is kept?” she asked.

“In the stables,” he replied. “This way.”

She hurried to keep pace with him towards a low stone building with wide doors, and when she saw Lyard in a stall at the far end she lifted her skirts above the straw covered floor and ran to him.

“Hello. Are you being cared for?” she asked as the pony snickered a greeting, as pleased to see her as she was to see him. She rubbed his warm nose and pulled his ears with her hands in the way he liked until he shook his head and turned his attention back to the net of hay hanging beside him.

“He’s nice,” said William as he watched. “Do you want to see mine?” He untied a dark brown cob with a white blaze. In one swift movement he vaulted up onto its back and slapped the rope on either side of its neck, making it lunge forward. Mabel stepped quickly out of the way as he rode up and down, making the horse stop, start and step backwards as he showed off his riding skills. “Do you want to ride him?” he asked.

“No. Thank you.” Mabel shook her head. She was a competent though not a very confident rider and she didn’t like the way that William’s horse was rolling its eyes. She was sure that if she tried to ride the animal it would run away with her.

William slid down and tied it up again in its stall. “What else do you want to see?” he asked her. “It isn’t very interesting,” he added. Nevertheless he conducted her around the grounds within the moat and then they stood awhile watching the swans with their cygnets before he seemed to decide that his duty was done and told her that they should go back in.

Lady Bradshaw and Agnes were sitting near the fire in the hall and William’s mother smiled up at them as they came towards the blaze to warm their cold hands.

“So what do you think?” she asked Mabel, and unsure whether she wanted her opinion on the manor or on her son Mabel replied that it was very pleasant.

Beside her William was restless and eager to be dismissed. As soon as his mother indicated that he could go, he bounded off through the door like an arrow from a bow, and as he allowed the door to slam shut behind him Mabel wondered if he would always find her company such a trial.

 

She woke on her birthday to a fine covering of snow, even though it was early April and the first buds were already bursting into leaf on the fruit trees in the orchard. It was the day she was to be officially betrothed to William in the small chapel beyond the great hall where the chaplain said mass each morning. Her best pink gown had been carefully prepared and the previous evening a bath tub had been filled in the corner of the main bedchamber and Lady Bradshaw and Agnes had helped her to bathe and wash her hair.

After breakfast Agnes helped her to get ready. “You look beautiful,” she said at last, with a sigh of satisfaction as she finished dressing Mabel’s hair. “Young William doesn’t know how lucky he is to have your hand.”

“My lands as well,” said Mabel. Agnes raised her brows in surprise at the vehemence in the words.

“It’s the way of the world, my lady. And was your father’s choice, I believe.”

“Yes,” whispered Mabel as the memory of her father brought fresh tears. She knew that the betrothal would have gone ahead even if he hadn’t died, but it would have taken place in the chapel at Haigh with her own parents in attendance. As it was, her mother had already left for her dower lands, Sir Richard had arranged for Alan de Castel to take up the day to day running of Haigh as a tenant, and the only witnesses to her betrothal would be her future husband’s family.

At the chapel door William stood waiting. His hair shone as if he too had been scrubbed from head to toe. His tunic of dark green was new and the bruise on his face was turning a similar colour. He gave her a self-conscious smile as she joined him and took her hand when the priest bid him do so. His fingers felt clammy as he recited the vow that he would take her in marriage and after Mabel had repeated the words in a trembling voice William put a gold and sapphire ring onto her finger. It was much too large and Mabel only just managed to raise her hand in time to prevent it falling to the floor and rolling away. With a wildly beating heart she looked across at Sir Richard, but he was smiling with satisfaction and after the priest had blessed them and they had exchanged a chaste kiss, she took the ring off and pushed it onto her thumb, where it fitted snugly, for safekeeping.

William offered her his arm and she placed her hand on his sleeve as they went inside the small chapel for a blessing. There was a scent of incense and the best candles burned brightly, but it was cold and Mabel shivered in her thin gown. Afterwards they went into the hall where the tables were laid out for the feast and the musicians and minstrels were already playing music to welcome them in. It was warmer there and William escorted her to the place at the centre of the top table where they were to be seated, Sir Richard and Lady Bradshaw taking a seat to either side of them.

With her betrothed on one side of her and her future father-in-law on the other Mabel felt trapped. She momentarily contemplated taking her skirts in her hands and running, just running. Instead she obediently held out her hands for washing, bowed her head for the grace and allowed William to place slices of the specially roasted cony from the Bradshaw cony-garth before her. She reassured herself with the thought that it would be at least another two years before their wedding and the night when she had to go to a bedchamber alone with William. The thought of it made her afraid and she knew that she must find the courage to ask either Lady Bradshaw or Agnes what would be expected of her there.