It relieved Semple to put the weekend behind him. First thing Monday morning he plunged back into writing. He’d meant to give Miss H-V a piece of his mind when she delivered his Darjeeling and biscuit. However, so great was his concentration that he forgot to listen at the door for its arrival. Semple detested tepid tea but rather than waste it, he forced himself to drain the cup. He put everything in the hall.
Suspicion and mistrust marked Lady Allith’s opinion of Lord Creswell. Semple imagined that open conflict between them lay just over the horizon. Lady Allith refused the knight’s constant entreaties to marry him. They were thinly disguised attempts to get in her good graces, with a view toward doing away with her after the wedding and seizing her castle, lands and treasure.
Creswel had the money to hire mercenaries and the power to force local serfs to contribute food and materials he would require to besiege and reduce Lady Allith’s stronghold to a pile of rubble. The mistress of Askerton Castle could withstand her brother-in-law’s threats but she lacked the resources to stave off the assault that was bound to come when Lord Creswel’s patience finally wore out.
Allith had a bodyguard, composed of knights that remained loyal after her husband’s mysterious death. However, her guardians were few in number, and many of them were hobbled by age and injuries suffered in jousts and wars; they could offer little resistance in the face of a determined attack.
Lord Creswel wasn’t a stereotypical ogre. In his early thirties, Creswel had sly brown eyes, a headful of glossy black hair and a round face that suggested an impish air: he was even known to smile. That being said, the mere suggestion that he’d had anything to do with his brother Lord Askerton’s demise kindled the knight’s anger. After two instances where Lord Creswel had defended his honor by slaying his critics people thought better of discussing the rumor in his hearing
Then there was Lady Allith. Although bartered off at fifteen by her father to secure a loan, she had come to admire—and eventually love—the husband who was nearly twice her age. A sturdy blond with piercing green eyes, ere long Allith possessed muscles gained by working alongside the tenants, an activity that was unheard of in women of her station.
Castle Askerton was sited beside a stream that provided plentiful fish to feed those resident in the castle proper, as well as the tenants. The fertile fields round about the castle produced a surplus of fruits and vegetables that Lady Allith distributed to the poor. The woods teemed with deer and the estate’s sheep were renowned for the quality of their wool.
Seven years of contentment shared by Lord Askerton and his lady came to a tragic end one midsummer’s evening. The lord of the manor had undertaken a solitary ride across the estate. Lady Allith worried when he failed to arrive home in time for dinner. The search party she dispatched returned bearing Askerton’s body, pierced by a crossbow bolt.
Castle Askerton immediately went into mourning. Its namesake lay in repose on a bier in the Great Hall, with a knight posted at each corner. Just after daybreak Lord Creswel cantered across the drawbridge over the moat. Lady Allith, who met him at the gate, pointed to the band of black cloth encircling his upper right arm.
“How is it that you already know about my husband’s murder, Creswel?”
“So, he was murdered?” The knight rubbed his horse’s neck. “Dear sister, i would be strange indeed if I failed to sense that something had happened to my beloved twin . . .”
A crash in the hallway interrupted Semple. Opening the door he found the housekeeper on her knees, collecting shards of china from the carpet runner and depositing them in her apron. When she got to her feet Semple reached out a tentative hand but he resisted touching her.
“Miss H-V I must speak to you. I believe you know how pleased I am with your work; the house is spotless and the wonders you turn out in the kitchen are beyond compare.”
The young woman arched her eyebrows. “Then you agree that the latter surpass the fare served by Tacy Bronwell?”
“Do not be impertinent. What do you know of Miss Bronwell?”
Ignoring the question Miss H-V retrieved the last pieces of the plate. Semple carried on.
“I find your habitual absence irksome. I would like to know that you are around, in case I have need of you.”
“Sir, was I to understand that being your companion was a condition of employment?” Miss H-V’s eyebrows arched a second time. “If so, I would have to reconsider whether I should stay on. It has always been my habit to live a solitary existence; I figured that if I carried out my duties to your satisfaction, my presence or absence wouldn’t matter.”
Semple was coming out on the short end of the stick. In a moment of anger he briefly considered sacking Miss H-V then and there—but only briefly. He calmed himself by remembering that her merits far outweighed her shortcomings. Besides, Semple didn’t think he could find a replacement for the quixotic young woman without disrupting the flow of his writing.
Miss H-V went down the hall and Semple returned to his keyboard. In the quiet bedroom Allith Hegyi-Virág studied the pieces of teacup, saucer and plate spread out on the dresser. The Royal Doulton, adorned with delicate periwinkles, struck her as hopelessly old-fashioned. She took the carved antler silver wand from her skirt pocket. Ever since Semple had remarked upon what he called a “backscratcher,” she had resolved never let it out of her sight.
Miss H-V held the two largest pieces of plate in one hand, grasped the wand with the other, and got to work.
[© 2018 Robert Edwin Stone, II]