The Christmas Before Scotland – SOS Prequel
December 25, 1426
Darlyrede House, Northumberland, England
The great hall was redolent with merriment. Swags of ivy and holly flew in graceful swoops from each beam and arched stone doorway of Darlyrede’s most lavish gallery; bouquets of heavy fir boughs perfumed the air with their heady, royal scent, each crowned with a double wreath of fortune-bringing mistletoe. The atmosphere was one of almost frantic frivolity as serf and servant packed the grand stone chamber, their laughter and gaiety a welcome change from the long season of fasting that had at last come to an end.
Thomas Annesley stood impatiently near the open hearth with a heavy, ornate chalice in his hand—but not too near; the massive Yule log had been dragged in at dawn and was now crackling merrily, emitting such heat that those seated closest to it wore flushed cheeks and sweaty hairlines along with their best suit of clothing. Now settled in to the feast, the villagers and tenants seemed to have forgotten the sting of their quarter day debts, perhaps soothed by the tables laden with goose and venison and fish; piles of bread and platters of candied fruit. Hogsheads of wine were freely tapped and goodwill was now the order of the evening as music floated in the air and voices rose in song.
The din swelled further just then, as those seated stood with raised cups. Thomas’s chest seemed to expand in kind with happiness as she entered the hall from the doorway leading to the kitchens. He, too, raised his cup in a silent salute.
Her chestnut hair cascaded in shining waves over her shoulders to her waist where the tall handle of a basket was caught in her elbow. Her burgundy and brown gown sparkled in the candlelight, catching the golden embroidery along the high bodice and skirt panels that hid the shape of legs Thomas knew so well. Her perfect pink lips parted in an indulgent smile, her cheeks flushed prettily at the attention as she led the battalion of similarly laden serving maids behind her into the maze of tables, handing out the large, sweet Christmas loaves to everyone in the hall.
She was an angel. A Christmas angel. Thomas’s angel. Soon, she would be his wife in truth and Darlyrede would belong to them.
She weaved her way through the tables toward the hearth, glancing at him occasionally. When her basket was finally empty, she handed it to a maid with a murmur of thanks and at last came to his side.
“My darling,” he said, catching up her fingertips and bringing them to his lips. “Happy Christmas to you.”
Her eyes shone with reflected candlelight and cheer. “Happy Christmas, Thomas.” She blessed him with the full force of her smile and squeezed his hand before releasing him and taking the cup offered to her by a servant.
“Where have you been hiding yourself all the day?” he queried as she sipped the spiced red wine. “I’ve not seen you since chapel.”
“Searching for me, were you, love?” she teased, revealing the dimple in her left cheek. “I would think you had seen quite enough of me last night.”
Memories of her warm body in his chamber stirred his passions. “I’ll never see enough of you.”
The sparkle in her eyes told Thomas that she, too, was recalling the intimacy they had shared. “The seamstress was in my chamber most of the morning, making some final adjustments to the gown I’ll wear at our wedding.”
Her words sobered him. He was happy beyond all good sense, of late. Happier than he’d ever been in the whole of his life. And yet…
“She won’t tell your mother, will she?”
“No,” Cordelia assured him. “It’s nothing to her. And then mother was away with father all afternoon. Which afforded me the opportunity to do a bit of searching myself.”
He leaned closer to Cordelia, his nostrils filled with her delicate, feminine scent even as he warned her. “Cordelia, you said you’d leave it. We shall be married in little more than a month, and after that, as my wife, you will have leave to do whatever you like at Darlyrede. Until then, your parents—your father, in particular—is guardian of us all. If you are caught—”
“I won’t be caught,” she said, and her usually merry blue eyes grew solemn. “It was an opportunity I had to take. You know as well as I it isn’t often they are both away from the house.”
“There will be time enough after,” he reiterated.
“A girl is missing now, Thomas,” Cordelia insisted. “A girl belonging to our own village.” The way she stressed ‘our’ filled Thomas with a fierce pride. “I simply will not ignore the fact of it because the timing is inconvenient for me. I’m being careful,” she rushed to assure him.
“You just be certain that you are,” he grumbled, but he couldn’t hold on to his ire. “You are my life, Cordelia Hargrave. I’ve loved you for nearly all of it.”
Her expression softened and she leaned into him, pressing his arm with her hand. “And I will love you for the rest of mine.”
A polite round of applause interrupted their intimate declarations and they both turned their heads to see the older couple of which they had been speaking entering the hall through the doorway nearest them. Lord Vaughn Hargrave escorted his wife, Caris, on his arm. They raised gracious hands to the villagers and servants who lifted cups in their direction, but Thomas couldn’t help but note the score or more individuals who kept their seats—and their toasts.
Not everyone at Darlyrede was enamored of the charismatic, raven-haired Lord Hargrave.
As if to underscore Thomas’s thoughts, the doors on the far side of the great hall burst in just then and a rough-dressed woman staggered into the hall, two of Darlyrede’s guards close on her patched skirts.
“Where is she?” the woman demanded in a ragged shriek, her eyes scanning the crowd until they found Vaughn Hargrave. “Where is my daughter? What have you done with her?”
The great hall was silent as a tomb as the guards laid hands on the woman.
“Turn me loose!” she cried. “You can’t keep me from the hall this day! I’ve a right to be here!”
“My dear woman,” Lord Hargrave called out in a voice full of concern. “I’m afraid we have not yet located your daughter. Take comfort in the fact that we are exhausting Darlyrede’s resources to reunite you with her. Though surely you realize she is a grown woman; it is quite possible she has gone off to seek her own fortune.”
“She’s yet a child,” the woman shouted. “My child! You asked for her to work at the manor, an’ t’was the last anyone saw of her. Somethin’s happened to her, I know it! Somethin’ horrible!”
“Please,” Vaughn Hargrave implored. “Is it not Christmas? You are indeed welcome here. Come in and partake of the feast with us. Have some food and drink, and I will—”
“I wouldn’t eat at your table,” the woman interrupted. “You wicked, wicked man! Lady Hargrave, as well. Shame! You have your daughter, do you not? Well, the devil take the both of you!” She spat in the direction of the noble couple, and a quiet gasp swept through the hall.
Vaughn Hargrave stared at the woman for a long moment. “Release her,” he said levelly to the guards holding her. “You are certainly free to go back to your cottage. I cannot speak for my lady wife, of course, but I shall not take offense to anything you say while in the throes of such worry.”
Caris Hargrave’s fine, pale features remained expressionless. “Of course not,” she agreed.
The village woman turned with a sob and fled the hall, leaving an uncomfortable cloud of sorrow hanging in the air over the festivities.
“Mother,” Cordelia said suddenly, drawing Thomas’s attention from the tragic scene. “Can’t we send the woman a few things? Her emotions are high now, but surely we cannot allow her to be hungry and alone on such a blessed day as this.”
Around the hall, Thomas noticed several feast-goers nodding and murmuring to one and other, the pinched concern beginning to ease from their faces at Cordelia’s compassion. She would make a fine lady.
“A wonderful idea,” Caris Hargrave replied. “I will have one of the maids fill a basket and take it immediately.”
“Let me go,” Cordelia insisted, pulling away from Thomas. He felt the chill of her absence like a blast of winter air in the sweltering hall. “Please. I would have the people begin to look to me as their lady, since it is not so very long a time until I will be just that.”
“Ah, yes,” Caris replied quietly. “I suppose you are right.” She turned to look up at her husband. “My lord? Have you any reservations?”
“None at all,” Vaughn Hargrave answered straight away. “Go, do your good deed, daughter.” He turned back to the hall. “What is this? Where has the music and merriment gone to? Christmas has only today begun!”
A few screeching notes rang out through the air and then the music struck up once more. The guests in the hall returned gradually to their private conversations and the Hargraves made their way toward the raised dais where their table awaited them.
Soon, it would be Thomas’s and Cordelia’s table.
Thomas followed Cordelia toward the doorway in the rear of the hall, catching her arm before she could disappear. “I thought you said you would be careful.”
“How much more careful could I be, announcing my intention before practically the entire hold?” she insisted in a whisper. “I might never again have chance to speak so openly with the missing girl’s mother. And I’ll return straight away,” she added. She caught up both his hands in her own. “Nothing is going to happen to me, my love. Not in the village, and certainly not in our home.” She gave him a smile and then raised up on her toes to press a kiss to his lips.
A terrible, dizzying fear swept over him in the instant that her mouth pulled away from his—the idea that Cordelia was falling down, down a deep and endless chasm—and he grasped at her, yanking her back to him.
“No,” he said. “Don’t go.”
“Thomas,” she said on a nervous laugh. “Everyone is watching. Don’t be silly.”
“I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t want you to go alone. I’ll go with you.”
“Now you sound like my father.” She sighed. “She isn’t likely to speak freely with the Third Baron Annesley on her doorstep now, is she? Until we’re married, I’m practically a commoner.”
“Her daughter and I are nearly the same age.” Cordelia paused. “Let me do this on my own. Please.”
“Alright,” he said tersely and let her go. The sensation of Cordelia falling away from him didn’t return, but that didn’t make him feel much better.
“Thank you, my love.” She risked another quick kiss in the shadow of the doorway and then turned to go.
“I’ll be waiting for you,” he called after her into the corridor.
She looked over her shoulder at him in the instant before the darkness of the passage claimed her, her smile the last thing Thomas saw.
© Copyright 2019 Heather Grothaus