Rumors at Court
Rumors at Court is the third volume in a series about ladies of influence at royal courts in the high middle ages who know far too much for their own good. The book features a solidly researched, emotionally gripping tale of a traumatized widow and a physically scarred warrior who come together over the status of a castle.
Lady Valerie of Florham has been married and widowed all within the space of a breath, and she would be happy to stay that way. Her husband, Sir Ralph Scargil, was loyal to his men but a physically abusive, cheating sot to her, and she wants to live her life as a widow, hopefully as a lady in waiting to the Infanta Constanza of Castile. Valerie gets her wish, becoming one of the Infanta’s closest friends, yet soon her feelings are mixed. Watching the Infanta grow round with the Duke of Lancaster’s children leaves her with a paradoxical yearning for the comfort of a babe at her breast, and she begins to warm to the idea of marrying a man (much) more noble than Scargil.
Scargil served in Sir Gilbert – Gil/El Lobo/The Wolf of Castile – Wolford’s regiment, and Gilbert seeks out Valerie at court in order to return a bloody slip of silken cloth to her, mistakenly believing it to be a love token from her to her late husband. It was actually a gift from one of Ralph’s byblows. She’s horrified. He’s chagrined. To apologize for his faux pas he tries to strike up a friendship with her but each encounter between them is unpleasant. Valerie wishes to have nothing further to do with him, though Gil grows to desire her.
Then Duke John of Gaunt, Constanza’s new husband, announces he’s going to marry Valerie off. When John chooses to make a move to invade his wife’s homeland and declare war on the new king of Castile, he also makes a marriage for Gil – to Valerie. While Gil is more than happy that his hope of having a son might be fulfilled through this marriage, Valerie is frightened of being married to a stranger. She wishes for a peaceful life in the countryside but Gil yearns to return to Castile; he prays for a son and she’s concerned that she might be barren. With Valerie’s dower lands given away, Gil refusing to return to his own lands and the threat of moving permanently to Castile looming over their heads, Valerie feels rootless and unsure of her husband. She fears she’ll never truly be happy, but smothers her opinions under a layer of obedience, fearing Gil will beat her as Ralph did. Yet slowly, they learn to trust and hope and dream together. But will the battle for foreign soil tear them apart? Will Gil see Castile again and have the child of his dreams, and will Valerie ever return to her beloved garden?
This is one of those novels that grows on you as time passes. Thematically, Rumors at Court is as comfortable as an old shoe. The tropes in play are well-worn and a staple of the genre; an abused widow who yearns for solitude but ends up finding rapturous love, and the scarred hero who is healed by the gentle love of a lady fair. It’s up to the author to make the concept unique or palatable, and Gifford does that by giving us decent characters to root for.
The relationship between Valerie and Gil is fairly oddly handled at first, even though I liked the chemistry they shared. They’ve barely conversed twice when John of Gaunt chooses to marry them to each other, and it feels like a plot contrivance more than a knowing gesture from a shrewd man. But from there, Gil and Valerie develop an understanding with proper slowness, and that is what enhances the storyline. Their romance is tender, thoughtfully written and ultimately rewarding.
Gil is an achingly sympathetic character, yeaning for a family but fearing love to be beyond him because of his family background and the ugliness he experienced in the Hundred Years War. He’s an honest and kind man, if a bit stiff-backed. While Valerie is more quietly earnest, her yearning for peace is palpable; she’s also got a will of iron, teaching herself Spanish with determination and endearing herself to the queen before she can be cast off. Her interest and love of the natural world and gardening are explored with well-placed detail. While we spend a lot of time with Katherine of Swynford, it’s the Infanta Constanza who stirs up the most pity in my heart – a child of eighteen, living a loveless marriage to a Duke who tolerates her while giving his heart to Katherine. Gil also has close friends in the form of Cecily and Marc, whose son, Denys, yearns to go to war and whom Gil considers fostering for that purpose. This is a story that’s about the division between duty and love, and the pain of having one without the other.
The historical research is exceptional and prose is fine, but with its solidarity comes one fly in the ointment: if you’re not familiar with medieval history you will likely initially have difficulty ascertaining who the royal players at hand happen to be. If you’re unfamiliar with the state of England in the late 1300s you won’t be able to immediately pick up that The Duke of Lancaster is John of Gaunt, that the Castilian Queen is Constanza, and that Katherine Swynford is Lancaster’s long-time mistress and mother of his illegitimate children. No one’s proper full name is mentioned until twenty-five pages in, and by then confusion is likely to have already sprung up. Also the author also makes the mistake of naming both the hero and the main character’s abusive husband some variation of ‘Gil’, which can be quite a head scratcher. But these initial quibbles are soon turned around and solved.
Rumors at Court flows along quite beautifully, and is a romantic, well-researched treat of a novel.