“And now my Lady,” Gareth continued, “you owe me a debt.”
“Oh!” she exclaimed, retrieving her hair from his grasp and deftly braiding it. When she looked at him again the girl he’d once loved had vanished. For now.
“We had a bargain, that I agree.” She straightened her shoulders and smoothed imaginary wrinkles from her makeshift skirt. “Well, Sir Troubadour, what will be your request? A softer palliasse? Or maybe woolen blankets to keep you warm on cold winters’ nights?”
“No, my Lady, my price is neither of these.” He watched her, gauging her mood, as he would a doe he was hunting. She was like the river, he decided, outwardly calm but with powerful currents beneath the tranquil surface.
“Coins, then, to cover your expenses when you travel?” She tossed her braid over one shoulder and seemed fascinated by the patterns of the eddying water a few feet away.
“I have no need of coins, Lady. My songs and my stories pay for my bed and board wherever I roam.”
“A few yards of cloth to be made into new garments, perhaps?” She plucked at the sleeve of the fraying tunic she wore. His wardrobe had indeed seen better days.
“My tunic suits you well, my Lady, but no, I do not wish for cloth or garments.”
“What then? You promised I’d be able to afford the price!”
Their little game was most entertaining, and he was loath to end it. “My price, my Lady, is something we all have in abundance, even you. Something we’re free to bestow where we will. Something we never value until, one day, there’s no longer enough.”
“You speak in riddles, troubadour. If you must torment me perhaps I should leave.” She made to rise.
He placed a hand on her arm. “My Lady, please stay. I merely ask for some of your time. An hour or two, no more.”
“My time? But my time is precious to me, troubadour. Many tasks demand my attention, many people rely on me.”
She rose to her feet, her manner imperious as she looked down at Gareth. “Think of something else. I would not have my time wasted.”
“You would renege on our bargain, Lady?” He stood too. “You are so sure I’d waste your precious time?” He loomed over her, a full head taller.
The end of her braid curled onto one breast. He found himself fascinated by the play of light on it and ran one finger its length, reveling its silken texture.
“Well I…” She swallowed, looking up at him. “Perhaps. If you put it like that. But on the other hand, I wouldn’t want it said that I didn’t fulfill a bargain. What would you want my time for, anyway?”
“I want to teach you how to swim.”
“You what?” She could not have been more surprised if he’d said he wanted to teach her how to fly to the moon and back.
“Today you nearly drowned in water barely to your waist. I want to show you the river is not something to be afraid of.”
“So you don’t meet the same fate as your brother. How many villagers drown each year?”
She thought for a moment. “The laundress’s youngest was lost in the floods when the snows melted last spring. And the smith’s first wife, a few years ago.”
“Well, they didn’t have to die. Swimming isn’t difficult, it’s largely a matter of overcoming your fear of the water. If the villagers see you swim they’ll pluck up the courage to try for themselves.”
“Could I really? Learn to swim?” Her tone was doubtful.
“I don’t see why not. You just need a little practice.”
She thought for a moment, weighing the alternatives. “A little after the noon hour would be best. Most of the castle is asleep, and no-one would notice if I slipped out for a while.” She came to a decision. “Tomorrow then. Shall we met here?”
“Why not today? Now?”
“Now? But I…”
“There’s no time like the present, my Lady.”
“Well, I suppose so.” She looked up at him shyly. “I’ve no suitable garments.”
“You can wear my tunic. It covers most of you.”
“But what about you? What will you have to wear afterwards?”
“I have another.” He indicated the clothes spread out to dry on the bushes.
She loosened the piece of linen tied around her waist, and let it fall to the bank. Gareth’s tunic was far too large for her, and it threatened to slip from one shoulder. Her legs were bare all the way to her knees and even a little above that.
Gareth smiled encouragingly, and she held out her hand to him.
“Lead on, Sir Troubadour. I’m willing to keep my end of our bargain. Now you keep yours!” She smiled. The girl was back, the serious matron temporarily banished.
Taking her hand in his he led her to the river. Soon they were standing waist deep in the cool water.
“What do I have to do?”
“Just hold my hands and trust me.” His large hands enveloped her much smaller ones.
He lowered himself into the water and drew her down with him. Soon she was floating on the surface, her hands held securely by his, his face only inches from hers.
“I’m floating!” She laughed, rejoicing in the delicious sense of freedom.
“You are,” he answered, “now let’s see what happens when we move.”
He half crouched and half walked along the bed of the river, pulling her along with him.
Her tunic, or rather his tunic, billowed out around her. Whereas on the river bank the garment had provided a degree of modesty in the water it provided none. Gareth found he had an unimpeded view of her exquisite body. Her legs were long for her height and gracefully tapered. Her breasts were small and high and round, their nipples taut in the cold water.
He’d unwittingly discovered a form of torture far worse than any a Saracen slave master could devise. It took every ounce of his self-restraint to merely hold her hands instead of drawing her into his arms as he longed to do.
He forced himself to concentrate on her face. Her eyes were shining, her lips slightly apart, her breath warm and gentle on his face.
“Now,” he said, “move your legs backwards and forwards a little.”
She kicked experimentally and found she enjoyed the sensation. Soon they were moving through the water together. She laughed again with the sheer joy of the experience.
“What would happen if you let go my hands?” she asked.
It was his turn to laugh. “You’ve got to walk before you can run! Get used to moving your legs first, then I’ll show you what to do with your arms.”
“Very well.” She pouted a little, but her grin was impossible to suppress. “I would never have believed it would feel so good!”
She kicked out again, more strongly this time, propelling herself forward and into Gareth’s arms. Chuckling he pushed her away again. She came back, he thrust her away, again and again. Each time her kicks grew stronger, and her confidence in the water increased. Each time the tunic billowed around her revealing the curve of a breast, or a pale shoulder, or her firm, round rear.
In her innocence she was imitating the act of love.
Gareth was grateful the water was as cold as it was. Time and again he forced his attention back to her face, to the sparkling drops of water clinging to her cheeks and hair.
“Enough!” he cried, when he knew he could take no more, “that’s enough for your first lesson.” He stood up, bringing her with him. His wet tunic clung to every delicious curve of her body, and the water had rendered it completely transparent. “We’d best get you back into your own clothes. They should be nearly dry by now,” he croaked.
Berenice led the way back to the shore, chattering all the way. “I would never have believed it! And to think, when I fell off the river bank I could have drowned!
“I never thought of myself as being afraid of the water before, but I’d never tried to master it either. The river has always just been there, all my life. We all know it’s dangerous, but it brings us life too, water for the fields, and it turns the brothers’ mill wheel, and of course there’s fish in it too.
“But to float in it, to move in it! That was marvelous!”
She reached for the piece of linen that served as a towel.
“Don’t look!” she commanded as she gathered her still slightly damp clothes from the bushes where they’d been drying. Then she disappeared.
“Would you bring me my basket, please, Gareth? I left it near the trees at the top of the bank,” she called.
Ever your faithful servant, madam, he thought, as he clambered up the slope. Sure enough, her basket was there, not far from where the bank had collapsed. He brought it to her, and she retrieved her headdress, neatly pinning it over her coiled braid.
She was now dressed appropriately to continue her walk to her brother’s monastery. Standing on the tips of her toes she kissed his scarred cheek.
“Thank you, Gareth, thank you for everything!”
He was taken so completely by surprise he could do nothing.
“I’ll meet you here again tomorrow. Just after the noon hour, remember!” she called, disappearing into the forest.
As the last echoes of her voice faded away Gareth stood on the river bank, a smiling statue.
Eventually the statue shouted, “She kissed me!”
If he’d had a hat he would have thrown it in the air. If a friend had been there he would have hugged him. But his head was bare, and he was alone.
“She kissed ME!” he roared instead, startling the river birds and a deer who’d come to the water to drink.
Further up the valley, Berenice thought she heard a cry. She stopped, listened for a moment, heard nothing more, and kept on walking. She didn’t hear the strange noise again, and after a while she convinced herself she must have imagined it.
She felt light, like a dandelion seed in the summer breeze. Her feet barely touched the ground. She couldn’t stop smiling.
She wondered if this was an effect of learning to swim. No wonder Gareth enjoyed it so much!
The path climbed up through the forest until it reached the hamlet that clung to the skirts of the brothers’ mill. It was the quietest time of the day. Her only company on the path through the centre of the village was a mother duck and her ducklings on their way home from the mill pond. In one of the cottages a baby cried once before gurgling contentedly into silence. Even the mill was silent. The grain had yet to be harvested, and the miller and his sons would be repairing his gears and cogs.
Passing the mill she followed the river until she reached a narrow timber foot bridge spanning the fast flowing stream. Checking her headdress and garments one last time she crossed the bridge to the monastery.
She felt uncharacteristically nervous. Until now Odo had always been her brother first and the Abbot second. But the questions she planned to ask him today were far more serious than usual, and his answers could affect her happiness for the rest of her life.
Taking a deep breath she pulled the bell rope next to the solid timber door. Far above her a bell tolled. She waited until the small hatch in the centre of the door opened.
“Good morning, my Lady.” The novice knew who she was; they all did. Regardless of her relationship to Odo she was the Lady of the valley.
The heavy door swung inwards, and she stepped into the stone flagged corridor. The novice led the way up stairs cut into the rock of the hillside and ushered her into a small but comfortably furnished room.
Several cushioned chairs and stools stood at intervals around the walls. Thick tapestries showing scenes from the Old Testament covered the stone walls, and a bowl of fresh summer fruit had been placed on the table. This was the monastery’s reception room.
As a woman, this one room and the stairway were all she would ever be allowed to see.
The room had a single, unglazed window. Crossing to it and looking out she could see the fields and the forest, her castle in the distance. How small and insignificant they all looked from up here. She understood why the monks had chosen this site for their retreat. It was well away from the temptations of mortal existence.
The inner door opened.
“Sister, dear, what a wonderful surprise! To what do I owe this very great pleasure?” Odo was a dozen years older than Berenice and a man of generous proportions. His curling brown hair surrounded a tonsure permanently tinted pink from the sun. It matched his face which always seemed a little flushed as though the stairs were a little too steep or the road a little too long. In truth for Odo they often were.
He’d been a fighter in his youth and had amazed, not only his parents, but the entire valley when he’d announced he wanted to follow the teachings of Bernard of Clairvaux and become a monk. To their even greater surprise monastery life had suited him from the beginning. Worldly enough to appreciate a fine wine and a good meal, which he did whenever possible, his great love was the books of scripture the brothers laboriously copied and embellished. He ruled the monastery and its estate with a firm but benevolent hand, and shamelessly solicited the noble houses in the area for contributions to his Order.
“I need your help, Odo.” Berenice stood next to the window, her hands clasped in front of her like a penitent child.
“Why, what trouble have you got yourself into this time, little sister?”
Odo laughed loudly at his own joke. Berenice, as they both knew, was the last woman in the valley to get herself into any sort of trouble.
Berenice flushed a little and looked away. “Odo, I need to know whether I’m a free woman or not.”
“Free? Of course you’re free! You’re not a peasant, bound to the land. You’re a noblewoman of good birth and standing.”
“No, that’s not what I mean. I refer to the oath I swore to father before he died. Now I fear it’s come back to haunt me in a way I never anticipated.” She wrung her hands. “I need to know if am I free to…” She hesitated, and swallowed nervously, “…to marry again.”
“You are married, Berenice, you’ve said so often yourself.”
“I know. I remember well the words of that oath. I swore, before God, I would not marry again until someone showed me evidence of my husband’s death.”
“And have you received this evidence?”
Her voice was low, her tone soft, almost as though she didn’t want Odo to hear her answer. “No, no, I have not.”
“Then why?” Odo fell silent for a moment. “Little sister, has a lover scaled the walls you’ve built around your heart?” His booming, joyous laughter echoed around the room. “At last?”
“Really, Odo, what flowery nonsense you speak. I would expect such words from a troubadour, not a man of God.”
Too late, Berenice realized she’d revealed her secret. A blush rose to her cheeks, a rosy glow she could do nothing to hide.
“The troubadour, no less! Little sister, what have you done?”
“Odo, be serious, I beg you. I came here for your help, not your laughter.”
Seeing her obvious distress Odo calmed at little.
“Surely you don’t intend to marry the man! A troubadour, no less!”
“Many troubadours come from good families. They can be younger sons.”
“And many are nothing but scoundrels too.”
“But he’s not…”
“Tell me, Berenice, what manner of man is this troubadour of yours?” Odo seated himself on a throne-like chair clearly settling in for a long conversation.
Berenice perched nervously on the edge of a stool.
“He’s not what you’re thinking, Odo. He’s not full of flowery phrases and charm.”
“Don’t tell me what he isn’t, little sister, tell me what he is!”
She thought for a moment. “Well, he tells stories, wonderful stories about far off places.”
“So he’s traveled.”
“He sings and plays the lute.”
“At one time or another, he’s lived at someone’s court. Or frequented a few taverns.”
“They’re not tavern songs, Odo. They’re songs you would once have sung. And he dances.”
“A peasant will dance at the harvest festival.”
“No, he dances as though he’s been taught by a dancing master.”
“Hmm, interesting. Tell me of his appearance, little sister.”
“His hair and beard are dark.”
“He wears a beard? Why, do you think?”
“He has a scar down one side of his face. I think he wears a beard to cover it.”
“Does he, now.”
“He’s tall, and strong.”
“A full head taller than me. And he mended the castle gates.”
“Not afraid of hard work, then.”
“He has some terrible scars on his body. He must have been a swordsman once.”
Odo was not about to ask how she knew about the scars. “Have you seen him wield a sword?”
“No, no, I haven’t. But there’s something about him, the way he walks, like Denis used to, like Sir Gilbert does still.”
Her face was shining.
“And his eyes,” a slight smile curved her lips, “his eyes are the softest shade of grey.”
Odo smiled. “Does he treat you well, this troubadour? Or has he forced his attentions upon you?”
“Odo! Of course not. I would not allow it!”
“Well, little sister, it seems love has found you at last.”
“Love? Is that was this is?”
“You didn’t know?” He smiled indulgently.
“I…” she swallowed, “I’ve never felt like this before.”
She stood and paced the floor restlessly.
“I look for him each minute of the day, but when I see him…”
“You mean that wasn’t what you came to tell me? You know you can’t marry him. Your words of last year…”
“Odo, I was wondering if I really am married.”
“Of course you’re married. I was there! And the rest of the valley. You stood up next to young Huon in the church, I saw you there myself.”
“But that’s not all there is to marriage, is there.”
“No, Berenice, it isn’t, as well you know. The sheets were shown to everyone the next morning. An outdated custom these days, to be sure, but it serves a purpose.”
“What if I were to tell you that I didn’t… That we never…” Berenice felt herself blushing clear to the edge of her headdress.
“You’d have a difficult time convincing anyone. The sheets, as I recall, told their own story. Are you telling me it wasn’t your blood?”
“Yes, it was mine, but it wasn’t what you think. What everyone thought.”
Odo was silent, waiting while she composed herself, seated on her stool once again.
“I want to tell you what happened, Odo. No-one else knows. Well, one other person does, but he’s unlikely to tell anyone.”
Odo leaned over and held one of her small hands in his large ones.
“I’ll listen, little sister. After all, that’s what I’m here for.”
An unfamiliar feeling permeated Gareth’s entire being. It was contentment, he realized, perhaps even happiness. After all those long years of bitter hardship he barely recognized the emotion. An hour or two in Berenice’s company could wipe away all the pain, all the suffering, and bring a smile to his lips.
He remembered how she’d moved above him, his tunic billowing around her in the water. She’d been frightened at first, he knew, and annoyed with him for forcing the situation upon her. But when she was used to it she’d enjoyed the sensation of floating, and her face had been illuminated by excitement and exhilaration.
Bemused he walked to the river, rinsed his tunic once again, wrung it out, and hung it over the bushes to dry.
The work to be done on the parapets could wait. Two years as a galley slave had left him with, amongst other things, an appreciation of privacy. Right now he needed time to himself to store up the memories of this morning’s interlude with Berenice. He wanted to go over each moment, polish it like a gem, and put it away in a corner of his mind. Later he would be able to take out these memories and relive them.
They would have to last him for the rest of his life.
Time enough for his laundry to dry. Still smiling he stretched out in a patch of dappled shade and slept.
Last night the horses had refused to drink, and again this morning. Now the smoke and the flames drove them mad with fear. Huon’s palfrey reared, and, for the first time in many years, he lost his seat.
He stood up, rubbing his rear, in time to see his horse bolt through the melée and leap a burning barricade.
He swore softly and profusely. It was just one more calamity in a day of calamities. He still had his armor and his sword, thank God, but his helm had been tied to the pommel.
He wondered what else could go wrong. They’d stopped here in the heat of the day, in the miserly shadow of the mountain the Saracens called Karnehatin, the Horns of Hattin. Why they’d stopped he didn’t know, they were only four miles from Tiberius and safety. Now they were surrounded by Saracens and fire.
The fires consumed dry bushes and green wood alike; what the flames didn’t scorch, the smoke blinded and choked. Great urns of fresh water were brought up to the battlefield, and the Saracens taunted the Christian soldiers while they poured the precious water out onto the sand.
Huon searched the rabble for his men. When he was knighted, and later, when the old Lord of Freycinet had acknowledged Huon as his heir, he’d sworn to protect his small band of vassals, just as they’d sworn to serve him.
He’d known them all since they were boys together at court: Matthieu, of royal blood, but on the distaff side; Ralph the poet; Otto, whose mother was a Danish princess; Reynard the hunter; Luc, the quiet one; Rinaldo, the son of the Pisan ambassador; and Gordon the Scot, with his flaming red hair. Huon knew they’d stay together, a well trained, tightly knit band, but they’d rely on him to lead them.
He cursed the palfrey again.
The Saracens fired arrows through the smoke. Men writhed on the sand, clutching wounds, some screaming.
Still he searched.
From his right a man came running, his visor down, his sword raised. In an action faster than thought Huon reached for his own weapon. The stranger almost met an untimely end until Huon realized he was a Frank, not a Saracen, and he was aiming for a point beyond Huon’s right shoulder.
Huon spun in time to see the stranger’s sword dispatch a white robed Saracen with lethal efficiency.
“My thanks, kind sir, I owe you my life,” said Huon, bowing briefly to the stranger.
“Think nothing of it, my Lord.” The stranger inclined his head in reply.
This was hardly the time for formal introductions. Huon tried to make out the insignia on the stranger’s shield, but it was unadorned.
“May I beg one more favor of you?” asked Huon.
“Of course, my Lord.” The stranger wiped his sword on the dead Saracen’s garments. He didn’t sheath it afterwards.
“Have you come across the men of the Compagnie de Freycinet anywhere in this madness?”
“De Freycinet you say? No, I fear not.”
They searched together, fighting as they went, the stranger always to Huon’s left. They slashed at the wraith-like, white robed Saracens, who wore their head scarves over their faces to keep out the smoke. The Saracens were not heavily armored like the Franks. To Huon it was like slashing at ripe wheat in a field, except the wheat screamed and bled and fought back.
Eventually they found the Compagnie.
Luc and Ralph had lasted the longest. They looked as though they’d been trying to protect the others, and both their bodies were a mass of wounds. The others were behind them, in a rough barricade made of discarded equipment and supplies. Gordon hadn’t a mark on his body, but the shaft of an arrow protruded from one eye. Rinaldo’s entrails stained the desert sand; his eyes were wide with shock. Otto had taken a blow that had almost severed his arm, and he’d leaned back against the others, almost as though he were sleeping, his head was barely attached to his body. And Matthieu, the youngest, the one who always had a jest for every occasion, had an arrow in his neck and another at the join of his breastplate.
“No!” bellowed Huon, falling to his knees.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw a flash of steel, then his world held nothing but pain as his cheek was sliced open to the bone.
And after that, nothing.
Gareth dragged himself out of the dream.
For eight years he’d relived that battle. At the beginning it had been every night. Now it was only once or twice each week, sometimes even less. This was the first time the dream had come since he’d returned to Freycinet.
Disgust and self-loathing inundated him. He was absent when the men of his company were slaughtered, and he had failed to protect them.
He’d broken his oath to them.
He was no longer worthy of being a knight, let alone Berenice’s husband and the lord of this valley. The most insignificant peasant in her fields had more right to be here than he did. The peasant had his place.
He had none.
He would never understand why God had let him live.
By an effort of will he dragged himself out of the quagmire of the nightmare. Sometimes, when he woke, he would vomit until his stomach was empty.
This time was different.
This time, for a moment, he wondered whether the ghosts of his men had come back to haunt him, to extract their revenge. Their cold fingers slid over his body. Moist lips brushed his skin, sucking at his flesh. Fingernails like tiny daggers scratched him, sharp teeth gnawed at him. The sickly stench of death enveloped him.
But this was no dream. Gareth lay still, every sense alert, while small, strong hands stroked his body, and lips teased his nipples and nuzzled his neck. One hand slid lower, exploring beneath the cloth he’d tied around his loins to preserve Berenice’s modesty. Long hair swept across his face and chest.
This woman – it had to be woman, a man would have made sure he never woke again – this woman’s odor was sour, a rank undercurrent beneath a flood of cheap scent.
Keeping his breathing steady he opened his eyes a little. The hair was a brassy gold, and the breasts dangling in his sight were lush and full.
“Hmm, troubadour, awake at last,” the girl purred, “a pity more of you isn’t awake. Do you not care for my caresses?”
“Jessamine! Stop that!” snapped Gareth, sitting up and spilling the girl in a heap on the grass, “And fix your dress.”
“Gareth,” she sulked, “That’s no the way to treat a lady!”
“You’re no lady, Jessamine. No lady would dream of behaving the way you just did.”
“Well, aren’t you the high and mighty one today! You can’t fool me, I saw the way you looked at me when we arrived in this hovel,” she leaned against him, stroking his chest again, toying with the dark hair that grew there, “I know what’s on your mind.”
“Indeed. Then it won’t be a surprise to you that I have to get back to the castle. Sir Gilbert’s expecting me.”
“No time for a little fun?” She leaned back a little, her breasts threatening to escape once again from the loosened neckline of her shift.
“My apologies, Jessamine, but you’re not my idea of fun.” Gareth gathered up his belongings and strode off through the woods without saying another word.
He pulled on his clean tunic as he strode the path to the castle, his thoughts chasing each other like chickens trying to escape a fox.
He’d probably been a little harsh with Jessamine, but the Hattin dream always left him in a foul temper. He wanted to retrieve his sword from the chest were he’d stashed it and hack away at a practice dummy, or better still, a human opponent with enough skill and an even enough temper to let him work off his evil mood. For a minute he contemplated asking Gil if he would agree to a bout, and then he dismissed the thought. It would be too dangerous. Too many people would notice if he and Gil looked as though they were trying to kill each other, and word might get back to Berenice. Not to mention further afield.
Not for the first time he pondered God’s strange sense of humor. A woman such as Jessamine had come panting to his side while he dared not touch his own wife.
Jessamine. He could still smell her cheap perfume. He wished he’d had time to bathe again, but he’d promised Gil they’d have a look at the ramparts, and he could tell from the sun he was probably late already. He’d watched the girl ride in through the gates with her family and had known she’d be trouble. That sort of woman always was. He wondered if an innocent like Berenice realized just how much strife Jessamine was capable of stirring up.
His thoughts returned, as always, to Berenice. The gentle brush of her lips was imprinted on his cheek. Jessamine’s practiced caresses could never erase Berenice’s touch. He’d loved a memory for eight years, and the more he grew to know Berenice, to appreciate the woman she was now, the more he loved her. He wouldn’t have thought it possible.
He remembered well his frightened bride of eight years before. They were both so young, Berenice barely sixteen years old. Although he’d been in his twenties he had never had a great deal to do with women. He’d been separated from his mother and the sisters he adored at the age of seven and sent to court to learn the ways of chivalry. While the other young men found willing girls in the village or on the fringes of the court he was more interested in honing his skills in the practice yard.
What a useless thought. Perhaps if he had spent more time finding out what the ladies liked he wouldn’t have been feeling so inept the night before he was to meet his future bride. Perhaps he wouldn’t have been tempted to drink quite so much wine, either that night or the next morning on the final leg of the journey. And perhaps he wouldn’t have fallen over his own feet in front of her.
She had been so beautiful standing on the step with the other women behind her. All the sentimental poetry they drummed into his reluctant head on the journey hadn’t begun to express the emotion he felt when he first saw her.
So beautiful and so proud. Who could blame her for despising a drunken oaf? He had tried to make amends, but the damage was done, and nothing he did or said was going to change it.
She wouldn’t even look at him, wouldn’t raise her eyes as far as his face. Every evening they sat next to each other at the high table. They shared a cup and a trencher, and her gaze never rested on more than his hands. He had no idea what to do.
He still didn’t.
Jessamine had seen the way Gareth looked at her when they’d arrived even if he denied it now. She saw that look in many a man’s eyes, and she knew what it meant. There must be another reason why he walked away from her now.
She lay on her back in the long grass and gazed up at the clear blue sky. She would stay here for a while, she decided. No-one knew where she was except Gareth, and he wouldn’t tell anyone, because then he’d have to explain how he knew.
The great, fat cook would be demanding to know why she wasn’t in the kitchen. He could scream and shout until he turned as purple as one of his plum pies for all she cared. And the old cow of a woman who ran the place treated her more like a serf than the daughter of a master craftsman.
She hated it here. To make everything even more horrible the only man worth looking at, the man who’d taken her breath away the first time she’d seen him, had rejected her.
She couldn’t, wouldn’t believe it! Never had a man refused her, not in all the years since she’d discovered the power she had over them. Men always panted after her, desperate for what she had to offer.
She had been so pleased when she found Gareth, all alone, asleep on the riverbank.
He must have someone else, it was the only possible explanation. Again she thought about the day he’d arrived, worrying at the memory in the way a dog will worry at a bone. She remembered the way he followed her with his gaze the day they arrived in this godforsaken hole. She knew that look, knew he wanted her then.
Sighing she stretched out on the grass, not caring if her skirts rode up around her knees, and her ample breasts almost escaped from her shift.
She wondered how her father and mother and brother could possibly be content with this existence. They never looked at the fine lords and ladies her father worked for and wanted a better life, with beautiful things. They didn’t see the lovely clothes, the high-stepping horses, the big, soft, dry beds covered in furs for cold winter nights, and think maybe they deserved a share too.
Jessamine did. She knew she was just as good as any lord or lady.
So the troubadour thought he was too good for her, did he? It was the only possible explanation. He must have someone else, someone he wanted more than here.
One day she would find out who the woman was, and she would destroy her. Gareth the Troubadour would wish he hadn’t refused what she’d offered.
Berenice was so excited she was near bursting with her news. She almost ran back down the path from the monastery to the castle, her feet barely touching the rough gravel path.
Sobriety reclaimed her once within sight of the castle walls. She couldn’t tell Gareth, not yet. Odo hadn’t guaranteed he would succeed in his mission, after all.
She couldn’t love Gareth, could she? She’d known him only a few days. These feelings she had whenever he was near were more like some strange illness. Speech became difficult, her heart raced, she felt unusually warm. Surely these were the symptoms of a malady!
Esme would know. Esme had been her comfort in every disaster for as long as she could remember.
She walked through the gates, naturally seeking a glimpse of Gareth. She spotted him on the ramparts with Sir Gilbert, deep in discussion.
Berenice smiled to herself. She’d been meaning to talk to Gilbert about the state of repair of the castle’s defenses for some time. Now the two men seemed to have taken the job in hand.
Esme and Marie were crossing the courtyard, both carrying large willow baskets. They’d probably been collecting the dry laundry from the bushes near the river. Marie took care of the larger items, like the sheets, but Esme had always washed Berenice’s personal garments. They’d long enjoyed each other’s company while they did the laundry, it gave them a chance to exchange the news and gossip of the valley.
“Esme!” called Berenice.
Esme waved and smiled as Berenice approached.
“I need your company for a little while. Will you come with me to my chamber?” said Berenice.
“I was on my way there already, my Lady,” Esme answered as Berenice drew closer, “I have your linen to fold.”
The two women walked companionably to the tower.
Esme spread the laundry out Berenice’s large bed, and the two women chatted as they worked.
“I went to see Odo today,” said Berenice, to all appearances absorbed in her task.
“How does he fare? Well I trust?” answered Esme without looking up.
“As always. No, he may be even larger. There are clearly some earthly pleasures Odo’s unable to live without.”
They both laughed. Berenice’s brother’s appetite for food and wine was a source of much good-natured amusement in the valley.
Berenice took a deep breath and launched into her story.
“Esme, I’ve asked Odo to send a petition on my behalf the Bishop. I’m going to ask that my marriage be annulled.”
Esme clutched the piece of linen she was holding and held it to her chest. “But how? Why? You’re married, everyone knows you’re married!”
Berenice concentrated on smoothing the creases from a shift. There was nothing for it, Esme had to be told everything.
“On my wedding night…”
“The sheets! There was proof! Everyone saw it.”
Berenice straightened and faced Esme. “I cut myself, Esme. I swear to you, my husband did not touch me that night, nor on any other.”
To Berenice’s surprise Esme looked near tears.
“Did you hate him that much then? I know you didn’t want to be wed, but nerves before the wedding night are normal. I thought, the next day, I thought…”
“Esme, for reasons I don’t understand even now I couldn’t let him touch me that night. Or even after that. It wasn’t that I hated him, I hardly knew him! He seemed a pleasant enough man if a little too fond of wine.
“It was just that I couldn’t let him, you know, do things…” Berenice finished folding the shift. “I’m a virgin, Esme.”
“And you’ve asked the Abbot to get you an annulment. Because you’re still a virgin.”
“Yes.” Berenice paused and looked up at Esme. “Odo has told me I may have to go to the nuns at St. Bernadette’s and be examined. Esme, would you come with me? I know the Prioress, she taught me Latin and Greek, and we’ve discussed many a manuscript. But this, well, this would be different.”
“Of course, child, of course I’ll come with you. When is this to happen?”
“Not until Odo’s received word from the Bishop, and that could be weeks.” Berenice moved around the big bed to stand next to Esme. “It means I’ll be free, Esme. I’ll be able to marry again, to have children, to be like other women.”
“But you always said you never wanted any of that. After Denis was lost, and Odo had taken his vows, you swore you’d dedicate your life to the valley and your people.”
“I know I did, but I’ve been thinking. Perhaps I was being selfish. After all, what will happen when I’m gone? Everything my father and his father built would be passed on to strangers. Perhaps even Count Fulk.”
“Oh, God forbid!” Esme made the sign of the cross.
“I agree. I couldn’t leave my people to a fate such as that, could I?”
“No, no indeed!”
“Well then, I’d be failing in my duty if I didn’t make provision for the future.”
“But this man you intend to marry…”
“Now I didn’t say that, did I, Esme? I said I could marry, I’d be able to marry if I wanted to.”
“Well, did you have anyone in mind?” Esme persisted.
Berenice could feel herself blushing. “Esme!” she answered, trying to sound shocked and failing.
“I’ve know you since you were a tiny thing who couldn’t see over this bed, my Lady. I know when you’re hiding something.”
“Odo worked out who it was, and he laughed. Please don’t laugh, Esme!”
“I wouldn’t laugh about something as important as love. That brother of yours, I do wonder sometimes!”
“And I’m not sure, I’ve never felt…”
“That’s a good sign.” Esme smiled. “Tell me about these strange new feelings.”
Berenice did, her face flushed with pleasure.
“And tell me, who is this lucky man? He must be special indeed to have stirred these feelings in you.”
“It’s Gareth, the troubadour.”
“You’re in love with the troubadour?” Esme didn’t laugh, but her face was illuminated by the broadest of smiles.
“I think I might be. And I feel he may have some regard for me as well.”
“But that’s wonderful!”
“Is it, Esme? I’m so frightened, there’s so much to go wrong. What if the Bishop doesn’t give his consent? What if Gareth has no feelings for me at all? What if,” she sank onto the bed, “my husband were to come back?”
“How about we take things as they come,” said Esme, seating herself next to Berenice, “there’s no sense in crossing bridges before we reach them, is there?”
“No,” said Berenice, smiling, “None at all. I knew you’d be the right person to tell!”
Gareth lay in his narrow bed in Gilbert’s cottage, hearing, without listening to, the whispered conversation in the room above.
His thoughts drifted to the very productive conversation he’d had with Gilbert while they inspected the battlements this afternoon. Gareth learned there was a stonemason in Pontville who kept the ancient Roman bridge in good repair. Gil would, with Berenice’s approval, ask the stonemason and his apprentice to repair the neglected stone work.
Gareth had decided it was time to tell him about the events in Bordeaux two weeks ago. Gil needed to understand the urgency of the repairs.
Gareth sat in a quiet, dark corner of a tavern on the waterfront, still adapting to the world being stable under his feet. His belongings were piled up on the bench next to him, and he clasped a tankard of ale. He wanted a bath, his hair and beard were matted with salt, and his beard needed trimming, but right now an ale was the most important thing on his mind.
Two men approached his corner. Both were scarred and misshapen by disease and hardship. Something feral gleamed in their eyes, an ugliness that had nothing to do with their deformities. Without asking for an invitation they slid onto the bench opposite.
“Just arrived, sailor?” one asked.
Gareth merely looked at them, reluctant to gift these two even a word of conversation. In his mind he christened them Ugly and Uglier.
“You from around here?” Uglier persisted.
“No,” answered Gareth and drank his ale.
“Looking for work?” Uglier asked.
“You can fight?”
“You look like a fighting man to me. And this,” Uglier kicked one of Gareth’s bundles, “Looks like a sword.”
“Could be.” As a precaution Gareth’s left hand, beneath the table, encased the haft of the dagger sheathed at his waist. His right clutched the tankard handle. If necessary he would be able to throw it at Uglier while he stabbed Ugly.
He’d thought a sword would be too conspicuous. Now he was regretting not wearing it.
“The Beast is paying well for fighting men.”
Gareth’s interest in the conversation suddenly increased. The Beast could only be Count Fulk, known as the Beast of Betizac, the most feared man in this part of the world. And Berenice’s neighbor.
“Why? Is he starting a war, then?”
The two men laughed as though he’d made a great joke. “Let’s just say he likes plenty of insurance. This little exercise is just a bunch of peasants at a summer fair, an old man, and a few men-at-arms.”
“What’s so important?”
Uglier leaned across the table.
“There’s a Lady involved,” he leered.
Gareth felt the icy fingers of premonition caress his spine.
“Oh?” he answered, carefully non-committal.
“A rich widow, young and beautiful, they say.”
Gareth waited, wanting more information, fearing he knew the answers already.
Uglier leaned back in his seat. “And old Fulk’s decided he needs another wife.”
Gareth downed his ale. He’d heard all he needed to know.
“My apologies, gentlemen,” he said, gathering up his gear, “I already have an engagement.”
He’d had many adventures in the last eight years. After his escape from the Genoese merchantman he crossed the Steppes of Russia fighting as part of a Viking band. In a Baltic port a saintly English master called Godric took pity on him and took him on as a sailor even though he’d little seamanship. Finally he found himself back in Aquitaine.
After all the years wandering he hadn’t really known what he was going to do when he finally returned. At least a thousand times he thought of going back to the valley to capture a glimpse of Berenice. At least a thousand times he dismissed the idea. How could he see her and not want to stay with her?
And that was impossible.
Fulk’s men made up his mind for him. He would do one last thing for her. He would protect her from Fulk.
She need never know who he was.
Now he was mulling over Berenice’s message, passed on to him that afternoon by Esme.
Berenice regretted she was forced to postpone their swimming lessons. Her duties at the castle would prevent her from meeting him for a while. Esme said she was told to make sure he understood the Lady was only postponing, not canceling, their appointment.
What was going on? Berenice’s manner at dinner had been pleasant, but formal, without any sign of disapproval. If she had decided she no longer wanted him here she could simply ask him to leave.
The biggest part of the mystery was the expression on Esme’s face when she relayed her Lady’s message. She wouldn’t look him in the eye, and the words seemed almost to choke her. Eventually, when Gareth thought she must surely burst into tears, she stifled a sniff and hurried away. Now he could hear her sobbing upstairs, and Gilbert’s whispered words of comfort.
There was nothing he could do, he decided. It might not even be anything to do with him.
Gilbert stroked Esme’s back. Give him a sword in his hand and enemy in front of him rather than a woman’s tears any day.
“There, there, pet. You’re not making any sense. Tell me again what’s upset you so.”
Esme took a deep, shuddering breath.
“That poor child. As if she hasn’t been though enough already!”
“I know, love. She’s lost both her parents, her brother, and then her husband ups and leaves her for the Holy Land when they’re barely wed.”
Esme succumbed to another bout of tears. Gilbert was mystified. What had he said wrong now?
“That’s what’s wrong! Her wedding! All these years, I’d thought the damage had been repaired. I never thought, I never guessed! Oh, the poor child,” Esme repeated, “It’s more than one person should have to bear!”
“She has us here to help her, you know that. Now tell me.”
Gilbert gazed into his beloved’s face, its familiar lines etched in moonlight. How lucky he was to have a woman as wise, as loving, as caring as this one.
“You remember the Lady’s wedding,” Esme said.
“Indeed I do. The wedding feast lasted for three days,” Gilbert answered.
“But do you remember why it was held in the spring, with the snows melting, and the roads barely passable, and not in the summer, as had been planned?”
“Ah,” said Gilbert, beginning to see where Esme was leading, “Fulk.”
“Exactly,” said Esme, “Count Fulk. The old Lord had been negotiating with Sir Huon’s father for some time. After he raped Berenice the date was brought forward a few months. Just in case there was a child.”
“Do you think Huon’s family was told about it?”
Esme snorted. “Not likely! And ruin Berenice’s prospects of marriage? Except to the monster who did it to her, of course. The Beast is a worthy name for him.”
Gilbert swore. “To think, I had my sword at his throat!” His hand clenched into a fist. “Why didn’t I finish him off when I had the chance?”
“Because you would’ve started a war, my love. Fulk’s nephew was here in those days. He would have avenged his uncle’s death, and the whole valley would have suffered. Sparing Fulk’s life was the right thing to do. At the time.”
“So what’s happened? What’s changed? This was all settled a long time ago.”
“Berenice told me today Odo is going to petition the Bishop for the annulment of her marriage.”
“But how? Why? On what basis?”
“On the basis of her virginity!”
“What!” Gilbert almost shouted.
“Shush, my love, Gareth mustn’t hear us,” whispered Esme.
“But doesn’t she know? How can she not know?”
Esme held a finger to his lips. “I know it seems strange, but I’ve heard of this before. Sometimes, when something terrible happens to someone, something so terrible they cannot bear it, God in His Mercy takes away their memories. I believe this is what happened to Berenice.
“She told me today she wouldn’t let her husband touch her on their wedding night, because she couldn’t. But she doesn’t know why she couldn’t.”
“But the sheets! I know what happened as well as you do, but I thought the sheets proved everything had gone as planned.”
“That’s what I believed too, until today. I knew there wouldn’t be any blood on the wedding night. Heaven knows Fulk took more than his fair share from the girl. I made sure she had her little dagger before we all left her in the bridal chamber, and I told her to make sure there was something on the sheets to show everyone the next morning. I’d thought she understood what I meant!”
Esme took a deep breath. “Today she told me she cut herself accidentally that night. It wasn’t to pretend she was intact. I don’t know what went on!”
She cried a little and nestled into Gilbert’s shoulder.
He stroked her back again. “Well, we knew back then all was not right with the marriage, didn’t we? The last time our friend downstairs was here he spent most of his nights in the bed he’s sleeping in now.”
“My love, when the letter comes from the bishop, Odo will send her to St. Bernadette’s to be examined. Can you even begin to imagine how humiliated she’ll feel, how mortified, when they declare that she’s not intact?”
Gilbert swore under his breath. “You’re right, Esme. The poor Lady!”
“What can we do, Gil? We can’t give her back her memories, I wouldn’t even if I could. You know what she was like when you found them, her clothes were all torn and bloody. The bruises on her thighs and breasts took weeks to fade. I should know, I was the one who bathed her.
“And to think, she wasn’t yet sixteen years old! She barely spoke a word for weeks, the poor child, and when she did, she never ever talked about what had happened.
“The old Lord probably thought he was doing his best for her, keeping everything a secret and marrying her off to Sir Huon as soon as possible. It would have broken his and her Lady mother’s heart to have seen Berenice married to the Count.”
“I’ll talk to Odo,” said Gilbert, “I’ll go first thing in the morning. Perhaps the letter hasn’t been sent yet. Perhaps it’s not too late.”
“Thank you, my love.” She kissed him. He moved his hand to her breast and used his thumb to caress a nipple. She murmured his name into their kiss, and their bodies molded together as they had many times before.
Eventually, they slept.