Gilbert slipped out of the castle gate early the next day. When he returned soon after the noon hour Esme could tell from his face the news was not good. They retreated to the upper room of his house where they could be sure of not being overheard.
“Did you see the Abbot?” asked Esme.
“I saw him. He listened to everything I told him.”
“It’s one of the few times I’ve seen Odo without, at the very least, a smile. I’ll swear he was a shade paler by the time I’d finished the story.”
“He hadn’t known about Count Fulk and Berenice, then.”
“No. His father hadn’t told him, and he’d never thought to query why the wedding plans were changed.”
“What about the letter, Gil? Has he already sent the letter to the Bishop?”
“Yes, it’s gone.” Gilbert sat down heavily on the edge of their bed. “Berenice convinced him so completely he wrote and dispatched the letter with all haste. One of the brothers has already left for the Bishop’s palace.”
“Can’t he stop him? Or write another letter, telling the Bishop it was all a mistake?”
“No. He explained why, but I’ll admit I don’t understand it all. Church politics,” he sighed. “It seems Odo’s relationship with the Bishop is cordial but strained. If Odo retracted the letter it could do untold damage in other ways.”
“Oh no!” Esme cried. She sank onto the bed next to Gilbert. Turning to him she said, “Gil, what about Gareth! If we could convince him to declare himself, to admit he’s the Lady’s husband…”
“What, and tell him he was duped all those years ago? That his pure, young wife wasn’t as untouched as he’d been told?”
“No, of course not. I hadn’t thought…” Esme’s shoulders sagged in defeat. “Then there’s no hope.”
“Odo said the bishop may well reject the Lady’s request, and so there won’t be a problem. If he doesn’t Odo’s promised to talk to the Prioress at St. Bernadette’s before Berenice goes there.”
Esme wiped her eyes with the corner of her apron and sighed.
“He said we must wait. We have no choice.”
“We don’t, do we?”
Gilbert put an arm around Esme’s shoulders and drew her to him.
“We’ve done everything we can, pet, for now. All we can do is wait.”
And so they waited through the rest of June and all of July and into August.
Throughout that long, hot summer the land waited for rain, and many people in the valley were waiting for one thing or another.
Jessamine constantly found ways to remind Gareth of her presence, hoping he would see reason and succumb to her charms. Eventually she was reduced to following him around, from a distance of course, sure she’d discover her rival that way.
To her great frustration her plan didn’t seem to be working. Gareth talked to many people in the castle from the Lady downwards, but none seemed to hold his attention in the way a lover would.
For Gareth the summer was all too short. He’d found out the fair would be held mid-August in the brief respite after the summer fruits and vegetables were harvested and before the grain was brought in.
Without Berenice knowing he and Gilbert had been training men-at-arms. Extra men were came into the castle from the villages, given the rudiments of fighting, and sent home to teach the rest. They’d made good progress so far. When the days of the fair arrived they’d be able to rely on twenty or so men at least instead of Gilbert’s usual half a dozen.
Gilbert and Gareth had debated long and fiercely about the training. Gilbert wanted Berenice to know, going behind her back went against his grain. Gareth wanted as few people to know as possible. He didn’t want the Count warned, and, more importantly, he didn’t want Berenice frightened.
There was an outside chance he’d been wrong. Perhaps he’d misheard or misunderstood the two men in Bordeaux. He was sure he hadn’t, but he argued there was no sense in frightening her unnecessarily.
The castle’s defenses had been in a sorry state when he arrived. Berenice knew they were important, but it was an area in which she’d little expertise.
At first Gareth had relayed his requests through Gilbert, until Berenice worked out that some of the more original suggestions were coming from another source. She sent a message through Gilbert for Gareth to bring his ideas directly to her. Now Berenice and Gareth often sat in the shade of the walnut tree in the courtyard discussing the affairs of the castle and the valley.
At the very least she was going to end up with a safe haven for her people, and of that she thoroughly approved.
Berenice was waiting too. She wanted to go back to Odo to ask him if he’d heard from the Bishop. No word had come. For weeks she’d been keeping Gareth at arm’s length. When music came from the great hall she stayed in her room. When he set off for his morning bath in the river she stayed in the castle. She made sure she was never alone with him.
But she enjoyed their conversations. His ideas, derived partly from his observations and experiences on his travels and partly from his own calculations, were interesting and varied. She found herself asking his opinion on topics ranging from the irrigation of the gardens to the dispensing of justice in the small court she conducted once a month. The more she talked with him, the more she was convinced he must be of noble birth.
The only forbidden topics were his origins and her marriage.
Late one afternoon in August she left the castle and headed for one of her favorite places in all the valley, a rocky spur protruding from the surrounding ranges. At its summit it was probably three hundred feet high, but about two thirds of the way up there was a ledge, a stone balcony, where she would go to sit and think.
From there she could look out over the castle to the dense forest on the other side of the river. To the north was the mill and the brothers’ monastery, and spread out around her were the fields, laid out like strips of cloth waiting to be sewn together. Southwards she could see the spire of the little church at Pontville, and far in the distance, rising above the surrounding trees, were the stark towers and battlements of Fulk’s castle.
Although they were close neighbors she hadn’t seen the Count since she was a child. Her father was not on good terms with him, although luckily their enmity had never developed into open war. The Count hadn’t even attended her father’s funeral or her wedding many years before.
She’d heard about him, of course. Many of her people had family who lived further down the valley. They told her how harshly he treated his peasants, demanding his days of labor due no matter what the circumstances, imposing harsh fines and punishments on those who didn’t comply. She shuddered, despite the fine day. She couldn’t understand treating people badly, no matter what their status.
Gilbert had told her the Count hunted in the forest across the river even though he was not entitled to. The guardianship of the forest had been entrusted to her family by the King, but Berenice was not about to start a dispute for the sake of a stag or two.
Moss carpeted the rocky ledge, and the cliff behind it provided shade from the afternoon sun. The ledge, meandering for a dozen yards along the face of the cliff, wasn’t more than ten feet deep at its widest. To reach it she’d taken a path which wound around the back of the bluff and through the trees.
She suspected other people might sometimes come here, but she’d never seen anyone. To her it was special, a secret she’d never shared.
This place was a refuge she’d visited often as a child when she wanted to escape the obligations and duties of castle life. She came here now to admire the changes the summer had brought to the valley. From here she could see the water wheel, powered by a patiently trudging donkey, bringing water from the river to the vegetable gardens and orchards. She smiled when she remembered organizing the digging of the irrigation trenches. She and Gareth had ended up with more mud on themselves than any of the valley children.
At the castle the parapets had been repaired. The gates were now closed every evening at sunset and opened every morning at dawn, with one of Gilbert’s men on guard duty at all times.
The new covered way stretched from the kitchen to the hall. The carpenter would extend it soon, but meanwhile there were so many other things for him and his family to do they’d been taken away from that task. Berenice was thinking of asking them to stay on permanently.
The meadows near the river were cleared, and ready for the summer fair. People had been arriving for days now, and their striped tents and pavilions had formed a small, temporary village.
The smell of wood smoke from the smithy and the kitchen fires drifted to her, with the scent of hay almost ready to be cut and the fresh tang of the forest.
Sounds filtered up to her too – the clank of the water wheel, the tap of a hammer, the bell-like tones of the smith at work, a laugh, a call, a cry. The castle hummed with activity, like a bee hive. The place had an air of prosperity, and peace, and safety.
Everything ran as it should. The credit, she knew, was not entirely her own. Gareth’s wise counsel, his judgment, and his knowledge had turned this long, hot, dry summer into a time of abundance rather than the disaster it could so easily have become. She was sure when the Bishop’s letter finally came and her old marriage was officially ended Gareth would make a fine Lord, standing by her side.
There was only one problem, and she was hoping it was a small one. She’d never seen him bear arms. Had he once been a knight? In order to be her Lord, the Lord of the valley, he would have to be. Her older brother had been dubbed when he was fourteen. She didn’t know if it were possible to dub someone who was older.
Indulging in a rare moment of fantasy she plucked a long blade of grass from its tussock amongst the rocks. Then positioning her feet and extending her arm she pretended the blade of grass were a sword. This was a game she’d played often as a child when she had imitated her brothers. Right now she was the Lord of this valley and would defend it against all invaders.
“Looking for a fencing partner, my Lady?”
The voice was rich, and smooth, and deep.
Gareth leaned over and plucked his own grass sword.
“You startled me, Gareth,” she answered, lowering her make-believe sword.
“My apologies, my Lady,” he bowed, “now, do you wish to fight me?”
This was the moment she’d been waiting for. Did he know how to wield a sword? It had been many years since her brothers taught her to handle a wooden practice sword, but, once learned, it was a skill not easily forgotten.
“We should have mounts for jousting,” she stalled, still uncertain, embarrassed at being caught out in her childhood game.
“Then we’ll have to use our swords,” he answered, saluting her with his weapon. “Hand-to-hand combat, instead.”
“So be it!” She challenged, “Fight me then!” and edging her way forward she reached out with her grass blade.
He answered her challenge with a slash of his own blade. She retaliated, almost reaching his arm. He was taller and had a longer reach, but she was faster on her feet and more agile.
She darted in closer, slashing at the unscarred side of his face. He responded, but she stepped back lightly, avoiding his lunge.
Then she closed in again, aiming for his heart. Her grass blade was blocked, then freed.
“You nearly had me there,” said Gareth, leaning back, out of her reach. His blade came in and up, under her guard. Before she quite knew what had happened, the tip, heavy-headed with summer seed, brushed her throat.
“I believe I’ve won,” he smiled, “do you yield?”
“I yield,” she whispered, feeling the gentle brush of the grass against her skin. He lowered his weapon, letting its tip drop, tracing the edge of her dress from one side of the neckline to the other.
With every delicate thrust her heart pounded.
“Berenice…” Her name on his lips was like the wind whispering in the trees. He came closer disarming her completely.
“Who do you seek to defend yourself against, my Lady, with a grass sword?”
“Against those who would rob me, Sir Troubadour.” She looked up at him. His grey eyes were soft, his gaze tender.
“And what would they steal?”
“The very breath from my mouth, I fear.”
In truth, she could barely breathe.
“Perhaps you misjudge the thief, my Lady.”
He came even closer.
“In what way, Sir Troubadour?”
“Perhaps he wishes to give, not to take from you.”
“And what would he give?”
He stood even closer to her, no more than a hand’s span away. The heat radiated from his body.
“A kiss perhaps, a fair exchange for one freely bestowed some time ago.”
“An exchange, you say? Then that would not be robbery.”
“And, as you have lost our duel…”
His mouth descended to capture hers.
In all the long weeks of waiting she had often wondered what it would be like to be kissed by Gareth. No amount of anticipation had prepared her for the reality. The heat of his body, flowing into hers, and the strength of his arms around her she knew from the moments they’d shared in the river. The softness of his lips, the warmth of his breath, the movement of his mouth she’d not expected.
He kissed her top lip first, then her bottom lip. She felt an urge to open to him, to experience more of him, and parted her lips a little. His mouth slanted across hers, and, like his grass blade slipping under her guard, the tip of his tongue traced the line of her mouth. Growing bolder, she let her own tongue explore their kiss.
She could feel the soft brush of his beard against her cheek, smell the peculiarly male scent of him, hear her own heart beating. She felt strange, alive, bubbling inside, as though she were the river as it was at the monastery, leaping and rushing and tumbling on its way.
Her legs grew weak, and she let him gently lower her to the mossy ground. His hands caressed her, stroking her back from her shoulders to her buttocks. Tentatively at first, she explored the broad expanse of his chest with her hands. Through the rough fabric of his tunic she could feel the slabs of hard muscle, the ridges of bone.
She knew now why she’d so carefully kept him at arm’s length since the day at the river. She lost all sense of propriety when she was with him. She wanted to lie in his arms, to feel his lips on hers, his hands on her, his body next to hers. She felt this was just a beginning. There was more, much more, Gareth could give her, and she ached to know what it was.
She never wanted this kiss to end.
Lost in her world of emotion it was some time before the sound of raucous laughter made itself heard. With a sensation akin to rising to the surface of the river on the day she’d almost drowned she emerged from their kiss.
Jessamine perched on a rocky outcrop a few feet above them.
“I knew he had another woman, I just knew it,” the girl mocked, “and who would it turn out to be but the cow who rules us all! No wonder you didn’t want me,” she directed at Gareth, “When you’re keeping her bed warm.”
“Jessamine, stop! You don’t know what you’re saying!” Gareth cried, leaping up. He tried to reach her, but she was too far away.
He helped Berenice struggle to her feet.
“What, scared I’m going to tell everybody?” Jessamine taunted, “well, maybe that’s not such a bad idea. I wonder who’d want to know? They all talk about her as though she’s practically a saint. What’ll they say when I tell them about you two, rolling around in the hay just like the rest of us?” She laughed again.
While Jessamine had been talking Gareth inched his way up the cliff towards her. He almost reached her, but the sapling his foot was resting on broke, and he slipped back down to the ledge. She skipped away through the bushes, still chortling, and repeating a list of all the people she intended telling about their misdemeanor.
Gareth wrapped Berenice in his arms once again.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “no-one will believe her.”
“I don’t care if they do,” answered Berenice, “I’m not ashamed. I refuse to be!”
“You’d have her spread lies and rumors?”
“No, but my people know me. They don’t know her. They know who to trust.”
“You have a great deal of faith in your people.”
“Yes, I do. Gareth, I’ve something I want to tell you. It may explain why Jessamine’s mischief does not concern me overmuch.” She leaned back in his arms so she could see his face. “I’ve asked Odo to write to the Bishop on my behalf. I’m having my marriage annulled.”
She’d dared to hope for a joyous response when she finally told him. If he cares for me, she told herself, he will understand I’m saying I’ll be free soon, and I won’t have to think about betraying an absent husband. And if he’s an honorable man he’ll know I’ll not be his completely without the blessing of marriage.
In her worst nightmares she’d not foreseen his look of horror. In an instant it had gone, and he gathered her into his arms once again.
“An annulment, you say? That’s a big step.”
“I’ll be free, Gareth. Free to marry again.”
“Yes. Of course you will,” he replied in a monotone. He released her, and he turned away.
“We’d best return to the castle separately, under the circumstances,” he said, his gaze fixed on a distant point on the horizon. She could no longer read his face, but the rigid angle of his jaw told her enough. “I’ll go first.”
As quickly as he’d appeared he was gone.
Berenice subsided onto the ledge. After all the weeks of wanting to tell him her news she felt flat, as flat as bread dough made with stale yeast.
She had been so sure he cared for her, perhaps even loved her. It seemed she was wrong. He was as Odo warned, a rogue and a scoundrel. At the most he was only interested in a liaison with a married woman whose husband was away.
At least she had realized what he was before things had progressed too far.
The bell at the monastery door pealed time after time.
A drowsy novice stumbled down the stone stairs to answer its call. “I’m coming, I’m coming, keep your hat on, I’m coming as fast as I can.”
He opened the small hatch in the door. A fine-boned, ascetic face, fringed by thinning grey hair, glared back at him.
“I am Father Gerhard. I’ve come from the Bishop to see Abbot Odo.”
“Yes, Father, of course.” The heavy door swing inwards. The priest breathed a sigh of relief as he stepped into the cool stairwell.
“Have you come far, Father?” asked the novice as he led the way up the stairs.
“You do not adhere to a vow of silence?”
“No, the Abbot doesn’t believe in it. He says we can’t do our work properly if we can’t speak to each other.”
“There are others who believe that only in silence can we contemplate God.”
The novice showed the visitor into the reception room.
“But they’re not our Abbot, are they, Father?”
The priest took a seat. Unperturbed by the novice’s attempt at conversation he helped himself to fruit from the table and poured a cup of wine. “And where might your Abbot be?”
“He’ll be in the copy room at this time of day. I’ll fetch him.”
“Many thanks, my son.” Gerhard’s sarcasm was lost on the boy who vanished through an inner door. After a time, heavy footsteps heralded the Abbott’s arrival.
“Father Gerhard, I believe. God’s greeting to you.”
The usual pleasantries were exchanged. The good Father’s journey had been safer than usual owing to the unprecedented amount of traffic on the road to Freycinet. However the dryness and the dust and the heat had been intolerable. They discussed the summer fair, and the many opportunities fairs provided to draw innocent souls into the sins of gluttony and avarice, to say nothing of envy and lust.
Eternally patient and good-humored Odo felt his patience being stretched to its outer limits. The priest discussed everything but the reason for his visit. Odo was sure it had to be connected to Berenice’s request. The summer was almost over, and to date he’d heard nothing.
“I’ve been appointed to a most honorable position in this valley,” the priest at last revealed, “and the Bishop asked me to bring some letters to you on my way. I’m sure if he had realized how far out of my way your monastery is he would never have insisted I deliver them to you.”
“You must rest here with us for a time, Father,” pressed Odo. The priest still showed no sign of handing over the correspondence.
“Very good of you to offer, Brother Odo. After my strenuous journey a brief respite in a sanctuary such as yours would be most welcome.”
Odo called the novice to show Father Gerhard to the cell reserved for visitors. His mule, which he’d left tethered on the far side of the river, was to be brought around to the rear entrance of the monastery, unpacked and taken care of.
The affairs of the day called Odo back to his duties. By the end of the evening meal Odo was beginning to wish the monastery belonged to an order which insisted on silence. Their repast, usually the most enjoyable part of the day, was made interminable by the priest’s opinionated conversation. Only after it was over did Odo have the opportunity to read the Bishop’s letters.
He scanned them quickly. Most of them were purely administrative and concerned the raising and distribution of funds, which manuscripts were to copied over the next year, and so on. He’d almost given up hope of finding any mention of Berenice’s dilemma when a few lines in small script at the foot of a missive on books to be copied for the Convent of St Bernadette caught his attention.
“Concerning the matter of the Lady of Freycinet’s marriage she has no need to request the annulment. Sufficient time has elapsed…”
There was more in the same vein.
Odo knew what Berenice would say. She had no evidence of her husband’s death so she would consider herself still married, even if the Bishop thought time alone was enough.
Nothing had changed, nothing at all. Her vow to their father remained.
At least, he thought, she’d be spared the indignity of an examination by the nuns and all the ramifications Gilbert and Esme had foreseen.
He knew he should take the path down the valley and tell her, but he was her brother as well as Abbot. Let her enjoy the fair with her troubadour, let her hope for a happy ending for just a little while longer. He’d go to the castle after the fair was over.
He sighed, his usually serene face creased in a frown. He had his guest to consider, after all.
The news could wait.
Jessamine’s feet were sore already, and she wasn’t much past Pontville. For the first time in many years she was thinking riding in an ox cart with her mother probably wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
And now the light was fading. Far behind her, at Freycinet, the castle gates would be closed for the night. She couldn’t go back even if she’d wanted to, and she didn’t. She wasn’t ever going back, not to Freycinet, not to her family. From now on, she had no family. She’d look after herself.
Her mother was the first person she saw when she reached the castle that afternoon. Jessamine had told her what she witnessed up on the hill, about the Lady and the troubadour being as hot for each other as any pair of conies. Her mother told her to be silent in no uncertain terms.
It was none of their business, Martha had said. Hadn’t the Lady been good to them, giving them a cottage all of their own (with two whole rooms) to live in? Martha had gone on and on and on. She was tired of sleeping in vermin-infested halls, and she was sick of forever moving from place to place, because she, Jessamine, always managed to get them all into trouble, and then they had to pack up and find somewhere else to go.
Jessamine knew when she wasn’t wanted. She’d hated this place since the first day they arrived, hated the Lady, so calm, so confident, so completely in control of everything and everyone. Now she had even turned her own mother against her.
Jessamine had waited until everyone was at the evening meal, tied a few belongings in a scarf, and slipped out of the castle. She easily convinced the man-at-arms at the gate she was going out for an evening stroll. No-one would even miss her.
She shed a few tears onto her sleeve. She would miss them. No, she wouldn’t, she corrected herself, she would only miss one person – Gareth. She’d wanted him, adored him even, as she never had any other man.
Men had been pursuing her for as long as she could remember. They were such simple creatures – why, hadn’t she lost her virginity four times before she’d even turned sixteen? Men were but a means to the trinkets and the garments and the praise she had to have. They gave their gifts so freely, after all. All they wanted in exchange was that one simple act which, she suspected, she craved even more than they did.
Gareth had been different. She would have done anything for him if he’d asked her to. But he hadn’t, he hadn’t even wanted her, he wanted that noble-born bitch instead.
She sat on a rock at the side of the road, took off her sandals, and rubbed her sore feet. The sandals were pretty, made of red leather with a pattern stamped onto them, but not designed for walking long distances. She couldn’t remember who’d given them to her. Perhaps it had been that lovesick English knight at Aix-la-Chapelle a few years ago. Had she had them that long? She really couldn’t remember.
Resting her elbows on her knees she wondered what she was going to do next. They had passed a large castle, Betizac her mother said it was called, on the way to Freycinet. She saw it over the tops of the trees and had a vague idea of trying to reach it. She thought she’d ask for shelter there before it grew too dark, but the last time she caught a glimpse of its towers, it looked as far away as ever. She wondered now if she’d reach it before it grew too dark to see.
The sound of approaching horses raised her spirits, then dashed them again. It could be bandits, no honest person would travel this late at night. Hurriedly slipping her sandals back on she ducked into the trees.
She wasn’t fast enough.
“Who’s there?” boomed a voice. “Come out, now!”
Three mounted men looked down at her as she re-emerged from the bushes. Their garments were red and gold with a device in black worked onto the left shoulders of their tunics. A patrol from the castle, Jessamine thought.
“A tasty little piece,” muttered one of the men. She couldn’t see his face clearly, but she didn’t fancy the tone of his voice.
“Enough!” said the man with the booming voice. The mutterer lapsed into silence. In the waning light she could tell the leader was a big man, far larger than either of the other two.
“What’re you doing here, girl? This is no place for a woman alone at night.” His tone was not unkind. He was also the biggest and the strongest and clearly the one most worthy of her attention.
In her best lost-little-girl voice she said, “I’m going to the castle, kind sir, but I seem to have lost my way.”
“To the castle? To Freycinet?”
“No, not there,” she pointed in the direction she believed the larger castle to be, “To that one.”
“You’re going to Betizac?” The leader sounded amazed, and the two smaller men chuckled. “Why?”
Her patience, and her act, were wearing thin. “What d’you mean, why? I need food, and a place to sleep, of course.”
“You’ll find a place to sleep aw’right,” she heard the mutterer say, “lookin’ like you do.”
“Is the Count expecting you?” asked the leader.
Jessamine had liked the idea of a Count when her mother had mentioned him. “Yes,” she lied, “yes, he is.” Perhaps he was young and handsome. Judging from the size of the castle and the men’s livery, he was definitely wealthy. The men-at-arms at Freycinet never wore livery.
She smoothed the folds of her dress with her hands. “You’d better take me to him.”
The leader dismounted. “You ride, I’ll lead the horse.”
As he helped her to mount, his gaze searched her face as though trying to make out her features, but the light was nearly gone. Grunting he turned his attention to leading the horse.
The small convoy set off for the Count’s castle. In the near darkness Jessamine wondered how the three men could make out their way. Soon enough the lights of Kermandec came into view.
The lights were the first remarkable thing. At Freycinet they’d been restricted to a few meager rush lights in the evenings, and even the Lady rarely used more than a single wax taper. Here torches blazed in iron sconces, guiding them through the arched entrance, under a spiked portcullis and into a courtyard.
The entrance alone would have awed Jezebel, a far cry from the simple wooden gates of Freycinet. Many of the castles she’d seen in her family’s travels were made as much of timber as stone, built on convenient hills, or the bends of rivers. This one was dressed stone, all of it, rising up many stories.
People were everywhere, coming and going, moving purposefully, clearly working even at this hour. At Freycinet, everyone would have still been sitting around the dinner table chatting or listening to Gareth sing a song or weave a tale.
“It is you,” said the man with the booming voice, “I thought, back in the forest, but I couldn’t be sure. I can’t believe it after all this time!”
Jessamine almost groaned out loud. As though she’d conjured him up out of her memory the English knight of Aix-la-Chapelle was holding her horse’s harness. She remembered him well enough now. They’d had to leave in the middle of the night to escape him. He wanted to marry her and take them all back to England to live.
England! As if she would! Everyone knew England was cold and damp and it rained all the time. She couldn’t remember his name, but she knew it was something barbaric.
“They call me Thomas now,” he went on, “I stayed in France after I lost you, and I changed my name.” He lifted her down from his horse. “Jessamine, you can’t stay here. If the Count sees you…” He searched her face, “Do you really know the Count, girl?”
“Of course I do!”
“Don’t lie to me, I need to know. I can get you away from here before he finds out you’re even in the castle.”
“Why? Why would I want to do that? What’s wrong with him, anyway? Is he leprous or something?”
“No, hardly that. His disease is of the mind, not the body,” he whispered. “Listen to me, Jezebel, let me help you escape from here. The Count’s not the sort of person you’d enjoy meeting, believe me.”
Thomas kept his voice low, but they were beginning to attract attention standing as they were, just the two of them, in the centre of the courtyard. One of the men had taken the horses away, and the other had made himself scarce.
Jessamine glared at Thomas and drew herself up to her full height. Only this afternoon she’d made the decision to leave her family behind. She didn’t need this self-appointed guardian.
“What gives you the right to set yourself up as my keeper? You’re not my brother, my father, or, thank God in his Heaven, my husband!”
A third voice joined their conversation.
“Well said, young woman, well said. Now, my captain, who have you brought me?”
Thomas and Jessamine both turned to face the newcomer. Thomas bowed deeply, and, following his lead, Jezebel dropped into the best curtsey she had ever performed. Even Martha would have been proud of her at that moment.
“Come, child, show yourself to me.”
A heavily ringed hand reached down and raised her from the ground.
“Hmmm,” his eyes roamed over her, from her uncombed hair to her dusty toes in their sandals showing beneath the hem of her dress.
“Thomas,” ordered the Count, “Have her seen to and bring her to me.”
“Yes, my Lord Count.” The words seemed to stick in Thomas’s throat.
The Count stalked off towards the keep. Jessamine gorged herself on the sight of his well-muscled thighs and broad shoulders. In the light of the torches his hair was blue-black, and he wore it oiled and brushed back from his face. His dark garments were all velvet and brocaded silk. Even his high leather boots were gleaming and black.
He wasn’t as handsome or as young as she had hoped, but then, he wasn’t too ugly either. His lips were thin, and his nose was long and hooked, like the beak of a bird of prey. Nothing she couldn’t put up with, and mature men had their advantages.
Jessamine smiled. Things weren’t turning out too badly after all.
“You won’t be smiling like that after he’s had his hands on you,” Thomas growled.
“And why not? You’re just jealous. You just want me for yourself,” she snapped back.
“Yes, I’m jealous. I was your first lover, Jessamine. I would’ve married you and taken you home with me, but I didn’t rank highly enough for you, did I? I wasn’t rich enough, I didn’t have the name of a castle or a county next to mine.
“Well, be warned, girl. You’ll wish you’d never set foot in this place. The Count’s not going to give you what you want.”
“Oh, is that so! It’s been a long time since that field outside Aix-la-Chapelle, Sir Thomas Archer,” she stressed the ‘Sir’, “and I’m not fifteen any more either. Perhaps I know men a little better now. Perhaps I know how to handle them.”
“No-one ‘handles’ the Count, girl. Don’t fool yourself. But now, for the sake of us all, I’ve been ordered to take you to him. Do you have a change of clothes?”
“The women’ll find you a clean dress. Come.”
Thomas took her to a room near the kitchens. There was hot water for washing in, and a red dress laid out for her to put on. She’d always wanted a red dress, but Martha wouldn’t let her buy one. This dress was too tight around the bosom and very low in the neckline, even for her. The tightness pushed her breasts up so the tops of them showed all the way to the crests of her pink nipples.
“It’s how the Count likes it,” she was told.
They left her feet bare.
“It’s how the Count likes it,” they repeated.
Her hair was brushed and left hanging down her back. She wanted to braid it, thinking it would make her look older, but was told not to.
“I know,” she said, “It’s how the Count likes it.” The Count certainly had ways of making sure his commands were obeyed, she thought.
Thomas came for her and escorted her up a long, uneven flight of stairs. Near the top he knocked on a heavy, iron-bound door.
Thomas opened the door and stood aside for her to enter. He didn’t come into the room, just nodded his head to indicate she was to go in. She heard the clunk of the door as he closed it behind her.
What if he were right? What if the Count proved to be different to all the others? For a moment she was afraid, but the spell of the room wiped out her fear.
Candles burned everywhere. After the gloom of the stairs, lit only by Thomas’s blazing brand, the room was nearly as bright as day.
Furs covered the bed despite the summer heat. She knew all about furs, after all, she’d craved them through many a long, cold winter’s night. A lover had once told her their names and their qualities, and she recognized fox and marten, hare and cony, mink and the softest new lamb.
On the stone flagged floor Persian carpets lay in dazzling hues of red and blue and gold. Tapestries showing hunting scenes covered the walls.
Even without the Count’s invitation she could not have turned away from this room. He sat in a carved, high backed chair next to a table. He watched her, as a hawk watches a rabbit, and he smiled a thin, tight-lipped smile, amused by her wonder.
“You enjoy my treasures,” he remarked.
“Oh, yes, my Lord.”
“It’s always good to find someone who appreciates beautiful things. Come and look at the fireplace carvings. I had them done by a Sicilian craftsman, a true genius in his line of work.”
Jessamine ventured further into the room. The Count held out his hand, and she took it. He drew her towards the fireplace, holding her hand firmly as though expecting her to pull away.
It was just as well no fire burned in the grate, she thought. Heat consumed her when she realized the subjects of the carvings.
The frieze surrounding the grate depicted dozens of writhing, twisting human figures. Some of their tiny stone faces were frozen in expressions of dazed satisfaction, others in lustful anticipation, as they performed erotic acts upon one another in more ways than she’d known were possible. There were couples, and one woman pleasuring two men, and pairs of women together, and pairs of men, all contorted into bizarre positions. In comparison to the bodies of the figures the men’s phalluses were huge, and the women’s breasts and buttocks were like big, round, firm cabbages.
The fascinated Jessamine. More than anything else in this room she was drawn to these carvings. She wanted to know them in all their lascivious detail. She moved closer, drawing the Count with her, and traced some of the figures with one finger.
“You like my carvings.”
All the moisture in her body had pooled in one place, but her mouth was dry. She licked her lips and swallowed.
“Yes,” she whispered. The place between her thighs was hot and wet. Her legs trembled, and her face was flushed.
She could feel the Count’s breath on the back of her neck.
“Take off the dress.”
Reluctantly leaving the images she turned around, loosened the ties of her dress, and allowed it to fall around her feet. Releasing it was a relief. The tightness across her breasts had become unbearable, the heat of her body unendurable.
She stood before him wearing only a thin shift.
He cupped a breast with one hand and moved it to and fro as though weighing it in his palm. As he let it go he twisted the nipple between his thumb and index finger once, quite hard. The sensation made her catch her breath, but she said nothing. The feeling he’d provoked was not quite pain, not quite pleasure.
“Good,” he said as he walked away.
She wasn’t sure what she’d done, but she seemed to have earned his approval. She had a question, and she was burning to know the answer. His approval gave her the courage to ask.
“The carvings,” she hesitated, licking her lips again.
Stammering she rushed on, “That man in them. It’s the same man, over and over, isn’t it? Is he you? Did the sculptor use you as a model?”
“You’re clever to notice that, and bold too.” His smile broadened. “Would you like to find out?” He sat down in his large, cushioned chair, and made himself comfortable.
“Come here,” he ordered. He wasn’t smiling now.
She crossed the room, her breasts swaying, her nipples chaffing against the fabric of her shift, her bare feet sinking into the rich carpet.
“Kneel, there, in front of me.”
She obeyed and looked up at him. She knew enough of men, particularly men like this one, to know what was going to happen next.
He peeled off his tunic, exposing a broad chest matted with coarse, thick, black hair. Then he unlaced his leggings.
“You know what to do with this.” It was a statement, not a request.
The sculptor had definitely used him as a model, she decided. Her small, pink tongue moistened her lips one more time.
Lowering her head into his lap, she began.
The pale light of early dawn tinted the sky above the mountains. Traders for the fair had been arriving for the past week, and were camped the fields outside the castle gates. A few latecomers would arrive today.
The fair was due to begin tomorrow and would last for most of the week or until the customers stopped coming. This wasn’t one of the major fairs, like those held at Bar-sur-Seine and Troyes in Champagne. They lasted for six weeks, and traders traveled to them from all Christendom. Anything could be bought at those fairs, from the best English woolen broadcloth and finely tanned Moroccan leather to gold, silver, gems, and precious spices from far Cathay and India.
This small fair was little more than a way to separate the people of the valley from their meager hoards of coin. They’d be able to buy a few things not made in the valley like coarse cloth, or cooking pots, or salt for preserving. For those who were feeling a little more extravagant there’d be trinkets and scarves and beads for the ladies, or a good, strong knife or arrow heads for the men, and wine, ale, and tasty morsels for everyone. The local people would have a chance to sell the handcrafts they’d painstakingly worked on through the winter and the best of their summer fruits and vegetables.
Berenice knew there was much yet to do to ensure the fair ran smoothly. People traveled for many miles, sometimes for days, to come here. Their animals needed water, latrines had to be dug, and places organized for the visitors to camp.
Gareth walked out of Gilbert’s cottage yawning and stretching as though he’d just woken up. Berenice was pleased that Gilbert and Esme too (albeit unofficially) had taken Gareth into their home. Over the weeks of summer he became a valuable member of her household, and he was worthy of more than floor space in the hall each night.
She wondered, watching him walk across the courtyard towards her, what it would be like to be there with him when he first opened his eyes in the morning.
Their early morning meeting beneath the walnut tree was now a daily ritual. They sat on the bench together as the sun rose over the mountains and discussed the business of the day ahead.
Today they both ignored the events of the previous afternoon. Had she been right? Did he only want a dalliance with a married woman? Trying to look at him without appearing obvious, she reconsidered. He was here with her today as he had so often in previous weeks. Would someone who thought only of trifling with her feelings do that? Would he bother? Surely a man such as that would woo her into his bed with pretty words and extravagant promises, not with sensible advice and words of wisdom.
She must have misjudged him yesterday. She had misinterpreted that look. There must be another explanation for his reaction.
She hoped one day find out what it was.
Neither of them mentioned Jessamine although Berenice knew the name would have to come into their conversation sooner or later. Whenever there was trouble in Freycinet lately Jessamine was not far away.
The girl’s name was mentioned sooner rather than later, but not in a way Berenice could have anticipated.
The carpenter, clearly very flustered, emerged from his cottage next to Gilbert’s. He approached the bench under the walnut tree and bowed to Berenice. Luckily he had a new straw hat, and he proceeded to mistreat it in the same way he had his old one the first day he and his family arrived. In the weeks since Berenice had met him she had come to know him as a good man, a solid worker, and a kind father. The only thing he ever mistreated were his hats, and only when he was under duress.
“What ails you, Carpenter?” asked Berenice, suppressing a smile.
“Your pardon, my Lady,” he bowed to Berenice, and nodded to Gareth, “I’ve come about my daughter.”
“Jessamine? What’s happened?”
“She didn’t come home last night. I’ve searched everywhere for her. My wife, my Martha, she’s worried.”
“You’ve looked for her?” asked Gareth.
“Yes, indeed I have, sir. In the great hall, the stables, even the cellars under the kitchen. As soon as the gates were opened I went down to the camp by the river where the fair people are, but there’s no sign of her. No-one’s seen her since yesterday afternoon.”
The poor man looked as though he were on the verge of tears.
Berenice sighed. This had to happen today, of all days. She was forced to admit she didn’t much like Jessamine, and she liked her even less after the events of the previous afternoon. She always did her best to help the girl, to find work for her so she could join in the daily life of their small community, but to no avail. The girl was determined to be a misfit.
And now, this.
She knew she could trust her own people, but there were strangers in the valley, brought here by the fair. Although most of them were trustworthy, one or two of them might be tempted to take advantage of a young girl, especially one as brazen as Jessamine. Search parties would have to be organized.
“Gareth, would you ask Sir Gilbert to join us please?”
“Of course, my Lady.” He always called her ‘my Lady’ when there were other people present. More and more, as the weeks had passed, he called her by her Christian name when they were alone together. Such as yesterday, she thought.
She watched him walk back to Gilbert’s house. She didn’t know how she’d coped before he came. Despite her determination to follow in her father’s footsteps, the task of ruling the valley had been far more than she could manage alone. Pride alone had kept her going.
She knew she had come to rely on Gareth, to depend on his wise counsel. Even now, she knew that he, with Gilbert’s help, would have the matter of Jessamine’s disappearance organized before the sun had properly cleared the mountains.
“Did your daughter take her possessions with her?” Berenice asked the carpenter.
“Yes, my Lady, such as they are. A garment or two, some trinkets.”
She planned to leave, thought Berenice, she wasn’t forced. But why would the girl go now, when she thought she had some hold over Berenice? It didn’t make sense.
The two men were returning.
“My Lady, I’ve heard the news,” said Sir Gilbert, bowing to her, and acknowledging the carpenter’s presence. “I’ve sent a boy to the stables to check whether any of the animals are missing.”
“Oh, my Lady, I’m sure she wouldn’t steal…” The carpenter renewed his attack on the brim of his hat.
“It won’t do any harm to find out,” answered Gilbert, “At least it’ll give us some idea how far she’ll have traveled since yesterday afternoon.”
“Yes, of course,” the carpenter stammered, “I didn’t think.”
“Why don’t you go to your Martha and tell her we’re doing our best,” soothed Berenice, “I’m sure we’ll have some news for you soon.”
“Yes, my Lady. Of course, my Lady.” Bowing deeply and giving the brim of his hat one more twist, he headed back towards his cottage.
“What do you suggest, Gilbert?” asked Berenice.
“If she’s taken a mount there’s not much we can do. She’ll be well away from here by now, she’s many hours start on us. If she hasn’t we could send a few runners out to the villages and down to Pontville. Perhaps up to the monastery too although I doubt she’d go there. Heading for Bordeaux strikes me as more her style.”
“What about the forest?” asked Gareth, “Would she go there?”
“Who knows?” answered Gilbert, “Who knows what was in her fool head when she left the safety of the castle?”
“Someone should check the river. Just in case…” said Gareth.
“We don’t have many people who can handle boats,” said Berenice. “Perhaps, Gareth, you could do that?” Because you can swim, she thought, and you’re not afraid of the water like so many of the villagers are. She was grateful the sun had not yet risen high enough for the two men to notice her blush. She reprimanded herself silently. She must think of the lost girl. Her memories could wait.
“Of course, my Lady,” Gareth agreed.
“And Sir Gilbert, if you let me have one or two of your men I’ll go over to the forest and see if I can see any sign of her there.”
“Are you sure, my Lady? You could stay here in the castle. I know you must have many duties today.”
“Nonsense, Sir Gilbert. The more people involved the better, and hopefully, the sooner it will be over. I’ll be quite safe with your men to guard me, and I know the paths. I used to go there often when I was a child, remember?”
“Yes, I know my Lady, but in more recent times…”
Berenice placed her hand on Gilbert’s arm. “I appreciate your concern for my well-being, Sir Gilbert, but I’ll be perfectly safe in the King’s forest. After all, who could possibly want to harm me?”
A look passed between Gilbert and Gareth, and was gone in an instant. Berenice had known Gilbert all her life, and she knew that look. What secret were they keeping from her? What had he told Gareth? And why didn’t they want her to know? She would ask them both when this search was over and take them to task for not telling her. Especially if it were something important.
“No-one, my Lady, I’m sure. But I’ll be a happier man if you promise to always stay with my men.”
She placed her hand on Gilbert’s sleeve. She appreciated his concern.
“Of course, Sir Gilbert, of course. Now, what else do we need to sort out? The sooner we find that girl and get this search over with, the better.”
They hashed out the details of the search, who would be sent where, who would be mounted, and who on foot. By the time full daylight came the runners had already left, the mounts were saddled, and they were ready to leave.
Berenice, Gilbert, and three of Gilbert’s men rode as far as Pontville together. They planned to separate there. Gilbert and his sergeant would follow the Bordeaux road for a while, and Berenice and two men would head back up the valley towards the castle on the opposite river bank.
Gilbert and his sergeant were to remain Pontville to talk to the innkeeper and the toll collector. Berenice and two soldiers clattered over the stone flags of the old Roman bridge and turned onto the faint trail on the far side of the river.
The morning was clear and sunny with a hint of approaching autumn in the freshness of the breeze. Despite her annoyance at the necessity for the search Berenice found herself enjoying the rhythm of the horse beneath her, the muffled clop of his hooves on the grass-covered path, and the murmur of quiet conversation from the men behind her.
She glimpsed the river to her right through the trees. The vaulted, green depths of the King’s forest to her left would continue, she knew, as far as the mountain range which protected the valley. The branches of oaks and beeches, birch and ash, willow, alder and a few pine trees blocked most of the sunshine, and there was little undergrowth. It was more like riding through a park than a wild forest, cooler and darker than the woods on the way to the monastery but a welcome escape from the hot summer sun, none-the-less.
They rode for most of the morning, stopping occasionally to rest the horses and let them drink from the river. They saw no-one, nor any trace of a recent passing. Berenice suspected their ride was a waste of time.
They passed Freycinet on the opposite river bank and were now opposite Gareth’s bathing place with the two men leading. Berenice let the horse have his head, content to enjoy the unplanned excursion, allowing herself to slip into a dream-like state. She thought about the day she had discovered Gareth bathing, and the conversations they shared throughout the summer, and yesterday’s kiss.
Perhaps, when the fair was over, word would come from the Bishop. Then she would be able to find out what Gareth’s true feelings towards her were.
Later she would tell herself that if she had been thinking instead of daydreaming she would have seen the rabbit before it darted in front of her horse. As it was the horse shied. She kept her seat, but the horse left the path and darted into the forest, away from the river. She heard the men shout and try to follow her, but she had been behind them. They had no idea which direction she’d taken.
In less than a hundred yards she had the horse under control again. She called out to the men, as much to reassure them as herself. She knew where she was, and despite Gilbert’s excessive caution, she had no fear of being alone.
No-one answered her call.
She shouted again. Last fall’s leaves seemed to stifle all sound. Still no answer.
She would let the horse walk back to the path and continue as before. The ford near the monastery was closer than the bridge at Pontville. She had was no reason to retrace her steps.
But the horse baulked when she turned his head towards the river. She nudged his flanks, but still he refused to move.
She slid to the ground. Checking his legs she found his near front fetlock was badly scratched, by a bramble possibly. He must have hurt it in the mad dash through the trees, and it needed ointment and binding. She was going to have to walk him back to the castle.
Finding the riverside path wasn’t difficult. The soldiers had continued without her, probably to report her missing as well, she thought. She kept to the path as it followed the river.
Gilbert had been worried, she knew, but why? There was nothing here to be afraid of. Wolves only came this far south in winter. The King came here sometimes, but his prey was deer, she had never heard of boar here.
Despite her reassurances she felt a chill race down her spine. The great old trees began to look menacing, instead of large, and cool, and shady. Patterns of sunlight and shadow made it difficult to see well in the gloom. She had heard people talk about things living in the forest, tree spirits, and other beings no self-respecting Christian should consider.
Berenice shivered again. How long was it since she had been here? Not since before her marriage, surely. She remembered going for many long walks as a girl, collecting mushrooms or herbs for the kitchen, or flowers for her mother. She came here alone in those days, undaunted by shadowy trees and nursery stories of fantastic beasts.
Why had she stopped?
She had a good reason not to come here any longer, she knew. Something nibbled at the edges of her memory. Something dark, and frightening, and painful.
What was it?
She looked around at the forest. Now the shadows were ominous, the trees threatening. She called out again, suddenly wanting the company of Gilbert’s men very much.
The bushes on the riverbank rustled and swayed. Whatever was concealed behind them was large, and it was coming her way.