Fulk awoke to a pale, plump rear nestled conveniently over his morning erection.
The girl’s insatiable, he thought, as he slipped into her. She wriggled a little, but made no objection to his unheralded entry. He slid slowly backwards and forwards, resisting the urge to increase the momentum. This hungry, compliant piece of woman-flesh was just what he needed, and he intended to wring every last ounce of pleasure from the experience.
It had been a while since he’d enjoyed a woman, especially as effortlessly as this. Few women came to him voluntarily these days. They had often enough when he was younger, enticed by rumors of his wealth, no doubt. Most had fled, screaming, when confronted by his voracious appetites. A few had stayed, but they’d all died.
This little harlot had taken everything he’d given her last night. She was still begging for more, and he liked to see a woman beg.
With a long fingered, claw-like hand, he kneaded one of the pale buttocks pressed against his loins, digging his fingers deep into the flesh. The white skin turned pink, and the girl moaned. How much more appealing it would look once he’d taken his crop to her. The white skin would be marked with pink stripes, bejeweled with ruby droplets. He felt himself stiffen even more, if that were possible, and he thrust harder, burying himself to the hilt. Her muscles tightened around his shaft, milking him of his seed. With a spasm and a cry it was all over.
Fulk withdrew from her moist depths and lay back against the pillows, replete. Today was the day he would go to his new bride.
She would be his third. The first had died in childbed, together with their child. The second, the barren one, had fallen from the parapets. He was now approaching forty years of age, and it was time he had legitimate heirs, heirs that survived, especially since his sister’s son had got himself killed a few years ago. A new, strong, young wife would bear him the heirs he needed. As an added incentive she would also bring him title to the rest of the valley, the only part of it he hadn’t yet laid claim to.
Berenice La Bonne, they called her. Almost a saint, they said. She should have been a nun, they said, she was so good, so kind, so pure. Probably still a virgin, they said, ignoring the fact she’d been married.
How the peasants loved to gossip about their betters.
He knew Berenice La Bonne was no better than the little whore who lay at his side. He had taken Berenice in the dirt and the decaying leaves of the forest floor when she was but fifteen years old. He had felt her hot blood flow as he’d battered down the barricade of her virginity. By the rights laid down in the ancient laws he had made her his. He would have brought her back to Betizac, married her in front of a priest, and kept her by him if that fool Gilbert hadn’t intervened.
And then her wily old father had outfoxed him. He’d married her off to someone else.
The seed of his vengeance was planted in those days. It sprouted into a lush and virulent weed, sending out its suckers in search of retribution.
Fulk felt a surge of the familiar anger, unabated for more than eight years. All the waiting, all the planning was now about to bear fruit.
What would La Bonne be like as a woman? As cold as a block of ice and religious with it, no doubt. He’d expected that, which was why he’d had a letter written to the Bishop asking for a priest to be sent for her. Appearances mattered, and he didn’t want the King thinking he was inconsiderate of her needs. The priest was to perform the wedding too, once Fulk brought her back to Betizac.
Except the idiot priest hadn’t yet arrived. He’d been expected a couple of days ago.
It made no difference to his plans, he decided. The fair was still the best time to take her, when Freycinet was full of people. Neither Berenice nor Gilbert would do anything to endanger their precious peasants. His men would be able to walk into the castle unnoticed in the throng. A diversion would be easy to create while his captain collected the girl. And he would have his chance for vengeance on Gilbert. At last.
Should he leave Gilbert to Thomas and take her himself? No, he decided, he owed Gilbert for that day in the forest. He would kill him, himself.
But he was still working out the best way to get Berenice out of the castle.
It wouldn’t have mattered a few months ago. The castle’s defenses had been pathetic, even worse than they were when the old man was alive. Recently his spies had brought back word of activity. Now the battlements were patrolled, and the gates were closed each night, a most annoying development at this late stage. It was almost as if they knew of his plans.
As a precaution he’d bought a potion from the old hag who sold cures to the women who worked in the kitchens. The potion would induce sleep, she’d promised, and she’d hinted at the possibility of interesting side effects. All Thomas had to do was make Berenice drink it and get her away while she slept. How, Fulk still wasn’t sure. Perhaps Thomas could put her in a farmer’s cart and cover her with something. That way she could be driven out of the gates. No-one would notice amongst the fighting.
But he didn’t like it, too many things could go wrong. He would send someone to have a look around while he was there today, to see if there was another way out the castle.
Thomas himself was the weakest link in the plan. His captain had been showing an occasional inclination towards an inconvenient morality. Fulk overheard a few words of Thomas’s conversation with the girl in the courtyard last night. Not all of it, but enough to know his captain was no longer to be trusted. Fulk knew he would have to emphasize his impending marriage to Berenice, and that she was not be harmed once she agreed to the wedding.
Thomas would have to go, quite soon.
The girl rolled over to face him. She seemed intent on pressing her breasts against him and playing with the thick mat of hair on his chest, but she disrupted his flow of thought and his plans for the rest of the day.
She also brought him back to the present situation, and the small problem she, herself, represented.
“There’s a room beneath this one,” he said, “It will be prepared for you today. Move your possessions into it while I’m away. I want you close at hand when I return.”
“A room of my own? All mine? I don’t have to share it with anyone?” To his surprise and great discomfort, she kissed him. He didn’t enjoy the sensation and had never encouraged his women to do it. He turned his face away, so the kiss landed on his cheek instead of his lips.
“You’re going away? Where?” He didn’t like being interrogated either. This girl would be disciplined on his return.
“I’m going to the fair at Freycinet. I’ll be collecting something that belongs to me.”
“The fair! I’d forgotten all about the fair. Oh, can I come too?”
“Of course not.” As if, under any circumstances, he would ride around the countryside with his harlot at his side.
“They were so horrible to me at Freycinet,” she was saying, “you’ll be good to me, won’t you, my lord Count?”
“Of course, my girl, of course, now…”
She interpreted his response as permission to keep on talking. “They made me serve on tables – me! The daughter of a master carpenter! And I had to help in the kitchen too, even go down into the cellars, and take the slops out to the pigs. You won’t make me do those things, will you, my Lord?”
Something she’d said didn’t quite make sense. The silly girl was probably stringing totally unrelated ideas together.
“The pigs were in the cellars?”
“No, silly, the pigs were in the orchard.”
No-one called him ‘silly’, not even when they were in bed with him. He resisted the urge to give her a blow that would have almost knocked her head from her shoulders.
She’d said something he found most interesting.
“So why did you have to go to the cellars to feed the pigs?”
“You have to go through those horrible, dark cellars – there’s rats in them, and I hate rats – to get to the door to go out to the orchard.”
“There’s a door out of the cellars?”
“Isn’t that what I said?”
What fool had built a castle, fortified it, and then built a door so the kitchen hands could come and go? The answer was simple. Berenice’s father would have been more concerned about the well-being of his cook than the defenses of his castle. The man deserved to lose everything. It was a pity he was no longer alive to witness his daughter’s marriage, the marriage he had cheated Fulk out of all those years ago.
“And where’s the orchard?”
“Down by the river, you know,” she whined, intent on other things.
The girl had just provided him with the means to spirit his new bride away. With any luck they wouldn’t even notice she was gone. Until it was too late.
“My Lord?” said the girl. She was playing with one of his nipples. She’d thrown one leg over his, and was rubbing the inside of her thigh against him. Her open wetness and the ripe odor of her body aroused him again. He might as well have his fill of her, he expected small satisfaction from the little nun. But then, Berenice only had to live long enough to provide him with an heir, or possibly two.
Two sons, he fantasized, to wield his blade and carry the name of Betizac into the new century. Two castles to leave them. It was a good thought.
It would be time to leave soon. The clank of harness and the neighing of horses drifting up from the courtyard told him his men were ready and waiting for him.
The girl positioned herself over him. He let her do the work this time. She was younger than he, much younger, and far more agile.
Purple marks already showed on her ample breasts. He reached up to fondle them. Gripping them and pulling her down, he bit one nipple. She whimpered a little, and he rewarded her by thrusting harder and deeper.
She was young enough to learn how to enjoy pain. He was looking forward to teaching her.
Chapter Twenty One
Gareth’s borrowed boat belonged to one of Gilbert’s guards, a lad from a village further down the river who liked to fish on his days off. The boy had been sent off with one of the messages to the outlying villages, and he’d gladly loaned the small craft to Gareth for his part in the search. Made of hides stretched over a wooden frame it was built like the coracles Gareth had seen further north. It was watertight, and easier to handle than some craft Gareth had traveled in.
He used the roughly crafted oars to row upstream first of all on the principle that this would be the toughest part of the journey. At the mill the river was no longer navigable, and he’d be able to take it easy while he drifted back down to the Roman bridge at Pontville. About the noon hour he would row against the gentler current, back up the river to Freycinet.
That was his plan. So far, he’d followed it. So far, there’d been no sign of the lost girl in the rushes and low scrub on the Freycinet side of the river.
He had already passed the place where he bathed each morning. It was redolent of memories of Berenice and the brief time they’d spent there together so many weeks ago. He could still feel the texture of her damp hair as he’d combed the knots from it and woven his tale for her.
In the period since that day he’d done his best to avoid being alone with her. He could not allow himself to fall in love with her all over again. She was even more enchanting, doubly delightful, now he appreciated her as a woman.
Yesterday had been a mistake, and one he dared not repeat. Berenice, despite her brave words, had no concept of the disaster Jessamine could bring down upon her head. If it was bruited abroad that Berenice had taken a lover to her bed without the blessing of a priest she would lose the respect of her people and her peers. The ladies of the high court might manage such a feat, but never the Lady of a remote, provincial valley.
Her tender, inexperienced kisses had been so sweet. It had taken more self-control than he knew he possessed to keep his hands outside her garments. All he wanted was to show her how much love he felt for her.
A love he was more determined than ever to conceal.
Those voices in his head had grown louder last night, the dream more intense. Even now his men screamed at him, “What right do you have to life, and love, and happiness? We are dead! You should have protected us, you should have defended us, you should have saved us. You broke the sacred oath you made to us!”
They were right. No matter that they were wed, he would never be worthy of Berenice. She was right to be ending their marriage. Somehow, all those years ago, she must have known how weak he really was, how he would betray the men who depended on him. She despised him then. How much more would she despise him if she knew what he was capable of?
He remembered their wedding night well.
Following tradition the women of the wedding party had taken Berenice to the room she was to share with her new husband. The women removed her bridal garments, brushed her hair until it shone, and left her there, naked, to await him. He was brought to the room by the male guests, and gleefully thrust through the door.
Then they were alone.
What do you do when you’re in a bedchamber with a naked girl who is, undoubtedly, the most exquisite creature you’ve seen in your entire young life, and you know she hates you?
She had walked away from him the first day they met. The gossips told him, with great relish, how it took a great deal of persuasion to get her to the church. His men laughed about how he made such a terrible impression on her, and how enjoyable it would to be, convincing her she was wrong about him.
Instead she stood there, shivering with fear and revulsion, her eyes downcast, her long, thick, brown hair covering her like a cape.
Huon took a step forward. Perhaps if he could touch her, just once…
Quicker than he would have believed possible for a mere girl, a small silver dagger appeared in her hand.
“Esme left me this,” she hissed, softly, so the listeners outside the door couldn’t hear, “In case there are problems. She’s worried there won’t be any blood, or not enough. The women always talk about these things.”
“My Lady, I…”
“But they don’t know, they don’t understand! I tried to tell them, I tried to say I wouldn’t marry you, but they wouldn’t listen!”
He was totally at a loss. Once a marriage was arranged it was almost unheard of for it to be called off. Everyone knew that!
“I won’t let you do it. I won’t let you do it to me!” Her hand shook.
He took another cautious step closer to her.
“Stop!” Her eyes were wide, her chest heaving. The veil of her hair parted, and he glimpsed perfectly shaped breasts tipped with nipples like rose buds.
He drew a ragged breath and swallowed. “My Lady, begging your pardon, but you couldn’t do me much harm me with that little thing.”
“It’s not for you.” She pointed the dagger towards herself. “It’s for me. I will not let it happen, I won’t let you touch me!”
She held the point of the knife against her ribcage, beneath her flawless left breast. The soldier in him had wondered whether, with one quick upward thrust, the blade could pierce her heart.
“My Lady, please, don’t…” For one horrible moment, he’d believed he was too late. Bright blood from a small wound trickled down her chest. “Please, put the knife down. I swear I’ll not harm you.”
He talked to her, calming her with the sound of his voice as he would a skittish horse. Eventually she believed him when he said he wouldn’t touch her. He was able to convince her to place the dagger on a chest beside the bed and climb between the pristine sheets of their marriage bed. Alone.
The next morning the bloodied sheet was displayed for all to see.
What a travesty their marriage was. Every evening they sat at the high table together and shared a trencher and a chalice. Outside their chamber she was in all ways the picture of the perfect wife, eyes always downcast, attending to his every need.
Every night he played the part of a devoted husband, and escorted her to their bedchamber. By an unspoken agreement they waited until the castle slept, and then he crept down the stairs like a fugitive to the haven he’d found with Gilbert and Esme.
He lived the lie for six weeks until, by the grace of God, the letter had come from the Bishop and the King, asking for men willing to take up their swords in the name of Christ and free the Holy Land from the clutches of the infidel.
His men had been inspired by their mission, but Gil glimpsed the relief in Gareth’s heart. Gil knew Gareth would be freed from the agony of spending every day by the side of a woman he was growing to love more and more without ever being able to touch her, or hold her, or feel her heart beating in unison with his.
And now he found himself trapped in another lie, the lie of his identity. Gareth the Troubadour was a myth. All he had wanted was to protect her from the Count, to make sure she was safe, to see her again. He never dared to dream of holding her as he had yesterday.
Gareth wondered now how he could bear to leave her. The voice of reason told him she was she his wife, and he had the right to be here with her. As each day passed it became more difficult to think about leaving, but once the fair was over, and the danger from the Count passed, he must go. Twice now he had been dangerously close to making her his own in the only way that really mattered. If Jessamine hadn’t interrupted them yesterday he didn’t know what would have happened.
He could not trust himself to be alone with her.
Gareth steered the boat close to the riverbank, and, being careful not to let it get away from him, he stepped onto the bank. Once his feet were on solid ground he tied the boat securely to some low hanging branches.
From the river he had noticed something shining gold in the sunlight in a narrow, shallow inlet. It could be leaves on the water heralding the onset of the fall, or it could be a girl’s hair as she lay, face down, in the water.
He clambered along the bank using branches as handholds, mindful of the landslide that had propelled Berenice into the water.
His search was fruitless. Now he’d found the place, he could see it must have been a trick of the light and a few dead leaves. No sign of Jessamine.
Hauling himself up onto the bank he looked around for an easier way back to the boat. He had emerged into a thicket of young beeches and fought his way through a tangle of branches.
Curse the girl, he thought, she was probably half way to Bordeaux by now. He had better ways to spend his day than this wild goose chase. She had been a pest all summer, following him around, flaunting her all-to-obvious charms. Even without his love for Berenice he wouldn’t want someone who spread her favors around the stable boys, Gil’s men, and every passing pedlar. The girl was a menace, and they were all better off without her.
His temper was deteriorating steadily as he realized he’d soon have no more justification for staying here. His time was valuable, and Jessamine was wasting it.
A woman’s shrill scream stopped him in his tracks.
Perhaps the girl has taken the wrong man into the woods this time, he thought, and she really was in trouble.
Changing direction towards the forest, away from the river and his boat, he redoubled his efforts. The thicket tore at his tunic, scratching his arms.
Dear Lord, let me be in time, he prayed, as the scream rent the air again.
Chapter Twenty Two
Berenice stood in the shade of the trees, one hand holding her horse’s reins, the other raised to her mouth as though stifling yet another scream. Even from a couple of dozen feet away he could see she was trembling from head to toe.
“Berenice, it’s me. It’s Gareth!”
He ran towards her.
“Gareth!” Berenice propelled herself into his arms, almost knocking him from his feet. He held her close, stroking her back, calming her as she sobbed onto his chest.
“What’s wrong, Berenice? What happened?”
“Nothing, nothing at all, really,” she said when she could speak again, “It was just the forest, and the shadows, and…”
Gareth looked around. “Where are Gilbert’s men?”
“A rabbit startled my horse, and he bolted. I lost Gilbert’s men. They probably think I’m lost too, by now.”
She pulled away from him, awkward and embarrassed now she’d regained her composure.
“Didn’t they make any attempt to look for you? How long ago did this happen?” Gareth surveyed the forest as though looking for someone to reprimand.
“Not long ago at all. Gareth, it’s not important.”
She laid her hand on his arm.
“You were frightened. You could’ve been harmed.”
“But I wasn’t. Only my poor horse. He’s injured his fetlock.” As if on cue the patiently waiting horse neighed and bobbed his head.
“Gareth, I’m pleased to see you, but why are you this far up the river? I thought you’d be checking downstream.
“You startled me! When the bushes began to move I didn’t know what to think,” said Berenice.
“I checked the riverbanks near the castle first. I’ve been up to the mill, and I was on my way down to the bridge,” Gareth replied.
“Did you see any sign of Jessamine?”
“None. I don’t expect to find any, either.”
“I suspect you’re right. We saw nothing, no sign of anyone on the forest paths.”
“Well, I’ll walk you back to the castle. You shouldn’t be alone here. I can fetch the boat later.”
“There’s a ford near the monastery. That’s where we were going when my horse bolted.”
They began to walk, Gareth leading the horse.
“You should never have come here, not even with Gilbert’s men.”
“I know this forest, Gareth. I used to come here as a child.”
“But something frightened you here today, and frightened you badly.”
“It was the forest itself, I think. It’s as though it’s alive, as though it’s more than just trees and bushes and brambles. I felt something here, something ancient, something – malevolent.” She shuddered and crossed herself.
He longed to draw her into the protective circle of his arms, and hold her, and keep her safe.
And never let her go again.
She stumbled on the rocky path, and in the next instant at least part of his wish was granted.
This time she didn’t move away from him.
“Gareth,” she murmured between kisses, “hold me.”
It was more a question than a request. He answered by kissing her yet again and felt the power of his need surge through his body.
He leaned her against the broad trunk of an ancient beech. Her headdress had come loose, and he straightened it a little.
“I know you’ll have to leave one day,” she whispered, looking up at him, her eyes deeper and darker and bluer than ever before.
“Perhaps I won’t,” Gareth replied.
No, it was Huon who answered. I am her Lord, her husband, he thought. For eight long years I’ve waited for this. It’s my due, my right.
No, you’re not her Lord, you’re not her husband, Gareth answered, to her you’re Gareth the Troubadour. You’ll break her heart with what you’re doing, taking her here, like this, in the forest. She deserves the finest linen sheets, and a deep, soft bed. She doesn’t know…
He slid his hand over her hip, up her side, and came around to cup her breast. Through the layers of her clothing he could feel the hard, tight little nub of a nipple. Her breath caught in her throat, and a flush rose to her cheeks.
“My love,” he murmured, and eased her onto a soft bed of last year’s leaves.
They lay there for a moment, Berenice on her back, Gareth on his side looking down at her. He wanted to know every detail of her. He wanted to see her naked, the sunlight dappling her body with the patterns of the fresh summer leaves above their bower, the shifting light on her skin.
His mouth found hers once more while his hand traced the outline of her thigh, and he drew fabric of her dress up and over her legs.
He gazed into her eyes anticipating, and dreading, a sign of rejection. Smiling a small smile of concurrence, her hand caressed his neck, and she kissed him. Her kiss was as soft and tentative as the touch of bird’s wing, until he deepened it, needing her response as confirmation of their mutual desire. She answered him, learning from him as he entwined his tongue with hers.
He traced the delicate bones of her ankle with the tips of his fingers and explored her slender calf. Her skirts rode higher showing a rounded knee and the pale skin of her thigh.
One of his legs parted hers. He felt her small, strong hands everywhere, stroking his arms, touching his face, caressing his neck, burrowing into his hair. Little sounds of pleasure and longing came from her parted lips, full and slightly bruised now from his kisses. Her headdress had come completely adrift, and her hair spilled out onto the leaves.
“My love,” he murmured into her hair, trapping her beneath the weight of his body. His love, his life, his wife. He ached with love for her, with longing, with the need to know her completely.
“Am I?” she asked. The innocent trust in her voice stopped him in his tracks.
“Yes,” he replied, “you are.”
He kissed her once more, knowing the time had come to tell her his identity. He couldn’t lie to her any longer. Perhaps she would understand, perhaps she wouldn’t reject him this time, perhaps they’d find a way.
“Berenice,” he stroked her hair from her forehead, “my name…”
“Names don’t matter,” she answered, kissing him again.
But names were everything in their world, he knew. Names were the reason marriages were made, alliances forged, and wars fought. For her to say his name didn’t matter was tantamount to saying it didn’t matter if the sun forgot to shine.
It could wait, he thought. There were more important things to think about, such as the slim leg which was now wrapped around his.
Her dress had ridden even higher. Sliding his hand beneath it he found he could caress the underside of her breast.
He couldn’t have stopped now, not if Fulk and all his men had ridden into the clearing. Taking his weight on one arm, both his legs separated hers. She moaned into their kiss, moving against him.
Huon, you must stop, Gareth whispered, think what you’re doing!
I love her, I want her, thought Huon, and she’s mine.
Breaking free of their kiss, he pushed her skirts higher with one hand. The pent-up need of eight years made him careless, and he fumbled with the fastenings of his own garments.
His gaze returned to her perfect, oval face, her deep, deep blue eyes, the sweet bow of her lips.
Something had changed.
The heavy-lidded look of love had vanished, and her eyes were wide and staring.
Her lips no longer curved into a small, secret smile, waiting to be kissed. Her mouth was open as though she were about to scream again.
A face softened with desire, had been replaced by one contorted in terror.
“No!” she screamed, “leave me alone! Stop it, stop it!”
She lashed out at him, her small fists striking his chest, his face, his arms. He tried to stop her, gathering both her hands into one of his, but it only made things worse. Her whole body twisted and writhed, no longer with desire, but with the need to be free of his weight on hers.
“Let me go! Please, please let me go,” she sobbed.
“Berenice, stop this!” She was like a woman possessed. Her eyes stared, but he doubted she saw him.
“No-o-o-o…” she howled. The sound cut through him. It was the cry of an animal in pain.
Reasoning with her was useless, she couldn’t even hear her own name. Her hands escaped from his, and she lashed out at him again.
A blow landed across his nose blinding him with pain. He released her hands.
She was on her feet in an instant, racing off through the forest like a wild thing.
“Berenice!” he called, but she was gone.
It took a moment for his vision to clear. She hadn’t broken his nose, but in her almost superhuman strength it had been close. He shook his head, and sat up, his head still spinning.
He couldn’t let her go like that. In her present state of mind she could hurt herself. She was fleet of foot, like a deer, and she’d said she knew the forest.
Looking around he thought he saw a flash of a sky blue dress in the shadows. He got to his feet, and staggering a little, set off through the forest.
For the second time that day the light tricked him. The patch of sky blue was just that, sky showing through the interwoven canopy of the trees.
What was he to do? His sense of direction had always been good, and he knew which way the river lay. He wasn’t lost. Should he return to the castle, round up the men again, start the search?
He stood beneath the ancient trees, turning this way and that, desperate for some clue of Berenice’s whereabouts.
A yelp of pain gave her away. Loping through the trees he found her, not more than a hundred yards from where they’d lain. She’d tripped over a fallen tree trunk, and was sitting on it, rubbing her ankle.
Berenice looked up at him. Her face appeared quite normal again, and for that he silently thanked God.
“Gareth,” she said, her voice calm, her tone thoughtful, “What happened to me?”
“You don’t know?”
“No, I…” she nibbled her lower lip, something he’d noticed she always did when she was worried. “One moment you were kissing me and touching my leg,” she blushed, most prettily he thought, “and the next, it wasn’t you above me, it wasn’t you kissing me.”
He sat on the log next to her, and took her hand in his. She made no move to draw it away. Whatever had possessed her so completely had vanished.
“Who was it, then?” he asked.
“What was it, I think the question should be.” She shuddered. “It was black and foul smelling, and it was huge, and strong, and pinning me to the ground.” She leaned against him. He could feel her trembling. “And Gareth, it was hurting me, so badly.”
Tears ran, unchecked, down her cheeks. “Gareth, it hurt so much!” she repeated. She was weeping openly now.
He held her while her tears saturated the front of his tunic, stroking her hair, feeling her heart beat against his.
“Hush, my love,” he whispered, “I’ll keep you safe.” But he wasn’t sure she’d heard him. Eventually she gave one last, great, shuddering sob, and looked up into his face.
“Gareth,” she whispered, “I’m so sorry.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry for, Berenice.”
“I wanted to…” she hesitated, “back there, before it happened, I wanted you to…”
“Hush, my love, there’ll be other times.” But he knew there wouldn’t be, there couldn’t be, not now. He’d allowed his self-control to slip one time too many.
Berenice’s strange outburst had saved her from him.
Chapter Twenty Three
They found Berenice’s headdress not far from the patient horse. She dampened a corner of it in the river, and washed the tears from her face. Combing the tangles out of her hair with her fingers, she wound it into a knot before pinning her headdress securely over the top of it.
“How do I look?” she asked Gareth. She was making her best attempt to smile, but Gareth could see she was still shaken by her strange experience. What had it been? A demon of the forest? He’d heard of such things in peasants’ tales, or stories told around campfires on the Russian steppes, but never had he experienced anything like it.
He took her hand in his, and together they walked the long, winding path to the monastery ford where he carried her over the river. Then they followed the path she’d taken weeks before, through the small, friendly wood, and back to Freycinet.
They discussed the fair, and what still needed to be done before tomorrow came. Despite the warmth of her hand in his there was a distance between them. Gareth no longer pressed for any other contact. Logic prevailed, and, despite his earlier hopefulness, he was forced to admit the impossibility of their situation.
When they came within sight of the castle and the preparations for the fair he released her hand and let her take the lead. As they walked through the gates she was once more the Lady of Freycinet and he, her humble servant.
The sight of two dozen fully armed and mounted men greeted them. Somewhere near the centre of the melée Berenice could make out Gilbert and another man, a man dressed entirely in black.
Gilbert saw her and called out, “My Lady, we have a guest!”
Leaving Gareth to take care of her horse she strode forward, calm and self-possessed. In that moment he was proud of her. She was every inch an aristocrat.
He gave the horse into the care one of the stable boys, and unobtrusively stayed behind her.
The black-garbed stranger watched her approach. Older than Gareth by perhaps a decade he was solidly built and looked strong. His arms and shoulders were those of a fighting man, but by his garments he was a member of the nobility. He watched Berenice as though he would devour her.
Count Fulk de Betizac, also known as the Beast of Betizac, had arrived.
Gareth moved his hand automatically to the dagger at his waist. His sword was safely stored in Gilbert’s trunk, but he wished he were wearing it now. He scanned more than twenty well-armed, trained fighting men, and felt a coldness in the pit of his stomach. How could their farm boys possibly best this lot? Now the time had come, and Berenice’s safety depended on the success of his plan, he felt an uncharacteristic nervousness.
He watched the Count’s extravagant bow, and Berenice’s graceful curtsey in response. He heard her words of welcome. Her face was pale, her mouth a tightly compressed line. Gareth wanted to tell her he was here, right behind her, protecting her.
Strict customs governed behavior towards guests, and he knew she would follow them to the letter. He wasn’t surprised when he heard her call to Esme and ask her maid to arrange for the Count to be bathed by the women of the household.
“Please accept my apologies, my Lord Count. My women will bathe you after your journey. My husband is absent, and it would not be appropriate for me to fulfill that particular duty, even to so honored a guest as yourself.”
“Of course, my dear,” said the Count, appropriating Berenice’s hand and tucking her arm possessively beneath his. “Perhaps another time.”
Berenice asked Esme to prepare the old Lord’s chamber for the Count’s use while he stayed for the duration of the fair. The flash of anger, rising like bile, surprised Gareth. The Lord’s chamber was, by rights, his, just as Berenice herself was.
Gareth knew the Count’s men would sleep on the rushes in the hall with the lowest of the servants, but the thought had no pleasure in it. He wanted them out of the castle, so the Count’s support would be more difficult to muster when the time came for him to strike.
“My Lady,” he said, bowing respectfully, “may I make a suggestion?”
“Of course, Gareth.” He could see she was surprised he was there still, but not displeased.
“Perhaps the Count’s men would find more comfort in a marquee in the field near the fair. Temporary accommodation has been set up for visitors.”
“Who is this man?” interrupted the Count.
“This is Gareth, my troubadour. He has traveled far and has great deal of knowledge on many useful subjects.”
Gareth liked the ‘my’.
“So a troubadour runs your affairs, my Lady?” The Count’s lips were smiling, but his gaze was locked onto Gareth’s over Berenice’s head. Gareth had fought the heathen Magyar, who were said to sacrifice captured children to their dreadful gods, but he’d never seen such malice in anyone’s eyes.
“Not at all, my Lord Count,” replied Berenice, “Gareth is a useful advisor, nothing more. Do you not have people whose opinion you value?” She smiled sweetly, and the Count had no choice but to agree.
“My Lady, you must meet my captain,” he beckoned “I, too, have my advisors.” The man was tall, far taller even than Gareth, and larger than some Vikings he’d known. “We call him Tiny Thomas.”
The Count laughed, exposing rows of rotting teeth, while the giant bowed awkwardly to Berenice.
“My Lady,” he mumbled and retreated to stand among his men.
There’s a story there, thought Gareth, and no love lost between master and captain.
Berenice deftly extricated herself from the Count’s grasp.
“My Lord Count, if you will excuse me. There’s much still to be done before the fair officially opens in the morning. My women will take care of your needs. I’ll arrange for a marquee to be erected to house your men.
“Come Gilbert, Gareth, Esme.” She clapped her hands sharply. Her friends fell into formation around her, Gilbert to her right, Esme to her left, Gareth bringing up the rear. Together they walked purposefully to the Lady’s tower, leaving a glowering Count standing in the middle of the courtyard.
Gareth took perverse delight in slamming the tower door behind them before following the others up the stairs.
When he reached Berenice’s room Esme was holding her. Gareth closed the door of the chamber.
“The Lady’s had a nasty shock,” said Esme.
“I think we all have,” said Gilbert.
“I didn’t expect the Count to come here, bringing most of his household, and practically move in,” said Gareth.
“You knew about this?” asked Berenice.
“A little,” replied Gareth, “I’d heard rumors.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? Gilbert?”
“We didn’t want to worry you,” answered Gareth.
“Worry me? Worry me?” she shouted. The color was rising in her pale face. “Don’t you think I was the one with the most right to know? Fulk hasn’t set foot in this castle since I was a child, and he comes here now, less than a year since my father’s passing. Do either of you have the slightest idea what his being here means? To me? To the valley and everyone in it?”
“Yes, we do,” replied Gareth. No-one in this room understands it better than I do, thought Gareth.
Esme and Gilbert looked at him waiting for him to speak. Tell her, they were saying silently, tell her who you are, it’s not too late!
“Well then?” She was so angry she was shaking.
They all looked to him for a plan. “We keep his men out of the castle as much as possible. You treat him, as I know you must, as a guest, and we persuade him to leave as soon as is polite. Esme stays at your side always. Gil and I won’t ever be far away.”
“I’ll sleep up here tonight,” offered Esme.
“I’ll set two of my lads to guard your door,” put in Gilbert.
“That’s it?” asked Berenice, her voice a little calmer.
“Some of the men from the villages will be here tomorrow. We weren’t expecting the Count to arrive this soon, or for his intentions to be quite so obvious. All we have to do is to get through tonight,” answered Gareth.
“What use will the extra men be? They’re not soldiers, they’re farmers,” said Berenice.
“We’ve been teaching the lads a few things over the summer,” answered Gilbert, shifting on his feet.
Berenice glared at Gilbert and Gareth in turn.
“You’ve been training men without my knowledge?” “Yes, my Lady,” answered Gilbert. He bowed his head.
Berenice made an inarticulate sound of rage in the back of her throat and stalked to the window.
“Well, if that’s the only plan we’ve got, we’d better get on with it. Esme, find the least attractive and strongest women in the castle for the Count’s bathing. We don’t want any unwanted orphans in nine months’ time. I’ll wait here while you organize the bath and for his room to be made ready. Gilbert, stay here with me a while, I have some things I wish to discuss with you.
“Gareth, you suggested a marquee. Would you please organize it. I’ll give you some coin. The traders are sure to want too much, make sure you strike a good bargain with them.”
A pouch was thrust into his hand, and Gilbert ushered Gareth out of the Lady’s chamber.
“We’ll look after her, lad. Don’t you worry. Just get those men outside the castle walls.”
True to her word Berenice stayed in her room, but from the constant stream of people to and from the tower door, she was never alone. The Count’s men were ensconced in a large tent amongst the fair people where they could carouse to their hearts’ content without endangering any of the castle women. The Count was installed in Berenice’s father’s room after being ritually bathed, Gareth heard, by Marie the Laundress and some of the other women.
He didn’t see Berenice again until the evening meal. She and Esme entered, according to custom, after everyone else was seated. She wore the deep blue dress trimmed with gold, the sort only brought out for special occasions. Her veil was a snow white frame for her composed, even serene, face.
She walked with Esme to the dais.
Fulk chose that moment to make his own entrance from the Lord’s tower. He strode the length of the hall as though he were the Lord already, followed by his giant of a captain. When he reached Berenice he bowed his flamboyant bow once more. Taking her hand he led her to her seat and seated himself in the Lord’s chair.
“My Lord Count,” said Berenice, in a calm, clear voice heard by every single soul in the hall, “That is my husband’s seat.”
“And where’s you husband now, my Lady?” answered Fulk, making no effort to move.
It was as though every single person in the hall held their breath. Everyone watched the couple at the high table.
Gareth seethed, longing for his sword again.
“My husband departed for the Holy Land, my Lord Count. He defends Jerusalem from the heathen.” Her look would have withered a weaker man.
“Well, he’s not here now!” Fulk laughed, and made no effort to move. “Bring food!” He thumped the table with his fist.
The servers were startled into action. Trays of food arrived from the kitchen. Pewter plates were laid in front of Berenice, Fulk, Gilbert and Fulk’s captain.
Esme discretely joined Gareth at a lower table.
“You do not sit with the Lady?” he asked her quietly.
“I’m not entitled to. When there are guests I never sit with her.”
Esme’s explanation surprised Gareth, distracting him from the current problems. She could only mean she was not a free woman. Now he understood why she repeatedly refused Gilbert’s offer of marriage.
He directed his attention back to Berenice. Fulk had refused an offer of a plate and a cup for himself and was intent on sharing with Berenice. She protested, insisting he be treated as the honored guest he was.
Once again she lost the argument. Fulk made a great show of using his long, thin dagger to spear the choicest pieces of meat for her and raise them to her lips. Even though he knew she could not refuse the Count’s offer, Gareth raged and made a move to rise from his seat.
Esme’s hand on his arm and her soft voice saved him from what could only have been disaster.
“What do you think she’s feeling, Gareth?” Esme asked.
Berenice’s face was pale, and her hand shook a little as she accepted the chalice from the Count.
“She needs your support, Gareth. She doesn’t need you to start a brawl with the Count.”
Gareth settled back into his seat.
“You’re right,” he answered and clenched his fists, out of sight, beneath the bench. If he fought Fulk now, in this peaceful setting, the ramifications of his actions would bring more harm than good to Berenice.
He kept to his seat next to Esme and watched Fulk touch Berenice at every opportunity. His hand would graze hers, or brush against her arm, or touch her headdress.
One day I’ll kill him, thought Gareth.
He prayed he would have the opportunity soon.
Chapter Twenty Four
Thomas was not a happy man. He didn’t like being uncomfortable, and his troublesome conscience was bothering him yet again.
“We’re going to Freycinet to bring back my new bride,” the Count had told him before they left Betizac. Now, in the cool, clear light of dawn on the day she was supposed to be married, Thomas was sure the woman knew nothing about her impending wedding.
The Count had made it sound so simple. She may be a little reluctant, he said, but once she was safely back at Betizac and properly married to him by a priest, there would be nothing to worry about. After all, most women would be delighted by the wealth and splendor of the Count’s castle and by the prospect of bearing a title far above their own.
But everything Thomas had heard about this particular woman was turning out to be true, and that made him uncomfortable about the Count’s plan.
The Lady definitely had a style all of her own. She was an exquisite little thing. Every inch of her small, nicely curved body was pure aristocrat.
Thomas couldn’t help but compare her to Jessamine who was not quite the innocent girl he had once thought her to be. Jessamine was only too willing to tell anyone at Betizac how Berenice had mistreated her. Having now met the Lady in question he couldn’t imagine her treating anyone with less than a fair and even-handed justice.
She had been gracious in her welcome of the Count the previous day, even though it was obvious to anyone who cared to look that the Count was not especially welcome in Freycinet. The servants tiptoed around him all, that is, except for the huge laundress. Thomas chuckled. The Lady had got herself out of that one quite nicely. Even Fulk wasn’t about to argue with a woman as tall as he was and probably more muscular. Thomas had noticed also the protective stance of the castle blacksmith, and guessed at a relationship there. At any rate his appearance had helped the Count control his urges, and his bath was nothing more than that.
The room provided for them was adequate for their needs although nowhere near as lavish as the Count’s own, of course. The Lady’s father had been a scholar, and Thomas suspected the scrolls and books the shelves still held were probably worth more than all the costly chattels in the Count’s chamber.
Thomas hadn’t been comfortable with the idea of his men sleeping in a tent leaving only himself to guard the Count.
“Don’t fret, old woman,” Fulk had jeered, “even if they suspect anything they won’t dare harm me.”
Suspect anything? Those words, more than any others, revealed the Count’s true intentions. In the course of the evening in the old Lord’s room the Count made it abundantly clear, over a wineskin or two, that the girl was coming back to Betizac the next day whether she wanted to or not.
Thomas knew abducting a bride was not unusual, but this time the idea stuck in his craw. The Count’s women hadn’t lasted long, one way or another. He’d hate to see this one go the same way.
He gazed out the open window of the old Lord’s chamber, yawned, stretched, and scratched his beard. Did he have the right to decide what Fulk de Betizac could or couldn’t do? And even if he did, how could he stop him? Objection to the Count’s plans would bring swift and certain retribution, and an unmarked grave in the forest. One of his own men would be raised to the captain’s position, and he would have achieved nothing, nothing at all.
All he could do for now was follow the Count’s instructions, explained to him, in detail, the night before.
He would send someone to have a look at the kitchen and the cellars. The Count had said there was a way out through them. It seemed an improbable means of escape but was worth investigating. The Count allowed the source of this information enough credibility to be having a boat rowed up from Betizac today while everyone was at the fair in the fields on the other side of the castle. It would be moored near the orchard, Thomas was told. Later he could use it to ferry the Lady back to Betizac.
They would strike a little after the noon hour. The men would begin infiltrating the castle as soon as the gates opened while the Count escorted the Lady to the fair. Upon their return her men would be distracted by a fight in the courtyard which the Count himself would lead.
Thomas had offered to lead the fight – somehow it seemed a more honorable way of using his skills – but Fulk had demurred. He had an old score to settle with Sir Gilbert, he said.
Thomas offered up a prayer of thanks that he wasn’t in Sir Gilbert’s shoes.
Thomas’s responsibility was to get the Lady to the boat and away. The Count had given him a sleeping draught in a small, glass vial. It would keep the girl from struggling, he’d explained, and preserve her from harm. Thomas could see the logic in that. Once she was unconscious all he had to do was to cover her with the burlap sack already provided for the purpose. She would weigh no more than a bag of grain. He was to carry her to the waiting boat via the cellar door. Once he was safely on the river he would sound the signal horn, and the Count and the rest of the men would follow by land.
The first part of the plan was already being put into place. Fulk, with the Lady’s arm tucked securely beneath his, strolled across the courtyard. Her people were with her, Thomas noted. Her maid and her captain walked at each side of her, and her troubadour, as always, was behind her.
Thomas pondered the mystery of the troubadour. The man was not what he seemed. Thomas had known troubadours in other places, and they were generally slightly built, white-handed fellows, always ready with a soft word for the ladies, the sort of man who was too small or too weak to wield a sword.
This troubadour did not fit the mould. He balanced on the balls of his feet like one of those big African cats. Yesterday the movement of his eyes had betrayed his assessment of the number of men they brought with them and how they were armed. And he was strong, the muscles of his arms and back moving beneath his clothing.
Thomas would be prepared to lay money on the table that this man had fought more battles than he’d sung songs, and he would be more at home with a sword in his hand than a lute. No doubt he could do both – many men could – but he was a soldier before he was a singer.
The Count would be a fool to underestimate him.
Gareth, the Lady had called him. Thomas smiled. He liked the man. He hoped they’d get a chance to share an ale or two under better circumstances.
Father Gerhard had said the grace this morning, before the brothers of the monastery broke their bread. The grace lasted, Odo was sure, for more than an hour. Since they had not long returned from matins he wondered how constructive an exercise the grace had been. The novices became restless, and everyone’s stomachs growled by the time it was finished.
Odo believed in a healthy balance between prayer, contemplation, and work. This morning the scales had been tipped, if not completely over-turned, in the direction of prayer. He wondered what it would take to invoke a temporary vow of silence. Only while the good Father was a guest, of course.
He asked Father Gerhard to accompany him to his study with the idea that, while the priest was there, he would make slower progress in upsetting the equilibrium of the monastery. Father Gerhard was only too happy to have an audience for his many opinions.
“What are your plans for the future, good priest?” began Odo, as they made themselves comfortable. He feared he lacked a little subtlety, but luckily Father Gerhard appreciated any opportunity to talk about himself.
“Without wanting to denigrate your hospitality in any way, brother Abbott, I regret I must leave you this afternoon.”
Odo tried valiantly to suppress a sigh of relief. The monastery would be able to return to normality.
“Yes,” continued the priest, “I must take up my calling, my true purpose in coming to the valley. This evening I will bless Count Fulk’s marriage. After that joyful event I’ve been asked to stay on at Betizac to be his bride’s chaplain.”
“I’d not heard the Count was to marry again,” said Odo, “His affianced has requested the company of a priest?”
“I’m surprised you hadn’t heard about the wedding. The Count has been in regular communication with the Bishop on this matter, and he’s been most generous in his support of one or two projects very close to the Bishop’s heart. You must be even more isolated here, in the far reaches of your little valley, than any of us had realized.” He smiled.
His constant air of superiority grated on Odo’s nerves.
“For a man of the Count’s standing, it’s quite normal, as I’m sure you’d appreciate, for his wife to have the company of a priest in her daily life. The power of prayer will hold her steadfast to her marriage and enable her to bear the many trials and tribulations of wedlock.”
From what Odo had heard the poor woman would need more than the company of a priest to withstand Fulk’s version of marriage. How strange that the Count was supporting the Bishop’s projects when he had long refused to support the monastery. It was so long since he’d donated Odo had stopped asking. Betizac was the only household of any standing in the entire region which never made any contributions.
“So the Count marries again,” murmured Odo. The poor woman, he thought, and made a mental note pray for her.
“I understand the Lady Berenice is quite learned, for a woman.”
“Berenice is indeed. She reads Latin and Greek well, and can write a little.”
“Then my calling shall be a joy. I will be blessed indeed to be in daily communication with a person who will appreciate my instruction.”
“Forgive me, good Father, I understood you were to be attending Count Fulk’s wife.”
Gerhard looked at him blankly.
“You do not know?”
“Know?” repeated Odo. The long grace must have done more than affect his stomach. His mental faculties were definitely not working as they should be this morning.
“The esteemed Count marries the Lady of Freycinet this evening.”
“I believe the Lady of Freycinet does not consider herself free to marry again.”
Gerhard waved a hand, dismissing Odo’s comment.
“Of course she is. Her first husband left many years ago. The Bishop told me you’d sent a request on her behalf for the marriage to be annulled. We discussed the issue, and in my opinion an annulment is no longer necessary. And of course the Count consulted the Bishop before arranging the wedding.
“There’s no impediment to the marriage,” Father Gerhard laughed. It was a high pitched, irritating sound. “Indeed, I would not be here if there was!”
Odo could only stare at the pompous priest in horror. Fulk was going to take Berenice today! And he was trapped in his study with the man who was to bind her, for the rest of her life, to one of the most evil people Odo had ever met.
God help me, he prayed, I cannot let this happen to my sister.
“Would you care for some refreshment, good Father,” Odo asked calmly. He had to get away, he had to think, to plan. There must be something he could do! He might be a fat and past his prime, but he’d been a knight before he’d taken his vows, and Berenice was in grave danger. If this marriage went ahead not only would she suffer, but every person in the valley would be ground beneath Fulk’s heel.
He had to do something!
Father Gerhard, despite his ascetic appearance, always seemed to welcome refreshment.
“Allow me to attend to it personally,” said Odo, “I have some interesting manuscripts here. Perhaps you’d like to read them?”
Odo forced himself to move slowly, setting up one of the monastery’s precious books on a wooden stand for Gerhard to read, and murmuring polite but meaningless words all the while.
Once out of the study he ran to the kitchen as fast as his bulk would allow. A plan was taking shape in his mind. He prayed God would forgive him for what he was about to do.