Chapter Twenty Five
The annual fair had been the highlight of Berenice’s year for as long as she could remember. Although only small it attracted some of the most unusual and original traders and entertainers in the region.
Last year a man had brought with a tame bear all the way from the forests of Scandinavia. She felt a little sorry for the bear who wore a heavy chain around one ankle. His keeper prodded him until he danced, and everyone laughed, and threw coins. And a few years ago a man with very dark skin had a tame monkey, dressed up in proper clothes, who looked like a miniature person. Unlike the bear the monkey made comic faces and shrieked and clearly enjoyed performing for the crowd.
Berenice had looked forward to enjoying this year’s fair in the company of her friends and with Gareth by her side. It was not to be. From the first sign of daylight the Count demanded her attention. He ignored her protests and swept her off to the fairgrounds, and had given the others no choice but to follow.
In defiance she clung to Esme’s arm but the Count soon saw through her ruse. He bought her silly little knick-knacks and trinkets she neither wanted nor needed, forcing poor Esme was forced to carry them, and leaving the field free for the Count to trap Berenice’s arm beneath his own.
The day quickly became a trial. With the ever-present heat and dust fresh air was soon nothing but a memory, but far worse than this, the Count stank. His clothes had not seen the inside of a laundry in long time, and when he turned to her to speak his breath washed over her like a noisome tide. Cleaning out the cesspits soon held more attraction than spending another hour with him.
But he appeared determined to create the image of an ardent suitor, dedicated to winning her hand. He bought ribbons for the hair no-one saw and a cheap ring for her finger, no matter how much she protested.
She might be able to find a use for the embroidery silks, she thought with a sigh of resignation. But she refused point blank to accept a wire frame for one of the extravagant headdresses the court ladies wore.
Her lack of the slightest encouragement, and, at times, quite definite protestations against his extravagance made little impression on him.
And then there was the food. Every cook stall they came to it was “Try a little of this, my dear,” until she began to feel quite queasy. When she expressed a need to rest her aching feet in a little shade he insisted in conducting her to one of the larger tents where a tavern had been set up. There he pressed sweet wine upon her until her head span.
It was all too much. Every time his hand brushed hers she wanted to cower away from him. Every time his arm came around her she wanted to retch.
The man disgusted and frightened her.
The sun rose higher in the sky, and she knew if she didn’t stop soon she would disgrace herself by fainting in the middle of the crowds. It was Esme, in the end, who impressed upon the Count the importance of the Lady returning to the castle as soon as possible.
To their surprise he acquiesced.
At the foot of her tower steps he bestowed upon her another of his flourishing bows.
“Farewell, my Lady,” he declaimed and brought her hand to his lips. She snatched it away, most rudely, before he could kiss it. His face registered mild surprise, but all he said was, “Until later,” and smiled his thin-lipped smile.
“We will see you at the evening meal, my lord Count,” stated Berenice. It was no more than a token civility, but she was beyond politeness.
Esme helped her up the stone steps to her room.
“Would you like me to fetch some cool water?” she asked.
“That would be wonderful, Esme, thank you.” Berenice removed her dress and shoes, and lay on the bed wearing only her shift. Esme returned a short time later with a pitcher of water from the well. After wringing out a cloth she placed it on Berenice’s forehead.
“Thank you, Esme. Do you know what happened to Gareth and Sir Gilbert?”
“Would you like me to find them?”
“No, stay with me here, please. They’ll come soon, I’m sure.”
Berenice was right. A quiet knock on the door heralded their arrival a short time later. Esme helped Berenice back into her gown and admitted the visitors.
“We lost you in the fair ground,” said Gilbert. “Some of Fulk’s men made sure we couldn’t stay too close.”
“I’m glad you persuaded the Count to let you come back here,” said Gareth. “You’ll be safer here, where we can keep an eye on things.”
“Everyone’s in position. We can’t close the gates, there are too many people coming and going, but we’ve men everywhere,” added Gilbert.
“Thank you both,” said Berenice. “I know you’ll do your best to keep me from harm. What do we do now?”
“We wait,” said Gilbert, “and we watch his every move until he’s back on the other side of Pontville.”
“I’ll be glad when he’s gone,” said Esme.
“So will we all,” agreed Berenice.
The softness in Gareth’s eyes told her of the depth of his feelings as surely as if he’d crossed the room and held her close. He’d protect her, he’d keep her safe, she knew.
“For now,” said Gilbert, “I’d be grateful if you’d stay in this room. It has only the one entrance, and my men will guard that. You’ll be as secure here as anywhere in the castle.”
“My thanks to you both, Gilbert, Gareth. Let us pray it will soon be over.”
“We’ll leave you then, my Lady. We’ll come to collect you for the evening meal and escort you to the hall.”
“Thank you, Sir Gilbert. No-one could wish for a better captain.”
The men bowed and left, closing the door firmly behind them. Berenice listened to the sound of their footsteps fading away down the stairs.
Her room might be a prison for now, but there was always work to be done. She and Esme brought out their mending and sat in the light from the window. The sounds and the smells of the fair came to them through the open casement, and the afternoon passed peacefully.
The two women worked in silence, each lost in her own thoughts. Something troubled Berenice, like a shadow, half seen through the corner of her eye. But when she turned her thoughts to it, it vanished.
She selected a shift From the mending basket. She had torn its hem torn when she tripped on the stairs one evening a few weeks ago.
Torn clothing, she thought, that’s part of it. But why is it important?
She continued her sewing. Deep in thought she pricked her index finger with the needle. At the sight of the drop of blood she caught her breath.
That’s part of it, too, she thought. The blood, her own blood.
She now had two pieces of the puzzle.
The sound of a man’s raucous laugh drifted in through the window, part of the medley of noises which made up the fair.
Berenice started and clutched her unfinished work to her breast.
I know that sound, she thought. It sent shivers down her spine despite the warmth of the day.
“Berenice?” asked Esme. “Is anything wrong?”
“I don’t know!” answered Berenice. “I have the strangest feeling. As though I have a memory of something, but I don’t know what it is. Like a reflection in the water after someone’s thrown a rock into the pond. It’s distorted, twisted, I can only catch glimpses of it. It’s like trying to catch a sunbeam.”
“Tell me, Berenice, it might be important.”
“There are only fragments. A torn shift, my own blood, a man’s laugh. A nasty laugh, no, worse than that, evil, he was evil.” Berenice shuddered.
“Go on. If you can, that is.” Esme held her sewing motionless on her lap.
“Yes, yes, I must. Hold my hand, please, Esme. I’m afraid!”
The maid took both her mistress’s hands in hers.
“There’s a blackness, a darkness, spreading over me. Oh, no! Esme, it’s the demon I saw in the forest when I was with Gareth yesterday. Esme, Esme, what’s happening to me?”
Tears spilled over and rolled, unchecked, down Berenice’s face. She trembled as though she had a fever.
“There, there,” soothed Esme. “It’s a bit like lancing a boil, pet. It hurts badly at first, but once you let the poison out it can’t hurt you any more.”
“There’s someone, something, all black, and he – it is ‘he’, not ‘it’ as I’d thought – he’s tearing at my gown and my shift with huge hands, hands like claws. It’s like in the dreams I used to have – do you remember, Esme? You’d bring me milk and honey with nutmeg sprinkled on it when the fear and the pain woke me in the night.
“Esme, I can’t do this, I don’t want to know, help me, help me…”
Berenice’s body shook with great, heaving sobs. Esme hurried to sit next to her and put an arm around her shoulders. Berenice allowed herself to relax into the safety of the older woman’s embrace.
“Try, my Lady, please try. Sometimes we have to face the things we’re most afraid of.”
Berenice grew calmer in Esme’s comforting embrace. Soon all the pieces of the puzzle slotted into place – the torn cloth, the blood, the dreadful laughter, the nightmares. It even explained her feelings at this morning’s fair. It was so obvious, now she knew, and so clear, she wondered how she could possibly have not known about it for so many years.
Tears blurred her sight, but now they were tears of relief and joy. “I know Esme! I know who it is, the black shadow, the monster who’s haunted my dreams!”
Sounds of shouting and metal striking metal disrupted their conversation. The women leaned out of the open window.
The courtyard below had exploded into chaos.
The big, old walnut tree blocked part of their view, but despite it they could see a battle had begun. Fulk’s men, clad in their distinctive livery, fought dozens of Berenice’s own people. Outside his smithy Reginald the blacksmith swung his hammer like an ancient Norse god. The miller and his two sons slashed at their enemies with the huge knives they used to slit open sacks of grain. Robert the cook hacked away with the gigantic cleaver he used to butcher beasts, and his apprentices used their long, slender knives. Some of the peasants used pitchforks, and Gilbert’s small company of men-at-arms wielded swords and daggers.
The women could see the Count was outnumbered, but the outcome of the battle was by no means certain. Berenice’s men had little experience of fighting in their peaceful valley. Some of the younger ones had never shed blood except perhaps in a feast day brawl. Now they were confronted by experienced soldiers.
Near the middle of the courtyard, like the eye in the centre of a raging storm, the Count and Sir Gilbert were calmly and efficiently attempting to kill each other.
“No!” Esme breathed.
“Hush,” whispered Berenice. “If he hears you it will distract him.”
The women could see Gilbert was tiring. Fulk was younger by almost a decade, stronger, and the more experienced fighter.
Esme couldn’t stifle her anguished cry as the Count’s sword found its target and slashed Gilbert across his upper arm. As her lover fell Fulk raised his sword for the final thrust.
“I must go to him, my Lady!”
“Stay here,” commanded Berenice. “You can’t help him in the midst of a battle.”
But a lone figure strode through the throng, towards Fulk, distracting him from Sir Gilbert.
Gareth’s hair had come loose from its leather thong and flowed around his shoulders like the mane of a raging lion. A metal-studded, leather jerkin protected his chest and back. He swung a massive, two-handed, Viking broadsword, disposing of the enemy as if they were of no more consequence than the wheat in the fields.
“Look, my Lady!” said Esme.
“I know!” answered Berenice, her heart soaring.
Here was a true knight, her knight. She watched him fight, every muscle in harmony, every motion perfection. He was wonderful, he was magnificent! Any doubts about him melted like the snow in spring. He was worthy in every way to be the husband of her heart and the Lord of the valley.
Gareth was a undoubtedly a superb swordsman, but Fulk was a worthy opponent. The two men fought on, neither gaining the upper hand, for what seemed like an eternity.
Berenice watched, spellbound.
“Berenice!” Esme tugged at her sleeve. “There’s someone on the stairs!”
They heard a cry and a thud, and the door of the room swung open.
“Ladies,” Fulk’s huge captain bowed awkwardly, “forgive the intrusion.”
“What’re you doing here? Leave this instant!” Berenice was at her most imperious, but it didn’t faze the giant.
“I must ask you to come with us, my Lady.” Another man in the Count’s livery stood outside the open door.
“And if I refuse?”
The giant sighed. “I’d hoped it wouldn’t come to this. Jacques, hold the maid.”
Jacques crossed the room in a few paces and wrenched Esme away from the window.
“Get your dirty hands off me!” Esme struggled but it was useless.
“Let her go!” demanded Berenice.
The big man sighed. “Drink this, my Lady. I’ve been told it will make our task a little easier.” He produced a small glass vial.
“And what if I refuse?”
“Jacques, the maid.”
Jacques drew a long, sharp dagger from its scabbard and held the point to Esme’s throat.
“No!” screamed Berenice.
“Don’t do it, my Lady. I’d rather die than have you poisoned!” answered Esme.
“It’s not poison,” said the giant, “just a sleeping draught.”
“And you’ll let her go if I drink it?” asked Berenice.
“You have my word.”
Berenice took the flask from him and drained it to the dregs.
“No-o-o-o!” Esme screamed.
At first her stomach rebelled and threatened to disgorge the acrid elixir. Then the room shifted and spun on its axis. Darkness came down upon her, like a thick, black cloak.
Chapter Twenty Six
Father Gerhard lay on his bed in the guest chamber.
“I see the Lord!” he cried. “He’s riding in a golden chariot, accompanied by choirs of angels. Can’t you see them, brother Abbot? Aren’t they wonderful?”
The priest quietened, and Odo looked at him guiltily. Gerhard slipped in and out of a restless doze, sweat beaded his forehead, and his face was paler than the bleached linen sheets of the bed.
A tentative knock sounded on the wooden door, and a wizened monk entered. Brother Simon preferred not speak, which suited Odo’s purposes perfectly.
Odo spoke to the barely conscious figure on the bed. “Brother Simon will stay with you, Father Gerhard, and record your visions. I’ll have your vestments cleaned, so you’ll have fresh garments for when you are feeling more yourself again.” Odo gathered up the garments. “Brother Simon, ensure Father Gerhard stays here as long as his visions continue. He’s to be given every care and assistance.”
Brother Simon nodded.
Once out of the chamber Odo breathed a sigh of relief.
“Forgive me Lord,” he murmured to himself for the hundredth time that day, “surely the greater good will compensate for the smaller evils we must sometimes perpetrate.”
He took the priest’s robes to the laundry on the far side of the monastery courtyard and organized to have the robes cleaned and dried within the hour. He emphasized that they didn’t have to be washed, just in good enough condition to pass a cursory inspection.
He’d noticed Father Gerhard had never heard of the cleanliness being next to godliness. Odo always had difficulty understanding why God would want to admit to heaven anyone who hadn’t bathed in years.
In a chest at the far end of the brothers’ dormitory he found a few old, patched cassocks. These he placed in a large cloth bag.
The stables, the next place on his itinerary, were outside the monastery walls. They owned several mules of uncertain age and even more uncertain disposition which were used mainly as pack animals.
In the hay-scented shade he eyed Father Gerhard’s even-tempered beast. Sighing deeply he firmly dismissed the idea burgeoning within his mind. He was committing enough sins already without adding ‘borrowing’ the priest’s mule to the ever-lengthening list. A lifetime of penance would not be enough to wipe out his burden of sin, but it would be worth it if Berenice’s marriage to Fulk could be prevented.
He and his older brother Denis had been born in the first two years of their parents’ marriage. The row of small graves in the cemetery next to the village church testified to the many children their mother had born in the following decade. Berenice was the only one to survive past her first year, and she was their mother’s last child.
Odo had been almost a man when Berenice was born. He smiled when he remembered her chasing, and being chased by, the chickens in the castle courtyard, and then weeping when she realized her favorite rooster had become dinner that night. Always tender-hearted, always kind, Odo begged their father to let her go to St. Bernadette’s as she wished. She would have made an excellent nun, he knew. From early childhood she always considered those less fortunate than she. Even now, as the Lady of Freycinet, she ruled with kindness and reason.
Denis had drowned in the river a year after Odo took his vows. Their father found Berenice a husband, a young man of good family and reputation, who would care for her as her own family had. The convent was no longer a possibility.
I should have insisted, Odo thought. She would have been safe there. Gilbert had told him of Berenice’s terrible experience with Fulk when she was still little more than a child. Her husband of a few weeks never returned from the Holy Land. Had she been in St. Bernadette’s she would have been spared the pain of these things.
Now danger threatened her once more. Odo knew he was supposed to have left all worldly connections behind when he entered the monastery. He knew he couldn’t allow her being his sister to influence his judgment. But she was more than that, he reasoned, she was the Lady of Freycinet as well as his sister. According to Fulk’s reputation, known throughout the valley and beyond, marriage to him would bring untold horror to one of the best and kindest people he knew and to her people as well.
Glancing up at the heavens he was horrified to realize the sun was already well past the noon hour.
Father Gerhard had proved to have the constitution of an ox, and it had taken many the aromatic, freshly-baked, little cakes for them to take effect. He’d explained to the priest how these special cakes were only prepared for honored guests such as he, and were made with sun-ripened raisins and rare spices and herbs. These herbs were donated to the monastery by the son of one the local families who had recently returned from the Holy Land. The priest was most vocal in his appreciation of the Abbot’s efforts in making him welcome and had consumed many of the herb-scented delicacies.
No doubt he thought he deserved them, thought Odo, uncharitably.
Add lying to the list of sins I’ve committed this morning, thought Odo. Bearing false witness, and now theft.
The priest’s mule stayed in its stall. One of the monastery’s bad tempered beasts was prepared for his use instead.
Lastly he visited his own study above the reception room. He opened the lid of a large, brass-bound chest. Buried beneath ancient scrolls and bound manuscripts was a long, slender parcel wrapped in oiled cloth. Carefully, almost fearfully, he drew it out and unwound the bindings.
The sword was little rusted considering the decade or more it had lain there untouched. Odo polished it a little with a corner of the wrappings. The rust would soon come off, but did he know how to use it still?
Regaining his feet with difficulty he practiced a few lunges and parries. A smile lit up his amiable face.
You never lose it, he thought. Once a knight, always a knight!
His plan had as many holes as a mendicant’s habit, and he was old enough and wise enough to acknowledge it. Gilbert’s men numbered but half a dozen. It would take desperate measures to protect Berenice from Fulk. Perhaps he would still be in time. Perhaps his sword might be useful still.
And if he were too late to prevent Fulk’s abduction of Berenice, all was not yet lost.
“Gareth, we can’t lay siege to Betizac! The place is huge, we’ve only got a few men, and we’ve got no siege engines. Do you want me to go on?” Gilbert growled.
“And besides,” said Esme, who was trying to bandage the arm Sir Gilbert kept waving about, “what good would it do? We need a way to get the Lady out, not keep her in there!”
Gareth sank to the wooden bench beneath the old walnut tree, suddenly weary. He’d been certain their plan to protect Berenice was succeeding, and then a hunting horn had sounded. The Count dropped his sword and held his hands wide in a time-honored gesture of defeat.
“Another time, perhaps?” he’d sneered. Then he mounted his horse and rode away. In minutes the courtyard was completely cleared of the Count’s men, except for the two who were dead.
Gareth had helped Gilbert to the bench and surveyed their forces. There were a few minor injuries but amazingly none of their own men had been killed.
A general air of excitement had pervaded the castle. They’d vanquished their enemy! Only Gareth realized Fulk chose to leave the fight. He hated to think what the casualties would have been if he’d decided to stay.
Fulk had had no need to remain. He had Berenice. Esme staggered out of the door of the Lady’s tower, not long after Fulk’s departure, rubbing her head. She told Gilbert and Gareth the dreadful news.
“Yes, Esme, you’re right,” agreed Gareth. “We need to get Berenice out, not keep her in there. He will take her to Betizac? He has no other stronghold?”
“He’ll take her there alright,” said Gilbert. “He’ll want everything to look legitimate so that when the Duke and the King hear of it everything can be brushed over with the least amount of fuss.”
“Could we send an envoy to them? Petition them? Tell them Berenice was taken against her will?” asked Gareth.
“How much time do you think we have, lad? Three months, perhaps? Because that’s what we’d need if we wanted an answer, with the fall rains approaching. He’ll have her with child by then!”
Gareth’s fists clenched, and he made a low noise in his throat. The need to finish his duel with Fulk was eating away at him like acid on metal. He wouldn’t rest until the man was dead.
“I’ll go alone then,” he declared. “One man, after dark, might be all that’s needed. Perhaps I’ll be able to get into Betizac unnoticed.”
“It’s not like this place, lad. The Count’s been building Betizac for years. It’s got a tower on each corner, a central keep, a portcullis and a gate, and a dozen armed guards on watch day and night. Even if you got inside you’d never be able to get to the keep. That’s where Fulk’s quarters are, and where Berenice will be kept.”
“There’s got to be a way!” exclaimed Gareth.
“Pray for a miracle, lad,” said Gilbert, “because we’re going to need one.”
“The Lady’s going to need one too,” added Esme.
Gareth let his head drop into his hands. There had to be away to rescue Berenice. He’d lost his faith many years ago, but it wouldn’t hurt to offer up a prayer.
“Sir Gilbert!” The bellow from the gate startled them all.
Gilbert stood, looking for the source of the cry.
“Abbot Odo?” he asked.
Gareth noticed the mule before he absorbed the details of the rider. The beast looked as though it were about to drop, whether from exhaustion or sheer stubbornness it was difficult to tell.
Knowing mules it was more likely to be stubbornness, he thought.
Not that the mule was to blame, in this case. Packages and bundles had been lashed to the saddle, and in the middle of them all sat a well-rounded monk. In spite of the seriousness of their situation Gareth tried hard to suppress a smile.
The monk was Gareth’s age or a few years older. He had the unlined, worry-free face of the dedicated religious and wore a patched, brown habit. His hair, what was left of it in the fringe around his tonsure, was an earthy brown.
With difficulty he dismounted from the mule and made his way towards them.
“Am I too late? Berenice, is she safe?” he called across the courtyard.
Gilbert didn’t answer Odo’s question immediately. He waited until the monk drew closer.
“Odo, my friend, there’s someone here I want you to meet.” Gareth stood at Gilbert’s side. “Abbot Odo, this is Gareth the Troubadour. You’ve heard me speak of him.”
“Indeed I have,” answered Odo, “God bless you, my son, for the joy you’ve brought the valley this summer. I’ve heard all about your clever device to bring water to the fields and the gardens. Well done!”
“Gareth,” continued Gilbert, “Abbot Odo presides over the monastery at the head of the valley. He’s also Berenice’s brother.”
Gareth could see the family likeness between the rotund man and the small, fine-boned woman. It wasn’t so much in physical appearance as in their demeanor. In Odo it was expressed as a guileless geniality. In Berenice it was kindness and an innocence that had nothing to do with age.
“And to answer your question, Odo,” Gilbert continued, “Yes, you are too late, Fulk’s taken her. But how did you know?”
“We’re not completely isolated in the monastery,” answered Odo. “News travels fast, especially, in this case, bad news. What’re you going to do about getting her back? You can’t leave her with that monster!”
“We don’t intend to,” interrupted Gareth. He had prayed for action, and he had been sent a genial monk with all the time in the world.
“Well!” The imperturbable Odo repeated, “What’re you going to do? What are your plans?”
“Young Gareth wants to go into Betizac alone, but we haven’t yet figured out a way to disguise him as a will-o-the-wisp.” Gilbert’s frustration was obvious.
“Ah, is that all!” answered Odo. “Then perhaps I can help…”
Chapter Twenty Seven
They had taken her gown, and her headdress, and her shoes. Every time she moved soft, silken fur caressed the bare skin of her arms and legs and neck.
To Berenice it felt wonderful. Without opening her eyes she snuggled deeper into the pelts. Perhaps she should remove her shift too and feel the fur touch every part of her body.
She drifted back into drugged sleep.
When next she woke the furs beneath her, brushing her skin, created an almost unbearable yearning within her. She knew she wanted something, needed something, ached for it in fact, but she’d no idea what ‘it’ was.
She stretched out her legs and let her shift ride up around her hips. The furs felt truly delicious, but she knew the feeling was only a small fraction of what would be required to satisfy this aching need.
The wanting was like being with Gareth in the forest before the apparition had frightened her, or on the ledge when he’d kissed her, but it was stronger, much stronger. She ached for Gareth. She needed to rub her body against his, to feel…
To feel what?
The ache, she realized, was stronger in some parts of her body than others. Her nipples stood proud, small and hard, chafing against her shift. The place between her thighs, the secret place she’d given little thought to until now, felt hot and wet and empty.
She pondered the thought. Perhaps it needed something to complete it, to make it whole. Experimentally she slid her hands up her thighs until she reached the flimsy barrier of her shift. She had never explored herself there, but now she let her fingers burrow through the dark damp curls. The discovery of smooth, slick, sensitive folds encouraged her to venture further.
She parted her thighs as far as they would go and allowed the cool air to soothe her heated flesh. Memories of Gareth flooded her mind. What would it be like to have his body close to hers? To have his hands doing this to her?
She slid a finger slid deeper and discovered the wellspring of her moisture. She dipped it in and out, and in, and out again. Her muscles clenched, and she groaned. Her own small finger was not enough. She needed something larger, harder, firmer, stronger.
With the fingers of her other hand she found an exquisitely sensitive spot further forward. With the tip of one finger she traced around it, trying to define its shape, then gently stroked backwards and forwards.
The more her hand moved the more sensitive the little hard nub seemed to became. She stroked harder, and it grew larger. She rubbed it now, moving faster, and faster still.
She heard herself cry out. Every muscle in her body spasmed and relaxed. For a moment she wondered if her actions had brought on some sort of fit, but surely a fit would not have felt so marvelous. And whatever it was, it had eased the longing a little, although she could feel it rising within her again.
What was it, this need, this warmth? Would she be able to recreate the sensation if she rubbed that place again?
Berenice heard a muffled click that could have been the latch of a door. A cool draught of air flowed over her body.
Regretfully, reluctantly she moved her hands away from her body. She needed to find out where she was and where her clothes were. Her last proper memory was of the giant in her room at Freycinet forcing her to drink the sleeping draught.
This had to be Fulk’s room, she reasoned. The rich hangings and huge bed bore his mark, his love of ostentatious display.
Reluctantly leaving the soft embrace of the furs she swung her legs off the bed. She explored the room, her toes burrowing into thick, rich carpets. She stroked one of the tapestries and marveled at its texture.
Although the fire was unlit two large candelabras on the mantelpiece held a dozen burning tapers. Drawn like a moth she drifted across the room.
Carvings adorned the fireplace surround. She placed one of the candelabras on the hearth and sank to her knees in front of the frieze. The flickering flames gave the sculpted figures life and movement.
She gave a horrified gasp when she realized their theme. Shocked by the depravity of the scenes she averted her gaze.
But the images drew her back.
This was what she craved! The women in the frieze, so unlike her physically, could be her in reality. And the men were all, naturally, Gareth.
She studied each pose in detail.
So, she thought, if I were to lean over something, he could approach me from behind…
Or if he placed me on the edge of the bed, and held my legs…
Or if I knelt before him and supported myself with my arms…
Or if he lay on his back on the bed I could ride astride him as though I were on horseback…
Or if we both lay on our sides, and I wrapped one of my legs around…
The amazing variety of ways in which a man and a woman could join with each other fascinated her. Reaching out she carefully traced one of the writhing couples.
I was wrong to consider them depraved, she thought. This could be a true union, a mating of souls as well as bodies. Oh, Gareth, I want you, I long for you! I want to find fulfillment in your arms and with our bodies, just as these people have. If only you were here…
Some illustrations showed two women with one man, or men with men, and women with other women. If she couldn’t see herself and Gareth playing the roles she passed over them. But in another set the couples were joined in other ways, ways she’d never imagined.
So I could do that with my mouth, she thought. I didn’t know it was possible! The man in the carving looks as though he’s enjoying it. And he could use his mouth, too! The thought of Gareth’s tongue lapping at the secret places she had only just discovered made her wriggle and squirm. One hand began to burrow beneath her shift again while the other kneaded her breast.
“So you like my carvings, little nun?”
At the sound of the voice behind her she froze.
How long had Fulk been there? What had he seen?
Slowly she rose to her feet, she guessed the effect of the sleeping draught. Her limbs felt weak, but she refused to allow herself to show it. She turned around to see Fulk seated at the large table in the centre of the room.
“They are most enlightening, my lord Count.”
The heat in her body warred with the ice in her tone.
She remembered a day, long ago, in the forest. Still a trusting, innocent child, she’d been searching for snowdrops and lily-of-the-valley, the first flowers of spring. Her mother recently warned her not to go to the forest alone but had not told her why. After all, for as long as she could remember she went anywhere she wanted on her family’s lands. Why should she stop now?
The Count had been hunting. A freshly-killed deer was lashed to his saddle, the bright, fresh blood from its slit throat dripping to the ground. Berenice called out to him. Everyone knew this was the King’s forest, held in trust for him by her family. No-one could hunt here without the King’s or her father’s permission.
He dismounted and walked towards her, his heavy boots sinking into the old, rotting leaves.
“You’re alone, girl?” he asked, looking around.
Suddenly nervous she attempted to lie, telling him her maid was not far away. He scanned the undergrowth and waited long enough to find her out.
With a beast-like growl he pushed her to the muddy ground and ripped her clothes from her. What he couldn’t tear he cut with his dagger, caring not at all for her screams or her cries for mercy. His great weight held her down while he forced his way inside her, tearing her flesh and bruising her body.
Berenice knew she hated this man as surely as she knew her own name.
The buried memory of his brutal act had imprisoned her in her own body for more than eight years. Because of him she spurned her husband on their wedding night. Because of him she rejected Gareth. She was twenty four years old and had never held a lover in her arms. She had never felt a child begin its life within her nor nursed it at her breast.
The act he had perpetrated upon her all those years ago had nothing in common with the erotic play of the figures in the carvings.
“Enlightening?” Pushing himself out of the chair he walked towards her. “I saw you touch them. I saw your fingers trace the outline of the bodies.” He stopped when he was no more than a hand’s span from her. He was far taller than she and loomed over her. “Do you not find the figures… arousing?”
She smelt his rank body odor and felt his breath on her skin, but she refused to be cowed.
“Should I be?” she answered.
“Some people are,” he said, laying his hand on her shoulder. He let it fall, slowly, over one breast and down, tracing the line of her hip through the shift.
“I am not one of them,” she lied. Unable to bear his proximity any longer, she stepped away. “What have you done with my clothes?”
“They’ve been removed. Such poor garments are unsuitable for a Count’s wife. Other clothes will be brought shortly.”
“I am not your wife, my lord Count. I will wear my own clothes. I expect you to send for them.”
He ignored her demand. “You will be my wife, little nun, the minute the priest arrives to bless the union. And before that happens, you will bathe, and you will wear the clothes I provide.”
“I will not marry you, my lord Count. I cannot. I’m already married.”
“Ah, yes.” To her relief he moved away, to a chest beneath the window. “Your husband, the warrior for Christ. Your late husband, that is.”
“I’ve received no news of his death. And until that day…”
“What news would be good enough, little nun, to convince you of his passing?”
“My name is Berenice de Freycinet, my Lord Count. I’d prefer you to you use it.”
He bowed, a small, mocking half bow.
“Very well, my Lady Berenice, what would it take to convince you of your husband’s death?” He opened the trunk.
“What has it to do with you?”
“Answer my question, woman!” he shouted.
“I don’t know.” She hesitated. “Perhaps to see something that I know was his…”
“This is ridiculous, my lord Count. Please get me my clothes!”
“Such as…” He opened a smaller box he’d retrieved from the trunk. “A ring?”
He crossed the room to her, and, raising her hand with one of his, dropped an ornate, silver ring into her palm.
“You’ll recognize the crest.”
She did. On their marriage elements were taken from both of their family crests to form a new one. She knew that crest almost as well as she knew the balances in the estate accounts.
“Where did you get this?”
“It was brought to me by,” he coughed into his hand, “a friend who had been in the Holy Land. Your husband is dead, Lady. He died in the Battle of Hattin.”
“Hattin?” she echoed. “There were no survivors from Hattin. Forgive me, my Lord, I must sit down.”
He brought her a chair, and she collapsed into it without remembering to thank him. She turned the ring over and over in her hands, remembering Huon wearing it.
He had not been a bad man, she thought, except perhaps for a fondness for wine. In the few weeks they were together he was always kind to her. She wondered where he slept each evening after she turned him out of their room.
She could not weep now for someone she’d barely known. If Huon de Fortescue was dead she was indeed a widow. In that, at least, the Count was right. She was a free woman now, free to marry where her heart directed.
“Keep it,” said the Count. “Consider it a betrothal gift.”
Berenice kept her gaze on the ring, certain that if she looked up at the Count the joy in her eyes would betray her. She was free to marry Gareth!
All she had to do was escape from here.
Chapter Twenty Eight
Jessamine was sure he had another woman up there. The floor of his room was the ceiling of hers, and she could hear two sets of footfalls and two voices talking. Other people had come and gone, but the two voices stayed there. The Count’s and a woman’s.
Who was she?
Jessamine swore she’d make sure this woman never attracted another man again. Plotting her vengeance alleviated the boredom a little. She’d been in this room most of the time since the Count left yesterday morning. At first she was dazzled by the furnishings, the huge bed, and the novelty of having a room all of her own just like a real lady. The novelty wore off by yesterday noon.
She wasn’t a prisoner. When she walked around the courtyard no-one stopped her. She could have walked right out the gate if she wanted to. She was here of her own free-will.
She had thought about leaving, briefly. There were few men around. When she asked, someone told her that most of the men had left with the Count, but the women remaining in the castle weren’t friendly and hadn’t wanted to chat.
She thought them a cheerless bunch.
The knowledge that, through her badly timed exit, she was missing the fair at Freycinet made her boredom even worse. She had met a few of the fair people before she left, and they seemed like a good lot, always ready for a flask of wine and a tumble.
She was guaranteed a meal here at least. No more waiting on tables and clearing away again before she could eat herself. A tray was brought to her door, and her leavings collected later, but eating alone was tedious. She found herself thinking about her parents and her brother. She’d never been alone this long. She didn’t like the feeling one bit.
Surely the Count couldn’t have forgotten her already? He seemed hungry enough for her body the morning he left. She wanted to see him. She wondered if he brought her anything from the fair.
He was her only reason for staying here. She was sure he would look after her. Perhaps, if she bore him sons, he would even make her his Lady one day, or close enough to it. How she’d enjoy rubbing that in the faces of all the people at Freycinet. Especially the Lady herself. Lady Berenice wouldn’t be able to look down her nose at her then.
She adjusted the neckline of her dress so more of her ample bosom spilled over. Whoever the other woman was Jessamine knew the Count liked her big, round breasts, even if he did get a bit rough with them at times.
If he wasn’t going to come to see her she would just have to go to him.
She opened her door in time to see two manservants walking down the stairs carrying empty buckets. Who would be having a bath at this time of day? She’d had to bathe in the laundry. She was sure it must be something to do with that woman, whoever she was!
She climbed the spiral stairs to the Count’s room. The door was ajar, and, without knocking, she pushed it the rest of the way open. The hinges were well-oiled. She had a clear view of the chamber.
He did have another woman! Jessamine swore beneath her breath. How could he, after all the things they’d done together only the night before last? Hadn’t she done everything he’d asked her too, and then thought up a few more little tricks she thought might entertain him? He’d certainly acted like he appreciated her. And wanted her.
The strange woman sat in a chair near the fireplace, her head bowed, waist-length, brown hair falling over her back and shoulders. The hair gleamed in the light of many candles. Jessamine wondered what she put through it. No-one could have hair as glossy as that naturally.
The woman was wearing nothing but a shift, and an old, mended one at that.
A big wooden tub had been set up near the foot of the bed, and on the bed lay the most beautiful gown Jessamine had ever seen. Made of silk damask in a deep, rich red, ermine trimmed the neckline and the edges of the scarlet silk lined long, long sleeves. Next to it lay a shift, white as drifts of snow, edged with embroidery and drawn-thread work and tiny satin ribbons.
Jessamine would have died for the shift alone. It was an outfit good enough for a queen.
Or a Countess.
“You will disrobe and bathe in the water that has been brought for you!” the Count shouted at the woman. “And if you continue to refuse I will remove your shift and bathe you myself!”
“I bathe in my own home, in the privacy of my own room, with my maid present. No-one else,” she answered, her voice quiet and calm.
“You will allow my women to dress you in that garment!”
“Nor do I accept gifts of clothing, no matter how costly.”
The Count’s face was flushed. His mouth moved as though he were about to speak, but no sound came out.
“I will wear my own clothes, my lord Count.” The woman’s voice was so soft Jessamine could barely make out the words. “And I refuse to ever wear that gown!”
“You will!” he roared. Leaning over the woman and grabbing her upper arms he wrenched her up and out of the chair. Once she was standing he raised one hand as though to tear the patched and darned shift from her body.
Her hair fell back, revealing her face.
The woman was Lady Berenice.
“You!” screeched Jessamine. “What’re you doing here?”
Berenice freed herself from the Count’s hold and turned to face her.
“Perhaps you could direct that question to the Count,” snapped Berenice. “And by the way, I could ask you the same thing. We’ve had people out looking for you.”
“Don’t lie to me! I know you were glad to see the back of me. You hated me from the day I arrived!”
“Jessamine, that’s not true!”
The girl was across the room in an instant.
“You get everything you want, don’t you, you high born whore, while the rest of us have to grovel for your leavings.” She was mindless in her need for the revenge she’d planned in detail. Knowing her adversary was the Lady Berenice made the possibility of vengeance even sweeter. First she’d taken the troubadour from her, now she was stealing the Count.
Jessamine intended to destroy her, to rip that smug look from her face, to scar her so no man would want her ever again.
With a howl like a demon from hell she flew at Berenice, her fingers curled into claws.
The Count stepped between the two women.
“You will not harm the Countess.”
Countess. A single word destroyed all Jessamine’s hopes, all the fantasies constructed since he’d left the previous day. Her hands landed, ineffectually, on his chest.
“No,” she whimpered, “you can’t have married her, not her. You don’t know what she’s like! You don’t know about her and…”
“Enough, woman.” His huge hand clamped down upon her shoulder. He twisted her around so she was once more facing the door. “Get to your room. I’ll deal with you later.”
Jessamine, desperate to persuade him, turned back to him. “She’s not what she looks like! Please believe me!” she begged. “Everyone talks about her as though she’s a saint, but she’s not, I know, I saw.”
In reply the Count hauled her across the room. His grip hurt her arm, and her feet and legs banged against the furniture. At the entrance to the chamber he bellowed down the stairwell for his captain. Thomas must have been waiting close by, because he was there in seconds.
“Take this woman somewhere I don’t have to see her. Make sure she stays there.”
Jessamine was thrust into Thomas’s arms. The door to the Count’s chamber slammed shut behind her.
“Let go of me, oaf,” she spat.
He didn’t release her. If anything he tightened his hold, pressing her against his body.
“You don’t know how close you came to death just then,” he said, holding her chin in his hand and forcing her to look up at him. “The Count’s killed for less than being interrupted. Let me get you away from here before it’s too late,” he begged.
Her closeness was having the predictable effect on him. She wriggled a little, increasing the contact between them, enjoying his reaction. If the Count wasn’t available…
“Do you still want me for yourself then, Sir Thomas?” Perhaps she could turn this situation to her advantage.
“Let’s get you to your room.” Without releasing his hold on her arm he escorted her down to her chamber and closed the door behind them. She made no move to escape from his grasp.
“I loved you once, Jessamine. I betrayed my oath to my liege Lord to follow you. Let me get you away from here before it’s too late, while the Count’s attention’s occupied elsewhere.”
Jessamine had other ideas. She had no intention of leaving the Count. He might be annoyed with her at the moment, but he was still her path to wealth, to status, to power.
But it wouldn’t hurt to have an ally, just in case one was needed.
“Don’t you want me? Now?” Her dress had slid down a little further, and now her shoulders barely supported it. She saw his glance flicker downwards. She felt him stiffen even more. His hardness moved against her belly.
“Behave yourself, woman,” Thomas said, “I have to take a message to the Count. The priest’s been sighted.”
“To perform the blessing.”
“What are you saying? They’re not? She’s not?” Hope surged in Jessamine’s breast.
“They’re not married yet, no.”
“But he said…”
“The Count has a way, I’ve noticed, of assuming the rest of the world will fall in with his declarations. Lady Berenice is not yet his wife no matter how much he desires the union.”
Jessamine threw her arms around his neck and kissed him on the mouth.
“What’ve I done now?” he asked, a little dazed.
“There’s still a chance, Thomas. He may not marry her. Something could go wrong.”
“I think you’re grasping at straws there, girl. Once the Count decides he wants something that’s usually it for all concerned.”
“You said you loved me once, Thomas.”
“I did love you. And I care about you still…”
“Then promise me something.”
“It depends what it is.”
“If something does go astray with this wedding, promise me you’ll not stand in the way.”
“How can I promise you that? I’m the Count’s man, and you know it. Besides, the Count’s laid his plans with his customary attention to detail. She’ll be his wife, in all ways, before morning. Believe me.”
Jessamine ignored his protests. “Things sometimes don’t work out how people plan. Even when it’s the Count doing the planning. Would you do it for me? Would you promise?”
She let her body lean into his, feeling herself react to the big man’s closeness. She remembered the rippling muscles of his chest and back. How could she have ever thought the Count was well built?
He buried his face in the hollow between her breasts. She leaned back in his arms, wallowing in the sensations created by his lips and tongue. He left a trail of wet kisses up her neck until he found her mouth. His tongue, fat and thick, filled her. She remembered just what he could do with that tongue.
“I can’t promise you anything, Jessamine. The Count would kill us both if we defied him. But I’ll see what I can do when the time comes.”
She’d forgotten how arousing this big, blonde Englishman could be. Unable to find her voice, she nodded.
“Now, I must take this message to him. Stay here, where you’ll be safe. I’ll come for you when it’s all over, and I’ll take you away.”
He kissed her again, quickly, deeply, and was gone.
Chapter Twenty Nine
Thomas wasn’t happy. Again. As he’d discovered long ago spending his days in Fulk de Betizac’s milieu was not conducive to happiness.
Jessamine had made it clear she didn’t want the Count’s wedding to go ahead. Thomas didn’t entirely follow her reasoning, but he knew, for reasons of his own, he agreed with her. The bride showed a definite reluctance to proceed with the nuptials. Now Fate had decreed he would be the bearer of unhappy news yet again.
He rapped gently on the door to the Count’s chamber, opening it once he heard the answering call.
The bride wore the same blue dress she’d been wearing when he carried her unconscious body, ensconced in a sack, down the stairs of her tower, through the kitchens, and out the garden door to the waiting boat. In her own way she looked more like a queen in her own old, faded dress than most women would wearing the grand garment draped across the bed.
Her unbound hair flowed over her shoulders and down her back like a gleaming brown cape. Seeing her hair like that made him realize how young she was, not much more than a girl. Despite her pride and her aristocratic bearing she was more innocent and unworldly than Jessamine had ever been.
Yet she was a woman too, and a very beautiful one. Her deep blue eyes sparkled, her chin was held high. The Count, he suspected, would have his hands full if he succeeded in dragging this one to the altar. She was no coy little maid who would lean on a man’s arm and flutter her eyelashes adoringly.
Thomas sighed. A woman such as this was forever out of his reach. He would never have a great keep like this one. He’d be lucky if he kept body and soul together by selling his sword. A wife was a luxury he could ill afford.
“My lord Count,” he bowed, “the priest has arrived.” He hesitated, knowing the Count’s lack of tolerance for unexpected guests. “The priest is accompanied by some monks who are traveling with him on their way to Bordeaux.” The religious type of guests were the worst sort in the Count’s opinion.
But the prospect of his marriage must have mellowed him. “At last!” he answered. “Have the priest shown to the chapel. He can unpack later, I want to get this over with. Come, my dear,” he addressed the Lady, “we have a wedding to attend.” He held out his arm for her to hold.
“I have told you already, I’ll not marry you,” she stated, ignoring his arm, “And the sooner this priest is made aware of the fact, the better.”
Thomas held the door open for her.
“Where is the chapel?” she asked him.
“In the first floor of this tower, my Lady.”
“Would you be so good as to show me the way?”
“I would be honored, my Lady.” Thomas’s words were genuine, and he bowed.
The small procession set off down the stairs. Thomas led the way, Lady Berenice followed him, and the Count took up the rear.
Torches had been lit in the chapel. Despite the warmth of the season the room was cool. A dry, musty smell pervaded the air, and dust clung to the pews.
Near the altar three figures awaited them. The priest was a plump, jovial man whose vestments seemed a little tight for him. Two monks knelt in prayer, one at each side of him. Their hoods concealed their faces.
The Count took the Lady’s arm and led her to the front of the chapel.
“You will marry me,” he hissed.
“I will not,” she answered, clearly enough for all the occupants of the room to hear.
Thomas made a move to leave.
“Stay!” ordered the Count. “I would have you witness these proceedings.”
Thomas walked up the aisle, behind the couple, towards the waiting priest.
The Count came to a halt in front of the priest. His bride wrenched her hand free of his grasp but remained standing next to him. Thomas sat on the end of one of the pews, uncertain as to what was expected of him.
He noticed the monks were no longer praying. Their heads were still bowed, and they’d moved silently to each side of the chapel.
They were big men for monks, he thought, and they didn’t move like monks. They moved more like soldiers.
The priest intoned something in Latin.
“My lord Count,” Thomas whispered.
“Not now, man,” the Count answered.
“But, my Lord, the monks…”
“Leave it,” shot back the Count.
Thomas had done his duty. He’d tried to warn him. He couldn’t be held responsible for whatever happened next.
He listened to the priest’s monotone. He knew little Latin, and he doubted the Count did either. Fulk had told Thomas how much he despised book learning when they’d shared the old Lord’s room at Freycinet. He considered it not only a waste of time, but unmanly as well.
Thomas couldn’t see very much of the Lady’s face, but he could tell from her stance she was listening to everything the priest said. He even thought she might be smiling a little. And she hadn’t said a word to the priest about not marrying the Count.
The monks moved again. The taller one came to sit beside him on the pew. The shorter, wider one was on the opposite side of the aisle, nearer the Count.
Thomas swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. He turned in his seat a little so he could see more of the monk, perhaps even glimpse his features.
He wished he hadn’t. The bearded, scarred face was that of a man he’d seen quite recently, fighting the Count in Freycinet’s courtyard.
“I won’t insult your intelligence any more than I have to,” whispered the monk. “I have a dagger in my hand. I’d appreciate your continued silence. You’ll not be harmed, the Lady would disapprove.”
“You have my co-operation, if you wish it.” Thomas spoke quietly. He had been in the Count’s employ long enough. Perhaps he was being given an opportunity to redeem himself.
“Why?” The troubadour’s tone revealed his disbelief.
“I’d come to respect and admire the Lady by reputation. Now I’ve met her, I find her reputation does not do her justice.”
“You’ll not see her harmed?”
“No. I’ll help you, if I can.”
The priest’s voice rose and fell.
“But what of the consequences for you?” said the monk.
“I was planning on leaving soon, anyway. Would you do something for me?” answered Thomas.
“I know the Lady won’t let you kill him, but tie him up good and tight for me.”
“That sounds like something I’d enjoy doing.”
“Then you have my support.”
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to make it look as though you’re resisting. The other two won’t know of the change of plan.”
“Of course. What happens now?”
“We wait until Odo says the blessing.”
“But won’t they be married by then?”
“No. Berenice understands Latin. Odo’s been telling her that the soldier and the singer are here to help her, and she must wait until the time is right. Lots more along the same lines.”
Thomas grinned. “I thought his name was Gerhard!”
“It appears Father Gerhard was delayed at the monastery.”
Odo’s voice increased in volume. He made the sign of the cross over the couple, and then began a blessing. The other monk threw back his cassock, revealing a sword and a dagger, and another sword materialized from beneath the priest’s vestments.
Thomas stood, the troubadour’s dagger clearly visible, his empty hands displayed on defeat.
The Count found speech difficult. From the color of his face he was on the verge of expiring from anger alone.
“How dare you!” he spluttered. “You’ll never get out of here alive. Captain, my men…”
“I’m sorry, my Lord Count, but…” his captain answered.
“Fulk,” said the shorter monk, “we take back what’s ours.”
“Don’t kill him!” said Berenice. “I’m not harmed.”
“But, my Lady…” began the monk.
“Sir Gilbert,” she answered, “please, just take me home.”
“Let me dispose of this piece of garbage first, my Lady.”
“Then take him to his room,” she answered. “It’s on the top floor of the keep. Restrain him there and then we’ll make our escape.”
The procession returning up the stairs was a little longer than the one that had come down. Fulk was encouraged to lead, followed by Sir Gilbert, his sword extended. The troubadour and Thomas were next, and then Berenice, assisted by Odo.
They ripped cords from bed hangings and tapestries and used them to tie the Count to a the chair near the fireplace. As the troubadour had promised the knots were not intended for comfort. When they left him the Count’s face was purple with rage.
“The servants will find him, eventually,” said Thomas. He led the way down. “I’ll make sure you have time get out safely.
“Can we trust him?” Sir Gilbert asked of the troubadour.
“I believe so,” the man answered.
The priest produced another cassock, and the Lady pulled it on. No sign of her blue dress or her long, brown hair showed.
“Won’t it seem a little strange when two monks arrive and three leave?” asked the troubadour.
“Leave that to me,” answered Thomas.
They crossed the dimly lit courtyard without incident. At the gate Thomas took Jacques, the senior guard of the night watch, to one side.
“The monks and the priest are leaving now,” he said. “One of their number had been staying here, and he leaves with them.”
“I didn’t know we had a monk here.” Jacques’ tone was a little suspicious.
“He’s only a novice, a relative of one of the women who work in the kitchen I believe.”
“Why’re they leaving in the middle of the night? Can’t they wait until morning?”
“Some sort of vigil for the new novice, they said. Just let them through. I’ll vouch for them if there’s any trouble.”
“I’m glad it’s your neck and not mine,” answered Jacques. “Raise the portcullis!” he shouted up to the winch house.
As they weren’t in a state of open warfare with anyone at the moment the gates weren’t always closed at night. The priest and the three monks slipped out as soon as the portcullis was high enough to fit beneath. The smallest and slightest squeezed Thomas’s hand briefly as he passed.
“Thank you, and God bless you,” he whispered. He had an unusually sweet voice for a boy.
Thomas allowed himself the luxury of a smile.
“Let the portcullis down,” he boomed when the four figures were all safely on the other side. It wouldn’t be raised until morning now.
He had a busy night ahead.