The yellow glow of Thomas’s lantern brought out gold lights his bushy beard and yellow hair. Jessamine smiled and drew him through the doorway, into her room.
“What’s going on?” she asked. “I could hear footsteps on the stairs. You’ll be pleased to know I did as you said and stayed here.”
“The wedding’s off,” Thomas answered.
“Is it? Really?” She flung her arms around his neck and kissed him on the mouth, but as soon as she felt the beginnings of his response she drew back. That was enough, for now.
“The Lady’s gone,” he said.
“Gone? Left the castle? Left Betizac?” She could barely restrain the exhilaration rising within her.
He nodded. “We must leave too, at first light, when the portcullis is raised.”
“Leave! Us? Why?”
“It’s not safe for you here, Jessamine. Come with me, I beg you. I’ll make a life for you somehow. We don’t have to go to England if you don’t want to. There are the Italian states, Castile, even the Steppes of Russia or far Cathay. I’ll take you anywhere you like!”
“But the wedding’s off, you said.” She pulled herself out of his arms.
“It is, but I don’t see what that’s got to do with us.”
There is no ‘us’, she thought.
“Please Jessamine,” he said, glancing over his shoulder at the door, “you must make a decision. Do you come with me, or do you stay?”
“I’ll have to think about it,” she answered, “things have happened so quickly. I don’t know…”
“You have until dawn, Jessamine. That’s when I go.” He turned on his heel and left, slamming the door behind him.
He still wants me, she thought, and he could be useful. Perhaps I should leave with him. I’d have a protector, and the big man is exciting in his own way.
But what about the Count? And all her hopes and dreams? Berenice had gone, there was no-one in the way now. The Count would be angry at Berenice, not her. She could be the one to console him in his hour of need.
Dressed only in her shift, her feet bare as he liked them, she took the candle from her bed side and climbed the stairs to the Count’s room. No-one answered when she knocked, so she gently pushed open the door.
The remains of a few candles spluttered in the candelabras, sending demonic shadows flickering around the room. She hesitated. A muffled sound drew her attention to the fireplace.
Fulk was there, gagged and tied to a chair.
Jessamine tiptoed across the room. He was awake, she could see. His eyes were open, his fingers struggled against his bonds.
She removed the gag first.
“Untie me, woman!”
Tenderly, she wiped the spittle from his chin. She could see great possibilities in this situation.
“Ooh, Count, don’t you like sitting there, all tied up like a goose ready for the oven?” She circled his chair, letting her fingers trail over his chest and his back.
“Jessamine, get me out of these bonds – now!”
“Don’t you find it a bit exciting?” she purred into his ear. “You tied up? And me here? Why, I could do anything I liked! And you know what I like, Count, don’t you?”
“Not now!” The Count looked as though he might explode.
“And which knots do you want me to untie first?” she answered, her fingers playing with the laces on his leggings. “These ones?”
He cursed her most foully.
“Really Count Fulk,” she mocked, “And here I am, about to make your imprisonment very pleasant for you. And for me too, of course.” Licking her lips she lowered her head into his lap and set to work. Soon she had the response she desired. She felt his body relax a little.
“That’s better Count. Why don’t we just enjoy ourselves?” she said, standing up in front of him. Raising her shift, she lowered herself onto his waiting erection and wrapped her legs around his waist.
“Ooh, Count, I know what we both like, don’t I?” She rocked herself back and forth, lost in the sensations coursing through her body, ignoring Fulk’s continuing protests. Already aroused by the memory of his hardness in her mouth, only a short time later her climax began to tear through her body.
He’s stopped cursing, she noticed.
“Ooh, Count, you feel good, you really do,” she said, still feeling the glow of her climax.
He’d freed his hands somehow while she’d been busy with other things.
“Now, woman, untie my feet,” he answered.
With one hand he clutched a great hank of her hair. In the other he held a long, slender dagger.
The tip pierced the skin at her throat. Through the corner of her eye she could see a trickle of blood running into the neckline of her shift.
Somehow she managed to move off his lap. The hand holding her hair pushed her to the floor, but the knife never wavered from her throat. The cut he’d made while she was in the throes of orgasm began to hurt.
“Count, please,” she whimpered.
“Untie my feet, slut.”
Her hands shook badly, and she fumbled with the knots. She found out his feet were free when one of them lashed out, aimed at her jaw. She ducked, and most of the blow went astray. The force was still enough to knock her to the boards.
“On the bed,” he ordered, wrapping the end of one his bonds around his fist.
She scuttled over to the bed, climbed up on it, and lay ready for him.
“No,” he said, “over. On your knees.”
She obeyed. Waiting, unable to do more than sense his approach, she trembled with fear.
“That’s better, slut,” he said. The cord lashed out, a branding iron across her buttocks and her still-swollen genitals. She howled.
“Now that’s a sound I like to hear.”
She felt the bed move as he climbed on behind her.
“What a silly slut you are,” he said, his voice almost affectionate. “You were jealous, weren’t you?” He rammed into her, hard. She’d had no time to brace herself, and fell face down, almost smothering in the furs. His heavy body pressed her into the bed.
He talked, his tone pleasant and matter-of-fact, punctuated by increasingly brutal thrusts.
“If you ever.” Thrust. “Do that again.” Thrust. “I’ll cut you.” Thrust. “Into tiny pieces.” Thrust. “I’d have kept you.” Thrust. “A wife’s for.” Thrust. “Bearing sons and.” Thrust. “Gaining land.” Thrust. “You should have.” Thrust. “Known that.” Thrust.
There was more, much more. How he’d been watching Berenice since she was a young girl. How he wanted her, a true aristocrat, whose lineage could be traced back to Charlemagne. How he took her on the forest floor all those years ago, but her father palmed her off onto someone else. How Berenice was his and only his by right of his taking her maidenhead. How he was going back to Freycinet to get her, with all his men, as soon as there was light enough to see by.
It was all Berenice, Berenice, Berenice.
Jessamine wondered how she could stand any more. He raised himself onto his knees, and pulled her up, still impaled upon him. He ground on. She thought she might vomit or faint, until he dealt her another stinging blow across the buttocks, this time with the flat of his hand. She wailed with the pain and humiliation of it all. Her distress seemed only to spur him on.
Finally, clutching her buttocks with claw-like hands, he thrust into her one last shuddering time, moaned, and collapsed onto the bed.
Jessamine lay still, sobbing quietly, frightened to move in case the Count did not wish it. The sound of snoring told her he had fallen asleep.
Cautiously she rolled onto her back. She lay still for a while, watching the patterns made by the guttering candles on the canopy above the bed. Every joint hurt. Her bottom protested even at the soft touch of the furs. The place where he’d cut her neck still stung. Between her legs she bled as badly as if her time of the month had come.
She wondered if she would ever be able to enjoy a man again.
She’d been misused before. Even the Count was a bit rough, before tonight. She always found that in some strange way, she enjoyed a bit of mishandling. It added a bit of spice, made things more interesting.
But not this, never like this.
He’d used her like he hated her, like he wanted to cause her pain. Like he could only enjoy it if he did.
She had the urge to vomit again.
But one thing hurt more than all the others, far more than any physical agony. He wanted Berenice for a wife. Jessamine hated the woman, hated her more than anyone she’d ever met. She swore somehow, some way, she’d avenge herself upon her.
He’d never intended to marry Jessamine. He hadn’t cared if she bore his bastards. She was nothing more than bed sport to him. Just like all the others.
He snored on.
She sat up in the bed, careful of her many bruises. He hadn’t even bothered to take off his leggings, she thought in disgust. His flaccid penis lay, a discolored sausage, lolling out of his lacings.
She edged to the end of the bed. Still he snored.
His knife lay on the beautiful Persian rug. He must have dropped it when he beat her with the rope.
She looked at him, his head thrown back on the pillow, his stained clothes in disarray.
Cut you into tiny pieces, he’d said.
She’d see about that.
He stirred, and she watched him, tensing, afraid he might be awakening. He mumbled something and slept on. Flecks of her blood still clung to his penis.
As silently as an adder sliding through summer grass Jessamine slipped off the bed. She picked up the Count’s knife. She weighed it in her hand. It was long, and thin, and very, very sharp.
She started at his throat.
Chapter Thirty One
Esme waited in the forest not far from Betizac, the horses grazing nearby. She ran to Gilbert as soon as the small party came into view. He kissed her tenderly and stroked her cheek.
“It’s alright, my dear,” he said. “We had some unexpected assistance in the form of the Count’s captain. Everything went as planned, in fact, better than we’d expected.”
Esme hugged Berenice next.
“What a dreadful garment for a Lady to be wearing,” she exclaimed.
Berenice laughed. “This habit saved me, Esme. Be kinder to it, it can’t help being old and tattered.”
The two women embraced again, tears in their eyes.
“And the draught that man made you drink, did it make you ill?”
“No, Esme,” answered Berenice, “I slept, that’s all.” But she remembered the strange sensations she experienced in the Count’s room. Were they connected to the sleeping draught? Did potions like that exist?
It wasn’t something she could discuss with Esme now, here. They might still be followed if someone had discovered the Count.
Despite her anxieties Gilbert insisted they take their time returning to Freycinet.
“It wouldn’t do for one of us to have an accident after going to all that trouble to get the Lady back, now would it?” he said.
The horses walked the forest paths at a steady pace, picking their way over the bumps and ridges of the road, until they reached Pontville. After that, the moon was up, the way was clearer, and they could let their mounts stretch their legs a little.
I’m safe, Berenice thought, I’m safe, I’m free, they came for me. Gareth came for me!
She rode astride, her gown and the monk’s habit spread out around her. The mare moved between her thighs as they raced along in the moonlight. The movement brought back memories of the events at Betizac.
Her self exploration had awoken something within her, something strong, and powerful, and wonderful. Had the Count watched while that great surge of pleasure rose within her? Now she knew the role he played in her life, she almost hoped he had. It would be justice, in a way, if he desired her and had not taken her when he could have.
Gareth rode at her right hand. She could see little of him save his outline, but she could sense his presence, his quiet strength. She smiled in the darkness. Soon, she would be with him. Soon, she would be free to express her love for him. The demon of Fulk’s foul act was exorcised, and no barrier remained to separate her from the man she loved.
No-one would expect a widow to be a virgin, she reasoned. May God forgive me for what I am about to do.
Behind them rode Gilbert and Esme. Odo, a little uncomfortable on a horse instead of a mule, brought up the rear.
The silvered silhouette of Freycinet came into view. Berenice thought she’d never seen a more beautiful sight. When they rode into the courtyard a crowd of well-wishers greeted her, despite the late hour. After they dismounted some-one offered to take care of the horses. Everyone was there: Marie and her Reginald, the huge blacksmith; Robert and his apprentices; the carpenter and his family; all those who lived in the castle, she was sure, and many from Pontville, and the other villages as well.
“Welcome home,” they shouted. “Welcome back.”
“Thank you,” she answered, tears of joy on her cheeks. “Thank you.” Her hands were gripped, her shoulders touched, her cheeks kissed.
“Forgive me,” she said at last, “I must go now. but I’ll still be here tomorrow, and the next day, and the next!”
A cheer went up from the crowd.
“Forgive me, my friends,” she repeated.
“Can’t you see the Lady’s tired?” asked Esme. “Now, let me see her to her bed.”
Her people drifted away one by one, still chattering, to their own beds. It was a like a feast day revel, everyone happy and full of hope for the future.
“Gareth,” said Berenice. “Where’s Gareth?”
“I’m here, my Lady.”
He was, and now his hand held hers. He raised it to his lips and brushed a kiss across the back of it. She didn’t need daylight to see the desire burning in the depths of his soft, grey eyes. She could feel it in the touch of his hand, in his nearness.
“Come, my Lady, we’d best get you to your room.” Esme was determined to take her duties seriously tonight.
“Esme,” said Berenice, “I can manage.”
“Nonsense,” the maid answered, “Gilbert, Gareth, help us! The Lady’s been through a terrible experience. We’ll need your assistance to help her to her chamber.”
The two men escorted the women across the courtyard, up the stairs, and through the door of her chamber. Berenice could see little point to it as long as Gareth was there. All she wanted and needed was him.
Esme brought a taper and lit the other candles from it, on the little table next to her bed, on the chest, on the mantelpiece. Then she and Gilbert seemed to melt away into the night, leaving her alone with Gareth.
“What was that about?” Berenice asked Gareth.
“I believe your faithful maid realized it wouldn’t do for everyone in the castle to see you departing to your room accompanied only by your troubadour.”
“Oh!” said Berenice. “I hadn’t thought of that!” She giggled. “I’ve little experience in this sort of thing.”
“I know, my Lady,” he answered, drawing her into the circle of his arms. “Would you like me to leave too?”
Leave? How could she possibly want him to go? Since waking in the Count’s bed she’d thought of little else but him.
“No,” she said, turning her face up to his, “I don’t want to you leave.” I never want you to leave, she thought, I want to spend the rest of my life in your arms.
He accepted the invitation of her parted lips. His kiss was gentle at first, and tentative. His lips moved upon hers, and she let herself open up to him, enjoying the sensations of his mouth on hers, of the soft brush of his beard on her cheeks, of the mingling of their breaths.
He slid his tongue between her parted lips. She found she could do the same and touched his tongue with her own. Something rippled through her and augmented the ache deep in her belly. Despite that one moment of release the ache had never completely left her. It stirred into life, a fire left dormant, now refueled.
Her arms had encircled his neck when he’d first kissed her. Now she explored his body with her hands, felt his broad shoulders, his strength, all his restrained male power. She could feel the thud of his heart and the growing hardness further down. Now she understood what it was, it no longer alarmed her. She knew he was reacting to her in the same way his touch and his kisses set her afire and started the hot moisture flowing within her.
The heat in her body grew, far stronger than it had been in the Count’s chamber. The pressure of her clothes on her skin was torture. But more than that, she wanted to see him naked, to know if he were as beautiful as she remembered from the day at the river.
Her hands trembled as she struggled with the large metal buckle on the belt of his tunic.
“Berenice,” he murmured, breaking free of their kiss, “are you sure?”
“Sure?” she answered, kissing him again.
“There’s something,” he kissed her, “I must tell you.”
“Will it stop you,” she asked, answering his kiss with her own, “loving me?”
“No,” he answered, kissing her brow, her temple, and working his way down her cheek to her throat, “nothing would. Nothing could.”
“Then love me, Gareth.” Her head fell back. His kisses stopped at the neckline of her dress. “Whatever it is, you can tell me tomorrow.”
Chapter Thirty Two
Gareth’s fingers shook almost as much as Berenice’s had as he undid the ties at the neck of her dress and the shift beneath it. She stepped out of her garments while he undid the buckle of his belt. He let it fall to the floor, and with one swift movement pulled his tunic over his head.
He was truly magnificent, she thought, lean and strong like a well-bred stallion. His scars only added to his rugged beauty, emphasizing that he was as much a fighting man as a lover.
She ran her hands up each side of his chest, fascinated by the contrast of the textures of his body. The diamond of hair on his chest was soft like his beard. His brownish nipples were small and hard, and she delayed there a little, playing with them, drawing a sigh of appreciation from his lips. The bumps and ridges of his scars were different again, but some of his skin was surprisingly smooth.
She could spend a lifetime exploring his body, she decided.
Meanwhile he watched her, his eyes dark in the candlelight.
“Let me see you,” he said, holding her at arm’s length. She felt his gaze travel over her as surely as if he touched her.
“You are so beautiful,” he whispered.
Taking his hand she led him to the bed. He sat on the edge of it and rid himself of his leggings and boots in a few deft movements.
“So are you,” she answered, standing on front of him. And he was. His imperfections only added to his beauty, but most of all the marvelous love light shone in his eyes as he gazed back at her.
His big, rough hands moved over her, exploring her as she’d done him. Under his touch some parts of her body were more sensitive than others. Every time he discovered one of these special places she wanted to tell him.
But the power of speech had fled. She could only moan, deep in her throat, when his fingers brushed the sides of her breasts.
He drew her closer, standing her between his thigh, then used his lips and teeth to torment her nipples. The sensation was sweet agony. A river of fire raced through her body before settling deep in her belly.
He trailed his kisses down, across her midriff, before pausing a moment at her navel, circling it with his tongue, sending shivers of delight coursing through her. Next, the small mound of her belly received his thorough ministrations. She dug her fingers into his hair, certain her legs would give way beneath her.
Grasping her around the waist he picked her up and laid her on the bed. Without thinking she separated her legs. He lay between them and started again where he’d left off, kissing his way down her belly to the hollow of her groin. He found another place on the inside of her thighs that set the tremors racing through her again.
Her legs parted even further and gave his mouth access to those special, sensitive, secret places. No feat of her imagination could have prepared her for the reality of his lips and tongue exploring her most intimate parts.
His tongue discovered the same destination her finger had found not long before and he stroked it like a feline. The slight roughness, his moist mouth, the knowledge that it was Gareth doing these things to her all added to the wonderful sensations. She felt them unite, then build into one cataclysmic reaction.
Her back arched. Every muscle in her body tensed and relaxed. She cried out, a shout of pure triumph. The feeling was akin to the one she first experienced in Fulk’s bed, but was as unlike it as a gentle summer shower is from the raging storms of winter.
She felt languorous and lazy but incomplete still. There was more to come, more she needed to know, to experience.
Gareth lay on the bed beside her and caressed her while she drifted down from her small cloud of satisfaction. She smiled up at him, and he kissed her. His kisses tasted different now, and she knew it was the flavor of her own moisture on his lips and beard. The thought excited her again.
“Gareth,” she said, looking into his eyes, “I want you, in every way. I want you inside me.”
The need for him to fill her grew stronger with every passing moment. She ran her hands over his chest, down the smooth places beneath his arms, over his hips. She wanted to touch him, to touch the part of him he’d brought as his own gift to her.
It was magnificent, standing strong and proud. A droplet of moisture clung to the small opening in its smooth, rounded head. One day, she promised herself, I’ll use my mouth to bring him pleasure as he did to me. But for now the dreadful need, building in her since she’d woken in Betizac, demanded completion.
She wrapped one leg around him, drawing him down to her, desperate to feel him inside.
“There may be some pain, my love,” he said, “but I’ll do my best to make it brief.” He kissed her tenderly.
No, she wanted to say, there won’t be any pain, only joy between you and I. The time for pain has passed. But her desire was so strong, her need for him so complete, she couldn’t speak.
Supporting himself on one elbow he guided his shaft into her. Unable to stand the slowness she moved her hips and brought him in. Once again her imagination had fallen far short of the reality. The feeling was so wonderful, so full, so complete she cried out again.
“Did I?” he asked, concern written on his face.
“Don’t stop,” she managed to gasp, “please don’t stop.”
He didn’t. Softly, cautiously, gently, he moved within her. Soon she could feel the storm clouds gathering within her again. She moved her hips in time with him, taking his lead. Each movement, each thrust and counter-thrust set the thunderheads rising.
She clung to him, calling his name in a mindless chant over and over again. Lightening flashed, the storm within her burst, and she cried out. This time, instead of falling back to the earth, the feeling mounted, taking her up until she reached her climax again. And again. And again.
She became aware of a change in his movements. His thrusts were more urgent, more intense, as he buried himself deeper and deeper within her. He grimaced as though in pain and let go a hoarse cry of his own.
They floated back to the bed together, a tangle of arms and legs.
He kissed her, and he held her, and their hearts beat in unison.
Bright sunlight woke them.
Berenice looked at Gareth with fresh eyes. She was a new woman, fulfilled, whole, ready for anything the future might hold. All because of this marvelous man, and the love they’d made together, many times, during the night.
They kissed, gently. His mouth was familiar now, but still those feelings raced through her when his tongue brushed against hers.
“I must see Gilbert,” Gareth said, later. “the Count may come here and demand your return.”
She released him, knowing he was right. He found his clothes, shrugged into them, and stood by the window silhouetted in the morning light.
Berenice found her shift on the floor. Untangling it, she slipped it over her head. She would bathe and put on her gown later.
She followed him to the window and stood behind him, leaning on his broad back, her arms around his waist. She couldn’t remember when she’d last felt so content.
The sounds of morning drifted up from the courtyard and beyond. The fair was still in progress, Reginald’s hammer struck a note in the smithy, Robert shouted at an apprentice. Her little world was at peace.
She felt Gareth stretch and turned in her arms. “What’s this?” he asked, holding out the ring Fulk had given her.
She must have placed it on the chest beneath the window the previous night. She couldn’t remember clearly. Parts of the day before were blurred, as though remembered from a dream.
“The Count gave it to me yesterday. It was my late husband’s.”
Gareth turned it over and over, fascinated by it.
“Look,” she said. “It has our coat of arms.”
“I can see,” he said.
Something in the tone of his voice disturbed her. She looked up at his face, but the light from the window was behind him, and she couldn’t read his expression.
“How did the Count come to have it, do you know?” he asked.
“No.” She shook her head. “I think he said a friend gave it to him. He gave it to me as a betrothal present.”
“Did he.” It wasn’t a question. Gareth’s demeanor changed. The arm holding her close dropped away. She felt a sudden chill and moved away from him.
“Gareth, it proves my husband’s dead.” She’d meant to say, it proves I’m a widow.
“Do you want it?” she asked. “It’s yours, a gift. I don’t want it any more.” She turned away, looking for her gown.
“It reminds me of a time I’d rather forget,” she answered. That whole part of my life, she thought. The Count’s rape, the hasty marriage soon after. How convenient poor Huon had been. If Fulk had left her pregnant the child would have been passed off as his.
“I will accept your gift, in that case, my Lady.” He bowed, rather formally, and slid the ring onto the middle finger of his right hand.
It fitted perfectly.
“My Lady,” he said and bowed. “Forgive me. There’s something I must do.” In a few strides he was out of the door.
The room was very empty after he’d gone. Berenice watched Gareth ride out of the courtyard from the window. She wondered where he could possibly be going, and in such haste.
He hadn’t even kissed her goodbye.
Chapter Thirty Three
Fulk was the only person on Huon’s mind when he strode across the courtyard to the stable and asked for a horse to be saddled. After stopping briefly at Gil’s to collect his sword he set out for Betizac.
His thoughts raced as he rode. How did the Count come to possess his ring? What had Fulk told Berenice to give her reason to believe the ring proved her husband’s death?
Berenice, he thought. It had not been the way to leave a Lady after a night of tender lovemaking.
Berenice, his Lady of contradictions. An innocent by day, a siren, a vixen, a houri by night. She’d welcomed him into her body with gentle caresses and sweet kisses. All her hesitancy vanished like mist in the morning.
Fulk, he reminded himself, wanting to concentrate on the problem at hand. What was Fulk’s connection with the battle?
Huon had last worn the ring, given to him by his mother at his marriage, at Hattin. When woken in the slave traders’ camp the ring was gone, taken, he’d always believed, by the slavers.
Berenice. Her warm and welcoming body, her cries of ecstasy. Twice more in the night she’d woken him and used her lips and her hands to arouse him. She wrapped her agile body around his, demanding her own release, bringing him to his.
There’d not been the resistance he expected when he first entered her. No blood stained the sheets this morning.
She’d not been a virgin, after all.
Gil had sworn, months ago, when Huon first arrived at Freycinet, Berenice never took another man to her bed in all the years he was gone. Gill would know, because Esme would know.
Was that the reasoning behind the farce of their wedding night? She hadn’t been a virgin then, so rather than let him find out she pretended to threaten to stab herself?
Was Berenice capable of such guile?
He remembered the woman he spent last the night with. So innocent and sweet her kisses were that day in the river, and on the hill above the castle, and again in the forest. The woman of last night with was barely the same person. She led him to the bed, she made sure he knew how much she desired him. She was not an innocent.
And she was not a virgin.
How she must have laughed when he said he would make sure the pain would not be too bad. How amusing it must have been those times she kissed him, feigning innocence, drawing him steadily into her trap like any spider would a fat, juicy fly. He didn’t enjoy being a fly.
What had changed? The answer was clear: she now believed herself a widow, free to share her favors and her bed with her troubadour. The need for subterfuge had ended.
The turrets of Betizac came into view above the trees. Only now, his temper cooled, did he consider it might not be wise to ride up to Fulk and demand to know the source of his ring.
But he’d been sighted by a guard on one of the towers who shouted to someone below. Huon kept on the path to the castle, every sense alert, his left hand gripping the reins, his right hovering near the pommel of his Viking broadsword, strapped to the saddle.
The gates were open wide, the portcullis raised. Fulk’s tall English captain waited in the entrance, alone.
“I’ve come to see the Count,” said Huon.
“Have you now,” replied the captain. “Have you broken your fast yet today?”
“No, I haven’t,” said Huon, thinking it a strange greeting.
“Well then, join me while I break mine. Dismount, and I’ll see your horse is tended.”
Huon swung out of the saddle. He glanced at his sword, unwilling to be without it.
“You’ll not be needing that,” said the Englishman. He beckoned to the boy who came running, and the youth led the horse away. This man had aided them last night. There was no reason for Huon to think he might betray him now.
Huon followed the man up a flight of stairs near the gate to a comfortably furnished room. A jug of ale, a round loaf, and a slab of cheese were spread out on a table beneath the window.
“You’re welcome to share,” said the captain, nudging a three-legged stool to the table with his foot, making himself comfortable, and ripping the loaf apart with massive hands. “Now, tell me, what’s so important you come riding in here, alone, demanding to see the Count?”
Huon spotted another stool and discovered he had an appetite for breakfast.
“This is my reason,” he stated, extending his right hand. The ring gleamed in the morning light, its intricate details catching the rays.
“Ah,” said the captain, “it’s yours, then.” He wolfed down another chunk of cheese.
“Yes,” said Huon, “it’s mine. My name is Huon de Fortescue et de Freycinet.”
“In that case, I suppose I should address you as ‘my Lord’.” He drained a tankard of ale. “You’ll be wanting to know how the Count came to be in possession of your ring.”
Huon nodded, and drank his own ale.
“The Count can’t tell you.”
The captain ignored Huon’s question. “I’ll tell you what he told me last winter when the old Lord died. In a nutshell, he paid someone to kill you, to make it look as though you died in battle. Hattin, wasn’t it?”
“A bad business, that fight.”
“My men were all killed, good men, men I’d known since childhood, grown into manhood with.”
The captain shook his head in sympathy.
“I’ve always believed I was responsible in some way.”
“You weren’t. Your palfrey’s harness was sabotaged. The Count’s man took your ring as evidence you were dead.”
“The stranger! The one I thought helped me. He came from nowhere. I had believed he defended me while I fought my way back to my men.” Huon relived the memories, the scenes flashing before him as though it had been yesterday. “I saw a Saracen out of the corner of my eye. I’d always thought it was he who dealt me this blow.”
He touched the scar on his face. “But it must have been the stranger. After all this time…
“You must take me to Fulk. On this basis I can challenge him.”
He got to his feet and looked around for his sword, before remembering it was with his horse.
“Finish your breakfast, my Lord.” The captain munched contentedly. “Some people say your stomach should be empty before you see a sight like the one I’m about to show you. Me, I believe you should have something to heave on. Gives your guts something to do.”
Huon could see this man would not be moved until his stomach was full. Taking his seat again he filled a spare tankard with ale and resigned himself to waiting.
Chapter Thirty Four
The captain finished his breakfast before he leading the way down the stairs and across the courtyard. Sounds of laughter and raucous singing came from an open doorway. Two men, a woman supported between them, staggered across the yard to the guard room near the gate. To Huon they looked drunk despite the early hour.
He followed the captain up the keep stairs until they reached Fulk’s door. It was ajar, and a strange sound, half laughter, half sobbing, came from within the room.
“Hold onto your breakfast, my Lord,” said the captain, and pushed the door open.
The smell reached Huon first. It was the smell of the battlefield, warm blood and excrement, but made a thousand times stronger by being indoors and behind closed windows. Blood, a great deal of blood, pooled in the rich carpets, dripped from the carvings around the fireplace, matted the fur coverlets, and trickled down the body of the girl sitting on the bed. It caked her hair and glued her shift to her body.
“We think most of it’s his,” the captain stated, “but we can’t get close enough to her to find out.”
“But, Fulk…” Before the words were out of his mouth he knew the answer. What was left of Count Fulk de Betizac was scattered around the room.
“Who?” Huon asked.
“The girl. Jessamine.”
“She did this?”
“So it seems. He had a knife he kept in a scabbard in his boot. We believe she used that.”
“What’re you going to do with her?” asked Huon.
“I don’t know. Some of the others want me to kill her, but they respect her too. Mad as she is, she did what none of us were brave enough to do.”
“You can’t leave her there, like that.”
“I know. Any ideas?”
“There’s a convent about a day’s ride from here, towards Bordeaux, St. Bernadette’s. Do you know it?”
“I think so, yes.”
“You could ask the nuns to take care of her. Did the Count leave any heirs?”
“None that I know of.”
“When I get back to Freycinet I’ll arrange for a donation to be sent to the nuns.”
“That’s settled then,” the captain sighed. “Now all we have to do is get her there.”
“Good luck, captain,” said Huon. “You’re going to need it.” He turned to leave.
“Gareth!” wailed the figure on the bed.
“She knows you? I thought you said your name was Huon,” said the captain.
“I was the troubadour at Freycinet for a while. Gareth was the name I used,” answered Huon.
“It’s the first time today she’s recognized anyone.” The big man placed his hand on Huon’s shoulder. “Stay, please. Help me get her to the convent.”
“I can’t, I’m sorry. I have business at Freycinet.” “Gareth!” she cried again and began to sob. “Don’t leave me!”
“No-one here will help me with her,” said the captain. “If you leave they’ll probably kill her.”
“Gareth, please,” Jessamine sobbed.
It wasn’t her plaintive wailing that made up his mind so much as the force of the captain’s argument. The mad, it was said, deserved our mercy and compassion. He couldn’t leave her here to be torn apart by a drunken mob. And maybe he owed the captain for his assistance in Berenice’s rescue.
“Very well,” replied Huon. “I’ll give you a hand.”
“Let’s get her cleaned up first. We can’t take her to the nuns like that.”
Huon approached the bed, his boots squelching on the carpets. Great fat tears rolled down Jessamine’s face, but she giggled the closer he came. Eventually he could reach out his hand. She put an ice-cold hand in his. Her trembling surprised him at first, until he realized her whole body was shaking slightly.
“Come, Jessamine. It’s time for you to leave here.”
“Sir Thomas is taking me, you know.” She sounded almost normal. Was Sir Thomas the English captain?
“I’m afraid you’re going to have to bathe first.”
She looked down at her blood-soaked shift.
“Yes,” she said and climbed down from the bed.
“We’ll take her to the laundry,” said the captain.
“You’re Thomas?” asked Huon.
“Yes. Sir Thomas Archer, at your service. My apologies, I should have introduced myself earlier. But circumstances being what they are…” He indicated the charnel house of a room.
Jessamine had shrunk away when Thomas went to touch her so he went on ahead to ready the women who ran the laundry. Huon held Jessamine’s hand and led her carefully down the stairs and across the yard, following Thomas’s directions.
They stood together in front of a huge, steaming tub.
“We have to get her out of the shift,” Huon said. The ties were matted together. Thomas drew his knife, intending to cut the garment from her body.
“No-o-o-o!” The thin, pitiful sound started the hairs rising on the back of Huon’s neck.
“Get behind her, Thomas, where she can’t see the knife.”
Thomas nodded. They were able to get the garment off her without her being able see the blade, and Huon helped her into a huge, steaming tub. The women had left soap and a rough cloth to wash her with. The men set to work, Thomas behind her, Huon at the front. The girl shook like a leaf in autumn gales.
Huon had seen many gruesome sights in his travels, but Jessamine was in a bad way. He wondered how she’d managed to keep body and soul together. Her skin was a mass of purple bruises and scratches, and a deep cut marred the base of her throat.
“Look at this,” whispered Thomas, and showed Huon the lines of the lash across her buttocks.
She had barely a patch of skin unmarked in some way.
They persuaded her to sit in the warm water, and washed her hair. Thomas asked one of the women for a comb, and while Huon held her hands, he gently untangled her knotted tresses.
Her trembling abated a little in the warm water. They helped her out of the bath and dried her off with the cloths left for the purpose. A dark trail on the insides of her thighs had them confused.
“Women tie rags there, don’t they? Has she got her monthly flow?” said Thomas.
“No, I think it’s what Fulk did to her,” answered Huon. “Jessamine,” he said, and a spark of recognition gleamed briefly in her eyes. “You must tie some rags on yourself, you’re bleeding.”
She nodded, and taking the cloths, bound them around herself.
The girl let them dress her without protest. Thomas found a shift and a dress the women had left. Although the garments were old, too loose, and too short, and made of rough, brown, undyed cloth they were clean and serviceable. Old but sturdy boots went onto her feet. They tied a kerchief over her hair to keep it from her face.
Death was too good for a man like Fulk, Huon thought. It was too clean, too simple. He hoped the Count was roasting over a slow fire in hell for the pain he’d inflicted, not only on this girl, but many others.
Jessamine reminded him of a bitch whipped once too many times. She stood where they’d dressed her, her head hanging. She’d been a nuisance most of the summer, but he preferred that to this shell of a girl who shook at the sight of a knife or the sound of a word spoken too harshly.
He hoped the nuns would take good care of her.
Thomas brought Huon’s horse and his own out of the stables. A bundle was strapped to the back of his saddle.
“I was leaving anyway, at first light,” Thomas explained. “You may remember. If we take her up before us, turn and turn about, you won’t have to bring a horse back here later.”
Huon agreed, and they set out, Jessamine in front of Thomas. She’d lost some of her fear of him when he’d helped bathe her. Now she leaned on him a little.
The day passed uneventfully. Huon wondered whether it was really necessary for him to be there, but then, what was another two or three days when he had eight lost years to make up for?
The voices of his dead men were silent now. The information Thomas had given him had convinced him Fulk was to blame for the events at Hattin. He may not have wielded the sword that scarred Huon’s face, he may not have killed Huon’s men, but his evil influence had been behind it all.
Now he could return to Freycinet and reclaim his name and his rights.
But did he want to? The man who’d wandered most of the known world for eight years was tempted to join Thomas and seek more adventures in the legendary lands of Cathay and Africa. He’d heard the Vikings speak of another land, vast and wealthy beyond imagining, on the far side of Iceland.
His father had married him to Berenice de Freycinet. Huon made promises to her and to her father which he was bound to keep. He could no longer plead his guilt and unworthiness as a knight now he knew that, in the deaths of his men, he was blameless.
He was bound by duty to return to Berenice, even though he now suspected she’d betrayed him, and their vows, with another man.
They made good time, and camped for the night beneath an oak in a copse not more than a few hour’s ride from the convent. Huon lit a fire while the Englishman took his bow and hunted their supper. In no time at all two fat rabbits were roasting on a spit.
Jessamine had barely spoken all day. She sat now, her back against a tree trunk, her eyes unfocussed. Sometimes she would weep a little, and then she would giggle. Huon wasn’t sure which was worse. At the moment she was silent.
She ate some food, mechanically, as though it meant little to her whether she ate or not.
Thomas took the first watch. Bandits lived in these forests, and neither of them were certain Jessamine wouldn’t stray in the night.
Huon slept deeply despite the hardness of the ground. In his dreams he saw Berenice. She ran from him, and the more he tried to catch her, the further away she appeared. He was relieved when Thomas woke him.
“It’s a few hours until dawn, by my guess. I’ll get some sleep if you’ll keep a lookout,” said the Englishman.
Huon nodded, sat up, and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. He threw another piece of wood on the fire and prodded it into life. Thomas’s snores soon filled the clearing. The moon had set, but the stars were bright in the clear sky above. A cow lowed in a field, then all was quiet.
“He loved her, you see, not me.”
Jessamine’s voice startled Huon. He’d reached for his dagger before he realized what it was.
She was sitting up, leaning against the tree trunk where they’d left her the previous evening.
“He loved her. He wanted to marry her. He bought her the most beautiful dress I’ve ever seen. He didn’t even bring me anything from the fair. He didn’t want me, nor my children. I wanted to give him sons, lots of big, strong sons.”
The tears sparkled on her cheeks in the firelight.
“That’s why I had to kill him. To stop her. I couldn’t let her have him.”
She watched Huon across the fire.
“You love her too, don’t you?”
“Berenice?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, “The Lady. She was his lover too, you know. He told me. They met in the forest. He was her first.” She was crying harder, sobbing openly. “I wish he’d been my first! All those others, none of them mattered, not even him.” She glanced at Thomas. “He said he loved me once too, you know.”
She droned on and on, about the lovers she’d had, what they’d done to her, what she’d done to them, all in intimate detail. Her language became more and more foul, more and more descriptive.
Huon heard little of it. Fulk and Berenice. Was it true? Jessamine had no reason to lie about it. She’d said it was her reason for killing Fulk.
Fulk and Berenice.
Berenice and Fulk.