Chapter Thirty Five
The days crept by as slowly as leper. The people who had come for the fair packed up, and went their many separate ways. The fields outside the gates still bore patches of flattened and threadbare grass to show where pavilions stood and temporary streets meandered, but the fair was over until next year.
Berenice lay, alone, in her bed. This morning she had woken as she had every day since Gareth left, thinking about him, reliving each moment of the time she spent with him, going over every word she spoke, wondering if she upset him in any way.
She returned, time after time, to her gift to him of her husband’s ring. Everything changed after she gave it to him. At the time it was such an insignificant thing. Now it was the key to all that happened since.
Her thoughts took a new path, and followed a different clue. Fulk could not have known, but the ring was one of the few details she remembered about her husband. Each evening of the few weeks they spent together she sat at his side at the high table for dinner. She would watch his hands, and she grew to like them. They were strong, and capable, and the nails were always neatly trimmed. Fine hairs grew on the backs of them, and once or twice she was brave enough to wonder what it would be like to touch them, and to have those hands touch her.
She knew her husband’s hands better than she knew his face.
Gareth had slipped on the ring without hesitation, without trying any other finger, and onto the same finger her husband had used for it. She thought it unusual. Most people would try a few different fingers to see if it felt more comfortable on one than another. He hadn’t.
Realization lit up her life like a burst of sunshine on a cloudy day. She sat up in bed.
Could Gareth be, in fact, Huon? Her husband? If he was she didn’t have to be concerned about whether anyone knew she’d spent a night with the troubadour. She didn’t have to worry about her husband not being dead and coming back to claim her. It no longer mattered whether Gareth was a worthy enough man to become a knight, to be Lord of the valley.
He was her husband! The more she thought about it, the more sure she became. He was a knight, a true knight, and the rightful Lord of the valley. He was her love, the husband of her heart, the man she would have chosen if she had been permitted.
Leaping out of bed she grabbed her clothes and began to throw them on. She must tell Esme and Gilbert as soon as possible.
But as she dressed, she hesitated. Why then had he not declared himself? Why the disguise of Gareth the Troubadour? And where was he now?
Two days ago a man from Betizac had passed through on his way to the monastery. The Count was dead, he said. They needed one of the brothers for the burial. He would say no more, give no details of the manner of Fulk’s passing.
Nor had he any news of Gareth. Huon, she corrected herself, she must think of him as Huon now. A man had arrived at Betizac and left not long after with the English captain and a woman. That was all he knew.
She found Esme and Gilbert sharing their morning meal in Gilbert’s downstairs room.
“Is there any news?” she asked. She asked the question so often they both knew what she meant.
“Not since last night, my Lady,” answered Gilbert. “Will you join us?”
She sat at the place they made for her on the bench, but she was too excited to eat.
“Gilbert,” she began, “when the troubadour arrived, at the beginning of summer, was he familiar to you in any way?”
Gilbert and Esme exchanged a look across the table.
“What do you mean, my Lady?” he answered.
She told them the story of the ring, how Fulk had given it to her, how she, in turn, had given it to Gareth, and how she now believed him to be her husband.
Gilbert drained his tankard of ale in one long gulp.
“You’re right, he is, my Lady.” He and Esme sat silently, waiting for her reaction.
“But why did you not tell me? Why did he not tell me?”
“We didn’t tell you, my Lady, because he asked us not to. He’d heard about Fulk’s plans for you when he landed in Bordeaux. He wanted to keep everything secret as long as possible in case Fulk got wind of it. At first I assumed that was all there was to it,” explained Gil.
“And you don’t any longer?”
“No, I don’t now. There was something else, something in his past. He always promised to tell me what it was, but I’m afraid he never did.”
“Perhaps. Or something he felt was dishonorable. He’s a man of high moral principles. He would never have,” Gilbert faltered, “um, I mean…”
“What Gil’s trying to say,” added Esme, “Is he would never have taken you to bed if he hadn’t believed he had the right. He’s not a man who takes love or marriage lightly.”
“You knew him too?” she asked Esme.
“Yes. He slept on this bench each night, the first time he was here.”
“Am I the only one who did not know my own husband?”
“It was only Gil and I, my Lady. We agreed to keep his secret. I believe he planned to ensure your safety and then leave.”
“So why did he stay?”
“Because he still loves you.”
“Oh, Esme,” Berenice threw her arms around the maid, “are you sure?”
“You only had to see the way he’d follow you with his eyes. All the time he was here he had to know where you were, what you were doing, who you were with. It was more than just concern for your safety. He hated that he couldn’t be with you every minute of the day.”
“So why has he left, Esme? Where’s he gone?”
“If I were in his shoes,” put in Gilbert, “I’d be going to ask Fulk a few questions about that ring.”
“But Fulk’s dead,” said Esme.
“Do you think Gareth killed him?” And Berenice added, “Huon, I must think of him as Huon now.”
“No,” replied Gilbert, “The Count’s men would have been after his blood if he had, and we’ve heard nothing.”
A knock on the door ended their conversation. It flew open. Marie’s youngest, Gerard, who worked in the stables, bounded into the room.
“There’s a man at the gate, my Lady, Sir Gilbert.”
This has happened before, thought Berenice.
The three of them emerged from the cottage into the morning sun. The summer was almost over, the heat no longer oppressive, but Berenice felt that same trickle of perspiration down the inside of her shift.
Today, Esme and Gilbert walked with her to the gate.
This time, he rode into the courtyard, dismounted, and handed the reins to the stable boy.
“The troubadour’s back,” the small crowd murmured. They’d come out of the smithy, and the kitchen, and the laundry to see him, but no-one walked up to greet him. That was Berenice’s duty.
He’d cut his hair to just above his collar, and shaved off his beard. The scar, she saw, went clear to his jaw line. His tunic was no longer that a peasant would wear. Although plain, braid trimmed the hem and cuffs. In place of the great Viking broadsword, a sword of more appropriate length for a nobleman hung from his belt.
There was no doubt in her mind that this was Lord Huon de Fortescue et de Freycinet. He was thinner, that was true, leaner than he’d been all those years ago, and his face had lost it’s youthful softness. Now it showed his strength of character, and hinted at the hardships he’d experienced over the last eight years. She wondered how he received the terrible scar.
If he’d been dressed in this way on that first day, months ago she would have known him then.
She walked towards him, and dropped into a deep curtsey. He extended his hand and raised her from the ground.
In a strong, clear voice, she said, “Welcome home, my Lord.”
He bowed formally and replied, “Thank you, my Lady.” In a louder voice he cried, “You have all heard the Lady acknowledge my right, as her husband, and by the will of the old Lord and the King, to be Lord of this valley of Freycinet. Sir Gilbert can vouch for me as well. I want you to be assured I am who I say I am.”
Sir Gilbert stepped forward.
“I swear to all of you, this is your Lord, the Lord of Freycinet, wed to our Lady, Berenice, just over eight years ago.”
The murmuring in the crowd grew louder, and the people moved forward, jostling each other for a better look.
“But it’s only Gareth,” someone said.
“Why?” said one. “How?” asked another.
Berenice looked from one face to another. Would they accept him? They’d had no warning, no time to prepare for this change.
“Three cheers for the new Lord,” shouted someone, and then they were all cheering, waving their arms in the air, coming forward to touch both of them, to congratulate them as though they’d just been wed.
Huon was back, and her people loved him as she did. All would be well.
She smiled up at him, and froze. The soft grey eyes she loved were as hard as steel, and as cold as the winter wind.
He turned away from her and spoke to Gilbert.
“I’m moving into the old Lord’s chamber. Could you have someone bring my belongings there?”
“Of course, my Lord,” answered Gilbert.
The crowd drifted away, back to their various tasks.
“Huon?” she said, reaching out, touching his arm.
He took a step away from her.
“I must bathe after my journey,” he said, without meeting her eyes. “If you will excuse me, my Lady.”
He bowed once more and strode towards the old Lord’s tower.
Berenice was alone in the courtyard.
Berenice had thought she’d been lonely before he’d returned. She was wrong.
She’d thought she missed Gareth while he was away. It bore no comparison to sitting at the side of a cold stranger each evening at dinner and knowing it was the same man who held her and loved her.
The summer ended. When she woke in the morning the air chilled her skin before she dressed. She felt as though the cold seeped into her heart and would remain there, forever.
Huon was always polite to her. Every evening he knocked on her door, escorted her down the stairs, across the hall, and to the dais. He held out her chair and waited while she sat before sitting himself. They shared a cup and a trencher as they had a long time ago.
He never allowed himself to touch her hand, to brush his arm against hers.
He replaced her in the monthly courts. She stood behind his chair, a symbol of his authority as he dispensed justice. At times he would ask her counsel, respecting her wide knowledge of her people and the valley. But the final decision on punishment or otherwise was always his.
He worked with the people of the valley as he had when he was known as Gareth. His days were often spent on horseback, visiting all the villages and farms, getting to know the people and the way the place worked. The rumors came back to her, via Esme, that he was a good Lord, a fair and just Lord, as good as the old Lord had been.
But he never visited her room.
The time came when she could bear it no longer. She had to know why he changed so much towards her, what it was she did to make him feel this way.
He was in his room, she knew, going over the castle accounts, another task she no longer had responsibility for. She would ask him, she decided, if she could do the accounts for him. She was not like other ladies, she knew. She could not be content sitting in her room mending and embroidering.
At her knock his command to enter came. She opened the door, surprised to realize she was shaking, and her stomach was a tight ball of tension.
When he realized who it was he stood and bowed.
“Good day, my Lady.”
He is a stranger, she thought, not the man I love.
“Good day, my Lord.” She curtsied. Now she was in his presence words failed her. The silence stretched out as he waited for her to announce the purpose of visit.
“The accounts are in good order?” she asked.
“Excellent order, thank you,” he responded formally.
“I’ve been told I’m good with numbers.”
“It appears you are.”
“I wondered if I might resume keeping the books of account.”
“Ladies do not usually do such work.”
“I am not, I mean, I want to do something, to help, to do something useful.”
“You are my wife. That is your function.”
“Then why don’t you treat me like a wife, then?” she burst out.
“Treat you like a wife?”
“You never come to me, you never touch me, you act as though you hate me. In all these weeks, you’ve never told me why! I don’t know what I’ve done, Gareth, no Huon. I don’t know why you hate me so.”
Exhausted by her outburst and the weeks of confusion and longing, she collapsed into a chair and burst into tears.
“You are my wife. We are bound together by the church and by the contracts negotiated by our fathers.”
“That’s it?” she cried, “But I thought, I believed…”
“You took me to your bed when you thought I was nothing more than a troubadour.”
“You hold that against me? I believed myself a widow. I gave myself freely to the man I loved, the man I believed loved me.”
He continued as though he hadn’t heard her.
“And you gave yourself to another man.” He came around the table to stand in front of her. “Tell, me, my Lady, did you give yourself to Fulk before or after we were wed?”
“To Fulk? What has Fulk to do with this?”
“Did Count Fulk have your maidenhead?”
“Did you meet him in the forest?”
“Yes, but Huon…”
“Was he the reason you rejected me on the night of our wedding?”
“Yes, but Huon, let me explain!”
“There can be no explanation. You’ve admitted everything. Listen to me, my Lady,” he grasped the arms of her chair and leaned over her, “You have my solemn oath that I will never come to your room. We will never make love again. And I will never touch you as long as we both shall live.”
He walked to the door and held it open for her.
“And now, my Lady, good day to you.”
Chapter Thirty Six
Thomas decided he could, at last, call himself a happy man.
He’d found a small, local war in the north where his sword and bow were welcomed and the pay was good. In the course of the fighting an enemy nobleman virtually fell into his lap. The ransom he got for him was most lucrative, and now he had a good warhorse again, and a palfrey, and a better class of weapon than he had owned for some time. Spare coin made sweet music in the pouch at his belt as he rode.
The weather was closing in, and he decided to head south again. He had enough put by to last him until the weather improved. If the next season of fighting proved to be as good as this one he’d be able to think about returning to England. Perhaps he would even buy a free holding and take up farming.
The thought brought a smile to his face. Him, a farmer! A farmer needed a wife, strong sons to help on the land, and daughters to bring him joy. Time passed, and it would be good to settle down.
Settling down made his thoughts turn, as always, to Jessamine. Even though she wasn’t the sort of women he any longer imagined as a farmer’s wife, he wondered how she fared.
She had been unusually docile when they arrived at the convent three months ago, and the nuns were happy to take her in. Would the instability of her mind have healed under the nuns’ tender care? He had no idea how long these things took.
A need to see her again took hold of him. He’d loved her once and lost her. When he found her again it had only been to lose her a second time, but at least, this time he knew where she was.
He had no-one to consider but himself. No Lord governed his actions, no woman dictated his needs. At the next town he stopped for a meal, and the tavern keeper gave him directions to St. Bernadette’s. Within two days of making up his mind he was knocking at the convent door.
An ancient nun looked up at him through the grill in the door.
“What is your business here?” she asked.
“I’ve come to see the woman, Jessamine Carpenter.”
The door on the inside of the grill slammed shut. He waited. Should he leave? Was Jessamine behaving so badly they’d have nothing to do with anyone her knew her?
He paced the small flagged area in front of the convent door. He took a loaf from his saddlebag and munched on it, following it with a swig from a wineskin. He hobbled the horses so they could graze, made himself as comfortable as he could on the flagstones, and dozed.
The door to the grill banged open.
“You there,” called the nun. “You asked to see the woman.”
One leg had gone numb while he waited. He struggled to his feet and limped to the door.
“Yes?” he answered.
“She’s gone.” The little door slammed again.
This time he wasn’t going to hang around and wait for them to answer him. He thumped on the door with his fist, and kept on thumping until the grill opened again.
“Where’s she gone? When? You were supposed to be looking after her! Didn’t the Lord of Freycinet send you a gift for the purpose?”
“I can’t tell you. I can’t tell you anything.” The nun went to close the little door.
This time his fist was in the way.
“Let go!” said the nun. “You rude man!”
“No,” answered Thomas. “I want an explanation, and I want it now, otherwise I’m going to break this door down.”
“Wait here,” she ordered. His vision through the grill was restricted, but he heard footsteps receding into the distance and then returning.
The door opened.
“Come with me.”
“What about my horses?”
“They’ll be safe there. Come.”
The nun led the way down a tiled passage and showed him into a cold, sparsely furnished room. He sat on a wooden bench and waited. He didn’t like leaving the horses outside, but his curiosity about Jessamine overrode his anxiety about his animals.
A tall, heavily robed woman stepped into the room. Her habits were made of cloth of excellent quality, and a gold cross on a thick gold chain rested on her chest. She could have been any age from thirty to fifty, but regardless of that she had an air of authority about her.
She didn’t introduce herself.
Thomas stood, feeling awkward and uncouth. Lord Huon had handled all this when they brought the girl here.
The nun sat on a bench on the opposite side of the room. He remained standing, and she gave him no sign to sit.
“The girl you seek is no longer with us,” she stated.
“Is she dead?” he asked.
“I don’t believe so. She chose to leave our care. She took some things with her when she left.”
Thomas groaned inwardly. Jessamine would not think twice about stealing from a convent.
“What sort of things?”
“Some gold plate from the chapel. Some garments belonging to some of the other women who live here.”
“I brought her here, but I’m not responsible for her, you understand.”
“I understand,” answered the nun. “However, if you could make a contribution towards the plate she stole, it would be appreciated.”
He thought of his small store of money. Jessamine had the capacity to make him drain his purse even when she wasn’t present. He brought out his pouch, counted out some coins, and gave them to her.
“Thank you, my son,” the nun responded, noting the amount, “your generosity will be noted in heaven.”
“The woman, Jessamine,” he asked, “Do you have any idea where she’s gone? She could be dangerous, to herself or to others.”
“No, I can’t help you, she rarely spoke to anyone except to complain and gave no indication she was thinking of leaving.” The nun fell silent, as though considering how best to phrase her next comment.
“Something a little strange happened not long before she left. Perhaps you should know.
“There’s another young woman living with us at the moment. Her name’s Eunice. She has long, brown hair, and because she’s still a girl, she doesn’t yet wear it covered. Jessamine attacked her one day, not long before she left. She screamed at her, using terrible words. Most of what she said was difficult to understand, but she called Eunice by a name which was not her own. It sounded similar – Clarice, perhaps?”
“Berenice?” asked Thomas.
“Yes, that was it – Berenice. Jessamine must despise this Berenice. Do you know her?”
“Not well,” he answered, contemplating his boots, “but I do know she would have done nothing to deserve Jessamine’s hatred. I’ve been told, by people who do know her, she’s a great Lady, well-loved by her people.”
“Then this Lady should be warned of Jessamine’s departure, should she not?” The nun rose and guided Thomas to the door.
“I have one more question,” said Thomas. “When did Jessamine leave?”
“The day before yesterday,” answered the nun, and closed the door behind him.
The day before yesterday, he thought, how strange. While he’d been planning his visit, she was making her escape.
There was one more thing he needed to know. He hammered on the door again. The ancient nun opened the grill and glared at him.
“What clothing did she take?” he demanded. “I need to know.”
“Two dresses, a few shifts, some stockings, a pair of shoes.”
“What color were the dresses?”
“Red,” answered the nun, “they were both red.” She slammed the little door in his face.
Of course, he thought, she’d never be happy with the plain, brown dress they had found for her. Jessamine always wanted a red dress.
His conscience still troubled concerning the business at Freycinet. He could atone for that sin, at least.
She had two days’ start on him, but she was walking, and he had a good fresh horse to ride.
When he’d arrived at the convent, he’d had no idea where he was going next. Now he knew. He was going back to Freycinet, to warn the Lady.
A demon was on the loose.
Chapter Thirty Seven
This wasn’t the best place to build a castle, Lord Huon thought. The river protected it on two sides, but the other walls were too exposed. A company of skilled archers on the knoll would take it in a few days.
The top of the knoll would be a better place. From there the whole valley could be protected, and the height would make it impregnable. He’d have to see if there was a spring up there though, because water could be a problem.
It was his habit to climb to the top of the Lord’s tower each morning and survey his domain. From this vantage point he could see the mill and the monastery in one direction and the fields and meadows and forests all the way to Pontville. In the distance he glimpsed the towers of Betizac on the other side of the forest.
Through the vista wound the river, lead-colored and heavy from recent rains. The sky was the same hue.
They matched his mood.
He saw Berenice everywhere he looked.
There, on her way to the monastery, she surprised him bathing and received a soaking herself. He dried her clothes, and combed her hair, and spun her a story.
There, on a ledge on the rocky knoll, they fought a mock battle with grass swords, and she surrendered to his kisses.
There, in the forest, they came close to making love, but she fled like an untamed creature.
There, in her room, she welcomed him into her bed and her body, and loved him with overwhelming passion.
And here, a few floors below him, he heard himself say those terrible words. In a few moments he destroyed her love for him. His jealousy and his desperate need to possess her, to know she was his and only his, wiped away the glorious summer they spent together and slashed the fragile tendrils of the growing bond between them.
She rarely came down to dinner these days. Each night he sat with Gil on the dais next to her empty seat. At first he insisted she come to meals with him, but her humble obedience only made him feel worse when he compared this shell of a woman to the Berenice he once knew.
One night she sent Esme with a message saying Berenice was unwell. He gave his permission for her to stay in her chamber. He hadn’t insisted on her return.
In his need for a glimpse of her he came here, to the parapets, every day. From here he could watch her on her daily walk to the monastery or a village. One of Gil’s men always followed her at a discrete distance. No-one would harm her again.
Only he had that right.
This day was no different to any other day in the preceding weeks. She wore a deep blue cape over her blue dress. Where would she go today?
She took the path to the monastery, and then left it, turning away from the river. She would go to the knoll, he knew. She went there more and more often recently. She would stand so close to the edge of the cliff, he wondered if she intended to throw herself from it. Each time he saw he there he would hold his breath until she stepped back a few feet to safety.
Was she contemplating suicide? Her great faith prohibited it, he knew, but the pallor of her features told another story. Was she ill? Her sadness was like the cape she wore, hiding her from him.
He considered himself to be an honorable man, and the oaths he swore governed his life as they did all men of his class and status. His oaths to his family, to the King, to his men, and to Berenice on their wedding day. What use was a man if you couldn’t trust his word?
He had sworn he would never touch Berenice again. It was one oath he badly wanted to break.
He scanned his small world. A horseman was riding, fast, up the valley from Pontville. He led another horse, but it didn’t look like a pack animal. It was larger, more like a warhorse. The horseman must be a knight, and he was coming to Freycinet.
Who could it be?
He looked down to the courtyard. Gil’s man, the man who guarded Berenice, should have left by now, but he’d seen no sign of him.
The rider was a big man, well-armed. Something large was strapped to his saddle, a lance, perhaps. No, it was too short for a lance, it was more like an English longbow. He rode hard, pushing his horse to its limits.
Huon turned back to Berenice. She’d reached the foot of the knoll. She would disappear for a while now and follow the path behind the hill. Then she’d reappear on the ledge about two thirds of the way up the cliff. He could easily see it from here. He’d wait until she reappeared, he decided.
A flash of red to one side of the ledge distracted him. He gripped the parapet and wished he had one of the new telescopes he’d heard about. He saw one once, in his sailing days, and it made a man standing a hundred paces away look as though he were no more than an arm’s length distant.
There it was again!
Someone else was climbing the hill on the opposite side, someone dressed in red. Fulk’s livery had red in it, but Fulk was dead. Who in Freycinet wore a red tunic? He could think of no-one.
Huon heard the carpenter’s voice as he called out to his son across the courtyard.
Perhaps it wasn’t a tunic. Perhaps it was a dress, a red dress.
His guts knotted into a tight ball of tension. He remembered the day on the ledge with Berenice, and Jessamine’s taunts. He remembered Fulk’s room, and Jessamine, sitting on the bed, dripping with the Count’s blood, begging him not to leave. He remembered the night in the forest, and Jessamine’s telling him about Fulk and Berenice.
He ran for the stairs. He dashed across the courtyard, shouting for Gil and his men, calling for ropes.
Gilbert came out of the guard house.
“My Lord?” he said. He never called him ‘my lad’ any more, realized Huon. So much had changed.
“Berenice!” snapped Huon. “Where’s her guard?”
“Has the Lady left already?”
“Yes!” He wanted to berate Gil, or his man, or both, but there was no time.
“She’s gone to the knoll, to the ledge.”
Gil looked at him blankly. Of course, it was Berenice’s secret. He wondered how she’d shaken off the guard the other times she had gone there. No-one else knew where it was. Only himself, and Jessamine.
“There’s a path up the knoll. Go north to the monastery, you’ll see it justpast the old beech that was struck by lightening a few years ago.
“Take some men, and go, now. I saw someone up there. The Lady’s in danger.”
“Of course, my Lord,” answered Gil, and began shouting orders.
“I’m going to climb the cliff face,” said Huon.
Someone brought him a coil of rope. He assessed it carefully, feeling its weight. It would slow him down, he knew, but it could save him if he slipped.
He couldn’t risk taking it. Precious minutes would be lost while he tied and re-tied the knots. Instead he swept off his cape and gauntlets and handed them to Gil.
“Bring the rope with you,” he ordered, running out of the castle gates, across the fields, to the base of the cliff.
He was cold despite the thick fabric of his tunic and leggings. Snow capped the higher mountains now, and the wind whistled down through the valley most days. But the cold was nothing compared to the chill he felt in his heart.
Please God, don’t let me lose her, he prayed.
The cliff rose nearly three hundred feet. Somewhere up there, about two hundred feet above him, was the ledge. The cliff’s face wasn’t smooth and even, shrubs and even small trees jutted out from clefts and fissures. Smooth slabs of stone were interspersed with tall, rocky columns, like those of an ancient pagan temple.
As he stared at the cliff, he planned. If he took those rough steps there, then came back a bit to the right, and went up there…
Dedicating all his concentration to the task at hand, he began. Berenice’s life may depend on his being able to reach her, if not before Jessamine, at least before the girl could do any damage.
His awareness became limited to the next place to put his hand or his foot. He soon learned not to trust foliage unless he absolutely had to. Even the rock sometimes came away in his hand and clattered away down the cliff face behind him.
He risked a downward look and saw the a crowd that had gathered at the base of the cliff. Esme waved to him. She wanted him to move more to the left, and he adjusted his path.
The horseman was there too. From this distance, he still couldn’t make out his face, but there was something familiar about him. The others accepted his presence, so he couldn’t be an enemy.
The climb continued. Muscles across his back and in his arms and thighs began to protest at his mistreatment, but he kept on. The crowd was a long way below him now, their faces indistinct. Someone shouted, but he was too far away to make out the words. The wind howled around him like a living thing trying to break his tenuous hold.
Surely, it couldn’t be much further.
Something whirred above his head, and he flattened himself against the rock. An angry bird? No, he knew that noise. Someone had shot an arrow at him.
He looked down again. Esme, it had to be Esme, was waving frantically. The knight had his bow in his hand. It must be he who’d shot the arrow.
Regardless of the knight’s reasons Huon had to keep on going. A few more handholds, a few more footholds.
Another arrow, further away this time. Was the knight aiming for Jessamine? If so then the ledge could not be much further.
Another arrow, and a cry of pain from above. More shouts came from far below him, but they were too indistinct to be understood.
A little further, a hand hold on a good strong tree trunk, and his head and shoulders were above the ledge.
Not ten feet from him Jessamine lay on the rocky ground, a single arrow protruding from her breast. Her chest rose and fell as she struggled to breathe.
Berenice raced past him, so close her cloak brushed his arm.
“The poor girl,” he heard Berenice say as she dropped to her knees beside Jessamine and, tearing off her cloak, made a rough pillow out of it for the dying girl’s head.
“I’ll send for help,” said Berenice. “Who can have done this terrible thing!”
Huon hauled himself up and over the rim of the ledge.
“My Lady, don’t…” he shouted.
Jessamine’s hand crept out and found a jagged rock the size of an apple. Her fingers coiled like a trap around it.
“You!” Berenice exclaimed, seeing Huon. “Why?”
“Don’t…” Huon began. He was too late. While he had diverted Berenice’s attention Jessamine used the last of her strength to smash the rock into Berenice’s head. The Lady sank to the ground next to the dead girl.
Huon raced to Berenice’s side. Kneeling he lifted her into his arms.
“No!” he shouted. “Please, Lord God, please, don’t take her from me. Don’t let her die!”
He kissed her cool cheek, gently, reverently.
“I forgive you, my love, my Lady,” he whispered. He held her close to his body, hoping his warmth might give her life.
Chapter Thirty Eight
Gilbert and his men found Huon, still holding Berenice in his arms, when they marched onto the ledge a short time later.
“Son,” said Gilbert, “let me look at her.”
Gil had brought Huon’s heavy, winter cloak with him. The old soldier spread it out upon the ground and persuaded Huon to let the Lady lie upon it.
“It’s her head,” said Huon. “Jessamine hit her with such force…”
Gil carefully removed Berenice’s headdress. Her braided hair coiled neatly around her head. There was no sign of any blood.
“I think she’ll have a bad headache when she wakes up,” Gil said.
“No, she’s not close to death. We’d best get her to Esme though, she’ll look after her. I’ll have the lads rig up a stretcher.”
“No,” said Huon, “I’ll carry her. She’s only a little thing.”
“What about the girl?” asked Gil.
“Do what you must,” answered Huon.
Gilbert could see it was no use expecting too much from the lad at this stage.
He might be coming to his senses, at last, as far as the Lady was concerned, and it was about time too. Many nights Gilbert and Esme had sat in his cottage discussing the turn of events. Who would have thought the lad would turn against Berenice like he had? Esme could barely bring herself to speak to the new Lord these days, and he had to admit, he had a problem in that direction himself.
He organized his men to cut a few saplings and lash them together to make a stretcher for the girl. She was dead, alright. The English archer had done well. His first two shots had fallen a little short, one almost harming Huon, but the third had done its job.
A bad lot, the girl had been, although it was a shame for her parents. They’d become part of Freycinet over the few months they were here. The Lady wanted them to stay, and Huon agreed to it.
The Englishman had explained how the girl was afflicted with a madness and wanted to kill the Lady. The carpenter acquiesced surprisingly quickly. Perhaps he knew more about the girl’s true nature than they all suspected.
The men had completed a makeshift stretcher, and the girl was laid upon it. In death she was a beauty, her skin pale and flawless, her bronze-gold hair a halo around her. Death took the disappointed downturn from her lips and the petulant tone from her voice.
Her beauty was marred only by a scar, a recent one at that, Gil noted, at the base of her throat.
They set off, Huon leading and carrying Berenice. Gil followed in case Huon needed help with the Lady, and his men came last, four of them holding the ends of the stretcher poles.
Gil stayed with Huon, walking at his side when the path widened, all the way back to Freycinet. Once inside the castle gates he gave the men instructions to lay the girl on the bench beneath the leafless walnut tree and followed Huon up the stairs to the Lady’s chamber.
Esme awaited them.
“Put her on the bed, please, my Lord.” Her tone was firm, the voice she used when no argument was going to sway her.
Huon stood next to the bed, gazing down at the woman on it.
Esme, taller than Berenice but still barely to Huon’s shoulder, touched his arm. He started, like a man awakened from sleep.
“You must leave now, my Lord. I’ll look after her.”
“Leave? No, I can’t. I must be here when she wakes!”
Esme looked at Gil, silently asking for help.
“Come, my Lord,” Gil said. “There’s the problem of the dead girl to consider. Esme will take care of the Lady.”
The sounds of weeping and wailing came from the courtyard below. The girl’s mother and brother would be there by now, as well as her father.
Two knots of people greeted Gil and Huon when they returned to the courtyard, one around the girl, the other around the English knight.
“Thomas?” said Huon, approaching the man first.
The big Englishman bowed. “We meet again, Lord Huon. Sir Thomas Archer,” he replied, more for the audience than Huon, “Knight of England. Formerly captain to Count Fulk of Betizac. Freelance at the moment, my Lord.”
“You killed this girl?”
“I did, my Lord. I returned to St. Bernadette’s two days ago, and the nuns told me she’d left. I got here as quickly as I could, but I fear I may have been too late. How fares Lady Berenice?”
“The Lady lives, Sir Thomas, but other than that, I cannot say.”
The carpenter was listening to the conversation.
“If it please you, my Lord,” he began, “our daughter is dead, sir, and this man killed her.”
“I had good reason, man! She was intent on murdering the Lady.”
“Even so,” stammered the carpenter, “she was our daughter. Perhaps not the best of daughters, but still…” His wife’s weeping punctuated his speech.
“I knew your daughter too,” answered Thomas, “and because of this I’m willing to arrange to have prayers said for her soul.”
“It seems a fair arrangement,” said Huon.
“Prayers!” The carpenter’s wife interrupted. “Prayers won’t bring her back to me. Prayers won’t see her wed, and children on her knee.” She broke into a renewed bout of weeping.
Thomas stood by the dead girl. He lifted a lock of her hair and let it slide through his fingers.
“I loved her too,” he said. “I remember her as she was at Aix-la-Chapelle. I went there for the jousting a few years ago. I searched for her across Christendom after she crept away in the night rather than marry me and come back to England.”
Martha’s weeping ceased. “You loved her?”
“I did, and if I’d had my way things would have turned out differently. I’ve killed the woman I cared for more than any other.”
“She wouldn’t have you?”
“No. Even when she came to the Count’s castle I tried to reason with her, but she wouldn’t have it. She killed Fulk because she was jealous of Berenice. She always wanted more than I could ever give her.”
“She killed the Count!” said Martha. A murmur ran through the crowd.
“She hacked him to pieces,” said Sir Thomas.
“God works in strange ways,” said Martha.
“I propose, if Jessamine’s parents and Lord Huon agree, another way to expiate my crime,” said Sir Thomas.
Huon nodded for him to continue.
“I swear before all of you I will make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Maybe then God will forgive me the sin of the killing of this girl. Maybe you will,” he said to Martha.
“It seems fitting,” she replied. Her husband indicated his assent.
“Sir Thomas,” added Huon, “it is a noble gesture you make. Stay, and refresh yourself before your journey. And Gil, make sure a man is sent to the monastery. This girl shall be buried as befits a Christian.”
“May I speak with you a moment in private, my Lord?” asked Sir Thomas.
Gil watched the two men moved away from the crowd a little, but made sure he stayed within earshot.
“That night we camped in the forest, with Jessamine, on the way to St. Bernadette’s,” Sir Thomas began.
“Yes,” answered Huon.
“I wasn’t asleep. I heard the things she said, about the Lady and Fulk.”
Huon remained silent.
“Jessamine had a way of twisting things so the words weren’t lies, but they weren’t exactly the truth either.”
“I’m coming to see that now, but my thanks,” answered Huon.
“Good. I wanted you to know the truth. You’re a lucky man, my Lord. Your Lady is, as they say, priceless beyond rubies.”
“My thanks again, Sir Thomas,” answered Huon.
Huon and Gil watched Thomas walk over to Martha and her husband and have a quiet word with them.
“A good man,” said Gil.
“Yes,” agreed Huon, “but now I must see Berenice.”
They climbed the stairs together. A surprise awaited them at the door of the Lady’s chamber – it was locked.
Huon called softly, not wanting to disturb Berenice.
Esme refused to let him in.
“Speak to her, Sir Gilbert!”
“Perhaps she’s right,” answered Gil. His anger, kept under control for many weeks, built within him.
“Right? I’m her husband!”
“You’ve realized that at last, have you?” asked Gil, “Forgive me my Lord, but there’s something I’ve wanted to do for some time now.”
Balling his hand into a fist he punched his Lord as hard as he could.
Huon hit the landing floor like a tree being felled. He lay there, dazed for a moment, rubbing his chin before struggling unsteadily to his feet.
“You’d better have a good explanation for that, old man!”
“If you’d been twenty years younger I’d have taken down your leggings and removed a layer of skin with my belt for the way you’ve treated the Lady over the past weeks. No, months!”
“Gilbert, wait, I can explain.”
“Did you give her a chance to explain?”
“No, I thought not. Everything’s clear as crystal to you, isn’t it? Nothing’s ever murky, nothing might ever need a bit of understanding or thought.”
“I’m willing to forgive her,” said Huon. “I know about her and Fulk, but I realized on the ledge how much I love her. I’m willing to have her back, despite…”
Gil thought he might have to hit Huon again.
“You’re willing to forgive her! Forgive her what? For being thrown to the ground and having her clothes torn from her body by a madman? For being violated in the most brutal way?”
“I heard her beg him not to do the things he was doing, my lad. Until my dying day I will hear her screams. But I was too late. All I could do was hold my sword to his throat until he got off her. Later that day Esme bathed her and tended her bruises. The Lady was but fifteen years old.” Gil knew the tears were streaming down his face.
“And you never knew a sweeter, sunnier-natured child,” he went on. “They married her to you because Fulk would have claimed her otherwise. Would you have had them do that?” he shouted, shaking his fist at Huon.
Huon took Gil’s fist in his own two hands. He was close to weeping himself. “No, Gil, no, I wouldn’t. I’ve seen what Fulk could do to a woman.”
“Then you see my point.”
“Yes, Gil, you’re right, and I do. I’ll ask her, no I’ll beg her to forgive me.”
Gil rapped gently on the door.
“Esme, it’s me,” he said. “You can let the lad in now.”
Chapter Thirty Nine
Berenice’s head ached, and she was hungry. She felt as though she’d been asleep for a long time.
She could hardly move. Her shift had tangled around her legs, and a heavy weight took up one side of her bed.
She opened her eyes. The daylight in the room indicated a time well past the midday hour. Why hadn’t someone wakened her?
Carefully turning her head she saw a man lay on top of the bedclothes, his head resting on the pillow next to hers.
Berenice smiled and whispered, “Gareth.”
Dark lashes fluttered open. Soft, grey eyes looked sleepily into hers.
“My Gareth.” She traced the line of his jaw. Ared mark marred one side of it. “You’ve shaved off your beard.” Her fingers burrowed into his hair. “And you’ve cut your hair.”
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“I’m well, thank you, kind sir,” she answered. “Why do you ask?”
“Jessamine hit you with a rock.”
“Jessamine? Why would she want to hit me?”
“I don’t know, my love, but she did. You’ve slept since this morning. It’ll soon be time for the evening meal.”
“Oh! I must…”
“You must stay here. Esme can bring us something to eat later.”
“I’m staying here until I’m sure you’re well. I’m not letting you out of my sight.”
“But…” She blushed.
“No-one can object to your husband sharing your room.”
“You don’t remember?”
“I’m you’re husband, Huon. You acknowledged me in front of the people of Freycinet months ago.”
“But you’re Gareth, my Gareth. We made love, here, in this bed, this morning!”
“There, there,” he murmured into her hair.
She sat up, half tipping him out. “I’m not a horse or a child to be soothed!” she said. “What’s going on?”
She swung her legs over the side of the bed, and attempted to stand. “Why am I so weak?”
“You suffered quite a blow. Here, let me help you.” Huon came to her side, and she wrapped one arm around his waist. Together they walked to the window.
“The walnut tree – it’s bare!” she cried.
“Winter is upon us,” answered Huon.
“But when I went to sleep it was late summer.” She leaned against him. “What’s happening to me?”
“You had a blow to the head. At times memories are affected. Do you remember nothing since the day we woke together, here?”
“No,” she said, her voice muffled by his clothing. She looked up at him, her eyes filled with tears. “We are truly husband and wife?”
“We are.” He smiled down at her. “I was waiting here until you woke to ask your forgiveness.”
“My forgiveness? Why should you need that?”
“Because I doubted you, I doubted your love.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It doesn’t matter, it’s in the past now. I love you, Berenice.”
“As I love you, Gareth.”
“It’s Huon, now.”
“Not to me. To me, you will always be Gareth the Troubadour. You stole my heart with your songs and your tales all throughout the long, hot summer. You taught me about love when I didn’t know what love was.”
His kiss was gentle, but it left her breathless.
“Show me, Gareth, show me how much you love me.”
Her hands crept up his chest to frame his beloved face.
“Your head,” he said, after he’d kissed her again.
“My heart,” she replied, “tells me you’ll not harm me.”
“Never.” His kiss was deeper, longer, his tongue caressing hers. “I’ll never hurt you.”
Her legs grew weak again and threatened to give way beneath her. She clung to him while he scooped her into his arms, and carried her back to the bed. He laid her gently upon it and knelt beside her.
“Show me, Gareth,” she whispered.
“I love your toes,” he answered, “each of your ten, dainty toes.” He kissed each one.
“I love your legs,” he kissed his way from her ankle to her knee, “and your knees.”
“How can you love my knees?” she giggled.
“They’re beautiful knees,” he said, “round, and neat, and perfect in every way.” He kissed each one. “And your thighs. Oh, I worship your thighs.” His hands undid the buckle of his belt.
“To tell you,” he said, pulling his tunic over his head, “how much I adore the rest of you, I must remove this.” Her shift was whisked away, leaving her naked to his gaze.
“Your wonderful hair,” he removed what pins were left, letting it pool around her shoulders, “your brow, your eyes, your nose, your delicate ears.” Each word was followed by more kisses. “And your neck.” He found the place that, when he kissed it, melted her very bones.
“Your shoulders,” he caressed them, “and your breasts. I pay homage to your breasts, my Lady.” While his mouth worked it’s special magic his hands undid his lacings.
His leggings and boots were discarded. He was on the bed next to her, erect and near bursting with male power.
“Show me, my love,” she said, reaching out to him, bringing him into her, wrapping her body around him.
At first they lay, content to be united once more. Then he began to move. She followed the pace he set, riding the storm again, feeling the thunderhead build inside her.
The storm within her burst, and she cried out.
Still he kept on, his rhythm relentless, carrying her with him, taking her, taking both of them, up and up and up, until the world burst into a million sparkling shards.
Together they floated back down to the bed.
He stroked her hair, and she caressed his broad chest.
Some time later, he said, “Do you feel well enough to come to the evening meal tonight?”
“Yes,” she answered, “I do, but you’ll have to be my maid tonight.”
“Gladly, my Lady.”
He pulled his leggings back on and laced them up. She sat on a stool in her shift while he brushed her hair.
“I did this for you once before,” he said.
“I remember that day well. You told me a story, about a man who chose to live rather than die. A man with a beautiful wife.”
“I can tell you now, I was that man,” he said, “I held the memory of your face in my mind all the time I rowed in the galley, chained to my oar. Your image was there while I fought my way across Russia with the Vikings, and sailed with English traders from the Baltic to Bordeaux.”
“You loved me when you married me?” She turned and looked up at him.
“Yes,” he answered, “I fell in love with you the first time I saw you. I fell at your feet, you may remember.”
“And I thought it was the effect of the wine!” she laughed.
“No,” he replied, “it was you. I’d never seen anyone as beautiful, as wonderful as you. You robbed me of speech, of sanity even.”
“And yet you went away.”
“How could I stay? You made it clear you’d never be mine.”
“Was that why,” she asked, “you did not declare yourself when you returned? Why you assumed the role of Gareth the Troubadour?”
“There were many reasons, my love. First of all, I was sure you despised me. As well as that, I believed I could never be good enough to be your husband, to be the Lord you and your people deserved. All my men died at Hattin, and until recently I believed I was to blame. Fulk’s captain, Thomas, the man who probably saved your life this morning, told me Fulk was responsible for their deaths, not I.”
“Oh, Gareth,” she said, standing and turning to him, “how can we ever make up for the years we’ve lost?”
“Do we have to? Can we not enjoy the years ahead, however many God may grant us?” he answered.
“Yes,” she answered, “we can do that.”
With Gareth’s help Berenice dressed in her deep blue dress trimmed with gold. The color, she knew, brought out the blue of her eyes.
“My Lady Berenice,” he said, as he held out his arm for her, “my wife, you are more beautiful now than the day I first saw you. I lay my heart at your feet if that is what you wish.”
“No, my Lord Huon,” she answered, “and Gareth, my troubadour, that is not what I want. I want my husband by my side, to love me and be loved by me.”
It is as I believed, she thought. My husband is a man who lives by his word, no matter how rash, no matter how hasty. And if the oath he swore to me in anger is forgotten it can no longer harm either of us.
She thought about the times in recent weeks when she’d stood on the edge of the precipice and longed for the strength to cast herself from it. Two things had stopped her. Deep in her heart she’d believed Gareth still loved her, even though cold, proud Huon may not. And she could not kill the child she carried within her, the child they conceived together, in joy and love and passion.
I’ll tell him about the baby one day soon, she thought.
Her husband opened the door, and they walked down the stairs together.
Thomas stayed at Freycinet longer than he’d planned. He enjoyed sitting in Gil’s cottage in front of the fire, sharing an ale and chatting of wars, and battles, and castles they’d both known.
The time came when he knew he needed to leave. Perhaps the innkeeper at Pontville could be persuaded to allow him a little space in his stable. And if his luck held, perhaps one of the innkeeper’s daughters would be willing to keep him warm during the chilly night ahead.
He gathered together his belongings and had his horses brought from the stables. He gave Gil one last thump on the back and made Esme blush when he bowed over her hand.
He had a journey to the Holy Land to organize. The horses would fetch a good price in Bordeaux, then he’d take a ship. Or should he head south, to Marseille, and leave from there? Plenty of time yet to make a decision.
It was good to be moving again.
A slight rise on the road to Pontville offered a view over the valley of Freycinet. Thomas reined in his horse and turned him around. He wanted to appreciate the scenery one last time.
Almost nine years ago the Count had sent for him.
“Thomas,” Fulk said. “Come with me. I have a task for you.”
They rode to this same small hill. The fields where, last summer, the fair had been were covered with a different style of tent altogether. Back then extravagant, colorful, striped marquees and pavilions, pennants flying, shields hung by their entrances proclaimed the presence of the Duke and King and their entourages covered the fields, almost dwarfing the castle.
“The daughter of the house of Freycinet marries today. I was not invited to the wedding.” Fulk’s hands clutched the pommel of his saddle. His color had risen as it always did when he was enraged.
Thomas thought it best to say nothing.
“By rights the girl is mine, Thomas. Mine! As is this entire valley once her doddering father has passed. They have no right…”
Thomas watched the Count carefully lest he decide to take out his anger on him and murmured a vague sound of assent.
“The task, my lord Count?” he ventured when he could stand the silence no longer.
“I want her bridegroom dead. Kill him for me. You will be amply rewarded, as always.”
“Very well, my lord Count.”
His spies soon reported that the young Lord and his men were departing for the Holy Land. It had been an easy thing to follow them and sign on with a troupe of mercenaries attached to the same army.
Thomas came to know the man from a distance. He observed him, assessed him, watched him interact with his fellows, and came to the conclusion that it was a waste to slip a knife between his ribs as the Count had ordered. Thomas hated waste.
He made his own arrangements. He would take Fulk the ring he’d requested, but he would collect a second, quite substantial bonus from a trader who provided slaves for the galleys.
Fulk need never know.
Thomas sighed and dismissed the memories. Fulk was dead, and he doubted anyone would mourn him. Huon and Berenice would probably have a good life together now. Everything had worked out as well as could be expected.
He grieved for Jessamine, for the woman she might have been with a little love and guidance. But it was not to be, and in the end she had chosen her own path. His love had not been enough to save her.
He’d sworn an oath to her parents to go to the Holy Land to atone for killing their daughter. It was as good a destination as any.
He turned his horse’s head and put the valley, and the memories, behind him.
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