The day promised to be hot, dry, and cloudless, the same as all the days of the previous weeks. No-one could remember a June like it.
Six strong, patient oxen pulled the carpenter’s cart along the dry, rough track, stirring up an immense cloud of pale dust. Each bounce and lurch threatened to dislodge the load of lumber the cart carried.
The two women on the cart wore roughly-made straw hats and held their shawls over their faces.
“Don’t let your skin get brown!” Jessamine’s mother had drummed into her as long as she could remember. It was probably the only guidance she’d accepted from her mother. Martha hadn’t taken her own advice, and her skin was as weather-beaten as any gypsy’s.
The jolting and lurching of the cart made Jessamine feel ill, and she’d have sworn the very bones of her arse hurt. She contemplated walking with her brother and her father. The choice was difficult: sore feet or a sore rear, her brother Albert’s sly taunts or her mother’s inane chatter. A forest loomed ahead, and the shade would make a welcome change. She would tolerate her mother’s company, for now.
The towers and turrets of a grand castle came into view above the trees. Red and gold banners bearing a coat of arms in black flapped feebly in the meager breeze.
Perhaps this time her father had found work with someone who deserved his talents. He was, after all, a master carpenter.
“What’s that place?” she asked her mother.
“That’s Betizac,” answered Martha, crossing herself and being careful not to look in the castle’s direction. As though the building had eyes.
“Is that where we’re going?”
“No, thank God. Your father would not work for the Count, my Georges would be lucky to be paid. The Count’s an evil man, it’s said, we wouldn’t be taking you anywhere near him, petal.”
A Count, thought Jessamine, how interesting. Was he young? Was he handsome? Was he wealthy? From the size of the castle, he had to be.
Martha’s opinion didn’t worry Jessamine. Evil, to her mother, meant not going to Mass on Sunday. Jessamine, on the other hand, had known a number of men in her nineteen years who would undoubtedly meet her mother’s definition of evil. Many pleasant memories started her squirming with desire on the hard bench seat.
“Where are we going then? I’m tired of this road, we seem to have been on it forever.”
“Now then, petal, it won’t be much longer. It’s taken us days longer than it needed to already, because the travelling’s upset you so. You used to cope with it much better when you were a baby.
“We’re going to Freycinet. The Lady there pays fairly, we’ve been told. She admired some of your father’s work at the duke’s palace last summer, and she’s asked him to come up here and do this job for her.”
So a woman ran this part of the valley.
“Where’s her Lord then? Has she got one?”
“It’s not a question the likes of us can ask, child. We mind our own business and get on with the job.”
Martha continued to lecture her along the same lines. Jessamine stopped listening and watched the forest, hoping for another glimpse of the castle. She’d heard it all many times before. She might be a master carpenter’s daughter, but she must remember her place.
Why, she’d like to know? Her mother wanted her to marry another carpenter and help him in his trade as she had done, but Jessamine had ideas of her own. She knew she was pretty. Men liked her, all sorts of men, from stable boys to dukes’ sons, and she didn’t see why she shouldn’t use her very obvious assets to their best advantage. She vowed her life was going to be different, far, far different from the daily drudgery her mother endured without question.
They crossed a wide, deep river over an old stone bridge, then the road took them through a village and another, more open, forest. Eventually fields spread out around them, and in the distance she saw another, much smaller, castle of mud and timber, the tops of two stone towers glimpsed above the surrounding palisade.
Compared to Betizac the castle at Freycinet barely deserved the name. Jessamine had seen many places like this already. Its builders had placed it on a bend in the river to take advantage of the protection it offered. A couple of low stone towers, a hall, kitchens, stables, a few small cottages, and a smithy would be enclosed within its walls. Built more of timber than stone it would have been cobbled together from whatever materials they’d been able to find.
Her father and Albert led the first pair of oxen through the gates and into the courtyard. A small crowd awaited their arrival.
Not much of a place at all, Jessamine thought in disgust.
And then she saw him.
A man leaned on one gatepost and watched the carpenter’s arrival. He held a hammer, and a collection of tools were spread out on a sack at his feet. He’d tied his long hair back, off his face, but dark tendrils escaped and clung to the sweat on his forehead and his strong neck.
In the unbearable heat he’d removed his tunic. His skin was clearly no stranger to the sun’s touch. The well-defined muscles of his chest and arms looked to her as though they’d been carved from some exotic timber and then oiled. His battle scars, like flaws in wood, only enhanced his appeal. Loose leggings tied around lean hips with a leather thong failed to conceal the generous bulge of his sex.
Jessamine swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry, her palms sweating, the moisture hot between her legs.
Here was a man like no other. She’d thought she’d known strong men, she’d thought she’d seen handsome men – until this moment. The need to have him, to be joined with him, to feel him as he moved inside her devoured her like a fire through last season’s straw.
Nothing and no-one would keep Jessamine from this man. She knew what men liked. All she’d need would be a few moments alone with him, and he would be hers.
She could tell the man at the gate was watching her, and she smiled to herself. Her hair hung, the deep gold of birch leaves in fall, unbound to her waist. Taking off her straw hat she shook out her tresses and combed her fingers through them.
The first blow in the inevitable duel had been struck.
Her father had quickly spotted the Lady of the castle in the small crowd. Leaving the oxen in Albert’s care he hurried towards the woman, removing his hat as he went.
“I am Berenice de Freycinet,” she stated and gave a short speech formally welcoming the carpenter’s family to the valley.
Jessamine’s attention shifted. This woman represented authority in this place, insignificant as it was, and she was as insignificant as the place she ruled. She was small, skinny, and had no bosom to speak of. Her dress was faded and patched. Jessamine’s own mother wore better quality garments, and Martha’s headdress was better starched than the Lady’s well-washed linen.
“My Lady,” replied Georges Carpenter, bowing low, “my most humble apologies. The oxen…” He launched into a long explanation of his delays. Why, Jessamine couldn’t understand. Why go to the trouble of ingratiating himself with a woman such as this?
The Lady cut off the carpenter mid-sentence. “Yes, yes, my good man, I’m sure your work is all it’s reputed to be. I saw the stable you built for the duke last spring, and I’m perfectly content to allow you free reign with the design.” She smiled a small, tight-lipped smile. “Let’s get you settled in some lodgings and out of this hot sun.”
“Thank you, my Lady. Would you allow me to introduce my family?” He beckoned them to him. His wife and son went quickly enough, but Jessamine took her time, making the most of the opportunity to allow the man at the gate a good look at her slender white calf as she climbed down from the cart.
“This is my wife, Martha, and my son, Albert.” Albert was fifteen. He bowed awkwardly and blushed.
Jessamine took her time to stroll the short distance from the cart to her family. Her hips swayed beneath her gown. She knew the slow, mesmerizing rhythm would draw the gaze of every man in the courtyard, including the one at the gate. Especially him.
Her father picked at odd straws in the brim of his hat. Jessamine had often rebuked him about the annoying habit, but it made no difference. “Come on, girl, we mustn’t keep the Lady waiting. This,” he said, as proud as a merchant saving his best goods until the last, “is my daughter, Jessamine.”
She dipped a perfunctory curtsey.
“Do your family work with you?” asked the Lady.
“My wife and son do, my Lady,” answered Georges.
“Work will be found for your daughter, in that case. I’m sure she’ll be able to help in the kitchen or the laundry.”
“Thank you, my Lady. Of course, my Lady,” answered Jessamine’s fool of a father. Something in the kitchen, indeed. She would see about that!
“A cottage will be provided for you, as arranged,” added the Lady, “and the ostler will show you where the oxen can graze.”
The carpenter bowed again. Jessamine cringed to see her father grovel so before this backwoods woman who barely deserved the term ‘noble’.
A cottage, indeed. A two room hovel, no doubt, where she’d be sharing a bed with her brother yet again, and fending off his creeping hands in the middle of the night. Not for long though, she swore. She’d find out where that man slept. Things would change.
“All of you,” Lady Berenice cried out to the waiting crowd, “there’s work to be done!”
Jessamine licked her lips with her small, pink tongue, hoping the man was watching.
Chattering like contented chickens the women and children returned to the gardens and fields. Robert and the kitchen hands disappeared into the kitchen. The ostler and the stable hands went to work unhitching the cart and putting the oxen out to pasture. The sound of the blacksmith’s hammer tolled like a bell across the yard.
Order was restored, everyone was back at work.
Except for the troubadour. He stood by the gate, idly swinging his hammer. Berenice walked towards him, intent on telling him to follow the example set by the others.
She knew he watched her as she drew closer. Head held high, she was determined he wouldn’t see how aware of herself he made her feel. After seeing the carpenter’s daughter swaying seductively with every step Berenice now felt stiff, and tense, and about as graceful as one of those oxen.
Why should it suddenly matter to her? She’d walked the same way for most of her twenty four years. Nothing had changed, nothing at all.
She could see he was smiling, but the small, private smile barely curved his lips.
His bow was little more than a nod of his head, but far more meaningful than the carpenter’s overdone obsequiousness.
Sweat glazed his tanned skin. Standing this close to him she found the thinness she’d first assumed was illusory. Without his tunic he was all muscle and sinew and hard-edged bone without a trace of fat to soften the angles of his body. She wanted to touch him, to run her hands over his smooth skin, to find out if he were as solid as he looked. Her hand had begun to move before she realized they were in full view of anyone who chanced to cross the courtyard.
She cleared her throat, unable to remember why she’d come here.
“You’re mending the gate I see.”
Even to herself the statement sounded inane, if not downright idiotic.
“The hinges needed straightening. The gates will close now.”
The sound of his voice intrigued her. His simple statement started warmth rising in mysterious places deep inside her; places she’d never given a great deal of thought to before he’d arrived.
A scar began under his rib cage and disappeared around his side. Another slashed one bicep. His nipples were small and dark.
A diamond of curling hair, the same hue as his beard, grew on his chest. She wanted to run her fingers through it, find out if it were really as soft and springy as it looked. His body was a fascinating combination of textures and angles and planes.
She licked her dry lips. He gasped as though in pain.
“Are you hurt, troubadour? Are your wounds healed?”
“Some wounds never heal, my Lady.”
His voice was deep, and rich, and soft; like a fur cape on a cold winter’s night; like the warm milk and honey, flavored with a few precious grains of nutmeg, Esme brought her when the nightmares came, and she was afraid to sleep.
She wanted to wrap herself in the sound of his voice, immerse herself in it completely. Drown in it.
“Is there…” She hesitated, and looked up into his misty grey eyes, knowing there were many things about this man she couldn’t understand. “Can I, I mean, do you need my help in any way?”
“Oh!” This sound was definitely one of pain. “You do help, my Lady, believe me.”
He touched her.
The tip of his finger tucked a stray curl beneath her headdress, a gesture far more intimate than the meeting of their fingertips in the dance of the previous night. The dance had had its ritualized movements, and they were surrounded by people. Now the two of them stood in a deserted courtyard.
She wanted to lean her face into his palm and feel the heat of his calloused hand on her skin.
Instead she stepped away. The realities of her life were simple: she was the Lord of this valley until her husband’s return, and then she would be his wife and the mother of his children.
His wife. The phrase filled her with horror.
She turned and walked sedately across the courtyard, past the ancient oak her grandfather had planted, up the stairs of her tower, to her chamber.
Berenice slammed the solid, timber door behind her and leaned against it. Sweat trickled down her body beneath her linen shift. Peeling off her worn and faded outer gown she sank to her knees on the cold, stone floor. Her headdress itched and chafed, so she tugged and pulled at its pins and ties until her long, dark brown hair tumbled free.
These thoughts, these feelings… If she’d been free to she would have gone to a convent and done penance for these terrible thoughts.
Esme had left a pitcher of cool water for her to bathe her face and hands at the end of the day. Dampening a cloth she sponged her body until the flagstones were awash, but however hard she tried she couldn’t stop thinking of the troubadour’s brief caress.
If she was going to be honest with herself she had longed for far more. She knew she wanted to be near him – even after she’d sworn to ignore him.
She thought of him, standing near the gate, his skin gleaming in the sunlight. She wanted to know him, to know the feel of his body next to hers, to know the touch of his lips as well as his hand. She yearned for him. No-one had made her feel like this, not even her husband.
Especially not her husband.
At the thought of her Lord, joined to her by God and the contracts their fathers had signed, she groaned aloud. To think she could so easily contemplate breaking her marriage vows! She was weak-willed, allowing herself to be led astray by the desires of the flesh.
She prayed to every saint she remembered for the strength to resist the unfamiliar urges shaking her body. She was still on her knees on the damp floor when Esme found her, hours later, and gently helped her to climb into her bed.
Esme bathed the tears from Berenice’s face.
“Esme,” Berenice whispered, exhausted by weeping and prayer, “where would I be without you? What would I do?”
“You’d probably cope perfectly well without me, my dear, as you know quite well. Now, whatever’s happened to get you into this state? I haven’t seen you this upset since your father died. You’ll make yourself ill if you’re not careful!”
“I…” Berenice began, “I was thinking about my husband.” She couldn’t bring herself to tell her loyal maid the truth. Esme had been part of her life for as long as she could remember and was more family and friend than servant.
Berenice wondered at Esme’s slightly hopeful tone.
“I wasn’t a good wife, Esme.”
“It was a long time ago, love. You were very young.”
“I know, I know, but I didn’t behave towards him as a good wife should.”
“Well, dear, there’s no sense in fretting over it now.”
“Esme,” said Berenice, sitting up and holding onto to Esme’s arm, “tell me truly, do you really believe he’ll ever come back?”
“Well, my dear, miracles can happen. As I always say, you never know what’s around the next corner!”
“Then I must pray for a miracle, Esme.” Berenice sighed and, leaning back against the pillows, closed her eyes.
“You do that, dear, I’m sure. The good Lord will be listening.” Esme bustled around the room, picking up discarded clothes, brushing dust from already pristine surfaces.
“Esme, I don’t think I’ll come to dinner this evening. Could you bring me something?”
“Of course, dear.” Esme, always good natured, was unusually cheerful this afternoon. Her good humor made Berenice feel even worse.
“Esme,” Berenice whispered from the shadows of the bed, “How long should I wait for him to return?”
“I don’t know dear, I’m sure.”
“Was my father right? Should I give him up for dead and marry again?”
“You swore to your father…”
“I know.” Berenice’s face was pale as she turned to Esme. “But what if it never happens? What if I never know for sure? Does that mean I have to live the rest of my life alone?”
“I can’t answer that for you, my Lady. You must look into your own heart and soul if you want to break your oath,” Esme was thoughtful, “but I can tell you one thing. In my opinion, marriage has got nothing to do with this new idea of standing up in a church in front of a priest. I’m old enough to remember when a man and a woman could declare their love in front of their families and their friends, and it was considered enough of a marriage.
“God knows what’s in our hearts!” Esme continued, “What do you think is worse, vows made in church with hearts that are false? Or two people together who love each other but have never been near a priest? I say, leave God to people like your brother, who know how to talk to Him.”
Berenice listened to every word of Esme’s speech but had no answer for her. After her friend left the room she lay back against the pillows. Sometimes not telling the whole truth was as bad as lying, and she knew she hadn’t admitted everything.
Perhaps God was punishing her for her foolish oath to her father whose only wish had been to see her and the valley safe. She’d taken care of things for many years, and she’d foolishly imagined things wouldn’t change very much once he’d gone.
While she declared herself to be still wed she couldn’t be given to any other man. The idea seemed so perfect – the romantic ideal of the young wife, eternally waiting for the return of her beloved husband.
But it was all a lie. She had detested her husband from the moment he collapsed in a drunken stupor at her feet, and a week of courtship and five weeks of marriage had not improved her opinion of him.
She hadn’t wanted to marry at all. After Odo had entered the monastery, and Denis had drowned in the river, all she wanted was to quietly rule the valley as her father had done and his father before him. Since her father’s death she’d managed well enough – despite being a woman.
Until yesterday. Esme was right, we never know what lies in wait around the next corner.
Tomorrow, she decided, she would visit Odo. He’d have the solution to all her problems. He always had, ever since she was a child.
Berenice woke at dawn. Slipping into her shift she ran to the open window. The morning was bright and fair and cloudless, perfect for her plans.
She told herself no-one in the castle would miss her presence for a morning, perhaps even an entire day, and felt a delicious sense of freedom. Today was a holy day, just for herself, and she had permission to celebrate. Except this was even better than a holy day with all the work entailed in preparing the festivities.
She dressed in an old, comfortable dress and leather sandals, and quickly pinned up her hair and fixed her headdress.
The kitchen was her first stop. Despite his dedication to his faith her brother always appreciated Robert’s cooking, most especially his almond meal biscuits. For good measure she added some of last season’s pears, their wrinkled brown skins concealing the sweet flesh beneath. She wrapped some of the white rolls she’d baked two days before in a cloth. A small flask of wine and a piece of ripe, old cheese filled the basket.
Berenice felt so much better today. A good night’s sleep had revitalized her, and she almost skipped across the courtyard before heading out through the gates.
The troubadour was nowhere to be seen. She didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed. The effect he had on her was disturbing, the feelings he aroused in her too strange and too strong. Part of her yearned for her old, peaceful existence once more.
But she knew a world without him would be a greyer place, and she found herself looking for him as she left the castle. It was a fruitless exercise. Doubtless Gilbert had found him something useful to do.
Taking the path outside the castle gates she walked away from the main road which wound down the valley to the village of Pontville, the old Roman bridge, and, eventually, to Bordeaux. Following the castle wall she eventually came to the river.
Here it was broad, and deep, and slow. Further up the valley, where the foothills turned to mountains, it ran faster and was shallower. Another village had sprung up there, a few cottages clustered around the skirts of the mill which the monks built to take advantage of the rushing waters. On the other side of the village, where two swiftly flowing streams came together, on an outcrop of rock high above the pines and conifers, stood the monastery where Odo was Abbot.
Even though she knew pride was a sin Berenice had great pride in her brother. He was Abbot, not because he was the younger son of the family which had endowed the monastery, but because he’d been elected to the post. The brothers both respected and liked him.
Her path followed the bank of the river, at times only a couple of feet from the bank, at times veering further inland. She knew it well. She’d traveled this way many times before, both alone and with her brothers.
The coolness beneath the trees was a welcome respite from the eternally blazing sun. Subdued light filtered through summer-green foliage. It was quiet too, the quietness of a vast cavern or of one the cathedrals being built in Rouen and Chartres. Even the birds had stopped singing in the heat of the day.
Knowing she was completely alone Berenice had a sudden urge to take off her sandals and feel the grass beneath her bare toes. The grass, protected from the sun by the trees, was still green here. It felt delicious.
Next she removed her headdress and the pins which kept her hair in place. The deep brown mass tumbled down her back, and she ran her fingers through it, lifting it up off her neck and letting it fall again. She carefully wrapped her headdress and the pins and placed them on top of the basket. Everything would have to be back in place once she reached the monastery.
She loosened the drawstring of her shift and let the cool air of the forest soothe her heated skin.
White and yellow and pink wild flowers grew amongst the trees. She picked one and tucked it behind her ear. Finding another she liked she picked it too, until she held a posy in her hand. She studied their colors and breathed their delicate scent and wove them into a garland for her hair while she walked.
The path took her inland for a while, but the constant murmur of the river was always with her.
The sudden sound of splashing jarred the peace of the day. Berenice feared it could mean someone, or something, was in trouble. She pushed her way through low bushes and long grass towards the river and the noise.
The splashing diminished a little, and Berenice stopped.
The sound of singing took her completely by surprise. It was a man’s voice, and the song was one she knew, of a beautiful maiden and her lost love. She’d heard it sung two nights ago in the great hall of the castle.
Now even more curious, she emerged from the forest at the top of a muddy bank. The sudden sunlight blinded her, and she shielded her eyes with one hand. Leaving her basket in the long grass she ventured as close to the edge of the riverbank as she dared.
He was standing in water up to his waist, scrubbing himself with a rag, and singing at the top of his voice. Sunlight glistened on all the fascinating planes and angles of his wet body. Damp hair coiled in serpentine tangles around his face and neck and onto his shoulders, sending rivulets down his arms and chest and back.
He reminded Berenice of the paintings of naked men on an old cup someone had dug up near the bridge at Pontville. Dark figures, quite obviously male, marched around the cup’s rim. Odo said it was ancient and definitely pagan.
The figures might have been male, but they’d been beautiful in their artistic perfection. The troubadour was beautiful too, as he bathed himself and sang, and in the same pagan way. She feared blasphemy as she watched him and thought him a river god, ancient and wise, a part of this valley.
Forgetting her anguish of the day before she drank in the sight of him, too intoxicated by it to divert her gaze as a more modest woman would have done. She was afraid too, of his pagan beauty, and of his ability to make her forget all modesty and all shame.
She couldn’t tear her eyes from him.
The water was clear, and even from this distance she could tell he wore nothing beneath the water’s surface. A proper lady would look away when a gentleman was bathing, but being a proper lady had, quite suddenly, ceased to be important. She feasted her eyes, devouring each bronzed curve and plane and angle, and longed to see what the waters hid.
Her bare toes curled in the grass at the riverbank’s edge.
Who knows how long they would have stood there, Gareth in the water, Berenice on the river bank. Before either of them knew what was happening the riverbank gave way, and Berenice felt herself falling.
The river was far deeper here than Gareth’s bathing place. The dark waters closed over Berenice’s head.
Gareth had detected movement out of the corner of his eye. He knew he was no longer alone, and for a moment he resented the intrusion. He enjoyed his morning bath and had purposely come this far from the castle to avoid any interruptions.
Then he saw who it was.
Berenice stood like a primitive queen on the riverbank. Her hair, crowned with wild flowers, tumbled around her shoulders. The colour of her gown reflected the hue of the summer sky. Her feet were bare.
This was a woman, with a woman’s confidence and pride.
His child-bride of years before had long gone. He’d left her behind eight years ago when he’d ridden out of the castle gates, secure in the knowledge he would eventually be Lord of this valley.
He remembered the day well, because his beautiful young wife had come to say goodbye to him. She was told to do so, no doubt, by her parents. There were even tears in her eyes, he was sure. Or perhaps they were in his own.
After the oaths had been sworn before the priest, after the festivities were over, she stood in front of the bed in the bridal chamber, the bed where she probably still slept. Her crown that day was a garland of early spring flowers, slightly askew, and much like the one she wore now. Her long, brown hair swirled around her naked body.
He’d never seen a more exquisite sight. Until now.
Gareth thought for a moment his heart would cease beating.
His clean tunic and leggings awaited him on the bank. He’d draped the clothing he’d just laundered over bushes to dry. All were at least a dozen feet away, too far away for him to reach without Berenice finding out he was standing here in nothing but his skin.
He was proud of the gifts nature had granted him, but Berenice had an innocent quality about her despite her maturity, something unsullied he’d no wish to spoil. He stood, motionless, while she watched him.
The river had undermined the low cliff on which she stood, and the water was far deeper there than Gareth’s bathing place. Before either of them knew what was happening, the riverbank gave way.
The deep, dark waters closed over Berenice’s head, her hair and skirts spreading out around her.
With a few powerful strokes Gareth reached the place where he’d last seen her. The crumbling bank muddied the waters.
She’d vanished into the murky depths.
Holding his breath he dived beneath the surface, thrusting with his legs, using his hands to search for any sign of Berenice. In moments he found her dress, and then, using it to pull her towards him, the rest of her.
His arms closed around her. He drew her up to the surface and helped her to her feet.
She coughed and spluttered a little and pushed her wet hair from her face.
“Berenice, speak to me!”
“Th-thank you! I thought I was drowning!” She trembled a little but appeared to have suffered no ill effects.
They stood together, waist deep in water, his arms encircling her. Her breasts pressed against his chest, and her long, wet hair hung over his arms. She leaned her head against his chest. With one hand he slowly rubbed her back.
“I thought I’d lost you. When you fell into the water it was as though time slowed. The river pulled you under.” His lips brushed her cool, damp forehead. “Berenice…”
“Gareth,” she whispered, “my brother was lost in the river.” She looked up at him and smiled shyly. “It seems you saved my life.”
He smiled too, it was impossible not to. He held her in his arms at last, something he’d never dared hope for.
And now he wanted to kiss her.
He knew he shouldn’t be longing to know the feel of her lips on beneath his, but surely no harm could come of it.
Eyes half closed, he lowered his head, and deepened their embrace.
“No! I can’t, please, don’t…” she cried, pushing with all her might at his chest.
Although Gareth’s feet were planted firmly on the river bed the same strong river current which had caused the bank to collapse now tugged at Berenice’s skirts. She was swept away once more, out into the centre of the river.
Gareth swam after her. The river wasn’t deep here, merely swiftly flowing. As soon as he caught her he stood, swooped her out of the water, and threw her over his shoulder. He had no intention of losing her again.
“Gareth,” she cried again, this time extremely indignantly, “put me down at once!”
“Not until you’re safely back on the bank,” he patted her neat, round rear, “and out of these wet clothes.”
“Put me down!” she insisted. She tried to kick him, but he’d too firm a hold on her legs for her to do much damage.
Soon they’d be out of the concealing waters of the river. In one swift movement he dropped her unceremoniously on the river bank and gathered his clothes from the bush where they were drying.
“There,” he called, throwing her a square of linen, “Get dry!”
She patted at her damp garments.
“Take them off,” he ordered. He tied a cloth around his loins in deference to her modesty.
“What did you say?” She looked horrified.
“Take them off. You’ll catch a chill, even on a day like this.”
“You can’t be serious!”
“Oh, I am. Do you want me to do it for you?” He wondered if anyone had given Berenice an order since her father had died. No, he decided, it was probably long before that.
“No, thank you,” she answered, with as much pride as she could muster, “I’m capable of disrobing.”
“Don’t you need your maid?” Women, especially well-bred women, always needed their servants.
“No, thank you. I’ll manage. Turn around.”
He did as he was told, granting her privacy while she struggled out of her dripping dress and shift.
“What am I supposed to wear instead?”
“You can wear my clean tunic. Wrap the piece of linen around you as a skirt. It’ll do until your clothes dry.” He disentangled his tunic from the branches. “It’s only a little damp. Nowhere near as wet as your clothes, anyway.”
Forgetting he was supposed to be looking the other way, he held it out to her. She’d anticipated his move and had already wrapped the linen around herself. She still showed a fair amount of arms and shoulders, but at least it was an attempt at modesty.
“Thank you,” she answered formally and struggled into his unfamiliar garment.
While she rearranged his tunic he took her garments back to the river and rinsed and wrung them out, then hung them on bushes to dry.
“There you are, my Lady. You’ll be able to wear them in a couple of hours.”
“A couple of hours! If you were thinking of me at all you’d walk back to the castle and get me some fresh clothes!” she answered, once again the Lady of the castle.
A pity, he thought. He much preferred the Berenice he’d held so briefly in the river.
“You want me to do that? Leave you here, alone, partially dressed, while I walk into the castle and declare, ‘I need some dry clothes for my Lady, because she’s sitting on the riverbank half naked’?”
“You wouldn’t do that!”
“I might.” He grinned.
“Why would you want to embarrass me?”
An idea occurred to him. To be fair, the idea had been growing in his mind for a while now.
“You could always stay here, with me.”
“With you? Alone?”
He looked around. “Do you see anyone else?”
He bowed his most elegant bow.
“My Lady, I’ve no intention of ravishing you. I merely desire your company until your garments are dry enough for you to wear them again.”
She looked at her makeshift clothing.
“You leave me no choice.”
“Ah, Lady, we always have a choice, even if it’s only whether to live or die.”
“What do you mean?” she answered, intrigued. He had her attention now.
“If you’ll stay here with me, I’ll tell you a tale about the choice between living and dying.”
“Will you? A tale, just for me?” For a moment she was like an excited child. An improvement, he decided.
“Yes, but I’ll require payment.”
“Before or after the story?”
“Afterwards, naturally, and only if you think the story’s worth it.”
“I may not be able to afford the price.”
“Oh, you will, my Lady, you will.”
Because, my Lady, I know exactly what I want, he thought, and you will not be able to refuse.
Gareth rummaged in the leather satchel he’d hidden beneath the bush where her clothes were drying.
“First things first,” he said, holding up an ivory comb.
“Thank you,” said Berenice, “I was wondering how I was going to explain my knots to Esme.” Her hair hung in matted, drying tendrils to her waist. She tried combing the ends, but it made small difference to the mess.
“Would you allow me?” he asked.
“You would comb my hair?”
“I had sisters once, they insisted I learn. Make yourself comfortable. I can tell you a story while I comb, if you like.”
Berenice settled herself on the grassy bank which sloped down to the river, tucking her makeshift skirt around her legs. Gareth made himself comfortable behind her, a hank of her hair in his hand, and gently began to untangle the damp strands.
While he worked he wove her a tale.
“There was once a man,” he began, “who was a slave on a Saracen galley. All day long he rowed. At night he slept hunched over his oar, because he was chained to it.
“The other slaves near him, when it was possible to talk, told him he no longer had any choice but to accept his lot in life. The man refused to believe them. He knew he still had one choice he could make, even if he was chained to his oar. He could live, or he could die. He chose to live.”
“Why? It would be a terrible thing to be chained up like an animal. Why didn’t he just die?”
“Because the man had a reason to live, and that reason was a woman, the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. She was his wife.”
Berenice sighed. Gareth knew few women could resist a tale of love. He continued combing, unable to resist the temptation of occasionally brushing the pale skin of her neck, or her back, or her shoulder.
“The man kept the image of his wife’s perfect face in his mind’s eye all day, every day. When he awoke she was the first thing he thought of. When he was at last allowed to sleep she was the last thing he thought of. He swore he would find a way to return to her. He prayed every day for God to show him the way back to her.”
“And did He?”
“Stop interrupting, or I’ll stop telling.”
“Very well.” He’d never heard her sound so meek.
“The man was chained to his oar for months. Other slaves joined him on the bench. They died and were replaced by still more slaves. The months turned into years, but he never gave up hope. Still he lived. Still he rowed.
“The galley traded all over the Mediterranean. One day they even docked at a port not far from the man’s home. He could hear the sound of his own language being spoken, he could smell the scents of home.
“The slave next to him was from his country too. He died of a broken heart as they rowed out of the harbor, but the man didn’t. He thought only of his wife.
“That night he prayed even harder for a way back to his wife, and this time, his prayers were answered. A few days later a terrible storm struck the ship. The slaves screamed in terror and begged to be released, because they knew if the ship sank the weight of their chains would surely drag them down into the depths of the sea. But the overseers refused to let them go.
“The ship ran aground. Huge waves washed over it, breaking it up. The man prayed, thought of his wife, and clung to his oar. He believed the oar might be enough to keep him afloat when the time came despite his chains.
“He was right. The next morning he awoke on a strange beach. He still wore his shackles, and beside him was the huge oar he’d rowed for over two years. The ship and everyone on it had vanished. He went down on his knees and thanked God, certain he was on his way home at last.
“Picking up his shackles he walked along the beach until he found a stream. He drank his fill of sweet, fresh water and set out to find out where he was.
“The place was deserted, so he climbed the range of hills behind the beach. It took him many hours. When he reached the top of the tallest hill he looked around him, and his heart sank. He was on an island, and there was no sign of a larger land mass in any direction.
“For a moment he thought of giving up, but he remembered his promise to return to his wife. There had to be a reason why God had spared him when the ship sank. At that moment he spotted a thin spiral of smoke coming from the other side of the island.
“He was not alone.
“It took the best part of the rest of the day to reach the source of the smoke, which was a cottage built into the side of a hill. In it lived and old woman and even older man. Once he convinced them he meant no harm the old man took out blacksmithing tools and struck off his chains.
“He knew little of the language the old couple spoke, but over the months he spent on the island they taught him their tongue. Eventually they were able to tell him ships passed rarely. He was trapped there as surely as he’d been trapped on the galley.
“Once again he had to choose whether to live, or to give up and die. Once again he decided to live.
“The man came to love the old people dearly, and they him. He took on many of tasks the old man could no longer manage. They fed him from their meager store, and he grew strong and well again, although he would never again be the man he was before his time as a galley slave.
“To add to their meager food he trapped wild goats in the hills. One day, when he looked back to the cottage, he saw the old woman frantically waving her white apron in his direction.
“He hurried back down the slope, but he was too late. The old man had fallen. His back was broken, and he died during the night. The next morning they buried him not far from the cottage, and life continued more or less as it had before.
“The man began to wonder what would happen if a ship ever came to the island. He couldn’t leave the old woman here alone, and she wouldn’t think of leaving. The problem was solved for him, but not in a way he would have wished for.
“Some months later he was away from home again. He’d spent the night on the other side of the island, and as he crested the ridge, not far from the spot where he’d climbed that first day, he could see a ship moored in the bay near the cottage. Excited, but cautious, he made his way down the hill. As he drew closer to the cottage he heard voices. On the bench next to the door men sat drinking the wine the old lady kept for festivals. The old people’s possessions were strewn around them. The woman who’d been like a grandmother to him lay on the ground. He could see, even from the bushes where he hid, she was dead.”
“Did he kill the men? Did he avenge the death of the grandmother he loved?” demanded Berenice.
“No,” Gareth answered.
“Why not? The coward!”
Gareth was quiet for a long moment, working his way diligently through the tangles in Berenice’s hair. It had almost dried while he was talking. In truth the knots had long gone, but he was enjoying the experience too much to stop.
“Against two of them he would have had a chance. Even weaponless as he was he knew the island well. The effects of the wine would soon show, and the men would probably fall asleep, believing themselves to be safe.
“But they weren’t alone. From where the man hid he could hear sounds and other voices from the cove. Quietly he crept away, swearing to one day avenge the grandmother’s death.
“In the cove below the cottage men were filling water barrels at a stream, loading them into the dinghy, and taking them back out to the ship. It was a Genoese merchantman, and so was powered by sail, not slaves. For this he gave thanks. As for the Genoese, he knew they’d take a profit where they found it.
“One of the men on the shore looked as though he were in charge. The man walked out of the trees, his hands open, his arms held out from his side to show he wasn’t armed. Although he didn’t speak Italian, he and the captain both spoke a little Arabic, the common language of traders.
“He asked for passage on the ship to the nearest port. The captain was a hard man. He said he’d no need of extra crew but would be prepared to take him for payment.
“The man had nothing to trade. He’d arrived on the island wearing little more than his chains. The old people had only a few hand-made tools.
“So he traded the only thing of any value to him.”
“And what was that?” she asked, turning to face him, “You just said he had nothing.”
“He had his life, his freedom. For his passage to the nearest port, he traded his freedom.”
“No!” she cried, “how could he? To have escaped a galley, only to fall into the hands of slavers!”
He saw her eyes, as dark as the Mediterranean, brimmed with tears. One escaped and trickled down her cheek. Cupping her face in the palm of his hand he wiped it away with his thumb.
“Do not weep, my Lady, ‘tis only a story, a tale to while away the time until the sun completes its work, and your hair and garments dry.”
“Is that all it is? But what happened to him? You must tell me!”
“Lady, Lady, don’t distress yourself. The rest of the tale, for there are many more stories of the adventures of this man, will keep until another day.”
“You will tell me them all?” Her eyes, wide with wonder, gazed into his. Her lips, the most enticing shade of pink, waited to be kissed.
It would be so simple, he thought, to kiss away her tears, to draw her into his arms and hold her close. Where would be the harm in taking what was his by right of law and of God?
But it wasn’t simple to her, he’d seen that in the river. She was right to reject him. Even though she had no idea who he was her senses told her what he was. Clearly he disgusted her.
What if she were to come to him willingly? A man could dream, after all.
But he knew he dared not hold her again, for once she was in his arms he would never be able to let her go.
And let her go he must.