Yvonne, Lady of Cassio
238 pages
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238 pages
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When Yvonne and Elizabeth, daughters of ruthless Simon Lovage, Earl of Cassio, are born under the same star to different mothers, no one could have foretold their lives would be irrevocably entangled. Against the background of Edward II’s turbulent reign in the thirteenth century, Yvonne, Lady of Cassio, contains imaginary and historical characters. It is said the past is a foreign country in which things were done differently. Nevertheless, although that is true of attitudes, such as those towards women and children, our ancestors were also prompted by ambition, anger, greed, jealousy, humanity, duty, loyalty, unselfishness and love. From early childhood, despite those who love her and want to protect her, Yvonne is forced to face difficult economic, personal and political circumstances, during a long, often bitter struggle.

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Publié par
Date de parution 01 juin 2014
Nombre de lectures 4
EAN13 9781773621791
Langue English

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,021€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.

Exrait

The Lovages ofCassio
Volume One
Yvonne, Lady ofCassio
 
By Rosemary Morris
 
Digital ISBN
EPUB978-1-77362-179-1
Kindle978-1-77362-100-5
WEB978-1-77362-180-7
PrintISBN 978-1-77362-101-2
 

 
 
Copyright201 4 by Rosemary Morris
Cover art by MichelleLee
 
Allrights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyrightreserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced,stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, inany form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying,recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission ofboth the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.
 
“ Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm;for love is as strong as death, jealousy is cruel as thegrave.”
— Songof Solomon
 
Dedication
 
To mycherished daughter, Veena, whom I am proud of,
withappreciation for her kindness, love and support.
Part One
The Baby
 
 
 
Chapter One
Cassio Castle—SouthEast England
1298
 
Alice stumbledafter the squire, who guided her from her home in Lovage village tothe nearby island fortress, Cassio Castle. After she followed himup stone stairs, they trod the length of a dim corridor. The squirehalted. He pointed at a massive oak door which stood ajar. “Inthere.”
Alice steppedacross the threshold of a magnificent bedchamber furnished with ahuge bed, painted coffers and many other items. She gasped, for shehad never imagined such luxury. Until now, she knew only the tworooms in the thatched cottage she and her large family shared withthe livestock they hoped would survive winter’s frozen grip. Here alog fire blazed and a blend of familiar dried lemon balm andlavender scented the air.
Too frightenedto face Simon Lovage, Alice quivered. She took a deep breath andlooked down at her feet. She could recite frightening tales of themuscular, fiery-haired Earl of Cassio—accounts of his insistence onbedding peasant women, whether they were willing not.
She must staycalm. According to other resentful brides-to-be, who endured theloss of their maidenhood when taken by the earl, resistance wouldlead to violence. She would bear in mind her mother’s advice toturn the situation to her advantage—the loss of her virtue inexchange for privileges.
The earl strodeto her. His large hand cupped her chin. “Look at me, girl. Do youknow why you are here?”
Although Alicedared not disobey him, she was somewhat reassured because he hadnot seized her with hands as cruel as her betrothed’s when he triedto force her to yield her virginity. Yet, still fearful of theunknown, Alice swallowed.
She assessedthe old man, who stood before her straight as a lance, unlikevillage men who thought they were old if they lived until the ageof forty. Besides, most of those who reached such an age enduredbent backs and gnarled hands from their labours on the land sincechildhood.
Heat scaldedher cheeks. She would not think of her betrothed, who ranted andswore when he heard of the summons, before he sought solace inliberal servings of strong home-brewed ale. Moreover, she cared nomore for him than she did for the earl.
Alice eyed thelarge bed. She nodded in answer to the question.
“Come here.Don’t be frightened. If you submit, other than piercing yourmaidenhead I shall not hurt you.”
 
* * *
 
When Alice wokein the morning after Simon parted the thick moss-green bedcurtains, she stirred in the warm nest of rumpled linen sheets andbedcovers.
“My tub and hotwater to fill it,” Simon bellowed to his body squires.
Thoughtful, shestretched. The old man had kept his word to hurt her no more thannecessary. After he penetrated the barrier between maidenhood andwomanhood, his expertise had awakened her desire for more pleasuresof the flesh.
While hebathed, attended by a body squire, she lay quietly, conscious ofsoreness but not pain.
The earlstepped out of the tub. “Get up…what-is-your-name?”
Embarrassed bythe thought of his body squires seeing her naked, she pulled thebedcovers up to her chin.
“Well?” EarlSimon asked, an impatient edge to his tone.
“I’m Alice, mylord.”
“The name suitsyou. Water’s still warm. You may bathe.”
Alice tuggedthe bedcovers higher. He laughed at her embarrassment before heleft the chamber with his squires.
She must havepleased him because after the bath, a woman servant handed herfiner clothes than any she had previously worn.
“I overheardthe earl praising your beauty,” the woman told her, as she helpedAlice to dress.
Alice shrugged.Many others had remarked on her almond-shaped blue eyes and admiredher mass of curly, honey fair hair that cascaded to her hips.
While shesmoothed the soft, borage flower blue wool of the first surcoat shehad ever owned, her lord returned to hand her a purse. “You pleasedme. Take this gift.”
Alice returnedhis stare, angered by his assumption she was a loose woman whowanted payment. At that moment, she forgot her mother’s advice togain as much from him as possible.
She scrutinisedhim; desire throbbed in her woman’s parts. Her overlord raised abushy eyebrow. She stretched her arms out to embrace him. Hisnostrils flared. He took a step forward. Afraid she had been toobold, she wrapped her arms around her waist.
Simon chuckled.“You are unlike outraged wenches who either grab my gift beforethey run away dressed in their new clothes, or those who eitherweep or say they hate me.”
Compared to herbetrothed, the lord smelled good. Yet hearsay told her the violenceof his Viking ancestors, which served him so well on thebattlefield, threatened to boil over at any moment. If she pleasedhim he could offer her a better life. She wanted to stay with him.Better to be a rich man’s mistress than a poor man’s wife.
The earlinterrupted her thoughts. “Your money, Alice.”
When she didnot reach for it, Simon pressed the leather drawstring purse intoher hand. They stared at each other again. Her free hand creptaround his neck. Simon’s mouth covered hers before he carried herback to his bed where he removed her surcoat. “How old are you,girl?”
Alice summonedher courage. She wanted the benefits he could bestow. “Not Girl!Call me Alice. I’m fifteen.”
A skein of herhair lay across his hand. He raised it to his lips and kissed it.“God has blessed you, Alice. You arouse me in a way few womendo.”
She fondled hishand, admiring his well-tended oval nails, so different from herbetrothed’s dirt encrusted ones. Simon withdrew his hand from herclasp. She veiled her eyes with her lashes and grasped hisbattle-hardened hand again. After turning it over, she kissed itspalm. “Please don’t send me away. I prefer you to the man the reeveordered me to marry.”
“You don’t wantan old warrior like me, do you?”
She opened hermouth to insist she did but closed it when someone knocked on thedoor.
“Enter,” Simonshouted.
A young squirestepped into the chamber. “I bring news, if it pleases you, mylord.”
“Speak.”
The squire, whoseemed ill at ease, approached the earl and spoke too low for herto hear.
The lord stoodsteady as a strong wall, his feet wide apart. “There is no easy wayto deliver bad tidings, Alice.” He cleared his throat. “Poor child,your future bridegroom became as drunk as a fiddler’s whore. I amsorry to say he fell into the moat and drowned.”
Shocked intosilence Alice looked into her blunt lord’s bright blue eyes. Sheimagined her betrothed, Peter, intoxicated with ale and heart sorebecause the earl had summoned her. Her stomach churned. By nowPeter’s mother and sisters would be weeping. It seemed her hearthad turned into granite. Guilt consumed her because, instead ofgrieving, she was glad Peter would never touch her again. She triedto pacify her conscience. Always honest, she admitted his deathcame as a relief. After all, she had not welcomed her betrothal tothe clumsy young man.
Alice gazed atEarl Simon without resentment. From the moment, he clasped her handshe thrilled to his touch. She wanted more, much more, yet what didhe want? Was she only one of unimportant young girls to passthrough his bed chamber? Could she find a way to stay? If he didnot want to keep her, she must brave his anger to change his mind.For a moment, she hesitated. One day she would have to pay theprice of immorality. For now, young and healthy, judgement dayseemed far away.
 
 
 
Chapter Two
CassioCastle
South EastEngland
Winter,1299
 
Alice’s sister,Gytha the wise woman, gazed down at her patient.
Seated on thebirthing stool, her face twisted in agony, Matilda, Countess ofCassio, squeezed her eyes shut. She strained. Blood spattered thestone floor. “Help me,” she begged.
Gytha wiped theperspiration from the countess’s forehead with a cloth. She wishedshe could protect her from Simon of Cassio’s brutality; however,she would help her to deliver the child. “Be brave, my lady, yourbaby will be born soon.”
Flames leapthigh above massive logs in the fireplace. Gytha sweltered in theoverheated chamber, nearly as hot as a blacksmith’s forge. Shelonged to open the shutters to admit cool air, but could notbecause everyone present believed a woman in travail must be keptwarm. Gytha caught her lower lip between her teeth. Perhaps oneshutter should be partially raised and the window opened a littleso, God forbid, if either—or both—the mother and babe died, theirsouls could fly out on their way to heaven. She wiped theperspiration from Matilda’s brow, hoping to deliver the babe beforemuch longer.
In the goldenglow cast by the fire and numerous candles, Matilda’s bodycontorted in the grip of a prolonged contraction. Poor lady,trapped in an unhappy marriage . Gytha despised the earl. Yearsago, when he had married Matilda, he had exercised his right toimpregnate his thirteen-year-old bride. Her patient groaned.“There, there, my lady.” Gytha brushed Matilda’s sweat-darkenedhair to remove the tangles believed impede the birth. “Save yourstrength. Don’t fret.” Gytha took another deep breath. The labourwas taking too long.
“Will I die?”Matilda asked in a faint voice when the contraction ended.
What could shereply, other than to reassure the frightened noblewoman? Childbirthwas always dangerous. If the unfortunate countess died, Gytha didnot doubt Earl Simon would marry again in the hope of breeding moresons. “Don’t you worry, my lady, you ask the same question everytime you bring a baby into the world. If I thought you’re about tomeet your Maker I’d summon a priest to shrive you.”
“Oh, I want topresent my lord husband with another son,” Matilda moaned. “Hehates me and will not be satisfied until I do.”
Gytha thoughtof Alice, her eighteen-year old sister soon to give birth to EarlSimon’s bastard. If Alice did not insist she was content, Gythawould have believed the earl despised women.
“It won’t belong now,” Gytha told Matilda’s nobly born ladies. “Warm theswaddling clothes by the fire. Prepare fresh garments for yourlady. Send to the kitchens for broth to sustain her after thebirth.”
She knew theyobeyed her grudgingly but did not dare to ignore her. Tempted togive vent to her resentment, Gytha controlled herself. After all,what did she care for these supercilious Norman attendants, who didnot reply because they looked down on villeins? She and her familysuffered in bondage, but before the Norman William conquered thecountry, her ancestors owned the Cassio estates, including theisland on which Cassio Castle now stood. Five generations after theconquest, her family’s resentment still burned. She lookedcontemptuously at the attendants. The proud women would obey herbecause of her skills, which she used to treat all her patientswith equal care, whether she liked them or not.
An hour later,the head crowned. “Push,” Gytha urged when the next contractionseized her patient.
Matildascreamed. An indignant red face appeared. With the next contractionthe shoulders slipped out. The babe rushed into the world.
“A boy?” thecountess gasped.
The infant’slusty cries filled the bedchamber.
Gytha examinedthe baby. “A daughter, a healthy girl with hair fair as herfather’s.”
“God help me,”Matilda whispered. “He will vent his spite on me.”
Gytharecognized the plea for sympathy. “Don’t cry, my lady.”
The afterbirthslithered out. Matilda twisted the folds of her smock with hands sotense that knotted blue veins stood out against her white skin. “Inforty days, after I am churched, my lord will try to father anotherson.”
“I’ll soon haveyou comfortable.” Gytha removed the countess’s soiled garment. Shewashed her with rosemary-steeped water, dressed her in a cleansmock, and combed and braided the countess’s fair hair. She sighed,filled with pity for the unfortunate woman. Gytha could imagine nocouple more ill-matched than the Lovages. The countess literate,pale of face, delicate, pious and charitable; the earl, a shrewdbut illiterate warrior, boisterous, selfish and fond of hunting.Gytha shook her head. Did her sister love Lord Simon, or did shepretend to?
Matilda’s sobrecalled Gytha to her duties. She busied herself with a brew towhich she added a small pinch of powdered poppy, poured the mixtureinto a beech wood bowl and offered it to her patient. “Drink this,my lady, it will calm you.”
Matilda rolledher eyes. “Why, oh why, did only one of my little boyssurvive?”
Gytha guidedthe bowl of clear, green liquid to Matilda’s lips. “Finish thisbefore I help you into bed. You need rest to refresh you.”
“Will my lordallow me to sleep?”
“The drink willensure slumber.”
An attendantopened the door in response to a knock.
A page peeredaround the door frame. “Simon of Cassio asks if the child isborn.”
“Yes, a healthydaughter and—” Gytha began. Before she could finish the sentencethe lad sped away.
After bathingthe baby, she tried to interest the mother in the new-born child.“Look at those plump little limbs. What will you name her?”
Tears streameddown Matilda’s cheeks. “If my lord agrees, she shall be christenedYvonne, which is my mother’s name,” she whispered.
“Your baby isas healthy and pretty a maid as any I’ve seen come from the womb.I—” Gytha broke off when the oak door opened with such force thatit crashed against the wall.
Simon of Cassiostamped into the room. In a drunken rage he hammered hisleather-gloved fist against the stone surround of the fireplace.“Maid! Curse you, wife. Another daughter!”
One never knewwhat the earl would do. Although Matilda needed calm, Gytha did notdare to protest. She stared at the earl, whose temper often spurtedfrom him.
He stood withhis legs wide apart, hands clasped behind his back and his chinthrust forward.
Gytha gulped asthough she could swallow her fear of her feudal lord.
The earl glaredat his wife and grabbed hold of Yvonne. “Useless. A man needs sonsnot pawns to be given in marriage.” The babe howled. Her eyes shuttight, her tiny face scarlet.
Gytha curbedher impulse to snatch the new-born from him.
“Perhaps Ishould rid myself of her,” Earl Simon roared.
Gytha dashedforward to stand between him and the fireplace.
“Out of myway.” He elbowed her aside. He tossed the babe towards thevoracious flames in the fireplace.
The countessand her attendants screamed.
Gytha dodgedforward. She caught the baby. Terrified the monstrous earl wouldwrest the infant from her, she retreated.
Sweat streameddown the earl’s face. He grimaced and pressed a hand to his heart.“Swaddle her.” He laughed. “I have changed my mind. I shall notroast her like a plump capon.” Earl Simon stared balefully at hiswife. “See, I can be merciful. Yet, although I am a worthyChristian man, God does not love me. If He did, all my sons wouldhave lived, and your daughters would not have drawn breath.”
Matilda’s tearsflowed. “My lord, it is a mortal sin to question God’s will.”
He waved aclenched fist at her. “I should punish you for daring to criticiseme.”
Matilda closedher eyes.
Gytha scowled.When they married, Simon and Matilda disliked each other. Beforelong, their mutual aversion burgeoned into hatred.
“Open youreyes, Matilda,” Simon yelled. “Am I not as good or better aChristian than any other lord in the realm? Have I not paid enoughmonks to keep them at their prayers? The fault of having only oneliving son must be yours.” Lips pursed, he strode out of thebedchamber.
Gytha’s legstrembled. She beckoned to the lady appointed to be the wet nurse.“Time to suckle this little one.”
Matilda’s eyesclosed again. “I am forty, too old to bear more children. I’veendured fifteen pregnancies. May God strike me barren,” shemuttered.
“Sleep, mylady.” Gytha pressed her right hand into the small of her achingback. She faced one of the attendants. “I must leave. If yourmistress needs me, send word to my sister, Alice, at her cottage,”she said too quietly for the countess to overhear.
Although herbones ached with weariness she must attend Alice, but first sheneeded to eat and drink.
On her way tothe great hall, she shivered. Outside, the northeast wind hurleditself against the outer walls in attempts to invade them withneedles of ice-cold winter air.
In the hall,crowded with household knights and servants, she spoke to avarlet.
“Are youwell?”
He nodded.“Yes, thanks to you for curing my fever. I shall pay you when Ican.”
She smiled atthe lad. “Some bread and cheese will suffice.”
When hereturned with the food and a mazer full of mead, she sat on a stoolin the corner. The drink on the floor, she bit into the soft breadand tasty cheese.
Plump MasterSpicer, the earl’s dapper apothecary-in-residence, bustled up toher. “How does her ladyship fare?”
Glad to seehim, Gytha stood and bobbed a curtsey. “Well enough, she isdelivered of a healthy daughter.”
“Sit down. Youlook exhausted.”
“Yes, I am.”She stretched her aching back. “During my thirty years, I haveworked hard.” She sank back onto the stool.
Master Spicerraised his eyebrows. “It’s as unlike you to admit to bodily frailtyas it is for your mother. By the way, how is Edith? Is she stilltreating the sick, delivering babies, laying out the dead, andselling herbs?”
“Yes, Mothertreats those who come to her door, but since my man died five yearsago she leaves the rest to me.” She swallowed hard. At the thoughtof her good husband, grief welled up in her. Once again she wishedshe had borne him a son or daughter. She shook her head—foolish towish for a child born into servitude.
“With what haveyou dosed her ladyship?”
“Poppy, a honeysweetened decoction of raspberry leaves to strengthen her womb, andanother of nettles to cleanse her blood.”
“Did you gatherherbs by moonlight?”
Despite thenoise surrounding them, she looked around afraid of beingoverheard. “If I did?”
“Gytha, youknow how strict the church is. Last week a woman in Guildford faceda charge of witchcraft.”
“Please don’tfear for me. I pray to our Lord, His Blessed Mother and the saintsbefore I treat a patient.” She made the sign of the Cross. “When Ido the Lord’s work, I also pray for His protection.” Nevertheless,in spite of her brave words, she shivered. Accusations ofwitchcraft, possible torture and death by fire terrified her. “WhenI finish eating and drinking I must be on my way.”
 
 
 
ChapterThree
CassioCastle
Winter,1299
 
Simon sat bythe hearth in his great hall waiting for news of Alice, his paramour’s delivery. With surprise, he realized that every dayduring the last three years, whenever he thought of a woman, fairAlice crept into his mind; and when he thought of home, he picturedher standing at the door ready to welcome him. He grinned. Despiteher low birth, her beauty enthralled him, and her charm rivalledthat of any sumptuously gowned lady at court.
He admired hisambitious young par amour for exercising her right to claiman assart, which bordered the forest on the outskirts of LovageVillage. She had marked out an area large enough to support twocows, a few pigs and some chickens, and with her family’s help hadtilled her plot.
His thoughtswandered to Alice’s thatched roofed outhouses leaning against theside of the slate-roofed cottage. He felt more at ease in her home,built at his command, than here in his great hall with wallspainted dull yellow, on which hung shields, tapestries and paintedcloths in bright hues.
Simon frowned.By now, the babe should have entered the world. He glanced around,aware of several of his hearth knights, whose glowering facesquestioned him. Simon scowled. He knew his family and knightsreferred to his sweet Alice as the earl’s strumpet. God rot theirsouls in hell.
He beckoned toa squire. “Send for news to Alice’s cottage.”
“At once, mylord.”
Simon’sexpression softened. How did Alice hold him in her thrall? Why didthe best days of his life begin when she woke up beside him?
Minstrels sangof knights seeking the love of highborn maidens and virtuousladies. He snorted at the thought. Those romantic ballads lied. Aman like him did not expect to find love in marriage. Noblemen wedfor heirs, land, and prestige. He groaned. God forgive him for hisaversion to his milk and water wife and his delight in red-bloodedAlice. She pleased him so well that since he took her as hismistress, the only other woman he had bedded was his wife, with thehope of fathering another legitimate son.
He hoped Alicewould bear a male, someone he could advance in the world. Hedrummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. A man could hastendeath with sword, lance or mace, but birth—the sole province ofwomen—came in its own due time. He watched the fire die down toash, grateful because his own lusty fire still burned bright.
 
* * *
 
Alice’s Cottage
 
Gytha crossedthe inner bailey. She pulled the edge of her wimple over her mouth,then tugged her hood further down over her forehead . Thefrigid air froze her breath when she exhaled, but, relieved to befree of Lady Matilda’s oppressive bedchamber, she did not mind.
She pitiednew-born Yvonne. Some eighteen years ago, to celebrate the birth ofhis only son, John, the earl had held a sumptuous feast to whichbeggars from several counties came to receive alms and leftoverfood. Gytha tutted. The earl would not celebrate Yvonne’s birth.Indignation quickening her breathing, she hurried past the stonebake-house, armoury, stables, and other buildings—all of them agreat improvement on the warren of wooden structures gutted by firetwelve years ago.
She sighed. Theearl would not reward her for delivering another daughter, andpossibly saving the life of his wife, whose faith in her healingskills increased year by year. Gytha’s resentment increased andkept pace with her quick footsteps. She scowled. Curse the earl forhis meanness. If he could afford to renovate Cassio Castle andbuild a new manor, which rumour claimed surpassed any other in therealm, he could afford to be generous. After all, he must be one ofthe richest, if not the richest, magnate in the kingdom.
If she haddelivered a boy, she might have dared to trade on the earl’s joy byasking to become a free woman. Well, she must be patient. Perhapsthe countess would reward her with a heavy purse full of coins.
“God speed.”The sentry unlocked the gate between the inner and outer bailey.She hurried past the barracks to the portcullis set in the massivecurtain wall, which surrounded the castle, interspersed with fourdrum towers.
The sentries,whose cuts and bruises, fluxes and agues she had treated over theyears, knew her well.
“Where are youbound?” one of them asked.
“To deliver achild.”
A sentry raisedthe portcullis. “God speed you, Dame Gytha. He lowered thedrawbridge.
Gytha steppedonto the hump-backed bridge over the river, a sheet of star-brightice beneath the sickle moon embedded in a purple-black sky. Sheyawned, her eyes heavy with fatigue, and consoled herself with thethought of the pack animal she planned to buy. Curse the earl. Ifhe had been generous this evening, she would have been able to buya strong donkey or sumpter horse.
Wary ofslipping and possibly breaking a limb, she clutched her weatheredoak staff and plodded through ankle-deep snow. Not for the firsttime, she tried to decide if she pitied her sister. Was Alice’sillicit relationship with Lord Simon for good or ill?
Due to Alice’scharm, her elderly lover believed her fascination with him equalledhis for her. Sometimes she queried Alice’s happiness; however, sheshared her sister’s ambition to become a freewoman. Would the earlever allow them to purchase their freedom?
Gytha battledher way towards the cottage, driven onward by the wind at her back,and thought of the neighbours’ fingers pointed at her family and ofthe fists shaken at Alice. She could not remember a day when folkdid not gossip about Edith, her mother, who learned her skills fromher own mother. No matter how often Edith insisted, “The driedherbs hanging from the rafters of my cottage are only forhealing , ” some people suspected they were for worsepurposes. Folk still scratched at the door during the night withthe false belief that Mother had charms and potions to ill-wish aneighbour or snare a lover; yet by day, many murmured against her.“Edith’s love potion caught the earl for Alice,” Gytha had oftenheard villagers mutter.
Thank goodnessAlice was not frightened by whispers such as, “ S he snared Simon of Cassio with witchcraft” . She frowned. IfAlice birthed a son, gossips might go so far as to whisper thatAlice consorted with the devil to conceive a man-child. Gytha drewher cloak closer around her, and refused to dwell on the darkmatters that had shivered through her veins. She knew why hersister was grateful to the earl. Alice had grinned and explained,“For one thing, he smells better than the men in the village,because he does not muck out animals, share a cottage with them orclear filthy ditches . ” Until her first visit to Alice in herlarge cottage, Gytha had never noticed the stink in the small oneher family shared and, in winter, with a pig and chickens. If Alicewere not the earl’s woman, she would now be crammed into an equallysmelly dwelling with her husband and his relations.
Gytha sighed.Some of the neighbours praised her sister for squeezing somethingout of the lord of the manor. Unfortunately, others made the signof the cross to protect themselves from the evil eye whenever theysaw Alice or any member of her family. They did not need to. Hermother’s skill and her own stemmed mostly from knowledge andobservation. Yet, in her heart she knew there was something else.One of their forebears had been a leech doctor who knew the oldways. It was rumoured that he had followed the ancient Goddess andher consort. From him, Gytha suspected, came the double blessingand curse of the gift of second sight.
She glimpsedcandlelight through swirling snowflakes. God be praised forbringing her safe to her sister’s snug home. On such a night,travellers not only feared outlaws. They were also afraid ofslipping on the frozen ground and breaking a limb. Gytha smiled inappreciation of the soft radiance from the horn lantern hung on thewooden peg above the door. Soon she would be warm indoors. Shewalked along the path to the cottage and applied a wooden clappersuspended by icy braided rags.
“Is that you,Gytha?” her mother shouted from within.
“Yes,” shebellowed, loud enough for her voice to be heard above the windcarrying its mournful song from the forest.
The door openedrevealing Edith’s smiling face. “I delivered your sister of a fairmaid at twilight. Our Alice shelled her like a pea from the pod.She shook her head, the lines on her face deepening. The earl won’tbe pleased with another daughter.”
Featherysnowflakes blew through the door into the room. Gytha hastened intothe cottage. “No, the earl won’t. He is furious because thecountess also birthed a daughter at the same time.
Edith shut andbarred the door.
“Enough of him,Mother. How is Alice?” Gytha undid the wooden brooch, which claspedher cloak at her throat. She shook out the garment and hung it froman oak peg on one side of the fireplace.
“She iswell.”
“Mother, Ithought a fever kept you from the castle to assist with LadyMatilda’s groaning. If I’d known you were here, I’d not haveslogged along forest paths on such a bitter night.”
“No need toworry about me. After I dosed myself with hot elderflower cordialfor a day and a night I recovered.”
“I’m gladyou’re in good health.”
Gytha hurriedinto the adjacent chamber where her sister slept, a new-born babein the curve of her arm. Almost speechless, Gytha gazed down at herniece’s face illuminated by firelight.
“What is it?”asked Edith, who had followed her. “You seem astonished.”
“She and theearl’s other new-born are as alike as two freshly-minted coins.”Love for her niece surged through Gytha. She bent to press a kisson the tiny cheek and laughed when the baby’s miniscule tongueappeared between her lips.
“Look at hertiny fingers and their minute nails,” Gytha marvelled whilestroking the infant’s wisps of hair.
Edith smiled.“Gytha, you’ve already seen enough babies not to coo over this one.Come, Alice and my granddaughter have earned their rest.”
In the mainchamber Edith dipped a ladle into an iron pot, scooped up hotpottage, and poured the contents into a wooden bowl. “Sup this, itwill put heart into you.”
 
* * *
 
In the morning,a loud noise jolted Gytha awake.
“Open thedoor!” Someone thumped on it repeatedly. Although fear gripped her,she rose and removed her cloak from the peg. She peeped through aknothole in the pine door. “Who is there?”
“Open in thename of the Earl of Cassio,” a masculine voice shouted.
“What do youwant?” Gytha shouted back.
“The wet nursedoes not have enough milk. My lord sends his daughter to be nursedby his strumpet.”
AstonishedGytha stared at him. A wet nurse with plentiful milk had beenselected. Even if the woman’s milk had mysteriously dried up, itwould be a simple matter to find someone else to suckle DemoiselleYvonne. What’s more, surely the earl would want Alice back in hisbed after she was churched. So why had he sent his legitimatedaughter to be nursed by Alice alongside his bastard? She sighed.Most likely malice prompted him to humiliate his unfortunatewife.
Gytha wrappedthe cloak around her, unbarred the door, and peered out. At thesight of four mounted men guarding a woman holding a bundle closeto her body, a frisson of fear swift as the fast-falling snowflakesflurried along Gytha’s spine.
“Take thebaby,” one of the men-at-arms ordered.
Gytha steppedoutside. She winced. The cold from the stone doorstep beneath itslayer of snow penetrated the soles of her woollen stockings. Shereached up. The woman bent from the horse to hand her Yvonne asthough the poor little mite was a piece of unwanted baggage.
Harnesses andbits jingled breaking winter’s frozen silence; the horses turned topick their way along the snow-covered path.
“At least thebabe’s warm enough,” said Edith, who had followed her to the door.“Someone wrapped her in a lamb’s fleece. Take her to Alice. What isthe earl thinking of to send the baby here in such cruel coldweather?”
Edith laughedwhen Yvonne cried. “Judging by the noise coming from such a scrap,she’s got a good pair of lungs.”
Gytha gazeddown at the outraged little face. “Go back to sleep, Mother, I’llhelp Alice with the babies.”
“Did you hear?”Gytha asked in the bedchamber where Alice lay awake with herdaughter at her side.
“Yes, pleasehand me the child.”
Gytha put thesqualling infant in Alice’s arms. “Don’t you mind?” she asked afterAlice guided the hungry baby’s mouth to her nipple.
“Mindwhat?”
“The earl’sorder to nurse Demoiselle Yvonne.” While she spoke Gytha removedher stockings and then hung them above the hearth to dry.
“No, I don’tmind, and don’t you fret about me. I’m content with my lord. Thinkof everything he’s given me.”
“What of thechurch’s teachings?”
“Although thepriest says it’s sinful to bed with Earl Simon and bear his child,I’ve a lot to thank him for.”
Gytha glancedat Alice. “Yet, we’re as much his chattel as his furnishings,clothes, cattle, dogs, and horses. If I didn’t love my family I’drun away.”
“Oh, Gytha,don’t even think of it. Do you know of anyone who, in accordancewith the law, gained freedom after hiding in a walled town for ayear and a day? Should you be caught you would be returned here,and maybe branded and flogged.” Alice’s eyes narrowed. “I swear onmy little daughter’s life, that if it’s in my power to prevent it,she and I shall not be villeins for much longer. Moreover, if Ican, I shall free all our family.
 
 
 
Chapter Four
Alice’sCottage
Winter,1299
 
Simon of Cassiocrossed the main room of his par amour’s cottage, hisfootsteps releasing the fragrance of dried lavender, thyme, andother strewing herbs mingled with the rushes. He entered thebedchamber.
“My lord.”Alice snuggled down on the comfortable mattress filled withfeathers. Her smile confident, she smoothed the linen sheet, one ofhis many gifts.
“What have youto say?”
“Welcome, mylord.”
Alice’s lipsparted revealing her small, even teeth. The corners of her lusciousmouth tilted upwards as though she would smile at him again. Asusual, her beauty captivated him. He gazed into Alice’s eyes, asblue as a summer sea lit by radiant sunshine.
Simon steppedforward. He bent to look at his daughters, who lay within thecurves of Alice’s arms.
“Don’t theymake the prettiest sight you ever did see, my lord?”
They did. Eachbabe had inherited his golden hair, forget-me-not blue eyes andfair skin. “Yes and they look like twins.” He gazed down at them,too proud to admit he wronged his legitimate daughter when he senther to the cottage. No matter how much he wanted to spite hiscountess, Yvonne should be brought up in accordance with herrank.
“Well, theirresemblance to each other is only to be expected,” Alice’s voicebroke into his thoughts. “After all they were born close togetherunder the same star.” She looked at them fondly. “They’re goodlittle maids. Yvonne is wearing the coral bracelet her sister,Demoiselle Blanche, gave her. The other one is our dear daughter.”She bent her head. “Our poor babe will never be decked withfinery.”
AlthoughAlice’s thick braids partially concealed her face, he glimpsed thehot colour that spread over her high cheekbones.
He scooped uptheir daughter. Her tiny fingers grasped one of the gold medallionslinked by the chain that formed a glittering semicircle across hischest. He chuckled. “Like me baby knows what she wants.”
Tears formedglistening paths down Alice’s cheeks. “I pray that next time we’llhave a fine lad who looks like you.”
Simon stared ather, almost able to forgive her for birthing a female. When he madeher his par amour he had not intended to grow fond of her.Today, what would he not give to make her happy? “Why are youcrying?”
“Because ourchildren will never know what it is to be free.”
Alice’s failureto bear a bastard son was of no real importance, but his innervoice whispered, “If he is a freeman, even a base born son can beacknowledged. He can join the church, become a clerk, or advance onthe battlefield.” His eyes narrowed. What if he died while Alicecarried his child in her belly? If she bore a male, what wouldbecome of him? A pain jabbed his chest. Breathless he pressed hishand to it. He hoped his health would not fail.
Alice laidYvonne beside her on the bed. The gold bracelet set with coral andturquoise around the baby’s plump little wrist gleamed. Simonlooked down at his other daughter, her weight negligible in hisarms. He swallowed. What would happen to Alice and their child ifhe died? He must provide for them. For now, he would give the babea present.
Alice easedherself out of bed. She took their daughter from him, then smoothedback a wisp of the baby’s copper-gold hair. “Would you like someale?”
“Did you brewit?”
“No, Fatherdid. There’s nothing like strong ale to strengthen a newmother.”
“Then drinkhearty, Alice, so you will be bonnie and buxom in bed. And,” hebegan in response to his arousal at the thought of her compliance,“employ a wet nurse.”
His desire forher mounted, but he could not lie with her until she was churched.He almost groaned as he watched her full hips sway while shecrossed the room.
Sad-faced, sheserved him with a wooden bowl full of ale with a good head toit.
“What isamiss?”
“Nothingimportant, my lord.”
He frowned.Surely an innocent wench like Alice knew nothing about artifice anddeception. “Do you need something?” His tone sounded sharper thanhe intended.
“What could Ineed? You give me your protection.” She smiled. “I’m grateful forthis cottage.” Her eyebrows arched. “And I’m glad it’s in a lonelyplace. Few folk from the village come hereabouts, which means youcan visit me without being spied upon.”
Alice’sindustry amused him. After her family had ploughed three fieldsduring her pregnancy Alice had told him: “My assart will providefor my needs, and I hope for a surplus to sell at LovageMarket.”
“Do you,indeed?” he had replied.
“Yes, if yougrant me a licence, I shall have a market stall where I will sellmy extra produce alongside wild herbs and those I cultivate aroundmy cottage. Mother and Gytha already have a licence which permitsthem to sell herbs, tinctures and suchlike.”
Simonconsidered her plan while he sipped some ale. “If I allow you totrade, what will you do with your money?”
“With yourpermission I’ll buy our child’s freedom and my own.”
He scowled.Unlike his late father he had never freed a villein.
“Don’t beangry, my lord. I love you. While I’ve breath in my body, I shallnever refuse you anything.”
Simon glared.Why did Alice tremble? He never spoke harsh words to her. “No needto purchase it. I shall free you.”
Alice burstinto tears.
“Would youprefer to buy your freedom?” he teased, surprised but amused by herreaction.
She shook herhead.
“I must go.Tomorrow you’ll receive a scroll signed by witnesses. It willattest you and the babe are free.” Hand on the latch he turned toface her again. “Why have you not named our daughter?”
“The villagepriest refused to baptise her.”
“What do youcall her?”
Alice hung herhead.
Simon crossedthe room to tilt her chin with his thumb. “Answer me.” Aliceshivered. “Are you frightened of me?”
His paramour nodded.
“How foolish, Ihave never hurt you. Moreover, I have granted you your freedom.Now, tell me why you have not chosen a name for our daughter.”
“I have. I hopeyou will like it.”
The uncertaintyin Alice’s eyes wounded him. “What is it?” he asked gently.
“Elizabeth.”
“A goodlyChristian name. I shall order the village priest to baptiseher.”
 
 
 
Chapter Five
LovageVillage
January , 1300
 
In the presenceof Alice, her sisters and her mother, the disgruntled villagepriest baptised Elizabeth, ignoring her howls when icy water fromthe granite font in the cold, musty stone church touched herforehead.
Alice looked ather baby cradled in Gytha’s arms. “Listen to Elizabeth cry. I’msure the devil’s flown out of her.”
Gytha gazedlovingly down at her niece. “Yes, I’m sure he has.”
Alice smiled.Surely Elizabeth would be blessed with good fortune because herChristian life commenced at the beginning of the first year of thenew century. She prayed her daughter would have a happy life as afreewoman.
Secure in herbelief that baptism had purified her baby, Alice stepped out of thechurch. She glimpsed a dead robin by a gravestone and made the signof the cross, hoping the pathetic bundle was not an ill omen. “Thebirds are hungry,” she murmured.
Edith also madethe sign of the cross. “Aye, pray some poor folk don’t starve todeath.”
Alice pointed.“Look, Mother.”
“At what?”Edith asked, her voice muffled by the folds of the cloak drawnaround her mouth.
“The icicleshanging from the church porch. When I was a child I used to suckicicles. I expect my Elizabeth will one day, but I daresayDemoiselle Yvonne will be too fine to.”
“Have an icicleif you want one, Alice,” Gytha teased.
Aliceshuddered. “No, it’s too cold.”
“Time to getthe babe warm indoors. As for you, Mildred, don’t dawdle, yourteeth are chattering,” Edith admonished her youngest daughter.
Alice’sfootsteps crunched along the lane fringed with evergreen leavesrimmed with ice and coated with snow that transformed everything,even as Simon had transformed her life.
She consideredher good fortune while she pitied her mother and sisters, whoshivered repeatedly. Thanks to Simon, she dressed well. Alicewriggled her toes aware that her clothes were warmer than those ofmost villagers. Grateful, she snuggled her chin into Simon’s gift,a cloak of the best quality wool lined with fleece. She caught herlower lip between her teeth. Her improved lot in life would notcompletely satisfy her until she gained her family’s freedom ordied in the attempt. No, not die, she must live for Elizabeth.
Edith pulledher cloak of cobbled animal skins closer around her shoulders.
“You’ll be gladto be at home by the fireside at home, Mother,” Alice said.
“Hurry up,Alice,” Gytha urged, “Mother’s half frozen. Besides, thisbone-cutting wind isn’t good for Elizabeth.”
“I hope the wetnurse has taken good care of Demoiselle Yvonne. I’m very fond ofthe little mite.” Alice quickened her pace. When she could affordto, she would purchase warm clothes for her mother and the rest ofthe family. It would be a pleasure to help them in any way shecould.
 
* * *
 
Harold and Edith’sCottage
 
Six weeks afterthe baptism, Alice entered the one-room cottage where her wrinkled,white-haired father sat on a bench. The familiar odours and soundsenveloped her.
Harold lookedup from the wood he whittled. “How are you, Alice?”
“Well, thankyou. You, Father?”
“As well as Ican be at my age.”
“And you,Mother, how are you?”
“As hale as Ican be.” Edith stirred something in a cauldron that hung over thefire.
Eager toexplain why she had visited them, Alice wasted no further time inan exchange of courtesies. “Earl Simon’s told me to employ a girlto help me. Perhaps our Mildred could work for me? The earl willpay her.”
While her timidfather hesitated, Alice imagined what her parents looked like whenthey were young and free from the cares of a large family. Beforehis death, her grandfather had told her Harold was a handsomebridegroom with a thatch of thick brown hair. For the first timeshe realised his shoulders stooped and age had shrunk him.
Alice glancedat her mother. She knew what Edith looked like as a bride. Everyoneacquainted with Mildred remarked that she resembled their mother atthe same age, fourteen, tall and pretty with clear grey eyes andhair a shade darker than her own honey-coloured plaits. After along silence, she smiled at Mildred. “Would you like to live withme?”
“I don’t know.I’m frightened of the earl.”
“You’ll havenothing to do with him.”
Harold spatinto the fire. “I wouldn’t want him to take a fancy to ourMildred.”
Alice knew herfather well enough to interpret the action. To him right was rightand wrong was wrong. In his opinion there was nothing justifiablein between. He so strongly disapproved of her unwedded state thathe had even refused to attend his first grandchild’s baptism.
Edith put herhand on Harold’s shoulder. “Husband, our Alice has done well. Sheand Elizabeth have their freedom and Alice farms her assart. Don’tworry. The old devil is too besotted with Alice to bed ourMildred.”
Confident thather mother was right, Alice nibbled the tip of her forefinger.Besides, if she had anything to say about the matter, her littlesister would soon be free.
If Mildredlived with her, there would be one less mouth to feed. Alice hopedtheir parents would be sensible. If they agreed, she could alsohelp them in other ways. “Father, come the spring, there’ll be alot to do on my land. Our Wilfred is nearly thirteen. Can you sparehim to work for me? I’ll pay him enough for you to employ someoneto take his place on the demesne.”
Appreciative ofhis patient long-suffering, Alice willed her father to agree. Proudof Harold she loved him. He had done his best since the age of fivewhen he scared birds from the crops, fetched, carried and workedhard.
Alice knewSimon valued Father’s skills as a carpenter. She could not remembera day when Harold sat idle. At home, he busied himself makingfurniture, pattens, bowls and spoons, or a toy to please a childfrom a bit of wood.
“Father, wouldyou make a pair of cradles for me?’ she asked, determined to helphim earn some money. “Simon of Cassio will provide the wood and payfor making them.”
Harold’swrinkled face creased into a smile. “You’re very good to us. I’llmake them large enough for the girls to sleep in until they are twoor three years old. Give me another one of your lovely smiles,Daughter.” He looked at Mildred. “You may live with your sister,and keep a quarter of your wages. As for Wilfred, come spring hemay work for you.”
She hugged herfather. “Thank you. Mildred, please fetch your things.”
Mildred bundledup her few belongings, wrapped herself in her threadbare cloak andkissed Harold on the cheek.
“I’m notwanting to hear any grumbles about you, Mildred.” The affection inFather’s tone told his family he expected none.
Mildred flungher arms around her mother.
Edith kissedher cheek. “After the snow melts, I’ll visit you.”
 
* * *
 
Mildred gazedat the cruck cottage protected from the wind by trees with bentboughs creaking with the weight of snow. “It looks so snug, Alice.You’re lucky.”
Alice beckonedto Mildred. “Come in from the cold.”
Indoors, Alicehanded Elizabeth to the wet nurse, who sat on a stool near thefire. “Mildred, warm yourself by the hearth.” She glanced at thewet nurse whose eyes were filled with tears. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t knowhow my family fares.”
Alice hesitatedfor a moment. Her milk had not completely dried up, so she couldfeed the babies—something she enjoyed. “You may visit your family,but take care. The path to the village is icy. Make sure you’reback before dark. Wear my old cloak. Your shawl won’t keep youwarm.”
The womanrubbed the tears from her eyes with the back of her hands. “Thankyou, thank you, no matter what people say about you, you’re verykind.” The woman bundled herself up in the cloak, slipped her feetinto wooden clogs.
Alice shrugged.She would not worry about whatever folk said about her. She turnedher attention to the babies while Mildred warmed herself by thehearth. Alice cooed to the infants and settled them on her bed.
She pointed atthe iron cauldrons suspended from chains. “Mildred, there’s pottagein one and water to make a hot drink in the other. Helpyourself.”
Mildred infuseddried mint in boiling water and sweetened the brew with honey.Next, she ladled some pottage into a bowl and gazed withappreciation at the mixture of barley, herbs and winter-storedvegetables.
“Eat and drinkyour fill,” Alice urged. “Our parents did their best to provide forus, but I’ll never forget winter days when I didn’t have quiteenough to eat.”
Someone bangedon the door. The babies awoke and howled with fright.
“Mildred,please see who is there.” Alice picked up Elizabeth and murmured toboth infants to soothe them.
Mildred raisedthe wooden bar. She held the door ajar and peered out.
“Open the doorwider,” a squire said. “I bring a casket from my lord, the Earl ofCassio, to the woman who lives here.”
“Thank you.”Mildred took the gift from him. She shut and secured the door.“Alice do you think there’s anything inside this?”
“Of course, yougoose.” Alice’s affectionate tone took the sting from her words.“Why would the earl send me an empty casket?” She pressed a kissonto the top of Elizabeth’s head.
Mildredsniffed. “Father could carve a better one.”
Alice openedthe lid. She smiled as she removed a gold and coral bracelet almostidentical to, but larger than, the one which adorned DemoiselleYvonne’s wrist.
Mildred staredat it. “How beautiful.”
“I’ll exchangeit with Demoiselle Yvonne’s.”
“Why?”
“She’s grownfaster than Elizabeth. Her bracelet’s too tight.”
Mildred benther head to look at the baby’s dimpled wrist. “You’re right.”
“There now mylittle one,” Alice crooned to Yvonne. She replaced Yvonne’sbracelet with Elizabeth’s new one and fastened Yvonne’s old onearound Elizabeth’s wrist. Would Simon or Yvonne’s sister, Blanche,notice she had swapped the almost identical bracelets? If they did,would she be punished?
 
 
 
Chapter Six
Lovage Manor
March ,1300
 
Before curfewwhen the fires would be doused, Gytha stood behind the countess’schair, looking down at Lady Matilda’s head bent over the altarcloth she was embroidering.
Gytha’s glancearound the solar settled on the earl resplendent seated on an oakchair padded with cushions embroidered in bright threads by Matildaand her ladies.
Her thoughtsturned to the fire at Cassio Castle, twelve years ago. Since then,the earl and his family had only paid infrequent visits to it. Theynow divided their time between Simon’s London palace by the Thames,a tall narrow house near York Minster, and other properties such asthe larger one in Winchester.
She hoped theearl would spend most of his time at Lovage Manor so that she couldsee more of her family while the repairs to the castle werecompleted. Gytha smiled. The earl took an almost childlike pleasurein the spacious manor, designed for convenience near Cassio Castle.He often boasted to his guests, “A well of clean, sweet water inthe indoor kitchen is a great benefit. And, speaking of water,ducks, geese, herons, swans, and other wildfowl frequent the deepmoat, which has reed beds to cleanse it.”
Gytha lookedaround the great hall. Her overlord bragged about Lovage Manor anddeclared he never tired of the colourful fresco of sumptuously cladlords and ladies taking their ease in a summer garden enclosed by athick hedge. “Indeed,” he had begun, “even the king might envy soexpensive and rare a decoration.”
Gytha sighed.In spite of Alice’s attempts to persuade Simon to free her, sheremained a villein chained by service to the earl. Well, she wouldseize every opportunity to further her ambition by saving as muchmoney as she could. The Cassio estates, her ancestral lands, werelost to her family forever but, one day, all of them might ownother land. For now, she would listen and observe anything shemight be able to put to good use.
She studiedSimon’s face. Praise God, in recent weeks, his pride in LovageManor kept him in a good humour; yet, at any moment, his love ofstrong drink and unpredictable temper might combine with disastrousconsequences. Whenever Gytha looked at him, the sight revealed hisdark red aura with crimson swirls. She shivered. Such colours, sheknew by instinct, revealed a man capable of unbridled passion,anger and cruelty.
Gytha turnedher attention to Matilda. If only she could escape the countess’sceaseless demands. She pitied her but resented her servitude. Gythasuppressed a sigh. A villein must obey every command, so she servedher ailing patient with false cheerfulness.
She glanced atthe earl again. He stretched his legs towards the fire and ignoredthe thunder and lightning outside, while gazing balefully at hissecond eldest daughter, who sat on a stool by the hearth. “Blanche,next month you shall marry Arthur Milford. Like your sister, Anne,God rest her soul, you shall make your vows on the porch outsideCassio Chapel.”
Head bowed,Blanche hunched her shoulders.
Rain rattledagainst the windows. Gytha tensed. Sweet Jesus, once before whenBlanche refused to marry Milford, her father whipped her barebackside in full view of all those in the great hall. Since herlacerated flesh had healed, the unfortunate girl avoided her fatheras much as possible. Heaven forbid that Blanche should balk thistime. Simon might apply the whip again or lock her up in the darkdungeon subject to fleas, lice and rats.
Simon glared asthough he expected Blanche to voice her opposition to wedlock withthe handsome man eight years her senior. When she did not, hespoke. “I am glad the fire did not gut either the crypt, in which Icould imprison you, or the chapel, where you will celebrate massimmediately after your marriage.”
Blanche staredat the tiled floor, a sullen expression on her face.
“Have younaught to say, daughter?”
“Papa, I begyou to allow me to become a nun. I appreciated your thoughtfulnesswhen you selected such a fine husband for me, but it would bemerciful of you to allow me to become a bride of Christ.”
“One nun in thefamily will suffice,” her father declared, referring to his olderdaughter, Catherine, who had yet to take her final vows.
Simon’s facereddened with anger. He glared at Matilda as though she was toblame for their daughter’s obstinacy.
Gytha sighed.She understood he disliked his wife so much that in her company hisgood humour always evaporated as fast as boiling water. Why? Gythaasked herself. Because of Matilda’s ill health? Some men, whetherthey were peasants or lords, could not abide women who constantlyailed.
She gazed atthe countess’s bent head. More than likely Matilda feared that ifshe spoke on Blanche’s behalf she would make matters worse. Shouldshe ask Master Spicer to put a calming draught in Simon’s wine? Adiscreetly administered soporific would prevent his anger from oncemore turning life into a duplicate of hell.
Blanche knelton the floor at her father’s feet. “I beg you to allow me to takethe veil.”
Simon crackedhis knuckles. “My lady,” he said to Matilda, “I have discussed thewedding feast with our steward.”
Matilda’s chinquivered. Wide-eyed, she regarded her husband. “B-but it is my dutyto arrange t-the feast.”
Simon narrowedhis eyes. “I excuse you from it.”
In response tothe mention of sumptuous food Gytha’s stomach rumbled. Embarrassed,she hoped no one had heard it.
“Blanche!”
Her facebone-white, the girl regarded her father. “Yes, Papa?”
“On yourfeet.”
Gytha wonderedhow Blanche managed not to shudder in Simon’s presence.
“Next year Ihope to have another son. I also anticipate you producing agrandson.” He frowned at his wife. “I wish John—”
Colour creptinto Matilda’s pale cheeks, her needle poised in mid-air. Thegolden thread shimmered. She raised the plucked lines of hereyebrows. “I trust you will not find fault with him as you do withour daughters.”
Simon pushedhis fingers through his golden hair. “Unlike John, a magnate’s sonshould revere his father and be one of his best companions.”
Gytha caughther breath. She knew the countess adored John. Any criticism of himwounded her.
Simon quaffedmore wine while Matilda half rose from her seat. “No man born ofwoman is perfect. They say even the king has problems with hiseldest son.”
Gytha thoughtMatilda deserved applause for her plain speaking.
Simon glared athis countess. “Sit,” he ordered, in the same tone he would use toone of his hounds.
Gythasuppressed derisive laughter. John, Simon’s only son, served Edwardof Caernarfon, the heir to the throne, the first Prince of Walesborn to an English king. However, it did not mean the Welsh peopleaccepted Edward in their hearts. She doubted they loved him anymore than their old enemy, his father, and gossips muttered thatthe prince loved some men too well, in a manner the Churchdisapproved of. Rumour also spread, claiming that Lord Johnnumbered among those named.
“I regret mydecision to send John to join the prince’s household when he was soyoung,” Simon muttered. His hands unsteady, he held out his gobletto be refilled with wine. “John will attend your wedding, Blanche.Afterwards, I shall keep him with me on some pretext or another. Ilook forward to hunting, wrestling, and tossing the dice withhim.”
The needleslipped out of Matilda’s fingers. “My lord, I am unwell.”
“Oh, seek yourbed if you must. I have endured your whey-face for long enough.”Simon glared at her. His eyes gleamed with malice. “First, send oneof your women to fetch Yvonne. A man should have all his familywith him.”
Like a startledhare, Matilda obeyed his instruction before she dipped a gracefulcurtsey to her drunken lord, then retired with two of her women inattendance.
Gytha remainedin the solar, sick with fear caused by the agitated swirls thatleapt like flames in Earl Simon’s aura. They filled her with apremonition of disaster. She wished she could protect DemoiselleBlanche.
 
* * *
 
When, at longlast, Yvonne arrived in the arms of one of Lady Matilda’sattendants, the earl ignored her.
“Hand me mysister,” Blanche commanded. She settled the baby in her arms andtried to rock her to sleep. Yvonne cried until Blanche popped thetip of her finger into her mouth for her little sister to suck.
Blanche smiledat Gytha. “She is the most beautiful baby I have ever seen.”
“If you marry,you might have an even more beautiful baby,” Gytha murmured.
“I would preferdeath to marriage and pregnancy year after year until my head andevery bone in my body aches like my lady mother’s,” Blanchewhispered. She cast a wary glance at her father, who leaned back inhis chair.
“Not all wivessuffer so,” Gytha said under her breath. She smiled at the prettybabe, and thought of her niece. With golden hair and the Cassiofamily’s blue eyes, Elizabeth was as lovely as Yvonne. They reallycould have been twins.
“What are youwhispering about?” Simon demanded.
“We areadmiring my sister, Papa.”
Gytha gazed atSimon, convinced his unsound state of mind worsened daily due tothe amount of wine he quaffed. With the passage of time he mightbecome as irrational as Alfred, a poor old villager who no longerrecognised anyone.
Simon glared atBlanche. He opened his mouth, presumably to berate her over herrefusal to agree to the proposed marriage. The clatter of manyhooves on icy cobblestones distracted him.
“Who could havearrived on such a cruel-cold night?” Blanche asked.
Simon swilledmore wine. “If you are patient you will find out.”
By the rood,Gytha thought, sometimes Simon’s manners were worse than herfather’s.
The dooropened. John strode forward and shrugged off his black, fur-linedcloak sodden with rain.
“What bringsyou here?” Simon demanded.
John knelt forhis father’s blessings. “I have leave from court.”
Since Gythalast saw him, he had grown taller and his shoulders had broadened.His stomach was flat, his hips narrow and flanks slim. Hiscomplexion was the slightly weathered one of a young man whopracticed in the tiltyard and rode in all seasons. The handsomeeighteen-year old’s hazelnut brown hair was tinged red by candlelight, his calm, bright blue eyes regarded his father.
“God’sblessings be upon you.” Simon mumbled. “You may rise.”
Gytha lookedfrom son to father. Something must be wrong. It was unusual forSimon to speak to his heir in a harsh voice. Or was it anotherexample of his irrational changes of mood.
Yvonnegrizzled. Gytha reached out to take her, but Blanche would not partwith her.
Blanche smileddown at her baby sister, who grasped a fold of Blanche’s red silkgown. “How tiny her fingernails are.”
“Where is yourlady wife?” Simon asked John.
“She serves thequeen, Papa.”
“And what ofyour service to Prince Edward? Is it so intimate that it causesyour wife to be pitied at court?”
In silence Johnaccepted a goblet filled with hot, spiced wine from a varlet.
Simon squintedat his son. “What relationship do you have to the prince?”
John’s mouthtwitched. Perhaps the question amused him. “Papa, I beg you not toinsult me with false suspicions.”
“Beg if youwish, but give me an honest answer.” Simon thumped his fist on thetable causing a pitcher of wine to fall over. “Why do my childrenthwart me?” He pressed his fists against his temples. “You and yoursisters must learn obedience.” He staggered to his feet, his lipsblue-tinged, a hand pressed over his heart. “Hand me the babe?”
Blanchehesitated while Yvonne’s cries filled the solar.
Gytha unhookeda pouch and a horn from her plaited girdle. She removed the stopperfrom the horn, and poured a little water mixed with honey onto alinen cone taken from the pouch. “Lady Blanche, please giveDemoiselle this.”
Blanche put thetip of the cone into her sister’s mouth. Yvonne sucked.
His mouthpursed, Simon stared at the babe. “I shall arrange Yvonne’smarriage while she is in the cradle.” He scowled at Blanche. “Iwill make sure she is taught to know her duty.”
The earl heldout his arms to receive Yvonne.
John nodded atBlanche, who lowered their sister into her father’s arms.
Gytha held herbreath hoping the baby would not be harmed.
“Is our ladymother well?” John asked, while their father scrutinised his smalldaughter.
Blanche nodded.“As well as she can be.”
“Poor Mama, sheis weakened by the many births she has endured,” Johnwhispered.
Simon scowled.“I need manly sons, not daughters.”
John tookYvonne from his father. The tip of his finger traced her roundedcheek. He smiled. “God protect you from all ill.” Hands under herarm pits he raised the baby until her face was level with his.“Good morrow, sweet Dear Heart, I am your brother.” He kissed hercheek.
Simon twirledhis empty goblet. “John, I have gained two daughters since you werelast here.”
“Oh, did Mamahave twins?”
“Nay, Gytha’ssister bore me a fine babe.” Simon roared with laughter. “Look atBlanche. Her cheeks are fire-red. I must return Yvonne to my Alice.John, arrange an escort for her. The hour is late.” He grinned.“Two babes in one day. The next must be either my son or yours.What do you say? Your wife is old enough for you to bed her. Nextyear, by God’s will, my grandson will be born.”
Hot colourstained John’s cheeks. His narrow nostrils flared. “Can nothingremain private?”
“A man born tohigh estate has no privacy. All his doings are noted,” Simonanswered.
Blanche bent towhisper in John’s ear. “Our chaplain should protest. Father’s whoreshould not tend Yvonne and the bastard.”
“I heard that,”their father roared. “How dare you speak ill of Alice? Did yourlast thrashing on your bare rump not teach you to keep a stilltongue in your head?”
Horrified,unable to prevent the violence she had already foreseen, Gythashuddered.
Simon lurchedto his feet. He picked up a heavy silver candelabrum and threatenedBlanche with it.
Blanche put anarm over her head to protect it.
Gytha steppedforward, desperate to help her.
Blanche’s facepaled. She stepped back. Her heel tangled in the hem of her floorlength velvet gown. Losing her balance she stumbled. Hampered byYvonne in the crook of one arm, John’s other arm shot out to steadyBlanche. Too late! She thudded onto the floor. Her head crackedagainst the edge of the granite mantelpiece.
Aghast, Gythaflung herself down beside her.
“Christ havemercy!” John clutched Yvonne to his chest.
“Blanche, getup!” Simon ordered.
John stooped tolay Yvonne on the floor before he knelt beside Blanche. He raisedher into his arms. Her head rested against his chest at anunnatural angle. He stared at her blood seeping into his tunic.“No, oh no, God and all the angels have mercy. She is not…shecannot be—” He broke off and cradled his inert sister in hisarms.
Gytha knelt bythem and tried to find a pulse. “I’m sorry, your sister is dead,”she announced, her voice gentle. She stood and fingered herpaternoster.
“Get up,Blanche,” Simon shouted again. He stood, swayed, and dropped thecandelabrum.
As thoughfrozen to the spot like a man of snow made by children, John glaredat his father, heedless of the tears that streamed down hischeeks.
“My son, forthe love of God, don’t look at me so,” Simon begged, his voicebroken.
“Murderer! Youmurdered my dear sister, who used to toddle after me like aduckling after its mother.”
“No, her wordscaused her death. She knew my temper. Besides, I did not strikeher.” Ashen-faced Simon turned his head aside and vomitedprofusely.
John dashedaway his tears. His nostrils flared. His eyes narrowed into furiousslits. “Are you a man or a beast? Will you never learn to controlyour temper, Papa?” He scooped up Yvonne. Although he trembled, hiseyes blazed. “You caused Blanche’s death. God forgive you. Icannot.”
Simonshuddered. He pressed his right hand to the left side of his chest.“An accident…I did not mean to—”
“Papa, I swearto always protect this little dear heart. If you harm her, I shallkill you.” He thrust Yvonne into Gytha’s arms.
“Come back,”Simon begged as John strode out of the solar.
 
 
 
ChapterSeven
LovageManor
March , 1300
 
Gytha enteredthe bower determined to obtain permission to visit her family. Sheknelt while one of Matilda’s ladies continued to read from a Bookof Hours. Finally, the countess acknowledged her presence.
“Rise. Why youare here?”
“My lady, Ihave come to take my leave.” Although her native tongue was goodenough for her, she spoke Norman French, the language of thenobility.
“To take yourleave!”
“Yes, my lady,I’ve worked more boon days than I’m required to.”
“MonDieu, your accent never improves. The countess’s eyes bulgedlike an upset child’s. “You would go while I need you?”
“Lady Matilda,your health has improved since you sent for me before—” No, sheshould not mention Blanche’s funeral that took place a week ago. Ifshe did the countess would weep again.
“Woman, howdare you say that when you know how much I grieve for my dearBlanche? But how could you understand? You are childless.”
Gytha’s lipstightened. If only she had borne her husband’s babe before he died.Thank God for Elizabeth, whom she adored, and for Yvonne whosegurgles and smiles had won her heart. “My lady, I’ve not the meansto cure grief.” She spoke quietly, although she suspected Matildawept more from the shock of her daughter’s violent death thanbecause she had loved her.
Never at peacein the manor, Gytha wanted to escape its cold stone walls andimmerse herself in her family’s love. She yearned to learn moreabout the curative properties of herbs, barks and roots from hermother and to stay with Alice.
“Ungratefulwretch. Mea Culpa, you should thank me on your knees, forall I have done for you,” the countess scolded. “Did you not serveme you would not have learned Norman French, and your manners wouldnot be so dainty. You should also thank me for providing betterclothes than you wore in your father’s chicken coop of a cottage.”The countess glared at her. “Your potions and liniments soothe me.You must stay here to attend me.”
“If it pleasesyou, my lady.” Gytha’s resentment, as bitter as sloes, soured herbelly. She decided to ask Alice to intercede for her with theearl.
That evening,there was no opportunity to slip out of the manor and visit Alice.Her cheeks were still scalded with anger when curfew approached anda solitary owl hooted in the twilight, and Earl Simon and Lord Johnwithdrew into the chamber behind the dais.
 
* * *
 
“Believe me,John,” his father began after he settled himself on a chair by thefire, “I valued your sister Blanche and miss her.”
His grief raw,John clenched his fists until they turned white, unable to believehis father had cared for Blanche any more than he did for Catherineor Yvonne.
Simon frowned.“Blanche’s death has cost me an alliance with the Milfords.”
Was that allher death meant to Papa? John’s disgust increased so much that hecould not bear to look at him. He struggled to remain impassive inorder not to arouse Papa’s anger if he displayed his true state ofmind. “You could arrange for Catherine to marry him. You know shedoes not want to be a nun.”
The earl shookhis head. Catherine’s name was only mentioned in the household onrare occasions. “God blessed me with you after I kept my promise todedicate Catherine’s life to Him if my next child were a healthyson.”
John pitied hisolder sister because his birth had blighted her life.
Simon scowled.“I spoiled Blanche. She should not have been brought up in myhousehold. If parents are forbearing, they forfeit their children’srespect. I shall not make the same mistake with Yvonne. She shallbe placed with a strict family.”
John took asharp breath before he spoke. “Papa, if anyone mistreats Yvonne, Ishall speak out. I have made a vow to Our Lady to protect her.” Adeliberate threat to his father underlay his slow, purposefultone.
Father’s eyesglittered by firelight. “John, you underestimate my joy at yourbirth. A healthy, red-blooded boy.” He took a generous swig of wineand paused, goblet in hand. “Is it true you keep company with theman-woman, Piers Gaveston, the prince’s favourite?”
“It isimpossible to avoid him, Papa,” John replied, startled.
Sweat poureddown the earl’s face. He winced and pressed his hand to his chest.“If you become too close to accursed Gaveston, you will forfeit mypride in you.”
John recoiledin response to his father’s obvious disgust at the thought of himforming a close friendship with Gaveston. “I have done nothing inthe eyes of man or God to warrant losing it.”
“Good. God sawfit to grant you high estate. Be worthy of it.” Papa mopped hisface on his burgundy-red velvet sleeve. When I die you will be oneof the richest, most influential men in England. You must do yourduty. I shall write to the king to request permission for you andyour wife to withdraw from court. If he agrees, you shall remainhere until she has a child in her stomach. It will be my pleasureto watch your wife’s belly swell.”
John regarded awall decorated with a painted hanging of the Annunciation. Hestrove to control his anger. “At my age, Papa, you would not havewished to be separated from your friends at court.”
Simon groaned.Tears formed in his eyes.
Papa must bemore inebriated than he seemed.
“Are youshocked by my weakness, boy?” Simon shifted on his chair andclasped his hands together over his belly. “I am now in my eightand fiftieth year. I have survived beyond most men’s age. How manymore years will God grant me? Will He bless me with another son? Iam not as vigorous as I used to be. Even if I father another boy, Idoubt I will live to see him full grown. To ensure our family’sfuture, I expect you to father male heirs. I also expect you toattend to your sisters’ welfare, and that includes my Alice’sdaughter, Elizabeth.
For once, Papaseemed concerned about his daughters, but it was outrageous of hisfather to ask him to look after a low-born whore’s brat. He openedhis mouth to protest.
His fatherwaved him to silence. “If you die childless, and since Catherinewill take her vows next month, if Yvonne survives, I have arrangedfor her to inherit my estates and the title Countess ofCassio.”
“How is thatpossible?”
Simon grinned.“Money! The king has squandered so much that he welcomed my offerin exchange for a written agreement to which he affixed his seal.”He cleared his throat.
“Thank you fortelling me.” John sipped some wine before he spoke. “Papa, perhapsmen put too much importance on breeding sons. Does the Holy Churchnot teach us these matters are in the hands of God? Of the childrenour late Queen Eleanor bore, only five live—my prince, Edward ofCaernarvon, and his four sisters. By strange coincidence the queenbirthed sixteen children, the same number as my lady mother.”
Simon leantforward. “Enough of such talk.” He leered. “Your wife is now oldenough to mate. Have you lain with a woman? At almost nineteen youare old enough to have enjoyed bed-sport.”
Disgusted byhis father’s words, John watched a mouse navigate its way aroundthe edge of the honey coloured tiles on the floor. He dislikedbawdiness and did not wish to discuss such matters.
Simon’slaughter rang out. “Your colour betrays you, John. Your cheeks arered as fire. Only a virgin man would blush thus.”
John continuedto watch the little creature.
“I wager thatif you have not done so, you have thought of laying with a man,”Simon probed.
“I havenot!”
“If you aretelling the truth, I am glad to hear it. It is a sorry businesswhen a man puts as much value on another man as the prince does onGaveston. A man who is no more than the accursed son of a witchburnt for her evil doings,” Simon mumbled.
“I admit Imarvel at the prince’s affection for Gaveston, Papa. Now, tell mewhat drives a man to want sons so much? The King loved his firstwife, yet two months ago, he wed the French King’s daughter withthe intention of breeding another son.”
“To ensure thesuccession to the throne a king can never have enough sons, and anobleman can never have enough to make sure one survives to inherithis name and estates.” The earl’s expression softened. “John, Iknow you think of ill of me. Yet how little you understand. I savedmy king’s life in the Holy Land. He has never forgotten it, so I amnot crippled with taxes like some magnates I could name.
“His Majestyknows I pay scutage for knights to fight in my place. He also knowsI foot the bill for mercenaries to serve him. I am true to him. Myloyalty gained you an inheritance. One which men would grab bymarrying either Catherine or Yvonne.” Simon nodded as though hepondered what to say next. “If I died without a male heir there iseven the possibility of such a man attempting to wed Catherine,even after she had dedicated herself to God. Moreover, Yvonne willbe a rich prize for men beggared by England’s Welsh and Scottishcampaigns at home and those across the narrow sea in France. As forElizabeth, I have made provisions for her. I hope that one day somepoor nobleman might think it worth his while to espouse her.” Hecleared his throat. “Are you naïve? Do you believe I retain theking’s favour without effort? Do you think you we have no enemiesat court? Perhaps you imagine it has been easy for me to amass afortune?”
“I know it musthave been difficult,” John muttered in response to themonologue.
“Two years ago,people feared revolution. Castles were prepared to withstandsieges. What have I done? I have organised repairs to Cassio Castleand had this manor house, which is protected by a moat and adrawbridge, built. While doing so I have lived as quietly as anylord of the realm may. Why? So I can pass my name and inheritanceto you.” Simon thumped his fist on his knee. “If you die before me,I don’t want Yvonne to inherit. I wish for either more sons orgrandsons to secure all I have acquired for futuregenerations.”
Unable to thinkof a reply that would please his father, John studied the emeraldring on his finger.
“Are youlistening to me?”
“Yes, Papa. Myhead is fuddled by wine.”
“Unfuddle it,John. I attend Parliament when it is summoned and leave as soon asI can. My real business is to further our interests.” He smiledwith obvious pleasure. “I have quadrupled my inheritance. If yououtlive me, you will inherit coffers filled with marks, besidesplate and jewels. Moreover, you will own three castles, and manymanors. You will possess land in all four quarters of England, theLondon house and the houses in York and Winchester. If yourfortunes change, you will have money in France and Italy.” Simonleant forward. “But there is a price to pay.”
“What is it?”John asked, wary of his father.
“Dismiss thosepopinjays you have brought from court. Get rid of your servant,Giles Lochere, who walks like a woman. Send the little flea back toFrance.”
The firecrackled. Sparks danced up the chimney. John yawned. “Papa, thehour is late. By your leave, I shall retire.”
“When you seekyour bed I trust you will either lie alone or with a female.”
Johnscrutinised his father, who stared at him in the same manner as hejudged one of his valuable colts. Well, not even a dog fox like theearl could survive without good judgement.
The expressionon Papa’s face gentled. “When I see you, John, I see myself at thesame age. You are muscular and have my height. We stand a headtaller than most men. Rosamunde must be pleased to be well-matchedwith so handsome a husband? Don’t you want to redden your wife’ssilky white skin in bed-sport? You should thank me for choosing abeautiful wife with a large dowry.”
Infuriated,John paced across the hall. “I prefer fair-haired women.”
Simon’s eyesglittered. “When you plough your wife, forget any buxom,golden-haired armful.” He grinned. “I wonder what Rosamunde’s blackhair will look like after you have rumpled it while you sowed yourseed.”
John hoped hisface did not express his contempt. “I bid you goodnight, Papa.”
“You may not gountil I give you leave.”
John’s nostrilsflared. As a lad, he often lost his temper. As a man he leashed it,even as he reined in any outward signs of his grief over Blanche’sdeath, the horror of which haunted him.
“Papa, our talkkeeps the household up long after curfew.”
“Go.” Simon’sinebriated laughter echoed before he spoke again. “I would enjoybeing the one Rosamunde adores after bed-sport.” His face reddened.“Dear Lord, forgive me for my sinful thoughts.” He crossed himself.“I must not lust after my son’s virgin wife. I must think of herwith fatherly concern.” He lurched to his feet and tottered towardsthe great hall. “Squires,” he roared, “have horses saddled. I shallvisit my sweet Alice.”
 
 
 
ChapterEight
LovageManor
June , 1300
 
Nearly threemonths after Blanche’s death, Gytha attended the countess. Plaguedby fear of imminent misfortune, she stood behind Lady Matilda’schair on the dais in the crowded great hall. Powerless to preventtragedy, she crossed herself. A draught stirred the crimson canopy,fringed and embroidered with gold thread which matched the oneabove the earl’s chair. Gytha wriggled her aching toes. Why, shewondered, had the countess commanded her presence?
Regardless ofher fatigue, Gytha listened attentively to Earl Simon, who sat nextto his wife. First he conversed with his friends about theconstruction of Lovage Manor, next he spoke to them about thesituation between England and Scotland.
“The Scots aresavages,” a baron stated.
Simon proppedhis elbow on the table. “I agree. What did they do after Wallacedefeated us at Stirling Bridge three years ago? I’ll remind you.Those barbarians killed my friend, Hugh Cressingham, the LordTreasurer, and made tokens with his skin.”
Gytha fingeredher paternoster. What did the man do to make the Scots hate himenough to flay his dead flesh?
“It would beeasier for the king to subdue Scotland if the Scots weren’t toocowardly to stand and fight,” someone commented.
Gytha did notblame those who chose to live in the south of England, improvetheir properties and consolidate their wealth, to chasing the Scotsacross the border at the risk of losing their lives.
A messengerfrom the abbey close by the castle entered the hall. Gytha’sstomach tightened in response to the sight when he handed a scrollto the earl. “My lord, Mother Abbess bade me tell you the matter isprivate and urgent.”
Gytha sighed.Probably something was amiss with her ruthless overlord’s daughter,Catherine.
“I hope thelady abbess is not making yet another request for charity,” Simongrumbled.
“Perhaps shehas written to you about my sister,” John suggested.
The earl roseand beckoned to his ailing wife. “Come.”
Matildastumbled after she took a few steps but Simon did not pause to helpher, so Gytha steadied her.
“Too much wine,my lady,” Simon sneered, although the accusation was false becausehis wife never overindulged.
Gytha and LadyMatilda followed the earl, Lord John and Lady Rosamunde through thedoor behind the dais. In the small chamber where Simon conductedprivate business, he sat behind a table and grunted like a hog. Heunrolled the scroll. “From here, I could almost toss a stone overthe wall into the grounds of the abbey which I founded,” hecomplained “What is so important? The abbess has wasted velum.”
What indeed?Still filled with uneasy foreboding, Gytha swallowed.
While he read,Simon’s hands trembled. His eyebrows rose, his pebble round eyesglared and his face purpled. He bellowed for a page to attend him.A nervous youth answered the summons. “Bring wine,” Simonordered.
He glared atMatilda. “Your daughters are unworthy of me. May God have mercy onthem, Anne died after giving birth to a stillborn son. Blanche, Godrest her soul, is dead. Yvonne might die before she is full grown.As for Catherine—” he broke off.
What ofElizabeth? Gytha thought, her hands gripped tightly together.
Tears glistenedin Matilda’s eyes. “Poor Blanche, I can scarcely believe she liesin her tomb at the abbey.” She ran the tip of her tongue around herlips. “What news is there of Catherine?”
Simon pressedhis blue-tinged lips together until a narrow white line edgedthem.
Gytha observedthe thread-like veins marking his face. Once again, she askedherself why her sister loved this old brute with loose fleshbeneath his chin and thinning hair on the crown of his head. Yet,she well-knew he cherished Alice. She choked back her desire toexpress her venom. God willing, he would never hurt Elizabeth orYvonne.
“Why did theabbess write to you, my lord?” Matilda asked.
Gytha hoped thecommunication would not unsettle her ladyship. If it did, Gythaguessed the countess would demand constant attention throughout thenight.
“Catherine iswith child.” Simon’s voice reverberated in the small space.
Matilda pressedher hands to them. “No! How did it happen?”
Simon slammedhis fist against the table. “A witless question from a lady who hasso often given birth!”
For the moment,Gytha wanted to hear no more despite her curiosity about whofathered the child. Two of the Cassio’s daughters were dead, andshe saw no sign of genuine grief. They did not sorrow as herparents would for her or her sisters. For a moment her eyesightfailed. Evil darkness swamped her. Something threatened those dearto her. Shaken by fear, she spoke to one of the countess’sattendants. “I must attend a patient. If Lady Matilda needsrequires treatment for her ills, please summon the apothecary.”
The lady’snostrils flared but she nodded while she looked down her nose asthough she could not bear the sight of her. Gytha sighed. She knewthe countess’s women feared her. Gytha also knew their jealousy ofher equalled their dread of witchcraft fed by rumours from Lovagevillage. Yet, inured to their hostility because she was of lowbirth, she no longer cared what they thought of her or her family.Nevertheless she and her mother must be careful not to do anythingwhich would lead to false accusations, such as dealing with thedevil.
Gytha steppedback to the wall. She edged her way along it. Without a backwardglance, she slipped out of the hall
.
* * *
 
The Forest
 
“Please openthe gate,” Gytha requested the sentry on duty.
Accustomed toher coming and going to treat patients, he did not refuse. “Godguard you on the road, Gytha,”
“Thank you, Hisprotection is worth more than a pair of sharp knives to atraveller.”
She did notneed the sentry to tell her about the dangers that threatened alone woman who walked along the road at night. However, in thepast, by the Lord’s grace she had come to no harm whenever, lanternin hand, she went about her business on darker, colder nights thanthis humid summer one. Nevertheless, the hairs on the back of herneck quivered.
Gytha shiveredas though someone walked over her grave. Surely she imaginedsomeone following her? A fox barked. She pulled a sharp knife fromthe sheath looped onto her belt. An owl hooted. Gytha clutched thehandle in her right hand, wishing her horn lantern shed more light.Foolish fears, she chided herself. She saw nothing to frighten her.Anyone who hid from the law would be asleep at this hour of thenight. Perhaps some ghostly presence caused her apprehension.
She turned topeer behind her into the darkness. Was she merely scaring herselfor was someone following her? Gytha hurried on. To quieten her mindshe thought of Alice caring for the babies, making sure all waswell with Mildred and tending her crops. Gytha smiled, happy forher sister. Alice’s ewes had lambed; her cow had survived thewinter and calved in spring. Now the healthy beasts grazed andfertilised a field with their dung.
Her thoughtsdrifted from Alice to Mildred, a good girl who did her work withoutcomplaint. She chuckled as she visualised Mildred battlingsharp-eyed chickens to prevent them scratching up precious seedsand tender plants.
Gytha wishedshe could live with Alice. Sometimes she found the constraint ofthe manor walls intolerable. She wanted to enjoy the sunshine withher sisters while they worked. Gytha yearned to hear birdsong tothe accompaniment of the breeze rustling the leaves while thesix-month-old babies sat in the shade and gurgled at eachother.
She forced allher apprehension to the back of her mind and decided to have a wordwith Mildred, who blushed and looked with admiration at Lord Johnwhenever he visited the cottage to see Yvonne. Her anxietyincreased; she had noticed some men in his escort ogle Alice andMildred. She sighed. A fair countenance was not always a blessingfor a female of humble birth.
Whenever shevisited Alice, she ignored noblemen from the manor who entered thewoods from a path three hundred paces or more from Alice’s fields.To impress Gytha, men of high degree needed more than fine clothesas showy as one of the earl’s peacocks, jewellery and magnificenthorses, all of which fascinated Mildred.

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