Authors: Christina Dodd
To my AKZ sisters
Rhonda Day, Juli Goetz, Marian Hardman, Ann Holdsworth, Kathy Howell, Sharon Idol, Jessica Kij, Sheila McCarn, Bobbie Morganroth, Susan Richardson, Rebecca Easterly, Suzanne Bartholemew, Julie Mulvaney, Deborah Schlafer, Sherrill Carlton
Thank you for your unending support and enthusiasm. God was looking out for me when Sheila wrote that letter
As Edlyn leaned over to fit the key into the…
“And you are Edlyn, duchess of Cleere.”
“How are you going to get me back into the…
His voice sounded like the bleat of a newborn lamb.
Hugh enunciated his words as if Edlyn were hard of…
“A warrior should never exalt in his victory, Wharton, before…
“I did nothing wrong.” Edlyn sat on a bench in…
Hugh, commander of the royal troops in the West, watched…
Edlyn didn’t know a lot about Hugh de Florisoun, but…
“We have them, master. Eight good-sized rogues, ripe fer hanging.”
Hugh wanted to rush forward and rescue her, but Edlyn…
The tug of the current on the ferry felt like…
Edlyn waited in horrified anticipation for Hugh to reject Richard’s…
It was big. Bigger than Hugh ever imagined, even in…
“Neda kissed your boot.”
“I’ll have to have a new shift made for you.”
“We’ll go to the blacksmith next.”
She’d almost made a serious mistake.
“You cannot send to my lord to tell him of…
“My lady, I don’t know what they’re doing, but I…
“They’re here, my lady, they’re here!”
“He almost did it, master.”
Wessex, Spring 1265
As Edlyn leaned over
to fit the key into the lock, the door creaked on its hinges. Confused, she stared at the widening aperture. The wood around the lock hung in splinters, and only the half-light of dawn had masked the damage from her unwary gaze.
Someone had broken into the dispensary.
She took a hasty step back along the graveled path in the dispensary’s garden. The recent battle had brought many men—wounded men, frightened men, desperate men—to the abbey’s infirmary, and she knew better than to linger alone in their vicinity.
As Edlyn prepared to run, she heard the sound of labored breathing. Whoever had shattered the door remained inside, and judging from his anguished sounds, he was hurt. She hesitated, unwilling to let anyone suffer, yet knowing she should seek one of the monks for assistance.
Before she could make her decision, an arm snaked around her throat. Jerked hard against a sweaty male
body, she kicked wildly. Something touched her cheek, and steel glinted at the corner of her eye.
“If ye scream, I’ll slit yer throat from gullet t’ gizzard.”
He spoke the Norman French of all English noblemen, but his common diction and grammar made it almost unintelligible. Nevertheless, she understood him only too well, and in the soothing tone she’d perfected through the days and nights of tending the ill and wounded, she answered, “I can safely guarantee my silence.”
The man’s grip tightened. He dragged her up until her toes dangled and she gagged from the pressure on her windpipe. “Aye, a woman’ll lie always t’ save herself.” He shook her a little, then the pressure loosened. “But ye won’t betray me if ye know what’s smart.”
She sucked in air, and her gaze roamed the inside of the walled herb garden and the dispensary. She needed one of the nuns. Even the prioress, Lady Blanche, would have been a welcome sight. But the sun had scarcely risen. The nuns were still at Prime. Next, they would break their fast, and only then would they disperse to their duties in the refectory, infirmary, and gardens. Edlyn’s survival depended on her own quick thinking—as always. “Are you looking for food?” she asked. “Or medicines? We have many men who have come from the battle seeking—“
The arm tightened brutishly, and she clawed at her captor as red suns exploded behind her eyes. Then he dropped her like a savaged puppy. She hit the ground hard.
Putting his foot on her stomach, he leaned over her and pointed the dagger at her chest. “What makes ye think I came from th’ battlefield?”
She resisted panic and pain as she tried to think
how to reply. Should she tell him he smelled of blood, filth, and brutality? She didn’t think he wanted to hear that, but then she didn’t understand how her hard-won peace could have been shattered so cruelly. “Men come here seeking our help,” she whispered. “I thought you might have been one of them.”
“Not me. I’m not wounded.”
“Nay, I see my mistake now.”
She saw more than that. An ugly, squat man, her attacker wore a leather jerkin and carried nearly all the weapons that had been created to destroy mankind. Blood smeared his arms and under his chin, but most of it, she thought, wasn’t his. He stood too firmly and had proved his strength only too well.
Beneath his leather cap, his wide brow creased as he frowned. He was nothing but some knight’s manservant, trained to fight and hurt and kill, and she would wager he did all with supreme confidence. But something confounded him now, and again she tried to sound encouraging as she asked, “How may I aid you?”
He glanced around, then back down at her. “I got someone in there. I want ye t’ fix him.”
Praise God. Edlyn could scarcely see for relief. This muscled monstrosity wasn’t going to rape her. He wasn’t going to kill her. He just wanted help for his master or his friend. She’d tasted fear before, and only now did she recognize its metallic flavor on her tongue. “Wounded?” she asked.
He hesitated, then nodded abruptly, as if even that had given too much away.
“He would be better in the infirmary. Let me take you—” She tried to raise herself on her elbows, but the point of the knife suddenly threatened again.
“Nay! I coulda done that by meself. No one must know…”
“That he’s here?”
“Aye.” The man spoke grudgingly. “If ye tell, I’ll slit yer throat from—”
“Gullet to gizzard,” she finished. “So you’ve said. But I can’t help him if you won’t let me off the ground.”
He still hesitated, then took his foot off her belly and extended a hand to help her up—and to maintain control of her. “In there.” He jerked his head toward the dispensary and stood behind her as she entered.
Outside, the rising sun had begun to illuminate the landscape. Inside, the stone walls blocked the light and the small windows spitefully admitted only the faintest rays. Edlyn opened her eyes wide, trying to locate the source of her troubles.
“He’s here on th’ floor.” Reverence laced the servant’s voice. He shut the door, then knelt on the dirt floor beside a man-sized length of metal and rags. “I’ve brought ye help, master,” he whispered. “She’ll make ye well.”
No response, no movement, no sound. Edlyn feared this master must already be dead, and she balanced on the balls of her feet, ready to flee at the moment despair struck the wretched oaf.
Then her captor groaned in unconcealed anxiety. “Master…”
Before she could change her mind, she laid a hand on the servant’s shoulder. “Move aside and let me see what I can do.”
The servant shuddered under her hand, then leaped to his feet. “If he dies, ye die.”
He snarled, but her sharp edge of fear had been dulled. Her captor was, after all, only a servant afraid for his knight, and that made him less of a monster
and more of a man. Rebuking his arrogance, she answered, “Your master is in God’s hands, as are we all. Now move aside.”
The servant stumbled back, and his gaze settled on the cross over the door.
“Open the oven and stir up the fire. I need light.” Edlyn knelt beside the prone warrior. A closed, battered helm cupped his head. His surcoat had been removed, and chain mail swathed his chest, legs, and arms. His man freed the embers from their blanket of ash and laid kindling to encourage the flames, and in their light she observed blood oozing through the iron rings. She untied one lacing on the side of his chain mail hauberk, but found the other one severed and flapping loose. The fallen knight’s opponent, she guessed, had slipped a lance through the laces. The force of the blow had ripped them open, then the point of the spear had torn the flesh. With a grunt, she moved the heavy hauberk aside and stared in dismay at the blood-soaked quilting beneath. “Give me a knife,” she demanded.
“Not likely,” came the surly answer.
“Then you cut off his padding,” she said, impatient to see the wound on the knight’s belly.
Her captor knelt beside her. “This padding is an aketon.” With unsteady hands he cut away the tattered remains of the breeks and shift. “An
, ye stupid bitch. It protects me master from blows t’ th’ armor. Don’t you know anything?”
She knew more than she wanted to, but she didn’t admit that. Instead she said, “It may protect him from blows to the armor, but it has done nothing to preserve his flesh.”
Then the servant laid his master bare and Edlyn
sucked in her breath. “God preserve him.” She dropped back down on her knees and stared, too afraid to even touch the white ribs and torn muscles that gleamed through the tattered skin. “You need someone more experienced than I to tend this.”
“Ye do it,” the servant insisted. “No one but ye.”
“Why would you condemn him to my incompetent care when across the square lies an infirmary? I’m the herbalist,” she declared firmly. “I don’t nurse the wounded. I only apply poultices and recommend medicines.”
He looked her over, his eyes thin squints of hostility. “I hear how ye talk. Ye’re a lady, an’ ladies know how t’ physic their folk.”
“Some of them more competently than others.”
“Make it better.” The cold point of the dagger touched her cheek again. “Now.”
So he wouldn’t even talk about it. That meant, she supposed, the wounded man was one of Simon de Montfort’s rebels and the servant feared the prince’s men would find his master and kill him. It made sense, but she’d seen men die of wounds like this. She’d seen them live, too, but only under the experienced care of the nursing nuns and their trained servants. She glanced at the dagger out of the corner of her eye. She should have run while she could rather than let compassion sway her.
Instead she had stayed and committed herself to doing the job at hand. She had to—she had more than herself to think of.
Standing, she moved steadily through her dispensary while the servant watched her. Inside the compact building set in the middle of the convent’s herb garden, the walls were lined with shelves. Dried mushrooms hung on strings from the rafters. A long table ran the
length of the room in the center, and at one end stood the clay oven.
“What’s your name?” Edlyn asked.
“Why?” The crouching man fingered his dagger.
“Because I don’t know what to call you.” Edlyn opened a wooden box and scooped a handful of dried yarrow into her stone bowl. Picking up her pestle, she ground the leaves into powder and said, “And I want you to build up the fire to a full blaze.”
She wanted to snap at him, but she understood the suspicion he felt—plus he still clutched his knife. “A patient as severely wounded as your master should be kept warm. Also, I’ll make him a poultice when I’m done sewing him and that will help draw out the evil humors of his blood.”
The man mulled that over, then rose and went to the small stack of wood beside the hearth. “Not much wood here,” he said.
“The woodpile’s outside.”
“Huh. I’m not leaving ye here alone with him.”
“As you wish.” Adding just enough water to the leaves to make a paste, Edlyn placed the bowl atop the oven to warm, then gathered supplies for the job at hand and arranged them on a tray. When she stepped to the side of the table near the door, the servant followed, dagger at the ready. It irked her to be so mistrusted, but it didn’t surprise her. This was the harvest of violence: men who couldn’t trust and who couldn’t be trusted. When she returned to the wounded man, she said, “You’ll have to put that away. I shall need your help.”
The dagger wavered for a moment, and she looked at the ugly face of her captor. “Why hesitate? You can kill me at any minute with your bare hands.”
“That’s truth,” the man acknowledged, and he slipped his dagger into its scabbard.
“Bring me water,” she commanded. “It’s there in that pitcher.”
“What do ye want water fer?”
His constant suspicion irritated her, but she held on to her control. She’d been trained to keep control, to hold her temper and keep her emotions hidden, and for her it seemed as if that training had been just for this moment. Losing her temper could cost Edlyn her life, so she infused a tone of command in her voice. “So I can wash the wound and see what I’m doing. Please do as I require for your master’s sake.”
The calm assumption of authority worked. The servant rose and brought the water silently.
“Open the door,” she said, trying out her new supremacy. “I need more light to see.”
He ignored the request and instead crouched beside her waiting for more instructions.
With a sigh at her lack of success, she began to work. Fortunately for the unconscious man, the sunlight had strengthened outside. She could see as she tucked pieces of skin together and sewed them with crude stitches of sheep gut. All through the long treatment, the servant assisted without questioning. He wasn’t cowed so much as he was just reverting to his training—when a lady spoke, a servant obeyed, even when the servant held the upper hand. For now, the two were united for this one cause. Later, Edlyn knew, they would be enemies once more.
Sometime during the long process of sewing the patient’s flesh, Edlyn became aware he was awake. He had been senseless, she would swear it, but now his muscles tightened when she probed and he stopped the moans that rose each time she pierced his flesh with a
needle. He was either very brave or aware, even in his cocoon of pain, of the need for secrecy.
Remembering her own warrior-husband’s complaints when he was ill, she thought it must be the latter.
She began to speak to the knight in a low voice, trying to reassure him. He had, after all, lost consciousness after being wounded and returned to it now in a strange place. “You’re at Eastbury Abbey,” she said, “about ten leagues from the battlefield where you were wounded.”
His muscles relaxed as he listened to her, and she knew he understood. But his voice, when he spoke, startled her. “Wharton?” he asked, his deep voice reverberating in the depths of his great helm.
Edlyn cast an ironic glance at the newly named servant, and she could have sworn the ugly man blushed. “He is here beside me.”
“My name is Edlyn.”
The warrior flinched violently beneath her hands.
“Did I hurt you?” she cried.
And Wharton snarled, “Ye hurt him, ye clumsy cow.”
“Nay!” the warrior exclaimed.
She could hear each labored breath the warrior drew, and she held her own as she wondered if he would lash out at her in pain.
Slowly the wounded man relaxed. “Go on. Finish.”
Off to the side, below the warrior’s range of vision, she saw Wharton pull his dagger.
“Be more careful,” he warned.
With trembling fingers, she concluded her stitching and examined it carefully. “I suppose I’m done.” She didn’t know what to do for those places where the skin had been totally removed, and she didn’t like the way
scraps of it puckered beneath the pull of her sutures. She wished for one of the nuns or even one of the fat-fingered monks who served the infirmary. Then it occurred to her that the warrior might be more reasonable than his servant, and she said to him, “I have no skills at this, but your man insisted I do what I could for you. If you would allow me to seek help at the hospital—”