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Authors: Alys Clare

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BOOK: Girl In A Red Tunic
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     I lay naked in the straw and he came in. He too was naked and his shadow loomed over me, although there was scarce any light and I was not able to study him as I wished. He lay down beside me and took me in his arms, and I felt the smooth flesh of his cheek – he was ever a clean-shaven, fastidious man – and I thought that I smelt the characteristic scent of him. Then passion took me over and I stopped thinking.

     He entered me quickly but then he slowed his pace and it seemed to me that those precious moments lasted for a small eternity. He was wonderfully skilled in the ways of the bedchamber and I remember having the fleeting thought that Benedict Warin’s reputation as a lover of women was well founded. He gave me delight such as I have never experienced again.

     Afterwards – he too was spent and satiated, as pleased as I with the delight we had made between us – he relaxed. And forgot, I believe, just for an instant, that he was meant to remain quiet and not speak a word. He whispered in my ear, kissing my cheek and my hair as he did so, ‘Oh, Sirida, what a woman you are!’

     I knew, even from those few soft-spoken words, that he was not Benedict.

     I never told anyone.

     Until now, my son, when it is far too late, that I am telling you.

 

It had come as a terrible shock to Sirida to discover what Benedict had written in the letter that he had left for others to find after his death. He had promised her that he would see to it that Arthur would be provided for in the end and she, fool that she was, had believed him. But then why should she not, when she had used her inner eye and
seen
the letter hidden away in the table? It had been but a fleeting glimpse and she had never managed to repeat the vision; she had not known that the table had long been removed from the Old Manor and that it now sat in Helewise’s room at Hawkenlye Abbey.

     She had never dreamed that in death Benedict would undo all his carefully built subterfuges and tell the truth about Arthur’s conception. It had simply not entered her head that he would do such a thing, when for so many years he had taken such pains to pretend to the world that he was still the virile seducer that he had always been. His reputation meant so much to him; it was surely not Sirida’s fault that she had not suspected.

     She had
seen
the letter; she knew full well that it existed.

     It was just a pity that Sirida had never learned to read  ...

 

Her thoughts were full of her son. She saw him as a solitary child, desperately hurt by the casually cruel taunts of the other children but determined not to show it. She saw him quietly bathing a bruised back where some wretch of a man had beaten him for trying to steal a couple of eggs – poor lad, he’d been hungry for most of his early years – and hoping that she wouldn’t notice. Saw him growing up, fierce and resentful, and saw him on that fateful day when she told him that he was the son of Benedict Warin.

     Saw him finally as he had been that last day in her hut. You were so angry, son, when you believed that I was about to give up, she thought, seeing the scene repeat itself in her inner vision. Perhaps I might have done, even then, but for that moment when I stepped forward and looked into your eyes.

     Then I knew that there was no other way for me but to continue along the path on which I set my feet all those years ago. For I
saw
what would happen to you if ever you knew what really happened.

     I knew then that the truth would kill you.

     And now it has done so.

 

Her mind wandered back to the past.

     She thought of Benedict, dead these many years, and of Martin, who survived by only a few months the master to whom he had given a lifetime’s loyalty. Benedict had gone to his grave with his reputation intact – they said that he was still chasing petticoats until shortly before his death and that it was one cup of wine too many and a last rowdy chorus with the woman sitting on his lap that brought on his final collapse. He had never contacted Sirida again, although sometimes she had sensed his thoughts tentatively turning her way, seeking her out as if, knowing what he intended to do, perhaps – just perhaps – he wanted to tell her he was sorry.

     Sirida had lain with Martin only that one time, but Martin could not forget any more than she could. He had not helped her, nor had he given her any support for Arthur, his son, although Sirida did not hold it against him for she understood that his allegiance to Benedict Warin overrode any other attachment. She understood and forgave him for, of all the people in her long life, he was the only man ever to have shown her true kindness.

     Just once he had made his way to the marshes to seek her out, coming by night to her hut and creeping along in the shadows as if he feared curious eyes were upon him. He slipped into the dark little room, glanced quickly at the young Arthur asleep by the hearth, then blurted out in a hoarse whisper that he had tried to put her out of his mind but could not do so and would she ever consider accepting him as her friend, her lover, her husband, even, if she’d have him?

     They had stood face to face in the soft light of the dying fire and she had felt again an echo of the passion that this man had sent burning through her. For an instant she was tempted and she had felt her body lean towards his as if her own flesh recognised a soul mate and would cleave to him.

     But her head had overruled her heart, her soul and her body; if she admitted that she knew it was Martin and not Benedict that she had lain with and accepted Martin as her man and the father of her son, then she must forget all about her claim on Benedict Warin.

     She might just have done it had there only been herself to consider.

     She turned Martin away and he did not come back.

 

But he had made one further attempt. She saw, as clearly as if it had just happened, that day in the great hall at Swansford, when the young Helewise had stared at her from frosty grey eyes and that old aunt of Benedict’s had called Sirida a witch and commanded Martin to kick her out. I had every right to be there, Sirida mused, or so I had to make them all believe. Martin could well have gone along with the majority and treated me cruelly, but he did not. He took my arm – gently – and, once we were outside and alone, he asked in a soft voice how the boy was doing and if I was managing all right.

     Oh, but how she wished she had told him then that she knew the truth! Was that what he had been asking her, on that miserable and unforgettable day of other people’s celebration? Was he subtly probing to see whether she would relent and confess at last that she knew it was he and not his master who had lain with her and begotten her son?

     What would he have done, she wondered, had I admitted that I knew? Would he have quietly slipped from Benedict Warin’s orbit and come to me? We could have been wed, for he had already asked me and I knew that he would take me as wife if I said the word. We could have made a good life together and provided Arthur with two devoted parents.

     But I was ambitious for my only child. I thought then that worldly position and wealth were the only things that mattered. I looked him in the eyes, shook my head and said, ‘I do not need your help, Martin.’

     She had never forgotten his face. His half-smile had slowly faded and it was like the light dying at the last moments of the day. He leaned close to her for a precious instant and said, ‘I am sorry, Sirida.’ Then he had made a sound – she had thought it might be a sob – and muttered something before turning and quickly hurrying away.

     She had never forgotten those words, either. Because he had told her he would never stop loving her.

     She sighed, deeply, painfully. ‘Oh, Martin,’ she whispered, ‘I’m sorry. I was proud, I thought I deserved better than to be a manservant’s wife. I thought that the only fit role for me was lady of the manor.’

     Now, she thought, I know different.

     Now that it is far, far too late  ...

 

Sirida felt death approaching.

     Arthur had gone ahead of her, and she sensed that his spirit was not far away.

     Was there physical substance after death? She wondered – more often now that she was about to die – but she did not know. She hoped there was. She would like to hold her son once more and tell him that she loved him.

     And, perhaps, somehow she would find Martin, and the best lover she had ever had would lie with her again.

     She lay down in her hut, wrapped herself in her thin coverings and closed her eyes. Death came and it seemed to her that she was borne off upwards inside a great beam of light.

     She thought she saw Arthur and, behind him, another.

     Arms open in greeting, a smile on his still-handsome face, Martin stood there waiting for her. And, an answering smile on her own lips, flying across the misty ground as if she were a young woman once again, Sirida ran to meet him  ...

BOOK: Girl In A Red Tunic
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