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Authors: Alys Clare

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BOOK: Girl In A Red Tunic
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     ‘Aye,’ Josse agreed. And he thought, but did not say, that the next question was surely to ask why Timus did not want to speak. Or to laugh; he wondered if Helewise had also noticed what her son had said when Josse’s first trick had met with such a response: that it was the first time
in a week
that the little boy had laughed.

     Which surely implied that he had laughed – perhaps also made the normal speech-like sounds – up until a week ago. And that suggested to Josse that something must have happened to make him withdraw into silence.

     He realised that the Abbess was watching him intently and he almost asked her if she was thinking the same thing. But then her expression seemed to close up and, straightening her back and folding her hands away in the opposite sleeves of her black habit, she said in a voice that brooked no argument, ‘I must be on my way. There is much for me to attend to and I can spare no more time here.’

     ‘Very well, my lady,’ he said meekly.

     ‘I—’ She was staring at the child and he could see the longing in her eyes. ‘You will tell me if he speaks again?’ she asked.

     ‘Of course. Don’t worry, he’ll be all right with me.’

     ‘I know,’ she said softly. Then, lifting her chin and adopting a determined scowl, she strode away.

     Leaving him to remember, too late for now, that they had forgotten to ask Leofgar whether there was any foundation to Rohaise’s fears that somebody wanted to take Timus away from her. I must not forget, Josse told himself firmly. It may be important  ...

     He studied the child, who had discovered Josse’s large feet under the bed coverings and was trying to twist them sideways. I wish I could ask you, Timus, he thought. I wish I could say, what’s been happening in that home you share with your worried father and your frightened mother? Does the lady have good reason to be so afraid? And what was it, little one, that made you so suddenly stop laughing?

     He could feel a headache beginning above his eyebrows. When Sister Caliste arrived with his herbal drink – she must surely be due on her rounds soon – he would suggest, as tactfully as he could, that she take Timus away and allow her convalescent patient to have a well-earned sleep.

Chapter 4


It was night and Helewise was dreaming again.

     She had gone to sleep thinking about Josse’s quite unexpectedly easy and natural way with children and uppermost in her mind had not been the extraordinary reaction he had evoked in little Timus. It had been the thought – which in truth was never very far away – that Josse had a child of his own and he did not know it.

     The daughter whom Joanna de Courtenay had born him would be about a year old now. Rumour of mother and child had reached Helewise occasionally: they said Joanna had been living as a herbalist deep in the Great Forest. They said she lived hidden away in a little hut and that she talked with the Wild People. They said she made simples and potions and would help anyone who came a-knocking at her door. If they could find it. They said she lived high up in a tree and could charm the bees and the birds and talk to the animals in their own strange tongues. Then, in the spring of the year, there was a whisper that she had gone away. Helewise had discreetly tried to find out from the Abbey’s own herbalist, Sister Tiphaine, who always seemed to know more than a good nun should about the goings-on among the mysterious and pagan forest people, if this rumour were true. Sister Tiphaine had looked her Abbess right in the eye and said calmly, ‘She may well have left, my lady. But she will be back.’

     Which had not answered the question in any satisfactory way at all  ...


For all that her thoughts as she fell asleep had been on Josse’s child, it was her own sons who flooded Helewise’s dreams. The first image was one that had disturbed her sleep before. She was young, dressed in a sunshine-yellow gown that she had made from an expensive length of French silk brought back by her indulgent father from a trip to a trading port on the south coast. She had reason to remember that gown very well and there was not one single detail of it that she had forgotten. But, in the way of dreams, the chronology was not quite right because she had worn that gown when she was a fast-maturing girl of fourteen (she had been so proud because she and her nimble-fingered nurse had had to let out the bodice to accommodate Helewise’s richly rounded breasts) whereas, in the dream, she was wearing the yellow gown at a time after she had given birth to both her sons.

     And there, too, dream time played tricks because the sixteen-month gap between them had disappeared and, as if they were twins, she fed them together, one held tenderly in the crook of each arm. Milk ran from her freely and in her sleep she turned and moaned softly as the never-forgotten feeling of let-down surged through her breasts under the linen sleeping shift. In her dream she sat on a grassy bank beneath a spreading willow tree and Ivo, kneeling before her and kissing her bare feet, took her toes in his mouth even as her hungry sons took her nipples and he sucked and licked them as if they were coated with honey.
My Flora
, he said, breaking off to look up at her and give her a wink,
my Queen of the May
. Then Leofgar turned from a suckling baby into a boy of five and stood in front of her, feet firmly planted in the green grass, demanding an apple because he needed the core to throw at a huge rook that was eating the corn. Dominic, also growing from babyhood to childhood in the blink of an eye, stood with her in the cool kitchen of the beautiful rambling old manor house that had been her marital home and helped her make gingerbread men with black, dried-fruit eyes. Then she was a girl again, newly married and wearing the red silk gown that had caused such problems because her new father-in-law gave it to her as a wedding gift – he must have noticed her generous breasts because she did not have to let
gown out at all – and she loved it, yet the more straight-laced members of her large family sniffed their disapproval and said that scarlet was a dangerous, pagan colour and only worn by wanton women. Elena, the old nurse, had just smiled and said
Never you mind, my sweeting, it’ll be a lucky colour for you because it belongs to the Old Ways and the Great Mother, and she’ll see how you honour her and she’ll keep you fertile

     Elena had known. She always knew  ...


Helewise woke lying on her back from a dream in which Ivo had been making love to her. Shocked at the response that was still coursing through her throbbing body, she got silently out of bed, crept along the length of the dormitory to the little recess at its far end where, breaking the ice on a basin of water, she sponged herself down until her flesh was bright red and she was shivering like a wet hound.

     She tiptoed back to her bed but, not yet daring to risk more dreams, fell to her knees beside it and prayed to God to restore her peace of mind and her serenity. After quite a long time, she got back into her cold bed. As sleep took her once more, she seemed to hear a voice that could have been Josse’s or Ivo’s saying, quite kindly,
No good praying for that, dear heart, not until this trouble is past

     But the voice disappeared in the deep dark of profound and dreamless sleep and she forgot all about it.


She was awake before the summons to Prime and was already praying in the cold, dark Abbey church when the rest of the community quietly filed in. As the office began, she gave her heart, mind and soul into God’s hands and promised to do her best, humbly asking His forgiveness if her concentration wavered but begging Him to understand that the circumstances were a little unusual.

     Then, determined to complete a session of hard work before anyone else popped up with a claim on her time, she hurried away to her little room and firmly shut herself in.


Josse woke up a long time after the Abbess. He had slept soundly and was relieved to discover that yesterday’s headache had quite gone. His fever had not returned the previous evening and he was very much hoping that he would be allowed to get up today.

     Sister Caliste brought him porridge and a hot drink, then the infirmarer came for her customary check. She pronounced him well but warned him not to overdo it and to return for a nap in the afternoon. Then a young nun in the white veil of the novice brought him his clothes – someone had kindly washed out his linen – and, with relief, he dressed and set off to see what had been happening in the outside world while he lay abed.

     He went to see Horace and found that as usual Sister Martha had been spoiling this guest in her stables. Horace looked half asleep and very well-fed and Josse, thanking Sister Martha for her care, made a mental note to make sure he found the time to take the big horse out for a ride to remind him that he had been put on this Earth to bear Josse and not to stuff himself in a warm, sweet-smelling stable.

     At the back of his mind since waking had been the Abbess’s son and his family. He had formed a vague plan of offering to talk to Leofgar and perhaps also Rohaise in an informal sort of a way to see if they unwittingly revealed rather more of what was going on than Leofgar as yet had told his mother. But he did not feel he could do this until he had talked it over with the Abbess; accordingly, soon after the community had emerged from the Abbey church after Sext, he went to find her.

     His tentative tap on the door elicited an unusually curt response: she barked, ‘Yes? Who is it?’

     Surprised that she had not heard the jingle of his spurs and guessed who it was, he said, ‘It’s me.’

     Her voice warming by several degrees, she called out, ‘Please, come in, Sir Josse.’

     He did so, closing the heavy door behind him with exaggerated care as if she now suffered his headache and he did not wish to cause her the pain of a loud noise. When he looked at her, he wondered if he might by chance be right, for she was pale and had greyish circles under her eyes, as if exhausted.

     He said without thinking, ‘Try not to worry. I’m sure that between us all we can help them.’

     She gave him a wry smile. ‘Thank you, Sir Josse. I was not actually thinking of Leofgar at that moment. I had just managed to turn my mind fully to these reports from our outlying properties out in the Medway valley and I was at last making progress.’

     Until you brought my son and his problems right back to my attention, hung unsaid in the air.

     ‘I’m sorry, my lady.’ Josse was contrite. ‘Er – can I help?’

     It was a foolish question and he knew it before it was confirmed by her ironically raised eyebrow. ‘With the reports? I think not, and indeed I would not wish such a task upon a friend since the writing is all but illegible and the content, once deciphered, deadly dull.’

     ‘I did not really mean help you with your work.’

     ‘I know, Sir Josse,’ she said gently. ‘I was teasing you.’

     Teasing was a good sign, he decided. Teasing meant she wasn’t as bowed down by her anxiety as he suspected. ‘I thought maybe I’d have a talk with your son and his wife,’ he said as casually as he could, which didn’t sound very casual at all. ‘I have yet to meet the lady and, if she’s awake and feels adequately restored, perhaps she would appreciate a visitor.’

     The Abbess had put her stylus down and was looking at him with affection. ‘Forgive me, Sir Josse, I quite forgot to ask after your own health, but if you are up and about, I would guess that you are recovered.’

     ‘Aye, my lady, thank you, but the infirmarer has summoned me back for an afternoon sleep.’

     ‘You must have it,’ urged the Abbess. ‘It is rare for Sister Euphemia to be so indulgent, so make the most of it.’

     He grinned. ‘Very well.’

     ‘And as to your proposal to speak with Leofgar and Rohaise, I think it is an excellent idea. I have been to see Rohaise this morning and she is well rested. Sister Euphemia has suggested another undemanding day – she is still concerned at Rohaise’s pallor – but I am sure that a visit from you would brighten her up. You may find Leofgar with her but I believe he intended to take Timus out for some fresh air.’

     ‘It might be a happy chance to catch her on her own,’ he mused. ‘Do you not think, my lady?’

     She gave him a conspiratorial smile. ‘I do, Sir Josse. Indeed I do.’


He found Rohaise sitting in the little curtained recess that was a copy of the one in which he had been cared for at the other end of the infirmary. She was dressed in a warm woollen gown in a russet shade, over which she wore a sleeveless tunic edged in fur; her dark hair was neatly braided and partially concealed by a small, stiff white veil held in place by a plaited cord of silk. She sat on a low stool at the foot of the bed and she was sewing a hem in what appeared to be a very long length of white linen.

BOOK: Girl In A Red Tunic
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