“There’s nothing worse in the world than a shameless
woman--save some other woman.”
--Aristophanes (410 B.C.)
The forest of Ravenswood Manor, England
Cristina knelt among the tree roots and gathered some ferns for her nosegays. She worked quickly for the men who escorted her, three woodcutters, were almost finished their task.
Little light remained to guide them along the road to the village. Mist enveloped the land; it curled from the nearby stream, entwined low-hanging branches, and obscured the men who bundled twigs nearby.
As she rose, the ground beneath her knees trembled. Her heart in her throat, she stared ahead between the trees for those who must be coming straight toward her.
"Cristina,” one of the woodcutters called. "Beware!"
She stepped deeper into the protective shadows. A phalanx of horses burst into view, tearing the web of mist by the stream.
The lead horse, huge, towering, black as night, churned the ground a scant five feet before her, its rider oblivious to her presence in the shelter of the trees. The ferns fell from her fingers. The beat of hooves stole her breath.
More horsemen coalesced from the mist behind the leader.
His black mantle flew like two wings from his shoulders. She knew him by the heavy gold torque about his neck, the black and gold caparison on his horse.
Ravenswood's lord--Durand de Marle.
She maintained her place, struck to stone by the massive horses, the wind that tore at her gown.
“Did you see him?” One of the men asked her.
“Why, the king.”
“Nay, I did not see him,” she whispered.
The horsemen were spirits riding the wind as they burst through the fog. They were close enough to touch, a king among them, but she had seen only him.
They thundered past, shaking the earth, filling the air with the scents of horses, men, leather, and steel.
The mist swirled in and he was gone.
Ravenswood Castle, England, May 1205
Durand de Marle stood at the foot of his wife’s bier and studied her face. “You are lovely, Marion.” He touched her cold hand and rubbed the smooth gold of her ring with his thumb. “As lovely in death as you were in life.”
Truly she looked to him as if only asleep, as if she might arise to chastise him for being gone so long. Her woolen gown of soft blue was one he did not recognize. Her jewels were those he had given her on their wedding day--long ropes of pearls from the Holy Land, a girdle of silver and gold disks. “Your sister has done well by you.” Idly, he rearranged a fold of her skirt.
He circled the small private chapel and examined with close attention a tapestry he had not noticed before. The subject, the martyrdom of St. Stephen, did not lift his heavy spirit. Finally, his steps returned him to the bier.
He glanced down at the embroidered cushions placed for mourners that they might pray in comfort by Lady Marion’s side. With a sigh, he sank down on one.
Prayer escaped him.
Forgiveness escaped him.
One of the thick candles on the small marble altar guttered and was extinguished with a sharp scent of wax and smoke. He watched the thin thread of vapor rise to the whitewashed ceiling.
He counted seventeen wax candles. How many hours had they been lighted? How many moments until he was plunged into concealing darkness?
Rising, he again paced the length and breadth of the chamber. “Why can I not pray?” he asked of the martyred Stephen.
Two more candles flickered into oblivion.
“Will I fare better in darkness?” He pinched out two more. Deep shadows filled the corners of the small chapel. Returning to the bier, he knelt and clasped his hands, his gaze on his wife’s face. Marion’s features, cast now in shadow, looked like those of an innocent girl.
“Forgive the sins of my wife,” Durand began. “Forgive the winter cold of my heart.”
As if conjured by magic, the fragrance of spring came to him.
Sweet violets, wet leaves, rich earth.
He rose and turned to seek the source of the lush scents. At the rear of the chapel, by an ancient baptismal font, garbed all in white, stood a ghost.
“Forgive me, my lord, for intruding on your prayers,” the ghost said softly, then stepped backward, closer to a rank of candles by the chapel entrance.
Not a spirit--a woman.
In her arms, she held a huge basket filled with flowers--the source of the wonderful perfume.
“Nay. Stay.” He held up a hand, palm out. “You do not intrude. Come forward.”
Despite her heavy burden, the woman walked toward him with a graceful motion that only enhanced his first impression of a ghost. Did her feet touch the floor? Involuntarily, he glanced down at her hem. It was ordinary leather shoes he saw. Sturdy ones, at that.
“I could return at a later hour, my lord.” She sank into a respectful curtsy, but her gaze was on the torque about his neck. The air filled with the seductive scents of her basket.
“Nay. Remain. Take what time you need.” Durand walked to the fore of the chapel and lit more candles to better see this ethereal creature. She came to his side, set the basket on a wooden bench, and then busied herself filling an oil lamp on the altar.
In the candle’s glow, the woman’s hair was dark and glossy. It lay in a silky plait entwined with narrow ribbons down her back. Her brows were finely arched, her eyes dark when she glanced up at him now and then.
Each time she raised her eyes, he nodded his acceptance of her presence that she might remain at her task. Moving closer, he attempted to put her at ease. He touched a lacy weave of ferns and ribbons in her basket. “Is this your work?”
The woman nodded and ducked her head. She draped intricate garlands of flowers about his wife. Each touch of the delicate petals of violets brought a renewal of the scents of spring.
“May I, my lord?” The woman held up a beautiful cascade of leaves, trailing vines, and ribbons.
He nodded, not understanding what she intended. She opened his wife’s hands, and when she was finished, Marion looked like a bride to a forest deity. “You have made her more beautiful than any of these jewels,” he said, sweeping a hand out to encompass the ropes of pearls and links of gold.
A delicate flush crossed the woman’s cheeks. “I but wish to honor my lady,” she said softly. “She was kind to me.” Her gaze met his.
A sudden pounding rose in his throat. A throb echoed in his wrists and temples. “Who are you?” he asked.
She tilted her head to examine him. He felt naked.
“Who am I?” She lifted her empty basket and turned away. He watched the straight column of her back, the sway of her skirts, the dark rope of her plait as she glided away from him. “I am your daughter’s wet nurse, my lord.”
* * *
Durand left the chapel a few moments later and entered the great hall. He strode to the fore where he sat beside his wife’s sister, Oriel Martine. She must act as mistress of Ravenswood castle now Marion was dead. He waited until a servant poured him a goblet of wine before speaking.
Oriel smiled up at him with the same soft blue eyes of Marion, from a similar oval face.
“Oriel, have I a wet nurse?”
She rose. “You’re impossible, Durand. Your daughter, as you well know, must be fed just as a son must be. I’m sure if the babe had been a boy, you would not only know the wet nurse, but would have assigned him a groom for the destrier you would have surely purchased the day he was born!” She swept away, chin in the air.
He sighed. “Badly done, Durand.” He looked over the crowded hall. The many folk who sat at the tables and benches spoke in low tones out of respect for Death who had so recently claimed their mistress. The young woman from the chapel was not to be seen.
A man approached him with hesitation in his step. “My lord?”
Durand nodded. The man was darkly handsome, thin as a hungry hound, as finely dressed and elegantly shod as a courtier in King John’s court. “What is it, Master le Gros?”
“Please, accept again my deepest sympathy at the loss of our dearest Lady Marion,” the merchant said in soft, grave tones.
Durand inclined his head.
“I don’t wish to trouble you at such a time, nor do I wish to intrude--”
“Then speak quickly, le Gros.”
“Of course, my lord.” He cleared his throat. “If you are summoning your sons for Lady Marion’s services, have they need of”--le Gros dropped his voice to yet an even more somber whisper--“clothes appropriate to the occasion? I’ve a very fine wool to garb them.”
“Don’t trouble yourself. My sons have all they need.”
“As you wish, my lord.” Simon bowed, but remained in place.
“What is it?” Durand had difficulty keeping the impatience from his voice.
“I cannot find Sir Luke. He was to have . . . ah, hem, ah, settled some accounts.”
Durand took a deep breath to prevent himself from loosing his temper on the merchant standing before him. “Leave the accounts with me, and I’ll see my brother attends to them.”
Simon opened a leather purse at his belt and withdrew a folded leaf of parchment. He placed it precisely before Durand. “Again, may I offer you my deepest sympathy. I have added Lady Marion to my prayers. I will say more prayers each day--
“Aye. As you wish.” Durand sought to forestall more words of prayers.
“My lord.” Le Gros bowed several times before retreating.
“Is the worm gone?” Penne Martine, Oriel’s husband and his closest friend, slid into the seat beside him. He so resembled his wife, he was ofttimes mistaken for her brother.
Durand forced a smile. “Worm? I prefer to think of le Gros as a standing bog, oozing his elegant speech across all who cross his path. But . . . I have known him but two days.”
“Then why keep him about?” Penne signaled for more wine. A few inches shorter than Durand, he had the same knightly build found in men who had wielded a sword for years and ridden horseback just as long. Penne, however, lacked the hardness of Durand’s features. Penne looked ready to laugh. Durand knew he looked ready to chastise.
“Why not? You know I trust my brother’s judgment in all these matters. Luke claims Simon le Gros’s prices are fair. And he says the merchant’s wife makes scented lotions unparalleled anywhere in Christendom.”
“If Mistress le Gros makes the lotion Oriel is rubbing on her skin these days, le Gros must be retained at all cost. Or his wife must be. My Oriel’s skin is like swan’s down, and she smells like a summer garden. A seductive summer garden. I simply sniff her neck and want to--” Penne’s cheeks colored. “Forgive me. I should not be speaking of such things when Marion is--”
“Penne. Cease! I’m sick to death of everyone tip-toeing about me. No one finishes a sentence. No one meets my eye.”
Except the maiden in the chapel. She had looked him in the eye, and reminded him most painfully of what a woman’s glance could inspire.
“Everyone loved Lady Marion,” Penne said.
“Aye,” Durand said. “Everyone loved Lady Marion.”
After an uncomfortable moment of silence, Durand cleared his throat. “I’ve annoyed your Oriel.” He filled his goblet again, spilling a few drops on le Gros’s accounts when a woman in white entered the hall. Dashing the wine from the parchment, he realized she was not the one who had so beautifully adorned his wife. That woman had been more roundly formed, had walked with greater grace, had announced herself with her scent.
“How so?” Penne accepted the cup of wine Durand held out.
“I asked if I had a wet nurse.”
“A simple enough question.”
“Then why did Oriel take such offense?”
Penne’s gaze slid away from Durand’s. “Oriel is always sensitive where babes are concerned.” His long fingers played with the stem of the goblet. “Oriel believes you neglect the infant. Have you seen her yet?”
Durand felt a hot flush rush up his cheeks. “I don’t need to see the babe. When she’s old enough to marry off, I’ll look her over.”
“If you said such a thing to Oriel, no wonder she took offense. It is just how her father thought. Oriel is ever mindful that she and Marion had no say in whom they wed.” Penne shook his head and sliced himself a piece of buttery yellow cheese.
“They did not mind for long--” Durand broke off. The woman from the chapel entered the hall. He knew her in an instant, had no need to be close enough to catch her scent. Her walk alone announced her. She crossed the hall toward the steps leading to the east tower, which housed small chambers for upper servants. And his infant daughter, he supposed.
Just as she reached the steps, she turned and looked at him.
Her step slowed. She stopped. With a small dip of her dark head, she nodded, then disappeared up the tower stairs.
Durand’s mouth dried. “Penne. Did you see that woman who just crossed the hall?”
“Aye.” Penne nodded.
Try as he might, Durand could not quite meet Penne’s eyes. “Is she the child’s wet nurse?”
Penne nodded. “Aye. She is.”
Warmth flooded Durand’s body. He felt as ashamed of the sensation here in the hall as he had felt in the chapel. Another sin to add to his burdens--lustful thoughts over his wife’s body.
“I pity her,” Penne said.
Durand jerked around to face his friend. “Pity her?”
“Oh, aye. She may be your wet nurse, but she is also Simon le Gros’s wife.”