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Chapter 13

" 'Tis a woman's natural weakness that leads her into temptation," Calvert roared from the pulpit of the small village church early the next morning. "In her silly arrogance she seeks to raise herself above man at every opportunity and thereby puts her very soul in jeopardy."

The crowd that filled the church stirred unhappily. Alice sat seething at the center of the uneasy waves. She had not been this angry since the day Sir Ralf had installed his eldest son in her family's manor hall.

This stupid lecture from Calvert was not what she had ordered for this morning's service. Yesterday she had sent word to Prioress Joan that she wanted special prayers said for Hugh's journey to London.

The news that the new lord and his betrothed would attend morning mass in the village church rather than in the keep's private chapel had spread swiftly. Virtually the entire population of the tiny hamlet of Scarcliffe and all of the nuns from the convent had turned out to enjoy the exciting event. It was not every day that they were invited to pray in the company of the lord of the manor.

Alice, seated beside Hugh in the front row, had been pleased with the turnout until disaster, in the form of Calvert of Oxwick, had struck.

Joan had just finished the opening prayers and was launching into a very nice homily on the dangers of the road when the monk strode into the church.

Calvert banged his staff on the stone floor as he forged his way to the front of the crowd. His brown robes billowed around his scrawny, sandaled feet. When he reached the pulpit he ordered Joan to sit with her nuns. The prioress hesitated and then, tight-lipped, obeyed. The Church insisted on a man in the pulpit when one was available.

Calvert had promptly seized the wooden lectern and launched into a tirade against the evils of women. It was a tried-and-true theme, one familiar to everyone present. Visiting priests and wandering monks were excessively fond of sermons that chastised women and warned men of their temptations.

"Ye frail, sinful daughters of Eve, know ye well that your only hope of salvation lies in submitting yourself to the will of your husbands. You must accept his power over you for it is ordained by the Divine Creator."

Alice fumed. She glanced at Hugh out of the corner of her eye. He looked bored. She crossed her arms and began to tap the toe of her soft boot.

"The fires of hell burn hottest for those weak women who dare to raise themselves above men."

The women endured the monk's tirade with barely concealed disgust. They had heard it all before, many times over.

Joan shifted slightly in her seat and leaned forward to whisper to Alice. "My apologies, my lady. I know this was not the sort of preaching you wanted this morning."

"They dare speak aloud in church," Calvert thundered, "uncaring that men of virtue do not wish to hear the noise of their prattling tongues. They govern religious houses, taking authority upon themselves as though they had the rights and privileges of men."

Alice narrowed her eyes at Calvert. He continued to hold forth, either oblivious to her growing annoyance or unconcerned with it. His piercing gaze sizzled into her.

"Some practice their lustful ways on even the strongest and most noble of knights. Woe be to the man who listens to the whispers of such a female. He shall find his strength weakened. He will discover himself to be at her mercy and that mercy is the work of the devil."

Alice froze. This was becoming personal, she realized.

"She shall use the treacherous tricks of her sinful body to lure her victim into hidden places. There she will fall upon him as a succubus in the night."

"By the Saints," Alice muttered. One question was answered. Calvert had seen her lying on top of Hugh in the cavern. Embarrassment dissolved in a torrent of anger.

"Be warned." Calvert's gaze swerved toward Hugh. "Every man is at risk. He who would keep his rightful place in the natural order of the world must be forever alert. He must don armor against the ways of women, even as he clads himself in steel before he goes to war."

"Enough," Alice leaped to her feet. "I will hear no more of this foolish harangue, monk. I requested prayers for my betrothed husband's safe journey, not this nonsense."

There was a collective gasp from the crowd. Every head turned toward Alice. Out of the corner of her eye Alice saw Hugh smile.

"The woman who is not properly governed by a man is an affront to all righteous men everywhere." Calvert glanced quickly at Hugh, as though expecting assistance from that quarter. " 'Tis the duty of a husband to control his wife's tongue."

Hugh did not move. He watched Alice with great interest and more than a hint of his familiar, cool amusement.

"Come down from that pulpit, Calvert of Oxwick," Alice ordered. "You are not welcome to preach here. You slander and berate all the good women of this village and those of the convent with the bitter poison of your words."

Calvert leveled an accusing finger at her. "Hear me." His voice shook with passionate rage. "This poison you speak of is but an antidote for the evils of your female nature. You would do well to swallow it as the sound medicine it is and thereby save your immortal soul."

"I shall entrust my soul to those who comprehend the true meaning of divine compassion, monk, not to you. I want you gone from this church and from this village today. I will not tolerate these insults."

Calvert's face contorted with fury. "Your red hair and green eyes bear witness to your wild nature, lady. I can only pray that your future lord and master may crush your unruly will with his own before you cause grave harm to his house and his soul."

"Lord Hugh can take care of himself," Alice retorted. "Begone, monk."

"I do not do the bidding of a mere woman."

Hugh stirred. It was a very slight move, the barest shift of his powerful shoulders, accompanied by a gathering coldness in his eyes, but it instantly riveted the attention of everyone present.

"You'll do the bidding of this particular woman," he said very calmly. "She is my betrothed. The ring she wears on her finger is evidence of her authority. A command from her is the same as a command from me."

A soft aaaah of whispered satisfaction echoed through the tiny church. The people of Scarcliffe grasped their lord's meaning immediately. Alice's power had been firmly established.

"But but, my lord," Calvert sputtered, "surely you do not intend to turn this pulpit over to a woman."

"You heard my betrothed," Hugh said. "Take yourself off, monk. My lady prefers to hear other prayers than yours."

For a moment, Alice feared that Calvert was about to suffer a fit. His mouth worked, his eyes bulged, and his whole body contorted as though every muscle convulsed.

Anticipation rose from the crowd in a wave.

And then, without a word, Calvert grabbed his staff and stormed out of the church.

A hushed silence fell. The assembled throng stared in wonder at Alice, who was on her feet. Hugh gazed at her politely as though curious to see what she would do next.

Alice was dazed, not by what she had just done, but by the fact that Hugh had supported her with the full weight of his authority.

His action had been no small gesture of indulgence, she realized. It went much deeper than that. He had made it clear to one and all that she wielded true power on these lands.

This was the second time that he had demonstrated respect for her decisions. The first occasion had occurred yesterday afternoon when he had allowed her to reinstate Elbert as steward. And now he had defied a representative of the Church itself to uphold her choice of preachers.

He had shown her great respect, she thought, elated. Such respect from Hugh the Relentless was surely a hard-won prize. He would award it only to those he truly trusted.

"Thank you, my lord," she managed to whisper.

Hugh inclined his head very slightly. The morning light streaming through the windows heated the amber in his eyes. "Mayhap we should proceed with the prayers, madam. I would like to start on my journey sometime before sunset."

Alice blushed furiously. "Of course, my lord." She looked at Joan. "Pray continue, Prioress. My lord and his companions have a long ride ahead of them."

"Aye, my lady." Joan rose with a grace that bespoke her own noble heritage. "I would be delighted to pray for Lord Hugh's safe journey. And for his speedy return. I am certain that everyone present feels the same."

Several of the nuns smiled broadly at Alice as she sank back down onto the bench. The only one whose countenance remained somber was Katherine. Alice wondered briefly if she was suffering one of her bouts of melancholia.

Joan returned sedately to the front of the church. She concluded her small, cheerful sermon regarding caution on the roads and then closed with prayers for the travelers' safe journey.

The final prayers were spoken in a very fine Latin. It was highly doubtful that anyone other than Alice, Hugh, Benedict, and the nuns understood the actual words but that didn't stop the villagers from enjoying them.

Alice closed her eyes and offered up a small, silent prayer of her own. Dearest Lord, take care of these two people whom I love so much and guard well those who travel with them.

After a few minutes she slid her palm a short distance along the wooden bench until she touched Hugh's hand. He did not look down but his fingers reached out to close very tightly around her own.

A few minutes later the worshipers spilled out the door of the church to watch the leave-taking. Alice stood on the steps and watched as Hugh, Benedict, and the two men-at-arms who accompanied them mounted.

Distracted by the commotion Calvert had caused, Alice very nearly forgot her parting gift for Hugh. At the last moment she remembered the bundle of herbs and the instructions she had written out.

"One moment, my lord." She plunged her hand into the pouch that hung on her belt as she hurried toward Hugh's horse. "I almost forgot. I have something for you to give to your liege lord."

Hugh looked down at her from the saddle. "What is this?"

"When you described Sir Erasmus's symptoms to me last night I thought that they sounded somewhat familiar." Alice held out the herbs and the letter of instructions. "My mother made a note of such symptoms in her handbook."

"She did?" Hugh took the small bundle from her and stowed it in his own belt pouch.

"Aye. She once treated a man with similar symptoms. He had been through great hardships in battle. I cannot say for certain that Sir Erasmus is suffering from the same illness as that man, but these herbs may help."

"Thank you, Alice."

"Tell him that he must have his healer follow the directions in that letter quite carefully. Oh, and he is not to allow the doctors to bleed him. Do you comprehend that?"

"Aye, madam."

Alice stepped back. She smiled tremulously. "I wish you a safe journey, my lord."

"I shall return in a sennight," Hugh promised. "With a priest to perform our wedding."

"I vow, my lord, I do not know who appeared more astonished, Alice or the monk." Benedict, astride a sturdy palfrey, flashed a grin. "Alice is not easily surprised, you know."

Hugh smiled faintly. They had gotten a late start due to Alice's insistence on the elaborate morning prayers, but he did not regret the delay. It had been worth it to know that Alice cared enough to summon the entire village to call on heaven's protection for the travelers. He knew that her chief concern was undoubtedly for Benedict, but he had determined not to let that bother him.

It had been the sort of farewell that made a man want to return as swiftly as possible to his own hearth. Hugh savored the knowledge that he had a hall of his own. And he very nearly had a wife to complete the satisfying image. Soon, he promised himself. Very soon. The thing was as good as done.

The two men-at-arms who accompanied Hugh and Benedict rode a short distance behind their lord, bows at the ready in the event they encountered outlaws. It was an unlikely possibility. Even the boldest of robbers would hesitate to take on a band of four armed and well-mounted men, one of whom was clearly a trained knight. If the sight of the weapons did not discourage them, the fact that all four wore Hugh's distinctive black tunics would most certainly do so.

Outlaws were not only cowards by nature, choosing the easiest prey, they were also cautious. Early in his career, Hugh had made it clear that he would hunt down any who dared to rob those who rode under his banner or that of Erasmus of Thornewood. It had taken only one or two short, decisive forays to prove he could be relied upon to uphold his oath.

"I wondered how long your sister would tolerate Calvert's rantings before she took action," Hugh said to Benedict. "Indeed, I was surprised she did not speak up sooner."

Benedict gave him a strange look. "In the old days she would not have put up with his preaching for a moment. I believe that Calvert lasted as long as he did this morning only because Alice was uncertain, sir."


"Of her prerogative." Benedict sounded as though he were choosing his words carefully. "Of just how much power she commands as your betrothed."

"Your sister is a woman who is accustomed to wielding authority," Hugh observed.

"That is no less than the truth." Benedict grimaced as only a younger brother will. "To be fair, she did not have much choice in the matter. She saw to the business of my father's manor for years, you know."

"I am aware that your father did not spend much of his time on his estates. What of your mother?"

"Our mother was content to pursue her studies. Over the years, her work with herbs became the only thing of importance to her. She shut herself away in her chambers and left everything to Alice."

"And Alice excelled at the tasks she assumed."

"Aye, although I think she was lonely at times." Benedict frowned. "She first felt the weight of responsibility when she was still too young, I believe."

"And she was left to shoulder the added burden of hanging on to your father's manor."

"It was the first time Alice had ever failed to fulfill what she saw as her duty." Benedict's hand tightened on the reins. "It was not her fault. She lacked the power to stand her ground against our uncle. But she blamed herself nevertheless."

" 'Tis the way of her kind." Our kind, Hugh corrected himself silently. Such a failure would have gnawed at me also, even as my failure to avenge my mother's death does.

"It is not in her to surrender to fate."

"Nay, your sister has great courage," Hugh said with satisfaction.

"Aye, but there are times when I worry greatly about her." Benedict flashed an uneasy glance at Hugh. "Occasionally I happen upon her standing at the window of her chamber, gazing out at nothing. If I ask her to tell me what is wrong, she will say only that 'tis nothing or that she's had a bad dream during the night."

"She should not be shamed by the loss of your father's manor. Sir Ralf told me that she waged a very spirited battle to hold on to it."

"Aye." Benedict smiled reminiscently. "She wrote letter after letter pleading her case. When she had to accept failure, she called it a disaster. But she immediately went to work on her scheme to send me off to study law and to get herself into a convent. Alice always has a plan, you see."

" 'Tis her nature."

"You appear to comprehend her well, sir."

"He who would command others must understand the nature of those he seeks to lead," Hugh said.

Benedict gave him an assessing glance. "I believe Alice would agree with that statement. I do not think that she expected you to back up her authority as you did today, sir."

"Your sister is the kind who cannot be content without responsibility and the authority that must accompany it," Hugh said. "She requires that as much as she requires the air she breathes."

Benedict nodded.

"She and I have more in common than she realizes. Mayhap by the time we return she will have begun to comprehend that."

Understanding dawned in Benedict's eyes. "This journey to London is one of your clever stratagems, is it not, my lord?"

Hugh smiled slightly but said nothing.

"It all becomes clear now." Benedict's tone held a hint of awe. "You wish to demonstrate to Alice that you trust her to supervise not only Scarcliffe Keep but the manor as well. You wish to show her that you respect her abilities."

"Aye," Hugh said simply.

"You hope to lure her into marriage with a taste of the authority and responsibility that she will assume as your wife."

Hugh grinned. "I perceive that you will make me a very clever assistant, Benedict. You have the right of it. I would have Alice conclude that she will discover as much satisfaction and contentment in her duties as my wife as she will in a convent." And far more in my bed.

"A bold scheme, sir." Benedict's eyes were lit with admiration. "But you had best pray that Alice does not reason out your true motives for herself. She would be furious if she thought you had deliberately ensnared her with yet another stratagem."

Hugh was unconcerned. "I trust she will be far too busy managing affairs on the manor to give overmuch time to thinking about why I suddenly decided to travel to London."

"Aye," Benedict said thoughtfully. "She will relish the opportunity to take command once more. Mayhap it will even take her thoughts off her failure to hold my inheritance."

"Your sister thrives on challenge, Benedict. I believe that the task of helping me turn Scarcliffe into a prosperous manor will entice her into marriage far more effectively than a casket full of jewels."

Three mornings later Alice stood alongside Joan and watched as a thatcher clambered up onto another roof to begin repairs.

"Only three more cottages to go and then they will all be finished," Alice observed with satisfaction. "If we are fortunate, they will be done by the time Lord Hugh returns from London. He will be pleased."

Joan chuckled. "To say nothing of the people who live in those cottages. Winter will soon be upon us. If Lord Hugh had not provided for the repairs, I fear some of these good folk would have faced the snow with holes in their roofs."

"My lord would not have allowed that to happen. He takes care of his own." Alice started off down the street to inspect the progress on the new refuse ditch. The reek of the old one decreased daily as the men worked to bury the contents beneath a thick layer of dirt.

Joan looked at her as she fell into step beside her. "You have great faith in Lord Hugh's intentions for this manor, do you not?"

"Aye. 'Tis most important to him. He is a man who does not turn aside from a goal or a responsibility." Alice gazed about at the tiny village. Already it appeared less dreary. The air of hope that clung to it gave it a healthy sheen.

The past three days had passed in a whirlwind of activity for Alice. She had leaped into the task of supervising Scarcliffe affairs the minute Hugh and his party had vanished in a cloud of dust. It had been invigorating to assume such responsibilities once more. She was good at this sort of thing.

It occurred to her that she had not experienced such a degree of cheerful enthusiasm for any project since Ralf had forced her from her home.

Hugh had given her this gift, she thought. She wondered if he had any notion of how much she valued it.

A loud knock on her bedchamber door roused Alice from her sleep two nights later.

"Lady Alice," a muffled voice called. "Lady Alice."

Alice sat up slowly. She tried to collect her wits. They had been scattered by a strange and disturbing dream involving dark corridors and an unseen menace.

"Lady Alice."

"One moment," Alice called.

She pushed aside the heavy curtains that hung around the bed and reached for her night robe. She slid off the high bed and went, barefoot, across the carpet to answer the door.

She opened it a crack and saw a young maid with a candle waiting in the hall. "What is it, Lara?"

"I pray your pardon for waking you at this hour, m'lady, but there are two nuns from the village convent in the hall. They said that Prioress Joan sent them."

Alarm swept through Alice. Something must be terribly wrong. "I'll dress and go downstairs at once."

"Aye, m'lady." Lara frowned. "Best bring a cloak. I believe they mean for you to return to the village with them."

Alice opened the door wider. "Use your candle to light my own."

"Aye, m'lady." Lara moved quickly into the bedchamber.

Alice dressed swiftly. When she was ready she grabbed her heavy woolen cloak and hurried downstairs.

The two nuns waited near the cold hearth. Dunstan and his men, roused from their pallets by their arrival, stood quietly in the shadows.

The women looked toward Alice with anxious expressions.

"Prioress Joan sent us to ask if you will come to the miller's house, my lady," one of the women said. "Their youngest son is dreadfully ill. The healer has exhausted her remedies and does not know what else to try. The prioress hoped you might have some advice."

Alice recalled the laughing, dark-haired little boy she had seen playing outside the miller's door. "Of course I will come with you but I do not know what I can do. If Sister Katherine has no answers, then I doubt that I will have any."

"Prioress Joan thought that you might have learned of some special medicine from your mother's work."

Alice stilled. "My mother was a very learned woman but some of her recipes are dangerous." Some can kill.

"Prioress Joan and the healer believe that Young John is dying, my lady," the second woman said quietly. "They say there is nothing left to lose."

"I understand." Alice picked up her skirts and turned to climb the tower stairs. "I will fetch my mother's handbook of recipes and bring it with me."

When she returned a few minutes later, Dunstan moved out of the shadows.

"I will escort you to the miller's cottage," he said brusquely.

"There is no need," Alice said.

"There is every need," Dunstan muttered. "Sir Hugh would likely hang me from the keep's battlements if I allowed you to go out alone at night."

A short time later Alice rushed into the miller's small cottage just as Katherine placed a cool cloth on Young John's fevered brow.

Alice was horrified by the changes the illness had wrought in the lively boy she had seen scampering about only that morning. His eyes were closed. He lay wan and limp on top of the bedding, his small body hot to the touch. His breathing was labored and desperate. He whimpered fretfully once or twice but he seemed unaware of those who hovered anxiously around him.

"There is nothing more I can do." Katherine rose to her feet. "He's in God's hands now."

Her face was more somber than usual but there was no other sign of emotion in her features. She seemed distant, Alice thought, almost detached, a healer who knew and accepted the limits of her medicines. How different her own mother had been. Helen had never surrendered until death had claimed its victim.

Joan crossed herself.

The miller's wife cried out with a mother's anguish and burst into fresh tears. Her husband, a barrel-chested, kind-faced man, gathered her close and awkwardly patted her shoulder.

"There, there," he whispered over and over again. He looked helplessly at Alice over his wife's shoulder. His own eyes were damp. "Thank you for coming, my lady."

"Of course," Alice said absently. Her attention was on the small patient. She went to stand beside his pallet. Her mother's words came back to her as she gazed down at Young John. Determine all the symptoms before you apply the remedy.

Joan spoke softly from the other side of the pallet. "I realize there is likely little to be done but I could not abandon all hope entirely until we had consulted with you."

"I know the usual remedies for fevers of the lungs," Alice said quietly. "As does Sister Katherine. I assume you've applied the appropriate ones?"

"Aye," Katherine said stiffly. "All that I know. But this fever does not respond to medicines."

Young John's mother sobbed louder. The miller closed his eyes in pain.

Joan's eyes met Alice's. "You told me that your mother was a learned healer and that she had developed many unique potions and tonics. Do you know of anything that we can try?"

Alice tightened her grip on the leather-bound handbook she carried. "There are one or two infusions that my mother created for strange fevers that are accompanied by lung infections. But she advised great caution in their use. They may be very dangerous."

"Can anything be more lethal than what this child faces?" Joan asked simply.

"Nay." Alice looked down at the youngster and knew that death was even now reaching out with icy hands to claim him. "That rash on his chest"

"What of it?" Katherine asked quickly. "Have you seen its like before?"

"Nay, but mayhap my mother did." Alice knelt beside the pallet and felt for Young John's pulse. It was weak and much too fast. She looked at the miller. "Tell me everything you can about this sickness. When did it come upon him, John?"

"This afternoon, m'lady," the miller whispered. "One minute he was dashing about chasing the chickens and the next he did not even want to eat a bit of the pudding his mother had made."

Alice opened the handbook and quickly turned the pages until she found the section on strange fevers of the lungs. She studied it for a time. A redness of the chest. Harsh breathing. Great warmth.

"My mother notes that she tended a small child with such symptoms once." Alice turned the page, frowning.

The miller's wife moved slightly in the circle of her husband's arm. She wiped tears from her eyes. "Did the other child live?"

Alice looked at the woman. You must give hope as well as medicine, her mother had once said. Hope is as crucial to the cure as the right herbs. "Aye," she said gently. "He lived."

"Then we must try this remedy," the woman begged. "Please, my lady."

"We will," Alice assured her. She turned to Katherine. "I shall give you a list of the herbs I will need. Please bring them as quickly as possible."

The healer's mouth tightened. "Aye, my lady."

Alice wondered if she had offended Katherine by taking command of the situation. If so, there was nothing to be done about it. She looked at Joan. "I will need a pot and some fresh water."

"I shall get them," Joan said quickly.

"Set them on the fire."

Young John's fever broke shortly before dawn. His breathing quickly grew less labored. By the time the first light of the new day had appeared it was obvious that the child would live to chase chickens again.

The miller and his wife wept unashamedly with relief.

Alice, exhausted from the lengthy vigil, crouched beside the pallet one last time to check Young John's pulse. She found it steady and strong.

"I think he will soon be wanting a bit of pudding," she said quietly.

"Thank you, Lady Alice," Joan said softly.

"Do not thank me." Alice looked down at Young John. The boy's color was good. His sleep appeared normal. " 'Tis my mother's work."

Katherine gazed at her for a long while. "Your mother must have been a very learned woman."

"Aye. She corresponded with the wisest and most skilled herbalists in Europe. She collected their wisdom and added it to her own discoveries. And she put all that she learned into this book."

Joan's eyes were warm as they met Alice's. "Such a book has no value unless it be used by one who has a talent for identifying diseases through an analysis of symptoms. Such a talent, I have discovered, is uncommon."

Alice did not know what to say.

"Your mother would be proud of you, my lady," Joan continued softly. "You have learned how to make use of the knowledge she provided in that book. And tonight you used that knowledge to save this boy. 'Tis a great gift you have received from your mother."

Alice looked at the handbook Helen had written during the long, lonely years of her marriage.

Alice thought of how she had sometimes resented her mother's passion for her work. There had been so many times when it had seemed to bring the melancholy Helen far more solace than her children could ever provide.

But tonight the contents of Helen's handbook had saved a child's life.

There was a price to be paid for such a valuable gift. Alice knew that, in her own way, she had paid part of that price. So had Benedict. Helen had paid the highest price of all.

Yet tonight a little boy lived because of it. He was not the first one to be saved because of Helen's work, Alice reminded herself. He would not be the last.

Somewhere deep inside Alice a gentle warmth blossomed in a place that had known only resentment and sadness.

"Aye, Prioress. You are right. For some reason, I did not realize what a great inheritance my mother had left to me until now."

Young John stirred on his pallet and opened his eyes. He looked up at his mother. "Mama? Why are there so many people here?"

His parents answered with shaky laughter and went down on their knees beside the pallet.

Alice held her mother's handbook close to her heart. Thank you, she said silently.

Chapter 12 | Mystique | Chapter 14