Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Devil's Knight -- Chapter 1


Tours
December 1209
  
The bells were clanging for prime from over two dozen churches as Hugh de Hebron and his squire, Bert, left the precincts of the Abbey, where they had spent the night. The sky, grey and heavy with snow, was barely lightening, and the streets shimmered under a film of frost. The horses skidded on the cobbles, snorting and throwing up their heads in alarm. Their breath billowed back into the cold and dark like steam.
Bert, who was still half asleep, nearly lost his seat as his gelding's hind legs slipped underneath him. He woke up with a cascade of alarmed and profane cursing. Hugh laughed shortly, and then suggested they both dismount and lead their shod horses over the treacherous cobbles.
"Wouldn't it make more sense to attend Mass and then join the brothers in breaking fast in the refectory, my lord?" The youth asked hopefully. He was short and chubby, with a cherubic round face under a woollen hat. His black hair fell into his eyes as he blew onto his mittened hands before adding, "By then the sun will have risen and this glaze of ice will have melted."
Hugh shook his head. "I want to reach Betz tonight, and God knows what state the roads are in." They had left Paris more than a week earlier, but sleet and rain had hampered travel all the way.
"Didn't your lady wife urge you never to travel on an empty stomach, my lord? I could swear I remember hearing her reminding you to eat a healthy breakfast while travelling. It was very nearly the last thing she said when we set out." Bert's round, clean-shaven face looked earnest, but his black eyes glittered with mischief as he spoke.
Hugh snorted, and tried not to smile. The boy's cheek never ceased to surprise him, but he didn't mind it. He remembered all too well the rigours of squiredom, and sometimes wondered why he had not had the self-confidence to risk such impertinence. But then he had served a King, not an impoverished knight and uncle by marriage. 
"My lady wife says that I turn into a ravenous and dangerous beast when I get hungry. For fear that I might offend great and powerful personages, she encourages me to eat regularly. Fortunately, today you are the only person who might suffer from my unbridled temper, so there is no particular risk to becoming hungry, is there?"     
"For me there is!" Bert replied in a piping voice, widening his black eyes in a good imitation of terror.
Hugh laughed at him, and then without even halting reached into his saddle bag and tossed the youth the remnants of a loaf of bread. "That should keep even a butter-ball like you for an hour or two."
Bert bit into the bread gratefully, mumbling thanks with his mouth full, before adding defensively. "My mother says I am a good feeder, that's all. I store more food than I burn up."
Hugh shook his head at the manners and sauciness of youth. "Didn't your mother ever tell you not to talk with your mouth full and not to contradict your elders?"
"Now that you mention it, I think she did say something like that once." Bert admitted, scratching his head.
Hugh shook his head again, but he couldn't be angry with the 16 year old. Not today. Today he would surely make it "home." The word came a little awkwardly. In his heart, "home" was still the sun-baked hills of Palestine with their terraced vineyards and blooming orchards where he had been born and raised. But he tried not to think of them, knowing that he would never see them again. He thought instead of his wife Emilie, who made Betz the only place in France that he could call home. It was Emilie, not the run-down castle with its shabby barns that she had brought him as a dowry that drew him through the sleet and cold.
He had never dreamed - not even in his romantic phase - that a woman could mean so much to him or give him so much comfort. In retrospect, he knew that the disappointment he had often felt after a romantic adventure had been precisely the absence of the security and familiarity that he enjoyed with Emilie. But Emilie had become the one person in the world with whom he could speak openly. He could talk with her about the most insignificant banalities or about the inchoate dreams and fears that lurked in the depths of his soul. They gossiped about their neighbours, and they discussed affairs of state no less readily and intently. Together they reflected upon theology or racked their brains for ways to increase their revenues....
Hugh sighed. The state of their finances was more perilous than it had ever been. For three years, they had struggled to get ahead, living frugally but investing carefully ― in a stone bridge, a new roof for the barn, a better mill-wheel. But this year the spring rains never stopped. The crops had rotted in the fields, never ripening enough to harvest. The memory of the sodden fields made him shiver.
They had virtually no reserves of their own, and Hugh knew that in the poorer cottages of their peasants many old people and infants would be allowed to die this winter. There was nothing he could do to stop it, and that shamed him. His father had never let any beggar, much less one of his own tenants, go hungry. The hospitality of the Lords of Hebron had been a by-word in Judea, and now Hugh dreaded the sight of a begging friar and could not keep his own peasants from starva­tion.
No, he told himself for the thousandth time since setting out for Montfort L'Amaury, he had no choice. Rather, he should thank God on his knees (as indeed he repeatedly had) for this propitious opportunity. Here, when he needed money so desperately, the Viscount of Beziers and Narbonne was desperately in need of knights.
The crusade against the Albigensian heresy of the previous year had ended with the campaign-season. Virtually all the participants, their vassals and mercenaries had returned to their estates. When the crusade was initiated two years earlier, Hugh had been incensed to learn that Pope Leo had offered the same absolu­tion and heavenly rewards for a campaign against heretics in southern France, which were otherwise reserved for real crusades. Why should any man in his right mind mortgage his estates and risk his life in a long journey to the Holy Land, if he was granted the same remission of debts and absolution for his sins for a short jaunt down to Narbonne?
This last “crusade,” like the one before that had ended by destroying the power Christian Empire of Byzantium, was a dreadful corruption of the concept of Crusade. And, for the son of a baron in Christian Palestine, both the Fourth Crusade and the Albigensian Crusade were particularly objectionable because they had both diverted resources and attention from the urgent need to recapture Jerusalem ― and the other lost territories of Christian Palestine. Because of these feelings, Hugh had been intensely relieved that King Philip, his liege, had refused to participate in either “crusade.” He had been legally entitled to refuse to take part in the "crusade" against the Albigen­sians.
Now the situation was different. The most successful of the commanders of the Albigensian crusade, Simon de Montfort, was taking knights into his service at good wages. Simon de Montfort had been named Viscount of Beziers and Carcas­son­ne, because the hereditary lord, Raymond Roger Trencavel, had defiantly and flagrantly harboured heretics. Indeed, he had invited them into his territo­ries. Trencavel had been excommunicat­ed, and, after his capture at Carcas­sonne, his lands had been forfeited. The new Viscount of Beziers and Caracas­sone thus held a vast territory of immense wealth populated by heretics and outraged vassals, who remained loyal to Trencavel.  
Reputedly, de Montfort was holed up in the mighty city of Carcass­sonne for the winter, but he would not be able to hold on to his new lands unless he could recruit sufficient fighting men to subdue the rebellious and irreverent population when the spring came. In consequence, de Montfort was promising his followers not just their daily wages, but the castles and towns they captured from the rebels. It was a tactic that ensured not only recruits, but stability in the long run. The men rewarded for their service with fiefs, would remain loyal to their parvenu liege in the years to come, bound together by all being usurpers in the name of God, among a local population of disbelievers and disinherited.
Hugh knew what that meant because the Christian lords of Palestine also ruled over a population that was predominantly Muslim and latently disloyal. He knew that it was a precarious kind of lordship compared to the ancient tradition of Emilie's family at Betz. But the County of Toulouse stretched from the Dordogne to the Mediterranean, and the lands that de Montfort sought to control had to be as fertile and warm as his lost homeland.
The thought of them made Hugh shiver in the grim, grey dawn at Tours. He looked about at the shops cowering in the shadows of the pre-dawn, still shuttered against the wind and cold and damp and shimmering with frost. The very stone here was grey and the roofs of slate. 
Hugh noticed other well cloaked figures moving in the shadows. A beggar bundled in ragged, soiled blankets and smelling of his own urine held out a hand for alms. Just beyond him a baker's appren­tice was preparing to open the bakery, and two servants waited impatiently stomping their wooden clogs and gossiping in an undertone.
Bert sniffed loudly as he caught the whiff of fresh-baked bread on the air. Hugh ignored the hint although his own stomach was rumbling. This was a good part of town and he was sure the bread would be less expensive closer to the gate.
Ten minutes later, as they reached the edge of town,       Bert was looking more cold and miserable than ever, and Hugh took pity on him. "Come on, lad. We'll go buy a hot breakfast in the next tavern."
Bert at once brightened up, standing up straighter. "God's truth, sir?"
Hugh nodded in the direction of a semi-respectable looking inn. "See to the horses, I'll order you hot pasties."
"Thank you, sir!" Bert grinned and hastened to get the horses put into the tavern stables. By the time he rejoined his lord at a large, oaken table near the fire-place, Hugh was already slicing hot bread with his knife and a jug of hot, spiced wine was on the table for them. "The pasties will take a minute or two." Hughes told his squire, shoving a piece of bread in his direction.
"Sir," Bert started cheerfully, "do you think you could let me go home for Christmas before we head for Carcassonne? I know my mother would--"
Hughes started slightly. "What do you mean ‘we’?"
Bert looked at him blankly for a moment before he understood the question. "Well, you can't mean to go down to Narbonne alone? You need me." Bert pointed out with a mixture of bafflement and insolence.
Hughes laughed outright. "I need you as much as I need another hole in my head." Bert was, despite his impertinence, a cheerful, attentive and hard-working youth. Hughes, who had had a variety of squires in the last 10 years, knew that Bert was by no means the worst. But he was not only his wife's sister's son, he was a youth who had never left his native Tourainne until this trip to Montfort L'Armaury via Paris - and he had never been near a battle.
"You can't mean to go without a squire!" Bert insisted. "You'll have a remount and all your equipment--"
Hughes held up his hand to silence the youth. "I will indeed hire someone to attend me, but I need someone with experience."
"I've been with you two years!" Bert pointed out in disbelief. "Who else knows how to get that damn stallion of yours --" In his excitement, Bert was talking at the top of his voice, and Hughes signalled for him to quiet down.
Pitching his own voice very low, Hughes spoke calmly but with emphasis. "I'm talking about war-experience, Bert."
Bert looked at him in stunned disbelief, and then he resumed his energetic defence. "But how can I ever learn about war, if you won't take me with you? Everyone has to start some­time."
Hughes sighed. He had not expected Bert to have his heart set on coming with him. He tried to think back to when he had been 16, but the comparison brought little. He'd been raised in war-torn Palestine. While serving King Philip, even when aged 14 and 15 and not yet allowed to participate in battles, he'd tended wounded knights and helped collect and bury the dead. He'd been entangled in his first skirmish at 16 when some of the Lionheart's knights had ambushed his party on the road to Limosin. He'd killed his first man less than three months later, and had been badly wounded before he reached his 18th birthday. What did that past have to do with Albert's provincial childhood?
Albert was the son of Emilie's sister Isabelle. Unfortu­nately for him, his father had no less than three sons by earlier marriages, and he did not stand to inherit anything. When his father died, his eldest half-brother sent him to Frontgombault to become a monk, but Bert had run away from there three different times. On the last occasion, he had made his way to Emilie and Hughes to beg for their help. Hughes had agreed to take Bert into his household and Bert´s half-brother had agreed, pointedly washing his hands of any responsibil­ity for him.
Hughes, lacking a son of his own, had not been reluctant to "adopt" the youth. Part of him even considered naming  Bert his heir when the time came. Emilie was now 38 and in three and a half years of marriage she had remained barren. It was improbable that he would have an heir, and since Betz came through his wife it was only fair that the estate revert to one of her relatives. Bert, of course, had been told none of this, though he might secretly hope for it. These unspoken plans as much as Bert’s inexperience made Hugh reluctant to take him down to Carcassonne.
"You don't think I'm any good with weapons, is that it?" Bert asked in a voice that revealed how deeply hurt he was.
"You're not bad." Hughes tried to explain. "You're no worse than most boys your age. Maybe even better than I was." This was a conscious lie. Hugh had been drilled by some of the best knights in Christendom. He had even participated in one tournament against the Lionheart and William Marshall, even if he had personally been too insignificant to cross swords with such legends.
"But?" Bert prompted insistently, his chin up and his jaw set defiantly.
Hughes sighed again. "But you've never even been in a tourna­ment. You've fought no one but me!"
"Is that my fault?" Bert wanted to know. "Please, sir, give me a chance! You'll never get anyone else so cheap, and if I'm no good you can send me home."
"If you're no good, you'll be dead. How can I take that chance knowing what you mean to your mother and my lady wife? They would never forgive me."
"Of course, they would. They'd know it was my fault. Please, Uncle Hughes, I'm 16! If I don't get a chance to prove myself soon, it'll be too late."
Hughes was relieved that the steaming, mushroom pasties arrived at this moment, distracting Bert. As the youth bit hungrily into one, mushrooms and juice spilling down the side of his mouth, Hughes ended the discussion with an intentionally ambiguous. "Go home for Christmas, and then we'll see."

At Betz, dusk came mid-afternoon behind an iron-grey sky heavy with sleet. The gate-keeper, who didn't think any respectable person should be abroad after dark in such weather, raised the drawbridge and bolted the gate before settling himself before his smoking fire with his cat in his lap.
In the great-hall, the dinner had been cleared away, and the household gathered around the central hearth with various hand-tasks. The grooms had brought dirty tack in from the stable and were soaping it down over a bucket. The kitchens boys under the supervision of the cook were busy dipping candles in a huge vat suspended from a wooden frame set up especially for this purpose. The cooper was sitting astride a bench and deftly producing kitchen utensils from selected wood, while his wife, the laundress, darned worn table-clothes and sheets. Lady Emilie´s maid, Babette, was weaving and the regular thumping of the weft being pressed firm provided a steady counterpoint to the murmur of conversa­tion
At the high table, the young priest, who also served as the household clerk, sat hunched over a wax tablet, tallying up the figures on the parchment rolls beside him. He was very near-sighted and in the dim light his nose seemed almost to touch the tablet as he worked. Emilie, seeing this, rose and fetched the candelabra from the far end of the table. She set it down before him, and lit the half-burned candles from her own. "You mustn't strain your eyes." She told the clerk gently.
He looked up with a start and flushed slightly. "Thank you, my lady, but I can manage. No need to waste candles."
Though they produced their own candles for the most part with their own wax, they remained a luxury, especially in the eyes of Father Francois. Francois had been born a serf. He still could not get over his good-fortune in being allowed to attend the abbey school, and then being allowed to take holy orders. He knew that his talents were limited in comparison to many of his companions at the abbey, and he had often struggled at lessons that the others seemed to find simple. To this day, his Latin remained rudimentary, and he could conduct the Mass only by rote. He was awed and grateful to have been recommended by the abbot for the position of chaplain and clerk to the Lord and Lady of Betz. The salary of a Louis per year seemed princely. 
Francois' ambitions ended with pleasing his new employers, and securing for a lifetime the luxury and security that this position offered him, but he was far from confident about his chances. The discovery that his new lord had been born and raised in the Holy Land intimidated him, and ― never having had any contact with women of class ― the proximity to Lady Emilie always made him nervous.
Even now he flushed and felt confused as she leaned over to light the candles. He could smell the cleanliness of her skin and clothes. At the abbey they had only been allowed to bathe if they were ill, and he could not remember his parents ever bathing. But he knew that even in the winter, Babette carried water to Lady Emilie every morning and sponged her down. Her wimple of ivory-coloured wool seemed as clean and fresh as if it were being worn for the first time, and there were neither sweat-stains nor grease spots on her red surcoat. Even the cream-coloured sleeves of her gown where they emerged from the wide-sleeves of her surcoat were barely greyed at the elbows and wrists.
Emilie resettled herself upon her stool before an embroidery frame and took up her needle again. She was working on her Christmas present for Hugh, a yellow linen trapper for his stallion studded with his and her coat of arms. She was a little uncertain if he would be pleased. The yellow linen would dirty easily and he might prefer the arms of Hebron alone. But she wanted him to have something that was both practical and impressive, if he were to take service with Simon de Montfort. Indeed, she would have liked to buy him silk for the trapper, but she had not been able to afford it. To compensate for the inadequacy of the material, she had decided upon more colourful needle­work. She had even gone to the expense of buying silver thread to do the crosses in his arms. The results, she thought, were not displeasing to the eye. If only she could be sure he would be happy to wear her arms as well as his….
The sound of sleet against the shutters of the windows was accompanied by a sudden gust of wind that sent the smoke back down the louve in the ceiling and swept through the hall. Emilie shivered and glanced toward the blinded windows. There was no hope now that Hughes would return tonight, so she must face another night alone. Since their marriage, this was the longest Hughes had ever been away from her -- nearly three weeks today. But in weather like this, she knew that travel was slow and miserable. She hoped that Hughes was somewhere dry and warm. She hated to think of him out on the roads on a night like this, and then reminded herself that if Simon de Montfort had accepted him, he would soon be facing worse things than inclement weather….
The thought depressed her and she sighed. Hughes was an experienced knight, she reminded herself, and he was not going to war. Rather he would be estab­lishing order and subduing isolated pockets of insurrection. There would surely be no pitched battles or hazardous assaults against powerful cities or castles since the major cities were already in the hands of de Montfort. But she could not forget how obscure the siege had been in which the Lionheart had been mortally wounded. There were risks in warfare, no matter how low-scale, and for the thousandth time she wished she could think of some other way for them to get out of their financial difficulties. Hughes and she had discussed selling off the mill or taking a loan from the Constable at Loches or any number of other schemes, but it all came down to the same thing: they would never be able to repay a loan and if they sold the mill off, they would have less revenue in the future. The only solution that would not leave them poorer in the long run was for Hughes to take service again with a powerful lord. The King was not in need at present, and de Montfort was. They really didn't have any choice.
But what would life be worth without Hughes? These last weeks while he was away, she had lain in the chill of their great bed sleepless from sheer loneliness. And if these past weeks had seemed long and empty without Hughes’ restless activity, his irritable fussing and easy laughter, what would it be like if he were gone the better part of a year? What if he never returned?
She forced herself to remember her life in the interval between her father's death and Hughes arrival. She knew that she had not been unhappy. But she had never known anything better. She had not known the comfort of a companion before. Not even her father had shared his thoughts with her, nor had he had any interest in what went on in her head. Her father had lived more and more in his memories, progressively excluding her from his world.
 Emilie’s hand slipped surreptitiously to her belly. It was flat and still, but the midwife said she was carrying a child. Emilie did not dare believe it yet. Not at her age. Not after more than three years of barrenness. But what if it were true?
Emilie thought of her sisters. Adelaide had died in childbed at the age of 45 two years ago. Caroline was nearly toothless and half-crippled from bringing more than 14 children into the world, most of whom had died in infancy or childhood. Isabelle had fared best; her husband had been so much older that she had borne him only two children in seven years before he became completely impotent. She still had her health though she had lost her figure and was nearly as broad now as she was tall.
Emilie realized with a chill and shudder of guilt that she did not want a child. Hugh had reconciled himself early and with ease to the notion of being without a son. He had even hinted he would name her nephew, Bert, his heir and seemed content with the thought. As long as he was content, what could she gain by going through pregnancy and child birth? Everyone knew that it was especially dangerous to have a first child so late in life. The children born to older women were often deformed or demented. Even more were born dead. It was not natural for a woman her age to conceive for the first time. It was frightening. She shivered again, and hastily crossed herself. It was God's Will, she reminded herself, with a guilty glance at the priest still struggling with the accounts.
Hughes' two hunting dogs, who had been sleeping with their heads on their paws at Emilie's feet, suddenly lifted their heads. The black gave a wuff and the tan was already scrambling to his feet. Their ears strained for a moment, and then simultaneously they bounded down from the dias and trotted the length of the hall to plunge through the screens.  There they set up a wild barking. Emilie watched them with a cocked head, trying to hear what they had heard, but by now the dogs were making too much noise to hear anything else.
Emilie replaced her needle, and stood up. Just as she stepped off the dias, the outside door beyond the screens crashed open. There was a frenzied increase in the barking and a rush of wind swept up the hall, stirring the rushes. Emilie heard Bert’s familiar voice telling the two dogs to shut up and then shouting for the grooms. "Are you all deaf? My lord and I --"
The grooms sprang up and hastened out, while the other servants looked toward the door. Emilie eagerly stretched her strides, but she was only halfway down the hall when Hughes stomped in, glisten­ing with wet and red with cold. His blond hair and clipped, full beard were so wet they looked black against his face, and drops of water glistened in the light of the fire. He moved with the awkward stiffness of a man who has spent too many hours in the saddle. His eyes swept the dias before he realized that Emilie was almost upon him, and his face broke out into a smile.
When the bath was ready, Emilie sent both Babette and Bert away and prepared to attend Hughes herself. With Bert’s help, Hughes had already removed his muddy boots and wet leather hose, had stripped off his hauberk, damp aceton and shirt to sit in his braies on a stool by the fire, trying to warm up. His skin was still red with cold, and he held his silver goblet with both hands as much to keep it from slipping from his numb fingers as to warm his palms.
As the water steamed up from the tub, he watched contently as Emilie removed her fur-lined surcoat and then unbuttoned her sleeves so she could roll them up.
"You don't intend to wear your wimple, do you?" He asked as she tested the water temperature.
"Why not?" She inquired with apparent calm.
Hughes made an inarticulate reply, and Emilie felt her blood quicken. Once, not long after they were first married, he had taken hold of her braid as she bathed him and pulled her into the bath. At first she had been shocked and even a little frightened, but it had ended in the most exciting love-making she had ever known. Now and again, unexpectedly, Hugh repeated the manoeuvre, and Emilie had never been disappointed. It pleased her intensely that despite his exhausting ride in miserable weather, he could still think of seduction tonight.
She unwound the wimple and laid it on top of her robe. Then on second thought, she pulled off her gown and stockings as well. Hugh was watching her every motion like a well-fed cat, sipping carefully at his wine.
"Now, my lord." Emilie waited beyond the bath, her face slightly flushed. "Will you not test the water yourself?"
Hughes nodded, set the wine aside, and releasing the cord at his waist, let his braies drop to the floor. He stepped into the tub, yelping at the heat of the water, but then sank lower and lower into it with a sigh. Emilie took the waiting soap, and started to slowly wash his nearest hand and arm. "So tell me about Lady de Montfort, she's a Montmorency, isn't she?"
"Yes, I believe so. She is a short, slight, very energetic woman with a brittle kind of charm. The Archbishop of Rouen happened to be visiting when we arrived, and shortly afterward the Lord of Beaujeu stopped by on his way to Paris. She dazzled with the extravagance of her table and glittered in an abundance of jewels. Most impressive was her ability to entertain her guests with her wit. I was seated too far away to hear what she said, but she kept the high-table in good humour for hours on end without interruption.
"When she met with me, however, she was absolutely sexless. She asked the same questions that I would have expected from her husband, and dictated the indenture with precision and fluency."
"And what are the terms?" Emilie asked moving around the tub to wash Hugh' other arm.
"A silver mark a week for as long as I serve, plus the replace­ment of lost or damaged equipment and lamed or killed horses."
"How long did you sign for?" Emilie did not dare meet his eyes.
"Indefinitely. I want to see how things go."
Emilie felt her chest tighten in horror. Indefinitely! That meant she could not ever know how long she had to wait, could not go to bed each night knowing it was one day less 'till he returned. She was at the mercy of Hughes' whim and the fortunes of war.
"What's the matter, my lady love?"
"Nothing." She shook her head, avoiding his eyes, and directed her attention to his dirty feet. "Is that a good wage? A silver mark a week?" It seemed precious little for risking life and limb.
"It is less than the king pays." Hughes admitted. "The profit in this campaign is in the lands and titles de Montfort is entitled to grant for good service. If I can gain a second fief, a prosperous one in the south, we can use the surplus revenue to do what needs to be done here." Hughes dreamed of another fief for the sake of regaining a prosperity he remembered from his child­hood, but he knew that Emilie loved Betz.
Emilie nodded. They had discussed all this before. She knew it made sense, but what if the real reason Hughes was determined to join de Montfort was to gain a second home away from here, away from her? Emilie never forgot that she was eight years older than Hughes and no particular beauty. Hughes had married her for her lands.
"If things go well, we might be able to spend next Christmas at a new castle. The weather must be milder near Narbonne!"
Emilie smiled up at him. He had said "we."
"Bert wants to accompany me. Do you think I should let him?"
"Bert?" Emilie tried to concentrate on the question despite an overwhelming desire to kiss her husband. "But who else would you take?"
"You don't think his mother will object?" Hughes sounded sceptical.
"Isabelle will be pleased to think he might meet important knights and lords. You know how much pleasure she takes in having seen so-and-so or talked to someone who knew someone etc. etc." Hughes had to laugh. He knew no one else who could preen herself so long and so loudly on the most insignificant connections to the more exalted. No doubt Emilie was right, and he could already hear his sister-in-law gossiping: "My son, you know the one with the Viscount of Beziers…." She would never mention that Bert was only squire to one of de Montfort's knights.
Oh well, she did no one any harm with her pretensions, and apparently she had no more apprecia­tion of the dangers than Bert did himself. Hughes opened his mouth to remark on this to Emilie, and then thought better of it. Why should he stress the dangers? It would only unsettle his wife.
Emilie interrupted his thoughts. She had seated herself on the floor beside the tub and grasped his hand. "Hughes? There’s something I have to tell you…."
"What is it?" He asked instantly alarmed by her tone of voice. She was looking very nervous.
"While you were away...."
He went rigid. Her tone was so frightened and uncertain that his first thought was that she had been unfaithful to him. His thoughts were racing ahead, searching for the most likely candi­date. Surely not the half-blind, new priest?
"I - I didn't feel well, while you were away, and – and last week I went to see Hortense."
"Hortense?" He frowned unable to place the name.
"You know, the woman in Loches who ― who attended all my sisters."
Hugh stopped breathing. "You mean the mid-wife?"
Emilie nodded, still not looking at him.
He was starting to understand, but he couldn’t believe what she was implying, not after so many barren years. "Emilie?"
"She says there isn't any doubt."
"You are with child?" He still couldn't believe it, and when she nodded, he sloshed water everywhere in his exuberant effort to pull her into his arms and cover her face with kisses.
She laughed a little, but she also held him away from her.  "Don't get too excited. So much could happen. I - I will probably loose it before term. You know how often that happens. And ― and it might be born dead or ― you know. It is too soon to celebrate." She still would not meet his eyes and she was rigid in his arms. After a moment he realized she was holding her breath to keep from crying.
"Emilie." He drew back and stroked her face with the back of his wet hand. Hughes belatedly regis­tered that child-birth was the leading cause of mortality among women. Emilie had just lost one of her sisters, he reminded himself. Very young and old mothers were the most vulnerable. Emilie had every reason to be afraid "Do you want me to stay? I can send Bert back to Lady de Montfort and have him explain."
Her lids flew open and she met his eyes. For an instant, he could read relief and gratitude in her startled, golden eyes, but then they turned a shade darker and she shook her head. "No, that would be foolish. You might not be given a second chance. And if I lose the baby, it will have been for nothing." She kissed his lips gently. "Thank you for offering."
"When? When is it due?"
She shrugged. "It must have been conceived the end of October."
           Hughes calculated. That meant it was due the end of July or early August. The height of the campaign season and a notably bad time to break off and come home, but she was more at risk than he would be with his armour and his weapons and his training. The least he could do was be with her. "I’ll be come back in time."
"Would you? Could you?" Her eyes lit up again.
"I will." He promised, and then drew her back into his arms.


Copyright © 2013 by Helena P. Schrader