Eleanor leaned her head back against the padded rim of the tub and closed her eyes, her hands clasped together between her breasts. Returning, Rosalyn nodded her approval, then stepped beside the tub to pour just a thimbleful of the precious essence into the steaming water. A moment later the smell of lavender wafted up on the steam, and tears started streaming down Eleanor’s face.
No one noticed. Lady Rosalyn had turned away to return her vial to her own chamber, and the maids were collecting the buckets to go fetch more water, leaving Eleanor alone in the now cozy chamber.
Eleanor put her hands over her face and held them there, trying to calm herself. She felt as if she had been tortured all day, and then this sudden vivid memory of home – the lavender fields in the sunshine. It was too much!
“Hush, child!” The voice came from the timber roof above her head and wafted down to settle upon her like petals shaken from a dying rose. “Relax, little one. There’s nothing to be afraid of any more.”
Nothing? Eleanor asked, opening her eyes. Nothing?
“You’re with good people now,” her mother assured her. “Good people, who mean you no harm.”
Was that possible?
“And you, Mother?” Eleanor asked the voice, with all the pent-up fury of half a dozen years. “Did you mean me no harm when you abandoned me at fourteen? Preferring your sick religion to your own child!” Eleanor was so agitated that she sat upright, looking for her mother in the darkness of the rafters, sloshing water over the edge of the tub. She turned to look over her shoulder first in one direction, then the other.
“Child, child!” her mother protested in an anguished voice. “I never thought they’d harm a little girl, a child as innocent as you!”
“Never thought they’d harm a child?” Eleanor mocked back. “Never thought they’d harm a child?” she raged. “Hadn’t they slaughtered children at
Beziers? At Minerve and Lavour? What else did
you expect, Mother? They put it in their very edicts ― that the parents and children of heretics were to be persecuted
and punished. You must have known
what they would do to me!”
To Eleanor’s distress, her mother did not protest. Instead, her voice fell to an almost inaudible murmur and pleaded, “You’re right. I should have known. I ― I deceived myself. Please forgive me, Nel.”
Eleanor didn’t want to forgive. It was easier to rage than to forgive. She shook her head. For a moment it seemed as if this negative answer had banished her mother, but then her mother spoke from so near at hand that Eleanor thought she felt her breath on her cheek.
“At least try to understand. I was a known heretic. All I would have achieved by abjuring my faith would have been to be branded on the forehead and forced to live as beggar ― a beggar that Christians were forbidden to support. Worse, I would have endangered the good people who followed Christ’s commandments and showed me Christian charity. I would have died of hunger and cold eventually, but my soul would have been condemned to hell. And you ― you would still have fallen into their hands.”
Eleanor shook her head again and brought her hands out of the water to stare at the palms. On the left hand, beneath the broken blisters from today’s ride, was a hideous, puckered scar. A single flame had caused it, and she had screamed loud enough to wake the dead. She had been unable to endure the flame for more than a second, but her mother had let them burn her alive ….
“You were never there when I needed you,” Eleanor told her mother bitterly.
“How could I be?” her mother answered, already farther away. “They encircled you with their evil. I couldn’t break through, not until today ….” Eleanor had to strain to hear her mother’s voice. The sound of Lady Rosalyn’s footsteps returning were obliterating her mother’s voice. “You’re with …” thump, thump, “trust …” thump, thump, “Sir Geoffrey ….”
“Are you feeling better now, My Lady?” the cheerful voice of Lady Rosalyn asked as she re-entered the chamber.
Eleanor lifted her head and smiled at her. “Thank you. I am feeling much better. I never knew ― that riding could ― be so exhausting. But then I’m so out of practice ….”
“Of course you are. I’m sure you haven’t been on a horse since your accident.” Lady Rosalyn settled herself in the armed chair on the other side of the fireplace. “And you mustn’t think of continuing tomorrow. You need to rest and regain your strength. You can stay here as long as you please. I’d be glad of the company.”
“That’s very kind,” Eleanor answered, overwhelmed by a sense of safety. She hadn’t felt this safe in half a decade – except for that moment in Sir Geoffrey’s arms ….
“Do you mind telling me where you were headed in such a storm?” Lady Rosalyn continued, curious more than reproachful.
“A pilgrimage,” Eleanor answered defensively, knowing now how very foolish she had been and how easily her escapade could have ended in disaster. “My guardian, the Comte de Poitiers, was taken captive with his brother, King Louis of
France. I wanted to pray for his
“Yes,” Lady Rosalyn replied, crossing herself. “May God hear our prayers!” Rosalyn’s cheerful face was instantly clouded with worry, and Eleanor realized she was thinking of her son. Eleanor felt a surge of sympathy for the older woman and reached out a hand to her, promising, “I will pray for your son, too, Madame.” For him more than for the Comte de Poitiers, she added mentally.
Lady Rosalyn was too distressed to speak, but she took Eleanor’s hand and clasped it, nodding in thanks, thinking that she would ask Geoffrey to pray for her son as well. Geoffrey was practically a monk, after all, and a crusader. God would surely hear his prayers ….
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