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The woman was smiling, and it was the smile that never failed to set the serpents of lust crawling in his belly, the heat of urgent desire suffusing his skin. It did so even tonight.
The man returned the smile, reaching to touch the rich dark hair falling to her knees, glowing bright against the virgin white of her linen shift. A virgin white belied by the swell of her belly.
"It seems nothing can dim your beauty, Isolde."
The woman took the compliment as her due. She began to play with the dripping wax from the tallow candle on the table in front of her, rolling the little puddles into soft balls. Her nails were long.
The man felt the stirring in his loins. How many times had those nails raked his back in the throes of passion, those little white teeth nipped his shoulder during the violent heat of their sharing?
He turned aside, walking to the narrow slitted window set into the turret wall of the fortress monastery of Carcassonne. He could see nothing but the black strip of night sky and a single steady star. The silence in the bastion room was profound, its quality somehow undiminished by the crackle of a splitting log in the hearth, the scrape of her chair on the stone-flagged floor, the whisper of wine flowing from pitcher to cup. At the last sound, he felt his shoulders stiffen. He kept his back to the room until she spoke. And it was a minute or two before she did so.
"Come drink with me, John. You are in a strange mood this night. It is the last time we will be together for many months." Her voice was sweet and cajoling, and bile rose in his gorge.
"Aye, and this meeting was the devil's own work to arrange," he said, turning back to the room. Two pewter goblets of wine stood on the table. Her hand curved possessively around the one at her place. The man's full, passionate mouth smiled, but his blue eyes were hooded, concealing their expression. The candlelight caught his golden head as he bent to kiss her mouth, curving beneath his caressing lips. How easy it was to do that.
"I have a present for you," he said, straightening slowly.
Her gray eyes glittered as they always did at such a prospect. "What is it?"
"A christening present for our child," he replied. "I must leave tonight for the fighting in Burgundy, and you will be delivered and churched long before I may see you again."
"Where is it?" She rose from the table, tall and graceful despite her swollen belly. Vibrant, she was, with her glowing dark hair and her glittering gray eyes, and her rich red lips now parted eagerly. Her lover's generosity was always princely.
He gestured to the leather pouch on the settle beside the fire. "Why do you not see for yourself?"
She moved with measured step. She bent over the pouch. Soundlessly, he switched the positions of the pewter cups on the table.
"Why, 'tis beautiful!" She held up a golden two-handled cup studded with emeralds and rubies.
"Look within," he said softly.
Slowly, she drew out a strand of sapphires, each one the size of a robin's egg. "Ah, John, but you never fail." She regarded him with that same smile. Was there a hint of regret in her eyes? If there was, it was gone almost before it was visible.
"Let us drink," he said. "A toast to the babe." He lifted his own goblet. She took the one at her chair and raised it to her lips.
"To love, John."
"To love," he said, and drank.
She watched him drink before she drained her own cup, then she came into his arms, so warm, so loving ... so treacherous. But yet the passion stirred even as he felt on his own body the child in her womb kicking against her belly, pressed so close to his own.
"Why do you wear chainmail?" she asked suddenly, running a hand beneath his surcote. "'Tis hardly the garb for a lover's tryst."
"The roads are dangerous," he said, tracing the curve of her jaw with his finger. "Brigandage in these parts is beyond control." He drew her back into his embrace, tasting the wine on her lips.
Then came the sound he had been expecting. The piercing note of a bugle, his own herald, sounding the call to arms from the great court. His own men would have been ready for the attack, however it was launched, although those who attacked would know nothing of the spy whose dying words, wrenched by torment, had alerted their intended victims. The woman in his arms pulled away. "What is that?"
Running feet, stumbling feet sounded from the stone passage beyond the heavy oak door. The door flew open.
"Lady, we are betrayed." A friar, in the corded habit of the Franciscan, stood clutching his chest where the hilt of a dagger stood out. Strangely, there was no blood. Then he fell into the doorway, and the lifeblood began to flow from the wound.
"What is this?" The woman clutched her throat, staring at her lover in the horror of realization. "What have you done?"
"What you would have done to me," he told her in a voice as flat as a summer sea.
He whirled suddenly, withdrawing the dagger from his belt. Then it was lodged deep in the chest of a man-at-arms whose springing leap across the dead friar was stopped in mid-air. He fell, the wicked, two-pronged knife in his own hand clattering to the flags.
The woman gave a sudden, choking gasp, her hand plucking desperately at her throat, her eyes widening in horror. "What have you done to me?"
"What you would have done to me," he repeated.
Her eyes flew to the goblets on the table, and terror stood out clear on her face. Suddenly, she doubled over. "Help me! In the name of pity, help me!"
He eased her to the floor, unable to feel pity for the woman who was suffering the torments she had prepared for him. Only she knew whether the poison in the goblet was mercifully quick or whether she had from her twisted soul planned a tortured death for him. Her eyes glazed rapidly, her body convulsed rhythmically, but all awareness seemed to have left her. He knelt beside her and swiftly murmured the words of absolution as papal decree permitted. For all her sins, and they were grievous and many, for all the blood she had upon her hands, he could not abandon her to hell's damnation. As he whispered over her, he became aware of something else, some other convulsive movements of her body. The child was fighting its way into the world.
For a moment he knelt, irresolute. The child was his, but it had grown in such a womb and was nothing to him. If he left, it would die beside its mother. It would probably die anyway; what chance did an eight-month child have? But there was something about the elemental struggle, the blind need of that life to emerge, that refused to allow him to turn aside.
He pushed up the woman's linen shift and helped the infant into the world as her mother died. To his amazement, the child immediately drew breath on a gulping cry. She was small, as was to be expected of an eight-month babe, but her limbs were whole, and she offered him an unblinking stare even as the thin wails shook the tiny body.
There had been enough death in this chamber. He took a small knife from his belt, cut the cord, and knotted it. Then he wrapped the child in his fur-lined mantle and left the place of birth and death.