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Prisoner of the Flames
By Dawn MacTavish
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One Mount St. Michael, off the coast of Cornwall Early autumn 1562
Darkness was falling over St. Michael's Mount as the third Laird of Berwickshire disembarked the ferry. It was a lighter vessel than that which had carried him most of the distance from the Scottish borderlands, and his belly rumbled from nausea as well as hunger, for the Channel was beset by storms, and it had been a rough crossing. Travel by sea, however, had been a wiser choice than hacking his way over land through God alone knew how many border wars and internal skirmishes then in progress. While the young laird was a seasoned warrior, his sojourn this time was a peaceful one of a highly personal nature, the gravity of which left no room for distractions.
He was grateful that the light was fading as he prowled the wharf, threading his way through dockworkers, hawkers, and patrons making last-minute purchases from vendors anxious to close up shop for the night. His late father, a formidable battle strategist, had always held that all cats were gray in the dusk of evening. Hoping that to be true, he began his climb, leaving behind the mingled dockside smells of fish, tar, rotting meat, and overripe produce, all seasoned with the salty tang of the sea.
A silver helmet concealed half of his face like a macabre masquerade mask, dividing it in half from forehead to chin, and calling attention to the very thing it had been fashioned to disguise. Despite a strategically placed opening on the hidden side for air intake and a clever retractable visor for anonymity, the weight and the suffocating heat it generated in warm climates made it a gross inconvenience, aesthetic considerations notwithstanding. But the Scot endured it all with stubborn resolution to placate his pride.
He scaled the Mount easily, with light, agile steps, thankful for the rigorous conditioning among the legions that had left his long legs well muscled, but it was fully dark by the time he reached the summit. Passing the nunnery by, he knocked at the abbey portal. Presently, a hinged aperture in the heavy door came open, and a stern-faced, hawk-nosed cleric squinted up at him through the narrow opening. A breath of dank warmth that smelled of stale incense, spoiling food, and stagnant air puffed through the window, and the young Scot shrank from it.
"Who comes?" the dark-robed individual barked impatiently. It was well past vespers, and Robert knew the monks would have long since retired.
"I am Robert Mack, Laird of Berwickshire, come from the borderlands seeking audience with my uncle, Aengus Haddock, a monk of this abbey."
"The hour is late, my lord," the cleric intoned loftily.
"That I cannot help," Robert said. "I have traveled a great distance-many days upon the water. If you would but tell my uncle I have arrived, I am certain he would bid you admit me."
The cleric breathed a nasal sigh while shutting the little window with a crack, and it was some time before he returned and threw the bolt, allowing Robert to enter.
"Follow me, my lord," he said, shuffling along a winding, dimly lit corridor-so narrow they could not have negotiated it side by side-that emptied into a refectory. "Brother Aengus will receive you directly," he told him, "and food is being prepared. He held his hand out, motioning toward the Scot's helmet. Robert didn't respond, but his eyes narrowed behind the lowered visor as the cleric worked his outstretched fingers. "Come, come, there is no need to helm yourself for battle here, my lord," the cleric snapped.
"My helm is worn to spare you, not myself, good monk," Robert said, staring down at the little man through the clever shuttered eye slot in the helm that left his vision unobstructed, while hiding his eyes from view. After a moment, he took a bold step toward the monk, removed the helmet, and thrust it under his arm. "The 'battle' that won me my scars was waged and lost in my cradle, good brother," he said succinctly.
The cleric backed away, his wide eyes on the young Scot's face. Robert did not need a looking glass to see the sight the holy man saw. It was etched in his memory since the day he'd ambled to the stream that threaded its way through his domain, and stretched himself out over the bank to take a long, cool drink. He was nearly ten, and, though he'd felt it, he hadn't seen his face before. His mother had removed all the polished metal mirrors in Paxton Keep for fear of it. He would never forget what met his steel-blue eyes that day, staring back at him from the still, silvery water. While the right side of his face was untouched and handsome, much of the left side looked as though it had melted. The burnished auburn hair that he wore rather long, waving across his broad brow and curling about his earlobes hid some of the disfigurement. The scar tissue, however, that narrowed his left eye, and pleated the corner of his mouth beneath, having stretched to its limit as he grew, was a shocking sight.
"F-forgive me, my lord," the cleric stammered, genuflecting helplessly. "I ... I had no idea! Please," he urged, gesturing toward the helmet, "avail yourself."
Robert shook his head. "I cannot eat in it," he said. "You did say food was coming?"
"Y-yes, yes, my lord ... at once, of course, my lord ... at once!" the cleric babbled, scurrying off.
Robert gave the closest thing to a devilish grin as the scars around his lips would allow. He sank down on a bench beside the nearest table, slapping the helmet down on top of it, meanwhile stealing a sidelong glance at his distorted reflection in the polished silver, as he often did, hoping against hope that it would show him a kinder image. Like always, however, his visage was the same, dissolving his triumphant smile forthwith.
Presently, the cleric returned with a trencher of colcannon-a hearty pottage of cabbage, turnips, and carrots-a loaf of freshly baked monk's bread, for which the abbey was famous, a generous slab of cheese, and one of sweet cream butter. Another quick trip to the larder yielded a copper bowl heaped with apples, pears, and plums from the abbey orchards, and a flagon of nut-sweet spiced wine.
The moment the young Scot was alone he began to wolf down the food ravenously. Eating was awkward, and-he'd learned early on-repulsive to view, which was why he never ate in company. He hadn't finished when his uncle entered, robed in the traditional black Benedictine habit, a knotted scourge girding him. Robert vaulted from the bench and let the monk embrace him, but when he took his seat again, though his belly churned with longing for the delicious meal before him, he would not lift a morsel to his lips.
"Eat, Robert," said his uncle, "lest we vex Brother George, whom I've wrenched from his bed to prepare it. I have seen you eat before, son." After a moment, Robert returned to his meal, and his uncle smiled sadly. "All is well in the borderlands," he prompted. "... and with my sister, your good mother?"
"She fares well enough, Uncle Aengus."
"Ahhh," the monk breathed, clearly relieved. "What, then? Have you come to make your poor uncle a happy man, at last?"
Robert scowled. "No, sir, I have not come to join the order," he said unequivocally. "I am not cut of the stuff to make a monk, Uncle Aengus." That argument had surfaced many times before, and he was on the defensive, steeled against it.
"Your mother presses for it."
"My mother would shut me away for safekeeping. It matters not where. She longs to spare me from the world-a doting mother's foolishness. Ha! What worse could happen to me, eh? I would go mad shut up in a monastery. If the fellow who admitted me is any example, your brethren here are a sour and shortsighted lot. I mean no disrespect, but I'd sooner die in battle than entomb myself in a Benedictine abbey and risk becoming like such an insipid, bleached-white shell of a man."
"There are far worse things, son, than being shut up in a Benedictine abbey," his uncle murmured, frowning.
"Not for me." He hadn't set out to be argumentative. He had forgotten how they used to lock horns, like two Highland stags. His uncle had a gentle thrust that made the wounding crueler, and he had yet to prevail, much less win out against it.
"Why have you come, then?" Aengus prompted.
Robert hesitated, choosing his words with care. "You served in France before coming here, did you not?" he queried.
"I mean to go there, and I will need a sponsor. I am hoping you can recommend me to someone of esteem-or possibly even the man I seek himself. I hear there is unrest there now, and foreigners are frowned upon-some sort of religious dispute."
"Who is it that you seek?" said Aengus, his frown deepening.
"His name is Michel de Nostredame, called Nostradamus, a healer of great renown. Do you know him, Uncle?"
The old man's faded blue eyes widened. "I know of him, Robert, but we are not personally acquainted. What is it that you seek in this man?"
"I have heard that he has worked miracles with his healing arts. I want to see if he might work a miracle for me."
"Ahhh, Robert," said the old man, "your good mother has consulted every healer in the land over you. You know it is quite ... hopeless. Why do you torment yourself?"
"But not this man," the young Scot interrupted.
"You are nearly thirty summers. Can you not resign yourself?"
"Uncle, I am a man with the face of a beast-not even! I have the same needs ... the same urges as other men. I long for a wife and family, but none save whores will have me, and even the most hardened lightskirts shrink from the sight. I want no more congress with strumpets."
"Years ago, when it was feared that your father was dying of his battle wounds and I was summoned to his bedside, he begged me vow that I would be your friend and your protector, that I would look after you in his stead if he should die. You were little more than a bairn on that occasion. Now you come here bringing tales of whores, and hopeless quests. I, too, have grown shortsighted. Much of this is my fault. God forgive me for failing you, Robert."
"You have not failed me unless you refuse my request," he replied. "I will go, with or without your help, Uncle Aengus. I am resigned."
"You embark upon a fool's errand."
"If there is even the slightest chance-"
"You are just like your father-mulish and reckless! Those were the noble traits that finally killed him, you know. He knew not reason, nor caution when drunk with battle madness. And what of the border wars? Have you left your mother all alone to defend the keep-armed her with sword and mace and ax, and instructed her in the fine art of warring? Is your memory so lax that you've forgotten what occurred when your good aunt, Lady Hume, tried to defend Hume Castle against the English? You were eleven that year and at your father's Paxton Keep, praise God, or you would have been there when your mother's noble half sister held out until the invaders commenced to hang her little son, your cousin-close to your own age, mind-in front of her very eyes, before she yielded. The border wars still rage, young son, and will for some time to come. How could you leave your mother prey to such dangers whilst whoring after vanity?"
Robert scowled. He wasn't sure he ought to address that question. To do so would mean breaking a trust and betraying a confidence, and he wasn't sure it was his place to discuss his mother's personal affairs.
"Well?" the old man urged him. "Explain yourself, Nephew!"
"The duchy is well defended," he hedged. "It shan't come to Mother riding into battle mailed and armed to defend the keep."
"By whom?" his uncle insisted.
"You know him ... Hamish Greenlaw," Robert grumbled, defeated, and knowing it. "You knew him when he was Father's captain of the guard. He swore fealty, and Laird Hume knighted him for valor and awarded him lands before he died. He commands my garrison now."
"And why, pray, does he command your garrison if he has gained title and lands?"
"He is my mother's consort," Robert said angrily. It wasn't any use. He had never been able to hide anything from Aengus Xavier Haddock.
"I have been away from home too long," the monk replied. "My sister has become a whore, and my nephew is off on some mad quest that will surely bring him low, with naught but some ruttish lummox who commands the army to instruct him. How could she take a lover with your father only in the ground two summers?"
"That is neither my affair, nor yours, Uncle. I tell it only to put your mind at ease in that, come time of invasion, Hamish Greenlaw will defend my mother and the keep with his life. She loves him, and he her. I trust him."
"Love!" Aengus ground out. "Carnal lust, you mean. The love of God is the only true love. All else is false. He will use her, and steal your birthright."
"With all due respect, Uncle, I beg you take that up with her, not me. Many others offered for her properly, the stiff-necked sort I'm sure you would approve of, who did not know which end of the sword to grasp, much less thrust. Was I to leave the domain in the hands of one of those so they could 'lose' my birthright for me? Forgive me, but you cannot rule Berwickshire from St. Michael's Mount. And none that I have ever known, including Father, could rule Mother. She is no maiden, and she has made her choice. Now, enough of Mother! Her fate is sealed, and my mission is plain. I need to get an heir. I should like to do that with a willing wife, which is hardly likely as I am. Will you help me?"
The old monk fell silent for so long a time that Robert cleared his throat to prompt him.
"There is one man with whom I am acquainted who might sponsor you at my recommendation," Aengus said at last. "His name is Michel Eyguem, seigneur de Montaigne. He is, I think, only months your senior, but do not scoff at that. He gained a seat in the Parliament of Bordeaux when he was only twenty-four summers. He is a brilliant essayist, and a magistrate of some renown-a very esteemed and respected man, and he should be in Paris now at his château, unless he has gone off early to winter at his country estate in Bordeaux. I do not think that likely yet."
"Is he acquainted with the healer?"
"All of Paris is acquainted with your healer. He is both revered and feared, and in most cases both. I will draft you a letter of introduction, but I do not want to raise your hopes, son; it isn't likely that either man will be able to help you, and you put yourself at great risk going."
"Hope is all I have, Uncle," said Robert, "and this is my last. I am willing to vow that if this healer Nostradamus cannot help me, I will concede defeat, accept my lot, and trouble no one further about it."
"Then you had best have another tankard of wine, and pour one for me as well. Since you will not see reason, there are many things you should know before you set foot on French soil these days."
Robert obliged him, and waited somewhat less than patiently while the old man took a deep swallow of the fragrant spiced wine and leaned close, crouching over the table before he went on, speaking hardly above a whisper.
"Your sojourn to that country is ill-timed," he said. "To begin with, what is going on in France these days is no mere religious dispute, it is bloody civil war between the Catholic Royalists, and the French Protestants-the Huguenots."
"They are Calvinists?"
"Yes, they follow the teachings of John Calvin, and they are many in number, much to the chagrin of the Crown, though that is the Queen Mother's fault. Straddling that fence has cost her much, and will cost her more before 'tis done. But I shan't go into the whys and wherefores. I shall leave all that for seigneur de Montaigne."
"Where does he stand in this civil war?" Robert wondered.
"He is exempt," said his uncle. "He is a Jew, of Spanish-Portuguese extraction. At least that is his heritage. What his religious or political position is in these troubled times, who can say. He is, however, a very wise intellectual, one of the great thinkers of our time, and he remains neutral. Although he is a favorite of the queen, he relishes a certain amount of anonymity. You would do well to respect that."
"The king is but a child, I'm told."
"He is a lad of twelve, but make no mistake. Catherine de' Medici, his mother, rules France, and will until she dies, no matter who sits on the throne. Even now, the factions sue for the king's favor. He might make a good ruler if he lives to manhood. Those who manipulate him tug him in many directions, and some whom he trusts should not be trusted. It is difficult for even an adult to brook and discern wisely, and the young king is swayed by his mother's views, which fluctuate between the Catholics and the Protestants daily. She changes sides the way she changes partners at her precious court fetes, and if the boy is not soon counseled rightly, his rule will fail, and France will suffer greatly."
"I doubt I shall have contact with any of these," Robert said. "I want only an audience with Nostradamus. I don't intend to get caught up in civil strife in a land not my own."
"Nonetheless, it's best that you are aware of these things. You will be far less likely to become embroiled in civil strife if you are armed with the means to avoid it. Bear with me, Robert. If you must go, go prepared for what awaits you, and my conscience will be clear in the matter."
"Yes, Uncle," Robert said humbly. There were times, like now, when the old man seemed more warrior than monk. It had to be the lusty Haddock blood. How it had turned out a holy man was a mystery.
"You would do well to heed Montaigne in all things," Aengus went on. "While I can only warn you, he, being in the midst of it, will be able to counsel you far better than I. Things are changing hour by hour there now. What was true a sennight ago could be very different by the time you reach Paris. You know how long it takes for word to travel."
"Who leads these Huguenots?"
Excerpted from Prisoner of the Flames by Dawn MacTavish Copyright © 2008 by Dawn Thompson. Excerpted by permission.
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