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The Welsh March1460
In Llanwardine Priory in the Welsh March the little room had stone walls, a stone-flagged floor and a ribbed roof. Damp cold clung to every surface, a nasty gleam in the light from the single lantern. It had the air of being long unused, except for now at the dark of the night. Two women and a cat shivered from the chill and lively apprehension. The door was barred, windows close shuttered against any who might show an interest in their activities.
The women sat facing each other across a rough plank trestle, the cat curled to one side. Both figures were dark cloaked. One, the elder, was Mistress Jane Bringsty, round of face with ample girth and the plain garments of a serving woman; the other was Elizabeth de Lacy, daughter of one of the foremost aristocratic families in the March. Pale and thin, she was young, and in the black robe, white veil and wimple of a nun. In silence, Elizabeth took from a sack four crude tallow candles and set them in a square before her serving woman. Jane placed a pottery dish in the centre, poured in water from a stoppered vessel, then lifted her eyes.
'Are you sure, my lady?'
'Yes.' Elizabeth's teeth chattered against the cold.
'If you say so.' Jane angled a glance at the cat, that immediately turned its back, to wash its paws and its ears with studied indifference. On a sigh of resignation the woman searched and took from a pocket a number of small packages, then lit the candles from the lantern. They gave off thick and acrid smoke as much as they provided further light. 'Scrying is dangerous.' Jane shuffled her bulk on the stool. 'What if we were followed? Or just discovered here?'
'We were not. The infirmary is empty.' Elizabeth placed her hands flat on the table, palms down, fingers spread. No rings adorned her red and swollen knuckles. Her lips were pressed unflatteringly into a thin line.
' The older woman narrowed her eyes in appraisal of her mistress's sharp features. Hollowed cheeks and shadows, deep as bruises below her eyes. The frame of the severe nun's wimple did nothing to enhance the young woman; rather, the gloom and flickering flames drew attention to her shortcomings.
Elizabeth frowned in quick irritation. 'Just do it, Jane. You are far clearer at divination than I.'
'More practice, that's all.' From one of the packets Jane Bringsty drew a handful of dried mugwort leaves and set herself to read the future for her mistress.
First she crumbled some of the herb into the candle flames to give off a pungent aroma. With closed eyes she inhaled deeply and then sprinkled the rest on to the surface of the water in the pan.
'Whatsoever is wrought by me with thee, may it have good and speedy effect,' she intoned, a bare whisper. With the index finger of her left hand, Jane began to stir random patterns from the centre, shifting direction without conscious plan, for the length of six deep breaths, then set herself to watch and interpret as the water and the scattering of leaf settled.
'What do you see?'
Elizabeth clasped her fingers to still them. 'Well?' She could wait no longer.
'Murky business, my lady. Clouds. Bloodshed.' Jane looked up. 'Death.'
'Mine?' A sharp edge.
'Not so. For youa journey, perhaps. A dark castle, but whether there is a welcome or a rejection there, friend or foe, I know not.'
'Thank God!' Elizabeth breathed. A journey.
'Hush, my lady. Not wise to call on His name here.'
Elizabeth nodded in acceptance of the mild reprimand, but continued to interrogate, leaning forwards as if she too would see the images in the dish. 'When will the journey be? Soon? Or shall I be old and grey and beyond hope? Or'
Elizabeth de Lacy stopped on a quick intake of breath, eyes fixed on what she saw. There in the swirling water a face emerged, a face with a whip of dark hair as if lifted by some unseen wind. Grey eyes, dark and stormy, looked back at her with formidable power. An extraordinarily handsome face to her mind. Straight nose, carved cheekbones, firm chinhe was beautiful. And as she acknowledged the symmetrical perfection, it was as if she fell into his gaze, so that she felt him slide beneath her skin, sink into her bones. A tight knot formed within her chest. Was this a possession, an ownership? Elizabeth blew out a little breath, discovering that she had been holding it against the intrusion. Was it perhaps the work of the Devil? Was this connection between the unknown man and herself of good or ill? An awareness prickled along her skin as a film of sweat touched her upper lip despite the clammy damp of the room. She touched her hand to her lips, which suddenly felt tender as the face looked sternly back at her. She could not imagine those firm lips curving into a warm smile. There was no warmth there, merely a hard, calculating cynicism.
'Who is that?' she whispered. 'He is a man who could trouble my dreams.'
The eyes looked steadily back, holding her own as if he would dip into her mind and read the secrets of her heart, so that she felt her cheeks flush. And perhaps those lips curved, infinitesimally, into a smile. Or perhaps it was merely a movement in the water. Elizabeth passed her tongue over her own dry lips.
Then the servant shrugged and sat back from the table, abruptly passing her hand over a mere dish of water and herbs to close down the visions, and he was gone. 'I cannot tell. It is all grey and insubstantial tonight. But I see two men, shadowed, on the edge of your life.'
'Two?' Elizabeth queried, reluctant to let the image go. 'I saw only one.'
'Two,' Jane Bringsty confirmed. 'Both dark. One is to be trusted. The other will prove to be a bitter enemy.'
Elizabeth rested her chin on her clasped hands, her thoughts still with the vivid features. 'All very well, but how do I tell which is which? How will I know?'
'Use your head and your heart, my lady. What else?'
'I will if I ever escape this place.' A depth of despair was allowed to creep into her voice. Elizabeth bowed her head as any nun might, but not in prayer. She sounded tired to the bone. When she looked up, there was a dullness in the dark eyes. Her servant reached out, touched her fingers in silent compassion and Elizabeth squared her shoulders. 'Jane. Did you bring what I asked of you?'
'Yes. Not difficult. The nuns watch me far less than they watch you.' She unfolded the other packets on the table. 'This is what you wanted. Celandine.' The metallic golden petals and heart-shaped leaves of this earliest of flowers lay wilting and sad.
Elizabeth nodded, but without discernible pleasure. 'Excellent. To escape unwanted imprisonment or entrapment of all kinds. In Heaven's name, I need it. What are the rest?'
Jane unwrapped the remaining packets to reveal a dried mixture of ugly roots and faded leaves. 'Vervainto aid escape from enemies. And woodruff to ensure victory.'
Elizabeth picked up a piece of woody stem. 'Comfrey for safety and protection on a journey. It seems I shall need it if your vision is true.' For the first time there was a slight curve of the lips, a genuine warmth in the dark stare that fixed on the servant.
'It does no harm to give fate a nudge, my lady.' Jane tucked the whole into a small leather bag with a drawstring and pushed it across the dusty wood. 'Wear it next to the skin, my lady. Be sure to keep it from prying eyes.'
Elizabeth lifted it, pushed it beneath her robe, her expression cold and flat. 'I will wear it. And pray to God and His Lady Mother that it works. Or I shall assuredly go mad in this place.'
'I suppose it does no harm to call on all powers to come to your aid, my lady.' Jane quickly doused the candles with a rapid gesture of her hands and stood. The cat rose and stretched, keen to leave. 'Let us return before one of the sisters notices your absence and flexes her right arm in the name of Holy Obedience.'
'Amen to that!' replied Elizabeth with feeling, already knowing the bite of the whip against her flesh.
In her heart and in her mind, Elizabeth de Lacynot Sister Elizabeth, she would never be Sister Elizabethseethed with anger and rebellion, and all but shook with bitter frustration. Her life at Llanwardine was beyond tolerating, from the unpalatable food to the bone-chilling cold of endless nights. To the freezing water in which it was her task to scour the cups and bowls used by the elderly nuns. As she lifted the remains of the candles, her sleeves fell back from her hands and forearms. The bones of arms and wrists were too fragile, too delicate, as if they might snap at the first provocation. She had never been a robust child, but now the pale skin of her face was almost translucent, the violet imprints beneath her eyes far too deep. Her fingers were rough and red from hard work and chilblains. She must eat moreshe knew itbut it was difficult to do more than force a little of the hard bread past the lump in her throat, washing it down with a spoonful of the greasy broth. It was an ongoing battle between her mind and her belly, but the grease of the broth coated her mouth, the rancid vegetables turned her stomach.
Was the rest of her life to be spent in this place? Would she grow old and die here?
No. And, no! No, she could not believe that life would hold nothing for her but this trial of poverty and obedience, deprivation and hardship until the day she died. She was only just one year past her second decade and, before God, she had no calling to be a nun, as He must know. Surely He would see and understand her sufferings and not commit her to such a fate, despite the determination of her powerful uncle, Sir John de Lacy, to keep her here until she bowed in obedience before him.
And, no, she could never wed Owain Thomas, to achieve yet another Yorkist alliance for her family in the March. Never! She shivered at the memory of Sir Owain, the tall, spare knight with thinning hair, elderly enough to be her father, his fingers dry and rough against her hand when he bowed over it with clumsy greed. His eyes when he had agreed to wed her had been as damply cold as a reptile. She swallowed against the remembered scratch of his hand on hers. Whatever life held in store for her, at least she had escaped that!
Elizabeth de Lacy turned her steps towards the priory kitchens, where she would once again plunge her hands in the icy water. Into her mind came the austere face of the scrying, the level stare of the dark-haired man that sent a shiver through her body. It was not from the bitter draughts that fluttered her robes. Within her belly a heat bloomed.
Richard Malinder, Lord of Ledenshall, head bent, frowned over the sword blade he was cleaning, making a pleasing picture if he had either known or cared. His build and temperament were those of a soldier. Faint lines of determination and a certain inflexibility were clear to be read on the vivid face. In the direct gleam of his eyes there was an uncomfortable cynicism. He was dark, black of hair, dark grey of eye, with a straight, high-bridged nose made for arrogance. Lean cheeks, a well-moulded mouth, capable of a disgraceful degree of charm, but now stern. A handsome man, so women would say and frequently did, but high-tempered and imperious, not a man easily dealt with. One of the Black Malinders, who could charm and attract, but whose character could be as forceful as his appearance. Now his frown deepened over the stark announcement made by the de Lacy messenger not an hour ago, news that had had the shock of a lightning bolt.
Maude de Lacy, the ten-year-old daughter of Sir John de Lacy, the girl who was to have been his wife, was dead of a fever.
He had had no premonition of it. How should heshe was only ten years old. He was sorry, of course, had expressed appropriate words to be carried back to the girl's father, Sir John de Lacy, Lord of Talgarth. The death of Sir John's only child was an occasion for grief, even though Richard had to dredge through the depths of his memory to bring up any more personal detail of her than a small girl with chestnut hair and a deep blue gown, with laughter on her face as she chased a hound puppy through the courtyard of her home. The only occasion he had set eyes on her, when their betrothal was sealed.
But beneath his regret ran a guilt-ridden torrent of relief.
This had been an alliance that in his heart he had never wanted, a political alliance in which the child Maude had been simply a pawn to be used in the struggle for power in the March. It was very clear in Richard's mind. Sir John had wanted to tie him into an unbreakable union with the de Lacys, presumably to dominate the March between them. But Sir John would be an uncomfortable ally in the present circumstances. The de Lacy loyalties to the House of York did not tally with those of Malinder's support for the Lancastrian King Henry. Nor did Richard relish the prospect of Maude as a betrothed. She was far too young to be a bride.
And yet he needed to marry again after the death of his wife Gwladys. It was high time that he sired an heir to the Malinder estates. On a thought, his black brows twitched together as he applied the soft cloth to the blade's edge. As long as Sir John did not try to remedy this sudden collapse of the negotiations by offering another de Lacy bride. What if Sir John proposed his unwed niece, Elizabeth de Lacy, to take the place of his daughter in the Malinder marriage bed?