In My Lady’s Cham­ber

8-page mur­der mys­tery

The People's Friend Special - - FICTION -

It was clear there was dan­ger all around. Meg must choose her friends wisely, or pay the price . . .

LADY SIBYL had de­cided she could not lie at ease with­out the ta­pes­try from her child­hood home, and it had just ar­rived, care­fully packed in linen wrap­pings.

“She’s call­ing for you,” Anna Parfitt said, her sloe-black eyes snap­ping with re­sent­ment. “Though what she sees in you, I have no idea. Muck and mid­dens, that’s where you be­long, my girl.”

Meg Lovell blinked fu­ri­ously as tears started to form in her eyes. She would not let her­self cry. Not in front of Anna.

Meg had been so ex­cited when the sum­mons came to join Lady Sibyl’s ladiesin-wait­ing and she re­alised she’d be liv­ing at Pass­ing­ham, one of the new-fan­gled great houses built in the shape of an E to flat­ter the Queen.

She’d been stunned by its tall glass win­dows and

Long Gallery, more than three times big­ger than the Great Hall in the small north Devon manor where she’d grown up, but now all she wanted to do was go home. Anna was right. She didn’t fit in.

Her clothes weren’t fine enough, her man­ners lacked pol­ish, and know­ing Anna was wait­ing to pounce on ev­ery mis­take made Meg clumsy.

She felt like a homely tur­tle-dove thrown into a flock of strut­ting pea­cocks in all save one thing.

As she picked up her lute and brushed her fingers gen­tly across its strings, Meg felt fresh strength. In this, at least, she could hold her own.

Lady Sibyl greeted Meg with de­light.

“Is this not the per­fect sub­ject for my ly­ing-in?” she said, point­ing to the ta­pes­try’s Madonna gazing ador­ingly at the in­fant Christ. “I pray my baby will be round and fair like hers.”

Meg opened her mouth to say she hoped not, as the in­fant’s fat dim­pled limbs were shaped like no baby she’d ever seen, but shut it hastily be­fore the words could tum­ble out.

“Be pru­dent in your speech,” Count­ess Alys, who man­aged Lady Sibyl’s house­hold, had coun­selled. “No lady ever speaks ex­actly what she thinks.”

Why, Meg had thought re­bel­liously. Why can’t I say what I mean? But in­side she had al­ready known the an­swer. That would never do at Pass­ing­ham.

Look­ing at Lady Sibyl, Meg won­dered if she could ever be like her: serene, gen­tle, a kind word for ev­ery­one.

And then there was Lady Sibyl’s in­cred­i­ble beauty. Even heav­ily preg­nant, her golden hair, blue eyes and al­abaster skin turned heads. Yet Meg did not envy her, for women too of­ten paid a ter­ri­ble price for such beauty.

With­out it, Lady Sibyl would not have caught the eye of Lord Ed­ward, who’d buried two wives al­ready.

“Do you think he loves her?” Meg asked Gyles, her best friend.

Skilled at archery, horse­man­ship and fal­conry, he was a ris­ing star in Lord Ed­ward’s ret­inue, but she’d never for­get how he’d sat be­side her when he found her cry­ing from home­sick­ness be­hind the sta­bles, first wip­ing away her tears, then mak­ing her laugh with funny sto­ries about life at Pass­ing­ham. Gyles thought care­fully. “Love, I’m not sure – val­ues, yes, in the same way as he prizes a fine hawk, see­ing its beauty as show­ing his good taste.”

“Poor Lady Sibyl,” Meg said. “What must it be like know­ing that noth­ing will sat­isfy Lord Ed­ward but the birth of a son?”

Dr Ab­sa­lom, Lord Ed­ward’s own physi­cian, made sure Lady Sibyl was in no doubt about the role she was ex­pected to fill.

His con­tin­ual fuss­ing mad­dened ev­ery­one, but Count­ess Alys was even more dili­gent, al­though Meg won­dered how she could even bear to be in the same room as the mas­ter of the house.

Ev­ery­one knew Count­ess Alys had never got over her child­hood love af­fair with Lord Ed­ward.

She’d been heart­bro­ken when her fa­ther mar­ried her off to a wealthy neigh­bour. When her hus­band died, Count­ess Alys had taken con­trol of Lord Ed­ward’s house­hold, and must have hoped he’d take her as his third wife, but in­stead he’d mar­ried Sibyl Ver­ney, daugh­ter of one of Queen El­iz­a­beth’s most pow­er­ful ad­vi­sors.

“Well, what else did she ex­pect?” Anna said forthrightly when the ladies-in-wait­ing gath­ered to make cowslip balls.

“Lord Ed­ward needs a son to in­herit his wealth and lands, and she’s too old to give him that. She has only a sickly daugh­ter no­body’s ever seen.” “Poor lady,” Meg said. “I won­der why she stays. I could not bear to see a ri­val take my place.”

Her hand flew to her mouth. She had done it again. She saw Anna look­ing at her and braced her­self for a mock­ing on­slaught, but to Meg’s sur­prise Anna just shook her head and sighed.

“Poor lady, in­deed.”

Lady Sibyl’s preg­nancy forced Dr Ab­sa­lom and Count­ess Alys to work closely to­gether, but Meg couldn’t help notic­ing how tense the count­ess be­came when­ever he was nearby.

Now, as he bent to press his lips against her hand, Count­ess Alys’s nor­mally guarded ex­pres­sion slipped, shock­ing Meg as she saw ut­ter loathing writ plain across the older woman’s face. More star­tling still were the un­shed glit­ter­ing tears.

For­tu­nately, Dr Ab­sa­lom would not be present at the ly­ing-in. Sil­ver-haired Goody Thomas, the herb­wife who had brought Lord Ed­ward into the world, would pre­side over the birth.

Meg was not look­ing for­ward to it. Be­ing in a ly­ing-in room was like be­ing in­side the womb it­self, dark and air­less with all the sun­light shut out, but at least she had the May­day Rev­els with Gyles to look for­ward to first.

“They’re not fancy, like Lon­don,” Gyles warned. “But I war­rant there’ll be plenty to take your fancy.”

Count­ess Alys gave one of her rare smiles when Meg asked per­mis­sion to go.

“Of course you may, my child. Just don’t eat too much march­pane. I well re­mem­ber my first May­day Rev­els – I ate over­much and paid with a dose of St Paul’s Po­tion.”

****

May­day dawned fair and Meg and Gyles spent the morn­ing ex­plor­ing the colour­ful stalls and sideshows.

Meg was glad to rest her aching feet by the time they stopped for a de­li­cious lunch of slices of suck­ling pig stud­ded with cloves, fol­lowed by ginger­bread.

Later, they went over to greet Kate, the bailiff’s wife, who was try­ing to stop her three lively young boys fight­ing mock du­els.

“Give over, do,” Kate said crossly. “And Tam, come back here!”

Tam ig­nored her. He’d spot­ted the prize of an ap­ple ly­ing be­side the town wall, but as he bent to pick it up, he jumped back­wards with a yelp.

“It bit me! A snake!”

“Are you sure?” Gyles said.

The lit­tle boy nod­ded, his face ashen. There were two small marks just above his an­kle.

“Physi­cian!” Gyles shouted. “Ho, is there a physi­cian? Meg, can you hold him still?”

Meg knelt and cra­dled the boy against her as

Gyles pressed his mouth to the punc­tures, spit­ting into the dust.

A man came run­ning up. “Gideon Perry, physi­cian, at your ser­vice. What’s amiss?”

Gyles ex­plained as the man ex­am­ined the child care­fully. At last, he stood up and clapped Gyles on the back.

“That was bravely done. Thanks to your quick ac­tion the boy should mend well, but I’ll take him to the monks, just in case. They’ll ap­ply a poul­tice to draw out any re­main­ing poi­son. Are you of the town?”

“From Pass­ing­ham. I’m Gyles, this is Meg.”

Gideon’s ex­pres­sion clouded over.

“Pass­ing­ham?” he said slowly. “Then per­haps you know a Doc­tor Ab­sa­lom?”

“Yes,” Gyles said, “he’s Lord Ed­ward’s physi­cian.”

“He’s found a soft berth for him­self, then,” Gideon replied.

“Is any­thing wrong?” Meg asked.

“Noth­ing you need worry about,” he said, smil­ing again. “He and I are old ac­quain­tances.

“Well, I’ll bid you good day.” His gaze lin­gered on Meg’s face a frac­tion too long and Meg felt her­self blush.

Gyles and Meg walked past the danc­ing ground and Meg won­dered if Gyles would ask her to dance, but he seemed out of sorts.

“You find him hand­some, then?” he said.

“Who, Gideon? I haven’t re­ally thought about it,” Meg replied, al­though it wasn’t strictly true as she’d been in­tensely aware of Gideon’s good looks. Re­call­ing the in­ci­dent, she felt sud­denly shaky.

“You could have died,” she said.

“I saw my un­cle do it once when his groom got bit­ten while hawk­ing on the heath. It’s not hard if you know what you’re do­ing.” “And did you?”

“Not re­ally.” He gave her a grin. “But don’t keep look­ing at me like that or I might be tempted to do some­thing else rash.”

****

Al­though Dr Ab­sa­lom was barred from Lady Sibyl’s ly­ing-in, he en­quired after her progress daily, so Meg wasn’t sur­prised to find him wait­ing when she re­turned.

Count­ess Alys came to the door.

“Did you give the draught I pre­scribed to my lady?” Dr Ab­sa­lom asked, fix­ing her with a nasty glance.

“She wouldn’t take it,” she replied coldly.

“Then you must per­suade her,” Ab­sa­lom said.

“She can make up her own mind.”

“As it seems you have made up yours. But re­mem­ber, madam, that once a child is in the pic­ture, a woman’s pri­or­i­ties change. My lady can no longer think just of her­self – just as you must think of the health and hap­pi­ness of your daugh­ter.”

Count­ess Alys glared at him.

“You need have no fear of my care for my daugh­ter, Ab­sa­lom. I am de­voted to her, and she to me. Now I must at­tend to my du­ties. Come, Meg.”

****

The weeks of Lady Sibyl’s con­fine­ment seemed to stretch out for ever. The room was close and stuffy, and Meg longed to be out­side in the sun­shine.

Many an hour was spent day­dream­ing, and she was ashamed how of­ten her thoughts drifted to the hand­some physi­cian and the way he had looked at her with his in­tense eyes.

It was al­most a re­lief when Count­ess Alys told her Lady Sibyl had en­dured a rest­less night and it was time to ask Fa­ther John to pray for a safe de­liv­ery.

Hav­ing thought about Gideon so much, Meg was em­bar­rassed when he was the first per­son she met in the chapel, his eyes bluer than she re­mem­bered.

“He’s been bring­ing a salve for my rheumat­ics,” Fa­ther John ex­plained. “He in­sists on com­ing ev­ery day to ad­min­is­ter it to save this old back of mine. God bless him.”

They lis­tened to Meg’s news with in­ter­est.

“God will­ing, my lady’s labour is swift and she safely de­liv­ers the heir my Lord longs for,” Gideon said.

“Amen,” the priest said. “I’ve heard she likes you to play the lute for her,” Gideon con­tin­ued. “Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to hear you some time.”

Meg was an­noyed to find her­self blush­ing. Did Gideon know he had this ef­fect on women? His lazy smile sug­gested he did. It sparked sud­den anger in her.

“I’ll thank you not to stare, Mas­ter Perry,” she snapped.

“Ouch,” he said. “The rose has thorns.”

****

“Did you see him, then?” Anna said, open­ing the door to let her in.

“The priest?”

“No, goose, Physi­cian Perry. Were I my lady, I’d ex­change him for that old bell­wether Ab­sa­lom in a trice.”

Meg couldn’t help laugh­ing. Ab­sa­lom’s long face did have a sheep-like qual­ity.

“How is my lady?” she asked Goody Thomas.

“Well enough. The birth goes as all births do, whether you be lady or com­moner.”

As the pains grew stronger Goody Thomas led Lady Sibyl to the birthing stool, di­rect­ing two maids to stand be­hind and sup­port her as the con­trac­tions came hard and fast.

“Now, St Mar­garet, aid us,” Goody Thomas said. “And you, my lady, take courage and bear down.”

Lady Sibyl obeyed, and within min­utes the wait­ing women heard the wel­come wail of a new­born baby.

“My lord is blessed with a son,” Goody Thomas said. “As fine and healthy a lit­tle lad as you could wish for.”

Count­ess Alys stag­gered, her face white as a sheet, her eyes burn­ing.

“For­give me. The room is sti­fling,” she said, hur­ry­ing to the door. But no­body was fooled.

****

In the days fol­low­ing the birth, Lady Sibyl’s spir­its were low.

“If only I could walk in the gar­dens,” she said. “The roses are all bloom­ing now, but by the time I’m churched they will be past their best.”

“Couldn’t we pick her some?” Meg said to Anna.

Anna clearly thought it was a good idea for she lost no time sug­gest­ing it to Count­ess Alys.

“That’s very thought­ful, Anna,” Count­ess Alys said ap­prov­ingly.

Anna darted a look of tri­umph at Meg. It seemed she was still try­ing to score points.

Meg turned her back and be­gan to pluck the strings of her lute, con­cen­trat­ing so hard on com­pos­ing a new melody that she didn’t re­alise Anna was back till she made Meg jump by bang­ing a pitcher of red roses down in front of her.

“Some flow­ers to help you in your song-mak­ing,” she said, not mean­ing a word of it.

Meg couldn’t help seething in­wardly as she watched Lady Sibyl clap her hands with de­light and im­pul­sively kiss Anna on the cheek. Anna gave Meg a taunt­ing smile.

“Who’s the favourite now?” it said, clearer than words.

It was not long after­wards that Goody Thomas came in with the baby.

“Time for your rest, my lit­tle Lord,” she said, but as she bent over the crib she gave an almighty screech.

Ste­ward Robert rushed in, his dag­ger drawn. “What’s wrong?”

The old woman was shak­ing too much to speak, but she pointed to the crib.

“Jesu pro­tect us!” the ste­ward said, blood drain­ing from his face as he looked in­side. He used the dag­ger to stab and stab again.

Just then Lord Ed­ward and Dr Ab­sa­lom en­tered the room. Lord Ed­ward looked at the blood­stained dag­ger in Robert’s hand and grabbed his arm.

“What’s go­ing on?” he de­manded.

Ste­ward Robert stirred the twisted linen on the

floor with his foot to re­veal the glis­ten­ing body of a dead adder.

“It must have sought the baby’s crib as a warm place to con­ceal it­self, sir.”

Lady Sibyl gave a moan and crum­pled to the floor. Lord Ed­ward car­ried her to a couch and com­mit­ted her to Count­ess Alys’s care be­fore giv­ing way to his anger and frus­tra­tion.

“God’s death, what evil for­tune could bring the adder here?” he said.

Dr Ab­sa­lom pointed to the roses fill­ing the room. “What about these?” Anna’s face turned white. “I picked them from the rose gar­den. I thought they would please my lady,” she stam­mered.

“Where’s the bas­ket?” Robert de­manded. It was brought to him. “Plenty large enough. Did you put it on the ground?”

“Yes, but only while I cut the roses.”

Robert nod­ded thought­fully.

“The adder must have found its way into the bas­ket, then.”

“But I would have seen it when I took the roses out to ar­range them,” Anna said, her voice shak­ing. “There was no snake. I swear there was none!”

“The girl should be pun­ished,” Dr Ab­sa­lom said.

Lord Ed­ward looked at Anna’s woe­be­gone face.

“Enough, Ab­sa­lom. It was an ac­ci­dent. She is wretched enough al­ready.”

Anna dropped a deep curt­sey and al­most ran from the room.

The in­ci­dent kept re­play­ing in her mind, and Meg burst into tears when she saw Gyles later.

“The roses were my idea. The baby could have died. It was my fault.”

“Of course it wasn’t,” Gyles said stoutly, putting his arm round her, “But why don’t you go and see Anna? I’m sure she’d ap­pre­ci­ate your sup­port.”

Meg leaned her head against his shoul­der. They sat qui­etly, but as the si­lence stretched on Meg re­alised some­thing was trou­bling Gyles.

“What ever is the mat­ter?” she asked.

“I’m not re­ally sure.” He frowned. “Some­thing just doesn’t feel right. After all, adders are quite large – surely Anna would have no­ticed? And why didn’t it bite her?” He shook his head.

“But I’m talk­ing non­sense. For­get I said any­thing. The last thing I want is to worry you, Meg.”

He smoothed her hair gen­tly back from her fore­head, his fingers lin­ger­ing. Meg’s eyes widened. Had she just felt the touch of his lips on her hair?

Her heart started to pound. Was Gyles go­ing to kiss her? She held her breath in an­tic­i­pa­tion, but to her dis­ap­point­ment noth­ing more hap­pened. She felt her­self go red. She was so an­noyed with her­self she couldn’t even look Gyles in the face when they said good­bye.

But back in the main house she re­mem­bered his ad­vice and went in search of Anna. She found her in the still­room, mix­ing dried rose petals and laven­der to scent Lady Sibyl’s linen. Anna’s tear-streaked face was fierce.

“Come to gloat?”

“Of course not,” Meg said. “I just wanted to say how sorry I am. After all, the roses were my idea. If any­thing had hap­pened to the baby, it would have been my fault, not yours.”

“Oh, don’t talk non­sense. It served me right for try­ing to take the credit,” Anna replied. She was silent for a mo­ment. “It used to be me my lady asked for all the time.”

“She still does,” Meg said. “No­body does her hair bet­ter than you.”

“Now you’re try­ing to flat­ter me,” Anna told her, “but you’re right. All right, let’s make a bar­gain – you stick to mu­sic, I’ll stick to hair.” She gave a wa­tery smile. “Friends?”

“Friends.” Meg smiled back.

****

“What’s all this about an adder?” Gideon said when Meg next saw him, lis­ten­ing to her tale with such in­ter­est that Meg men­tioned Gyles’s mis­giv­ings too.

“Maybe he’s right,” Gideon went on. “It does seem strange. But try not to worry, Meg.” He bent down and kissed her cheek be­fore Meg re­alised what he was do­ing. “Oops, sorry. I don’t know what came over me. Of course, you’re Gyles’s girl.”

“I’m not Gyles’s girl, as you put it,” Meg said, feel­ing mis­er­able. “Gyles and I are just friends.”

Gideon’s blue eyes sparkled with mis­chief.

“Re­ally? I thought you and Gyles were to­gether. He cer­tainly looks at you like he wants to be. Well, if that’s the case . . .” Gideon put his arms round her and kissed her again, prop­erly this time.

They heard a noise be­hind them.

“Don’t let me in­ter­rupt.” Gyles turned abruptly on his heel and walked away.

Meg pushed Gideon away.

“How could you? Did you know he was there?”

“I saw him com­ing over, but didn’t you say you were just friends?” Gideon’s gaze trav­elled slowly over Meg’s face and fig­ure in a way that made the blood rush to her cheeks.

“If he’s con­tent just to be your friend, he’s not wor­thy of you, Meg. I could never be sat­is­fied with that. You like me, don’t you, Meg? I felt it when I kissed you.”

Meg felt like she was drown­ing. She had to get away.

“Gyles,” she called, run­ning after him, tug­ging on his arm un­til he stopped and looked at her, hurt in his eyes. “I swear I didn’t know he was go­ing to do that. Please don’t be an­gry with me.”

“I’m not an­gry with you,” Gyles said. His face looked wretched. “You’re a free woman, Meg. But be care­ful – Gideon’s a ladies’ man and not too par­tic­u­lar about how he be­haves. I’d hate to see you get hurt.”

Meg felt flus­tered. How much had Gyles seen? Sud­denly she felt an­gry. How dare Gyles tell her how to be­have?

“What gives you the right to tell me who to spend my time with?” she said an­grily.

Gyles flinched as though she had struck him.

“Noth­ing, Meg. I’ve ab­so­lutely no right.” He bowed and walked away, not look­ing back.

Meg’s heart sank, but this time she could not run to Gyles for com­fort.

****

After the adder in­ci­dent, Lady Sibyl grew fret­ful with anx­i­ety, es­pe­cially when she heard that sev­eral quar­ry­men’s chil­dren had died from adder bites in re­cent months.

After her fourth sleep­less night, Dr Ab­sa­lom pre­scribed a draught of poppy, but Lady Sibyl pushed it away.

“But you must sleep, my lady,” Count­ess Alys said.

Lady Sibyl’s eyes glit­tered fever­ishly.

“I need to stay awake to pro­tect my child. Didn’t you hear Anna? She said there was no snake in the bas­ket. Some en­emy is at work here.”

“But you’re wear­ing your­self out, my lady. Why don’t you let me sit with him?”

“Why should I trust you? Wouldn’t it suit you bet­ter if the child had died?”

Count­ess Alys went white.

“You do me a great wrong, my lady.”

Gideon had his own ideas about Lady Sibyl’s sleep prob­lems.

“Poppy’s not the drug I’d choose,” he told Meg after church. “It’s like us­ing a black­smith’s ham­mer to crack a hazel­nut when all she needs is some­thing to calm her nerves.

“If she were my pa­tient, I’ve got just the thing – a sim­ple restora­tive with le­mon balm, moth­er­wort and Fa­ther John’s honey.” “Could you bring some?” Gideon frowned.

“The dose needs to be pre­cise. I’d need to see her. Can you ar­range that?”

Lady Sibyl was so des­per­ate to get some sleep, she needed lit­tle per­sua­sion and agreed to see Gideon the very next

morn­ing. He ar­rived, car­ry­ing a large cov­ered bas­ket.

First, he ex­am­ined Lady Sy­bil.

“Your pulse is rapid and weak and you have some fever.” He re­moved the stop­per from a stoneware jar and a de­li­cious honey fra­grance filled the air.

“This con­tains noth­ing harm­ful, but it will calm your mind and strengthen your body.” He mea­sured a spoon­ful and Lady Sibyl obe­di­ently swal­lowed.

An odd scratch­ing sound came from the bas­ket.

“This is the sec­ond part of my tonic,” Gideon said, bring­ing it over.

Lady Sibyl pushed back the cover and a lit­tle golden spaniel’s head poked out. As she lifted the dog into her arms, her face filled with de­light.

“But she’s the very im­age of my aunt’s dog! Are you a ma­gi­cian?”

It was only a fleet­ing glance be­tween Gideon and Anna, but Meg won­dered if Anna knew him bet­ter than she was let­ting on.

Five weeks later Harry Perce­val’s chris­ten­ing took place in the chapel, an event at­tended by some of the most pow­er­ful fam­i­lies in the land.

Lord Ed­ward’s brother Wal­ter and his haughty wife Is­abeau came, too, but their sour faces re­vealed their bit­ter­ness.

Harry’s ar­rival had sounded the death knell to their cher­ished plans for their el­dest son Richard to in­herit his un­cle’s lands as well as their own.

“What a fine boy,” Is­abeau said with an in­sin­cere smile. “Let us pray he es­capes the many ill­nesses that com­monly be­fall chil­dren.”

But Is­abeau could not dampen Lady Sibyl’s hap­pi­ness. Even Lord Ed­ward had to ad­mit the roses had come back to her cheeks.

“He’s a clever fel­low,” he said. “Make sure you or­der more tonic.”

A man-at-arms de­liv­ered the new pot.

“I’ll take it,” Anna said. “You make Lady Sibyl’s bed, Meg. I’ll be with you in a minute.”

Meg was car­ry­ing an arm­ful of fresh linen when she heard a crash and a cry. Hur­ry­ing back to the still-room, she saw the jar on its side, the golden liq­uid seep­ing into the flag­stones.

Fan, the lit­tle spaniel, started to lick up the con­tents.

“Leave it, Fan,” Anna said crossly, seiz­ing the dog by the scruff of its neck and pulling it away. “Don’t just stand there gaw­ping, Meg. Fetch a cloth.”

Meg started to mop up the spill, but Fan’s whin­ing made her look up.

“You’re hold­ing her too tight, Anna. Let her go.”

“What ails the beast?” Anna said ir­ri­ta­bly.

The dog col­lapsed, pant­ing heav­ily. Meg knelt at its side.

“She’s shiv­er­ing all over. She was per­fectly all right a mo­ment ago.” The girls looked from the dog to the re­mains of the sticky pud­dle.

“We must go to Physi­cian Perry,” Anna said. “He’ll know what to do.”

She wrapped the half-full jar care­fully in a rag.

“Get a bas­ket to put Fan in, but make sure you cover her up so she can’t be seen. And, Meg, don’t tell any­one.”

A queue of sick peo­ple was al­ready wait­ing out­side the surgery. Anna pushed her way to the front.

“It’s an emer­gency.” Gideon took one look at their faces and led them to a back room.

Meg un­cov­ered the bas­ket, tears welling up as she saw the lit­tle dog’s limp body. She had known in her heart what Gideon con­firmed a few min­utes later. Lady Sibyl’s beloved pet was dead.

Anna quickly told Gideon their sus­pi­cions. He sniffed the stoneware jar.

“Hen­bane,” he said grimly. “Just a few drops will take you swiftly into the next world.” He looked at the girls, frown­ing. “But who could have tam­pered with it? Who would want to harm my lady?”

Meg and Anna ex­changed glances.

“Maybe my lord’s brother and his wife,” Meg said slowly.

Anna looked un­hap­pily at Meg.

“I hate to say this, but what about Count­ess Alys? Could the birth of Lord Ed­ward’s son have un­hinged her in some way?” Meg shook her head ve­he­mently. “I would stake my life on her in­no­cence,” she said fiercely.

“Let us pray it is so, then,” Gideon said. “Though thwarted love oft turns to hate.” He handed an­other bot­tle of tonic to Anna.

“Store it some­where safe. I’ll dis­pose of Fan’s body once it’s dark, but for Lady Sibyl’s peace of mind let her think the dog got out and is lost. Bet­ter that than frighten her with tales of poi­son.”

Both girls nod­ded.

Gideon be­gan to pace, brow fur­rowed, think­ing hard.

“I have it,” he said fi­nally. “This per­son is clever and clearly dan­ger­ous, but they don’t re­alise we know the tonic was poi­soned and that gives us the up­per hand. Is there any of the orig­i­nal po­tion left?”

“Enough for one or two days,” Anna said.

“Very well,” Gideon said. “I have a shrewd sus­pi­cion who the cul­prit is, but we need proof. We must set a trap and see what comes of it. Can you en­sure Ste­ward Robert is present?”

“That won’t be dif­fi­cult. He checks my lady’s cham­ber ev­ery day since the adder,” Meg said.

“One of you must make an ex­cuse to fetch me from the chapel when the new tonic is about to be opened.”

“I’ll do it,” Anna said quickly, gazing at Gideon with parted lips and shin­ing eyes.

Why, she’s in love with him, Meg thought. She was sur­prised by the feel­ing of jeal­ousy that ripped through her.

Gideon led them to the surgery door.

“Prom­ise me you won’t breathe a word of this to any­one. Re­mem­ber Lady Sibyl’s life may de­pend on it.”

As they stepped out­side, there was a sud­den com­mo­tion as a man in rags pushed through the sick peo­ple wait­ing.

“Call your­self a doc­tor?” he shouted, his words slur­ring. “You killed my son, you devil!”

Meg gasped as he pulled out a knife and lunged at Gideon, but the drunken blow sliced harm­lessly through the air.

Two men seized his arms, while a third wres­tled the knife from his grasp.

“For­give him, sir,” the third man begged. “He’s out of his mind with grief.”

He turned to the man, speak­ing gen­tly as if to a child.

“It’s not Physi­cian Perry’s fault, Jack. Come away now, or you’ll find your­self in the lock-up.”

Gideon watched them go, his face sober.

“Poor man. I saved his lit­tle boy from fever, only to lose him to an adder bite.”

****

“Feel my hand, it’s shak­ing,” Anna whis­pered to Meg as they stood in the door­way of the so­lar two days later. “What if I drop the jar?”

“You won’t,” Meg said. She gazed at the cir­cle of richly dressed courtiers with their haughty aris­to­cratic faces and fine airs. Surely none of them could be a mur­derer?

“The tonic, please, Anna,” Gideon said. He turned to Dr Ab­sa­lom. “My dear sir, you’ve not had a chance to taste it yet.”

Dr Ab­sa­lom bowed.

“I do not need to. My lady praises it to the skies.”

“But I in­sist. I would dearly value your opin­ion.”

Dr Ab­sa­lom be­gan to sweat, his eyes dart­ing from side to side.

“I have told you I do not wish to taste it,” he said ir­ri­ta­bly.

“Why not?” Gideon asked, his tone silkens­mooth. “Per­haps you know some­thing we don’t?”

“Are you say­ing the tonic will harm my lady?” Ste­ward Robert was in­stantly alert. “Drink it,” he or­dered Dr Ab­sa­lom. “If you are in­no­cent, drink it.” Dr Ab­sa­lom crum­pled. “They forced me to do it. My lord’s brother and his wife – it was all their idea.”

“No doubt for a rich re­ward,” Ste­ward Robert said coldly. “You should have stayed loyal. Now you will pay dearly.”

Gideon pulled the wretched doc­tor roughly to his feet.

“And thus are evil deeds pun­ished,” he said.

“Who are you?” Ab­sa­lom asked. “You re­mind me of some­one, but I can­not call them to mem­ory.”

“Can’t you?” Gideon said with a bit­ter laugh. “Well, I’d ex­pect no less. But I re­mem­ber you only too well and now I am avenged.”

The ex­pres­sion on his face made Meg shiver. Why did he hate Dr Ab­sa­lom so much?

Meg saw that Count­ess Alys’s face was streaked with tears. She crept softly to her side.

“Are you all right, madam?” she asked shyly.

“Bet­ter than I have been for many a long month, know­ing that mon­ster will be shut away.

“My daugh­ter has the fall­ing sick­ness,” Count­ess Alys ex­plained. “I have tried to keep it a se­cret, but that devil found out.

“Since then he has drained my purse dry, but what else could I do? Just a hint of my poor girl’s con­di­tion could see her burned at the stake. Thank God we are free of him.”

****

Meg and Anna’s friend­ship grew and many a night she and Anna spent laugh­ing and talk­ing into the early hours, shar­ing their hopes, fears and plans. Meg knew that for Anna the fu­ture meant only one thing – Gideon.

It was like a mad­ness. Meg felt afraid. There was some­thing de­struc­tive in such un­bri­dled pas­sion.

“Please be care­ful,” she pleaded. “What if Count­ess Alys saw you?”

“Let her,” Anna said.

“She lost her love by not be­ing brave enough to fol­low her heart. I won’t make the same mis­take. I burn for him. If I lose him, I will die.”

But did Gideon feel the same way? If so, why did he treat Anna so cru­elly, flirt­ing with Meg or one of the other ladies-in­wait­ing?

“The trou­ble is he can’t help at­tract­ing other women, but I know it’s me he loves re­ally,” Anna said. “Do you see this neck­lace? He gave it to me. It used to be­long to his mother.

“He told me to only wear it in se­cret – be­cause se­crets are best kept be­tween those in love.”

Meg looked at it cu­ri­ously.

“Aren’t those stones gar­nets?” she said.

“Oh, no,” Anna said. “He says they’re just coloured glass, but made by a skil­ful crafts­man in France. Aren’t they pretty?”

Anna was like the sis­ter Meg had never had, but even Anna could not fill the gap left by Gyles.

Some­times Meg felt a flicker of hope, re­call­ing how Gideon had said he’d seen Gyles look­ing at her like he wanted them to be to­gether, but then a wave of de­spair would over­whelm her, be­cause surely, if that were so, he’d have done some­thing about it by now.

Not to men­tion the fact she’d treated him so abom­inably. How could he pos­si­bly know Meg had feel­ings for him when ev­ery­thing she said and did seemed to say the op­po­site?

Mean­while, Lord Ed­ward doted on Harry, for­get­ting his stern ways as he bent over the lit­tle boy, tick­ling him un­til he was re­warded with a crow of laugh­ter.

Lord Ed­ward had given Ab­sa­lom’s post to Gideon so he was at Pass­ing­ham daily, yet even that didn’t sat­isfy Anna. At night Meg of­ten woke to find Anna’s bed empty, al­though she was al­ways back by morn­ing.

“Don’t worry, Meg,” Anna said. “I’m care­ful. There’s a way out through the but­tery and I al­ways wrap my cloak tightly round me so I won’t be seen.” That was bad enough, but Meg’s worst fears were con­firmed when she found Anna be­ing sick one morn­ing. Lady Sibyl’s preg­nancy was too re­cent for Meg not to know what was go­ing on.

Anna looked at her de­fi­antly.

“It doesn’t mat­ter. I love him, Meg, and Gideon has promised we’ll get mar­ried.”

But why would Gideon choose Anna when ru­mour said sev­eral rich young heiresses in the town were com­pet­ing to wed the hand­some young physi­cian?

Ly­ing wake­ful that night, Meg heard Anna get­ting ready to go out again, know­ing noth­ing she could say would stop her once her mind was made up.

How­ever, a thud and a muf­fled cry a few min­utes later sent Meg fly­ing from her bed. Peer­ing into the gloom, she saw a dark shape crum­pled at the foot of the steep stone stairs.

Anna sighed and opened eyes clouded with pain. She tried to say some­thing, swal­lowed, and tried again. Meg bent close, but Anna’s whis­pered words made no sense at all.

“Be­ware the lord’s son.” “What are you try­ing to tell me?” Meg cried, but the light had al­ready left Anna’s eyes.

Meg screamed for help, and within sec­onds Count­ess Alys was at her side. She knelt and felt for Anna’s heart­beat, shak­ing her head.

“She’s gone, Meg.”

****

Gideon didn’t find out till the fol­low­ing morn­ing. He could not seem to take it in.

“So young,” he kept say­ing. He rubbed his eyes tiredly. “Did she leave me any mes­sage?”

Meg shook her head.

“She only said four words be­fore she died: ‘Be­ware the lord’s son.’ What­ever did she mean? Could she have been talk­ing about Harry?”

“Prob­a­bly deliri­ous,” Gideon said.

Gyles came as soon as he heard the sad news. Meg’s heart leapt as she saw his fa­mil­iar fig­ure and she wanted to run to him, but she had not seen him for so long that she felt awk­ward.

Gyles, though, had no such in­hi­bi­tions. He strode up to Meg and hugged her tightly.

“I’m so sorry about Anna, Meg,” was all he said, but there was no mis­tak­ing the way he was look­ing at her.

And from the way her own heart beat madly when she saw him again, it was ob­vi­ous that she loved him, too. There was just one prob­lem. Gyles didn’t know.

If they’d been on their own Meg would have thrown her arms round his neck and kissed him, but al­ready he was draw­ing back, sud­denly aware of all the women in the room look­ing on.

The mo­ment had passed. Meg wanted to cry with frus­tra­tion. Would their time never come?

In the days that fol­lowed it was hard for Meg to be­lieve Anna was gone for ever.

It took a week be­fore she

could face pack­ing up Anna’s be­long­ings, a task she found oddly un­set­tling. The thought kept nig­gling that some­thing im­por­tant was miss­ing, but it wasn’t un­til she was smooth­ing out Anna’s favourite red dress that she fi­nally worked out what it was.

Anna had loved the dress be­cause it made the stones in Gideon’s neck­lace blaze like fire, but where was it? The neck­lace had been around Anna’s neck when Meg found her after the ac­ci­dent, but now it had dis­ap­peared.

****

The sun beat down, and the parched earth smelled of bak­ing bread. There was no breeze any­where, and tem­pers frayed, but Meg could have borne all this if it hadn’t been for the night­mares.

Ev­ery night she stayed awake as long as she could, dread­ing sleep, for it was then the night­mares stalked her, ter­ri­ble dreams so fright­en­ing she woke gasp­ing for breath and drenched in sweat.

They al­ways fol­lowed the same pat­tern. Meg was at Pass­ing­ham, some­times in the still­room, some­times Lady Sibyl’s cham­ber, but then she’d hear foot­steps com­ing to­wards her and be paral­ysed, un­able to move or open her mouth to scream for help as they came closer and closer.

Tonight, it hap­pened again. Meg awoke ter­ri­fied, her heart thud­ding painfully against her ribs.

“It’s not real. It’s not real,” she told her­self fiercely, but then a chill ran down her spine. If the foot­steps weren’t real, how come she could still hear them?

She swal­lowed hard. Some­one was on the stairs, mov­ing care­fully, the tread too heavy for a woman. It was a man who did not want to be heard.

My lady’s in dan­ger, Meg thought, her mouth dry with fear.

She pulled a cloak over her night­shift and tip­toed softly in the wake of the in­truder.

She could hear him in the so­lar. She crept to the door­way and looked through. It was lighter here as win­dows looked out to all sides, and she could see the man’s out­line.

He was tall, slim and ath­letic in build, and looked some­how fa­mil­iar. Then he re­moved the hand shield­ing the can­dle, and she saw his face il­lu­mi­nated by its flick­er­ing flame with a shock of recog­ni­tion.

It was Gideon. He turned his head in her di­rec­tion.

“Why don’t you come in, Meg?” he said. “I know you’re there.”

She hoped he wouldn’t no­tice how much she was trem­bling as she stepped into the room, but then anger took over.

“Why are you here?” she de­manded.

“Oh, come now, Meg, you’re an in­tel­li­gent girl. You know why. And Lady Sibyl and Harry will know noth­ing, I can prom­ise you that.

“So far as they’re con­cerned they will slip sweetly out of this life into the next. The drugs I put in lit­tle Harry’s teething po­tion and Lady Sibyl’s ti­sane will see to that.

“I will show them more mercy than my mother re­ceived. They burned her at the stake as a witch on a trumped-up charge fab­ri­cated by that old fox, Ab­sa­lom, to make sure

Lord Ed­ward’s il­le­git­i­mate son would never make any claims on him.

“Ab­sa­lom tried to kill me, too, but my grand­mother out­wit­ted him and sent me away, God rest her. I had no idea who I was un­til I came of age. Then I swore I would avenge my mother.”

“Be­ware the lord’s son,” Meg said softly. She won­dered how she could have missed the re­sem­blance.

Gideon had the same proud hawk-beak of a nose, and Lord Ed­ward’s eyes must once have been the same in­tense blue, though now half-hid­den be­neath his griz­zled brows.

“I didn’t kill Anna, if that’s what you’re think­ing,” Gideon con­tin­ued. “That was a com­plete ac­ci­dent, al­though I’d have had to do some­thing about her sooner or later. She knew far too much.”

“But my lady is gen­tle and sweet, and Harry’s just a baby,” Meg pleaded.

“Some­times the in­no­cent must pay for the guilty.”

Gideon opened his sur­geon’s bag and took out a nar­row cop­per rod with two sharp prongs and a small glass bot­tle filled with a vis­cous liq­uid.

“Snake’s venom,” he said with pride. “You’ve no idea how long it took me to col­lect it. And then, of course, I had to test it. The dose had to be fa­tal.”

Meg swal­lowed hard.

“The quar­ry­men’s chil­dren who died of snakebites?”

“Don’t look at me like that, Meg,” Gideon said. “What did they have to live for but a wretched ex­is­tence rid­dled with hunger and disease? I saw my­self as their saviour.”

Meg looked at him with loathing.

“You’re a mon­ster.”

How could she have been so duped? And now she would never be able to tell Gyles how much she loved him. She had no il­lu­sions that Gideon would let her live.

“Luck was on my side,” Gideon con­tin­ued. “Ab­sa­lom’s greed played right into my hands. His at­tempt to poi­son Lady Sibyl meant he got the blame for the adder in the crib, too.

“I thought I’d try sim­pler mea­sures first, but I’m not sorry it’s turned out this way. There’s a cer­tain jus­tice that it should be my hand that strikes the deadly blow.

“The only thing I re­gret is that I won’t be here to see how Lord Ed­ward re­acts when he finds his wife and child dead. He seems to have man­aged to lock his past away, but this should help re­mind him.”

Anna’s neck­lace glowed red as he dan­gled it from his long slim fingers.

“And yes, you were right, they are gar­nets. It be­longed to his mother and he gave it to mine as a love to­ken. I plan to place it around Lady Sibyl’s neck. It seems rather fit­ting, don’t you think? A gift from one dead woman to an­other.”

“You won’t get away with it,” Meg said. “All I have to do is scream and some­one will come run­ning.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure of that,” Gideon said with a nasty grin. “Do you think

I’d be stupid enough not to plan ev­ery de­tail? I’ve waited years for this.”

“What have you done?” Meg said with a feel­ing of fore­bod­ing.

“It was child’s play to spike the guards’ ale and slip a sleep­ing draught into the ti­sane I asked my lady’s at­ten­dants to sam­ple. They’ll all wake with noth­ing more than a bad headache to­mor­row, by which time I shall be far away.”

“I can’t let you do this, Gideon.”

Gideon looked at her with in­ter­est.

“But, dear Meg, how can you pos­si­bly stop me?”

Meg didn’t bother to re­ply. She seized his wrist and bit him, kick­ing his shins as hard as she could.

She had not re­alised how strong he was, or how vi­cious. Slap­ping her hard across the face and knock­ing her back against the wall, he looked at her coldly.

“Do that again, Meg, and I swear you’ll re­gret it.”

Meg strug­gled to her feet. She was go­ing to die, but while she lived she had to try to stop him. She looked around the so­lar for some­thing she could use as a weapon.

Her pre­cious lute. Her fa­ther had bought it from Italy, spend­ing far too much, but claim­ing it was worth ev­ery penny to see the joy on her face.

She rubbed tears away as she closed her hand around the lute’s smoothly pol­ished neck.

“Oh, re­ally, Meg,” Gideon said, his tone mock­ing. “I’ll have it out of your hands in a trice.”

He was an­gry now and she moved swiftly to the win­dow, strug­gling to get the latch open.

She pushed the lute through the open­ing and heard the crash of

splin­ter­ing wood and jan­gling strings as it hit the paved court­yard far be­low, set­ting dogs bark­ing and men shout­ing.

Gideon could not hide his ad­mi­ra­tion.

“Clever girl,” he said.

“Are you sure you don’t want to throw your lot in with me? Think of the life we could have to­gether.”

“I’d sooner marry a toad!”

“Well, your choice. What a pity. You do re­alise it means I’ll have to kill you?”

He dipped the prongs of the brass rod into the vial.

“In­ge­nious, isn’t it? It mim­ics the dou­ble punc­ture of the adder’s bite. Of course, such a death will be un­pleas­ant, but it will soon be over, Meg. Give my re­gards to Anna when you see her.”

As he stepped to­wards her, Meg looked wildly for a way of es­cape, but there was none.

“You should not be here, Physi­cian Perry,” a fa­mil­iar voice said. Meg sagged with re­lief.

Count­ess Alys stood be­hind him, grip­ping a lighted can­dle in a tall sil­ver holder.

“This is my do­main and I will not al­low you to harm Meg or my lady or lit­tle Harry.”

“A with­ered-up stick of a woman like you won’t stop me,” Gideon re­torted. “And why should you, any­way? He has wrecked both our lives.”

“And yet I lack the pre­sump­tion to play God. Who are we to judge who should live and who should die?”

Meg could hear feet run­ning up the stairs. Help was com­ing. Gideon heard them, too, and his face hard­ened.

“I’ll suf­fer no de­fi­ance – the door must be barred.” He seized Count­ess Alys by the arm and tried to drag her across the thresh­old, but she thrust the lighted can­dle into his face. Gideon cursed sav­agely as his hair caught fire, beat­ing it out with his hand.

The shock had made him drop the cop­per rod. Meg darted for­ward and kicked it across the room, pray­ing the en­ven­omed prongs wouldn’t scratch her skin.

Tak­ing ad­van­tage of Gideon’s mo­men­tary dis­trac­tion as he chased it, Count­ess Alys moved to stand in the door­way lead­ing to Lady Sibyl’s cham­ber.

Gideon picked up the rod, breath­ing heav­ily as he re­traced his steps to heave the bar across the door.

He ad­vanced on the count­ess, men­ac­ing her with the poi­soned rod, but she stood her ground.

The clat­ter of feet was deaf­en­ing now, but the door re­mained barred.

Meg thought rapidly.

Mov­ing as qui­etly as she could, she inched across to the door and gripped the huge wooden bar block­ing en­try with both hands. She took a deep breath and heaved.

For a mo­ment, she thought de­spair­ingly that she wasn’t strong enough. Worse still, Gideon had re­alised what she was try­ing to do. With a roar of fury, he charged across the room.

Sob­bing with fright, Meg heaved again un­til it felt like ev­ery mus­cle in her arms was crack­ing. The bar moved a few inches, stuck, and then shud­dered free.

Gideon’s hand grabbed her cloak, but Meg pulled away just as the door slammed open and

Ste­ward Robert fol­lowed by a knot of men with drawn swords erupted into the room.

Gyles charged at Gideon, knock­ing him fly­ing.

“Gyles, be care­ful!” Meg screamed. “He’s got snake venom!”

Gideon was thrown to the floor and his arms pin­ioned be­hind his back. Ste­ward Robert, grim-faced, knelt be­side him.

“Dog,” he said. “Is this how you re­pay my lord’s kind­ness? Take him away!”

Gyles’s face was full of con­tempt. He took Meg’s hand and held it gen­tly for a mo­ment.

“We’ll talk later, Meg, but Count­ess Alys needs you now.”

Count­ess Alys’s thin body was racked by con­vul­sions, but her eyes sought the ste­ward’s face.

“Fetch Ed­ward,” she whis­pered.

Robert hov­ered, un­de­cided.

“Please, she’s dy­ing,”

Meg urged.

It seemed an in­ter­minable length of time, but could only have been min­utes be­fore Lord Ed­ward burst into the room, his face dis­traught. Meg got to her feet.

“No, stay,” Lord Ed­ward said dis­tract­edly. “She may need your help.”

Meg moved to the op­po­site side of the room to give them pri­vacy.

“I knew you’d come,” Count­ess Alys said faintly, her green eyes lu­mi­nous.

Lord Ed­ward pressed her hand against his heart.

“I re­gret the choices made for us. Oh, Alys, our lives were not our own,” he said bit­terly.

“Not your fault.”

Lord Ed­ward’s eyes grew wet.

“Alys, sweet Alys, I did not de­serve to have such a love as yours.”

“Never be sorry. For I am not . . .” Her head fell against his chest.

****

The sun was low in the sky when Meg fi­nally awoke. She must have slept all day and should have felt re­freshed, but she felt rest­less and oddly dis­con­nected.

At last, Lady Sibyl sum­moned her. As soon as she saw Meg she hur­ried to­wards her, hold­ing out both hands in wel­come.

“Sweet Meg, we owe our lives to you and poor Count­ess Alys, God rest her soul.” She kissed Meg as she led her across the room. “You have a vis­i­tor. I ex­pect you can guess who. I’ve put him in my pri­vate cham­ber so you can talk undis­turbed.”

Meg tried to smooth her un­ruly hair. She was shak­ing with nerves, but this was the mo­ment she’d been wait­ing for.

She was go­ing to tell Gyles she loved him, even though she could hear Count­ess Alys’s voice in her head.

“Never tell a man you love him. Be mys­te­ri­ous, Meg, be sub­tle.”

Mys­te­ri­ous? Sub­tle? If that was what Gyles wanted, he’d have to look else­where, be­cause that was not who she was. She wanted to speak plainly of what was in her heart with­out fear.

Anna would ap­prove,

Meg thought. Life was too pre­cious – you had to grasp it in both hands.

She went in so qui­etly Gyles didn’t hear her. He stood by the stone fire­place, head bowed. “Gyles,” she said softly. She wasn’t ever sure who made the first move, but sud­denly they were in each other’s arms, kiss­ing each other as if they would never stop.

“Oh, my love,” Gyles said when they paused to draw breath. “How could I have borne it if I’d lost you?”

“But you haven’t,” Meg said, smil­ing up at him. “I’m yours if you want me.”

“Want you?” Gyles said. “I’ve been in love with you since that very first mo­ment I found you cry­ing be­hind the sta­bles.”

“But Gyles,” Meg said, look­ing up into his face. “Are you sure about this? Count­ess Alys tried and tried to teach me to be­have with deco­rum, but some­how it never worked.” She sighed. “I just can’t seem to hide how I feel.”

Gyles roared with laugh­ter.

“But that’s not what I want, Meg. Don’t ever think it. Ev­ery time we were to­gether you amazed me by how brave you were, how vul­ner­a­ble, never hid­ing your­self from me.

“That’s what I love about you. The way you refuse to pre­tend, the way you’re not afraid to be ex­actly who you are.” .

As he clasped both her hands, his hazel-brown eyes crin­kled into a smile.

“Oh, my own flame­haired Meg – feisty, im­petu­ous, lov­ing. Who wants a lady? Never doubt this, my love, not now or in the years ahead. All I want, all I’ll ever want, is you.”

The End.

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