In My Lady’s Chamber
8-page murder mystery
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.
“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,”
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.”