The garrison was aglow with excitement when Henry returned. All the fort gathered behind him as he announced his decision to ride out and hunt the white hart, only Philip remaining silent. He had stayed long enough to try to dissuade his brother from following the foolish quest, but when Henry had rebuked him and threatened to have him returned to France and the shame which awaited him there, Philip and his aide had travelled south to Canterbury.
Edith did not question this. She had been a model of grace when her husband returned, her anger being held at bay by her intense fear of him. She had prepared to travel to the convent in quiet relief, almost as pleased that Alan would be joining them as she was that her husband would be leaving her there. She watched the fool thoughtfully as they travelled north into Yorkshire, and on all of the three nights they established a camp she listened to his cutting or comical stories. The Tale of Lady Elinor made it clear that he knew of Dunstan’s visit at the end of June, while Henry remained oblivious to its underlying truth.
On the night they arrived at the convent, after four days of travelling, she confronted her husband about the fool. She had journeyed in Henry’s carriage alongside her maid. Six men had ridden around the vehicle as a guard, not only to protect the inhabitants but also to dissuade her brother from making a rescue attempt. They had dined with the nuns, a modest meal, but one which Edith greatly appreciated as the first time she had sat at a table to eat since their journey started. Alan had offered to provide entertainment, but Mother Eloise had rejected this offer. Her choice of words gave Edith the confidence she needed to question Henry regarding the joker, and it was her statement which echoed in her head as Ellen prepared her for bed.
“I shall not have any words save God’s praise sung here. Even by the son of Adela.”
Edith lay above the woollen sheet and stared at the roughly plastered ceiling. Henry was undressing at the opposite side of the bed, humming a tune to himself.
“Why would Mother Eloise not allow Alan to sing?” Edith asked, never turning to face her husband as he lay down beside her.
“Alan?” he asked, confused for a moment.
“His name isn’t Alan,” he chuckled. “He has made a joke of even his name.”
“I know,” Edith whispered. “But that is what I call him.”
“How am I expected to know? I cannot understand what makes nuns do what they do.”
“Yes,” she muttered, too soft for anyone’s benefit but her own. “Chastity is not sacred to you.” She turned her head to face him. His eyes were drifting closed already and his mouth twitched in sleepy movements. “Who is Adela?”
Henry stared across at her, his eyes pulling open at the appearance of this name. “Why?”
Edith swallowed at the anger which burnt in his face, resolving to be honest for fear of her husband’s reaction if she was not. “Mother Eloise called him a son of Adela.”
“There is your answer then,” Henry snapped, turning onto his side so she could no longer see his face. “It is clearly Alan’s mother.”
The following day the members of Henry’s hunting party, which numbered ten, prepared to ride out into the forest. There had been a sighting of the stag at the nearby village of Conisbrough, and they were to pick up the trail from there. Henry did not anticipate his absence for more than three days, and Edith felt quietly pleased to have the reassurance of such an absence. She watched as her husband and his men rode out before returning to the convent.
“My child,” she heard a clipped voice from behind her as she walked towards the chapel. “There is someone who wishes to make your acquaintance.”
Edith turned to face the nun who stood behind her. Only her face was visible beneath her habit, and the eyes which stared out were stern and hard. Unsure how to address a nun and what answer was best to give, Edith only nodded, pulling her veil forward and lowering her head. The nun did not seem offended by this response and walked away from her, turning back only once to ensure Edith was following. She guided her through the building until they arrived at an open cloister. Here, she led Edith to a young nun, whose shoulders were hunched forward as she stood, leaning heavily on a stick. Edith stared in confusion and amazement, for the stick was in flower, with leaves and blossom reaching out. Edith opened her mouth to comment on this, but her guide placed a finger over her lips and Edith said nothing.
“The child of the Hall,” the hunched sister began, reaching out one of her hands. “God has shown me your face so many times.”
Edith frowned for, while the nun’s words were clearly aimed at her, she spoke them to the side of where Edith was standing.
“Sister Helena,” the first nun said. “This is Lady de Bois.” She turned back to Edith before she continued. “Sister Helena is a mystic, child. She sees through the eyes of God, but God has taken her worldly sight so she may see things beyond.”
Edith smiled slightly and nodded, before she took Sister Helena’s hand and, kneeling before her, kissed it. “Sister Helena,” she began. “If God has shown you my face, He has done so without reason. I assure you I am on the precipice of falling from His grace.”
Sister Helena helped the pregnant woman to her feet as she shook her head. “Twenty years I have waited to meet you, eighteen of those in the dark. You are closer to the Lord’s heart than you can know.”
“But I am not twenty years old,” she stammered. “And you barely look that age either.”
“He knows each hair of your head, Lady de Bois. And He preordains things we cannot understand.” She began to move forward, guided by Edith and leaning on the stick she carried. “I was charged to answer the question of your heart, though I do not fully understand the truth of the answer I was to give you.”
“God chooses to address me?” Edith whispered. “Despite my disregard of his sacraments?”
“God sees you are blameless in the events which befell you,” Sister Helena replied, stopping in front of Edith and placing her hand on the curve of the younger woman’s stomach. “I have seen the death of Lord Henry de Bois, and I do not care to imagine the horrors which await him beyond. His brother, though,” she whispered. “He is a good man.”
“Who is Adela?” Edith asked, trying to turn the conversation to a topic without her troubles at its heart.
“I have been in the care of Mother Eloise since I lost my sight nineteen years ago. I know only those who have visited here.”
Edith was not satisfied with this answer, but she was certain Sister Helena had responded truthfully. “How do you know it is God who speaks to you?” she asked as they walked on. They had entered the convent once more and Sister Helena was bowed low, struggling to stand. Edith helped her to sit on one of the stone benches which were built into the wall.
“His voice comes as a comfort,” she wheezed. “I carry such pain with me but, when He speaks, He makes it bearable. He told me the answer to your question, my child,” she whispered, grimacing as she breathed in. “Have you ears open to hearing it?”
Edith felt afraid. It was not the fear she felt at the hands of her husband, but a fear much deeper within her. It was almost an excitement. She swallowed hard and nodded, before remembering the woman before her was blind.
“Yes. I wish to hear His words.”
Sister Helena reached out, propping her unusual walking stick against the wall so that she could place a hand on each of Edith’s shoulders. “Be calm, my child,” she began, and though the voice was hers, the words and tone spoke of something far greater. “That question which burdens your heart should not concern you, for the answer cannot be no. Peace is not the realm of man, but the gift of God.”
Edith trembled, lifting her hands to her face as she felt tears forming in her eyes. She shook violently with the force of them as they spilt down her cheeks. There was only one question which had burdened her soul, and such a response was unthinkable to her. Sister Helena’s face creased as she pulled the young woman towards her.
“My child,” she whispered, running her hand over Edith’s veiled hair in a soothing gesture. “I thought this news would bring you peace.”
“I have been afraid for so long,” she sobbed. “The torment of my soul has been the question of my survival, and the question in my heart has been: Will I die as Matilda did? And now I know,” she continued, struggling to breathe. “The answer is yes.”
Helena smiled, unseen by the weeping Edith, and shook her head. “Fear does not live in the heart,” she began. “Love lives in the heart. God speaks of love, not fear. There is a greater question He has seen here.”
“Lady de Bois?”
Edith turned at the sound of her name, surprised to hear a man’s voice in this place. Alan stood at the end of the corridor and stepped forward, offering his hand down to her. As the bells on his cuff jingled, Helena gave a slight laugh.
“Ah,” she smiled across. “That is why you asked of Adela. The boy cast out by her nephew.”
“Reginald was my father,” the joker replied, but there was no malice in his voice, or even a hint of scorn. “He raised me.”
“And yet you and the Conqueror are related, and he sits on a throne for which you could one day rightfully challenge.”
Edith watched in confusion, trying to follow the course of this family. Alan shook his head and passed the stick to the crippled woman.
“You have mistaken me for someone else, Sister Helena,” he said. A gentle tone, almost appreciative, rang in his voice. “I am the jester to Henry de Bois, nothing less, but certainly nothing greater.”
“She wouldn’t take you to Flanders,” Sister Helena said, placing her hand against the harlequin chest of the joker. “She has taken Holy Orders, my child, but she is in anguish over the loss of you and your twin. Go find her.”
“No,” Alan said, kissing Helena’s hand. “She has no need to make peace with me, but peace with God.”
Edith stood back and watched as Alan turned and strode through the halls once more, his feet heavy and his bells jarring as they clunked with each step he took. There was nothing of comedy in him now, nothing of scorn or mockery, only weariness. Helena lowered her head, uncertain she should have spoken, but unable to conceal a truth God showed her. Edith helped the nun back to her cell and parted from her.
Seeking her own solitude, Edith walked out of the convent and looked at the far-reaching woodland which spread away from her. Somewhere in the endless patchwork of green, her husband sought to destroy the model of innocence, having taken her own already. Cupping her hands over her stomach she sighed and walked away from the trees. She followed the high walls of the convent, designed to keep people out as well as protect the sisters within. Occasionally, she paused to admire the array of flowers and foliage which grew wild along the paths.
Edith was bending over when she noticed a pair of feet before her. They were clad in leather-topped shoes with wooden soles and were splashed and marked with use. Leaning her head back a little, she stared into the eyes of Mother Eloise. The Mother had a sagging face which pulled her head forward, hunching her shoulders in the process but, when she spoke, her words were lively.
“I understand you spoke with Sister Helena, my child,” she began, offering Edith her hand and watching as the young woman rose to her feet and nodded. “And her words came as something of a disappointment to you.”
“I thought too greatly of my earthly life, Mother,” Edith whispered, feeling truly repentant for the fear which grew in her at the prospect of impending death. Mother Eloise clasped her hands together, and they disappeared into her voluminous sleeves. Edith walked beside her as she continued in her meditative walk around the convent gardens. “Sister Helena is remarkable.”
“Indeed,” Eloise replied. The neutrality in her voice caused Edith to frown. “We were lucky to find her. She arrived at my convent in Burgundy twenty years ago, the victim of an incurable torment. But she had a special gift. A gift from God. I could not let her go.” Mother Eloise turned to face Edith and smiled slightly. “You do not doubt her words, my child, though they bring you great fear and sorrow?”
“I wish God would talk to me,” Edith confided. “I have asked and begged Him to. Since February, I have pleaded. I felt He did not hear me. But now I know He did.”
“When Helena arrived,” Eloise said, continuing to walk while she spoke. “She was a child. Perhaps eight years old, but she did not know for sure. She was crippled already, leaning on the stick she still carries today.”
“A child of eight?” Edith asked, confused.
“It wasn’t always the size it is now. It grew with her, reaching its full length after ten years. Helena told me,” she continued, suddenly uncertain. “She said God had told her that, when she heard the stick was in bloom, He would be ready to call her into His kingdom.”
“But it is blooming now. The leaves of the oak have opened there.”
“Indeed,” Eloise said, unable to hide the sorrow in her voice. “But none have commented on it to Helena, for we’re all afraid to lose her. But is it not wrong of us to keep her here when God is ready to take her home? Are we not thinking too greatly of ourselves, and our love of Sister Helena, when she deserves peace?”
“I understand,” Edith whispered, realising Mother Eloise was trying to offer her a comfort in the fears she had regarding the revelation she had received earlier.
“Do you know when Sister Helena’s staff burst into leaf?” Eloise gave a slight smile. “I am certain you will never guess.”
“When?” Edith asked, looking at the mischievous smile on the old woman’s face. It could easily have fitted on Alan’s, but looked alien on the nun’s features.
“The day of Henry de Bois’ wedding. Your wedding.”
Edith remained silent as she tried to understand what this revelation might mean. Mother Eloise surely felt it had a significance, or she would not have spoken of it.
So many thoughts rushed through her head as she readied herself for the meal that evening. According to the custom of the order, she was to prepare herself and was expected to wait for the Mother to take her seat first. She stood now behind the seat she had been allocated. The sisters all sat on benches, but chairs had been found for the visitors. She was seated beside Mother Eloise and, when the head of the order walked in, Ellen served Edith at the long table.
“I would like some music, Joker,” Mother Eloise commanded, drawing surprise from everyone in the room, even Alan. None questioned her choice, but several heads were lowered to avoid the temptation. “You must sing us a song of Burgundy, where our convent was founded. Or tell us of Mauger, the Archbishop of Rouen.”
“You know, surely, Mother Eloise, I cannot disobey your command, but would you not rather hear of his sister-in-law, Adela? Of her child in Burgundy, perhaps.”
Edith watched on with confusion and wished she knew more of the land and people whose world she had found herself in. The Norman culture was full of words and ceremonies which left her struggling to understand. She sighed and turned her face towards Alan, who met her gaze for only a moment before he nodded to Mother Eloise and began a song, beautiful and dreamy. Edith understood none of it but loved the sleepy melody and found herself smiling at the room around her. The safety of the convent warmed her, and she thought only briefly of her husband, out in the wilds, and wished he would remain there.
She jumped back to her senses as the gut string on the instrument Alan had been playing twanged out of tune. Without meaning to, and forgetting where she was and the company in which she found herself, Edith laughed. This sound brought startled expressions from the sisters, while Eloise smiled across as Edith felt her cheeks redden. She stumbled over an apology, but Alan’s voice joined in her own with merriment. Eloise shook her head.
“I will not heed such things, my child. Is a fool’s role not to cause amusement?” She turned to Alan and smiled, the gesture sliding and becoming sorry. Her voice, too quiet for any but those around her to hear, added, “What Adela would say to see you now.”
The following day, Alan walked through the blooming gardens with Edith, who collected flowers and greenery for the convent church. She arranged them into striking mixtures of colours, explaining to Alan and the sisters who watched her how she pulled together colours from the rainbow, creating an arc of colours in each edifice of the church. Alan entertained her with tricks and juggling, pulling flowers from mid-air and spinning the ornate cups she used to house her bouquets as easily as juggling balls. The sisters were officially displeased with this, but many of them gasped and sighed when Alan caught a cup which they thought he had forgotten about.
Adela was not mentioned, nor was Henry. The past was content to remain the past and, that evening, Alan performed a three-hour rendition of the life of Christ, with sung lines and graceful movements. He wore no bells but delivered the masque in utter solemnity. Edith watched as some of the sisters became overcome with his rendition of Mary at the foot of the cross, and she turned, unwilling to reveal her own tears. Sister Helena stood in the doorway, leaning heavily on her staff and smiling. She looked at peace, more so than Edith would have believed possible for such a crooked frame. At once, the nun stumbled and grimaced, clutching her chest as she tried to breathe in. Edith pushed herself from her chair and rushed over to help her, offering a steady support to the mystic.
Alan had continued with the play, and many of the nuns had failed to notice Edith’s departure. Mother Eloise had, however, and she watched Edith and Helena with an expression Edith could not understand. Edith longed to tell Helena about her staff, to bring her the peace God had promised her, but she realised she could not. Instead, she helped Helena to her seat and, while Edith knelt on the floor beside her, they listened to the rest of Alan’s performance.
“Thank you,” Helena whispered as the play concluded. Edith took her prematurely frail hand and kissed it. “I have sought to understand the words I gave you yesterday,” she began, but stopped as Edith spoke.
“Mother Eloise helped me to see them. I bear you no ill will, Sister Helena. In truth, I am grateful. I know now what I must do.”
“I promised my brother, Robert, I would send –”
Edith jumped as Helena let go of the staff and reached out before her. “He has come, Lord,” Helena began. “The one with acorn eyes, with reeds for hair beneath the cowl of leather. He is the hunter. His bow is in bloom.”
At the clear tone of Helena’s voice, Mother Eloise and the other nuns rushed forward. Alan lingered back, listening to Helena’s words with a fire in his eyes. Edith felt both giddy and afraid, uncertain what she had said which could bring this sudden vision upon the blind nun. Helena trembled violently, and no longer seemed to have control of her own body. She grasped at Edith and wailed as though she was in pain, but her face was illuminated. Perhaps it was the light from the torch Alan held, or the peculiar moonlight outside, but the glow made Helena look heavenly.
When the miraculous apparition had left Sister Helena, Mother Eloise assisted her from the room. This outburst, barely a minute in length, left Edith only more frightened and anxious. None of the nuns considered it unusual, and Edith tried to view their acceptance as a comfort.
When she awoke the next morning, Ellen was eager to discuss the peculiar events of the night before, but the nuns were silent on the topic. Helena presented herself at the meal table and no reference was made to her vision. Alan never sat to eat with the women, and today was no different, although he returned his bells and performed several tricks. On few occasions, his words slipped once more into their sharp criticisms, but Mother Eloise would not tolerate such behaviour. Edith smiled each time her eyes opened wide, and Alan would rapidly change the direction of his jest. Although this signal was small, the appearance of such wide eyes in Eloise’s drawn, folded face made it stand out.
Edith found herself laughing and, even after leaving the table to help Sister Alice in the beekeeper’s garden, she was still humming the song Alan had been singing. She watched as the robin joined them, perching on the sticks of a holly bush, uncaring of its prickles. Edith smiled across at it, feeling she could not be torn from her happiness, nor it from her. Sister Alice showed her how to cover her face, and Edith pulled her own gossamer veil forward. When Alan entered the garden a short time later, the robin flying to rest on his sleeve, it was to this perfect image. The bees responded well to Edith’s tune and she ably helped Alice gathering honey from the comb.
As she noticed him, Edith smiled and lifted her hand, forgetting herself. The bees swirled away from the gesture, and the fool smiled across as Edith cowered from the insects and gave a foolish laugh. Sister Alice tutted before allowing herself the smallest laugh. As soon as Edith had finished helping, she lifted her skirt a little and skipped over to the fool. She pulled the veil back and smiled up at him.
“Lady de Bois,” he said jovially. “I enjoyed your dance. I intend to learn it and present it before the highest courts in the land.” He guided the robin onto his hand and held the little bird to her face. “Tell him you are well and happy, for he will not believe it when it comes from me.”
Edith smiled across and reached out her hand, but the bird hopped up Alan’s arm until it sat on his shoulder. “Why will he not come to me?” she whispered. “How do you and Dunstan have more appeal to the bird, when you both claim it is me it comes to visit?”
“Suppose,” Alan began, lifting the bird gently down from his shoulder. “If it landed on your hand, its talon might cut you. The robin has too much love in its heart, it cannot cause you pain.”
“Too much love?” Edith repeated. “I envy it.”
“Ah!” he replied, shaking his free hand so the bells there would jingle. “But his heart is punctured by the love he carries, and the blood has spilt down onto his chest. He is too sorrowful, searching always for his lost love. He is wounded by her absence and the pain of carrying it alone.”
“I am well,” she said softly, looking into its black eyes and seeing the reflection of herself there. “Tell Dunstan,” she whispered, “my heart is too full of love for him.”
Alan smiled slightly, only a hint of mockery present, before he opened his hand and the bird fluttered into the sky, disappearing over the garden wall and fading into the south. He turned, as Edith did, to the sound of a horn, and she felt the smile on her face slip.
“Lord de Bois,” the fool announced. “Let us see if he was successful.”
Edith returned the smile to her face and followed Alan to the convent’s courtyard. They entered as Henry and his men rode in. All were present, though one lay on the cart. Edith curtsied as Henry dismounted and walked over to where his wife stood. He reached his hand out to her but stopped as the joker stepped forward.
“Lord de Bois, shall we be singing of your victory over innocence for years to come? Only, forgive the eyes of a fool, but the two deer I see on your cart appear to be brown.”
Henry scowled across at the man, before his face softened and he laughed slightly.
“Oh, Fool! You should sing of this day for many years. Let it be called The Lay of Lord Giles,” Edith turned to look at the wounded man who was being carried from the vehicle. “For he came between me and the hart when my arrow was loosed.”
Edith felt her jaw drop and she stepped over to the man, seeing the broken arrow which protruded from his side. “Let me tend him, my lord,” she whispered, taking Henry’s hand.
“As you wish,” Henry replied, shaking his hand free.
Edith rushed to the unconscious man and followed as his comrades carried him into the convent, while two of the sisters opened doors and guided them through the building. The atmosphere, which had only moments earlier been light, had become oppressive and bleak. For the rest of the afternoon and long into the evening, Edith sat with Giles. She had tried to tend him and, along with the hospitaller, had done all she could. The memory of Aethelred came back to her and she wept as she worked. By the time the bell sounded to announce supper was served, Lord Giles lay still on the bed, surrounded by bloodied sheets.
“Don’t rebuke yourself, my child,” the nun said as she looked at the tear-stained face of the young woman. “We could do nothing more for him.”
Edith wiped her eyes with her clenched fists and nodded, before she followed the nun from the room. They walked towards the dining hall, pausing to wash their hands in the bucket which had been drawn from the well, before they both entered. Edith took the seat which had been saved for her, beside her husband, and offered a weak smile across at him.
“Fool!” Henry called out. “My wife is sad. Share an amusement to make her smile.”
“Alas, my lord,” the joker replied. “Tonight, I had a mind to perform for you that new song, The Lay of Lord Giles. Would she not care to hear it?”
Edith shook her head and lifted her hand to her face. The fool nodded slowly.
“Then something a little more light-hearted.”
All eyes were on the joker, even Mother Eloise’s, which held a look of disapproval while she remained silent. The joker cleared his throat and pulled his thin flute from his sleeve. He began a light, comical tune, wafting his elbows up and down like a strutting chicken, and causing his bells to ring. Edith felt the corners of her lips twitch up.
“I saw a smile, Lord de Bois,” the fool announced, pulling the flute from his lips. “It quivered, hardly daring to remain before it sank once more.”
“Good,” Henry muttered, but his face was becoming darker. “I am pleased someone has found enjoyment in this day.”
“Oh, but you speak surely of Giles, that noble knight. Do not shed tears for him, my lord. No doubt God has received him into a greater place.”
“I will not have these words spoken in such an insincere tone,” Mother Eloise said.
“Forgive me, Mother,” the joker continued, but there was nothing repentant in his tone and his eyes held a fire which showed he had only just begun on this road.
“Giles was a clumsy fool,” Henry said. “I would have had the beast if not for him. But the deer bolted as soon as Giles called out. Was it not bad enough that he got in the way of the shot? Did he have to alert the quarry before the next arrow was notched?”
“Indeed, my lord,” the fool went on. “May hell claim him for protecting the creature of innocence. Can it be he did not know that all such creatures were yours to destroy?”
“Remember your station,” Henry roared, picking up the knife which rested on the table. He turned angrily to Edith as she took his sleeve and shook her head.
“My lord,” she pleaded. “He is a fool, nothing more. Do not give him the satisfaction of seeing you so angered.”
Mother Eloise’s eyes narrowed as Henry pushed himself to his feet and pulled Edith to hers.
“You do not know what he truly is,” Henry hissed.
“Oh flower fair,” Alan sang, his tune a lament but his face lit up in a smile. “Why, when I crush you, do you not bloom again? Why, when severed from the root, do you fall frail, sick and die? And why is it by the hand of de Bois that such blight occurs?”
Edith stared at the joker as though he had gone mad, and these were the very thoughts which sped through her head. The fool trod a line which was marked by de Bois, yet he openly scorned Henry. Taking the knife from Henry’s hand, she set it back on the table once more.
“Sing a song of summer, Alan,” she commanded, taking her seat once more and watching her husband return to his. “A light-hearted song.”
The joker abandoned his satire and performed the songs his mistress requested. Several of the nuns had excused themselves and soon only the members of Henry’s cohort remained. Edith, pleased to have the entertainment before her, laughed and clapped as the fool completed his performances although, when the compline bell was rung, she excused herself and retired for the night. She heard Alan conclude his performance and hummed the tune he had been playing on his whistle as she walked back to her cell.
Ellen helped her prepare for bed and she lay back, staring at the ceiling with a mixture of sorrow and contentment. She felt her eyelids fall closed as she muttered a prayer for Giles’ soul.
She could only have been asleep for a moment when the door was pushed inward with a loud bang and her husband stamped in. He glared down at her as he closed the door and leaned against it.
“My lord?” she whispered, sitting up nervously. “My husband, what have I done to offend you?”
“It was like you were there,” he spat. “Cajoling Giles to run before the arrow, doing anything you could to rob me of my trophy. I could swear I saw you in the eyes of my prey.”
“That is perhaps because of how you view me, my lord, not how you viewed the hart.”
She watched as he moved towards the bed before she clambered up and tried to rush to the door, gripping the latch. But Henry was too quick for her, and snatched her wrist, tossing her to one side as he pressed himself against the door once more. Edith felt frightened tears form in her eyes but rose to her feet to confront the man who stalked towards her.
Outside the door, silent and unnoticed with the commotion of the events within, the fool stood. As the latch trembled, he reached forward to it and was about to enter the room but stopped as he heard a voice behind him.
“That is not your cell, son of Adela,” Sister Helena’s voice began. She was being guided through the corridor by Mother Eloise, and both stopped to confront him.
“Whatever happened that you find yourself like this?” Eloise asked. “Listening at doors and angering people with your scorn and foolery? You are a son of the throne. Of two thrones.”
“You hardly need to press your ear to have the contents of that cell performed for you, Mother,” came the cruel reply. He watched as Mother Eloise’s face darkened and Sister Helena paled. Inside, Edith’s voice could be heard, muffled and desperate, while Henry’s was angry and cruel. Their words were indiscernible.
“You were born for greater things than this,” Eloise said. There was no certainty of where the anger in her voice was targeted.
“Like Lord de Bois?” demanded the fool. “Like his bishop brother?”
“Philip de Bois is a just man,” Eloise snapped, but both she and the fool turned to look at Helena as she stumbled.
“Mother?” the younger nun asked, sounding like a child. “He must be unaware of Lady de Bois’ suffering. It cannot be allowed to continue.”
Mother Eloise nodded and guided Helena away from the door, but only after the fool had also left.
The following morning de Bois’ group gathered in the hall to share a final meal before journeying once more to the garrison. Mother Eloise frowned as Henry walked into the room, still fastening the sword belt around his waist and guiding Edith after him. Ellen followed behind her mistress, who wore the front of her veil over her face as she had done yesterday to shield herself from the bees. She took the seat beside her husband and made no effort to move the obscuring veil even when the food was brought out. Henry seemed to think nothing of this. He smiled across as the fool walked to stand before him.
“Illuminate me, Fool. Why is there such an expression of amusement on your face?”
“Is it not the joker’s role to joke, my lord?” came the reply in a tone too meek to be believed. “A fool to be a fool? As it is a lady’s role to shine. Why, then, does the fairest flower not enrich the room with her face?”
“Modesty is a virtue,” Edith answered, training her voice not to crack. “Is that not true, Mother?”
“Indeed, my child,” the old woman replied.
Edith glanced at Henry, who was eating contentedly. “Alan, please, sing a song, play a tune, an act. Anything.”
“As you wish, Lady de Bois,” Alan began and stepped backwards, before suddenly lifting his hands to his head, spreading his fingers out in an appearance of antlers. “The hunt is on, my lord. The beast, weakened and frightened, musters its strength for one final flight. The hunter draws close and pulls back his bow.”
Edith sat forward as Henry did the same, but he laughed loudly as Edith jumped when the fool stumbled backwards.
“I caught it,” Henry laughed. “I knew I had. With the second arrow, I knew I had struck it.”
Edith watched in horror as Alan lifted his bloody hand up to face the stunned nuns. Mother Eloise rose to her feet and walked over to him as the fool pointed his blood-covered finger towards Henry. Henry’s smile was complete, and his eyes sparkled.
“Enough!” Eloise snapped. The joker smiled cuttingly across at the gathered white faces, but his smile slipped as he faced Eloise.
“But is this not a cause of elation, Mother?” he began, laughing so that Edith frowned in confusion. “See, Lord de Bois has punctured not only the body but the very soul of the hart. Innocence is his. For the stag’s hide is not the only thing he has penetrated to make his own.”
Eloise clapped her hands together in his face and glowered at him. The fool shook himself as though he was awakening from a dream. “How dare you behave such a way before the sisters? Before God?”
Henry only laughed once more before addressing the nun. “We shall leave you, Mother Eloise. I shall take this vagrant from you and the sisters. I, like you, have always found him to be unforgivable.”
Eloise had turned at the sound of her name, and she scowled across at Henry. Edith was startled to see such an expression on the old nun’s face, for it spoke not only of mistrust and disappointment, but of repulsion.
“You have made him unforgivable, Lord de Bois. Were it not for the promise of your cousin’s arrival I would have had you expelled from this place.” She quickly looked at the gathered sisters. “Continue with your work, sisters.”
The nuns hurried to their chores, almost eagerly, keen to escape from the room. Their mother had a reputation for her fiery temper, and they had no wish to see this manifest once more. Edith watched as Henry silently walked from the room, followed by his men. She looked back at the fool who met her eye, regardless of the veil which separated their gaze. Eloise’s face softened as she watched this exchange before she raised her hand, holding him back from Edith.
“She is not her,” Eloise said softly. “Do not make an enemy of de Bois. He is falling so far from God. He will not stop at anything. Don’t throw your life at his feet.”
“He has owned my life these seven years, Mother Eloise. I, too, have fallen so far from God. He makes a mockery of my life as I make a mockery of de Bois.”
“She is not her, son of Adela.” Edith watched as Eloise turned to face her before she continued talking. “Lady de Bois, we would be honoured to assist you when your time comes. Sister Gwythen has delivered many children.”
“Thank you, Mother,” Edith said softly, swallowing hard. “I am afraid.”
“Lady de Bois!” her husband’s voice echoed. “We are leaving.”
“My child, you are walking a path I never trod, but you do so with God’s grace.” She stepped over to Edith and pulled back her veil to reveal her bruised face. “Bishop Philip de Bois is a good man. I shall send word to him, for his brother is unpardonable. You have the strongest and truest of allies, my child. They will see you safe in God’s care.”
Edith kissed the nun’s hand and curtsied deeply before turning to walk out of the convent.
In anger at the words the fool had brought from Mother Eloise, Henry made the fool walk the first day of the journey back to the garrison, pulled by a rope which was tied to his empty saddle. Edith journeyed beside Ellen in the carriage. Ellen was uncharacteristically quiet, for which Edith was grateful. She had too many questions circling in her head, and they made her thoughts spin and tumble, like cups in Alan’s hands. The terrible revelation that she would not survive the birth of her child caused tears to well in her eyes. Desperate not to allow them to fall, she turned her thoughts to the fool and considered the peculiar words Mother Eloise had shared with him. She peered out of the carriage window and watched thoughtfully as Alan stumbled onward. He must have felt her gaze on him, for he turned to face her, his eyes narrowing. Edith dropped back into the carriage and huddled in the corner, wrapping her arms around her. Outside, the sun shone through the trees, caressing the earth and nurturing the young plants which grew there, but Edith felt chilled by the fool’s expression and frozen by his gaze.
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