Read Honor & Roses Online

Authors: Elizabeth Cole

Honor & Roses (10 page)

“Octavian,” she said, “how did you happen to meet our knights?”

“Providence,” he said. “During a battle two winters ago, I was overwhelmed by another force, and found myself trapped. I would have died…then Sir Rafe appeared on the field and took my attackers’ attention entirely away. He told me to follow his lead, and so I did. After Rafe, I met Luc and Alric. They all agreed I needed minding,” he added with a laugh. “I’ve learned as much from them as any tutor. The manner of fighting is very different in England than in Outremer,” he said, using the term he probably heard from his Norman lord.

“I hope they have not educated you
too
well. I’ve heard how some soldiers occupy their time outside of battle.”

He looked abashed. “I’m not one for gambling and…well.” He broke off, mindful he was speaking to a lady. “In any case, I’m glad I could join them on the journey west. I must find Alric tonight, to ask about the road.”

“Morning won’t do?”

“He’ll be off early,” he said. “Sir Alric has been given some errand, at the request of his lord Theobald. He’s gathering some men to join him.”

“Oh? He’s going somewhere?” If so, it would be the perfect time for her to carry out her own errand.

“Yes, my lady. A day’s work, no more,” he reassured her, mistaking the reason for her question. “Cleobury will not remain undefended.”

The defense of Cleobury didn’t worry her. But the absence of several men-at-arms would be most helpful. Eager to take advantage of this news, she bid Octavian good night. She soon found Pavia in the women’s solar, where she was embroidering a length of fabric she intended to donate to the church to be used as an altar cloth.

“Sit and be easy, child,” Pavia said, patting the seat next to her on the bench. “You look over-warm. Are you thirsty?”

“So I am,” Cecily said, gesturing for a serving girl to bring her some weak wine.

When the girl left the room, she leaned toward Pavia. “The knights and some men-at-arms are going on an excursion tomorrow. They’ll be gone most of the day.”

“An excellent time for our own excursion then,” Pavia said, her eyes sparkling with mischief.

“I hope so, but how will we get horses out of the Cleobury stables now? The men will notice so many missing. In fact, they’ll take them all for their own use.”

Pavia took a sip of wine, then said, “I will send word to Bournham tonight. There are stables by the west road. We’ll walk that far, then pay to ride. Old Ben runs that operation, and he’ll keep his mouth shut.”

“You’re certain?” Cecily said. “I know we’ve done it before, but I’d hate to see you get in trouble…”

“Me get in trouble?” Pavia laughed, the sound ringing out against the stone walls. Then she lowered her voice. “My heart, if we’re caught, you’re the one to fear the wrath of your uncle. I’ll merely be locked in our chamber for the rest of the year.”

“Don’t joke about that, Pavia,” Cecily warned.

“We don’t have to go.”

“No. We’re needed.”

Pavia smiled gently at her. “I knew you’d say so.”

* * * *

When Cecily woke, she peeked outside and saw the moon setting, leaving the sky a deep velvety blue. Dawn was about an hour off. She slid out of the bed and dressed silently.

Agnes continued to snore, so Cecily was careful not to wake her. She tapped lightly on Pavia’s shoulder.

“It’s time,” Cecily whispered.

Pavia opened her eyes. She rose and dressed quickly, throwing a lightweight cloak over her gown. “Ready!” she whispered.

The pair made their way to the kitchens, where two more women awaited them, baskets in hand.

“I brought the bundle you left in the hut, my lady,” the maid Runild said to Cecily.

“Good.” Cecily peeked under the cloth to see that all her jars and bottles were safely stowed for the journey. “We’ll need it all, most likely.”

Cecily took a large piece of bread offered by Mary, the wife of the baker. It was still warm from the ovens.

“Let’s hurry,” said Pavia. “We need to reach Bournham before dawn breaks. The horses will be ready for us.”

After getting the horses from the village stable, the four women made their way to the hamlet of Meaholt. As the light strengthened, and as they got farther from Bournham, they lost their air of hushed conspiracy, giving in to giggles and chatter.

“I was worried we’d be seen this morning,” Pavia confessed. “With the knights returned, there are so many more men about the grounds! Delightful as it is to see more strong young bodies about, I thought they might get in the way.”

“Lord Theobald is sending them somewhere today,” Cecily said, for the benefit of the others. “We’ll be back long before they return, so no one will question what we’ve done.”

“I told my husband I had to gather mushrooms,” added Mary. “I’d better look for some on the way back!”

Cecily laughed, but she did feel rather duplicitous. Only she had access to the sorts of medicines and materials the people at Meaholt needed to be well, but Theobald had to be kept unaware of her activities. He wouldn’t approve. He wanted to keep Cecily safe in a tower. He didn’t understand her need to help her own people.

Meaholt lay in a little valley at the base of three hills. The valley was still in deep shadow, though the tops of the hills were golden with sunlight. From near the top of one hill, the women could see nearly everything.

They rode down into the clutch of buildings. Everything was hushed and eerily still.

They saw no one at first. Then something moved, and Cecily saw a shrouded figure standing alone in front of the cottage. It slowly raised one arm, the clinging shroud cloth flapping in a faint breeze.

“Leave here,” the figure warned in a low, anguished wail.

Runild put a hand to her mouth. Pavia raised one eyebrow, though her grip on the horse’s bridle tightened.

“Leave here,” the moaning figure repeated.

“But we have bread and meat,” Mary said.

The ghost shucked off its shroud in an instant, revealing a boy of about twelve years. He was nearly as thin as a corpse, due to sickness and malnourishment. But his eyes were quick and bright.

“Did you say meat?” he asked eagerly.

“I did indeed. Come and break your fast, o lonely spirit.”

The boy dashed toward the group of women, his stride uneven due to a limp. “Were you not scared even a little?” he asked.

“You make a most impressive haunt, Hugh,” Cecily assured him, even as the women dismounted and began to pull food from their packs. “Rumors of Meaholt are spreading.”

“Good!” The boy took a piece of cold mutton with reverence. “We work to scare those who pass by. But better if they don’t come at all…except for you, ladies.”

By now, a dozen or more people had streamed out of the various houses to greet the women. Mary opened her sacks and the baskets to distribute bread and some more cold meat, all of which was eagerly devoured by the residents, some of whom had been near starvation when they came to Meaholt.

Mary asked the hungry eaters where her cousin Robert was, and was told he was on his way. Robert was the reason Cecily knew about Meaholt, since Mary came to her several months ago to ask for medicines she could take to him. Lepers, marked by the distinct blue robe they were required to wear, were forbidden from entering most places and were shunned by nearly everyone who saw them. It made it all but impossible for lepers to seek any ease for their pain.

Cecily looked around. The fields were mostly fallow, since no one had the means to work them, and there were only a few animals about. But she saw a woman washing clothes in the little stream running past the hamlet. An older man sat in front of the small chapel, looking as if he awaited nothing more frightening than Sunday. In all, it looked much like any other village. Only the poor repair of the structures and the delicate health of the residents revealed the truth. Meaholt had become a retreat for lepers and others struck by sickness. When they were driven out of their old homes, or when they left voluntarily, fate brought them here.

She looked back, seeing Runild offer Bertram an old shirt, saying, “Take it, please. It will fit you.”

Bertram thanked her, but almost forgot to take the shirt, since he was so busy looking at the pretty Runild.

Cecily smiled at the scene, but then kept searching for faces she knew.

“Where is Godric?” she asked one of the residents.

“He’s not well enough to leave his bed today, my lady.”

“Then I must go to him.” Cecily hurried into a nearby cottage and knelt by the bedside of the older man. It was nothing more than a pallet of dried grasses and leaves, but it was clean, and his room was open to the dry summer air his beleaguered lungs needed.

“Good morning, Godric,” she said.

“Is it?” he coughed. “I wasn’t sure I’d see it.”

She ignored his dour comment. “I’ve prepared some herbs that will help your lungs. I’ve made enough to last you a sennight. If your cough does not improve by them, I must seek a stronger remedy.”

“Or a priest,” her patient wheezed out.

“Do not say so,” she scolded. “The desire to live must remain strong in you.”

“I have not been so good a man that I feel certain of my entrance into Paradise, my lady.” He coughed again. “I shall drink all you give me. If the angels see fit to send you here among us, there must be some hope.”

Cecily smiled at him. “Of course I am here! Who lets another suffer when it can be prevented?”

The man only sighed, not up to the task of opposing such innocent certainty. He knew all too well that many people turned away from those in need. They feared that by fraternizing with the sick, who were presumed to be punished for their sins, the diseases would spread to their own families.

After Cecily tended to Goderic, she went back out to help others. At Meaholt, the sick lived together, yet apart from the world. Those who were strong enough to go out and beg did so. A few scavenged goods from nearby towns.

The sickest remained to either recover or die in peace. One house was given to those for whom death was certain. A leper was there now, half his arm rotted off. There was also a younger man who was dying of some wasting disease he said felt like burning from the inside. They stayed in their house, and food was left for them every day.

But most moved freely about Meaholt, tending to chores if they were able, or visiting with others. In many ways, Meaholt was just like any other town.

After Mary told her of the place, Cecily came to Meaholt herself, bearing food and medicine. She returned as often as she could, always bringing some herbal remedies or cast off clothing.

Her companions went throughout the hamlet, offering what aid they could. Mary saw to it that everyone was fed, and helped begin a meal for later in the day. She ordered those strong enough to gather wood for the fire, though she expressed fear that the wood supply might not last into autumn, let alone winter.

“And we cannot cut new wood or gather many more fallen branches,” she told Cecily. “Even through the poor have a right to glean what they can from the Long Forest, most of the sick cannot walk so far. I fear that an early winter would be devastating.”

Cecily knew she was right. “We need more help, but I’m afraid to bring more people here. Meaholt is best protected by others’ fear of it.”

Still worrying at the larger problem, she continued to care for the sick. She prepared a poultice for a young child with a sore on his arm. Then she brewed up medicine for Robert, who could no longer use his hands. Leprosy was a hideous disease that killed people slowly, taking first their sensation, then their limbs, and finally rendering them unable to perform even the simplest action or feel the slightest warmth or cold. In its latter stages, it was truly a living death.

Robert still had his fingers and hands, but he could barely grasp things because he could not feel them. He muttered angrily, unwilling to allow Cecily to serve him.

“You should not get so close, my lady,” he mumbled. “I can feed myself.”

“Not before you spill half of it,” she said reasonably.

She was just spooning the first of the medicine to Robert when Bertram appeared, followed by Runild.

“Look, my lady!” he called out. “To the east! Coming down the hill!”

She saw a group of riders advancing toward them at a terrifying pace. “What’s happening?” Cecily asked.

“Bandits, my lady. It must be,” Robert said. He stood, swaying uncertainly.

“Why come here?” Runild gasped. “There’s nothing to take!”

“There’s you,” Bertram said. “Perhaps they followed you here.”

  “Stay within,” ordered Robert, sounding much stronger. “Gather all your ladies here. We’ll block the doors and defend you. If the threat of my touch does not deter them, then we will stand and fight.”

“No,” Cecily said. “It’s too dangerous!”

“We all owe our lives to you, Lady Cecily,” Robert said. “Let us repay the gift.”

Then he shut the door, leaving the women in darkness.

Chapter 11

Within the house, the ladies
moved frantically about, preparing for the worst. Outside, Cecily heard the sounds of the men gathering in front of the cottage, ready to defend it. A few old and infirm people against mounted and armed bandits? There was no question as to how it would end. Cecily had to stop the fight before it began, even if it meant giving herself up as hostage.

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