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A Deadly Penance

Maureen Ash

Prologue

Lincolns hire-January 1177

The air in the convent chamber was close, and redolent with the scent of purifying herbs. Outside, the stormy weather of the past few days had calmed, but it was still cold, and the casements were shuttered against the chill. The single source of warmth was from the burning embers of a brazier set in one corner.

Shadows danced and flickered from the light of candles set in sconces around the walls as the young woman sitting on the horseshoe-shaped rim of the birthing stool strained against the pain that had engulfed her for the last fourteen hours. Her long tangled braid of pale brown hair was darkened with perspiration, as was the thin shift she wore. Behind her stood a young and sturdy nun who provided a bulwark for the woman to lean against in the throes of her exertions. In front of the stool, crouching at the woman’s feet, was an older nun, the infirmarian of the convent, who was massaging the swollen mass of the mother’s belly with sweet oil of lavender and murmuring words of encouragement. The woman could feel her strength coming to an end. The room was beginning to swim in and out of her vision and she knew it for an incipient warning of unconsciousness. Against the incoming tide of darkness, she could hear the infirmarian’s soft voice urging her on. “Just one more try,” she said gently. “The babe is nearly here.” With what she knew would be her last effort, the woman did as she was bid and, to her relief, the child, with an angry howl of protest, slipped from her womb.

With deft hands, the infirmarian cut and tied the natal cord and wrapped the infant in a length of clean linen. Handing the swaddled bundle to the sister who had stood behind the birthing chair, she signalled for her to take the babe from the room. Then she bent to attend to the afterbirth.

“It is a boy,” she murmured as she helped the exhausted mother up from the stool and eased her onto a nearby pallet, “and he appears healthy. I have instructed that he be placed into the charge of a wet nurse, as arranged.”

The woman nodded. She had seen the gender of the child as he emerged and also the fuzzy growth of down that, moistened by birth fluids, lay like a cap of molten gold on his head. She did not make any protest at his removal. As the infirmarian had said, it had been agreed. And she was exhausted. Her bones felt as though they had no substance and were incapable of sustaining even the slightest movement. All that consumed her now was a desire to sink into the oblivion of sleep.

The woman closed her eyes as the nun, with a cloth dipped in warm water, cleansed her body of the detritus left by the birthing. It was imperative that she regain her strength for the trials that lay ahead. Tears trickled down her cheeks as she thought of them, for she had no doubt they would be even more daunting than the long months of her confinement. She would need all her wits about her if she was to survive.

The infirmarian, her task finished, quietly left the room. Outside, the sister who had taken the babe away returned, her arms empty and her hands folded inside the black sleeves of her habit.

“She will sleep now,” the senior nun said as she removed the capacious apron she had worn to protect her clothing. “I will leave her in your care while I attend to my duties in the infirmary. Sit with her until she awakens and then give her a bowl of hearty meat broth and a cup of ale. Encourage her to take as much of both as she can. She is very weak and her spirits are low; nourishment will help restore her vitality.”

“Is it certain she does not want to see the babe?” the other sister asked, her young face creased into lines of sympathy for the suffering the woman had endured. “Mayhap she will change her mind now that he is born.”

The infirmarian shook her head firmly, her countenance regretful. “No, I doubt she will rescind her decision. Soon, the boy will be given into the care of another, one who will see to his future welfare.” She gave a little sigh. “We must offer up prayers that the child has not inherited the morals of the man who sired him. If he has, I fear his life will be naught but a travail of sorrow.”

One

Lincoln castle-Late February 1203

Lincoln castle stands high upon a knoll overlooking the rolling Lincolnshire countryside. Within the castle’s large bail are two keeps, one a recently built fortress that is the main residence of the hereditary castellan, Nicolaa de la Haye, and her husband, Gerard Camville, and the other an older tower where the bottom floor is used as an armoury and the chambers above for the accommodation of visitors. Now, within the early darkness of a winter evening, the old tower was uninhabited except for a room on the top storey where a man and a woman lay languorously entwined after a brief but passionate session of lovemaking.

The woman, oblivious to the hardness of the floor on which she was lying, snuggled close into the shoulder of her companion, relishing the masculinity of his smell and the silkiness of his short beard. Solicitously, he kissed her tenderly and covered her with the cloak he had discarded so hastily a short time before.

“We will have to leave soon, my sweet,” he said, fondling one of her thick auburn plaits. “Your husband may return at any time.”

“If he does, he will go to the guest chamber below. He will not come up here,” she replied petulantly. Their tryst had been far too short and she did not want it to end.

“And how will you explain your absence?” her lover asked in amusement.

“I will tell him I went out for a breath of cool air to relieve the headache I am supposed to have.”

The man gave a chuckle. “I admit he is gullible, but I doubt that even he would believe such cold weather would serve as a remedy. No, you had best go now, before he decides to retire.”

Reluctantly, she rose and started to straighten her clothing. As her lover began to pull up his hose, a slight noise came from the passageway outside. The man quickly doused the small rush light burning in a corner. “Hush,” he warned her, and crept stealthily to the door.

He waited in silence for a few moments before deciding there was no cause for alarm. “Hurry,” he said to the woman as he pushed the door open. “Go down and get into bed. I will wait at the top of the stairs to ensure you get to your room safely.”

Swathing herself in the expensive fur-lined cloak she had been wearing when she entered the room, the woman did as she was bid, pausing only to give him a quick kiss before stepping through the door. The small landing beyond was shrouded in inky blackness and the man grasped her arm to steady her until her foot found the top step of the circular staircase. As she slowly descended, he held his breath and listened until she reached the lower floor and he heard the sound of the guest chamber door opening and then closing behind her.

He stood motionless for a moment, listening. He was certain he had heard a noise earlier but now all was quiet. On the other side of the landing was a small basin with a tap fed by water collected in a tank on the roof. An occasional drip from the faucet was all that broke the silence. Deciding he must have been mistaken, he turned to make his own descent to the lower floor when he heard a voice softly call his name. Startled, he turned in the direction of the sound, which seemed to be coming from an archway a few steps above the landing. He knew that the door within the arch gave access to a wooden catwalk spanning the gap between the top of the tower and the ramparts. Why would someone be standing up there? It led nowhere except out onto the parapet. And why would they have opened the door, which had earlier been closed, to let in the cold night air that was now sweeping around him in icy gusts?

As far as he was aware, no one had known of his intent to meet his lover. Could it be that one of the guards on the palisade had detected their presence and come to investigate? But if that was so, surely any of the men-at- arms would have issued a more forthright challenge. A thrill of dread ran through him as he wondered if it could be the woman’s husband, but a moment’s reflection dismissed the notion from his mind. He and his paramour had been most discreet in their meetings and he was certain that her spouse had no inkling of their liaison. And if, by

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