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Authors: Posie Graeme-Evans

Tags: #15th Century, #England/Great Britain, #Royalty, #Fiction - Historical

The Innocent

BOOK: The Innocent
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COPYRIGHT

Copyright © 2002 by Posie Graeme-Evans

All rights reserved.

For permissions information address Atria Books, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020

1230 Avenue of the Americas

New York, NY 10020

ATRIA BOOKS is a trademark of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Visit us on the World Wide Web:

http://www.SimonSays.com

Originally published in Australia in 2002 by Simon & Schuster (Australia) Pty Limited

Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data is available.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

ISBN-10: 0743488725

ISBN-13: 978-
0743488723

To Eleanor Graeme-Evans, with all my love.

It’s a privilege to be the daughter of a writer.

Acknowledgments

I’d particularly like to thank Judith Curr, executive vice president and publisher of Atria Books, for her faith in this, my first book. What an experience to walk into her office one cold December day three years ago and come out with a three-book deal!

To Kym Swivel, my Australian editor. What a formidable, forensic eye you have—and aren’t I grateful!

To Suzanne O’Neill, my New York editor. We got there! (tyranny of distance and the vagaries of couriers notwithstanding). Thanks for your patience and determination to get this book over the line.

The next one will be easier.

To Susan Vass, and her husband Phaedon, friends and colleagues. Susan, you read the manuscript—much to my surprise! I didn’t know you’d seen it—but then you kindly sent it on to Judith Curr, and the rest is, literally, history. This book is in print because of you.

To Jon Attenborough, Julia Collingwood, Camilla Dorsch, Clare Wallace, and Jody Lee, Simon & Schuster Australia. Thank you for your patience and kindness to this first-time author. I’ve had a lot of fun stepping from my mad industry into yours, and your help and support has made it so much easier than it might have been.

To Debbie McInnes, publicist extraordinaire. What a lot of fun I had talking to the press in Australia with your help and guidance. If The Innocent was a success in Oz, so much had to do with your canny placement and peerless contacts.

To Emeritus Professor Ralph Elliott, A.M. Scholar, teacher, friend. You opened a door into the medieval world for me when I was a callow nineteen-year-old. It’s never closed. I am so grateful to have met you.

To Rick Raftos—colleague and friend. Thanks for allowing Rachel to take me by the hand and lead me into the maze of the literary world. You don’t know what you’ve both started!

To my dear agent and mate, Rachel Skinner. We slaughtered many bottles of champagne in the service of this book. How on earth have you had the patience to stick with me, and it, this long? Bless you.

To all my kids—thank you for bearing with my obsession with history. At least it makes you laugh!

To my mother—Eleanor Graeme-Evans. You gave me the genes. Would love to know who passed them on to you!

And, finally, to my husband Andrew Blaxland. Thank you. And all my love.

Prelude

That winter had bitten down hard and early, the ground almost ringing as the horses stumbled against frozen clods on the track leading to the forest.

It was late afternoon and great clouds, bellies heavy with snow, were building into the west, crowding out the last light of the day. The wind was rising, too, and the man on the big roan horse was anxious.

His exhausted animal stumbled again, and as he jerked its head up with a curse his eyes scanned the face of the darkening forest. This was not a good place to stop, too exposed, but he had no choice; he would have to wait for the messenger.

Behind him the small party of mounted men came to a ragged halt around the curtained wagon; military discipline still held them, but each face, and the state of their animals, told the same story. This had been a long, cold journey.

As the wagon lurched to a stop, a woman’s white face appeared cautiously between the worn leather curtains: a strongly defined nose, prominent cheekbones, not beautiful but handsome, somewhere in her thirties. Clambering down onto the frozen ground, she quickly covered nose and mouth with a red gauze veil—one note of color in a white and black world. Dark was falling fast and the wind had turned to the east. Trying not to run, she hurried toward the man scanning the forest in front of them, shivering convulsively as the cold cut to her skin even through her fur-lined cloak.

The horse and rider loomed above but the captain ignored her. “Sir!” She spoke sharply, half panting from…what was it? Fear. Wearily the man looked down and the woman’s words dried in her mouth as the hard eyes stared into hers. His insolence gave her courage. “Sir…the baby. My mistress needs a proper bed to give the child—”

“What, madam? Give it life? Better it dies now—her too.”

As he spoke there was a shout from the soldiers around the wagon, and they both heard, rather than saw, the horse and rider coming at a gallop out of the forest. The captain called strongly, “Here, Peter, to me! Here! What did they say to you?”

Even angry as she was, Jehanne muttered, “Thanks be, Our Lady,” as she hurried back through the gloom to the wagon. Now perhaps they might move on and make the hunting lodge while there was still time.

Her lips thinned as she clambered back into the wagon. That great oaf needn’t think she was going to forget any of this. No, indeed—she was going to remember everything, from the cushions that had long since lost their stuffing, to the bearskin rugs that were old, foul with dust, and nearly hairless. And not even a proper escort! Just let them get this child safely born and then she would see that look wiped off his sneering face!

“Where are you, sweeting? We’ll be on our way again soon…don’t you fear.” Jehanne reached out in the darkness for her mistress, keeping up a steady stream of bright chatter as the heavy vehicle lurched on again. “There now, where’s that head of yours, just let me feel it. Has the headache left you?”

Poor child. All her adult life Jehanne had helped birth babies, but this one had felt wrong from the first pains brought on by the dreadful journey. Of course, she knew that very young first-time mothers often suffered greatly, but given the circumstances, and the danger, panic began to clamp her throat. The girl’s flesh felt cold but her pulse had a fluttering speed that scared Jehanne profoundly. Suddenly the swollen shape in the dark, Alyce’s body, convulsed and she screamed sharply.

“Ah come, mistress, lean on me,” Jehanne soothed. If only they would give her a lantern, if only the journey would end, but the wagon swayed and bucked on down the forest road, behind its four stoic bullocks.

The captain heard the girl scream again as he led his party deeper and deeper into the forest on their thankless errand. He hardened his heart. His business and that of his men was to bring the girl and her woman to their destination safely—and to do that he had to find speed or they would all be caught in the forest this night; fine work for a man of his background and experience.

And that was his last thought as the arrow cut through his chest and into his heart, which exploded.

Carried by the force, his body dropped off the stallion and the horse, spooked by the sudden smell of blood, plunged riderless into the darkness between the trees. The five soldiers in the party scattered, trying to find shelter from the arrows raining down from the men in the branches above.

There was no time for thought. Jehanne heard the screams of men and horses, felt the wagon pitch to a stop. Acting by instinct, she bundled the large fur rug around her barely conscious mistress and found the strength to pull Alyce out of the back of the wagon and push them both at a stumbling run into the forest.

Behind her, the soldiers had rallied, giving Jehanne precious seconds to drag the semidelirious girl away from the carnage and into the cold dark between the trees.

As she half carried Alyce deeper and deeper into the forest, away from the noise and terror, Jehanne forced herself to think, think hard. If they were to survive, never mind the child, they had to hide, very fast. The soldiers might be able to hold off the attackers for a while, and in the confusion, maybe they had made their escape undetected, but at the back of her mind Jehanne heard a voice saying, very clearly: It’s the baby they want. They’ll not care who dies.

Sudden shouting began again: the attackers had discovered the wagon was empty. She’d have to make Alyce run now, really run, and Lady Mary help them.

It was then she felt the hand of God, for at the moment she uttered her prayer, Jehanne heard the jingle of a bit, and turned to see the captain’s horse nervously cropping forage two paces away. Sobbing with relief, she eased Alyce to the ground as gently as she could and, heart in throat, stretched her hand to the dangling reins of the destrier. The horse balked and threw his head up, but Jehanne had found the leather and hung on desperately, whispering all the while, “Gentle, gentle.”

Frantic with terror, she heard men blundering closer through the trees, calling out to each other, as she dragged the horse to the girl and forced Alyce up into the saddle. She scrambled up behind and, with one foot in a stirrup and her kirtle up around her thighs, kicked the stallion on with a great jolting thump in the ribs. Startled, the horse leaped forward, nearly unseating them both as it ran blindly into the trees.

It was a wild ride—branches ripped past their faces, nearly sweeping both women off the animal’s back—but somehow Jehanne held on to the horse and the girl as she tried to guide the animal. The stallion plunged on and then, under the animal’s labored breathing, the thudding hooves, the men’s voices disappeared. They were alone, careering through the darkness of the wild wood.

Jehanne let the horse run for a time to be sure they’d lost their pursuers, and then with all her strength, she hauled on the stallion’s mouth to slow him. This was a destrier, however, a knight’s horse, seventeen hands high with great solid legs, hooves like buckets, and a back built for carrying an armored man. He hardly felt the hands tugging so desperately at the bit as he settled into a lumbering gallop on an overgrown trail through the trees.

In front of Jehanne, Alyce groaned deeply as she felt the gush and splash of liquid flood out of her body—her waters had broken. The horse smelled the blood and panicked: putting his head down, he flew faster and faster over the broken ground. Jehanne knew the only way she could stop the horse was to turn him in a tight circle—a mad thing to try, racing between such massive trunks. With no time for conscious thought, she yanked down hard on the left rein with all her strength as the girl screamed and screamed again.

Unnerved by the noise, the horse broke his stride and stumbled. It was enough. Once more Jehanne wrenched the rein, savagely cutting the horse’s mouth with the bit, and the stallion faltered around to the left, just missing a huge down-hanging branch. Now Jehanne dragged at both reins together and, arms screaming with the effort, forced the frightened animal to halt.

BOOK: The Innocent
12.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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