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Authors: Janet B. Taylor

Into the Dim (27 page)

BOOK: Into the Dim
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Chapter 31

E
VERY CELL IN MY BODY TIGHTENED
.
F
OCUS
, W
ALTON
. For God's sake, focus.
Figure this out.

The clamor in my head quieted. I opened my eyes to see the calculated paths of escape forming before me in brilliant neon swoops. I discarded one after the other, until only one route remained.

Celia walked her horse over to whisper with Flint. The guards crouched near the front steps, throwing dice against the cobbles. The dice rattled as they hit the stone. The younger guard groaned and let Phoebe's reins dangle to the ground.

The bearded one chuckled. “Mine.”

“Hope, you have to believe me.” Bran's whisper brushed against, but didn't penetrate, my concentration. “I didn't know about Becket.”

My eyes caught Phoebe's, and I mouthed,
Hold on.

With one finger, I tapped the high front of my own saddle. Phoebe nodded, and her tied hands moved to grip the squared-off section.

Bran, a horrified expression tugging down his mouth, trotted over to his mother. The two of them began arguing in rapid-fire Spanish.

Slowly, discreetly, I gathered my reins and took a deep breath. “Now!” I screamed at Phoebe, who kicked her horse into motion.

The startled animal leaped toward mine. I pressed my knees into my horse's sides, turning her parallel with my friend's mount. Bending low, I snatched up Phoebe's dangling leads.

“Oy!” One of the guards yelled behind us. “Milady!”

Shouts and a crash sounded behind us. Footsteps pounded. The gate was open, but Celia savagely wrenched her horse around and moved to block our exit. I gathered Phoebe's reins and pulled her closer. “Right through,” I said.

Her clenched teeth glowed white as she nodded and hunkered over her animal's neck. Celia drew something from her sleeve. I burrowed my heels into my horse's sides.
Go. Go. Go.

Celia stood her ground. My horse tried to veer, but I held the reins taut. It was a game of chicken, and from the triumphant leer on Celia's face, I wasn't sure who'd win.

Racing at my side, Phoebe muttered a prayer. My eyes were fixed on Celia. On the knife clutched in her hand. We were on a collision course. She wasn't backing down, but neither was I.

From the corner of my eye, I saw a horse suddenly rear, forelegs flailing at the winter air. Bran's mount leapt forward, plunging into the side of his mother's beast, causing it to stumble out of our path. Moonlight flashed on steel as we surged past. Then we were out the gate and galloping down the street. I had no idea if Bran had done it on purpose or if his horse had simply gone skittish.

Doesn't matter, anyway. He's the enemy. He's a liar.

With her hands still tied, Phoebe reached up and wrenched the gag down past her chin. “Hope,” she gasped. “Those bloody bastards stole my bag.”

“What does—”

“The extra bracelet,” she cried over the pounding hoofbeats. “The one we brought for Sarah. It was inside.”

Phoebe's stricken look made my heart plummet. My mom's bracelet was gone. Without it, we didn't have enough lodestones for us all to get home.

“Jesus, Hope, what will we do?”

“I don't know,” I panted as the horse pounded beneath me. “We'll figure it out. But first—”

The thud of pursuit sounded on the muddy street behind us. I knew there was only one place we might—
might
—find refuge.

“This way.” I kneed my horse, jerking the reins to the left. “We're going to Baynard's Castle. It's our only shot.”

We raced, side by side, down one crooked lane after another. At each turn, they gained on us. Cold air that stank of fish and the dank Thames stole my breath as it rushed past my face.

“Good girl,” I called to my horse. “Keep going.”

“Bloody damn! Hope, they're coming.”

“Go,” I urged.

“Help us,” I screamed to the guards as we thundered toward the gate, playing my only card. “Sister Hectare sent for us, but there are thieves on our tail.”

The guards exchanged a look. One shrugged and stepped aside. We plunged through the gate just as the other shouted for the crew behind us to halt.

“What now?” Phoebe asked as we thundered across the courtyard to the front entrance.

“Now we pray Sister Hectare is here,” I huffed. “And that she'll help us.”

After dismounting, I quickly untied Phoebe's hands. It took every bit of breathless coaxing before the stern-faced guard at the front entrance agreed to send a servant to see if Sister Hectare was there.

He allowed us inside the entrance hall but set a pimply guard to watch us. The castle had an empty feeling. Only a few torches, set at intervals, lit the long hallway as the minutes passed.

Come on. Please be here. Please.

I heard a woman's raised voice just outside the massive front doors.

“Oh crap,” I whispered to Phoebe. “I think they got in the gate.”

“What is your business here?”

I whirled to find a wimpled servant approaching, one I'd seen in Eleanor's chambers—
Was it only yesterday?
She was scowling, which didn't bode well for us.

I assumed what I hoped was an imperious demeanor. “It's imperative that we see Sister Hectare immediately.”

The servant eyed our soiled, wrinkled gowns. “I assume that the good sister has gone with the queen to the Tower, where she and the king reside until coronation on the morrow. And even if she were here, it is late and I would not disturb her.”

Idiot.
I chastised myself.
You knew that. Even in our own time, the king or queen traditionally stays at the Tower of London the night before their coronation.

“Thank you, Wilifred.”

My knees went weak as Thomas Becket, still disheveled and out of breath, slithered out from a side door.

Where the hell did he come from?
I forced myself not to flinch. Beside me, Phoebe let out a quiet groan.

A malevolent smile played around Becket's mouth. “I'm sorry you were disturbed, good madam,” he said to the servant. “I'll see these young ladies returned to their
rightful
place.”

“Father Thomas.” Wilifred's age-spotted hand rose to her chest at the sight of the priest. Blotches of red spread across her withered cheeks, and I swear she fluttered her drooping old eyelids at him. “You know I would do anything for you. It is so nice to see a decent English face among all these . . . foreigners.”

With a last glance over her shoulder, the aged servant mounted the steps. Thomas Becket turned to us with a triumphant sneer.

Ignoring Phoebe, Becket reached forward and grasped my chin in a pinching grip. His malicious eyes bored into mine. His breath stank of old meat. “Lady Celia claims that besides being a spy for the loathsome French, you seek the stone as well. I guarantee, however, that I shall learn your secrets before this night is over.” His long fingers squashed my cheeks against my teeth so hard, I tasted blood. “You silly, stupid little girl.”

“And yet,” a vibrant voice spoke from a darkened doorway, “you seem somehow afraid of her, Thomas. Why is that?”

With a wrench, Becket released me. I spun, then sank to my knees as a round, magnificent figure glided toward us.

“Y-Your Grace,” he stuttered, bowing. “What are you doing here? I had thought you abed in the Tower.”

Eleanor of Aquitaine ignored the question. She brushed by Becket and waved a pale hand to Phoebe and me. “Get up, get up.”

Inserting herself between us and the priest, Eleanor turned to Becket. “The better question, I think,” she said, “is why are
you
here, Thomas? Henry was bellowing for you earlier. Why is it that you are not stuck to his side?”

A shadow rippled over Becket's face. He glanced over at a set of steps. From the damp, fishy smell that wafted from that direction, I thought they must lead down to the river landing, where boats could transport people quicker from one castle to another.

“I wouldn't tarry, Thomas.” Eleanor's voice stabbed at the next word. “
My
Henry is not a patient man.”

With a fierce exhalation and whirl of black robes, Becket lunged down the steps. As Eleanor watched him go, I released a breath that flapped the jewel-encrusted ribbons sewn onto the queen's sleeve.

“Hectare took to her bed earlier this evening.” Eleanor turned to us. I could see worry flit across her face before she began to ascend the steps toward the upper chambers of the castle, where Rachel and I'd been the day before. “I summoned the Jewish apothecary and his granddaughter to tend her. She . . . She is dear to me.”

Fatigue carved faint lines in the queen's face. She grasped the rail and hauled herself up.

When we didn't immediately follow, she snapped over her shoulder, “Well, come on, then. Hectare insisted the two of you would appear here this night and that I must bring you to her at once.”

Phoebe and I exchanged a look.

How?
Phoebe mouthed.

I shrugged in answer as we followed Eleanor's train up the marble steps.

Chapter 32

S
ISTER
H
ECTARE LAY BENEATH A MOUNTAIN OF FURS
, her small form dwarfed by the huge four-poster bed in a chamber that rivaled Eleanor's own. She shivered, despite the heat from two enormous copper braziers and a crackling fire in the small open fireplace, the first I'd seen in this time.

Papery eyelids closed, the little nun's cracked voice whispered for Rachel to add more coal. An elderly man brewed a pot of medicine over the fire as Rachel dumped more coal into one of the braziers. The moment we entered, Eleanor rushed to Hectare's bedside. Rachel's tired face transformed with delight at the sight of us.

I breathed in the scent of simmering herbs and camphor as we watched the queen take one gnarled hand in hers and kiss it. “The girls were below, just as you said they would be.”

Without opening her eyes, Hectare smiled. “Thank you, my child. Now, please, go back to the Tower. Your babe needs a rested mother. And you have much to do on the morrow.”

“And how many nights did you and Amaria sit at my bedside, nursing me through childhood illnesses? How many nightmares did you soothe after my father died and left my sister and me all alone? How many times did you stand at my side when everyone else in Louis's court turned on me?”

“Yes, child.” Hectare's eyes opened. She turned her head on the pillow and fixed her rheumy eyes on the queen. “But you are precious. Your name will last through the ages as a queen of legend, though there is yet great sorrow in your path. You'll bear Henry more children.
Too
many, I think,” she said with a chuckle. “Mayhap you'll want to bolt your door from time to time, eh?”

Phoebe and I exchanged a startled glance.
How could she know all those things?

Eleanor's response was cut off when Hectare's laugh morphed into an alarming cough. It racked the woman's bird-like frame. Between them, Rachel and Eleanor raised the sister up. The old man hurried to the bedside and handed the queen a pewter cup. She placed it to Hectare's cracked lips.

When she'd taken a couple of sips, her breath eased, though the map of wrinkles around her mouth remained a dusky color. “Thank you, kind physician. I wish we had more with your skills here.”

The man bowed. His clothes were plain. A clean, but patched, brown tunic. A conical yellow hat slumped on his head. As he approached, I saw Rachel's honey eyes peer out of his leathery face. “I take it you are the friends of my Rachel, yes?” He gave a quick bow, speaking in a thick accent. “I wish you good eve. I am Aaron ben Yitzhak, and I owe you my thanks for helping my granddaughter. If I may ever be of service, you have but to ask.”

Even from our place near the foot of the bed, I could hear Sister Hectare's labored breath. Without waiting for a response, Aaron hurried back to his concoctions.

“You shall not leave me.” Tears roughened Eleanor's voice. “I am your queen, and I order you to stay.”

“Sweet child,” Hectare rasped. “Even someone with your strength cannot tell God when to call His children home. And why have me moved from my own chamber? All this”—her gnarled fingers flicked toward the animal skins covering the floor, the lush pastoral tapestries, the heaps of plush pillows behind her head—“seems rather like setting an old crow into a lark's cage.”

Ignoring the comment, Eleanor settled her bulk on an embroidered chair next to the bed and swiped a hand beneath her eyes. “Nonsense. And besides, now you have room to receive your guests properly.”

The old woman's gaze shifted in our direction. “Ah, the lost lambs who are so very, very far from their own pasture.”

A fierce urge overtook me, to fall sobbing at the little nun's side and confess everything that lay so heavy on my heart. How I'd always been such a coward. How I'd disappointed my mother so many times, and how I was going to fail her yet again. How I was petrified for Collum. How I felt so small, and how badly I wanted just to forget everything and go home. A strangled sob escaped. Though I tried to stifle it, Sister Hectare's gaze lit on me.

With a gesture, Hectare drew Eleanor close and whispered in her ear for a long time. When she was finished, the queen drew back, stunned. Her head pivoted incrementally toward us, her face gone moon pale.

As the queen stared at us in wonderment, Hectare whispered, “Yes. It is as I told you, child. And we must help them return to their rightful place.”

Chapter 33

“H
OW CAN THIS BE
?” E
LEANOR WHISPERED
.

The smile that crinkled Hectare's craggy face was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen. “The sisterhood knows many things, child.”

BOOK: Into the Dim
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