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Authors: Amanda Quick

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BOOK: Mystique
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Understanding dawned in Benedict’s eyes. “This journey to London is one of your clever stratagems, is it not, my lord?”

Hugh smiled slightly but said nothing.

“It all becomes clear now.” Benedict’s tone held a hint of awe. “You wish to demonstrate to Alice that you trust her to supervise not only Scarcliffe Keep but the manor as well. You wish to show her that you respect her abilities.”

“Aye,” Hugh said simply.

“You hope to lure her into marriage with a taste of the authority and responsibility that she will assume as your wife.”

Hugh grinned. “I perceive that you will make me a very clever assistant, Benedict. You have the right of it. I
would have Alice conclude that she will discover as much satisfaction and contentment in her duties as my wife as she will in a convent.”
And far more in my bed

“A bold scheme, sir.” Benedict’s eyes were lit with admiration. “But you had best pray that Alice does not reason out your true motives for herself. She would be furious if she thought you had deliberately ensnared her with yet another stratagem.”

Hugh was unconcerned. “I trust she will be far too busy managing affairs on the manor to give overmuch time to thinking about why I suddenly decided to travel to London.”

“Aye,” Benedict said thoughtfully. “She will relish the opportunity to take command once more. Mayhap it will even take her thoughts off her failure to hold my inheritance.”

“Your sister thrives on challenge, Benedict. I believe that the task of helping me turn Scarcliffe into a prosperous manor will
her into marriage far more effectively than a casket full of jewels.”

hree mornings later Alice stood alongside Joan and watched as a thatcher clambered up onto another roof to begin repairs.

“Only three more cottages to go and then they will all be finished,” Alice observed with satisfaction. “If we are fortunate, they will be done by the time Lord Hugh returns from London. He will be pleased.”

Joan chuckled. “To say nothing of the people who live in those cottages. Winter will soon be upon us. If Lord Hugh had not provided for the repairs, I fear some of these good folk would have faced the snow with holes in their roofs.”

“My lord would not have allowed that to happen. He takes care of his own.” Alice started off down the street to inspect the progress on the new refuse ditch. The reek of the old one decreased daily as the men worked to bury the contents beneath a thick layer of dirt.

Joan looked at her as she fell into step beside her.
“You have great faith in Lord Hugh’s intentions for this manor, do you not?”

“Aye. ‘Tis most important to him. He is a man who does not turn aside from a goal or a responsibility.” Alice gazed about at the tiny village. Already it appeared less dreary. The air of hope that clung to it gave it a healthy sheen.

The past three days had passed in a whirlwind of activity for Alice. She had leaped into the task of supervising Scarcliffe affairs the minute Hugh and his party had vanished in a cloud of dust. It had been invigorating to assume such responsibilities once more. She was good at this sort of thing.

It occurred to her that she had not experienced such a degree of cheerful enthusiasm for any project since Ralf had forced her from her home.

Hugh had given her this gift, she thought. She wondered if he had any notion of how much she valued it.

loud knock on her bedchamber door roused Alice from her sleep two nights later.

“Lady Alice,” a muffled voice called. “Lady Alice.”

Alice sat up slowly. She tried to collect her wits. They had been scattered by a strange and disturbing dream involving dark corridors and an unseen menace.

“Lady Alice.”

“One moment,” Alice called.

She pushed aside the heavy curtains that hung around the bed and reached for her night robe. She slid off the high bed and went, barefoot, across the carpet to answer the door.

She opened it a crack and saw a young maid with a candle waiting in the hall. “What is it, Lara?”

“I pray your pardon for waking you at this hour, m’lady, but there are two nuns from the village convent in the hall. They said that Prioress Joan sent them.”

Alarm swept through Alice. Something must be terribly wrong. “I’ll dress and go downstairs at once.”

“Aye, m’lady.” Lara frowned. “Best bring a cloak. I
believe they mean for you to return to the village with them.”

Alice opened the door wider. “Use your candle to light my own.”

“Aye, m’lady.” Lara moved quickly into the bedchamber.

Alice dressed swiftly. When she was ready she grabbed her heavy woolen cloak and hurried downstairs.

The two nuns waited near the cold hearth. Dunstan and his men, roused from their pallets by their arrival, stood quietly in the shadows.

The women looked toward Alice with anxious expressions.

“Prioress Joan sent us to ask if you will come to the miller’s house, my lady,” one of the women said. “Their youngest son is dreadfully ill. The healer has exhausted her remedies and does not know what else to try. The prioress hoped you might have some advice.”

Alice recalled the laughing, dark-haired little boy she had seen playing outside the miller’s door. “Of course I will come with you but I do not know what I can do. If Sister Katherine has no answers, then I doubt that I will have any.”

“Prioress Joan thought that you might have learned of some special medicine from your mother’s work.”

Alice stilled. “My mother was a very learned woman but some of her recipes are dangerous.”
Some can kill

“Prioress Joan and the healer believe that Young John is dying, my lady,” the second woman said quietly. “They say there is nothing left to lose.”

“I understand.” Alice picked up her skirts and turned to climb the tower stairs. “I will fetch my mother’s handbook of recipes and bring it with me.”

When she returned a few minutes later, Dunstan moved out of the shadows.

“I will escort you to the miller’s cottage,” he said brusquely.

“There is no need,” Alice said.

“There is every need,” Dunstan muttered. “Sir Hugh would likely hang me from the keep’s battlements if I allowed you to go out alone at night.”

• • •

short time later Alice rushed into the miller’s small cottage just as Katherine placed a cool cloth on Young John’s fevered brow.

Alice was horrified by the changes the illness had wrought in the lively boy she had seen scampering about only that morning. His eyes were closed. He lay wan and limp on top of the bedding, his small body hot to the touch. His breathing was labored and desperate. He whimpered fretfully once or twice but he seemed unaware of those who hovered anxiously around him.

“There is nothing more I can do.” Katherine rose to her feet. “He’s in God’s hands now.”

Her face was more somber than usual but there was no other sign of emotion in her features. She seemed distant, Alice thought, almost detached, a healer who knew and accepted the limits of her medicines. How different her own mother had been. Helen had never surrendered until death had claimed its victim.

Joan crossed herself.

The miller’s wife cried out with a mother’s anguish and burst into fresh tears. Her husband, a barrel-chested, kind-faced man, gathered her close and awkwardly patted her shoulder.

“There, there,” he whispered over and over again. He looked helplessly at Alice over his wife’s shoulder. His own eyes were damp. “Thank you for coming, my lady.”

“Of course,” Alice said absently. Her attention was on the small patient. She went to stand beside his pallet. Her mother’s words came back to her as she gazed down at Young John.
Determine all the symptoms before you apply the remedy

Joan spoke softly from the other side of the pallet. “I realize there is likely little to be done but I could not abandon all hope entirely until we had consulted with you.”

“I know the usual remedies for fevers of the lungs,” Alice said quietly. “As does Sister Katherine. I assume you’ve applied the appropriate ones?”

“Aye,” Katherine said stiffly. “All that I know. But this fever does not respond to medicines.”

Young John’s mother sobbed louder. The miller closed his eyes in pain.

Joan’s eyes met Alice’s. “You told me that your mother was a learned healer and that she had developed many unique potions and tonics. Do you know of anything that we can try?”

Alice tightened her grip on the leather-bound handbook she carried. “There are one or two infusions that my mother created for strange fevers that are accompanied by lung infections. But she advised great caution in their use. They may be very dangerous.”

“Can anything be more lethal than what this child faces?” Joan asked simply.

“Nay.” Alice looked down at the youngster and knew that death was even now reaching out with icy hands to claim him. “That rash on his chest—”

“What of it?” Katherine asked quickly. “Have you seen its like before?”

“Nay, but mayhap my mother did.” Alice knelt beside the pallet and felt for Young John’s pulse. It was weak and much too fast. She looked at the miller. “Tell me everything you can about this sickness. When did it come upon him, John?”

“This afternoon, m’lady,” the miller whispered. “One minute he was dashing about chasing the chickens and the next he did not even want to eat a bit of the pudding his mother had made.”

Alice opened the handbook and quickly turned the pages until she found the section on strange fevers of the lungs. She studied it for a time.
A redness of the chest. Harsh breathing. Great warmth

“My mother notes that she tended a small child with such symptoms once.” Alice turned the page, frowning.

The miller’s wife moved slightly in the circle of her husband’s arm. She wiped tears from her eyes. “Did the other child live?”

Alice looked at the woman.
You must give hope as well as medicine
, her mother had once said.
Hope is as crucial to the cure as the right herbs
. “Aye,” she said gently. “He lived.”

“Then we must try this remedy,” the woman begged. “Please, my lady.”

“We will,” Alice assured her. She turned to Katherine. “I shall give you a list of the herbs I will need. Please bring them as quickly as possible.”

The healer’s mouth tightened. “Aye, my lady.”

Alice wondered if she had offended Katherine by taking command of the situation. If so, there was nothing to be done about it. She looked at Joan. “I will need a pot and some fresh water.”

“I shall get them,” Joan said quickly.

“Set them on the fire.”

oung John’s fever broke shortly before dawn. His breathing quickly grew less labored. By the time the first light of the new day had appeared it was obvious that the child would live to chase chickens again.

The miller and his wife wept unashamedly with relief.

Alice, exhausted from the lengthy vigil, crouched beside the pallet one last time to check Young John’s pulse. She found it steady and strong.

“I think he will soon be wanting a bit of pudding,” she said quietly.

“Thank you, Lady Alice,” Joan said softly.

“Do not thank me.” Alice looked down at Young John. The boy’s color was good. His sleep appeared normal. “‘Tis my mother’s work.”

Katherine gazed at her for a long while. “Your mother must have been a very learned woman.”

“Aye. She corresponded with the wisest and most skilled herbalists in Europe. She collected their wisdom and added it to her own discoveries. And she put all that she learned into this book.”

Joan’s eyes were warm as they met Alice’s. “Such a book has no value unless it be used by one who has a talent for identifying diseases through an analysis of symptoms. Such a talent, I have discovered, is uncommon.”

Alice did not know what to say.

“Your mother would be proud of you, my lady,” Joan continued softly. “You have learned how to make use of
the knowledge she provided in that book. And tonight you used that knowledge to save this boy. ‘Tis a great gift you have received from your mother.”

Alice looked at the handbook Helen had written during the long, lonely years of her marriage.

Alice thought of how she had sometimes resented her mother’s passion for her work. There had been so many times when it had seemed to bring the melancholy Helen far more solace than her children could ever provide.

But tonight the contents of Helen’s handbook had saved a child’s life.

There was a price to be paid for such a valuable gift. Alice knew that, in her own way, she had paid part of that price. So had Benedict. Helen had paid the highest price of all.

Yet tonight a little boy lived because of it. He was not the first one to be saved because of Helen’s work, Alice reminded herself. He would not be the last.

Somewhere deep inside Alice a gentle warmth blossomed in a place that had known only resentment and sadness.

“Aye, Prioress. You are right. For some reason, I did not realize what a great inheritance my mother had left to me until now.”

Young John stirred on his pallet and opened his eyes. He looked up at his mother. “Mama? Why are there so many people here?”

His parents answered with shaky laughter and went down on their knees beside the pallet.

Alice held her mother’s handbook close to her heart.
Thank you
, she said silently.

BOOK: Mystique
5.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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