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Authors: Candice Proctor

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The Last Knight

BOOK: The Last Knight
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PRAISE FOR CANDICE PROCTOR

“There is great power in her writing and strong characterization; masterful storytelling and sensuality all add spice to her inborn talent.”

—Romantic Times

“Candice Proctor is going to knock your socks off.”

—Catherine Coulter

“A unique and welcome new voice in the romance genre. I, for one, am adding Candice Proctor to my ‘buy’ list.”

—CompuServe Romance Reviews

“Proctor's vivid characters and elegant style will grab the reader's imagination.”

—The Literary Times

SEPTEMBER MOON

“Power and passion are the hallmarks of this extraordinary writer. Candice Proctor's prose envelops you.… Ms. Proctor [is] a writer totreasure.”

—Romantic Times

“Ms. Proctor's wonderful combination of passion, the drama of nature, sensuality, and humor leave the reader anxiously awaiting her next book.”

—Rendezvous

THE BEQUEST

“Ms. Proctor definitely shows her talent for writing.”

—Rendezvous

“With
The Bequest
she helps to cement her place as an exciting, strong new voice in the genre, a true star on the horizon.”

—Romantic Times

NIGHT IN EDEN

“Proctor truly touches the heart.”

—Atlanta Journal-Constitution

By Candice Proctor
Published by The Ballantine Publishing Group
NIGHT IN EDEN
THE BEQUEST
SEPTEMBER MOON
THE LAST KNIGHT
Book publisher by The Ballantine Publishing Group are available at quantity discounts on bulk purchases for permium, education, fund-raising, and special sales use. For details, please call 1-800-733-3000

For my father, the late Raymond L. Proctor, soldier, historian, and storyteller par excellence, who once taught a little girl to love castles and knights and the power of words.

CHAPTER
ONE

Châteauhaut-sur-Vilaine, eastern Brittany, 1189
The two white candles on the altar filled the night with a golden, flickering light that shimmered over the painted walls and high vaulted ceiling of the empty chapel. Letting go a quiet sigh of relief, Attica d'Alérion dipped her fingertips in the carved stone font of holy water near the door and went to the rail.
She was glad to find the chapel deserted. In the four months that had passed since her betrothal brought her here to the household of the viscomte and viscomtesse de Salers, the chapel had become a place of refuge. The chapel and the battlements.
Sometimes, when storm clouds bunched low and threatening in the sky, when lightning split the darkness and the wind blew fierce and wild, Attica would climb to the battlements of Châteauhaut's new stone keep and let the wind whip at her hair and batter her face until she felt as if the savage night had stolen the very breath from her body. She would be filled with such an exhilaration, such a reckless excitement, such nameless, soul-deep yearnings that the sensation both stirred and frightened her. She didn't allow herself to go there often.
And so she had come here tonight, to the chapel, where she found not wild temptation but peace. Kneeling before the ornate altar with its carved and gilded front, she made the sign of the cross and bowed her head to say a Credo.
She prayed for the easy passing of the Parisian courtier who lay dying in the guest chamber beside the chapel. She sought God's protection for her brother serving as a household knight with the beleaguered English king, Henry II, as he prepared for the peace conference at La Ferté-Bernard. She asked a blessing for her father, old and spending most of his time now in his favorite hunting lodges in Normandy. As an afterthought, she added her mother's name, although she squirmed when she did it, the glazed tiles of the floor feeling cold and hard through the fine wool of her skirt.
Again she hesitated, her gaze lifting to the white plastered eastern wall behind the altar. This was the only section of the chapel yet to be painted. Yvette—the viscomtesse de Salers—was still arguing with the monk from Pierreforte l’abbaye about the subject to be depicted. The good brother thought this section of the chapel should portray the Last Judgment, except that Yvette had a pronounced aversion to the Last Judgment and wanted God Triumphant in Heaven. Privately, Attica agreed with the brother, but she'd had enough sense to keep her mouth shut. Not only could Yvette be vindictive, but she had a long memory. And in one short month Attica would be marrying Yvette's son, a thirteen-year-old boy nicknamed Fulk the Fat.
Attica felt a welling of complex, unwanted emotions at the thought of the wedding day looming before her. Fulk was six years younger than she and sadly inclined to sulk.
He particularly resented the fact that the top of his head didn't even come up to Attica's chin—something he believed was more her fault than his, for she was far too tall and thin for a woman. She hoped he would grow. Quickly.
The melted wax around the wick of one of the candles hissed, filling the air with the scent of hot beeswax and sending up a spiral of dark smoke. Ducking her head, she begged God's forgiveness for her wayward and rebellious nature and asked a blessing for the house of Salers. She saw no need to particularize.
Her duty fulfilled, Attica closed her eyes and let the peace of this place wash over her. Her breathing slowed until it seemed as if the peace became a pulsing thing, as if her heart were beating in harmony with the universe, as if she could feel—
“Ahem.”
The harsh and decidedly artificial sound of someone clearing his throat behind her shattered the moment of quiet rapture. Attica's head whipped around. “Oh, Fulk.” She schooled her features into a gentle smile. “You startled me.”
He stood just inside the doorway in a halo of light thrown by one of the cressets, a fleshy, pale-faced boy wearing crimson silk and purple brocade and an accusatory pout. “You didn't come down to supper because you said you needed to tend that Parisian courtier. So why are you here instead?” He pulled a piece of linen from his sleeve and blew his nose. “It's cold in here.”
The walls of the chapel suddenly seemed to press in on her, smothering her. She sucked in a quick breath scented with cold damp stone and the memory of old incense, and pushed to her feet. “Your cousin offered to relieve me while I came to pray,” said Attica, who by that time had
been sitting with the ailing Parisian courtier for the better part of twelve hours. “I should get back now.”
She expected him to go away then, for Yvette refused to enter any sickroom and something of her heightened fear of death and illness had rubbed off on Fulk. But he followed Attica to the door of the guest chamber and stayed there, shifting anxiously from one foot to the other, his fascinated gaze riveted on the long-boned, dark-haired man lying naked and still as death in the big, silk-hung bed.
His name was Olivier de Harcourt, and he was an intimate of the French king Philip II, which is why Yvette hadn't dared hustle him out of her castle the way she would have done with any lesser mortal who collapsed screaming and clutching his belly in her hall. No one could agree on exactly what was wrong with the man, for as his fever climbed, his abdomen swelled up hard and became horribly painful, and he could keep nothing down. The chamberlain said Olivier had obviously swallowed a devil and it was festering in his belly. But the cook said it was putrefaction of the intestines, that he'd seen it before and it had nothing to do with what the man had eaten.
A slim blond girl of twelve had been sitting on a low stool beside the courtier, her elbows on her knees, her chin in her hands. At the sight of Attica she jumped up so fast, the stool went skidding across the rush-strewn floor. “Oh, thank goodness.”
“Is he worse?” Attica asked, crossing quickly to the bed. The flickering light of the torches shone over the man's sunken, sweat-slicked face. If it weren't for the shuddering rise and fall of his chest, she'd have thought him dead.
“He's in a faint now,” said the girl, “but he is worse, I think. He's so hot, and he seems to be wandering in his mind. He kept asking for a breviary. Only when I sent one
of the pages to fetch mine, thinking it might comfort him, he wanted nothing to do with it.”
“Did he take any of the tea I asked to be sent up?”
The girl nodded, a lock of her fine hair falling over her shoulder. “Some. But he threw it up again.”
Attica sighed. The sour stench of vomit was still there, beneath the sweet, lingering scent of the herbs they'd been using to try to bring down his fever. Angelica root and pennyroyal, hissop and yarrow, elderflower and lavender— she had tried them all without success. “It's getting late,” she said, taking the girl's seat on the stool. “I'll sit with him again. You should go.”
The girl clasped her hands together, her flat chest lifting with a quickly indrawn breath. “I'll stay, if you like.”
Attica shook her head and gave the girl a thankful smile. “No. Go on.” Turning away, she dipped a cloth into the nearby basin of lukewarm water and began gently to sponge the man's hot face and thin chest. He was a young man, and handsome in an effete, pale-skinned way. But now his flesh had taken on a grayish tinge, and sweat glistened in the darkly curling hair that covered his thin arms and legs and chest. Attica might not know what was wrong with him, but she had seen enough men close to death to be fairly certain that this one would not live out the night. Already they had had Yvette's chaplain in to give him the last rites.
“Will he die?” Fulk asked, creeping a few steps closer.
“Probably.” She didn't look up.
Sullen with resentment at being ignored, the boy began to wander about the edges of the room, fiddling with the buckles on Olivier de Harcourt's leather saddlebags, pushing out his lower lip as he studied the Parisian courtier's fine clothes, his surcoat of deep blue velvet and tunic of
fine green wool, his heavy gold neck chain and jeweled belt and dagger.
“Does everyone wear such fine dress at the royal court, do you think?”
Attica paused in her ceaseless sponging to glance at him over her shoulder. “At Philip's court, yes. The English king is a plainer man. I hear Henry likes to wear huntsman's clothes.”
“Then I should prefer to go to the French court, I think.”
Attica only grunted, for she'd seen the man's lids flutter. Suddenly he reared up, his glazed eyes staring wildly, his chest heaving as he struggled to throw his legs out of bed.
“Lie still,” she said soothingly, pressing her hands against his clammy shoulders.
His fist shot out, clipping her chin painfully. Attica threw herself across the man's chest to keep him from lunging off the bed. “Fulk! Help me hold him.”
Fulk's small eyes went wide in his puffy face as he backed toward the door. “I don't think Mother would wish it,” he said, and bolted from the room.
“
Fulk

“Let me up, you stupid cow,” the man snarled, his dry, crackled lips pulling away from his teeth, his thin, sweat-slicked chest shuddering with effort. “I must get there,
I must

He would have hit her again, but Attica jerked her head back out of the way as she tightened her grip on his shoulders and straightened her elbows, holding him down. “
Please
rest easy. You're there, you're there,” she said, although she had no idea where he wanted to be.
The man stilled abruptly, his jaw going slack with surprise as he stared up at her. “I'm there?”
“Yes, yes.”
He sagged back against the pillows, his feverish gaze searching the shadowy corners of the chamber. “Where is John?”
“John?” she repeated, her voice coming out hollow. Stooping, she picked up the cloth from where it had fallen, dipped it into the water, and began to sponge the man's hot chest and arms again. “Do you mean John Lackland?”
The courtier's face hardened, his shoulders curling off the pillows again as his hand flashed out to catch her wrist in a surprisingly strong grasp. “You said I was there.”
“Yes,” she lied, using her free hand to press him down again, “you're there.”
The man relaxed his grip on her. “I must see him. Must tell him”— his throat worked as he swallowed, trying to ease the fever-seared tissues— “tell him about the conference at La Ferté-Bernard.”
In the act of squeezing the cloth over the basin, Attica froze. They would be meeting at La Ferté-Bernard in only a few days, the English king Henry II and the French king Philip, joined in alliance with Henry's son Richard. She knew this because her own brother Stephen would be there as one of Henry's household knights.
“John has gone to one of his hunting lodges,” she said, dropping the cloth to scoot her stool closer to the bed and lean into him until her face was only inches from his. “Tell me. Tell me about the conference.”
The man's features contorted with a flare of pain. “It will come to naught.”
He paused, his chest lifting with another ragged breath, and Attica had to tighten her hands into fists to curb her impatience. “You mean the conference?” she prodded. “Why should it come to naught?”
“Philip and Richard …” His head moved restlessly
against the pillow, as if seeking coolness. Attica reached to dip the cloth in fresh water again and pressed it to his forehead. He sighed, his lids drooping. “They do not mean to negotiate. Only buying time … shut up the pope and his damned legates.”
His eyes closed, his head going slack as if he'd fallen back into a faint. Attica seized him by the shoulders and shook him ruthlessly. “Tell me. Tell me about the conference at La Ferté-Bernard. About Richard and Philip.”
His eyes fluttered open, looking at her in bewilderment. Attica licked her dry lips. “Tell me,” she said again. “Tell me what Richard and Philip plan for the conference.”
The dark eyes focused. “They bring their armies with them. When the conference collapses, they'll attack.”
“Attack?” Attica let her hands fall to her lap. “What do you mean?”
The edges of the man's lips twisted as if in a smile. “Catch Henry by surprise. Capture him. Force him to agree to their terms.” His face quivered with a fresh spasm of pain as he struggled to push the words out. “You know about the Saintly Guido? About the seventh note?”
“What?”
The torch beside the bed sputtered, sending up a flare of golden light that gleamed on the man's sweat-sheened face. With a soft moan, he slid into a faint again. This time Attica let him go.
She sat motionless on the stool, her clasped hands clenched between her knees. “Oh, Stephen,” she whispered in dismay.
He was her only surviving brother, Stephen, and she loved him with a fierceness she felt for no one else. He had been consecrated as a child to God, but then their elder brother died and Stephen had found himself yanked from
his monastery and taught to be a knight. He made a good knight, Attica thought, even if his heart had never been in it, even if he still yearned to be back in the monastery serving God. A knight like Stephen would give up his life to defend his liege lord. Which meant that if Richard and Philip attacked Henry at La Ferté-Bernard, if they tried to capture him, Stephen could be killed.
Attica felt her stomach twist with fear. Someone would have to be sent to La Ferté-Bernard to warn Henry. She started to push up off the stool, to run for help, only to sink down again, her hands clutching her elbows to her sides, her body rocking back and forth with indecision. For she had no one to run to except Yvette—Yvette and her handsome but ineffectual husband, Gaspard. And Attica did not trust Yvette.
She couldn't say when the suspicion had arisen; she had barely even acknowledged it before now. But there had been too many slight inconsistencies, too many questions raised and not satisfactorily answered, too many conversations halted abruptly when Attica unexpectedly entered a room. All subtle, all perhaps explainable. But she couldn't risk Stephen's life by going to someone she could not trust.
Attica hugged herself, feeling her aloneness like a chill that went bone deep. She was so many miles from home, so far from family and friends, so far from everyone she knew and trusted. She had no one to whom she could turn.
On the bed beside her, Olivier de Harcourt groaned, moving restlessly to throw off the covers. Heat roiled up from his burning, bloated body, and she moved quickly to take up the cloth again and sponge him.
She worked for hours, bathing his hot body, coaxing him to take sips of herbal infusions, holding the basin as he retched and heaved. The long night wrapped itself around
BOOK: The Last Knight
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