The air in the great hall was acrid, there was too much green wood on the fire.
Trestle tables were piled against the wall, ready to be brought out for dinner. Several of his sergeants lounged, playing dice; the hunting dogs whined and grizzled in the straw. He glanced up at the heraldic shields above the great doors, symbols of his proud Burgundian ancestry and the source of his privilege and his chains.
Giselle entered, in her robe of raspberry velvet, looking sumptuous, anxious and furious at once.
‘Are you quite mad?’ she shouted startling the dogs. The men looked up from their dice game, thinking there was sport to be had.
‘Leave us,’ he said, and waited until their audience had left before he responded: ‘You heard what the old woman said then?’
‘Some old witch tells you to go to the Pays d’Oc and you saddle your horse? You would not go at the Pope’s command, but you would listen to some crone?’
‘I am going for my own purposes, not for Rome’s.’
‘And what do you hope to find there? You think some woman will put her hands on your son and he will be cured? Is that what you think?’
‘I won’t let him die.’
‘Children die all the time.’
‘So we will just toss him away with no more thought than hurling a chicken bone to the dogs at dinner? Is that all a life is worth to you?’
‘You cannot sacrifice everything you have for one sickly boy.’
‘He was never sickly before this.’
‘He is going to die no matter what you do or how much you love him. This is God’s will.’
Philip shook his head. ‘I am leaving in the morning. My squire Renaut is coming with me. I shall take a dozen men-at-arms and be back within one moon.’
‘Who will protect us here?’
‘Protect you? You need a porter for the gate and another to stop the stable boys stealing the chickens. If you feel threatened you have three brothers within ten leagues of here who will ride to your aid, but I cannot see the eventuality.’
It was at that moment that Renaut strode in, come to rescue him no doubt, as he did that day in the forest. He wore a blue tunic over leathers, ready for the morning’s hunt. He had delegated to the sergeant the duty of escorting Marguerite home.
Giselle decided to enlist him to her side. ‘Can you talk some sense into the seigneur?’ she said. ‘You have heard what he plans to do?’
Renaut hesitated, his eyes moving between them as if he were assessing two enemy combatants before a fight. But it is to me he owes his allegiance, so he must be politic, no matter what he thinks.
I imagine now he regrets sending the sergeant to Poissy in his stead.
‘The seigneur must do what he thinks best,’ he said carefully.
‘Don’t toady to him! Do you actually believe that what he proposes makes any sense to you or to anyone here in the château?’
‘It is not for me to say.’
‘You are both mad!’ Giselle screamed. She picked up her skirts and fled up the stairs to her bedchamber.
Renaut let out a breath. Poor lad. Only seventeen years old and this is his first combat. He acquitted himself rather well.
‘Thank you, Renaut. That was bravely done. Now you may speak openly.’
‘With respect, seigneur – are you quite mad?’
‘With respect, Squire Renaut, you were the one who told me to visit the old woman.’
‘She lives in Poissy, not the Pays d’Oc.’
‘You heard what the crone said, there is a woman there who can heal with her hands.’
‘Even if it’s true, we would be riding into the middle of a war. The northern army is headed towards Béziers and has laid waste to much of the Midi already. There are brigands on the road and the Count of Toulouse’s soldiers ambush any northerners without proper escort. And if we do not wear the crusader cross, we would be in danger from both sides.’
‘I have been to war before. I will get us there and back.’
‘I should never doubt either your courage or your skill, just the reason you would put them to such a test. Even if we find this woman, even if everything the crone says about her is true, even then…how would we persuade her to return with us here to Vercy?’
‘I will pay her. And if that is not sufficient persuasion, then we might kidnap her with all gentleness, as you did this morning with the witch. There is always a way to do things.’
‘And what of your duties here?’
‘You think Lady Giselle cannot manage the day-to-day running of this château and the estate? She will enjoy assuming the mantle of justice for Vercy; in a few weeks there will not be a vagabond within five leagues who is not in the stocks. She will be stricter with the servants than I, the cooks and the serving girls will soon be in terror of their lives.’
Renaut took off his riding gauntlets and slapped them against the andirons before the fire. ‘May I speak freely?’
‘I thought you were.’
‘It is just that … I think you go too far. Death is certain for each of us. This is beyond all reason.’
‘You’re seventeen, are you not, Renaut?’
‘Young, to know so much of life. And do you have children?’
‘You know I do not.’
‘Then you cannot understand what it is to face losing one. Should you ever have a son, then you can pronounce judgement on my reason. But as you do not, I ask you to prepare the men and the horses. Tomorrow we are riding south. We are going to find this Fabricia Bérenger and bring her back here to lay these magical hands on my boy. That’s my final word.’
It occurred to him on the day of his departure that he might never see his son again. He brushed the thought aside. I will not fail again. He bent down and left a kiss on the boy’s cheek. He barely stirred. ‘He must be alive when I return, do you understand?’ he said to the startled servant girl as he left the chamber, as if she had the power to do anything about it.
Outside, the dawn had raised an ochre tinge to a cold sky. Torches still burned in the sconces at the gatehouse. Feathery wisps of vapor rose from the horses as they snorted and pranced.
The stable hands brought out Philip’s chestnut Arab, a piebald mare for Renaut, and then a few cobs loaded with their modest baggage.
Renaut appeared, a cloak flung over a short coat of mail, helmet under his arm.
‘Where is the lady Giselle?’ he asked.
‘She will not leave her bedroom.’
‘You have said your farewells?’
‘She threw a chamber pot at my head as I ducked behind the door. If you call that a goodbye then yes, we have made our parting.’
There was the clink of scabbards and armor; the flash of a lance caught the first rays of sun. Whether going to war or to the chase Philip was nevertheless stirred by the jangle of bridles and trappings, the smell of the horses.
‘Why so glum, Renaut?’
‘Seigneur, I believe this to be a most grave mistake. But I shall follow you anywhere.’
‘Very well then, let us go. The sooner we depart the sooner we shall find this lady of miracles.’
The Abbaye de Montmercy
in the Montage Noir, Pays d’Oc
A dead child was thrust into her face, small and grey and stiff. A withered arm. A young woman, tongue lolling, hoist in the arms of two burly young men, perhaps her sons; another man covered with sores. Help me, help me. A whole world in need.
A man with wild eyes pushed her against the wall. My wife died. You said you would heal her! The crowd surged forward. You said you would heal her!
Sòrre Bernadette used a staff to drive them back. ‘Go back inside!’ she shouted at Fabricia.
‘But they need me,’ she said.
‘Go back inside!’
The porteress, Sòrre Marie, pulled her behind the gate. Sòrre Bernadette followed, and she and the porteress slammed it shut and barred it.
Bernadette leaned against the wall to catch her breath. She had lost her wimple in the struggle and her hair, dark brown but riven with streaks of grey, lay matted about her face. She replaced the wimple and smoothed her habit. ‘Ruffian,’ she murmured.
‘I never said I could heal anyone,’ Fabricia said. ‘I have never promised anyone anything.’
‘Pay him no mind.’
‘I will wait here a while; they won’t go until I have put my hands on them.’
Bernadette took her by the arm. ‘No, Fabricia, you cannot go back out there today. Let them wait. Even the sick should learn to mind their manners.’
‘Did they hurt you?’ Sister Marie asked her.
Fabricia shook her head, no.
She followed Sister Bernadette back to the refectory, two steps to every one of hers. They went past the orchard, plum and pear trees bowing under the weight of fruit, two of the sisters trying to scare birds with long rakes. Flies were frantic for the windfall in the long grass, the air sonorous with them.
In Saint-Ybars it would soon be Midsummer Eve. Her mother would be collecting mugwort, elder, sage and wormwood to make into garlands to hang about the ostal as fragrance or to smudge out any dark spirits. Last year’s garlands she would throw on the great bonfire outside the walls. The whole village would be there. Except her.
Still, if this life was not what she wanted, it was at least the one she chose. There was no help for it.
She went back to her work in the kitchen, scrubbing the floors, helping the other sisters scour the pots. Some of them smiled at her and bobbed their heads, as if she were the abbess. From others she received only dark looks.
The small copper bell that hung from the rafters in the oratory summoned them to morning Mass. Fabricia tossed the pot she was scrubbing back into the trough. She joined the other sisters as they made their way across the cloister to the chapel.
The statue of Our Lady, in her blue robe, watched over them from a niche high in the south wall.
As the office began, Fabricia spoke the litany but her attention was focused inwards on her own private entreaties.
Please, My Lady, make this stop. Give this burden to someone worthier, a saint, a monk accustomed to meditation, to the selfless life.
There was suddenly a strange taste in her mouth, as if she had been eating chalk. She heard a buzzing, the familiar bee-swarm aura that accompanied her madness, and Mary stepped from her pedestal, as she had that first time in Saint-Étienne. The stone flags moved beneath Fabricia’s knees, and she let out a small gasp, thinking the chapel was about to topple. A greasy sweat erupted on her skin and her stomach rebelled. She steadied herself on the wooden prie-dieu.
She stared up, into the vault. A demon in a black robe grappled there with an angel. As they struggled, the demon lost his footing and they tumbled together to the floor of the chapel. The demon’s head split open on the flagstones like one of the ripe plums in the orchard. His head lolled towards her; she made out a trim beard, grizzled with grey. He had the tonsure of a monk. I am coming for you, he said and then the angel’s wings closed over him and he died.
Fabricia stood up and screamed.
The vision disappeared. She almost lost her balance, put out a hand to try and keep herself from falling. Bernadette was there to catch her. She was only vaguely aware of the shouts of the other novices around her in the choir stall and the cold stare of the sacristan before she fainted.