A murderous procession, p.6
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       A Murderous Procession, p.6

           Ariana Franklin
 

  Disengaging Boggart from a hawser she’d fallen over and managed to become entangled in kept Mansur and Adelia momentarily delayed on the quayside.

  Again, the Bishop of Saint Albans casually strolled over to them. “Who is this?”

  Adelia finished brushing Boggart down. “It’s my new lady’s maid.”

  “Good God.” He turned to Mansur. “My dear doctor, is that box yours?” He pointed to a large packing case waiting with others at the end of the quay to be loaded.

  “No, my lord.”

  “Really? I thought it might contain your medicaments. Perhaps you should make sure.” He bowed briefly to Adelia and returned to the group of clergy.

  “What was that about?” Adelia snapped, looking to Mansur. Their box of medicaments had already been taken aboard.

  “Let us see. Tell that clumsy female to stay where she is.”

  “Stay here,” Adelia told Boggart.

  Together she and the Arab went to investigate, encountering an odor that was at once strong and familiar to Adelia’s nostrils. “It’s Ward,” she said, clutching Mansur’s arm.

  “The dog? How can it be?”

  “I’d know that smell anywhere.” She hurried to the packing case. Behind it, hidden from the quay’s hubbub, stood a young man holding a piece of string to which was attached a small, unsavory-looking dog. Both were happy to see her but, while the animal bounced its welcome, the youth kept his face straight and his East Anglian speech lugubrious.

  “Ain’t supposed to be seen with you two, am I? Disregarded, that’s what I gotta be, so Prior said.”

  Adelia collapsed on him. “Ulf, oh Ulf. It’s you. What are you doing here? I am so pleased to see you. Oh, Ulf.”

  Gyltha’s grandson had grown since they’d first encountered each other in the Cambridgeshire fens. The truculent, ill-favored child he’d been then, one she’d come to love—and had saved from a terrible abductor—was now considerably cleaner except for the light stubble on his chin. His unruly hair was hidden by the wide-brimmed hat of a pilgrim, but like most fenmen, he still pretended to a gritty dispassion.

  “Get off,” he said, wriggling out of Adelia’s clutch. He nodded at Mansur, who nodded back; neither face showing pleasure at the meeting, though their eyes were glad.

  “And Ward, too.” Adelia cupped her hands round her dog’s face, careful to wipe them on her kerchief afterward. “What are you both doing here?”

  “Me, on the king’s orders. I’m incognito, I am. And that there stinker’s here a-cause the prior a-reckoned as you’d need him.”

  Adelia smiled. “I’m in no danger this time.” Prior Geoffrey of Cambridge, her first friend in England, always worried for her safety had given her Ward’s predecessor, an equally smelly hound, so that, should she be at risk, she could always be traced by its scent.

  As it had turned out afterward, the dog had indeed saved her life and lost its own in doing it. When, to her regret, she’d been forced to move from Cambridge, Ward had been one of the friends she’d had to leave behind.

  “Prior don’t think so,” Ulf told her, “‘That girl’s born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward.’ That’s what he said. ‘You take that odiferous bugger to her and tell her to keep him close,’ he said. And that’s what I’m a-doing.”

  “But what’s all this about the king’s orders?”

  Ulf tutted at her ignorance. His gaze directed itself deliberately on a large, plain wooden cross leaning beside him against the packing case. “Cos o’ that.”

  Adelia looked at it for a minute before it came to her. “My God,” she said. “You’re the crucifer. So the king consulted Prior Geoffrey—how wise of him.”

  “He don’t have to heft it,” Ulf said with feeling. “That’s heavy, that old bit o’ wood, considering it’s hollow and what’s inside it don’t weigh too much. Story is I’m a-taking my grandpappys cross to Jerusalem to put on the Holy Sepulchre so’s to account for Grandpappys sins.” He grinned.

  She smiled fondly back. His grandfather had sinned. Prior Geoffrey, leader of Saint Augustine’s in Cambridge, where Ulf was now learning law, had, as a young priest, formed a happy but illicit relationship with the equally young Gyltha, a liaison that, in the second generation, had produced this wonderful grandson.

  The subterfuge was clever. It was quite usual for those who couldn’t go on crusade themselves to send something of their own by proxy to the Holy Land. Henry, that crafty, crafty king, obviously with Rowleys help, had remembered his friendship with the prior, and the two of them had worked out this plan for Excalibur’s secret journey. Who would expect such a stripling to be carrying inside his cross the sword that all Christendom would kill to lay its hands on?

  “And when we gets to Sicily,” Ulf said, looking round to make sure nobody could hear, “old Rowley is to crack open the wood and give you-know-what to you-know-who. Pity as you can’t see it now, bor. That’s a sword and a bit, I can tell you. That’s got magic, that has.”

  “I’ve seen it,” Adelia said. Magical or not, she didn’t want to see it again.

  Ulf handed the dog’s lead to Adelia and heaved the cross onto his shoulder. “I better get aboard, and you remember as I’m incognito. Us holy pilgrims don’t have nothing to do with you gentry.” He peered out, found the coast clear, and went off pretending to stagger as he went.

  Adelia untied the string from Ward’s collar and replaced it with her kerchief, which looked slightly better. Neither of her new acquisitions today was going to improve her standing in the princess’s train, but she was so glad of them. And even if she and Mansur could not be seen talking to Ulf, they would at least have one loving companion on their travels—two, if you counted Ward. The boy—she supposed she must now think of him as a young man—had the solidity and common sense of his grandmother; they would be taking something of Gyltha with them.

  In any case, would the coming year be so bad?

  The disgusting phrase she’d heard men use about rape—“Lie back and enjoy it”—came to her mind. Yes, she was being used, forced to accede to a demand against her will. On the other hand, Allie was as safe as she could be and had Gyltha to look after her, while she herself was about to set out on a journey she’d been wanting to make for years and in a style that, apart from the inevitable dangers of all travel, was as safe as possible under the circumstances.

  Adelia took in a breath of air in which the seagulls were gliding for the pleasure of it. She touched Mansur’s hand. “Oh well . . .” she said.

  He inclined his head; he knew what she meant, he always did. He was another who was going home.

  NIGHT HAS FALLEN on the harbor. It is hot, uncomfortable, and crowded in the cabins of the royal vessels as they wait for the wind that will come with the dawn tide, but the passengers are tired so that, one by one, their lanterns—no naked flame is allowed on board—are extinguished. Except for their riding lights, the ships are mere shapes, like two dragons in the darkness...

  No, one lantern is still burning. One man prefers the deck to his cabin and has wedged himself against a hatch so that he can commune with his Messiah in peace—or as much peace as the Messiah gives him,

  “We have been introduced, beloved.” Scarry’s mouth moves but no sound comes from it. “I managed to abide her, for so I must. Even close to, she is no beauty—except for the smile, which she gave once, and then... well, I confess it: suum cuique pulchrum. The skin is dark blond like that of a Greek. You would have enjoyed chewing on it.

  “Her eyes, which are brown, show an insult to all men. I am anyone’s match, they say, I have knowledge. What presumption, what challenge.

  “I have employed a minion to search her luggage. There is no sign of Excalibur, but of a certainty she knows where it is. To whom else would the king have entrusted it but her, who led him to it?

  “Keep your temper, my joy, my love, as I do. We have time, we have a thousand miles. We shall have the sword, and she shall be brought down. But slowly, piece by piec
e, a pedibus usque ad caput, chop, chop, until the wits go.

  “For you, Wolf. On your altar. To you who were the equal of a god.”

  Four

  A STRONG BREEZE came up, as the little Turk had said it would.

  The Bishop of Winchester performed the usual ceremony, committing the boats and everyone in them to the mercy of God. To his concern, however, the admiral performed a ceremony of his own. Standing on the prow of his flagship, he raised his arms and spoke to his waiting crews in Irish, his voice traveling easily from ship to ship: “Amach daoibh a chlann an righ.”

  Adelia asked one of the oarsmen what he’d said and was told,

  “It’s the words Eva the witch says to the Children of Lir when she turns them into swans: ”Out with you on the water, ye children of the king.”

  “Isn’t that a curse?” It was certainly pagan.

  “Maybe, maybe, but swans do float and keep a-floatin’. And it’s with us sailors, d’ye see, that we’d rather have a curse from himself than a blessing from the Pope.”

  Whatever it was, the oarsmen were able to take their ease while the vessels proceeded smartly over the Channel under sail, heeling slightly with the wind a-beam.

  WORD ISSUED FROM Joanna’s deck cabin. The princess was seasick. Dr. Arnulf, looking none too well himself was being called to her side.

  “And we attend, too,” Adelia told Mansur firmly. “Not that I know of anything to help seasickness, but if he goes, we go.”

  The precedent that Arnulf was not Joanna’s only appointed doctor must be set.

  The royal cabin was crowded, dark, and smelled of vomit. The sufferer was hidden in a cluster of people who hung onto beams and, occasionally, one another to keep upright. From the midst of anxious ladies-in-waiting and maids, the new arrivals heard the voice of Dr. Arnulf: “The bile is blackish, the princess should be bled at once. Fetch me my leeches.”

  “Ginger.” This was Joanna’s nurse, Edeva. “Ginger’s good.”

  “Surely ...” It was the Bishop of Winchester’s turn. “... a bone of Saint Erasmus attached to her stomach would be more efficacious; I think we have one in the ossuary we brought with us, haven’t we, Father Guy?”

  Which of the saints was Erasmus? Adelia had a vague remembrance of Somerset herdsmen invoking him to cure cattle pest; presumably he turned his spiritual hand to maritime upsets as well.

  Father Guy pushed past her without greeting, hurrying to get his box of bones. His colleague, Father Adalburt, Adelia noticed, was also here, using an aspergillum to sprinkle holy water on anyone he could reach which, because of the crowd around her and the ship’s brisk motion, did not include the princess.

  “The nurse speaks well,” Mansur said quietly in Arabic. “Ginger is good, but the child also needs fresh air.”

  Adelia was taken aback; it was rare for Mansur to prescribe, but he probably knew more about mal de mer than she did; in his sad youth among the monks who’d castrated him he’d been sent on the long voyage to sing in Byzantium.

  She raised her voice. “The Lord Mansur wishes to see his patient.”

  There was a reluctant movement that gave them both passage through to where Joanna lay shivering and uncomplaining, her pointed little face livid under a swinging lantern—an object that, Adelia thought, couldn’t be helping matters. The girl looked up at Mansur without interest, raised herself and was sick into a bowl.

  “So much for him comin’ yere,” her nurse said, vengefully “Don’t do no good at all, do he? Bloody Saracen.”

  “Tell them,” Mansur said. “Some powdered ginger, wrap her up warm, and take her on deck.”

  Adelia told them. Obviously, the child would mend once she was on land, but this wasn’t about seasickness, it was a test to see whether or not she herself could do her job should the princess ever become truly ill. Would they listen to Mansur?

  They didn’t. Fortunately for the princess, it was discovered that Dr. Arnulf’s leeches had been wrongly stowed in the other ship.

  However, a saintly knuckle was bound to Joanna’s midriff and ginger administered, but only on the nurse’s say-so. Disregarded, Adelia and Mansur left the cabin.

  Adelia lurched over to the ship’s side. “Damn, damn, dammit.”

  “Trouble?” The Bishop of Saint Albans was behind her.

  She didn’t look round. “They’re not taking any notice of us.”

  “We’ll see about that.”

  A minute later, she heard his voice coming from the princess’s cabin; the name of the king was mentioned several times.

  “He will right things for us,” Mansur said.

  “He does everything right,” Adelia said bitterly, “except parting me from my daughter.”

  “It will not hurt her.” For the first time Mansur showed that he, too, thought Allie had been allowed to run wild. “Nor could he permit you to stay with Lady Emma. You were at risk.”

  “Eh?”

  He told her everything. Of the danger she’d been in while in Somerset from an unknown assailant, of Rowley desperate concern.

  Because she’d been unaware, she had difficulty in believing him. Or Will and Alf, for that matter; good men but not the most reliable of sources.

  Anyway, in Mansur’s rippling Arabic it sounded like a tale from One Thousand and One Nights ... a demon attempting to kill her, two faithful fellahin looking out for her ...

  “But who? Why?” She had no enemies.

  “The Will and the Alf believed it to be the wolf man’s beloved ...” Here Mansur spat into the sea. “... the one called Slurry? Sparry?”

  “Scarry?” She hadn’t spoken the name in two years; she remembered the Latin lament that had shaken the trees as he’d cradled the dead Wolf in his arms. Te amo. Te amo.

  “Oh, that’s nonsense. The man’s dead. If you remember, Captain Bolt cleared the forest.” And without mercy. Bits of the outlaws had hung from trees for days.

  “The bishop does not think so. He believed the Will and the Alf.”

  “Why didn’t Rowley tell me?”

  Mansur shrugged. “He only told me on the way to Sarum.”

  “But why didn’t he tell me?”

  “You would not speak to him. Perhaps it is better in any case that you did not know until we reached Normandy, you might not have left.”

  “Of course I wouldn’t have left.” Always supposing there was a maniac after her ... “He wouldn’t hurt Allie, would he?”

  The Arab looked down at her. “Why should he do that? You imagine vain things. Allie is safe enough in Sarum, where her father has put her.”

  Logic had little application to fear, but Adelia tried to apply it because, at one level, she knew her friend was right.

  “Now you will forgive the bishop,” Mansur said.

  In the sense that Rowley had placed their daughter in the charge of Queen Eleanor against the wishes of herself, nothing had changed. But if there were an assassin roaming Somerset—and Adelia still had trouble believing it—Allie was safely out of his way

  What was explained was Rowley’s anger that night; he’d always shown fury when he was frightened for her. Stupid man, she thought, as her own anger drained away.

  Which left the dilemma that when they could have been friendly together, she had refused. Now that she would, they had no opportunity to; she dare not compromise him, nor could he compromise himself.

  “Oh, damnation,” she said, wearily

  A shivering princess emerged on deck, wrapped round by a thick cloak and her nurse’s arm, to be helped to windward—presumably because it was the farthest side from Mansur and Adelia.

  At that another voice took command. “No, no, the little one will be better to leeward, d‘ye see,” Admiral O’Donnell said. “Over this side what comes up tends to fly back in your face.”

  Joanna was helped across the deck and her hands placed about a cleat. “Hang onto that, mavourneen, and fix your dear eyes on the horizon. Is that better now?”

  Wanly, the princess
nodded that it was.

  “But maybe,” the O‘Donnell said, sliding his eyes toward Adelia, “we should dispense with the little dog.”

  Adelia glanced down at her feet where Ward, looking as wan as the princess, had put his head on her shoes and was exuding a smell that competed against the freshness of wind and sea.

  There had already been complaints about him from the ladies-in-waiting with whom Adelia had shared the night—“He’ll give our little dogs fleas.” “Our little dogs are perfumed.”—and she’d been compelled to shut him outside on deck where, tied to a stanchion, he’d whined away the hours at being parted from the mistress with whom he’d only just been reunited.

  Shrugging, she turned away, Ward staggering after her on unsteady legs.

  So the battle of the doctors had been won—with Rowley’s help.

  Adelia wondered if the royal nurse, obviously a powerful figure in Joanna’s life, would prove an ally now that Mansur’s advice had triumphed.

  It appeared that she would not. Across the width of the deck, Edeva, her substantial Irish figure looming over her charge, could be heard stating in a loud mutter that “darkies” would only lay hands on “my darling” over her dead body

  AT THE MOUTH of the Orne, a galloper was sent ahead to Caen while the two ships stopped to pretty themselves. Sails were taken down, the salt of the Channel cleansed from woodwork, gilding was polished, bunting was spread, musicians readied their instruments, oarsmen settled into their benches. The company arrayed itself on deck. A recovered Joanna, dressed in white and gold, was placed on a raised throne and the sun shone on her.

 
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