Yvonne, Lady of Cassio
When Yvonne and Elizabeth, daughters of ruthless Simon Lovage, Earl of Cassio, are born under the same star to different mothers, no one could have foretold their lives would be irrevocably entangled.
Against the background of Edward II’s turbulent reign in the fourteenth century, Yvonne, Lady of Cassio, contains imaginary and historical characters.
It is said the past is a foreign country in which things were done differently. Nevertheless, although that is true of attitudes, such as those towards women and children, our ancestors were also prompted by ambition, anger, greed, jealousy, humanity, duty, loyalty, unselfishness and love.
From early childhood, despite those who love her and want to protect her, Yvonne is forced to face difficult economic, personal and political circumstances, during a long, often bitter struggle.
Book One, The Lovages of Cassio
Cassio Castle—South East England
Alice stumbled after the squire, who guided her from her home in Lovage village to the nearby island fortress, Cassio Castle. After she followed him up stone stairs, they trod the length of a dim corridor. The squire halted. He pointed at a massive oak door which stood ajar. “In there.”
Alice stepped across the threshold of a magnificent bedchamber furnished with a huge bed, painted coffers and many other items. She gasped, for she had never imagined such luxury. Until now, she knew only the two rooms in the thatched cottage she and her large family shared with the livestock they hoped would survive winter’s frozen grip. Here a log fire blazed and a blend of familiar dried lemon balm and lavender scented the air.
Too frightened to face Simon Lovage, Alice quivered. She took a deep breath and looked down at her feet. She could recite frightening tales of the muscular, fiery-haired Earl of Cassio—accounts of his insistence on bedding peasant women, whether they were willing not.
She must stay calm. According to other resentful brides-to-be, who endured the loss of their maidenhood when taken by the earl, resistance would lead to violence. She would bear in mind her mother’s advice to turn the situation to her advantage—the loss of her virtue in exchange for privileges.
The earl strode to her. His large hand cupped her chin. “Look at me, girl. Do you know why you are here?”
Although Alice dared not disobey him, she was somewhat reassured because he had not seized her with hands as cruel as her betrothed’s when he tried to force her to yield her virginity. Yet, still fearful of the unknown, Alice swallowed.
She assessed the old man, who stood before her straight as a lance, unlike village men who thought they were old if they lived until the age of forty. Besides, most of those who reached such an age endured bent backs and gnarled hands from their labours on the land since childhood.
Heat scalded her cheeks. She would not think of her betrothed, who ranted and swore when he heard of the summons, before he sought solace in liberal servings of strong home-brewed ale. Moreover, she cared no more for him than she did for the earl.
Alice eyed the large bed. She nodded in answer to the question.
“Come here. Don’t be frightened. If you submit, other than piercing your maidenhead I shall not hurt you.”
* * *
When Alice woke in the morning after Simon parted the thick moss-green bed curtains, she stirred in the warm nest of rumpled linen sheets and bedcovers.
“My tub and hot water to fill it,” Simon bellowed to his body squires.
Thoughtful, she stretched. The old man had kept his word to hurt her no more than necessary. After he penetrated the barrier between maidenhood and womanhood, his expertise had awakened her desire for more pleasures of the flesh.
While he bathed, attended by a body squire, she lay quietly, conscious of soreness but not pain.
The earl stepped out of the tub. “Get up…what-is-your-name?”
Embarrassed by the thought of his body squires seeing her naked, she pulled the bedcovers up to her chin.
“Well?” Earl Simon asked, an impatient edge to his tone.
“I’m Alice, my lord.”
“The name suits you. Water’s still warm. You may bathe.”
Alice tugged the bedcovers higher. He laughed at her embarrassment before he left the chamber with his squires.
She must have pleased him because after the bath, a woman servant handed her finer clothes than any she had previously worn.
“I overheard the earl praising your beauty,” the woman told her, as she helped Alice to dress.
Alice shrugged. Many others had remarked on her almond-shaped blue eyes and admired her mass of curly, honey fair hair that cascaded to her hips.
While she smoothed the soft, borage flower blue wool of the first surcoat she had ever owned, her lord returned to hand her a purse. “You pleased me. Take this gift.”
Alice returned his stare, angered by his assumption she was a loose woman who wanted payment. At that moment, she forgot her mother’s advice to gain as much from him as possible.
She scrutinised him; desire throbbed in her woman’s parts. Her overlord raised a bushy eyebrow. She stretched her arms out to embrace him. His nostrils flared. He took a step forward. Afraid she had been too bold, she wrapped her arms around her waist.
Simon chuckled. “You are unlike outraged wenches who either grab my gift before they run away dressed in their new clothes, or those who either weep or say they hate me.”
Compared to her betrothed, the lord smelled good. Yet hearsay told her the violence of his Viking ancestors, which served him so well on the battlefield, threatened to boil over at any moment. If she pleased him he could offer her a better life. She wanted to stay with him. Better to be a rich man’s mistress than a poor man’s wife.
The earl interrupted her thoughts. “Your money, Alice.”
When she did not reach for it, Simon pressed the leather drawstring purse into her hand. They stared at each other again. Her free hand crept around his neck. Simon’s mouth covered hers before he carried her back to his bed where he removed her surcoat. “How old are you, girl?”
Alice summoned her courage. She wanted the benefits he could bestow. “Not Girl! Call me Alice. I’m fifteen.”
A skein of her hair lay across his hand. He raised it to his lips and kissed it. “God has blessed you, Alice. You arouse me in a way few women do.”
She fondled his hand, admiring his well-tended oval nails, so different from her betrothed’s dirt encrusted ones. Simon withdrew his hand from her clasp. She veiled her eyes with her lashes and grasped his battle-hardened hand again. After turning it over, she kissed its palm. “Please don’t send me away. I prefer you to the man the reeve ordered me to marry.”
“You don’t want an old warrior like me, do you?”
She opened her mouth to insist she did but closed it when someone knocked on the door.
“Enter,” Simon shouted.
A young squire stepped into the chamber. “I bring news, if it pleases you, my lord.”
The squire, who seemed ill at ease, approached the earl and spoke too low for her to hear.
The lord stood steady as a strong wall, his feet wide apart. “There is no easy way to deliver bad tidings, Alice.” He cleared his throat. “Poor child, your future bridegroom became as drunk as a fiddler’s whore. I am sorry to say he fell into the moat and drowned.”
Shocked into silence Alice looked into her blunt lord’s bright blue eyes. She imagined her betrothed, Peter, intoxicated with ale and heart sore because the earl had summoned her. Her stomach churned. By now Peter’s mother and sisters would be weeping. It seemed her heart had turned into granite. Guilt consumed her because, instead of grieving, she was glad Peter would never touch her again. She tried to pacify her conscience. Always honest, she admitted his death came as a relief. After all, she had not welcomed her betrothal to the clumsy young man.
Alice gazed at Earl Simon without resentment. From the moment, he clasped her hand she thrilled to his touch. She wanted more, much more, yet what did he want? Was she only one of unimportant young girls to pass through his bed chamber? Could she find a way to stay? If he did not want to keep her, she must brave his anger to change his mind. For a moment, she hesitated. One day she would have to pay the price of immorality. For now, young and healthy, judgement day seemed far away.
South East England
Alice’s sister, Gytha the wise woman, gazed down at her patient.
Seated on the birthing stool, her face twisted in agony, Matilda, Countess of Cassio, squeezed her eyes shut. She strained. Blood spattered the stone floor. “Help me,” she begged.
Gytha wiped the perspiration from the countess’s forehead with a cloth. She wished she could protect her from Simon of Cassio’s brutality; however, she would help her to deliver the child. “Be brave, my lady, your baby will be born soon.”
Flames leapt high above massive logs in the fireplace. Gytha sweltered in the overheated chamber, nearly as hot as a blacksmith’s forge. She longed to open the shutters to admit cool air, but could not because everyone present believed a woman in travail must be kept warm. Gytha caught her lower lip between her teeth. Perhaps one shutter should be partially raised and the window opened a little so, God forbid, if either—or both—the mother and babe died, their souls could fly out on their way to heaven. She wiped the perspiration from Matilda’s brow, hoping to deliver the babe before much longer.
In the golden glow cast by the fire and numerous candles, Matilda’s body contorted in the grip of a prolonged contraction. Poor lady, trapped in an unhappy marriage. Gytha despised the earl. Years ago, when he had married Matilda, he had exercised his right to impregnate his thirteen-year-old bride. Her patient groaned. “There, there, my lady.” Gytha brushed Matilda’s sweat-darkened hair to remove the tangles believed impede the birth. “Save your strength. Don’t fret.” Gytha took another deep breath. The labour was taking too long.
“Will I die?” Matilda asked in a faint voice when the contraction ended.
What could she reply, other than to reassure the frightened noblewoman? Childbirth was always dangerous. If the unfortunate countess died, Gytha did not doubt Earl Simon would marry again in the hope of breeding more sons. “Don’t you worry, my lady, you ask the same question every time you bring a baby into the world. If I thought you’re about to meet your Maker I’d summon a priest to shrive you.”
“Oh, I want to present my lord husband with another son,” Matilda moaned. “He hates me and will not be satisfied until I do.”
Gytha thought of Alice, her eighteen-year old sister soon to give birth to Earl Simon’s bastard. If Alice did not insist she was content, Gytha would have believed the earl despised women.
“It won’t be long now,” Gytha told Matilda’s nobly born ladies. “Warm the swaddling clothes by the fire. Prepare fresh garments for your lady. Send to the kitchens for broth to sustain her after the birth.”
She knew they obeyed her grudgingly but did not dare to ignore her. Tempted to give vent to her resentment, Gytha controlled herself. After all, what did she care for these supercilious Norman attendants, who did not reply because they looked down on villeins? She and her family suffered in bondage, but before the Norman William conquered the country, her ancestors owned the Cassio estates, including the island on which Cassio Castle now stood. Five generations after the conquest, her family’s resentment still burned. She looked contemptuously at the attendants. The proud women would obey her because of her skills, which she used to treat all her patients with equal care, whether she liked them or not.
An hour later, the head crowned. “Push,” Gytha urged when the next contraction seized her patient.
Matilda screamed. An indignant red face appeared. With the next contraction the shoulders slipped out. The babe rushed into the world.
“A boy?” the countess gasped.
The infant’s lusty cries filled the bedchamber.
Gytha examined the baby. “A daughter, a healthy girl with hair fair as her father’s.”
“God help me,” Matilda whispered. “He will vent his spite on me.”
Gytha recognized the plea for sympathy. “Don’t cry, my lady.”
The afterbirth slithered out. Matilda twisted the folds of her smock with hands so tense that knotted blue veins stood out against her white skin. “In forty days, after I am churched, my lord will try to father another son.”
“I’ll soon have you comfortable.” Gytha removed the countess’s soiled garment. She washed her with rosemary-steeped water, dressed her in a clean smock, and combed and braided the countess’s fair hair. She sighed, filled with pity for the unfortunate woman. Gytha could imagine no couple more ill-matched than the Lovages. The countess literate, pale of face, delicate, pious and charitable; the earl, a shrewd but illiterate warrior, boisterous, selfish and fond of hunting. Gytha shook her head. Did her sister love Lord Simon, or did she pretend to?
Matilda’s sob recalled Gytha to her duties. She busied herself with a brew to which she added a small pinch of powdered poppy, poured the mixture into a beech wood bowl and offered it to her patient. “Drink this, my lady, it will calm you.”
Matilda rolled her eyes. “Why, oh why, did only one of my little boys survive?”
Gytha guided the bowl of clear, green liquid to Matilda’s lips. “Finish this before I help you into bed. You need rest to refresh you.”
“Will my lord allow me to sleep?”
“The drink will ensure slumber.”
An attendant opened the door in response to a knock.
A page peered around the door frame. “Simon of Cassio asks if the child is born.”
“Yes, a healthy daughter and—” Gytha began. Before she could finish the sentence the lad sped away.
After bathing the baby, she tried to interest the mother in the new-born child. “Look at those plump little limbs. What will you name her?”
Tears streamed down Matilda’s cheeks. “If my lord agrees, she shall be christened Yvonne, which is my mother’s name,” she whispered.
“Your baby is as healthy and pretty a maid as any I’ve seen come from the womb. I—” Gytha broke off when the oak door opened with such force that it crashed against the wall.
Simon of Cassio stamped into the room. In a drunken rage he hammered his leather-gloved fist against the stone surround of the fireplace. “Maid! Curse you, wife. Another daughter!”
One never knew what the earl would do. Although Matilda needed calm, Gytha did not dare to protest. She stared at the earl, whose temper often spurted from him.
He stood with his legs wide apart, hands clasped behind his back and his chin thrust forward.
Gytha gulped as though she could swallow her fear of her feudal lord.
The earl glared at his wife and grabbed hold of Yvonne. “Useless. A man needs sons not pawns to be given in marriage.” The babe howled. Her eyes shut tight, her tiny face scarlet.
Gytha curbed her impulse to snatch the new-born from him.
“Perhaps I should rid myself of her,” Earl Simon roared.
Gytha dashed forward to stand between him and the fireplace.
“Out of my way.” He elbowed her aside. He tossed the babe towards the voracious flames in the fireplace.
The countess and her attendants screamed.
Gytha dodged forward. She caught the baby. Terrified the monstrous earl would wrest the infant from her, she retreated.
Sweat streamed down the earl’s face. He grimaced and pressed a hand to his heart. “Swaddle her.” He laughed. “I have changed my mind. I shall not roast her like a plump capon.” Earl Simon stared balefully at his wife. “See, I can be merciful. Yet, although I am a worthy Christian man, God does not love me. If He did, all my sons would have lived, and your daughters would not have drawn breath.”
Matilda’s tears flowed. “My lord, it is a mortal sin to question God’s will.”
He waved a clenched fist at her. “I should punish you for daring to criticise me.”
Matilda closed her eyes.
Gytha scowled. When they married, Simon and Matilda disliked each other. Before long, their mutual aversion burgeoned into hatred.
“Open your eyes, Matilda,” Simon yelled. “Am I not as good or better a Christian than any other lord in the realm? Have I not paid enough monks to keep them at their prayers? The fault of having only one living son must be yours.” Lips pursed, he strode out of the bedchamber.
Gytha’s legs trembled. She beckoned to the lady appointed to be the wet nurse. “Time to suckle this little one.”
Matilda’s eyes closed again. “I am forty, too old to bear more children. I’ve endured fifteen pregnancies. May God strike me barren,” she muttered.
“Sleep, my lady.” Gytha pressed her right hand into the small of her aching back. She faced one of the attendants. “I must leave. If your mistress needs me, send word to my sister, Alice, at her cottage,” she said too quietly for the countess to overhear.
Although her bones ached with weariness she must attend Alice, but first she needed to eat and drink.
On her way to the great hall, she shivered. Outside, the northeast wind hurled itself against the outer walls in attempts to invade them with needles of ice-cold winter air.
In the hall, crowded with household knights and servants, she spoke to a varlet.
“Are you well?”
He nodded. “Yes, thanks to you for curing my fever. I shall pay you when I can.”
She smiled at the lad. “Some bread and cheese will suffice.”
When he returned with the food and a mazer full of mead, she sat on a stool in the corner. The drink on the floor, she bit into the soft bread and tasty cheese.
Plump Master Spicer, the earl’s dapper apothecary-in-residence, bustled up to her. “How does her ladyship fare?”
Glad to see him, Gytha stood and bobbed a curtsey. “Well enough, she is delivered of a healthy daughter.”
“Sit down. You look exhausted.”
“Yes, I am.” She stretched her aching back. “During my thirty years, I have worked hard.” She sank back onto the stool.
Master Spicer raised his eyebrows. “It’s as unlike you to admit to bodily frailty as it is for your mother. By the way, how is Edith? Is she still treating the sick, delivering babies, laying out the dead, and selling herbs?”
“Yes, Mother treats those who come to her door, but since my man died five years ago she leaves the rest to me.” She swallowed hard. At the thought of her good husband, grief welled up in her. Once again she wished she had borne him a son or daughter. She shook her head—foolish to wish for a child born into servitude.
“With what have you dosed her ladyship?”
“Poppy, a honey sweetened decoction of raspberry leaves to strengthen her womb, and another of nettles to cleanse her blood.”
“Did you gather herbs by moonlight?”
Despite the noise surrounding them, she looked around afraid of being overheard. “If I did?”
“Gytha, you know how strict the church is. Last week a woman in Guildford faced a charge of witchcraft.”
“Please don’t fear for me. I pray to our Lord, His Blessed Mother and the saints before I treat a patient.” She made the sign of the Cross. “When I do the Lord’s work, I also pray for His protection.” Nevertheless, in spite of her brave words, she shivered. Accusations of witchcraft, possible torture and death by fire terrified her. “When I finish eating and drinking I must be on my way.”
Simon sat by the hearth in his great hall waiting for news of Alice, his par amour’s delivery. With surprise, he realized that every day during the last three years, whenever he thought of a woman, fair Alice crept into his mind; and when he thought of home, he pictured her standing at the door ready to welcome him. He grinned. Despite her low birth, her beauty enthralled him, and her charm rivalled that of any sumptuously gowned lady at court.
He admired his ambitious young par amour for exercising her right to claim an assart, which bordered the forest on the outskirts of Lovage Village. She had marked out an area large enough to support two cows, a few pigs and some chickens, and with her family’s help had tilled her plot.
His thoughts wandered to Alice’s thatched roofed outhouses leaning against the side of the slate-roofed cottage. He felt more at ease in her home, built at his command, than here in his great hall with walls painted dull yellow, on which hung shields, tapestries and painted cloths in bright hues.
Simon frowned. By now, the babe should have entered the world. He glanced around, aware of several of his hearth knights, whose glowering faces questioned him. Simon scowled. He knew his family and knights referred to his sweet Alice as the earl’s strumpet. God rot their souls in hell.
He beckoned to a squire. “Send for news to Alice’s cottage.”
“At once, my lord.”
Simon’s expression softened. How did Alice hold him in her thrall? Why did the best days of his life begin when she woke up beside him?
Minstrels sang of knights seeking the love of highborn maidens and virtuous ladies. He snorted at the thought. Those romantic ballads lied. A man like him did not expect to find love in marriage. Noblemen wed for heirs, land, and prestige. He groaned. God forgive him for his aversion to his milk and water wife and his delight in red-blooded Alice. She pleased him so well that since he took her as his mistress, the only other woman he had bedded was his wife, with the hope of fathering another legitimate son.
He hoped Alice would bear a male, someone he could advance in the world. He drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. A man could hasten death with sword, lance or mace, but birth—the sole province of women—came in its own due time. He watched the fire die down to ash, grateful because his own lusty fire still burned bright.
* * *
Gytha crossed the inner bailey. She pulled the edge of her wimple over her mouth, then tugged her hood further down over her forehead. The frigid air froze her breath when she exhaled, but, relieved to be free of Lady Matilda’s oppressive bedchamber, she did not mind.
She pitied new-born Yvonne. Some eighteen years ago, to celebrate the birth of his only son, John, the earl had held a sumptuous feast to which beggars from several counties came to receive alms and leftover food. Gytha tutted. The earl would not celebrate Yvonne’s birth. Indignation quickening her breathing, she hurried past the stone bake-house, armoury, stables, and other buildings—all of them a great improvement on the warren of wooden structures gutted by fire twelve years ago.
She sighed. The earl would not reward her for delivering another daughter, and possibly saving the life of his wife, whose faith in her healing skills increased year by year. Gytha’s resentment increased and kept pace with her quick footsteps. She scowled. Curse the earl for his meanness. If he could afford to renovate Cassio Castle and build a new manor, which rumour claimed surpassed any other in the realm, he could afford to be generous. After all, he must be one of the richest, if not the richest, magnate in the kingdom.
If she had delivered a boy, she might have dared to trade on the earl’s joy by asking to become a free woman. Well, she must be patient. Perhaps the countess would reward her with a heavy purse full of coins.
“God speed.” The sentry unlocked the gate between the inner and outer bailey. She hurried past the barracks to the portcullis set in the massive curtain wall, which surrounded the castle, interspersed with four drum towers.
The sentries, whose cuts and bruises, fluxes and agues she had treated over the years, knew her well.
“Where are you bound?” one of them asked.
“To deliver a child.”
A sentry raised the portcullis. “God speed you, Dame Gytha. He lowered the drawbridge.
Gytha stepped onto the hump-backed bridge over the river, a sheet of star-bright ice beneath the sickle moon embedded in a purple-black sky. She yawned, her eyes heavy with fatigue, and consoled herself with the thought of the pack animal she planned to buy. Curse the earl. If he had been generous this evening, she would have been able to buy a strong donkey or sumpter horse.
Wary of slipping and possibly breaking a limb, she clutched her weathered oak staff and plodded through ankle-deep snow. Not for the first time, she tried to decide if she pitied her sister. Was Alice’s illicit relationship with Lord Simon for good or ill?
Due to Alice’s charm, her elderly lover believed her fascination with him equalled his for her. Sometimes she queried Alice’s happiness; however, she shared her sister’s ambition to become a freewoman. Would the earl ever allow them to purchase their freedom?
Gytha battled her way towards the cottage, driven onward by the wind at her back, and thought of the neighbours’ fingers pointed at her family and of the fists shaken at Alice. She could not remember a day when folk did not gossip about Edith, her mother, who learned her skills from her own mother. No matter how often Edith insisted, “The dried herbs hanging from the rafters of my cottage are only for healing,” some people suspected they were for worse purposes. Folk still scratched at the door during the night with the false belief that Mother had charms and potions to ill-wish a neighbour or snare a lover; yet by day, many murmured against her. “Edith’s love potion caught the earl for Alice,” Gytha had often heard villagers mutter.
Thank goodness Alice was not frightened by whispers such as, “She snared Simon of Cassio with witchcraft”. She frowned. If Alice birthed a son, gossips might go so far as to whisper that Alice consorted with the devil to conceive a man-child. Gytha drew her cloak closer around her, and refused to dwell on the dark matters that had shivered through her veins. She knew why her sister was grateful to the earl. Alice had grinned and explained, “For one thing, he smells better than the men in the village, because he does not muck out animals, share a cottage with them or clear filthy ditches.” Until her first visit to Alice in her large cottage, Gytha had never noticed the stink in the small one her family shared and, in winter, with a pig and chickens. If Alice were not the earl’s woman, she would now be crammed into an equally smelly dwelling with her husband and his relations.
Gytha sighed. Some of the neighbours praised her sister for squeezing something out of the lord of the manor. Unfortunately, others made the sign of the cross to protect themselves from the evil eye whenever they saw Alice or any member of her family. They did not need to. Her mother’s skill and her own stemmed mostly from knowledge and observation. Yet, in her heart she knew there was something else. One of their forebears had been a leech doctor who knew the old ways. It was rumoured that he had followed the ancient Goddess and her consort. From him, Gytha suspected, came the double blessing and curse of the gift of second sight.
She glimpsed candlelight through swirling snowflakes. God be praised for bringing her safe to her sister’s snug home. On such a night, travellers not only feared outlaws. They were also afraid of slipping on the frozen ground and breaking a limb. Gytha smiled in appreciation of the soft radiance from the horn lantern hung on the wooden peg above the door. Soon she would be warm indoors. She walked along the path to the cottage and applied a wooden clapper suspended by icy braided rags.
“Is that you, Gytha?” her mother shouted from within.
“Yes,” she bellowed, loud enough for her voice to be heard above the wind carrying its mournful song from the forest.
The door opened revealing Edith’s smiling face. “I delivered your sister of a fair maid at twilight. Our Alice shelled her like a pea from the pod. She shook her head, the lines on her face deepening. The earl won’t be pleased with another daughter.”
Feathery snowflakes blew through the door into the room. Gytha hastened into the cottage. “No, the earl won’t. He is furious because the countess also birthed a daughter at the same time.
Edith shut and barred the door.
“Enough of him, Mother. How is Alice?” Gytha undid the wooden brooch, which clasped her cloak at her throat. She shook out the garment and hung it from an oak peg on one side of the fireplace.
“She is well.”
“Mother, I thought a fever kept you from the castle to assist with Lady Matilda’s groaning. If I’d known you were here, I’d not have slogged along forest paths on such a bitter night.”
“No need to worry about me. After I dosed myself with hot elderflower cordial for a day and a night I recovered.”
“I’m glad you’re in good health.”
Gytha hurried into the adjacent chamber where her sister slept, a new-born babe in the curve of her arm. Almost speechless, Gytha gazed down at her niece’s face illuminated by firelight.
“What is it?” asked Edith, who had followed her. “You seem astonished.”
“She and the earl’s other new-born are as alike as two freshly-minted coins.” Love for her niece surged through Gytha. She bent to press a kiss on the tiny cheek and laughed when the baby’s miniscule tongue appeared between her lips.
“Look at her tiny fingers and their minute nails,” Gytha marvelled while stroking the infant’s wisps of hair.
Edith smiled. “Gytha, you’ve already seen enough babies not to coo over this one. Come, Alice and my granddaughter have earned their rest.”
In the main chamber Edith dipped a ladle into an iron pot, scooped up hot pottage, and poured the contents into a wooden bowl. “Sup this, it will put heart into you.”
* * *
In the morning, a loud noise jolted Gytha awake.
“Open the door!” Someone thumped on it repeatedly. Although fear gripped her, she rose and removed her cloak from the peg. She peeped through a knothole in the pine door. “Who is there?”
“Open in the name of the Earl of Cassio,” a masculine voice shouted.
“What do you want?” Gytha shouted back.
“The wet nurse does not have enough milk. My lord sends his daughter to be nursed by his strumpet.”
Astonished Gytha stared at him. A wet nurse with plentiful milk had been selected. Even if the woman’s milk had mysteriously dried up, it would be a simple matter to find someone else to suckle Demoiselle Yvonne. What’s more, surely the earl would want Alice back in his bed after she was churched. So why had he sent his legitimate daughter to be nursed by Alice alongside his bastard? She sighed. Most likely malice prompted him to humiliate his unfortunate wife.
Gytha wrapped the cloak around her, unbarred the door, and peered out. At the sight of four mounted men guarding a woman holding a bundle close to her body, a frisson of fear swift as the fast-falling snowflakes flurried along Gytha’s spine.
“Take the baby,” one of the men-at-arms ordered.
Gytha stepped outside. She winced. The cold from the stone doorstep beneath its layer of snow penetrated the soles of her woollen stockings. She reached up. The woman bent from the horse to hand her Yvonne as though the poor little mite was a piece of unwanted baggage.
Harnesses and bits jingled breaking winter’s frozen silence; the horses turned to pick their way along the snow-covered path.
“At least the babe’s warm enough,” said Edith, who had followed her to the door. “Someone wrapped her in a lamb’s fleece. Take her to Alice. What is the earl thinking of to send the baby here in such cruel cold weather?”
Edith laughed when Yvonne cried. “Judging by the noise coming from such a scrap, she’s got a good pair of lungs.”
Gytha gazed down at the outraged little face. “Go back to sleep, Mother, I’ll help Alice with the babies.”
“Did you hear?” Gytha asked in the bedchamber where Alice lay awake with her daughter at her side.
“Yes, please hand me the child.”
Gytha put the squalling infant in Alice’s arms. “Don’t you mind?” she asked after Alice guided the hungry baby’s mouth to her nipple.
“The earl’s order to nurse Demoiselle Yvonne.” While she spoke Gytha removed her stockings and then hung them above the hearth to dry.
“No, I don’t mind, and don’t you fret about me. I’m content with my lord. Think of everything he’s given me.”
“What of the church’s teachings?”
“Although the priest says it’s sinful to bed with Earl Simon and bear his child, I’ve a lot to thank him for.”
Gytha glanced at Alice. “Yet, we’re as much his chattel as his furnishings, clothes, cattle, dogs, and horses. If I didn’t love my family I’d run away.”
“Oh, Gytha, don’t even think of it. Do you know of anyone who, in accordance with the law, gained freedom after hiding in a walled town for a year and a day? Should you be caught you would be returned here, and maybe branded and flogged.” Alice’s eyes narrowed. “I swear on my little daughter’s life, that if it’s in my power to prevent it, she and I shall not be villeins for much longer. Moreover, if I can, I shall free all our family.