The long table was crowded end to end with the most inviting food she had ever seen. A dazzling melange of meats and vegetables, soups and desserts, stretched the entire length of the room, tempting her to draw closer, to sample the array of smells and tastes. Breads, dark and light, were piled next to succulent cheeses of every variety, and the board groaned with meatpies and mouth-watering cakes so cleverly fashioned in the shapes of flowers and animals that they took her breath away. The assault to her nostrils made her shrunken stomach rumble with pain. She was so hungry, was always so hungry, she knew that if she began eating she would never stop. She reached for a fat capon, and-
"Wake up, you bitch!" A violent boot kicked her shackled feet. She jerked, still curled up on her side, her mind springing to groggy wakefulness.
John Grey, captain of the guard, hulked over her with his hands on his hips, a threatening grin spread toothlessly across that familiar beard. His large body emitted the nauseating odors of urine that had dried to a dark patch across his codpiece and the crusted perspiration of many seasons. Between green stumps that were once teeth a morsel of heavy sausage clung, mocking her empty belly, and even at this distance she could smell the foulness in his breath. Hatred gleamed in soul-dead blue eyes embittered by longtime service in his king's wars, years which had given him and his comrades a crude fluency in the French language.
He grabbed her tunic with both hands and pulled her to a standing position. The long, greasy blond hair hanging to his shoulders brushed against her cheek as she inhaled his stench.
The shackles around her wrists clinked a little as she pulled herself free of his grasp. "What is it this time?" she asked testily, her words escaping into the freezing air in small puffs. Although she swayed a little from exhaustion and lack nourishment, she was full awake now, and vigilant.
"New orders," he barked. "We're to smear you with sulfur and burn you this very night."
She reeled with confusion. Not long ago the guards had told her that she had been ransomed and would be freed within the hour. At that time, her hopes had risen in a prayer of thanksgiving. The King had delivered her! How they had laughed when the time came for them to inform her that there would be no release and she realized that they had been playing with her.
Now they were telling her the opposite. Was this another cruel hoax, or the truth? Catherine had promised that she would not be executed. Yet in Grey's humorless eyes there was no reprieve, no hint of mercy. It had really come this time; his menacing triumph meant that this was no jest.
She sank to her knees and made the Sign of the Cross. Oh, God, she prayed, give me the courage to bear Your will!
A burst of raucous laughter came from the three English soldiers. She raised her head and saw that the other two were still sitting on their stools next to the door, with tears streaming down their cheeks as they cackled at their joke. Grey's savage grin ridiculed her, and he waved a dismissive hand.
Turning his back to her, he sauntered across the straw-heaped floor to join his friends. He sat down on the third stool and reached for a mug of the potent English ale that waited on the narrow table where he and his comrades took their meals. After taking a long pull, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
"Had you going there, didn't l?" he rasped in his thickly accented French. A conspiratorial glance set the others into another gale of oafish laughter. She could hear even John Barrow-on guard outside the cell-chortling at the jest.
She eased herself onto the block to which she was chained, and hugged the warmth of her body against the bitter wind. Her first night here, they had stolen the warm cloak given her by the lady from Abbeville.
"It is a sin to mistreat me so." She frowned, relief slowing her heartbeat and emboldening her speech. "You should all beg God's forgiveness."
"Oh, should we, you French slut?" asked William Talbot, youngest of the three, whom the others called Billy. "Who the bloody hell do you think you are to lecture us about sin and God, when it's you who's the bleeding witch?"
"I am not a witch." Her face burned with indignation. "I am a prisoner of your little king. I have been unjustly accused, but God has told me that I shall be delivered from all this."
"Oh, yes?" Grey queried sarcastically. "And when will that be, I wonder?"
"In God's time. Within three months."
"Rubbish," countered Julian Floquet, whose ample girth reminded her of Tremoille, the King's Chancellor. "The only release you'll have is when the Church condemns you and we get the chance to send you to Hell where you belong."
"I'm already in Hell," she, retorted, "and you are all demons sent to torment me. But I shall escape. God has given me His word that I shall be released through a great victory, and there is nothing any of you goddons can do to prevent it!"
Billy hawked up a mouthful and spat at her. The spittle fell short and slapped into a foaming puddle onto the stone floor.
She had been in this place since shortly before Christmas. The benign summer in captivity at Beaurevoir had melted into autumn, and autumn had eventually frozen into bleakest winter. Upon reaching Rouen, the English had brought her to the castle and dragged her up the eight steps that ended in this hexagonal, darkened room, six feet across, whose only daylight came through a small slit of a window, and was further illuminated at all hours by a single torch in a wall sconce near the door. Her captors had flung her across the room to the darkness of the opposite wall. They clapped irons around her ankles, then chained them to a long wooden block, an arrangement that she would later find enabled her to take only small, restricted steps. Then they locked an iron band around her waist and slid another, heavier chain through the rings attached to it. Lastly, they fastened that shackle to a large ring in the stone wall directly beneath the arrow slit, making it impossible for her to avoid the blasts of cold wind that whistled into the cell from the north. They wound a longer chain about her body at night.
These five jailers, John Grey and his comrades-two of whom stood guard outside the cell at all times-were soldiers in the English army attached to Richard Beauchamp, earl of Warwick and loyal lieutenant to the duke of Bedford. With his superior gone to take the field against the loyalist French, Warwick was guardian to the royal ward Henry. He was said to be fiercely dedicated to his king and his overlord and would unhesitatingly carry out amy orders they commanded. The woman could well believe him capable of anything. She had discovered that the moment she reached Rouen, when he rushed to view the witch for himself.
He had stood over her, tall and well built, with a handsome nose and close set gray eyes, holding a torch while they shackled her to the far wall, his steady gaze as cold as the December wind and empty of pity for his prized captive. He said nothing, just peered at her for a moment before he left. But it was enough. She had seen the leader; it was foregone that his men would be the same, or worse. Her dismaying intuition proved correct, for though she had found the English in general to be as hardened to charity as he, these in her cell were the lowest of them all.
No matter how fiercely she tried to forgive them as she knew a Christian should, she could not stop herself from hating these vile men. It was not so much because all three of her guards were filthy, clad as they were in breeches worn every day for the years since they were last acquainted with soap and water. She was not clean either. The rancid odors of long-unwashed bodies crowded the cell, and now it was only when one of them moved, fouling the already fetid air, that she even noticed their filth any longer. Sharing their condition, she did not fault them for it. She detested these men because their minds were as loathsome as their persons.
Sleep, chief among the things for which she yearned, was her enemy, for it was while she dozed that she was most vulnerable to their predatory mischief. The original denizens of her cell had attempted outright rape shortly after she arrived, and it was only through God's grace that the earl of Warwick had heard her screams and run to save her. After rebuking the men in their harsh native language, which she did not understand, he replaced her captors with these, who while not making a clear-cut move to violate her body, nevertheless harried her ceaselessly. Even so, she needed to maintain watchfulness, for this was the deepest donjon of the enemy's rotting Hell. She kept the hose laced so tightly about her waist that the strings cut into her flesh.
They did not leave her in peace but always woke her through trickery, and it seemed that the Devil never tired of inspiring them to novel and disgusting acts against her. Sometimes they only brought unidentified men, English lords and a multitude of hard-faced churchmen, to gloat over and insult her. Worse, on other occasions the goddon soldiers disturbed her rest simply for the pleasure that tormenting her appeared to give them. She would fall into a doze only to awaken to a sword prodding her buttocks or tracing a line down her backbone. Or they would wait until she slept, then suddenly start banging their pewter cups on the door or the wall, frightening her back into consciousness. She often awoke to find one of them standing over her and an English paw stroking her thighs or her breasts. Once, she had wakened to the smell of excrement, and when she opened her eyes found a large human turd steaming on her chest just a few inches from her face. That had given them a new source of merriment, to see the abhorrence with which she hurriedly sat up and flung the thing from her tunic.
The reasons for their doing all this hardly mattered. She knew only that she was weary beyond her capacity to endure it. Imprisonment was bad enough, without the physical exhaustion that blurred her vision and left her lightheaded and confounded. She promised herself that when she got out of here, she would sleep for a week. And she would have that feast she had dreamed about.
The very worst of their outrages, passing even the sleeplessness they forced upon her, was the food they kept from her. She was given only what they did not want, remnants of poorly cooked meat clinging to capon skeletons and legs of lamb, every now and then a hunk of hard bread. In the beginning she had disdained their leavings, too proud to let them know how hungry she was. But now she prayed that when they tossed the bones to her, something edible would remain for her to gnaw upon. Memories of even the simplest meals long past haunted her daily life, and she would have wept for what she could no longer have if she had not promised herself that she would never give her enemies the satisfaction of seeing her occasional despair. Tears could never move to pity those so far from God's love. When hatred began to stir within her, Marguerite returned to counsel charity, reminding her that these were lost souls who despised themselves for their very lack of compassion.
Although she had difficulty hearing Them through the constant disturbances and her mind-numbing terror, she was certain that her Counsel were always with her. They were her courage and her shield, pristine moonbeams from God gleaming through the swamp that had become her life, and without Their steady love and sustenance, she knew that she would readily tumble into a raving, black madness. Even as she sat upon the block that held her shackled feet, warily eyeing the despicable creatures who guarded her, she inwardly chanted her connection to God, and to Them.
Lord Jhesus is my strength, I will fear no evil, Lord Jhesus is my strength . . .
Beautiful child of God you are His own precious one, His soldier and His jewel
Deliver me from this evil, I beg you! I don't know how long I can endure it.
AS WE HAVE PROMISED, IN GOD'S TIME A GREAT VICTORY SHALL LIBERATE YOU. BEAR YOUR MARTYRDOM WITH FAITH, AND HE WILL HELP YOU TO COME INTO THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.
What can I do to help myself?
"We're going to burn you, witch," hissed a voice beneath the flickering torch Billy's malicious giggle chattered at her from across the room.
She made herself ignore them. She strained to hear further.
YOUR ACCUSERS WILL BRING YOU BEFORE THEM TO CONFRONT THEIR LIES, AND WHEN THEY DO, YOU MUST ANSWER THEM BOLDLY. REMEMBER THAT THEY DO NOT HAVE THE POWER TO HARM YOUR SOUL.
When does it begin?
THEIR AGENTS APPROACH YOU EVEN NOW.
Footsteps sounded upon the flagstone steps leading to the cell, and a man said to the guards outside the room, "Open up, in the name of Bishop Cauchon."
She could see torchlight and a flash of unfamiliar faces through the barred window near the top of the door. A key rattled in the lock and the guard swung it open. Three of them, monks this time. Two wore the dark-hooded white robes of the Dominican Order, while the third was clad in a simple black tunic. A round cap hugged his head, and there was a silver cross swinging from his neck.
They passed the jailers and walked toward her. At one time she would have stood in the presence of priests, but she had become so accustomed to their comings and goings that they no longer awed her, and these men of the Church were no doubt her adversaries. Besides, she was weaker than she wanted to admit, so feeble that when she stood up at all her knees buckled. So she remained sitting.
"Jehanne, I am Brother Martin Ladvenu," said the shorter Dominican. His smile was kind, almost tender, in a thin face whose dominant feature was pensive brown eyes. "This is Brother Isambard de la Pierre," he introduced the other white-robed monk, heavier in build than Ladvenu.
"And I am Brother Jehan Massieu," said the man in black. An aspect of sad humility rounded his shoulders.
"We have come to summon you officially to appear tomorrow morning at eight o'clock before the ecclesiastical court," Ladvenu said. "Do you understand?"
"Yes," she answered. "I am to be put on trial. Are you my judges?"
"No," said Isambard, taking in her worn appearance. "Brother Martin and I are assessors who will counsel the court in matters of canon law, and Brother Massieu will be your usher, your escort to and from the proceedings."
A corner of her mouth went up. "Who have you assigned to counsel me?"
Ladvenu shifted his feet and crossed his arms. An uncomfortable look darted from Massieu to the Dominicans. "I am sure that the court will appoint someone of your choosing," Isambard replied.
She sighed. "It is not necessary. I have my own Counsel."
"As you wish."
She could feel something, elusive, tantalizing, that made them different from the gloating churchmen who had been to see her earlier. Ladvenu and Massieu looked almost as though they did not want to be here. Isambard, the tallest and somehow more like the others than his companions, stared at her with cool, gray eyes. "Do you accept the summons?" he asked.
She nodded, aware that she had no other choice.
"Is there anything you need?" Ladvenu tossed a glance at the indifferent guards. "Can we bring you anything?"
"I would like very much to hear Mass, Brother, and to take Holy Communion. It has been a long time since I was allowed that. Even at Christmas, the English did not let me."
The monks exchanged a swift look among themselves. Isambard could not meet her pleading expression and cast his eyes at the irons around her wrists.
"We shall tell the bishop that you asked for the Holy Sacrament," responded Ladvenu in a low voice. "Meanwhile, bless you, child." He made a Sign of the Cross over her, a small one so the guards would not notice. And then the men of the Church turned away quickly and departed from her.
Oh, please, dear God, make them allow me to receive Your Son. Give me that at least.
"We're going to burn you, witch." Floquet moved one cheek on his stool and farted loudly. His comrades laughed.
She eased herself off the block without taking her eyes from the soldiers, and moved into a seat against the wall with her knees drawn up to her chin. She knew instinctively that they had had their fun and, for a while at least, would not disturb her further. It would be all right for her to nap a little before they locked her in chains for the night.