The Prince of Poison
Enoch and England Book One Enoch. Suddenly the very name was a sunburst in my soul. I'd dwelt so completely on the fact that his death was a lie, that Richard had lied to me, that I hadn't been fully aware till this moment of the portent of that lie. Enoch lived, that was the miracle, as remarkable as if I'd learned that my father and mother awaited me at Wanthwaite. . . . There was a long hazardous road ahead with Enoch, and I wasn't ready to ride it yet. Meantime, it was enough to know that he breathed the same air I did, knew dawn and sunset, hope and despair. He might hate me forever, but I was still glad he lived. Now I must face the physical dangers at my heels. I walked to Sea Mew and mounted. Hamo and Bok, dressed as gardeners, mounted as well. Had the death knell stopped ringing, or were we beyond its reach? Above, an invisible lark trilled its song. "Where is the closest port where we might sail with safety?" I asked Hamo. Surprised at my purposeful tone, he thought a moment. "Bordeaux. It's the queen's favorite city, but she rarely goes there." "Which way?" He pointed directly toward the sun, where it already rested at a blinding angle on the topmost branches, and beyond to the long slope to the sea. "Stay low as we cross the mead," I ordered. Once again the world transformed itself, not from rain to tears or to diamonds, but to sunstruck sea spray. I bent and whispered to Sea Mew. "It's time to swim the channel, darling. Hoyt!" Ears raised with joy, he flew fast as a bird toward the radiance that was England. From Banners of Gold Enoch and England. Enoch and England. My head nodded to the rhythm of the hooves. You're being followed. You're being followed. I woke with a start. Ahead of me, Bok and Hamo were already dismounted--they'd heard it, too. "Quick, off your horse!" Hamo grabbed my reins. "Not here! Bordeaux!" The hoofbeats behind us were getting closer. Bok jerked me to the ground. "Into that oak--climb high! Quick, Lady Alix! It's your life!" He adjusted his noseguard. One oak among small pines. Beyond them, the sea washed a wide beach. Hamo barked from his horse. "Take cover--we'll avoid fighting if we can!" Both had discarded their gardening tunics. "We'll guard your horse!" They rode toward the north with Sea Mew behind them. I was alone, with only the pines, the oak, and a pile of brush on the scrubby landscape. My heart pounded like a kettle in the absolute silence--well, not absolute, angry rooks flapped from the oak and, on the far side of a line of spindly baby pines, the sea's hissing rolled and retreated. Now male voices rumbled over the sound of hooves. King John! Deus juva me! I dashed to the oak, tripped on my borrowed nun's habit, and fell heavily onto my gravid stomach! When I could breathe again, I crawled toward the oak. Too late to climb-- horses were here, the male voices clear--I crouched behind the thick trunk and just hoped it sufficed, barely before royal routiers pushed into sight. One pointed to where I'd dismounted. "Ils se sont arretees ici." "Pas pour longtemps. Tu vois les traces qui diregent vers le nord?" The first laughed derisively. "C'est sans doute un ruse. Le roi dit qu'elle essayerait d'atteindre un port--Bordeaux est le plus proche." Never underestimate his intelligence, I heard Richard warn. Aye, if intelligence be to seize the throne from Richard's unborn son I was now carrying, but to know I was planning to escape through Bordeaux! More than intelligent--the man was uncanny! At least his knights had been too distracted by the hoofprints to see me! Eleven horsemen had dismounted to examine the hoofprints. Suddenly they fell to their knees--King John rode into sight. He looked much as I'd seen him not an hour ago at Fontevrault, except that he appeared even more inebriated. Dressed in the long red tunic of a Plantagenet king, he held a flask in his glove, from which he drank before he looked. He'd finished his pork rib, though a faint dribble of fat ran down his chin. When he tried to dismount, he sprawled on the ground. "Bitte, je suis bourre!" He giggled helplessly. "Je suis dans le vigne du seigneur!" Two knights helped him to his feet, as if accustomed to this task. "Have you found the bitch?" the king asked thickly. The knight on his right, a short man with a nose like a parrot's beak, pointed to the hoof marks. "A trick, you stupid pissants!" John staggered along the tracks. "Her guards went north and she's probably hidden somewhere close." He looked up into my oak. "You find her knights--I'll take care of the slut." The man with the parrot nose had to wear his noseguard to the side. Nevertheless, the giant formidable destriers made me fear for poor Hamo and Bok. "So we're alone." John emptied his flask and tossed it away. "No hurry." He laughed. For the first time, I felt real fear; drunkalew he might be, but he was dangerous. "Time to fuck, time to die! After you give me the document you promised." He shook his head. "Oc, promised. And I waited while you went to fetch it from the convent." He belched softly. "Do you believe the philosophers who say that love and death are connected? Mesiphisically--metaphysically--do you?" He reached under his tunic to find his tool, then pissed into a bush. When he'd shaken himself dry, he whined, "Why didn't you give me Richard's document when I asked you at Fontevrault, eh? I asked you nicely, didn't I? That's all I want. Must I destroy both you and Richard's brat to get the will? My very first act as king and it's your fault!" He fondled himself. "But why shouldn't I? Comus, I'm king!" He whinnied in jubilant disbelief. "Only your silly bulge between me and security!" He guffawed louder. "As if my faggot brother could push his pathetic worm into your slit!" He staggered closer; I could smell piss, wine, starch, and rosewater. He stroked his part. "Yet somebody made you gravid, putaine, and you might be clever enough to fool Richard, but not baby John." He reached the oak. We stared at each other without speaking. He was handsome in the Angevin manner: dark blond wavy hair and beard, full firm lips, straight nose, fringed eyes like icy blue jewels, shifting triangles of sunlight. Yet his face was deadly, deadly and cruel. "Die." His low musical voicie caressed the word. "Oc, die." He belched. "Most beautiful damsel in all Europe, Richard used to brag. He was right and--unlike him--I'm the expert." He bent close to whisper. "Is your slit beautiful? Can it compete with a boy's anus? That was Richard's taste!" His beard smelled of his pork. "Your face, like a cherub. Aye, my brother sought angelic boys to suck his limp little cock." He put a finger to my lips. "You're about to have a treat!" He sank to the ground beside me. He reached inside his tunic and pulled out a sharp blade. "Don't be so frightened, sweet; this is merely to assure that you do my bidding." Now he fumbled for his cock again. "Treat, I'll give you a treat, and you'll give me a treat. I like your big titties--is that because you're English or because you carry a brat? French women have no tits! Curious thing, racial characteristics!" He nodded sagely. "Zample: all Normans have big horns in their crotches, like me. Richard was an Aquitanian." He raised his hips so his tool stood upright. It was, indeed, impressive "Grand, isn't he?" He stroked himself. "I call him Raoul; Raoul, meet the most beautiful damsel in all Europe." He reached for my face--his blade pressed the back of my neck. "While I suck your bloblos, you'll enjoy Raoul, my chauve a col roule. Turn around! And then . . ." His voice thickened. "Copulation, followed by death. God's feet, it's titillating, isn't it? Philosphers may be right!" Was I really about to die? Aye, I thought I was--was there no escape? I saw only one. "Suck my cock!" I bit Raoul hard! Blood spurted! The dagger fell to the grass! "Merde!" the king howled. Where could I hide? Everything open! Then, a rock, out in the sea! I ran toward the surf! Panting and belching, King John gained upon me. I sobbed--his hand clutched at my tunic--I wrenched away! Leaped over the pile of brush! "Merde!" Then suddenly everything was quiet. The rolling waves spread frothy fingers in the sand in stillness. I glanced over my shoulder--my pace slowed. Stopped. Where was the king? Was it a trick? Nothing but small pines, the oak, and the mound of branches. The king's horse munched at new grass. I glanced to the north for his knights, then moved back cautiously to the pile of branches between me and the tree. As I drew close, I heard him--sobs, curses, scratching sounds. The brush had concealed a deer trap! The king had fallen in! Aye, there was a clear hole where he'd stumbled. "My lord king?" I called softly. What would I do if he were injured? Cautiously, I peered over the edge. The hole was deep--even standing, John reached hopelessly for the edge. The pit smelled strongly of rotting deer flesh and vomit from former victims. John saw me! "Help me, Lady Alix." The king raised his arms, sobbing. "Help your monarch! You can go free, I promise on my word as king, and I'll not chase you more. Your babe can live--you can live. Please!" "Will you tell your knights to let my men go free?" "Yes! 'Tis done! On the word of a king! Please, oh, please!" His voice broke. "If you just reach your hand . . ." "It's too far--can you stand?" "I think so!" He climbed on the pile of branches that had fallen with him, then clawed on small roots along the side to pull himself closer. "I'll never forget, Lady Alix! Never!" he grunted. "Richard said you were an angel, and you are!" It was the wrong thing to say; I hesitated. Raoul twisted and turned his avid head like an adder. I withdrew my hand. "An angel, you say?" "Oui, une ange!" Now I was hedging for time. I didn't want his demise on my conscience, yet this man was an evil person, clever beyond belief, and he'd threatened me within the last hour. Yet angels don't kill. Nor do they get killed if they have any brains. "Angels never copulate," I whispered. "The nuns at Fontevrault said this. So I couldn't be an angel, could I?" Not an angel, perhaps, but not a devil either--I couldn't leave him to die. "An immaculate conception!" John cried. "You're another Mary!" "Only if King Richard was God, for this is Richard's child, the rightful king of England." I heard horses--quick, where could I hide? Not in the oak! The sea? Aye, the black rock loomed just beyond the surf! "Stop prattling like a pedant!" "Oh, not pedantry, my lord!" I rose to my feet--I must run soon, before I was seen! I called softly, "Your knights are coming!" "Your hand!" But I was running. Holding my document high, I dashed into the sea--Deo gratias that Enoch had taught me to swim! "Wait!" John howled. "Where are you?" The first knight broke through the bushes as I plunged. Tide going out--half crawling and half swimming, I headed to the low rock. Like the time Enoch and I had dipped into the Mediterranean long ago, I opened my mouth to cleanse it. I grabbed at an island of floating seapods so I could be certain of John's fate. He was already out of the trap; his knights pointed back toward Fontevrault while he pointed to the sea. One voice sounded across the surf, "No maiden knows how to swim!" "She's not a maiden, you fool! After her!" John seemed more sober and angrier after his adventure. But the knights argued about his royal obligations. Well did I know the routine, for hadn't it been mine until he'd stolen the throne? Still, he protested--like all his family, he hated to fail. This time he had no choice: he must reach Rouen before some other usuperer claimed the crown, there to be inducted as duke of Normandy, then on to Canterbury for the crowning. Yet he must also walk to the sea before he agreed to return. "You had your chance, bitch! I'm leaving Sir Christopher to finish you!" The instant he disappeared into the trees, his knight rode with all haste toward Bordeaux! Nevertheless, I was cautious. The moon rode high and still I sat on my rock waiting for Bok and Hamo. Should I leave without them? Perhaps they'd left without me. I couldn't blame them if they had; though I'd called them my "knights," neither was dubbed. And they'd volunteered only to get me to a port. Yet time was passing and I must retrieve my horse. I would give them three hundred more heartbeats. I was beginning to tremble. The recent horrors of deception at Fontevrault--a waxy Richard on his death bier, so like life, so really dead--was etched in my rational cell forever; yet why should I tremble? King John was only a buffoon! The real person to fear was Queen Eleanor; it was her poison I dreaded the most. John, though now arrogant of his new power, had created only mischief in his talented family--albeit vicious mischief--and had failed more than he'd succeeded. He was a mosquito to be smacked, not a serpent under my pillow. Furthermore, now that he was king by royal proclamation, he had to solidify his position, then rule. For him, I was a mosquito. Though I didn't covet England's crown except for my babe, I envied John's safe return to England. Whatever his problems, he wouldn't face a disenchanted spouse. I yearned for Enoch, aye, but I had to face that the feeling might not be mutual. Would he believe that I'd thought him dead? That I would never never have become Richard's concubine if I'd thought Enoch still lived? Or would he point out the truth that I'd been a willing--nay, eager--concubine of the seductive king? The truth was murky. I didn't deny that I'd yearned for King Richard's love when I'd been disguised as a young "boy" on crusade, but never after I'd wed Enoch. And I'd succumbed finally only because I'd been told that my husband was dead. And it was a Scot who'd told me--would Enoch see my side?From the Trade Paperback edition.