"My Lord, I am going to stick my fingers down your throat. I pray you will not bite them off." Alice crouched beside Hugh, turned his head, and pried open his mouth.
A moment later Hugh groaned and obligingly discharged the contents of his stomach into the chamber pot that Benedict held for him.
Alice waited until the first spasms began to ease and then she inserted her fingers down his throat a second time.
Hugh convulsed violently. The little that remained in his belly spewed forth.
Benedict looked at her, fear in his eyes. "Will he die?"
"Nay," Alice vowed fiercely. "He will not die if I can help it. Get me water, Benedict. A large flagon of it. And milk. Hurry."
"Aye." Benedict grabbed his staff, lurched to his feet, and rushed from the chamber.
He paused, one hand on the door frame. "Aye?"
"Tell no one about this, do you comprehend me? Say that I have requested the water and milk so that I may wash my face."
"But what if the pottage is poisoned? Everyone will have taken their morning cup."
"The pottage was not poisoned," Alice said quietly. "I drank a full cup of it myself only a short while ago. So did my maid."
He hurried from the chamber.
Hugh opened his eyes briefly. His amber eyes burned. "Alice."
"You are a very large man and you did not even drink all of the pottage, my lord. I have got most of what you did consume back out of you. You will live."
"I will kill him," Hugh vowed. He closed his eyes again. "My oath to Erasmus will not protect him after this."
"Who are you talking about?"
"Vincent. He tried to poison me."
"Hugh, you cannot know that for certain."
"Who else?" Another spasm overtook Hugh. His powerful body shuddered but there was nothing left in him. "It must have been him."
Benedict pounded around the edge of the door, breathless from the dash downstairs to the kitchens. He carried two flagons in one hand. "I have both milk and water."
"Excellent." Alice reached for the first flagon. "Help me get this down him."
Hugh slitted his eyes. "No offense, madam, but I do not have much of an appetite at the moment."
"My mother wrote that it is wise to give great quantities of liquids to a victim of poison. It rebalances the bodily humors." Alice cradled Hugh's head in her lap. "Please, my lord. I pray you will drink this."
There was still a sheen of sweat on Hugh's brow but humor glinted briefly in his gaze as he looked up at the curve of her breasts. "You know I am lost when you employ your fine manners. Very well, madam, I shall drink anything you please unless it be green in color."
Alice looked up at Benedict. "I do believe he is already feeling much better. Fetch Sir Dunstan. We will need his help to get my lord to his bedchamber."
"Aye." Benedict made for the door again.
"Devil's teeth," Hugh muttered. "I will not be carried like a child."
In the end he managed the length of the hall on his own two feet but it took Alice, Benedict, and Dunstan to support his weight. When he finally tumbled into his massive ebony bed, Hugh fell asleep instantly.
"Poison?" Dunstan stood at the foot of the bed, his hands bunched into huge fists at his sides. "Sir Hugh was given poison? Are you certain?"
"Aye." Alice frowned at him. "But you must say nothing of this for the moment, Sir Dunstan. Thus far only we four know the truth. I would have it stay that way for a time."
"Say nothing?" Dunstan stared at her as though she were mad. "I shall turn this damned keep upside down. I shall hang every servant in the kitchen one by one until I discover the person who put the brew into Sir Hugh's cup."
"Likely it came from Rivenhall." Dunstan's brow furrowed as he worked the problem out to his satisfaction. "Aye, that would explain it. Before he took his leave yesterday, Sir Vincent no doubt bribed a servant here in Scarcliffe Keep to put the foul herbs in the pottage."
"Sir Dunstan, that is quite enough." Alice rose from the stool beside the bed. "I shall handle this."
"Nay, madam. Sir Hugh would not want you involved in a bloody business such as this."
"I am already involved." Alice gritted her teeth to keep her voice to a whisper. "And I know far more about poison than you do, sir. I shall discover the means by which this deed was done. Then, mayhap, we shall know who to blame."
"Sir Vincent of Rivenhall is to blame," Dunstan stated.
"We cannot be certain of that." Alice began to pace the chamber. "Now, then, we know that only Sir Hugh's pottage was poisoned. That means that the herbs were either placed in his cup while it was carried to his study chamber or—"
"I'll find that traitorous servant," Dunstan interrupted furiously. "I'll have him hung by noon."
"Or," Alice added quickly, "the poison was already in the cup when the pottage was poured into it."
Dunstan's face went blank with incomprehension. "Already in the cup?"
"Aye, sir. The kitchens are a busy place. A few drops of a very strong poison placed in the bottom of the cup would likely go unnoticed when the pottage was poured into the vessel."
"Would a few drops be sufficient to kill a man?"
"There are some brews made from certain herbs that are so virulent that they retain their lethal properties even when distilled. The hot pottage could have activated such a brew."
Some brews, not many, Alice added silently. And the herbs used in such bitter potions were rare, according to her mother's treatise.
Benedict looked at Alice across Hugh's sleeping body. " 'Tis no secret which dishes Sir Hugh uses. 'Twould be easy enough for a poisoner to choose his cup from among the others."
"Aye." Alice continued to stride back and forth, hands clasped behind her back. "Sir Dunstan, I will conduct this investigation, do you comprehend me? Much rides on the outcome. War with Rivenhall will cost many lives. I will not have those deaths on my hands if there is an alternative."
"Rest assured, madam, there will be no alternative when Sir Hugh awakes." Dunstan's expression was savage. "He will have his vengeance as soon as he can sit a horse."
Alice glanced at Hugh. Even in sleep there was an unrelenting implacability about him. No one knew better than she that once Hugh set out upon a course of action, nothing could halt him.
She swung around to face Dunstan and Benedict. "Then I must act quickly."
Alice closed her mother's book, folded her hands on her desk, and regarded the young kitchen lad who stood before her.
"You took the green pottage to Sir Hugh this morning, Luke?"
"Aye, m'lady." Luke grinned proudly. "I have been assigned the duty of taking his pottage to him every morning."
"Who instructed you in that duty?"
Luke gave her a quizzical look. "Master Elbert, of course."
"Tell me, Luke, did you stop to talk to anyone on your way to Lord Hugh's study chamber today?"
"Nay, m'lady." Alarm appeared in Luke's eyes. "I did not pause at all, I swear it. I went directly to his chamber, just as I was bid. I vow, the pottage was still warm when I got there. If it was cold when his lordship drank it, it was not my fault, m'lady."
"Calm yourself, Luke. The pottage was warm enough," Alice assured him gently.
Luke brightened. "Lord Hugh is pleased with my service?"
"I would say that he was quite astonished by it this morning."
"In that case, mayhap Master Elbert will soon allow me to serve in the great hall," Luke said happily. " 'Tis my greatest ambition. 'Twill make my mother proud."
"I'm certain that you will realize your goal one of these days, Luke. You seem a determined lad."
"I am, my lady," Luke assured her with great fervor. "Lord Hugh told me that the secret of every man's true strength, regardless of his station in life, lies in his determination and will. If they be powerful, he can achieve his ends."
In spite of her anxious mood, Alice smiled fleetingly at the thought of Hugh dispensing advice to a kitchen boy. "That certainly has the ring of something Lord Hugh would say. When did he give you this bit of wisdom?"
"Yesterday morning when I asked him how he could stomach the green pottage every day. I never touch the stuff myself."
Alice sighed. "You may go back to your duties now, Luke."
Alice waited until Luke had bustled out of her study chamber before she opened the handbook again. One question had been answered, she thought. Luke was an honest boy. She believed him when he claimed that he had not met anyone en route to Hugh's study chamber.
That meant the poison had not been added to the cup after the pottage had been poured into it.
Which, in turn, told her that she was searching for a poison that could have been deposited, unnoticed, in the bottom of the clean cup. It would need to be a brew so powerful that only a few drops were required to achieve illness or death.
She squeezed her eyes shut at the thought that she could so easily have lost Hugh. A terrible shiver of dread went through her.
She had to discover the would-be murderer before he or she could strike again. She had to find the poisoner before Hugh laid siege to his blood kin and destroyed forever any hope of peace between Rivenhall and Scarcliffe.
Alice forced herself to concentrate on the notes her mother had made concerning the herb banewort.
When prepared according to this recipe, a small amount can ease severe pain in the bowel. Too much, however, will kill…
A discreet knock on the door announced another visitor.
"Enter," Alice called, not taking her eyes from the page.
Elbert stuck his head around the door. "You sent for me, my lady?"
"Aye, Elbert." Alice glanced up. "I want you to see to it that every dish and cup in this household is scrubbed today before another meal is served."
"But all of the dishes and cups are always washed after every meal, my lady, just as you specified," Elbert stammered, clearly confused by the instruction.
"I know, Elbert, but I want them washed again today before the midday meal. Is that clear?"
"Aye, m'lady. Before the meal. I shall give the orders at once. Will there be anything else?"
Alice hesitated. "Lord Hugh will not dine with the household today. He is in his bedchamber and does not wish to be disturbed."
Elbert was immediately alarmed. "Is something wrong, my lady?"
"Nay. He has taken a slight chill. I have given him a tonic. He should be well on the morrow."
Elbert's face cleared. "Shall I send some more green pottage to his chamber?"
"I do not think that will be necessary. Thank you, Elbert. You may go. Do not forget to have the dishes, mugs, and cups washed immediately."
"Aye, my lady. It will be done at once." Elbert bowed and left to carry out his orders.
Alice shook off the morbid fears that threatened to overwhelm her. She turned another page of the handbook and studied her mother's neat script.
The water clock on her desk dripped slowly. Another hour passed.
A long while later, Alice closed her mother's journal and sat quietly for a long time. She considered what she had learned.
As she had suspected, the secrets of concocting a poison strong enough to be administered in the manner in which this one had been given were shrouded in mystery.
The fear of poison was common enough but in truth there was little real danger from it. The fact was, most poisons simply did not work well.
Contrary to what many people believed, the concocting of lethal potions was not a simple task. Only a skilled gardener knew the proper plants. Much study and experimentation were required to prepare the brews. Only an unusual herbalist, one who studied poisons and their antidotes in order to discover cures, for instance, or an alchemist seeking knowledge of the black arts, would bother to invest much time in the study of potions that could kill.
There were a number of practical problems involved in the creation of poisonous potions. It was exceedingly difficult to determine the proper dose. It was also extremely hard to refine the poison to the point where only a small amount was required to achieve results. And it was even more difficult to achieve a degree of reliability. Most poisons were notoriously unpredictable in their effects.
As her mother had written in the handbook, a person was far more likely to fall ill and die from rancid food than true poison.
Alice mentally outlined her conclusions. There were not many people in the vicinity of Scarcliffe who could have created a deadly poison and then found a way to ensure that it was administered to its intended victim.
Nay, make that victims.
For there had been two, Alice reminded herself. Calvert of Oxwick had also been poisoned.
But who would want to kill both an irritating monk and a legendary knight? What was the link between them?
Alice pondered the matter for a long time.
The only thing that connected the victims so far as she could discern was an interest in the Stones of Scarcliffe. But once Hugh had gotten his hands on the green crystal, he had ceased to search for the rest of the treasure. He did not even believe in the existence of the rest of the fabled gems.
Calvert, on the other hand, had apparently believed the old tale. So much so that he had risked the treacherous caves of Scarcliffe to hunt for the treasure.
The two men shared no obvious bond that Alice could discern.
She wondered if the truth lay elsewhere in the past. There had, after all, in this region once been another case of poison.
A short, cheerful young novice ushered Alice into the prioress's study late that afternoon.
Joan rose, smiling, from the other side of her desk. "Lady Alice. I pray you will be seated. What brings you here at this hour?"
"I am sorry to disturb you, madam." Alice waited until the novice had closed the door. Then she sank down onto a wooden stool.
"Have you come alone?" Joan reseated herself.
"Aye. The servants believe that I have gone out for a late afternoon walk. I must return to the keep as soon as possible." She wanted to get back before Hugh awoke. "I will not take up much of your time."
"I am always pleased to see you, Alice, you know that." Joan folded her hands and studied her with gentle concern. "Is aught troubling you?"
"Aye, madam." Alice braced herself. "I must ask you some questions."
"About Sister Katherine, your healer."
Joan frowned. "You shall ask your questions of her directly. I shall send for her at once."
This is impossible." The skirts of Joan's habit rustled as she went swiftly along the stone corridor. "Sister Katherine is a trained healer. She would not poison anyone."
"Do you not find it odd that she has disappeared?" Alice asked.
"She must be somewhere here on the grounds of the convent."
"We have checked the chapel, the garden, and the still room. Where else could she be?"
"Mayhap she is meditating in her chamber and did not hear the novice I sent to knock on her door. Or she may be suffering from one of her bouts of melancholia. The medicine she takes for it sometimes puts her into a deep sleep."
"This is very troubling."
"Your suspicions are even more so," Joan said brusquely. "Sister Katherine has been with this convent for nearly thirty years."
"Aye, that is one of the facts that caused me to wonder if she was somehow involved in all this." Alice glanced at the rows of wooden doors that lined the hall. Each was set with a grated window and opened onto a small, spare cell.
The hall was very still and silent. Most of the cells were empty at this time of the day. The nuns were busy at their various tasks in the gardens, the kitchens, the scriptorium, and the music chamber.
Joan glanced over her shoulder. "You said Lord Hugh's parents were poisoned nearly thirty years ago?"
"Aye. Everyone assumed his mother was the poisoner. She was said to be a woman scorned. But today I began to question that assumption."
"What makes you think that Sister Katherine would know anything about the incident other than whatever rumors came to her at the time?"
"Do you recall the day that I met her in the convent garden?"
"She said something at the time about how easily a man could sever a vow of betrothal. She seemed oddly bitter."
"I told you, Katherine suffers from melancholia. She frequently appears sad or bitter."
"Aye, but I believe that in this instance there was something personal about her reaction. She warned me not to put off my own wedding lest I be left abandoned."
"What of it?" Joan came to a halt in front of the last grated door. " 'Twas a practical bit of advice."
"She spoke as one who had been through the humiliation of a broken betrothal," Alice insisted. "I have begun to wonder if she herself took the veil because of a severed betrothal."
" 'Tis hardly an uncommon occurrence." Joan rapped briskly on the heavy oak paneling. "Many women have entered a convent for that reason."
"I realize that. But I wish to ask the sister if that was her reason."
Joan's eyes met hers. "And if it was?"
"Then I wish to know if the man who broke his vow of betrothal to her was Hugh's father, Sir Matthew of Scarcliffe."
Joan frowned. "But according to the tale, Sir Matthew never did break his vows. From all I have ever heard, he fully intended to marry the lady his family had chosen for him. Everyone believes that he wished to keep Hugh's poor mother as his leman. They say that was why she flew into a heartbroken rage and gave her lover a poisoned cup."
"So the story goes," Alice admitted. "But what if that was not what occurred? What if Matthew came back from France, discovered he had a son, and determined to marry the woman he had seduced?"
"You're saying that the lady to whom he was betrothed may have sought vengeance?"
" 'Tis possible, is it not?"
" 'Tis somewhat extreme," Joan said crisply.
"You said yourself that Sister Katherine is a woman who suffers from extreme humors," Alice reminded her.
Joan stood on tiptoe and peered through the grate. "Her cell is empty. She is not inside. There is something very strange about all this."
"It would appear that she has left the convent."
"But where could she have gone? Surely someone would have noticed if she had taken one of the horses from the convent stable."
Alice went to peer through the grate. "There is a sheet of parchment on her bed."
"Sister Katherine is excessively neat. She would not leave personal items scattered about."
Alice glanced at her. "Unless she meant for someone to discover it."
Joan's gaze grew more troubled. Without a word she lifted the heavy ring that was attached to her belt. She selected one of the iron keys from it and inserted it into the lock of Katherine's door.
A moment later Alice walked into the tiny chamber. There was little to be seen other than the narrow bed, a small, wooden chest, and the rolled sheet of parchment that lay on the straw mattress.
Alice started to reach for the parchment. She paused and glanced at Joan. Joan mutely nodded her permission.
Alice picked up the parchment sheet and carefully unrolled it. A heavy gold ring set with a green gem fell onto the bed. Alice examined it closely. "Does this belong to Sister Katherine?"
"If it does, she has kept it hidden all these years. I have never before seen it."
"It looks familiar." Alice glanced up. "I believe that Lady Emma wears one very similar to it. She said that Sir Vincent gave it to her when they exchanged their vows."
"Worse and worse," Joan muttered. "What does the letter say?"
" 'Tis only a short note."
Alice frowned intently over the painstakingly precise script.
The bastard son has paid for the sins of his father and mother. It is finished.
"Dear heaven, what does she mean?" Joan whispered.
"Katherine no doubt believes that she has had her vengeance." Alice rerolled the parchment. "She cannot know yet that she failed."
Joan's keys rattled on the iron ring as she turned toward the door. "I shall ask one of the nuns to talk to the villagers. Mayhap someone has seen Katherine."
Alice glanced through the narrow window of the cell. Outside the gray mist had grown darker. "It grows late. I must return to the keep before someone becomes anxious about my absence." Namely Hugh, who might even now have awakened and begun to plan his vengeance against Rivenhall.
Joan led the way out of Katherine's cell. "I will send word to you if I locate the healer."
"Thank you," Alice said quietly. "I think it best if poison is not mentioned, Prioress. You know how people fear it."
"Aye. I shall not speak of it," Joan promised. "God knows we do not need any rumors of poison spread about on this manor."
"Agreed. I will speak with you tomorrow, madam. Now, I must hurry home if I am to resolve this situation before a new storm is loosed upon these lands."
Benedict was waiting for Alice in the great hall. He greeted her with an urgency that spoke volumes.
"Thank the Saints you have returned," he said. "Lord Hugh awoke less than an hour ago and immediately asked for you. When I told him you had gone out, he was most displeased."
Alice unfastened her cloak. "Where is he?"
"In his study chamber. He said you are to go to him at once."
"I intend to do precisely that." Alice started for the stairs.
She paused, one toe on the bottom step. "Aye, what is it?"
"There is something I have wanted to tell you." Benedict glanced around quickly to make certain that none of the servants was within hearing distance. He took a step closer to Alice and lowered his voice. "I was with Sir Hugh when he fell ill."
"I know. What of it?"
"The first word he spoke when he realized that he had drunk from a poisoned cup was your name."
Alice flinched as though she had been struck. A great weight settled on her. "He thought I tried to murder him?"
"Nay." Benedict smiled wryly. "At first I believed that was his meaning. I told him it was not possible. Then he made it clear that he was asking for you because he knew you were the only one who could save him. He blamed Vincent of Rivenhall from the beginning. He never once suspected you."
The intolerable burden lifted from Alice's soul. She gave Benedict a shaky smile. "Thank you for telling me that, brother. It eases my heart more than you can possibly know."
Benedict flushed. "I know how much you care for him. Sir Dunstan says that a man of Lord Hugh's nature does not allow himself to indulge in soft emotions. Sir Dunstan told me that Lord Hugh scoffs at love and would never give his heart to a woman. But I thought you should know that he at least trusts you. Sir Dunstan says that it is most unusual for my lord to trust anyone."
" 'Tis a start, is it not?" Alice whirled and hurried up the stairs.
She clutched Katherine's note and the ring very tightly as she swept down the corridor at the top of the staircase. She came to a halt in front of Hugh's door and knocked sharply.
"Enter." Hugh's voice held a bone-chilling edge.
Alice drew a breath and opened the door.
Hugh was seated at his desk. There was a map spread out in front of him. He looked up when Alice entered the chamber. When he saw her he surged to his feet. His palms flattened on the desk. His eyes were savage.
"Where in the name of the devil have you been, madam?"
"The convent." Alice studied him closely. "You appear to have recovered from your ordeal, sir. How do you feel?"
"I have regained my appetite," Hugh said. "And I seem to have acquired a taste for vengeance."
"You are not the only one who craves that particular dish, my lord." Alice tossed the parchment and ring onto the desk. "Today it appears as though you were the victim of a woman whose hunger for vengeance is even greater than your own."