The Queen's Poisoner Page 2

And then the miracle happened.

It was the Fountain, she was certain of that. Somehow the babe had heard their pleading. The eyes of the dead child blinked open. Eleanor was so startled, she thought she had imagined it at first, but her husband saw the same thing. The eyes opened. What does it mean? they asked the midwife.

Perhaps he bids you good-bye, she said softly.

But moments became hours. Hours became days. Days became weeks. Eleanor glided her fingers through her boy’s thick hair. He smiled up at her, as if he were remembering it too. He gave her a crooked little smile, pressing his cheek languidly against her lap. His eyelashes fluttered.

“Maman! Maman!”

It was Jessica, her fourteen-year-old, running in with her blond curls bouncing. “It’s Papan! He rides here with a host!”

Eleanor’s heart seized with surprise and swelled with hope. “You saw him?”

“From the balcony!” Jessica said, her eyes eager with excitement. “His head was shining, Maman. He is with Lord Horwath. I recognized him as well.”

That made no sense at all.

Lord Horwath ruled the northern borders of the realm. Her husband ruled the west. They were peers of the realm, equals. Why would Stiev Horwath escort him to Tatton Hall? A stab of worry smote her chest.

“Owen, go with your sister to greet your father,” Eleanor said. The boy closed his hand on the fabric of her dress, his eyes suddenly wary. He balked.

“Go, Owen!” she bade him earnestly, pushing herself up from the window seat. She began pacing as Jessica grabbed the little boy’s hand and pulled him with her toward the doors. There was a great commotion as word of the duke’s return spread through the manor house. The people loved him, even the lowliest of scullions respected their kindhearted master.

Eleanor felt as if needles were stabbing her skin as she paced. Her heart raced in her chest. She was her husband’s closest advisor. So far her advice had steered him safely through the churning rapids of intrigue that had pitted the noble houses of the realm against each other in several brutal wars. Had that changed?

She heard the sound of boots coming up the stairs. Eleanor wrung her hands, biting her lip as she awaited the news with dread. He was alive! But what of her eldest? What of Jorganon? He had gone into battle with his father and the king. Why had Jessica not mentioned him?

Her husband entered the room, and with one look, she knew her son was dead. Lord Kiskaddon was no longer young, but his face had a boyish look that belied the bald top and the fringe of gray stubble around the sides and back. He was a sturdy man who could spend hours in the saddle without his strength flagging. But now his jaw was clenched and unshaven, and the sadness in his eyes took away from his youthful appearance. Her husband was in mourning. And not just the death of their eldest son. She knew at once he had news that was even worse than the death of their son.

“You are home,” Eleanor breathed, rushing to his sturdy arms. But his grip was as weak as a kitten’s.

He kissed the top of her head, and she felt the pent-up shuddering inside him.

“Jorganon is dead,” she said, hoping it was not true, but knowing that it was.

“Yes,” he said hoarsely, his mouth pressing against her hair. He pulled away from her and stared down at the ground.

“What happened?” Eleanor pleaded, grabbing his hand. “Tell me the worst of it! I cannot bear to see you in such anguish, Husband!”

He had tears in his eyes. He—who rarely showed his emotions so nakedly. His cheek twitched. “The king . . . won. The battle is named the Battle of Ambion Hill. It was a close battle, Eleanor. So close. A moment longer, a breath of wind could have changed it. A trickling stream could have overturned it. I wish . . . if you had been there to advise me . . . but you were not!” His expression crumpled and he stared at her pleadingly. “Forgive me!”

Eleanor felt her legs quivering. “For what?” she choked.

His lips were pressed so tightly they were white. “Horwath led the battle for the king. His men were hard-pressed. It looked possible that he would fail. The king ordered my army to support Horwath’s.” He shook his head as if he were still living in that perilous moment when all could be lost or won. “I refused.”

“What?” she gasped.

“The king is the last of his dynasty. His only son died a year ago. His wife died next—poisoned, they say. It seemed as if the Fountain had judged him and he was doomed to fail at Ambion. We both believed that or we never would have—”

“Shhh!” Eleanor warned furtively, glancing at the door.

Prev Next