Fandom: Dorothy Dunnett - The Lymond Chronicles
Pairing: Philippa/Marthe

Rating: R
Wordcount: 11,500
Summary: London 1587. A Crawford, a fair Crawford, unmistakable as a parakeet among pigeons.
Warnings: for post canon spoilers. In addition, for character death, before the start of this story: Francis Crawford, and by implication Sybilla.
Thanks: to amber1960, for the absolutely superb art (posted here) - in a canon without visual reference. It's so very beautifully done, gorgeous, gorgeous images. And to lferion - thank you very much for the discussion! Also to queenmidalah for history_bigbang - the most relaxed big bang I've ever written. Thank you so, so much.

 



 



 

 

The river was quiet at Greenwich, the court absent and the fleet still refitting after the winter storms, but by Grey's Wharf the raucous costermongers were paddling their way from shore to shore with cargoes of paper and oranges, felted wool and oysters and meat on the hoof. Two barges bound for Ghent and the Flemish markets heeled into the sharp February wind, the red of their sails a pointed silhouette against the blue of the sky, and in their wake the Charterhouse ferry bustled across the Thames with a cargo of clerks and merchants. Stately and canopied amidst the shallow-drafted hired cutters and rowing boats, a single private wherry slipped along the far bank, the pennants of her rigging jousting with the flags of the waterside warehouses and of the great walls and ramparts of the Tower of London.

Philippa, travelling on the rise of a spring tide with an unfortunately windblown coif and a cloak of good Midculter wool clasped securely over her coffer of neatly drawn maps, idly noted both commerce and construction, mapped the new wharves and the bustling harbour front, and ignored the curious shouts of half a dozen urchins mudlarking below Greyfriars. For a few precious moments she allowed herself to imagine that she was not merely returning to the Dormer's comfortable Savoy townhouse, but embarking on a voyage to lands yet undiscovered. A new Virginia, a new El Dorado, a terra incognita of her own finding. If the harvest this year was good, if the wind was in the right quarter, if Kuzum might be persuaded to leave his Gilles and their two small, untidy children, the joy and stay of Philippa's heart....

She was forty-eight years old and sadly stout, given to reading glasses and early nights, and her adventures these days were of the mind and not the body. 'Francis,' Philippa sighed, rueful, her hands on the maps they had drawn up together. 'Francis, we should have grown old together, you and I.'

Impossible so to dream. But as if the moment conjured her husband's ghost, a stray flash of sunlight struck through the darkness of the clouds and, under the massive walls of the Tower, picked out one graceful, blond haired figure amongst a shadowed crowd of guards and functionaries. Terrifyingly aware of a resemblance which could only be mistaken, Philippa, her breath stopped in her throat and her heart silent as a stricken drum, flung up a hand to stay the boatmen. The walls of the Tower were massive, the riverside postern gate shadowed, and the hustling guards in their English steel crowded both stair and stave, but against the stern grey of Queen Elizabeth's fortress that one figure stood out, hair flared as pale a gold as the winter sun. Surrounded by guards, it was impossible for Philippa to see more than that instantly arresting colour, and when the fleeting sunlight faded, guards and prisoner alike were dull figures set against the barred gate and the darkened, mossy stonework of the Tower. The riverside steps they descended were stained with weed and the unpleasant flotsom of the Thames, the stonework grimed with smoke, and in shadow that singular figure was almost indistinguishable. Then the guards parted, and Philippa, cold and hurt with loss, could see the figure she had yearned to see - not Francis, never Francis - was a woman. A tall woman, in an unremarkable fustian gown.

Yet although few prisoners left the Tower alive, fewer still free, this woman walked to the waiting cutter as if she owned the river.

Slow and unstoppable as molten iron, recognition came to Philippa. The straight back, the arrogant tilt of a chin, the fierce pride in the set of shoulders: the hair. A Crawford, a fair Crawford, unmistakable as a parakeet among pigeons.

Philippa's thoughts were all of Francis. Francis in a dark mirror, for that gleaming cap of hair, uncovered, that fine profile and wide brow were his, as familiar to her as her own. More. In that single instant of devastating, disbelieving, unhoped for recognition - for Francis was in his grave, had been these eight long years - she opened her mouth to order the boatmen forward, to call them to arms, to fight as she had not been able to do eight years before for a life cut too soon short.

"My lady?"

This was not her husband. Could not be.

"Nothing," Philippa said, her hands suddenly so fiercely clasped under her cloak that her knuckles pressed against the worn softness of her skin. "Nothing."

For all their grace and charm, the golden Crawfords had never been a fecund race. In sum, her beloved husband Francis. Francis' father, the first Baron Culter; Francis' son her own Kuzum, safely and comfortably established at her family home of Flaw Valleys. Francis' full sister Eloise, killed when Philippa herself was no more than an untidy infant: his bastard half-siblings Francis and Marthe, the one dead in infancy and the other buried in the graveyard at Midculter two score years and more ago. Marthe, who had taken a shot meant for Francis and died in front of Philippa's eyes.

Marthe, whose body she had never seen. Marthe, who had Francis' cool composure and his biting tongue, his gifts of music and languages, his anger and his impatience, his ability to dissemble and his ruthlessness, in full measure. But not his grace to love, and be loved.

Seated on the plain bench of the cutter, the prisoner stared straight ahead, but the hands that held her shawl over her shoulders were, before God, the same fine-boned, long-fingered hands that all the fair Crawfords possessed, and the lines of her profile were the same as the face of the man Philippa had loved.

"No. Hail that cutter," said Philippa firmly.

"Ain't no use trying, m'lady," said the boatman, resting his oar. Already the tide was carrying them past the steps. "They won't answer."

"Call them," said Philippa. "Or I do."

His halloo was thin, but clear. Neither guards nor boatmen turned their heads, but, self-possessed as any noblewoman, the prisoner did. Thinned into austerity, the lines at her nose and mouth deepened with age and her skin as pale and fragile as that of any creature shut away from sunlight, her face was still recognisable.

"Marthe," Philippa said, on an indrawn breath that stuttered around the lump in her throat. "Marthe."

Her face blind and blank, Marthe acknowledged neither boatman nor passenger. Presented again with a profile as stern and unmoving as the engraving on a coin, Philippa tallied her assets, sat back into the cushioned, embroidered comfort of the Dormer family's second-best cutter, and said, "Take us back to the Savoy. Now."

 


~*~

 


Her position in London was precarious at best. An Englishwoman by birth, Philippa had married a Scotsman: her loyalties had always been personal rather than political, her allegiances fierce and private. In her youth, she had served both England's Catholic Queen Mary and her half-sister the Protestant Queen Elizabeth, treading a wary tightrope of religious and personal loyalty, although her balance had been honed in a harsher court than either Queen established. In France, following Francis, she had served the young Dauphiness Marie of France, and perforce, reluctantly, had attended that same Queen's brittle, doomed court on her return to Scotland. It was Francis, with his voluminous correspondence and both friends and enemies at every European court, who had played a political hand. Philippa's own interests had always lain elsewhere, with the explorers and cartographers, the philosophers and writers and printers who had been the friends of her youth, yet to be Francis' wife was to be, inevitably, ensnared in the deeds of Queens.

In the early spring of 1587, when Mary Queen of Scots' body lay still unburied in the great hall of Fotheringay Castle and all of England ran rife with rumours of Catholic rebellion and Scottish invasion, to be Scots and in England was to invite suspicion. To be Philippa herself, dangerously knowledgeable and of undetermined loyalty, was to give that suspicion a place by the fire and feed it bannocks and cream. It had taken sixteen letters, a pledge of safe-conduct and Walsingham's own hand on her passport to allow Philippa's own small English progression, never mind that the Border Wardens of the Marches turned a blind eye to the traffic between the Scottish Midculter and the English Flaw Valleys. To travel south of Carlisle and the Queen's own Border Guard, to enter London, Philippa carried not only her own official sureties, but letters of introduction and safeguards from half a dozen men and women whose names would be known to any vigilant officer of the law. Within the city itself, her hosts the Dormers had, of their kindness, vouched for her conduct and tolerated the single English man-at-arms who even now kicked his heels at their kitchen fire.

Any wrong move on her part placed not only herself, but her friends and acquaintances in peril. Babington's execution had shocked even Londoners accustomed to the casual cruelty of the gallows tree, but the depth and range of his and his co-conspirators' plot against Elizabeth's life had horrified a country and brought that sad, imprisoned Queen Mary of Scotland to kneel at the executioner's block. Neighbour looked askance at neighbour, strangers were barely tolerated, and the merest trace of popery or a Scottish accent would send a report straight to Walsingham's desk. To openly enquire after a woman held at her Majesty's pleasure was to wager for trouble of a kind Philippa could ill afford.

Not so her groomsmen. Born reivers, trained by Francis' hand and sworn to her service, in this as so much else they would be her hands and eyes. Yet even so, Francis' student as well as his lover, as if nothing of import had occurred Philippa walked briskly from the Dormer's private stave to their drawing room, sat through an interminable dinner, and retired to her own bedchamber. Only when the household was settled did she rise from her bed and, a single candle carefully shielded in her hands, exit quietly to the stables.

It was no surprise to Philippa, therefore, that on rising her maid brought news that one of her men, Hugh Ambrose, had suddenly succumbed to an feverish and likely infectious argue. Philippa sent compresses, tonics, clean water and rags, and kept both herself and the Dormer servants clear of the sickroom, for as arranged Hugh had left on the turn of the tide with a mission of Philippa's devising. Waiting on his return, riven with an impatience better suited to a woman half her age, Philippa schooled herself to shopping trips with the daughters of the house, domestic commissions and several voyages down river to Richard Hakluyt's small Greenwich cottage, where she and the cartographer argued amiably over the precise disposition of the Adriatic coast and the extent of the Moorish settlement in North Africa. Her disposition was sound and her complexion composed, but as February wore into a blustering, sharp March she found herself impatient at the restraint and tugging at the reins of her own caution. A letter. A single letter, an enquiry carefully phrased, the right ear to bend, the appropriate bribe: nothing she had not done half a hundred times in almost as many countries.

Yet she had seldom been so watched. Walsingham's amiable guardsman trotted still at her heels. The Queen remained at Hampton Court, and news from Scotland came through the censor's hands, Philippa's letters arriving late, opened and creased. From Flaw Valleys Kuzum's Gilles wrote, stumbling, in Latin: her sister-in-law Mariotta sent long domestic missives to which Francis' brother Richard appended brief greetings. Philippa bought herself a new hat, extravagantly purple and feathered, a new stomacher of the Spanish style, and sent home circumspect replies and three parcels of books.

A month later, in the teeth of a March gale that sent waves scudding over the grey waters of the Thames and drew the chimney smoke into scattered banners across a sky heaving with clouds, Hugh returned. With the Dormer daughters gathered around the parlour fire playing cards and the household shuttered down against the wind, the first Philippa knew of his arrival was a rattled pebble against her windows little louder than the rain. Peering out, she could barely see Hugh's familiar, stocky figure in the deluge, and of a surety Walsingham's man was not watching. She made her salute, startled by the depth of her relief, and received in return a broad wave which conveyed precisely nothing.

Many years ago, in a close room in Istanbul, Philippa had promised Marthe, "I would come for you. Were you imprisoned, I would come for you, for I know what it is to need help." Whatever they had said to each other since, whatever Marthe had done - were it indeed Marthe - her promise held. Philippa knew it in London as she known it in Turkey, waiting out the long hours of both nights.

Hugh, in the early morning light, looked worn but content. His bow was unforced, his hands unmarred, his smile still slow and sure.

"If I am paying ransom or begging Walsingham on my knees," Philippa said, "I would prefer to know now. Cushions may be required."

Hugh, accustomed to both Crawfords and Somervilles, merely snorted. "I take it the lassie's one of yours," he said, "She's a gie tongue on her, pressed. They've a mind she's French."

"Indeed," said Philippa.

"On account of not understanding a word. She's a grand gift of silence. Gi'n a rock thrown in her bed, mind, she curses a storm."

"Oh, Hugh," said Philippa.

"None saw so much as a fingertip amiss, m'lady, I swear, and I didnae mention a name. But yon lassie writes a fair hand and I'll wager a pig in poke she knew your Latin. I'm thinking she's the passel you'd be seeking. And it'll be this you'll be after."

Bringing a capable fist from under the bedclothes, Hugh presented her with a crumpled note. Unfolded, written in a neat, slanted hand, in serviceable Latin, it proved to be a comprehensive summary of the security surrounding a prisoner carefully guarded, but not beyond rescue.

"Hatfield House," said Hugh. "Gan ye wish us to be undertaking more than an exchange of notes, see." He shrugged, fully prepared for anything short of siege. Francis' man. Hers.

"How did you get this?" asked Philippa.

"Laundry maid," said Hugh, and grinned.

Philippa raised an eyebrow, reading.

"Aye, what you said," said Hugh, in perfect understanding. "And I'm thinking we'll be taking a detour afore we make Doncaster, m'lady."

Looking up, Philippa let herself smile.

 

~*~

 

The roads were bad, and worsened the further north they rode. Philippa, travelling for once in her life inside the swaying, rattling carriage that had once been Sybilla's, took to wearing a gabardine cloak and her new hat, deliciously feathered. Silently sullen in the muddied wake of her wheels, her English grooms and her English guard followed at a pace so slow they barely covered thirty miles a day. In Doncaster, caught in the rough and tumble of the monthly livestock market, they stopped entirely. Philippa and her hat went shopping: guard and grooms attempted to dry their clothes. The roads were tumbled with travellers, the inn crowded, and Philippa, perforce, shared her bed with an apple wife from Kent.

If somewhere between sunset and sunrise the dowager Comtesse de Sevigny grew an extra inch in height and lost three from her middle, in the teeming downpour and hustle of the inn yard, there was no-one to notice. Lettice Ambrose of Flaw Valleys climbed, her grin hidden under Philippa's dripping feathers, into Sybilla's carriage: Philippa dragged Lettice's Sunday best cloak over her head and swung herself up onto the applecart. Sensing a familiar hand on the reins, the solid grey mare in the shafts set off willingly in an entirely different direction from the little procession of English guardsman, grooms and carriage.

By the south gate, Philippa knew she was followed: half a mile down the road, she drew the mare to a halt and tore several strips off the two grinning Flaw Valleys lads who knew exactly which woman they had been trailing. Philippa had set her plans well, but she had not bargained on Hugh's steady hand, and when she set off again it was with an escort more amused than intimidated. In truth, given both the gold sewn into the hems of her petticoat and the four days it took, cross-country on sadly rutted roads, to reach Thetford forest, she was glad of the company. By Hatfield, her very bones were sore from the rattling of the cart, and she would have been perfectly content never to bed down again on a mattress of apples. But the roads and the battered cart were more than reason enough for the collapsed axle, an incident occurring as planned just outside the town boundary. The wheelwright was gratifyingly busy, the inn crowded enough to disguise her comings and goings for the week or so it would take for repairs, and Hugh, conferring over a shielded candle, had so exact a plan of both house and grounds he must have spent the last week sulking in the undergrowth.

It was not, of course, the first time Philippa had broken friend, relative or enemy - and which of the three Marthe was remained to be seen - from custody. It was the first time, for all Hugh's steadying confidence, she had done so on her own. She did not have Francis' experience nor his tactical mind. But she was Kate's daughter, practical, boundlessly capable; Francis' lady, accustomed to managing both estate and retainers; and of her own was the streak of reckless, stubborn faith in her own judgment and abilities. It was Philippa who drew up their plans, Philippa who argued her case and forced Hugh into reluctant agreement, and Philippa who, four days after the incident of the cart, dressed herself in her best homespun gown and became a laundry maid.

The best she could say of that particular role was that it was at least warm. Of the advantages of her position, though, the benefits were incalculable. Chronically suspicious of strangers, the gatehouse guards let her through with barely a nod. A basket of linen, clean or dirty, and an averted face allowed her access throughout most of the house, enough to assess Marthe's notes and add her own. One guard was careless, one inattentive, one credulous, one conscientious: their prisoner was co-operative, if silent, their host preoccupied. Her companions were incautious and cheerful, and the allocation of duties was unsupervised: Philippa, dutiful, took her turn retrieving the prisoner's linen, and in doing so marked both room and safeguards.

Were it not for the lack of freedom, Marthe would be comfortably housed. Hatfield House was new, the windows broad and glassed, the galleries wide and brightly lit. The roof was gabled, not crenellated, the grounds extensive and unfortified, the moat filled in, the doors unbarred in daylight. It was a gentleman's country home, built for comfort rather than defense in the long peaceful summer of Elizabeth's reign, and Marthe's locked room was guest chamber, not cell, heated and equipped with window, bed, desk and chairs. Her confinement was polite rather than punitive, which suggested that whatever she had done, Walsingham was either unsure of her actions or uncertain if further measures would cause a diplomatic contretemps. Either or both could well be true, although Marthe had ever played her own hand.

Of Marthe's identity, Philippa had no further doubt. The notes that came back to her, tucked into the folds of practical gowns and plain petticoats, were in a cramped, fine handwriting so similar to Francis' her heart stuttered over the reading. Marthe's French was precise and idiomatic, her turn of phrase intimately familiar, her caution judged to a hair's breadth.

"O gazelle," Philippa wrote back to her, in her idiomatic, half-remembered Persian, hoping Marthe would understand who was writing. "I am comparable to you in loneliness and despair. We are both alone, without companion, but let us wait patiently: by stratagem we shall escape the lion's clutches."

"O parrot!" Marthe replied in the same language, the strokes of her pen perfectly formed. "When will that time arrive that I shall join my beloved? I wish to go, but have not resolution: I know not what kind of fortune mine is."

When in doubt, Francis' immediate recourse was action. Older, schooled by one reckless Queen and one politic, Philippa stalled in notes of poetry and the art of war. "Know you not, madam, that, once on a time, a frog, a bee, and a bird, by means of their unanimity, vanquished an elephant... " Two weeks passed, three. Lettice would be safe at Crawfordmuir, Walsingham's man left at the border. In Hatfield Philippa carried a length of rope under her petticoats for three days before she could uncoil it into a basket of linens. The next day, a hook, a pair of gloves.

That night she and Hugh clamboured over the estate wall and walked, silent in the darkness of a waning moon, up the long yew-lined walk to the hedge of the knot garden. Almost surrounded by the wings of the house, the patterns of the raised beds were tangled with moon shadows, the patterned brickwork and mullioned glass of the windows darkly blank. No guard stirred in this, the darkest hour of the night: only the wind rustling through the leaves of the hedges and the faint bark of a dog-fox hunting disturbed the night.

She did not see the window unlatched, nor the controlled fall of the rope. Only, suddenly, there was a dark shadow where there had been none, steady and slow as it lowered itself down the rope. Hugh's grip tightened: Philippa's hands clenched in the pockets of her cloak. By the time the shadow faded into the pattern of the knot garden, she was holding her breath, and the wait seemed interminable. Can I get there by candlelight..

"Avez," Marthe said, under her breath, and proved herself almost as limber as Philippa's grandchildren, negotiating the long walk and then the bracken and brambles of the woodland. Half a mile down the track, the repaired apple cart waited, and with it Hugh's two Flaw Valleys stable hands and the grey mare, her breath steaming against the chill of the March night.

They had not spoken, saving their breath. But now, Philippa let the concealing folds of her cloak fall. She was, she knew, not the grave, untidy schoolgirl Marthe knew in Stamboul, nor the fashionable beauty of the French court. Above all, she was not, was long past, the crippled Philippa of Sevigny Marthe had last known. On her own resources of kindness and of intellect she and Francis had built together, with joy, and then in loss she had not shirked the burden of living. It showed: she was no longer young.

"So it was you," Marthe said at last, and put back her hood.

She had grown older, Francis' sister. Even in the faint moonlight, the line between her eyes was no longer faint but a slash of shadow, and the lines around her mouth, Francis' long, thin mouth, were carved into her skin. But her eyes were the same, so clear their very transparency was a palisade in itself, and her hands, the fine bones picked out by moonlight, were Francis' too.

"I told you I would come," said Philippa simply.

Marthe's laugh was short and harsh. "Should I trust - no," she said. "You did come, and I am grateful." But the tone of her voice belied the words.

"Save your gratitude," Philippa said, "You have yet to travel a mile in this cart. I have seventy impressed into my hipbones, and will never be the same again. Are you well to travel?"

"Well enough," said Marthe, and swung herself up onto the tailgate, letting her legs dangle over the road like a schoolboy.

Hugh's hand was already outstretched, and Philippa was glad of the help. Younger than Marthe she might be, but her back ached and her feet were sore. "I swear," she muttered, "Had I known there would have been the kind of adventures best had on a full stomach, there would have been cushions."

Behind her, Hugh clicked at the mare, and the cart shuddered into motion. One of the two cobs nickered softly, urged forward, but even the harnesses were muffled.

"Pray you we are not pursued in force," Philippa said. "I'd be thankful not to have to explain to their mothers. That's John and Colin in front, from Flaw Valleys. And Hugh was Francis' man before he was mine."

"I'd be glad to pray we are not pursued," said Marthe. Then, sharply, "You will reach Thetford in a couple of hours. Drop me there, and you can be on your way."

The cart creaked, rolling from puddled rut to rut, and the apples on which they say were already painfully uncomfortable. Philippa took a deep breath and said, "You mistake me. I have not broken you out of prison to discard you at the nearest port. I am taking you home, Marthe."

Marthe's indrawn breath was a clear as the hiss of a sword drawn from a scabbard. "To the sainted Sybilla?" she said. "No."

"No," agreed Philippa evenly. "I would not gift you to my sister-in-law. I am taking you to Flaw Valleys."

"Then you are a fool," said Marthe.

"But a fool with friends," said Philippa, and behind her Hugh coughed gently, one hand on the hilt of his sword.

Marthe said not another word for the sum of the night. Uneasily dozing, Philippa was nevertheless utterly aware of her, of the long stretch of her body under the folds of the cloak, the even catch of her breath and her sharp awareness. Marthe, dangerous as an unsheathed knife, Marthe, broken as Francis had never been, grown into a woman Philippa did not know.

She would be a wolf among doves at Flaw Valleys.

Dawn caught them outside Runcorn, where Philippa uncurled herself stiffly from the oilskin and took her turn at the reins while Hugh rested. In the half light, the boys stretched the cloth over the cart, so that at first glance there was nothing to see but a middle-aged tradeswoman and an elderly grey mare, and drew back to follow discreetly. Marthe made no protest: Hugh was snoring before the ropes were tightened.

They drove on. The weather was kind, and there was bread and cheese and wine, Hugh being far more considerate of his stomach than Philippa had thought to be. She ate with the reins in one hand and a hunk of black bread in the other, free as schoolboy, and for a while forgot her dangerous burden. There was nothing but the road, and the slow unspooling of the English countryside, the hedgerows and the woodland and the small creatures of both, the English hamlets so different from the fortified towers and bare cotts of Scotland, their strips of fresh ploughed land already greening with corn. The road was quiet, the grey mare quieter, tired but willing, and Philippa herself comfortable to live entirely in this moment, all planning spent.

But they had to stop for the mare's sake, if not their own. Unwilling to risk an inn, not so close, Philippa drew her to a halt in a clearing that must once have been a farmstead, judging by the overgrown ruins and the wall the stream bed had been deepened and lined. Out of sight from the road, they lit a fire, poached three rabbits and stewed them with young wild garlic, and let the mare graze. The night was fine and fair enough for all of them to sleep around the fire, and Marthe, icily sharp in silence, was not so spited that she refused the good oilskin and the extra cloak.

More astonishing, when Philippa awoke, Marthe was still there, a huddle of cloth between herself and Hugh. She slept with her head cradled into the curve of her hand, a child's pose, but the pale gold of her hair was almost white and now Philippa could see the fragility of her skin and the knotted bones of her hands. Marthe's face did not show her age, but her hands were the hands of a woman who had worked for her living. Philippa, ensconced in the security of her own home and Francis' money, had no such scars.

"The view does not change," said Marthe, eyes closed.

"I have a salve for those bruises," said Philippa practically. "And there are oats for breakfast. And apples."

"Such the diet of the Scots," said Marthe. "Avaunt, for the love of God."

"Best become accustomed," said Philippa, rolling stiffly upright. The fire had lasted the night, smoking gently from under the turves, and there was fresh water in the pan, but her bones had been coddled and she was sore and tired. "It's not raining."

"Is that an attempt at reconciliation?" asked Marthe, and the blue of her eyes over the oilcloth was wide and bright and depthlessly sardonic.

"I am not so foolish," said Philippa severely. "Even Walsingham does not bend the weather to his will. If you wish to wash, I have soap."

"In times of adversity," said Marthe, "God send a practical woman. Did Francis teach you to mend his socks, I wonder, for his entertainment?"

"I have other interests," said Philippa evenly, and turned to the fire.

Thus, it was a beleaguered and ill-tempered party that straggled up the backbone of England. The only mercy was that Marthe did not turn the blade of her tongue on Hugh or the boys, but for Philippa Marthe's defenses were fully armed and sharp. Defended now as she had not been in Turkey and France by her certainty of self, by her friendships and by Hugh's quiet support, Marthe's barbs still stung. There were moments when Philippa would have gladly let Marthe ride for the east coast ports, as she clearly wished to do, and evenings when she wondered what strange beast she dragged with her small party to Flaw Valleys. Accustomed to the easy companionship of neighbours and friends, how would Gilles deal with this wounded, toothed woman? Would Kuzum remember and resent Francis' sister for her part in the games of sultans and kings?

Yet still her own curiousity drove her onwards, that and the memory of Francis' face when he had shut the door, so very gently, on what Philippa had always assumed to be Marthe's body. It must have been then, could only have been then, and Francis must have known Marthe was alive and taken that knowledge to his grave. And what Francis knew, Sybilla would have known also, and yet they had both kept that knowledge from her. Inevitably, Philippa must itch at that scar, because she had thought all of Francis that he could give was hers, but that was not true. The lie of that truth rode behind her, kicking her heels at the dust and tearing into a fresh loaf of bread.

Even so, Philippa was convinced that if Marthe truly wished to be gone, she would be. Two boys and an old woman and Hugh: Marthe could have slipped away any night she chose, taken one of the horses and been halfway to the coast before they awoke. Marthe, it was clear, was as uncertain as Philippa. As Walsingham too must be, his prisoner slipped the leash and gone. Philippa had expected pursuit, yet the days passed, slowly, and the soldiers did not come. There would be a watch on the ports, she knew, and there must have been enquiries in Hatfield itself. Disguise herself and Marthe an she would, she could not disguise her own departure from London. Yet time passed, and the itch between her shoulder blades lessoned, although it did not leave her.

Neither yet had she asked Marthe the nature of her involvement in Walsingham's schemes. In uneasy detente, Philippa bit her tongue and stayed silent when the questions crowded her mind - where have you been? How did I not know you were alive? What did Francis know? Why did he not tell me?

And Marthe knew. By the glint in her eyes and the amused curl of her mouth, Marthe knew.

The weather held for them all the way to Hebden Bridge, and there, just as they crested the great ridge that spanned England from Carlisle to Seaham, it broke. Behind them, darkly beautiful, sunlight lit the farmland and woods of the south: in front, the sky was grey and lowering. The first spats of rain hit them sideways as they struggled upwards in the teeth of a suddenly vicious wind, and then came the sleet. The last twenty miles were a nightmare of mired wheels and balking mare, their cargo long discarded and all of them walking to spare the tired horse. The tracks they travelled were known now, the roads and pathways of Philippa's childhood, yet greyed out and ghostlike in the mist they took on an edge of unfamiliarity that made every struggling, windblown tree a waiting ambush and every looming rock a trap. Half-blinded, the wool of her cloak long soaked through and the leather of her boots sodden, Philippa struggled on, only partially aware that the hand on the bridle rain and the steady voice urging the mare on were Marthe's, that the shoulder beside Hugh's on the wheel was as often her sister-in-law's as her grooms. In was Marthe who lit the fire in the crofter's hut they sheltered in that night, and she who urged Philippa out of her wet clothes and into the scratching warmth of the bracken filled box bed.

Sleep rolled her under silent and soft as if she were in her own bed and Francis beside her.

Morning dawned as grey and dreich as the day before, but when Philippa ducked through the doorway and straightened up to survey the day, her heart was light despite her aching legs and blistered feet. They were less than a day's travel from Flaw Valleys.

"As men have died for love that proved unkind, Oh, may I now find rest," said Marthe behind her, edged.

"Better a dry morsel than a house full of the sacrifices of strife," said Philippa, turning. "An adage for every occasion, the curse of the Somervilles. We are seven miles from a bath."

She saw Marthe blink. Then, incredibly, Marthe smiled. Wry, soft, as if she could barely admit to amusement, the lines at the corners of her eyes curling into laughter, all her face suddenly softer. "An ass, a wife, a willow tree: the better you beat them, the sweeter they be," she said.

"I have always favoured the carrot over the stick," said Philippa, "Being indeed sweeter and entirely more useful. How are your feet?"

"Durable," said Marthe.

"An underestimated quality," agreed Philippa, and went to check on the mare.

They were a bedraggled, wet and windswept procession indeed that struggled over the last ridge and down the track to Flaw Valleys, but they were heralded. Two small boys dropped from the branches of Gideon's apple trees and ran for the house, but even as they ran Philippa could see her own Kuzum duck out from the kitchen door and behind him the smaller figure of Gilles. There were men she had known as boys come to take the reins from her stiff fingers and lead the mare away, Hugh's Janet bareheaded in her plaid, someone calling out for "Aunt Fippy!" "Aunt Fippy!" But caught fast in Kuzum's embrace, Philippa shut her eyes and let the smell and sound of home surround her aching body.

"We missed you," said Kuzum, his arms tightening a little before he stepped back for Gilles to exclaim over the state of her clothes and her hair.

"We lit the boiler this morning," said Gilles, "And do not tell me you walked all the way from the wall in those boots. There is brose and bread, and your bed is aired. Oh Philippa, could you not have told us what you planned? We have been expecting you a sennight past, and all Lettice would say was that it was a great jape and she is not giving your hat back."

"She's home?" said Philippa. "Can you send someone for her? There are things I need to know. Also, Gilles, I have... " She turned. Against the ridge, Marthe stood still, a slight figure half-hidden in the drifting fog and rain. "I have brought a guest," she said.

Exclaiming, Gilles yelped, "And you left her to fend for herself? Philippa, for shame!" She was already waving, and Marthe began to walk towards them.

"Kuzum," Philippa said urgently, to her adopted son. "Kuzum, I -"

But it was too late. Even as she turned, Marthe, descending, put her hood back, and even though her hair was plastered to her head, dark as an otter's, the bones of her face were unmistakable. Slighter than Francis she might be, but the set of her shoulders and the tilt of her chin were his, and the elegance of her hands, and the fine bones of her face.

"What have you done?" Kuzum whispered. "Philippa, what have you done?"

"I would like to you meet my sister-in-law," said Philippa, dryly clipped. "Marthe, you have met Kuzum before. This is his wife, Gilles de Montmorency. These two small boys are your great-nephews, Nicholas and Gelert."

"Any friend of Philippa's -" said Gilles, and then, "Sister-in-law?"

"You were in Stamboul," said Kuzum clearly. His stance had changed, stiffened, and his hand hovered over the place on his belt where his sword would hang.

"I was," said Marthe, her own hands deliberately open and bare at her sides. "I remember you."

And suddenly, so suddenly the icy wash of the thought flooded every vein in her body, Philippa remembered Francis saying, "Marthe knew." Marthe knew who Kuzum's father was, his birth father: Kuzum, who had been snatched from the clutches of the harem by her own efforts, who as a young child had stood side-by-side with that other small boy who might also have been Francis' son, the boy who had died. Kuzucuyum and Khairedddin, one of them Francis' child borne to him by Oonagh O'Dwyer, the black, proud Irishwoman Philippa had never met, and one of them Gabriel Reid Malett's and his sister Joleta's. In that fatal, wicked chess game in Stamboul, in front of Guzel, Francis had been forced to choose which child would live and which would die. Khaireddin, damaged, so silently brave, the child Francis had taken to himself, or Kuzucuyum whom Philippa had come to love. He chose Khaireddin for death.

Philippa had never known if it was Francis' son or Gabriel's she loved, but the point was moot, for by then it was Kuzucuyum himself who had stolen her heart. Yet it had been her mother Kate who raised Kuzum, even when she and Francis had returned to Scotland, and Francis, the provider of bird bows and hunting horses and swords, had nevertheless been an absent, disconnected uncle. It was Kate's husband Adam who had truly fathered Kuzum, and for Philippa, her affection had been given only in fleeting visits until Francis' death.

"Say goodnight to the dark," Mikel had whispered to that other small boy, holding him steady for the knife.

"Marthe -" she began.

"You are welcome here," said Gilles stoutly. "Come inside, for the love of God: I am shivering just looking at you."

Kuzum's hand dropped. He held out his arm, formal as if they stood at the door of a Queen's audience chamber, and Marthe, battered, proud, mud-spattered Marthe, looked at him as if he were mad.

Kuzum bowed.

"I am not entirely here of my own volition," said Marthe gently.

Head inclined, Kuzum waited.

"Crawfords," said Marthe, nodded, and walked into Flaw Valleys on her nephew's arm, her back as straight as if she were indeed a Queen.

"There is a story here you have not told me," muttered Gilles.

"There is a story here that is not mine to tell," said Philippa. "Only... be careful, Gilles."

When she had chosen Kuzum, Gilles had laid aside her embroidered gowns and her jewels, her courtly reserve and her father's hopes of a dynastic marriage, but she had been raised at court. Philippa had learned the arts of political intrigue, but Gilles had been bred amongst the entanglements and shifting alliances, the warfare and masques of Charles IX's glittering courtiers, and the look she gave Philippa was shadowed with the knowledge of just how dangerous the games of kings could be.

Then they were inside, and Marthe was already laying aside her cloak and her patterns and holding her hands out to the kitchen fire.

"Later," said Philippa, and then, "You promised baths?"

In her own room, the fire blazing, Sybilla's hangings on the bed and her own books and Francis' on the shelves, her own clothes in the press and her own paintings on the walls, Philippa could not relax. Chilled as she was, she hurried through her bath and almost fled downstairs, to find that Marthe had, like her brother before her years before, locked the guestroom door from the inside and would not be disturbed.

"Not entirely of her own volition?" said Gilles, and crooked an eyebrow.

"It's a long story," said Philippa.

"Given that the first and last we have heard is Lettice Ambrose's version," said Kuzum, laying aside his book, "Which was disconcertingly peopled by our beloved protector and contained more feathers than a hen coop, I should like to know if we are to expect a visit from the Border Guard? We cleaned the arquebuses," he added mildly.

"I truly trust not," said Philippa. "But, yes. You should know. Marthe is... disconcertingly alive," she said to Francis' son. "Given that half of Northumberland must know by now I have a Crawford in my train, there is no virtue in concealment. Yet - Kuzum. Gilles. I am not even certain now - I could not leave her there."

"Philippa?" said Gilles.

"I broke her out of Hatfield House," said Philippa. "And I saw her first on the steps of the Tower."

Gilles put down her stitching.

"Of course you did," said Kuzum. "Were you observed?"

"Not to my knowledge," said Philippa, and let out a breath she had not been aware she was holding. "Hence Lettice. Tell me the guardsman has been sent back to London?"

"Weeks ago," said Gilles tartly. "Along with an excellent horse and Jonathan Borthwick's second best Sunday hat, for which recompense has been paid. I gather Walsingham's hands are as tight on the purse strings as ever. We do not expect the horse back, but we did expect you."

"Hatfield was well guarded," said Philippa. "And Marthe... were I her, I would have learned to distrust offers of aid. I am not sure, still, why she trusted us."

"But you know each other," said Gilles.

"We do," said Philippa. "But I thought her dead, and she... who knows what Marthe thinks. I do not believe she was any more kindly treated by the Crawfords than by her own family, and of her grand-damme the less said the better. Sybilla knew more than I."

"How dangerous a game was she playing?" asked Kuzum. "Should we offer oatcakes and wine, or shutter the windows?"

"I do not know," said Philippa, and winced. "Hatfield was no dungeon. I am assuming something to do with the Queen. Mary," she added. "There were no charges laid of which I am aware, but Walsingham has never shown his hand when there was no need. But half of London is convinced the other half was involved in a Spanish plot. It might be nothing more than suspicion."

"Ask her," said Gilles.

 


~*~

 


She had visited Flaw Valleys, of course, during the term of her marriage, and while Kate and Adam had lived Francis too had been a frequent guest. It was after Francis' death that the house of Philippa's childhood had become, first refuge, and then once again her home. Flaw Valleys belonged, as it should, to Kuzum and to Gilles, and was all the better for their shared husbandry, but to Philippa lay the library and the music room, the archive of Francis' papers and the paintings on the walls. Her initials were scratched into the window seat of the music room, an untidy eight-year-old's carving, and embroidered into the bed hangings Sybilla had had stitched for her bed. Just as Kate had made space in her life for the small child her daughter brought back from an unsanctioned voyage to countries Kate knew only as traveller's tales, so Kuzum and Gilles had made space for Philippa.

For Marthe Flaw Valleys was no home. Yet Philippa, waking into the pale sunlight of a Northumberland spring day, woke wondering if she could make a reason for Marthe to turn to this comfortable farmhouse and its unassuming people just as Philippa herself did. Francis had at least had Sybilla's love. Marthe, growing up in that haunted, uncomfortable house in Rouen with the Dame de Doubtence's pagan gods and horoscopes overseeing her childhood, had no one. As a child Philippa had seen Marthe's calm competence and her strength, but as an adult she had judged Marthe's vicious tongue and her disastrous marriage as a failure of choice. Older, wiser, she wondered how much option Marthe had ever had to be anything other than her grandmother's pawn, a pale reflection of that first Francis Crawford, the Baron her father. A resented, manipulated girl child who grew into a woman strong enough to hold her own alongside Francis, but not strong enough to carve her own place into the world. Philippa had done that, but Philippa had Gideon, and Kate, and Sybilla, and then Francis who expected nothing less. Marthe had no resource except her own wit and strength.

Now, she had Philippa. A Philippa who was tired, and worn, aching in every limb and already regretting the spiced applecake of last night, sitting heavily in her belly this morning. Nevertheless, a Somerville, stubborn as a gate post. Stiff as one too, Philippa thought bad-temperedly, struggling into petticoats and gown.

She had thought she'd have to drag Marthe out of the guest chamber, but when Philippa pushed open the parlour door her guest was sitting at the table, staring at a plate of oatmeal.

Unwisely, Philippa laughed.

Looking up, Marthe's narrowed eyes promised vengeance. "Please tell me," she said, "Would the estimable Gilles be insulted beyond repair if I fed this slop to the dogs?"

"I think you might find other claimants," said Philippa. "The children eat in the kitchen. Pass me that plate, and I'll find you something else."

Something else was fresh bannocks and curds, watered wine and hazelnuts and a pot of honey. Shouldering through the door, Philippa was unsurprised to see that Marthe, left to her own devices, was studying the pile of books Kuzum had left on the dresser.

"You're welcome to read anything here," said Philippa, unloading pots and platters. "After we've eaten, I'll show you the library."

Marthe, turning back to the table, was frowning. "You cannot keep me here forever," she said.

"I would not wish to," said Philippa evenly, crumbling honeycomb onto her own warmed bannock. "Only until the hunt dies down. The curds are fresh, and the wine is from Sevigny."

"Francis kept the estates?" said Marthe. "A King's gift is never without obligations." Sitting, she crooked a skeptical eyebrow. "Could it be that his allegiances were even more tangled than I thought, sister mine?"

"Francis kept the estates," Philippa said. "And I after him. They will be Kuzum's. He was, after all, Scottish."

Marthe snorted. "As well call a cat French," she said. "Yet... I am sorry," she said. "Much as I disliked our dear Francis, I would not wish you the grief of his death."

Years past, Philippa could at last face that particular politeness with equanimity. "Thank you," she said, and when she looked down, found half the bannock crumbs.

"I would have spared him the grief of yours," she said, "But find myself forestalled."

"He never told you?" Marthe said sharply. "Never?"

"No," said Philippa.

"Dieu," said Marthe. "So... Sweet Jesu, when I saw you outside the Tower... "

"That was the first I knew," said Philippa. "A small miracle, in an age of them."

"And here I thought you two joined at the hip, as the celestial twins," said Marthe.

"I believe he made you a promise," said Philippa evenly.

"Ah," said Marthe, stilled. "You are, unsurprisingly, right. How irritating when one's best barbs are drawn."

"Not without pain," said Philippa. "Tell me, what did he offer? A pension, acknowledgement, a home?"

"You know him too well," said Marthe. "All of that and more."

"You turned him down."

"Should I take the crumbs from the Crawford table?"

"Sybilla had asked for you once, when you were born, and again when your mother died. She would have welcomed you, and you know it," said Philippa. "As she did Mariotta and myself."

"Sybilla. Everyone's favourite granny," said Marthe. "The bitch."

"You saw only the damage, and not the love," said Philippa. "There was excess of both."

"So easy for you to say, from the outside," said Marthe. "Tell me, did he make you happy, our damaged Francis? Was there enough of the man left after Guzel had had her claws in him? Ever a man for women, our Francis. Was he faithful?"

"The day you choose to dissect my marriage," said Philippa, "Is the day I dissect yours."

"Oh, do," said Marthe. "Tell me, how is the sainted Jerrott? Still pining from the bottom of a wineskin?"

"Dead," said Philippa shortly.

Had she known the word would hurt, she would have been gentler. Across the table, Marthe was as white as skimmed milk.

"I'm sorry," said Philippa, stumbling. "I didn't know - I truly thought you would have known -"

"So I am a widow," Marthe said steadily, "And Jerrott - what? Did he indeed manage to martyr himself before the sepulchre of the Holy City?"

"Algiers," said Philippa. "Francis wrote, and sent funds. Had he lived, we would have known. Dragut sent his condolences."

"Of course he did, the old pirate," said Marthe.

And of course Marthe knew Dragut, Marthe who had been the friend of Guzel, who herself had been Dragut's mistress. And then Francis'. Really, thought Philippa, one might as well start a zoo.

"Was it for Jerrott, that you asked Francis to lie?" asked Philippa.

"Hardly," said Marthe. "More that... I thought I had something Francis wanted. And he did not. It was a long time ago. I had more pride then," Marthe said. "If I had known then... it is not comfortable, under the yoke of the Guises."

"Kuzum's father is Adam," said Philippa, "In every way that matters, if that was what you offered. Do I understand the Guises are responsible for Walsingham's interest?"

"What does not interest the old man?" said Marthe. "Philippa, I will not disturb your son's life with stories that have nothing to do with who he is now. This I do promise you."

"My thanks," said Philippa.

"And yes, the Guises," Marthe said, "Although there have been any number of hands on the reins, and one of them your Queen's, the asinine, stupid fool."

"I trust you are speaking of Mary and not of Elizabeth," said Philippa.

"Of who else?" said Marthe. "To be so deluded... yes. Indeed, that particular debacle has Walsingham's handprints all over the mess of it."

"So it was him behind the letters," said Philippa. Those foolish, fond, treasonous letters, written by a Queen imprisoned to conspirators too young and too inexperienced to realise they were watched in every move. The letters which, in Walsingham's hands, had condemned Mary to the executioner's block.

Marthe snorted, amused. "I have come to believe the old man owned not only the letters, but the barrel they were hidden in, and the cooper who made it, and the horse and cart that dragged it into place, and all of us who carried those dammed words from pillar to post and port to port and in the end to an English traitor's death... I was reconciled to the gibbet," she said, "Before I saw you. Then... ah, it was your Hugh, was it not, who wrote first? I was more than half convinced he was a creature of the old man's."

"It was Hugh," said Philippa.

"And now of course, Walsingham has England in the palm of his hand, and Elizabeth as well." Marthe's voice was bitter.

"Do you feel so strongly, them, about the old religion?" asked Philippa, surprised.

"What? No. My loyalties are solely to the man who pays my wages," said Marthe.

"What about the woman?" said Philippa. "Or at least, to the estate? You would have had your share of the Culter estates, had you stayed."

"Francis' bastard sister?" said Marthe, and laughed.

"Francis' bastard sister," agreed Philippa. "It will take a while to gather the funds. Will you stay?"

She had thought Marthe shocked when she learned of Jerrott's death, but it was more painful now to watch the slow dawn of hope.

"You would... you would do that?"

"It is no more than your due," said Philippa gently. "Are you finished? I am overdue, I think, to view a much wanted new pony, and I have pledged you the library first."

"I am all in favour of honouring one's pledges," said Marthe, only a little unsteadily. "And I think... I think I can stay. For now."

 


~*~

 


To imagine Marthe at Flaw Valleys a wolf in the doo cot had been an axiom misplaced. Not so much a wolf as a hawk, sharp-eyed and sharp-clawed and silent. Of all Marthe's weapons, for Philippa her silence was the most potent, a brooding presence at the dining table, a locked door, an empty room that still whispered of the lavender soap she used on her skin. In the library, a shelf ordered, a book replaced: in the music room, a tuned viol, its keys dusted and its belly still vibrating with a tune that had broken off mid-chord, a part book left open at a song Philippa knew. Yet although Marthe's presence dragged at Philippa's thoughts, to Gilles and Kuzum she was no more than any other guest and more welcome than many. Marthe, quietly self-sufficient, sober, and possessed, Philippa knew, of a dry swift wit familiar to them all, was the ghost at her own feast and not her son's. Since Francis' death, there had been no music at Flaw Valleys. Yet somehow Gilles - or more likely, the children - had divined Marthe's clear, sweet voice and her stock, so like Francis', of song known and unknown. At first, she had been no more than a thread of rhyme in the orchard and the sound of Nicholas and Gelert laughing, but then from behind closed doors had come the faint singing run of Gilles' harpsichord, matched by Marthe's voice. Philippa took to retiring early, and knew as she lay sleepless the lost sound of voices caught in three part harmony. She had not realised, when she had cut, soundless, the ache of the music she had shared with Francis from her own life, that she would have taken it also from Gilles and Kuzum.

"No, don't stop," she said, for once swift enough to catch Marthe in the music room laying aside her lute, already rising to leave.

"I am intruding," Marthe said stiffly.

"No more than I can bear," said Philippa. "It has been... it has been a while, since I played. But if you can tolerate a degree of clumsiness, I might manage."

Tenderness might have undone her. But Marthe was not Kuzum, stepping so very carefully around Philippa's grief. Marthe merely sat, rearranged her skirts, and struck the first chord from a lute that had been Sybilla's gift to her son. "Bien," she said. "Commence."

Philippa did. Her fingers were stiff and her eyesight less sharp than it had been, but Marthe had no quarter, the beat of her fingers relentless and her rhythm dragging Philippa willy-nilly through the formal lays of the French court they both knew to the galliards and pavans of Elizabeth's masques and balls. Unpracticed, sore and smiling, it was Philippa who had to call quits, but afterwards - never heralded, never planned - the presence of one of them in the music room would call the other.

To give Marthe the keys to a door she had long locked was an element of truce she had not expected, but the unforeseen harmony of a shared trust within the four walls of the music room did not extend elsewhere. Aware as she was of Marthe's slow integration into Flaw Valleys - French pastries on the breakfast table, new designs for Gilles' tapestry, a parcel of books Philippa had not ordered finding a home in her library - Marthe remained obstinately silent to Philippa herself. Even as letters travelled between Flaw Valleys and Sevigny, creating the financial security Marthe should have had by birth, Marthe would not be drawn into any discussion not immediately necessary. She had no opinion on astronomy, on translation, on politics: to mention France was to see her leave the room, to raise the subject of their shared past impossible.

Yet when the siege broke, it smashed all barriers.

From Edinburgh, at last, came the confirmation for which Philippa had been waiting. Listed, valued, were the properties and funds ceded to the daughter of the first Baron Midculter, attested to by the third. Richard, honourable to the last, had written as well as sealed. The kitchen garden was empty, the music room silent: Philippa, searching, discovered her sister in law in the library.

"Marthe?"

Marthe, looking up unsmiling from the desk, was not the woman Philippa had dragged to Flaw Valleys at the tail of her muddied petticoats. Four months of good Northumbria food had softened her face and lent her slight curves a fullness that suited her figure. Her skin was faintly tanned, the lines at the edge of her eyes deepened by laughter that, unexpected, accompanied Marthe with Nicholas and Gelert.

"I have your papers," Philippa said, and was aware of an uncomfortable shortness of breath.

"What?" Marthe asked. "I have not - Philippa, there is no one who should know I am here."

"Your freedom," Philippa said, and unrolled on the desk the attainders and contracts that gave Marthe the lands and settlement she had been promised.

Marthe was silent. She reached out a hand, touched the edges of the contract where Richard's seal hung, Philippa's, Kuzum's. As if the swiftness of her mind had been slowed, she ran a finger under the words, frowning. Then again, her lips moving, as if between word and comprehension lay a barrier she could not surmount.

"It is enough?" Philippa asked awkwardly. "I was not sure. There was the option of selling the property and giving you the money, but so, you have the choice. If this will be difficult... "

"No," said Marthe, and her voice, low and hesitant, sounded as Philippa had never heard before. "No. This is. This is -" She read, slowly, through the first contracts, the deeds and attainders. The room was silent but for the rustle of paper and the click of sealing wax. Outside, one of the children laughed.

"I - Philippa. I -" but her voice cracked on the words.

"It is your due," Philippa said. "I am not giving you anything other than what should have been your own. This is not a gift."

Marthe laughed. Small, cracked. "As every bastard child is due?" she said. "Every misgotten daughter? Even the Dame herself... " She turned over the last sheet.

Philippa would have taken that gift back, then, if she could, but the paper in Marthe's hand gave her back her grandmother's house, and the expression on Marthe's face was not shock but an aching, unsalvable pain. "The bitch," she said, and it was not to Philippa that she spoke. "See what your stars have wrought. Where is your own Francis now, Madame?"

"For all his sins," Philippa said gently, "He was your father."

"As much as Gabriel was Khaireddin's," said Marthe viciously.

"I know no other woman who could have made of her life what you did," said Philippa. "And part of that you owe to her."

"You can say that," Marthe said. "You. The rest of us were discarded stock. She chose you for Francis. And yet you have no children."

"I have Kuzum," said Philippa. "I am content. If your grandmother wished otherwise, that was her wish and not mine."

"How can you say that?" said Marthe. "Do you think that was truly of your devising? The Crawfords bred as she designed."

"Not so," said Philippa. "Over love, she had no power. Do you think it was solely her doing that your father Francis went back to Sybilla? I do not believe it to be so."

"Love," said Marthe. "You think she knew anything of love, that old woman with her ghosts and dreams? You think any of us know love as anything other than a childish dream? Love is nothing," said Marthe. "Nothing."

"You are wrong," said Philippa stoutly.

"Then how, oh brave Philippa, do you explain my face?" hissed Marthe.

"Is the sum of love fidelity? Do you think Gavin was faithful?" said Philippa, and then, stung, "Your Francis? Mine? Consider the only father Francis knew. Against what, exactly, do you think he set his life? No one would claim Francis held to his marriage vows. But then," she said viciously, "Neither did I."

 


~*~

 


She wept, afterwards, in the silence of her own bedroom, and then as she had learned to do in the harem in Stamboul, cleansed her face of all trace of tears. Marthe did not come down to supper: Kuzum and Gilles trod lightly around her absence, talking of small things, with delicacy. As she had not done, after Marthe had given her back the gift of music, Philippa retired early, although not to sleep.

But it was late when the tap came on her bedroom door.

"Entrez," said Philippa. The fire was banked, the candles low, but the wine was open on the hearth and there were two glasses, not one, on her dresser.

Marthe too wore her nightrail, and a blue velvet robe Philippa recognised and mourned, for the lines of it on Marthe's slim figure possessed an elegance she could no longer own. Then she saw Marthe's face, and had to look away. Her hand shook a little, pouring wine, but her face she knew was the face she had worn by Francis' side, unmoved, watching the politics of Queens.

"I owe you an apology," Marthe said stiffly, from the door.

"If I had known the hurt she gave you," Philippa said, "Or rather, the extent of it, I would not have given you the house. But it is yours. Burn it, tear it down. You are more than her puppet."

"Sometimes I find that hard to remember," Marthe said. "Is the wine for me?"

"And the chair," said Philippa, sitting on the edge of the bed with her own glass in her hands. She half expected Marthe to leave, but instead the door slipped closed and Marthe, on the same side, walked slowly to the fire and cupped her hands around the glass left for her.

"Ai, las! Tan cuidava saber, D'amor, e tan petit en sai," she said, low, but not bitter. "Forgive me. I am grateful."

"There has been little enough of love, courtly or otherwise, oh gazelle," said Philippa. "But truce I can offer. Marthe, you are free to go, but you will always be welcome here."

"Cabin'd, cribbed... " said Marthe, and then, "In truth... I have felt welcome here," she said awkwardly, "As I have not been elsewhere."

"The music," Philippa said. "The books. I would welcome your help with the maps, an you wished. And I noticed you capped all my best -" Philippa stopped, stricken.

"You're pale," Marthe said. She waited. Then suddenly impatient, "Philippa. You were so happy. Do you think Francis would want you to live like this, a whited sepulchre? Help with the maps. Do something other. Sleep with the stable boys, take up banditry, live."

Thus the knife. Philippa said evenly, "Widowhood makes for very long nights."

"Then lesson them," said Marthe, her eyes fiercely blue above the sudden flush of colour in her cheeks.

"As you did?" said Philippa. "Guzel? Gaultier? Jerrott? Francis? Tell me if your own advice made you happy, Marthe, because I am not you."

The clink of glass on stone, as Marthe laid aside her wine, was both familiar and startling. "I know that," Marthe said, standing. "And of all women you - I envied you. But yet, I am still unsure if it is not better to have known love and lost, or never to have loved at all."

"Jerrott," said Philippa.

Marthe's smile was small and wry.

"Ah, Marthe," said Philippa, and stood herself. "We are too old to be splitting hairs. The bottle is half full, and my glass empty: let us take it as read that there are secrets we both know about the other and will never tell. I do not trust you not to hurt me, Marthe, but I trust you never to pass that weapon to another."

She had come forward to stand by the hearth, and Marthe, watching, had slowly seated herself again. Kneeling, Philippa almost reached for her hands. "I hope the same is true," she said. This close, she could almost tell when Marthe moved by the scent of lavender, warmed. Gilles milled that scent in September, after the bushes in the knot garden had flowered: she made a seeded loaf, too, and every set of sheets in the house smelled of nothing but lavender flowers until spring. It was the scent, not of Philippa's childhood, but of the home Gilles and Kuzum had made of Flaw Valleys.

"I have never thought otherwise," said Marthe, and laughed again, a smaller, gentler laugh. "I should have remembered, and trusted you," she said. "Philippa." She was smiling still.

Then Philippa did reach out. "I am not Guzel," she said, to Marthe's widening eyes. "But I have some comfort to offer, if you will take it." Her hands, cupping Marthe's, were shaking, and her knees unsteady, but she could still hold Marthe's eyes. The fire danced: a candle, guttering, sent her own shadow writ large over the wall.

"I have little enough to offer in return," Marthe said, although her fingers had tightened. "Are you sure?"

"Yes," said Philippa, looking up.

Then Marthe's mouth came down on hers, gentler and softer than her brother's had been, and Philippa found her eyes closed and her breath stolen, for she had expected kindness, but not passion, and Marthe gave her both.

Afterwards, tumbled in the sheets of her own bed, astonished, replete, Philippa found sleep elusive. Her hands wandered over the curves of Marthe's face, both familiar and strange: the sharp bones of her nose and the span of her brow, the long line of her mouth softened under Philippa's touch. Marthe's eyes, now, were a shade of blue she recognised.

It was Marthe's hand that stilled her fingers. "I am not my brother," she said.

"I know that," said Philippa, and smiled, eyes open. "Neither am I."

 

End.

 

 

 


Quotes from:

O Gazelle
Qasmuna Bat Isma'il al-Yahudi

The Woman who by a Stratagem escaped out of the Lion's Clutches
Ziya al-Din Nahsabi

The Hundred Love Songs (LIV)
Kamal ad-Din of Isfahan

When I see the Lark Beating

Bernart de Ventadorn