"Is aught amiss?" Worried, Sir Kellen Marshall reached a hand to steady his wife. "Is it the babe?"
Catherine set her goblet on the sideboard, but seemed unable to take her gaze from it. "You switched the cups?"
"Aye. To give you the less cloudy, more pleasing drink. I’ll not have you drinking the dregs." He gave her a smile, hoping, aching to receive one in return.
Her face turned ashen.
Alarmed, Kellen quickly set his drink aside, easily lifted her slight weight, and carried her swiftly to the bed to set her among quilts and pillows. He ran to the door, threw open the heavy wood, bellowed for help, then hurried
back to where Catherine lay sweating, clutching her swollen belly. In the distance, people ran and orders were shouted as Kellen lowered himself to her bedside.
"’Tis Cowbane," she whispered to him.
"What?" Disbelieving, he shook his head. "No. That cannot be." Who would do such a thing? Who would dare to poison his wife?
"You have ruined everything." She turned away from him, pressing her face into the pillows, gagging and shuddering before rolling back to grip his surcoat, her face taut with fear. "Please. You must save me. Please." She put a hand to her stomach. "The babe."
Several knights appeared in the doorway, "Find the midwife! Bring the healer!" Kellen roared the words.
A wide-eyed servant rushed back out of the room as others filled the entrance.
Kellen gripped his wife’s cold hand as her breathing quickened and resignation set her face. "You cannot save me," she said, tears filling her eyes. "’Tis not possible."
Her breathing became labored, her throat violently clenched, and her entire body tightened, head thrown back.
Kellen, every muscle in his own body constricting with panic, shook her shoulders. "Catherine!"
She took a loud, gasping breath, then relaxed for a moment and Kellen wiped sweat from her brow with shaking fingers. "Catherine, you must be well." His voice broke. "Perchance the babe comes early?"
"The drink was meant for you." Her breathing was heavy, as if drawing breath was an effort.
"What are you saying?"
"Your daughter is not of your seed." Again, she convulsed violently, foam gathering at the corners of her mouth, then relaxed once more, placing a hand to her belly. "Nor is the one in my womb."
Kellen studied her face, the swelling of her body. He swallowed and gripped her hand. "You are out of your head." His voice was rough and low. "A devil has overtaken your mind."
"I despise you."
He tried to convince himself she was not herself, yet saw in her clear eyes she spoke true. And he was well aware the poisoned drink had been meant for him as he’d switched them himself. Why would she dishonor herself this way? It was senseless. "Why?"
"You sicken me." Her face twisted. "I hate your disgusting, overlarge body. Your vile face. My lover is wonderful, slim and beautiful as a knight should be. Handsome and without scars." She smiled, her face relaxing. She laughed once, and stopped breathing.
His wife, eyes open and staring, lay dead in his arms. He shook her, rage and despair welling within him. "No!" He clutched her to him. "No!" She’d swallowed poison meant for him? She’d meant to kill him? Surely he’d misunderstood. She was no poisoner. She could not be.
Kellen’s eyes filled with hot tears and he gently shook his wife once more. "Live. Live, damn you. Live!"
She didn’t move.
His wife was dead. His son as well. His son.
Kellen’s head pounded. He laid his wife gently on the bed, stood and backed away. His head, suddenly heavy, bobbed up and down as dizziness overtook him.
Air finally filled his lungs and he threw his head back, and howled like a madman. Hands clenched in his hair, heart pounding, and every muscle constricted to the point of pain, Kellen turned and grabbed the long bench from against the wall.
With a yell he heaved it into the fireplace and watched as pieces of heavy wood, ashes and smoke burst into the air.
Next he gripped a chair and dashed it against the stone wall, once, twice, until the heavy wood shattered. He ripped a tapestry Catherine had fashioned from the wall. He smashed her writing table with his fists. Threw a basket of knitted baby clothes into the fire. Tore and pulled the linen bed hangings from the great bed and cast them to the floor.
Breathing hard, looking for something else to destroy, Kellen stood still in the middle of the room. He looked to the doorway where only a few of his knights remained, and a few more beyond, out in the hall. The servants had run off.
Only the midwife, Catherine’s old nurse, the one come from the Corbett castle, had dared enter the room. She covered Catherine’s body with a fur coverlet, knelt on the stairs beside the bed, crossed herself, and wailed.
Kellen watched her wipe foam from Catherine’s mouth and turned away.
His dream had died with Catherine. With the babe. His marriage, the chance to continue his line, to build a family, was the one thing that had kept him alive through all the petty wars, the politics, the tournaments, and his
dangerous allegiance to King Henry.
Who provided her the poison? Who turned her against him? He knew she could not have done this on her own.
Her lover, no doubt.
Kellen’s teeth ground together, and a guttural sound escaped his mouth. The babe wasn’t his? The girl child was not of his seed? There was a man who did not have long for this world.
Kellen turned to see his three-year-old daughter lingering in the passageway with her nurse, and pain twisted his guts. She should not be there, and he did not want to look on her. He gestured toward her. "Take the girl away from here."
He would not be cheated this way. His eyes narrowed. He would marry again. He would petition the king and remind him of his loyalty and--
No. That could take years and numerous favors. At a score and ten, Kellen could not wait. Would not. He sucked air into his lungs. Corbett owed him an honorable daughter. He had seven. Six now. He would demand another. The youngest, and most trainable, or Corbett would pay the price for his daughter’s treachery with a war. Any betrothment on the girl’s part would needs be broken. He would show no mercy. He’d have his heir within the year, or else.
He grabbed the nurse still kneeling beside Catherine, startling her, and hauled her to her feet. "Finish this." He nodded toward Catherine.
"After, go home to Corbett. Tell him of his daughter’s infidelity, of her attempt to murder her lord. I want another daughter in reparation or there will be war. You will leave directly after the burial."
He would have a wife and heir. But he would never make the mistake of trusting another woman. With one last look at Catherine’s white face, he turned and strode from the room.