Authors: Margaret Pemberton
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Margaret Pemberton is the bestselling author of over thirty novels in many different genres, some of which are contemporary in setting and some historical.
She has served as Chairman of the Romantic Novelists' Association and has three times served as a committee member of the Crime Writers' Association. Born in Bradford, she is married to a Londoner, has five children and two dogs and lives in Whitstable, Kent. Apart from writing, her passions are tango, travel, English history and the English countryside.
âThe witch! The witch!' The demented cries rang in Marietta Riccardi's ears as she fled sobbing and stumbling down the dark hillside towards the thick cover of the forest. Behind her, livid tongues of flame scorched the night sky and there was nowhere to run to. Nowhere to hide. âBlessed Jesu,' she gasped, thorns and briars tearing at her outstretched hands as she ran blindly between the first of the trees. â
Help me! Oh merciful heaven! Help me!
LÃ©on de Villeneuve looked at the innkeeper with distaste. â I've no desire for a burning. Give me another tankard of ale and I'll be on my way.'
The innkeeper shrugged. The stranger had the appearance of a chevalier. His doublet and breeches were of fine material and the short velvet cloak hanging jauntily from one shoulder exposed a fine sword. His bucket-top boots were of soft yellow leather trimmed with muddied lace and there was a further profusion of lace at his neck and cuffs. None of it detracted from his air of martial swagger. He was clearly not a man to trifle with, and the innkeeper had no intention of doing so. He had gold in his purse and the more he spent in his inn the better. There were no other customers. Every last man was on Valais Hill to see the burning of old Mother Riccardi. There was the granddaughter too. He smiled gloatingly. It would be good to hear
little hussy begging for mercy.
âWhat did the old hag do?' the stranger asked mockingly, cutting in on his thoughts. âBlight the crops or turn a cow dry?'
âShe cursed the Duvals' baby so that it sickened and died,
she had a familiar
she flew by night,' he added as his audience remained unimpressed.
LÃ©on laughed. âDid her familiar have cloven hooves and a horn?'
âYou may jest,' he said defiantly. â Pierre Vallin saw Beelzebub himself sitting on the thatch of her cottage. Black as night he was, and with a tail a yard long.'
âShe confessed, did she?' LÃ©on asked, wondering if his horse would be sufficiently rested for him to continue his journey.
âScreamed it from the rooftops,' the innkeeper said with satisfaction. âLeastways she would have done but old Beelzebub looks after his own. She was dead before the inquisitor had finished with her.'
âIt was hardly worth the burning of her,' the innkeeper agreed disappointedly. âI shan't miss the next, though. I'd give a good few francs to see what
one looks like without her shift on!'
LÃ©on pushed his empty tankard away from him in disgust. The innkeeper, loth to lose his audience, no matter how disinterested, said, âThey'll be bringing her down for trial within the hourâhave another ale. There'll be more entertainment in Evray tonight than you'll get for thirty leagues around!'
âMy pleasure lies in different directions,' LÃ©on said drily, striding towards the door and the inn yard.
âArrogant young bull,' the innkeeper said beneath his breath. âHe'll have no trouble keeping his bed warm with his strong body and black curls.'
Mindful of the gaunt shrew of a wife who was
only solace, he reached bad-temperedly for his mug of ale. There had been no chance for
to join in the fun tonight. His wife had seen to that. âThere may be a passing traveller,' she had said, tight-lipped and hard-eyed. â If there is we need his custom. No sense turning away
for the sake of the Riccardis.' So, while the rest of his companions whooped it up on Valais Hill, he remained at his post. That his wife had been proved right did nothing to sweeten his temper.
Defiantly he thrust his mug to one side. They would have to look for the witches' mark on Marietta Riccardi and he wasn't going to miss that pleasure for anyone. On the inside of the thigh was the usual place. His throat tightened at the thought. The trial would be held at the magistrate's house and if he wanted a front seat he would have to hurry.
LÃ©on was already in the saddle when there came the sound of clattering hooves and raised voices. A man little older than LÃ©on, with a cloak of velvet and a gleam of steel at his side, galloped into the yard, his horse wheeling angrily as he shouted, âThe witch has escaped! We need fresh horses! Men!'
In the moonlight LÃ©on saw the fevered eyes, the cruel tightening of sensuous lips. It seemed it wasn't only the rabble of Evray who were eager for a burning; the diamond on the gloved hand was the size of a nut. He felt a wave of revulsion. He had killed many men in his time fighting for Louis, but he had never killed a woman. Or indulged in the soldiers' sport of rape. Women fell easily enough without being taken in front of dying husbands and crying children.
The innkeeper rushed to his stables, frantically summoning help in saddling every available horse he had. As he did so a dark-robed figure rode into the mÃªlÃ©e, surrounded by a seething mass of hysterical villagers.
âGet more men!' he commanded icily. âGet torches! By God and all the holy angels, I'll have that strumpet before dawn!'
LÃ©on laughed at the bitter frustration on the finely drawn features. âIt looks as if you've been cheated of your night's entertainment,' he shouted across the sea of frenzied faces to the innkeeper. â Perhaps the Devil does look after his own!' and he dug in his spurs, forcing the Inquisitor's horse to one side as he galloped out of the yard and towards the road leading south.
The night sky was black, the moon masked by heavy cloud. Behind him he could hear the cries of the witch-hunters like a pack of baying wolves, the surrounding fields already alive with flickering torches as every man, woman and child joined in the hunt.
He didn't fancy the old hag's chances. The most she could hope for was to die of fear or exhaustion before they captured her. The snake-like eyes of the Inquisitor had chilled even his hardened bones. The fire on top of the hill still glowed and he averted his gaze. He was as good a Catholic as the next man, but these rabid inquisitions turned his stomach. They were a fever that his village of Chatonnay had never suffered from and the sooner he was back there, the better.
For six years he had been in the service of his King. His gallantry on the battlefield had soon brought him to Louis' notice and to court, and it hadn't been long before it was widely rumoured that de Villeneuve's prowess in the field of war was only equalled by his prowess in the art of love. Many husbands had cause to wish the dark-eyed, gipsy-faced LÃ©on de Villeneuve back fighting the King's enemies and at the wrong end of a fatal sword-thrust. They were unlucky. Instead he became a regular member of the King's entourage, and the only wound he received at war was a rapier thrust on his hard lean body that only served to make him even more dashing in the eyes of the ladies who were fortunate enough to find their way into his bed.
There had been more than one masculine sigh of relief when LÃ©on de Villeneuve had announced his intentions of returning to his home at Chatonnay. Even the ravishing Francine Beauvoir had been unable to tempt him to stay. Married to one of Louis' ministers, she had more airs and graces than Queen Marie-Theresa herself, but to LÃ©on she was as much a whore as the willing women in the brothels of Spain. He grinned to himself in the darkness. There would be no more whoring when he had married Elise.
Old anger swept over him afresh. She had been seventeen when he had left Chatonnay, her hair the colour of summer corn, violet-blue eyes set in the innocent face of an angel, and old Caylus had heartlessly married her to a man old enough to be her grandfather. All LÃ©on's pleading had been in vain. The Villeneuves might own half the land around Chatonnay, but it was poor land and the family were impoverished. LÃ©on was not a suitable husband for the daughter of a man who was cousin to a Duc.
LÃ©on's mouth tightened at the thought of what Elise must have suffered in her marriage to the elderly, debauched mayor of Lancerre. Now she was a widow and he had ridden night and day since hearing the news, intent only on reaching her side in the fastest time possible.
The road wound deeper into the trees, so rutted and pitted that he had to slow his horse to a cautious walk. He ducked to avoid a low-hanging branch, cursing as the rough bark caught at his hair. Then he froze, reining in his horse. There was another sound in the thick blackness, the harsh gasping of an animal in pain. It came again, a pitiful moan quickly stifled.
âGod's grace,' he whispered beneath his breath. â The witch.â¦'
There was the crackling of twigs and the rustle of leaves and then silence. His horse snorted impatiently, stamping the ground. He stroked its neck soothingly, waiting for another movement. None came. In the stillness the wind carried the faint cries of the witch-hunters and the ground throbbed with the distant galloping of hooves. Another five minutes and the forest would be alive with men and torches, and the terrified old woman hiding only yards away from him would be at their mercy. He swung lightly from his saddle and immediately there was a muffled sob.
âDon't run,' he called, stepping from the track into the thick undergrowth, his eyes straining to see in the darkness.
Marietta pushed herself away from the tree-trunk, her heart feeling as if it would burst within her as she plunged wildly away from him. There was no escape now. She had only minutes left. The horse whinnied and Marietta clutched at a last frail straw of hope. She veered sharply, running headlong back towards the track, heedless of the leaves that whipped across her face and the tangle of roots that threatened to trip her at every step. His horse! If she could only reach his horse!