When Thea saw her father lying on a couch, his breath rasping, sweat beaded on his brow, his countenance pale, with Bishop Erwald by his side and Lady Aldgyth by his feet, she thought of how Aunt Edith had prayed at Uncle Edward’s feet during her uncle’s final illness at Christmastide. She remembered the atmosphere in the palace the night that her father was chosen by England’s thanes to be king. How odd that now her father was dying and her stepmother sat warming his cold feet in her lap. Her father opened his eyes and seeing her, weakly beckoned her to his side. She leaned closer to catch his words.
‘Your mother,’ he whispered into her ear. ‘If I die, tell her I have always loved her. If I die this night, Godwin must return from Ireland to take my place.’
As her father sank back onto his pillow, Thea looked from her father to his new wife, to Bishop Erwald, and from him to her grandmother. She didn’t like the bishop at all and suspected his Norman sympathies would become evident.
‘He thinks he will die. He wants my brother to return home. What has happened?’ Her voice was choked with her tears.
‘We do not know,’ Bishop Erwald said. ‘It may have been the dish of pears, the wine sauce or the wafers.’ He looked at the countess. ‘He has difficulty breathing. We have sent for the apothecary.’
‘It must be almonds,’ Gytha said sharply with a flash of understanding on her countenance. ‘They are poison to him, and I’ll warrant there were almonds in the sauce. The cooks here know it. You know it, Bishop.’ She pointed to the empty dish that still sat on the table.
Aldgyth glanced up. ‘I could detect almond in that sauce.’
Gytha shook her head. ‘It can’t have been Brother Lawrence. He knows that almonds can harm my son.’
‘No, it was a new cook,’ Thea said. ‘A stranger. All the kitchen boys are different today. I saw them when I went to fetch a treat for Lady.’ She paused. ‘Bishop Erwald, where did you find this new cook?’
Bishop Erwald paled and began to stutter. ‘We, we were sent a new cook, just recently. He’s a replacement from Rome. Our new cook has prepared dishes for the pope himself. He has been in Bishop Lanfranc’s employ and it was an honour to receive him. He selected his own kitchen helpers since Brother Lawrence has moved to St Benet’s with his helpers.’