By the time the bishop had returned with a sponge and a pot with the mixture of powdered honey bee and vinegar, the king was hovering between the world of the living and the dead and Brother Simon was hunting through his satchel for his knife and bleeding cups.
‘Small sips only for now,’ Aldgyth said, snatching the potion from the bishop’s large hands, clearly intending to administer the purgative to her husband herself. ‘And the rest later, once two notches of the candle have burned down.’ She threw Bishop Erwald a stony glance. ‘I shall care for the king, my Lord. Go to Compline, Bishop. We women shall remain here now with Master Simon. And take those things with you. They are not needed here.’ She indicated the silver bowl containing holy water and the other priestly requisites that belonged to death’s final ritual, and which had been carried into the chamber by the bishop’s assistant priest, just in case the king breathed his last.
Thea was impressed at how insistently her stepmother had taken control. She knelt where Lady Aldgyth had sat by her father’s feet. If Lady Aldgyth can save my father’s life, I shall never complain about the woman from the north ever again. She prayed silently to Theodora, her name-day saint, that her father would live.
Countess Gytha held her son’s hand as Aldgyth and the apothecary helped Harold to vomit again. Aldgyth lifted his head, stroked back his damp hair and wiped his forehead with a cloth. She calmly encouraged him to live. All evening into the night the three women sat by the king’s side until at last his breathing eased. Eventually, long after darkness had fallen and the abbey’s sconces were lit, his fever broke. Thea’s father drifted into a gentle sleep and the crisis was over.
Gytha said to Bishop Erwald, ‘I want all dishes served tasted by your cook and his boys before anyone here eats anything.’
‘I fear you may be too late.’ A new voice came from the doorway. Thea’s uncle, Leofwine, was standing in the shadow. ‘Supper has been served long hours past and, fortunately, no one has been poisoned. As for the cook, we discovered him attempting to flee by the garden gate. This attempt on my brother’s life was deliberate but who can prove it?’ He looked accusingly at the half-Norman bishop who shook his head. ‘Your cook is safely secured in a monk’s cell.’
Bishop Erwald seemed unruffled, though Thea wondered if the bishop was indeed as innocent as he seemed, particularly when he announced without emotion, ‘The cook will be sent back to Italy on the first ship sailing south. I hope his ship is wrecked by storms on the way, though if he is not he will face justice in Rome.’ With those words he swept from the chamber.
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