Innocent's Champion

By: Meriel Fuller
Chapter One

Summer 1399—south-west England

‘What is that? On the bottom of your gown? Actually, my gown.’ Katherine’s peevish tones emerged, shrill, from the shadowed interior of the covered litter. Striding alongside, Matilda slackened her brisk pace at the sound of her sister’s voice, glancing down at the hem of her skirts. In the cloying heat of the afternoon, the heavily pleated silk bodice stuck to the skin around her chest and shoulders; the high neck, buttoned tightly around her throat to the pale curve of her chin, made her feel constricted, trapped. Her sister had insisted she wear the elaborate gown, with a light-blue cloak to match, indicating with turned-down mouth that none of Matilda’s clothing were suitable for visiting the Shrine of Our Lady at Worlebury.

‘Well?’ Katherine addressed her shrewishly, peering out from between the patterned curtains. ‘Oh, God Lord, stop bouncing me so!’ she snapped at the servants who each shouldered a wooden strut of the litter, one on each corner, endeavouring to carry their lady as carefully as possible along the rutted track. Katherine sank back into the padded cushions, her face grey-toned and wan, the rounded dome of her stomach protruding upwards into the gloom.

Matilda twisted one way, then the other, trying to spot the problem with the gown. The smooth blue silk of the skirts billowed out from below a jewelled belt set high on her narrow waist. One of the knights in the service of her brother-in-law, riding up front on a huge glossy destrier, smirked beneath his chain-mail hood, before he snapped his gaze smartly forwards once more. Let him laugh, thought Matilda. She was used to being told off by her older sister and paid little heed to it. Katherine was suffering greatly in this late stage of pregnancy and this heavy, torpid heat wasn’t helping matters.

‘It’s nothing,’ she called to Katherine. ‘A lump of sticky burr, snagged on the hem.’ Reaching down, she pulled at the clump of green trailing weed, throwing it to the side of the track. The dark chestnut silk of her hair, firmly pulled into two plaited rolls on either side of her neat head, gleamed in the sunlight filtering through the trees. A fine silver net covered her intricate hairstyle, secured with a narrow silver circlet.

‘Come and sit in with me, Matilda, please.’ A nervous desperation edged her sister’s voice as she stuck her head out between the thick velvet curtains that afforded her some privacy within the litter. Her face looked puffy, skin covered with a waxy gleam that emphasised the violet shadows beneath her eyes. Matilda glanced at the sun’s position, thick light pouring down through the beech trees lining the route. The fresh green leaves bobbed in the slight breeze, lifting occasionally to send brilliant shafts of illumination straight down to touch the hardened earth of the track. It hadn’t rained for weeks.

‘If I climb in, it will only slow us down, Katherine,’ Matilda answered. One of the servants carrying the front of the litter mopped his face with his sleeve. ‘We’re almost at the river now. It’s not far from there.’ Guilt scythed through her as she saw the panic touch Katherine’s worried blue eyes. ‘Here, I’ll walk closer, alongside you.’ Matilda reached out and grasped her sister’s hand, shocked by how cold and limp it felt. ‘Are you quite well?’ she said sharply.

The jewelled net covering Katherine’s hair sparkled as she nodded slowly. ‘I can feel the baby kicking inside me,’ she whispered. ‘That’s a good sign, isn’t it?’

‘It is,’ Matilda replied, with more conviction than she felt. The cold sweat from Katherine’s fingers soaked her palm. From the haunted look in her eyes, Matilda knew her sister was remembering that awful time before. And the time before that.

‘Do you think our prayers will work? Do you think I’ve done enough?’

Matilda nodded, throwing her sister a quick reassuring smile. She certainly hoped so. She wasn’t sure Katherine could endure another fruitless labour, another baby born that failed to live, to breathe. John, Katherine’s husband, had insisted they visit the shrine as often as possible, providing them with a litter, servants and two household knights as escort. He was determined that this pregnancy would be successful. He needed an heir. A male heir.