A knock on the door startled her and she looked over warily, patting her face to try to determine if it was obvious she had been crying. Surely not in the gathering gloom of dusk, she thought. Yet she still wanted to be alone, so her tone was terse and unwelcoming. “Who is it?”
In answer the door opened and her mother stepped inside, closing it firmly behind her to exclude what appeared to be a crowd of people strangely gathered in the hall. Her mother’s expression was so sober that Isabella wanted to crumple up in a corner again. No doubt the servants had gone running to her mother to report that rather than behaving like a queen she was screaming at her husband like a fishwife.
Her mother was advancing through the room, and Isabella looked down, too ashamed of herself to meet her mother’s eyes.
Maria Zoë didn’t stop until she could enfold her daughter in her arms. She kissed the top of Isabella’s head and whispered “Sweetheart,” in a voice so gentle that Isabella was instantly terrified. Why was her mother comforting her? “What is it, Mama?”
Her mother didn’t answer right away. Instead she guided her daughter gently but firmly to a chest and there turned and pulled Isabella down beside her, her grip still firm around Isabella’s waist.
“Mama? What has happened?” Isabella asked again. Now that her senses were alerted, she was aware of the muffled sound of many voices from beyond the door. The whole household appeared to be awake and agitated. Someone was shouting. Hurried footsteps pattered past the door.
“Sweetheart.” Maria Zoë took one of Isabella’s hands in the hand that was not around her waist. “Something terrible has happened.”
“What?” Isabella demanded.
“Conrad was attacked on his way back from the Bishop of Beauvais’ residence.”
“Attacked? What do you mean, ‘attacked’?” Conrad was attacked verbally all the time, but clearly that was not what her mother meant.
“Two men with knives.”
“The crowd killed one on the spot, but the other was apprehended, and your stepfather is interrogating him now.”
“But what of Conrad? Where is he? How is he?”
“Bella,” Maria Zoë grasped her hand so hard it almost hurt, “he’s downstairs in the hall—”
Isabella jumped to her feet, but Maria Zoë remained sitting, holding her daughter’s hand so firmly that she could not break away. “Let me go, Mama!” Isabella protested frantically. “I must go to him!”
Maria Zoë nodded but held her fast. “Yes, you must go to him, but not until you are prepared.”
Isabella felt as if her blood had turned to ice. She stared at her mother.
“He is dying, Bella. A priest is with him.”
Isabella swallowed; her throat had constricted so much she could hardly breathe.
Her mother was speaking softly and calmly. “He fervently wants to see you. He has been asking for you. But—”
“I must go at once!” Isabella cried out and tried again to break free of her mother’s grasp, but Maria Zoë held her back.
“Bella, listen to me.” She did not raise her voice, and her tone was still gentle, but so intense that it stopped Isabella in her tracks. “These men knew what they were doing. They stabbed him in the stomach and kidney. He is in extreme agony.”
“Oh my God,” Isabella gasped. “Oh my God.” She was overwhelmed with guilt. How could she have quarreled with him about anything, much less for calling her a “pregnant girl”? Tears were streaming down her face again.
Maria Zoë stood and took Isabella in her arms again. She held her tight and kissed her on the head. “Sweetheart, I’ll be with you as long as you need me. We’ll go down together.”
Isabella let her mother guide her out the door, through the crowds of gaping servants, and down the stairs into a hall overflowing with people—friends, retainers, priests, soldiers, and sensation seekers. Isabella recognized some faces, but most seemed to be strangers. They stared at her as her mother cleared a path through the crowd to the center of attention.
They had laid Conrad down on a carpet hastily spread on the edge of the dais in front of the table. A chair cushion had been placed under his head. Blood was everywhere and the stench was vile. Isabella was reminded of that day in Acre when Humphrey had been brought to her wounded. That helped prepare her for the blood and stench. But Humphrey had been half unconscious, while Conrad was very much awake—writhing and grimacing, gasping and stammering words.
The Archdeacon of Tyre was beside him, holding his bloody hand. Seeing Maria Zoë and Isabella approach, he bent and whispered in Conrad’s ear. Conrad, gritting his teeth and sobbing to try to get control over the pain, turned his face in Isabella’s direction. His eyes were already sunken deep in his skull. His skin was bloodless and glistening with sweat.
Isabella gave her mother’s hand a squeeze to indicate she knew what she was doing, and then stepped ahead of her to go on her knees beside her husband, everyone else making way for her in silent respect.
“Shhh! It’s all right,” she told him, taking his other hand.
He flung his head from side to side, his breathing coming in ragged gasps, almost as if he were gagging. “Don’t—don’t—deliver—Tyre—aaaagh!” The pain overwhelmed him, and it was all Isabella could do not to writhe in empathy.
She felt her mother’s hand on her shoulder, firm and calming. She swallowed down her instinct to scream in sympathy, and squeezed Conrad’s hand instead. “It’s all right, Conrad. No one is going to surrender Tyre. We have held it all these years. We will continue to do so.”
Her words were echoed by a rumbling of affirmative expressions and vows from the men crowded around them. Isabella became aware that many of these men, hardened veterans and detached priests, were openly weeping.
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