I’m going to die this day.
Merrion squeezed her eyes shut as she stumbled from the darkened bowels of Laxton Castle into the bright, piercing sunlight. She stood on quaking limbs, her body weak and trembling as she waited for the harsh light to recede. Hands as hard as iron manacles gripped her arms, holding her upright. She gasped as they half dragged, half walked her into the welcoming morn. She had to bite her bottom lip to keep from crying out— her shoulders ached with each jarring movement.
How long was she chained in the dungeon, her arms stretched above her until she feared they would rip from the sockets? It could have been weeks or months in that place of eternal night.
Merrion was jerked to a halt, her knees giving way. She would have crumpled to the ground in a ragged heap, but the guards yanked her to her feet. She groaned, her body aching from head to toe. By dint of sheer will, she slowly straightened. She pried her eyes open and stared at her surroundings, and wished she hadn’t.
The massive wall of the inner bailey rose before her, twenty five feet high, and of solid stone. The gate tower, looming above the wall, glared down at her with its dark windows. Gripped by desperation, her gaze darted to the portcullis, but something tall and foreboding blocked her view.
Merrion’s eyes widened, her breath quickened, as a chill slithered down her spine.
Constructed in the centre of the bailey was a gibbet. The butter colored wood looked freshly hewn in the golden dawn. And hanging from the elevated beam, was a thick coiled rope swinging gently in the spring breeze.
Merrion could not have been more horrified had a hooded executioner hefting a mighty axe been awaiting her. Her pulse raced as terror squeezed her heart. Tears rose to sting her eyes.
I am going to die this day.
There could be no denying the truth.
She wanted to scream, to rage at the heavens, but she would not give her brother-in-law the satisfaction of knowing her fright. Gathering the tattered shreds of her courage, she swallowed the cry threatening to erupt from her throat. She pushed back her panic and straightened her spine. If she was going to die this day, she would do so with honor and dignity— just as her father had taught her.
A strange noise reached her, like the roar of the waves battering the White Cliffs of Dover. She gazed past the gibbet and gasped.
A solid wall of humanity filled the bailey, from the gate tower to the gibbet. Men, women, and children had gathered for the grand spectacle of a high-born lady swinging from the noose. Merrion watched in disbelief as vendors moved through the throng with ale carts, roasted meats and baked bread. They peddled their wares in their loud sing-song voices.
Gisbourne must have invited the serfs and villagers from the surrounding Hundreds to watch her die.
Dread crept past her courage, freezing her blood. I cannot die like this. I cannot! Terrified, she shrank back against her captors. She’d rather starve to death in the dungeons than to suffer this.
“All will be well soon, milady,” a voice whispered soothingly in her ear.
Aye, she would be dead!
Merrion closed her eyes and inhaled a deep breath, calming the frantic patter of her heart. So she would suffer a few moments of humiliation and pain. At least she would no longer know torment at the hands of her brother-in-law. Nor would she be a pawn of the King.
Composed, she opened her eyes and gazed above the forbidding wall to the blue horizon. Despite her imminent demise, Merrion acknowledged it was one of loveliest sunrises she’d ever seen. The sweeping gold and red was slowly giving way to the deeper blue of day as clouds of white fluff lazily meandered across the great expanse. A gentle spring breeze wafted over her like a tender caress, teasing the tendrils at her temple. A wistful smile touched her lips when she spotted a hawk gliding across the sky. If only she could fly as the bird, then she too could escape her earthly bonds. She inhaled deeply of the fresh air, savoring it. It was the first she’d had in a long time. A strange peace of acceptance washed over her. At least it was a nice day to die.
“Stop yer ditherin’ and bring the wench here!” a guard barked, jerking her from her reverie.
Harsh hands dug into her flesh as they hauled her before a tall gelding. Its ears were pricked back while it shuffled its feet, almost as though it feared the consequences of carrying a doomed woman. Merrion would have soothed it could she have found her voice.
A dark shadow loomed over her.
“Tie the bitch’s hands together,” a guard growled, his foul breath robbing her of the clean air.
Someone wrenched her hands behind her back.
She cried out as sharp pain shot from her shoulders into her arms.
“’Ods Blood,” someone cursed. “We’ll have to tie them in the front.”
A knight jerked her hands before her, and began to tie them together with a thin rough rope.
Merrion hissed as the coarseness abraded her raw, bleeding wrists. He bound her hands so tightly she could barely move her fingers. A tingling numbness began to spread through her wrists into her hands. Bitter tears welled in her eyes, but she steadfastly held them at bay.
A moment later she was hoisted onto the back of the gelding. With no reins or stirrups, she was forced to weave her fingers though its long dark mane, and grip its heaving flanks with her knees. Sitting up straight, she lifted her head. She would not give her brother-in-law the satisfaction of seeing her dread or her pain, but would ride proudly to her doom.
Slowly the gelding trotted along, almost as hesitant as she to reach that dangling noose. Her noble and righteous brother-in-law, Guy de Gisbourne, stood upon the raised platform, his face devoid of emotion, his eyes as frosty as a winter morn. She wondered if there would be any point of pleading her innocence, for surely it would fall on deaf ears...as surely as it had that terrible morning he’d dragged her to the dungeon.
Merrion watched as the gibbet loomed closer, the course coiled rope swaying ever so slightly in the breeze. A shiver traveled down her spine as she halted beneath it. It was a moment before the crowd took note of her presence.
“Hang the bitch!” someone shouted.
Merrion could not contain her flinch as a chorus of obscenities was spewed from the throng. She inhaled a steadying breath. She would not allow them to witness the terror coiling around her heart, filling her soul.
The crowd quieted. She had only a moment to wonder before Gisbourne spoke.
“Let it be known that on the twenty-second day of the fifth month, in the year of our Lord twelve hundred and eight, Lady Merrion de Beaufey has been found guilty of murdering her lord husband, Hugh de Gisbourne, Earl of Huntingdon. Of poisoning her late husband, Lord Bernard de Belfou, Earl of Wharton. Of committing acts of lewd wantonness, and of trying to seduce me, Lord Guy de Gisbourne, her husband’s brother, before and after his death.”
A stunned silence filled the bailey before the crowd exploded into chaos, shouting profanity, and demanding she be hanged, mingled with cries of witch.
Merrion whipped her head around and glared at Gisbourne. How dare he? They are lies—all of them! she yearned to shout. For a moment, Guy met her gaze. She felt the blood drain from her face at his look of disdain. He wanted her dead.
Dread squeezed her vitals, twisting her guts into knots. Bile rose to burn her tongue as the crowd demanded her death. Merrion slowly turned back around, desperate to still her rising panic. Her heart thundered beneath her ribs, her breath quickened. Her fingers clenched the horse’s silky mane.
The gelding whinnied and stamped its hooves, shying away from the aggressive throng. The helmed knight holding its tether quietly cooed to the horse, gently rubbing its muzzle.
Merrion flinched when a hand touched her ankle.
Looking down into the knight’s blue-grey eyes, and grim mouth, she gasped. Captain Benoit? Could it be?
Sir Everard Benoit was the captain of the guard to her dear, sweet late husband, Benard de Belfou, Earl of Wharton. And just as her brother-inlaw had stated, Benard had been poisoned. But not by her. She could have never killed her gentle, older husband. But when King John had learned of the earl’s death, he had summoned her to him. Someone had spread the ugly rumor she had poisoned Benard. The King had used it to force her into a hated marriage with the brutish Hugh de Gisbourne. Yet Captain Benoit had steadfastly remained by her side, escorting her to Laxton Castle.
But what was he doing here? Did he believe her guilty? Did he yearn for her death too?
But the gentle squeeze he gave her ankle told her differently. There was a message in his eyes but she was too terrified to read it. She did not dare hope, not with the noose dangling above her head.
Merrion turned to face the crowd, and found every man, woman and child silently staring at her, their eyes filled with bloodlust. They cared not one whit of her innocence or her guilt.They wanted only to be regaled with the spectacle of her demise.
“Lady Merrion de Beaufey, you have heard the crimes marked against you and received judgment. What have you to say for yourself?” Guy de Gisbourne’s voice boomed across the bailey, his words oozing malice.
Fear tightened around her heart as the blood froze in her veins. Her gaze swept the crowd of jeering peasants, desperate to find someone, anyone who would believe her innocence. Merrion hesitated when she noticed several small groups of Benoit’s knights dispersed amongst the crowd. Her gaze rose higher to find them standing with Gisbourne’s knights, all of them watching her. She barely suppressed her gasp when she noticed the twin portcullis raised, no doubt to allow the peasants free entry into the castle.
A small ember of outrage and courage burning deep inside flared to life. Sitting straight, her head held high, she unflinchingly met the accusing gazes of the crowd.
“I am innocent.”
She spoke the words quietly, clearly and without hesitation.
Cries for her release and her hanging instantly erupted from the fickle throng.
“Do not regale us with your lies, Beaufey, they only blacken your soul the more. No longer do your words hold any worth, for you are an accused murderess and adulteress.” She heard the coldness in Gisbourne’s voice. “But if you confess your sins, it may save your soul.”
“I have nothing to confess, for I have done nothing wrong,” Merrion returned.
“Very well. You shall know your punishment now.”
Panic threatened to consume her when the rope began to lower before her. Her heart thundered, her vitals quaked as she closed her eyes, and waited for the inevitable...