"She said what?"
The bishop was furious, his face beetroot and the wart at the end of his nose seeming almost to glow.
Sir Thomas took a deep breath. "She said, your grace, that indulgences were an abomination lacking scriptural precedent foisted upon defenceless people by a church that was institutionally corrupt."
"Abomination? Institutionally corrupt?" He wondered if a wart could burst with anger.
"She also said that the system of tithes was punitive and arbitrarily applied and called for a thorough review of the system of taxation."
"She's mad. And she must be stopped. What, Thomas, are we going to do?"
Sir Thomas didn't know what they were going to do. Nobody knew what they were going to do. The situation was unprecedented. Lady Isabel was 22, beautiful and intelligent. People loved her. She spoke to them and heard their concerns. She sympathised and, if she felt strongly enough, she articulated their problems. She'd spoken out against excessive taxation to fund wars in France. She'd queried whether town money really should be spent on renovating the merchants' guild-hall. She wasn't naïve; she didn't take up every cause; but when she did she spoke clearly, simply and powerfully. She was popular and she was dangerous. And now she'd turned on the church.
Isabel drove her horse hard, relishing the wind on her face as her soft brown hair flowed behind her. She needed this. She needed the release. Should she have said that at the public meeting? Probably not, but it was true. This was how it always happened. She listened having vowed she'd say nothing and then she got annoyed with the flabby arguments of others and spoke up. Really she was just trying to clarify things, to move the debate along, but she would always end up making her feelings clear and suddenly there'd be a movement behind her, people urging her to lead protests and organise opposition.
And now of course the people would come to her with petitions. It was tiring but she knew it was work she had to do. She was lucky: she as high-born and this was something she could do to help others. And it was necessary now. Her father, she knew, would have stood up for the people – he had stood up for the people – but now he was ill and weak and confined to bed and her stepmother seemed concerned only with lavish banquets and fine clothing and jewelry.
They'd never got on, but eight years after her mother's death, five years after her father had remarried, she'd got used to her, accepted she would always be there, always be demanding more. The issue was more pressing now, of course, with her father so sick. That was why the taxes had become an issue, why she'd spoken out against a new levy that, she knew, was largely going to pay off debts accrued by her stepmother's extravagant lifestyle.
Isabel came to the forest and slowed to a trot. It was cool under the branches and frost still lay in shaded patches. She pulled her cloak tighter around herself. This church business was absurd. She was fortunate, of course; she could read the Latin, something she wasn't sure Father William was capable of. This business of buying pardons seemed monstrous to her – there was nothing about that in the Bible. And the way they enforced the tithes, even when harvests were poor, as they had been last year, well, that seemed to her a betrayal of what Christianity was about. Wasn't it about helping people, about protecting the needy, rather than about squeezing everybody to make sure the bishop could keep himself in fine wines from France?
She knew the church wouldn't be happy but, really, it was dreadful the way William allowed the bishop to bully him. It was dreadful the way they used people's terror of hell and the afterlife to fleece them in this one. The trees opened out and she looked down the valley, at the dark lake in the distance. She ran a hand through her hair, feeling the damp of sweat on her brow. She just wished she didn't always have to be the one protecting the people, but she supposed with the advantages she'd had and her education it was her duty to do so. She came out into a meadow again and kicked hard back towards home.
Maude sat by the bed of her husband, watching the unsteady rise and fall of his chest. She had known, of course, that this was always likely when she married him, 18 years her senior; in fact, that had always been part of the plan. But the crisis was coming. He was dying, had only a few weeks left, and she needed to ensure that when he went she stayed on. She deserved it, after all: five years of enduring his impotent fumblings. But soon he would be gone and, after an appropriate time, she could marry Lord John with whom she'd been conducting a discreet affair since before she'd even married. Only one thing stood in her way: Isabel.
How she hated her. She was pretty and clever and popular, her slenderness a constant rebuke to how she'd allowed herself to put on a little weight. And worse than that, she would speak out about what she saw injustices. Maude thought of Isabel standing in the great hall, arguing passionately that the increased taxes were unjustifiable, failing to recognise that the money was necessary to maintain the prestige of her father's house. She had to find a way of destroying her.
Father William was short, fat and bald and wanted nothing more than an easy life. He didn't know why Lady Isabel was making such a fuss and he didn't really understand half of what she said. He didn't want to get involved. But the bishop was upset and Sir Thomas was quite clear on what he had to do. And so he'd made the appointment and turned up for an audience with the Lady Maude. He found her a frightening woman, if he was honest. He remembered when she'd married Lord Edward, how he'd thought her a handsome woman, but five years had not been kind and there was a harshness to her now while her waist had thickened.
He'd anticipated an awkward conversation; how after all, did you tell a noble that her stepdaughter might be a heretic? How did you broach the fact that the church was investigating the issue? But she'd actually been remarkably accommodating, said she understood entirely and promised full cooperation. She would make sure she didn't flee, she said, would even make a statement if that was required. The bishop, William knew, would be delighted; and personally, this was a real feather in his cap.
Isabel read the letter again. It was short and to the point. She was required to report to the bishop's offices at 9 am on Friday to discuss "her controversial views on indulgences". She was angry at being summoned like that but there was equally something a little unnerving about it. She knew what the church was capable of with those who stood up to it but that was surely something that happened in London or Canterbury, not out here, not in Mallamshire.
So, a little after 8.30, she saddled her horse and rode across fields just dusted with snow to the cathedral. Normally she would have enjoyed the morning. It was crisp and bright, the fresh smell of winter on the air. But today she was anxious. What did the bishop want? Did he want her to shut up? She wasn't sure she was prepared to do that but equally with her father so ill the last thing she wanted was to distress him. She arrived just before nine, her horse steaming in the cold air. She secured his bridle to the rail, loosened her hair and straightened it, adjusted her cloak, and knocked.
It was the first time the bishop had really looked at her. He knew men spoke of her beauty but she really was a remarkable looking woman, her height and slenderness emphasised by the britches she wore, tucked into her riding boots. There was an intelligence to her dark eyes while her face had a rare combination of delicacy and strength, all framed by the silkiest brown hair. This, then, was his enemy.
She sat quietly on the low chair before the dais, looking up at the bishop. He felt those dark eyes piercing him, a pain in his heart at the beauty he knew could never be his. He looked to his right at the abbot, a bald, grey-faced man, and to his left the deacon, younger, red-faced, eager. What did they see in her? He wondered how long it was since the abbot had even seen a woman, let alone one as attractive as this. And the deacon? He was an expert in church law but he had no need for celibacy; did he go chasing women?
"Right," he said. "Shall we begin?"
"Now, we've had reports that you have condemned the selling of indulgences. I'm sure we can clarify this swiftly and that it's all been a misunderstanding but, well, did you say that?"
"I did, my lord." Her voice was calm, authoritative.
The deacon was baffled. What was she doing? This was insanity on her part. The bishop, he knew was furious. She must have realised that. Antagonising him like this could only bring trouble. That probably meant hassle for him but, frankly, he could see this might become interesting. Who knew what might happen if she kept riling the bishop? And she was very beautiful. He didn't know whether riding britches were appropriate for being questioned by the church, but he knew he liked looking at her in them.
The bishop kept asking her what she meant and she kept explaining. She was very good, the deacon thought. She held his gaze, was firm and polite. She asked questions, sought references. What, she kept asking, was the justification for indulgences? Was the practice mentioned in the Bible? The deacon suspected the bishop didn't know but he replied that not all answers were to be found in the Bible. She had a problem with that, she said, for if the Bible weren't a guide, who was to decide what was. The bishop insisted the Church was there to intercede and that was when she went too far.
But what, she asked, if the Church were wrong? Weren't humans fallible? Couldn't they be led astray? Maybe this was all a dreadful error – after all, indulgences did seem to make things easier for the rich, when Christ has very much seemed to be on the side of the poor. The bishop's face had turned puce and he had pointed out, blusteringly, that she was rich. And she, of course, had replied that it was precisely the advantages she seemed to have that made her uncomfortable.
They talked for about an hour before the bishop dismissed her.
"Was this a trial?" she asked as she stood.
"It was a commission," he said. "We will discuss our options and then you'll hear from us. Please don't leave the county."
"It's blasphemy!" the bishop shouted. "Maybe heresy. She's dangerous. She's gone too far. She's a blasphemer!"
The abbot took a sip of wine. "She is expressing doubt," he said. "That is permissible."
"She called the church institutionally corrupt! She said indulgences were an abomination!" The bishop could feel one of his headaches coming on. He gulped what was left in his goblet and refilled it.
"Maybe it is," the abbot said mildly. "Maybe they are. She's right about it not being in the scripture. She's right that indulgences are a doctrine that benefits the rich."
"You as well!" the bishop roared. "Who are we to question Canterbury or Rome?"
"Christians making our way," said the abbot. The bishop could have punched him, with his benign face and his stupid beard. Didn't he see how dangerous this was?
The deacon coughed, meaningfully. "If I may..." he said.
The bishop looked at him in irritation. He was young and too clever by half. "What?" he snapped.
"The point surely is that while we may all have doubts, it is best to raise them privately, to discuss them with a priest or perhaps even my lord," the deacon said. "To announce them in public, to rabble-rouse, is potentially hugely damaging. And not only to the church, but to the souls of the very people she claims to be representing."
The bishop nodded. He was a bright boy – useful, if annoying.
The abbot raised his eyebrows. "There is something in that," he acknowledged. "What do you propose to do about it?"
And that really was the question. The bishop didn't know. He knew she had to be stopped but he didn't know how.
The deacon cleared his throat again. "Yes?" the bishop asked.
"She has blasphemed," he said. "If she were a commoner our course of action would be very simple."
"We can't flog her," the bishop snapped, although a wonderful image of her cowering bare-backed before the post presented itself to him.
"Perhaps not. But we could suggest to Lady Maude that her stepdaughter is a blasphemer and see what she suggests. I understand from Father William that she raised no complaints to this commission. It may be that her political interests and the way of God run happily in parallel in this matter."
Isabel rode her horse hard across the frosted fields. She hated them, all three of them with their self-satisfaction. She hated the abbot with his vague sense of being better than those outside the abbey. She hated the red-faced bishop with his anger and his venality. And she hated the deacon, who she knew had been staring at her with lust. But really what could they do? The church was decrepit, increasingly impotent. People were starting to see through them, the mystery was being exposed. It wasn't that she didn't believe in God; it was the church she objected to.
And what had that been? Had that been a trial? A warning? Well, maybe she would tread a little more carefully, but she wasn't going to let them keep exploiting the poor. And she knew the people, for the most part, were on her side.
Sir Thomas stood anxiously before Lady Maude. The bishop and deacon stood behind him with Father William some way further back. She sat back in her chair, lips pursed. "Forget for a moment she's a noblewoman," Maude said. "What crime do you think she's guilty of?"
"We have considered this most carefully, your ladyship, and it seems to us she has blasphemed."
Maude nodded. "And for blasphemy, what would be the usual punishment?"
"The recommended penalty, I believe, is a dozen strokes of the birch and an hour in the stocks for each count, your ladyship."
"Thank you. I will consider how best to act in this matter."
Lady Maude smoothed down her dress, irritated at the way it had rucked around her increasingly round belly. She looked at Isabel, demurely clad in a pale blue dress, her hair hanging loose, and she looked at Sir Thomas and the bishop who stood anxiously before the fire.
"Isabel," she said. "The bishop came to me yesterday with disturbing news."
"My lady?" Was there a slight nervousness in her tone? She was usually such a cocksure girl. Well, this would shatter her poise. She couldn't quite believe such an opportunity had been presented to her.
"It seems you have been found guilty of two counts of blasphemy."
Isabel's eyes widened and she glanced at the bishop. "When was I tried?" she asked.
"Your evidence was heard and your case discussed by a church council," the bishop said, a slight leer on his face.
Maude cleared her throat. "I have been asked to ratify sentence, which I have done. You will be taken before the cathedral next market-day and birched with two dozen strokes-"
"You're going to have me flogged-?" Isabel said, her voice hoarse with disbelief.
"And," Maude said, cutting across her, "you will spend two hours in the stocks."
For several moments Isabel couldn't speak. She seemed almost to be choking. "How dare you?" she spluttered finally. "How dare you? What have I done?"
"A church court found you guilty of blasphemy, Isabel," Maude said, barely able to keep the smile from her face. "The punishment is clearly laid out. And you of all people must know that we are all equal before God; if a peasant is flogged for blasphemy so must we nobles be." She turned towards the fire. "Sir Thomas, could you explain the practicalities to Lady Isabel?"
He drew himself to his full height, self-important fool that he was. "You will present yourself at the cathedral at dawn on market day," he said. "You will prepare there for your punishment. I suggest you wear something simple that can be easily removed."
Maude was surprised how good this felt. Isabel, for once, seemed dumbstruck. She stood, hands clasped awkwardly before her, shaking her head. "No," she kept saying, "No."
Isabel rode out to the forest. Drizzle soaked her but she barely noticed it. Should she just keep riding? Could she escape? But she knew if she did she could never go back, she knew she'd be giving up everything. And she knew if she was caught, the sentence would be far worse than two dozen with the birch. She felt sick just to think of it. To be stripped in public, bound to a post and whipped. She didn't dare think of the pain. And then the stocks. Locked there for two hours, rendered helpless to the whims of the mob. She was popular, she knew, but she also knew that a noble in the stocks would draw little sympathy. And she wasn't stupid; she was aware that as an attractive woman she would bear the brunt of a particular kind of abuse.
Floggings weren't common in the town; the flogging of women even rarer. She remembered no more than about half a dozen women flogged in her lifetime, the last one two or three years ago, a plump and ageing whore who'd taken a dozen with the birch in an atmosphere of widespread hilarity. She thought of seeing her large sagging breasts pushed against the post and the clear glee of the few dozen people in the square, their jokes at her shame. God, the thought of her breasts being bared to their mockery. Her chest tightened at the prospect.
How many people would be there? A hundred maybe? She thought back to the last public flogging three or four months earlier, a young shepherd lashed for stealing wool from a local farmer. There'd been perhaps forty people there to watch him cringe as he took the birch. He'd been what, 16? 17, maybe? She'd felt appalled for him, had made a point of sending balm to him to ease his pain after the beating. How many had he taken? Was that two dozen? A dozen maybe? All she remembered was that it had seemed to go on for ever, lash after relentless lash as he howled. And he was a strong boy; how could she take two dozen?
And the stocks were just as bad. They were used only rarely but she remembered the horrific bullying of a baker who'd be found to have spread lies about a merchant's wife. He'd spent an hour in the stocks 18 months ago and had been pelted almost constantly with rotten vegetables and his own stale bread, subjected to such savage mockery that he'd fled the valley the following week and never returned. It was legalised bullying and she was glad the local magistrate tended to avoid it as a punishment. There'd been old Mrs White five years ago, of course, a bitter crone who was a spiteful gossip. Isabel had only been a teenager at the time and had gone along with the vague thought that the old biddy deserved it. Yet so bad had the abuse been they'd had to release her after less than 20 minutes and she'd died about six months later, some said broken by the shame.
She wondered if what had happened were legal but she knew church commissions were mysterious things. And besides, her stepmother had ratified the sentence. No magistrate would go against her. She turned up towards the hills and, as she did so, caught sight of a horseman behind her. He quickly disappeared from view behind the trees but she had seen enough to recognise him as one of Maude's grooms. So, she was being followed. Even if she wanted to escape, her stepmother was making sure she couldn't.
What was in it for her, Isabel wondered. The two of them had never got on, of course, but why would she be so determined to humiliate her in this way? If Maude had wanted to, she could have persuaded the bishop to impose some fine, even to have her whipped in private. And yet even as she though that, her soul rebelled: they were right; she did think nobles should pay for crimes in the same way as peasants. The problem was not the punishment but the way the church could arbitrarily deem guilt. Yet even that worried her, for if the bishop were the agent of God then maybe he could?
But none of that answered the question of what Maude was doing. Her father, she knew, was too ill really to understand. She'd been permitted ten minutes with him that morning – by a physician clearly acting under Maude's instruction, and he'd simply seemed confused when she'd gently hinted at what was happening. Was this some power game? Was Maude trying to weaken her position to give herself freer rein when her father died? The more she thought about it, the more she saw how the political interests of church and Maude were aligned.
Dick looked through the window of the tavern and belched. On the raised open area in front of the cathedral, two wooden stands were being raised, built at a slight angle, funneling to the main doors, but clearly focused on the stone platform that stood about 30 meters from the cathedral steps. It was about six yards square and, about four feet in from the centre of the side nearest the cathedral stood a solid wooden post, perhaps seven feet high and nine inches in diameter. A thick metal ring had been hammered in about a foot from the top on the cathedral side.
"Another pint, please," Dick said to the barman, before spitting loudly in the bucket that stood at the end of the bar.
He turned back to the square, stretching about 80 yards to the steps. It still seemed incredible to him, but in two days they were going to tie the Lady Isabel to that post and flog her. He had tried repeatedly since the news was announced to conjure the image in his mind – the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen, a noblewoman, being birched – but it seemed too absurd. Would they really strip her? Would they get to see her tits? And would they really put her in the stocks for two hours of abuse?
The barman lay a tankard of ale on the counter before him. "Looks like this flogging is happening, then," Dick said.
"Aye. They're booking out our roof for a good view," the barman said. "You want a place?"
"I might, aye. Although I might get here early and get right up the front. She's a pretty thing. I want to see her properly. Get a proper look at noble tits."
"They'll never strip her."
"She's a noblewoman. She's not a whore. They'll give her something to wear that bares her back and keeps her chest covered. No way will they let us see her."
"But imagine if they do…"
"They won't… I'm not sure she's got much anyway. Thin little thing."
"Really? Lovely looking thin little thing… You wouldn't say no if she came in here offering a shag for a couple of beers."
"I wouldn't for any woman… But, yes, she's a beauty alright."
Sir Thomas surveyed the preparations with satisfaction and no little excitement. If this worked, if she was left too humiliated and scared to challenge her stepmother, it had to be good for him. He was the one who'd arranged all this, he was the one who'd forged the alliance between the church and Lady Maude. She would be grateful and he could only benefit.
There were practical considerations. For one thing, there was talk of people descending on the town from miles around, desperate to see a beautiful noblewoman birched. He had to organise the militia – and they could protect her as she sat in the stocks. Two of them could administer the flogging as well: Tom, the head of the bishop's stable, was the designated beadle and Will the blacksmith was his assistant; both strong muscular men who could be relied upon not to go easy on her. Having made such a play of the equality of the law for everyone, it was essential there was no suggestion that the lashes were not being applied with full vigour.
And that, of course, left one further matter, which was what the Lady Isabel was to be permitted to wear while they beat her, and that was why he had come to see Lady Maude.
Maude looked at Sir Thomas. "What would a woman being flogged usually wear?" she asked. She rather wished she weren't the one having to make the decision. Surely the law was the law.
"Usually, your ladyship, a felon is stripped to the waist, to bare the back to the lash," he replied, his cheeks reddening slightly.
"Then you shall strip her to the waist." She saw the flush on him and for the first time she had a real sense of what Isabel had been sentenced to. Imagine: to have your breasts exposed to the mob. Well, it might stop her being so insufferably prim. "What, you want to protect her because she's a noble?"
Sir Thomas stammered. "N-not at all, your ladyship. But it is best to be clear." He had a further question. He swallowed and asked. "And in the stocks, your ladyship, what should we have her wear?"
"What is usual?"
"It depends, your ladyship. Men would often be left shirtless so the lashmarks can be seen. With women there is an option to show discretion…"
Maude tried to picture Isabel in the stocks. Would it be better to humiliate her utterly or to show mercy? She didn't want people to think her vindictive. "Let me think about it," she said. Sir Thomas, she saw, had gone bright red.
Isabel wrapped her cloak tighter about her. It was a cold, clear night and she had no desire to be recognised. She sat on her groom's horse – hers was too well known - and looked across the moonlit square. She saw the post on its podium, stark and terrifying. In around 36 hours she'd be bound to that. She had little doubt they'd strip her – she knew humiliating her was part of the game – and her gentle breasts would be forced against the wood. And then they'd flog her, the supple stems of the birch striking her 24 times, and as they did so the crowd would laugh and cheer. Her pain would be their entertainment. There'd be the nobles and the wealthy in the stands and the mob in the square. How horrifying those stands were: to prepare like that, to make her punishment almost a social event.
And when they'd birched her, she'd be dragged across the square to the stocks. She looked at them, the heavy wood, the holes for her feet, the little rough bench she'd sit on while they abused her however they saw fit for two hours. Two hours at their mercy. After she'd been flogged. She considered again the possibility of flight. Could she get away? Where would she go? But she knew they were watching, that they wouldn't go to all this trouble without making sure she was going to be there to be degraded. To have her breasts bared in public… it was horrendous. Her breasts were small, she knew, and she dreaded them being exposed to the mockery of the crowd. She could feel herself flushing even then. The post would offer some protection but she knew they'd make her wait after stripping her before binding her, that they'd drag out the time after the beating before they'd give her her clothes back. She knew this was about shaming her.
She thought of the baker sitting there, desperately fighting off the hail of missiles, eventually broken and left to weep as the mob savaged him. She thought of the prostitute and those oversized breasts. She thought of Mrs White, grey with humiliation. She turned the horse back towards the manor and rode, tears streaming down her own cheeks.
Simon wrapped his blanket more tightly around his shoulders. The sun was just rising but it was a chilly morning and the frost was thick on the ground. He had qualms about leaving his sheep, even for two days, but this was something he couldn't miss. He had been 40 last birthday and he had never known anything like this. It would take him around 12 hours to reach the town, he estimated, but it was worth it to watch Lady Isabel being whipped.
He had seen her once, on one of his rare trips to market. He'd heard them speak of her, of course, of her beauty and her intelligence but nothing had prepared him for actually seeing her. She'd ridden across the market-place, erect and graceful on her horse. Her face had captivated him, a face of intelligence and kindness, the eyes dark and warm, the nose delicate, the jaw suggesting determination and strength of character. He'd felt his heart contract as he'd watched her, so sure of herself, so confident, her lovely brown hair held in a loose pony tail. She'd worn a white shirt that day that had emphasised her slenderness, her legs clad in tight britches, boots to her knees. The thought of her had sustained him through many lonely nights and now he was going to see her again.
He doubted they'd strip her, not a noble, but they'd surely bare her back for the birch. Even that, the thought of her smooth skin flinching under the lash, sent a stirring through him. And to see her humiliated in the stocks, to watch her bound helpless to be abused; he didn't understand why that turned him on so, but he had to see it.
There weren't many times when Osbert was thankful his cook was so stupid but this was one of them. Going through the larder, he'd found several eggs that were off, half a dozen of them properly rotten. He wrapped each one in cloth and then packed them in straw in a bucket. He planned to break each one over Isabel as she sat in the stocks. He wanted to make sure the arrogant bitch was humiliated.
She had been his first. Not his first fuck; she was far too frigid for that. She'd been his first love, his first kiss. They'd briefly been together when they'd been 16. Perhaps three or four weeks before he'd tried to reach inside her shirt and touch her burgeoning breast and she'd dumped him. He'd tried to win her back, apologised, wooed her, but to no avail. His father, of course, owned less land that hers, but still, options weren't exactly plentiful. Yet she scorned him and he'd watched her become ever more beautiful and ever more popular. Until now. He'd watch her whipped and then he'd make sure her two hours in the stocks were as degrading as possible. This was his revenge and he was going to enjoy it.
Isabel lay in bed but sleep would not come. Constantly she was tormented by the thought that in the morning she would be publicly whipped. She thought of the humiliation and she thought of the pain. What did you wear to be flogged? Would they strip her to the waist? She was sure they would and yet a slight hope remained. Perhaps if she wore a loose shift they could bare her back and leave her breasts covered, tie it at her neck or something?
Eventually, unable to sleep, she rose and lit the candle that stood by her bed. Trying to be as quiet as possible, she lit the fire, still glowing from the previous night, to heat some water to wash – but her maid was there almost immediately, seeming also unable to sleep. Isabel washed thoroughly. She had to look her best, she thought bitterly, for the show she was to put on. She tied her hair in a pony-tail - leave it loose and she feared they may cut it. Then she dressed in a linen shift, tucking it into her riding britches, in woollen hose of a deep green, a pale shirt, a brown tunic, loosely belted. Her maid took her hand. "Good luck, my lady," she said.
"Thank you," said Isabel and, feeling tears rising, she walked to the door.
Tom woke early. He had slept fitfully, anxious about his role in the biggest event in town for years. As a beadle he was used to applying the cane or the birch to miscreants - usually a quick half dozen for novice monks who had stepped out of line – but this was something very different. Flogging a woman was rare. He occasionally got to beat a servant-girl in the bishop's staff - but only on those all too rare occasions when it was felt a man's arm was needed to apply a suitably severe punishment. And there'd been that plump whore a couple of years ago with her freckled skin and the huge sloppy breasts. But this was something quite different: to flog a beautiful noblewoman with dozens and dozens of people watching, to take a birch to a woman who was used to being in command, well, it excited him but it terrified him. He'd thought about her at night – which man in the town hadn't? About taking that slender, delicate form, holding her by that narrow waist and pumping her. She looked so demure and yet he was sure there was an animal waiting to be unleashed.
He dressed, deciding to put on his best shirt, the one he usually wore for church. This was, after all, a special occasion. He still thought about flogging that scullery maid who'd sworn at the bishop and that was, what, three years ago? He remembered her terror as she'd been dragged in front of the household, blonde hair thrashing around as the cook and the groom held her down over the kitchen table and bared her pert arse. Taking a switch to her had been a joy, the memory of her howls as he'd striped her skin still excited him – and that had only been six strokes. She'd been pretty but Lady Isabel was another level altogether.
Tom leaned over the bed and kissed his wife. "I have to go, love," he said. "But you'll come to watch?"
"Of course," she said with a yawn and a smile, reaching up and squeezing his brawny bicep. "Make the stuck-up bitch scream."
The birch was harder to apply than the cane, of course. He'd prepared six rods the previous night, leaving them to soak, remembering to add vinegar and salt to the mix and place the bucket by the fire so the water wouldn't freeze. Each was between four and five feet long, comprised of eight whippy birch stems, bound at the handle and covered by about a foot of cloth for grip. His predecessor had liked great sprays at the end but while that could draw blood faster, it also meant twigs breaking off and, Tom thought, made it harder to swing with any great pace. He cut straightish switches each spring, trying to find steams that were laden with buds. Preserved over a year they would harden and increase the pain significantly. The cane still hit harder but the birch, delivered properly, did a fine job of spreading the impact and breaking the skin, causing pain without doing a huge amount of internal damage.
Wat followed her, a couple of hundred yards behind. It was a cloudless night and chilly, although the frost was not thick. In the moonlight she was easy to follow, erect in the saddle as always. He was scared for her, wished he could take her punishment on himself. He had served as her groom for six years now and he loved her in his way; the thought of watching her humiliated and flogged appalled him. He was determined to do the right thing by her so he had decided to follow her, to make sure she did nothing stupid. If she tried to flee, he knew, they would track her down and her punishment would be far worse.
He'd waited in the stables, intending to approach her but there'd been something in her sadness and resignation when she'd saddled up her horse that had made him hold back. Did she know he was following her? On a normal day she couldn't but have known, but this morning she seemed wrapped in her own thoughts, moving slowly and deliberately, barely lifting her eyes as she plodded into the town. He watched her circle to the back of the vestry by the cathedral, avoiding the marketplace. She dropped wearily from her horse, and with gestures that seemed automatic, hitch it to the rail. She raised the knocker with seeming effort and let it fall, once, twice, three times. She had to wait but eventually the door opened and she was admitted, entering the darkness without a backward glance.
Wat trotted back into the marketplace and was forced by a member of the watch to leave his horse at a newly-erected rail some distance away. The reason soon became clear. Even at that early hour, still 30 minutes before sunrise, the marketplace was packed. He had no idea how many people; more than he'd ever seen in one place before, that was for sure: hundreds certainly, perhaps over a thousand. Some had clearly slept there. There were people in the tavern, some taking places around the stocks but most were crowded round the platform where she'd be whipped. He squeezed through to try to find his own position between the post and the stocks. He wanted, if he could, to let her know he was there for her, that she wasn't alone.
He didn't know how held expected people to treat this, but he was shocked by the conversations he heard. People seemed to be regarding this as a great day out, a holiday at which a noblewoman would be humiliated for their entertainment. There was laughter and jollity and lewd discussions about whether they'd get to see her tits or not. Didn't they understand? Didn't they realise what she'd done for them? That she was being punished because she'd tried to stand up for them? How stupid were they? Wat could feel tears of frustration pricking at his eyes. How could they be so ungrateful?
After being admitted to the cathedral by a servant, Isabel had been escorted to a small office at the front of the vestry. She'd been there around 10 minutes when Sir Thomas walked in. It had come as a great relief to him that she'd been on time. Outside, he knew, a crowd was gathering and it would have been a huge embarrassment to have let them down. "Good morning," he said. She looked dolefully at him.
"Good morning," she replied. Her quiet sadness seemed to emphasis her beauty, the delicate face, the deep brown eyes.
"Is there anything I can get you?" he asked. "A drink?"
Her stare spoke of weariness and disgust. "No, thank you." She seemed so composed, but in a couple of hours he had no doubt she would be half naked, stripped to just those snug britches. He knew she'd caught him starting at her chest, imagining how it would look when the cloak and the tunic and the shift were removed. He didn't care: there'd be plenty of other staring at her today.
"I'll be back in an hour or so," he said. "If you could strip down to your britches and one item to cover your upper body by then…"
He locked the door as he left.
Osbert took his place in the stand. It was still early, the sun just rising over the tavern, but the square was already packed. Even the reserved seating was filling up. He pulled his cloak tight around him; it was chilly; he wouldn't want to be half naked in that weather. Round the edge of the square there were stalls, smoke and steam billowing in the cold air as food was prepared. He'd even seen someone roasting a pig to sell hunks of pork; this really was being treated as a holiday.
There were probably seats for around 100 or 120 in the stands, but the market place itself could hold far more. The militia had drafted extra members but he still wondered if they'd be able to cope. There were at least a couple of thousand people in the square already, all desperate to see a beautiful noblewoman humiliated. He wondered if they'd try to spare her at all, let her cover her breasts somehow when she was whipped but he struggled to see how that could be justified.
Isabel paced about the room. There was a small fire burning in the grate, but it was still chilly. Breathing seemed difficult, as though there were a blockage in her chest. She tried to remain calm but the truth was that she was terrified. She swallowed and let out a deep sigh. She should prepare herself, she knew. Slowly, she stripped, knowing that by the time she saw her clothes again, she'd have been flogged. She was grateful, at least, that they weren't watching this part of the process as her cold, numb fingers struggled with the clasp of her cloak.
She folded her tunic neatly, so she stood in just her shift, her britches and her boots. She sat and began unlacing the boots, regretting the tightness of the britches. Her hose followed, leaving her bare from the knees down. Her feet rebelled against the cold stone floor and she tucked them under her thighs on the chair.
Maude sat by the bishop, hugging her furs tighter around her. It had been light for over an hour now but it was still cold and her breath steamed. The vast crowd worried her a little; she needed Isabel humiliated but a mob like this could easily get out of hand. So far, though, there was a festival mood, people laughing and joking, all waiting expectantly for the pubic punishment of a beautiful noblewoman.
The cathedral doors opened and the square slowly fell silent. Two members of the militia, armed with pikes, strode out. Behind them came Sir Thomas and the deacon, and then the two members of the militia charged with administering the flogging. Behind them were three more militiamen, the middle of them holding a length of rope, and attached to that was Isabel, barefoot and stripped to shift and britches. Behind her were another four guards. Their breath steamed above them.
Isabel's wrists had been bound in front of her, but she walked calmly – there was no need to drag her. She looked cold and seemed startled by the number of people but she had that grace that so irritated Maude. She seemed unflustered as she walked out onto the large raised area in front of the cathedral. And, most annoyingly for Maude, she looked beautiful, her soft hair hanging in a pony-tail behind her, anxiousness only emphasising the alluring mix of strength and delicacy in her face.
Isabel felt her stomach churning. She'd ever seen so many people before. All here to watch her suffer. The cold bit through her thin shift. Her nipples were standing erect. She flushed with the realisation the mob could probably see them through the fine linen. The frosted stone burned her feet. She hesitated and the guard jerked the rope so she was pulled forward, stumbling slightly. The crowd, which had fallen silent as she'd emerged, gave a low roar of appreciation. She'd wanted to appear calm, to retain as much dignity as possible, but it was so cold she shivered – and that roar troubled her. There was no sympathy here.
Simon couldn't believe this was happening. She was even more beautiful than he'd remembered. He'd got a position about 10 yards from the platform. As she was pulled towards him, the crowd swayed and he was carried forward two or three paces. She looked anxious but there was a radiance about her, the tight britches emphasised her slenderness, and the way her hair was tied up emphasised the elegance of her cheek bones.
Wat felt ill. He was in love with Isabel, of course; how could he not be? Even as they dragged her along the walkway that led from the cathedral steps to the platform on which the whipping post was set, she retained a certain dignity. Her dark eyes radiated hurt but she wasn't crying and it was clear to anybody who looked that the guards were manhandling her; she wasn't resisting. And yet for all her courage, she seemed unbearably delicate and frail, shivering in the cold. He had hung back, avoiding the worst of the crowd, although they'd packed in around him, and was perhaps 100 feet from the podium. He wished he could take this for her, spare her the leering of all these oafs. She was barefoot on the frost: such cruelty for a lady. He'd seen her in boots a million times, been turned on by the shape of her legs in the leather. And those britches: how often had he stared at her legs in the tight material, yearned for her?
It seemed eerily silent in the square, a low sun just peering over the cathedral but doing little to raise the temperature. Sir Thomas surveyed the crowd, hundreds of them packed tightly in, and then he looked her, at Lady Isabel, as she stood trembling on the platform by the stern whipping post. She seemed apprehensive but not terrified as she stood demurely, wrists bound in front of her, a temple guard at each arm. He cleared his throat.
"Lady Isabel," he intoned, "has been convicted of two counts of blasphemy." A few boos broke out and there was laughter. She stood with head bowed. "She has been sentenced to two dozen lashes of the birch-" Great cheers broke out. One of the temple guards shoved her slightly and as she stumbled a couple of inches forward she glanced up, seeing the mob gleefully awaiting her beating. Sir Thomas felt a moment of pity for her: a good girl thrown to the wolves for political reasons, but he carried on, relishing his role in the centre of the drama. "Two dozen lashes of the birch," he repeated, "to be administered to her naked back-" more cheers – "at the public post."
"Strip her!" somebody shouted. "Let's see her tits!"
"Strip her!" the cry went up.
From the balcony of the tavern, Dick joined in. He was annoyingly far away, but at least he had his beer and an unobstructed view. "Strip her!" He had no idea whether they were planning to strip her anyway, but if he could help make them make her take her shift off he was going to. What interested him was the number of women yelling for her to be stripped, the great desire to see her humiliated. She stood with her head down, wrists bound, shivering. God, he hoped they'd bare her. The noble was trying to quieten the crowd, holding up his hands pathetically, but eventually the roars fell to a murmur. "And then," he said, in that slow deep tone of voice pompous people used, "she will spend two hours in the public stocks." There were more cheers, tankards raised, laughter.
Isabel stared at the stone platform, dusted white with frost in places. Her feet ached with the cold. Everything seemed strangely still. She was aware of her heart thumping, a tightness in her throat, but she could barely focus. Her breath steamed in the chill air. Two members of the temple guard took her arms and another untied the rope that bound her wrists together. She flexed her fingers, looking at the abrasions the rough hemp had left on her skin. This was it then. "Strip her to the waist," ordered Sir Thomas.
One of the temple guards stepped up and began to unfasten the lace that held her shift secure at the neck. She swallowed, staring at the dark tunic of the temple guard, just visible where his scarlet cloak hung open. He undid the bow and then loosed the string where it criss-crossed her chest, passing through three eyelets on either side. Then, with a jerk, he yanked the lace out altogether, and she gasped – pathetically, to her annoyance – as the end whipped against her skin.
Osbert could feel himself getting hard. Her shift gaped, offering just a glimpse of cleavage – further than he'd ever got with her. But in a second she would be naked from the waist up and everybody would see her tits. The two guards behind her gripped her arms, holding them by her sides. She was looking down, shame written all over her. The guard in front carefully slid his hands inside the neck of the shift, pushing further open until her shoulders were bare and then, in one sudden, smooth movement, he wrenched the shift down. The guards behind her eased it over her arms and it slid to the ground, revealing her breasts to the mob. A silence fell across the market-place as the realisation dawned that a noblewoman had been exposed to them. Then there was a roar and shouts and jeers. Osbert heard Isabel's gasp as she was stripped. His first impression was her paleness, a pure expanse of white skin. She closed her eyes, but she could do nothing to cover herself as the guards, holding her arms, turned her to face the post and shepherded her towards it. He stared at the shallow hillocks, the pink nipples rigid in the cold. That was what he could have had; they should have been his.
In the tavern, the talk was all of how she had no tits. Dick admitted he was a little disappointed. He liked a woman big and meaty and while it had been obvious she wouldn't have much, held hoped for more than that. And yet still, he found himself turned on by her vulnerability, her slender grace as the guards led her to the post.
Isabel sensed the darkness of the post before her and opened her eyes. Her cheeks were burning. She'd tried to shut everything out but she could hear the comments and the taunts. She felt faint. It was so wrong that she should stand in just a pair of britches while they all stared at her. She felt almost as though she had to force herself to breathe. The post was square, about nine inches across, glazed with frost. They pushed her against it, lifting her arms either side of it so for a moment she was embracing the icy wood. It seemed to burn her breasts so cold was it, and she felt a thudding of nausea in the depths of her stomach. She glanced down
Tom watched as the militia fastened hempen rope around her wrists. Her beauty was stunning; far greater close up than he had imagined, her face fresh and gentle, her skin astonishingly pale and smooth. Her back would be the most lovely back he had ever whipped. It was slender, astonishingly so, almost unimaginably narrow, the knots of her vertebrae clear through the delicate skin. Usually the blows of the right-handed flogger would strike the right-hand side of the back with the greatest force, and the left-hander the left; although a weal would be left across the whole back, the worst impact was always where the tip dug in. It was common for prisoners to be left with two columns of bleeding welts, a relatively unblemished strip running down the spine in between. But with her there was no space for that; the welts would cross and that would increase the pain.
Maude settled. She'd been worried how the crowd would react, whether the sight of Isabel bound and then stripped would rouse them to pity, but they just seemed thrilled to see her half-naked before them. And Isabel, for once, seemed to have lost her calm. She was visibly shivering as the militia meticulously bound tied her wrists to the iron ring behind the post, though whether though cold or fear it was difficult to say. The beadle drew a switch from the deep bucket. It was about five feet long, a bundle of silver birch stems. He flexed it, swished it through the air, then handed it with a nod to his assistant. This was about to happen. Maude felt a little stunned. Isabel looked frozen, skin pink and nipples bright red in the cold morning air. The beadle took out another birch, checked the ties holding the switches, flexed it, swung it a couple of times, then lay it down and tested another one. He was finally satisfied by the third he drew out. He was of only average height – his assistant was much taller – but Maude noted his stocky form, the swell of his forearm under his shirt; he was a powerful man.
As the two temple guards backed away, Tom approached her. She was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. He checked the bonds; they were secure, holding her arms a little slacker than straight – it was good to let her writhe a little. He stepped tight behind her, under the pretence of checking her hair. Her skin was amazingly soft. She was quivering, her skin goosepimpled, shoulders slightly hunched. He put his hands on the shallow curve in from her hipbones. It was like touching warm silk. He let his hands drop to the waistband of her britches and just edged them down half an inch or so. He turned away and picked up his switch again, thrashing it through the air.
Father William sat in the front row of the stand. He felt a little confused. He had watched Isabel grow up. He'd known her as a little girl, reading her stories from the Bible. She'd been a bright child, eager to please and eager to learn. He'd given her religious instruction, leading her to confirmation when she was a blossoming girl of 12 or 13. He'd seen her grow into this beautiful young woman, admired her even. At night he'd been tormented by thoughts of her, of wanting her. He'd dreamed of her naked and now here she was, bare-breasted in front of him. He knew the sentence was right; blasphemers had to be punished, and yet he wanted to protect her. But at the same time he was enjoying seeing her shivering, seeing her pure skin and he knew he would enjoy seeing her beaten.
Isabel waited. Why was it taking so long? She was so cold, the morning air stinging her bare skin. She tried to stand back from the post, to keep the frosted surface from her breasts. She heard the command. Instinctively she flinched. She stared at the post, trying to blot out the people all around, trying to ready herself. She shifted her weight on her numb feet, set herself. There was a dull whistle, a thump and her torso lurched forwards, her head jerking back. Her chest hit the post and for a moment she was winded, the pain worse where her tender, cold breasts had bashed the wood than in her back. But then the sting began to permeate, a burning across her shoulder blades, worse on the left side. "One," Sir Thomas said.
Tom looked at the streak Will had left. It was good, a ruddy pink on the pure paleness, nice and high. The key was to spread the initial blows, to cover the whole back: with the birch it was the repeated blows in the same place that hurt so you could gradually ramp up the pain. He waited, counting softly in his head. With servants you'd just thrash them, get it over with, but he understood this was an exhibition: flog her steadily, make every lash count. He got to thirty and struck her again, just lower than the first blow.
The bishop looked on impassively. He wanted her screaming. He wanted it clear that nobody challenged the church, wanted her howling and begging for mercy. So far, though, there'd just been two grunts, even if she was shivering and cringing there. The mob clearly felt something similar, shouting for her to be beaten harder. It was strange how interests intersected, he thought. It was clearly right that an enemy of the church should be punished like this but there was something strange about being allied with the gawping peasants who'd pushed their way to the front and were clearly just relishing watching a pretty girl being flogged.
Silence fell over the square. Isabel readied herself again. She heard the birch whip through the air, then clatter into her back, just below the last. She'd been expecting it, and was able to restrict herself to a sharp gasp. "Three!" came the call. The sting intensified slowly, the cold seeming to add to the throb. She clenched her teeth and breathed out slowly, looking up her bare arms. The pain was manageable, she thought, adjusting her position. She was an eighth of the way there and as the sting of the third blow ebbed she felt nothing more than a warm smart.
Maude was a little disappointed. She wanted Isabel screaming and begging for mercy, not just standing there yelping. She wondered if the beadle and his assistant were whipping as hard as they could. She watched carefully as the beadle ran in, three paces, and lashed her, low, just below the middle of her back. There was a crash and she head the individual twigs rattle as the birch struck. Isabel's shoulders twitched back and for a moment her left breast was clearly visible to those in the stand. She gave a pained cough, a belch of steam from her mouth. Maude turned to the bishop. "Shouldn't she be in more pain?" she asked. "Is the beadle going easy on her?"
"No, my lady," said the bishop with authority. "The birch has a cumulative effect. It lures them in. They think they're dealing with it and by the time they're up to seven or eight they're howling for mercy."
Maude nodded. She hoped so.
The upper part of Isabel's back was almost entirely pink. Wat was proud of her. She'd held herself together well so far but he feared what was coming. All around him, people were jeering, joking about her nudity and urging them to make her bleed. What was wrong with them? He longed to wrap her in his cloak and carry her home. The left-handed one struck her, and although Isabel did no more than gasp, Wat could see it had hurt.
"Harder!" yelled Dick. "Make her scream!" He wanted to hear her howling and begging. Imagine that! An aristocrat begging for mercy! Actually, mostly he wanted to see her tits. He was too far away, really. He wished he'd gone closer. But then it wouldn't have been as easy to get to the ale. But he at least wanted to hear her scream. The beadle waited. What a job that was! He drank in the tavern occasionally, told them about beating the bishop's staff. Imagine that, that your job was to strip women to the waist, tie them up and whip them! Tom ran in, his breath steaming. He cracked the birch low, just above her waistline and she thrust provocatively into the post. Dick was struck by a fantasy of her jerking her pelvis like that at him. "Harder!" he yelled.
A quarter of the way there. Isabel was panting a little, breath steaming around her face. They'd worked carefully from the top of her back to the bottom, ensuring an even spread. The pain hadn't been too bad, although the sting had been worsened by the cold. But she knew that the next blow would strike over flesh that was already smarting, and she knew that would increase the pain. What she hadn't realised was how much. The lash landed across the centre of her back, the tips catching her left shoulder-blade. Her left leg kicked up, her head flew back and for a moment she couldn't breathe. She stood, staring at her bound hands, mouth open, the pain awful. When she finally relaxed, she whimpered, clenching her teeth, balling her fists and staring at the post, trying to will the pain to go away. The throb had only just started to subside when the beadle lashed her, the rattle of rods into her lower back thrusting her crotch against the frosted post and sending new waves of agony through her.
Maude felt a little more satisfied. Isabel was clearly suffering now. The left-hander lashed her, a few stray buds breaking loose as the twigs hit the curve of her upper back. At last Isabel yelled. It was a swallowed scream, her teeth clenched, but Maude could see clearly her distress, eyes wide, breath steaming in short pants as she twisted to the left before slowly straightening. "Nine."
Sir Thomas could see blood clearly now, not much, but a few flecks on the mottled pink skin. The beadle struck hard across the centre of the back. Isabel bucked as the switches thrashed into her, both feet leaving the ground. She staggered as she came back down. "Aaaaarrgghhhh!" she yelled, sounding incredulous. And then again, "Arrrghgh." "Ten," he called.
The pain was terrible. It burned and burned. How could it suddenly be so much worse? She waited and waited, dreading the next one. She heard the whistle and flinched even before it crashed across her shoulders. Her fists clenched and she started at her hands. "Gaaaaaaaaarrrrrhhhh!" she yelled. "Ah! Ahhh! Aaahhhhhh!" Her faced was twisted; it was all she could do not to cry.
Simon was entranced. He was in the perfect position. He was side on and that meant he could see the power of the blow on her back but even better he could see her left breast as she twisted on the post. She'd been disappointingly calm for the first few so he just saw the side of her breast, sweet and smooth as that was, but now as she writhed, he got the full picture; the thin waist, the gentle curve of her chest and the nipple reddened by cold, standing out on the pale breast. He watched as the beadle measured his stroke. Isabel was shivering, fists clenched, staring up. The beadle, with calculation took three paces and thrashed her, low, just above the line of her britches. Her body tensed and she thrust with her groin into the post, shoulders rocking back to give Simon and those near him a clear view of her left breast. A shower of fragments of wood flew up on impact and floated gently down as she slowly relaxed, her head rolling to the left so her chin rested on her smooth shoulder. Simon saw her eyes, dark and intelligent and beautiful, usually so full of life but now emanating fear and pain and degradation.
The bishop looked on with satisfaction. Isabel was trembling and her eyes ran with tears. She was learning that you couldn't mess with the church. The beadle had stopped the flogging and was selecting a new birch for himself and his assistant. He was thoroughly competent, the bishop reflected, even if he did wonder sometimes whether he took rather too much glee in punishing his young female serving staff. Mind, there was something rather enticing about seeing Isabel like that, tied up and helpless, her left breast just peeking around the side of the post.
The beadle and his assistant tested the new birches. Isabel could hear them and was sickened by the noise. Logic told her that fresh branches would hurt more and her back was already aflame. She tried to compose herself but the pain was awful, the sting only slightly fading. She could feel sweat on her brow despite the cold and, when she glanced down at herself she could see her chest was damp, despite being goosepimpled and pink with cold. And her nipples were rigid, she realised, something that sent a flush to her face. It was humiliating enough to be half-naked without making it look like she was somehow aroused.
The birch Tom selected was heavy with buds. That was why he picked them in spring and preserved them through the year: more buds meant more blood. He gave Will a smoother rod; he didn't think he could be trusted to deliver a heavily loaded birch. They took up their positions again, breath steaming as the exertion of the flogging raised a sweat. Isabel was hunched, head pressed against the wood, shoulders raised defensively, her back a livid pink with little spots of blood. There'd be plenty more by the time they'd finished.
Will swept in and lashed at the middle of her back. Isabel stiffened, fists clenching, a pained grunt leaving her lips. Her head rested now on her left bicep. She glanced back at Tom and he saw the fear in her eyes, tears welling. Serve her right for being so arrogant, he thought, and contemplated the back, reddened but still silkenly beautiful after 13 lashes. He picked a spot just above her right shoulder blade and struck powerfully. The lash felt right; he knew he'd made good contact, something confirmed by her reaction. She yelled, a note of surprise in the noise as her head flicked back and he saw the blood begin to rise. "Fourteen," announced Sir Thomas.
This was better, thought Dick, draining his tankard. She was really squirming now. He watched Will, the lucky bugger, slowly set himself and then bounce in and hit hard with all his might, his feet leaving the ground. Isabel's body jerked upright and she gave a proper scream. Dick cheered with the rest of the crowd. "Harder!" he roared. She seemed in real pain now, holding onto the post, head twitching round nervously as she waited for Tom. He stared, peering through the mist of steaming breath, trying to see her breast. A noble tit! Oh to be close and see them properly. Tom crashed the birch into her and she howled with pain. The crowd cheered its approval. Was that blood he could see? Had they actually whipped her to the blood?
Tom's wife held a handkerchief to her lips and turned away, patting demurely at her upper lip. Part of her was disgusted by the spectacle, this pretty young girl being beaten half-naked in front of a baying mob. But on the other hand she was proud of her husband. It was clear he was better at wielding the birch than Will, who flew in and lashed low, the switches – which she knew her husband had cut and prepared himself – smacking just above her britches, on the slim, supple stretch between hips and ribs. She was thin, Tom's wife though: she'd have thought a noble, with all that food, would have had rolls of fat, but not her. She had a long, narrow waist that as she squirmed under the birch that reminded her a little of an otter. And of course that was the thing: it was a noble Tom was flogging. It wasn't some poor local girl who'd offended a grandee, it was a rich cow who thought she knew everything. It would do her good to be humiliated like this, to howl in pain with everybody staring at her pathetic little tits.
Tom flicked his wrists a couple of times, the switches rattling slightly, then he made his stroke, the calm purposeful steps, the powerful swing of the brawny arm, the snap of the wrist at the end. The buds crashed into the centre of Lady Isabel's back. She yelled, head flying back, torso grinding into the post, blood splashing up. She fell to a pitiful whimpering, her body slumping to the left, head resting on her shoulder, so her left breast was clearly visible. "Sixteen!"
Isabel was breathing hard, steam billowing from between gritted teeth, her face showing a look of intense concentration as she tried to prevent herself breaking down completely. Maude was delighted. The girl's left breast was fully exposed, the nipple erect in the cold, and she was clearly in a lot of pain. The crowd was entranced, delighting in her pain. And Maude couldn't fault the floggers. She saw the effort on the face of Will as he lashed hard, the rods making a satisfying crack as they struck across the top of her back. Isabel tensed, her fists clenching as she let out an agonised gasp. "Seventeen." Isabel grimaced, face contorted as she tried not to howl. Maude could almost see her waiting to beg for mercy, the struggle inside her written across her annoyingly pretty face.
Tom was clearly the better flogger, though. Maude watched the way he snapped his wrist to generate more power, the birch clattering into Isabel's shoulders. She roared in pain, fists clenched, the muscles in her arms standing out. There was a look on her face not just of pain but of horror, agony, shame and fear combined. Maude could almost see her mind working as she took a deep breath and straightened her back, as though to set herself for the final quarter of her punishment.
"Make her beg!"
Wat looked at the two boys, no more than 12 or 13 years old, who stood by him. How could they be so cruel? He looked at his lady, shivering half-naked on the platform, her skin pale against the darkness of the wood, areas of her back painfully red. She was brave and he admired her. He'd seen men sobbing at the post, and they didn't have the humiliation of having their breasts exposed. He just wanted to hug her and hold her. He looked at her long smooth arms and imagined them wrapped around himself and he hated himself for it because he knew he was simply doing what every other man in the square was doing: fantasising about her. It's just he was doing it with love and they with hate.
The left-hander swung in. His blow was hard across the base of her back. Her shoulders were tossed back as her waist drove forwards and he saw her left breast lift and fall, trembling at the impact. The boys jeered as she screamed. "Look at her tits shaking," one said with a leer.
"They're tiny," said the other. "My sister's got bigger tits than that."
"Your sister doesn't look like that." They laughed, making the crudest of gestures with their hands.
A woman, maybe 50 years old, clipped one of them across the top of the head. "Show some respect, lad," she said. "She's being birched for blasphemy - not for your sordid fun."
They giggled. "Leave them be, woman," said a red-faced older man. "They'll not see noble flesh bared for the lash again."
Isabel stared at the post. The sting was terrible, her back throbbing with pain. But worse was the knowledge of them all staring at her, seeing how she handled pain, seeing her taken to the limits of her endurance. She was determined not to break down but it was hard, desperately hard. The switch clattered into her shoulders again. Her head jarred back, her chest driven into the wood, damp now where her writhing had melted the ice. Her breasts ached with the cold and she felt shame at the erectness of her nipples, exposed for all to see. "Twenty." She could feel the odd warm trickle of blood running down her back now, gathering in the waistband of her britches. She felt exposed and very, very alone. Tears began to roll down her face.
The deacon couldn't have had a better view. He could see her pain clearly – and see those lovely gentle tits clearly, or the right one at least. She was suffering badly and he was loving it. He watched as the flogger closer to him drew back the switch and struck her, the power transferring from his shoulders into the switches and then, with a wonderful damp crash, striking across the centre of her back. He saw her cringe, the pain radiating through her face as her eyes closed and her lips turned down, a sharp yelp coming from her throat before her mouth opened and, jaw still tight, she began gulping in air, her eyes wide, chest heaving so her breast quivered, the nipple angry, red and erect in the cold. Her fists clenched and slowly relaxed, arms tight to the sides of the post as she shook with pain, fear and cold. "Twenty-one."
Maude was satisfied. The girl was in hell now, whimpering, clearly dreading the next stroke. She wished she'd got her begging for mercy, but this cowed, pathetic figure was good enough – and it would get better when she was put in the stocks. The beadle took aim and thrashed the birch across her shoulder blades. He'd clearly paced himself: it was a ferocious blow, the switches snapping against Isabel's skin. She yelled in pain as her body tensed and for a moment it looked as though her knees may buckle. For a time each breath came as a pained gasp but slowly she righted herself and straightened her legs. Her tongue flicked out, she dipped her head, closed her eyes and then, with what was clearly a great effort of will, readied herself for the next stroke.
The abbot glanced at the bishop. The red-faced fool was gawping as if he'd never seen a naked breast before. He turned back to the action and watched the left-hander smash his birch into the girl. He supposed there was something erotic about the way her body danced in the cold, but that was of little concern to him. What was important was that, at last, the church was hitting back. The flogging of a blasphemer shouldn't be a one-off spectacle, he thought: it should happen regularly. Let the people know what God demanded of them; let them see what His justice might be like.
Her back was on fire. It felt raw from neck to waist and she dreaded the next blow. Isabel wanted to sob, to break down, to let her legs give out and hang but she was determined they wouldn't break her fully. Gritting her teeth and pushing her lips together, she straightened her back, bending her arms slightly. It was horrendously cold. Her feet were numb, her skin goosepimpled and it was all she could do to prevent her teeth chattering. She heard the birch swoosh through the air. Instinctively she tensed and the twigs smashed into the base of her back. She thrust forward, stomach striking the cold post. Her face creased. "Twenty-three."
Tom waited. The final blow. His breath steamed around him and he could feel his chest damp with sweat despite the cold. He looked at the trembling girl, her back a raw pink, covered in scratches and oozing blood in patches. It was such a clever instrument, the birch, he thought. She was in clear pain and the blood always looked good but in a month it would be unlikely she'd bear any sort of scar. Where to place it? Low, he thought, on that waspish waist, the bumps of her vertebrae seductive above the britches, just where the last strike had landed. That would make it sting. He steadied himself and flew in. The rhythm was perfect. The twigs swooshed into her, smooth and fast, small fragments breaking off at the impact, which seemed to echo round the square. She yelled, body flung forward into the post, and for a moment he thought she would collapse, but she stayed upright, panting for breath, shoulders hunched. "Twenty-four."
Isabel waited. She was unbearably cold. Her back smarted from neck to waist. Now the flogging had stopped, she was suddenly acutely aware again of her nakedness. She could feel the crowd staring at her breasts, feel her cheeks flushing with shame. What were they doing? She didn't dare raise her head, just stared at the base of the post, waiting for them to untie her so she could put her clothes back on. Then suddenly they were there, four guards. Two shoved her roughly against the cold wood; the other two cut her bonds.
She stumbled away from the post, lowering her arms quickly and wrapping them across her chest. She heard boos from the crowd and laughter. She couldn't stop shivering, her skin covered in goosepimples, nipples hard. She stood on the platform, uncertain. Where were her clothes? She sniffed, glancing around her. The crowd seemed impossibly huge: everywhere she looked, she saw grins, fingers pointed at her. She tried to fight her anger, to tell herself that they believed her a blasphemer, but a part of her was disgusted: these people she'd done so much for now jeering and taunting because the priests had had her flogged.
She heard Sir Thomas's voice, booming in the still air. "The prisoner will now be displayed in the stocks for two hours." Where were her clothes? A hand slid between the upper part of her left arm and her body and she recoiled instinctively. The fingers gripped hard, pressing into the bicep. "Mark well her bloodied back," Sir Thomas went on, "and see the wages of blasphemy." Another hand took her right arm and pushed her forwards. With a sudden moment of horror, she realised they weren't going to return her clothes. They were going to put her in the stocks bare-breasted.
She struggled, twisting to free herself from the grip of the guards, while still clasping her hands to her chest. "You can't do this!" she shouted. "You can't do this! Give me my shift! You can't do this!" Her outburst alerted the mob to what was happening, and there was a great roar of excitement. She was hustled down the steps. She turned and saw Maude. "Please!" she shouted. "Not this!" But Maude simply looked on impassively and Isabel knew this had been her decision. The church might have forced through the birching, but this humiliation was her doing.
The guards began forcing a way through the crowd. Isabel wrapped her arms as tight about her as she could, even as the two men shoved her forwards. Suddenly the mob was all around. She could feel the heat coming off them, smell the sweat. A fat man with terrible teeth tried to force his way between the guards. "Show us your tits!" he yelled. There were cheers. "She hasn't got any!" came another shout, this time from a woman. There were peals of laughter. "Body like a boy!" came another shout.
This was what she'd feared. Rationally, she didn't care her breasts were small. They were right for her slim frame; they made riding a horse easier. And why should she care what they thought anyway? But here, as she shivered half-naked, the insults touched some deep-rooted insecurity. The smallness of her breasts made them easier to cover, and yet she hated the mockery of their size. She could feel her cheeks burning as she pulled back, only to be forced forwards by the guards, the strain sending new waves of pain through her smarting back.
She'd never been as scared: all these wild faces, grinning and leering, the guards having to fight their way through. What if they overpowered the guards? What then? The mob terrified her. She clutched her upper arms, determined to hide her breasts. Her back was stinging dreadfully. She felt something wet land on her shoulder. She looked at the spittle with horror, the white bubbles clinging to her smooth skin, the temperature slowly dropping. She pushed tight to the guards in front. "Protect me!" she yelled. "Protect me!"
Simon knew this was his chance to get close. He was an angular, powerful man and forced his way through the crowd. There were squabbles and scuffles breaking out all over as people tried to get nearer. The guards were driving their way through the mob, pushing with their staffs and there, suddenly she was, beautiful and pure, eyes flicking about in terror as she was pushed through the crowd towards the stocks. She seemed impossibly pale, her skin astonishingly smooth. Her arms were clamped across her chest but he saw the gentle swelling above her forearms, the start of her cleavage augmented by the way her thin upper arms squeezed her breasts together.
She was clearly terrified, shaking in the cold as they shoved her through the crowds. As the mob shifted, Simon got to within four or five feet of her. He saw others spitting at her, jeering, their faces contorted with fury. He wanted her to acknowledge him, to see him staring at her, and for a moment, her brown eyes locked onto him and he wondered if he had made it happen. But then she turned away and he realised she was just twisting, squirming in humiliation. He saw the gentle curve of her shoulder and then she was past him, and he saw with a sense of shock her whipped back, luridly pink and covered with a mass of wheals and scratches. As they hustled her on, his last thought was of how absurdly narrow her waist was above her britches.
Sir Thomas wished he'd cleared a route from the whipping post to the stocks beforehand. He could have set up barriers and manned them properly, and saved this chaos. He watched from the platform where she'd been flogged as she was bundled through the crowds, which would rise and fall like a wave as the peasants jostled to see her. He saw them spit on her and was disgusted. She was, after all, a noble – and what reason did they have to hate her? She was surrounded, the guards struggling to hold the crowds back. Every now and then she disappeared from view as the guards and mob closed around her, and then he'd see her head again, her hair springing loose from the pony-tail, stray tendrils drifting over her neck. Occasionally the crowds would part just a fraction and he'd catch a glimpse of that slender back, burning red now.
In the stand, the dignitaries were beginning to move. Osbert was desperate to get over to the stocks, to see her shame. He was stunned that they were apparently going to leave her topless. That was two hours he could stare at her. But he didn't want to look too eager. There was a certain decorum to be observed. Lady Maude was only now getting to her feet, a half-smile on her face as she stared across at her step-daughter being buffeted half-naked across the square. The bishop had barely shifted his gaze from the extraordinary sight, a noble being openly taunted by the commoners, her dignity shredded.
There was a gasp and a roar and Osbert saw that Isabel had stumbled. There were shouts as the guards pulled her to her feet, and he realised that, for a moment at least, her arms must have come away from her chest, offering a close-up view of her breasts to those lucky enough to be near her. He saw her twisting, that lithe body squirming as she pulled her arms down and across herself and he saw one of the guards give her a rough shove that nearly sent her down again. He couldn't wait any longer. Taking up his basket carefully, he set off round the edge of the square.
Isabel's cheeks burned with shame. Her back was hurting dreadfully, the muscles stiff and sore, the skin raw and stinging. She was jockeyed and jostled, more spittle landed on her and she thought she might fall again, her numb feet struggling to find purchased on the frozen ground. Then, at last, they got to the low barrier designed to protect those in the stocks from the mob. The rules were clear: they could shout and spit and throw things, but nobody could pass that point. She stepped over it, shoved by the guards, arms still hooked across her chest. There were three shallow steps up and then the platform on which the stocks stood, the dark wood glistening with frost.
The guards hustled her around it. She couldn't take her eyes off it, this symbol of shame. She thought of the baker and she thought of Mrs White. She thought of their humiliation and she knew she was about to undergo worse. They pushed her down onto the low bench. Her back roared in pain as the muscles adjusted to her new position, her buttocks chilled instantly by the frost. She glanced up and saw the mass of faces, crowding at the barrier, stretching back as far as she could see, most leering and gawping, none it seemed offering anything like sympathy. She hugged herself tighter, feeling how her nipples stood on end in the cold. The pain in her back was awful, the cold air seeming to make the sting worse. She saw the upper bar on the stocks being lifted, and guards seized her legs, yanking her bare calves forward and positioning her ankles in the shallow dips in the lower bar. The top bar was brought down, and her feet were trapped. This was it, then: two hours sitting there in the cold, naked to the waist, being laughed at. She watched as the clasp was fastened, locking the two halves of the stocks together. The guards backed away and the time of her shaming had officially begun. She looked up at the clockface on the cathedral: twenty to ten.
"Whore!" came a shout, and she turned her gaze back to the mob. They were massed behind the low barrier, the nearest no more than eight feet away, their faces stretching back across the square. Others took up the shout, and she saw spittle flying towards her, much of it falling short. She clutched herself tighter, carefully positioning her palms over her nipples. She shivered. It was bitterly cold. "Where's her tits? She's got nothing," shouted an old woman, her eyes bulging with fury. What was wrong with these people? "She's got two backs." Isabel looked down at her feet, and vowed she would stare at her toes and count to 100 before lifting her eyes. She tried to block out the insults. She'd got to about 40 when something struck her painfully on the left shoulder, glancing off and striking the ground somewhere behind her with a damp splat.
She started and looked up, hearing the laughter of the crowd. Before her she saw Osbert, a broad grin on his bovine face. The mob had opened up around him and he stood proudly by the barrier, a basket in his left hand. His right arm was pulled back. She watched dumbly as he brought it forward and only at the last did she realise he was throwing something at her. Him! A noble. A dark shape flashed through the air. An egg. He was pelting her with eggs. She flinched, but far too late, and it hit the centre of her chest, just above her crossed arms.
She gasped with the shock then realised with horror that the egg had broken and was oozing between her breasts. Worse, it was rotten. The smell was terrible. She stared at it, the slime streaking down her pale chest, and collecting where her forearms were crossed over her breasts. There was nothing she could do. The only way of dislodging it was to move her arms, and that would expose her breasts. "Go on, clean it up!" came a shout.
"Lick it off!" came another.
"I'll lick it off!" There were hoots of laughter.
A space opened around Osbert. She couldn't believe she'd once kissed him, that for a couple of crazy weeks she'd wondered if she might marry him. She saw him, laughing with one of his friends, lay down the basket and take up another egg. How many did he have? The mob fell silent, waiting. He weighed the egg in his hand, raised it and- nothing. She flinched, ducking her head away, and the crowd roared with amusement as it realised he'd only dummied. Then he did throw it and it struck her, almost before she'd seen it, hard on the temple. For a moment she was stunned by the blow and then she realised the ooze was sliding down over her left eye. Slowly, carefully, adjusting her left arm, she raised her right hand to try to scoop the gunk away, There were roars and wolf-whistles. Could they see her? She realised the top of her left nipple might be visible. What could she do? She swept her right hand across her face, flicking the filth away, and then quickly hugged herself again. "Tie her hands behind her!" somebody shouted, "Tie her! Tie her!"
The deacon had never imagined it might be this good. He could see the humiliation in her, the awful realisation dawning that for another hour and fifty five minutes she would be pelted with debris and that she had a choice of protecting herself or of hiding her tits. Osbert took up another egg, a look of lust and triumph on his face. The deacon could sense the crowd's anticipation, their enjoyment of this battle as she held her arms across her chest and waited. Osbert teased her, dummying to throw a couple of times before finally releasing it. He threw hard and flat, aiming for her face. She ducked, offering a glimpse of her shallow cleavage as she bent forwards, and the egg smacked against the top of her head, leaving fragments of shell and a splodge of yolk nestled in her hair. She sat up again, fury and pain written in her face and the mob roared with laughter, egg dripping from her hair.
Somebody spat, the spittle tracing a lazy parabola but falling a few feet short of her. The taunts were constant.
"Isabel, flat as hell!"
There was laughter, a sense of carnival about the occasion. Here was a noblewoman stripped and humiliated and the realisation had grown that they could do what they wanted. There would be no comeback. The usual rules didn't apply: that was no need for respect for a girl who'd been birched in front of them and was now fastened half-naked for their amusement. Osbert hurled another egg. She was slow to react this time and it hit her, hard, just above the left eye. She shouted in pain, jerking back, then gasping as the movement aggravated the sting of her back. The egg broke, the yolk sliding slowly over face then dropping onto the hook of her arms. She blinked desperately, fragments of shell and the traces of rotten egg dotted around her eye and streaking her cheek.
Something dark flew from her right and struck her cheek. She flinched and looked sharply in that direction. The deacon was struck by the proud jut of her jaw, the fire that still glimmered beneath her humiliation. He saw on the ground beside her a sphere of horse-shit. There was plenty of that around if they wanted to pelt her. There were hoots and whoops and a general scramble as the mob searched the ground for horseshit.
Osbert weighed the egg in his hand. He still had four left after this. She was shivering, clearly in significant pain and streaked with rotten egg. A dark smudge showed on her cheek where the shit had hit her. He waited. Another dark globe arced towards her, then another. He saw her look to dodge and, while she was distracted, threw the egg. She caught sight of it late and instinctively raised her arms to block it. It broke in her right wrist, but far more significant was that she'd exposed her breasts. All he'd seen was a quick glimpse of pink nipples, hard in the cold, but the mob roared and renewed its mockery.
"Face this way!"
"Those aren't tits: she's just been bitten by two horseflies."
Osbert laughed with the rest of them. She was crying now, the shame too much for her, and he enjoyed seeing her humiliated. The truth was her breasts weren't that small. They weren't huge dangling udders, but they had a delicacy and beauty on her slender frame. He would have loved to have fondled them, to have teased those nipples and caressed the soft warmth as they rose in shallow slopes from her chest. But that was what they were using to hurt her, so he was happy to join in.
"Lady two-backs," he shouted, and they laughed because he was a noble, even though the joke had been made earlier.
Maude wished she could have got close, but the crowd was too thick. She sat on her horse at the back of the mob, 20 or 30 yards from her stepdaughter, who shivered pitifully, hugging a naked torso turned pink by the cold. Maude hadn't expected this level of hostility. She'd thought there'd be enjoyment of Isabel's nakedness, memories of which would undermine her in the future, but there was real hatred here. Maude had expected men to delight in Isabel's shame, but there were plenty of women there as well, hurling abuse. Two red –faced plump women in particular seemed to be delighted in mocking her. Perhaps this was simple jealousy: two crones lashing out at a beautiful girl who'd been born with advantages they could only dream of. She'd been in the stocks for half an hour, during which time the barrage of taunts and insults hadn't stopped, and she'd been pelted with rotten eggs and shit. She looked pathetic, her face ashen, hair limp and matted with filth. Her body was marked with splatters of shit, streaked with egg. Her dignity had gone.
She wondered if there was anything she should do to make it worse: have her hands tied behind her maybe to expose those delicate breasts – how good it was to hear the crowd laughing at them - or perhaps have her britches stripped from her, but she couldn't think of a legal reason to do so and above all else she had to be seen to act within the law. And, anyway, the mob hadn't let up. They were spitting now, competing to project their spittle far enough to hit her, the vast majority falling short. Every now and again, another handful of shit would be thrown.
Isabel was freezing. She hugged herself, tucking her hands between her breasts and her arms to try to warm them. Her toes throbbed with the cold, her back was stinging, and her body was covered with a layer of filth – shit and rotten vegetables and Osbert's eggs. Her eyes felt puffy with crying and snot oozed from her nose, but she couldn't wipe them for fear of exposing her breasts again. The mob were still roaring abuse at her, reveling in her pain and her shame. She knew the jokes about her flat chest would endure, that long after this was over they'd refer to her as Lady Twobacks. She suspected Osbert had put them up to it: it's what he'd called her when she'd rejected him. Her breasts had grown since then, but they weren't huge – and this had exposed how insecure she was about them. She knew she was and she knew it was ridiculous. Another ball of shit hit her left shoulder.
How long had gone? She stared at her toes. She'd focus on them again and count to 100: that would pass the time. But she'd barely got to thirty when a young boy suddenly darted beyond the barrier and skipped up the steps. She vaguely recognised him. He was the miller's boy, she thought, eight or nine years old. The crowd fell quiet, waiting to see what he would do. The guards seemed uncertain how they should react. The boy stood in front of her, looking vacant, then he pointed at her and laughed. There was something about this act, this child taunting her, that made her humiliation seem all the worse. He walked up to stand beside her, seemingly unconcerned by the filth he was standing in. She held her arms tighter about her. Why weren't they stopping him? He peered over her arms, clearly trying to see her breasts. Then he spat at her. She flinched instinctively as the spittle struck her cheek. "Go away," she hissed and there was laughter from the crowd. The boy spat again. "Get away from me!" she shouted and the mob whooped. The boy walked behind her. She twisted and tried to see what he was doing but with her legs fastened it was hopeless. He grabbed her pony tail and pulled sharply. She shrieked, more in surprise than anything else, but then he twisted the hair in his hand and pulled harder. "Get off me!" she shouted, trying to shake him off, but he just pulled, lifting her off the low bench before dropping her. Isabel felt spasms of pain pass through her back, which he then touched, running his fingers over the welted skin. She gasped in pain, then he suddenly laughed and jabbed her in both ribs at the same time. She squirmed had lurched forward as he darted in front of her.
He stood over her, one foot planted each side of her thighs, a grin on his face. He grabbed her nose and held it, cutting off the flow of air. She glared at him, humiliated by her helplessness. He peered down, clearly trying to see beneath her arms to her breasts. She clutched herself tighter, and he twisted her nose, painfully. It was cold anyway and the action was surprisingly painful. Mucus oozed out into his fingers. He looked at them, disgusted, then wiped them clean on her hair. He spat in her face, giggled, and ran off. As soon as he'd gone, there was another volley of shit. She was caked in filth, her face streaked with tears. How long did she have left?
Wat sat in the tavern. It was almost deserted, everybody outside enjoying the fun. What was wrong with them? Isabel had a heart; she cared about people. How could they not see that? But no. She was a pretty girl and a noble they could bully so they got their kicks from seeing her breasts and birching her and now they were relishing humiliating her. He couldn't watch. He'd walked over in a daze after the flogging, unable to believe the fury and hostility of the crowd. What had she done to them?
He bought a beer and stood by the bar. There were three men next to him. "I never thought they'd let us see her tits," one said.
"Not much to see," said another. They laughed.
"Enough, though," said the third. "Thin body like that you don't want huge ones. That waist of hers. I'd like to get my arms round that."
"They're pert," said the first one, "I'll give you that. Those pink nipples standing up in the cold…"
Wat could hardly bear to listen.
"Have you been over to see her in the stocks?" the third asked.
"Yes," the first replied. "But she's covering herself up. And she's too far away to spit at. The kids are throwing horseshit at her, but we want something that'll really show her she's scum."
From the other corner of the bar, a voice spoke up. "Take the spittoon."
"Nah, Dick," said the barman, "They'd never let you."
"Wouldn't they?" Dick said thoughtfully. "They've kept her half-naked this long. I reckon they want to shame her."
Wat knew the truth of what he was saying. There was something going on: nobles out to get his lady. The three men encouraged Dick. He finished his pint and slammed the tankard down. He strode over to the spittoon where it stood by the bar and, with some effort, picked it up. Wat couldn't believe what was happening. The spittoon was about three feet deep and six inches in diameter, a vessel that hadn't been emptied in who knew how long. It reeked. One of the men helped Dick, staggering outside with it. Wat heard the shouts of the mob as they realised what was happening, shouts of excitement and laughter. He cringed for his lady.
The spittoon was heavier than Dick had thought but he and the drinker from the pub managed to maneuver it across the square. When the mob saw what it was, they stepped back and cheered. By the time they reached the railing, Lady Isabel was staring at them. Good, Dick thought, let the bitch see what was coming. The guards stopped them, but the roars of the crowd persuaded Sir Thomas he had to let them through. Dick was fascinated by her. Up close, he saw just how smooth her skin was, just how pure its silk-like texture. She was startlingly beautiful, the dark eyes staring resentfully at him over those immaculate cheekbones. Her fear was obvious as she cowered away from him. They walked behind her and he saw the damage the birch had done to her back, the welts and cuts stretching from her shoulders to her waist. He peered over her shoulders trying to catch a glimpse of her breasts, but her arms were held tight across her chest. She glanced up at him and he was struck by the intensity of her gaze and by the fear and shame he saw there.
They raised the spittoon carefully, the crowd falling silent as they watched. Slowly they tipped. At first a dribble came out, a wash of beer and wine, the stench of stale alcohol revolting. It fell onto her hair, fine but already caked in eggs and shit. As they poured, her head was soon soaked and it began to run down her face. As she arched her back, Dick could almost sense her disgust. And then there came, quite suddenly, a scream. He checked, instinctively, and realised the alcohol was stinging the raw wounds of her back. After the initial shout, she gritted her teeth, but the tension in the muscles of her neck showed her distress. He laughed and raised the base of the spittoon again.
A little more stale wine dripped out. Some pooled on her forearms as she crossed them over her chest. He could see her breathing quicken with the pain. And then, quite suddenly, in one great lump, a ball of mucus fell from the spittoon. Dick had no idea how long it must have taken for that much to accumulate, but it was foul; a great globule of the spit of men over a period of weeks, maybe months, stained red with wine. It fell on her head, and spread, clinging to her, holding her hair flat to her scalp and slowly oozing over her face. It began to drip into her eyes. Disgusted, she shook her head, but she couldn't dislodge it. There were whoops and jeers. She blinked desperately and then, bowing to the inevitable, she raised her right had to try to scoop it away from her eyes. A little more of her right breast was revealed and the mob roared. She tried desperately to stop herself from crying. She clenched her teeth. It was no good. She had to use both hands. She would do it quickly. She screwed up her eyes and then, suddenly, lifted her hands, scraping the filth from her face, sweeping up and over her forehead to her hair. There were wolf-whistles and cheers and she could feel her heart beating faster at the shame.
"Where are they? I can't see them," came a shout and there was more laughter.
"That wasn't worth the wait," yelled somebody else.
"Isabel, flat as hell…" somebody else called. There was laughter and the chant was taken up. Her breasts had been visible perhaps two seconds. She moved to drop her hands again, but she suddenly found them caught. She shouted but the only response was laughter. The bastard who had tipped the spittoon over her head had grabbed her wrists and he now held them above her head, so her chest was exposed.
The bishop took a deep draught of wine. He stood in a first-storey chamber a few yards to the left of Isabel, far enough back from the window that he hoped he couldn't be seen. Behind him Maude and Sir Thomas chatted, as though this were some kind of social event. He didn't approve of some oaf humiliating her like that, of course, and yet he couldn't deny that her shame was part of the punishment. He stared at the soft curve of her left breast, the nipple hard and red in the cold. She fought with the oaf and freed her arms, rapidly wrapping her arms around herself as the temple guards finally ordered her tormentor away. As he went, he paused, leant close and from no more than a foot away, spat in her face. As he trotted down the steps he was received with great cheers. The bishop resumed his contemplation of her, back red and scored with scratches, her hair covered with mucus, her pure skin pale and pinkened by the cold, stained with filth and the dregs of the wine.
She was sobbing. Good, The whole point that this was a lesson she wouldn't forget. She wouldn't be so keen to start making a scene in the future. He saw something fly over her head and smash into the wall behind her, sending up a spray of pulp. It was, he realised, an apple. Somebody had brought a barrel of rotting fruit and was gleefully handing out apples to pelt her with. She lowered her head, but she could do nothing to prevent an apple hitting her square on the shoulder. She shouted in pain as in splatted into her cold skin. Another struck her ear as she turned away.
There was no escape. She howled as the fruit pounded her, still hugging herself desperately. Keeping her breasts covered, though, did little to alter her humiliation, defenceless, cold, unable to protect herself.
Simon stamped his feet, trying to get the blood flowing through them again. She must be freezing, he realised, half naked up there, soaked in wine and spittle. The barrage of fruit had ended, leaving her body covered in sticky residue. She was shaking violently, head bowed, the image of abjection. She had a little under half an hour of the two hours remaining. The hostility of the crowd had waned and they seemed to have run out of things to throw. He edged closer to the barrier. A couple of children, no more than six or seven years old, kept up a barrage of mud and shit, much of it not even reaching her. A boy of maybe fifteen was shouting insults at her constantly, a look of mad concentration on his face. "Whore! Bitch! Slut! No tits! No tits! Whore!'
He gazed at her, hair clinging to her head, arms crossed over her breasts, her torso pink with cold and stained with filth, the marks of the birch clear on her rounded shoulders as she huddled, shivering pitifully. Her head was bowed, eyes closed. What a delicate, pretty creature she was. He doubted he'd ever see her again after this. Surely she'd leave, go into exile, away fro those who had witnessed her shame?
There was movement, a hubbub in the crowd, and Simon saw two members of the temple guard forcing their way through. Each held a bucket, water slopping out. What fresh torment was this?
Sir Thomas looked on. He, the bishop, Lady Maude and various other worthies had retired to a room in the bishop's quarters from which they could look out on Isabel's suffering. A fire roared in the grate and they'd all been served mulled wine. For a time they'd ignored Isabel's fate, but then the deacon had come in and, in that ingratiating way of his, suggested that the people were becoming restive, that the spectacle of a noblewoman stripped to the waist for them to gawp at wasn't holding the attention any more.
He wasn't, frankly, all that bothered. She had less than half an hour left and had surely learned her lesson. He'd glanced out of the window. Isabel was shaking, covered in filth. She looked as abject as anyone could. But it had been true that the mob had seemed less hostile to her and so when the deacon had suggested dousing her in cold water so that the dirt couldn't hide her shame, he'd agreed. The point was to make the people despise her, to make her a ridiculous creature in their eyes so they would never respect her and if a little more discomfort helped that process along all well and good.
The lady Maude and the bishop came to join him by the window. Two of the temple guard walked smartly up the steps to where Isabel huddled in the stocks. They saw her beg, shaking her head as she realised what was about to happen. The hubbub of the crowd died as they saw there was more entertainment. Then there were cheers of encouragement. Sir Thomas saw two desperately ugly fat women laughing uproariously, shouting and pointing at Isabel's fear. The first guard stood behind her and raised up the bucket. The roars grew louder and louder. He tipped, gently at first, and the water fell in a single steady stream onto the matted hair that clung to her scalp.
Isabel shrieked, hugging herself tighter as the water splashed over her. It was so cold it seemed almost to burn, sluicing some of the filth off her, but bringing no comfort. She heard laughter and jeers.
"Wash the whore!"
"Let me scrub her!"
"Her ladyship's having a bath."
But the pain was awful. Her back throbbed and the cold seemed to cause her head to ache. The water soaked her britches, on and on the stream came and, when the first bucket was over, the second guard stepped forward and emptied his over her. Her teeth chattered, her breath came in shallow gasps, her heart pounded. She let out a long wail, her head dropping. She just wanted to curl up into a ball, but a guard grabbed her by the hair and yanked her to sit upright. It sent spasms of pain through her back and she yelped. There was laughter and then, as though cleaning her had re-awakened the cruelty of the mob, they began pelting her again with shit and rotten vegetables. Exhausted, freezing, Isabel hugged herself, not even bothering to defend herself as ancient turnips splattered against her, stinging sharply. She cried, desperately cold, tears and water dripping off her nose end. There was more shit, more eggs, some foul-smelling entrails. She saw a fat woman with broken teeth laughing uproariously, calling her a whore. She didn't understand their anger: what had she done to them?
Wat knew he had to be prepared. Her time was running out. In perhaps quarter of an hour they'd release her and then her had to be there to get her away from that place. He couldn't have her stumbling half-naked around the market-place. How could he get over to her? He would have to ride his horse, try to drive it through the crowds. He saddled up.
Dick stood by the barrier, staring. His preference was for bigger tits, but she was captivating, the slenderness adding to the sense that she was a class apart, too delicate and refined for flesh. And yet she was shivering and squirming half-naked, covered in filth. He stared at the point where her left breast emerged from her ribs, her fingers clutching the pale flesh. A turnip hit her head, hard, and she was rocked back and for a moment he caught a flash of the side of the breast, pale and tender and smeared with dirt. This was a day he wouldn't forget anytime soon: a beautiful noble birched and humiliated in front of the people.
Osbert had kept a few eggs back. He hurled one and it smashed against her forehead. She screamed and the crowds around him cheered and laughed as the ooze slid down her face. She was crying, too concerned about hiding her breasts to wipe it off. He threw another one, but his aim was off and it smacked into her shoulder. She yelped and he saw a red mark appear on her soft skin, even though the layers of grime. She looked pitiful, clearly frozen, utterly humiliated, but he wanted more. He hurled another egg, and struck her cheek. She shouted in pain and bent forwards, only for a guard to grab her hair and yank her up. He'd barely let go when a ball of horseshit struck her face, prompting wild laughter. She bawled in degradation. The crowd, he sensed, were building up to the finale; people were returning for the final minutes of her shame.
There was a hail of shit. She stayed up right, but her head was bowed, shoulders shaking as she sobbed, her whole body racked by shivers. Osbert threw another egg. It missed her nose by a fraction and smashed into her chest, the foul ooze sliding down from between her collar bones to gather in her cleavage, sustained by her crossed arms. She yelped in pain. He hurled another egg and watched in satisfaction as it shattered on the crown of her head, matting in her hair and dripping slowly over her face.
She howled. "You still disgust me!" she shrieked at him. "Just because… because I turned you down. Take your revenge, you pathetic man!"
Osbert was shocked by her outburst, but the mob were just amused by her anger. They hooted with laughter. "Why would he want a breastless bitch?" a woman shouted. The chant of "Lady Two-backs" went up again. Osbert weighed another egg in his hand and threw it at her sobbing form. It glanced off her cheek, and she shouted in pain. "There's more in your hand with an egg than one of her tits," somebody said and there was more laughter. By then she was bawling.
Maude had won. She looked down at Isabel, screaming hysterically, covered in shit and rotten eggs and who knew what other filth, half naked and shaking, back bloodied and she knew she had destroyed her. Isabel would leave, she was sure of it. Nobody could withstand that humiliation. How could she go out again and see people who had seen her like this? How she could she walk past a man who had thrown missiles at her bare torso while shouting insults about her tits. She wouldn't be able to show herself in public, never mind protest about anything.
Sir Thomas had left a minute or two earlier and she saw him, flanked by four of the temple guard and accompanied by the deacon, push his way through the crowd. Through the glass Maude could hear the chant of the mob: "Isabel, flat as hell!" She smiled. It was desperately cruel – and unfair, whatever else Isabel was, she was beautiful, even if she was on the thin side. Osbert, seeing Sir Thomas's approach, hurled his last egg, which hit Isabel's belly and fell, smearing a glistening line down to her britches. Should she have had her stripped naked?
The temple guard closed in. There was a final flurry of missiles, but as Sir Thomas advanced to the platform they ceased. Isabel, shivering, hands still hooked over her chest, looked at him with a pathetic gratitude. Two guards stepped bent at the front of the stocks and loosened the bolt. The top bar was raised. There was a pause and Maude realised that Isabel's legs were so stiff she couldn't easily lift them. Finally she drew her knees towards her body, as other guards grabbed her upper arms and lifted her. The motion, inevitably, pulled her arms away from her chest and, for a moment, her breasts, pale and capped by nipples that stood hard and red in the cold, were clearly visible to the mob. They roared their approval, as Isabel staggered forwards, legs unsteady. She fell to her knees between the bench and the stocks, hugging herself as soon as she could as the torrent of jeers washed over her. She glanced up, horror and shame and loathing written on her face and then lowered her head, tendrils of wet hair falling forward, tears and water and other filth dripping from her.
The bishop moved alongside Maude at the window. "She won't forget that lesson," he said, taking a gulp of wine.
Maude looked at her stepdaughter's bloody back, huddled shivering amid the filth that surrounded the stocks. "No, she won't," she said with satisfaction.
Sir Thomas waved a hand and two guards pulled Isabel to her feet again. This time she kept her breasts hidden, hands clasped to the opposite shoulder, but her shame and terror was clear as her eyes remained fixed on the shit-strewn frosty ground. "Lady Isabel," Sir Thomas said. "Your sentence is complete. You are free to go." One of the guards gave her a light shove and she stumbled away from the stocks. She looked about her, left and right – Maude could see the terror in her deep brown eyes. The mob laughed at her horror, fingers pointing. There was no escape. She was surrounded. Maude hadn't thought about this. How would she get out of the square? She considered calling to Sir Thomas, getting the temple guard to escort her, but already they were backing away. The mob still seemed wary of advancing onto the platform, but how long would that last? Isabel became more and more frantic, eyes darting this way and that, mouth opening in panic.
There was a shout, first a lone voice and then a number and Maude saw a horseman pushing through the crowd. At the barrier the horse paused, then skipped over, its hooves clattering on the stone platform. The rider, a scarf covering his face, reached down a gloved hand and Isabel, relief flooding across her face, grabbed it, and leapt up behind him. Her breasts were exposed but in that moment she seemed not to care. She clung to the rider, who thrust a blanket into her hand. As she wrapped it around her raw shoulders, the rider pushed his way through the crowds, which slowly parted before the horse, as though in thrall to its power.
It was her groom, Maude realised. How foolish men could be before a pretty face. It was laughable, really, a lady having to be saved by one of her staff, but as she watched the horse disappear out of the square, she felt a slight nag of concern. Somehow in that final moment, the groom had salvaged something from the day. But still, she reflected, it wasn't much. Nobody in the town would ever look at Isabel again without thinking of her shivering half-naked, bleeding and disgraced.
For almost a week, Isabel had stayed in her bed, lying face down. She would only admit her two closest ladies-in-waiting to her room, and they applied soothing balm to the cuts and welts on her back and the bruises on her front, and gave her herbs to calm her nerves and tackle a chest infection that the doctor said had been brought on by the cold. She recalled almost nothing after she'd been released from the stocks other that a terrible sense of shame. She'd been told that Wat – Wat! – had ridden to her rescue, seizing her up on his horse, but she couldn't remember that, nor her arrival, half-naked and bleeding, back at the castle. She remembered being made to strip, being birched, the terrible laughter of the mob, the shame of sitting topless for two hours in the icy morning being pelted with filth. She remembered the pain and the humiliation and the terrible cold, but not her rescue.
For almost a month she stayed in her room, a dread seizing her every time she wanted to go out. Wat, she was told, kept coming to see her but she couldn't face seeing him. Maude, too, tried to visit but was turned away. Her father was too ill to understand what had happened. Finally, Maude pushed the servants out of the way and gained entry.
"Isabel," she said, "how are you feeling?"
From her bed, Isabel said nothing. She felt a great surge of anger and resentment. How dare this woman pretend concern for her, this woman who had duped her father and was now robbing the county blind?
"I hope you understand why we had to do that to you," Maude continued. "I hope you've learned your lesson."
Still Isabel said nothing.
"Not speaking? Well, if your manners haven't improved I hope you at least will keep your nose out of things that do not concern you."
Isabel felt a reply rise on her tongue. She wanted to suggest Maude have her birched again to teach her some manners, but she remained silent. Fury burned within in, but she tried to remain calm.
That was enough to rouse her. The next morning, Isabel left her bed and dressed. She summoned Wat and, to his obvious embarrassment, gave him a small bag of coins and a peck on the forehead that clearly meant far more. She began riding. Slowly, she regained strength. Her back healed, until only a handful of thin white scars remained, almost invisible from any sort of distance. And then, about four months after her flogging, she returned to the town.
She heard the sniggers, of course she did. As she passed the tavern she heard a shout of "Lady Two-Backs". Some people shunned her. But some welcomed her. She felt surprisingly strong. She knew these people had seen her naked to the waist, she knew some of them had enjoyed watching her pain as she'd been birched. She knew some had spat on her and taunted her and thrown filth at her as she'd sat shivering in the stocks. But she didn't care. She would continue to help those who needed her whatever the bishop or her stepmother did.
The deacon look anxiously at the bishop who was staring in apparent confusion at the letter he'd just handed him. Eventually he lay it down on the table, took a deep gulp of wine and looked hopefully at the younger man. "Just tell me what it means."
"Well, your grace," he said, "Canterbury is concerned by the fact that Lady Isabel had to be flogged for blasphemy-"
"Concerned?" the bishop blustered. "But she was guilty."
"They don't dispute that, your grace," he deacon went on, although the force of the bishop's bluster made him suspect he doubted the legality of what they'd done. "They are concerned that if a noblewoman is spreading these lies that she might develop a following. They mean to ensure that any dissent is nipped firmly in the bud."
The bishop drank more wine and narrowed his eyes. "Could they sanction us?" he asked.
The deacon smiled; there was something quite touching about the bishop's directness. "I would say there are only two reasons for the church here to be concerned," he said.
"And they are?"
"Either they think we've unjustly persecuted a noblewoman, or they think we've allowed a heretical sect to flourish here."
"Would they think that? Either of those things?"
"No, of course not your grace," the deacon said. This was going exactly as he'd hoped it might. "The Lady Isabel began speaking in a most unseemly and heterodox way and we took decisive action."
"Of course. Of course"
"There is just one… but no.. I'm sure… no…"
"Well, she is becoming troublesome again, your grace?"
"Is she? In what way?"
"She's talking to the poor, you grace, protesting about tithes and indulgences, suggesting that certain figures in the church are perhaps rather less abstemious than they might be."
The bishop went a deeper shade of red. The deacon knew he didn't understand half the words he'd just said. "After we stripped her half-naked and birched her? After we sat her in the stocks for the people to torment?"
‘Remarkably yes, it seems so, your grace."
"And what do you suggest we do about this?"
"Far be it from me, your grace, to presume to offer advice on a matter like this, but two church commissioners will arrive next week. It might be wise if we took pre-emptive action."
"I mean, after suitable consultation with the Lady Maude, that we summon the Lady Isabel to explain her actions and if her explanation is unsatisfactory, we commit her to her father's cells for robust questioning."
"You mean to torture her?"
"I'm sure it wouldn't come to that, your grace. But some encouragement might help us get a confession from her that she is a lone heretic, or to get the names of her accomplices, before the commissioners arrive. If – if – she were to prove guilty, they could then advise as to an appropriate sentence."
Maude looked in the mirror. Her face looked larger, puffier, the lines around her eyes and the corners of her mouth more pronounced. She was getting old and she had to accept it. She thought back to what Sir Thomas had said. That the church was still angry with Isabel. That the birching had only made her more determined in her campaign. She was aware of it herself, of course: she knew what the stuck-up little prig had been doing, and she knew that the victory she'd thought she'd won hadn't been as complete as it had seemed as Isabel sat sobbing half-naked in the stocks.
The girl was still a threat, but what that hadn't stopped her being shocked by Sir Thomas's visit. She could see the bishop was worried by the visit of the church commissioners, concerned they would find him remiss in pursuing dissent, and she could see why they wanted Isabel offered up as a sacrifice. But to have the girl interrogated and probably punished again: that seemed a step too far. And she was under no illusions what interrogation would mean: they'd torture her in the dungeons of her own home. And yet… and yet…
There was no doubt that disposing of Isabel would be useful, but Maude was wary of two things. Firstly, what would the church commissioners decide? Would they be happy with a confession extracted under torture? Might they see through the plot? She had no great desire to bring outsiders into this. And secondly, say they did sentence Isabel to be flogged again, or – who knew? – to be exiled, how would the public react? They'd seen her screaming half-naked once: would it have the same impact a second time around?
But if outsiders did sentence her to death, how useful that would be. She could express outrage, demand clemency and at the same time get rid of the girl. And she could match her response to the public's. If Isabel was exiled and they howled in outrage, she could look sad and insist there was nothing to be done. If they relished further humiliation for her – and thinking of their reaction, she rather suspected they would – she could be stern: the law is the law, especially when it is the law of God.
Isabel's hand shook as she read the letter. She supposed she shouldn't have been surprised, but she'd thought they'd done their worst. The bishop was again demanding a meeting to explain her views. What now? Would they really flog her again? The whole episode seemed slightly unreal, like something that had happened in a dream, and yet the sense of shame was vivid enough. But what choice did she have? She knew they'd be watching her. Try to escape and they'd flog her for sure. And this seemed less formal: they wanted to meet at the castle. She summoned a maid and told her to tell the bishop that she'd be available for him the following morning.
Already it was clear what was about to happen. Sir Thomas was amazed by her stupidity, but found her straightforwardness rather admirable. The bishop, egged on by the deacon, had asked her again about indulgences, tithes and the Bible in the vernacular and she had given answers that were, from the church's point of view, profoundly unsatisfactory. The bishop was becoming angrier and angrier.
"You persist in these thoughts even after you were punished for them?"
"I do," she said, with a slight toss of the head. She really was an extraordinarily beautiful creature, simply clad as she was in a pale grey dress and deep green cloak. "In fact I'd go so far as to say the church has no right to persecute those who question their doctrine."
The bishop was bright red now. The set-up, the three men behind the table facing the girl on a simple chair, should have been intimidating for her, especially with half a dozen of the temple guard behind her, but somehow she'd managed to invert the power relationship. And that could only end one way: with the same questions being put to her in the dungeons.
The bishop could barely speak. He spluttered and turned to the deacon who stepped in with typical unctuousness. "Do many share your views, your ladyship?" he asked.
"I speak only for myself," she replied.
"Quite so. But do many share your views?"
"I speak only for myself."
"I see," the deacon replied. "This leaves us with a problem, your ladyship."
Sir Thomas saw her swallow.
"You profess views that sound heretical," the deacon went on. "And you refuse to co-operate with this inquiry. I'm afraid there may be a need to formalise the process and put you to the question."
He looked at the bishop, who nodded. "Arrest her," he said.
She sat calmly as the guard advanced, her jaw set as two of them seized her arms and pulled her to her feet. There was a clatter as manacles were fastened around her wrists, linked to a metal band that was locked around her neck, and by another length of chain to fetters that were tightened around her ankles after her shoes had been removed. She set her jaw, eyes defiant as the temple guard led her fro the room by a length of chain attached to her wrists. She stumbled slightly, bare feet skittering on the floorboards and Sir Thomas was struck by a recollection of her being hauled across the square after her birching. Was it really almost nine months since then, since he'd seen her, naked to the waist, being flogged on the public post?
Isabel shivered. The chill of autumn was coming on and in the cell it was cold. She lay huddled on a damp floor on which some hay had been scattered, the chain they'd led her by attached to a loop on the wall. Her knees to her chin, she hugged herself, but the shackles made it awkward. The cell was perhaps six feet wide and nine feet long, but her movement was so restricted it hardly mattered. She'd pushed some straw into one corner and had pissed there, glad she was wearing a dress and not her britches, but it was a humiliatingly difficult operation and the smell made her nauseous.
She'd know there were dungeons under the hall, of course. She wasn't naïve. She even suspected she was in a particular part of the dungeon reserved for torture. She knew there was a larger chamber where vagrants were sometimes kept and she'd thought there were more comfortable cells for the better class of prisoner. There was a reason they'd put her here. They wanted to scare her and degrade her. Well, she wouldn't give in to that. If they wanted to birch her again, well, she'd take that. It had hurt dreadfully at the time of course, but the sting had gone after a week or two. Far worse was the shame. But she had to make her point. She couldn't let them bully her. These were important principles and she knew that she was the only one on the region powerful enough to have a chance of fighting for what was right.
She heard a rustling in the straw and looked to see two beady eyes staring at her. Rats. She couldn't be surprised, but it just seemed another indignity. She curled up a little tighter. What, she wondered, was Maude doing now? That was the question she hadn't been able to answer: to what extent was her stepmother behind this?
What, she wondered, would they do to her? What did her father keep down here? Would they really dare to inflict permanent damage on her? And what was their endgame? To have her birched again? She shuddered at the thought of the icy post against her naked chest, the terrible burn of the birch. The shame and the bite of the cold, sitting half naked as they pelted her and abused her. Was that what they wanted? Well, she'd survived it once and she would survive it again. Let them make their jokes.
It was morning when the temple guard hustled Lady Isabel into an antechamber. She looked weary, but there was a defiance in her eyes. They removed the chains and shoved her forwards towards the bishop and his entourage: Sir Thomas, the deacon, Father William and two other clerics. The bishop looked at the deacon and nodded. With a thin smile he acknowledged the signal.
"Lady Isabel," he said with a certain relish. "You have no co-operated and therefore you must be put to the question. Have you anything further to say?"
"What can I say?" She was both resigned and resistant. "You have made your decision."
"Very well." The deacon indicated the leave door behind him. A guard opened it. "Please come this way."
If she knew what was behind the door, she showed no sign, merely walked as bidden, barefoot over the cold stone floor and into the torture chamber. He heard her gasp as she saw what awaited her. Illuminated by a series of lanterns and torches was a heavy chair covered, on the seat, up the back, on the legs and arms, with small wooden spikes. Thick leather straps hung from it.
She hesitated, but the presence of the guards made her advance.
"You are to be put to the question," he said as she came to a pause a couple of feet from the chair. "Please remove your clothing."
She looked at him with ill-disguised loathing. She pursed her lips and slipped off her cloak. A servant woman, her face blank, took it from her. Isabel flicked her head and unhooked the fastening on the back of her dress. As she reached behind her, it pushed her breasts against the front of the dress. The deacon felt a pang of desire. The dress hung open at the back and she shucked it forwards, revealing the fine texture of her shift. The bishop was staring red-faced, Sir Thomas gazing on with a stern expression, Father William gawping unabashed. She peeled the dress down so it pooled at her feet. The woman picked it up swiftly. Lady Isabel tossed her hair and glared at them.
Her arms were bare from just above the elbow, her legs from just above the knee. She looked slight and delicate, her barely restrained anger only adding to her beauty.
"Everything, you ladyship," the deacon said, struggling to suppress a smile.
"You can torture me like this," she said, the slightest quiver in her voice. "Those spikes will still hurt. If you beat me, I'll still bleed. If you hang me, my muscles will still ache."
"It's essential you are not wearing any amulet or charm that might offer protection," he said.
"Nonsense," she said. "This is superstition, pure and simple. Is this what the church believes in? That there are magic charms that can protect you from pain?"
"The conduct of your questioning is not your concern, you ladyship. If you do not strip you will be punished."
"You simply wish to see me naked," she said. "You wish to humiliate me." But her hands went to the cord behind her neck. She unfastened it, her fingers fumbling at the bow. She might act defiant, the deacon realised, but she was scared. She tugged slightly at the shoulders of her shift and it slid from her body, slowly at first, before dropping away to leave her naked.
The servant rushed away the shift and the deacon drank in the sight. She didn't cover herself, but stood, shoulders slightly bowed, arms hanging awkwardly by her sides, her body pale in the gloom. He'd seen her half-naked before, of course, but this was far more shaming. Here, she had no defence, looked shockingly slender and vulnerable, defenceless to whatever they did to her.
"Sit down," he said. She looked at the chair, then back at him, her arms crossing her belly so her hands clasped her elbows in a strange gesture of defensiveness.
"It will hurt far more if we force you down," he said.
She swallowed and lowered herself slowly onto the chair. Swiftly, the guards were upon her, four of them fastening the straps over her wrists and ankles, then her elbows and lower thighs and finally her waist and neck, so she was held secure on the spikes.
The deacon stared at her. She was not a short woman, but she was dwarfed by the chair, her skin pale against the dark wood. He stood over her, drinking in the sight of her slender body, the gentle breasts, the taut stomach, the slim thighs, the triangle of hair and the pink lips just visible beneath. She stared straight ahead, apparently trying to compose herself. He'd perched on the chair the previous day – the spikes weren't sharp enough to puncture the skin, but even through clothing they'd been uncomfortable. After several hours of questioning, naked, they'd be unbearable.
He retreated behind the desk that faced the chair, perhaps 10 feet away, and took his seat alongside the bishop and Sir Thomas. The three priests sat at a side-table, tasked with keeping a full account of proceedings. Eight members of the temple guard hung around the edges of the room, ready to inflict more pain of necessary. The bishop said a brief prayer, asking for God to grant them insight and to persuade Lady Isabel to cooperate. And then he began.
About two hours had passed when the deacon suggested a break, which came as a relief to Sir Thomas. He found the bishop insufferable. Did he actually understand any of what he was saying? Lady Isabel was naked and strapped to a spiked chair in a chilly dungeon and yet she was clearly winning the debate. The bishop was blustering away about church law and she was picking holes in it. Thank goodness this wasn't a public event. And thank goodness the deacon, too clever by half as he was, was there to guide things. They would end up, he knew, with sufficient reasons to have her flogged again, perhaps even banished this time, and given he'd thrown in his lot with Maude, that was the most important thing.
But this was a risky strategy. Isabel was popular. Sir Thomas had his spies. He knew that while many of the poor, most even, regarded her as a defeated figure, remembering her sobbing half-naked in the cold, the marks of the birch fresh on her back, there were others who had begun to see heroism in her shame. Flogging her, putting her in the stocks had, to some of them, made her stronger for she was still fighting on their behalf. Flogging her again might not be enough; they had to make sure she wasn't just humiliated but her reputation destroyed. And the arrival of the church commissioners complicated everything. The deacon – damn him – was right; they had to get their story straight before they arrived. They had to have the evidence stacked up so that the commissioners would pass a sentence of the requisite severity.
He took a glass of wine from a steward and sat down. The anteroom to the torture chamber was hung with tapestries and a fire burned in the hearth. After the chill of the dungeon it was pleasantly warm. "She is a menace," said the bishop, spluttering in his anger. "Have we enough? Can we flog her again?"
Sir Thomas looked at the deacon and caught his eye. "I wonder," the deacon said, his face a picture of meekness, "whether I might lead the questioning after the break?"
The bishop gave a half-snort and made to protest. "It wonder," the deacon said, "whether perhaps she might underestimate me, might let rather more slip if I question her. You can, of course, step in whenever you see fit."
"And your grace," Sir Thomas added, relieved by the strategy, "the deacon is a man schooled in law. It would perhaps make sense to add his expertise to your theological expertise."
Reluctantly, the bishop nodded.
The three men filed back in. The priests took their positions. The guards straightened their postures. Isabel could only watch. There had been an initial pain from the spikes that had died away into a background irritation but the longer she sat there, the worse it became. Each movement was agonising, the whole of the back of her body, from calves to shoulders, in pain.
The deacon led the interrogation this time. This was dangerous; he as a much cleverer man than the bishop.
"You have worked extensively with poor, you ladyship?" he asked.
"I've done a little," she said.
"Can you be more specific?"
There was something about his leer she found disconcerting, as though she was more naked when he was talking to her. His eyes seemed to flick from her breasts to her exposed vagina and back again.
"I gave food and clothing where it was needed," she said. "I offered financial support, especially for education. I paid for the weaver's loom to be repaired. I bought a new cooking pot for Mrs Carton."
"And I understand you arranged education?"
"Yes." She looked up and saw him staring at her with obvious relish. She flushed and looked down. "I arranged classes for some of the children."
"Can I ask why?"
"Because knowledge is important."
‘And what did you teach them?"
"I didn't teach them. I employed tutors. Reading, simple sums, practical things."
"But I understand you talked to them sometimes about the Bible?"
"That's true, yes. Bible stories."
"Do you think that's appropriate?"
She looked up sharply. "Why not?"
"A convicted blasphemer teaching the scripture to children? You think that's appropriate?"
"Have I not been punished for that?"
"Indeed you have, but punishment is only part of the process. Have you reconsidered your views? Repented of them?"
This, she knew, was the crunch. Her tongue flicked behind her teeth. "I have thought long and hard about my views," she said.
There was a silence. The deacon waited a long time, before continuing, "And would you care to outline them?"
"My views," she asked, with a forced calm she didn't feel, "on what?"
"Let us begin with indulgences."
"This is enough, surely?" the bishop asked. He'd been appalled by what he'd heard that afternoon, her attacks on indulgences, on tithes, on restricting the publishing of the Bible, on him. "We must flog her severely. Strip her naked in the marketplace and lash her till the stones run bloody, then place her in the stocks still nightfall and run her out of town." He could never remember being this angry. Surely they agreed with him. "How many lashes can we give her? What's the heaviest whip we have?" He drained a goblet of wine. "I want her begging for mercy. I want her humiliated."
"I have no doubt that what she said this afternoon deserves severe punishment," the deacon said. The bishop could hear the but coming. "But I wonder perhaps whether there isn't more. The whole point of putting her to the question was to satisfy the church commissioners. We still don't know if she's a lone voice or if she's working with others."
The bishop felt a great sense of weariness. "How many lashes can we give her?" he asked.
Sir Thomas, this time, replied. "That's an issue, your grace, for the court. But I would imagine they will sentence her not to the birch but to the bullwhip or the knotted lash."
"Then let's do it," said the bishop. "Let's get her screaming on the post and begging for mercy. Let's have her humiliated in the stocks." He thought of her naked form hanging from the post as the beadle laid the bullwhip into her, blood running down her pale skin.
"Your grace," the deacon went on, "I feel we must examine her further. Learn whom she has corrupted. It may be we need to cause her pain rather than mere discomfort."
"Torture her, you mean?"
"Yes, your grace."
Isabel lay naked on the filthy straw that covered the damp stone floor. She was desperately cold. After she'd been released from the chair, sore and bruised, they'd fastened an iron collar around her neck. From the front of it protruded two loops in which her wrists had been fastened. She'd been led by a chain attached to the end of it along a narrow corridor and down some stairs into another corridor, horribly aware of her nakedness. There, they'd unfastened a heavy grille to admit her to a small cell, where the chain had been secured to the wall. She started sitting up with her back against the wall, but the leers of the guards through the grille told her how often she was exposing herself despite her attempts to keep her legs together. She'd slithered down to huddle, uncomfortably, shins blocking the view of her most private areas. The guards were still there, two of them, neither making any effort to disguise how much they were enjoying the sight of her nudity by the light of the lanterns they held.
What, she wondered, was next? She understood what she had said to them was enough to earn her another flogging. She heard a rustling and looked up. Staring back at her in the gloom she saw a pair of beady eyes. A rat. Great. It scuttled off, but it was only the first of many. She tried to kick them away, but in the end she was too weak, to tired, too cold, and they were too persistent. They crawled over her, another humiliation, another discomfort.
If she slept at all it didn't feel like it. When they came for again, her head ached and she felt exhausted. What was next? More pain? More torture? More leering at her nakedness, she was sure. The deacon was with the guards as she was pulled from the cell by the chain attached to the collar. They jerked it so she stumbled in front of him. "I trust you spent a comfortable night, Lady Isabel?"
She turned away from him. "I'm afraid today we need to start hurting you," he said. He laid his hand on her bare shoulder. She glared at him. "This distresses me," he said, "but if you will not co-operate, it's the only course of action open to us."
He raised his hand to her face, brushing back her hair and letting his fingers rest on her jaw. "Don't make us hurt you," he said. She was trembling, but she held his gaze. "Do you know what the rack will do to you?"
The rack? Did her father have a rack? She wasn't naïve. She'd known that prisoners were tortured down here. But a rack? She knew of its fearsome reputation. She couldn't quite believe that her father would have one.
The deacon nodded his head and the guards jerked on the chain. She stumbled and staggered on, aware of his eyes following her.
Sir Thomas had only been in this room once before, and that many years ago. That had been over an issue of treason and the man they'd racked had confessed within half an hour. When they'd handed him over to the king's men to be taken to London and executed, he'd been unable to walk. He didn't think such brutality was necessary for Isabel. He looked at the rack, 10 feet long or so, iron fetters attached at one end to the solid wood and at the other to a roller perhaps six inches in diameter. It looked somehow cleaner than he remembers, as though it had been oiled and the rust removed. And there were teeth on the wheels at the end of the roller that would serve as a brake; he was sure they hadn't been there before. It didn't look like much, but he knew what it could do. The secret was to go slowly.
He turned to the bishop. "Do you think she'll defy us long?" he asked.
"The devil is in her," said the bishop. "We must be very careful."
The door opened and with a clatter of chains, Isabel was dragged in. She looked petrified, shoulders hunched, eyes resentful. A guard pulled the chain sharply and she was jerked forwards, the skitter of her feet over the stone somehow emphasising her nakedness, her vulnerability. Her collar was removed and she lowered her hands with a gasp of relief but then, almost instantaneously, wrapped them around herself, covering her breasts and pudendum. She glared at her three tormentors.
"Have you a confession?" asked the bishop.
"Of what?" she asked defiantly. Perhaps she wasn't as scared as she'd seemed. Her eyes burned with fury.
"Of your sins," he said. "Of your consort with the devil."
"My consort with the devil?" she asked sneeringly. "What does that mean?"
"If you do not co-operate," he said, "you will be put to the torture."
"I have not consorted with the devil," she said. "I have not spoken with the devil. If the devil exists, I believe he works through the actions of men." She looked pointedly at the bishop. Sir Thomas struggled to hide a smile.
"Prepare her," the bishop said with a wave of his hand, his rings glinting in the torchlight.
The guards led her to the rack. She didn't resist them. One took each limb and her slender body was lifted, leg opening to show her cunt. They lay her out on the rack, her body seemingly impossibly thin against the crude wood. They fastened her ankles first, iron cuffs clamped around her delicate ankles and then pulled her arms behind her, locking manacles around her wrists. She lay, utterly exposed, breasts almost entirely flattened, just the nipples standing up, semi-erect in the cold dungeon air. With a couple of turns of the roller, chains jangling alarmingly, they pulled her straight. She looked straight up at the ceiling.
The bishop droned on. He was a remarkably stupid man, the deacon thought. For once, though, it didn't irritate him. He was looking at the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen, spread naked in front of him. He wanted to touch those gentle breasts, to see how her position changed their feel. But for now he simply gazed at her as the bishop blathered on about indulgences.
"My position on indulgences," she said with a hint of exasperation, "is clear. You, the church, have exploited them.
The bishop lost his temper. His face glowed red and hammered his fist down on the rack. "She must be whipped for this!" he shouted.
The deacon decided he had to intervene. "That, you grace, is for the courts," he said. "Our job is to collect information. Her opinions on certain subjects are clear."
"She should recant them," the bishop spat.
"If birching and the stocks can't persuade her, I fear she may be incorrigible," the deacon said. "But it behooves us to discover how far this cancer has spread."
He turned to her, looked into her deep brown eyes. "Lady Isabel," he said, "are your maidservants aware of your views?"
"I have no idea," she said.
"Really? You've never spoken of them to any of your maidservants?"
"Not directly, no."
"How about your groom?"
"But you are close to Wat, are you not?"
"He is my groom. He's good with horses."
"And is he good with you? He did come to your aid after your last punishment."
"He is a good man."
"He put his arms around your naked body."
She flushed. "He wrapped me in a blanket after you had had me stripped."
"Is that the only time he's seen you nake-?"
"Enough!" snapped Sir Thomas. "I'm not sure we need to make such insinuations."
"Have you discussed religion with him?" the deacon continued, unabashed.
"Not directly, no."
"But he knows what you think?"
"Probably. I don't exactly keep it a secret."
"Tell me others. Who else knows of your blasphemous views?"
"I don't know. Anybody who's ever listened to me."
"And who has agreed with you?"
She said nothing. "Well?" the deacon probed.
"This is ridiculous."
The deacon nodded at the torturer, who turned the wheel. The chains stretched taut and her arms straightened just a touch. She bit her lower lip. Her eyes, so deep and brown, radiated fear.