EXTRACTS - Chapter One
‘Murder and foul betrayal!’
The old man with the long white beard trembled as he spoke.
‘Listen to me, I beg you! Blood runs red in the streets of Paris!’
In the great hall of Cherboucy Palace nobles and courtiers pressed forward to hear. The soothsayer reached into the folds of his cloak and drew out a crumpled parchment. He held it aloft and declaimed in a loud voice,
‘With fire and heartless hangings
The treachery of royal line holds sway
Deeds done by stealth will come to light and all but one consumed
Safe from the sword, saved only by the word.’
‘O most vile iniquity!’
Stabbing his finger at the paper, his voice rose in a wail.
‘A hundred dead!
‘No! More! Two hundred!
White flecks of spume gathered at the corners of his mouth.
‘Yet, more! And more still! Three! Four! Five hundred! Five times five!’ He moaned and pulled his hair. ‘The bell is pealing. Paris screams in agony.
‘Babies torn from their mother’s breast. Put to the sword, battered and clubbed to death. No one is safe. People try to escape. Look!’ The old man’s eyes started from his head. ‘See them flee! In vain they run. Their bodies pile in the streets, their corpses choke the river. The King’s life is forfeit! Murder most foul!’
From her seat on the raised dais, Catherine de’ Medici, Queen Regent of France, leaned forward listening intently. But her son, the young King Charles, only laughed. ‘Paris is a city most favourable to me. I hold my court in the royal residences there without fear.’
The soothsayer raised both hands above his head. ‘Death is in this very place! Here! Tonight!’ he cried out. ‘I feel its presence near me!’ He looked up in terror at the ceiling rafters. ‘Hark to the beating of wings! Even as I speak, the Angel of Death hovers above our heads!’
A murmur ran through the assembly. All craned their necks upwards. Some gasped, others sniggered behind their hands.
‘Sire, you should pay heed to Nostradamus,’ Catherine de’ Medici hissed at the young King. ‘He is no ordinary prophet.’
‘Enough of this,’ King Charles held up his hand for silence. ‘We thank you for your time, soothsayer. Now, you are dismissed.’
It was plain to see that the Queen was vexed, for she frowned and bit her lip. But she did not protest, only took out her purse and gave a servant some money to hand to the old man.
Nostradamus regarded the coins contemptuously and then dropped them at his feet. ‘I came here to give you warning,’ he replied with dignity, ‘not for you to give me gold.’
‘Minstrel,’ King Charles called to my father, ‘play me a tune.’ He clapped his hands. ‘A merry tune. And ask your daughters if they would dance a little.’
My father beckoned to my sister and me.
‘Chantelle, Mélisande,’ He put his hands on our heads. ‘I think the King needs a distraction. A madrigal followed by a lively roundel, would you agree?’
My father plucked the strings of his lute and began to sing in a tranquil voice. My sister Chantelle and I shook our little finger cymbals in time to the music and waited for the right moment to run into the middle of the floor.
Nostradamus, the soothsayer, stared at the King. ‘You do not listen today,’ his voice boomed out. ‘I tell you, one day you will listen. But it will be too late!’
And, leaving the gold coins where they lay, Nostradamus turned and strode out of the room. He brushed against my sister as he passed. A shudder seized his body. He stopped and looked back. Huge dark eyes under hooded lids.
‘Dance well tonight,’ he said. ‘For you will not ever dance before this King again.’