JUST CLICK ON THE NOVEL COVERS IN THE SIDEBAR TO READ AN EXTRACT.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Extract From Shadows and Strongholds



To set the scene, Brunin FitzWarin, aged 10, has just left his rather troubled home life to become a squire to Joscelin de Dinan, lord of Ludlow Castle. Joscelin has a daughter the same age as Brunin...

Brunin thought that Lord Joscelin looked rather splendid in his hauberk, and was anticipating the day when he could be a knight and wear one himself.  From his child’s perspective, the weight seemed a small price to pay.
            They rode over the timber bridge spanning the ditch.  Brunin listened to Morel’s hooves beat on the wood and straightened proudly in the saddle, imagining that he was a lord returning from a day’s deeds in the field, and that the knights and men at arms surrounding him were his own. 
            The guards on duty at the gatehouse saluted Joscelin and his troop through into the bailey.  To the right were the timber dwellings of the guard’s quarters, the laundry and sundry storage buildings.  Straddling the thatched roof of one of them was a girl of about Brunin’s own age.  Much of her curly, dark-red hair had straggled loose from its braid and coiled around her dirty, tear-streaked face in eldritch tangles.  A rip in the side-seam of her dress exposed her chemise and an orchard ladder was skewed at the foot of the shed as if it had been climbed and then fallen awry.
            Astonished, Brunin stared at her.  Catching his eye, she stared defiantly back, as no peasant’s daughter would have dared.  Beneath the grime, her complexion flushed campion-pink. She scrambled to her feet, balancing precariously on the dusty, chopped reeds of the thatch.  
            ‘God’s bones!’ Joscelin muttered and spurred Rouquin over to the storeshed.
            ‘That’s the lady Hawise,’ Adam side-mouthed to Brunin.  ‘Lord Joscelin’s youngest daughter and the apple of his eye.’ The squire gave a low chuckle.  ‘I wonder what scrape she’s got herself into this time.’
            Brunin was incredulous.  That dishevelled dirty girl was Joscelin’s daughter?   The one responsible for choosing his mount?  He had been carrying the hazy vision of a demure, tidy girl with a sweet smile, but that now dissipated faster than smoke in a brisk wind.  This one had the sinewy wildness of a young vixen.
            Joscelin drew rein under the shed.  ‘Jump down,’ he commanded, and spread his arms.
            The girl drew her sleeve across her eyes.  With trembling chin, but not a shred of hesitation, she did as he bade, leaping from the thatch with absolute trust.  He caught her cleanly, but with a loud whoof as his breath was forced from his lungs.  The roan sidled once and then stood firm.  The girl embraced her father’s neck in a stranglehold and buried her face against his mailed breast.
            ‘What were you doing up there, sweetheart?’ Joscelin asked.  To Brunin, who, in the interests of self-preservation was accustomed to listening for every nuance in adult speech, his lord’s tone carried enquiry, amusement and only a hint of reproof.
            ‘Nothing.’ The girl wriggled.
            ‘A strange place to be doing it, child.  Where is your mother?’
            She shrugged and raising her head, appraised Brunin with a bright grey stare.  He hastily looked away. ‘Marion threw one of my juggling balls out of the window because I wouldn’t play midwives with her,’ she said indignantly. ‘So I pushed her and she fell over and banged her head.’  She held out the ball of red leather she had been gripping tightly in her fist.  ‘Look it’s split.’
            Joscelin bit his lip and Brunin saw that he was fighting not to laugh. ‘Just like Marion’s head then,’ he said. 
            ‘She only bumped it, but she screamed as if she was dying, and mama was angry with me because she didn’t see what happened.’  Hawise’s voice rose with grievance.
            ‘So you judged it best not to stay?’
            She nodded and rubbed her cheek against Joscelin’s mail.
            ‘That still does not explains what you were doing on the storeshed roof.’
            ‘The ladder slipped,’ she said, as if surprised that he should ask.
            ‘Hawise…’  A warning note entered Joscelin’s voice.
            ‘I was playing.’  She drew back to look at him. ‘You said that when you came to a siege here before you wed Mama, there were ladders up against the keep wall and that men climbed them and fought on the battlements.’
            Joscelin sighed and shaking his head, tweaked a tangled strand of her hair.  ‘Perhaps I did, but that is no call for you to re-enact the event.  You saw what happened to your ball when Marion threw it out of the window.  What would have happened if you had slipped off this roof?’
             ‘I wasn’t frightened.’
             ‘That is not necessarily a good thing,’ Joscelin said.  ‘I certainly was.’
‘I am sorry, Papa.’ She looked down as if contrite but Brunin had his doubts.
Her father sighed and gave her a little shake. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘But I want you to go straightaway and make your peace with Marion and your mother.’  Her prepared to let her down off the horse.
            ‘Can’t I stay with you?’  She looked round him at Brunin.  ‘Do you like Morel?’
            Brunin opened his mouth, but was unsure what to say or how to address her.  Nothing thus far in his life had prepared him to respond. 
            ‘Child, where are your manners?’ Some of the indulgence left Joscelin’s expression.   ‘That is not the kind of question to ask of a gift you have given, and especially not before introductions are made.  Nor,’ he added wryly, ‘are you fit to be introduced at the moment.  You look like a hoyden out of a gutter.  Now go, do as I say, and when the time is right you can ask Brunin all the questions you want.’
            She hesitated as if she might further argue, but then seemed to think the better of it and relaxed so that Joscelin could set her down.  Shaking out her dress, she looked again at Brunin and gave him a smile.
            ‘I hope you do,’ she said. ‘I chose him.’  And then she was gone, lifting her skirts above her ankles to run long-strided like a boy, her wild auburn hair bouncing at her shoulders.
            Joscelin sighed.  ‘What am I to do with her?’ he said, and then he gave a reluctant chuckle.  ‘I am her father and I ask that?’  He turned to Brunin.  ‘One rule to remember is always judge on your instincts, never on first appearances.’
            ‘Yes my lord,’ Brunin said neutrally.  He was still struggling with his astonishment.  He didn’t have a sister, but if he did, he dared not imagine what punishment such appearance and behaviour would merit at Whittington.  Rather than feeling censure, he sympathised with her plight, although his own instinct would have been to hide in a corner rather than climb conspicuously onto a roof.  Judging with one’s instincts was not as simple a matter as lord Joscelin made it sound.  First, you had to trust those instincts.

Monday, 24 December 2012

THE WINTER CROWN: FIRST CHAPTER

THE WINTER CROWN



Chapter 1
Westminster Abbey, London, December 1154

As Theobald Archbishop of Canterbury placed the golden weight of a crown on Alienor’s brow, she felt the child in her womb give a vigorous kick.  Clear, bleak light rayed from the abbey’s high arched windows to illuminate the tomb of The Confessor and cast pale radiance upon herself and her husband, the newly anointed King Henry II of England, where they sat upon their thrones.
Henry gripped the jewelled orb and sceptre of sovereignty with confident possession. His mouth was a firm, straight line and his grey gaze was steady and clear. In the mingling of gloom and light, his beard was a soft, fine red and his skin gleamed with the health and vigour that came from being just 21 years old. Yet no-one doubted his ability to rule. He was already Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou, consort Duke of Aquitaine - and a force to be reckoned with.
The Archbishop stepped aside and Alienor felt the full focus of the congregation; so intense in its scrutiny that it was almost like a fixed ray of light.  All the bishops, magnates and lords of England were gathered to bear witness to the coronation, to pay homage, and to usher in an era of peace and prosperity where the wounds caused by decades of warfare and strife could be healed by their young king and his fertile queen. The air of anxious optimism was strong enough to be felt. Everyone gathered here was eager to seek favour and advantage from their new rulers. In the months to come she and Henry would have to sort out the jewels from the piles of common stones and dross. Henry knew many of the congregation from his struggle achieve the Crown, but Alienor was less aware, and knew she must learn swiftly.
This was her second coronation. For more than 15 years she had been queen of France until her marriage to Louis had been annulled on grounds of consanguinity. The latter had been a useful vehicle to hide the true reasons for the parting, not least that she had only borne Louis two daughters of their union. That she was more closely related to Henry than to Louis gave her cause for a wry smile.  Money, influence and human imperatives always spoke more loudly than conscience and God.  In two years of marriage with Henry, she had produced one healthy son and expected another child before the spring.
Henry stood up and all knelt to him and bowed their heads. He extended his hand to Alienor who rose, and then sank in a curtsey, her silk skirts shimmering around her in a pool of gold. Henry raised her to her feet and they exchanged glances bright with exultation and a mutual awareness of how important this moment was.
Cloaked in ermine, hand in hand, they paced down the nave of the abbey, following the Archbishop’s processional cross. The smoke of incense, the vapour of icy breath swirled around them and rose heavenwards. Alienor held her head high, and walked with a measured pace and straight spine in order to balance both the weight of the crown and the swollen curve of her womb. Her silk gown shone and flared with each step she took.  Within her the child tumbled joyously, flexing and testing his limbs. It would be another boy, she was certain of that. All the signs were auspicious. Their firstborn son was sixteen months old. He had remained behind at the Tower with his nurse, but one day, God willing, he too would enter Westminster to receive his regnal crown.
 Outside the abbey, crowds had gathered to watch the spectacle and to fete England’s new king and queen.  Ushers and marshals ensured that the throng stayed well back, but the mood was cheerful, the more so when servants of the royal household showered them with silver pennies and small loaves of white bread. Alienor smiled as she watched folk scramble for the largesse and heard them shout blessings. She barely understood a word of the language, but the sentiments were clear.
‘We have made an auspicious beginning,’ she said to Henry.
‘Given what has gone before, it would be impossible not to do so.’ His smile was wide, but Alienor saw his glance flick across from the abbey to the palace of Westminster and then harden. Once a fine residence for English royalty, it had slipped into a ruinous state during the later years of King Stephen and urgent repairs were needed to make it habitable.  Henry had already begun rectifying matters, but for now had set up his administration at the Tower and his domestic quarters across the river at Bermondsey.
 ‘But you are right,’ he said. ‘We have made an auspicious beginning, long may it flourish.’  He dropped his gaze to her rounded womb, deliberately displayed to the world through the parting in her cloak. Being fruitful was an important part of queenship and never more than now in front of their people at the start of their reign. He placed his hand on her gravid belly, and then laughed to feel the baby’s vigorous kick against his palm.  ‘This is our time,’ he said.

 Alienor was tired but still buoyed up with excitement as the barge bumped  against the jetty on the river entrance to the Tower.  A crewman lashed a rope around a strut and hauled the vessel closer in.  It was long past dusk and attendants brought lanterns to light the way of the royal party from landing stage to apartments, the flame light glinting on the dark waters of the Thames.  Alienor’s breath clouded the air and her teeth chattered despite the warmth of her ermine cloak. She had to step carefully on the frost-rimed paths, wary of slipping in her thin, kidskin shoes.
Talking rapidly to his knight of the chamber, Mannaser Bisset, Henry strode ahead, his voice ringing out in the clear night. He had been up long before dawn and she knew he would not retire until the small hours. Their domestic use of candles and lamps was a major point of expenditure in winter. 
Alienor entered the Tower keep and climbed the stairs to the chambers above. A swift peek into the smaller of the two rooms reassured her that her son was sound asleep, tucked up in his crib beneath soft fleeces and warm furs, his hair a flicker of burnished gold in the soft glow of a single lamp. The nurse smiled at her with an expression that said all was well, and Alienor turned to the main chamber where she and Henry would sleep before crossing the river to Bermondsey on the morrow. 
The shutters were closed against the cold winter night and a fine fire blazed in the hearth.  Alienor went to stand within the circle of heat it cast and extended her frozen fingers to the warmth.  The reflection of the flames danced on the surface of her gown, inscribing stories in the silk.  When her maid, Amaria, enquired if she wanted to undress, Alienor shook her head.  
‘No,’ she said. ‘I want to savour the day just a little longer.’
Henry’s half-sister Emma, brought Alienor a cup of wine and responded to Alienor’s words with a nod of recognition. The women would have other opportunities to wear their rich clothes, but never again like this.
Henry arrived, his energy still bubbling like a cauldron over a hot fire. He had changed his own coronation tunic for one of everyday wool and had donned a favourite pair of boots that were worn to the shape of his feet. 
‘You look as if you are ready to spit on your hands and begin work,’ Alienor said with a smile as she sat down in a chair before the hearth and arranged the skirts of her gown in a full sweep around her with her toes just peeping out.
‘I am.’ Henry took the wine Emma gave him and went to fiddle with a chess set arranged in the window embrasure. ‘But annoyingly I am constrained by the sleeping habits of others.  If I don’t let them rest they become as dull as blunt knives.’
‘Perhaps you should take the opportunity to sleep for a few hours yourself,’ she suggested.  
‘What use is there in being dead to the world?’ he said, but sat on the edge of the chair facing her as a token gesture. ‘The Archbishop of Canterbury will attend me tomorrow morning at first light.  He has a candidate he wants me to consider for the position of chancellor.’
Alienor raised her brows. The business of bargaining for favour and position was hard apace. She had already deduced from their brief exchanges before the coronation that Theobald of Canterbury was a wily one. His smile might be benign and innocuous but the man himself was as hard as sword steel.  He had succeeded in denying King Stephen’s efforts to have his son Eustace acknowledged heir to England  resulting in exile for a time, but his stand had helped to keep Henry’s cause buoyant. He had a reputation for gathering men around him of rare and keen intellect.  
‘Thomas Becket,’ Henry said. ‘London born so I understand, but educated in Paris and eager to exercise his skills.  He is currently Theobald’s archdeacon.’
‘How old is he?’
Henry shrugged. ‘Thirties, so not in his dotage like so many of them. I have spoken to him in passing but have not garnered any particular impression yet.’
‘Theobald must have a reason for putting him forward.’
‘Hah, he wants one of his protégées in my household because he thinks he can influence the way I govern and promote the interests of the Church.’  He gave a tight smile. ‘If I choose Becket, he will have to change allegiance.  I do not mind any man who works for me seeking his advancement, but it will never be at my expense.’
Hearing the hard undertone in his voice and gave him a searching look.
‘Loyalty,’ he said.  He left his wine and stood up, restless as a dog in a strange place. ‘Finding those who have it is rare.  My mother told me to trust no one and she is right.’
‘But you trust her,’ Alienor pointed out.
‘I trust her with my life,’ he said. ‘And I trust that she always has my best interests at heart, but I do not always trust her judgement.’
There was a small, difficult silence. Alienor did not ask if he trusted his wife, because she knew she would not receive a direct answer. Besides, she had issues of her own concerning trust and loyalty.  
The child kicked again and she set her hand to her womb. ‘Quiet little one,’ she said softly, and raised her eyes to Henry. ‘He is like you. Barely sleeps and is always restless especially in church.  I think he was running a race during the coronation!
Henry chuckled. ‘That is to be expected.  What sons we shall make between us, and daughters too.’ He came to her chair and, crouching at her side, took her hands in his, creating a bridge across the gap that had opened between them. Sitting on the floor at her feet, he proceeded to solidify the repair by lingering to take a second cup of wine and ask her opinion upon matters pertaining to the appointment of offices.  It was mostly Henry talking while she listened, because these were English affairs, and appointments of men she did not know, but even so, she ventured an opinion here and there. They agreed that Nigel Bishop of Ely, a former royal treasurer, should be persuaded out of retirement and his expertise used to set the exchequer to rights and start revenues flowing again. Richard de Lucy, a former official of King Stephen’s would take up a senior administrative role together with Robert de Beaumont, Earl of Leicester.
‘It does not matter to me where men have sided in the past,’ Henry said. ‘It is their abilities I seek and their good service now. I said that I trusted no one, but I am willing to give men of backbone and intelligence, a chance to prove their loyalty. Both de Lucy and Beaumont know where their best interests lie.’
Alienor nodded agreement, knowing she must cultivate these men too. When Henry was absent from England, she would have to deal with them, and it was better to make allies than enemies. She gently ran her fingers through his hair, admiring the firelight on the red-gold waves
‘Stephen’s son I shall keep where I can see him for now. Even though he has rescinded his claim to the crown, he may prove a rallying point for dissent.’
Alienor cast her mind over the courtiers she had met in recent weeks.  William of Boulogne was a pleasant young man of a similar age to Henry with soft dark hair and watchful eyes.  He walked with a limp from a broken leg and was unremarkable. Certainly he was not the stuff of which great leaders were made. The only threat, as Henry said, was from those who might use him as a spear on which to nail their banners. 
 ‘All the adulterine castles built during Stephen’s reign must be torn down and destroyed, and there will be strong objections from some,’ Henry said. ‘Making everyone comply will be one of my first tests.’
Alienor heard a note of relish in his tone and knew he was eager to deal with the objectors, including Henry Bishop of Winchester, King Stephen’s brother. The bishop had changed allegiance more often than the turns of a weather vane during the years of strife. Putting him in his place was going to give Henry great pleasure. ‘Either by diplomacy or force, I do not doubt you will succeed.’  She stifled a yawn.  The long day was catching up with her; the fire was warm and the wine had gone to her head.   
‘I don’t either.’ Henry rose from her side. ‘I must bid you good night my love.’
 ‘Are you not coming to bed?’  She looked up at him, feeling slightly disappointed.
He shook his head. ‘Later. I still have business to attend to.  He kissed her tenderly on the mouth and briefly pressed his hand to her womb. ‘You are everything a queen should be. I have never seen a woman look as beautiful and regal as you did today.’
His words softened and warmed her just as much as the fire. She watched him go to the door, his tread still as buoyant and alert as it had been that morning. On the threshold he turned and gave her a melting smile, and then he was gone.
Alienor summoned her women and prepared to retire, regretful to be alone, but still with a glowing heart.  

            Henry’s squire tapped softly on the door of the rented house in London’s merchant quarter in the shadow of the cathedral. The bolts slipped back and a maidservant opened up to admit the young man and his royal master before closing the door and kneeling.
            Henry ignored her and fixed his gaze on the young woman who had also dropped to her knees as he entered the room. Her head was bowed and all he could see was the heavy ripple of her thick ash-brown hair against the pale linen of her chemise. Going to her, he leaned forward and lifted her chin on his forefinger.
            ‘My King,’ she said, and her mouth widened in a smile that stole his heart. ‘Henry.’

Saturday, 10 December 2011

THE SUMMER QUEEN: THE FIRST CHAPTER




Here is the first chapter of my work in progress on Eleanor of Aquitaine and the first paragraph of the second chapter.   I hope you enjoy the sneak peek!  Each day on Facebook, I always include the morning's opening lines and the evening's closing ones for those who like to guess what's going on!
Here now though, is a longer chunk.  






Chapter 1
The Palace of Poitiers,  home of the Dukes of Aquitaine, January 1137
           
Alienor woke at dawn.  The tall candle that had been left to burn all night was almost a stub and even through the closed shutters, she could hear the cockerels on roosts, walls and midden heaps, crowing the city of Poitiers awake.  Mounded under the bedclothes, her sister Petronella slumbered, her dark hair spread on the pillow.  Alienor crept from the bed, careful not to wake her, because she knew how grumpy Petronella could be when disturbed too early.  Besides, Alienor wanted these moments to herself.  This was no ordinary day, and once the noise and bustle began, it would not cease.
            Alienor put on the gown folded over her painted coffer, and pushed her feet into soft kidskin shoes. She unlatched a small door in the shutters and, braiding her hair with nimble fingers, leaned out to inhale the new morning with pleasure.  A mild, moist breeze filled her nose with the scents of smoke and stone and freshly baked bread. For a long moment she gazed at the alternating ribbons of charcoal, oyster and gold striating the eastern skyline, and eventually drew back with a pensive sigh. Lifting her cloak from its peg, she tip-toed from the chamber into the adjoining room where the maids were catching the last moments of sleep, or else yawning and scratching with bleary eyes.  Alienor slipped past them like a sleek young vixen and on light and silent feet, wound her way down the stairs of the great Maubergeon tower.
            A drowsy youth was setting out bread and wine on trestles in the great hall.  Alienor stole a small loaf, still oven-warm from the bread basket, and went outside.  Lanterns still shone their fuzzy light in some huts and outbuildings. She could hear the clatter of pots from the kitchens and a cook berating a scullion for spilling the milk. Ordinary, every day sounds, saying that all was well and familiar with the world, even on the cusp of change.          
At the stables the grooms were preparing the horses for the coming journey.  Ginnet, her grey mare and Morello, her sister’s glossy black pony were still in their stalls, but the pack horses were being harnessed and carts stood ready in the yard to carry the baggage the hundred and fifty miles south from Poitiers to Bordeaux where she and Petronella were to spend the spring and summer at the Ombriére palace overlooking the River Garonne. Alienor enjoyed travelling, and she loved Bordeaux, but this time it was different and she felt unsettled, as if there was a storm just beyond the horizon.
            Entering Ginnet’s stall, she offered the Spanish palfrey a piece of new bread on the flat of her hand, and rubbed the strong, sleek neck.  Ginnet snorted and lipped at Alienor’s cloak, seeking more tidbits. ‘Papa doesn’t have to go all the way to Compostela,’ she told the mare. ‘Why can’t he stay at home with us and pray? I hate it when he goes away.’ 
            ‘Alienor.’
            She jumped and hot with guilt, faced her father, seeing immediately from his expression that he had overheard her.
            He was tall and long limbed, his brown hair patched with grey at ears and temples. Deep creases fanned from his eye corners and there were hollows beneath his well defined cheekbones. ‘You are early awake daughter.’ He gently tugged her thick braid of tawny hair. ‘Where is Petronella?’
             ‘Still abed papa.  I left her to sleep.’
            He gave her a grave look. ‘You know that a pilgrimage is a serious commitment to God.  This is no foolish jaunt made on a whim.’
             ‘Yes, papa,’ she said stiffly. She knew the pilgrimage was important to him, indeed necessary for the good of his soul, but she still did not want him to go. He had been different of late; reserved and more obviously burdened, and she did not understand why.
            He tilted her chin on his forefinger. ‘You are my heir, Alienor, and you must behave as befits the daughter of the Duke of Aquitaine, not a sulky child.’
            Feeling indignant, she pulled away. She was thirteen years old, a year past the age of consent, and considered herself grown up, even while she still craved the security of her father’s love and presence.
            ‘I see you understand me.’ His brow creased. ‘While I am gone, you are the ruler of Aquitaine. Our vassals have sworn to uphold you as my successor and you must honour their faith.’ 
Alienor bit her lip.  ‘I am afraid you will not come back.’ Her voice shook. ‘- that I shall not see you again.’
            ‘Oh, child!  If God wills it, of course I shall come back.’  He kissed her forehead tenderly.  ‘Besides, you have me for a little while yet.’
            A groom arrived to see to Ginnet and Morello and her father drew her into the courtyard where the pale grey of first light was yielding to warmer tints and colours. ‘Go now and wake your sister.  It will be a fine thing to say you have walked part of the way along the pilgrim route of Saint James.’
            Alienor gave him a long look, before walking away, her back straight and her steps measured.  His eldest daughter was swiftly becoming a woman.  Already tall, she had grown considerably in the past year, and developed light curves at breast and hip.  She was exquisite; just looking at her, intensified his pain. She was too young for what was coming, God help them all.
             
            Petronella was awake when Aliénor returned to their chamber and was busy putting her favourite trinkets into a large cloth bag ready for the journey.  Floreta, their nurse and chaperone, had braided Petronella’s shiny dark hair with blue ribbons and tied it back from her heart-shaped face, revealing the downy curve of her cheek in profile.
            ‘Where did you go?’ Petronella demanded.
            ‘Nowhere, just a walk.  You were still asleep.’ 
            Petronella closed the drawstring on the bag and waggled the tassels at the end of the ties. ‘Papa says he’ll bring us blessed crosses from the shrine of St James.’
            As if blessed crosses were any sort of compensation for their father’s forthcoming absence, Alienor thought, but she held her tongue. Petronella was eleven, but still so much the child. Despite their closeness, the two years between them was often a gulf. Alienor fulfilled the role of their missing mother to Petronella as often as she did sister.
            ‘And when he comes back after Easter, we’ll have a big celebration, won’t we?’  Petronella’s wide brown gaze sought reassurance.  ‘Won’t we?’
            Alienor nodded. ‘Of course we will,’ she said and hugged Petronella, and found comfort in their mutual embrace.

            It was mid-morning by the time the ducal party set out for Bordeaux following a mass celebrated in the pilgrim church of St. Hilaire, its walls blazoned with the eagle device of the lords of Aquitaine.
 Ragged patches of pale blue peeped between the clouds and sudden swift spangles of sunlight flashed on horse harnesses and belt fittings. The entourage unravelled along the road like a fine thread, woven with the silver of armour, the rich hues of expensive gowns, crimson, violet and gold,  and muted blends of  tawny and grey belonging to servants and carters.   Everyone set out on foot, not just Duke William.  This first day, all would walk the twenty miles to the overnight stop at St Sauvant. 
            Alienor paced out, holding Petronella’s hand one side, and lifting her gown the other so that it would not trail in the dirt.  Now and again, Petronella gave a hop and a skip. A jongleur started to sing to the accompaniment of a small harp and Alienor recognised the words of her grandfather, William the ninth Duke of Aquitaine who had revelled in a notorious reputation.  Many of his songs were sexual in content, unsettling in their rawness and unfit for the bower, but this particular one was plangent and haunting, and sent a shiver down Alienor’s spine.
I know not when I am asleep or awake
Unless someone tells me
My heart is nearly bursting with a deep sorrow,
But I care not a fig about it
By St. Martial!
Her father kept company with her and Petronella for a while, but his stride was longer than theirs, and gradually he drew ahead and left them in the company of the household women.  Alienor watched him walk away, and fixed her gaze on his hand where it gripped his pilgrim staff.  The sapphire ring of his ducal authority glittered at her like a dark eye.  She wanted him to turn and look at her, but he continued to focus on the road ahead,  and she felt as if he were deliberately distancing himself, and that in a while he would be gone completely, leaving only the dust of his footsteps to follow.
She was not even cheered when her father’ constable Geoffrey de Rancon joined her and Petronella.  He was in his late twenties with rich brown hair, deep-set green eyes, and a ready smile. She had known him since she was born because he was one of her father’s close friends and confidantes.  He had lost his wife two years ago, and had not yet sought to remarry, but his need for heirs was not pressing because he had two daughters and a son from the match.  ‘Why so glum?’ He peered round into her face.  ‘You’ll make the clouds come back scowling like that.’
Petronella giggled and Geoffrey winked at her.
‘Don’t be foolish,’ Alienor lifted her chin and strode out.
Geoffrey matched her pace. ‘Then tell me what is wrong.’
‘Nothing,’ she said.  ‘Nothing is wrong.  ‘Why should there be?’
He pursed his lips. ‘Because your father is going to Compostela and leaving you in Bordeaux?’
Alienor’s throat tightened.  Geoffrey saw too much. ‘Of course not,’ she snapped.
He gave her a thoughtful look. ‘I am sorry. You are right, I am foolish, but will you forgive me and let me walk with you a while?’
Alienor gave a grudging nod. Geoffrey clasped her hand in his and took Petronella’s on his other side. 
After a while and almost without her knowing, the frown cleared from Alienor’s brow.  Geoffrey was no substitute for her father, but his presence was a reassuring comfort and enabled her to go forward with renewed courage.


Chapter 2
Bordeaux, February 1137


Sitting in his chamber of the Ombrieres palace in Bordeaux, William the tenth Duke of Aquitaine looked down at the documents the scribe had left for him to read.  He picked up the top one and studied its contents while rubbing his side.
‘Sire, you are still set on this journey?’
He glanced across the hearth at the cleric standing before the fire clad in heavy fur-lined robes.  Geoffrey de Louroux was the Archbishop of Bordeaux and despite occasional clashes of opinion, they were friends of longstanding. William had appointed Geoffrey as tutor to his two daughters. ‘I am,’ he replied......



Thursday, 26 May 2011

Bonus extract from LADY OF THE ENGLISH

March 5th 2013 celebrates the 880th anniversary of Henry II's birth, so I thought I'd post the scene from Lady of the English where Henry enters the world.


Geoffrey’s servant knocked again.  Matilda closed her eyes and endured the contractions, pushing down with her all her might, grunting and straining.  Vaguely she heard the midwife’s attendant telling the man that the babe was almost born.  Within the hour, if all continued well.
            Matilda gave a humourless laugh.  ‘He is afraid I will birth a girl child,’ she gasped.  ‘Before I entered my confinement he was constantly worrying at the possibility like a dog with fleas.  He says I would do such a thing just to spite him and my father because I am contrary.  It would serve them both right if I bore a daughter.’ She bit back a cry as the next contraction started to build. ‘The books say that a woman is a vessel in which the man plants his seed, so how can a woman be to blame for the sex of a child?’
            ‘Sometimes a woman’s seed is stronger than the man’s, and then the baby is a girl,’ said the senior midwife.  ‘That is the lore.’
            ‘In that case, all my children will be daughters!’ Matilda panted.  
            On the next contraction the baby’s head crowned at the entrance to the birth passage and emerged, followed by slippery little shoulders and crossed arms. Matilda closed her eyes, pushed again and felt a warm, wet slither between her parted thighs.
            ‘A boy!’ The midwife, beamed from ear to ear.  ‘Madam, you have a son, and he’s perfect.’
            An infant’s thready wail filled the chamber as the woman lifted up the bawling, mucus-streaked baby for his mother to see.  Matilda felt no immediate burst of maternal love, but there was satisfaction at a task accomplished, and enormous relief that she had borne a living baby this time, whole of limb and wailing with lusty lungs.  That was what brought a sob to her throat.
            Two women cut the cord and took the infant aside to bathe him in a bowl of warm water, while two more stayed with Matilda to attend to the delivery of the afterbirth.  She was so tired that it was difficult to raise the strength to expel the dark, liverish mass, but she managed. The women made her comfortable, removing the soiled bedstraw on which she had laboured, binding soft linen rags between her thighs to absorb the bleeding, and making up the bed with clean linen sheets.  Matilda drank a small cup of hot wine infused with fortifying herbs and closed her eyes.  She heard the soft splash of water as the women bathed the newborn in a large brass bowl, and the senior midwife cooing to him as she wrapped him in swaddling bands. 
            The peace of the moment was broken by a commotion at the door and Geoffrey burst into the room like a storm. ‘Where is the child?’ he demanded. ‘Let me see him. Where is my son?’
            The midwives gasped and clucked at the unseemly intrusion, but Geoffrey ignored them and strode over to the freshly swaddled baby lying on his fire-warmed blanket. ‘Unwrap him,’ he commanded. ‘Let me see that he is a boy with my own eyes.          
            Through her exhaustion, Matilda was filled with amused scorn and indignation.  ‘Where would be the advantage in lying to you?’ she said. ‘Do you really think we would say you have a son if it was a daughter?’
            ‘I would put nothing past you,’ he growled, his complexion high.
            ‘I have laboured long to bring him into the world,’ she said.  ‘And before that, I carried him inside my body. I am glad to have borne a boy because he will have an immediate advantage in this world.  Why should I bear a girl to spite you, when I would be spiting her too because of her very sex?’
            Geoffrey looked at the unwrapped baby, taking in the evidence with his own eyes.  He reached a forefinger and touched his son’s soft cheek.  The infant turned his head in a rooting motion that made him smile. ‘I own him as mine,’ he said. ‘He is indeed a fine boy. Now we can begin to make real plans for the future.  Name him Henry.’  With a brief nod in Matilda’s direction, he left the room as briskly as he had arrived.
            Matilda slumped against the pillows and fought not to cry as a maid closed the door behind him.  ‘Bring my son to me,’ she said. ‘Let me see him.’
            The midwife re-wrapped the baby in his swaddling and carried him gently to Matilda.  She rested him in the crook of her arm and gazed down at this child whom she had not wanted to conceive because of fear, because of anger, because her life was a battleground over which she had so little control.  Now the field had changed.  Her fight was for him now, and she felt as if a part of her that had been hollow and hungry for a long, long time was full and warm and satisfied.  You have done well little one,’ she whispered to him. ‘Henry.’   Although Geoffrey had spoken as if  the naming was his sole prerogative, their son could have been called no other, and she was content.’ You will be a great king one day,’ she said.  ‘Greater even than your grandsire.’  

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Here are a couple of extracts from Lady of the English.  
The first features Matilda and Adeliza.  The second, the young Henry II

To set the scene.  Empress Matilda's father King Henry I has told her she must marry a youth called Geoffrey of Anjou.  Matilda, widow of the German Emperor and in her mid 20's has refused and after a volatile argument has retired to her chamber.


Matilda was roused by the sound of Adeliza talking to her maids, and the waft of savoury food smells. Moments later, the bed curtains parted and Adeliza stood in the space between them with a tray bearing a bowl of broth, steam curling on its surface, a small crusty loaf and a portion of saffron-glazed chicken. The maids bustled about, lighting candles and closing the shutters against a lavender spring dusk. As Matilda sat up, Adeliza set down the tray on the coffer. She had brought a folded napkin and a small fingerbowl of scented water.

            ‘I am sorry to hear you are unwell,’ Adeliza said softly.

            ‘Did my father send you?’ Matilda snapped.

            Adeliza gave her a reproachful look. ‘Of course not. When I told him I was coming to speak with you and bring you food, he was exasperated with me.’ She gave Matilda a woman-to-woman look. ‘He said you didn’t deserve to eat and that a spot of starvation would help put your mind in order, but he did not gainsay me when I insisted.’

            Matilda glared at the beautifully arranged tray. ‘Indeed, I would rather starve,’ she hissed. ‘And I’m not hungry.’

            ‘I do not believe that!’ Adeliza remonstrated. ‘You have a good appetite and you will need your strength.’

            Matilda continued to scowl. She truly did not feel like eating, but it was another way of defying her father since he had not wanted Adeliza to bring her food. ‘You are right, I suppose I will,’ she said and reached for the bread.

            Adeliza poured wine for both of them and sat down at the bedside. ‘Ask yourself what good this is doing you. Where will you go from here if you defy your father?’

            Matilda tore the bread into small pieces. ‘You agree with him then.’ She gave Adeliza a bitter look. ‘You are taking his part like everyone else?’

            Adeliza shook her head. ‘I am concerned for both of you. I know how difficult this is for you. You have lost a good husband and your position at the heart of the imperial court. But you must look to the future and think about the long term. Here, drink and be consoled.’

            Matilda thrust away the wine, making it slop over the edge of the cup. ‘You think I will find consolation in wine? Is that what I should do? She laughed scornfully. ‘Drink myself into oblivion?’

            Adeliza mopped up the spillage with her napkin and gazed sorrowfully at the red stain. ‘I think you will find consolation in the Church, and in your children in the fullness of time.’

            ‘I may find strength in God, but no comfort, and certainly no consolation from men of God,’ Matilda spat and felt both triumphant and guilty as her young stepmother recoiled. ‘As to children – I had no such consolation from my marriage with my Heinrich, and neither have you with my father. Why should I put my faith in the solace of being a mother?’ Her voice strained and almost cracked. ‘I bore Heinrich a child, and buried him on the same day.’

            ‘I’m sorry.’ Distress filled Adeliza’s gaze. She reached out to Matilda in sympathy, but Matilda drew back. Adeliza lowered her arm and smoothed the bedclothes instead until there was no sign of a crease. She said hesitantly, ‘Perhaps a man only has so much good seed in his body. A younger one . . .’ Her cheeks reddened. ‘I am not being disloyal to your first husband or your father, but I say to you as one woman to another that your womb may more easily quicken this time.’

            Matilda gave Adeliza a long look. ‘Would you change places with me?’

            Adeliza’s blush brightened her entire face. ‘I would think on my duty to those who desired me to make the match. I would think on the good things that might come of it. That I might bear children and grow to love a young husband as he became a man. The difference in age between us would soon close up and matter less.’ She set her lips. ‘You learn to live with what you cannot alter and find ways to thank God for what you do have. In truth, what are your alternatives? Your father will not change his mind once it is set. If you refuse, he will make one of his Blois nephews his heir and consign you to a convent. You came home from Germany rather than become a nun. Would you choose the cloister now?’

            Matilda blinked tears from her eyes, furious that she was crying. ‘Just for once . . .’ she said hoarsely, ‘just for once, I want him to see me, but he never will except as a tool.’

            ‘Ah no, never think that!’ Adeliza looked shocked. ‘He is proud of you – very proud, and that is why he is unyielding. He knows your potential and he wants the best for you.’

            ‘The best,’ Matilda gave a caustic laugh. ‘Geoffrey of Anjou is the best? God save me from the worst!’

            ‘Look,’ Adeliza said patiently. ‘I know this betrothal has come as a shock, but it will work out, you will see.’ She leaned over and kissed Matilda’s cheek. ‘I will leave you to think on it.’

            ‘You mean my father will be wondering why you have been gone for so long?’

            ‘The King has other matters to attend to, tonight.’ Adeliza’s voice was careful and her body taut, so that Matilda knew her father must be engaged with one of the many court concubines – probably riding her as viciously as he did his hunting horse when he was in a temper. ‘There is no more I can say to you. Now you must think on this for yourself.’

            When Adeliza had gone, Matilda resisted the urge to close the bed curtains again and retreat into her shell. Adeliza’s actions had reminded her that she had a position in the world to uphold, and responsibilities. As she ate her supper, she pondered the matter. She was backed into a corner and her only recourse was to agree to the marriage as her father desired. He said it was an honourable thing, and, viewed with a superficial eye it was, but deep down, at the core of the matter, she knew it was shameful.  
end of extract 1

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Extract 2 

Henry FitzEmpress, almost eight years old, was testing the paces of his new mount Denier.  The dam’s Spanish breeding had given the little chestnut fire in his feet. Henry loved the feel of the wind streaming past his face, even though it was cold enough to sting his eyes, because it gave him a feeling of speed. On a swift horse, he was invincible.
His father had started taking him hunting, and Henry had also begun his military training, fighting with a shield made to suit his size, and a wooden sword. He loved every minute. Indeed, the only thing he ever found difficult was staying still. It was always a trial when he was in church and expected not to fidget in the presence of God. By contrast, flying on a horse was easy.
His father was waiting in the stable yard to greet him when he returned from his ride, his groom following several paces behind. Henry showed off by drawing rein in a dramatic slide of hooves, and leaped from the saddle almost before the pony had stopped. He flashed his father a broad smile, exposing gaps at the front where new teeth were growing in.
Geoffrey’s lips twitched. ‘That was fine riding, my son.’ He plucked a burr out of Henry’s cloak.
Henry flushed with pleasure. ‘Yes, sire.’ Much as he was enthralled by the swiftness and grace of Denier, what he really wanted to ride was a destrier like his father. His new pony was just another point on the road towards that accomplishment. ‘I could have made him go faster, but Alain wouldn’t let me.’ He scowled over his shoulder at the groom.
‘Alain was wise, you should listen to him,’ Geoffrey said. ‘And to your horse. Always be bold; never be heedless.’
Henry pursed his lips and said nothing.
His father folded his arms. ‘I have been waiting for you because I have received some great news from England, from your mother. Stephen the usurper has been defeated in battle and captured by your uncle Robert and others of your mother’s kin and allies. Your mother is to become Queen.’
Henry stared at his father while his stomach gave the same kind of swoop that it had done while he was galloping Denier. He had not seen his mother in almost a year and a half and memory of her features had blurred at the edges, but she wrote to him often and sent him things from England: a writing tablet with an interlaced design on the ivory cover, and a fine penknife. Things she had sewn, which held her scent. Bells for his harness. Numerous books. And always the promise that one day he would be a king because England was his.
‘Can we go there?’ He was suddenly consumed with eager impatience. Had a ship been present in the courtyard, he would have boarded it there and then.
‘No, no, no,’ his father laughed. ‘Rein back your horse a little. It is early days yet. Your mother will send for you when it is time.’
‘But when will that be?’
‘Soon,’ his father said. ‘But not quite yet.’ He ruffled Henry’s hair. ‘One battle does not a victory make, even when the enemy has been captured. Once your mother has been crowned, she will send for you.’
Henry frowned and wondered how close ‘soon’ actually was. When adults said such things, it was usually simply to pacify – and it was always a long time. He did not see why he could not go immediately. He knew he could help, and it was his destiny.
His father said, ‘My first task now your mother has succeeded is to go into Normandy and secure the duchy. Many barons will want to pay homage to the winning side.’ He looked at Henry. ‘And no, you cannot come there either for the time being. Your task is to stay safe and learn and become a man.’
Henry grimaced, but knew better than to protest. As far as he was concerned, he was a man, and years were only numbers.





 

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Extract from THE LEOPARD UNLEASHED

EXTRACT FROM THE LEOPARD UNLEASHED
Published by LittleBrown UK in early December 2010

This is a re-issue of my (re-edited) 3rd novel and ties into THE WILD HUNT and THE RUNNING VIXEN.

Apologies for some wierd formatting. As usual Blogger has a minor hissy fit at cut and paste.


Chapter 1

The Principality of Antioch, Spring 1139

Antioch, the capital of Prince Raymond’s principality, was for Renard a rude and not altogether welcome awakening. It was easier to skirmish with Turks among the Nosairi foothills than it was to swelter along a crowded narrow street on a highly-strung war-horse in the wake of a camel’s untrustworthy rear end. Renard hated camels – an aversion stemming from the occasion of his landing in St Simeon four years ago when one had spat an evil green broth all over his tunic and tried to squash him against a wall.

The beast, currently blocking his view, belched to an abrupt standstill. Renard’s stallion flattened his ears, and, skittered sideways to avoid a collision. The camel’s Bedouin rider cursed through his blackened teeth and swatted the animal with a leather goad. The camel defecated. Swearing, Renard reined back hard.

William de Lorys, a knight of his retinue, closed hard brown fingers over his saddle pommel and grinned. Ancelin, Renard’s English standard-bearer, chuckled into his fair beard, dimples creasing his cheeks.. Beyond them, among his soldiers, there were stifled guffaws.The glare Renard threw at the ,men, only increased their amusement.

The camel lurched onwards, its huge flat feet moving with ungainly grace. Renard clicked his tongue to Gorvenal. The stallion pranced, unsettled by the camel and by the press of humanity as from all sides they were assailed by the hot, ripe city. A beggar thrust a sore-encrusted arm beneath Renard’s nose and pleaded for a coin Another showed him blind eye sockets and a mutilated nose, but he had heard and seen it all before and was too impatient and saddle-weary to feel anything beyond irritation.

Four years in Outremer, he thought. Sometimes it seemed like forty. From the marcher hills of his birthplace to St Simeon in northern Syria, he had crossed not only oceans and mountain ranges, but the distance between childhood and maturity. He had been a restless young man of twenty-three at the court of his grandfather, King Henry, when he had met Raymond of Poitiers, recognised a kindred spirit, and when Raymond had left for Outremer to become Prince of Antioch, Renard had taken the Cross and accompanied him.

Renard’s mother and sister had wept, but his father, watching him with a shrewd gaze that missed nothing, said every man was entitled to sow wild oats providing he learned from their reaping. Renard supposed that somewhere along the way he must have learned. The restlessness still churned through him,, but he was able to control the turbulence and apply it constructively.

The camel squeezed past two laden donkeys and down an impossibly narrow side-street in the direction of the souk. Renard sighed with relief and, relaxing in the saddle,, started to view his surroundings in a slightly less jaundiced light.

His house in the city, sited conveniently close to the palace, was built of white, sun-flashed stone around a cool courtyard with fig trees and a fountain in true Syrian style. It had once belonged to an emir, As Renard drew rein in front of the shaded stable area, grooms came running to take the horses, and Johad, his Turcopol steward appeared as if conjured from a djinn’s lamp. The ,man bowed deeply, flashed his master a gleaming smile, and presented him with a cup of freshly pressed fruit juice which Renard took and finished in several swift, parched gulps.

‘Johad, you’re a godsend!’ he said in Arabic as he removed the linen coif from his head. His hair clung to his scalp in black, saturated spikes and sweat trickled into the dark-auburn grizzle of a three days’ beard. Returning the cup to his steward, he crossed the stableyard to the bath-house. William de Lorys followed him. Ancelin, whose dislike of fruit juice was only matched by his dislike of taking baths, waved in disgust and perspired away in the direction of the kitchen to find some decent household wine.

‘Home,’ Renard said later as he sat cross-legged on the floor. Dressed in a cotton shirt and chausses and the flimsiest of silk tunics, he was eating a pilaff of saffron-coloured wild rice and spiced lamb. ‘If I were at home now, I’d be shivering in the thickest tunic I could find with my winter cloak on top of it, and dining on salt beef and gritty bread.’

‘Better than this muck!’ growled Ancelin, spitting a wad of gristle onto the bright rug. ‘Camel stew to eat, and camel’s piss to drink!’

Grinning, Renard reached Arab-style to the pilaff bowl. ‘When in Antioch . . .’ he said lightly; but although he had learned to enjoy the eastern way of life, he found that tonight the thought of salt beef was making his mouth water.

William de Lorys gave his young lord a considering look. ‘What else would you be doing if you were at Ravenstow now?’

Renard snorted. ‘God knows! Probably quarrelling with my father about the estates, or disgracing myself with some woman.!’

‘Now there’s a thought!’ Ancelin’s eyes brightened.

De Lorys eased a rag of meat from between his teeth. ‘It wouldn’t be as good,’ he said. ‘The women back home aren’t trained like the ones here.’

Ancelin stabbed his index finger at de Lorys. ‘You can do it half way up a wall with one leg on the roof and the other on the couch if you like. What’s happened to good, honest futtering, I’d like to know!’

Renard regarded the two men with amusement but felt no inclination to take sides. There were valid points to both arguments. His thoughts drifted past them towards the huge, starlit darkness outside. What indeed would he be doing at home now? Quarrelling with his father as he had jested? Perhaps. More likely struggling to keep the lands stable as Stephen and Matilda between them whipped England into the worst storm for its people since the coming of the Conqueror.

When Renard had left for Antioch, all had been as calm as a mill pond with King Henry as sharp-eyed, parsimonious and cunning as ever, in expert control of all he surveyed – except his own mortality. Within two months of Renard’s departure, the old man was dead of a bad eel stew and his lands cast into turmoil as his daughter and his nephew tussled for the throne.

Renard had wanted to come home, but his father had advised against it. Stephen, having snatched the first initiative and with it the Crown, was demanding sureties for good behaviour in the form of hostages from those barons he did not trust, his father among them. If Renard was absent, then he need neither be yielded up nor refused to the King, and a smiling diplomacy could be ,maintained.

Renard’s two younger brothers were already marcher land-holders in their own right and therefore unlikely to be summoned to dally in custody at the court. John, his older brother, was a chaplain in the Earl of Leicester’s household, and being as the latter strongly supported Stephen’s right to be King, John was safe for the moment.

Ancelin and de Lorys were still discussing women. Washing his hands in a bowl of rose-scented water and drying them on the towel presented by Johad, Renard wondered briefly about Elene. How old would she be now? Approaching seventeen and more than ready for marriage. She had been willing four years ago, but her body had been unripe even if her mind had been set, and the ceremony had been deferred until his return.

Nell, he thought, with her puppy-like devotion and her joy in all aspects of domestic duty. A fine wife she would make, and an excellent mother to the enormous brood of children with which she expected him to furnish her. Neither mind nor body kindled at the prospect. Their betrothal was a business arrangement, agreed ten years ago; a duty not onerous, but lacking the spark that might have driven him eagerly home to his marriage bed. Here in Outremer, finding a women for the basic need was simple. It was the men who died.

Johad served dishes of halva, platters of fresh figs, and a sherbet made from pressed lemons. Renard selected a fig. The halva was delicious, but it caused worm rot in the teeth and the taste of honey was sometimes too overpowering. Like this land, he thought. First it tempted you, then it dissolved into your bones, corroding them. Perhaps that was why he was longing for plain Norman fare and the cold, damp spring of the Marches that made a fur cloak a necessity. A shiver of longing ran down his spine as he drank some of the cold, slightly bitter sherbet.

The discussion about women had ended in a decision to do more than merely discuss. ‘Want to come?’ asked de Lorys as he rose from the remains of his meal and brushed stray grains of rice from his silks. ‘One of the men was telling me they’ve got a new dancer at The Scimitar.’

‘Have they?’ Renard’s interest sharpened. The Scimitar was expensive but the girls were usually worth it.

‘A Turcopol girl. Blonde in both places.’ De Lorys gestured eloquently and grinned.

Renard arched a sardonic eyebrow. ‘I won’t ask how your informant knows,’ he said.

The Scimitar was bursting at the seams when they arrived, but Renard was well known there, and the proprietor quickly found a place for him to sit and furnished him with a drink.

A youth with kohl-rimmed eyes and a painted mouth propositioned him. Madam FitzUrse, the proprietor’s wife, swatted the boy away in the direction of some Genoese sailors up from St Simeon and apologised. ‘Sometimes we get asked, and it doesn’t do to turn custom away,’ she said.

Renard smiled and raised his cup to her. ‘Business is business,’ he replied gravely.

She regarded him from the corner of a sly, bright eye. ‘Here to see our new dancer are you, my lord?’

Renard affected indifference. ‘I was dragged out by my men who were desperate to get their hands upon some vice after the monk’s life I’ve been making them lead. I am only here to regulate their excesses.’ Then he grinned. ‘But if you have a new dancer, I suppose I might watch.’

‘Hah!’ she nudged him with a meaty elbow. ‘You’ll do more than just watch!’ Forefinger and thumb came up to rub before his face. ‘I’ll warn you now, she’s not cheap. Cost you half a mark.’

‘If she is going to excite me enough to part with half a mark, I doubt I’ll last long enough to justify the expense,’ he said with amusement. ‘Try Ancelin or de Lorys.’

She looked shocked. ‘Would you give your best mare to a novice? Besides, they’ve already found themselves company.’ Patting his arm, she went to help her besieged husband who was refilling pitchers. ‘See me later when you change your mind,’ she called over her shoulder with cheerful confidence.

Renard stared round in search of his knights. Ancelin was in the act of disappearing out of the door with a plump Armenian girl who also sometimes danced. De Lorys was arm-wrestling another customer for the favours of a sultry-eyed Syrian woman with a body, as lush as the fertile plain of Sharon. Oasis in the desert. Renard smiled at the thought, and drank his wine.

Several times he was approached by one or another of Madam FitzUrse’s girls, but although he knew most of them by name and some by a more intimate acquaintance, he turned them away, his mind dwelling in rank curiosity on the ridiculousness of paying half a mark to spend the night with a whore no matter her beauty or expertise.

Shortly before the dancing was due to start, he finished his drink and went outside to piss, and there, in the star-studded darkness of an eastern night, his present mood of nostalgia was suddenly consolidated with such force that for a moment he was totally disorientated.

A man’s voice spoke from the walled shadows, slurred with drink, but unmistakably using the Welsh tongue. A woman answered him in the same language, her voice low, husky and full of anger, and as Renard’s eyesight adjusted, he made out two figures standing close in argument. ‘I will not!’ she hissed. ‘The money is mine. I work for it and you’re not going to swill it down your gutter of a throat!’

‘You little whore, you’ll do as I say!’ The man’s fist wavered up.

‘Go swive yourself!’ Accurately she spat in his face and ducked under his arm. He made a grab for her enveloping dark robe and suddenly a dagger blade flashed in his hand as he wrenched her round to face him.

‘Your face is your fortune, girl!’ he snarled. ‘Don’t tempt me to ruin it.’

Renard set his hand to his own dagger hilt and took a forward pace, but before he could intervene, the girl made a sinuous movement and drew her own blade from within the voluminous folds of her robe. ‘Strike then,’ she hissed. ‘Let us see who is the faster!’

Small bells tinkled daintily on her ankle bracelets and her feet were bare as she positioned them with feline precision.

Renard’s loins and belly contracted with an instinctive reaction to the dangers of a knife fight. The woman was holding her weapon competently, a gleaming silver crescent, and the man was staring at her in fuddled anxiety. Renard changed his mind as to the identity of prey and victim.

‘Listen, lass, there’s no need . . .’

‘Piss-proud coward!’ she sneered, stepped again and struck. Metal grated on metal and in a circular motion spun like a falling star and puffed in the dust.

Weaponless, the man stared and swallowed. The woman’s feet wove the ground and Renard caught a glimpse of spangled fabric as she shifted and struck again with the exquisite Saracen blade. Her victim howled and doubled up, clutching at his belly.

Deciding it had gone far enough, Renard shouted and strode towards them.

Startled, the woman looked up and across. Renard received the impression of huge, dark eyes and a chain of coins winking on a smooth, pale brow before she drew the hood of her robe around her face and, knife still in hand, melted into the deep shadows of a stone-arched entry that led into the back of The Scimitar.

‘Whore!’ the man gasped, still doubled over. ‘Conniving, ungrateful whore!’

Renard’s spine prickled. He stared towards the dark mouth of the entry and wondered whether he had really seen it happen or if his imagination was running wine-wild.

The man took one hand from his stomach and looked at the dark smear on his palm. ‘Bitch,’ he moaned. ‘No gratitude.’

‘It was what you deserved.’ Renard glanced round. Behind him he heard the tinkle of bells and the soft pat, pat of a drum. The dancing had started. ‘Is it bad?’

‘Course it’s bad!’ the man snarled. ‘Look what she’s done, the whore!’

Renard stared. then he spluttered. The dagger had indeed caught the fool, but only the tip in a thin, red surface inscription. The mortal damage was to the string holding up the grey, stained chausses and whatever shreds of soused dignity the fool was striving to preserve.

Renard gave in to his laughter but was not so overcome that he did not see the man shuffling sideways, eyes to the ground. Reflexes entirely sober, Renard moved rapidly and closed his fingers on the haft of the fallen knife – once a serviceable but now sadly out-worn hunting dagger. The grip was dropping to pieces and the blade had been sharpened so often that it was wafer thin.

Angling his wrist, he struck at the wall, the full force of his right arm behind the blow. A blue spark flashed briefly, illuminating the weapon’s destruction as it shattered. Within the lean strength of his fingers, the grip came apart. He dropped the pieces on the ground, dusted his hands free of fragments and looked steadily at the drunk.

The man swallowed and licked his lips. ‘I was just leaving,’ he said and, clutching a bunched handful of his torn chausses, started hobbling away. He paused once and looked over his shoulder, but Renard still watched him, and with a grunt and a bemused shake of his head, he gave up and shambled off.

The drums pulsed sensuously. A cricket chirred on the wall beside Renard and there was a mark in the stone where the dagger had struck. He gazed at the pieces in the dust and felt uneasy. Nothing that could be pinned down and given form or reason, but suddenly he found himself wishing he had chosen not to visit The Scimitar tonight and almost followed the drunkard out into the street.

‘Renard?’ hissed de Lorys from the doorway.

He swung round.

‘Are you going to be out there all night? You’re missing the new dancer!’ He sounded as excited as a child.

The impulse to flee receded. Smiling ruefully at his own misgivings, Renard returned to to the crowded interior of the tavern.

Being tall, he could see over the heads of most men. Ancelin was an exception and in his line of vision, but he eased in front of him, elbowing him in the belly when he protested. And it was then, as he took his first glimpse of The Scimitar’s new dancing girl that he received his second shock of the night.

‘Is she not a beauty?’ muttered de Lorys against his ear.

‘Oh definitely,’ Renard responded with more than a hint of dry sarcasm. Beneath the mesh head-dress with its headband of bezants, her kohl-lined eyes were huge and dark, and her garments were of silk fabric, spangled with stars . Her mouth was sultry and as red as blood, and beneath her head-dress, the hair that whipped her undulating body was the colour of sun-whitened wheat. Her skin was not the fair or rosy kind that typically accompanied such hair, but was as golden as spilled honey.

The dance she performed for Madam FitzUrse’s gawping customers was of the usual erotic order, guaranteed to send any newcomer to Outremer out of his mind with lust and fill with delight those who had only a passing acquaintance with the land. Men more experienced who might usually have walked yawning, were riveted by her striking looks, and the way she cast her eyes around the throng like a lioness backed into a corner, one paw raised to strike.

Bells tinkled on her ankles and silver zills chinked between her forefinger and thumb. Her hips moved in a sinuous, hypnotic gyration.

‘Oh God!’ groaned de Lorys in agony as she whirled and the tempo increased. She threw back her head and arched her throat, and the head-dress swung and flashed. Torchlight shimmered on her tinselled garments. Her eyes roved contemptuously over her sweating, lusting audience, her pupils as wide and dark as those of a night-hunter. She licked her red, red lips and smiled.

Renard found himself responding and dropped his gaze. On first arriving in Antioch, he had gorged himself on dancing girls, unable to believe his good fortune; gorged until he was sick of the very sight of them and they held no appeal for him. As time passed, his appetite had returned, but now he consumed in cautious moderation. He felt that he should be using caution now. The dish before him was certainly edible, but so hot that it would likely scorch the fingerprints off anyone attempting to do so, and half a mark was too steep a price to pay for burned fingers. He shifted restlessly. Men were tossing coins on the floor around her stamping feet. Her fingers fanned over her body, imitating those of a lover and she fell to her knees, hair sweeping the floor as the drums pounded to their climax.

Renard could not help himself. He raised his head and looked at her. Her own eyes had been closed, but as the final throb of sound resonated and died, she opened them, and met Renard stare for stare and he saw that her eyes were not brown as he had thought, but a blue as rich and deep as the sky beyond the stars.

The Scimitar erupted with roars of appreciation, loud whistles, thumped tables, bellows for more. Coins showered upon the panting, sinuous girl. A drunken young idiot made a grab for her and was snatched away by the scruff. She gained her feet in one lithe movement and lowered lashes that were thick and black, spiky with soot and gum. The drum beat lightly. She danced among the scattered coins, stooping gracefully here and there to collect them up.

Renard’s throat was dry and his palms sweating. He wiped them on his tunic and, turning abruptly away, forced a path through the avid crowd of men. Madam FitzUrse gave him a knowing smile and tipped wine from the pitcher she was holding until it brimmed his cup.

‘Well, what do you think of her, my lord?’

Renard took three long swallows to prevent the drink from spilling. ‘She’s a good dancer,’ he said In a bored tone.

Amused, she mopped a puddle of wine from the trestle. ‘Aye, she’s that, and more if you’ve a mind.’

‘Half a mark.’ He cocked her a bright look. ‘Why so expensive?’

‘Why don’t you ask her to show you.’

‘And risk being stabbed in my dignity?’ he snorted. ‘I think not.’

She pursed her lips at him and then shrugged. ‘Ah well, if you’re not in the mood, I’m not the one to force you.’ Turning at a shout from her husband, she gestured that she was coming, and patted Renard’s shoulder. ‘Her name’s Olwen. If you change your mind, the payment is half to her and half to me.’

Renard sat down at the trestle to drink. Another girl was dancing now, slender and dark as a dockside cat. His view was more than half-blocked but he had no real inclination. Olwen. A Welsh name for a Scandinavian-fair girl who handled a dagger like a man and danced like a sinning angel in a brothel and drinking house frequented by the knights and soldiers of Prince Raymond’s guard. An enigma to be treated with the utmost wariness, if not abstained from completely.

He finished his drink and made to leave, but his cup was pushed back at him and refilled with rich ksara wine. Surprised he stared beyond the lip of the pitcher and a gold-bangled wrist into the dark sapphire eyes of the dancing girl. Their colour was emphasised by the gown she had changed into – damask silk cut in the Frankish style and as deep as midnight.

‘Stay,’ she commanded, giving him the predatory look of a cat at a mousehole.

Renard’s skin prickled. ‘Is this free, or do I have to pay half a mark?’ he challenged, but did as she said.

Her gown rustled, releasing the waft of an exotic, spicy perfume as she sat down next to him. ‘Half a mark? Is that what she told you?’ She jerked her chin at Madam FitzUrse who was watching them with a smug smile.

‘I said I was not interested.’

‘You lied.’ Her voice was a compound of smoke and cream, and held more than a hint of scornful amusement. She extended a taloned forefinger and drew her nail gently over the back of his hand. ‘Men always lie.’ She gave him a slow, wild smile.

Her shoulder rested against his. The neck of her gown was decorously fastened but accentuated rather than concealed her figure. The warmth of her perfume rose from between her breasts. Renard realized that his body, independent of his mind, was gradually being wound up taut like the rope on a mangonel. He could feel the long pressure of her thigh against his and her forefinger in gentle dalliance on his wrist. He shifted away from her. ‘Where did you learn to fight with a knife?’ he asked abruptly.

She picked up his cup and took a long, slow swallow of the wine. ‘I was born with one in my hand.’

‘And your name is Olwen?’

‘Sometimes.’ Lowering the cup, she looked at him. ‘And yours?’

He stretched his legs beneath the bench. ‘That depends on the woman,’ he said with a smile. It was like a sword fight, he thought; each of them trying to strike beneath the other’s guard. ‘Cullwch perhaps?’

A pink tint stained her face. ‘You know the tales?’

‘My grandfather used to recite them to me. He was part Welsh, and I grew up on the Welsh borders surrounded by bards and story tellers.’

She pushed the drink back into his possession. Her colour remained high. ‘My father was a Welshman,’ she said in a gentler tone than she had used thus far. ‘He came over with Duke Robert, took up with my mother after the siege of Antioch, and stayed. He died when I was eleven.’ Abruptly she tossed back her hair and narrowed her eyes. ‘You’re clever aren’t you?’

‘If I was clever,’ Renard grimaced, ‘I would not be about to place half a mark on this table.’