The Welsh Marches
Snow, driven by a biting November wind, flurried against Guyon’s dark cloak then swirled past him towards the castle glowering down from the high stone ridge overlooking the spated River Wye. His weary mount pecked and lumbered to a sluggish recovery. Guyon tugged the stallion’s ears and slapped its muscular neck in encouragement. Dusk was fast approaching, the weather was vicious, but at least shelter was within sight.
The horse almost baulked at the hock-deep water of the ford, but Guyon touched him lightly with his spur and with a snort, the grey splashed through the swift, dark flow and gained the muddy, half-frozen village road. The crofts were lit from within by cooking fires and the sputtering glint of rushlight. As they passed the church, a cur ran out to snap at Arian’s heels. Shod steel flashed. There was a loud yelp, then silence. A cottage door opened a crack and was quickly thrust shut in response to a sharp command from within.
Guyon rode on past the mill and began the steep climb to the castle, grimacing as if a mouthful of wine had suddenly become vinegar. On their arrival, Arian would receive a rub down, a warm blanket and a tub of hot mash to content him through the night. Guyon wished fervently that his own concerns could be dealt with as easily, but he bore tidings that made such a thing impossible.
The drawbridge thumped down to his hail and the grey paced the thick oak planks, hooves ringing a hollow tocsin, for beneath lay a gully of jagged rocks and debris, foraged only by the most nimble of sheep and the occasional cursing shepherd in less than nimble pursuit. Emerging through the dark arch of the gate house into the open bailey, he drew rein and swung from the stallion’s back. His legs were so stiff that for a moment he could barely move and clung to the saddle.
‘Evil night, sire,’ remarked the groom who splashed out from the stables to take the horse. Although there was deference in his manner, his eyes were bright with unspoken curiosity.
Guyon released his clutch on the saddle and steadied himself. ‘Worse to come,’ he answered, not entirely referring to the weather. ‘Look at the shoe on his off-fore, I think it’s loose.’
Guyon slapped Arian’s dappled rump and walked across the bailey, slowly at first until the feeling returned to his limbs, his shoulders hunched against the force of the bitter, snowy wind. Greeting the guards at the forebuilding entrance, he stripped his mittens, then climbed the steep staircase to the hall on the second level.
The dinner horn had but recently sounded and the trestles were crowded with diners. At the sight of their lord’s heir, jaws ceased chewing, hands paused half-way to dishes, necks craned. The men at the trestles marked his long, impatient stride and pondered what new trouble his arrival augured. The women studied his progress with different looks entirely and whispered to each other. Ignoring the assembly, Guyon strode up the hall to the dais table where sat his father with the senior knights and retainers of the household and also, he noticed with a certain irritation, his sister Emma in the lady’s customary place, with an embroidered panel gracing the wall at her back.
Miles le Gallois rose to greet him, a look of concern on his face. ‘Guy! We had not looked for you so soon.’
‘A man rides quickly when the devil snaps at his heels,’ Guyon answered, bowing to his father. Then he rose, kissed his sister and stepped over the trestle to take the place hastily made for him. His limbs suddenly felt leaden and the room wallowed before his eyes.
‘The wonder is that you did not fall off. Guy, you look dreadful!’ Emma gave a peremptory signal to the squire serving the high table.
‘Do I?’ He took the cup of wine presented to him. ‘Perhaps I have good reason.’ He was aware of them all looking at him, their anxiety tangible.
‘Surely the King did not refuse to grant you your uncle’s lands?’ His father looked incredulous.
Guyon shook his head and stared into the freshly poured wine. ‘The King was pleased to acknowledge me the heir and grant me all rights and privileges pertaining,’ he said in a flat voice. It was three months since his uncle had died fighting the Welsh on the Island of Mon that some called Anglesey. Gerard had been a childless widower and Guyon his named heir, but King William Rufus had been known to favour money above heredity when it came to confirming grants of land. Guyon had gone to Rufus in Normandy to make his claim and he had what he desired – at a price.
‘Then why the dark looks for such good news?’ his father demanded. ‘What else has happened?’
Guyon shook his head, disinclined to make a public announcement of the news and tightened his grip around his cup. The ride had been so difficult and cold that he could barely think straight.
His sister set her hand over his. ‘You are frozen! What were you thinking make a journey in such weather?’ she scolded. ‘Could it not have waited? I’ll have the servants prepare a tub in the solar and you’ll come there now where it’s warm!’
Some of the bleakness lifted from Guyon’s spirit and his lips twitched. Emma still viewed her three years’ seniority over him as a licence to command his obedience, more so since their mother had died of the sweating sickness two winters ago. While her husband travelled with the court as an assistant chamberlain, she dwelt here on the Welsh border, terrorising servants and family alike with her demands for a state of pristine domestic order.
This time Guyon chose not to rebel and after a single look, let her have her way. ‘You had better stir the cooks to provision for my men,’ was all he said as he rose to follow her. ‘They will be here within the hour and cursing me to the devil.’
Emma started to scold him about the folly of outriding them when the Marches were so dangerous and unsettled, but Guyon let the words tumble away from him like spots of melting snow.
Once the steaming tub was ready, Guyon began to disrobe and Emma dismissed the maids with an autocratic snap of her fingers, causing him to lift his brows. Cadi, his white gazehound bitch fussed around him, wagging her tail and panting. He paused his undressing to pat her flank and tussle her silky ears.
Miles dropped the curtain behind the two girls. ‘I doubt that Guyon has any designs on ravishment just now, Emma,’ he remarked dryly.
She scowled. ‘From what my husband tells me of the court, Guy would have designs on ravishment even if he were tied down and bludgeoned half unconscious.’
‘Half the tale and a fraction of the truth,’ Guyon defended as she snatched his padded tunic out of his hands and nudged Cadi away on the side of her leg. ‘It would depend who was doing the tying and what she had in mind.’
As Emma made to cuff him, he ducked with agility, straightened and seizing her by the shoulders, delivered a smacking kiss to her cheek. Emma glared at him, but her mouth started to curve despite her best efforts to keep it straight. ‘You need not attempt your courtier’s tricks on me. I know them by rote!’
Falsely crestfallen, Guyon released her with a sigh and began to unlace his shirt. ‘I suppose you do.’ The teasing look fell from his face. ‘But I needs must hope they still have their effect on other women.’
Emma’s gaze narrowed. ‘Not within this keep,’ she said with asperity.
‘I was thinking further up the march. Maurice FitzRoger’s daughter, to be precise.’
‘What?’ Miles, who had been lounging against a coffer was suddenly alert.
‘Judith of Ravenstow,’ Guyon said and having removed the rest of his garments, stepped into the steaming tub. ‘On the King’s order.’
His father’s eyes widened. ‘Rufus offered you Maurice of Ravenstow’s girl?’
‘He did not offer. He said marry her or else.’ He looked bleakly at his stunned father. ‘He also sold the earldom of Shrewsbury to Robert de Belleme for three thousand marks.’
‘What!’ Miles’ concern became consternation. ‘Surely the King would not permit de Belleme to inherit Shrewsbury. Considering what he owns already and the kind of man he is, it is much too dangerous!’
Guyon took the wash cloth that Emma silently handed him. ‘Every man has his price and de Belleme has calculated Rufus’s to a nicety,’ he said with a grimace. ‘Belleme wanted Ravenstow as well, being as it belonged to his late half-brother. He might have had it, too, if someone had not remembered that the heiress was of marriageable age and unbetrothed. The King chose to bestow her himself, and not without malicious amusement,’ He began vigorously to wash as if purging himself of the thoughts chasing round his mind.
‘You cannot do it!’ Emma’s mouth twisted with revulsion. ‘If you marry the girl, it will make you blood kin to de Belleme. Everyone knows what a monster he is. He robs and tortures for sport and impales those who displease him on greased poles and smiles as they die.’ She shuddered and hugged her arms. ‘God’s mercy, he keeps his own wife locked up in the cells below Belleme with only the rats for company!’
Guyon. did not accuse her of hysterical over-reaction. Even the hardest men were horrified by the sadistic cruelty of Robert de Belleme, eldest son of the late Roger de Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury. It was not his treatment of the peasants that caused distress – their lives were expendable – but his torture of noble prisoners capable of paying ransom, and he had no respect for any authority but his own.
‘If I do not accept this match, I forfeit Uncle Gerard’s lands. The King says he will give them to one of his Flemings. I am caught in a cleft stick. Not only does Rufus force a wife into my bed, he makes me pay for the privilege too – five hundred marks. Nowhere near three thousand, I know, but enough to make my tenants squeal when I squeeze them for its payment. It is fortunate for de Belleme that he does not have a conscience as to how he goes about raising his own relief.’
Emma shuddered and crossed herself.
‘And of course,’ said his father, ‘the lands you gain with this match, added to what you own and what you will inherit, make you a suitable counterbalance in the middle marches to whatever schemes of advancement de Belleme may choose to plot.’
‘Oh yes,’ Guyon said darkly. ‘I am to pay for that privilege too, mayhap with my life.’
There was a taut silence. Into it Emma drew a shaken breath and murmuring something about food and wine, fled the room.
Miles sighed and sat down on a stool, his movements easy. As yet, his fifty-four years sat lightly on his body which remained, through vigorous activity, firm and taut, if more stocky than in his slender youth.
‘I know the girl’s mother,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘Alicia FitzOsbern, Breteuil’s sister. She was pretty at fifteen, very pretty indeed. If I had not already been married and satisfied with your mother, I might have offered for her myself.’
Guyon grunted. ‘I always understood you had no liking for the FitzOsbern clan.’
‘The male stock, no. They all were – and are, when you consider Breteuil – snakes, but Alicia was different. She was courageous and gentle and she had eyes like summer twilight. She never forgave her menfolk for selling her in marriage to Maurice de Montgomery.’
Guyon reached for the towel that Emma had left conveniently to hand and stepped from the tub. ‘Reason enough for any woman to hate,’ he said, thinking of the former lord of Ravenstow whom he had always thought resembled a glutted boar atop a dung heap.
‘As I remember, Judith was born late into the marriage after numerous slurs of barrenness had been cast in Alicia’s direction,’ Miles commented, folding his arms. ‘I doubt it was all her fault. As far as I know, for all his lechery Maurice sired no bastards.’
Guyon donned a fur-lined bedrobe and called entry to the two servants who came to empty the water from the tub down a waste shaft in the corner of the room.
‘At least Ravenstow is a formidable keep from which to base your dominance,’ Miles remarked towards Guyon’s silence. ‘Whatever other sins lie on de Belleme’s soul, he is a master architect.’
‘And I suspect one way or another he will attempt to annex it to his earldom. Ravenstow guards the approach to the Chester plain and all roads east - ideally suited to the purposes of robbery and extortion, would you not say?’
Miles eyed him and said nothing, although his jaw tightened.
‘There is always the Holy Land, I suppose,’ Guyon added with a twisted smile. ‘Freedom from Rufus and de Belleme, and the glory of slaughtering infidels to gild my soul. I…’ He broke off and drew a deep breath as Emma re-entered the room followed by a maid bearing food and wine.
Compressing his lips Guyon sat down on the bench near the hearth.
‘Rhosyn is in the hall,’ Emma announced as she dismissed the woman and poured the wine herself. ‘You will have to tell her.’
Guyon eyed his sister warily as he took the cup and drank. ‘What of it? She made it plain at Michaelmas she would not dwell as my mistress. She has no cause to complain.’
‘She might not have had a cause at Michaelmas, Guy, but she certainly has one now.’
Guyon’s wariness sharpened. ‘Meaning?’
‘Meaning she is not so skilled a herb wife as she thought and the rounding of her belly proves it. Mid-summer I would say, to look at her.’
Guyon glanced from his sister’s pursed disapproval to his father’s blank surprise. He took another swallow of wine to hide his consternation and feigned nonchalance. ‘I’ll speak to her tomorrow, but I do not see that this marriage will change anything. Willingly I will acknowledge and provide for a child if that is what she wants, but Rhosyn is a wild law unto herself.’
‘I am not thinking of wild law, but Welsh law,’ Emma said, as he reached for a piece of bread. ‘A man’s firstborn son, even begotten out of wedlock to a mistress, has equal rights with the other legitimate heirs of his body.’
Guyon discarded the notion with a shake of his head. ‘I am Norman born, Em and Welsh rights do not pertain this side of the border. I could cede a couple of holdings to a chance-gotten child without too much hue and cry, but no more than that. Besides, the child is yet unborn and might well be a daughter, in which case I will find her a good marriage when the time comes.’
Emma’s full mouth pursed with continuing disapproval. ‘It needn’t have happened at all,’ she said censoriously.
‘Don’t be so finicky sister,’ he growled. ‘The sin of fornication is a peccadillo compared with the ones I could have perpetrated at court.’
Colour flooded his sister’s face. Her husband, as a minor chamberlain, knew most of what transpired in the immediate circle surrounding the King; the scandals, the petty power struggles, the prevalent vices and Guyon, with his striking looks, disregard for propriety and hint of Welsh barbarity was a magnet to which all three were drawn whether he wished it or no. ‘I expect you and Prince Henry keep tallies to compare your ruttings,’ she said, her expression censorious.
‘Indeed we do,’ Guyon said with a sarcastic flourish. ‘How did you guess?’
Miles eased tactfully to his feet and stretched like a cat uncoiling. ‘Time enough for discussion tomorrow,’ he said. ‘I’m for my bed and I’m sure Guyon is too.’ He gave his daughter an eloquent stare. Guyon had his trencher piled high enough already without her heavy-handed seasoning of moral chastisement and righteous advice.
‘A conspiracy of men,’ Emma declared with a sniff, and then a taut smile. ‘I know when I am beaten.’ Going to her brother, she stooped and kissed his stubble-blurred cheek.
He tugged the copper-coloured braid peeping from beneath her veil. ‘That does not mean you will give in!’
‘Does it not?’ She arched her brow at him. ‘Let me tell you, I will gladly relinquish the battle to your wife and hope she has better fortune in taming your ways!’
‘Know when you are beaten, do you?’ he needled as she went towards the curtain. ‘Is that why you always have to have the last word?’
In the Great hall, Rhosyn rolled over on her lumpy makeshift pallet and sat up, irritated to discover that yet again her bladder was full. Beside her, oblivious, her father snored. He was a prosperous wool merchant these days, with a paunch to prove it. Complacent. They had fared well since their business dealings with Miles le Gallois. There was much profit to be had in wool and the cloth woven from the fleeces. Lord Miles bred it raw on the hoof. Her father sold the clip in Flanders and speculated a little on the wider trade markets – spices and leather, silks and glass – and they prospered.
Beside their grandfather, the children of her first, now widowed marriage slept in a puppy huddle. Rhys was ten, a sturdy, dark-eyed replica of his father. Eluned, seven, resembled herself – slender and fey with raven hair, autumnal eyes and a luminous complexion. This coming child, as yet scarcely realized; well, if a boy, she could only hope by God’s charity that he inherited Guyon’s beauty married to a less difficult nature.
Stupid, she thought with self-irritation as she quietly left her children and her father to seek out the garderobe. Stupid to have been so easily caught, she who knew all her herbs and simples, or thought she knew because they had always worked before. Too late now, too dangerous, and not the season for the plants that would have cured her condition.
She had been in two minds whether to make this trip to Hereford with her father, but had reasoned that it would be her last opportunity before the weather grew too difficult for travel. She needed to purchase linen for swaddling bands that she could stitch during the dark, hall-bound months of winter; and winter’s threat was already upon them. The knife-bitter wind and the scudding snow squalls had caused them to curtail their journey early in the day and seek shelter under Lord Miles’ roof.
Guyon’s arrival at dusk had been a surprise, and she was not sure if it was a welcome one. The news of his impending marriage had caused her no grief. She had always known the day would come, indeed, had held herself a little aloof with that knowledge in mind. He had a duty to take a wife of his own status and beget heirs, a wife who would have more in day to day common with him than she ever would.
Rhosyn’s practical nature told her there was no point in building upon their tenuous relationship. For all his fluency in the Welsh tongue and his ability to adapt to Welsh ways, he was only one quarter of the Cymru and he was raised to be a Marcher lord who would ride into Wales on the back of a warhorse to ravage the land if his King so commanded. He regarded the towering Norman border keeps as home and refuge, not as grey, enclosing prisons that hemmed in the soul.
The latrine was cold and stank of its main function, and she did not linger. Instead of returning to the hall, however, Rhosyn made her way to the small wall chamber where Guyon usually lodged when he stayed here. His gazehound bitch, Cadi, lay outside the entrance, her nose tucked into her tail, but rose with a joyous whine of greeting when she saw Rhosyn. She paused to stroke the dog and make a fuss of her, before lifting the heavy curtain.
Guyon had been sound asleep, but came immediately to his senses at the first soft clink of the curtain rings and the muffled whine of the dog. This was the keep where he had been born and raised, his welcome here guaranteed, but these days he was so conditioned to react to danger and complete security was so seldom his, that he was out of bed and across the room in the space of a heartbeat. He lunged at the figure outlined in the glow from the corridor flare. Silky hair tossed against his chest. The crown of his captive’s head butted his chin, jarring his teeth together .He bit his tongue and tasted blood. A supple body writhed against his and he felt the swell of a woman’s breast beneath his fingers.
‘‘It’s me, Rhosyn!’ she gasped indignantly, her French bearing the lilting accent of Wales. ‘Have you lost your wits?’
‘More likely you have lost yours!’ he retorted, but with amusement now that he was fully awake and enjoying the feel of her body against his own. ‘It is a foolish thing to creep up on a man in the middle of the night, cariad. Oft-times I sleep with a naked sword at my side. I might have cut off your head!’
‘I have seen your naked sword frequently enough for it not to concern me,’ Rhosyn replied with spurious innocence and pressed against him in the darkness. She tangled her fingers in his hair and stood on tip-toe to bite his ear and then whisper into it; ‘But perhaps it would be safer to sheathe it, my lord.’
Guyon laughed huskily. ‘That sounds like a fine idea,’ he said, before closing her mouth with a kiss, his fingers busy with the lacings of her gown. ‘Do you happen to know of a fitting scabbard?’
Rhosyn stretched languidly like a cat and then relaxed, a contented half-smile curving her lips. ‘I had forgotten what a pleasure it was,’ she purred, eyeing Guyon sidelong across the tossed coverlet in the glow from a cresset lamp.
‘Your fault,’ he remarked, but easily, without accusation. ‘I wanted you to come with me.’
‘I would have stuck out like a sore thumb among those Norman women and been as miserable as sin.’
‘Sin is never miserable,’ Guyon remarked, thereby earning himself a playful slap. He caught her wrist and pulled her across him and they tussled for a moment, before he let her go and she drew back to study him. With his dark hair and eyes, he could easily have passed for one of the Cymru, although his height and breadth spoke of his Anglo-Norman ancestors.
‘I hear that you are with child,’ he said, giving her a serious look now.
Her gaze grew wary. ‘What of it?’
‘Were you going to tell me?’
Rhosyn bit her lip. ‘Probably.’ She avoided his eyes. ‘My father and yours do too much business together to keep such a matter secret and Rhys and Eluned both chatter like jackdaws. You would have discovered sooner or later.’
Guyon felt a pang at her intimation that had she been able to keep it from him, she would have done so. ‘My sister seems to think that you will invoke Welsh law on the child’s behalf.’
Rhosyn stared at him.
‘In Welsh law the son of the handmaiden is equal to the son begotten on a legal spouse,’ he clarified.
She shook her head. ‘Your sister is wrong. What good would it do on this side of the border where Norman custom reigns? It would be a hobble of broken straw indeed and I am not sure I would want a child of mine to dwell among saesnegs in a great stone tomb like this.’ Her eyes roved the comfort of the room with disparagement.
Guyon almost retorted that he was not sure he wanted a child of his to grow up running barefoot over the Welsh hills or huckstering in wool for a living, but he curbed the words, knowing from bitter experience that they too were hobbles of broken straw.
‘Emma spoke from the viewpoint of a Norman lady,’ he said instead. ‘She imagines what she would do in your position, and that would be to fight tooth and nail to have that child accepted as my responsibility.’ He reached to twine a tendril of her hair through his fingers. ‘Also, I think she said it to put me in dread of ever doing the like again. She disapproves of what she sees as my casual fornications.’
Rhosyn made a face, remembering Emma’s frosty expression as her family arranged their pallets in the hall, and then her grimace became a smile as she imagined the lady Emma’s response could she have but witnessed herself and Guyon a few moments ago.
The lamp sputtered in its pool of fat and Guyon gently tugged the strand of hair. ‘But our concern is not with Emma, but with you.’ His gaze ranged over her body which was just beginning to show the changes of pregnancy.
Rhosyn stared at the coverlet and chewed her lip.
‘I try to learn by my mistakes,’ he said gently. ‘I will not try to hold you; nor, though it be my greatest desire, is it fitting that I should.’
‘Your bride, you mean?’ she said without rancour.
Guyon made a face. ‘You know about that? Ach, how can you not when gossip travels so fast? Rhosyn cariad, you are well out of this coil. Take the road to Wales and in the name of God, do not look back.’
He flashed her a grim look. ‘Did you also hear that I am to wed into the house of Montgomery? It is by royal command and the girl’s mother is an old family acquaintance. My refusal would put her in mortal danger from Robert de Belleme, the new Earl of Shrewsbury. If he can lock up his own wife in some dark oubliette and put out his own godson’s eyes, what need to cavil at tossing his sister-in-law and niece over Ravenstow’s battlements? It is about power, my love, and you are well out of it. When your father has finished his business in England, go home, keep to your own hearth and forget about venturing across the border unless you have a well armed and determined escort. Robert de Belleme and his minions will turn the Marches into hell for such men as your father.’
Rhosyn shuddered, wanting to believe he was exaggerating, but denied that comfort.
‘I will speak with your father tomorrow before our roads part, make sure he knows not to take short cuts across Shrewsbury’s domain.’
‘Is it really so dangerous?’
‘Yes.’ His voice filled with emphasis. ‘I mean what I say Rhosyn. Either go into the heart of Wales and do not venture forth again, or stay here with me, under my protection. There can be no middle path.’
She shook her head numbly and shivered. He drew her back down beside and against his body, pulling the coverlet around them. She pressed herself against him but continued to shiver. This was the end of it. She could no more live in one of these great, grim fortresses than a Norman lady could sit milking a ewe on the slopes of Yr Wyddfa. She needed her measure of freedom and, aside from that, Norman women had entirely different views upon the subject of mistresses and their offspring. She had no desire to feud over a lost cause with Guyon’s new wife. If he wanted to see her and the child, then let him come to Wales.
‘Ffarwel fy llewpart du,’ she murmured against his throat, and kissed him first there in the brown hollow and then raised her head to find his lips. ‘R wy’n dy garu di.’Guyon’s arms tightened around her. ‘I love you too, cariad,’ he muttered, and silently cursed the whole Montgomery clan into the deepest pit of hell.