Sunday, 22 July 2007


Extract From Bestselling Novel
Published by Sphere in Paperback
ISBN 0 7515 3660 1

Also now published by Sourcebooks in the United States.

Based on the true story of William Marshal, one of England's greatest heroes.

The below is copied and pasted from the manuscript on my PC, so not a precise copy of the finished version - but close enough.

Chapter 1

Fortress of Drincourt, Normandy, Summer 1167

In the dark hour before dawn, all the shutters in the great hall were closed against the evil vapours of the night. Under the heavy iron curfew, the fire was a quenched dragon’s eye. The forms of slumbering knights and retainers lined the walls and the air sighed with the sound of their breathing and resonated with the occasional glottal snore.

At the far end of the hall, occupying one of the less favoured places near the draughts and away from the residual gleam of the fire, a young man twitched in his sleep, his brow pleating as the vivid images of his dream took him from the restless darkness of a vast Norman castle to a smaller, intimate chamber in his family’s Berkshire keep at Hamstead.

He was five years old, wearing his best blue tunic, and his mother was clutching him to her bosom as she exhorted him in a cracking voice to be a good boy. ‘Remember that I love you, William.’ She squeezed him so tightly that he could hardly breathe. When she released him they both gasped, he for air, she fighting tears. ‘Kiss me and go with your father,’ she said.

Setting his lips to her soft cheek, he inhaled her scent, sweet like new mown hay. Suddenly he didn’t want to go and his chin began to wobble.

‘Stop weeping, woman, you’re unsettling him.’

William felt his father’s hand come down on his shoulder, hard, firm, turning him away from the sun-flooded chamber and the gathered domestic household, which included his three older brothers, Walter, Gilbert and John, all watching him with solemn eyes. John’s lip was quivering too.

‘Are you ready son?’

He looked up. Lead from a burning church roof had destroyed his father’s right eye and melted a raw trail from temple to jaw, leaving him with an angel’s visage one side, and the gargoyle mask of a devil on the other. Never having known him without the scars, William accepted them without demur.

‘Yes, sir,’ he said and was rewarded by a kindling gleam of approval from John Marshal’s one eye.

‘Brave lad.’

In the courtyard the grooms were waiting with the horses. Setting his foot in the stirrup, John Marshal swung astride and leaned down to scoop William into the saddle before him. ‘Remember that you are the son of the King’s Marshal and the nephew of the Earl of Salisbury,’ his father said as he nudged his stallion’s flanks and he and his troop clattered out of the keep. William was intensely aware of his father’s broad, battle-scarred hands on the reins and the bright embroidery decorating the wrists of the tunic.

‘Will I be gone a long time?’ his dream self asked in a high treble.

‘That depends on how long King Stephen wants to keep you.’

‘Why does he want to keep me?’

‘Because I made him a promise to do something and he wants you beside him until I have kept that promise.’ His father’s voice was as harsh as a sword blade across a whetstone. ‘You are a hostage for my word of honour.’

‘What sort of promise?’

William felt his father’s chest spasm and heard a grunt that was almost laughter. ‘The sort of promise that only a fool would ask of a madman.’

It was a strange answer and the child William twisted round to crane up at his father’s ruined face even as the grown William turned within the binding of his blanket, his frown deepening and his eyes moving rapidly beneath his closed lids. Through the mists of the dreamscape, his father’s voice faded, to be replaced by those of a man and woman, arguing in a tent.

‘The bastard’s gone back on his word, bolstered the keep, stuffed it to the rafters with men and supplies, shored up the breaches.’ The man’s voice was raw with contempt. ‘He never intended to surrender.’

‘What of his son?’ The woman asked in an appalled whisper.

‘The boy’s life is forfeit. The father says that he cares not - he still has the anvils and hammers to make more and better sons than the one he loses…’

‘He does not mean it…’

The man spat. ‘He’s John Marshal and he’s a mad dog. ‘Who knows what he would do. The king wants the boy.’

‘But you’re not going to…you can’t!’ The woman’s voice rose in horror.

‘No, I’m not. That’s on the conscience of the King and the boy’s accursed father. The stew’s burning, woman; attend to your duties.’

William’s dream self was seized by the arm and dragged roughly across the vast sprawl of a battle camp. He could smell the blue smoke of the fires, see the soldiers sharpening their weapons and a team of mercenaries assembling what he now knew was a stone throwing machine.

‘Where are we going?’ he asked.

‘To the King.’ The man’s face had been indistinct before but now the dream brought it sharply into focus, revealing hard, square bones thrusting against leather-brown skin. His name was Henk and he was a Flemish mercenary in the pay of King Stephen.


Without answering, Henk turned sharply to the right. Between the siege machine and an elaborate tent striped in blue and gold, a group of men were talking amongst themselves. A pair of guards stepped forward, spears at the ready, then relaxed and waved Henk and William through. Henk took two strides and knelt, pulling William down beside him. ‘Sire.’

William darted an upward glance through his fringe, uncertain which of the men Henk was addressing, for none of them wore a crown or resembled his notion of what a king should look like. One lord was holding a fine spear though, with a silk banner rippling from the haft.

‘So this is the boy whose only value to his father has been the buying of time,’ said the man standing beside the spear-bearer. He had greying fair hair and lined care-worn features. ‘Rise, child. What’s your name?’

‘William sir.’ His dream self stood up. ‘Are you the King?’

The man blinked and looked taken aback. Then his faded blue eyes narrowed and his lips compressed. ‘Indeed I am, although your father seems not to think so.’ One of his companions leaned to mutter in his ear. The King listened and vigorously shook his head. ‘No,’ he said.

A breeze lifted the silk banner on the lance and it fluttered outwards, making the embroidered red lion at its centre appear to stretch and prowl. The sight diverted William. ‘Can I hold it?’ he asked eagerly.

The lord frowned at him. ‘You’re a trifle young to be a standard bearer, hmm?’ he said, but there was a reluctant twinkle in his eye and after a moment he handed the spear to William. ‘Careful now.’

The haft was warm from the lord’s hand as William closed his own small fist around it. Wafting the banner, he watched the lion snarl in the wind and laughed with delight.

The King had drawn away from his advisor and was making denying motions with the palm of his hand.

‘Sire, if you relent, you will court naught but John Marshal’s contempt…’ the courtier insisted.

‘Christ on the Cross, I will court the torture of my soul if I hang an innocent for the crimes of his sire. Look at him…look!’ The King jabbed a forefinger in William’s direction. ‘Not for all the gold in Christendom will I see a little lad like that dance on a gibbet. His hellspawn father, yes, but not him.’

Oblivious of the danger in which he stood, Aware only of being the centre of attention, William twirled the spear.

‘Come child.’ The King beckoned to him. ‘You will stay in my tent until I decide what is to be done with you.’

William was only a little disappointed when he had to return the spear to its owner who turned out to be the Earl of Arundel. After all, there was a magnificent striped tent to explore and the prospect of yet more weapons to look at and perhaps even touch if he was allowed – royal ones at that. With such a prospect in mind, he skipped along happily at King Stephen’s side.

Two knights in full mail guarded the tent and various squires and attendants waited on the King’s will. The flaps were hooked back to reveal a floor strewn with freshly scythed meadow and the heady scent of cut grass was intensified by the enclosing canvas. Beside a large bed with embroidered bolsters and covers of silk and fur stood an ornate coffer like the one in his parents’ chamber at Hamstead. There was also room for a bench and a table holding a silver flagon and cups. The King’s hauberk gleamed on a stand of crossed ash poles, with the helmet secured at the top and his shield and scabbard propped against the foot. William eyed the equipment with longing.

The King smiled at him. ‘Do you want to be a knight, William?’

William nodded vigorously, eyes glowing.

‘And loyal to your king?’

Again William nodded but this time because instinct told him it was the required response.

‘I wonder.’ Sighing heavily, the King directed a squire to pour the blood-red wine from flagon to cup. ‘Boy,’ he said. ‘Boy, look at me.’

William raised his head. The intensity of the King’s stare frightened him a little.

‘I want you to remember this day,’ King Stephen said slowly and deliberately. ‘I want you to know that whatever your father has done to me, I am giving you the chance to grow up and redress the balance. Know this; a king values loyalty above all else.’ He sipped from the cup and then pressed it into William’s small hands. ‘Drink and promise you will remember.’

William obliged, although the taste stung the back of his throat.

‘Promise me,’ the King repeated as he repossessed the cup.

‘I promise,’ William said, and as the wine flamed in his belly, the dream left him and he woke with a gasp to the crowing of roosters and the first stirring of movement amongst the occupants of Drincourt’s great hall. For a moment he lay blinking, acclimatising himself to his present surroundings. It was a long time since his dreams had peeled back the years and returned him to the summer he had spent as King Stephen’s hostage during the battle for Newbury. He seldom recalled that part of his life with his waking memory, but occasionally, without rhyme or reason, his dreams would return him to that time and the young man just turning twenty would again become a fair-haired little boy of five years old.

His father, despite all his manoeuvring, machinations and willingness to sacrifice his fourth born son, had lost Newbury, and eventually his lordship of Marlborough, but if he had lost the battle, he had rallied on the successful turn of the tide. Stephen’s bloodline lay in the grave and Empress Matilda’s son, Henry, the second of that name had been sitting firmly on the throne for thirteen years.

‘And I am a knight,’ William murmured, his lips curving with grim humour. The leap in status was recent. A few weeks ago, he had still been a squire, polishing armour, running errands, learning his trade at the hands of Sir Guillaume de Tancarville, chamberlain of Normandy and distant kin to his mother. William’s knighting had announced his arrival into manhood and advanced him a single rung upon a very slippery ladder. His position in the Tancarville household was precarious. There were only so many places in Lord Guillaume’s retinue for newly belted knights with ambitions far greater than their experience or proven capability.

William had considered seeking house room under his brother’s rule at Hamstead, but that was a last resort, nor did he have sufficient funds to pay his passage home across the Narrow Sea. Besides, with the strife between Normandy and France at white heat, there were numerous opportunities to gain the necessary experience.. Even now, somewhere along the border, the French army was preparing to slip into Normandy and wreak havoc. Since Drincourt protected the northern approaches to the city of Rouen, there was a current need for armed defenders.

As the dream images faded, William slipped back into a light doze and the tension left his body. The blond hair of his infancy had steadily darkened through boyhood and was now a deep hazel-brown, but fine summer weather still streaked it with gold. Folk who had known his father said that William was the image of John Marshal in the days before the molten lead from the burning roof of Wherwell Abbey had ruined his comeliness, that they had the same eyes, the irises - deep grey, with the changeable muted tones of a winter river.

‘God’s bones, I warrant you could sleep through the trumpets of Doomsday, William. Get up you lazy wastrel!’ The voice was accompanied by a sharp dig in William’s ribs. With a grunt of pain, the young man opened his eyes on Gadefer de Lorys, one of Tancarville’s senior knights.

‘I’m awake.’ Rubbing his side, William sat up. ‘Isn’t a man allowed to gather his thoughts before he rises?’

‘Hah, you’d be gathering them until sunset if you were allowed. I’ve never known such a slugabed. If you weren’t my lord’s kin, you’d have been slung out on your arse long since!’

The best way to deal with Gadefer who was always grouchy in the mornings, was to agree with him and get out of his way. William was well aware of the resentment simmering among some of the other knights who viewed him as a threat to their own positions in the mesnie. His kinship to the chamberlain was as much a handicap as it was an advantage. ‘You’re right,’ he replied with a self-deprecating smile. ‘I’ll throw myself out forthwith and go and exercise my stallion.’

Gadefer stumped off, muttering under his breath. Concealing a grimace, William rolled up his pallet, folded his blanket and wandered outside. The air held the dusty scent of midsummer, although the cool green nip of the dawn clung in the shadows of the walls, evaporating as the stones drank the rising sunlight. He glanced towards the stables, hesitated, then changed his mind and followed his rumbling stomach to the kitchens.

The Drincourt cooks were accustomed to William’s visits and he was soon leaning against a trestle devouring wheaten bread still hot from the oven and glistening with melted butter and sweet clover honey. The cook’s wife shook her head. ‘I don’t know where you put it all. By rights you should have a belly on you like a woman about to give birth.’

William grinned and slapped his iron-flat stomach. ‘I work hard.’

She raised a brow that said more than words, and returned to chopping vegetables. Still grinning William licked the last drips of buttery honey off the side of his hand and going to the door, braced his arm on the lintel and looked out on the fine morning with pleasure. The peace of the moment was broken by the sound of shouts from the courtyard. Moments later the mail-clad earl of Essex and several knights and serjeants raced past the open door towards the stables. William hastened out into the ward. ‘Hola!’ he cried. ‘What’s happening?’

‘The French and Flemings have been sighted in the outskirts!’ a knight panted over his shoulder.

The words hit William like a bolt of lightning. ‘They’ve crossed the border?’

‘Aye, over the Bresle and down through Eu. Now they’re at our walls with Matthew of Boulogne at their head. We’ll have the devil of a task to hold them. Get your armour on Marshal, You’ve no time for stomach-filling now!’

William sprinted for the hall. By the time he arrived his heart was thundering like a drum and he was wishing he hadn’t eaten all that bread and honey for he felt sick. A squire was waiting to help him into his padded undertunic and mail. Already dressed in his, the Sire de Tancarville was pacing the hall like a man with a burr in his breeches, issuing terse commands to the knights who were scrambling into their armour.

William pressed his lips together. The urge to retch peaked and then receded. As he donned his mail, his heartbeat steadied, although his palms were slick with cold sweat and he had to wipe them on his surcoat. Now was the moment for which he had trained. Now was his chance to prove that he was good for more than just gluttony and slumber, and that his place in the household was by right of ability and not family favour.

By the time the Sire de Tancarville and his retinue joined the earl of Essex at the town’s West Bridge, the suburbs of Drincourt were swarming with Flemish mercenaries and the terrified inhabitants were fleeing for their lives. The smell of cooking fires had been overlaid by the harsher stench of indiscriminate burning and in the Rue Chausée a host of Boulonnais knights were massing to make an assault on the West Gate and break into the town itself.

Eager, nervous, resolute, William urged his stallion to the fore, jostling past several seasoned knights until he was level with de Tancarville himself. The latter cast him a warning glance and curbed his destrier as it lashed out at William’s sweating chestnut. ‘Lad, you are too hasty,’ he growled with amused irritation. ‘Fall back and let the knights do their work.’

Flushed with chagrin, William swallowed the retort that he was a knight and reined back. Glowering, he allowed three of the most experienced warriors to overtake him but as a fourth tried to jostle past, William spurred forward again, determined to show his mettle.

Roaring his own name as a battle cry, de Tancarville launched a charge over the bridge and down the Rue Chausée to meet the oncoming Boulonnais knights. William gripped his shield close to his body, levelled his lance and gave the chestnut its head. He fixed his gaze on the crimson device of a knight on a black stallion and held his line as his destrier bore him towards the moment of impact. He noticed how his opponent carried his lance too high and that the red shield was tilted a fraction inwards. Steadying his arm, he kept his eyes open until the last moment. His lance punched into the knight’s shield, pierced it and even though the shaft snapped off in William’s hand, the blow was sufficient to send the other man reeling. Using the stump as a club, William knocked the knight from the saddle. As the black destrier bolted, reins trailing, William drew his sword.

After the first violent impact, the fighting broke up into individual combats. Nothing in his training had prepared William for the sheer clamour and ferocity of battle but he was undaunted and fed upon the experience avidly and with increasing confidence as he emerged victorious from several sharp tussles with more experienced men. He was both terrified and exhilarated; like a fish released from a calm stewpond into a fast-flowing river.

The Count of Boulogne ordered more troops into the fray and the battle for the bridge became a desperate crush of men and horses. Armed with clubs, staves and slingshots, the townspeople fought beside the castle garrison and the battle swayed back and forth like washing in the wind. It was close and dirty work and William’s sword hand grew slippery with sweat and blood.

‘Tancarville!’ William roared hoarsely as he pivoted to strike at a French knight. His adversary’s destrier shied, throwing his rider in the dust where he lay unmoving. William seized the knight’s lance and urged the chestnut towards a knot of Flemish mercenaries who were busy looting a house. One man had dragged a coffer into the street and was clubbing at the lock with his sword hilt. At a warning shout from his companions, he spun round, but only to receive William’s lance through his chest. Immediately the others closed around William, furiously intent on dragging him from his mount.

William turned and manoeuvred his stallion, beating them off with sword and shield, until one of them seized a gaff resting against the house wall and attempted to hook William from his horse. The gaff lodged in his hauberk at the shoulder, the lower claw tearing into the mail, breaking several riveted links and sinking through gambeson and tunic to spike William’s flesh. He felt no pain for his blood was coursing with the heat of battle. As they surrounded him, trying to grab his reins and drag him down off the horse, he pricked the chestnut’s loin with his spurs and the stallion lashed out. There was a scream as a shod hind hoof connected with flesh and the man dropped like a stone. William gripped the stallion’s breast strap and again used the spur, forward of the girth this time. His mount reared, came down, and shot forward so that the soldiers gripping the reins had to let go and leap aside before they were trampled. The mercenary wielding the hook lost his purchase and William was able to wrench free and turn on him. Almost sobbing his lord’s battle cry, he cut downwards with his sword, saw the man fall, and forced the chestnut forwards over his body. Free of the broil of mercenaries, he rejoined the bulk of the Tancarville knights, but his horse had a deep neck wound.

The enemy had forced the Drincourt garrison back to the edge of the bridge. Smoke and fire had turned the suburbs into an antechamber of hell, but the town remained unbreached and the French army was still breaking on the Norman defence like surf upon granite. Bright spots of effort and exhaustion danced before William’s eyes as he cut and hacked, no longer any finesse to his blows. It was about surviving the next moment and the next…in holding firm and not giving ground. Every time William thought that he could not go on, he defied himself and found the will to raise and lower his arm one more time.

Horns blared out over the seething press of men and suddenly the tension eased. The French knight who had been pressing William hard, disengaged and pulled back. ‘They’re sounding the retreat!’ panted a Tancarville knight ‘God’s blood, they’re retreating! Tancarville! Tancarville!’ He spurred his destrier. The realisation that the enemy was drawing off, revitalised William’s flagging limbs. His wounded horse was tottering under him but undaunted, he flung from the saddle and joined the pursuit on foot.

The French fled through the burning suburbs of Drincourt, harried by the burghers and inhabitants, fighting rear guard battles with the knights and soldiers of the garrison. William finally ran out of breath and collapsed against a sheepfold on the outskirts of the town. His throat was on fire with thirst and the blade of his sword was nicked and pitted from the numerous contacts with shields and mail and flesh. Removing his helm, he dunked his head in the stone water trough provided for the sheep and making a scoop of his hands, drank greedily. Once he had slaked his thirst and recovered his breath, he wiped the bloody patina from his sword on a clump of loose wool caught in the wattle fence, sheathed the blade, and trudged back to the bridge, suddenly so weary that his shoes felt as if they were made of lead.

His chestnut was lying on its side in that ungainly way that told him even before he knelt at its head and saw its dull eyes that it was dead. He laid his hand to its warm neck and felt strands of the coarse mane scratch his bloodied knuckles. It had been a gift at his knighting from the Sire de Tancarville, together with his sword, hauberk and cloak, and although he had not had the horse long, it had been a good one - strong, spirited, and biddable. He had expended more pride and affection on it than was wise and suddenly there was a tightening of grief in his throat.

‘Won’t be the last you’ll lose,’ said de Lorys gruffly, leaning down from the saddle of his own dappled stallion which had several superficial injuries but was still standing, still whole. ‘Fact of war, lad.’ He extended a hand that, like William’s, was bloody with the day’s work. ‘Here, mount up behind.’

William did so, although it was an effort to set his foot over Gadefer’s in the stirrup and swing himself across the crupper. The cuts and bruises that had gone ignored in the heat of battle now began to strike him like chords on a malevolently plucked harp, especially across his right shoulder.

‘Wounded?’ Gadefer asked as William caught his breath. ‘That’s a nasty gash in your mail.’

‘It’s from a thatch gaff,’ William replied. ‘It’s not that bad.’

De Lorys grunted. ‘I won’t take back the things I’ve said about you. You’re still a slugabed and a glutton…but the way you fought today – well that makes up for everything else. Perhaps my lord Tancarville has not wasted his time in training you after all.’

That night the Sire de Tancarville held a feast to celebrate a victory that his knights had not so much snatched out of the jaws of defeat, as reached down the throat of annihilation, dragged back out and resuscitated. Badly mauled the French army had drawn off to lick its wounds and for the moment at least, Drincourt was safe, even if the neighbouring county of Eu was a stripped and pillaged wasteland.

William sat in a place of honour at the high table with the senior knights who feted him for his prowess in his first engagement. Although exhausted, he rallied beneath their camaraderie and praise. The squabs in wine sauce, the fragrant, steaming frumenty and apples seethed in almond milk went some way to reviving his strength, as did the sweet, potent ice-wine with which they plied him. His wounds were mostly superficial. De Tancarville’s chirugeon had washed and stitched the deeper one to his shoulder and dressed it with a soft linen bandage. It was sharply sore; he was going to have the memento of a scar, but there was no lasting damage. His hauberk was already in the armoury having the links repaired and his gambeson had gone to the keep women to be patched and refurbished. Men kept telling him how fortunate he was. He supposed that it must be so, for some of the company had left their lives upon the battlefield and he had only lost his horse and the virginity of his inexperience. It didn’t feel like luck though when someone inadvertently slapped him heartily on his injured shoulder in commendation.

William de Mandeville, the young earl of Essex, raised his cup high in toast, his dark eyes sparkling. ‘Hola, Marshal, give to me a gift for the sake of our friendship!’ he cried so that all those on the high table could hear.

William’s head was buzzing with weariness and elation but he knew he wasn’t drunk and he had no idea why de Mandeville was grinning so broadly around the trestle. Knowing what was expected of him, however, he played along. The bestowing of gifts among peers was always a part of such feasts.

‘Willingly my lord,’ he answered with a smile. ‘What would you have me give to you?’

‘Oh, let me see.’ De Mandeville made a show of rubbing his jaw and looking round at the other lords, drawing them deeper into his sport. ‘A crupper would do, or a decorated breastband. Or a fine bridle perchance?’

Wide-eyed, William spread his hands. ‘I do not have any such items,’ he said. ‘Everything that I own – even the clothes on my back are mine by the great charity of my lord Tancarville.’ He inclined his head to the latter who acknowledged the gesture with a sweep of his goblet and a suppressed belch.

‘But I saw you gain them today, before my very eyes,’ de Mandeville japed. ‘More than a dozen you must have had, yet you refuse me even one.’

William continued to stare in bewilderment while a collective chuckle rumbled through along the dais and grew in volume at William’s expression.

‘What I am saying,’ de Mandeville explained, between guffaws, ‘is that if you had bothered to claim ransoms from the knights you disabled and downed – even a few of them – you would be a rich man tonight instead of an impoverished one. Now do you understand?’

A fresh wave of belly laughter surged at William’s expense, washing him in chagrin, but he was accustomed to being the butt of jests and knew that the worst thing he could do was sulk in a corner or lash out. The ribbing was well meant and behind it, there was warning and good advice. ‘You are right, my lord,’ he agreed with de Mandeville. The shrug he gave made him wince and brought a softer burst of laughter. ‘I didn’t think. Next time I will be more heedful. I promise you will receive your harness yet.’

‘Hah!’ retorted the Earl of Essex. You’ve to get yourself a new horse first, and they don’t come cheaply.’

On retiring to his pallet that night, William lay awake for some time despite his weariness. His mind as well as his body felt bludgeoned. The images of the day returned to him in vivid flashes, some, like his desperate fight with the Flemish footsoldiers repeating over and over again, others no more than a swift dazzle like sharp sun on water, there and gone. And through it all, running like a thread, needle-woven into a tapestry was de Mandeville’s jest that wasn’t a jest at all, but hard truth. Fight for your lord, fight for his honour, but never forget that you were fighting for yourself too.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007


Available in Paperback from Sphere: ISBN 978 0 7515 3659 1


Chapter 2

Longueville, Normandy, Spring 1199

Isabelle sat at her embroidery with her ladies. Pulling away from winter, the light had a pale clarity that meant more intricate sewing could be undertaken. Bending an attentive ear to the chatter, she was glad to hear a lively note in the women’s voices, for that too, like the return of the sun and the sight of birds building their nests, was a sure sign spring had arrived.

Jean D’Earley’s young wife Sybilla was stitching an exquisite design of silver scallop shells onto a tunic band. Embroidery was her particular skill and her husband was the best dressed knight of William’s mesnie. Sybilla was William’s niece, and of a quiet disposition, but Isabelle believed the creativity and dedication exhibited in her sewing were indicative of a rich internal life that didn’t need gossip and socialising to sustain it.

‘How are you feeling now?’ Isabelle asked her. The young woman had been unwell for three days running with a queasy stomach. and Isabelle had her suspicions, compounded by the way Sybilla kept looking at the cradle holding the newest addition to the Marshal family, three month old Walter.

‘A little better my lady. The infusion of ginger has helped.’ Sybilla looked pensive. ‘I…I think I may be with child, although I am not yet certain.’

Isabelle patted her arm in reassurance ‘I suspect so too. It is good news for you and Jean if it be the case.’

Sybilla looked dubious. ‘He has been much absent with the Earl and we haven’t bedded together often of late; it may be a false alarm.’

Isabelle sent a rueful glance towards the cradle herself. ‘William only has to look at me and I quicken.’

‘Aye, well you and the Earl have had plenty of practice,’ teased Elizabeth Avenal, wife to one of William’s knights. She was always eager to talk of matters bawdy or sexual when the bower ladies were gathered over their sewing, although in mixed company she was less bold. ‘Everyone knows that unless a wife experiences the same satisfaction as her husband, her seed will not descend to mix with his and she will not conceive.’ She chuckled at Sybilla. ‘If you’re feeling full enough for the sickness my girl, then your lord must have discovered the art of pleasuring you in bed.’

‘Elizabeth!’ Isabelle spluttered with a look at Sybilla who had flushed bright pink.

‘Well it’s true!’ lady Avenel defended herself. ‘Even some priests say so. The ones who don’t are juiceless old prunes who’ve never had a good fu….’

She bit off her words as the chamber door opened and William flung into the room. He glanced swiftly at the circle of women, said ‘Isabelle, a word,’ and strode over to an embrasure further down the room. Sweeping aside a motley assortment of children’s toys, he sat down on the cushioned chest under the window splay, two vertical frown lines etching the space between his brows.

Isabelle’s mirth faded. Abandoning her sewing, she left her women and hastened to William’s side. ‘What’s wrong?’

He breathed out hard and rubbed his neck. ‘Ach, nothing out of the usual. I don’t even know why I am surprised. ‘Is there any wine left, or has the sewing party drunk it all?’

Something had riled him; he didn’t usually make acerbic comments about her women. ‘No, there is plenty left to drown your woes,’ she said sweetly and fetched the cup and flagon herself, exchanging eloquent glances with her ladies as she did so.

Having taken a long drink, William rested the cup on his thigh and sighed out hard. ‘I’ve just been talking to a messenger from Baldwin de Bethuné.

Isabelle sat down beside him, plumped a fleece-filled cushion at her back and looked at him expectantly. Baldwin de Bethuné, Count of Aumale was William’s closest friend and currently with the King. Even when William was absent from the court, such contacts kept him well informed. Whatever the news was, it had certainly put a bur in her husband’s braies.

‘Prince John is under suspicion of conspiracy and Richard’s in a quarrelsome mood. I tell you, Isabelle, sometimes I want to knock their heads together until their brains run out of their ears - not that it would make any difference except to my own satisfaction.’

‘What do you mean, under suspicion?’

He eyed her sombrely. ‘Philip of France claims to have letters implicating John in treason. John’s supposed to have asked Philip’s aid to mount a rebellion against Richard – who is not best pleased.’

‘It was only a matter of time,’ she said.

His nostrils flared. ‘Why is everyone prepared to believe the worst of John and not allow that he might just have learned his lesson and matured?’

‘So you don’t believe it is true?’ She managed to school her voice to calm enquiry, avoiding the flat note that usually entered it when they spoke of Richard’s brother.

‘Of course it isn’t,’ he said impatiently. ‘Philip’s as wily as a fox and false rumours like this are a fine way of creating discord. John might be devious and self-seeking, but he’s not mad and he would have to be insane to go conniving with Philip. The last time he dabbled in conspiracy, Richard was locked up in a German prison. John won’t risk anything with Richard close enough to breath down his neck. ’ He drank again, his movements swift with displeasure. ‘Whatever his flaws as a man, John has been a model of loyalty to Richard these past five years.

‘So what will happen now?’

‘It’s already happening. John’s gone off in a fury at being accused and God alone knows where.’

‘Perhaps to Paris,’ she said with pessimism. ‘Perhaps the King of France has succeeded anyway.’

William’s shot her an irritated look. ‘I sincerely doubt he’d turned to Philip, but he might just be sufficiently annoyed to go and plot some mischief by way of revenge.’

‘Has Richard done anything about it?

‘Not yet from what Baldwin says. He’s decided John probably isn’t guilty, but he’s not entirely sure. Why would he leave court unless he had something to fear? If ever our sons start behaving like Richard and John, I will drown them, I swear I will.’ He heaved a deep sigh. ‘Richard is going on campaign in the Limousin to work off his anger and hunt for gold to fill his coffers. Some vassal of Aymer de Lusignan has dug up an ancient hoard on his lands and he’s refusing to give it up. Richard needs funds and the idea of a spring campaign to make the sap rise appeals to him.’ He picked up one of Mahelt’s poupées, the one of himself as a warrior in the green and yellow surcoat and eyed it thoughtfully.

Isabelle’s stomach lurched. ‘You are not going with him?’

‘No, I’m still due to sit on the Bench of Justices with Hubert Walter at Vaudreil. De Braose, de Burgh and Mercadier are attending on Richard. He says John can wait until his return…I’m not sure he can, but it’s a decision for Richard’s cup, not mine.’ He put aside the poupée in the surcoat and picked up the one of himself in court garb of red twill embroidered with silver thread. ‘Jesu, another tunic,’ he said with a shake of his head, making it clear which of the two figures he would rather be. ‘I am in danger of becoming a fop.’

Isabelle’s heart lightened with relief that King Richard was not summoning him on yet another campaign. ‘Sybilla made it for her. She’s so quick and skilled with a needle that it takes her no time.’ She lowered he voice and added, ‘Sybilla thinks she may be with child.’

‘So that’s what you were gossiping about when I came in?’

She smiled demurely. ‘More or less.’

He grunted with amusement. ‘Lady Elizabeth has a loud voice,’ he said. ‘It is good news for them. Jean will be pleased.’ He rose to his feet and stretched. Isabelle was glad to see the tension had gone out of him, glad too that he had come to her to ease and share his burden. Not all marriages were thus.

‘I suppose if I am leaving for Vaudreil on the morrow I had better find my two eldest sons. I promised them a jousting lesson.’ A regretful expression crossed his face. ‘It doesn’t seem a moment since I was their age and my father was teaching me my sword strokes at the pell.’

‘While doubtless your mother looked on with her heart in her mouth.’

‘Not in the least. She knew the only way I was going to make my way in the world was by learning to use the tools of my trade. Besides, she had already had her moment of anguish when I was five years old and King Stephen almost hanged me from a gibbet.’

Isabelle shuddered. Whenever William mentioned the episode from his infancy when King Stephen had taken him hostage for his father’s good behaviour, she felt cold. His father had gone back on his word and Stephen had threatened to string William up in full view of the besieged garrison. ‘And no surprise. If any man tried to do that to one of ours, I would bar his way with a naked sword in my hand,’ she said with intensity.

He said wryly, ‘I do believe you would, my love. I know she never forgave my father for telling King Stephen to go on and hang me – that he had the anvils and hammers to get more and better sons than the one he lost.’

Indignation shone in Isabelle’s eyes. ‘And I would use my naked sword to ensure that his boasts about hammers and anvils were short-lived indeed. If I had been wed to him, I would have killed him.’

He gave a humourless smile. ‘I think my mother came close to it on occasion. He lived very close to the edge….died in his bed though, and of old age.’ He kissed her cheek. ‘Don’t look so worried. No one is going to take our sons as hostages.’ Leaning past her, he picked up the representation of Isabelle from Mahelt’s collection of poupées. ‘New clothes for you as well, I see.’ He pursed his lips in assessment. ‘I like the cloak.’

‘It’s Irish plaid,’ Isabelle said, eyeing him.

‘I noticed – even if you think I don’t know anything about Ireland When Richard returns from his campaign I’ll ask his leave to visit Leinster. You have waited long enough - if I am being fair too long.’

Isabelle stared at him. Her heart kicked, then soared with elation. She flung her arms around his neck and kissed him on the mouth. ‘Thank you!’ she gasped, ‘thank you!’

Grinning, he squeezed her waist. ‘I intend to thoroughly exploit your gratitude,’ he said. ‘Be warned.’

She watched him leave the room, his tread buoyant now that he had shared his burden with her, then she turned back to her women, her face flushed and her eyes alight.

Elizabeth Avenel was waiting to pounce. ‘Jesu, I see what you mean about him only having to look at you and you quicken,’ she quipped. ‘You look like a woman who has just been thoroughly pleasured.’

Isabelle laughed and clapped her hands. ‘I have. ‘We’re going to Leinster!’

The expression on lady Elizabeth’s face was priceless.

"An extraordinary, wonderful true story...I really felt that I had walked with William Marshal and that my own life was enriched." Richard Lee: Founder of the Historical Novel Society

The story of John FitzGilbert Marshal

To be published in UK hardcover in October 2007

'Sometimes keeping your honour means breaking your word.'

Extract from the end of Chapter 1
The court of King Henry I at Vernon sur Seine in Normandy, Autumn 1130

Arriving at his lodging, John dismissed his chamberlain and squire. Most of his waking hours were spent in company, but he enjoyed moments to himself when he could snatch them. They gave him time to recoup and reflect; to be still and let him think at leisure. He draped his cloak across his coffer and hung his sword belt and scabbard on a wall hook. A flagon and a cup stood on a trestle under the shuttered window together with the pile of tallies and parchments from this morning. He poured wine, moved the lamp until he was satisfied with the fall of light upon his work area, and sat down with the sigh of a man letting go of one thing and preparing to tackle another.

He reached for a document lying to the side of the others, its lower edge tagged with Henry’s seal. This one was personal business, not a routine matter of palfreys or bread for the hounds. His inner vision filled with the memory of the blushing girl he had seen at mass in the cathedral at Salisbury when he had been home attending to his father’s affairs. Aline Pipard’s father was recently deceased too, and John had now bought her guardianship, which gave him the right to administer her estates and eventually sell her marriage to whomsoever he chose.

Sipping his wine, he contemplated the document, wondering if she was going to be worth the fee he had paid for her. He hadn’t decided what he was going to do about the guardianship - sell the marriage on, or take the girl to wife himself. His father and hers had long been acquainted. He had known Aline from a distance since she was a little girl, but his association with her amounted to no more than a few casual meetings and glances in passing. His purchase was less concerned with family ties than with the available revenues from the Pipard lands and the knowledge that a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush. His acquisition was something to fall back upon should lean times arise. Thoughtfully, he rolled up the document, tied it with a length of silk cord and having set it aside, commenced work on the routine lists and tallies waiting his attention.

John was on his second cup of wine and had just trimmed a fresh quill when a soft tap at the door interrupted him. He considered ignoring it, but the work was boring and he was in a mood for distraction – probably a female one to judge from the sound of the knock. Leaving his work, he went to open the door and was pleased to discover his assumptions correct. Without a word, he stood aside to let the woman enter the room. She moved to the hearth with fluid, deliberate grace and turned to wait for him.

He dropped the latch, fetched another cup and poured her wine. ‘Mistress Damette,’ he said, courteously. ‘To what do I owe this pleasure?’ He addressed her by her working name. Her real one was Bertha and she was the youngest of six daughters belonging to an impoverished knight from the Avrenchin. It was three years since she had left the enclave of court whores to become the concubine of an Angevin baron.

She responded with a throaty laugh and a knowing look as she accepted the wine. ‘You owe it to the fact that you are the King’s marshal and I am in need of employment.’

‘I gathered as much.’ He picked up his own half finished cup and leaned with feigned nonchalance against the trestle. ‘What happened?’

She pursed her lips at him. ‘Crusade. He took the cross and foreswore women. He was selling everything he could to raise the money to go and fight for Christ, so I grabbed my silks and furs and left before he had a chance to sell them too. Her voice developed a sultry edge. ‘…otherwise, I’d be here in nought but my shift.’ She put the wine down, unfastened her cloak, and draped it across the coffer on top of his own. The tight lacing of her gown accentuated every line and curve of her figure.

John looked her up and down. She had burnished dark hair and eyes to match. Lamp and firelight glanced upon orbit and satin cheekbone. His father had originally been responsible for admitting Damette to the court enclave and she had occasionally shared the senior marshal’s bed, but never his. He had been a youth learning his trade back then, and even if she was of his years, she had been a deal less innocent. ‘An interesting notion,’ he said, ‘but you know the ways of the court and I’m afraid that “naked under the cloak” is one of the less original ploys these days.’

Her eyes gleamed. ‘I think you’ll find I have more to offer than that, my lord.’

‘Such as?’

She stepped up to him, dipped her forefinger in his wine and slowly rimmed his lips. ‘Experience.’ She trailed her hand languidly down his body from breastbone to groin, her touch lighter than a breath. ‘Skill.’

Lust surged through him, hot and heavy as molten lead. ‘You know the rules; the dues owing.’ He set his arms to her waist and pulled her against him. The supple pressure of her body was exquisite.

‘Oh yes, I know them…my lord marshal,’ Damette breathed. ‘You will have no cause for complaint on any score…I promise you.’

Languorous in the aftermath of twice-taken release, feeling as if all sharp edges and discontents had been smoothed out, John folded his hands behind his head and studied the rafters. ‘How did you know to call me ‘my lord?’ he asked curiously.

‘Because your deputy told me your father was dead…I am sorry for that.’ Damette raised herself on one elbow. A rosy flush darkened her breasts and throat, revealing that the pleasure had not been his alone.

He said nothing. She hesitated, then leaned over and cupped his face on the side of her hand. ‘I am not sorry you have his position though.’

The haze of satisfaction cleared from his eyes. ‘It’s no use casting your line in my direction, sweetheart, I’m not a man for taking mistresses. I know too much to be snared by such bait.’

She laughed and bent to kiss the corner of his mouth. ‘You may have the face of a sinning angel and a way between the sheets, but I’m not angling beyond mutual interest. You would demand too much – and so would I.’

‘That’s about the measure of it - especially the last part.’ He stroked her hair, to keep the moment light, then sat up and reached for his clothes.

‘You shield yourself from people don’t you?’

John donned his shirt, rapidly followed by braies and hose. ‘Show me a courtier who doesn’t.’ Padding from the bed, he returned to the trestle and the pile of work still waiting. He was tired, but he had learned to cope without sleep long ago. His father had been wont to say that the time to slumber was in the grave, and John had embraced the philosophy with a whole heart. He looked across at her. ‘I don’t have to shield myself,’ he said. ‘The face I wear is the face beneath.’

She rolled onto her stomach and turned towards him, slender ankles raised and crossed, dark hair spilling around her shoulders. ‘You’d be surprised.’

‘At what?’ He sat down and began work.

‘At what does lie beneath when you are put to the test. Can I stay until morning?’

‘As long as you’re quiet.’

‘I promise not to snore.’

‘That’s not what I meant.’

She made a face at him and John almost laughed, but managed to preserve an offhand demeanour.

Borrowing his comb from the coffer, she began to tidy and braid her hair, completely unselfconscious in her nudity. John occasionally glanced and admired. Firm, full breasts, long legs. Damette wouldn’t stay long among the whores. She would attract another patron soon enough.

She worked at a tangle. ‘I know you do not want me to interrupt you,’ she said, ‘but you might be interested to know I spent two nights with Geoffrey of Anjou.’

John lowered his quill and eyed her sharply.

‘He’s a handsome youth, the Empress’s husband,’ she said. ‘Fast to the finish as you’d expect of his years, but a fresh bolt in the bow as soon as his first one’s spent.’ She gave him an eloquent smile before contemplating the ends of her gathered hair. ‘He says he’s thinking of going on pilgrimage to Compostella and that he won’t have his wife back for all the gold in England.’

‘You’re certain he said that?’

‘Of course I am. He’s still too young to have learned discretion. If a man has finished futtering and does not wish to sleep, then often he wants to talk…and I am a very willing listener.’

John shook his head. ‘Henry won’t let him go to Compostella, at least not until this impasse over the marriage has been resolved. He needs her and Geoffrey to beget heirs.’

‘Then perhaps Geoffrey is forcing the King’s hand, or perhaps he is teasing. I gained the impression he’s the kind who likes to throw sticks in the fire for the pleasure of watching them burn.’ She secured her braid with a red silk ribbon.

John gave her a speculative look. ‘You didn’t want to make a bid for becoming Geoffrey’s mistress then?’

She wrinkled her nose and laughed. ‘Oh no, he’s far too fickle. For the moment he’s a prickly youth who needs stroking and reassurance – although when he grows up, he might be worth it.’

John continued with his work for a while, although his mind was split between the parchments and tallies of the marshal’s accounts and what Damette had said.

‘I could be very useful to you,’ she offered, as if sensing the periphery of his thoughts. ‘Your father always considered that the things I heard and saw were a great asset to him.’

John studied a tally without focusing on it. He realised now how much his father had protected him in keeping him away from Damette when he was Geoffrey of Anjou’s age. ‘Then I too will be happy to consider.’

‘And them fee?’

‘Negotiable,’ he said impassively and put his head down over his work. She plainly knew just how far to push, for she lay down with her back to him and pulling the coverlet high over her shoulder, at least feigned sleep.

John poured more wine and toasted her huddled form, his eyes lighting with dour humour. If nothing else, tonight’s interlude had informed him that he was most certainly back at court.




Summer 1173

Swearing through his teeth, Joscelin de Gael drew rein at the head of his mercenary troop and scowled at the covered baggage wain that was slewed across the Clerkenwell road, blocking the way. He had been in the saddle since dawn. It was late afternoon now, had been raining all day, and the comfort of his father’s London house was still five miles away on the other side of the obstruction.

An assortment of knights and men-at-arms surrounded the wain like witnesses clustering around a fresh corpse. A man was crouched, examining a damaged wheel. His cloak was trimmed with sable, his boots were of red leather and the horse his squire held was clean-limbed and glossy. A handful of women huddled together, anonymous in mantles and hoods and watched the men from beneath the dubious shelter of an ash tree overhanging the road.

Dismounting, Joscelin tossed his reins to his own squire and approached the crippled wain. The soldiers stiffened, hands descending to sword hilts and fingers tightening upon spear shafts. The crouching man stood up and his gaze narrowed as he recognized Joscelin.

Joscelin eyed Giles de Monstsorrel with similar disfavour. The baron was distantly related to the Earl of Leicester, and thus considered himself a man of high standing. He viewed Joscelin, the bastard of a warrior who had carved his own nobility by the sword, as dung beneath his boots. They had encountered each other occasionally on the French tourney circuits, but no amity had sprung from these meetings, Montsorrel not being the kind to forgive being bowled from the saddle on the end of a blunted jousting lance.

Forced by circumstance to be civil, Montsorrel gave Joscelin an icy nod which Joscelin returned in the same spirit before fixing his attention on the broken wheel. Not just broken, he could see now, but with a hopelessly shattered rim. ‘You haven’t a hope in hell of cobbling a repair here,’ he said. ‘You’ll have to hire another cart from the nearest village. Clerkenwell isn’t far.’ He walked slowly around the stricken wain, examining it from all angles before halting in front of the three sturdy cobs still harnessed in line between the shafts. ‘How much weight do you carry?’

‘None of your business!’ Montsorrel snapped.

‘Oh, but it is,’ Joscelin said. ‘I cannot bring my own wain past while yours is obstructing the road. If it’s not too heavy, I’d be more than willing to help you drag it to one side.’

Montsorrel glared. ‘You think I’m going to stand aside for hired scum like you?’

Joscelin thumbed the side of his jaw. Suddenly he was very aware of the pressure of his sword hilt against his hip. ‘Hired scum?’ he repeated softly.

One of the women murmured to her companions and, detaching herself from their group, stepped forward to place herself between the two men. She faced Joscelin, forcing him to divert his attention from Montsorrel. She had delicate features and unfathomable grey-blue eyes that held his for a moment before she turned to indicate the broken wain.

‘Messire, by the time we have found a wheelwright or hired another cart, the city gates will have closed for the night.’ She hesitated. ‘Forgive me, but I notice your own wain is larger than ours and but lightly laden. I am sure if you lent it to us of a kindness, my husband would compensate you for your inconvenience.’

Joscelin stared at her in surprise. He was accustomed to being propositioned by women, but in different social circumstances and for different reasons it had to be said, and never in front of their husbands. She looked down, a flush brightening her cheekbones. The rain continued to fall in a steady, cloth-soaking drizzle.

‘Linnet!’ Montsorrel’s anger diverted from Joscelin to his wife. ‘Do you dare to interfere?’

She flinched, but her voice was steady as she turned to him. ‘I was thinking of your son, my lord. He must not catch a chill.’

Montsorrel cast an irritated glare in the direction of the other women. Joscelin looked, too. One of the bundled figures under the tree was a small child. A little hand was held in the grasp of a nursemaid and Joscelin received the impression of wide, frightened eyes and a snub nose set in a wan, small face. Amid anger at finding himself trapped because he could not for shame refuse the woman, he felt a thread of pity for the infant.

Montsorrel said stiffly to Joscelin, ‘Very well, you’re a mercenary. I’ll pay you the rate to deliver the goods to my house.’

Joscelin bit back the urge to retort that he was not so much of a mercenary that he would allow the likes of Giles de Montsorrel to buy his obedience. ‘I’ll not serve you,’ he said derisively, ‘but your lady did speak of compensation. Perhaps we can reach an agreement.’

Montsorrel clenched his fists and looked as if he might burst.

‘No?’ Shrugging, Joscelin started to turn away.

‘Christ’s Wounds, just get on with it!’ Montsorrel snarled.

Joscelin gave a sarcastic flourish and sauntered away to instruct his men to strip and reload his own sound wain.

Linnet de Montsorrel rejoined the women. Her stomach was queasy with fear. Everything had its price, and she knew she would have to pay hers later when she and Giles were alone.

‘I’m cold, Mama,’ her son whimpered, and abandoned his nurse to cling to Linnet’s damp skirts.

She stooped to chafe his hands, noting with concern that his eyes were heavy and his complexion pale with exhaustion. ‘It won’t be long now, sweetheart,’ she comforted. She folded him beneath the protection of her cloak like a mother hen spreading her wing over a chick.

‘Madam, I know that man.’ Ella, her personal maid, jutted her chin toward the mercenary whom Linnet had just shamed into helping them. ‘It’s Joscelin de Gael, son of William Ironheart.’

‘Oh?’ Linnet knew of William Ironheart by reputation. They said he was so hard, he pissed nails, that he was stubborn, embittered, and dangerous to cross. Linnet studied de Gael. ‘How do you come to be acquainted with such a one?’ she asked in a neutral tone.

Ella blushed. ‘I only know him by sight, madam. He was at my sister’s wedding in the spring as a friend of the groom. They were both garrison soldiers at Nottingham castle.’

Linnet assessed de Gael thoughtfully. She judged him to be in his late twenties. ‘What is he doing in the mercenary trade if he’s Ironheart’s son?’

‘He’s only Lord William’s bastard. His mother was a common camp follower so rumour says.’ Ella folded her arms, hugging her shawl against her body. ‘Apparently when de Gael’s mother died in childbed, Lord William went mad with grief and tried to kill himself, but his sword shattered and he was only wounded. After that, men started calling him Ironheart because his breast was stronger than the steel. I’d say Brokenheart was more appropriate.’ Ella’s gaze returned to their reluctant rescuer, who was now standing back from the wain, one hand on his sword hilt, the other pushing his rain-soaked hair off his forehead.

Linnet, all romantic notions literally knocked out of her head by six years of marriage to Giles, said nothing, her feeling one of irritation rather than pity. She knew what it was like to be usurped by another woman in your own hall, and how much that other woman’s status also depended on arrogant masculine whim.

Two panting men-at-arms struggled out of the broken wain carrying a large, ironbound chest between them.

‘Make haste!’ Giles snapped, and Linnet saw him scowl at de Gael, who was eyeing the chest with open speculation.

‘I see now the kind of weight you carry,’ de Gael remarked. ‘Small wonder that your wheel broke.’ In his own good time withdrew his scrutiny and approached the women.

Linnet retreated behind downcast lids, knowing she would be the one to suffer if de Gael chose to take his impertinence further. Giles might think twice about assaulting a man of the mercenary’s undoubted ability, but no such restraint would prevent him from beating her. She heard the men puffing and swearing as their strongbox was manoeuvred into de Gael’s wain. Giles’s voice was querulous with impatience and bad temper, and inwardly she quailed.

De Gael crouched on his heels and gently peeled aside a wet fold of her cloak. ‘And who have we here?’ he asked.

‘My son, Robert.’ She flashed a rapid glance at her husband. He was still occupied in ranting at his guards, but in a moment he would turn round.

De Gael did not miss her look. ‘You have a high courage, my lady,’ he murmured. ‘I won’t make it harder for you than it already is.’ Plucking the child from beneath her cloak, he swept him up in his arms. ‘Come my young soldier, there’s a dry corner prepared especially for you in my cart.’

Linnet stretched her arms toward her son with an involuntary cry. Robert peered at his mother over de Gael’s shoulder, his eyes wide with shock, but the move had been so sudden that he had no time to cry, and by the time he did let out a wail of protest, he was being placed on a dry blanket in the good wain with a lambskin rug tucked up to his chin.

Linnet, following hard on de Gael’s heels, found herself taken by the elbow and helped up beside her son. Robert stopped crying and began to knead the lamb’s wool like a nursing kitten. Linnet stroked his brow and looked at de Gael. ‘You have my gratitude,’ she said. ‘Thank you.’

The mercenary shrugged ‘No sense in keeping him out in that downpour when he can be warm in here. I expect your husband’s compensation to reflect my care of his goods.’ He started to withdraw. ‘There is room for your women, too, my lady. I’ll tell them, shall I?’

Rain pattered on the roof of the wain. She looked out through a canvas arch on a tableau of hazy green and brown. The smell of her wet garments clogged her nostrils. De Gael walked across to her maids. He moved with a wolf’s ungainly elegance, and she did not think that the similarity stopped there. And yet he had been considerate beyond the bounds of most men of her acquaintance.

On the death of her father at nine years old, she had become a ward of the Earl of Leicester, who had sold her marriage to his kinsman, Giles de Montsorrel, heir to the estates and castle of Rushcliffe. She had been wed at thirteen, as soon as her monthly bleeds were an established fact.

Linnet eyed her husband and felt queasy at the sight of his fists clenched around his belt. She had tried to be a good wife to him but he was difficult to please and she dwelt in a constant state of trepidation, wondering from which angle of his nature the next small cruelty would come. He always found a scapegoat to blame; nothing was ever his fault, and in the household that scapegoat was usually her.

Behind her, at the other end of the wain, their soldiers were depositing the clothing coffers with much bumping and cursing. Robert’s eyelids drooped and closed. Linnet leaned her head against her son’s, her arm around him, and wearily shut her own eyes.