Manor of Caversham, near Reading,
Home to William Marshal, Regent of England,
‘It will not be long now.’
William moved his head on the pillow in response to the voice, but he could not tell if the words came from his mind, from the spiritual realm of dreams and visions that kept him constant company now, or whether someone in the room had physically spoken. He frequently had the sensation of being asleep even while he was awake and the struggle to return to full awareness took longer with each passing day.
A fresh breeze carried the green scents of spring through the window. Sunlight warmed the triple arches of stone from stippled grey to pale gold, and flowed across the bed, enriching the plain brown blanket and touching his mottled hand like a benediction. Gazing at the frieze running around the top of the wall, depicting his scarlet lion device interspersed with Isabelle’s red chevrons on gold, he thought how short a lifetime was in God’s great scheme. There was so much still to do, but his ability to accomplish it was over and others would have to take the reins. His destiny lay elsewhere.
The door opened and a sturdy man in his middle years entered the room. After murmuring a swift word to William’s Templar almoner, Brother Geoffrey, he advanced to the bedside. ‘Sire you sent for me?’
Summoning his strength, William exerted his will to focus on his visitor. Jean D’Earley had joined William’s household as a squire more than thirty years ago, and as he grew to knighthood and lordship, had become his closest friend and confidante. Even so there were things he did not know.
William indicated the flagon on the table beside his bed. ‘A drink if you will, Jean.’
Eyes filled with concern, Jean’s poured clear spring water into William’s cup and handed it to him. ‘Have you eaten today sire?’
Had he? Food meant little to him now, ironic when his nickname had once been ‘Gasteviande’ meaning that he would devour everything in sight and still seek more. What an appetite he had possessed, not just for food, but for the full, joyous feast of life. ‘The Countess made me eat a dish of sops in milk a while ago,’ he replied. The sustenance of infants, the elderly and the dying. He had only consumed it to placate Isabelle.
He concentrated on keeping his hand steady as he raised the cup to his lips. Not so long ago, despite his seventy-two years that same hand had possessed the strength to swing a sword and cleave a path through the press of battle. Troubadours sang that he had been as ‘swift as an eagle’ and ‘as ravenous as a lion.’ Perhaps he had, although he suspected they were exaggerating in hope of a good fee.
He took a few sips to moisten his throat. ‘I want you to do something for me. ‘I would not ask this of any other man – even my own son.’
‘Willingly,’ sire,’ Jean replied earnestly. ‘It is already done.’
William found a mordant smile. Half a lifetime ago his own lord had spoken similar words to him on his deathbed and he had agreed, never knowing what it would cost. He returned the cup to Jean. ‘Your loyalty is wholehearted.’
‘It is to the death sire.’
William laughed, and then caught his breath as pain tightened his chest. ‘Yes,’ he wheezed. ‘But not yours, not yet I hope.’
‘Yours neither.’ Jean offered him the water again, but William waved him away.
‘No, but soon. He gestured Jean to plump the pillows at his back and help him sit upright. Jean’s pummelling disturbed the dried lavender sprigs in the feather stuffing and filled the air with a clean, astringent scent.
‘What would you have me do sire?’
William chased the sunlight across the covers with his hand. ‘I want you to go to Wales,’ he said. ‘To my keep at Striguil, and I want you to ask Stephen for the two lengths of silk cloth he has been keeping for me ever since I returned from Jerusalem.’
Jean’s eyebrows rose.
‘Yes,’ William said. ‘More than thirty years and a grace of time I did not expect to have. I would have you take letters to our men on the Marches too, but your priority is the silks, and you must bring them to me without delay.’ He saw Jean recognise the significance of the request and experienced a pang as dismay filled the younger man’s eyes. It was always difficult giving the news of finality to a friend who did not want to believe the inevitable even when confronted with the evidence.
‘Of course I will go sire. I will leave immediately but what if…’ He broke off the end of the sentence.
William reached out to grip Jean’s forearm as firmly as he could. ‘Do as I say my boy, and I will be here when you return – I promise…I have never broken a promise to you have I?’
‘No sire.’ Jean’s frown revealed that he was plainly annoyed with himself that William had read his fear that he would not be in time. ‘I would not break a promise to you either. I swear I shall return as swiftly as I can.’
William looked toward the open window through which the light was streaming. ‘The weather is set fair and the roads will be passable.’ He gave the semblance of his old smile. ‘I would go with you, but since that is impossible, I shall ride with you in spirit. God speed you on your journey.’
Jean bowed in deep honour, straightened and left the room briskly, his head carried high with pride and purpose.
William subsided against the pillows with a sigh, feeling weak and worn out. He gazed at the arches of blue sky through the window arches, felt a light breeze stroke his face and remembered April days far in the past when he had competed in the tourneys with the elation of youth, taking ransoms beyond count and winning every prize. He had ridden in the entourages of kings and queens, life pounding through his body with the speed and strength of a galloping horse. All that physical power and vigour was now a faint imprint within his dying body, yet the memories remained as vivid and rich, as joyous and painful as the moment of their creation.
The fresh air from the open window carried to him the sound of grooms calling out to one another as they saddled Jean’s palfrey and prepared his pack horse. If the weather held and there were no delays on the road, his errand would take him less than a fortnight. So little time, yet leading to all the time in the world. An Eternity.
Closing his eyes, William sent his mind down tunnels of memory, until he came to that moment on a warm summer’s evening that had led him inexorably to those two lengths of silk cloth.
It had begun at a shrine in the Limousin, and he had been intent on robbery.
Martel, the Limousin
The small silver coin flashed as it spun through a bar of dusty sunlight before tumbling into the afternoon shadow and landing with a soft clink on the planked table between William and his young lord.
Henry – Harry to his intimates – eldest son of the King of England gestured at the fallen coin. ‘There,’ he said. ‘All that stands between us and destitution.’ He wore his customary smile, but his blue eyes were quenched of humour. ‘No money to pay the troops, provide for the horses or feed our bellies.’ He tossed his flat purse onto the table to emphasise the point.
William said nothing. The only way out of this morass was for Harry to sue for terms with his father with whom they were at war, something he would never do because most of this fight was about Harry not having the landed power to rule his own life and being dependent on his sire for funds.
They had foraged the surrounding countryside and villages and taken tribute by various often underhand methods of persuasion until that particular larder was bare. Having already sold and pawned their most valuable possessions, a second round of scrimping and tallying was not going to raise anywhere near the hundred marks required. Next week it would be a further hundred. They were cornered and facing threats from their own mercenaries who were demanding their wages with menaces.
Despite Harry’s theatrical gesture with the penny, a few items still remained from his robbery of the tomb of St Martial a few months ago – a jewelled cross, gilt candlesticks, and sundry items of altar dressing, but they were held in final reserve, to be stashed in his palfrey’s saddlebags if he had to run.
Harry picked up the coin and flicked it again, light to shadow. ‘I suppose we shall have to pay a visit to Rocamadour and request another loan from the Church,’ he said casually. ‘They have plenty of money up there and they are not doing anything with it are they?’
The penny bounced off the table and disappeared into the thick layer of rushes strewing the floor. Resentment and challenge lurked beneath the nonchalance.
‘Sire, I would counsel against it,’ William said, beginning to feel uneasy. He had not been present at the raid on St Martial, and had no desire to become involved in pillaging a shrine as holy as Rocamadour.
‘Hah, all the silver and gold that the Church has amassed does nothing but drape their chapels, gawked at by peasants and gloated over by priests. God understands I will repay him. Have I not taken the cross in His name?’ He gestured to the strips of silk stitched to the breast of his mantle.
‘Surely it would be better to strive to renew peace talks with your father?’
William’s words elicited a contemptuous snort from his young lord. ‘All he will do is pay my debts and tell me to behave myself in the future without giving me the courtesy of listening. Hah! Perhaps I really should go to Jerusalem. That would whiten the old goat’s beard wouldn’t it? Harry waved an impatient hand. ‘I will do what I must – unless of course you have another idea – one that does not include my father?’ He cast an imperative glance at William, throwing the onus onto him; making it his fault that they were in this situation.
William grimaced. The truth was that they had the stark choice between stripping the altars of Rocamadour to pay their debts, or face being murdered by the mercenaries. William had no doubt that they would kill him first, because he was the paymaster; the interface between them and Harry, who could at least by ransomed back to his father. Even so, he tried one more time, for God’s wrath was not just of the moment, but eternal. ‘Sire, I still say you should not do this.’
‘I will decide what I should and should not do,’ Harry snapped. ‘Does any man dare to question my dear brother Richard? Am I less than him? Do you think Richard and his mercenaries would hesitate to take whatever they needed? Christ, he’s been stripping Aquitaine like a butcher fleshing a corpse for the last ten years!’ He jerked to his feet. ‘See to it with the men, and keep them in order. Tell them they shall have their pay. Christ, my guts!’ Abruptly, one hand on his stomach, the other flinging a gesture of dismissal, he hastened to the alcove housing the latrine shaft.
William left the room, filled with deep misgiving, knowing he was trapped. He had sworn his oath to hold by his young lord through thick and thin, and if that included the path to hell, then he was bound on that same journey, defending and protecting Harry every bitter step of the way.
Crossing the courtyard, he was aware of the mercenary soldiers watching his progress with feral eyes. Sancho, one of the captains had been crouching over a dice game in the dust but he rose now and interrupted William’s path to confront him, muscular arms folded.
‘I trust you have good news for me Messire Marshal?’ He pushed one foot forward, emphasising the hilt of the sword resting on his left hip.
‘You will be paid,’ William answered shortly. ‘You have my word.’
‘And I trust your word.’ A mottled grin parted the mercenary’s full black beard, ‘But the question is when?’
‘By tomorrow night, I promise.’
‘I’ll tell the lads then.’ Sancho touched his forehead in salute and sauntered back to his game. William walked on, keeping his stride loose and his hands open, but his thoughts were grim.
‘Here, you’ll be needing this. Get dressed and make ready to ride.’ William tossed a padded tunic to his brother Ancel, who sat on the edge of his pallet, pushing sleep-tangled hair out of his eyes. The ties on his shirt hung open and his legs were bare save for his short under breeches.
‘It’s still the middle of the night,’ Ancel protested, squinting against the lantern light.
‘It’s an hour before dawn.’
Ancel laid the tunic on his bed and fumbled for his hose. ‘Where are we going?’
‘To arrange some funds – make haste.’
A relieved smile lit Ancel’s boyish features. ‘About time. There’s only soup bones in the larder and we’re wagering with tent pegs at dice. ‘Where are we going?’
. ‘To Rocamadour,’ William said across the lantern light
Ancel stopped fastening his hose to his braies, his eyes widening. ‘Rocamadour?’
‘Yes,’ William said, ‘Rocamadour.’ He lifted a satchel from a wall hook and slung it across Ancel’s bed. ‘You’ll be needing this for the booty.’
Ancel stared at him in horror. ‘It is a sin,’ he said hoarsely. ‘God will punish us.’
‘It is only a loan and will be returned with interest paid.’
‘Yes, on our souls.’ Ancel shook his head. ‘You can be sure we’ll pay in hell for this. ‘I’m not going.’
William maintained an impassive façade. ‘Yes you are,’ he said. ‘We have no choice, unless you know where we can find enough money to pay the mercenaries before sunset. If not, we might as well cut our own throats now and have done.’
Ancel pressed his lips together, although his look continued to speak volumes. William eyed his mutinous, sleep-tousled younger brother with exasperation. He loved him dearly. He had taken him into his tourney entourage four years ago, and then into military service with Harry, heir to England’s throne, to Normandy and Anjou. Ancel was a strange mingling of opposites – innocent and knowing, dextrous, and clumsy, foolish at times and yet full of truthful wisdom. An asset and a liability.
‘We’ll be damned for this.’ Ancel’s dark eyes glittered.
William bit his tongue. The only way to deal with his brother when he got into this repetitive pattern was to ignore him. He might sulk but he would do as he was bidden, even if it was with dagger looks and dragging heels. He could ride at the back which would suit everyone. Someone would have to guard the horses and keep lookout anyway.
‘Make haste,’ William said curtly. ‘Do not keep our lord waiting.’
Outside the troops were gathering and mounting, their breath misting the pre-dawn air. There were grunts and spitting, snatches of uneasy laughter; looks tossed around the yard of apprehension and defiant bravado.
Eustace, William’s squire was buckling the leathers on William’s powerful bay.
‘Is it true sire?’ he asked, as William grasped the reins and swung into the saddle. ‘We are going to raid Rocamadour?’
William rolled his eyes. ‘Not you as well,’ he snapped. ‘It is not for you to question. Keep your head down and mind your duties – understood?’
‘Yes, sire.’ Eustace dropped his gaze, surreptitiously crossing himself in the shadows, but William saw the gesture. There was no sign of Ancel, although Eustace had saddled his grey.
Harry emerged from the lodging, donning a small felt cap. Unlike his knights whom he had bidden wear their mail, he was robed in his court finery – a richly embroidered tunic, a cloak edged with gold braid, and a fine red belt punched with silver studs– items held back when other personal embellishments had been sold to feed horses and men.
‘Well,’ he said to William with a fixed smile as he set his foot in the stirrup, ‘let us ride to Rocamadour and secure ourselves a loan.’
As the troop lined up to depart, Ancel emerged from the lodging, his mouth set and dour. Without looking at anyone he tossed the satchel over the grey’s withers and mounted up behind.
William gave him a hard look but let the moment pass. At least he had not had to drag him out by the scruff and for now he had more pressing matters to worry about.
The shrine of St Amadour embraced sheer cliffs towering four hundred feet above the silver gleam of the River Alzou. Gilded in early morning light the chapels built into the rock face of the gorge seemed to shine with holiness against the new sky. William set his jaw and strove to ignore his misgiving, his knowledge of transgression, and his fear of God. He dared not let a single chink of doubt show because it would take just one glimmer for the men to notice and react. Several were already on the verge of bolting like frightened horses.
Harry had resolved his own dilemma of conscience by declaring that the treasure was only a loan and that as the son of a king and a future benefactor of the shrine, he was entitled to borrow its contents. It was all very reasonable. His father had had him crowned heir to England when he was just fifteen years old, and he had armoured himself in his royalty and was using the dazzle of his easy charm as a shield.
A handful of soldiers guarded the entrance to the walled town leading up to the shrines but Harry and William had planned for that and divided the troop with the dozen mercenaries they had brought with them from Martel hidden well back out of sight. Riding up to the gate, Harry’s only escort was his personal guard. Projecting his devastating charm, smiling to light up the world, Harry announced that he had come to worship at the shrine, promising that he intended no harm, only reverence and esteem. ‘I have been sorely troubled,’ he said, placing his hand on his heart and looking contrite. ‘A dream told me to seek guidance and comfort here from Saint Amadour and the blessed Virgin.’
The guards conferred and became two more victims of Harry’s golden charm as they took the decision to open the gate and admit him. From there it was easy. In a few practised moves William and the other knights disarmed the guards and tied them firmly to a hitching post. Three swift blasts on the hunting horn summoned the mercenaries. ‘Remember, no bloodshed,’ Harry warned, his expression stern now. ‘I want no stain of death upon this enterprise.’
Leaving the mercenaries and the squires to defend the gate, Harry and his personal knights made their way swiftly along the narrow street to the staircase that led steeply up to the shrines with their candlesticks and plate, their gold and gems and relics including the famed sword Durendal that had once belonged to the hero Roland.
Pilgrims fled in terror before the glint of mail and the threat of swords. Tense and alert, William expected to meet resistance at the place where the stairs led to the terrace of the Virgin’s chapel, but no alarm had been raised. A solitary grey-bearded guard was present to keep pilgrims in order, but he had been taking a piss in a corner and was still rearranging his garments as the raiders arrived.
‘Stand aside, and no harm will come to you,’ William commanded.
The guard spread his hands in a gesture of surrender and was immediately disarmed by one of William’s men. Two monks who had been inside the chapel were hurrying to secure the wrought iron grille in front of the shrine, but William was faster, striding forward to thrust his mail-encased shoulder through the gap and force the brothers aside.
‘Fetch your abbot,’ Harry commanded them. ‘Tell him that King Henry desires to speak with him urgently.’
The monks bolted, robes flapping around their sandals. Half a dozen pilgrims huddled before the altar and William ordered them out, and watched them flee because it was easier than facing the mother of God and wondering what his own mother would say if she could see him now.
Harry approached the altar, with affected nonchalance. ‘Leave these,’ he said, indicating the statue of the Virgin with the Christ Child sitting on her lap, and beside it a jewel-encrusted reliquary that housed a scrap of her robe. ‘Take everything else.’ He picked up a silver-gilt candlestick and admired the intricate filigree decoration around the base. ‘We’ll definitely have this – my father presented it to them the year I was crowned. That chalice too.’ He pointed to a golden cup studded with gemstones.
Tight-lipped, William approached a vestment chest standing against the wall and slammed back the lid, venting all the pent up fear and revulsion churning inside him. Priceless silk vestments crusted with gems and embroidery shone in deliquescent folds of emerald and sapphire together with smocked linens, white as sea foam. Garments intended for use on feast days and times of high religious significance, but useful now as bundles for bearing away plunder.
William issued curt orders and the men began stuffing the rich contents of the shrine into the vestments as if their haste would conceal what they were doing from the eyes of God. William directed operations and kept watch, cutting himself off from terrible desecration, knowing if he thought about the enormity of the sin they were committing, it would overwhelm him.
Ancel worked in the background, scooping jewels and plate into the satchel while casting accusing glances at William, who eventually faced him out with a glare so steely that his brother dropped his gaze and turned his back.
Soon their damnable work was done and the shrine of Our Lady of Rocamadour was bare of all adornment save for Our Lady herself, an ancient carving of blackened wood, her expression inscrutable in the light from the shrine lamp burning upon her naked altar. Rape; it was rape. William brusquely ordered the men back to the gate. Alone, he finally faced the statue, and in the faint red glow, fell to his knees and bowed his head. ‘Holy Mother, everything will be restored, I promise,’ he vowed. ‘My lord has great need… I beseech you to have mercy and to forgive us our trespasses.’
The shrine was silent. The flicker of red light deepened the shadows and edged his mind with visions of hell, as far removed from redemption as the sky was from the bowels of the earth. Rising to his feet, he turned abruptly and followed the knights, forcing himself not to run.
The monks had gathered in a huddle of hand-wringing reproach to bear witness to the plundering of their shrine. Their abbot, Gerald D’Escorailles was an old man, but still strong enough to be forthright and do battle by condemnation.
‘It is a great and mortal sin you commit in desecrating this holy place, and God sees all and rewards accordingly!’ His voice rang out, filled with fire. ‘Take warning for your soul; your kingship will not protect you from God’s wrath. The weight of your sin will drag you down to hell!’
‘But you can afford to give generously to poor pilgrims,’ Harry replied, smiling. ‘I am under oath to visit the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem; surely you would not deny me your donation?’
Abbot Gerard’s white beard quivered. ‘You commit blasphemy! Are you intending to rob the Sepulchre too and claim you do it in the name of Christ?’
Harry’s smile remained albeit fixed and brittle. He held out to Abbot Gerard the sealed scroll written by his scribe before he set out. ‘Here is my solemn promise that I will make good on our borrowing.’
The Abbot struck it aside. ‘Such a document is worthless when you thieve the belongings of God to pay for war and wreak misery upon God-fearing folk with your hell-bound men,’ he said with contempt and his gaze flicked over the gathered knights. ‘What you steal can never be replaced like for like, for it will be scattered far and wide.’
‘You have my oath that you will be recompensed,’ Harry said, his face now stiff with irritation. ‘I would say five-fold but that smacks of usury and we all know how much the church abhors that sin don’t we?’
‘God is not mocked.’ The Abbot warned, his tone flat and hard. ‘When you weigh that gold, you weigh it against your mortal soul. I shall pray for you, but in vain I fear.’
Harry flushed. Leaning forward he tucked the scroll under the old man’s rope belt. ‘Until my return,’ he said, and turning on his heel, swept out. Following on the tail of his young lord’s cloak, William felt the hostility of the monks and pilgrims boring into his spine, and beyond that, he sensed the heavy hand of God and the displeasure of the Virgin marking his soul for eternity.
That evening, at their lodging in Martel, Harry gave William the task of dividing the spoils among the mercenary captains who would then distribute shares to their men, and William did so efficiently with a set expression and no indication of how sullied he felt. Like Judas selling Christ.
Now that Harry was solvent again, the wine flowed freely washing down chicken simmered with pepper and cumin, and coneys cooked in almond milk. A suckling pig once destined for Abbot Gerard’s dinner table was now served up with forcemeat and preserved apples and everyone dined until their bellies were as tight as drums. They all drank far too much, trying to smother with merriment and over-indulgence the memory of what they had done at Rocamadour.
William’s reward for his part in the robbery was a pouch of jewels – sapphires, rubies and rock crystals gouged with a knife point from the altar panels of St. Saveur. Tied to the drawstring holding up his braies, the little leather bag felt like a heavy sack of sins. Yet he had to eat, to feed his horses and support the knights who depended on him for sustenance; as their leader he could not be seen as weak or squeamish.
Amid the heaps of plunder was the sword Durendal that had once belonged to the great hero Roland who had died defending the Pass at Roncevalles against the Saracens. Everyone knew the story. An intricate pattern of gold interlace decorated the hilt and the grip was fashioned from overlapping bands of rose-coloured leather. The sword had been thrust into a crevice in the wall and then chained to a ring hammered into the rock, but that had not prevented it from appropriation.
‘Blade’s as blunt as a peasant’s wits,’ Harry said, examining it with a critical eye. ‘Not been sharpened in years. The monks do not know how to care for such things. It probably isn’t the real sword of Roland anyway. If it really belonged to him, it was meant to be wielded by a warrior, not left to rust on an altar.’
‘Indeed sire, but it is perhaps not the best way to obtain weaponry.’
Harry cocked his brow at William. ‘Do I sense you are about to lecture me Marshal?’
‘Only that we should trim our expenditure,’ William replied. ‘Shrines such as Rocamadour are few and far between and do not replenish as swiftly as the men require payment.’
‘Yes, yes.’ Harry waved the sword impatiently causing light to flash on the hilt. ‘We’ll discuss it tomorrow.’
‘Sire.’ In desperate need of fresh air, William went outside to check that those who had drawn the short straws for guard duty were in their place and that the horses were properly bedded down for the night. Once he was certain all was in order, he paused by the trough in the stable yard to splash his face with cool water, before uttering a soft groan and pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes. The enormity of what they had done was like a black tree growing up through his body and stretching its branches into every part of him. This was with him for eternity, this dishonour with God. Lowering his hands, he rested them on the stone sides of the trough and gazed at the moon’s distorted reflection shimmering in the dark water while in his mind’s eye, he saw the flames of hell reflected back at him. Eventually he stood upright, drew himself together, and returned inside.
Harry was playing dice with several others, wagering with coins from the plunder, the sword of Roland now resting across his lap.
William skirted the game and climbed the stairs to his chamber. The room was in darkness save for a sliver of moonlight piercing through the shutters. William could just make out a dark shape on Ancel’s pallet, and hear ragged, distressed breathing. He fetched the lantern standing in a wall niche outside the room and raised it on high.
His brother was kneeling on his bed, shuddering with dry sobs, his hands clasped in a tight knot at his breast. ‘Ancel?’
Ancel turned to look at William, his eyes glistening with fear bordering on terror. ‘I dreamt I was being roasted alive by demons,’ he gasped. ‘They drove their pitchforks through my body and twisted me on their tines, and the Virgin of Rocamadour looked on and cursed me for what she had seen me do.’ He scrubbed one hand across his face and sniffed like a child.
William felt cold. ‘It was no more than a nightmare,’ he said. ‘Harry will make amends – it will all be returned.’
‘You expect me to believe that when it has all been apportioned out?’ Ancel demanded. ‘We’ll never be forgiven for this and you know it! I wish I had never left home to follow you to the tourneys.’ He lay down on his pallet and turned his back on William, hunching into a foetal position, fists clenched tightly to his heart.
‘Ancel…’ William opened his hands, and then let them fall to his sides. There was no point in talking to Ancel because he did not understand what it was like to have a position of command and make decisions for the good of all. His younger brother loved to wear the glory and parade in finery, but had no grasp of the underlying realities. Others had to take those hard decisions and then be damned.
William turned on his heel and went downstairs to the dice game. Harry’s place on the bench was empty. ‘Latrine,’ said Robert of London nodding in the direction of a low doorway, a grin on his lips but worry creasing his brow. ‘Too much feast after famine.’ A woman leaned over to refill his cup and he ran his hand over the curve of her hip and snatched a kiss.
Harry returned a moment later, rubbing his stomach and grimacing, but after a swift look around, resumed his place at the table. ‘Sit Marshal and play hazard,’ he said. ‘Have some wine.’ He handed William a rock crystal flagon from the spoils of their raid.
William took his place at Harry’s side, poured the wine, and knew as Harry shook the dice and cast them that every man sitting at this board was damned.
Manor of Caversham, near Reading,
William heard the click of dice and the murmur of voices outside his bedchamber, interspersed with soft bursts of laughter and for an instant was disorientated by the melding of past and present. Slowly, as he brought his focus to bear, he realised that his son’s squires were occupying themselves whilst keeping within call of their duties.
It was evening and the shutters were drawn and latched. Candles burned in his chamber with clear, strong light and someone had lit a fire to combat the chill.
His eldest son entered and quietly closed the door, muting the sound of the dice play. Watching his approach, William experienced a glint of poignant satisfaction for Will was so much like him when he had been young; dark-eyed, handsome, long-limbed. In a way, it was like having that young self here in the room.
Arriving at his bedside, Will kissed his cheek and clasped his hand. William looked at the old flesh and the young, so similar save in respect of time, and then, looking at Will, saw the same awareness reflected there.
‘I shall miss you,’ Will said quietly.
William gave a wry smile. ‘I am not gone quite yet.’
‘But you will go, and I shall miss you,’ his son said steadily. For all my life you have been a solid rock in my awareness.’ He sent his father a steady look. ‘I love you for that steadfastness even though a solid rock can be infuriating and will not move from your path no matter how much you push against it. With familiarity, you come to love it, and it is part of you.’
William raised his brows. He and Will had often not seen eye to eye. At times, they had been on opposing sides during the turmoil that had riven the country in the reign of King John not of blessed memory, and that they had not drawn swords against each other had often been close to a miracle.
I loved you always, and supported you in thought, even when there was distance between. That love is unchanging and it is with you always, even when I am gone.’ He found a smile and a memory that warmed his heart. ‘I remember your hand curled around my finger when you were a new-born and it was all that mattered in the world. You will never know how much.’
A muscle flickered in Will’s jaw and when he would have looked away, William locked his own stare upon him, making it steady and truthful and holding firm. For a just a little longer he could be that rock.
Will’s throat worked. ‘I cannot bear for you not to be there,’ he said.
‘You have no choice but to bear it as you must,’ William replied. ‘I can do nothing about it and neither can you, and that makes it very simple.’
‘Yes.’ Will took a shuddering breath and pulled back to help himself to a drink and ask William if he wanted one too. William nodded and his son poured a cup of spring water and helped him to drink. ‘I hope the squire weren’t disturbing you,’ he said, striving for normality although his voice had a crack in it.
William swallowed. ‘No; I like to hear their voices, let them stay. Indeed, I was remembering a time many years before you were born when I sat to play dice with my young lord.’ He closed his eyes. Harry had been about the same age as Will on that summer evening long ago. ‘It was a game I should never have played.’
‘Why, did you lose?’ Will eyed him curiously and folded his arms.
William grimaced. ‘In more ways than you will ever know.’
‘And you don’t want to tell me?’
William plucked at the coverlet. ‘It is not a legacy I would leave to my descendants, although I learned some hard and valuable lessons, and perhaps some good came of it in the end. My lord, the Young King was fond of games of chance… until he took one too many.’
Martel, the Limousin
…to be continued in the published novel…