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TCotW-mockup-3 (1) The Coming Of The wolf

CHAPTER 1

ENGLAND: THE WELSH BORDERS, SUMMER 1069

            Lying in bed, Christen listened to the birdsong. The rippling sequence of a thrush, two blackbirds in competitive harmony, the bold chirping of sparrows, and the raucous cawing from the rook colony in the ash trees beyond the stockade.

           Grey daylight poked through the gaps in the shutters and stole across the skins on the bed to touch the bare shoulder of the sleeping man. She turned her head to look at him. The muted light was kind to his years, gentling the less deep wrinkles and smoothing the crepey skin on his throat and arms. Since the coming of the Normans, Lyulph had aged far beyond the five and fifty summers he had once carried so lightly.

           It was difficult for him. He had been wounded in the great battle against  Hardrada’s  army far to the north, and thus had not stood with King Harold at Hastings to defend England against William of Normandy.  Instead, he had spent the day of the battle burning with fever from an infected gash in his thigh. The wound, a stab from a Norwegian spear, had saved his home and family. Sometimes Christen thought that for Lyulph it would have been better had he died at Harold’s side rather than surviving to swear his alliance to King William and live each day ravaged by guilt and bitterness.

           The birdsong was growing more insistent and the grey light turning to gold. Lyulph slept on, his breath stirring his moustache. Silently Christen slipped from his side and donned her gown over the chemise in which she had slept. She combed out and re-braided her heavy blond hair and concealed it with her wimple. Putting on her shoes, she glanced again at Lyulph with a mingling of worry and sadness.

             They had been married for five years. Twice she had conceived. One pregnancy had ended in miscarriage and the other had resulted in a stillborn daughter. She and Lyulph had not lain together as man and wife since then. He said he would not bring a child into a land inhabited by rapacious French-speaking barbarians, chief among them William FitzOsbern Earl of Hereford.  Instead, Lyulph had become her child. Christen was a year short of twenty but often felt older than her sleeping husband.

             She crept from their bedchamber and entered the adjoining hall. A yawning, maidservant was poking the fire to life in the central hearth while the hall’s other occupants roused from slumber and prepared to face the day. Christen went out into the yard. The smell of new bread wafted from the baker’s oven and her stomach clenched with hunger. In the dairy, the women were churning butter and making curd cheese. She paused to supervise, saw that all was as it should be, and continued on her way.

             It was pleasantly cool  now, but bid to be a hot, end of summer day once the sun had gained height, ideal for dyeing the skeins of spun wool waiting her attention in her chamber. The colour would set and dry swiftly in the fresh air.  As she entered the shed where the cauldrons and washing agents were stored, a hard arm clamped around her waist, and she was lifted from the ground and spun into a squeezing embrace. She shrieked and thrashed, striving to break free.

         ‘Christen, it’s all right, it’s me!’ A bewhiskered face loomed over hers and planted a kiss on her cheek.

         ‘Osric!’ Breathing rapidly, she stared at the brother she had not seen since the rebels had raided Hereford last year. The rings of his mail shirt imprinted the flesh of her cheek, and she could feel the hard edge of a sword pommel beneath her ribs. ‘What are you doing here?’ Pushing herself out of his arms, she scowled at him, knowing that his great, solid body was the only dependable thing about him.

‘Don’t look at me like that.’ He gave a tense laugh and dug one hand through his unevenly hacked hair.

            ‘How should I look at you? A year passes without news, and then you leap on me like a bear and expect me to be overjoyed. Are you still with the rebels?’

            He dropped his hand. ‘The free English,’ he said.

            Christen was unimpressed and shook her head.

            Osric opened his mouth but stopped on the point of argument and rubbing the back of his neck sent her a beseeching look ‘Christen, I need your help.’

            She wanted to throttle him, but made a brusque gesture. ‘You had better come to the hall and break your fast.  ‘The bread is fresh out of the oven.  Lyulph is still abed.  I …. Who are they?’ She stared at the six men standing near the stable enclosure, their expressions furtive.

            Osric shrugged and looked uncomfortable. ‘My war band. ‘We’re on our way to rejoin Thegn Eadric west of here.’                                                            ‘Well they can stay away from our horses.  God knows, Lyulph has had trouble enough keeping them from Fitzosbern’s grasp without you seeking to “borrow” them from us.’

            ‘Christen!’ He looked hurt.                                                                                                ‘I have grown up,’ she said wearily, ‘and Lyulph has grown untimely old. We are beyond riding on the back of glory in to death. Bring them into the hall. And I will go and rouse my Lord.’

            Lips pursed, Christen served her menfolk bread, cheese and new ale.

            ‘So you go into Wales to rejoin Wild Edric?’ Lyulph eyed his brother in law out of faded blue eyes.

            Osric tore a piece off a loaf, pushed it into his mouth, and spoke around it. ‘If we can break through the Norman net. We have already shaken off one band who were on our tail.’

            ‘Then you are hunted?’

            Osric shrugged at Lyulph. ‘We lost them in the forest last night.  I would not bring danger down on your heads.’ He swilled down the bread with a deep gulp of ale. ‘They weren’t a large troop. We would have turned and fought, but they had horses and we were on foot.’

            Which meant they could not be far away, Christen thought, glancing apprehensively at her husband. He gestured her away. She went outside to supervise the laundry, not wanting to hear any more of the talk, but knowing how it would go. Osric would ask for spears and axes and decent mounts to take them into Wales and Lyulph would agree in order to have them away from Ashdyke. Exacting tribute she thought, and gooseflesh rose along her arms.

            She was stooping over a vat of stewing alder bark, her face steam-reddened, when Lyulph approached, his gait heavily favouring the wounded leg. He was not using his stick, a sop to his pride.

            ‘Set seven more places at our table tonight,’ he said gruffly. ‘Osric is going to rest up here today, then ride at moonrise.’

            ‘Ride my lord?’ She stepped aside to let a woman empty another pail of water into the bubbling cauldron. ‘Can we spare the horses?’

            Lyulph’s mouth hardened ‘He is kin. We are obliged.’.

            ‘Precisely the reason he is here. He knows we are obliged.’

            ‘They cannot win,’ he said heavily. ‘There is no-one left of Harold’s mettle lest it be William of Normandy, and him we already have whether we like it or not.  He rubbed his face.  ‘Your brother will not listen, but then at his age, I would not have done so either.’

            Impulsively she reached up to stroke his beard, an affectionate half-smile in her eyes.

            ‘And at his age, I’d have been of more use to a pretty young wife,’ he said ruefully. ‘A man of your own years would have filled your nights and your belly a deal more frequently than I.’

            Swiftly she covered his lips with her palm and stopped his words. ‘I have been content my lord.’

            He searched her face ‘Have you?’

            ‘Yes.’ Her throat tightened.

            He kissed her fingers, and gave her a long look as if taking his leave, then turned on his heel and limped towards the stables to give the order to release horses they could ill afford to lose. Christen watched his painful progress across the ward and felt a cold hand squeeze her heart. He had spoken in the past tense and there was finality in the manner of his step. Her eyes became dry with staring and began to smart and fill. Abruptly she returned her attention to the tub.

            They were seated at table, Osric waving a chicken leg around on the edge of his knife and regaling them with an exaggerated tale of his deeds among the “Free English” when the Normans hit them in the September dusk like a bolt of lightning. One moment Christen was directing a servant to pour more ale into Lyulph’s cup, the next there was a golden splash of it across the trestle and down her skirt as the men leaped up in answer to a terrified shriek of warning.  Lyulph snatched his battleaxe off the wall behind his chair and stepped in front of Christen to defend her. Osric placed one hand on the trestle and leaped lightly over it. Sword drawn, he snatched up a stool to use as a shield, his men ranging behind and to the side of him.

            There seemed to be a hundred of them, although Christen later learned there were no more than twenty, but they were enough to overcome a small English community that had lost its best fighting men in the north and possessed a lord who was not whole. The younger man who might have led their defence was neither a martyr, nor for all his boasting, the stuff of which great leaders and heroes were made. As the Normans poured into the hall, Osric snatched up a burning brand from the hearth near his feet and torched the rushes carpeting the floor. As smoke and stench began to rise amid small soft teeth of flames, he scrambled out of an unshuttered window, his so-called war band following hard in his wake.

            Christen started to cough and drew her veil across her nose and mouth.

            ‘Go, get out of here!’ Lyulph commanded. ‘Take to the woods and hide until I come for you!’

            ‘I’ll not leave you!’ she said fiercely, then coughed so hard into the linen that she retched and could only and see through a stinging blur.

            ‘Do as I say!’  He shoved her vigorously away. Christen stumbled on her gown, righted herself, stared down the hall with smoke-torn eyes at the mail-clad figures emerging through Osric’s barrier of flames, then turned and fled.

            In their bedchamber, she grabbed her cloak, kilted her gown into her girdle, and ran to the window, then recoiled with a scream as a Norman soldier straddled the sill.  The man leaped down and advanced on her, his sword raised, light gleaming along the blade.   Outside someone screamed in English and was answered by an exultant French bellow. Christen drew her small knife from her belt, her heart thumping so hard she thought it must surely burst from her body.

            The Norman’s blade wove the air and Lyulph staggered into the room his axe blade dyed crimson, dark trickles running down the haft. With a howl of rage, he attacked the Norman. There was a solid thud. Christen felt wet heat spray her face before her attacker fell at her feet, half his face shorn away.

            ‘Lyulph!’ She ran to him and he held her hard for the space of a heartbeat, before he spun her round and bundled her towards the window. ‘We were betrayed,’ he panted.  ‘Gyrth the farrier went to the Normans in Hereford and told them we were harbouring rebels, and opened the gates for them. Can you reach? Quickly now.’

            He lifted her, fingers digging painfully into her hips. No need to ask why Gyrth had gone to the invaders. They were the ones with the horseflesh and the custom these days, and they paid hard silver for information regarding outlaws. Gyrth had been sullen ever since Lyulph had dealt him a fine for drunken brawling within the palisade last month.

            ‘Meet me at the hundred oak,’ Lyulph said as she gained the sill. ‘If I do not come make for the nunnery at….’ The sentence remained unfinished.  Christen screamed a warning and Lyulph whirled, the axe already swinging through its bright arc. The Norman howled as the blade sheared through his shield as though it were made of butter, and opened his leg to the bone. Lyulph gathered his balance to strike again, but a second soldier following hard on the first was faster. His sword took Lyulph’s unarmed body on its bright edge and bit deep.

            For an instant, Christen thought he had not been wounded, and this despite seeing the full width of the sword enter his chest. Still grasping his axe, Lyulph stared incredulously at the blood saturating his tunic. He half-turned to the window as if to speak, but no words came, only an eruption of blood from his mouth and the Norman struck him again as he fell.

The first soldier threshed the floor, screaming that his leg was shattered. His companion turned to him. Christen swung her other leg over the sill and dropped to the ground, was winded and bruised as she landed, but otherwise unharmed. Sobbing with shock, she staggered to her feet her fingers gripped convulsively in the soft fur lining of her cloak. The hall was well ablaze and the Normans were doing nothing to stop it.  The red glow of the fire overlaid the early starlight and illuminated the sprawled bodies, cut down as they fled, and glinted on those still fleeing as they were caught and slaughtered.  Christen ran towards the small rear entrance to the stockade near the midden pits. Everything was fire and blood and the harsh, triumphant sound of voices exulting in French.

            A troop of horsemen galloped across the compound and rode straight across her path.  The lead stallion was upon her in an instant, and she was flung from its broad, dappled shoulder like a child’s straw doll to sprawl face-down in the dirt several yards away, dazed and barely conscious.

            When she recovered enough to drag herself to a sitting position and look around, she saw that her means of escape was now denied by two guards, the firelight flowing over their mail and sharp spears. Her right side throbbing from her fall, Christen dragged herself to her feet and began to stagger towards the darker shadows on the far side of the burning hall, seeking concealment.

            Outside the hall two Normans were arguing.  One she recognised as the man who had killed Lyulph. He was gesticulating furiously, and his voice was a raw snarl.  His opponent stood perfectly still and his own voice never rose above the same level pitch, although it was obvious that he was equally determined to have his own way. She understood a little French, for her father had traded with Norman and Angevin wine merchants and at one time had even considered wedding her to one of them, although it had never come to pass.

‘Yes, you got here first,’ said the quiet one, his lip curling with distaste. ‘There was no need for this.’

            ‘They were harbouring rebels. That old bastard set about Gerard with a battleaxe and killed him, and you say there was no need?’

            ‘Knowing Gerard de Nantes, I would say the English man was justified’

            The belligerent Norman reached to his sword, and the quiet one made his first move, his hand streaking out to clamp on the hilt of the half-drawn blade. ‘That would be unwise,’ he said. ‘My men would not delay in the least to kill you, and I am more certain of them than you will ever be of yours.’

            The man’s eyes flickered.  With their leader dead, there would be a scramble to be top dog. He feared to lose face just as he feared this quietly spoken man, and between the two was caught in a cleft stick. ‘I’ll take this to the Earl of Hereford’ he threatened, snatching his wrist from the other’s grip.  ‘He gave the order to take this place. You’ve not heard the last of this Le Gallois.’

            ‘Take it up with the pope himself, only get out of here now while you still have the wherewithal to walk and beget sons.’

            ‘If Lord Everard were not dead…’ The mercenary fumbled at his mount’s stirrup.

            ‘I would kill him myself.’

            Christen watched the Normans ride out, taking with them a couple of pack horses laden with the bodies of five of Osric’s companions, slung like dead deer across their backs.  The quiet Norman studied their retreat with narrowed eyes.

            ‘What’s to be done with those two sire?’ A soldier indicated two bound captives – a sorry looking specimen with a straggly brown beard, and Osric.

            ‘Hang them,’ the knight replied coldly. ‘It is all they deserve.’

            Christen swallowed, feeling as if there was a bucket of ice in her stomach.  ‘No I beg you!’ she cried, stepping from her shadowed hiding place.  ‘In the name of our saviour, have mercy!’

            He turned abruptly to consider her.  She could not see his eyes or the expression in them because of the darkness.  The polished surface of his helm reflected shimmers of flame light.  ‘Why should I do that?’ he demanded.

             ‘Osric is my brother,’ she said, trying to keep her voice steady. ‘He is the only family I have left.  You have killed my husband who was lord here, and burned my home.   ‘I have lost too much tonight already.’

            He shook his head and his voice was full of contempt. ‘Do you know what he and his “warband” did to one of my villages yesterday?’

            ‘They learn by Norman example,’ Christen replied, gesturing round the devastated compound.

            ‘Mayhap, but sometimes I doubt they need much prompting.’ He nodded acknowledgment to a soldier demanding his attention, and turned to leave her.

            ‘I beg you…’ She gripped his wrist. ‘In the name of Christ and His holy mother, do not do this.’ She dropped to her knees and bowed her head.

            Firmly, but not ungently he disengaged her hand from his wrist.  ‘I confess I am not feeling especially merciful, but since you plead so strongly, I will think on it,’ he said. ‘However, I make no promises.’ Nodding curtly, he left her side.

            She watched him walk away, his step lithe and graceful, then she struggled to her feet, turned and walked across the compound to the huddled group of survivors.  Osric sat on the ground, shackled to a tethering post with his surviving companion. A Norman guard stood vigilantly close.

             Christen stared down at her brother’s smoke-grimed face and swollen black eye, and felt a mingling of pity and disgust. ‘Why did you raid his lands?’ she asked.

            Osric stared at her in disbelief. ‘He’s a Norman! What other reason do I need?’

            She looked over her shoulder at the burning hall, beginning to fall in upon itself and thought of the gleeful hatred of tonight’s plundering. They were two sides of the same coin. ‘You had better think of a better one before tomorrow morning, or you will hang,’ she snapped. ‘You brought this down on us.  Think on that.’ Without giving him a chance to reply, she went to assist in laying out the dead and helping the wounded.

CHAPTER  2

            In his dream, Miles checked his mount on the hilltop and watched a blood-red sunrise lift out of the morning mist and sweep colours across the slope below him. Bodies sprawled as far as the eye could see, caught in the swift indecency of violent death. The fighting elite of the English – the mighty axe-wielding huscarls, with a high toll of Norman and Flemings scattered among them.  A slight breeze wafted the pennons upon abandoned lances and stirred the feathers of the ravens that hopped among the dead and perched on stiff shoulders and unmoving breasts to feast.

            In the distance, a group of dark-garbed women searched among the slain – King Harold’s mistress and mother, seeking on Duke William’s orders for their lord’s war-butchered body.

            Miles’s horse swung its head, bit chains jinking. Miles was so absorbed in the terrible sight below him,  and so drunk with the weariness of aftermath, that he did not see the  bloody shreds of something once human swinging an axe towards his spine until it was too late.

            His eyes jerked open and he awoke sweat-drenched and ridged to the liquid note of a thrush and the distant nickering of a horse, the battle cry of the wounded huscarl a fading illusion.  He lay gasping roughly, disorientated, afraid. A cloak-wrapped figure beside him grunted and turned over, shifting to a more comfortable position and started to snore. Miles drew a shuddering breath and exhaled slowly. Hastings was three years over and still, occasionally, the dreams seized him. It was not the first battle he had fought, would not be the last, but never had he come so close to dying as in the seconds before he spurred Merlin out of path of the axe, and the English warrior had fallen dead on the turf.

            He took another breath and grimaced to taste smoke. Such stupid, wanton waste. The punishment meted so gratuitously by FitzOsbern’s men was half the reason the English were so hard to tame. Rape and pillage were hardly the tools with which to come a wooing, but then the Earl of Hereford knew no other manner of courtship.

            Miles stood up and stretched.  The sky was paler in the east and would soon bear the flush of dawn. One of the men on watch was stirring a fire to life under a small cauldron. Miles nodded to him, yawned, and rubbing his shield arm to ease a lingering stiffness, strolled to the midden pit to relieve himself before climbing to the walkway on top of the palisade.

            The strengthening light afforded him a view of the immediate settlement and lands. Below the natural escarpment on which the manor was built, the river Wye glinted like a new-scaled snake. Beyond its convolutions, the Roman road drove east towards Hereford and west towards Wales. Between road and river fertile fields, ruched by the plough filled his view. Cattle grazed the water meadows and sheep the higher, craggier ground between village and manor.

            Miles looked over his shoulder at the charred dwellings and the dark forests beyond the far palisade, and his eyes narrowed in concentrated thought. Several times in the next half hour as the dawn brightened, his gaze flicked between river, road and fields, before coming to rest again on the palisade and the burned ruins it defended. And slowly, he began to smile.

            Christen was so stiff and bruised when she awoke, that she could scarcely move. Groaning, she struggled upright and took the cup of ale that Ediva, one of the maids was holding out.        The light had not yet reached the bloom of full dawn, but she could see enough to tell that the girl was smiling and casting coy glances over her shoulder at the Norman campfire.

            ‘Something pleases you?’ Christen massaged her stiff neck with her free hand.

            The girl curtseyed and lowered her eyes, but her bright expression remained. ‘These men mean us no harm my lady. I know they do not.’

            ‘I suppose one of them told you so,’ Christen said sourly and took a sip of ale.

            ‘Yes my Lady.’ The sarcasm sailed over the top of Ediva’s head. ‘He’s an Englishman called Leofwin, born and bred near Wigmore, and his lord is Miles Le Gallois,  lord of Milnham-on-Wye. He’s native born too.’

            ‘He spoke like a Norman last night,’ Christen said, but regarded the girl with interest.

            ‘There’s no English in him my Lady. His father’s a Norman baron who settled here in old King Edward’s time, and his mother’s of Welsh high blood.’

            Hence ‘Le Gallois,’ Christen thought, Norman for ‘TheWelshman’. She glanced towards the soldiers and in the strengthening light saw a well-set-up young man with shoulder- length light brown hair.  He was grinning at Ediva.

            ‘That’s him,’ said the maid. ‘That’s Leofwin.’

            ‘You wasted no time.’

            Ediva looked hurt but compressed her lips and said nothing.

            Le Gallois strolled over to the fire and crouched on his heels, accepting a cup from one of his men.  Now that his helm was off, Christen could see that he had short-cropped black curls and a thin dark-complexioned face. His features were neat and set in a habitual expression of composure, for his look was no different now than it had been when confronting the enraged mercenary last night. He spoke to Leofwin briefly in English and received a reply that made him arch his brows and smile in the women’s direction.   Finishing his drink, he rose to his feet and walked across to her.

            ‘Lady, if you please, will you walk with me?’ He extended his hand.

            His voice was pleasant enough but it was a command spoken as a request. After a moment’s hesitation, she placed her hand in his and allowed him to draw her to her feet.

            In silence he led her across the compound towards the palisade. His grip on her was light, but she received the impression that it could tighten in an instant to hold her fast.

            ‘I have a boon to ask of you,’ she said.

‘Another one?’ He sent her a sharp glance. ‘Is your brother’s life not enough?’

            She felt her face burn.  ‘Father Aelnoth the priest. Will you let him come from the village and say prayers for Lyulph? He died unshriven, and I would have the comfort of prayers said for his soul.’ She bit her lip to stop her chin from wobbling.

            Seeing her brave struggle, Miles felt an unexpected wave of compassion. ‘It is already in hand,’ he said. ‘My men will go into Ashdyke to fetch him and the villagers as soon as it is full light.’

            ‘The villagers?’ She looked up quickly. The light of the rising sun was in his eyes, and instead of the dark Welsh-brown she had imagined, her gaze was met by a vivid, blue-flecked green. ‘Why the villagers?’

            ‘They need to know what happened last night, and what the consequences will be to themselves, and they will make admirable witnesses to the morning’s business.’

            ‘What business?’ She felt as if a stone had lodged in her stomach.

            ‘That depends on you,’ he said.

            Christen moistened her lips. ‘Why?’

             They had reached the stairway to the palisade, and without answering, he led her up onto the wall walk.  Then he swung his arm wide to encompass the land spread forth to their view. ‘Look at it,’ he said. ‘Look around.’

            Mystified, Christen did so, and saw only the usual vista.  ‘Since Stamford and Hastings some of the plough lands have reverted to waste for want of men.’ Her expression grew bleak. ‘Still, there are not the mouths to feed that there were.’

            He frowned at her, wondering if she truly did not see the wealth laid out under their gaze.

            ‘Lyulph did not care,’ she added softly. ‘His body was maimed at Stamford Bridge, and his soul at Hastings. What was left was no more than a husk.’ Her throat closed. She looked down at her hands.

            ‘Even so, the neglect is superficial. These lands are rich.’ When she did not respond, he continued, ‘and you are a rich young widow and mistress here, so I understand. I am not the only man with a soldier’s eye. This is a perfect place to build a castle to command the approaches to Hereford and the Welsh border, and as long as somewhere like this is controlled by a strong hand, the King, and the Earl of Hereford will not much care who it is.’

            Understanding widened her eyes. She would be forced into marriage with Ashdyke’s claimant to legalise his possession, and it would not matter who he was, save that he serve the interest of his masters.  ‘I would rather kill myself!’ she said.

He shook his head.  ‘That is talk without thinking.  I have the custody for now, and no intention of giving it up. I have the King’s ear, and my family is well known to the Earl of Hereford. There might be some harsh words spoken and some hard bargaining involved, but I believe I have enough credit with both men to be given permanent command of this place if you will agree to wed me.’

            She stared at him in shock. ‘Wed you?’

            ‘It will legalise my claim and give you security. If I am to build up this place and enrich it, I need a mediator whom the people will trust.’

            She shook her head and took a step away from him.

            ‘I intend having Ashdyke,’ he said with a pragmatic shrug. ‘It would be easier for me with your cooperation, but in the end it comes down to the fastest sword, and the greatest cunning. If you accept, you may live as you lived with your former husband. The domestic arrangements will be yours to command, the military ones mine.’ He flicked his gaze to a laden cart creaking into the compound through the main gateway.

Christen stared queasily over the palisade. Marriage to a man of whose existence she had been unaware a scant twelve hours since, a man of whom she knew nothing except what Ediva had told her. Yet in all probability, the alternatives would be much worse. ‘When would the wedding be?’

            ‘The quicker the better.  Tomorrow morning?’

            ‘So soon?’  She bit her lip in dismay.

            ‘It is necessary, unless you would rather see the likes of Gervase FitzWilliam sieze tenancy.’

            ‘Who?’

            His lip curled with distaste. ‘That mercenary I faced down last night. One of FitzOsbern’s hirelings.’

            She swallowed the urge to retch. ‘Very well,’ she said, barely parting her lips.  ‘But out of necessity.’

He gave a business-like nod. ‘The priest can draw up the contract this morning while he is here.’

             ‘And what of my brother?  Will you let him go now? Does my consent buy his freedom?’

            Miles looked out across the fields. ‘It is not that simple,’ he said quietly. ‘If I let him and his companion go, they will return with all speed to the rebels over the border. From what I hear, it was your brother who started the fire in the hall?’

            ‘It was a diversion.’

            He pondered for a while, and eventually lowered his hand. ‘As a sign of goodwill to you, I will release him and his companion,’ he said, and then his mouth hardened. ‘But not unscathed. They must know that all actions have their consequences.’

            ‘My Lord I….’

            ‘Sire, the priest is here!’ Leofwin bellowed up at them, interrupting her protest. ‘He doesn’t speak French.’

            Christen pressed her lips together. He was within his rights, but she was apprehensive about what he intended to do with Osric.

Father Aelnoth was at first doubtful and extremely wary of the mail-clad Normans,  particularly since the departing group had wantonly torched several dwellings in the village and killed a pig,  but as the night’s happenings were explained to him in more detail, and he discovered that Miles spoke fluent English, some of his apprehension evaporated.

            Father Aelnoth was sufficiently sensible to realise that there was nothing to be gained by raising objection to the proposed marriage between his lady and Miles le Gallois. Indeed, he suspected that the Norman was a blessing in disguise. God help them if either lady Christen’s scapegrace brother or that rabble from Hereford had been left to claim ownership. The village elders were also prepared to accept Miles as their lord, because none of them wanted a mercenary from Hereford to come and build a castle here.

            Miles dismissed the farrier who had run to Hereford with his tale and set about engaging workmen and labourers to clear the damage and begin rebuilding.  Christen went to talk to her brother and his companion.

            ‘So you’re going to wed that bastard!’ Osric spat contemptuously. ‘Your grief over Lyulph was short-lived indeed!’

            ‘Lyulph need never have died were it not for your stupidity!’ she retorted. ‘I have no time for grief. If not this man, I will be forced to marry another a thousand times worse…. He has promised me that on our wedding day he will gift me with your freedom.’

            Osric’s hazel eyes filled with incredulity. ‘Surely you don’t believe him?

            She remembered Mile’s comments on the wall walk about consequences, and bit her lip.

            ‘Unless of course he intends to follow our trail, thinking we’ll lead him to our allies.’ Osric snorted scornfully. ‘In which case we’ll dance the Norman through the woods like will o’ the wisps.’

            Christen arched her brow. ‘As you danced him to Ashdyke when you said you had lost him in the forest? No, you are the foolish one.  He has your measure.’ Christen wearily turned away and found Caelwin, the cloth trader waiting to speak to her, an avid gleam in his eyes.

            ‘The lord says you are to choose such fabrics and threads as you need to make good the clothing lost in the fire,’ he said, and indicated the bales of cloth that his apprentice was setting out for her perusal.

            ‘And did the lord say who would pay?’

            ‘Himself my lady. ‘As soon as reinforcements come from Milnham.’ He rubbed his hands in anticipation and silently blessed the good fortune that had brought him on his rounds so timely to Ashdyke.

            ‘I see.’ The Norman had wasted no time in sending for more men she thought, plainly leaving nothing to chance.

            Osric spat into the dust. Christen ignored him and followed the merchant.

            There were bolts of coarse russet and grey burel. There were local homespun lengths in undyed cream and black wool. There was some Flemish stuff of fine, strong weave in madder red, and soft checked plaids from northern parts, woven in subtle shades of green and gold. There were a few lengths of expensive scarlet cloth, but she did not look at them.  Of the nobility she might be, but not of such an estate that she could afford to spend her time in idleness in order not to ruin her gown.

            She chose some linen for shifts, the finest that Caelwin had because coarse fabric was a scourge to the skin, rubbing it raw in less time than the garment took to put on. That matter was early and easily settled, but glancing over the bolts cloth for outer garments, Christen was less sure. She did not know if her future husband was generous with his coin or apt to be parsimonious. He had bidden her chose of her own free will, but it was better to err on the side of caution. In the end she made do with a length of grey burel, some of the russet, and a piece of the cunningly woven plaid.

            Horrified at the lack of profit, the merchant tried to interest her in one of the brocades in apple-green that would have suited her, but appeared garish and tasteless with the smouldering foundations of the hall as a backdrop.

            ‘It is not as if we are going to entertain the King to dinner, and even if we are, I would not want him to think that we could afford to clothe ourselves in such rare finery,’ she said with a firm shake of her head.

            ‘But the cost is not high my lady. I bought it in Bristol for a bargain price from an Italian merchant who….’ He stopped and bowed, his hands rubbing faster.

            Miles glanced at the pile that Caelwin’s servant had almost completed, taking in the fine white linen and the coarseness of the other stuff, then he eyed the green brocade opened out across the back of the cart.  Christen blushed poppy-red.

            ‘Master Caelwin thought I might be interested, but I told him it was not fitting,’ she said in halting French.

            ‘You have leave to choose whatever you desire,’ he answered evenly. ‘If the green silk is to your taste, then have it.’ He looked again at the meagre pile of sober fabrics she had thus chosen. ‘Admirable for working garments, but what do you intend for your wedding?’

            ‘There is no time to stitch a gown,’ she said.

‘Nonsense!  If that girl of yours is as quick with a needle as she is with my men, and if the village women help, you will grace the occasion as befits your rank…and mine.’

            She saw his gaze dart again to the green, his nostrils flaring slightly.          ‘Put that away master Caelwin,’ she commanded, swallowing her chagrin – it was not as if she had been about purchase it.

            The merchant bowed and with calculating eyes produced instead a rich tawny damask shot through with flowers of gold.

            Miles eyed Christen with a lifted brow. Her own expression was one of horrified amusment. It was a very fine cloth, but the colour would make her look bilious. ‘No,’ she said.

            ‘But my lady, see how it catches the light, and is more subtle than the green.’

            ‘Sire, Father Aelnoth desires to know what lands you aportion the lady in the event of your death before hers,’ said the priest’s scribe, a quill between his ink-stained fingers, another behind his ear.

            Miles glanced at the trestle where the priest was poring over the portion of the marriage contract already written. ‘My lands are in the King’s gift, so any settlement will have to be in terms of silver.’ He washed his palm over his face and sighed. ‘Tell the Father I will come as soon as I have settled this business here.’

            The scribe acknowledged and departed. Miles lowered his hand and turned to discover that the gold damask had been replaced by a handsome length  of  sea-dark soft wool, with threads of sapphire and malachite running through the weave. Christen’s fingers were wistful on the cloth, but she was biting her lip. ‘It is too expensive,’ she said, ‘And when would I wear it?’

            Miles stepped forward. ‘My lady will have the blue,’ he said, ‘And a length of this too.’ Leaning forward, he tugged free a bolt of Flanders twill,  darker than wine, almost brown. The colour would light a garnet glow in her eyes and set off her hair to perfection.

            ‘My lord it is too much!’ Christen gasped.

            ‘The blue for your wedding,’ he said curtly, ‘The red for other days when you need a fine dress.’

            ‘But the cost!’ she protested.

            ‘Hang the cost!’ he snapped, then smiled and shook his head and said in a softer voice. ‘Hang the cost, but haggle if you must. I recall that it was one of my mother’s foremost pleasures, the driving of a hard bargain. Count it as your wedding gift.’ He nodded brusquely to the slack-jawed merchant, and strode off in the direction of Farther Aelnoth’s trestle.

            ‘I will require needles and thread,’ Christen said faintly, and wondered if she would have the wit to haggle. He was right. Usually it was an occupation she enjoyed, but just now she was in no state to concentrate, and she was aware at the end of not having done full justice to her ususal skills. Certainly master Caelwin wore a half-moon smile as she left him in order to engage seamstresses.

            The following evening, shortly after dusk, Christen heard the guards on duty call a warning and her heart beginning to pound.  Even after Leofwin shouted a reassurance, it took her some moments to gather herself and leave her makeshift shelter to find out what was happening.

            Miles was greeting the leader of a troop of about twenty men, his voice hearty with welcome. A mail-clad giant swung down from a glossy warhorse and Miles clasped him briefly, then turned to assess the soldiers and ask a swift question. The giant responded with a shrug and a sparse reply that nevertheless reassured Miles into an approving nod.

            Christen hesitated and started to return to her shelter, but Miles had already noticed her, and was beckoning.  Warily she went to him.

            ‘My lady, this is my marshal, Guyon de Corbeis,’ he said with a smile. ‘Guy, this is my soon to be wife, Christen of Ashdyke.’

            The giant bowed.

            ‘Sire,’ Christen murmured, keeping her lids politely lowered after one assessing glance that took in a full dark moutache stranded with grey, and eyes that were alert, and black as a bird’s. His nose was high-bridged and bony and his cheeks pitted by smallpox scars.

            Guyon sent Miles a look that was half-amused and half-doubtful. He could well understand his lord’s reasoning. Ashdyke was perfect for the siting of a castle, even a cursory glance in the half-light of dusk had shown him that much. Strategically his young lord could not be faulted. Domestically, it might well prove less of a success. The English were a resentful race.

            Miles said to Christen, ‘Your maid.’ and indicated Wulfhild who was hesitating to one side.

             Christen excused herself and turned to the girl.

They had been speaking English, but now Guyon switched to the more familiar ground of French, unaware that Christen spoke it, or that Wulfhild’s query, although essential, about the wedding gown, was answered and clarified upon the moment so that Christen was able to hear and understand most of what was said.

            ‘Not your usual kind,’ Guyon remarked, signalling his second-in-command to lead the troops into the centre of the compound and began dismounting.

            Miles chuckled. ‘How many types of wife have I had before?’

            ‘You know what I mean. You prefer them wild and well-endowed. This one’s skinnier than a winter cow and hardly looks as if she’s going to be a mettlesome ride between the sheets.’ He cocked his head. ‘Still, she might put on more meat to please the eye once she’s in calf.’

            Christen propelled herself vigorously away from the men towards the shelter, the maid scampering in her wake.

            ‘She speaks French,’ Miles said neutrally.

Guyon grimaced. ‘I have two left feet,’ he confessed. ‘Both of which should be jammed firmly up my backside. ‘How was I to know she spoke our tongue?’

            ‘You might have considered the possibility before you opened your mouth.’  Miles shook his head.  ‘No matter. I daresay matters can be mended.’ He drew Guyon over to the prisoners.  ‘I need this place made secure as soon as possible in order to discourage raiders such as these.’ He gestured with distaste at the captives.

            ‘Planning some especial punishment?’ Guyon did not ask their identity.  From the eloquent way Miles had looked at them, it was plain that they were the part of the raiding party that had torched Milnham’s smithy and barn.

            ‘The one with the flaxen hair and the vainglorious pout happens to be my future brother-by-marriage.’

            Guyon looked horrified.  ‘God on the cross!’

            ‘Do you think I chose him apurpose?’ Miles growled. ‘The fool came here seeking shelter and supplies. One of the villagers betrayed him to FitzOsbern in Hereford.  Everard de Nantes was sent here to put down the ‘rebellion’ and you know what his methods are.’ Miles sent a disgusted gaze around the charred compound. ‘As they hit the front gate, we hit the back. De Nantes was killed in the first onrush and his underdog FitzWilliam chose not to engage with me. I sent the pack of them back to Hereford with their tails between their legs.’

            Guyon’s bushy brows shot up. ‘I see now why you stressed the need for haste in your message to me.  God grant you have not bitten off more than you can chew!’

            Miles shrugged. ‘I can handle FitzOsbern.’

            Guyon was unimpressed. ‘Let us hope so.’

            ‘With the English under Wild Edric stirring up trouble along the march, he is not about to begin a feud with me because he needs my support and my skills.   Mercenaries like de Nantes and FitzWilliam are ten a penny. I possess a higher value.’

            ‘Modest!’ Guyon snorted, but a glint of humour lit in his eyes.

            ‘Never underestimate your opponent, and never underestimate yourself. Duke William taught me that, and now he’s a king.’

            ‘By the skin of his teeth.  Keep your feet on the ground lad.’

            Miles frowned at him, saw the smile curving beneath the full moustache, and softened his own expression. ‘I have no choice, they are made of clay. Show me what supplies you have brought, and I will outline my plans to you.’

            ‘Still busy?’

            Christen looked up from her sewing to see Miles standing alone before her. She narrowed her eyes into the darkness behind him, but there was no sign of the oaf who had ridden in earlier. ‘I have almost finished my lord. And you?’

            ‘Nearly. There are a couple of matters still to attend to, but I wanted to speak to you before you retired.’ His gaze went to the other women sitting nearby. Christen gestured them to take their sewing elsewhere.

            Miles crouched with feline ease and watched her needle fly in and out of the fabric. ‘I apologise if Guyon offended you,’ he said.  ‘He is unaccustomed to the gentleness of women in our lives.’

            Christen rested her needle and considered him. ‘I was offended at first,’ she admitted, ‘but then I realised he was not to know I spoke French, and eavesdroppers never hear well of themselves do they?’

            ‘That is true,’ he said with a half-smile.

            Christen smoothed the cloth. Women might judge the great ox worthless, but Miles le Gallois obviously valued him.  ‘Has he been with you long?’

            ‘Since I was twelve and my father set him to guard and train me at one and the same time.  I owe a great debt to his perseverance. He struggled to tame me when everyone else had thrown up their hands in despair…’ He grinned. ‘He almost succeeded. ‘Cais ffrwn gref I farch gwylit’, as my mother would have said. ‘Seek a strong bridle for a wild horse.’

            ‘And he is your bridle?’

            ‘I trust him with my life.’

            Was that a warning Christen wondered, or had she just imagined an edge in his voice. She did not think that he quite trusted her. ‘I hope he and I can be friends,’ she said diplomatically and resumed her sewing. ‘Only give me a little time to understand his ways and yours.’

            ‘I will try to give you such time as her need.  It behoves me to have my wife and my marshal in harmony.

            Silence fell. Christen continued to sew. He shifted position several times, but made no move to leave, and at length she was drawn to ask him if there was there some other purpose to his visit?’

            He smiled ruefully and rubbed the back of his neck –  a mannerism she was already coming to recognise.  ‘Well yes, there was, but I am not sure how to broach the matter so I suppose I had better say it straight out. Tomorrow, once we are married and the feast celebrated. I am taking you to my own keep at Milnham-on-Wye.’

            Her gaze flashed wide with shock. ‘What?’

            ‘This place is too vulnerable to attack and will remain so until we raised the height of the palisade, build a gatehouse, and replaced the gates themselves with hardened oak. Milnham is fully secure and offers much better comfort.  You don’t really wish to dwell here in a hut while the labourers toil around you and enemies threaten on all sides? To spend your wedding night in a blanket on the ground like that maid of yours and Leofwin?’

            ‘If I said I did, would you give me the choice?’ she demanded. ‘But I tell you this. If you take me away, the people will be less inclined to cooperate. They will be ready to believe the worst of you, and perhaps I would agree with them.’

            ‘What you say is true, but it cannot be avoided. It would only be until the main defences are rectified and a temporary hall built to house us while the rest goes up. I swear to you on my soul that you will be back before Martinmas.’

            A little under two months she thought, and timely to negotiate the payment of yearly dues, rents and privileges.

            ‘Besides,’ Miles added with disarming candour. ‘Milnham is in sore need of a mistress. The undercroft is foul and the kitchens and dairy would benefit from some strict overseeing. Occasionally I have a purge, but it is not the same as when a woman holds the whip.  The place hasn’t owned a chatelaine since my mother’s death two years ago –  not an offical one. My sister-by-marriage is visiting, but she arrived as I set out to chase the raiders. My needs are practical.’

            Christen busied herself threading her needle, mollified despite her misgivings by his appeal to her domestic abilities which she knew were excellent. ‘As long as there is truth between us, I am content,’ she said.

            ‘Truth?’ He gave her an intent look. ‘Is that your price?’

            She said nothing, unable to ask how she would know if she was being paid in false coin. Before truth, there had to be trust. She felt a touch as he brushed her cheek with his fingertips, and gave an involuntary shiver.

            ‘I swear to you on the cross of Jesus that I will not lie. If I cannot tell you the truth, then I will say nothing.’ He realised with irritation that Guyon was standing to one side, watching them.

            ‘Clamping at the bit eh?’ the knight said to Miles with a grin, although his expression was uneasy and the glance he cast at Christen was sour.

            She kept her eyes lowered, not wanting to engage with the marshal’s hostility. Miles gave the knight a look of wry exasperation, and rose to his feet. ‘Not so much that I require your intervention for the sake of moral decency,’ he said. ‘Still, now you are here you remind me that it is late and I have things to do.’ He bowed to Christen. ‘I should go before the dawn catches me on my feet.’

            When the men had gone, Christen gnawed her lip as she plied her needle. Reconciling Guyon de Corbeis to this marriage was going to be difficult.

Chapter 3

 

The wedding ceremony was conducted in the porch of the small village church so that everyone could witness the irrefutable binding of their lady to the Norman lord. Necks craned and there was muttered speculation as the deed was pronounced and the groom kissed his wife briefly on the lips, before entering the church, his arm over hers to attend mass.

            Hastily stitched Christen’s blue gown might be, but the colour suited her, enhancing her brown eyes and fair skin.  She could not smile, but she held her head high and stepped proudly, not just for her own sake, but for the sake of all the people watching; her people.

            Her new husband wore his mail and sword to the marriage, the latter tied in the scabbard by a peace knot.  His own expression was one of pride too, and satisfaction, but without looking smug. He plainly understood that the risks of this marriage might yet outweigh the advantages.

            ‘My brother,’ she said, as emerged from the church and he boosted her into the saddle of a steady piebald gelding, then mounted his palfrey. ‘Will it please you to release him now?’

            Miles exchanged a brief look with Guyon who had swung astride his solid bay and tight-lipped was sliding the reins through is fingers. ‘As soon as he has been punished for reaving my lands,’ he said.

            Christen stared at the man to whom she had just sworn lifelong obedience. ‘You said you would show him mercy!’

            ‘I said I would give him a reminder of mercy,’ Miles replied. ‘Did you really expect I would set him scatheless free?’

            Christen swallowed, filled with revulsion, all too aware of the danger. She had to tread this path as if she was walking on eggshells.  This man could do exactly as he chose. ‘What will you do to him?’ Perhaps he intended to release Osric only because what was left of him would be nothing but a bloody shadow.  ‘If you take me away from here and wreak your vengeance on my brother all in the same morning, you will court more trouble than any of this is worth.’

            Guyon made a contemptuous sound.  Miles silenced him with a raised palm and looked at Christen. ‘Not vengeance, but justice.  I give you my word that your brother and his companion will be perfectly capable of riding out through that gateway on my command.’

            Chrsten bit her lip until the blood came and with it the pain that kept her upright, silent and unmoving as he brother was roughly helped into the saddle of a sturdy dun gelding, his companion to a star-faced bay.  They had cut off the four fingers of Osric’s right hand and two from that of his subordinate.  It was impossible to believe that it had happened, but the impassive-faced Norman at her side had commanded it, watched it carried out, and the moment the bleeding was staunched, had commanded the provisioned horses to be led forward.

            Tears of shock and pity blurred Christen’s eyes as her brother’s mount made a sudden lunge and the thickly wadded remnants of his hand were jarred against his thigh. ‘You devil!’ she choked at Miles.

            ‘I was within my rights to have had his head for what he did.  Be thankful that he still owns palm and thumb to make the limb useful.  What did you expect me to do – deal him a whipping as if he were a mischievous child caught thieving apples from my orchard?

            ‘Osric is like a child!’ she sobbed, knuckles pressed to her mouth to stifle her anguish.

            ‘Then it is past time he became a man!’ Miles retorted.  ‘Had he been a common raider, he would now be dead and his flayed corpse nailed on high for all to mark.  He has his life, which is more than can be said for Milnham’s blacksmith, and him with an elderly mother and a wife and four children – all hungry mouths to feed.  Let it be, my lady.  He has escaped more lightly than his just deserts.  Go to him if you will and bid farewell, and let that be an end.

            Christen compressed her lips, and having flung him a single dagger look, left his side to ride over to Osric.

            He was groaning softly to himself, his good hand gripping the reins, his other one nursed against his chest. Behind him, his companion Hrothgar waited, his face grey with pain.

            ‘I’ll see that Norman whoreson in hell before the year’s end, I swear it Christen. If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll release you from this unholy farce of a marriage.’

            She gazed up at him; the sun was in her eyes and she could not see him properly. ‘The attempting probably would be the last thing you did,’ she said with a shake of her head.  ‘Osric, as you value your life, do not come back this way.  You do not have his measure, but he most surely has yours, and everyone else’s down to the last hair.’

            Osric’s hazel eyes narrowed. ‘I almost believe you are glad of this marriage,’ he sneered.

            ‘I must be glad of a strong hand to rule Ashdyke and protect it from raids,’ she said. ‘I will not see my home go up in flames again.’

            ‘Do not be so sure!’ Osric snarled, voice suddenly rising in an agonised shriek as Hrothgar, as if by accident, sidled his mount against the dun and gave the beast a surreptitious kick in the belly that sent it skittering through the charred gateway with a grunt of alarm.

            ‘God go with you!’ Christen cried.

            ‘No place for us but hell my lady, you are the one who needs God,’ Hrothgar replied, and with a curt salute, followed Osric down the track towards Wales.

            Christen watched them for the space of ten heartbeats and turned away, eyes dry, and joined her new husband.

            The wedding feast was a simple affair provided by the villagers and paid for in silver by Miles. Christen accepted his hand and sat down at the long trestle bench.  The plain scrubbed wood had been covered by a length of Master Caelwin’s linen cloth.  Father Aelnoth blessed the food and a couple of village women filled the cups with the local ale and cider.

            ‘Thank God the weather has remained bright,’ Miles said. ‘They have gone to much trouble and it would have been a pity if rain had spoiled their efforts.’

            Christen sipped her cider and glanced at him from the corner of her eye.  There was enough food to fill bellies, but it was plain fare, lacking the embellishment one might expect of somewhere so close to Hereford and the busy trade route of the river Wye.

            He looked amused. ‘Do they think too great a show of largesse will cause me to run amok with greed and double their rents and obligations?’

            ‘Perhaps they have no reason to think otherwise sire,’ she replied.  He saw everything, and through it.

            ‘Time will tell won’t it?’ He half-raised his cup and then paused. ‘Are you still angry with me over your brother?’

            ‘Would it matter to you if I was?’

            He ignored her counter-question. ‘Are you?’

            ‘A little perhaps, but he has polished the art of driving away even those who would have at one time succoured him.  I am relieved that he has gone.’  Relieved because she did not want him to forfeit any more than the fingers of his right hand in payment to this man.

           Miles made a non-committal sound, although privately he was pleased at her reply; she was willing to compromise and that was all to the good.  He lifted his cup to drink but set it down again as Guyon came striding toward him from the direction of the gates where he had been talking to a guard.

            ‘FitzOsbern,’ Guyon growled without preamble as he reached the table. ‘And my eyesight is not as good as it was, but I would say he has your brother-by-marriage and his henchman in his custody.’

            ‘God’s balls!’ Miles swore under his breath. ‘I didn’t think he would be so quick.’

            ‘Well he’s here, so you had better think of something fast.’

            Miles swore again and grimaced in the direction of the gate. Never underestimate your opponent.

            ‘My lord?’  Christen pressed her hand to her throat, her face draining of colour.

            Miles set his hand gently on her shoulder. Never underestimate yourself.  ‘It seems that the Earl of Hereford himself is about to honour our wedding feast. The King’s own cousin and senior wolf in the pack.  Take your lead from me.  Do as I say, and we may yet come unscathed from this.  No,’ he said, as she started to rise, ‘stay where you are and say nothing unless spoken to…understood?’

            She nodded and began to shiver as if a chill wind was blowing through her bones.

            William FitzOsbern, Earl of Hereford, Earl Palatine, lord of the Isle of Wight, of Breteuil and Paci, rode through the gateway and into the compound, gaze flicking to absorb and memorise everything.  With unthinking ease he reined his roan stallion to a halt and turned in the saddle to speak to his nearest companion. When the horse jibbed, he drew the bridle taut through fists the size of hams until the roan’s muzzle was drawn down into the sweating, arched neck.

            ‘My lord, it is a great honour to welcome you to my marriage feast,’ Miles said, sweeping a bow.  ‘The fare is by necessity frugal, but will you share?’

            Fitzosbern grunted. ‘I doubt that welcome is the word since you sent me no invitation,’ he replied, and dismounted, throwing the roan’s bridle to his squire.

            ‘There was no time, sire, and besides, I knew you would receive the tidings of my acquisition almost immediately.

            The Earl looked round at his men, Gervase FitzWilliam scowling in their midst. ‘Oh yes,’ he said neutrally. ‘I had the tale Tuesday dawn.  Indeed, were it not for the doings of that rebel Eadric, I would have been hear a day sooner.’ He removed his helm and arming cap to reveal crinkly grey-speckled hair. ‘I was told that Thegn Eadric might not be the only rebel with whom I had to deal.’

            ‘Sire, Ashdyke is held directly of the King,’ Guyon said, voice rumbling like a mastiff’s.  ‘This business is not your concern.’

            Miles threw a warning look at his shield bearer, but even as he prepared to mitigate the statement as best he could, FitzOsbern burst out laughing.

            ‘Hah, I did not realise de Corbeis still held himself responsible for wiping your backside!’ he guffawed.

            Guyon opened his mouth.  Miles elbowed him viciously in the ribs and dismissed him to find accommodation and refreshment for the extra men.

            ‘My pardon sire.  You know Guyon’s failings and I hope you will excuse them.’

            ‘He is without diplomacy,’ FitzOsbern chuckled. He unfastened his cloak to give to his squire.  The movement caused him to notice and be recalled to the two rebels they had picked up on the road.  FitzWilliam had dragged them of their mounts and thrown them down in the dirt near one of the cooking fires.

            ‘De Corbeis is as straight as an ash lance, but you, Miles, are more  devious. I could ask your giant, but I doubt the reply would be half as entertaining as your own.  FitzWilliam swears that these two were part of the rebel group I sent him to hunt down, yet I find them free upon the road, astride good horseflesh with food in their packs silver in their purses and swearing that you had released them to go their own way with no harsher punishment than the odd missing finger?’

            ‘The one with the mouth happens to be my wife’s brother.’

            ‘Ah.’ FitzOsbern nodded. ‘You disappoint me Miles.  What do a woman’s sentiments matter?

            Miles thought it a wonder that FitzOsbern’s wife had not seasoned her husband’s dinner with monkshood before now.  ‘I am killing two birds with one stone sire,’ he said. ‘By sparing the life of my wife’s brother, I foster good relations with these people, which has to be of benefit.  But the main profit  is that her brother will almost certainly make tracks to Eadric’s layer, and whatever makes a track, either myself or my man Dewi can follow – as well you know.’

            FitzOsbern grunted and swatted at a fly ‘You know this land is forfeit to the King,’ he said.

            ‘Indeed sire, and that is why I have sent him a copy of the marriage contract and begged his leave to establish myself here.’

            ‘You warn me that the place is already claimed?’ FitzOsbern stared at him out of hooded pale eyes.

            Miles returned the look steadily. ‘I would not presume, sire. I do not wield the power to contest your will.’

            ‘No, but you have the gall to snatch the place from beneath my nose!’ he retorted, half-infuriated and half-amused.

            Miles gestured at the trestle where Christen sat with eyes lowered. The Earl inclined his head and accompanied Miles. ‘It might yet have been in your hands sire, had not your hirelings shown such a wanton desire to destroy,’ Miles said.  ‘It was that which prompted me to meddle. It was the action of imbeciles.  Now everything will have to be rebuilt, and where is the profit in that?’  He halted and made a peremptory gesture to Christen.  She rose and made a deep curtsey to the Earl, and bowed her head.

            FitzOsbern took her chin between forefinger and thumb and raised her face to his. ‘Plain and meek,’ he said, cocking a speculative eyebrow at Miles. ‘What’s she like under her gown?  Are her hips wide enough for breeding?’

            Miles shrugged. ‘She has borne one child, dead at birth and miscarried another, but I do not foresee any difficulty.  Her husband was an old man. Poor seed rather than poor soil.’

            ‘And if she belies your word and is already in whelp to the dead man?’

            ‘Her maid says they have not lain together in over a year and she finished her flux on the day before we arrived.  Any child that comes from her body nine months from now will be of my siring.’

            ‘That firebrand you had in Rouen, now she had a body worth dipping your bread!’ The Earl’s man to grin was expressive. ‘Is she still with you?’

            Miles had seen Christen’s revulsion at being touched by the Earl of Hereford and how her colour had faded until she was as pale as a sheet, but now it returned in a wash of deep pink that stained her forehead, cheeks and throat.  He gave her a nudge with his hip that threw her off balance and commanded her brusquely to fetch a fresh flagon of cider for their guest.

            She made a strangled sound in her throat and went to do his bidding.  Miles saw how she recovered herself, and felt both admiration and foreboding, especially when he saw how she looked at her maid, the source of the information. ‘Hodierna died in childbed on the eve of Hastings,’ he replied to FitzOsbert. ‘I have no mistress currently warming my bed to keep me from my duty.’

            The Earl grunted. ‘Duty indeed,’ he said, and with a dismissive glance at Christen, sat down at the trestle and waited to be served.

            Tight-lipped Christen waited upon the men who treated her as if she was of no consequence.  Several times Miles sent her away on some trivial pretext and she overheard him saying to Fitzosbern that it was unwise to let her hear too much since she spoke a reasonable degree of French.

            ‘God’s bones lady, mind your face before the Earl of Hereford lest you ruin us all with your black looks!’ Guyon le Corbeis warned her as she cast a fulminating glance at William FitzOsbern.

            ‘Why should I smile?’ she retorted furiously. ‘I am a bitch, a brood mare, a ewe to be tupped!  She stormed away from him to refill the cider jug. Casting another jaundiced glare at the men, she watched Miles laughing at something the earl had said, but despite his broad grin and shaking shoulders, she could see he was far from amused.

            FitzOsbern departed soon after, Gervase FitzWilliam grumbling at his heels and receiving short shrift for his complaints.  Miles watched until the hindquarters of the last horse had disappeared down the track, his stance rigid.  And then he strode away from Guyon and Christen to the midden pit where he was violently sick.

            Guyon raised a knowing eyebrow and went to see Osric and Hrothgar on their way once more.

            Miles returned, his step unsteady and his complexion green. ‘I’m not accustomed to matching the Earl of Hereford drink for drink,’ he said, ‘And he is so much bigger than I am, that whatever goes down his gullet only has half the effect.’  He reached out to her, and Christen stepped back, her lip curling with revulsion.

            Miles sighed. ‘I do not have the military strength to defy the Earl of Hereford. ‘I have to persuade him that it is to his advantage to let me keep Ashdyke, and that means paying lip service if nothing else to his code. The wine was not the only reason for my curdled stomach.’

            ‘Then I pity your weakness my lord.  My first husband might have been old and no longer able to defend his holding, but he was twice as strong as you are and a dozen times more honourable.’

            ‘I daresay he was, and now he is dead.’

            ‘And my life with him reduced to an accounting of fluxes and couplings by men not fit to speak his name!’

            ‘If there had been another way, I would have taken it,’ he said with determined patience, brittle at the edges. ‘Women in FitzOsbern’s household rank below the status of his hounds and horses.  He would have thought me a soft fool had I behaved differently.’

            ‘And in your own household?  How do women rank there?’ She thought of the whore FitzOsbern had mentioned with such offhand amusement.

            ‘They are respected on their merits.  If you wish to be a martyr that is your privilege, but I had credited you with more sense.’

            Christen clenched her teeth. If she did not run with the invading wolf pack then she became its victim. ‘I am unaccustomed to being insulted, even for the sake of keeping a roof over my head,’ she said. ‘Lyulph would never have said such words to a woman; perhaps that is the reason he is dead.’

            A muscle twitched in his cheek. ‘As I recall his death did not prevent FitzOsbern’s mercenaries and your zealot brother from razing this place to the ground.  Without my intervention you and your people would now be either dead or enslaved.’

             ‘And was it worth it?’ she asked, in a quieter, but still bitter voice.  ‘Was FitzOsbern convinced by your deception?’

            ‘He was convinced enough to do nothing for the moment.  He even brought himself to declare that I was a more suitable candidate to rule Ashdyke than someone like Gerard Fitzwilliam.’ Miles folded his arms. ‘FitzOsbern has me marked down for a useful but expendable tool.  He is content with my tenure because I will have the work and expense of rebuilding this place and keeping the rebels at bay.  He may well try to claim Ashdyke for himself at a later date if it suits his plans.’  He gave her a rueful smile. ‘I dislike gambling with loaded dice but I lack the will to say no to the lure of the prize.

            ‘Then you are a fool, because death is the outcome,’ Christen said and walked away.

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