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Manor of Caversham, near Reading,
Home to William Marshal, Regent of England,
April 1219

 

‘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 spoken aloud. 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 to him through the open 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 in 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 must now take the reins. His destiny lay elsewhere.

The door opened and a sturdy man in his middle years entered the chamber. After murmuring a swift word to William’s Templar almoner, Brother Geoffrey, he advanced to the bedside. ‘Sire you sent for me?’

William exerted his will to focus on his visitor. Jean D’Earley had joined his household as a squire more than thirty years ago, and as he grew to knighthood and lordship, had become a close 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 poured clear spring water into William’s cup.  ‘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 brought me a dish of sops in milk earlier,’ he replied. The sustenance of infants, the elderly and the dying. He had only eaten 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 hopes 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.’

‘Willingly,’ sire,’ Jean replied earnestly. ‘Consider it 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 him.  He returned the cup to Jean. ‘Your loyalty is wholehearted.’

‘It is to the death sire.’

William laughed, and then caught his breath in pain.  ‘Yes,’ he wheezed. ‘But not yours, not yet I hope.’ He gestured his visitor to plump the pillows and help him sit upright. Jean’s pummelling disturbed the dried lavender sprigs in the 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, to Striguil, and I want you to ask Stephen for the two pieces of silk I entrusted to his care after I returned from Jerusalem.’

Jean’s dark eyebrows rose toward his thatch of silver hair.

‘Yes,’ William said. ‘More than thirty years and a grace of time I did not expect to have.  I have letters for you to take to our men on the Marches too, but your priority is the silks, and you must bring them to me without delay.’  He saw dismay fill Jean’s eyes as he recognised the significance of the request.  It was so 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 leave immediately sire, but what if…’ He broke off, rubbing the back of his neck.

William reached out and gripped 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, you have not.’  Jean swallowed. ‘I would not break a promise to you either.  I swear I shall return as swiftly as I can.’

William looked toward the light streaming through the open window. ‘The weather is set fair and the roads will be firm.’ He gave a semblance of his old smile. ‘I would go with you, but since that is impossible, I shall accompany you in spirit.  God speed your way.’

Jean performed a deep bow, pressed his hand to his heart as he straightened and then briskly left the room, his step filled with pride and purpose.

Weak and worn out, William subsided against the pillows. He gazed at the arches of blue sky through the window, felt a light breeze stroke his face and remembered distant April days 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 him with the speed and strength of a galloping horse. All that physical power and vigour were 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 shouting  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

June 1183

 

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 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, taking 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 threats.

Despite Harry’s theatrical gesture with the penny, a few baubles still remained from his plundering of the tomb of St Martial a few months since – 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 began 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 two strips of silk stitched to the breast of his mantle.

‘Would it not be better to renew peace talks with your father?’

William’s words elicited a contemptuous snort. ‘All he will do is pay my debts and tell me to behave myself in future without giving me the courtesy of listening. Hah! Perhaps I really should go to Jerusalem. That would whiten the old goat’s beard!’ 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 shot 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 becoming the victims of their own mercenaries, who would deal with him harshly, 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. Ah Christ, my guts!’ Abruptly, one hand on his belly, 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 stand 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, fiery 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 intercepted William’s path, folding his arms and pushing one foot forward to draw attention to the sword hilt resting on his hip. ‘I trust you have good news for me Messire Marshal?

‘You will be paid,’ William answered shortly. ‘You have my word.’

‘And I trust your word.’ A hard 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 inclined his head and sauntered back to his game.  William walked on, keeping his stride loose and his hands open, but his thoughts were going round in tight decreasing circles.

 

‘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 sturdy legs were bare save for his short under-breeches.

‘It’s still the middle of the night,’ Ancel groaned, squinting against the lantern light.

‘It’s an hour before dawn.’

‘Where are we going?’  Ancel fumbled for his hose.

‘To arrange some funds – make haste.’

‘About time.  There’s only soup bones in the larder and we’re wagering with tent pegs at dice. ‘Is it a long ride?’

‘To Rocamadour.’

Ancel ceased dressing and his eyes widened. ‘Rocamadour?’

‘Yes,’ William snapped, ‘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 surely punish us!’

‘It’s a loan and will be returned with interest paid.’

‘Yes, on our souls.’ Ancel shook his head. ‘We’ll pay in hell –  I’m not going.’

‘Yes, you are. We have no choice, unless you know where we can find enough money to pay the mercenaries before the next sunset.  If not, we might as well cut our own throats now and have done.’

Ancel pressed his lips together, his expression speaking volumes.

William eyed his mutinous, sleep-tousled younger brother with exasperation.  He had taken Ancel into his tourney entourage four years ago, and then into military service with Harry. Ancel was a strange mingling of opposites – innocent and knowing, dextrous, and clumsy, often foolish, yet full of truthful wisdom.  An asset and a liability.

‘We’ll be damned for this,’ Ancel repeated.

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 tersely. ‘Do not keep our lord waiting.’

Outside the troops were gathering, their breath misting the pre-dawn air.  Amid grunts and spitting and snatches of uneasy laughter, furtive looks were exchanged and the mood was one 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!  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.

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 – an 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 gave William a fixed smile as he set his foot in the stirrup, ‘what are we waiting for? 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 in a grim line.  Without looking at anyone he tossed the satchel over his chestnut’s withers and mounted up.

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 like holy beacons against the new sky. William clenched his jaw and strove to ignore his misgiving 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.  Even a fool could see he was justified.  His father had had him crowned heir to England when he was just fifteen years old, and he had armoured himself in his royalty, 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 had divided the troop. The dozen mercenaries they had brought with them from Martel were hidden well back out of sight.  Riding up to the gate, Harry’s only escort was his personal guard.

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 placed his hand over his heart, his expression now contrite and his eyes enormous with innocence. ‘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 devastating 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 soldiers and tied them firmly to a hitching post. Three swift blasts on the hunting horn summoned the mercenaries.  ‘Remember, no bloodshed,’ Harry warned. ‘I want no stain of death upon this enterprise.’

Leaving the mercenaries and the squires to defend the gate, Harry and his knights made their way swiftly along the narrow street to the steep staircase leading 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 where the stairs led to the terrace of the Virgin’s chapel, but no alarm sounded. A solitary grey-bearded guard was present to keep the 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 said.

The guard spread his hands in surrender and was immediately disarmed and tied up.  Two monks who had been inside the chapel rushed 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 ordered. ‘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 indicated 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 filigree decoration around the base.  ‘We’ll definitely have this – my father presented this to them the year I was crowned. That chalice too.’ He indicated a golden cup studded with gemstones.

Tight-lipped, William slammed back the lid of a chest standing against the wall, venting his pent-up fear and revulsion on the furniture.  Priceless silk vestments crusted with gems and embroidery shone in deliquescent folds of emerald and sapphire together with smocked linens as white as sea foam; garments intended for use on feast days and times of high religious significance, but misappropriated 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 their actions from the eyes of God. William directed operations and kept watch, detaching himself from the terrible desecration, knowing if he thought about the enormity of the sin they were committing, he would be overwhelmed.

Ancel worked in the background, scooping jewels and plate into the satchel while casting dagger glances at William, who eventually faced him out with a glare so steely that his brother dropped his gaze and turned away.

Their damnable work done, the shrine of Our Lady of Rocamadour was bare of all adornment save for the ancient, blackened carving of the Virgin herself, her expression inscrutable in the light from the shrine lamp burning upon her stripped 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 ruby 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 a  sealed parchment, 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 righteous folk with your hell-bound men!’ His gaze flicked with contempt 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’s expression was 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.  You are marked for hell.’

Harry flushed. Leaning forward he tucked the scroll under the old man’s rope belt.  ‘Until my return,’ he said, and pivoting 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 condemnation of the Virgin shaming his soul for eternity.

 

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