Chapter 1 – The Principality of Antioch, Spring 1139
Antioch, the capital of Prince Raymond’s principality, was for Renard a rude and not altogether welcome awakening. It was easier to skirmish with Turks among the Nosairi foothills than it was to swelter along a crowded narrow street on a highly strung warhorse in the wake of a camel’s untrustworthy rear end. Renard hated camels – an aversion stemming from the occasion of his landing in St Simeon four years ago when one had spat an evil green broth all over his tunic and tried to squash him against a wall.
The beast currently blocking his view, belched to an abrupt standstill. Renard’s stallion flattened his ears, and, skittered sideways to avoid a collision. The camel’s Bedouin rider cursed through his blackened teeth and swatted the animal with a leather goad. The camel defecated. Swearing, Renard reined back hard. William de Lorys, a knight of his retinue, closed hard brown fingers over his saddle pommel and grinned. Ancelin, Renard’s English standard-bearer, chuckled into his fair beard, dimples creasing his cheeks. Beyond them, among his soldiers, there were stifled guffaws. The glare Renard threw at the men only increased their amusement.
The camel lurched onwards, its huge flat feet moving with ungainly grace. Renard clicked his tongue to Gorvenal. The stallion pranced, unsettled by the camel and by the press of humanity as from all sides they were assailed by the hot, ripe city. A beggar thrust a sore-encrusted arm beneath Renard’s nose and pleaded for a coin. Another showed him blind eye sockets and a mutilated nose, but he had heard and seen it all before and was too impatient and saddle-weary to feel anything beyond irritation. Four years in Outremer, he thought. Sometimes it seemed like forty. From the marcher hills of his birthplace to St Simeon in northern Syria, he had crossed not only oceans and mountain ranges, but the distance between childhood and maturity. He had been a restless young man of twenty three at the court of his grandfather, King Henry, when he had met Raymond of Poitiers, recognised a kindred spirit, and when Raymond had left for Outremer to become Prince of Antioch, Renard had taken the Cross and accompanied him. Renard’s mother and sister had wept, but his father, watching him with a shrewd gaze that missed nothing, said every man was entitled to sow wild oats providing he learned from their reaping. Renard supposed that somewhere along the way he must have learned. The restlessness still churned through him, but these days he was able to control the turbulence and apply it constructively.
The camel squeezed past two laden donkeys and down an impossibly narrow side street in the direction of the souk. Renard sighed with relief and, relaxing in the saddle, started to view his surroundings in a slightly less jaundiced light. His house in the city, sited conveniently close to the palace, was built of white, sun-flashed stone around a cool courtyard with fig trees and a fountain. It had once belonged to an emir.
As Renard drew rein in front of the shaded stable area, grooms came running to take the horses, and Johad, his Turcopol steward appeared as if conjured from a djinn’s lamp. The man bowed deeply, flashed his master a gleaming smile, and presented him with a cup of freshly pressed fruit juice which Renard took and finished in several swift, parched gulps. ‘Johad, you’re a godsend!’ he said in Arabic as he removed the linen coif from his head. His hair clung to his scalp in black, saturated spikes and sweat trickled into the dark auburn grizzle of a three days’ beard. Returning the cup to his steward, he crossed the stableyard to the bathhouse. William de Lorys followed him. Ancelin, whose dislike of fruit juice was matched only by his dislike of taking baths, waved in disgust and perspired away in the direction of the kitchen to find some decent household wine.
‘Home,’ Renard said later as he sat cross-legged on the floor. Dressed in a cotton shirt and chausses and the flimsiest of silk tunics, he was eating a pilaff of saffron-coloured wild rice and spiced lamb. ‘If I were at home now, I’d be shivering in the thickest tunic I could find with my winter cloak on top of it, and dining on salt beef and gritty bread.’
‘Better than this muck!’ growled Ancelin, spitting a wad of gristle on to the bright rug. ‘Camel stew to eat, and camel’s piss to drink!’
Grinning, Renard reached, Arab-style, for the pilaff bowl. ‘When in Antioch . . .’ he said lightly; but although he had learned to enjoy the eastern way of life, he found that tonight the thought of salt beef was making his mouth water.
William de Lorys gave his young lord a considering look. ‘What else would you be doing if you were at Ravenstow now?’
Renard snorted. ‘God knows! Probably quarrelling with my father about the estates, or disgracing myself with some woman!’
‘Now there’s a thought!’ Ancelin’s eyes brightened.
De Lorys eased a rag of meat from between his teeth. ‘It wouldn’t be as good,’ he said. ‘The women back home aren’t trained like the ones here.’
Ancelin stabbed his index finger at de Lorys. ‘You can do it halfway up a wall with one leg on the roof and the other on the couch if you like. What’s happened to good, honest futtering, I’d like to know!’
Renard regarded the two men with amusement but felt no inclination to take sides. There were valid points to both arguments. His thoughts drifted past them towards the huge, starlit darkness outside. What indeed would he be doing at home now? Quarrelling with his father as he had jested? Perhaps. More likely struggling to keep the lands stable as Stephen and Matilda between them whipped England into the worst storm for its people since the coming of the Conqueror. When Renard had left for Antioch, all had been as calm as a millpond with King Henry as sharp-eyed, parsimonious and cunning as ever, in expert control of all he surveyed – except his own mortality. Within two months of Renard’s departure, the old man was dead of a bad eel stew and his lands cast into turmoil as his daughter and his nephew tussled for the throne. Renard had wanted to come home, but his father had advised against it. Stephen, having snatched the first initiative and with it the Crown, was demanding sureties for good behaviour in the form of hostages from those barons he did not trust, his father among them. If Renard was absent, then he need neither be yielded up nor refused to the King, and a smiling diplomacy could be maintained.
Renard’s two younger brothers were already marcher land-holders in their own right and therefore unlikely to be summoned to dally in custody at the court. John, his older brother, was a chaplain in the Earl of Leicester’s household, and since the latter strongly supported Stephen’s right to be king, John was safe for the moment.
Ancelin and de Lorys were still discussing women. Washing his hands in a bowl of rose-scented water and drying them on the towel presented by Johad, Renard wondered briefly about Elene. How old would she be now? Approaching seventeen and more than ready for marriage. She had been willing four years ago, but her body had been unripe even if her mind had been set, and the ceremony had been deferred until his return. Nell, he thought, with her puppy-like devotion and her joy in all aspects of domestic duty. A fine wife she would make, and an excellent mother to the enormous brood of children with which she expected him to furnish her. Neither mind nor body kindled at the prospect. Their betrothal was a business arrangement, agreed ten years ago; a duty not onerous, but lacking the spark that might have driven him eagerly home to his marriage bed. Here in Outremer, finding a woman for the basic need was simple. It was the men who died.
Johad served dishes of halva, platters of fresh figs, and a sherbet made from pressed lemons. Renard selected a fig. The halva was delicious, but it caused worm rot in the teeth and the taste of honey was sometimes too overpowering. Like this land, he thought. First it tempted you, then it dissolved into your bones, corroding them. Perhaps that was why he was longing for plain Norman fare and the cold, damp spring of the marches that made a fur cloak a necessity. A shiver of longing ran down his spine as he drank some of the cold, slightly bitter sherbet. The discussion about women had ended in a decision to do more than merely discuss.
‘Want to come?’ asked de Lorys as he rose from the remains of his meal and brushed stray grains of rice from his silks. ‘One of the men was telling me they’ve got a new dancer at the Scimitar.’
‘Have they?’ Renard’s interest sharpened. The Scimitar was expensive but the girls were usually worth it.
‘A Turcopol girl. Blond in both places.’ De Lorys gestured eloquently and grinned.
Renard arched a sardonic eyebrow. ‘I won’t ask how your informant knows,’ he said.
The Scimitar was bursting at the seams when they arrived, but Renard was well known there, and the proprietor quickly found a place for him to sit and furnished him with a drink. A youth with kohl-rimmed eyes and a painted mouth propositioned him. Madam FitzUrse, the proprietor’s wife, swatted the boy away in the direction of some Genoese sailors up from St Simeon and apologised. ‘Sometimes we get asked, and it doesn’t do to turn custom away,’ she said.
Renard smiled and raised his cup to her. ‘Business is business,’ he replied gravely.
She regarded him from the corner of a sly, bright eye. ‘Here to see our new dancer are you, my lord?’
Renard affected indifference. ‘I was dragged out by my men who were desperate to get their hands upon some vice after the monk’s life I’ve been making them lead. I am only here to regulate their excesses.’ Then he grinned. ‘But if you have a new dancer, I suppose I might watch.’
‘Hah!’ she nudged him with a meaty elbow. ‘You’ll do more than just watch!’ Forefinger and thumb came up to rub before his face. ‘I’ll warn you now, she’s not cheap. Cost you half a mark.’
‘If she is going to excite me enough to part with half a mark, I doubt I’ll last long enough to justify the expense,’ he said with amusement. ‘Try Ancelin or de Lorys.’
She looked shocked. ‘Would you give your best mare to a novice? Besides, they’ve already found themselves company.’ Patting his arm, she went to help her besieged husband who was refilling pitchers. ‘See me later when you change your mind,’ she called over her shoulder with cheerful confidence.
Renard stared round in search of his knights. Ancelin was in the act of disappearing out of the door with a plump Armenian girl who also sometimes danced. De Lorys was arm-wrestling another customer for the favours of a sultry-eyed Syrian woman with a body as lush as the fertile plain of Sharon. Several times he was approached by one or another of Madam FitzUrse’s girls, but although he knew most of them by name and some by a more intimate acquaintance, he turned them away, his mind dwelling in rank curiosity on the ridiculousness of paying half a mark to spend the night with a whore no matter her beauty or expertise.
Shortly before the dancing was due to start, he finished his drink and went outside to piss, and there, in the stars-tudded darkness of an eastern night, his present mood of nostalgia was consolidated with such force that for a moment he was totally disorientated. A man’s voice spoke from the walled shadows, slurred with drink, but unmistakably using the Welsh tongue. A woman answered him in the same language, her voice low, husky and full of anger, and as Renard’s eyesight adjusted, he made out two figures standing close in argument. ‘I will not!’ she hissed. ‘The money is mine. I work for it and you’re not going to swill it down your gutter of a throat!’
‘You little whore, you’ll do as I say!’ The man’s fist wavered up.
‘Go swive yourself!’ Accurately she spat in his face and ducked under his arm. He made a grab for her enveloping dark robe and suddenly a dagger blade flashed in his hand as he wrenched her round to face him. ‘Your face is your fortune, girl!’ he snarled. ‘Don’t tempt me to ruin it.’
Renard set his hand to his own dagger hilt and took a forward pace, but before he could intervene, the girl made a sinuous movement and drew her own blade from within the voluminous folds of her robe. ‘Strike, then,’ she hissed. ‘Let us see who is the faster!’ Small bells tinkled daintily on her ankle bracelets and her feet were bare as she positioned them with feline precision.
Renard’s loins and belly contracted with an instinctive reaction to the dangers of a knife fight. The woman was holding her weapon competently, a gleaming silver crescent, and the man was staring at her in fuddled anxiety. Renard changed his mind about the identity of prey and victim. ‘Listen, lass, there’s no need—’
‘Piss-proud coward!’ she sneered, stepped again and struck. Metal grated on metal and in a circular motion the man’s knife spun like a falling star and puffed in the dust. Weaponless, the man stared and swallowed. The woman’s feet wove across the ground and Renard caught a glimpse of spangled fabric as she shifted and struck again with the exquisite Saracen blade. Her victim howled and doubled up, clutching at his belly. Deciding it had gone far enough, Renard shouted and strode towards them. Startled, the woman looked up and across. Renard received the impression of huge, dark eyes and a chain of coins winking on a smooth, pale brow before she drew the hood of her robe around her face and, knife still in hand, melted into the deep shadows of a stone-arched entry that led into the back of the Scimitar.
‘Whore!’ the man gasped, still doubled over. ‘Conniving, ungrateful whore!’
Renard’s spine prickled. He stared towards the dark mouth of the entry and wondered whether he had really seen it happen or if his imagination was running wine-wild. The man took one hand from his stomach and looked at the dark smear on his palm. ‘Bitch,’ he moaned. ‘No gratitude.’
‘It was what you deserved.’ Renard glanced round. Behind him he heard the tinkle of bells and the soft patpat of a drum. The dancing had started. ‘Is it bad?’
‘Course it’s bad!’ the man snarled. ‘Look what she’s done, the whore!’ Renard stared. Then he spluttered. The dagger had indeed caught the fool, but only the tip in a thin, red surface inscription. The mortal damage was to the string holding up the grey, stained chausses and whatever shreds of soused dignity the fool was striving to preserve. Renard gave in to his laughter but was not so overcome that he did not see the man shuffling sideways, eyes to the ground. Reflexes entirely sober, Renard moved rapidly and closed his fingers on the haft of the fallen knife – once a serviceable but now sadly out-worn hunting dagger. The grip was dropping to pieces and the blade had been sharpened so often that it was wafer thin. Angling his wrist, he struck at the wall, the full force of his right arm behind the blow. A blue spark flashed briefly, illuminating the weapon’s destruction as it shattered. Within the lean strength of his fingers, the grip came apart. He dropped the pieces on the ground, dusted his hands free of fragments and looked steadily at the drunk. The man swallowed and licked his lips. ‘I was just leaving,’ he said and, clutching a bunched handful of his torn chausses, started hobbling away. He paused once and looked over his shoulder, but Renard still watched him, and with a grunt and a bemused shake of his head, he gave up and shambled off.
The drums pulsed sensuously. A cricket chirred on the wall beside Renard and there was a mark in the stone where the dagger had struck. He gazed at the pieces in the dust and felt uneasy. Nothing that could be pinned down and given form or reason, but he found himself wishing he had chosen not to visit the Scimitar tonight and almost followed the drunkard out into the street.
‘Renard?’ hissed de Lorys from the doorway. He swung round. ‘Are you going to be out there all night? You’re missing the new dancer!’ He sounded as excited as a child.
The impulse to flee receded. Smiling ruefully at his own misgivings, Renard returned to the crowded interior of the tavern. Being tall, he could see over the heads of most men. Ancelin was an exception and in his line of vision, but he eased in front of him, elbowing him in the belly when he protested. As he took his first glimpse of the Scimitar’s new dancing girl, he received his second shock of the night.
‘Is she not a beauty?’ muttered de Lorys.
‘Oh definitely,’ Renard responded with more than a hint of dry sarcasm. Beneath the mesh headdress with its headband of bezants, her kohl-lined eyes were huge and dark, and her garments were of silk fabric, spangled with stars. Her mouth was sultry and as red as blood, and beneath her headdress, the hair that whipped her undulating body was the colour of sun-whitened wheat. Her skin was not the fair or rosy kind that typically accompanied such hair, but was as golden as spilt honey. The dance she performed for Madam FitzUrse’s gawping customers was of the usual erotic order, guaranteed to send any newcomer to Outremer out of his mind with lust and fill with delight those who had only a passing acquaintance with the land. Men more experienced, who might usually have walked yawning, were riveted by her striking looks and by the way she cast her eyes around the throng like a lioness backed into a corner, one paw raised to strike. Bells tinkled on her ankles and silver zills chinked between her forefinger and thumb. Her hips moved in a sinuous, hypnotic gyration.
‘Oh God!’ groaned de Lorys in agony as she whirled and the tempo increased. She threw back her head and arched her throat, and the headdress swung and flashed. Torchlight shimmered on her tinselled garments. Her eyes roved contemptuously over her sweating, lusting audience, her pupils as wide and dark as those of a night-hunter. She licked her red, red lips and smiled. Renard found himself responding and dropped his gaze. On first arriving in Antioch, he had gorged himself on dancing girls, unable to believe his good fortune; gorged until he was sick of the very sight of them and they held no appeal for him. As time passed, his appetite had returned, but these days he consumed in cautious moderation. He felt that he should be using caution now. The dish before him was certainly edible, but so hot that it would likely scorch the fingerprints off anyone attempting to do so, and half a mark was too steep a price to pay for burnt fingers.
Men were tossing coins on the floor around her stamping feet. Her fingers fanned over her body, imitating those of a lover and she fell to her knees, hair sweeping the floor as the drums pounded to their climax. Renard could not help himself. He raised his head and looked at her. Her lids had been closed, but as the final throb of sound resonated and died, she opened them and met Renard stare for stare, and he saw that her eyes were not brown as he had thought, but a blue as rich and deep as the sky beyond the stars.
The Scimitar erupted with roars of appreciation, loud whistles, thumped tables, bellows for more. Coins showered upon the panting, sinuous girl. A drunken young idiot made a grab for her and was snatched away by the scruff. She gained her feet in one lithe movement and lowered lashes that were thick and black, spiky with soot and gum. The drum beat lightly. She danced among the scattered coins, stooping gracefully here and there to collect them up.
Renard’s throat was dry and his palms sweating. He wiped them on his tunic and, turning abruptly away, forced a path through the avid crowd of men. Madam FitzUrse gave him a knowing smile and tipped wine from the pitcher she was holding until his cup brimmed. ‘Well, what do you think of her, my lord?’ Renard took three long swallows to prevent the drink from spilling. ‘She’s a good dancer,’ he said diffidently.
Amused, she mopped a puddle of wine from the trestle. ‘Aye, she’s that, and more if you’ve a mind.’
‘Half a mark.’ He cocked her a bright look. ‘Why so expensive?’
‘Why don’t you ask her to show you?’
‘And risk being stabbed in my dignity?’ he snorted. ‘I think not.’
She pursed her lips and then shrugged. ‘Ah well, if you’re not in the mood, I’m not the one to force you.’ Turning at a shout from her husband, she gestured that she was coming, and patted Renard’s shoulder. ‘Her name’s Olwen. If you change your mind, the payment is half to her and half to me.’
Renard sat down at the trestle to drink. Another girl was dancing now, slender and dark as a dockside cat. His view was more than half blocked but he had no real inclination. Olwen. A Welsh name for a Scandinavian-fair girl who handled a dagger like a man and danced like a sinning angel in a brothel and drinking house frequented by the knights and soldiers of Prince Raymond’s guard. An enigma to be treated with the utmost wariness, if not abstained from completely.
He finished his drink and made to leave, but his cup was pushed back at him and refilled with rich ksara wine. Surprised he stared beyond the lip of the pitcher and a gold-bangled wrist into the dark sapphire eyes of the dancing girl. Their colour was emphasised by the gown she had changed into – damask silk cut in the Frankish style and as deep as midnight. ‘Stay,’ she commanded, giving him the predatory look of a cat at a mousehole.
Renard’s skin prickled. ‘Is this free, or do I have to pay half a mark?’ he challenged, but did as she said. Her gown rustled, releasing the waft of an exotic, spicy perfume as she sat down next to him.
‘Half a mark? Is that what she told you?’ She jerked her chin at Madam FitzUrse who was watching them with a smug smile.
‘I said I was not interested.’
‘You lied.’ Her voice was a compound of smoke and cream, and held more than a hint of scornful amusement. She extended a taloned forefinger and drew her nail gently over the back of his hand. ‘Men always lie.’ She gave him a slow, wild smile. Her shoulder rested against his. The neck of her gown was decorously fastened but accentuated rather than concealed her figure. The warmth of her perfume rose from between her breasts. Renard realised that his body, independent of his mind, was gradually being wound up taut like the rope on a mangonel. He could feel the long pressure of her thigh against his and her forefinger in gentle dalliance on his wrist. He shifted away from her. ‘Where did you learn to fight with a knife?’ he asked abruptly.
She picked up his cup and took a long, slow swallow of the wine. ‘I was born with one in my hand.’
‘And your name is Olwen?’
‘Sometimes.’ Lowering the cup, she looked at him. ‘And yours?’
He stretched his legs beneath the bench. ‘That depends on the woman,’ he said with a smile. It was like a sword fight, he thought; each of them trying to strike beneath the other’s guard. ‘Cullwch perhaps?’
A pink tint stained her face. ‘You know the tales?’
‘My grandfather used to recite them to me. He was part Welsh, and I grew up on the Welsh borders surrounded by bards and storytellers. Cullwch and Olwen was a frequent one.’
She pushed the drink back into his possession. Her colour remained high. ‘My father was a Welshman,’ she said in a gentler tone than she had used thus far. ‘He came over with Duke Robert, took up with my mother after the siege of Antioch, and stayed. He died when I was eleven.’ Abruptly she tossed back her hair and narrowed her eyes. ‘You’re clever, aren’t you?’
‘If I was clever,’ Renard grimaced, ‘I would not be about to place half a mark on this table.’
‘You can afford it.’ The contemptuous expression returned to her face as she perused his rich silk tunic and gilded belt.
‘I am not sure that I can,’ he contradicted with a pained smile. ‘I’d certainly never buy a horse this way.’
‘You wouldn’t take a horse to your bed.’
His lips twitched. ‘I wouldn’t take a knife-wielding virago either . . . not unless she promised to behave.’
She stared at him with suspicious eyes. They were a deep, ocean sapphire and he could have drowned in them.
‘To behave,’ he added softly, ‘as befits the circumstances, Olwen fy anghariad.’ And he watched her through his lashes to determine the effect that using Welsh would have on her. She reminded him of a lioness, was quite likely to maul him, and his blood was surging with a rough heat he had not experienced since the early days of discovering the pleasures of bed-sport.
‘Don’t call me that!’ she snapped. ‘I am not your beloved!’
‘Not even for one night of pretence?’ Fishing out the coins he arranged them before her on the table, saw with a rueful glance Madam FitzUrse advancing on them, and wondered at his own folly.
‘Changed your mind then?’ the landlady smirked.
‘Lost it more likely,’ he retorted as she scooped up her share of the money and secreted it in her ample bosom. A fight broke out across the room. Renard instinctively turned towards it. Shouts and flying fists, an overturned bench and splattered wine. A woman screaming. Madam FitzUrse hitched her breasts, gestured to two brawny serving men, employed for just such occasions, and waded in to separate and evict the culprits. Renard grinned and looked back at the girl only to discover that both she and his money had disappeared. With an oath, he shot to his feet and, having cast a rapid eye around the room, shouldered a path through the other drinkers to the back entrance and out into the courtyard where chance had first shown her to him.
It was silent and dark, apart from an unsteady drunk attempting to urinate in the gutter and splashing his boots instead. Cursing, he swung round to search elsewhere . . . and discovered that she was blocking his way.
‘I went to fetch my robe and other things.’ She held up a small tied bundle. Tilting her head, she considered him. ‘Did you think I had run with your money?’
Renard breathed out hard. ‘It had crossed my mind.’
‘It crossed mine too,’ she half smiled. ‘I suppose you are familiar with the way to the rooms?’ Husky scorn edged the question.
Renard held out his hand. ‘Your knife,’ he said.
Her eyes flashed with anger. Faster than a pouncing cat, Renard caught her wrists and with his free hand sought out the weapon from its neatly stitched sheath inside her robe. Gasping with effort, she writhed in his grasp. He dropped the knife, stood on the flat of the blade to keep it safe and dragged her against him, body to body, their faces bare inches apart. ‘A knife is not part of the bargain,’ he said, his mouth hovering over hers. ‘And neither for half a mark is a room in this place. I have a house; it isn’t far.’
‘Not without my dagger,’ she mouthed back at him, and raised herself on tiptoe to stroke herself against him in a slow, enticing friction.
‘No.’ The space closed between them and they duelled in a long, silent kiss. She leaned in towards him, moving with her dancer’s grace, a small whimper rising in her throat as he palmed the tip of her breast. She clutched him, parting her thighs as the caress moved downwards, rubbing herself upon his fingers; then suddenly, like a viper striking a lulled prey, she snatched his own dagger from his belt and thrust herself out of his arms.
‘Yes!’ she panted triumphantly.
Breathing hard, assailed by anger, irritation and pure, hot lust, Renard fought for control and assessed his chances of disarming her. Probable but not certain, and if he gave in to his temper, he was lost. ‘All right,’ he said indifferently and stooped to retrieve her dagger from beneath his boot. ‘We’ll exchange these as lovers’ tokens in the morning, shall we?’ He stuffed the weapon in his belt. She studied him warily. He held out his hand. ‘Are you coming, or are you going to give me back my money?’
Despite the raucous noise from within the Scimitar, a silence hung around them, heavy as a cloak. The tension mounted, but as Renard began to think he would snap, his dagger disappeared into the voluminous folds of her robe and she stepped up to him again. Setting her palms to his chest, she looked up through her spiky black lashes. ‘Well then,’ she said ‘you had better show me the way.’ The words were loaded with double entendre and spoken coyly like any common dancing girl’s. His sense of humour returned, tempering his lust. ‘I don’t know if I can,’ he said as he led her into the street. ‘We’ll never get any further than the stable yard if we keep on fighting over who is going to be the rider and who is going to be the horse.’