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Chapter 1 – The Welsh Marches, Autumn 1126

On the day Adam de Lacey returned to the borders after an absence of more than a year, the monthly market at Ravenstow was in full, noisy cry, and thus numerous witnesses watched and whispered behind their hands as the small but disciplined entourage wound its way through their midst. The young man at the head of the troop paid scant attention to their interest, to the bustling booths and mingling of scents and stenches, the cries and entreaties to look, to buy – not because it was beneath him to do so, but because he was preoccupied and tired.

As Adam rode past a woman selling fleeces and sheepskin winter shoes and jerkins, the lilting cadence of the Welsh tongue pleased his ears, causing him to emerge from his introspection and look around with a half-smile. Of late he had grown accustomed to heavy, guttural German, spoken by humourless men with a rigid sense of rank and order, their lifestyle the opposite of the carefree, robust Welsh, who had few possessions and pretensions and set very little store by those who did.

The outward journey to the mourning court of the recently deceased German Emperor had been filled with the violence and hardship of long days on roads that were often hostile, and the route home had been even worse owing to the querulous temper of his charge. Adam was an accomplished soldier, well able to look after himself where the dangers of the open road were concerned. The lash of a haughty woman’s tongue – and she the King’s own daughter and Dowager Empress of Germany – was a different matter entirely. Her high estate had prevented him from defending himself in the manner he would have liked, and the obligation of feudal duty had made it impossible for him to abandon her on the road, forcing him to bear with gritted teeth what he could not change; but then he was used to that.

A crone cried out to him, offering to tell his fortune for a quarter-penny. His half-smile expanded and developed a bitter quality. He flung a coin towards her outstretched fingers but declined to wait on her prophecy. He knew his future already – the parts that mattered, or had mattered once until time and grim determination had rendered them numb. Abruptly he heeled his stallion to a rapid trot.

Ravenstow keep, the seat of his foster father’s barony shone with fresh limewash on the crag overlooking the busy town. It had been built during the reign of William Rufus by Robert de Belleme, former Earl of Shrewsbury and now King Henry’s prisoner, his evil rule a fading but still potent memory; too potent for some who had lost their friends and family to the barbaric tortures he had practised in his fortress strongholds a generation ago. Adam’s own father had been de Belleme’s vassal and accomplice, his name stained with the overspill from de Belleme’s infamies. Adam knew from servants’ tales, whispered in dark corners, the kind of man his father had been: a dishonourable molester of women and young girls, tarnished with murder and guilty of treason. Not an ancestor to claim with pride, but one to bury deep with guilt and shame.

The drawbridge was down but the guards on duty were swift to challenge him, and only rested their spears when they had taken a close look at his banner and the face revealed to them as he removed his helm by its nasal bar. Then they let him pass with words of greeting on their lips, and speculation rife in their eyes. Eadric, the head groom, emerged from the stables to take the dun and deployed his underlings among Adam’s men. ‘Welcome, my lord,’ he said with a half-moon grin. ‘It has been a long time.’

Having dismounted, Adam stared around the busy bailey which looked just as it always had. The smith’s hammer rang out clear and sweet from the forge against the curtain wall. A soldier’s woman was tending a cooking pot over an open fire, and the savoury steam drifted tantalisingly past his nostrils, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten since well before prime. Hens pecked underfoot, doves from Countess Judith’s cote cooing and pirouetting among them. A curvaceous serving girl carried a tray of loaves across the ward and was whistled at by a group of off-duty soldiers playing dice and warming their backs against a sunny timber wall. ‘A long time, Eadric,’ he agreed, with a sigh and a wary smile. ‘Is Lord Guyon here?’

‘Out hunting, sir, and the lady Judith with him.’ Eadric looked apologetic, and then brightened. ‘Master Renard is here though, and Mistress Heulwen.’

The smile froze upon Adam’s face. He set his hand to his stallion’s reins as though he would mount up again, but then glanced round at his men. He could hear their groans of relief and see the way they stretched stiff muscles and rubbed sore backs. They were tired, having ridden a bone-jarring distance, and it would be foolish and grossly discourteous to ride out now that their presence was known.

A young man with a stork’s length of leg came striding towards him from the direction of the mews, stripping a hawking gauntlet from his right hand as he advanced. He had pitch-black hair and strong features just beginning to pare out of childhood’s unformed roundness. It took Adam a moment to realise that this was Renard, Lord Guyon’s third son, for when last encountered the lad had been a lanky fourteen-year-old with less substance than a hoe-handle. Now, although still on the narrow side, his limbs were beginning to thicken out with pads of adult muscle and he moved like a young cat.

‘We thought you’d gone for good!’ Renard greeted Adam with a boisterous clasp on the arm and a total lack of respect. His voice was husky and a trifle raw, revealing that it had but recently broken.

‘So did I, sometimes,’ Adam answered wryly, and took a step back. ‘Holy Christ, but you’ve grown!’

‘So everyone keeps telling me – but not too old for a beating, Mama always adds!’ Renard laughed merrily, displaying white, slightly uneven teeth. ‘She’s taken my father hunting because it’s the only way she can get him to relax his responsibilities for a day, short of spiking his wine – and she’s done that before now. There’s only myself and Heulwen here. She’ll be right glad to see you.’

Adam lowered his gaze. ‘Is her husband here too?’

They went up the forebuilding steps and entered the great hall. Sweet-scented rushes crackled underfoot, and sunlight shone through the high window spaces and illuminated the embroidered banners adorning the walls. Renard bade a servant bring wine, then tilted his visitor a speculative look from narrow, dark-grey eyes. ‘Ralf was killed at midsummer by the Welsh.’

‘God rest his soul.’ Adam crossed himself, the words and gesture emerging independent of his racing mind.

Renard grimaced. ‘It was a bad business. The Welsh have been biting at our borders like breeding fleas on a dog’s back ever since it happened. Warrin de Mortimer chanced on the attack, drove the Welsh off and brought what was left of Ralf home. Heulwen took it badly. She and Ralf had quarrelled before he rode out, and she blames herself.’

The maid approached them with a pitcher and two cups, her eyes flickering circumspectly over Adam. He stared through her, a muscle bunching and hollowing in his cheek. The wine was Rhenish, rich and smooth, and he almost retched, remembering Heulwen’s wedding day and how he had drunk himself into a stupor on this stuff and Lady Judith had forced him to be sick in order to save his life. Afterwards, the incident had faded into a memory recalled with wry chuckles by everyone except himself. Sometimes he wished that they had been sufficiently charitable to let him die.

Renard sat down on a fur-covered stool before the hearth, dangled his cup between his knees and said disgustedly, ‘De Mortimer’s been buzzing around Heulwen like a frantic wasp at an open honey jar. It’s only a matter of time before he formally asks my father for her.’

‘Is he likely to agree?’

Renard jerked his shoulders as if ridding them of something that chafed. ‘Admittedly it’s a useful bond, and as Warrin was once one of my father’s squires, he’ll probably get a generous hearing.’

Adam filled his cheeks with the wine, then swallowed it. He remembered the rasp of dust against his teeth, the sensation of a spur-clad heel grinding on his spine, a mocking voice telling him to get up and fight. The bruises, the humiliation, the tears swelling painfully in his throat and choked down by fear of further scorn; the effort to rise and face his adversary, knowing he would be knocked down again. Training, it was called: a thirteen-year-old facing a man of twenty, whose sole concern was to display his superiority and put the most junior squire firmly in his place. Oh yes, he well knew the glorious Warrin de Mortimer. ‘And Heulwen herself?’ he asked with forced neutrality.

‘Oh, you know my sister. Playing hard to get as only she can, but I think she might have him in the end. Warrin offered for her before, you know, but was turned down in favour of Ralf.’

‘And now Ralf’s dead.’

‘Yes.’ Renard cocked him a curious look, but something in Adam’s manner made him change the subject. ‘What’s Matilda like?’

Adam gave him a rueful look. ‘That would be the “Empress Matilda”,’ he said. ‘Woe betide anyone who doesn’t afford her the full title. She’s as cold and proud as a chunk of Caen stone.’

‘You don’t like her then,’ Renard said with interest.

‘I didn’t get close enough to find out – I didn’t want to end up as stone too!’

The younger man grinned over the rim of his goblet.

‘It’s no cause for laughter, Ren. Henry hasn’t just summoned her home to comfort his dotage or her widowhood. She’s to be our future queen, and when I see her treating men like dirt under her feet, it chills me to the marrow.’

‘Just how did you end up in the entourage sent to fetch her?’ Renard asked.

Adam smiled darkly. ‘I’ve served at court, so I suppose Henry knows I’m discreet and stoical – unlikely to boil over in public at being called a mannerless oaf with mashed turnip where my brains should be.’

‘She said that to you?’ Renard bit his lip in an unsuccessful effort to conceal his mirth.

‘That was the least of her insults. Of course, most of them were in German, and I didn’t ask to have them translated. Even a mannerless turnip-brain has his pride. I—’ He stopped and stared across the hall, suddenly transfixed. Heulwen stood in a shaft of sunlight that fired her braids beneath the simple white veil to the precise colour of autumn oak leaves. Her russet wool gown was laced tightly to her figure, and as she approached the hearth the delicate gold embroidery at the throat and hem of the dress glittered with trapped light. Adam closed his eyes to break the contact, swallowed, and prepared to endure. He would rather a hundred times over have undergone the haughty scorn of the Empress Matilda than face the woman who approached him now: Heulwen, Lord Guyon’s natural daughter out of a Welsh woman whom his own father had murdered during the dispute for the crown more than twenty-four years ago. He rose clumsily to his feet and some of the wine slopped down his surcoat, staining the blue silk. He could feel his ears burning and knew he had coloured like a gauche youth.

‘Adam!’ she cried joyfully, and with complete lack of self-consciousness flung her arms around his neck and drew his head down to kiss him full on the lips. The scent of flowers engulfed him. Her eyes were the colour of sunlit sea-shallows – azure and aquamarine, flecked with mica-gold. His throat tightened. No words came, only the thought that the Empress’s remarks were perhaps not insults but the truth.

Heulwen released him to step back and admire the new style of surcoat he wore over his hauberk, and the ornate German swordbelt. ‘My, my,’ she teased, ‘aren’t you a sight for sore eyes? Mama will be furious to have missed greeting you. You should have sent word on ahead!’

‘I was in half a mind to ride to Thornford first,’ he said in a constricted voice, ‘but I have a letter to your father from the King.’

‘Churl!’ she scolded, eyes dancing. ‘It’s fortunate that some of us are not so lacking in courtesy. There’s a hot tub prepared above.’

Adam stared at her in dismay. He was accustomed to bathing at least once in a while. Indeed, he enjoyed the luxury and relaxation it provided, but he was filled with dread, knowing that Heulwen, as hostess, would be responsible for unarming him and seeing to his comfort.

‘I haven’t finished my wine,’ he said woodenly, ‘or my conversation.’

Renard said unhelpfully, ‘You’ll only have to repeat it all later to my parents, and there’s no law against taking your wine upstairs.’

‘And since I have gone to the trouble of preparing a tub, the least you can do is sit in it. You stink of the road!’ It was hardly the way to speak to a welcome guest, and Heulwen could have bitten her tongue the moment the words emerged. Since Ralf ’s death she had found herself being irritable and snappish. People made allowances – those who knew her well – but it was a long time since she and Adam had shared the closeness of childhood friendship.

Adam stared obdurately at the wall beyond her head, refusing to meet her eyes. ‘Well that’s because I’ve been on it for a long time – too long, I sometimes think.’

She touched him again with eyes full of chagrin. ‘Adam, I’m sorry. I don’t know why I said such a thing.’

‘Because you have gone to the trouble and I am not suitably grateful?’ he replied with a grimace that just about passed for a smile. ‘Well if I am not, it is because I’ve had a crawful of being ordered around by a woman.’

‘Straight to the middle of the target!’ crowed Renard at his blushing half-sister.

‘No insult intended in my turn.’ Adam put down the cup which was still more than half full of wine, and went towards the curtain that screened off the tower stairs. ‘Bear with me awhile until I’ve found the grace to mellow.’

‘Jesu,’ Renard said to her with a shake of his head. ‘He hasn’t changed, has he?’

Heulwen looked baffled. ‘I don’t know. When I mentioned the bath, I thought he was going to turn tail and flee.’

‘Perhaps the Germans mutilated him below,’ Renard offered flippantly, then shot her a shrewd glance. ‘Or perhaps they didn’t.’

Renard was like that. The unwary were lulled into seeing a likeable, shallow youth, wallowing through the pitfalls of adolescence towards a far-distant maturity, and then he would suddenly shatter that assessment with a piercing remark or astute observation far beyond his years.

‘Then he’s a fool.’ Heulwen tossed her head. ‘I’ve bathed enough men in courtesy to know what sometimes happens if they’ve been continent for too long. I won’t be embarrassed.’

‘No,’ Renard quirked his brow, ‘but he might.’

Adam stood in blank contemplation of the steaming tub, while around him the maids bustled, checking the temperature of the water, scattering in a handful of herbs, laying out towels of thick softened linen, setting more logs on the fire and fresh charcoal in the braziers to offset the seeping cold from the thick stone walls.

‘I’m sorry if I made a mistake,’ Heulwen said, lowering the curtain behind her. ‘I thought that a bath would be a comfort after a long day on the road.’

His mouth smiled, but his eyes remained on a distant point beyond her. ‘And so it is. As you said, I was just being a churl.’

She considered him. There had been no engagement in his voice; she might as well be speaking to a tilt yard dummy for all the response she was receiving, and her irritation flared. ‘Is it just a matter of venting the heat?’ she asked in a practical tone. ‘Shall I summon one of the soldiers’ sluts?’ That at least elicited a gratifying widening of his eyes.

‘What?’ The pitch of his voice revealed that he had heard her perfectly well, but did not quite believe his ears.

‘Well, what other reason could you have for refusing a bath? You can’t be shy and you are not the kind to take vows of abstinence in order to purify your soul.’

‘I didn’t refuse.’ He compressed his lips.

‘You tried.’ ‘Because I’m tired and I haven’t the wit or patience to match bright talk with you!’ he snapped, and through the anger and shock, realised she was baiting him to see just how far his temper and credulity would stretch. As of old.

‘That’s better,’ she approved. ‘I was beginning to think you had remained in Germany and sent a wax effigy home in your stead, and were afraid of it melting in the bath water.’

Adam suppressed the urge to throttle her out of hand; and then his sense of humour fought its way to the surface and stepped carelessly upon the ruins of his pride. He snorted. ‘You did that apurpose.’

‘I wanted to destroy that mask you’re wearing, and I’ve succeeded, have I not?’ Her head cocked to one side, she studied him. ‘Was the Empress so awful, then?’

‘I’ve experienced worse,’ he said, smiling now.

‘Churl!’ she repeated, and laughed. ‘All right, I’ll stop plaguing you for the moment. Here, give me your surcoat!’ Efficiently, she whisked the garment from him, then exclaimed with pleasure at the quality of the silk, and with regret that it was snagged and marked with rust from his hauberk.

‘It keeps the sun off your mail,’ he said, laying aside the swordbelt, ‘and it’s good for impressing the peasants – essential to the escort of an empress.’

Heulwen helped him remove his weather-stained mail shirt. ‘This needs scouring before you can wear it again,’ she tutted as she dropped it on the floor and spread it out. ‘I’ll have it sent to the armoury. There have been several Welsh attacks this year, including the one that killed Ralf and you might need it.’ Carefully she rolled the hauberk into a neat but bulky bundle, and before he could protest that he was not intending to stay and that there was no need, the garment had been spirited away for refurbishing. He sat down on a low stool to remove his boots and hose. ‘When I left, the Welsh situation was fairly quiet, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone.’

‘Well it’s fluid now. They have a new lord over the border and he’s been cutting his teeth on your lands during your absence and on Ralf ’s since early summer. My father hasn’t had the time to engage him properly. Miles would have been of an age to take some of the burden, but Miles is dead – we can’t even mourn his grave because he drowned.’ She bit her lip and steadied herself. ‘John’s chosen the church because he’s blind as a bat, so he’s little use. Renard’s shaping up well, but he’s not old enough to bear any serious responsibility yet, and Henry and William are still only children.’ She gave him a taut smile. ‘Still, now you are home you can set the worst of it to rights, I am sure.’

‘Oh, there’s nothing I enjoy better than a good fight,’ he said flippantly, and lowered his eyes to the unwinding of his garters.

Heulwen’s smile dropped, and faint vertical lines appeared between her brows. Adam had always been difficult. Although not her brother by blood, she had always regarded him as such. She had romped with him in childhood – climbed trees and swung from a rope in the stables, stolen apples from the undercroft and honey cakes from beneath the cook’s nose. They had shared a passion for the fine blood-horses that her father and grandfather bred. A bareback race for a dare had resulted in a thrashing. She had been confined to the bower for a week and Adam had been sent in disgrace to one of her father’s other keeps to ponder the folly of his ways. Adolescence had caught them both unawares. She had matured quickly, and at fifteen had married Ralf le Chevalier, a neighbour of theirs who was a past master in the art of training her father’s destriers. It had been her admiration for his dextrous handling of all that power that had first brought them together. As her love for Ralf blossomed, Adam had retired into uncommunicative sulks, his natural reticence becoming a full-blown unwillingness to interact with anything or anyone. She could still see him now, his expression surly, his face cursed by a red gruel of spots, his body long-shanked and uncoordinated. Ye withal, he had had a peculiar grace, and a way with a sword. And even if he wore a constant scowl, he was always reliable and diligent. Taking his shirt now, she clucked her tongue over its threadbare state. ‘I notice the Empress was not so finicky about garments not on display,’ she remarked. ‘You must let me measure you and get the seamstresses to stitch you some new clothes.’

‘Organising my life for me?’ he needled her. Heulwen laughed and handed his remaining garments to the maid. ‘What else are sisters for?’ As she looked teasingly over her shoulder at him, the laughter left her face and her stomach wallowed. Her mind had been talking to the lanky, spotty boy of her childhood. Now the illusion was stripped bare, as if shed with his garments, and she found herself confronting Adam the man, a stranger she did not know. Renard had warned her and she had not listened, and now it was too late. The spots had gone, replaced by the ruddy glint of beard stubble prickling through his travel-burned skin. His hair was sun-streaked, the russet-brown bleached to bronze where it had been most exposed, and his eyes were the colour of dark honey. His thin, long nose was marred midway by a ridge of thickened bone where it had been broken and reset slightly askew, and a faint white scar from the same incident ran from beneath his nose into the lopsided long curve of his upper lip. Her glance flickered lower, taking in a physique that was no longer out of proportion. There were a few scars on his body too that had not been there before. One of them, obviously recent and still pink, curved like a new moon over his hip. Hastily she looked away and gestured him to step into the tub. Her throat was suddenly dry and her loins, in contrast, were liquid. Never would she have thought to apply the term ‘beautiful’ to Adam de Lacey, but the cygnet had shed its down, and more besides. ‘You have seen some hard fighting recently,’ she said hoarsely, and busied herself finding a dish of soap.

He stepped into the oval tub and sat down. The water was hot, making him gasp and flinch, but at least it concealed the more unpredictable parts of his anatomy from her view. ‘We were attacked several times on the road by routiers and outlaws. They picked the wrong victim in me, but some of them took the devil of convincing. Am I supposed to use this?’ She took back the soap dish she had just handed to him with a puzzled look. ‘I shall smell as sweet as a Turkish comfit!’ he elaborated with a genuine laugh. Irritated at her mistake, she replaced the rose attar lavender concoction with something less scented. ‘Renard told me about Ralf,’ Adam said into the uneasy atmosphere. ‘I’m sorry. He was a good man, and I know you loved him.’

Heulwen straightened up like a warrior preparing to resist a blow. Yes, Ralf had been a good man: a fine warrior and superlative horseman, all that men would admire. But he had been a poor husband and an unfaithful one, rutting after other women the way his stallions did after mares on heat – and then there was the matter of all that unaccounted-for silver in their strongbox. ‘It is never safe to build on quicksand,’ she said with a hint of bitterness, and fetched him a shirt and tunic of her father’s, his own baggage still being below in the hall.

‘What about Ralf ’s stallions?’

Heulwen shrugged her shoulders. ‘I thought I might sell them, but two of the three are only half trained and could be worth much more if they were properly schooled.’

He returned to his ablutions. Women and warhorses. Le Chevalier had been expert in the art of taming both. Adam only had the latter skill, learned out of a jealous need to prove that he was as good as the man Heulwen had chosen to love, a skill in which, as a mature man, he now took a deep and justifiable pride. ‘I could finish Ralf ’s work,’ he offered diffidently.

Heulwen hesitated, then shook her head. ‘I couldn’t take advantage of you when you’re so recently home.’

‘You would be doing me a service. I haven’t worked on a horse since leaving for Germany, and it will give me space to relax between curbing the Welsh and organising my lands. I am the one who would be beholden.’ His eyes met hers and then he averted them.

‘Well then, thank you,’ she capitulated with a nod. ‘There are two half-trained stallions as I said, and one that Ralf was hoping to sell at Windsor this Christmas feast.’ Adam stepped from the tub and dried himself on the towels laid out. Turning his back, he quickly donned the clothes she had found for him. Struggling with a sense of hopelessness, he felt like a fish caught by the gills in a net. Oh Heulwen, Heulwen!

‘They’re stabled in the bailey. My father and Renard have been exercising them since Ralf died.’ Her expression brightened. ‘You can see them now if you like – if you’re not too travel-worn. There’s time before dinner.’

‘No, I’m not too travel-worn,’ he said, glad of an excuse to leave this chamber and their forced proximity. Although she had made the initial suggestion, he was the one to move first towards the door. ‘I’m never too tired to look at a good horse.’

She smiled with sour amusement. ‘That’s what I thought you’d say.’

 

Hands on hips, Adam watched Eadric and two undergrooms lead the three destriers around the paddock at the side of the stables. There was a rangy dark bay, handsome and spirited, a showy piebald, eminently saleable but of less calibre than the bay, and a sorrel of Spanish blood with cream mane and tail and the highstepping carriage of a prince. It was to the last that Adam went, drawn by admiration to slap the satin hide and feel it rippling and firm beneath his palm.

‘Vaillantif was Ralf ’s favourite too,’ Heulwen said, watching him run his hand down the stallion’s foreleg to pick up and examine a hoof. ‘He was riding him when he died.’

Adam looked round at her and carefully set the hoof back down. ‘And the Welsh didn’t keep him?’ ‘I don’t think they had time . . .’

‘I’d have made time if Iwere a Welsh raider.’ He nodded to the groom, and with a practised leap was smoothly astride the stallion’s broad, bare back. The destrier fought the bit, but Adam soothed and cajoled him, gripped with his thighs and knees, and urged with his heels. Heulwen watched him take Vaillantif on a circuit of the paddock and her stomach churned as he went through the same routines as Ralf had done, with the same assurance, his spine aligned to every movement the horse made. Even without a saddle, his seat was easy and graceful. Vaillantif high-stepped with arched crest. He rapidly changed leading forefeet. A command from Adam and he reared up and danced on his hind legs. Another command dropped his forefeet to the ground and eased him into a relaxed trot and then a ground-consuming smooth canter. A quick touch on the rump and he back-kicked. Adam brought him round before her and dismounted, pleasure flushing beneath his tan. ‘I’ve never ridden better,’ he declared with boyish enthusiasm. ‘Heulwen, he’s worth a king’s ransom!’

‘God send that you should ever look on a woman thus!’ she laughed.

His face changed, as if a shutter had been slammed across an open window. ‘What makes you think I haven’t?’ he said, giving all his attention to the horse.

Heulwen drew breath to ask the obvious question, but was forestalled by the noise of the hunting party clattering into the bailey, and turned to shade her eyes against the slant of the sun to watch their return. Her father sat his courser with the ease of a born horseman. He was bareheaded, and the breeze ruffled his silver-scattered dark hair and carried the sound of his laughter as he responded to a remark made by the woman riding beside him. A packhorse bearing the carcass of a roebuck was being led away towards the kitchen slaughter shed where the butchering was carried out. The houndkeeper and his lad were taking charge of the dogs that enveloped the humans knee deep. A white gazehound bitch clung jealously to the Earl’s side, nose thrusting at his hand. ‘Yes, he’s still got Gwen,’ Heulwen replied to Adam’s raised brows. ‘It’s the first time since her pups were born that she’s left them to run with the hunt. If you ask Papa nicely, he might give you one once they’re weaned.’

‘Who says I want a dog?’

‘Company for you at Thornford.’ He angled her a dubious look and started across the crowded bailey. Lord Guyon, alerted by a groom, lifted his head and before Adam had taken more than half a dozen paces, was striding to meet him. His wife gathered her skirts and hastened in his wake. ‘We’d given you up for a ghost!’ Guyon clasped Adam in a brief, muscular bearhug.

‘Yes, graceless whelp, why did you not write!’ This reproach was from Lady Judith, who embraced him in her turn and kissed him warmly, her hazel-grey eyes alight with pleasure.

‘It wasn’t always easy to find a quiet corner, the places and predicaments I was in, and you know I have no talent with parchment and quill.’

Lady Judith laughed in wry acknowledgement. Her foster-son was literate through sheer perseverance – hers and the priest’s – but he would never write a fluent hand. His characters had a disturbing tendency to arrive on the parchment either back to front or upside down. ‘No excuses,’ she said sternly, ‘you could have found a scribe, I am sure.’

Adam tried without success to look crestfallen. ‘Mea culpa.’ ‘So,’ said Judith with a hint of asperity that reminded Adam for a moment of her half-sister the Empress, ‘what brings you to the sanctuary of home comfort when you could be preening at court?’

Adam spread his hands. ‘My task was fulfilled and the King gave me leave to attend my lands until Christmas.’

‘Henry is back in England?’ Judith took his arm and began to walk with him to the keep. ‘Last we heard he was in Rouen.’

‘Yes, and in fine spirits. He gave me letters for you and your lord. I have them in my baggage.’

Lady Judith sighed and looked ruefully at her husband. Letters from Henry were rarely social. Frequently they were commands or querulous complaints, and usually they elicited ripe epithets from her husband who had perforce to deal with them. ‘Can they wait until after dinner?’ she asked with more hope than expectation.

Guyon gave a caustic laugh. ‘They’ll either spoil my dinner or my digestion. What’s the difference?’

Judith shot him a reproving scowl. ‘The difference is that you can decently wait until Adam has settled himself. If the news was urgent, I am sure he would have given it to you immediately.’

‘Scold!’ Guyon complained, opening and shutting his hand in mimicry of his wife’s jaw, but he was grinning. Her eyes narrowed with amusement. ‘Do you not deserve it?’ Turning her attention from him, she looked around the hall. ‘Where’s Renard?’

‘Training the falconer’s daughter to the lure I very much suspect,’ Heulwen replied. ‘That new hawk of his is past needing his full attention.’

Judith cast her glance heavenwards. ‘I swear that boy has the morals of a tom-cat!’

‘He’ll settle down soon enough once the novelty of what he can do with it wears off,’ Guyon said, unperturbed. ‘The falconer’s lass is no innocent chick to be devoured at a pounce. She’ll peck him where it hurts if he dares beyond his welcome.’ He nodded down the hall at the knot of men clustered at a trestle and deftly changed the subject. ‘Sweyn and Jerold are still with you, I see, but I don’t recognise the other two or the lad.’

‘I’ll introduce you,’ Adam answered. ‘The boy’s my squire, Ferrers’s bastard. His father had him marked out for a career in the church, but he was thrown out of the noviciate for setting fire to the refectory and fornicating in the scriptorium with a guest’s maidservant. Ferrers asked me to take Austin on and fit him for a life by the sword. He’s shaping well so far. I might ask to keep him when he’s knighted.’

Guyon, thirty years of winnowing wheat from chaff behind him, looked the men over with a critical eye. Sweyn, Adam’s English bodyguard, was as dour and solid as ever, his mouth resembling a scarred, weathered crack in a chunk of granite. Jerold FitzNigel had been with Adam for more than ten years – a softly spoken Norman with rheumy blue eyes, a sparse blond moustache, and the lankiness of a sun-drawn seedling. His appearance was deceptive, for he was as tough and sinewy as boiled leather. The two new men were a pair of Angevin mercenary cousins with dark eyes and swift, sharp smiles. Guyon would not have trusted either one further than he could throw a spear. Ferrers’s lad was a compact, sturdy youth with intelligent hazel eyes, a tumble of wood-shaving curls, and a snub nose that made him look younger than his seventeen years and a good deal more innocent than his history. The group also numbered a dozen hard-bitten men-at-arms, survivors of numerous skirmishes across the patchwork of duchies and principalities lying between England and the German empire. A motley collection, but all wearing the assurance of honed fighters.

‘They’re good men to have at your back in a tight corner,’ Adam said, as they left the soldiers to arrange their belongings out of the way of the trestles that were being set out ready for the evening meal.

‘Were my doubts so plain?’ Guyon looked rueful. ‘I must be getting old.’ He glanced sideways at Adam. ‘Will they not grow restless without battle?’

‘Probably, but I don’t foresee a problem. I’m not expecting there to be much peace.’

The glance hardened. ‘In that case, you had better let me see that letter now,’ he muttered.

Adam shrugged. ‘I can tell you and spare my squire’s feet. I know what’s in it because I was there when Henry dictated it to his scribe. You are summoned to attend the Christmas feast at Windsor, and your family with you.’

Guyon relaxed, and with a grunt led Adam to the small solar at the far end of the hall, which was screened from the main room by a fine, carved wooden partition and a curtained archway. ‘Not just for the joy of seeing his grandsons, I’ll warrant,’ he said cynically as he sat down on a pelt-covered stool. ‘Since the death of his heir, Henry’s been so eaten up with envy of my own brood that it hasn’t been safe to make mention of them, let alone set them beneath his nose, William in particular.’

Hardly surprising, thought Adam. King Henry had fathered over a score of bastards, Lady Judith among them, but his only legitimate son had drowned and his new young wife showed no signs of quickening. The White Ship had been a magnificent vessel, new and sleek when she was boarded in Barfleur on a cold November evening by the younger element of the court, intent on catching up with the other ships that had left for England earlier in the afternoon. The passengers were well into their cups, the crew also, and the ship had foundered on a rock before she even cleared the harbour, with the loss of almost everyone on board. Guyon’s firstborn son and heir had also been a victim of the White Ship disaster, but there were four other boys to follow, the last one born only a month after the sinking.

‘He’s inviting everyone else too, for the purpose of binding their allegiance to Matilda as his successor.’

Guyon rubbed at a bark stain on his chausses. ‘Bound to come I suppose,’ he sighed. ‘She is, after all, his only direct heir, but it won’t be a popular move. Is he expecting a rebellion?’

‘Reluctance, yes. Rebellion no.’

The lines at the corners of Guyon’s mouth deepened. ‘Some will come very near to it,’ he said, frowning. ‘It’s going to stick in the craw to have to render homage to a woman – a foreign woman at that – and from what I hear of her, Matilda won’t offer them a sweetener to help them swallow their bleeding pride. She’d rather see them choke on it.’ He cast Adam a speculative look. ‘What about William le Clito? He’s the King’s nephew by his older brother, and certainly has prior right to Normandy, if not to the throne.’

‘Are you one of le Clito’s supporters?’

‘God’s balls, no!’ Guyon gave a short bark of laughter. ‘What do you take me for? The lad’s no more set up to rule than a blind hawk’s capable of bringing down prey! He’s done nothing all his life but dance to the French King’s schemes! If I favoured anyone, it would be one of Henry’s other nephews, Stephen of Blois, and even then I’m not so sure. He’s too good-natured and not enough iron in his soul to be strong like Henry.’

Adam nudged a sprig of dried lavender among the rushes with the tip of his boot. ‘What about Robert of Gloucester? He’s Henry’s son, and he’s got the stamina that Stephen lacks.’

Guyon dismissed Adam’s candidate with a wave of his hand. ‘If we allowed ourselves to think of him as our future king, we’d have to consider all the other royal by-blows, and they number as many as the years Henry’s been on the throne, and include my own wife. Besides, Gloucester’s not like that, and I know him well enough to trust one of my sons in squirehood to him. He’s not the kind to desire the weight of a crown on his head, and he used to worship the ground Matilda trod on when they were small children.’

Adam dipped his head. ‘Point taken.’

Guyon looked shrewdly at Adam. ‘But, if we swear for Matilda, then we also swear for her future husband, whoever he might be – or do we have a say in that? Knowing Henry for the slippery creature he is, I think not.’ Adam took a mental back-step, realising from whom Renard had inherited his sudden thrusts of perception. ‘Do you know who he might be?’ Guyon pursued. ‘No clues on your long tramp from Germany?’

Adam felt his ears burning. ‘No, sir.’ He watched his toe crush the strand of lavender and all the little dried balls fall off into the rushes. A pungent, herbal smell drifted past his nostrils. ‘Fair enough.’

‘It’s not that . . .’

Guyon shook his head. ‘If you cannot speak, then so be it. Doubtless I’ll learn soon enough. Suffice to see that you are keeping your fighting men. I know what to expect.’

‘I’m not keeping them so much for that purpose as for the Welsh.’ Adam uttered the half-truth, half-lie with what he hoped was plausible sincerity. After all, it was only what he had inadvertently overheard between the King and the Bishop of Salisbury, whose tentative discussion had been more an examination of possibilities than anything solid. ‘Heulwen said that there is a new lord across the dyke causing trouble?’

‘Davydd ap Tewdr,’ Guyon said with a grimace. ‘And trouble is not the word. Either that or I’m slowing down. He’s been running rings around me and the patrols. He claims that my tenants and Ralf ’s have encroached beyond his boundaries. Well, you can’t stop the farmers grazing their beasts where they see good pasture, and the animals can’t tell the difference between Welsh grass and English grass – it all tastes the same. There’s bound to be some encroachment, and I’d be a naïve fool if I believed it was all one-sided. I suppose I should take my troop across the border and hunt him down, but he’s skilled in woodcraft, and I’d not be assured of the victory. I’ve even toyed with the thought of offering him a marriage alliance now that Heulwen’s a widow. She’s Welsh on her mother’s side and part of mine through her namesake my grandmother, but I’ve as good as committed myself to de Mortimer’s offer when it is made official.’

Adam was horrified. ‘Jesu – you surely don’t mean to accept!’

Guyon shrugged. ‘Warrin’s father is a personal friend. He mooted the idea of a match between them more than ten years ago, but Heulwen had already drawn her bow at Ralf and I turned the offer down. Since then, Hugh’s been trying to pair off his infant daughter with Renard, but I have no intention of accepting. This will ease the pressure on me. Besides, with the Welsh being so troublesome, we need authority like Warrin’s along the border. Widows don’t stay widows long in the marches. It is too dangerous, and Heulwen accepts the fact of an early remarriage.’

‘You are willing to sacrifice her in the name of policy?’

Guyon looked irritated. ‘Grow up, Adam. How often are matches made without a practical reason behind them? It’s hardly a sacrifice. She likes him well enough, and Warrin’s matured since those early days. Still likes his own way and has the will to get it, but that happens to be an advantage when it comes to dealing with my daughter. She’d walk all over a man of less character. You know what she’s like.’

‘Not the kind to live in amity with a man of de Mortimer’s ilk for long,’ Adam said thickly. ‘What will you do if he thrashes her? As I remember, it was his every remedy for those who baulked his will or answered him back.’

‘I told you, he’s learned control since then. People change as they mature. She is my only daughter, and precious for the memory of her mother as well as for herself. I would never put her in a situation where I thought she would be unhappy.’

Adam said nothing, but his lips thinned.

‘I realise that you and Warrin hate the sight of each other, that it goes gut-deep, and I know you are tired from your journey, so I make allowances. Suffice to say the final choice is my daughter’s. I won’t constrain her to anything she does not desire of her own free will, and she knows it.’

Adam pinched the bridge of his nose. Gut-deep, so Guyon said. Yes, it affected him thus: a quivering tension in the belly, but it also ran bone-deep and soul-deep, and was not something he would ever be able to discuss with detachment. Better to change the subject before there was a rift. ‘How fares Lord Miles? Is he still well?’

‘Fit as a flea considering his years!’ Guyon laughed with relief, equally anxious not to quarrel. ‘The damp plagues his bones and he tires more quickly than he used to, particularly since Alicia’s death. She was a full ten years younger than he was and he always thought he would go first. He’s taken William into the hills for a few days. The boy wants to learn to track like a Welshman, and my father’s obliging, although I don’t believe the lad’s capable of keeping still for longer than the time it takes to blink. They’re due home tomorrow or the next day.’

Adam said ruefully, ‘I keep thinking of William as a babe in arms, it hardly seems a day since his baptism.’

‘Three months after the White Ship went down and our future security with it.’ Guyon’s expression was suddenly harsh. ‘God grant the lad a warrior’s arm and a lawyer’s cunning when he comes to manhood. He’s going to need both.’

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