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Authors: David Gilman

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‘I think that must have come from his family. That grip is ivory, the crossguard looks to be a fine steel like the blade, so perhaps his ancestors brought it back from the crusades. You know the dagger Guillaume carries?'

‘The one on his belt? He always has it.'

‘Yes. It's special to him. Had it since he was younger than you,' said Blackstone, remembering when that dagger had quivered inches from his face, held by the then nine-year-old Guillaume, a terrified page who wanted only to protect his Burgundian master after the river crossing at Blanchetaque. ‘We all have a weapon that's special to us. We cherish them and keep them close. Give it to me.'

His son could barely hide the disappointment at relinquishing the knife. Blackstone held it and felt its weight.

‘This is a nobleman's knife, Henry. It's one of the best I've seen. That's why I took it from him.' He paused and then extended the knife. ‘For you. For your birthday.'

That night, when the men in the barn slept and Blackstone had checked the sentries, he and Christiana bathed and afterwards she rubbed oils into his bruised muscles, tending the cuts that had festered from lack of care. They languished in their great bed, bolstered with cushions and woven blankets, a smouldering fire in the grate, his dogs whimpering at the door until his voice commanded their silence. The children slept in another room, but were close, so Christiana's cries of passion were muted and buried in the pillows. Before he had left on his latest raid she had finally overcome the loss of her unborn child. Nights of prayer had kept her from Blackstone's bed, testing his patience until their arguments increased. The loss, she said, was a divine punishment, though Blackstone had failed to discover what crime had been committed to make God pull the child from her womb, but she could not be consoled. The months had passed and as the winter bit hard Blackstone had taken himself into the barn to cut stone for his wall. That slow, determined stonemason's skill had never deserted him and it mollified his anger to see something built rather than destroyed. And then one storm-driven day she came to him and they lay in the warm straw and banished the barren months with a desperation to their lovemaking. Theirs was a strange fate: bound together out of the conflict of war, but it was a bond that strengthened them, each having fought and cared for the other.

Somewhere a loose door banged in the wind, and a muted sentry's voice shouted for it to be closed. Blackstone stroked the fullness of her breasts and whispered a breath across her nipples. They rose to his lips and he teased them with his tongue. They had already sated their lust and now was the time for the quiet, slow enjoyment of lingering sex. She eased her arms around his back, her fingers stroking his old scars, and as she felt the raised welts across his muscles from his latest battle, a shudder went through her. Fear and passion fought each other until his deliberately slow movement within her suppressed her anxiety and bathed her in warmth and love, drifting into the dim candlelight.

Christiana settled into the crook of his arm. ‘I have prayed to our blessed Virgin Mary for a baby, Thomas. I want another child,' were her final whispered words as she fell asleep.

5

Guillaume Bourdin had never yet managed to rise from his sleep before his sworn lord. Blackstone had the ability to wake at least an hour before the first glimmer of dawn crept into the sky, no matter the season. Before first light he would be found in the solitude of the exercise yard, practising with Wolf Sword. There were times when the young squire thought his master fought demons. Several years ago, when he was still a boy, Guillaume had survived the plague and ridden thirteen days in search of Blackstone, who had once spared his life. His own lord, Henri Livay, lay dead from the hideous black swellings inflicted by the Great Pestilence. The boy's will to survive brought him to the man who granted him the honour of being his squire and taught him to fight. He inherited Livay's fine sword, and learnt how to use it well, but as young as he was and as skilled as he had become, he had never witnessed such relentless fury in a fighter as that in his sworn lord, Sir Thomas Blackstone, a knight whom the Norman lords declared to be the most ferocious they had ever seen. And yet that fury, which men revered in a war leader, was never witnessed by family or friend.

The story of how Blackstone came by the sword, with its maker's mark of the running wolf, had been known for years and Guillaume never tired of the telling. The great swordsmiths of Passau in Germany had learnt their skills from the Saracens following the crusades. And Wolf Sword had been a gift from a German count to his son, who campaigned with the King of Bohemia, an ally of the French. It had been the German's misfortune to have slain Thomas Blackstone's brother on the field at Crécy. It was there, Guillaume thought, that his master's demons had been unleashed. For, as the German knight came within striking distance of the young Prince of Wales, the English archer took the fight to him and killed him despite being badly wounded himself. No devil or god could have expected muscle and sinew to do what Blackstone did. And every time Guillaume burnished his lord's armour, he would recite the legend to Blackstone's son, Henry, who had yet to learn the ways of fighting men. He was still like a child who played with younger children, a source of contention that Guillaume was aware of, but it was not his place to pass comment or to encourage the boy beyond telling him stories and pleasing Lady Christiana by playing with the children when time from his duties permitted.

He suspected that Blackstone shared her gratitude, but it was a matter that was never discussed between them when they campaigned together. And now that there would be no fighting for the rest of this year, Guillaume would spend more time with the boy and help him with his Latin studies. He knew, though, that Sir Thomas would never cease their training schedule and that when the weight of his domestic life bore down they would ride out to the other walled towns so that Blackstone could be with his men and ensure their readiness to fight. And to absent himself from the women who would visit Lady Christiana and share his hearth. And gossip.

Blackstone's manor was not large: a cluster of buildings in the yard housed stables and a few servants; its kitchen stood close to the great hall. Although each room had a fireplace all the socializing was done where the fire burned the brightest, in the great hall, its chestnut bressummer mantel spanning four cloth yards. Blackstone was gracious enough to spend time with these infrequent visitors, grateful that they showed sufficient concern to be with Christiana while he was away campaigning, but he did not have the luxury of those Norman barons who had sufficient income from their lands. The tithe that Blackstone took from his villagers was sufficient to keep the house warm and food on the table for the handful of hobelars who lived with their women and guarded the manor's boundary. Each town under Blackstone's control took a similar
patis
, offering protection for the peasants in return for the feeding of his soldiers and a percentage of any goods sold in local markets. But payment for these men had to be in plunder and that was why he undertook the campaigns that he did, reaching ever further from the safety of his home to take on those loyal to King John and stripping them of coin, plate and livestock. In attacking other men-at-arms or noblemen he deprived them of their own supplies, which meant that those peasants who farmed their lord's land would suffer. Some might even starve. But they were of no consequence to him. His own people looked to him for protection and to ensure they got through the winter with enough food on their tables. That was his duty to them as much as they had theirs to him.

Blackstone was held in esteem by those who knew his worth and feared by those who thought him a common butcher, elevated by the English royal house from the lowest ranks, renowned for their slaughter of the greatest knights in Christendom: the archers.

In the chill barn where Guillaume cleaned his lord's armour he glanced at Blackstone, who seemed to be concentrating too hard on sharpening his archer's knife.

‘Is Henry going to be so useless that he'll be packed off to a monastery?' Blackstone asked. The dumping ground for weaklings, half-witted children of the nobility or the inbred peasant.

Guillaume knew Blackstone's son was a worry to him. ‘My lord,' he said, ‘he's intelligent in his studies and well versed in other matters as befits an educated boy.'

Blackstone had taught Henry to ride and swim, taking him out into the river's deep pools so he could feel the cold, teaching him how to cease the shivering by concentrating his mind and ignoring his body's suffering.

‘He's not that strong,' Blackstone argued, wanting to hear that he was wrong and that his son had shown the squire a side to his nature that he himself had not seen.

‘No,' Guillaume answered, ‘he's not, Sir Thomas. But he tries hard.'

That was the truth, and he could always rely on his squire to be truthful. It was a virtue that sometimes bordered on the painful. Blackstone loved his son; cherished him as much as he adored the boy's sister, Agnes. It was a joy kept hidden from most lest anyone think the poorer of him, though who that might have been was a question he could never answer. Still, showing too much affection to a son could be detrimental to the boy himself. He would be thought weaker than he was, derided by other children as being shielded and protected by an overprotective father. Eyebrows had been raised when he forbade the priest from whipping Henry because of his lack of progress in his Latin studies. What damned difference did it make if he could not learn the language of lawyers and monks? Unless he became one.

‘I should spend more time with him. He'll be nine this year.'

‘Yes, lord. Let him feel the weight of your sword in his hand and experience what it is you feel when you grasp it.'

Blackstone knew that the surge of power and violence that coursed through him when Wolf Sword lay in his grip and the blood knot was fastened around his wrist would never be experienced by his son. Those feelings had nothing to do with the balance or the finely honed steel of its blade.

‘Aye, let him feel its weight, but find more time to spend with the training sword. He needs to feel what its edge can do to a careless boy who does not shield himself properly.'

Guillaume began burnishing the armour again. He had no desire to contradict his sworn lord, nor did he wish him to see the doubt in his eyes. Henry lacked the grim determination that every boy needed to go through the punishment of training. ‘My Lady Christiana will notice any bruising, lord.'

‘Then strike him where it will not show. He has to learn, Guillaume.'

The squire faced his master. ‘I will lose his trust if I hurt him, Sir Thomas. He's not—'

‘Strong?' Blackstone interrupted. ‘You think I don't know that? I don't care if he hates us both. If we do not teach him, then the day will soon arrive when he must go to a nobleman's house and learn the harsh reality of being alone and punished for every wrong step.'

Blackstone left his squire to continue his duties and took away his own doubts about his son and his inability to be a good father.

Simon Bucy, the man who wanted to deprive Henry Blackstone of his father, pondered the fate of France and the vital role he could play in saving her. From his magnificent urban estate close to the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés he gazed from the window of his mansion across the gardens towards the Royal Palace. So much turmoil had been endured by the people of this great city. It was only a few years ago that half its population, some fifty thousand, lay in wretched death on its streets. The great paved streets that led through the city suburbs to the countryside had seen no royal procession but bore witness to the crippled rhythm of cartwheels as they lumbered, stacked with the dead, towards the communal graves. But now Paris was alive with street traders and commerce, and must never fall into the hands of the barbaric English soldiers. Let Edward increase his foothold in Gascony for now if he must, but those who secretly supported him, and who could hand the keys of this great city to his King's enemies, must be stopped. He had to find a way to cut the root of the Norman lords' power, to disinherit them of the strength they possessed. There could be no sudden violence inflicted upon them; instead they must be drawn in, snared and dispatched. But how to destroy the man who could rise up in their support, bringing hundreds of the men who garrisoned his towns? What was his weakness that could be exploited? If Thomas Blackstone stayed entrenched at his home in Normandy, as the King's spies informed Bucy, then little could be done to draw him out.

A servant's footsteps scuffed the floor. Bucy gestured the man forward and took the folded note from the silver tray that was offered. The ink-smudged paper showed a decent hand from a poorly sharpened quill, but it had been written in haste. Bucy had sent word to the one Norman lord who might answer the question that preyed on his mind. The traitor could not be seen visiting Bucy's residence; instead a messenger would rendezvous with him and unsigned notes would pass between them. No seal or mark to reveal the writer.

Honour and fealty, or a quest for wealth, could take a man across the world to fight an enemy he never knew. But what kept such a man at home? He needed to find the means to geld the scarred Englishman. He tore open the note.

Bucy swept down the cloisters of the abbey church of Saint-Magloire that stood north of the city. Messengers had gone before him to keep the monks out of sight. This secret meeting needed no witnesses and the church had been endowed with enough money for the prior to know when absence was required. Two of Bucy's guards stood at the great doors that led to the vaulted darkness of the church. As he stepped across their threshold they closed behind him, their sullen echo reverberating across the flagstones. A cloaked figure stepped out from the shadows, his tabard hidden; the hood of his ermine-lined cloak covering his face. Bucy glanced left and right, a matter of habit to ensure there were no other witnesses to the meeting, that no monk lay prostrate in the near darkness, humbling himself before God. He knew it was unnecessary, because his guards had already swept through the side altars and pressed beyond the massive pillars to explore the shadows by torchlight. Only the traitor stood waiting.

BOOK: Defiant Unto Death
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