Authors: David Gilman
The Norman lords watched as the cart drew level with the scaffold's steps. Soldiers stood aside as d'Aubriet found his footing on them â steadying himself; willing his legs not to tremble and expose his fear. The crowd roared when he appeared on top of the platform. The hooded executioner stood to one side as the captain of the guard released d'Aubriet's bonds. He rubbed his wrists, eyes scanning the crowd, seeking out the brightly coloured tabards of his fellow barons. Sir Godfrey raised an arm.
âBernard! Your friends are here!'
The condemned man gave a rueful smile and nodded; then, as if eager for it to be over, he took the gold coin kept for him by the captain and handed it to the executioner, who cupped his hands like a begging bowl and dipped his head in acknowledgement. The executioner's assistant stepped forward, but d'Aubriet made a small gesture declining his help and tucked the hair from the nape of his neck under the plain white linen cap. He turned once again to face his friends, ignoring the baying of the crowd, and held up his palms to them â man leaves this world empty-handed.
A muffled drum roll began to silence the crowd.
The cut-purse Raoul felt the wave of silence engulf the onlookers, their attention locked onto the scaffold and the kneeling man. The masked executioner quickly bent, took the sword from beneath its cloth covering and with practised concentration swung the blade.
The sound of its edge biting bone was plain to hear. The crowd gasped. The dull thud of a head falling held their attention a moment longer.
Raoul parted a purse from its owner's belt as voices roared approval. The corpse jerked, spraying blood. No sooner had the boy cut the purse than he felt a man's grip on his neck and looked up into the scowling face of one of the Norman lord's men.
Jean de Harcourt and the others had already turned their backs on the bloodied platform and saw nothing of a street urchin being apprehended.
âWe must ready ourselves,' Guy de Ruymont said.
âAnd Blackstone could be useful to us in these coming months,' added the Lord de Graville. âWhere is he?'
They shouldered their way out of the throng, feeling the chill winter air even more. âI don't know,' Jean de Harcourt answered. âRaiding somewhere.'
âYou don't know? We might need him,' said the older Norman. âHe's your man!'
Sir Godfrey de Harcourt answered before his nephew. âHe's no one's man; you should know that by now. Wherever he is, he'll come home, and then we'll approach him.'
When Blackstone had recovered from his wounds, sustained those years ago at CrÃ©cy, and shown his skill with Wolf Sword, Jean de Harcourt had taken him to the arsenal at Clos des GalÃ©es, near Rouen, and paid for a suit of armour, its steel made from the best iron ore in the region, mined at Pont-Audemer. Impoverished knight that he was, the armour not only protected Blackstone but also proclaimed his status as a man with powerful friends. It was while journeying back to Castle de Harcourt on this occasion that he and Christiana discovered the place that would become their new home. The Risle valley, north-west of Harcourt, had known mixed fortunes. The English had pillaged it; the plague had caused the deaths of many more; but Thomas and Christiana had found an old fortified manor, abandoned and partly ruined, in a hamlet within sight of the river, protected from the north-east wind by a forest of ancient chestnut trees.
Several families farmed the surrounding land and, when the young, battle-hardened knight claimed the manor and its domain as his own, they submitted to his vow of protection. Now the fifty or so peasants were well fed and prospered through their own efforts and the generosity of their warlord, who had declared them free men. Lord de Graville had bequeathed Blackstone a retainer, Hugh, to act as his steward. The old man could read and write and was accepted as Blackstone's authority on the land when he was absent. Christiana, though, was a strong voice when it came to organization and she often clashed with the old steward. It was a contest she seldom won because the hunchback knew the land and could gauge a shift in the weather better even than Blackstone himself. The Englishman whose bent arm would never pull a war bow again and the crooked-backed Norman understood each other perfectly â and both knew that Lady Christiana would inspect the ledgers and spot any errors. To that end she was mistress of her husband's lands. Mutual respect was established.
As Blackstone led his weary troops along the forest track, the scent of woodsmoke pulling him home like an invisible thread, he turned to smile at those who followed. Guinot, the Anglo-Gascon, raised his bent and aching back from the saddle and caught the smell from the fires and the mouth-watering aroma of freshly baked bread. The half-dozen soldiers urged their horses forward, their long ride almost behind them. Food, rest and safety were within sight.
There were horses tethered in Blackstone's yard and he saw that they and the squire and page who attended them belonged to Jean de Harcourt. And there were other horses at hitching rings. The sudden anticipation of returning home turned quickly into uncertainty as the sight of a dozen soldiers loitering by the stables with the horses told him it could not simply be a social call from his old friend.
âShould we hold back, my lord?' asked Guinot.
âNo, they're friends. Take the men and the supplies to the stable yard.' Blackstone spurred the horse forward as his own men-at-arms appeared, hands on sword hilts in case the approaching horsemen were enemies. They quickly recognized Blackstone.
âSir Thomas! My Lords de Harcourt and de Ruymont are here,' one of them told him, standing aside as Blackstone's horse clattered through the archway into the courtyard. Guillaume dismounted and held Blackstone's reins.
âChristiana!' he called. Servants were scurrying back and forth, bobbing in curtsy or bowing their heads as they saw him.
There was a sudden flurry of people from the entrance hall. Christiana lifted her skirts and almost ran towards him; Jean de Harcourt and Blanche were only a few steps behind, as was Guy de Ruymont and his wife, Joanne.
âThomas!' Christiana cried, and embraced him.
Blackstone's uncertainty was soon explained when Jean de Harcourt gripped his arm. âWe had news that you were dead. God has answered our prayers.'
Christiana wiped tears away, bravely bringing her emotions back under control, as befitted a knight's wife. Blanche had moved to her side. âThomas, you caused your family and friends great distress. The moment we heard we all came here to be with Christiana and the children.'
âDon't look so mystified, Thomas,' said Guy de Ruymont, âwe never know where your raids take you. News of your death should come as no surprise to any of us.'
âAs you can see,' Blackstone said, âI may stink, but I'm alive.'
âWe had news from Brittany that a ship sank in foul weather and that your shields were washed ashore in the wreckage. There were no survivors, and only three bodies were found.'
Blackstone felt a pang of regret at hearing the news. So, Master Jennah of Hythe had drowned.
âWe used the boat to attack a stronghold to the south. The ship's master was a good man. His skill gave us success.'
âThen we'll offer up prayers for him,' Blanche de Harcourt said.
âYou've been away from us too long. There's a lot to tell you,' de Harcourt said quietly. He was more subdued than usual, thought Blackstone. His friend looked drawn and pale; his features were gaunt, like those of a man recovering from a wound.
âBernard has been executed in Paris and the King does not realize the mistake he's made,' added de Ruymont quickly.
âD'Aubriet? For surrendering land? Are the King's men riding into Normandy?' Blackstone asked. If this was a determined strike against the Norman lords, then they needed to prepare their defences.
âNo, it was a gesture to show us his authority. He is in no position to come here,' said de Harcourt. Blackstone could see the concern and anger on the men's faces.
De Ruymont's wife intervened. âGuy, this is not the time or the place to berate the King orâ'
The amiable Norman turned suddenly on his wife. âDo you presume to know when I should speak on matters of importance?'
Joanne de Ruymont blushed and lowered her head.
The embarrassed silence was quickly broken when de Ruymont smiled at Blackstone. âNow, we must leave you to celebrate your safe return.'
âNo, we'll stay!' said de Harcourt. âThis calls for a party, surely. Something at last to cheer us!'
There was still an awkwardness between Guy and his wife. Blanche de Harcourt, being from the senior family present, exercised her right of decision. âAnother time, Jean,' she said gently. She knew the passion she had for her husband whenever he had returned from battle and Christiana and Blackstone would need their privacy.
âYou are all welcome to stay,' said Christiana hospitably, hoping the invitation would be seen for the social politeness it was.
It was Guy de Ruymont who stepped down to his friend de Harcourt and murmured something into his ear. De Harcourt's sudden look of understanding could not be disguised. He laughed. âIt's been too long since I fought, Thomas; I'm getting old and fat and dull-witted. When your wounds have healed and you have rested,' he said, âthen ride over and spend a day with us so we can tell you what has been happening in your absence and hear of your success.'
âAnd we will discuss the arrangements for Henry's party. It won't be all politics,' said Blanche de Harcourt.
The women kissed each other's cheeks and Guy de Ruymont pressed Blackstone's shoulder. âIs it true Saint-Clair has fallen? We heard rumours.'
Blackstone nodded. âWe took it.'
âYou are a madman, Thomas, I've always known it,' said de Ruymont, then lowered his voice so that his wife would hear no blasphemy: âSweet Jesus, you have either an angel or a demon at your shoulder.'
Despite de Ruymont's caution his wife heard what he said and, risking her husband's admonition, could not resist a barbed comment. âYour wife is your angel, Thomas; it is you who gives sanctuary to the demon. More time on your knees in a chapel would not serve you ill. You seek treasure and fortune elsewhere, but they are here under your own roof. You should stay at home more often.'
Before Guy de Ruymont could say anything, Christiana stepped between them. âJoanne, Thomas knows what he has, and what will always be here when he returns,' she said, slipping her arm through his.
Attendants brought the horses forward; the escort of soldiers was already formed up. Jean de Harcourt gathered his reins. âYou forget, Joanne, Thomas did not inherit his wealth, he fought for it. Christiana, I'm counting on you to make him come and see us.'
She nodded, grateful for her friends' companionship and care. Blanche de Harcourt had turned out to be more than the guardian she once was. âI thank you all, for being here and comforting me.'
âWe're the closest thing you have to family beyond these walls, and Normans look after their own,' said de Harcourt. âThomas! We'll want to hear everything! A week! No longer! There's only so much sleep and â
â a man needs,' he added gruffly, and then turned his horse and led the others from the manor's courtyard.
There were times, Blackstone thought, that it might seem to others as if Christiana cared more for his squire than she did for him. Whenever they rode home from their time away it was always the same, her greeting to him was always controlled and then she would turn her attention to Guillaume. Blackstone's youngest child, Agnes, would throw herself into his arms, her chestnut hair flicking like a pony's tail from beneath her embroidered linen cap. This time was no different. No sooner had the horses left the yard than the children ran from the house. Blackstone felt a surge of affection for the freckle-faced child whose eyes were as green as her mother's; Blackstone cherished her joyful innocence. Village children worked; noblemen's were cosseted; but this child knew happiness. Her giggling and shrieks of laughter as Blackstone nuzzled her with his close-trimmed whiskers made her hide her face behind her hands. His son Henry stood, as always, at a respectful distance and waited to be called, unlike the dogs that snuffled and whined at their master's feet. The handful of servants scurried from room to room of the small manor house, making a last-minute attempt to replace any soiled reed flooring with freshly cut stalks and to sprinkle fragrant herbs into the fires.
âThere was no word of you coming home other than the news of the shipwreck. Would it have been so difficult to send a messenger?' Christiana asked as she touched his face tenderly and kissed his lips.
âA messenger can be waylaid, and then the next thing it would be routiers or the King's men trying to ambush me. Best I just arrive. Besides, I thought you liked surprises?'
âOf your well-being â not that you lie in the depths of a savage sea.'
His daughter wriggled and demanded to be hoisted on his shoulders as Christiana murmured a non-committal sigh. âI age a year with every day you are away,' she said, regret tingeing her voice.
âNo you don't,' he said and kissed her lightly, but the child was turning his head, running her finger down his scarred face.
âAgnes may have you for now, but I will need you soon,' she said, letting Blackstone see the lust for him in her eyes. She turned her back and eased Guillaume away to flatter him, telling him how much the children missed the games he played with them. She would patiently tease from the young squire where her husband and his men had been and what they had done, because she knew that Blackstone would give her few details of the danger they had faced. Christiana's comfort of knowing that the young squire had become such a fine soldier meant that there was yet another determined fighter at her husband's side. Such family reunions after a raid were a ritual, not unlike the courtly dance that Blackstone had never mastered. Christiana gave little away in public in front of her husband, a few words here and there, almost with a sense of indifference, but it was all to do with her being mistress of the house. Her emotions seethed, but she maintained a cool composure. On the one hand, Blackstone liked the way the other ladies, Blanche de Harcourt and Joanne de Ruymont, had versed her in the duties expected of a knight's wife in command of her own household; on the other, he wished the wild, temperamental, auburn-haired girl, with the fire of passion in her eyes, who had once held her favours from him for so long and then had given herself with abandon was still that spontaneous. As Blackstone had learnt during his recovery, the woman who had bathed his broken and bleeding body and who slept by his side breathed the same rebellious air as her mistress, the Countess Blanche de Harcourt et Ponthieu. If a woman was to be accorded respect beyond the role of bearing children, a steely determination and a willingness to suffer hardship for the honour of their men and their family name must overshadow their lives. It had taken all of Blackstone's patience to wait until the true expression of her love and passion could be experienced in the privacy of their own bedchamber.