Authors: David Gilman
As usual, Blackstone had warned his squire not to relate too much information to his wife, but there was little cause for concern; the squire was as dextrous with his words as with his sword. Blackstone lacked the boy's easy charm, a result of Guillaume's early education at the hands of a kindly master, one who had died in the great pestilence, and who had given his young charge the tools to conduct his life with confidence. There was no doubt in Blackstone's mind that his own son, Henry, who was soon to have his belated birthday celebration, received similar schooling in reading and writing, nurtured in the appreciation of fine manners and poetic endeavours required of a nobleman's son. But Blackstone was no member of the nobility and his son should have been trained for the past two years in the use of weapons and an understanding of combat. It was this undercurrent of disagreement that could suddenly erupt between him and Christiana. In Blackstone's mind the boy had had sufficient education and needed to be toughened up so that he could be sent to a nobleman's household and brought up as a page in preparation for being a squire.
The formality of Blackstone's arrival home had been played out. As he walked into the great room where a fire blazed and the dogs followed, Christiana grabbed his arm and went on tiptoe to kiss him in a stolen moment before the servants intruded.
âI want you,' she whispered. âI lust after you every night you are away from my bed. I am short-tempered with the servants and I lie in fear of you never returning to me.'
Those few whispered words aroused him, but no sooner had his hand touched her breast than she turned away quickly with a mischievous smile, saying she must oversee the food for the men who still accompanied him. He cursed his vulnerability to her teasing and would have kicked the dogs away and taken her there and then on the woven woollen rug in front of the fire. His unwashed and stinking body would have smothered her sweet-scented smoothness. But those carefree days of spontaneous carnal pleasure were in the past. The house, the servants and the men who loitered, guarding the palisades, saw to that. Success as a knight had brought restrictions to their lives. He followed her out into the courtyard, watching her body sway, allowing his imagination free rein. As she turned towards the kitchen he saw Old Hugh waiting in the yard, head bowed as Blackstone's eyes fell on him. His jerkin was pulled tight by a broad leather belt over a belly that had known famine and feast. That pot belly was from the lack of food when the crops failed â and how many times had that happened during the old man's lifetime? Blackstone wondered. His steward had not moved, his ankles deep in mud; the cold must be clawing up those spindly legs like grappling irons. He had obviously waited in the yard since Blackstone had first arrived home, rooted like the old hawthorn stave he gripped to help keep his balance. He had attended his duties, and now waited to greet his master.
The men's horses were already stabled, rubbed down and fed oats and chestnuts to rebuild their strength before the soldiers left for Chaulion, the nearest of the towns Blackstone held. Blackstone had barely been out of the saddle, but acknowledged the man's stoic determination to show him that all had gone without mishap during his absence. As they walked across the yard towards the arched gateway, Guinot appeared from the latrines, pulling his hose tighter beneath his jerkin. Blackstone gestured for him to join them, so the Gascon, after clearing his throat and spitting out the stench of the shit pit, tucked his calloused hands into his belt and fell in alongside Blackstone and Old Hugh. Why his sworn lord allowed the old hunchback cripple to haul him around his own domain like a stable lad he never understood but, like anyone else who served Thomas Blackstone, he knew the Englishman had his own reasons and there was never a good time to question what they were. Guinot, like the others, was glad that they were the last to return to their duties and would be fed before they continued their journey. During Blackstone's ride home men who were stationed in his towns had been dropped off at their garrisons and at every stop food, money and weapons distributed so that by the time he reached his own manor only a handful of men remained with him. Meulon and Gaillard had returned to their post and the responsibility that Blackstone had given them of holding one of the towns in the chain of six that formed his defensive line down through Normandy. These towns, along with other Norman lords and Charles of Navarre, who held swathes of lower Normandy, meant the King of France had barely a foothold in the duchy. Chaulion was the first town Blackstone had captured years ago and, being a few days' ride, was closest to his home. Guinot, his tough, no-nonsense commander, would leave Blackstone's home the next morning with his half-dozen men and return to garrison duty.
Blackstone allowed Old Hugh to set the pace as the three men moved into the clearing beyond the manor where fields stretched into hedgerows and orchards. There was little chance, if anyone came by night, that they could flank the manor.
âGuinot? Do you think we've moved everything near enough?' Blackstone asked his commander of Chaulion.
The Gascon saw that since their last bout of raiding some of the villagers had been moved closer to the low walls.
âBetter than it was, Sir Thomas. It's unlikely anyone could get through them without the alarm being raised by the mange-ridden dogs you've got around here.'
âI keep them for a good reason. They bark at the scent of a fox or even if they hear the distant snuffle of deer in those trees,' Blackstone said, pointing to the nearest copse of birch.
Guinot was a solid man with a keen eye for defence and that was why Blackstone had kept him on behind the walls at Chaulion. He was strong enough to exert discipline, although he was getting too old to fight with any pace. His belligerence could entrench him like a boar in a thicket and keep an enemy at bay, but the way Blackstone fought, a man needed enduring strength and willpower. When Blackstone had sailed for Saint-Clair the balding man complained at being kept back from the fight and left in charge of the baggage train, but he probably knew in his heart by now that Blackstone had been right. Not that it lessened his desire to fight.
âYou can't do much else, Sir Thomas. It's as good as it can be without bringing a hundred men to build a damned castle, and, let's face it, these Normans whose lands surround yours are as good as walls,' he said, letting his eyes wander across the meadows and the obstacles and precautions Blackstone had created. Over the years Blackstone had built new houses closer to the manor's palisades to act as a buffer and a warning by bringing some of the fenced animals closer. Penned geese and those mangy dogs Guinot had referred to made fine sentries.
Old Hugh walked like a crab, using the gnarled hawthorn staff to steady his gait, but he was quick enough for Blackstone's long stride. As usual the old man complained.
âYou're not taking enough, Sir Thomas. Lord de Graville knew how to make the land work for him,' said Hugh. âTake more from these damned peasants and you'd spend less time away from home resupplying us.'
âI raid for all the towns I hold, you know that,' Blackstone answered, knowing the lecture would not be halted, and saw Guinot suppress a smile.
âAye, I do.' Hugh was determined to gently chastise his master. âAnd I know you'd be better off, with respect, my lord, if you let me loose on those towns of yours' â he directed a glaring look towards Guinot, which in turn allowed Blackstone to smile and raise his eyebrows â âand the
you take from the villeins,' the old man continued gruffly. They crossed the footbridge over the stream, upsetting geese that panicked like haughty noblewomen, long necks pushing their nostrils into the air as they flapped to a safer distance, honking with annoyance. Separate wicker pens now held chickens, pigs and domestic geese nearer to the rear of the stables, whose back walls had always been the most vulnerable to escalade. The poultry yards for the manor and the orchards were kept separate from the villagers' own vegetable gardens â not that there was anything in the frost-hard ground now. Turnips and cabbages had all been taken and used for winter cooking.
The steward pointed across the fields with the stick. âWe'll be laying the manure in the next ten days. God willing, we'll have a good spring for sowing. Aye, Lord de Graville knew all right,' he went on, as always peppering his report to his master with repetitive memories from his days as steward with Jean Malet, Lord de Graville. âHe had these lice-ridden serfs sorted good and proper, he did. Ten casks of honey, three hundred loaves, a dozen casks of strong ale and cider and he never took less than a couple of oxen and a dozen of geese â fat ones mind you â cheese, butter â a whole cask of butter he'd take from themâ'
âAnd salmon. Don't forget those, Hugh,' Blackstone interrupted. He knew de Graville's rent from his vassals almost off by heart. Old Hugh never failed to deprecate his own largesse to the villagers.
âI had not forgotten, my lord, I had not yet reached that part in the telling.'
Smoke from the village fires settled like a newborn's caul. âI can see you've been busy,' Blackstone told him, his eyes scanning the open land. The hedges had been laid, adding yet another line of defence between the forest and the track to the manor's gate. Also, the land to the west was rough and would not be cultivated this year, so Blackstone had instructed that all branches and cuttings from the tree-felling be laid on it, making yet another obstacle for any intruders to navigate.
The cold air took his breath and he saw that the old man was wheezing. âI'll go around the village tomorrow then we'll ride out and see the rest,' he said, excusing them from the inspection.
âLord,' said Old Hugh and bowed his head. âYou are too generous with us all. I fear for your profit.'
âFor once I agree with him, Sir Thomas,' said Guinot.
Blackstone shook his head. A peasant's life was hard enough, eking out a bare subsistence. He had endured it as a boy and saw enough drought and flood ruin crops and put families in their graves. The shire where he was born and grew had a strict master â Lord Marldon; he was not afraid to inflict punishment, but was not heavy-handed towards his villeins. Blackstone remembered those early lessons as an example. âThere's enough,' said Blackstone. âI've no desire to break a peasant's back so I can eat another mouthful.'
The old man shrugged. What could he do with the young English knight? He had no cause for complaint. Blackstone and Lady Christiana had taken him in, an old hunchback whose brain was of more use than his body. Lord de Graville had ordered him to serve and serve he would. He was grateful he had not been abandoned because of his age.
Blackstone poured water from a pitcher into a bowl nestling on a stand in his chamber. His son waited.
âHenry,' Blackstone said, âdid you accompany Steward Hugh when he inspected the fields and checked the oxen?'
âI did, Father,' the boy answered.
âAnd who gave out the gifts to the village families at Christmas?'
âI did, as you told me to before you left home.'
Blackstone peeled away the sweat-sodden clothes and threw them into the corner of the room. He would bathe later with Christiana, but for now he sluiced down his torso from the bowl, its cold water raising goose pimples on his skin.
âWere there enough bundles of wood for them all?'
âHugh had the men cut and bind them and kept them in the barn. Every family had their share. And we had enough fodder in storage for the cows so there was extra milk.'
âGood. You stand in my place when I'm not here. Old Hugh will see to the running of the land and the villagers and your mother will stand over Hugh as she must, but you are lord of this domain in my absence. It will always be that way.'
âI do my best to honour you, Father.'
Blackstone placed a hand on his son's shoulder and gave an affectionate squeeze. Did the boy flinch? âSon, I'm sorry I missed your birthday, but I told you before I left that we'll celebrate before the spring sowing. We'll ride down to your godfather and spend some time at Harcourt. Everyone's going to be there. You'll have some fun with all the other children.'
âI'm not a child, Father.'
Blackstone regretted the words as soon as he had spoken. But the truth was that Henry had not yet grasped the seriousness of his age or what was expected of him. There was a gentleness to the boy's character that he acknowledged; something of himself that he recognized. His own sworn lord, Sir Gilbert Killbere, had confessed to him that it had been thought Blackstone would not be suitable for war, that his own heart was too gentle.
âOf course you're not,' said Blackstone unconvincingly.
An uneasy silence settled between them.
âBesides, you're getting a bit old for things like birthdays,' he said, trying to make good any damage to the boy's feelings, but by the brief look of despair on Henry's face, it only made matters worse.
âYes, Father. You're right,' his son answered dutifully.
Blackstone grunted and towelled himself dry. He promised himself he would spend the summer with the boy and bring them closer together.
âReach into my saddlebags,' he said.
Henry did as ordered and pulled out an ivory-handled dagger. He gazed at it for a few seconds and then carefully withdrew it from the silver-etched sheath.
âI took that off one of the King's lords.'
âDid you kill him, Father?'
âMeulon slew him with a spear thrust, up through the belly and into his chest. He squirmed like a worm on a hook. You remember Meulon?'
Henry nodded but his eyes stayed on the blade as he slowly slid it in and out of its scabbard.
Blackstone pulled on a shirt and fresh jerkin. The wind had picked up and he needed to check the men and see that the barn had fresh straw laid for them. He knew it would have been attended to by the old steward, but he wanted to see for himself before fatigue and hunger claimed him.