Authors: Angus Donald
‘Who are you, sir?’ said the Frenchman.
‘I am Sir Nicholas de Scras, formerly of the Knights Hospitaller and now of the manor of Horsham in Sussex.’
‘I too can vouch for Sir Alan,’ said a calm, humble voice from my left. ‘I am named Thomas ap Lloyd, I have the honour of serving as Sir Alan’s squire, and I was also with him at Château-Gaillard on this day.’
Gilles de Mauchamps was speechless for a dozen heartbeats. He tugged at his large nose with his left hand, then he said, ‘You are his friends, you stand beside him on his walls; you would naturally say anything…’
Sir Nicholas said icily, ‘You doubt my word? You would call me a liar? Well, no matter. I am not the only man who can attest to this. In fact, several hundred English and Norman men-at-arms were there at Château-Gaillard and they could all swear to Sir Alan’s presence at that time. Your charges are absurd, Sir Alan could not have stolen your silver. And I will swear in any court in Christendom that you have the wrong man.’
I could not help noticing that Sir Nicholas, although acting as if he were grossly offended by the Frenchman’s implications, also had a tone of great relief in his voice. Though he had loyally supported me before that moment, he now knew beyond doubt that I had not been the man who robbed the Temple.
But Gilles de Mauchamps was clearly a stubborn fellow: ‘I still believe Sir Alan of Westbury has a good deal of explaining to do. The code for the forged note that was used in this shameful crime was based on the original note issued to him—’
‘Enough,’ I said. ‘You came to my hall garbed for war and threatened me with arrest. And I have listened patiently to your ridiculous charges. They are false and we have proved them to be so. Now I ask you to leave me and my household in peace.’
‘Perhaps, Gilles, we should heed what Sir Alan says,’ said Sir Aymeric de St Maur. ‘He has too many witnesses…’ He, also, seemed to be relieved that I could so easily prove my innocence. He had once asked me, I believe quite seriously, if I would consider joining the Templar ranks, and I liked to think he had a high regard, perhaps even some little affection, for me.
But Gilles was still not defeated. ‘The matter will be decided in a Templar court,’ he declared. ‘I have my instructions from the Master of the English Templars and from the Grand Master of the entire Order – and so I command you, Sir Alan, to open these gates and render yourself to me. In the light of what has been claimed by your men, I will allow you to retain your sword until the trial – where this matter will be investigated and your innocence or guilt will be determined beyond doubt.’
‘I don’t think so,’ I said.
‘If you prefer to be stubborn, if you do not open these gates instantly and give yourself over to me, I must warn you that I am quite prepared to use force. I will not hesitate to attack this manor, to overrun the walls, to seize you as a prisoner, to bind you and drag you to London at the tail of my horse.’
‘I don’t think so,’ I said. And made a gesture with my left hand. Robin and his men stood. More than a dozen powerful war bows were drawn back with a loud creaking noise like a gigantic wooden door being opened – and the Templar
was looking up at their sure destruction. My own men, on my right-hand side, stood too, hefting spears and javelins. It was clear that while our sides were closely matched in numbers, we had the unanswerable advantage of the shelter of the high walls of Westbury. If I gave the word, I could annihilate half of the Templar force in moments. The horses of the Templar
were moving about in agitation: it was clear to the sergeants at least that they stood on the brink of disaster. Yet Gilles would still not submit to the inevitability of the situation. He lifted the scroll, waved it gently at me, and said, ‘I have the authority to arrest you here in my hand from my lord, a man anointed by God to wield power on Earth. This cowardly rabble with their contemptible peasant weapons do not frighten me—’
A single bowstring thrummed. An arrow flashed and struck, piercing the scroll of parchment and the hand holding it, pinning both to the wood of the pommel with two inches of needle-sharp steel and a yard of ash. Gilles looked down in astonishment at his left hand, bloody and nailed by the shaft to his own saddle. The
exploded into movement; the sergeants were shouting warnings and hauling out swords, lifting shields against anticipated missiles and sawing reins to control their startled mounts; the horses were jostling and shoving as twenty men sought to move, either out of danger or into an attack position. One or two of the black-clad men now had crossbows in their hands…
‘Stop! Hold right there,’ Sir Aymeric was shouting. ‘Stop this right now! No bloodshed, no bloodshed!’
‘Stand fast,’ I bellowed at Robin’s men, ‘do not loose your shafts. Stand fast, I say.’
Gilles looked down at the slim arrow transfixing his hand and then up at the row of bowmen on the battlements. There was only one archer who did not have a shaft nocked and a string drawn back to the ear. It was Robin. He smiled mockingly down at the Templar.
I said loudly, ‘It is time for you to go. Your charges are false and I will not surrender my person to you without a fight. Take yourselves away from my walls and off my lands immediately or you will suffer the consequences.’
My eyes locked with Sir Aymeric’s. We stared at each other for a moment or two, and then he nodded and lifted a commanding hand to his men. ‘Form up, form up,’ he shouted. And reaching over a hand, he plucked the arrow from the pommel of Gilles’s saddle, freeing his fellow knight’s bloody hand.
The French knight turned and looked back at us only once as the
cantered away. Yet, even at thirty yards, the heat in that glare could have melted iron.
The Templars did not return with greater numbers, as I had feared they might, but I asked Sir Nicholas to stay another week just to be sure. It seemed that the combination of armed might and two witnesses to my innocence had accomplished a happy result, though I was irritated that Robin had nearly precipitated a bloody battle, despite my request that he allow me to control the encounter on my own lands.
‘I didn’t kill the arrogant fellow,’ said the Earl of Locksley, when I confronted him about piercing Gilles’s hand. ‘I merely gave him a slap on the wrist.’ He grinned at his own sanguinary wit. ‘Besides, he called my men a cowardly rabble. And it all ended well, did it not? I don’t know what you are making such a fuss about.’
In truth, I could not complain. The exchange had ended satisfactorily in the main part due to the presence of Robin and his bowmen. I changed the subject. ‘Was that not a rather strange coincidence – the knight being the same one who was at Welbeck Abbey?’ I said, hoping for conciliation.
‘I do not think it was a coincidence at all,’ said Robin. ‘I have an inkling about it, about that man, and I mean to make a few enquiries of my own. It may well turn out that I should have aimed for the heart rather than the hand.’
Towards the end of September, Sir Nicholas de Scras made his departure. He was returning to Sussex to spend the autumn and winter with his nephews at the family manor at Horsham, and he wanted to travel before the weather turned cold and wet, and the roads became almost impassable. Robin had remained at Westbury for only three days after the affair with the Templars – he had several paid spies in Nottingham Castle and he promised that he would have advance warning once again if the Templars were minded to return for a second bout.
I was busy with my lands that autumn, and the worry of another visit from the Templars, perhaps this time in overwhelming force, was soon replaced by concerns about more mundane matters. We ploughed the fields for the winter crop of wheat, oats and barley with my two teams of oxen, and sowed them, and kept gangs of the youngsters from Westbury village employed in banging pots and running around screaming to scare the birds from the freshly broadcast seed until it could be harrowed under. The pears and apples from the orchard were gathered in, too, that October, some of which Goody and her maid Ada made into preserves and some of which were stored in straw for next spring. The pigs were driven out to the woodland dens to fatten on beechmast and acorns; and the honey was collected from the hives and stored in big round earthenware jars. It was a time of bounty when we gathered the plenty of the Earth with one eye on the hard winter that lurked just over the horizon.
In early November, when driving rainstorms lashed the manor, and it was almost time to slaughter the pigs, a rider appeared at the gate of Westbury, soaked to the skin and shivering with cold. He was a courier in the service of the Archbishop of York newly returned from Paris and he had a letter from my cousin Roland d’Alle. We fed the man and dried him and offered him a bed for the night, and while he warmed his bones before our hearth, I read the letter from the French branch of the family.
Roland and his mother, the beautiful Adele, were both in fine health but, while Thibault, the Seigneur d’Alle, my late father’s brother, was in good spirits and had been much at court of late – indeed, he had been granted a pair of plump manors by King Philip of France – he was suffering from an attack of gout in his right toe brought on by a surfeit of royal hospitality. I was happy to read that my cousin’s family were moving in royal circles. In his letter, Roland stated that he planned to visit at the beginning of December and he begged that he might be allowed to remain at Westbury for the season of the Nativity of Our Lord. I was very pleased that he was coming to visit. I was fond of him and his whole family and they had been very kind to me while I had been staying in Paris some five years ago.
I rushed to Goody who was standing over the Archbishop’s courier by the hearth, ladling out a bowl of soup for him, and told her the news. ‘Then we will have another reason to be joyful this Christmastide,’ she said, with a mysterious smile. It took me a few moments to absorb the look on her face and then I burst out, ‘Is it true? Are you sure?’
Goody nodded at me. ‘Yes, my dearest love. I went to the wise woman this morning. The signs are all there – I am with child. The old woman says we will have a baby in June.’
I felt breathless and lightheaded; my chest was buzzing like a hive of contented bees; my stomach hollow. The colours of the hall seemed brighter, more vibrant, more real, in a strange way. It seemed that the whole world was subtly changed, somehow shifted, everything was exactly the same but also different, as if God had just moved the Earth a quarter turn to the right. My first concern was for Goody – should she not be sitting down? Perhaps she should drink some strengthening posset with eggs and ale and spices? Was she warm enough? I could easily fetch a blanket or fur from our bed. And where was Ada? She should be attending her mistress, surely.
Goody kissed me. ‘Alan, my dear,’ she said, ‘you must calm yourself or we will never manage this successfully. I am only a few weeks gone, a little more than a month and a half, and I am fine. I shall go mad if you turn into one of those husbands who coddles his pregnant wife like a mother duck mooning over her ducklings. Let us continue as normal for as long as we can. There will be plenty of time to coddle me when I am huge and unable even to waddle like a duck. We must relax and be calm for months yet. After all, I am only doing what women have been doing since Eve. If you want to be helpful, say a prayer to the Virgin for an easy birth.’
Although we tried to maintain our equilibrium, the whole manor was infected with our joy. Women from the village visited Goody almost daily bringing little presents, or pieces of fruit or honey cakes. I had had no idea of quite how popular my wife was with our tenants, but it seemed that every female in the neighbourhood wanted to share in our happiness and show their liking and esteem for my lady.
Even Robin’s wife, the Countess of Locksley, heard the news somehow in far off Poitiers, where she was attending her mistress Queen Eleanor. She sent a canvas-wrapped bundle all the way to Westbury containing her love, a letter for Robin and a thick black bear’s pelt, a pair of silver rattles and two dozen fine linen napkins for Goody. The package arrived in early December, on a crisp frosty morning while Goody and I were breaking our fast with bread and butter and a blackberry preserve, and Goody’s immediate reaction to her gift was to run to the door of the hall and vomit into the mud of the courtyard just outside.
‘It is merely
,’ said the apothecary, a man who went by the absurd name of Silvanus, and who I brought to Westbury at the point of my sword from Nottingham the next day.
He had been reluctant to leave his shop at first – indeed he would not budge until I had drawn Fidelity and told him that if he did not come with me immediately, he would very soon have sore need of his own stock of bandages and medicines. I paid the man handsomely for his time, of course, and he sold me a small bag of his own ground ginger at an absurdly high price, which I was to mix with honey and hot water and give Goody to drink whenever she felt queasy. But I was not easy in my mind over Goody’s condition. All the women of Westbury assured me that it was perfectly normal for a mother-to-be to feel a little sick in the first twelve weeks of a pregnancy, but I wished that my friend Reuben were with me. He had a rare skill with all manner of illnesses, and I would have taken his wise reassurances in much better part than those of simple country goodwives.
And, at the back of my mind, while Goody groaned and vomited of a morning was one fell name: Nur. Could this malaise be anything to do with her curse? She had predicted that Goody would die one year and one day after we were wed. But I told myself sternly that I did not believe that her wild maledictions had power – they were the rantings of a woman crazed with hardship and misery. Nevertheless, each time I heard Goody retch and spew, I could not suppress a shudder of superstitious fear.
Roland arrived at Westbury just as the first gentle snowflakes of the season were beginning to fall, a week before the first day of Christmas. My cousin came with half a dozen attendants, well armed and mounted, and brought with him two large, heavy boxes, each strapped to a mule’s sturdy back. These were filled with silver
. And every penny of it was for Robin.