The Royal Falconer
by Nosbert

Part 1


This story is set in the year 1235. It is thirty-six years after the death of King Richard I (known as the Lionheart), and King Henry III (1207-1272) reigns over England. Scotland is ruled by King Alexander II (1198-1249), and his wife Joanna is the sister of the English King. Wales is ruled by Llywelyn ab Iorwerth (1195-1240): ‘ab Iorwerth’ simply means ‘the son of Iorwerth’, and he prefers to go by the title ‘Prince of Gwynedd’ or simply the ‘Lord Llywelyn‘. The title ‘King of Wales’ did not exist in this period of history.

Despite the passing of some one-hundred and seventy years since the Norman invasion, the French still hold some influence in court, and their language remains part of the legal system.

As far as conflict is concerned these are rather benign years. If however there is to be one thorn in the English King’s side then it is the Gaelic speaking Welsh. Still fiercely independent, the Welsh fervently protect their borders, and raids and skirmishes into England, though infrequent, prove a constant reminder of their presence. However, away from these borderlands it is a time of peace and noble lords look to sports such as hunting to rid themselves of any aggression.

Some twenty years after the signing of the ‘Magna Carta’ by King John at Runnymede in 1215, it is a time when all men have the right to free trial. However, the laws of the land remain very much in control of the Earls and Barons, and vary throughout the land. Ancient ‘Dane Law’ combined with the Christian ‘Ten Commandments’ form the basis along with Royal Decrees, and if there was any point needing clarifying the church is normally consulted. However the overriding and final say always remains the King’s prerogative. The twelve man jury we know today did not come into existence until much later in history. Those accused were simply judged by their peers, and the number could vary from one to several depending on the circumstances.

Although court trials exist and every effort is made to ensure that they are fair, interrogation under torture remains. The use of hot irons being one of the commonest forms of torture, whipping and scourging another. Hot irons were also used as a common form of punishment: Branding the forehead of thieves being just one example.

The year 1235 is a time when the landowners and nobility rule: A time when the Overlords are very much in command.

Chapter One

It was early morning and the inhabitants of the City of Salopsbury were waking up to the prospect of a fine day. Heavy thunderstorms overnight had left puddles in the patchwork of undulating cobbled streets, but as the sun began to rise the skies had cleared and now there was not a cloud in sight. Where the late summer sun caught the puddles, thin wisps of glistening white steam rose, caught the light breeze and evaporated into the air.

Away in the distance, beyond the haphazardly constructed timber buildings that surrounded the market square, a hand bell rang. It tolled three times; clanging sharply and crystal clear above the clatter of cartwheels on the narrow cobbled streets. Immediately a flock of pigeons took to the air. A stray dog with a half chewed ear, feeding on garbage tossed from a window, yapped loudly, then on seeing the approaching crowd, put his tail between his legs and scuttled away, to disappear down a side alley.

The hand bell tolled once more. Half a dozen sharp clangs this time, and followed by a loud and resonate voice calling; ‘Oyez, oyez, oyez.’ Those not already in hot pursuit of the briskly striding town crier stopped what they were doing and looked to his direction. Quickly they dropped whatever they were doing and set off for the market square. Here they mingled with the gathering crowd and waited, everyone now immobile and looking on as the town crier climbed to a vantage point high atop a flight of stone steps. Round and ruddy was his face, and he wore the gold-braided black cloak and feathered hat of the authority invested in him. In one hand he clutched a scroll, tightly rolled; in the other he intermittently swung his small hand bell. The scroll contained a message from the castle that stood high upon the hill that overlooked the market square. The scroll contained an important message that was to be delivered forthwith to the inhabitants of the City of Salopsbury.

The crowd was slow to gather, appearing in ones and twos. They stood in small groups, avoiding the puddles, and all turning their gaze to the top of the steps. The closely-knit huddles had but one thing in common; each and every one of them waited in eager anticipation; all fidgeting nervously and making little or no sound. Only the ringing of the hand bell and the intermittent stentorian voice of the town crier was present to break the uneasy silence.

When enough people were gathered the ringing of the hand bell ceased. The town crier was now ready to deliver his message. But he was not to be rushed. He never was. His experience of forty years had taught him how to handle the crowd. He cleared his throat, unfurled the scroll and raised it at arms length high before his face. He paused, and lowering the scroll a little he stared down at the faces below. The wait seemed forever, but in truth not long, just enough for a complete and total silence to befall the market square. The town crier could see that he had them in his grasp. He was ready and they too were ready, ready to listen to his every word. He knew this. He cleared his throat for one final time and began to read from the scroll. His opening message was short, just a few words, but all the same, very much to the point.

‘The Earl is dead, long live the Earl,’ he called, his voice resonating and echoing around the timber-framed buildings that encircled the market square. The people absorbed the town crier’s sad news in silence and then turning their heads, looked to one another. Eyebrows became raised and heads began to nod, and soon a hubbub of muted voices flared within each small huddle of the crowd.

The town crier cleared his throat yet again. He was nowhere finished; there was more to be read, and on realising this, the eager silence returned. The crier waited for the crowd to settle once more. He was experienced enough to know when it was time to deliver. He would only continue when he had regained the crowd’s undivided attention. He displayed his displeasure with a deep furrowed frown accompanied by a steely glare. Eventually the silence he demanded returned. He played the moment for all its worth, delaying for several seconds longer than necessary before continuing.

He read on; ‘Earl William Fitzgerald passed away peacefully in his sleep this very night. In observance of the Laws of the good King Henry the Third of England and of the bye-laws of the Council of the Marches, and in accordance with the line of succession, and at the behest of the late departed Earl William Fitzgerald, all titles, properties and lands associated with the Fiefdoms and Earldoms of Salopsbury and the Council of the Marches have, on the Earl’s departure now passed to his cousin Herbert Fitzgerald.’

The crier paused and peered once more above the scroll. His glare on this occasion was met by stony silence, not a murmur issued from the crowd. They wanted to hear more and desperately wanted him to continue.

The crier returned his focus on the scroll and read on; ‘It is the new Earl’s wish that following the death of his dear departed cousin, Earl William Fitzgerald, there will now follow a period of mourning. In two week’s time, on the day of the market, in the Year of Our Lord Twelve Hundred and Thirty Five, and in the reign of the good King Henry the Third of England, Herbert Fitzgerald, the new Fourth Earl of Salopsbury and Earl Representative for the Council of the Marches, will appear before his subjects. Until this day, it is decreed that a period of mourning be observed. All singing, dancing, revelry and merriment, along with all forms of gambling, the playing of games, and the practice of archery are all strictly forbidden, by order of the Earl.’

The crowd understood. No one objected. News of the late Earl’s death had not come unexpected. He had been unwell for quite some time, and everyone knew this, and the town crier had appeared regularly to keep his subjects informed. They nodded to each other in silence and many bowed their heads in silent prayer. There was no argument, no disagreement, no protest, just prayers and perhaps a few tears. It was only right and proper that the inhabitants of the City of Salopsbury show a little respect for their departed Lord and Master. It was their duty to grieve upon his death along with the new Earl and his closest family.

With his message delivered the town crier re-rolled the scroll, placed his hand bell beneath one arm and moved on to a fresh location. In every quarter of this haphazard and sprawling city his message was the same. ‘The Earl is dead, long live the Earl….’

Chapter Two

The late departed Earl William Fitzgerald, Third Earl of Salopsbury and Earl Representative for the Council of the Marches, was in his sixty-third year when he passed away peacefully in his sleep. Twice he was married; his first wife Catherine de Say departing this life when William was fifty-eight years of age. After thirty-six years of relatively happy marriage this first union had but one failure, Catherine bore no heir to the Fitzgerald line. Upon Catherine’s death a hasty new marriage was arranged. From across the channel came the Lady Adela, youngest daughter of the Duke d’Honfleur, reviving fresh hopes that a son and heir be at long last forthcoming. But alas this second marital union also proved fruitless. For although the Lady Adela was young, a mature twenty-one when she wed and still a virgin by all accounts, once again the consummation came to nothing.

Therefore, upon the death of William there were no sons, no brothers, nor any immediate family to continue the Fitzgerald line. Thus it was that the Salopsbury titles, along with all their associated properties, lands and estates passed back up the line and down again to William’s cousin, Herbert Fitzgerald, his nearest and only living male relative.

Although late in coming some say this was a blessing in disguise, for the new Earl had two sons, and both had further sons of their own. Stability had returned to the Earldom, the future of the Salopsbury titles and estates were safe, and after nearly forty years of uncertainty the scribes could now draw up a list of heirs that would last until the end of the thirteenth century.

Earl Herbert Fitzgerald stood aloft the great tower of Salopsbury Castle. The City’s new overlord was a short, stout man, forty-eight years of age, a paunch belly, neatly trimmed greying beard and receding hairline. Out of respect for his departed cousin he was dressed in black, something he had done for the past two weeks. His attire supported a long black cape that fluttered in the breeze, and on his belt hung a short sword with an ornately decorative handle displaying the coat of arms of the Fitzgerald family.

As the sun rose, a cloudless late August sky signalled a fine day in prospect. In recent days the thunderstorms had returned, this time more ferocious that those experienced some two weeks earlier. Flooding was widespread and the rivers swollen. But the worse had passed and given a few days all tracks and roads would be passable once more.

The Earl leaned against the ramparts and looked around. The red disc of the early morning sun was partially hidden behind a ridge of low hills away to the east. The standard of the Fitzgeralds, with its gold-braided surround and the heads of three snarling lions emblazoned upon a pale blue and yellow shield, fluttered noisily at half-mast above his head. He loosened the ropes and raised the standard to the top of the mast. His mind was on other things, but he was aware of what he is doing and the significance of the act. It was necessary this be done. He retied the ropes and managed a smile. Now, after two weeks of mourning the standard of the Fitzgerald’s had returned to full mast.

With this small but important task done, and without the courtesy the ceremony probably demanded, the Earl moved to the western ramparts and rested his arms upon the wide granite walls that encompassed the high, square tower. His brow was furrowed yet he still managed a smile. The sadness of the last two weeks was nearing an end and it was time for the City of Salopsbury to go about its normal business. With head bowed and mind deep in thought he found himself staring down from the high tower to the long horseshoe bend of the River Severn far below.

Salopsbury Castle stood on an outcrop of rock overlooking a great bow in the river. Within this vast loop stood the churches, houses, shops, taverns and stables that constituted the ever-expanding City of Salopsbury. Soon no room would remain for settlement on the land bounded between the castle and the great bow in the river. But to move outside this pear-shaped tract of land would be to lose the protection of the river and castle, for within this vast loop there existed a safe haven in a land much threatened by raids from across the border with Wales.

Just two roads entered the City, one to the north the other to the west. The northern road passed beneath the castle’s portcullis, whilst the western road entered the City via an arched stone bridge that spanned the wide River Severn. On the far side of the bridge stood a gatehouse, guarded continuously and shut during the hours of darkness.

From his high vantage point the Earl gazed down upon the river. The gates to the bridge were open and guards stood to either side. The road leading away from the bridge was wide and straight, heading westwards towards the distant Welsh hills. Within the City a cobbled road wound haphazardly around the buildings then rose steeply to the castle. It was in the castle’s courtyard that the two roads met.

Far below a lone horse and rider crossed the bridge. For several minutes the Earl had followed this rider’s approach and was surprised to see the guards let the rider pass unchallenged. But as the rider moved across the bridge and into the city the Earl recognised and understood. The rider was attired in a very distinctive claret and blue quartered tunic. These were the colours of the Council of the Marches, an assembly of Overlords, Earls and Barons, gathered to protect and oversee justice in an area bounded between the River Severn and the border with Wales.

The Earl sighed deeply and stroked his beard. This would be the Council’s herald, and at long last news was forthcoming. Briefly he closed his eyes and prayed that the herald bore the long awaited news both he and Lady Adela, his late cousin’s wife, desperately wanted to hear.

He lowered his head to take one final look from the ramparts. Soon he would have to climb down from the tower to greet the herald’s arrival. But for a while he reflected upon the Council of the Marches and what this meant to him. He was now a full member of the Council, a position his cousin William once enjoyed. The thought invigorated him. At long last he held a position of power, a seat in authority where his voice could be heard. But for now he would accept their decision. The herald came with word on the release of his cousin’s wife; now that she was a widow, she was to be allowed to return to her native France.

The first thing he had done following the death of William was to write to the Council of the Marches asking that she should be permitted to go home. He hoped they agreed. But this was by no means a certainty. The Council of the Marches were responsible for choosing and bringing her here in the first place, and perhaps another marriage had already been arranged. If this was the case the matter was out of his hands. There were too many on the Council, and as yet he held very little influence when it came to the making of decisions. The full Council consisted of at least a dozen noble Lords. To the south and west of Salopsbury lay the castles of Lodelowe, Powys, Montgomery and Clun. Here the de Clanceys, the de Mortimers, the Montgomerys and the Beauforts ruled; all big and powerful families with much influence at the King’s court. There were a few other minor Lords and landowners that made up the full Council, there were thirteen in all; but he was their equal now, and by status the second most senior representative below that of Ralph de Mortimer, the Earl of Powys.

Herbert Fitzgerald, the Earl of Salopsbury for just two short weeks, allowed himself a smile and a final look around. From his lofty position he could see for many a mile in all directions. Away in the distance, far to the south, a dense forest blanketed the hazy-blue hills of the Marches. It is here, and only here, that his eyes rested upon another Lord’s land. This distant forest he knew to be the Forest of Wyre, and hidden somewhere within this forest’s midst stood the market town of Lodelowe. Here the surrounding lands and titles belonged to the de Clancey family. But other than this far-flung, mist-shrouded forest, everything else he surveyed belonged to him. To the north, east and west lay the full extent of the Earldom of Salopsbury. In accordance with his family’s motto, this was his ‘Floreat Salopia’. His flourishing land, and everywhere he looked, all belonged to him.

The Earl reluctantly pushed himself away from the ramparts and stood erect. He managed a small nod to the head. He was thinking, perhaps things were not as bad as he first thought. He had waited a long time for this moment, and now he, Herbert Fitzgerald, son to the late Sir Rupert Fitzgerald, Knight of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, was the new Fourth Earl of Salopsbury and master of all he surveyed.

However there still remained one thorn in the new Earl’s side. For only when Lady Adela, the young wife of his late departed cousin was well and truly gone from this castle would he feel comfortable enough to accept his new inheritance: For as long as the French woman remained, he knew that he could not truly become the new Lord and Master of Salopsbury Castle. Lady Adela had, during her short stay, become aware of too many dark family secrets and she simply could not remain.

The Earl closed his eyes and offered up a small prayer, praying the approaching herald bore the long awaited news both he and Lady Adela were desperate to hear.

With a sigh, he pushed himself away from the ramparts and descended the tower. It was time to greet the herald.

Chapter Three

On the morning of the arrival of the herald, Lady Adela Fitzgerald, dowager to the late William Fitzgerald, Third Earl of Salopsbury, was to be found in the south wing of Salopsbury Castle. She was twenty-six years of age, exceedingly pretty, with a trim waist and jet-black hair that hung forward from her shoulders in two wide long plaits. She wore a full-length emerald-green gown with billowing sleeves, and on her head rested a small square ornately embroidered bonnet that matched the colour of her dress.

Alongside Lady Adela stood Mary, her trusted lady-in-waiting since the young French maiden’s arrival in England some five years earlier. Mary was in her fifty-fifth year. She was short and fat, with greying hair and a chest that wheezed constantly. She wore a blue dress not dissimilar to that of her mistress, but her bonnet was white with straps tied beneath the chin. This was the bonnet of a serving maid.

Lady Adela’s chambers took up most of the second floor of the west wing of the castle. The main room through which one entered was the reception. This room lacked furniture with just one tall, high-backed chair placed centrally on a high pedestal. Great hanging tapestries adorned the walls and light entered through four stained glass leaded windows displaying figures of saints alongside those of past members of the Fitzgerald family. It was here in the reception room that Lady Adela would hold audience. Beyond this room lay a further three rooms, all interconnected. These were Lady Adela’s private quarters, off limits to men, whatever their rank or status, and this included the new Earl.

Lady Adela and Mary were occupied but not busy, both sorting and packing the last few remaining items needed for the long journey south. On the floor of the reception room rested four plain wooden chests each with their lids opens. After much trial and error a system of packing had been established, with separate chests for clothes, bonnets, shoes and undergarments. Lady Adela had requested more chests, insisting that four were nowhere near enough for all the dresses and shoes she owned. But she was told the cart on which she was to travel would hold no more than four and this was to be her limit. Knowing this she still demanded a fifth chest to hold expensive items such as jewellery, family heirlooms and silver. But the Earl had discouraged this, explaining the risk of robbery was too great and such items best travel separately under armed guard.

So with four chests allocated and brought to the reception chamber, the two women had set about packing. Yet for all their effort their mood remained sombre. Despite all their apparent activity, neither displayed much commitment to the task set before them. For it was still by no means certain that Lady Adela be allowed to return to her native France. News had not yet arrived from the Council of the Marches.

A repetitive loud rapping came upon the door to the chambers. Three loud strikes as if hit by a staff.

Lady Adela was folding a dress and about to place it in a chest when the raps came. She recognised the signal. It was the guard permanently assigned to her chambers that was knocking. She signalled to Mary to go to the door and find out what he wanted.

With the door slightly ajar Mary held a small conversation. She then opened it wide for the guard to enter. He appeared attired in a pale blue tunic with three yellow snarling lion heads emblazoned upon his chest. This was the uniform of the Fitzgeralds. Beneath his tunic he wore a vest of chainmail, and on his head rested a shining silver-domed helmet with a narrow nose-guard that reached down beyond the tip of his nose.

Lady Adela had not moved and was stood close to the door and alongside the four chests. The guard took two steps forward and with short pikestaff in hand dropped to one knee. He bowed his head low and addressed Lady Adela.

Speaking down to the bare floorboards of the room, he said; ‘My Lady, the Earl begs you an audience.’

Lady Adela showed no haste. She put away the dress, pushing it firmly down into the chest before turning to the guard. He remained kneeling and with head bowed. She addressed him in the language of the Anglo-Saxons but with a strong Norman accent.

‘Good, you may show him in,’ she told him.

Lady Adela glided her slender figure across the floor to take up position on the ornately carved chair perched high upon the raised pedestal that faced the door. A woolsack rested upon the seat. She shuffled and settled, adjusting the cushion until she sat comfortably. At the same time Mary hastily adjusted her flowing gown so that no part of her legs showed, then cast the long plaits of her jet-black hair to either side, and finally, content that all was in order, sidled away to a corner where she would remain inconspicuous until the audience was over.

From her high position Lady Adela clapped her hands and waited with elbows resting lightly upon the arms of the chair.

From the dimly lit corridor beyond the open door her late husband’s cousin, Earl Herbert Fitzgerald, entered. Behind him, walking with head bowed, trailed a demure young kitchen maid. The Earl moved briskly to the raised pedestal and bowed his head as a mark of respect. But it was no more than a quick nod for the Earl’s superior rank had to be observed and recognised.

Behind the Earl, about two paces back, the kitchen maid came to a halt. Here her low status in society immediately became evident. She curtsied, dropped to one knee and turned her gaze to the floor. She then held that position.

The Earl took Lady Adela’s hand and kissed lightly upon her wedding ring.

As his head rose, he enquired; ‘And how does’t my dearest and most cherished member of the family feel this fine morning?’

Lady Adela had long since grown wise to the Earl’s silvered tongue. However, she had been raised a Lady of noble birth and to act accordingly. With poise and dignity she replied; ‘My health is good, my Lord, and the weather is a delight since the deluges of the past few days.’

The Earl looked to a narrow shaft of sunlight beaming in through a leaded window. He stroked his beard and for a while remained deep in thought. Lady Adela was right; the weather in recent days had been foul. The rivers were high and the flooding great, but now thankfully the skies were clear and the thunderclouds gone.

He remained pensive for a little while longer before returning his thoughts to the reason for requesting this audience. ‘My Lady,’ he said and releasing her hand. ‘I bring good news. The Council of the Marches hath ratified your departure. You are free, as the widow of your late departed husband, to return to your home in Normandy and with immediate effect. Your journey south has been heralded to all the Lords of the Marches and to those of Western Mercia and beyond. You are granted safe passage all the way to the Cinque Ports. Similar arrangements are also in hand over on the far side of the Channel, and news of your homecoming should be reaching your father, the Duke d’Honfleur, as we speak.’

Lady Adela tried not to show her joy. However, this was everything she had hoped for. She was, at long last, free to return home to France. Her marriage to the late Earl had never been a great success. Not surprising, given that right from the start there existed the vast age difference. They had had sex together for the first two years; not often, but frequent enough to say that they had tried; yet the hoped for child never materialised. After this, and for the past three years, the aged Earl’s health had passed from bad to worse, and with this went all hopes of a successful consummation.

Lady Adela clasped her arms to her chest. She could no longer contain her joy. ‘Mon Dieu! Then I am free to leave? I may return home?’ she exclaimed with a hint of relief.

The Earl nodded and explained; ‘Final arrangements are being made as we speak, my Lady. A wagon is being prepared in the courtyard, and an escort of three of my most trustworthy men hath been assigned to accompany you all the way to the Cinque Ports. The men I have chosen for their knowledge of the road south. Reports of bandits abound and it is possibly safer to travel first to the town of Lodelowe. Its lands are well protected. Likewise my sister Elizabeth resides as Abbess over the nunnery at Wistanstow just a few miles to the north of Lodelowe. Perhaps perchance you may stay there for the first night. But I will leave the chosen route to the men that escort you. Be guided by them, for they know the safest route.’

Lady Adela smiled. ‘Then I must thank you, my Lord, for all that you have done.’

The Earl turned to the wench that trailed him into the room. She remained with one knee to the floor and with head bowed. He waved a hand in her direction and spoke, saying; ‘My Lady, I bring you a handmaiden to accompany you on your long journey south. This is Gwyneth. She is but a simple wench that fares from the castle’s kitchens. She hath a kind heart and hath pledged to serve you well.’

Mary, Lady Adela’s lady-in-waiting and trusted friend, was in her fifty-fifth year, round and plump in stature, and with a chest that wheezed continuously from ill health. It was plain to see that to enforce upon her a trip to the Cinque Ports would be the ending of her. Her mistress had long foretold this, and even though the old lady did protest somewhat, it was agreed someone younger would replace her for the long journey south, and that all fond farewells be left in the castle’s courtyard.

Lady Adela, from her high position, beckoned the wench to approach. ‘Come my child, let me look at you.’

Gwyneth rose from the floor, hitched up the front of her kitchen maid’s frock and stepped forward to curtsey before the raised pedestal. Even though both Lady Adela and the young kitchen maid had resided within these castle walls for the past five years neither had set eyes upon each other before this day.

Lady Adela stepped down from her chair and eyed the kitchen maid up and down. She placed a finger beneath the girl’s chin and raised her head. There were soot marks on her cheeks. Lady Adela looked into the girl’s eyes. They were blue and radiated warmth and affection. Despite the kitchen grime the wench had a pretty face with fair complexion and dimpled chin. Her hair was golden with long ringlets cascading down from beneath a white maid’s bonnet. She was tall in stature, slender at the waist, and large around the bosoms.

Lady Adela felt troubled by the kitchen maid’s ragged and soiled clothes. ‘Tell me child, what clothes have you to wear?’

The kitchen maid looked up from her curtsied position. ‘My Lady, I have this frock and a heavy coat to keep out the cold.’

Lady Adela raised an eyebrow. It was evident this girl was poor and owned nothing but the rags she wore.

‘And shoes?’ she asked. ‘Show me your feet.’

The kitchen maid stood upright and hitched up the front of her dress as far as the ankles. Her feet were bare.

Lady Adela turned to the Earl. ‘My Lord, when are we to depart?’

The Earl stroked his beard and gave the question much thought. He knew the answer he would like to give, the sooner the better as far as he was concerned. The truth was he desperately wanted her away from his castle. However he did not want to sound too hasty. He looked to the four chests and could see that they were almost packed.

He pointed to the chests and gave his reply, telling her; ‘My Lady, if you are packed and ready, then sunrise on the morrow, if this is convenient with you.’

Lady Adela too was keen to get away from the castle and sunrise on the morrow was fine by her. She turned to the kitchen maid. ‘Then Gwyneth, you must remain here with me,’ she said. ‘I will find you a new dress and provide you with stockings and shoes for the long journey south.’

The kitchen maid lowered her soiled and ragged dress to the floor then returned to her curtsy position with bowed her head. ‘Thank you my Lady,’ she said softly as she held her lowered stance.

The Earl interrupted with a gentle cough. He had no desire to stand and listen to women’s tittle-tattle, and besides he had conveyed everything that needed to be said. He had brought news that both he and Lady Adela had ever hoped for. He took a light hold of the Lady Adela’s left hand, kissed her gently upon the same wedding ring as before and bid her farewell.

‘Then I bid you fair journey south my Lady, and may God give you most favourable winds with which to cross the English Channel,’ he said.

Lady Adela bowed her head. ‘Thank you my Lord,’ she replied. ‘You have been most kind and helpful. I am most grateful and I thank you for all that you have done.’

The Earl took one step back and bowed gracefully. He then turned and without a second glance made quickly for the exit. As the door behind him closed, he lengthened his stride. He had people to meet and much work remained. Lady Adela may well be leaving his castle on the morrow, but as everyone knew, the road to the Cinque Ports was long and arduous, and fraught with danger, especially from the marauding Welsh brigands across the border. There remained a distinct possibility that some great misfortune could befall her en route and he needed to be certain that the escorts chosen knew exactly what was required of them.

There was also an urgent letter to write and a rider to be despatched with haste to his sister, the Abbess at Wistanstow Abbey. His sister had to be made aware of Lady Adela’s journey south and of the route he had advised for her first night’s stay.

Chapter Four

Lady Adela traced a forefinger lightly down the soot marks upon the young kitchen maid’s face. Rubbing lightly together the tips of her soot-covered fingers, she turned to her lady-in-waiting. ‘Mary, prepare a bath and scent it with fine fragrances,’ she told her. ‘We must have Gwyneth scrubbed clean and smelling sweet for the long journey south.’

Mary, on hearing her mistress’s request, hurried away to procure hot water from the castle’s kitchen.

Lady Adela waited for her elderly lady-in-waiting to leave the reception chamber and the door to close before taking hold of the kitchen maid’s hand. ‘Come, come with me my child,’ she said. ‘Whilst we wait for a bath to be prepared, I will find you new clothes to wear.’

Lady Adela led Gwyneth to a door leading off reception. As they reached the open doorway the young girl hesitated and came to a halt, mindful not to step inside. From the doorway she looked into the room and stood in awe at all its splendour. She had never stepped into a room this luxurious before and was afraid to do so now. This was Lady Adela’s bedchamber and up until now forbidden territory for anyone of such lowly status to enter. She looked around the room. A great four-poster bed stood against one wall, the bedcovers and posters all braided in gold. Fine heavy tapestries draped the grey granite walls, and even though this was late summer and the weather outside quite warm, a log fire smouldered in an open fireplace.

Gwyneth was overcome with emotion and tears welled in her eyes. She snatched away from Lady Adela’s grip and wrung her hands. She was thinking, surely nothing of this was real? Surely this was just a dream? Never before had the young kitchen maid come face to face with such luxury. She had lived in poverty since birth and knew no other way of life. Her father was a fletcher before his untimely death. But without war or conflict, demand on arrows was low and hunting their only use.

She was an only child and her parents had desperately wanted a boy to work the fields and bring in a little extra income. But alas this was not to be. Her father died of the plague when she was eleven years of age, and with no other family income she was sent to the castle’s kitchens. Her mother, without a man to support her, fared little better. She become a whore and moved south to the neighbouring town of Lodelowe. Gwyneth no longer knew if her mother was alive, nor whether she still resided at Lodelowe. No contact had been made for the past five years.

Gwyneth was just sixteen years of age, lacked education and could neither read nor write. But more importantly she lacked love, and now a fine lady of high and noble birth was showing her a warmth and affection she had never known.

‘Come, come enter the chamber. You have nothing to fear,’ beckoned Lady Adela and reassuring the kitchen maid. The young girl wiped away a tear with the back of a soot-stained hand and stepped hesitantly into the bedchamber.

Lady Adela moved to the centre of the room and with a comforting smile waited patiently for the kitchen maid to join her. With open arms she beckoned her into the room. ‘Gwyneth, come to me my child. Let me remove those ragged clothes. I will have them burned. I will find you new attire from my wardrobe.’

The kitchen maid, with head bowed and eyes transfixed upon the floor, edged slowly into the chamber. She moved to stand before Lady Adela, then curtsied low and held that position.

With a slender outstretched finger Lady Adela raised the young woman’s chin. ‘Look to me, my child,’ she said. ‘Look into my eyes.’

As the kitchen maid’s head lifted, Lady Adela stared deeply into her big blue watery eyes and traced a forefinger lightly down the side of her soot-stained cheek. ‘But first we must remove all this kitchen grime,’ she said. ‘Mary goes for hot water. Soon she will have a bath prepared for you in the adjoining room. Now let’s be having these clothes off.’

Lady Adela removed the white bonnet from Gwyneth’s head to reveal a tangle of golden locks. The ringlets were natural, but the hair was ruffled and unkempt. She ran her fingers through the tousled locks. ‘We must wash this hair too, my sweet Gwyneth, and give it a fine brushing afterwards.’

Her hands dropped to the dress Gwyneth wore. ‘Now my child, let’s have this frock away and on the fire,’ she added.

Gwyneth was not sorry to see the frock go. It was getting too small for her anyway. Of late her bosoms had grown to maturity and the frock was tight about the chest. Bending, she grabbed hold of the hem and raised the skirt. As the skirt rose over her body, Lady Adela assisted by pulling the frock up and away from her head. The coarse woven fabric was heavy. It was also ragged around the hem and much soiled.

Lady Adela folded the frock in her arms. Then walking to the fireplace she tossed it upon the large smouldering log fire. Immediately the frock burst into flames. For a while she stared into what was suddenly a roaring fire. She smiled, relieved that these dirty rags were turning to ashes.

She turned to find a naked Gwyneth maid stood to the centre of the bedchamber. The kitchen maid too found herself staring into the flames, but did so with a saddened heart. The frock, now well ablaze, was the only thing she owned, except for a well-worn heavy winter coat and a small wooden cross, held about her neck by a thin strand of leather hide.

Lady Adela turned to Gwyneth. Standing naked in the flickering light of the flames she could see just how pure and radiant the kitchen maid really was. Her body was like an hourglass, with delicate white skin, plump rounded breasts, and shapely hips that narrowed sharply at the waist. She walked slowly towards Gwyneth and took grip of the thin leather strap that held a wooden cross about her neck. She moved to lift the strap over her head and in doing so their cheeks momentarily touched. Lady Adela sensed the warmth of the young girl’s skin against her own and retained the contact. As she withdrew she kissed Gwyneth lightly on the cheek before removing the strap from her head.

Lady Adela traced a forefinger down Gwyneth’s right breast as far as the nipple. She pushed gently, flattening the nipple. ‘My sweet little Gwyneth, I will bathe you personally,’ she said. ‘A body this pure, so pale and delicate, needs gentle caressing, and Mary can be far too abrasive.’

Lady Adela moved to the bed and removed a linen sheet. She turned to Gwyneth and draped the sheet about her shoulders. ‘Here my child,’ she said. ‘This will keep you warm until you are ready for your bath. I will find you a new dress to wear as soon as you are bathed.’

Gwyneth pulled the linen sheet about her shoulders and gripped it about the neck with one hand. She felt more at ease now that her body was covered. Whilst waiting for the bath to be prepared Lady Adela took the opportunity to enquire into her new servant’s personal life. For other than being told that she worked within the castle’s kitchens, she knew nothing else. ‘Pray tell me my child, what of your parents?’ she asked. ‘Are they alive and in good health?’

The kitchen maid grimaced. Her parents were something she rarely spoke about. ‘My Lady, my father died of the plague when I was eleven years old, and my mother no longer resides here at Salopsbury,’ she replied. ‘She has long gone from here and now resides within the walls of Lodelowe.’

Lady Adela turned pensive. But at least she now knew why this girl is so poor. ‘Do you remain in touch with your mother?’

The kitchen maid shook her head. ‘No my lady, I have not heard from my mother for the past five years,’ she said with a noticeable touch of sadness to her voice, and adding; ‘Not since she went away from Salopsbury.’

Lady Adela furrowed her brow. ‘But you would like to see her again?’

The young kitchen maid nodded her head. It was true she missed her mother. ‘I would so dearly love to see my mother again my Lady,’ she said with a sigh. ‘But alas Lodelowe is many miles to the south and I have no means of transport.’

Lady Adela recalled something the Earl had said earlier. The men chosen as escorts were specially selected for their knowledge of the road south, and because of reports of bandits in the area it was suggested they pass south through the town of Lodelowe. She was thinking, a small detour would take them directly through the walled town, and it would not add too many leagues to their journey. But all of this would have to wait till the morrow when she was with the escorts and setting off from the castle. But for now she had Gwyneth to bathe and dress.

‘Sit down upon the bed my sweet Gwyneth,’ she said. ‘Whilst we wait for Mary to prepare your bath, let’s see if we can find you some comfortable shoes to wear.’

Gwyneth moved to the side of the big four-poster bed and perched uneasily upon the very edge. The mattress was soft and filled with the feathers of the eider duck. Apart from the softness everything about the bed, the sheets, the blankets, the pillows, all smelled sweet and heavily scented. Tentatively she drew her linen bed-sheet further about her body and waited.

Lady Adela crossed the room to rummage through a large oak chest. From deep inside she selected a pair of shoes and held them to the light. Satisfied with her choice she carried them to the bed and presented them to Gwyneth. ‘I think these shoes will fit your slender feet.’

Gwyneth looked hesitantly at the shoes. They were French in design, with leather uppers and thick wooden heels. These shoes were clearly not English, for Saxons preferred flat soles and heels for comfort and walking. The bases of these shoes were carved of hard wood, probably oak. They were lacquered and stained dark brown, with metal studs on the heels and toes to prevent wear. The uppers were of soft brown-suede leather, laced to above the ankles and riveted to the wooden base by a series of large brass studs that encircled the whole of the shoe. The newness of these shoes was all too apparent. It was likely they had never been worn. Gwyneth was moved to tears. No one had ever given her a present before, and items of such worth were way beyond her comprehension.

Gwyneth stretched out her right foot and waited whilst her mistress slipped on the shoe. Lady Adela did not lace it up, but held the sides closed about the ankle. ‘How does this feel my dear?’ she asked. ‘Is this comfortable enough for you?’

Gwyneth nodded. It was all she can manage. Words choked her and it was difficult to speak. The only shoes she had ever worn were as a child, and for the past five years she had trodden barefoot about the castle.

‘Then you shall have these shoes,’ Lady Adela told her. ‘These shoes are yours to keep.’

A call from an adjoining chamber announced that Gwyneth’s bath was prepared. Lady Adela cursed Mary for being too hasty. She had hoped for more time to be alone with Gwyneth. The water must have already been boiling for another cause. Removing the shoe and taking Gwyneth by the hand, she led her to the adjoining chamber. There was no bed in here, just chairs and carpet, and once more a fire blazed in an inglenook. To the centre of the room great earthen jugs of steaming hot water stood alongside a large square stone bath not too dissimilar to the troughs that watered the horses. The female servants that had helped carry the water to the chamber were gone and amidst the steam Mary stood alone, her sleeves rolled up and waiting with a long-handled scrubbing brush in hand.

Lady Adela moved to the bath and tested the water with one hand. She nodded her approval. The temperature was just right, but the depth far too shallow for her liking. ‘More hot water Mary,’ she said. ‘We have many years of kitchen grime to scrub away.’

Mary poured the last of the boiling water from the remaining jugs and added a little cold from a wooden bucket to bring the temperature down. Lady Adela tested the water once more and gave it a little stir with one hand. The water level was halfway up the bath. This was luxury, and not even she has ever had the bath filled this high before.

Satisfied with the temperature and water level, Lady Adela poured in a thick-syrupy liquid from a large stone jar that contained the crushed petals of roses and honeysuckle. With petal fragments of red, white and gold floating on the surface she stirred the water with a hand. ‘These fragrances are from Normandy, made with herbs and flowers from my father’s garden.’

With the bath prepared, Lady Adela beckoned Gwyneth to step inside. The kitchen maid released the linen sheet from about her shoulders and let it drop to the floor. She moved to the edge of the bath, raised a leg and dipped her toes in the water. She tested the temperature. Finding the water slightly on the warm side, but not unbearable, she placed her foot down and stepped inside. She lowered herself into the bath, stretched out her legs and placed her arms to the sides. Finally she relaxed and leaned backwards to rest her shoulders against the rear of the bath.

The deeply scented water covered Gwyneth’s body right up to her chin with only her head and breasts peaking above the waterline. The young kitchen maid held a secret. She had never had a hot bath before. Not one she remembered anyway. To wash, which was infrequent, she used a trough behind the castle’s stables, and to bathe she used the river when the weather was warm and no one around. But to lie stretched out in a hot stone bath, heavily scented with the flowers of summer, was a new experience. She closed her eyes and eased herself further down in the warm water. This was bliss; this was heaven; the best moment of her life, and something that would live on in her memory forever.

Mary stepped forward with scrubbing brush in hand, her sleeves rolled up in earnest. Lady Adela raised a hand. ‘I will do this myself Mary,’ she said. ‘I will bathe Gwyneth. We need more water for the hair. Pray return to the kitchen and get more hot water.’

Mary did not argue. She rolled down her sleeves, picked up a large earthen ewer and set off for the kitchen. Mary was no fool and well aware of the reason for her mistress’s intervention. Living everyday for the past five years alongside Lady Adela had taught her much. The only sad part was that her mistress was leaving the castle in the morning and never to return. It was therefore, with a mixture of sadness and happiness that Mary set off for the kitchen: Sad that five years of companionship were coming to an end, but happy that her mistress had found a new friend and companion for the long journey south. She also knew that it was wrong to hasten back. Lady Adela needed time to acquaint herself with her new servant. She would delay her return by talking to the cook.

With Mary gone Lady Adela knelt beside the bath, rolled up her sleeves and began to soap her hands in sweet smelling oils and fragrances. When a fine lather was reached she brushed her hands lightly across the tops of Gwyneth’s exposed breasts. Their eyes meet but not a word was exchanged. There was no need.

Gwyneth knew what was expected. She sat more upright to expose all of her breasts above the waterline and closed her eyes. Her mistress’s touch was something too wonderful to behold.

It is not long before gentle hands ventured beneath the water. Gwyneth opened her legs to accommodate her mistress’s probing fingers. She did not mind. She did not have a care in the world. She simply smiled at her mistress with warmth and affection, and let her wash away at every small crevice of her body. No one had pampered her like this before, and her mistress was being so kind and gentle.

That night Lady Adela slept alongside Gwyneth in her bed, their naked bodies huddled closely together. Gwyneth slept soundly. For the first time in her life she found herself sleeping with someone that exuded so much love and affection towards her.

For Lady Adela the experience also held a deep sense of satisfaction. For the first time in her life she too was sleeping with someone of her own choice and not someone forced upon her against her will.

For both young women, but for entirely different reasons, this was the happiest night of their lives.

Chapter Five

A lone rider pulled his white horse to halt before a swift running stream. A donkey tethered to the horse’s saddle drew up alongside and sunk his nose deep into the murky waters. Snorts followed as water gushed upwards through the donkey’s nostrils. The rider pulled on the reins. He was not planning to dismount.

Leaning forward in the saddle he spoke in Latin. ‘Maneo Ventalbi,’ he whispered in the horse’s ear. His words translated as ‘Wait, Whitewind’. On hearing the command the horse raised his head and settled.

The stream that lay before horse and rider was wide, but by all reports not very deep and could be forded easily. The centre of the stream ran straight and swift, but to either side stood reeds and marshy ground. The road on which the lone rider travelled sloped gently down into the waters of the stream but rose steeply over on the far bank. The lone rider stood high in the saddle and looked to the far bank. Under normal circumstances the crossing before him would hold little danger. For this was a much used ford on a much travelled road that linked the City of Salopsbury to the north to the market town of Lodelowe to the south. This was the ford at Marsh Brook and both horse and rider would, under normal circumstances, just keep on riding without giving the ford a second thought. But with all the recent thunderstorms conditions on this particular day were very different and a possible danger threatened.

Bardolph of Wessex, Royal Falconer to King Henry III of England, had been travelling south since first light of day, and now with dusk approaching was in need of a much welcome rest. If information relayed to Bardolph at a wayside inn the previous evening was reliable, then the stream that now blocked his path had to be the ford at Marsh Brook. More importantly however, Bardolph was within one hour’s ride of his objective for the night. His plan was to make Onneyditch before nightfall, a small hamlet that nestled on the very edge of the great Forest of Wyre. Here, he had been reliably informed, he would find a goodly resting place that went by the name of ‘The Golden Lion’. The inn and the scattering of foresters’ hovels that surrounded the hamlet being less than one hour’s ride south beyond the crossing of the ford at Marsh Brook, and this was where Bardolph now found himself, sat high in his saddle, the front hooves of his white horse mingling with the murky waters of the swollen stream.

With a cloudless sky and sun sinking towards the western horizon, Bardolph dismounted and let his horse drink from the swift flowing waters. He then unhitched his donkey so that he too could continue to drink from the murky, muddy waters of the stream.

Standing with the waters of the stream lapping against the toes of his boots, Bardolph looked to the far bank and cocked an ear to the wind. For the last few miles he had ridden through open countryside, but here at the ford a dense growth of trees flourished to either side, and even though his view to the front and behind was much impaired he knew that he was not alone. To the far side of the stream he could hear horses moving fast, possibly up to half a dozen, and they were heading his way. He turned his attention to the road he had just travelled. A cart trundled a short distance behind, and had been for most of the afternoon. Bardolph shrugged his shoulders. There was not a lot he could do about the presence of fellow travellers, for this was a major road. Significantly there were milestones by the side of the road, so major route this must be. The last milestone passed indicated that he was some seventeen miles north of Lodelowe.

Bardolph returned his attention to the ford and his immediate dilemma. The distance between the two banks was not far, but the stream, swollen and muddied by recent thunderstorms, had made conditions such that it was impossible to judge the depth. He furrowed his brow and considered one further possibility. One hour’s ride back there was a fork in the road that would take him further to the west. Here the road traversed the tops of the hills of Welsh border country and would, in all probability, avoid the flooding in the valleys. But this alternative route offered one big drawback. It would add another couple of days to his journey, and besides, he was still not certain the route would avoid further flooding. He shrugged his shoulders. Whichever and whatever there were bound to be other obstacles to his path, be it this one or the next, and with all the recent thunderstorms some streams even more formidable than the one that now stood before him.

Bardolph’s concern however lay neither in his own safety, nor for that matter with the well being of his animals, since both horse and donkey were quite capable of making the crossing. His anxieties lay elsewhere. He was far more concerned with the protection of his precious cargo. A cargo held in cages and strapped to the back of his donkey. For within the cages there held a pair of extremely rare peregrine falcons. These were hunters of the air that flew and struck down prey with their great talons and huge powerful beaks. At present they were fledglings, but with adulthood and training they would eventually learn to follow the Royal Hunt and go for the kill at the King’s sole command.

Bardolph was nearing the end of his long journey and now found himself in an area of England that bordered with the Kingdom of Wales. If he could keep up the same good rate of progress, then another ten days would see his journey through. When he had first set out from his lodge on the edge of the King’s New Forest in the ancient Kingdom of Wessex, snow was on the ground, now it was late summer. To begin with his task appeared daunting, but he had managed to see it through. On the King’s own command he had travelled north to the Kingdom of Scotland. Here he had stayed as a guest of King Alexander II at his palace at Scone. After this his journey took him further north and west, across the great glens to the Western Isles. At a point where the land met the great endless ocean to the west he had scaled the cliffs and taken the fledglings from their nests.

The fledglings were bigger now and kept in two separate wooden cages strapped to the sides of the donkey, and therefore, if the waters that now lay before him ran deep, then his fledglings were in danger of becoming submerged. What Bardolph needed was a sounding to establish the depth of the water at the centre, and this meant taking his horse in first. Wearily he tethered his donkey to a nearby tree, remounted and rode slowly into the murky waters of the ford. The stream was flowing rapidly at the centre, but his horse remained calm and plodded slowly towards the far bank.

At the centre Bardolph pulled up his horse and looked down into the fast flowing waters of the stream. At the deepest point the water lapped against the soles of his boots. But this was all. A feeling of relief came over him. His donkey was small, but the cages were strapped high and would be well above the waterline. The crossing was safe. He smiled and pulled on the reins, but this was as far as he got. His sharp hearing detected the imminent arrival of galloping horses approaching from the far bank. He patted his horse on the neck to keep him settled.

Immediately the riders appeared there came a call from the far bank. ‘Halt traveller! Stay right where you are!’ issued the cry.

Bardolph steadied his horse and waited. Five soldiers on horseback came from between the trees. Within seconds they were splashing into the waters at the edge of the ford. Bardolph patted his horse’s neck. The soldiers surrounded him on all sides. One took hold of his reins. He could see that four of the soldiers were men-at-arms, the fifth, his rank indicted by gold tassels on each shoulder, suggested a Captain.

Bardolph manoeuvred his horse so as to confront the Captain then waited for him to settle his own horse before speaking. The Captain was a big man with a round, plump face and a large, sprawling unkempt black beard. He was dressed in a dark-blue and red halved tunic with three rampant white lions embroidered upon his chest. Bardolph did not recognise the uniform but assumed this to be the crest of the de Clancey family whose home and castle lay at Lodelowe some seventeen miles to the south. All five soldiers wore similar uniforms, and only the two gold-braided tassels upon his lapels set the Captain apart from the rest of the men.

Before speaking the Captain eyed the traveller up and down. He was curious as to whom this smart young man, dressed in subtle greens of the forest, with a longbow and quiver over his shoulders and a sword on his saddle, might be. If an outlaw then he was either brave or stupid. If not, then who was this dashing young man, with striking good looks and supporting a small neatly trimmed beard and pencil thin moustache?

‘Who dares venture onto the estates of Baron de Clancey armed with longbow and sword?’ the Captain demanded, breaking the silence.

The Captain’s words were addressed in the tongue of the Anglo-Saxons. But whether it was Saxon or Norman, Bardolph was prepared, for he spoke many languages, including the many varied Gaelics of the Welsh and Scots.

Bardolph gave his horse a pat on the neck to keep him settled before replying. He spoke in the language addressed to him. ‘My name is Bardolph and I venture south, returning to my home in the King’s New Forest in the ancient Kingdom of Wessex,’ he explained.

The Captain glared menacingly at Bardolph then pointed to the bow strung about his shoulders. ‘It is forbidden to hunt upon Baron de Clancey’s lands,’ he told him. ‘The penalty is death.’

Bardolph was ready with his reply, for this was not the first time he had been accosted in such a manner. ‘Captain, can you read?’ he enquired. [This was not a rude or insensitive question. Only about one in every hundred of the population could read at this period in history, and even those in more senior positions, such as this Captain, did not necessarily fall into this category; thus the reason for the question.]

‘Yes, I can read,’ confirmed the Captain.

Bardolph unstrapped a saddlebag and withdrew a folded parchment. He handed it to the Captain. ‘Then pray doth read this,’ he said. ‘I think this will answer all your questions.’

The Captain unfolded the parchment and stared at the contents. Even before reading he could see that the document was important, for it bore the great seal of King Henry III of England. He read the contents, which was written in both the languages of the Anglo-Saxons and that of the Normans. He read it at least three times before re-folding and handing it back to its owner.

‘Sire, it is indeed a great honour and privilege to have a Royal Falconer pass this way,’ he said and touching his forehead out of respect. ‘My name is Osbald, Captain of the Guard of Lodelowe and protector of the Arms of the de Clancey’s, and overseer for the duties of the High-Sheriff of Lodelowe. If I or any of my men can be of any assistance, then pray do not hesitate to ask. We place ourselves at your service.’

Bardolph stroked his small, neatly trimmed beard. Captain Osbald certainly held a grand title, but he knew this to be nothing more than tax collector when it came to overseeing the duties of the local Sheriff. As regards the little matter of assistance, Bardolph gave the matter some thought before replying.

‘Well Captain, there is one thing you can do for me,’ he said. ‘You can help me get my donkey across safely to the other side.’

Captain Osbald looked towards the far bank and to the donkey tethered to a tree. He gave the matter some thought before addressing Bardolph. ‘My men will do it,’ he said. ‘Leave it to them. Pray come with me, Sire, so that we may find a quiet place to talk without the rushing of waters about our feet.’

This was not exactly what Bardolph had in mind, but on seeing that the crossing held no danger he reluctantly agreed. There were other things he needed, like fresh meat for his fledglings, and for this he needed permission to hunt.

Bardolph turned to the soldier that held his horse’s reins. ‘Re-tie those cages before crossing. Tie them high,’ he said. ‘Do not allow them to become submerged.’ He then turned to the Captain. ‘Those fledglings belong to the King of England,’ he said sternly. ‘In no way must they come to any harm.’

Captain Osbald turned to his men. ‘You heard what the Royal Falconer said,’ he barked. ‘Protect those fledglings with your lives. Now get that donkey across to the other side.’

Bardolph followed Captain Osbald out of the water, up the steep bank on the other side and a little way down the rutted road in order to get away from the sound of the rushing stream. On a quiet grassy verge some distance from the ford, but still within sight, the two men dismounted. As they tethered their horses to the branches of a tree, Captain Osbald turned to Bardolph and he said; ‘Baron de Clancey doesn’t decree that should anyone of noble birth, high rank or senior office pass this way, then they should be offered the hospitality of Lodelowe Castle. It is less than two hours ride south from here and just about reachable before sunset.’

Bardolph stroked his pencil thin moustache. ‘A kindly offer Captain,’ he replied, ‘but I was planning to rest at the inn at Onneyditch this very night, and this I believe is less than one hour’s ride south. I am tired, and me thinks that a second hour would be just too much for a weary traveller that hath been on the road since the break of dawn.’

Captain Osbald was well aware of the inn. ‘Ah, a goodly inn and owned by decent gentlefolk,’ he exclaimed and nodding his head. ‘It is kept by four generations. They say that the old lady there is well passed her ninetieth birthday. But all the same do consider Baron de Clancey’s hospitality. He offers goodly fayre and a comfortable bed for the night, and we travel together for half the journey. So I beg of you not to make a final decision until we at least reach Onneyditch.’

Bardolph considered Captain Osbald’s offer. He had planned on spending the night at Onneyditch, then set off at first light in search of food for his peregrines. He had very little fresh meat left and his fledglings needed to be fed regularly. A night spent at Lodelowe Castle would ruin all this, especially if he were to be kept up late talking. He was already of a mind to decline, but decided now was not the right time to convey his thoughts, and besides, from the sound of it, he needed clearance to hunt. A subject he would broach upon his journey to the inn. Bardolph began to explain; ‘A fine offer Captain. I will do as you ask and decide, like you say, only once we reach the….’

But this was as far as he got before a distraction made him turn his head towards the ford. The conversation ended abruptly as both Captain Osbald and Bardolph turned their heads towards the direction of the stream. Then, without another word being spoken, both were quickly away.

Bardolph’s greatest fear had suddenly befallen him. He was desperate to know what had happened to his peregrines. What had they done to his fledglings? Were they safe? He set off at a run with Captain Osbald matching his every stride. Bardolph however slowed when he saw that his donkey and fledglings were already safely across the ford and being led towards him by a soldier. He breathed a sigh of relief. His fledglings were safe and whatever the cause of the commotion it had nothing to do with his peregrines. He ran on however, now two paces behind Captain Osbald. The problem it seemed surrounded the arrival of a cart and party of travellers. The cart was already mid-stream and there appeared to be an armed scuffle in the offing.

At the water’s edge Bardolph stopped, removed his longbow from his shoulder, and with the ease of long practice strung it and withdrew an arrow from his quiver. Captain Osbald, on the other hand, carried on running, plunging waist deep into the stream. Three of his men were engaged in hand-to-hand combat. All three were waist deep in the water clashing swords with three other men. It was three against three. Three soldiers in the dark-blue and red half-colours of the Baron de Clancey in pitch battle with three soldiers dressed in pale-blue tunics with three yellow snarling lion heads emblazoned upon their chests.

One of Captain Osbald’s men struck a decisive blow, running his sword through a vulnerable point between chainmail and helmet. With the luckless man’s neck skewered to the hilt, the soldier set about holding him beneath the water until all signs of life had departed from his body. In the meantime the waters ran red about the standing man’s waist as he unflinchingly maintained his stance.

Bardolph turned his sight to the opposite side of the cart. Another of Captain Osbald’s men was winning the day. This man had his opponent held below the water with his hands about his throat. He too was holding his stance until all sign of resistance was gone from the man in his grip. Suddenly the horse pulling the cart shied and moved forward a pace. Captain Osbald was stood alongside the cart, waist deep in the water when it happened. Instinctively he made a grab for the reins. One of his men had been swept beneath the cart, having been caught a slashing blow to the thigh and lost his footing. After that, the fast flowing waters had washed him between the wheels, and as Captain Osbald arrived he was clinging to the spokes, trying desperately to stop himself from being washed downstream.

Whilst all this was going on, the soldier that had battled with the wounded man beneath the cart, had, in the melee, become parted with his sword and was bent down grovelling on the bed of the stream. Just as Captain Osbald was taking hold of the reins the man’s hand fell upon his sword. He took a firm grip, stood upright and looked around. Captain Osbald was stood two paces away, fighting to control the horse that pulled the cart. With eyes ablaze and now sword in hand, the man lunged towards the Captain.

Bardolph, realising what was about to happen, drew his longbow and released the arrow in one swift motion. The arrow glanced against the soldier’s nose-guard and entered the eye. The man fell backwards and his sword dropped into the water with a splash alongside Captain Osbald.

No sooner had the arrow been released, Bardolph was ready to shoot again. In the short space of time it took for the first arrow to fly through the air, a second arrow was taken from its quiver, placed in the bow and the string drawn taut in readiness. But a second arrow was not required. The first, deadly aimed, had been enough to bring down the lunging attacker and effectively put an end to the conflict.

Bardolph lowered his longbow and reflected upon his shot. To be truthful he was a little disappointed. For a man that could bring down a pigeon in full flight, and regularly practised on sparrows and other small birds, his arrow had fallen well wide of the mark. With the soldier wearing chain mail beneath his tunic and a helmet upon his head there was little to aim for that would bring him down with a single arrow. The centre of the man’s eyeball had therefore been his aim, and it was only the lucky glance off the edge of the nose-guard that had returned the arrow to its original intended target. Bardolph had been far too hasty with his shot and he knew it. He had snapped at the release when a gentle, smooth flowing action was needed. He knew where he had gone wrong and was angry with himself for not giving the shot his total concentration.

Captain Osbald settled the horse that pulled the cart, checked that the injured soldier beneath the cart was clear of the wheels then set about leading the cart slowly out of the water. Bardolph stepped aside to let it pass. Whatever the reason for the skirmish, it was now well and truly over, and with the Captain’s men winning the day.

The cart was very ordinary, a simple flat bed with no sides, and with just a flat canvas cover supported by four upright poles to protect the occupants from the elements. Seated near the centre on four large wooden chests heavily roped down to prevent moving, sat two young women, one a young girl in her teens, the other in her mid-twenties. They were embracing each other for comfort. Both appeared to be dressed in fine attire. Yet all the same the more elderly woman appeared very much of noble birth with a distinct air of authority, whilst the teenager had the obvious looks of a serving-wench. Each had their arms locked about each other. The younger girl was sobbing and the older woman comforting her in her arms.

Despite the adversity, the older woman sat poised with dignity. She had long, straight black hair knotted into two plaits that reached down to the waist. She was of medium to slight build and wearing a bright green dress with matching, ornately embroidered headdress. The younger girl, although seated, appeared taller and of a much bigger frame altogether. She had blonde, curly, shoulder length locks, attired in a similar green dress of the same design, but wore a maid’s white bonnet upon her head.

The soldier not involved in the action but entrusted with the safekeeping of the peregrines had only enough time to tether Bardolph’s donkey to a tree and return to find the skirmish ended. He came running with sword drawn. Captain Osbald handed him control of the reins and turned to Bardolph. He rested his hands upon the Falconer’s shoulders.

‘Sire, we have known each other but for a short time, yet already I am indebted to you for the rest of my life,’ he said. ‘My good fellow, I thank you for saving my life. Although you journey far I will make sure there remains always a welcome for you here at Lodelowe.’

Bardolph shrugged his shoulders. ‘I could do little else,’ he replied modestly and adding; ‘A lucky shot at that.’

Captain Osbald knew otherwise. This was no lucky shot. The way this traveller handled his bow told him so, but he kept his thoughts to himself. Instead he gave Bardolph one final hug before turning to check on the rest of his men. He turned to see the soldier with a gash to his thigh being helped out of the water. Another of his men was struggling to drag a lifeless body onto the road.

‘Is anyone still alive?’ asked Captain Osbald, his question not addressed to anyone in particular.

The soldier nearest to him shook his head. ‘No Captain, all three escorts are dead.’

Bardolph was saddened. The skirmish, though minor, had left three men dead and another one badly wounded. Captain Osbald helped the injured man down on the grass beside the road. He checked on the wound then gave an order.

‘Get this wound bandaged,’ he said. Then, on seeing there was little else left to do, he turned to the soldier that had dragged him from the water and asked; ‘Egbert, what brought about this skirmish?’

The soldier removed his helmet and wrung water from his tunic before giving any reply. He was in two minds what to say. Somehow he had to get his story across in the most favourable way. Finally he spoke. ‘Captain, take a look about that woman’s neck,’ he said and pointing towards the cart. ‘She wears the Baron’s necklace if I am not very much mistaken. I asked that I may be permitted to gain a closer inspection, but she refused, and that’s when the skirmish began. Her escorts were adamant that I get nowhere near the necklace and drew their swords. Sire, I had little choice but to take up arms. I swear to God that I am telling the truth.’

Captain Osbald turned his gaze towards the cart now fully out of the water. Even before hearing Egbert’s explanation he knew that he and his men were in deep trouble. There was no way out of it. The three dead soldiers, all attired in pale-blue tunics with yellow snarling lion heads upon their chests, belonged to the Fitzgeralds of Salopsbury. Worse still, this stream and this ford at Marsh Brook marked the boundary between the estates of Salopsbury and Lodelowe. The party had not even fully crossed into Lodelowe before they were assailed.

Another problem also loomed for the Captain, and perhaps something far more serious. If the elder of the two women seated upon the cart turned out to be a certain Lady of noble birth then he was in deep, deep trouble. Since never having set eyes upon her he could not be certain, but if this woman seated on the cart was Lady Adela Fitzgerald, then she was the very person he and his men had set out to meet. An order received from the Council of the Marches that very morning had decreed that Lady Adela Fitzgerald and her party be given safe passage throughout the whole of the Marches, and therefore should she and her travelling companions ever venture onto the estates of the Baron de Clancey, then safe passage was to be ensured for all.

Captain Osbald strode towards the cart. He had to sort this matter out once and for all. He held up a hand towards the older of the two women. ‘Hand me that necklace!’ he demanded.

The necklace was the only thing that would decide the fate of both himself and his men. If the necklace did in fact belong to Baron de Clancey, then perhaps the actions of his men could be justified.

Bardolph was close enough to get a good look at the item of jewellery hung about the woman’s neck. It consisted of a large emerald stone set in a gold surround and suspended on an ornately woven fine gold chain. With robbers about he considered it unwise to display one’s wealth so openly, but with soldiers as escort he guessed she must have felt safe enough to do so.

On hearing Captain Osbald’s demand, the woman’s servant drew her mistress to her chest. ‘Go away you great fat oaf,’ she snarled angrily. ‘Leave her alone? Can’t you see you’ve done enough harm already?’

Captain Osbald, enraged by the girl’s effrontery, drew his sword and held it to her side. ‘Silence wench,’ he spat, ‘or you’ll feel cold steel between your ribs.’

The girl however remained defiant. ‘My Lady has done nothing wrong,’ she bawled down from the cart. ‘So go away and leave us in peace.’ Her mistress however, realising that the situation was getting out of hand, reacted quickly and broke away from the girl’s embrace. She put a hand to her servant’s mouth to silence her and covered the necklace in question with the other.

Speaking down to the Captain, she said; ‘Cette collier est mienne!

She had spoken in the language of the Normans, a tongue Captain Osbald obviously did not understand. ‘The... necklace… pass... it... down...’ he said, and speaking slowly and deliberately in an effort to get his message across.

‘She says the necklace belongs to her,’ said Bardolph translating her words into the tongue of the Anglo-Saxons.

Captain Osbald turned to Bardolph. ‘If she is who I think she is, then she can speak our tongue!’ he snapped angrily.

‘Non! This is my necklace!’ said the woman, this time in Anglo-Saxon, and in order to save further embarrassment between the two gentlemen.

Captain Osbald stretched out a hand. ‘I demand to see the necklace,’ he said. ‘Hand it down.’

‘Non! This necklace is mine!’ she replied angrily and equally determined not to let the Captain take it from her.

In a fit of rage Captain Osbald swung his sword upwards and thrust it hard against the pit of her stomach. She winced. The sharpness of the blade and the force of the strike were such that the sword sliced through her dress and cut into her skin near the naval. The wound was not deep nor life threatening, but all the same a small red patch appeared immediately about the spot where the point of the sword had pierced the flesh.

The woman looked deep into the Captain’s eyes and saw the rage that burned within. She could see that this was a person quite capable of killing, even a defenceless woman, and adjudged not to anger him further. Quickly she removed the necklace from about her neck and dropped it down from the cart. Captain Osbald caught it in one hand and withdrew his sword. Pensively he turned his back to the cart in order to examine the necklace without interference. He had to be certain that this was the necklace in question. If Egbert was wrong and this necklace did not belong to Baron de Clancey, then he knew they were all in deep, deep trouble.

After a while Captain Osbald turned to confront the woman on the cart. ‘I am of the belief that this necklace does not belong to you,’ he told her and with a look of much relief upon his face. ‘This necklace is the property of the Baron de Clancey. Consider yourself under arrest. You will come with me to Lodelowe.’

On hearing this, the younger girl drew her mistress to her chest and glared down at the Captain. She was angry and found nothing but contempt for this wicked man. From behind the seat she found an object that was loose amongst the travel items and hurled it down at the Captain. It was a hairbrush and it thudded against the side of the Captain’s head. The brush did no harm, but it incensed him. Stretching up an arm he grabbed at the young girl’s sleeve and yanked her down from the cart. She landed heavily next to his feet.

‘Rope,’ he called to one of his men.

Within seconds a soldier appeared with two coils of rope. He handed one to his Captain. The girl’s sleeve was ripped and hanging from her shoulder by a thread. With a harsh kick from his boot he rolled her over to lie on her stomach. He placed a foot to the small of her back, then bent down and forced the girl’s hands behind her back. The fall from the cart had winded her and she could find no strength to resist. With one end of what was a sizeable length of rope, the Captain bound her hands behind her back. He then sat her up and wound what was left of the rope about her arms and body. To finish he tied a tight knot close to the point where he had started.

‘There, that should do it,’ he said with some satisfaction once he was done. The soldier that retained the second coil of rope stepped forward. ‘What about the woman on the cart?’ he asked.

Captain Osbald looked upwards. The woman remained seated on a roped down chest. She sat erect and with the dignity expected of a Lady of noble birth. He found himself in a dilemma and unsure of what to do next. If this woman was Lady Adela Fitzgerald then she had to be treated with respect. On the other hand, if she was not, then she could simply be construed as a common thief. He saw this second option as his way of escaping recrimination. He would say that he inspected the necklace, believed it to be the Baron’s then made the arrest. He was simply doing his duty and the identity of the woman he would leave to others to establish. As far as he was concerned these two women were no more than common thieves and therefore to be treated accordingly. He turned to the soldier holding the rope.

‘Yes, bind the one on the cart,’ he said. ‘However she stays up there.’ Then kicking the girl at his feet in the ribs, he added; ‘But this one. Tether her to the back of the cart. She will walk to Onneyditch.’

Captain Osbald stepped aside and watched pensively as the soldier set about binding the woman on the cart, crossing her wrists behind her back and tying them, then wrapping more rope around her torso above and below her breasts. As a final touch her crossed and bound her ankles. When he was done the Captain turned to Bardolph.

‘My friend,’ he said, ‘with three bodies to bury, one man wounded, and a heavy cart to pull over these rutted roads, we will be lucky to make the edge of the forest by nightfall. It seems perchance my friend that we will, after all, be spending the night together. For Onneyditch will be our resting place this very night.’

Bardolph walked to his horse and donkey, and as he did so he reflected on what had just come to pass. In nearly eight months of travel he had managed to stay well clear of trouble. But now, as he neared the end of his journey, he found himself involved in a matter that was really none of his concern. He just hoped that the situation would remain that way. But somehow he had his doubts. He held a niggling suspicion that repercussions from this small and somewhat pointless skirmish were simply not going to go away.

Chapter Six

Those killed at the ford were laid to rest in one shallow grave over on the Salopsbury side of the stream. It seemed only right and proper that the fallen be laid to rest in land what was theirs. To mark the grave three crosses cut from branches were placed on the mound and helmets placed on top. Captain Osbald explained that on his return to Lodelowe news of their deaths would be heralded to Salopsbury. What happened afterwards remained unclear, but the most likely outcome would be for the bodies to be exhumed and returned to Salopsbury.

Bardolph assisted in the burial and added dignity to the ceremony by saying a few words in Latin above the grave. It was the least he could do. After this he felt under no obligation to ride with Captain Osbald and his men, but he did so at the start.

Under normal circumstances he would have remained with the party, but the cart trundled slowly over the rutted ground and, despite the incumbency of a trailing donkey, he could travel much faster. There was also something else, something more repugnant that brought about his early departure. From the outset he found it particularly distasteful to ride behind the cart and watch the young handmaiden being dragged along. With her arms tied behind her back and pulled along by a rope about her waist, she continuously tripped and stumbled on the uneven rutted ground, and when she fell no one came to her assistance. She was simply left to regain her own footing, and for long periods bumped along behind the cart whilst struggling to regain her feet.

Having endured this unpleasantness for a short distance, Bardolph bade Captain Osbald and his party a fond farewell and set off at his own much faster pace. His excuse being he wanted to make Onneyditch before nightfall. He had looked to the west and the setting of the sun. At best little more than one-hour’s daylight remained, and Onneyditch was reportedly one goodly hour’s ride south of the ford. Captain Osbald and his party, hindered by the presence of the cart and the badly rutted road, would in all probability take double this time, and it would be dark before they reached their destination.

The terrain between the ford and the northern edge of the great Forest of Wyre was flat and fertile. This was farming country with rich arable soil. To either side of the road peasants worked the fields and, being late summer, all were ripe for harvest. There were orchards too, all laden with apples for the making of cider. For this was Norman country. The invaders from across the Channel would have planted these cider-apple orchards more than a century ago, and now the trees were mature and bursting with fruit. Cider was always a Norman preference since they considered Saxon ale most distasteful.

There were homesteads too. Bardolph passed many hovels of simple construction, mainly roofs of thatch and walls of wattle-work daubed with clay. Yet all had a sense of homeliness about them. Late summer flowers adorned the walls and smoke curled upwards from the chimneys. But all were small and dwellings of any reasonable size were few and far between.

One construction however did stand out. A building of considerable size sited well away from the road and surrounded by a high wall did catch Bardolph’s eye. Much of the surrounding wall was engulfed by a dense growth of trees, yet above everything there protruded a square Norman tower. His immediate thoughts were this to be a religious establishment, but alternatives remained, perhaps a fortified manor house, or even a small walled village.

Bardolph pulled up his horse and remaining in the saddle looked to the building. It stood on a slope, about halfway up the rise and surrounded by open fields of golden dancing wheat. At the top of the rise there stood a small copse. He returned his gaze to the establishment that lay beyond the wall. There was a remote possibility this could be Onneyditch, for it was not unknown for even small hamlets to lie behind defensive walls, especially this close to the Welsh border. However, time was pressing, with the sun nearly set, and by his reckoning he had been travelling one goodly hour since departing the ford. He decided ask. He turned in the saddle to face the side of the road opposite the building. A peasant hoeing between rows of cabbages worked a field a short distance away. He was just a boy, no more than eight or nine years old, but he seemed dedicated to his work and oblivious to the presence of horse and rider pulled up on the road above.

Bardolph called down to the boy. He spoke in the tongue of the Saxons, for this seemed to be the language spoken in these parts. He called; ‘Tell me, young lad, what of yonder building? What is its purpose?’

The young lad looked up to see the rider on horseback pointing to the high wall over on the far side of the road. Leaning on his hoe he called back; ‘That, good Sire, is Wistanstow Abbey.’

Bardolph’s eyes settled upon the square Norman tower standing tall above the trees. He nodded his head in recognition. His initial assumption had been correct. This was a religious establishment and would be home to a community of monks and nuns. Probably of the Cluniac Benedictine Order since its origins were obviously French.

Bardolph turned in the saddle to confront the lad who remained leaning on his hoe.

‘Then what of Onneyditch?’ he enquired. ‘How much further must I travel?’

The boy immediately pointed along the road, in the direction Bardolph was travelling. ‘Onneyditch!’ he called from the field; ‘It is not far, good Sire. The village lies about two miles yonder in that direction.’

Bardolph picked up the reins and kicked at his horse. ‘Then I thank you for your service,’ he told the boy and set off.

He moved at a trot, but not so fast as to make the pace uncomfortable for his trailing donkey. His prime concern was always for his peregrines strapped high on the donkey’s back. They were not his. They belonged to the King of England and were not to come to harm. As if to indicate the late hour of the day and the need for urgency, from behind the high wall a lone church bell tolled. Bardolph counted eight. This would be the signal for the peasants to leave the fields and return to their homes.

The sun was setting and candles flickered in windows as Bardolph entered Onneyditch. The hamlet was a lot larger than expected. Two rows of black and white timbered buildings, some with thickly thatched roofs, others with Welsh slate, faced each other across the banks of a small yet swift flowing river. Two narrow cobbled streets followed the river to either side. This was the River Onney; a river that had started life far to the west, high in the distant Welsh Mountains, and now here at Onneyditch flowed west to east and to eventually join the southern flowing great River Severn. A single arched hump-backed stone bridge spanned the river, and a weir a little further upstream held back the waters to provide a mill with power to grind the local flour.

Even though light was fading fast, distant objects remained visible to Bardolph’s keen eyes. A little way beyond the mill and on a bend of the river stood the remains of a motte and bailey. This too was past evidence of a once strong Norman presence in the area. The structure was in decay, and like most Norman defences had long since out-served its usefulness. The timber stockade that once protected the outer ditch, along with the old wooden fortification perched high atop the motte, was now fallen into disrepair. The whole site was overgrown with nettles and brambles.

He rode a little further on to confront a man walking towards him across the bridge. He stopped to ask directions. ‘Tell me good Sire?’ he asked, ‘I seek the Golden Lion. Can’st you tell me of its whereabouts?’

The man pointed down the cobbled street that followed one side of the riverbank. ‘It is not far. Keep to this side of the river and follow the road. You cannot miss it. There hangs a sign above the door.’

Bardolph thanked the man and led his horse and donkey down the narrow cobbled street that ran alongside the north bank of the river. It was not long before he came across the inn he was seeking. Above the door, swinging in the light wind, a weather-beaten sign displayed the heads of three snarling lions. There was no writing on the board and the colours were faded to a dirty yellow against a washed pale-blue background. The sign, with three snarling lion’s heads on a pale-blue background, reminded Bardolph of the tunics of the three slain soldiers left buried at the ford. This was undoubtedly the coat of arms of the Fitzgeralds of Salopsbury. He pondered for a while, considering why this should be so? The hamlet of Onneyditch flourished deep within the estates of Lodelowe and he considered the Arms of the de Clanceys’ a more appropriate display. However, he did not dwell long on the matter. His prime concern at this late hour lay with the welfare of his animals.

After passing down a narrow alleyway that ran between the inn and an adjoining dwelling, Bardolph came across a forge and stables. He dismounted and led his horse and donkey through two wide open doors.

Both stables and forge were contained within the one building. Like all constructions in Onneyditch the walls were of timber frame and in-filled with wattle and daub. A high stone chimney towered above the slated roof, permitting the smoke from the forge to pass safely into the air. If there were windows in the building then Bardolph could not see any. With night approaching the only light within the stable came from the coals of a forge. Next to the forge a blacksmith hammered noisily on an anvil.

On sensing Bardolph’s approach, the blacksmith stopped his hammering and looked up. He was a big muscular man in his mid-thirties. He spoke whilst holding a glowing horseshoe to the anvil. ‘You’ll be wanting stalls for the night?’ he said, then struck another blow with the hammer.

Bardolph nodded his head and replied; ‘Aye good Sire and fresh hay and water. My animals have travelled far this day and are in much need of rest.’

The blacksmith raised his head to the roof and called to the loft above. ‘Ralph, come down here,’ he called; ‘Prepare two stalls for this traveller.’ He then set about further hammering before the shoe cooled and was in need of re-heating.

A young lad, aged no more than ten, appeared almost immediately, descending a ladder in a corner of the building. As the sound of hammer on anvil echoed about the forge, the boy led Bardolph to a row of stalls to the rear. There were about a dozen of them.

Whilst Bardolph unsaddled his horse and removed the burden from his donkey, the lad found fresh hay and filled the troughs with clean water. When the animals were settled Bardolph handed the boy a silver penny. ‘If you watch over my horse and donkey this night, and see to it that they are not disturbed, then another silver penny awaits you in the morrow,’ he told him.

The boy’s eyes lit up and touched his forelock in servitude. ‘Aye Sire, for this I will stay awake all night. I will make sure your animals are not disturbed.’

With his horse and donkey safely bedded, Bardolph crossed from the stables to the rear of the inn. He carried with him his saddlebag and the two cages. By now darkness had fallen. He entered the inn via a rear door and looked about him. The room was lit by lanterns hanging from beams that supported a low ceiling. The interior was clean and felt warm and cosy. Ale and cider barrels were stacked high against one wall and a large cauldron hung above the flames of an inglenook fire. A pottage bubbled above the flames and it smelt good. An old lady was seated next to the fire in a rocking chair. Other than this the room was deserted, the tables and chairs empty. Bardolph knew however that the inn would not remain this way for long. These were early hours and the place would soon fill once the peasants from the fields had returned home and partaken of their evening meals.

The landlord appeared as Bardolph closed the door behind him. He was a man in his fifties with round plump reddened face and bushy sideburns. He enquired; ‘You’ll be wanting a room for the night?’

Bardolph nodded his head. ‘Aye good landlord,’ he replied and held up his cages. ‘A room that is clean and quiet for both me and my birds.’

The landlord smiled and bowed low out of respect. ‘All my rooms are clean and quiet,’ he replied. ‘If you’d like to follow me, good Sire, I will show you to your room.’

The landlord led Bardolph to the foot of the stairs. As they began to climb, Bardolph told the innkeeper; ‘You’d better prepare many rooms. Behind me travels the Captain of the Guard of Lodelowe along with four of his men and two…’ he was about to say, ‘women prisoners,’ but changed it to, ‘females in his charge.’

The landlord stopped halfway up the stairs and turned to Bardolph. ‘Ah! That would be Captain Osbald,’ he said. ‘But me thinks extra rooms will not be necessary. He and his men bed down in the stables, but I can find a room for the females in his charge if that is what he requires.’

Bardolph said no more and followed the landlord to the top of the stairs. He considered perhaps he had said too much. After all, Captain Osbald’s problems were not of his concern.

The room was small but had a comfortable bed and clean linen. It also had a window that looked down upon the stables. The young lad Bardolph had handed the silver penny was seated by the door. A lighted lantern rested on the ground beside the boy. Bardolph was pleased to see that the lad was doing as promised.

As the landlord was leaving he addressed Bardolph. ‘There is a pottage above the fire and ale or cider to drink when you are ready,’ he said. ‘Three rabbits and more vegetables were added to the pottage this very day, so it will provide a good and wholesome meal.’

Bardolph nodded his head in recognition. This was how food was served to travellers. Inns invariably kept a large pot boiling over an open fire ready for travellers to fill their bowls. These pots never emptied and usually had something added to them daily. Three rabbits would make the pottage particularly inviting.

‘Yes, I will feed my birds then partake of your fine hospitality,’ he told the landlord. Then out of curiosity, he asked; ‘Three rabbits you say? Then rabbits must be plentiful in these parts?’

The landlord nodded his head. ‘Aye Sire,’ he replied; ‘There is a copse riddled with warrens that overlooks an abbey just a few miles north of here. We never lack in rabbits. It is the hunting of wild boar and venison in the Forest of Wyre that is forbidden.’

Bardolph stroked his small beard thoughtfully. He recalled passing the copse on his way to Onneyditch. Rabbit meat would do nicely, since wild boar and venison were not necessary for his birds. He nodded his head. He had a plan for the morrow. He would venture out at the break of dawn and travel to the copse. With his keen eye and longbow he could foresee no difficulty in bagging a rabbit or two.

The door was closing when Bardolph called; ‘Then landlord, I will enjoy your fine pottage and I will swill it down with some of your finest ale.’

Chapter Seven

Bardolph descended the stairs at the inn. An hour had passed since his arrival and the place was filling with peasants from the fields. The room, silent when he first arrived, now buzzed with activity and conversation. As Bardolph descended the last stair, Captain Osbald and his men entered on the far side of the room.

The Captain spotted Bardolph standing at the foot of the stairs and immediately set off across the room to join him. As he moved between tables he dismissed his men with a wave of the hand, sending them away to a vacant table. All four soldiers under Captain Osbald’s command were present including the soldier wounded at the ford. He walked dragging a heavily bandaged leg, hobbling with two men supporting him to either side. His uniform was dishevelled, muddied from the ford and reddened with blood.

Captain Osbald gave Bardolph a hearty hug, slapped him on the back and said; ‘My dear friend, it is time to repay you for what you did for me at the ford today. All hospitality, including your stay at this goodly inn, will be indebted to me. I will tell the landlord that this is to be so.’

Bardolph felt embarrassed. He had done very little other than shoot one single arrow, and besides he had already paid for his room and had no intention of drinking more than one tankard of Saxon ale. However one priority did remain. He needed to set out at sunrise for the copse behind Wistanstow Abbey in order to bag a few rabbits for his peregrines. Having learnt from the landlord that rabbits were plentiful around the abbey he saw no reason to enter the forest. However, all the lands around Onneyditch belonged either to the church or Baron de Clancey, and he felt it only courteous to seek permission regardless of where he should hunt.

Bardolph, being a Royal Falconer and in possession of a charter signed by the King of England, did not think he would have much trouble gaining this permission and was prepared to ask outright, but decided it more prudent to take up Captain Osbald’s offer of a drink and broach the subject once seated at a table.

‘A tankard of fine Saxon ale will do fine,’ he told the Captain. ‘I will’st drink it whilst partaking of a bowl of the landlord’s finest pottage.’

The two men went separate ways, Captain Osbald to secure a table in a quiet corner and to order ale, and Bardolph to take up a bowl and move across the room to the inglenook fireplace.

An old lady rocked in a creaking chair alongside a blazing open fire. Bardolph recalled something the Captain had said at the ford: Something about the inn being run by four generations and an elderly lady that was well into her nineties. If this were true then this was a remarkable age. Men and women rarely made the ‘three score years and ten’ mentioned in the bible, and sixty was considered a ripe old age. Bardolph therefore felt it only courteous to speak to the old lady whilst he ladled pottage into his bowl.

More out of admiration than respect, he greeted her, saying; ‘Good evening ma’am, I pray that you remain hale and hearty, and in good health.’

The old lady rocked the chair at an increased pace before replying. ‘Aye, it is young man, and God willing I will outlive many of those that are here in this room this very night,’ she said.

Bardolph looked about the room and smiled. The life expectancy of the farming community was probably no more than fifty, fifty-five at most. All toiled hard and long without a break. They would attend church every Sunday, but this was about the only break they would get. He checked on the ages of all those present. There was no one in this room approaching anywhere near old age. The woman sat by the fire was probably three times the age of the next eldest person in the room.

As he ladled more pottage into his bowl, he said; ‘And I hope that you do outlive them all ma’am, for you are looking good for your ninety years.’

The old lady smiled and showed one tooth at the front of what was otherwise a toothless mouth. ‘Aye, I am ninety-three, ninety-four this coming autumn,’ she said. ‘I was born in the year eleven-hundred and forty-two when King Stephen was on the throne and the Normans were defending their mottes.’

Bardolph nodded his head in recognition. He was well aware of England’s turbulent history and the invasion of the Normans and there had been a noticeable touch of Anglo-Saxon venom to her voice.

He spoke politely in return, saying; ‘Then you will have seen a lot of changes ma’am.’

The rocking chair moved at an even swifter pace. ‘Changes? That I have! Aye Sire that I have! A curse on all Normans!’ the old lady muttered angrily and spat at the mention of the Normans.

It had never been Bardolph’s intention to upset the old lady, but he could see that he had touched a raw nerve. He tried to calm her down. ‘Then may we be thankful that the Norman influence wanes and the good King Henry and the House of Plantagenet does’t speak our Saxon tongue.’

As the rocking chair continued to creak at a constant pace, Bardolph finished filling his bowl and bowed politely. He wished that he could spend more time with the old lady. She would surely have many a tale to tell, especially of the coming of the Normans, but at this hour he was a guest of Captain Osbald and could not ignore the hospitality afforded him. He stepped away from the inglenook.

‘Then I bid you a good evening ma’am and may your remarkable health continue.’

Bardolph retraced his steps, placed his bowl upon the table and took a seat opposite Captain Osbald. A tankard of ale awaited him. To strike up a conversation he mentioned his encounter with the old lady. ‘It is a remarkable old lady that does’t sit by the fire,’ he said. ‘She informs me she is in her ninety-third year.’

Captain Osbald took a swig from his tankard and wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve. ‘That’s Agatha, a goodly old lady with a stout Saxon heart,’ he said. ‘She once served within the walls of Lodelowe Castle and is known and liked by many. She outlived her husband and children, and it is her grandson that is now landlord of this inn.’

Bardolph spooned pottage from his bowl. Between spoonfuls he enquired; ‘You mentioned at the ford did you not, that four generations does’t run this goodly inn?’

Captain Osbald swigged more ale before explaining; ‘Aye, this inn and the stables belong to one family. The landlord’s son is the blacksmith and he in turn has a young lad that tends the animals waiting to be shoed.’

Bardolph reckoned the count would be five generations if you included the old lady’s dead children, but he made no comment. It was four generations that lived and ran the premises.

The level of conversation remained light and cordial, and Bardolph preferred it this way. His thoughts at this late hour lay very much on retiring to his room and getting some well-deserved rest. But to keep the conversation going he commented on the young lad at the stables, since he had given him a silver penny to stay alert throughout the night. ‘I have perchance met both the blacksmith and his son,’ he said. ‘For the price of one silver penny I have entrusted the charge of my animals to the boy this night. So I hope he does’t not fall asleep on the job.’

Captain Osbald laughed heartily and downed more ale. ‘And I too hope that he does’t not sleep, for the lad makes a goodly profit out of us both this night,’ he replied, ‘For I too have given him a silver penny, though not to keep vigil over my animals, but to keep a watchful and alert eye on my prisoners.’

Bardolph had been wondering about the two women, but refrained from mentioning the fact, considering this to be none of his business. He had however, out of courtesy, expected them to be found rooms at the inn. He recalled commenting on the fact earlier to the landlord, but since then had not been aware of any activity in the upstairs rooms. Furthermore the four soldiers that accompanied Captain Osbald were all here in the room and seated at a table.

Out of curiosity Bardolph asked; ‘Pray tell me Captain, what hath become of the prisoners?’ Then looking about the room, he added; ‘I do not see them here! Does’t you not offer them a bed for the night?’

Captain Osbald roared with laughter and thumped his tankard hard against the table. He shook his head and explained; ‘A bed for the night you say? Nay Sire, they’ll get no fine bed from me. A bed of straw if they are lucky, but that’s all they’ll be getting from me this night.’

Bardolph made no further comment. He considered the welfare of the prisoners none of his concern. He finished his pottage, downed the tankard of ale and rose from the table. ‘Then Captain I will bid you a goodly night,’ he said. ‘I must arise at the break of dawn and hunt food for my peregrines. A point I hope that is acceptable to you, since I believe the lands around here doth belong to Baron de Clancey.’

Captain Osbald was surprised to find Bardolph retiring so early, but understood. He too needed an early rise in order to continue on with his journey south to Lodelowe. As regards Bardolph’s permission to hunt, he held no objections. He could not anyway. As someone of lowly and common birth he did not have the power or authority to prevent a Royal Falconer from hunting anywhere in the estates of Lodelowe, and besides someone under Royal Charter from King Henry III of England probably held more sway than the Baron.

‘My dear friend you may hunt wherever the need does’t take you,’ he replied. ‘The Baron’s lands are yours to hunt and kill. I will’st convey this to him on the morrow.’

‘Then pray doth convey my gratitude to the Baron,’ said Bardolph. ‘And tell him that I too will announce this grateful gesture to the King whence I see him next. But now I must retire to my room. I bid you goodnight my good Captain. I thank you for your kind hospitality, and I wish you a sound and goodly night’s sleep. It is now my desire to make one final check on my animals before retiring to my room.’

Captain Osbald nodded in recognition. ‘And a goodly night to you too my dear friend,’ he said. ‘If perchance our lives does’t never cross again, then I pray that your journey to the King’s New Forest at Wessex does’t go kindly for you, and may God and St. Christopher bide well with you on the long road south.’

Bardolph bowed his head and took his leave. It was getting late. But one final visit to the stables was in order. The young lad Ralph was seated upon a bale of straw outside the stables doors when Bardolph appeared. On seeing the Royal Falconer he stood up immediately. The interior was in darkness and a lantern burned on the ground alongside the door. Bardolph put an ear to the partially opened door. Inside all was quiet. The forge was out and the blacksmith gone. Only the snuffle of horses and the occasional rustle of straw could be heard.

‘Does’t all go well inside?’ Bardolph enquired of the lad.

Ralph touched a forelock. ‘Aye Sire, all goes well,’ he said. ‘Your animals will find goodly comfort this night.’

Bardolph gave the lad a nod of approval. He was content with what he had heard. This was as far as intended to go. To step inside the stable at this late hour would have a detrimental effect on his horse and donkey. He turned to walk away but stopped immediately and cocked an ear. Between the low snorts and shuffling of straw he perceived a noise that could only have issued from the mouth of a young girl. It was simply a faint murmur drifting out through the partially opened door, but it was enough to suggest that from somewhere inside all was not well.

Bardolph turned to Ralph who had returned to sitting on the bale of straw. He pointed to the gap in the stable door. ‘Tell me lad, what was that sound?’ he enquired. ‘What goes on in there? Me thinks me heard the voice of a female in distress!’

Ralph nodded his head. He knew exactly what the noise would be even though he had heard nothing. ‘Aye Sire, you did indeed,’ he told Bardolph. ‘The Captain holds two female prisoners within these stables. He has left them in my charge until he returns from the inn. He assures me they are well tied down and cannot escape.’

Bardolph bent down and picked up the lantern from the ground. ‘Then I must seek out what disturbs them,’ he told Ralph. ‘Constant calls and murmuring throughout the night can only add distress to my animals, and this cannot be allowed.’

With lantern held high Bardolph entered the stables. Ralph stood up to follow, but Bardolph beckoned him to remain. ‘Nay lad, you stay here and keep a watchful eye on the doors,’ he said. ‘I enter the stable alone. Do not let anyone else enter. Tell Captain Osbald and his men to wait here until my return.’

Ralph was a good lad and understood. He moved back to sit once more upon the bale of straw. He would guard the door and let no one pass.

Guided by light from the lantern Bardolph crossed to the rear of the stable. Arranged in a long line there stood a row of small wooden compartments. His horse and donkey occupied the first two. He was aware of this. With lantern held high he leaned over the first partition and peered inside. His white stallion was stood with head bowed. He whinnied in recognition and Bardolph patted his nose. ‘Good boy Whitewind, now relax,’ he whispered. ‘Get some sleep.’

Bardolph edged along to the next stall and leaned over the partition. His donkey was lying on his side with legs outstretched. He was spread out on a thick bed of straw and looked comfortable and relaxed. The donkey lifted his head, brayed briefly then settled down again.

Bardolph moved on down the row. In the adjoining box he found Captain Osbald’s horse. Moving on with lantern held high he recognised the other horses in turn. With just one more stall to investigate he raised his lantern and peered over the partition. The two women prisoners were here; both bound with their hands behind their backs and with many a tight coil passed about their upper torso and arms. It was quite evident that nothing had been done to relieve them of their bonds since the ford. These were the ropes they were bound with when arrested. The elder of the two women however had been treated lightly. She was lying on a bed of straw with her ankles lashed together and secured to a post at her feet. On the appearance of the lantern she turned her head, then, on recognising that the holder was someone she had encountered at the ford, she quickly turned away not wanting to know.

The serving wench had been dealt with more harshly. She was stood to her feet in a far corner with her back to a post. She was lashed firmly to it. Coils of rope, in addition to those that already bound about her, had been wound about her body and around the upright pillar. She was bound from neck to foot with very little movement afforded her other than the motion of the head.

‘Water! Please water!’ she croaked in a faint and much distressed voice.

Bardolph entered the stall and hung his lantern upon a hook. He found a ladle and filled it from a trough. He placed the ladle to the girl’s lips and allowed her to drink. Her face was bruised and cut from the falls of the journey, and her dress torn and soiled. He ripped away a small portion of the dress from the hem and soaked it in the trough. He then wiped away the grime from her face. She winced as the cold water touched the many grazes to her cheeks.

Bardolph was saddened and shook his head. However, despite the sympathy on his part and the obvious suffering on hers, his thoughts at this late hour lay primarily with his horse and donkey. He therefore saw no option available other than to get this poor girl down upon the straw. Quickly he set about unwinding the rope that bound her to the post.

As he did so he spelt out his concern, telling her; ‘I cannot allow you to remain like this. My animals will become much disturbed should your constant murmuring persist.’

Bardolph did not untie the girl completely, retaining those bonds applied about her body at the ford. When she was free of the post he helped her down, laid her beside the other prisoner and bound her feet. He then offered the girl a final drink, and as she drank he spoke so that both women should hear. He told them; ‘I will leave word with the Captain that you are not to be further disturbed this night. Now rest and get some sleep.’

As Bardolph walked away he heard the older woman whisper; ‘Thank you, kind Sire, for all that you have done.’

But he did not turn around or acknowledge that he had heard. He had done all he could and remained philosophical. There was nothing in his power that would alter their fate. Quite simply they were none of his concern. By nightfall on the morrow he planned to be many miles south of Lodelowe and out of their lives.

The young lad Ralph stood up as Bardolph stepped out of the stables. He touched his forelock in servitude. Bardolph returned the lantern and took out a silver penny from his purse. He handed him the coin. ‘This penny is for you, Ralph. You must tell the Captain that I have re-tied one of his prisoners and laid her to rest upon the straw. Tell him I have done this in order that my animals rest soundly this night. Tell him the prisoners must not be allowed to make any further disturbance, and that I have given instructions that this must be so. Remind him that he will feel the wrath of the King of England if my instructions are ignored. Priority must rest with my horse and donkey. They must not be disturbed this night and that is by order of the King.’

Ralph took the silver penny from Bardolph and touched his forelock. ‘I will’st convey your message to the Captain,’ he said. ‘Your animals will rest soundly this night. Pray rest assured that this be so.’

Bardolph turned and walked from the stables, crossing the small alleyway and entering the inn via the rear door. Captain Osbald had joined his men and was sitting at a far table when he entered. They were laughing and joking and did not see him as he made for the stairs. Back in his room, Bardolph settled down in his bed and pulled the covers over his body. It was his intent to sleep well that night and he tried to cast all thoughts of the prisoners from his mind. After all they were none of his concern. But somehow these thoughts would not go away.

End of part 1

Copyright© 2012 by Nosbert. All rights reserved.