The Royal Falconer
by Nosbert

Part 2

Chapter Eight

Unlike the City of Salopsbury, protected by an area bounded by castle and a long looping bend of the river, the market town of Lodelowe relied entirely on walls for defence. Outermost were the town walls, tall and wide with ramparts that could be walked by six men standing abreast. They formed an irregular circle that rose and fell, following the contours of the land. Within this outer circle lay the castle, and within the castle lay a third defence. This was the impregnable castle’s keep.

Though Salopsbury and Lodelowe were very different in both size and structure, there were however similarities. Like Salopsbury there were two gates to Lodelowe, one to the east, the other to the west. The West Gate stood before a fortified bridge that spanned the river that ran alongside the western section of the outer walls. On the opposite side of the town the East Gate was high and wide, guarded by two towers, and a focal point for three merging roads from north, south and east. Both gates were constantly guarded and always closed during the hours of darkness.

The most notable differences lay in the position and construction of the castles. Salopsbury Castle, built entirely of red sandstone, stood on the outside of the City and in effect completed a circle created by the vast loop in the River Severn. On the other hand Lodelowe Castle was built of grey granite and stood completely within the town’s defensive outer walls, resting on a rise that towered above the town. Its walls, like the outer defences, were irregular in shape, with high ramparts and towers to the north, south, east and west.

At the very heart of the castle, standing impregnable and imposing, and perched atop a steep and rocky outcrop, stood the castle’s keep. The walls were some twenty feet thick, and the windows, of which there were few, were nothing more than narrow archer-slits. It was rumoured that from the top of the tower a clear and uninterrupted view of all the Baron’s estates could be seen. But very few had ever been privileged to scale the heights and discover whether this be true or not.

Baron Richard de Clancey, overlord and supreme master of the estates of Lodelowe, Stanton and all of the Clees, was in his fiftieth year. He was an agile and sprightly man with nothing to suggest his advancing years other than a greying beard. This particular day was a Tuesday, and normally on this day of the week the Baron would be seated astride his horse and leading his entourage, company of archers, and hunting dogs out into the great Forest of Wyre. But this particular Tuesday was to be different. This day, the last Tuesday of August, in the Year of our Lord 1235, had long been set-aside to settle matters regarding taxes. This Tuesday, as was this day once a year, the day when budgets were to be set and taxes agreed for both Lodelowe and the Crown.

Baron Richard de Clancey was seated with the High Sheriff and his bailiffs in the south wing of Lodelowe castle when the Captain of the Guard burst in through the wide double doors at far end of the Great Hall. Alongside the Captain raced the burly figure of Cuthred, the castle’s Sergeant-at-Arms. Both were attired in the dark-blue and red halved tunics of Lodelowe, the only difference in their attire being the tassels on their shoulders. One wore golden tassels, the other red.

About a dozen or so of the town’s most senior clerics and officials, including the High Sheriff of Lodelowe, were seated around a long table with the Baron at the head. As the doors flung open the hall fell silent and all eyes turned towards the two hurriedly approaching soldiers. Without seeking pardon for his untimely interruption, Captain Osbald strode purposefully down the hall and placed a single item of jewellery upon the table before the Baron.

‘I tried to stop him my Liege!’ protested Sergeant Cuthred, out of breath and apologising for his apparent lapse of security.

Anger flared within the Baron, for he had left explicit instructions that he should not be disturbed. However, he was well aware that his Captain would never do such a thing unless it was extremely important, so he kept his council. Without reprimand to his Sergeant for his inability to follow a simple instruction, he picked up the object laid before him and turned it over in his hands.

Despite the bright mid-morning sunshine that bathed the castle’s ramparts, light entering the narrow leaded windows of the Great Hall was poor and candles flickered along the full length of the table. In order to gain closer inspection the Baron drew the nearest candlestick and began to scrutinise the item placed before him. In his hand he held a large, green, dewdrop emerald embedded in a gold surround and suspended on an intricately woven fine gold chain. He recognised the item of jewellery. This necklace once belonged to his father and was part of a haul taken from the castle’s strongroom some three weeks earlier.

The Baron raised his head and looked to those seated at the table. ‘Gentlemen, pray leave the hall,’ he told them. ‘I have important matters to attend to.’

There followed neither muttering nor dissent. It was obvious from the way the Captain had approached the table that serious matters were afoot. So each in turn rose silently from his chair, bowed his head towards the Baron and made for the exit. The Baron waited patiently as books and ledgers were gathered up and toted away. As the last man trundled towards the door, his arms laden with manuscripts, the Baron turned to his Sergeant. With a dismissive wave of his hand he beckoned him to follow the others from the hall.

‘Sergeant, you may leave us,’ he told him. ‘My business is with the Captain alone.’

Sergeant Cuthred beat his chest with clenched fist, clicked his heals, turned and marched purposefully from the hall.

The Baron waited for the doors to close before turning to his Captain. He raised the necklace in his hand and asked; ‘Tell me, Captain, how did’st you come by this?’

Captain Osbald moved forward a pace to stand against the corner of the long table. He, like Sergeant Cuthred, saluted with clenched fist against his chest. However he refrained from giving an immediate answer. Before replying there was something he needed to know. Naturally it was wrong and against protocol to speak out of turn, but nevertheless he still put his question to the Baron.

‘My Liege, is this your father’s necklace?’ he asked and pointing to the item clutched in the Baron’s hand. ‘If so, then pray doth tell me, was it amongst the items taken from your strongroom some three weeks past?’

The Baron frowned upon his Captain’s effrontery. It was not acceptable for any underling to question him. However he kept his council and considered Captain Osbald’s question. It was true, a midnight robbery had taken place within the walls of his castle some three weeks earlier, many items of value had been stolen and one of his men murdered. This necklace was one of those items. He therefore answered his Captain. ‘Yes Captain, this is my father’s necklace, and yes, it was taken from my strongroom.’ He then came directly to the point, saying; ‘Now pray tell me Captain, how did’st you come by this?’

Confirmation that this truly was the stolen necklace made Captain Osbald breathe more easily. He could now relate events as they actually happened. But all the same it remained his intent to tell the tale in a way that favoured both himself and his men. As far as he was concerned the two women arrested at the ford were nothing more than common thieves. This was to be his story.

He explained; ‘My Liege, late yesterday at the setting of the sun my patrol came upon a cart and armed escort at the ford at Marsh Brook to the north of here. The ford runs unusually deep for this time of year and three of my men went to the aid of the party. Whilst assisting with the crossing the keen eye of Egbert spotted this necklace about the neck of a lady seated upon the cart. He asked that it be handed down in order to gain closer inspection, but the request was refused, and after a long and bitter argument a fight ensued.’

The Baron raised an eyebrow. This report was most unusual. Reports of skirmishes within his boundaries were uncommon. However his first concern was for his men. ‘Were there any casualties?’ he asked. ‘Were any of my men injured?’

Captain Osbald shook his head. He answered; ‘My liege, three soldiers escorted the cart. All three were slain. One of my men was wounded though nothing serious, just a flesh wound to the thigh and he will survive.’ Then, as an afterthought he added; ‘The physician attends to his injuries as we speak.’

The Baron stroked his beard, thankful that his men were safe. After a brief reflection he moved on. ‘So Captain, what has transpired? You presumably made arrests? You say a lady was on the cart?’

Captain Osbald nodded his head. ‘Yes my Liege, I made arrests. Those that remained upon the cart were arrested and brought here to Lodelowe.’

The Baron gave a nod of approval and asked; ‘And what number might this be. How many remained upon the cart?’

Captain Osbald considered the time now right to mention the noblewoman. ‘Two females remained upon the cart. I arrested both. They purport to be a noblewoman and her handmaiden, but I have my doubts. It is my belief they are no more than common thieves.’

The Baron stroked his beard thoughtfully. The mention of a noblewoman and her handmaiden came as a surprise. He had assumed those arrested to be either his minions or Welsh raiders from across the border. Concerned he asked for clarification, saying; ‘This noblewoman you speak of? Is she of these parts? Do I know her?’

Captain Osbald replied with a hint of caution to his voice, saying; ‘It is possible my Liege, but I have my doubts. This noblewoman purports to be the Lady Adela Fitzgerald.’

On hearing the name, the Baron rose from his chair and thumped the table. Before him candlesticks jumped and rocked under the impact. He turned his back on his Captain and stared blankly up at the great tapestries of his ancestors hung upon the wall behind his chair. And whilst he stared he reflected upon a proclamation heralded to his castle just two days earlier. The Council of the Marches had issued instructions that Lady Adela Fitzgerald was free to journey south and return to her home in Normandy. The proclamation further decreed that should she venture onto the estates of Lodelowe then she was to be offered safe escort and protection. Obviously if this woman on the cart proved to be Lady Adela Fitzgerald, then communications had gone badly wrong.

After much contemplation the Baron turned to face Captain Osbald. ‘Captain, where is this person now?’ he asked. ‘This woman you arrested, the one who purports to be Lady Adela Fitzgerald?’

Captain Osbald pointed to a window that looked down upon the courtyard. He told the Baron; ‘She and her handmaiden are seated upon a cart in the courtyard and awaiting further instructions from my Liege.’

The Baron moved to the window and from his lofty position looked down upon the courtyard. Two women were seated upon the rear of a cart, their legs trailing behind. Their upper bodies were coiled in rope and each had her hands secured behind her back. From his elevated position he could not see their faces, but the long black plaited hair of one of the prisoners made his heart sink. As if she felt his gaze, the woman looked up to the window and for a brief moment he saw her face. He shook his head slowly from side to side. There was no doubt about it; his Captain had indeed arrested the Lady Adela Fitzgerald.

Thoughtfully the Baron turned the necklace over in his hands and to ponder upon the dilemma that now confronted him. His Captain had indeed brought back with him a veritable hornet’s nest of problems. The Fitzgeralds were masters of the neighbouring estates to the north of Lodelowe, and Lady Adela Fitzgerald was well known and highly respected throughout the whole of the Marches. He collected his thoughts and tried to seek a solution. But for the time being he could see no way out. To accuse this Fitzgerald woman of robbery would turn all eyes towards Lodelowe, and this was something he could very well do without. He looked to the necklace in his hand and clutched it tightly. A deep anger flared and he shook a fist in rage. This was his father’s necklace and this woman on the cart, be her of noble birth or not, had no rights wearing it.

In time the Baron’s anger abated and he reverted to pondering upon the quandary that now confronted him. It was possible even as he spoke that news of Lady Adela’s arrest was spreading throughout the whole of the Marches. The peasants in the fields would almost certainly have seen her passing, and since then those that milled about the courtyard would have gained knowledge of her presence. He was therefore of the opinion that perhaps his best course of action was to simply let her continue on with her journey. The death of three escorts could, admittedly with some difficulty, be swept to one side, and it would be no problem to replace them with his men and send them on their way. But somehow he could not see this as the solution. It simply rode in the face of justice. It was he that had been wronged, and as an upholder of the law it was his solemn duty to see criminals brought to justice.

The Baron therefore saw two possible solutions. One was to simply let the noblewoman go and in doing so put an end to the matter. The other was to accuse her of robbery and murder, and in doing so have all eyes turn towards Lodelowe. He pondered hard and long before reaching his decision, and in the end it was his heart that won the day. He simply had to do what he considered to be the right and proper thing to do. He made up his mind. The Norman noblewoman, Lady Adela Fitzgerald, would stand trial for theft and murder.

The Baron turned to his Captain, his mind now made up. ‘Well Captain it seems you have indeed arrested the Lady Adela Fitzgerald,’ he told him. ‘But it makes little difference. You did the right and proper thing. This necklace belongs to me. She is a thief and she will stand trial for robbery and murder.’

Captain Osbald bowed his head in recognition of the praise bestowed upon him. ‘I thank you my Liege for the confidence you bestow on me,’ he replied.

The Baron took out a large silver coin from his purse and handed it to the Captain. ‘Give this silver crown to the man who spotted the necklace. Give it as a reward for his vigilance,’ he said and adding; ‘Also offer him promotion. A man with such a keen eye deserves to be at least a Corporal in my army.’

Captain Osbald took the coin. ‘I will see to it that Egbert gets this silver crown and is promoted from the ranks, my Liege,’ he said and went on to ask; ‘But what pray must be done with the prisoners?’

The Baron stroked his beard thoughtfully. Speaking slowly and deliberately he explained what actions were to be taken. ‘Take the noblewoman to the north tower and take the handmaiden to my dungeon. You will personally oversee their confinement. Treat them both with respect. Neither must come to any harm. You may grant the handmaiden a blanket and a candle. The Norman woman you will treat as a Lady of noble birth: She will’st have a comfortable bed and wholesome food and fresh water. But she is to speak to no one and no one is to speak to her. Keep her isolated. Perhaps a bible will not go amiss. When you have done this have the cart searched, and search the prisoners too, just in case they conceal further stolen items about their person. But be not hasty. Give them time to reflect upon their crime. In the meantime I will resume my meeting with the Sheriff and his bailiffs. We have quite some hours left before our deliberations are through. Pray summons them to return. Now Captain, you may go and perform your duties.’

Captain Osbald saluted with clenched fist across his chest. ‘Very good my Liege.’

He turned to march away, but other than rocking on his heels he made no forward movement. With all talk of Lady Adela Fitzgerald and the stolen necklace he had completely forgotten to mention the arrival of a King’s Falconer to Lodelowe. He turned to the Baron. ‘My Liege, I have one more thing to report. My party also encountered another traveller at the ford and he did’st assist us greatly in the skirmish. A Royal Falconer no less and under charter to the King of England. He passes this way, travelling south to the ancient Kingdom of Wessex.’

The Baron raised an eyebrow. Royal visitors to Lodelowe were few and far between. ‘Then I hope you did’st offer him my hospitality and a room for the night at my castle?’

Captain Osbald nodded his head. ‘Aye, I did’st so my Liege,’ he confirmed, ‘but the Royal Falconer insisted on going his own way. I bade him farewell at the inn at Onneyditch at break of dawn this very morning. He asked that he should be permitted to hunt should he come across hogs or venison on his journey south through the Forest of Wyre. I naturally gave him the permission he so desired.’

As Captain Osbald spoke the Baron’s mind quite naturally rested heavily upon other matters. Giving some wayward traveller permission to hunt was neither here nor there. But then a thought occurred to him. This man, a Royal Falconer, was someone known to the King, and it gave him an idea. He mulled the thought over in his mind before speaking.

Eventually he came to ask his Captain; ‘Pray doth tell me Captain, you mentioned did you not that this traveller assisted you in the fight? Then I take it, apart from being Royal Falconer to the King, he is also an able swordsman?’

Captain Osbald shook his head. ‘Nay my Liege,’ he explained, ‘his weapon was the longbow and an accompanying keen eye. And for that praise be, I owe this man a great debt, for he saved my life at the ford. He shot an arrow through the eye of a Fitzgerald soldier just as he was about to strike me down. Without his timely intervention I would be dead now, my Liege. I must surely owe this man my life, of this there is no doubt.’

The Baron tried not to show his delight, but this was exactly the sort of information he was looking for. Now he had a good excuse to waylay this Royal Falconer and bring him to his castle. But caution remained. It would be wrong to mention his plans at this early stage. He put a simple question to his Captain, asking him; ‘Tell me Captain, what is the name of this Royal Falconer? And where did’st you say he hails?’

Captain Osbald related what little he knew. ‘My Liege, his name is Bardolph and he hails from the south, from the King’s New Forest in the ancient Kingdom of Wessex. He passes this way with a brace of young peregrines, presents from the King of Scotland no less.’

If more delight was possible then it did not show in the Baron’s eyes. But this was excellent news. For Lady Adela’s trial to result in a successful conviction then he needed to assemble a court that would look more favourably towards Lodelowe than Salopsbury. This would not be easy and a certain amount of guile and cunning was needed. He already had one or two people in mind to stand in judgement at the trial, but to make everything appear totally unbiased, what he needed was someone whose credentials could not be challenged: Someone totally impartial and not connected with either the Baron’s own lands, or those of the Fitzgeralds. A King’s Falconer, from the ancient Kingdom of Wessex, would be the ideal person for this purpose.

The Baron mulled this thought over in his mind and concluded the arrival of the Royal Falconer an opportunity too good not to be missed. This man’s chance arrival offered the ideal solution to the problem. He managed a smile. At last he could see a way out of his predicament. He would ask the Royal Falconer to stand in judgement against the accused. His knowledge of the law was not good, but enough to believe he was on safe ground. Under the terms of King John’s great charter the ‘Magna Carta’ some twenty years earlier, a proclamation issued by his court at Lodelowe and ratified by the Council of the Marches could not be refused. Not even if issued to a servant of the King. This much power had been passed to the Barons by Royal Decree, and a new order existed in the land.

Not wanting to reveal his true plans at this stage the Baron told his Captain; ‘Then all the more reason to greet a man who keeps such distinguished company. I think a reception in his honour is in order, do you not agree?’

It was the turn of Captain Osbald to smile. Quite naturally he was delighted that the man whom had saved his life should stay as an honoured guest of the Baron. ‘I will convey this to him my Liege. But a fast horse is needed, for me thinks he will be many miles south of Lodelowe by now.’

The Baron looked to the sunlight beaming in through the windows. Already the sun was high in the sky and it was important he returned to matters of Lodelowe. He moved to the head of the table and resumed his seat. ‘Right Captain, I will summons this man myself. Just find me your fastest rider and send in the castle’s scribe. He waits at the door. I will get him to draw up a proclamation to hand to this King’s Falconer then send out your fastest rider to bring him back here to Lodelowe. In the meantime carry out my orders. Attend to the prisoners.’

One worry however remained in the Baron’s mind. He had not quite worked out how best to control the situation. Lady Adela’s trial would be at least one week away. Before this could happen news had to be sent to Salopsbury and representation for the Lady despatched to Lodelowe. The nagging question therefore remained; what excuse could he use to keep the King’s Royal Falconer at his castle? He decided the missive to the Falconer had to be short and brief. It would simply summons him to stand in judgement at a trial without mention as to whom and when. He would inform him of his duties only once he was safely roomed within his castle.

Whilst contemplating these things he waved the Captain away. There was nothing more to be said and he had a lot of thinking to do. On seeing the wave of the hand, Captain Osbald saluted, clicked his heels and turned for the door. As he marched away he did not look back. On leaving the hall he instructed the castle’s scribe to enter and ordered Sergeant Cuthred to accompany him. Together they had some very important matters to deal with.

Chapter Nine

There existed a sense of urgency about Captain Osbald. He marched quickly from the Great Hall, with Sergeant Cuthred one step behind and matching his stride. Halfway down a long corridor the Captain stopped and caught a pageboy by the collar. The pageboy, travelling in the opposite direction, was caught by surprise, but like any subordinate when confronted by a superior he adjusted his tunic and bowed low before the Captain. The pageboy was probably not the best person for the job, the Captain admitted this, but as far as he was concerned anyone would do. It was just unfortunate for the boy that he was the first person encountered.

The Captain told the boy; ‘You, go to the North Tower and prepare a room. Do it right away. Find a room with a comfortable bed, a table and chair. Then light a fire and provide candles. Oh, and find a bible. Now go, and jump to it! I shall be along shortly to see that all is done.’

No sooner had he finished speaking Captain Osbald turned and sped away, heading for the courtyard. For a brief moment the boy stood dumfounded. He then turned and set off at a rush. For the first time in his life he had been asked to do something important and he would do everything in his power to make sure his allotted task was carried out.

At the end of the corridor a door opened out into the courtyard. The Captain burst through, then kept on walking. Out in the sunshine he looked about him but did not stop. He knew exactly where he was heading, which was more than Sergeant Cuthred did. Three soldiers, assigned to guard the cart, stood in the courtyard. On the back of the cart sat two women both heavily bound with rope.

Striding briskly towards the cart Captain Osbald gave orders to Sergeant Cuthred, now racing by his side and matching his stride. ‘Sergeant, I want you to conduct a thorough search of that cart,’ he said and pointing ahead he added; ‘Search for valuables. Leave nothing unturned. The Baron is looking for items of jewellery that may have been taken from his strongroom. But before that, alert Egbert and make ready a fast horse. The scribe prepares a missive for a traveller. Egbert knows him by sight and is a good rider. He is to ride out for this traveller and bring him back here to Lodelowe.’

‘Aye Captain,’ the Sergeant acknowledged as they marched along, ‘I will make ready a fast horse and alert Egbert. I will then set about searching the cart.’

‘Oh! And one more thing,’ said the Captain taking a silver crown from his purse. ‘Give this silver crown to Egbert and promote him to the ranks. Make him a Corporal. It is the Baron’s wish that this be done.’

Sergeant Cuthred took the coin. He looked bemused but did not question the command. ‘I will do this too. Egbert will be promoted to Corporal,’ he replied. Then, as if to show the same urgency as his Captain, he saluted and veered away to the stables.

Captain Osbald carried on alone, striding purposefully across the courtyard. He approached two soldiers guarding the cart and stopped. The third soldier assigned the task was stood to the far side. ‘You two, get those prisoners down from the cart,’ he barked, then in the same breath called over the cart, ‘And you over there, go to the dungeon. Tell the jailer I want a cell made clean and un-fouled, and a candle and blanket provided. Tell him I shall be down shortly with a prisoner. Now go to it, and look lively.’

The soldier, partially obscured by the cart, saluted and set off at a pace. At the same time the two remaining soldiers set about their own allotted duty. The prisoners were lowered from the cart and made to stand on the uneven cobbles of the courtyard. Both remained bound with several coils of rope wound about their upper arms and body. They teetered unsteadily on the uneven ground, but each was held so they did not fall.

Once they were down and on their feet Captain Osbald singled out one soldier. Pointing to him first then Lady Adela, he told him; ‘You, escort this one to the North Tower. A room is being prepared as I speak. Take her to the room and release her from her bonds, then guard the door until I arrive. She is to speak to no one. Is that clear?’

The soldier saluted with clenched fist across his chest and clicked his heels. ‘Yes Captain,’ he replied and took hold of the ropes about Lady Adela’s body. He gave a tug and they set off.

As they walked away Lady Adela turned and called to her handmaiden; ‘Stay strong my sweet Gwyneth. Do not let your heart fall. My family will soon hear of this atrocity and come to our aid.’

Gwyneth managed a smile. But tears filled her face and she said nothing, being too choked to speak.

Captain Osbald watched Lady Adela go. As she disappeared from the courtyard he turned to the one soldier that remained. ‘You stay here, guard the cart and let no one approach until Sergeant Cuthred returns. You will then assist in whatever he commands.’ And as he spoke he took a grip of the ropes that surrounded the handmaiden. ‘And you, come with me,’ he told her, then giving a sharp tug to the ropes.

The handmaiden stumbled forward, found her feet then walked away with the Captain pulling at the ropes. A steep winding path led upwards from the courtyard to the castle’s keep. With a hand gripped firmly around the handmaiden’s ropes the Captain moved at a brisk pace. One step behind and at arm’s length the handmaiden struggled to maintain the rapid pace set by the Captain.

An arched gateway and portcullis defended the inner keep. This was the only entrance to the tall, square block tower that dominated the Lodelowe skyline. The portcullis was raised but the doors closed. A guard came to attention and clicked his heels as Captain Osbald arrived. Without a word being spoken he opened a small inner door inset within one of the larger double doors and let him and the prisoner step through.

Once inside and the small door closed the Captain moved on. Inside was dark and lit only by a few widely spread torches burning in brackets on the walls. With the handmaiden in tow the Captain crossed the huge entrance hall and descended a flight of stone stairs. At the end of a long narrow corridor, and on a level below the entrance hall, a lone soldier waited. Behind him stood a small, gated portal that came no higher than his shoulders. On seeing the Captain he turned a key in a lock and opened out the small gate. Without stopping or a word being spoken Captain Osbald stooped low and stepped through the portal. A tug on the handmaiden’s bonds caused her to jerk forward. She ducked her head and stepped through to the other side.

The area beyond the gate was small and confined, and from here a narrow spiralling staircase descended deep into the hillside. Captain Osbald waited for the guard to lock the gate then tugged once more on the handmaiden’s ropes. They set off down the long descent, the Captain leading and both treading carefully for the steps were steep and the passageway badly lit.

It was one hundred steps down to the bottom. Here a further gate blocked the way. A guard stood to the other side. He had heard their descent and was waiting, stooping low and peering through the bars. He recognised the Captain and unlocked the low, iron-barred gate so that they could pass through to the other side.

After stooping low and passing through the final portal, the Captain released his grip on the handmaiden’s bonds. Stooping low, she followed through the portal, stood upright and looked about her. She was standing at one end of a long, low arched corridor. The light was poor, lit only by a handful of blazing torches placed in brackets and spaced at irregular intervals down the long length of the wide corridor. The vaulted roof was black, stained by the endless centuries of smoke. The damp and clammy air reeked of burning pitch. On both sides of the passageway stood rows of cells with at least a dozen solid oak doors to either side. All were closed and the wails of at least two prisoners could be heard from behind the doors.

Captain Osbald turned to the guard. ‘Escort the prisoner. Follow me,’ he barked. There remained a certain amount of haste to everything the Captain did. He set off.

The soldier earlier despatched to herald the Captain’s arrival was waiting halfway down the long corridor. Alongside him stood Barik the Jailer, a small balding man, his upper torso attired in a black leather waistcoat. His arms and chest were muscular, and strung to one side of a wide leather belt hung a number of keys. He pulled open a cell door and waited for Captain Osbald to arrive before speaking.

The Captain stopped before the door and peered into the cell.

‘The cell has been cleaned and a blanket and candle provided as instructed,’ said the Jailer as he stood with one hand on the door.

Captain Osbald showed no emotion and continued to peer into the gloom. The cell was small, slightly longer than wide, with an arched roof, and barely large enough for one person to lie down at full stretch. A coarsely woven blanket had been placed on the floor, and within a niche in the wall a candle burned. He sniffed the stale air. If the cell had been washed and the floor swept clean, then it did nothing to remove the foul reeking stench.

The Captain took one step back. The handmaiden had been brought to stand alongside. He placed both hands upon her shoulders and pushed her heavily into the cell. The push caught her unawares and sent her stumbling through the door. She landed on her knees with a thump and toppled forward onto her already bruised and battered face. She righted herself, but remained kneeling with her back to the door. She closed her eyes and began to pray.

Barik removed a knife from his belt with the intension of cutting the handmaiden’s bonds. Captain Osbald put out a hand. ‘This I will do later,’ he said, ‘I will’st return within the hour. In the meantime she remains bound. I have questions to put to this one.’

Barik’s face showed no emotion. He put away his knife, pushed the cell door shut and turned a key in the lock.

‘Is she to receive any special treatment?’ he asked as he removed the key.

Captain Osbald shook his head.

‘No,’ he replied curtly. ‘She is to have a blanket and candle, but nothing more. She will eat and drink with the rest.’

He knew this not to be strictly in accordance with the Baron’s wishes, but he had come to despise this handmaiden. At the ford she had shown nothing but contempt for his authority, and for this she would be made to suffer.

Barik shrugged his shoulders. The handmaiden’s welfare was of little concern to him. He would, as always, follow his instructions to the letter. The prisoner would receive whatever food was sent down from the kitchens. This was usually mouldy old bread fit only for rats; and as for water, a barrel in a corner of the corridor collected a constant drip from the roof. This is what all the prisoners drank.

Captain Osbald took one last glance at the cell. As far as he was concerned he had carried out the Baron’s orders. The handmaiden had been afforded a blanket and candle, and he could not recollect the Baron wishing anything else. But he had little time to dwell on the matter. Much work remained. It was to the stables next and issue final instructions to Egbert before sending him in pursuit of the King’s Falconer.

Chapter Ten

Captain Osbald emerged from the castle’s keep and shielded his eyes from the glare. Behind him the door banged shut. He looked to the shortened shadows and concluded the hour to be somewhere near midday. For someone who had been on the go from way before sunrise, already his day seemed long and arduous. He reflected on his morning’s work. It was still dark when he awoke in the stables at Onneyditch that very morning. Since then he had roused his men; help saddle the horses; trundled his way to Lodelowe following an unhelpful cart; got the physician to treat a wounded man; held council with the Baron; organised a search of the cart; confined two prisoners in accordance with the Baron’s wishes; and organised a rider to go out and bring back the King’s Falconer. His stomach rumbled and he realised that he had not eaten at all that day. He put aside his discomfort and set off, striding briskly down the long winding cobbled path that led to the courtyard far below. He would eat later. At present he was a very busy man with a lot more work to do before he could relax.

Once on level ground Captain Osbald stopped briefly to take in some deep breaths of air. But no matter how hard he tried nothing he did could get rid of the foul smelling stench of the dungeon. After about his tenth deep intake he looked about him. His eyes were better adjusted now and he could see that things had changed since last visiting the courtyard. The cart remained, but the four chests, once heavily roped down, were now on the ground. All were open and their contents scattered about the cobblestones. Three soldiers worked alongside the cart, delving amongst the chests. From a distance Captain Osbald recognised them all. One was Sergeant Cuthred; the second was the soldier left to guard the cart; and the third, the newcomer, was a corporal in his army and presumably ordered by Sergeant Cuthred to help in the search. His name was Guthrum.

A horse and rider emerged from the stables away to the Captain’s right; the horse’s hooves clattering over the cobbles. He beckoned the rider to come to him, calling loudly; ‘Egbert, come here. I will’st speak to you before you go.’

The rider pulled hard on his reins, turned and trotted across the courtyard to join the awaiting Captain. He stopped and saluted from the saddle. He now wore the green tassels of a Corporal on his shoulders.

‘You have the scribe’s missive?’ asked the Captain.

Corporal Egbert patted his saddlebag. ‘Aye Captain, it is here,’ he replied.

‘Then you know where to ride? The King’s Falconer heads for Worcester and could be many miles south by now,’ warned the Captain.

Egbert understood but foresaw no problem. ‘The Falconer trails a donkey and travels with a precious cargo. He will not have got far. I have a fast horse and can catch him,’ said Egbert, sounding optimistic.

‘Then go Egbert, make haste, and may God and St. Christopher go with you,’ said the Captain and striking the rear of the horse with his hand. Corporal Egbert set off, his horse’s hooves clattering over the cobbles. With luck he would catch up with the King’s Falconer and bring him back to Lodelowe before nightfall.

Captain Osbald watched his newly promoted Corporal disappear from the courtyard before moving on. Striding briskly towards the cart he called, ‘Sergeant, how does’t the search go?’

The search of the cart was nearing completion. The courtyard lay scattered with the contents of four large wooden chests; the items consisting mainly of clothes, coats, bonnets and shoes.

Sergeant Cuthred was bent forward and fumbling through a chest and not aware of his Captain’s approach until he heard his call. He looked up and shook his head. ‘Nay Captain,’ he replied, ‘there is nothing here that did’st once belong to the Baron.’ Then holding out a purse he added; ‘Ten gold sovereigns and some forty silver crowns. This is all they carried of any worth. Enough I would say to see them through to the Cinque Ports and hire a boat, but little more.’

Captain Osbald joined the Sergeant and took the purse. For a while he pondered upon what he had just learned. To find only a small purse and nothing else of value he considered most odd. The robbers had taken quite a number of valuable items and he puzzled over where everything had gone, and why the necklace about the Norman woman’s neck the only item to be recovered. He shook his head with despair before turning to more pressing matters.

‘Then Sergeant you’d best come with me,’ he said. ‘We still have much work to do. Both the handmaiden and Lady Adela are to be searched, and for this I will need your assistance.’

He turned to Corporal Guthrum and pointed around the courtyard. He told him; ‘Corporal, return all the items to the chests. Pack everything away then store under lock and key. Nothing must go astray. Every item on the cart must be accounted for. It is possible everything will be returned to Lady Adela.’

Corporal Guthrum saluted. ‘Yes Captain, leave it to me,’ he replied.

But Captain Osbald was not waiting for a reply. As the Corporal spoke the Captain spun around and set off, this time to return to castle’s keep. The handmaiden was first to be searched. A few paces behind raced the burly figure of Sergeant Cuthred. As ever Captain Osbald was a very busy man.

Chapter Eleven

Captain Osbald returned to the dungeon with Sergeant Cuthred trailing in his wake. On passing the final portal he collected a lantern from a hook and moved swiftly on down the corridor. He came to halt before the cell that held the handmaiden. Barik, aware of the Captain’s return, moved to greet him. They arrived together to stand outside the cell door.

Captain Osbald slid open a small viewing hatch and peered inside. A candle flickered to one side of the cell and cast the shadow of the handmaiden against the wall opposite. She was kneeling and facing away from the door. He recalled this was the way he had left her, bound with her hands behind her back and arms pinned to her sides. On entry she had collapsed to her knees and presumably remained in this position ever since.

He pointed to the lock on the door. ‘Open up,’ he told Barik. ‘I have business with this prisoner.’

Barik selected a large key from a ring containing twenty or more. He placed it in the lock and turned it slowly. There came a loud clunk as the barrels fell into place and the door sprang outwards a fraction.

‘Wait outside,’ Captain Osbald told Barik as the jailer pulled open the door. Then addressing Sergeant Cuthred he added; ‘Sergeant, you will enter with me. We will’st search the handmaiden together. Your witness is needed to show that nothing untoward is done.’

Captain Osbald stepped inside the cell with Sergeant Cuthred following closely behind. The conditions inside were cramped and there was barely enough space for two men to stand. The low roof too proved an obstacle, forcing them to stand to the centre of the arched roof, and even here did so with heads bowed. Once inside Barik pushed the door shut, leaving it a few inches ajar.

The Captain held the lantern high. The handmaiden remained kneeling with her back towards the door and showed no sign of recognition. A folded blanket rested beneath her knees, protecting her from the cold damp flagstones. Using one hand, Captain Osbald removed a dagger from his belt and cut away the bonds from her wrists. He then uncoiled what remained of the rope from about her body. Immediately on release the handmaiden brought her hands to the front and set about massaging her wrists. She had been bound like this for almost twenty-four hours and her hands and wrists were numb.

Captain Osbald allowed time for the circulation to return. Then in a voice usually reserved for addressing his men, he bellowed; ‘Wench, stand up, turn and face me. I have questions to be answered.’

On hearing the order the handmaiden rose to her feet, hitched up the hem of her full-length dress and turned to face the Captain. With hands holding the hem of her skirt away from the floor she stared back defiantly. She considered the time had come to have her say. She had been wronged at the ford and she knew it.

‘Why are you keeping me here?’ she demanded. ‘You cannot confine me in this place! I have done nothing wrong!’

The handmaiden’s impudence angered the Captain. Since their meeting at the ford a mutual hatred had grown, and now this serving wench had the audacity to ask questions of him.

‘Silence wench!’ he snapped. ‘You are here by order of Baron de Clancey and you will speak only when told to do so.’

The handmaiden glared back at the Captain and hatred burned within her eyes. She was fuming and made little effort to hide the fact.

Captain Osbald placed the lantern upon the floor to free his hands, the upward light casting dancing shadows upon the low arched roof. In this indifferent light he paused to take a good look at the handmaiden. Despite scratches and bruising to the face, she was young, fair and pretty. She stood gracefully tall, with slender waist and lithe body. Beneath her white handmaiden’s bonnet small ringlets of golden hair cascaded down about her shoulders. But time was pressing and he realised that he must move on. He still had a search of Lady Adela to conduct.

Captain Osbald removed a small blank parchment and a piece of charcoal from a pouch attached to his belt. This was paperwork and of all his duties the thing he hated most. ‘I need your name and other details,’ he told her, then went on to explain; ‘You are here by order of Baron de Clancey. You are required by laws of the Council of the Marches and by the laws of England to answer a few simple questions.’

At this stage the handmaiden had little intention of co-operating. She remained firmly of the belief that she should never have been arrested. She answered the Captain bluntly, saying; ‘Before I answer anything I demand to know why I’ve been brought here? I have my rights!’

Captain Osbald glowered at the young girl’s insolence. He was not used to being addressed in such a manner. He shaped to slap her across the face with his heavy gauntleted hand but refrained as he recalled the Baron’s words. He lowered his hand. ‘I have little time for nonsense. Just answer the question,’ he growled. ‘What is your name?’

Reacting quickly to the Captain’s raised arm the handmaiden stepped away to stand against the back wall of the cell. From this position she answered grudgingly. ‘Gwyneth, my name is Gwyneth,’ she said and spitting out the words as if venom in her mouth.

Captain Osbald wrote down the name ‘Gwyneth’ on his parchment. But this was not enough. More was needed, for a single identity was no longer acceptable under Norman Law. ‘Gwyneth, daughter of whom?’ he asked. ‘What is your family name? I need a family name. Who is your father?’

Gwyneth bit hard on her bottom lip as memories of her father flooded back. She had loved her father dearly and recalled his constant smiling face, the way he used to bounce her on his knees in front of the open hearth, and the stories he told her in bed at night. With a tear to her eye she told the Captain; ‘Gwyneth, daughter of Thomas the Fletcher.’

Captain Osbald nodded in response. ‘Gwyneth Fletcher,’ he muttered whilst he wrote down the details. The handmaiden was now, on paper anyway, Gwyneth Fletcher, a name she had never been called before. In fact no other name other than Gwyneth had ever been attached to her before this day. This insistence on a surname was of Norman doing, and this too she despised. She grimaced as she heard her given name spoken, but made no reply.

The Captain moved on. ‘And what is your age?’ he asked and indicating some haste to the question. ‘How old are you?’

Gwyneth considered the question. The Captain might be in a hurry but she certainly was not. She was going to take her time. And besides, her age was something she needed to think about. She had celebrated birthdays when her father was alive, but since joining the kitchen staff even the date was forgotten. She did her sums, but maths did not come easy. She had been eleven years old when her father died. This she knew, and since then she had worked five summers in the kitchens. This made her sixteen. But as for her exact date of birth, the month of April was all she remembered. However it was something her mother would know. If only she could speak to her. Her mother was somewhere here in Lodelowe. If only she could get a message to her, she would know.

Gwyneth answered with some hesitancy. ‘Sixteen, I am sixteen,’ she said. ‘I was born in the April. I was sixteen last April, but the day I do not know.’

Captain Osbald was surprised to hear such a young age. This mature and full bosomed girl looked much older and he would have put her at something nearer to eighteen or nineteen. However her age was irrelevant and he pressed on with the questioning. He had much to get through before this day was out. He wrote down ‘16’ then put his next question to her.

‘And how long have you been in attendance to Lady Adela Fitzgerald?’

Gwyneth had little need to give this latest question much thought. She replied quickly, since she could answer with some accuracy. ‘Some three days now, that is all,’ she replied. ‘I am in attendance to my Lady for the journey south. I travel with her to the Cinque Ports then return to Salopsbury once she is safely aboard ship. At least that is what I was meant to be doing until you ugly murdering lot turned up.’

Captain Osbald ignored her remarks. The skirmish at the ford was not of his making. The fight ensued because of the insistence of the Salopsbury soldiers to contest the right of Egbert to inspect the necklace. If they had not been so stubborn then all would be alive today. He put his final question to Gwyneth. ‘Then tell me wench, what are your normal duties?’

Gwyneth thrust her hands to her hips, but at least this was a question she could answer. ‘My duties lie within the kitchen,’ she said. ‘I tend the hearths and peel the vegetables. That’s what I do. I am but a humble kitchen maid. So why are you keeping me here? I have done nothing wrong.’

Captain Osbald ignored her insolence, and because he wanted to get this over with quickly, he asked somewhat rhetorically; ‘The kitchens at the castle of Salopsbury?’

Gwyneth sneered. ‘Where do you think?’ she answered abruptly; ‘The King’s palace?’

Captain Osbald jotted down ‘kitchen maid’ along with the word ‘Salopsbury’ then put the parchment and charcoal away. There was little more he could ask. These questions were just formalities demanded of him by the Baron’s meddling scribe. He thought for a while to confirm he had not missed anything. Then once satisfied that he had not forgotten anything he addressed her again.

‘Right wench,’ he snapped, ‘Baron de Clancey hath decreed that you be searched, and that the search be complete and thorough. Nothing, no matter how small or insignificant must be left unturned. You are required by order of the Baron to take off all your clothes for inspection. You must take them off one at a time then pass them to me so that each item may in turn be inspected for stolen items. The Sergeant here will be your witness that all is in order and nothing is untoward, and that should anything be found, it can be recorded and verified accordingly.’

Gwyneth thrust her hands hard against her slender hips and glared back at the Captain. She made no move or uttered a single word to convey her disgust. She had no need to. The message on her face displayed clearly her feelings for this ignominy. In her mind there was no reason for this search. She possessed nothing of worth. She had been poor all her life and possessed nothing of value. Even the clothes upon her back belonged to Lady Adela.

With nothing happening Captain Osbald raised a hand with the intent to strike the handmaiden across the face. He had threatened this action before, and at the time it had produced the desired result. He hoped this act would do so again even though he was well aware of the Baron’s instructions to keep the prisoners from harm. Fortunately his little rouse worked. On seeing the raised hand Gwyneth ducked low and cowered towards the back wall. ‘Keep away!’ she yelled. ‘Keep your filthy rotten hands off me you murdering pig!’

Captain Osbald’s anger intensified. Orders or not, he would suffer no insolence. ‘I am ordering you to strip,’ he said coldly. ‘I will not tell you again. Now take off your clothes, or I’ll rip them off. You have to the count of ten to make up your mind.’ He began to count.

Gwyneth glared back in defiance. As the count neared ten she turned her back on the Captain. With one hand over a shoulder she pointed to the buttons down her back. ‘Well come on then!’ she hissed. ‘I can’t undo my dress by myself. It is fastened down the back. So if you want it, undo the buttons.’

Gwyneth’s dress had been selected from Lady Adela’s extensive wardrobe. Like all her fine attire this was a garment befitting someone of noble birth. The dress billowed outward from the waist. The skirt being multi-layered with the finest of satins, and the bodice embossed in fine and elaborate gold-threaded needlework. A richly embroidered panel of floral design, holding a row of intricate small bone-carved buttons ran all the way down the spine. Captain Osbald checked on Sergeant Cuthred, confirming that he was in a position to receive items passed to him. He then turned back to concentrate on the handmaiden. He looked her up and down. She wore a long flowing green dress with one billowing sleeve - the other had been torn to rags and hung loosely about the arm. The dress’s waistline was pulled into the body by a wide, loosely tied sash.

He set his mind on the task at hand. ‘Right, let’s be having the dress,’ he said. ‘What must I do with these buttons?’

Gwyneth did not turn round and remained facing the wall. On hearing the Captain she pulled the ringlets of her hair forward about her neck and waited with hands resting upon her shoulders.

‘Work down from the top,’ she told him and touching with an extended finger the topmost button of her dress. ‘Start with this button here.’

Captain Osbald removed his gauntlets, tucked them beneath his belt and stepped closer to the handmaiden. Working down from the position indicated by the tapping finger, he began to laboriously undo a long line of small round buttons. Slowly and with much difficulty he fumbled his way down the spine. As the neck loosened Gwyneth assisted by firstly removing the sash about her waist, then secondly by wriggling her arms free of the sleeves and allowing the dress to slide slowly down her slender body. When all buttons were undone she let the dress drop about her feet and stepped away.

The Captain gathered up the dress, folded it untidily about an arm and passed it to Sergeant Cuthred. Returning to Gwyneth he looked her up and down. There was little else to remove. There were the shoes upon her feet, and just two items of clothing upon her body. These were a bonnet and a singlet vest. Both where white and made from the same fine, closely woven fabric. The bonnet was plain with no needlework of note, whilst the vest showed intricate embroidery about the neck and shoulders. He was not to know, but the bonnet had once belonged to Mary, Lady Adela’s previous attendant, thus the plainness. The vest however had been taken from Lady Adela’s wardrobe. About the waist was threaded a golden cord which passed through a series of neatly embroidered holes and tied to the front in a bow. The vest was also extremely short, and from the telling appearance of just a hint of shining flesh-pink buttocks, the Captain was in little doubt that this garment was all she wore about her person.

The ties of the white maid’s bonnet hung loose about the shoulders. Captain Osbald took a grip from the rear, yanked it away, and tossed it towards Sergeant Cuthred. There came a squeal of discomfort as he caught a handful of hair along with the bonnet. But the protests were short lived, and Gwyneth said no more.

Once the bonnet was safely gathered in Sergeant Cuthred’s hands, Captain Osbald looked down at Gwyneth’s feet. He had already worked out the order of removal. To save unnecessary embarrassment the shoes would come first. The singlet vest he would leave till last.

‘Let’s be having the shoes,’ he told her. ‘Take them off and pass them back to me.’

Keeping her back towards Captain Osbald, Gwyneth stooped to the floor and fumbled with the laces that strapped the shoes about the ankles. She removed each shoe in turn and pushed them backwards beneath her body.

Whilst kneeling to unlace the shoes, and in the flickering half-light of the lantern, Captain Osbald saw clearly that the singlet vest was indeed the only item of clothing to remain upon the handmaiden. In different circumstances he would have without doubt become highly aroused at the sight that now greeted him. But his hatred for this girl quelled all natural feelings. He therefore felt no sexual tendencies. His mind totally focused upon carrying out his orders.

Having pushed the shoes behind her back, Gwyneth returned to an upright position. She did this with hands moving upwards against the rear wall for added support. Once erect she stood facing the wall and waiting for further orders.

After gathering up the shoes and handing them to Sergeant Cuthred, Captain Osbald returned his gaze to the kitchen maid. Only the singlet vest remained. ‘Come wench, don’t be shy!’ he said somewhat sarcastically. ‘Let’s be having the vest.’

Gwyneth loosened the golden cord about her waist and pulled the singlet up and over her head. Shaking her hair free so that the golden ringlets fell about her shoulders, she held out the vest for Captain Osbald to collect. He collected it and tossed it back to Sergeant Cuthred. As he did so he spotted something he had missed earlier. Gwyneth had a thin band of leather tied about her neck.

Curious to find out he told her; ‘Right wench, turn round and face me. Come on! Move! Let’s be having you! I want to see what you’ve got round your neck.’

A naked Gwyneth turned to face Captain Osbald. Instinctively she did what any decent girl would do under such circumstances. She cupped her left breast in her right hand, shielded the other the best she could with her forearm, then strategically placed her left hand between her legs to cover up her womanhood.

Captain Osbald stared wildly back at the sight that now greeted him. But for all the eroticism, the young girl’s nakedness and vulnerability did nothing for him. His interests lay elsewhere. His mind totally focused upon a wooden cross about her neck. He held out a hand. ‘The cross about your neck,’ he said. ‘Take it off. I want to see it.’

Gwyneth hesitated. To do so would mean the removal of her hands from their strategically placed positions. However the delay was short lived, for she realised that to protest further would prove nothing other than to prolong this whole sordid affair. Raising her arms to the nape of her neck she unfastened the knot and tossed the cross to the Captain. She then returned her hands to their original protective positions.

Captain Osbald inspected the cross. It was large and crudely constructed from two pieces of badly jointed wood. The strap too was ordinary, just a thin strip of leather hide. He turned the cross over in his hands and considered what to do with this item. He had hoped to find some expensive jewellery about her neck, but there was nothing here to incriminate her. For a while he pondered upon the lack of valuables. If this cross was her only possession, then it had no obvious worth.

Whilst Captain Osbald pondered a shout from behind broke his train of thought. ‘Err, Captain, I think you’d better take a look at this,’ called Sergeant Cuthred.

The Captain turned to see his Sergeant holding up one of Gwyneth’s shoes. ‘What is it?’ he snapped.

Sergeant Cuthred was quick to explain. ‘Captain, I think you’d better take a look at this shoe,’ he said. ‘It’s very similar to those found upon the cart. By perchance I discovered that they all hold secret compartments within the heels. These shoes are French, made by the same cobbler no doubt, and me thinks we could have something hidden inside this one. Listen!’

The Sergeant shook the shoe from side to side. The Captain listened and perceived a slight rattle coming from somewhere inside. Eager to locate the source of the rattle he swapped the cross for the shoe. Now in possession of the shoe he shook it against his ear and perceived a slight rattle. He nodded his head. The Sergeant was right. There was a strange sound and feel to the shoe. The heel was loose and something moved freely within the carved wooden base.

‘There’s a leather flap inside the shoe that rises up,’ Sergeant Cuthred informed his Captain, and at the same time indicating exactly where he should look.

Captain Osbald followed Sergeant Cuthred’s instructions. He placed his hand deep within the shoe and raised a leather flap about the heel. He then held the shoe close to the lantern in order to gain closer inspection. The heel had been hollowed from the inside and a small package, wrapped in parchment paper, rested inside. He knocked the package out and passed the shoe to his Sergeant. With the package now resting in the palm of his hand he turned to confront the handmaiden.

‘And what have we here?’ he asked.

A look of bemusement crossed Gwyneth’s face and she shook her head. Clearly she had no idea. She was not even aware of the secret compartment. Captain Osbald unwrapped the parchment before her eyes so that together they would see the contents as they became revealed. Suddenly his lungs burst.

‘What the hell!’ he bellowed. ‘No! Surely this cannot be!’

Colour drained from Gwyneth’s cheeks. For a brief moment she forgot her embarrassment and put her hands to her face, but the action proved short lived and her hands quickly returned to their original protective positions.

Captain Osbald raised the object high so that both Gwyneth and Sergeant Cuthred could see. He was holding a solid gold signet ring. On the face of the ring was a shield. Across the shield was etched a vertical line and three rampant lions, two above and one below. This was without doubt the crest of the de Clancey’s, and the ring had no rights being in the shoe of a kitchen maid from Salopsbury, and both Captain Osbald and Gwyneth knew this. The Captain retrieved the lantern from the floor and held the ring to the light so that Sergeant Cuthred could see.

‘Tell me Sergeant, was this ring amongst the items taken from the Baron’s strongroom?’ he asked.

Sergeant Cuthred moved closer to the lantern in order to gain a better inspection. On seeing the crest of the de Clancey’s he quickly confirmed what his Captain already suspected. ‘I do believe it was,’ he said. ‘This ring most definitely bears the crest of the late Edward de Clancey, and as far as I am aware this ring was being held within the castle’s strongroom along with all the other items from the late Baron’s legacy.’ He then went on to ask; ‘Then tell me Captain, what is this ring doing concealed within this shoe?’

Captain Osbald gave no reply. He had seen and heard enough. He swung around to confront Gwyneth and to hold the ring before her face.

‘Tell me wench, where did you get this ring?’ he demanded. ‘This is the signet ring of the late Baron. You, a mere serving wench of the Fitzgeralds should not be in possession of such an item.’

Gwyneth shook her head and tried to explain, or at least deny that she had ever set eyes upon the ring. ‘I do not know!’ she stuttered. ‘I have never seen this ring before. This is the truth. I swear before God that I have never seen this ring before!’

Captain Osbald raised a hand as if to strike, but despite his temper, he refrained. ‘Do not lie to me wench!’ he bellowed. ‘Answer me! Answer me! I must know how you came by this ring?’

Gwyneth was lost for words. The ring was within her shoe. But what could she say? How could she explain? ‘I don’t know where it came from!’ she said and shaking her head. ‘I just don’t know! I swear to God I just don’t know! The ring’s not mine! And neither are the shoes! They belong to Lady Adela!’

Captain Osbald’s patience finally snapped and he struck her across the face. He remained aware of the Baron’s words, but in his rage he could not hold himself back. His open hand caught the side of Gwyneth’s temple and sent her reeling across the floor. To steady herself she clawed out at the rough cut stone blocks of the rear wall then cowered to the ground. But the onslaught was to continue. The slap was followed by a kick to the thigh.

‘Answer me wench!’ he screamed. ‘This ring is not yours and I want to know how you came by it.’

Gwyneth became hysterical. From her crouched position she shrieked back in a wild panic. ‘The ring isn’t mine!’ she shouted. ‘They’re not my shoes! They were given to me by Lady Adela.’

Captain Osbald shaped to kick again, his rage out of control. But Sergeant Cuthred grabbed at an arm. ‘Sire, the Baron hath ordered that no harm should befall this prisoner,’ he said. ‘Please refrain!’

Captain Osbald shook himself free of the Sergeant’s grasp and straightened out his tunic. He knew Sergeant Cuthred to be right. However what he held in his hand would make the handmaiden pay dearly for her impudence. The ring would be her undoing. Clutching the ring tightly and collecting the offending shoe and scrap of parchment paper, he stormed out of the cell.

‘Jailer,’ he snapped, ‘lock this door, I’m away to seek audience with the Baron. See to it that no one enters or speaks to this prisoner until my return.’ Sergeant Cuthred emerged from the cell with his arms full of clothes and a lantern hooked about one finger. He shrugged his shoulders.

As Barik slammed the door and turned the key, he told him pensively; ‘Barik my friend, this wench hath turned our Captain into a very angry man. She is pretty, the likes of which we have not seen here for a very long time. With her stubborn tongue we may have work to do in extracting the truth from her lips. Do you not agree?’

Barik looked up and showed little emotion. He simply shrugged at his shoulders. If persuasion was necessary in order to gain a confession, then so be it. He would do whatever he was asked to do. But until he received different orders, then the handmaiden would be treated with the same respect awarded to all his other prisoners.

‘You could be right Cuthred,’ Barik answered thoughtfully as he withdrew the key from the lock. ‘You could very well be right!’

Chapter Twelve

Captain Osbald returned to the Great Hall, but this time with a little more propriety. Having heralded his arrival he stood at the doors to the great hall awaiting a call from Baron de Clancey. The meeting between the Baron and his bailiffs was nearing an end. As the bailiffs rose from their chairs Captain Osbald sped quickly past. He came to a halt at the end of the long table where the Baron remained seated. As on his previous visit he had something to show the Baron. In his hands he held a single woman’s shoe, a scrap of parchment paper and a solid gold signet ring.

Captain Osbald placed the ring on the table before the Baron. ‘My Liege, pray tell me, can this ring be yet another item taken from your strongroom?’ he enquired.

Baron de Clancy picked up the ring and examined it closely. He compared it with a ring upon the third finger of his left hand. Both rings were very similar. Both displayed a shield, its background half-divided by opposing etchings, and to the fore the three rampant lions of Lodelowe. He was quick to respond with a nod to his head. He had seen enough. ‘This is indeed my father’s signet ring,’ he said. ‘This ring did’st once belong to the late Baron Edward de Clancey, and until three weeks ago resided in my strongroom. Pray tell me Captain, how did’st you come by this ring?’

Captain Osbald placed the handmaiden’s shoe upon the table along with the scrap of parchment paper. He pointed to the shoe and the inner flap within the heel. ‘My Liege, this ring was found concealed within the heel of this shoe,’ he explained. ‘The shoe belongs to the handmaiden and I found it upon her person whilst conducting the bodily search you did’st so request.’

The Baron collected the shoe and examined the heel. Beneath the inner flap of the lining he examined the small hollowed-out indentation. He frowned. This was all very well, but something was amiss, something not quite right. This shoe was French, of high quality and expert craftsmanship. This was not the shoe of a mere serving wench. He pondered deeply, always thinking ahead. There was much on his mind. When requesting the search he was looking for evidence that would incriminate Lady Adela. Now he had the handmaiden to consider too. Prior to being presented with this ring he held no specific plans for the serving wench. He might even have granted her release at some future date. But the discovery of the ring had changed everything. He raised his head. ‘Captain, you say this shoe was found upon the handmaiden?’ he asked and speaking slowly and thoughtfully. ‘Pray tell me, could you not be mistaken? Could this not be the shoe of Lady Adela? Could it not have been switched, perhaps on the journey from the ford?’

Captain Osbald shook his head. There was no way the two women could have swapped shoes. He explained his reasoning. ‘Nay my Liege,’ he answered. ‘This shoe most definitely belongs to the handmaiden. This shoe was upon her foot when arrested at the ford. And it was there that both she and the Norman lady were bound, and those bonds were not removed until the search began.’

The Baron reminded himself of the events. The necklace was first sighted at the ford, so both the ring and necklace could be tracked back to the time the party ventured onto his estates. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. He was thinking ahead and concluding this find could be turned to his own advantage. Slowly a revised strategy came to mind. He would conduct two trials, not one. This was indeed the answer he was seeking.

However the Baron was only too conscious that the trial of Lady Adela would take several more days to organise. Out of courtesy Salopsbury had to be informed and representatives of the Fitzgerald family despatched to Lodelowe. But the trial of a serving wench was of little significance and would, in all probably pass by unnoticed. He had the authority to try lowborn persons such as a handmaiden and mete out punishment as he saw fit.  He smiled. He could now see a positive side to all this. A written confession from the handmaiden stating that both she and Lady Adela were implicated in the robbery would be a handy tool to present at the later and more formal trial of the Norman noblewoman.

The Baron looked up from the table. There was something else he needed to know. ‘Captain, have all the searches been conducted?’ he asked. ‘Have there been any more finds?’

Captain Osbald shook his head. ‘Nay my Liege,’ he replied. ‘The cart and handmaiden have been searched and nothing else found. But Lady Adela’s search has not yet taken place. It is my intention to do so next.’

The Baron remained pensive and turned his father’s ring over and over in his hands. He had many plans and did not particularly want to reveal the true nature of his thoughts until such time as he was absolutely certain they would achieve his ends. Eventually and after much thought he gave his orders. ‘This shoe must be kept as evidence,’ he told his Captain. ‘Place the ring back in the heel exactly as it was found. Then store and guard everything. Nothing must be tampered with. This shoe must be presented exactly as it was found. Is that understood?’

Captain Osbald nodded his head. ‘Aye my Liege, this will be done,’ he confirmed.

The Baron dismissed Captain Osbald with a wave of the hand. The meeting was over and he had much on his mind. ‘Then go now Captain,’ he said. ‘Finish off your work and conduct the search of the Lady Adela, then whence all is done, report back to me. Hopefully by then I will have made arrangements for her forthcoming trial. Thank you Captain. That will be all.’

Captain Osbald saluted with clenched fist against his chest, collected the items from the table, then turned on his heels and made for the door. As he walked away the Baron called: ‘And recall my scribe. Tell him my need here is urgent.’

The Captain kept on walking and breathed a silent curse. The scribe had left the great hall as he entered and could be anywhere by now. This looked like something else he had to do for himself. Why was everyone around him so useless?

Chapter Thirteen

Captain Osbald made his way to the North Tower. He had failed to locate the scribe and had despatched a servant to track him down. Sergeant Cuthred trailed the Captain by one step. The two senior officers arrived to find a guard seated outside Lady Adela’s door. The guard rose when he saw the men approaching.

Captain Osbald pointed to the lock and snapped sharply; ‘Open up, I will’st see the Lady now.’

The guard placed a key in the lock, turned it noisily and pushed the door inwards. As the door swung open he stepped to one side to let the Captain pass.

Inside the room, alerted by the activity at the door, Lady Adela rose to greet the visitors. Until this moment she had been seated on the edge of a bed with a heavy blanket wrapped about her body for warmth. She was noticeably shivering. There was a fireplace in the room stacked with kindled wood and logs, but it had only just been lit and the room remained cold and damp. What little light was present was coming from a narrow slit window and a single candle rested on the floor alongside the bed.

Unlike Gwyneth, Lady Adela’s bonds had been cut before entering the room and apart from light burn marks about the wrists, and possibly the noticeable coldness of the room, she felt no serious discomforts; however inwardly she remained deeply concerned, not for herself but for her handmaiden. She should not have been parted from her servant. There was no reason for such action.

Captain Osbald entered the room followed closely by Sergeant Cuthred. A lantern carried by the Sergeant added some welcome light to the room. Being the last man to enter he pushed the door shut and placed the lantern on a small table next to the bed. Captain Osbald waited for the lantern to be placed before addressing the prisoner. On this occasion he found it unnecessary to write down any details since her identity was known. This was Lady Adela Fitzgerald, the Norman bride of the late Edward Fitzgerald, Earl of Salopsbury, and youngest daughter of the Duke d’Honfleur. Also and unlike the search of the handmaiden, Captain Osbald recognised that Lady Adela needed to be treated with respect. He cleared his throat and explained the purpose of his visit.

‘My Lady, Baron de Clancey instructs that you be searched for jewellery,’ he explained. ‘I must inspect all that you wear, and this requires the removal of all that is about your person.’

Lady Adela shook her head in despair. This was yet another affront to her dignity. She had not been told the reason for her arrest, her handmaiden had been taken from her, and she was of the belief that her abductors were nothing more than common thieves. Furthermore she remained convinced that the people that had assailed her at the ford were after her and not her jewellery, and in all probability were now demanding a sizeable ransom for her release. After all, under advice from her brother-in-law, the Earl of Salopsbury, she had deliberately travelled light, so robbery could not have been the motive. She pondered for a while, not moving and saying nothing. Why did they need to check for jewellery? She had packed nothing of value other than what was about her person. Her most treasured possessions were to be sent to France separately and under guard, and the rest shared amongst her servants. Mary her aged handmaid was to be the biggest recipient, an emerald brooch that matched the necklace taken from her at the ford being amongst the most valuable of her possessions.

Lady Adela raised her head towards the Captain and answered in the tongue of the Anglo-Saxons but with a strong Norman accent. ‘There is no reason for such a search,’ she remarked. ‘I have nothing of value and my necklace is already gone! All I have of value is this ring about my finger.’ And she raised her hand to reveal a gold band about her marriage finger.

Captain Osbald examined the ring by lowering his head but not making contact. The three snarling lion heads of the Fitzgeralds was evident upon one side of the facet, whilst the other half bore the lymphad and escallop of the Norman port of Honfleur.

‘You may keep the ring my Lady,’ he told her. ‘But my orders are to search you bodily, and this I must do. I have explicit orders. I must ask you to remove your dress and all that is about your body so that all may be inspected. But hold little fear my Lady, for all will be returned to you once I am satisfied that you conceal no further items of value.’

Lady Adela frowned and looked to the Captain with a steely glare. She had already suffered much ignominy, being bound at the ford, made to sleep the night on the floor of a stable, and finally being cast into this dingy room high in a tower without a servant. This was no way to treat a Lady of such high and noble birth. She remained convinced that once her brother-in-law, the Earl of Salopsbury, or for that matter her father, the Duke d’Honfleur; if either were to hear of these atrocities, then those responsible for this outrage would be severely punished.

She stamped a foot. ‘Non!’ she snapped, ‘I will not do this! The Earl will have me freed as soon as he hears of this outrage.’

Captain Osbald sighed. This search was not of his choosing or to his liking. He had been given orders and could in no way shirk his responsibilities. However to begin with he decided to remain calm and apply reason. He told her; ‘Please my Lady, you must realise I have little choice in this matter. Baron de Clancey hath decreed that a bodily search of your person be conducted, and it would be unfitting of me to do the deed forcibly. So I beg of you my Lady do pray reconsider your own position, and pray do not hinder me in my duties. For what must be done, will be done. Be it pleasant or unpleasant, neither you nor I have a choice in the matter.’ Then to emphasise the point he placed a hand upon his sword and withdrew it a short way from its scabbard.

Lady Adela glared hatred at Captain Osbald. The icy stare then moved to confront Sergeant Cuthred who was stood one step behind. The partial withdrawal of the Captain’s sword had brought back bitter memories. Nervously she fingered a small tear in the stomach of her dress. It was here that the Captain’s sword had penetrated the flesh. He had drawn blood and the caked remains still clung to her undergarments. She sighed as she came to realise the futility of her protests. She bowed her head and placed her hands together in prayer. Then, after a whispered verse in the Norman tongue, she returned her gaze to the Captain.

‘Then let this foul deed be done,’ she said, ‘and let it be done quickly, and let’s be over with it.’

Captain Osbald returned his sword to the scabbard and pointed to Lady Adela’s feet. ‘My Lady, pray hand me your shoes,’ he said. ‘These I will search first.’

Lady Adela looked down to where the Captain was pointing. The flagstones beneath her feet were wet from damp and shimmered under the lights of the candle and lantern. She bent down and spread the blanket she had held about her person upon the floor and stepped onto it. This was not the comfort she was used to, but the blanket offered some ease from the cold conditions underfoot. She would undress whilst standing upon the blanket. Bending down she removed first one shoe and then the other, and left them on the blanket for the Captain to collect.

Captain Osbald picked up each shoe in turn and examined the heels. He knew now where to look and he examined each carefully. Noticeably these shoes were identical to those worn by the handmaiden. He considered them to be of Norman origin since no English cobbler made shoes this way. The bases were of carved oak and the uppers crafted from the finest tanned leather. Brass studs hammered about the edges joined the leather to the bases, and large carved bone buckles provided the fastening. From within each shoe the Captain raised the thick leather flap. Beneath each flap there was an indentation sunk in the heel, but on examination each hollow held nothing. Both were empty. On concluding his inspection he passed the shoes to Sergeant Cuthred. It was his job to hold everything until the search was concluded.

When the arrests were made both Lady Adela and Gwyneth the handmaiden wore similar attire, dresses with brightly coloured green bodices, ornate needlework and long white frilly sleeves. Even to an untrained eye it was obvious the same seamstress sewed both dresses. As the shoes were passed back to Sergeant Cuthred, Lady Adela turned to reveal a row of small, ornate bone-carved buttons running all the way down the middle of her back. Captain Osbald removed his gauntlets and placed them in his belt. He knew what was wanted. He had assisted in the removal of the handmaiden’s dress, and now he must do the same for Lady Adela.

Starting at the neck the Captain slowly released each button in turn as far down as the waist. He then stepped away, leaving Lady Adela to do the rest. As the back of the dress loosened she removed a sash from about her waist then wriggled her arms free of the sleeves. Finally she let the dress slip gracefully down her slender body and drop onto the floor. As the dress gathered about her feet she stepped away, and keeping her back towards the Captain, left it there for him to collect.

He picked up the dress and inspected it thoroughly. There were many layers and folds within the material, especially about the hips, but he could find nothing suspicious. Satisfied that no items of value were hidden within the folds, he passed the dress to his Sergeant. He then returned to confront Lady Adela. She remained standing with her back to him. He looked to what items remained about her person, and reflect on what little remained. He recalled his earlier search and concluded that there was very little difference between the two prisoners. Both women wore basically the same items of clothing; their dresses, their shoes, and now it seemed their undergarments were all identical. Draped about Lady Adela’s upper body was a simple white singlet made from a fine, closely woven fabric and pulled tight about the waist by a golden cord threaded through holes in the material that tied at the front. This singlet, as did the handmaiden’s previously, proved extremely short, and a hint of rosy pink flesh about the buttocks left the captain in very little doubt that this undergarment was the only item of clothing to remain upon her person.

Captain Osbald stood for a while waiting for Lady Adela to take the initiative and conclude the search. But on seeing no further action, he spoke quietly to her. ‘I beg of you my Lady,’ he said; ‘pray do remove your last undergarment so that I may inspect it.’

Lady Adela turned to the Captain. She made no effort to conceal her womanhood and kept her arms to her sides. The steely glare of defiance was also gone, replaced by a warm, more sensual womanly glow. It was if she was intending to tease. Slowly she untied the golden cord about her slender waist. For a while she played with the open cord before moving her hands down to the hem and unhurriedly began to raise the undergarment upwards from her body.

For the first time since the search began Captain Osbald found him aroused by the sensuality of the act. Chivalry told him to look away, but he found that he simply could not avert his eyes. Before him stood a beautiful young woman, in the prime of her life, and as if drawn by magnets, his eyes moved upwards with the hands.

Lady Adela’s hands began their assent from what was the top of a pair of long and shapely legs. The hands continued upwards, exposing firstly the hips, then the waist and finally two most exquisite breasts.

Captain Osbald began to drool and wiped his mouth with the back of a hand. But all the time his eyes never strayed from the body of the young woman stood before him. As the undergarment gathered about her head, his sight moved up and down the slender naked body. For a while he stood in a dreamlike state, doing or saying nothing.

Lady Adela handed him the garment and he collected his senses. She was stood with one hand outstretched, waiting for him to take it from her. He took it, fingered the material then squeezed it into a ball within his hands. It was obvious nothing was concealed. The material was too thin and delicate to hide anything. Quickly he passed the singlet back to the Sergeant.

From a pouch by his side Captain Osbald withdrew a bible. One of the Baron’s commands was that Lady Adela should be afforded such a luxury. The bible was in Latin and handwritten by monks at the local monastery. He held it out and took Lady Adela’s hand. He placed the hand on the bible. ‘Pray swear upon the Holy Bible,’ he said. ‘Swear before God that you conceal no further items and I will pry no deeper.’

Lady Adela looked to Captain Osbald. Even in such a darkened room her face appeared radiant, so pure and innocent. With her other hand she indicated to her body. ‘Look me over,’ she said. ‘You see me as I am. I have nothing else to reveal but my womanhood. What else would you want of me? I am as naked and as pure as the day I was born, and I swear to God that this is so.’

Captain Osbald turned the bible over so that it now rested upon Lady Adela’s hand. ‘This bible is yours for comfort my Lady,’ he said. ‘It is the wish of Baron de Clancey. I will now leave you in peace. Your clothes will be returned now that they are examined.’

He then turned and walked from the room. Behind him Sergeant Cuthred handed back the clothes and shoes to Lady Adela. He then followed the Captain out of the room. As the guard closed the door and turned the key, Captain Osbald shook his head in sorrow. ‘It is such a pity,’ he said. ‘If the Baron has his way then she’ll be swinging from the gallows come two markets from now. Such a pity! Such a waste of life!’

And with that he turned and walked briskly away.

The Captain remained an extremely busy man with many more duties to perform. But first he had to report his findings to the Baron, and that was where he was heading next.

Chapter Fourteen

Baron de Clancy sat deep in thought at the head of the long table. Alongside him in the great hall sat the castle’s scribe. Before the scribe rested his escritoire, parchments, ink and quills. He was poised and ready to write down whatever the Baron dictated, but for some time nothing had been forthcoming.

The Baron stroked his beard. He sat pensive and considering his best options. He had a juggling act to do, and two trials to organise. But one thing was for sure, whatever he decided his wording and involvement had to appear impartial. But what should he say? In his mind he went over the details once more. His plan was nearing fruition. However, the chance discovery of the ring found in the handmaiden’s shoe had changed things somewhat. Ideally, what he wanted was a confession from an accomplice to the robbery; something that could be presented at the trial of the Lady Adela. This was his objective, but it had to be done with a certain amount of guile and cunning.

The date of Lady Adela’s trial was now finalised. It was to be held in seven day’s time. The delay was necessary because Salopsbury needed to be informed and legal representation despatched south to Lodelowe. So this was to be his first letter and simple enough. His difficulties arose over the letters that were to follow, and all these entailed the handmaiden.

The trial of the handmaiden did not depend on outside influences. As a representative of the Council of the Marches he had the authority to prosecute, and because of the urgency he would do this within the next twenty-four hours. But urgency was only one part of his strategy. Another was to appear impartial, and to do this he planned to assemble a court of local dignitaries, and if he chose right, then the verdict would go against the handmaiden. There was also the problem of the Royal Falconer. Even now, as he sat deep in thought, a rider was on his way to intercept the Falconer and bring him back to Lodelowe. His original intention was to keep him at the castle until after the trial of the Lady Adela. But the trial had been scheduled for seven day’s time and he doubted whether he could keep him here for this length of time. One thing was certain he did not want to be on the receiving end of the King’s wrath. All this brought him to a decision that hopefully would suit everyone involved. He would ask the Falconer to preside in judgement over the trial of the handmaiden, and then as soon as it was over, let him go on his way. Hopefully with a successful guilty verdict resulting from the trial, then this should be sufficient for his needs. As for the trial of the Fitzgerald woman, he could easily find another suitable candidate to stand in judgement at a later date.

He turned to the scribe seated alongside. His mind now made up and ready to dictate. However the thought of the handmaiden going to the gallows brought a smile to his lips. This would be the first hanging for many months and would give the people of Lodelowe something to cheer. He tried hard to conceal his pleasure at the thought.

With no time to lose, the Baron set about dictating his letters. If his plans were to succeed then speed was of the essence. He could delay news of Lady Adela’s pending trial to Salopsbury for one more day, but that was all. However the handmaiden’s trial was to take place on the morrow. Her confession would add credence to his actions and defend his men against accusations of impropriety at the ford. It was therefore imperative that the handmaiden be found guilty, and for this he would choose carefully the men to sit in judgement. The Royal Falconer was one. He was top of the list. Captain Osbald would be another, since he was the one that had found the ring, and more importantly a commoner, something certain to go well with the crowd. Now all that was needed was three more men of impeccable upstanding; three men that lived locally so as to be available on the morrow. Three names immediately sprung to mind. One was an Earl, number two an Abbot, and the third a Squire. He smiled; he knew exactly who to choose.

‘Right scribe, take this down,’ he said.

The Baron set about dictating the terms of the two trials to the castle’s scribe. As the scribe set to work the Baron rose from his chair and began to pace back and forth upon the floor of the Great Hall. As soon as the scribe was done he would organise riders to deliver the summonses to all concerned.

Chapter Fifteen

Bardolph’s early morning hunting trip proved briefer than expected. Beside the road, one mile north of Onneyditch, his keen eyes spotted a brace of pheasants. Two swift arrows saw them in his sack. He had set out with the intention of hunting rabbits in the coppice that overlooked Wistanstow Abbey, but having bagged the pheasants he turned around and headed back to the stables.

Later that day, as mid-afternoon approached and with Lodelowe now several miles behind, Bardolph dismounted before a small stream. As his animals drank there came the sound of distant galloping hooves. A rider was approaching fast. He primed an arrow in his longbow but relaxed as the rider came into sight. Bardolph’s eagle eyes saw that this was Egbert, a soldier of Lodelowe and someone he had previously encountered at the ford.

Egbert pulled up but remained in the saddle. Bardolph noted that he now wore the green tassels of a Corporal but made no comment. ‘You are to read this Sire,’ said the rider and handing down a scroll. ‘It is from the Court of the Baron de Clancey. My orders are you must read this missive and then return with me to Lodelowe.’

Bardolph unfurled the scroll and read the contents. This was a court summons signed by Baron de Clancey and bearing two seals, one the House of Lodelowe, the other the Council of the Marches. The document was written in French as most official documents were since the coming of the Normans. However this proved no difficulty to Bardolph since he was well schooled in both the French and Latin languages as well as his own Anglo-Saxon tongue. He read the court summons through. This was a proclamation from the court of Lodelowe demanding that Bardolph, Royal Falconer to King Henry III make himself available for a forthcoming trial and Bardolph was summonsed to stand in judgement. The trial was to take place at Lodelowe Castle. However there was no indication as to who was on trial or when the date was set. He wondered if this could be the Lady from Salopsbury; the one on the cart at the ford, but decided the timing all wrong. When it came to trials of people of high or noble birth, then these things took time. At no point did he consider the fate of the Lady’s handmaiden. He concluded that the trial would be of someone totally unrelated to the incident at the ford. But this was not his main concern. His annoyance came with being selected in the first place.

Bardolph looked up to Egbert. ‘When is this trial to take place?’ For the Falconer time was of the essence and he could not afford to lose too many days on his journey south.

Egbert shook his head in response. ‘I was asked to ride out and waylay you Sire, and hand you the missive. I was told nothing else,’ he replied.

Bardolph understood. He was asking the wrong person. This was something he would only find out if he returned to Lodelowe, and as he stood there contemplating the summons he was not certain he would take up the offer. The King’s birds took priority and he could still use this as an excuse.

‘And what if I refuse?’ he questioned, and just to make clear the consequences should he refuse.

Corporal Egbert shook his head in response. ‘Then alas Sire my orders are to take you forcibly,’ he said. ‘It is not my wish, but a proclamation bearing the seal of the Council of the Marches cannot be ignored.’

Bardolph cursed his misfortune. This was the last thing he wanted. But he understood the situation that now confronted him. After the signing of the ‘Magna Carta’, the great charter that gave power to the Barons by King John some twenty years earlier, this was the new order in the land, and the Barons ruled within their own domain. He shrugged his shoulders. There was little he could do other than return to Lodelowe with Corporal Egbert. ‘Then I’d best come peacefully,’ suggested Bardolph, gathering the reins of his donkey and mounting his steed.

Some four hours later Bardolph, escorted by Corporal Egbert, entered the courtyard of Lodelowe Castle. It was now late in the day and the sun was setting over the ramparts. Captain Osbald happened to be in the courtyard when the party arrived. Bardolph dismounted, walked to the Captain and the two men embraced.

‘It’s good to see you again my friend,’ said Captain Osbald as he patted Bardolph on the back.

‘And it’s good to see you too,’ returned Bardolph as he broke away from the embrace.

Captain Osbald felt a need to explain the reason for bringing Bardolph to Lodelowe. ‘Good Sire,’ he said, ‘Baron de Clancey wishes me to speak for him. He offers you his finest hospitality whilst a guest at his castle. A comfortable room in the West Wing has been provided and servants are at hand to cater for your every need. If there is anything you desire, anything at all, then pray do not hesitate to ask. Your every need will be catered for and comfort assured, and with it goes the freedom of Lodelowe.’

Bardolph stroked his neatly trimmed beard. His immediate thoughts lay with his animals and more importantly with his peregrines. Time away attending the forthcoming trial would leave his birds unattended. This was something he could not tolerate. ‘There is one thing you can do for me Captain,’ replied Bardolph thoughtfully, then pointing to the two cages strapped to the back of his donkey, he explained; ‘Good Captain, I require a lad to tend my peregrines. Those birds belong to the King of England and must not come to harm.’

Captain Osbald understood the importance of the birds. This very fact had been pointed out to him once before at the ford. He nodded his head. ‘I will find a boy that can be of service.’

But Bardolph already had a boy in mind. ‘I know of a lad that hath already served me well,’ he told Captain Osbald. ‘Someone I can trust. If you have no objections then I ask that the lad Ralph, from the stables at Onneyditch be called upon to serve my needs.’

Captain Osbald considered the request then nodded his head. He had no reason to object. The boy mentioned could be trusted. He could vouch for this. He turned to Corporal Egbert who remained seated upon his horse.

‘Corporal,’ he said and looking up, ‘I have another task for you. Ride forthwith to Onneyditch and return with the lad Ralph. Let it be known to his father that the Falconer’s every need must be met and that Baron de Clancey hath decreed this to be so.’

Corporal Egbert saluted, turned his horse and set off from the courtyard with a clatter of hooves upon the cobbles. Onneyditch was one hour’s ride north of Lodelowe. It would be at least two hours before his return and by then it would be dark.

As the horse disappeared from the courtyard, Bardolph turned to Captain Osbald. ‘I thank you good Captain,’ he said. ‘God willing I may now be allowed to perform my courtly duties safe in the knowledge that the King’s birds does’t remain in safe hands.’

Captain Osbald nodded in agreement. ‘Is there anything else you so desire?’

There was one thing Bardolph still wanted to know. When and where was this trial to be held? And who was on trial? ‘Tell me Captain why I was asked to return to Lodelowe? What of this pending trial? And who stands in judgement?’

The Captain looked a little surprised, but he had not read the Baron’s missive to the Falconer, so did not know the contents of what was said. ‘You does’t not know then?’ he replied. ‘It is to be the trial of the handmaiden we encountered at the ford. A signet ring that once belonged to the Baron’s late father was found upon her person. The ring was taken from the Baron’s strongroom some three weeks past. It was I and Sergeant Cuthred that did’st conduct the search and came across the ring. The handmaiden now stands accused of robbery and murder, since a guard was slain during the robbery.’

It was Bardolph’s turn to look surprised. But there was something else he needed to know. ‘And when is trial to take place?’

As they spoke a young stable lad approached leading a saddled horse. Captain Osbald wanted to stay a little longer but was a busy man. By sunrise on the morrow he was charged with having the Baron’s court assembled. He placed a hand upon Bardolph’s shoulder.

‘The trial is on the morrow in the castle’s keep,’ replied the Captain and responding hastily to the Falconer’s question, and explaining; ’the Baron doth assemble his court as we speak. In fact I must be away. There is my horse now. I go to meet a fellow member of the court and escort him back to Lodelowe. Bardolph my dear friend, alas I must bid you fond farewell. Pray go now to your room and make yourself comfortable. Perchance if all goes well, I will call upon your room when my duties are through.’

The two men embraced one final time then went their separate ways; Bardolph led by a servant to a room in the West Wing, whilst Captain Osbald mounted his horse and rode swiftly away from the castle’s courtyard.

Bardolph had wanted to find out more about the forthcoming trial but decided this could wait. It was obvious that Captain Osbald was a very busy man and did not want to detain him any longer. And besides he had more important matters to deal with. For the next two hours, until the boy Ralph arrived, he had two valuable peregrine falcons to care for.

End of part 2

Copyright© 2012 by Nosbert. All rights reserved.