The Royal Falconer
by Nosbert

Part 4

Chapter Twenty-One

Whitewind was saddled and awaiting Bardolph’s arrival in the courtyard. Following a message sent hastily from the Great Hall, the lad Ralph was busily organising the Royal Falconer’s departure. This efficiency pleased Bardolph. Ralph was a good lad and knew horses well. He also rode his own pony and as Bardolph arrived three animals awaited him in the courtyard, a white stallion, a donkey and a pony. Two cages, one to either side, were strapped to the back of the donkey. Inside each cage perched a half-grown peregrine falcon.

Captain Osbald, running and holding his sword to his belt, arrived to say farewell to Bardolph. He had received news of the Royal Falconer’s imminent departure and sped all the way from the dungeon. Needless to say he was out of breath.

The two men embraced. ‘I’m so glad I have caught you before you leave,’ said Captain Osbald panting, ‘I have raced all the way from the dungeon. Sergeant Cuthred has arrested a whore, and as we speak he is having the tavern in the town stripped of its floorboards. I must haste away and see what is happening before the people rise up in anger. The Baron’s name does’t not go down well with the people that frequent the tavern, and me thinks I must intervene to prevent an uprising.’

Bardolph held Captain Osbald close to his chest in a final embrace and patted him on the back. Breaking his grip he passed the horse’s reins over his head and placed one foot in the stirrup.

‘Then haste away to the tavern my dear friend,’ he told the Captain. ‘Perhaps one day I will’st return to Lodelowe, and perchance we will meet again, and no doubt under happier circumstances. For the sentence of death upon the handmaiden, even though she hath admitted her guilt, still grieves me greatly.’

Captain Osbald held the bridle to steady the horse whilst Bardolph mounted the saddle. ‘Think not of the handmaiden, she is a convicted thief. Go with God speed my friend, and a safe journey south,’ he said, patting the stallion on the neck.

As they spoke Sergeant Cuthred appeared in the courtyard. He was moving fast across the open cobbled square towards the west wing of the castle. In his arms he carried a woman’s dress. Captain Osbald held out an arm to halt the Sergeant’s progress as he approached. ‘Sergeant, how does’t the search go?’

Sergeant Cuthred stopped in his tracks to stand before his Captain. He held up the dress in his arms. Visible was a brooch pinned to the front. ‘Captain, this dress was found at the tavern. On it is pinned this brooch. I believe it to be part of the Baron’s treasure. I head to the Great Hall to seek audience with the Baron and present this brooch to him.’

Captain Osbald looked to the brooch. Bardolph now seated in the saddle and looking down saw it too. The brooch was large, dewdrop in shape, with an emerald mounted on a gold surround. In shape and appearance it was very similar to the medallion necklace found upon the Lady Adela.

‘Me thinks you could be right,’ mused Captain Osbald. ‘This brooch could very well have been taken from the Baron’s strongroom.’

Sergeant Cuthred refolded the dress in his arms. ‘Then Captain, may I have your permission to proceed and enquire of the Baron?’

Captain Osbald nodded his head. He saw no reason to object. He considered whether to accompany Sergeant Cuthred, but decided against it. His immediate priority lay in quelling a riot at the tavern.

‘Yes Sergeant, go seek an audience with the Baron,’ he said. ‘He hath informed me that he wishes to visit the dungeon once the feast has ended. So pray doth accompany him when the time comes, and in the meantime I will’st pay a visit to the tavern and see what disturbances we have caused.’ Sergeant Cuthred sped away with dress in his arms and leaving Captain Osbald standing next to Bardolph and his horse.

‘My friend, it seems I never have the time for the courtesy our friendship allows,’ he said. ‘Pray beg my pardon and for the interruption of my Sergeant.’ Bardolph however found Sergeant Cuthred’s intervention most fascinating and had watched from the saddle with interest. One more stolen item had been recovered, and this time locally, and presumably at the tavern where the whore Madeline worked.

‘Presumably that dress belongs to the handmaiden’s mother and that she is now held in the Baron’s dungeon?’ queried Bardolph.

Captain Osbald shook his head, for he had recently established this not to be the case. ‘Alas my friend,’ he told Bardolph, ‘the whore Madeline was not the woman arrested at the tavern. News will be rife. The whole town will know by now that we are looking for her. It is therefore my belief that she hath already flown the town. But this is my problem, not yours my friend. Pray go whilst there is still some daylight, ride south and may God and St. Christopher remain with you.’

Bardolph pulled on the reins and turned to the lad Ralph seated alongside on his pony. ‘Then Ralph, it is time for us to depart,’ he said. ‘I will’st accompany you to the parting of the ways, then as you turn north to Onneyditch, I will’st head south and take the road that leads to the King’s New Forest in the ancient Kingdom of Wessex.’

Captain Osbald watched Bardolph and the lad Ralph pass beneath the portcullis, then turned and sped away, his destination on this occasion being the tavern in the town. Somehow he had to quell the mayhem caused by his Sergeant before it got out of hand. Hopefully he would be able to calm the people down.

Chapter Twenty-Two

The Great Hall echoed to the sound of merriment. The feast was all but over and the Baron’s guests thronged in groups, some sitting, some standing, some talking and some laughing. But whatever they were doing a goblet of wine was never far away. And if that goblet should ever be close to empty, then there was always a serving wench at hand to replenish the stock.

The Baron was deep in conversation with the Abbot when a servant came up to him. The Baron frowned. ‘What is it?’ he snarled. ‘Can’t it wait?’

The servant dropped to one knee. ‘My Liege,’ he replied nervously, ‘Sergeant Cuthred awaits you at the door. He says it is most urgent and seeks an immediate audience.’

The Baron looked towards the double doors at one end of the Great Hall. They were open and the Sergeant was stood in the opening. He turned to the Abbot. ‘Pray forgive me Holy Father, but I have some urgent business to attend.’

The Abbot made the sign of a cross and gave a slight nod to the head. ‘God be with you,’ he said and followed by a chant in Latin.

The Baron strode briskly to the door, and taking Sergeant Cuthred by the arm he moved on further to a quiet spot in the corridor beyond. ‘What is it Sergeant?’ he asked. ‘Have you arrested the handmaiden’s mother?’

Sergeant Cuthred signalled with a nod to his head. He was not aware that had arrested the wrong woman. ‘Yes my Liege,’ he said. ‘Madeline has been arrested and taken to the dungeon.’

He held up the dress in his arms. ‘And I have found this my Liege,’ he said. ‘This is her dress, and on it is pinned this brooch.’

The Baron looked to the brooch and recognised it immediately. This brooch was part of his father’s treasure and taken from his strongroom. He took the dress from Sergeant Cuthred and turned the brooch over to view the rear without undoing the pin. This was the confirmation he needed. There was a groove beneath the pin that once held a feather. This was not a brooch to grace a female’s dress. This was a hatpin that once held a feather to the side of his father’s hat.

The Baron looked to Sergeant Cuthred. ‘This hatpin most definitely belonged to my father and was taken from my strongroom some three week’s past,’ he said and adding as an afterthought; ‘Sergeant, you have done well.’

Sergeant Cuthred acknowledged with a nod to his head. ‘Thank you my Liege.’

The Baron wanted to know more. ‘Tell me Sergeant,’ he asked, ‘did’st the handmaiden’s mother say where she did’st get this brooch. Has she spoken of the robbery?’

Sergeant Cuthred shook his head. ‘Nay my Liege,’ he replied, ‘the whore proved stubborn and did’st protest her arrest. I had her escorted to the dungeon.’

The Baron handed back the dress. ‘Then Sergeant take back this dress,’ he said. ‘Keep the brooch safe. Do not let it out of your sight and remain here, next to the doors. As soon as I am finished you will accompany me to the dungeon. I will’st speak with this Madeline personally, and if she does’t remain stubborn then I’m sure we can find a way to loosen her tongue.’

Sergeant Cuthred folded the dress about one arm. ‘I will’st remain here my Liege until I am called,’ he said, ‘and the dress and brooch will remain safe with me.’

The Baron placed a hand upon Sergeant Cuthred’s shoulder. ‘Sergeant you have done me proud,’ he told him. ‘I will’st try to get away shortly. But with all the distinguished company I keep, my duty is to remain. But do not lose heart. I will’st see what I can do to get away.’

And with that the Baron turned and marched quickly back into the hall. He remained a busy man, but also a pleased man now that the whore Madeline was safely locked away in his dungeon.

Chapter Twenty-Three

The sun was low over the ramparts when Baron de Clancey accompanied by Sergeant Cuthred set out for the dungeon. They marched briskly with the Baron always one step ahead. Sergeant Cuthred carried a brown dress, on it was pinned a large emerald brooch with a gold surround. On arrival both Corporal Guthrum and Barik the jailer were present to greet them.

The Baron gave immediate orders to Corporal Guthrum. ‘Go and find the castle’s Scribe and bring him here without delay,’ he said and adding: ‘And do make haste. Tell him to bring with him parchment, quills and ink.’

Corporal Guthrum saluted with a clenched fist across his chest, bowed his head, clicked his heels and moved swiftly away.

The Baron turned to Barik the jailer. ‘Bring the whore Madeline to me,’ he told him. ‘I will’st see her now.’

Barik returned a look of bemusement. From his earlier encounter with Captain Osbald he had established no one by the name Madeline had not been brought to him. He stepped towards the nearest cell for it was here the whore, whatever her name, was being held. He told the Baron; ‘My Liege, I am sorry but no one by the name of Madeline hath been brought to me. Just one woman was handed to my charge, and she does’t not go by the name of Madeline.’

Baron de Clancey gave a look of bewilderment and pointed to the dress in Sergeant Cuthred’s arms. ‘Then pray tell me to whom this garment doth belong?’

Barik shook his head. He did not know. Still shaking his head he unlocked the cell door.

As he pulled the door open he told the Baron; ‘My Liege, you had best ask for yourself, for I know not the answer to your question.’

As the door creaked open the occupant of the cell began to beg for her release. ‘Silence!’ snapped the Baron peering in through the open door. No light burned within and all he could see was a dark shadow moving within the gloom. He beckoned Sergeant Cuthred to his side and together they stared into the cell.

The Baron addressed the dark shape. ‘Are you the one that doth go by the name of Madeline?’

A quiet woman’s voice from inside answered; ‘My name is not Madeline, my Liege. The one you speak of was not at the tavern when your men-at-arms entered the building.’

The Baron looked to Sergeant Cuthred. He was naturally confused, but eyeing the dress in the Sergeant’s arms he had other ideas.

‘Sergeant, you say you arrested the owner of this dress,’ he said. ‘Pray identify her so that I may speak with her.’

Sergeant Cuthred strained his eyes. As if to help, the prisoner stepped forward to the light in the doorway. She was naked with hands tied behind her back. The Sergeant had no problem recognising this woman. How could he forget that face and body? This was the whore in bed when he burst into her room. He pointed to the woman stood in the doorway. ‘This is the whore I arrested at the tavern my Liege,’ he said. ‘She was in bed with this dress resting upon a chair by the side. I assumed her to be Madeline. I was informed it was her room.’

The Baron’s face retained the look of puzzlement. ‘So this woman is not the Madeline I seek?’

Sergeant Cuthred shook his head. ‘My Liege,’ he answered nervously and repeated his excuse. ‘I was told the room belonged to Madeline. I assumed this woman to be the one you sought.’

The Baron collected his thoughts. This Madeline had to be arrested and on his return to the courtyard he would organise a party to go in search of her, but for the time being he had another problem. His Sergeant had discovered an item of his father’s jewellery in this woman’s possession, and this was the most important thing right now. The raid on the tavern may well have been bungled and the wrong woman arrested, but perhaps some good fortune had come of it. He indicated to Barik with a flick of the finger. ‘Get her out,’ he told him. ‘Bring her to the light so that I may’st see more clearly.’

Barik dragged the woman by the arm and slammed the door shut with a kick of his boot. The woman had little time to find her feet and rocked unsteadily. Barik grabbed a handful of hair at the back of her head and turned her face to the Baron. The Baron was already pointing to the dress in Sergeant Cuthred’s arms.

He demanded of the woman; ‘Is this yours? Does this dress belong to you?’

The woman steadied herself, and as the grip to the back of her head relaxed, she looked to the dress. As she did so Sergeant Cuthred held the dress high in order that she could see it clearly, but at the same time remaining careful not to reveal the brooch. After a while the woman responded. She bit hard on her bottom lip and nodded her head.

‘Yes my Liege, this is my dress,’ she said.

The Baron grimaced. ‘Then tell me wench, if you are not Madeline, what is your name?’

The woman bowed her head before replying. ‘My Liege, my name is Margaret,’ she told him.

The Baron placed a hand beneath the woman’s chin and raised her head in order to see her face clearly. ‘Then pray tell me, where is this Madeline? The woman I seek?’

Margaret looked to the Baron’s eyes. She explained; ‘My Liege today is Madeline’s day off. I use her room whilst she is out.’

The Baron considered the woman’s reply. At least it made some sort of sense. But there was still a question that remained unanswered. He collected the dress from Sergeant Cuthred and turned it over so that the brooch became visible.

‘Where did you get this?’ he asked and pointing to the brooch.

Margaret gasped and was lost for words. She had not seen this brooch before. She shook her head from side to side in an attempt to signal her complete surprise.

The Baron fought hard to control his temper. This brooch was the property of his late father, taken from his strongroom some three weeks earlier, and now here it was pinned to this woman’s dress. Receiving no immediate answer his anger flared. ‘Where did you get this brooch?’ he snarled. ‘Tell me! And tell me quickly!’

Margaret shook her head wildly from side to side and tried to explain. ‘My Liege,’ she said, ‘I have not seen this brooch before! This should not be on my dress!’

The Baron clenched his fists in rage. This woman was making a fool of him. His reaction was to strike her across the face, but he controlled his temper and turned to Sergeant Cuthred.

Pointing to the low portal at the end of the corridor, he told his Sergeant; ‘I have little time for such nonsense. I demand an answer now. Take her to the far chamber. Let’s see if we can loosen her tongue by other means.’

Sergeant Cuthred grabbed Margaret by the arm. She screamed in protest but was powerless to resist the strength of a man much bigger and stronger than herself. Reluctantly she found herself being marched towards the far chamber.

Barik set off at a run in order to arrive at the portal ahead of Sergeant Cuthred. The Baron however waited with the woman’s dress slung over one arm. He would only enter the chamber once the woman was prepared.

Chapter Twenty-Four

Having stooped beneath the low iron-gated, Margaret was marched towards the centre of the chamber. ‘Stand here and don’t move,’ snarled the Sergeant as he cut her bonds and positioned her beneath two long chains that hung down from the high vaulted roof.

Barik appeared holding two short lengths of rope. He dropped one to the floor and made a grab for Margaret’s left arm. Her immediate reaction was to resist and pull away from the grip, but the man was far too strong and on realising her frailty, submitted to his demands. Holding out her arm she turned her head away, not bearing to look as the little man lashed the rope about her wrist.

When he was done and as Barik collected the second length from the floor, she instinctively held out her other arm in readiness. It was as if she knew what to expect. As the second rope was secured, she looked up to the chains above her head. She recognised her fate and knew what to expect. She was no fool. As she was lifted bodily from the floor by the Sergeant and the ropes about her wrists attached to the chains by Barik, she collected her thoughts and set her resolve. She would protest her innocence to the very end.

As soon as Margaret was prepared the Baron was summonsed. He had waited patiently outside the chamber clutching the woman’s dress to his chest and eying his father’s brooch. He entered ducking beneath the low-gated portal and walking briskly across the floor to confront the prisoner. For a while he stood before her, looking her up and down, and surveying her change in circumstances. He was now seeing her in a better light, for many torches blazed from brackets attached to the surrounding pillars. He considered her beauty and the shapely curves of her naked body then put these thoughts behind him, for this was not the reason for his visit. He wanted answers. He looked to her wrists. They were lashed to the end of two long chains which left her swinging gently with turned down toes barely making contact with the floor. His gaze moved to her face and her dishevelled hair. Her brow was furrowed, set in a deep frown, but despite her obvious discomfort, her dark eyes held a cold, icy glare.

Baron de Clancey considered his next move. Inwardly a fire raged but he was careful not to let it show. He was an upholder of the Law and it was his duty to conduct procedures in the correct manner. He had to be seen to remain impartial. Under normal circumstances this woman would be tried in a Court of Law. He had the authority to do this, but these were no ordinary circumstances, and as upholder of the Law it was important he let others do his bidding. If a confession was to be forthcoming then he had to play no part.

He glanced back towards the portal through which he had entered. There remained no sign of the Scribe. The situation was therefore not ideal, but since nothing was being recorded he felt it safe to carry on. He returned his gaze to the woman and held the dress high before her face.

Revealing the brooch he addressed her formally, saying: ‘The reason you have been brought here, is because I need to know from whom you did’st get this brooch? And let me make it quite clear, my patience grows thin. So answer me this and answer me honestly, or I will’st be forced to instruct my jailer to exert his own means of persuasion. So I give you one last chance. Answer me now, answer me truthfully, and you will suffer no pain. But remain stubborn and you will’st feel the hot irons against the flesh. My jailer is well schooled in the ways of making you talk. So I offer you honesty or pain, the choice is simple. The choice is yours.’

Margaret shook her head from side to side. She composed herself and answered in the best way she could. ‘My Liege,’ she replied, ‘I know not how the brooch came upon my dress! It is not my brooch! It does not belong to me! I swear to God that I tell the truth.’

The Baron raised a hand to strike, but refrained for he knew it to be wrong. Instead he closed his eyes and prayed to God for strength. He took a deep breath and repeated the question.

‘I will ask you one last time,’ he said and adding; ‘From where did’st you get this brooch? Answer me now and you will be spared. Fail to do so, and I warn you, I cannot remain lenient a moment longer. I must have my answer.’

Margaret did not know how to respond. There was no way her answer could be phrased any differently. She just did not know how the brooch got there. The answer was as simple as that. She had never seen the brooch before in her life. So what could she say? How could she respond? In truth all she wanted was to be out of there and back with her husband and family. As far as she was concerned she was just a part-time whore that had done nothing wrong. She had left her home that morning to earn a few extra pennies for her family and had hired Madeline’s room like she always did on this one particular day every week. It was a longstanding arrangement. Margaret, for the price of two silver pennies, would use Madeline’s room on her day off. She therefore saw this misfortune as being one big terrible mistake, and that it was Madeline they wanted, not her.

Margaret looked to the Baron. ‘My Liege, I beg of you, it is Madeline you want, not I,’ she told him. ‘I know nothing of this brooch. I was in Madeline’s room, but this was all. The brooch, it must be hers.’

The Baron shook his head. Someone would have had to deliberately pin the brooch to the dress, and she may very well be Margaret and not Madeline, but names did not matter. She had admitted this to be her dress, and on it was pinned a brooch stolen from his strongroom. The Baron was about to speak when the gate to the chamber creaked open. He turned his head to see the Scribe entering and followed by Corporal Guthrum. The Scribe carried several rolls of parchments beneath his arms, whilst behind him the Corporal carried an escritoire, along with ink and several quills.

The Baron called across the chamber. ‘Ah Scribe!’ he exclaimed. ‘At last you have arrived! Come quickly, there is much work to do.’

The Scribe moved to a small high table much used on these occasions and dragged it towards the woman. Then, with the assistance of Corporal Guthrum, he set up his escritoire and arranged the ink and quills. With parchment finally all set out the Scribe turned to the Baron.

‘I am ready my Liege,’ he informed him. ‘I must begin by recording this woman’s name and the charges being brought against her.’

The Baron gave no reply. Instead he handed the dress to Sergeant Cuthred. As upholder of the Law he had to be seen as impartial. It was best his presence here not be recorded.

He pointed to the brooch and explained to the Scribe; ‘This brooch belonged to my father. It was taken from my strongroom some three weeks past. I want to know how it came upon this person. And I want the names of all those involved. So do what must be done and take all night if the need be. I want to know everything. How she came by this brooch. Who gave it to her, and where the rest of my treasure is buried, for your ultimate goal must be the recovery of my father’s legacy.’

Sergeant Cuthred and the Scribe nodded their heads. Both knew what was required of them and nothing more need be said. ‘Aye my Liege, this will be done,’ spoke Sergeant Cuthred with conviction; ‘If this whore does’t know where your treasure is hidden, then we will have it from her lips, and before this night is out. This much I promise.’

The Baron smiled for the first time and nodded in agreement. He knew that he was leaving the interrogation in capable hands. But there was also something else, something that added a sense of urgency to the whole procedures. He told them; ‘It is important I have all the answers this very night. At the break of dawn I dispatch a herald to Salopsbury. He goes with news of the Lady Adela’s trial and a copy of the handmaiden’s confession. If perchance we have another confession that further implicates the Lady Adela, then so much the better. You must therefore understand my reason for such haste.’

The men nodded. Both were well aware the importance this extra confession would make.

As the Baron turned to leave he spoke his final words. ‘Good citizens of Lodelowe pray do your best and let’s have some goodly results this night,’ he said. ‘Alas it is my duty to be elsewhere. It must be seen that I dwelt here no longer than the need be. And pray let it be recorded that I was not present when this woman did’st make her mark. It is important I be seen as a true upholder of the Law even though it is I that has been much aggrieved. So I bid of you both a fond farewell, and may God give you the strength to stay the night.’

On conclusion the Baron set off towards the portal. He could do little more other than wait and hope.

Corporal Guthrum on station at the portal since assisting the Scribe, held the low gate open and saluted as the Baron ducked beneath. From the far side of the gate the Baron called into the chamber; ‘I go first to the chapel. I will’st pray that God does’t give you the strength you require.’ He then turned and was quickly away.

As the Baron’s footsteps faded down the corridor, Sergeant Cuthred turned to the Scribe. Both men were well aware of the enormity of the task assigned to them. A confession was needed before the break of dawn. The Baron had made this perfectly clear.

Sergeant Cuthred shrugged his shoulders and said thoughtfully to the Scribe; ‘My friend, we could be in for a very long night.’

The Scribe nodded in response, picked up a quill and dipped it deep into the inkpot. ‘I am ready. Let the interrogation begin.’

Chapter Twenty-Five

The streets of Lodelowe were awash with rumours. At first it was word of a hanging. A young girl from Salopsbury caught stealing it was said. She was to be flogged through the streets on the next day of the market then hanged on the gibbet tree outside the town walls.

But the question on everyone’s lips was who would this girl be? To be truthful, nobody knew. Then came news of a raid on the tavern and yet more rumours ensued.

Now the people were asking; ‘Why the raid? What were the Baron’s men looking for? And who were they after?’

Then a sight not often seen materialised on the hillside above the town. A plume of black smoke appeared, wafting upwards from a short square bricked opening on the grassy bank next to the castle’s keep. Darkness was falling, but still a large crowd gathered in the market square, all looking upwards, their eyes focused upon a plume of black swirling smoke.

The forge in the dungeon had been lit. This was all too obvious, but more importantly they were aware of its significance. The rising black plume of smoke was issuing from the torture chamber and someone was about to be put to the test. In time curiosity turned to speculation and a new question arose. Now the inhabitants of Lodelowe wanted to know who was down below, and who was being put to the test?

‘Could it be the girl soon to be hanged?’ one person was heard to ask.

‘No, that’s ridiculous,’ replied another. ‘It couldn’t possibly be her, she has already confessed. It must be someone else.’

So just who was being held down there? This was the new question on everyone’s lips. Inevitably speculation returned to the raid on the tavern. It was rumoured a whore had been arrested. So perhaps this was the answer. Perhaps it was the whore.

Then yet another rumour spread, and reportedly from a most reliable source. The Baron was looking for one whore in particular. Her name was Madeline and she was not the whore arrested at the tavern. She was last seen fleeing the town with two men. The guards on the gate had reported this. The two men with Madeline were strangers to Lodelowe and had passed through the gates before news of the whore’s arrest had reached them. So what was going on? Why this Madeline? What had she done and why the smoke?

The people demanded an answer. They demanded to know. But the town crier simply shook his head, for he too was in the dark. He too would like to know what was going on.

Beneath the castle’s keep, the chamber at the end of the long corridor roared to the sound of the forge. Ventilation was poor and a curtain of black smoke choked the chamber. The dungeon was playing host to Margaret, the whore arrested at the tavern earlier that day. Three men stood in attendance. These were Barik the jailer, Sergeant Cuthred and the castle’s Scribe. A fourth man, Corporal Guthrum, stood just outside the chamber guarding the portal.

Margaret was naked, her wrists bound by thick coarse ropes to the ends of two long chains that descended from the high vaulted roof of the chamber. If she stretched out her toes she could touch the floor, but contact with the cold granite slabs beneath her feet was the last thing on her mind. She hung slumped and lifeless, her body gently swaying, taken by the momentum of the heavy chains above her head. Her legs however were free to move, to protest and kick out at her assailants, but this was not going to happen, her life force was spent. A small wisp of acrid blue smoke drifted up from a blackened mark positioned against the pit of her stomach. The mark was in the shape of a simple cross, and the twelfth brand to be applied to her naked body since her ordeal began.

‘One more, then if that fails reheat the iron!’ hissed an agitated Sergeant Cuthred to Barik the jailer. ‘Me thinks she is ready to talk. One more should do it.’

Barik however was not so sure, but all the same he thrust the brand towards the last sizeable area of flesh not already blackened and blistered. Naked flesh sizzled as the iron made contact. The shock stopped Margaret from breathing, just as it had done so on all twelve previous occasions. As the iron withdrew from its lowest point yet, a position just below the navel, she threw back her head and screamed, and continued to scream until her lungs could expel air no more.

Sergeant Cuthred gripped Margaret’s jaws and squeezed her cheeks hard together. He repeated the one same question he had been asking all night. ‘Where did you get this brooch?’

Margaret shook her head, not in defiance but in an effort to shake off the grip about her face. A hand was blocking her mouth and pressing hard against her nose, and after exhaling so much air she desperately needed to breathe. She needed to refill her lungs, to take down great gulps of air. But the hand remained firmly across her mouth and she was getting desperate. She needed air. She needed to breathe. She shook her head again, this time more vigorously, but the grip remained. She opened her eyes and looked to the man holding her jaws. He was staring back at her, hate in his eyes. Then the image began to waver and blur and she could hold focus no longer. Then everything went black and suddenly she no longer cared.

Sergeant Cuthred cursed and released his grip. Barik threw a bucket of water over Margaret’s head in the hope of reviving her. The cold water had some effect, eyelids flickered, but this was the only visible sign. Sergeant Cuthred grabbed a fistful of hair and raised Margaret’s sunken head.

Holding her head high and with faces almost touching he spat out his words slowly and deliberately; ‘We… are… waiting… for… an… answer!’

Margaret however showed little response. In anger Sergeant Cuthred tossed down the head and released the hair. There was little more he could do. She would come around eventually, they always did, and then the interrogation would begin all over again. There remained areas of the body still unmarked by the brand; thus far only her front had been assailed; her back, arms and legs had not been touched. But all the same, it was so frustrating to be confronted by someone so stubborn, so uncooperative. A confession should have been forthcoming by now.

Sergeant Cuthred turned to the Scribe stood behind his escritoire. ‘The hour is getting late my friend and me thinks we’ll get nothing more from this one for a while,’ he said ruefully.

The Scribe put down his quill and yawned openly. He appreciated the Sergeant's sentiments. It was true, the hour was late and as yet the whore had revealed nothing. Never before had he encountered someone this stubborn and so unwilling to cooperate. He had marked the number of times the irons had been applied and the question asked, and was now nearing the end of his scroll. In Roman numerals the number XIII awaited an entry.

Barik shook his head from side to side. He could do no more for a while. In his hands he held a smouldering brand. The bright-red glow was spent, but what little heat remained could still be felt. From the tip of the brand rose an acrid blue smoke that drifted upwards from the many layers of human flesh caked to the surface.

Barik had applied his trade well, but gained little success. He had started high on Margaret’s body, choosing the breasts as his starting point and pressing the brand firmly to the flesh and holding it there. To prevent her kicking and screaming the Sergeant had assisted by holding her waist and pushing forward against the brand. The two men had then held that position whilst her chest heaved and her lungs filled with the acrid blue smoke that drifted upwards from her breasts. But Margaret remained stubborn and her secrets remained firmly sealed within her lips.

With no success the torment passed methodically down the body, from breasts to ribcage, then navel and finally to the lower abdomen, and this was the point the interrogation had reached. After many long hours of constant questioning the entire front of Margaret’s body lay riddled with the brand marks of a simple cross.

On realisation that nothing more could be done for a while, Sergeant Cuthred turned to Barik and said, his voice saddened with failure; ‘Me thinks it is best we return the iron to the coals. Get the brand glowing red-hot again, and let us see if we can gain more success when she re-awakens.’

Needless to say success did come in the end. An hour before dawn Margaret put her mark to the confession prepared by the Scribe. She confessed readily to being an accomplice to the robbery and the handling of stolen goods. The whereabouts of the Baron’s treasure however was never established; her confession doing little more than implicate Lady Adela and the whore Madeline along with her daughter Gwyneth Fletcher.

After putting her mark Margaret was cut down and dragged to her cell. She remained naked with both front and back of her torso, along with arms and thighs, riddled with burns.

Chapter Twenty-Six

Baron de Clancey found sleep difficult. As he lay on his large four-poster bed staring upwards at the drapes, a rap came upon the door. A lone candle burned in the room. ‘What is it?’ he snarled and sounding much displeased by the interruption.

The door opened wide enough for a head to appear. ‘My Liege,’ said a male servant and bending low in the doorway, ‘Sergeant Cuthred awaits you in the Great Hall. I am to tell you that the whore hath confessed and that Lady Adela hath been implicated.’

The Baron leapt out of bed. Suddenly he was wide awake. ‘Come,’ he called, ‘assist me. I must get dressed.’

The servant had come prepared and entered the room carrying freshly washed clothes and clean boots. It was not long before the Baron was dressed and making haste for the Great Hall.

The vast open space of the hall shimmered to the light of many candles as the Baron entered via a rear door. He moved to take his seat at the end of the long table. Before him on the surface rested two scrolls, both waxed and sealed with red ribbons. One scroll bore news of the Lady Adela’s impending trial. The other contained the confessions of the handmaiden Gwyneth Fletcher.

The main doors to the Great Hall were already open, and it was here that Sergeant Cuthred and the castle’s Scribe stood awaiting their call. The Baron signalled for them to approach. Sergeant Cuthred marched to the head of the table, clicked his heals and saluted with clenched fist across his chest. The Scribe, less formal in his attitude and travelling in the Sergeant’s wake, moved to the opposite side of the table and placed a scroll before the Baron. The scroll was similar to those already on the table, but bore no ribbon or seal.

The Baron’s eyes sparkled in the candlelight as the new scroll was placed before him. ‘Then that stubborn whore… that, err… what was her name? … Margaret… she did’st finally confess then?’ he said and sounding much relieved. ‘So what did she have to say? Something good I hope.’

And with that he unfurled the scroll and began to read the contents. It was in French but he translated into Saxon as he read aloud. He began; ‘I Margaret daughter of William the Cook of the town of Lodelowe does’t readily confesses to the handling of stolen property that did once belong to the late Baron Edward de Clancy, and that the crime had been instigated by the Lady Adela Fitzgerald of the City of Salopsbury. Let it be known that I Margaret, along with two men whose names were unknown to me, were hired by the Lady Adela to break into the Baron’s strongroom and take certain items of gold, silver and jewellery. Money for our services was shared between us three. I was given the brooch in payment for my services.’

At the bottom of the scroll lay Margaret’s mark; a simple scrawled and straggly cross.

The Baron re-rolled the scroll and looked to Sergeant Cuthred and then the Scribe. He tapped the scroll with a finger. ‘So at last I have her!’ he commented. ‘This is damning evidence against the Norman noblewoman. Her trial will now go well. You have done well.’

Sergeant Cuthred clicked his heels. ‘Thank you my Liege.’

The Scribe said nothing and acknowledged with a simple nod to the head. The truth was the wording on the confessions was not his. He had merely written what Sergeant Cuthred had dictated and waited for the prisoner to make her mark. But he cared little that procedure had not been followed. The night had been long and he could hardly keep his eyes open. All he wanted to do at this moment in time was retire to his bed and sleep.

The Baron tapped the confession with a finger. ‘These two men that assisted Madeline?’ he asked. ‘Who might they be?’

On this account Sergeant Cuthred was prepared. With the lavish feast that followed the trial, the Baron had been too preoccupied to receive news from the gate. ‘My Liege,’ he explained, ‘Madeline has flown the town. She was seen leaving with two men before news of her arrest did’st reach the gate.’

The Baron sighed. This was not good news. He collected his thoughts. Madeline and these two men were to be caught. At first light he would send out a party. But for the time being he had more important duties to perform. A herald was to be despatched to Salopsbury. The documents on the table had to be in the hands of the Fitzgeralds before the setting of the sun.

The Baron looked to Sergeant Cuthred and then to the Scribe. He could see that both were very tired. ‘I thank you for a job well done,’ he told them. ‘You have done me proud this night. This confession will accompany those of the handmaiden to Salopsbury. You may go now. Retire to your beds and sleep well. Send Captain Osbald to me. I will’st speak to him next.’

Sergeant Cuthred saluted, spun around and marched quickly from the hall. The Scribe moved off too, following on a few paces behind. Both were pleased their ordeal was over and were now free to go to their beds.

Captain Osbald was sleeping when his wake-up call came. Naturally he hurried, but it still took time to put on his uniform, and his sleeping quarters were a good distance from the Great Hall.

The Baron, alone in the hall, grew impatient and fingered the three scrolls laid out before him. He picked each scroll up in turn and placed them down again, then arranged all three into a neat row. He did this several times until in frustration he drummed his fingers on the table and looked to the door. ‘Where is that Captain?’ he muttered.

He rose from the table and turned his gaze upon the great tapestry hung against the back wall. The tapestry was of the twins, Edmund and Edward. They were stood to either side of a fast flowing river that ran centrally down the full length of the tapestry. There was a water mill and a motte and bailey in the background above their heads flew a large black raven. The boy on the right was Edward, the Baron’s father. The other boy, the one on the left was Edmund. Edmund had died whilst a baby, reportedly drowned in the river at Onneyditch whilst being abducted by a band of Welsh marauders. His body was never recovered.

The Baron looked to the feathered hat worn by his father Edward. The hat was turban in style, and to the side was pinned a brooch that held a large feathered plume. He recognised the brooch as the one found upon the dress of the whore. He cursed the whore and vowed she would hang. His anger did not stop there. All the others involved in this conspiracy would hang too. He decided upon his next course of action. He would convene a trial for the whore that very morning. It meant waking up his Scribe, and possibly his Sergeant, but the trial would not take long, half an hour at the most, and afterwards they could return to their beds. He would judge the whore alone. He had the authority to do so and other dignitaries were not necessary in this case since she was just a common whore. He would find her guilty and sentence her to join the handmaiden at the gallows.

This thought pleased the Baron and he looked forward to a double execution. Both women would be flogged through the streets and strung up on the gibbet tree outside the town walls. He smiled at the thought. The streets would be packed and people from miles around would flock to the town to witness the spectacle. He tried to recall a time when two women were hanged on the same day, but could not. Perhaps there never was such a time.

The Baron’s thoughts moved to Lady Adela Fitzgerald and her forthcoming trial. Here he had to tread more warily. Whatever action he took had to remain within the law. But at the back of his mind he had an idea. Now that the whore had implicated the Lady Adela, then surely it was within his rights to interrogate the Norman noblewoman? A written confession from her would certainly make things a whole lot easier. He pondered over the possibility. The trouble was his knowledge of the law was limited when it came to judging his fellow peers. There remained a strong possibility that approval from the Council of the Marches was needed before he could embark on any form of physical interrogation.

The Baron was in two minds and considered where best to turn for help. Then a thought came to him. There was one man that knew the Law well, one man that would undoubtedly give clarification. The Abbot of Wistanstow was the Council’s authority on the Law. The Abbot would certainly pass a ruling.

Captain Osbald arrived to find the Baron deep in thought. Unlike Sergeant Cuthred and the Scribe before him, he had entered the hall unannounced. The Baron was looking to a tapestry hung against the rear wall of the hall at the time. Captain Osbald coughed lightly so that his presence should be heard. The Baron turned, saw Captain Osbald and returned to sit at the head of the table.

‘Ah, Captain!’ he remarked, ‘I’ve been waiting for you. There are things I want you to do.’

Captain Osbald clicked his heals and stood to attention. The Baron added ribbons to the new scroll, sealed them with a candle, and used his signet ring to impress the crest of the de Clanceys upon the wax. When he was done he turned to Captain Osbald.

‘These three scrolls are to be despatched to Salopsbury forthwith,’ he told the Captain. ‘It is a task for my most experienced horseman and he must leave at first light. It is important these despatches reach Salopsbury before the setting of the sun.’

Captain Osbald knew the very man. ‘I will’st send Corporal Egbert,’ he said. ‘He is a fine horseman and capable of reaching Salopsbury within the day.’

The Baron handed over the scrolls. ‘Then make sure the task is done,’ he said. ‘These despatches must get through to Salopsbury and the Earl before nightfall.’

Captain Osbald took the scrolls, saluted and turned to leave.

‘Wait Captain, there is one thing more,’ said the Baron.

The Captain swung around to face the Baron and clicked his heels. The Baron placed his hands together as if in prayer and spoke thoughtfully between his fingers.

‘Captain, I have received reports that the whore Madeline hath escaped Lodelowe and that she is accompanied by two men,’ he said. ‘I will’st have them found. They must be arrested. Use every man available. You may include my archers in the search for I will’st not be hunting until after the trial of the Lady Adela. Their knowledge of the Forest of Wyre should prove useful in the search.’

The Baron’s archers were select group of eight soldiers that accompanied him on the hunt. In normal times they would take orders directly from the Baron and not the Captain.

‘I will’st lead the search personally,’ said Captain Osbald. ‘I will’st use every man available, including your archers to scour the countryside.’

The Baron shook his head. There was something else he wanted from the Captain. ‘No Captain, you will’st organise the search but take no part,’ he told him. ‘I have a separate mission for you. One that is for you alone and no one else must know.’

Captain Osbald clicked his heels for a third time and waited. The Baron’s secret mission involved the Lady Adela. His thoughts lay very much in clarification of the law. But first a letter to the Abbot of Wistanstow was needed.

‘Captain, return here once your duties are done,’ he told him. ‘You are to take a missive to the Abbey at Wistanstow. This task is for you alone. The missive will be for the Abbot and must not fall into the wrong hands. So go now, perform your duties, organise the search parties, and return quickly. I will’st have a letter ready on your return.’

Captain Osbald saluted, turned and marched purposefully from the hall. In his hands he carried three scrolls. He would entrust these to Corporal Egbert. But first the Corporal had to be woken, his horse saddled and food for the journey provided. After this he had to organise a search party, and when all this was done he was to ride to Wistanstow with a letter for the Abbot.

On leaving the hall Captain Osbald sighed deeply. He had another busy day ahead, and he wondered when he would be allowed to get a full night’s sleep.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

At first light Corporal Egbert set off for Salopsbury. Shortly afterwards three dozen soldiers on horseback left the castle; out searching for the whore Madeline and the two men that accompanied her. Finally it was the turn of Captain Osbald. He rode alone, and no one knew of his mission or which direction he was to take.

Baron de Clancey from a window watched them all go in turn. As soon as the last rider departed beneath the portcullis he moved away. He had much work to do. The trial of the whore Margaret awaited his presence.

Shortly afterwards the Baron sat central at the long table within the entrance hall to the castle’s keep. The venue being the same as that used for the trial of Gwyneth the handmaiden. The great table as it always was, had been pulled away from the wall and seven chairs placed behind. The Scribe, bleary-eyed and yawning, sat to the Baron’s right. The remaining chairs were unoccupied. On the table before the Scribe lay his escritoire, quill and ink along with several rolls of parchment. At different stations within the hall stood Sergeant Cuthred, Barik the jailer and a guard transferred from the gate, since available soldiers were now in short supply.

The Baron struck the table with the hilt of his dagger. ‘Bring forth the prisoner,’ he called. ‘This trial is now in session.’

Margaret was being held in an adjoining chamber. She had been shackled as was the custom then dragged up from the dungeon since she was incapable of walking. On hearing the Baron’s command Sergeant Cuthred saluted and moved to the door. Barik and the guard joined him and all three disappeared from the hall.

Barik was first to reappear, stepping backwards and dragging Margaret by the legs. She was manacled hand and foot with a short chain linking the two. She was naked, her body blackened with the marks of the branding iron. The jailer dragged her across the floor to the centre of the hall then raised her to her feet. She was barely conscious and incapable of standing without support. The jailer gripped her about the waist and standing to the rear, turned her to face the table. He then tugged at her hair to raise her head and held that position.

The Baron seeing the prisoner now stood facing him, albeit with assistance from the jailer, he read from a parchment prepared by the Scribe. The charges were identical to those levelled at Gwyneth the handmaiden the previous day. As with Gwyneth the language was in Anglo-Saxon so that the woman would understand.

‘Margaret daughter of William the Cook of the town of Lodelowe; you stand before this court this day accused of robbery and murder, in so much that on the Fifth day of August, in the Year of Our Lord Twelve Hundred and Thirty-five, you did’st aid and abet in the theft of property from his Lordship the Baron de Clancey and also did aid and abet in the murder of Richard, son of Frederick, guard to the Baron de Clancey, and thereafter did wilfully partake in the concealment of stolen property from their rightful owner.’

Looking up he added; ‘How does’t you plead to these charges, guilty or not guilty?’

Margaret gave no response. She was to all intent unconscious. Barik lifted her head higher and put his mouth to an ear. ‘Speak quickly, the Baron awaits your plea,’ he hissed into her ear.

He then squeezed her tightly about the midriff, expelling air from the lungs. Initially she groaned, but as Barik’s arms continued to squeeze hard against her blistered and peeling skin, the groan turned to words of protest. They were probably to the effect of a curse, or possibly a plea to let her go, but her words were jumbled and undecipherable.

The Baron leaned forward across the table and cocked an ear. ‘What did she say?’ he asked. ‘I did’st not hear.’

‘She said she was guilty my Liege,’ Barik answered.

The Baron turned to the Scribe. ‘Record her plea. The prisoner readily admits her guilt.’

As the Scribe scratched quill to parchment the Baron proceeded to pass sentence. The trial had taken but a few minutes, and this is the way he liked it. ‘Margaret daughter of William the Cook of the town of Lodelowe; this court finds you guilty of the charges laid before you. I hereby sentence that you be flogged through the streets of Lodelowe and then hanged by the neck until dead. The execution is to take place on the next day of the market.’

Margaret never heard the Baron’s pronouncement, or realised what a dreadful fate awaited her.

The Baron stood and addressed the few men in the hall. ‘Return the prisoner to the cell,’ he said. ‘This trial is over and I thank you for you cooperation.’

Immediately on pronouncing an end to the trial the Baron made for the exit. He was a very busy man and had many things to do. Lady Adela Fitzgerald’s trial was less than a week away and there was a feast to organise, a band of minstrels to assemble, extra rooms to prepare, additional servants to employ, not to mention all the logs needed for the fires and the dozens of candles required for the evenings. His list went on and on. The Baron was indeed a very busy man. The trial of the whore had come as a great inconvenience, but at least it was now out of the way and his objective achieved.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Bardolph pulled his horse to a halt. Ralph astride his pony drew up alongside. Man and boy were at a crossroad. Lodelowe was two miles behind. The road ahead continued east to scale the Hills of the Clees, and ultimately to Lichfield and the heart of Mercia. But straight ahead was not the way for either traveller. From this point on they would go their separate ways, with one traveller turning left, the other going right. To the left the road headed north, skirting the eastern edge of the Forest of Wyre, whilst to the south it passed through the very heart of the forest. This junction at the very edge of the forest was to be the parting of the ways for both man and boy; Ralph to head north to Onneyditch, whilst for Bardolph the road south beckoned. Bardolph turned in the saddle. He took out a silver crown from his purse.

‘This is for you Ralph,’ he said and handing over the coin. ‘Ride home to Onneyditch and go with a proud heart. Go tell your family that you did’st serve the King of England. For the birds that you did’st tend so well does’t belong to him, not I.’

Ralph took the silver crown and stared at it with open eyes. This was more than he had ever earned in his entire lifetime. ‘I thank you good Sire,’ he said humbly.

Bardolph kicked at his horse to move away, but immediately cocked an ear and pulled on the reins. He turned to Ralph. ‘Did’st you hear that sound?’ he said. ‘It was a scream and coming from the forest.’

Ralph shook his head. He had heard nothing.

Bardolph dismounted. ‘Come Ralph, follow me. Lead your animal to the bushes. Remain out of sight whilst I investigate.’

Amongst a thicket of trees and well away from the road, Bardolph left Ralph in charge of the animals. Taking his longbow and quiver he set off on foot into the forest. Ralph looked to see the path Bardolph had taken, but within seconds he was gone. Ralph strained his ears, perhaps to hear the crack of a small branch, or the rustle of leaves, but other than the gentle breeze in the branches above, he could hear nothing. Bardolph had in the course of a few paces simply vanished from sight, ghosting effortlessly through the forest like a spirit of the night.

Ralph was not to know, but this was Bardolph’s environment. Bardolph was at home and with nature now - away from the castles and dungeons he did so much despise. He moved swiftly yet silently. Not even the creatures of the forest were aware of his passing.

Bardolph came to a clearing. Smoke rose from a small campfire and to the far side two saddled horses grazed the forests ferns. From the cover of a large oak he looked on with concern at the goings on. Two men, both of whom Bardolph recognised, were molesting a woman. He had seen these men earlier this day stood to the back of the hall at the trial of Gwyneth the handmaiden. The woman however he had not seen before. She had blonde hair and if to guess her age, he would put her in her late thirties, maybe early forties.

The woman was being held to the ground by one of the men and beaten with a stick by the other. The man doing the beating held a thin supple rod cut from the branch of a willow. As Bardolph looked on, the man holding the woman to the ground tore away the top half of her dress. The standing man, now having a target of naked flesh to aim at, slashed the woman with a whip-like action across her breasts. She screamed and kicked out in protest. His response was to kick her hard against the thigh before beating her again with the stick.

It seemed the men were trying to gain information from the woman, but as yet not reached any success. ‘We’re getting nowhere like this,’ bemoaned the man that pinned her to the ground. ‘Let’s tie her to a tree and burn the truth out of her.’

A look of delight spread across the face of the standing man. ‘Me thinks she’ll start squealing the moment her flesh starts to sizzle!’

Together they dragged woman to a tree over on the far side of the clearing. She did not make things easy for them and the physical strength of both men was needed to lift her bodily against the tree. With one man pressing her hard against the tree and the other working from the rear, her hands were finally drawn around the trunk and lashed together by a thick coarse rope.

Whilst this was happening Bardolph moved a little nearer to the action. From a much closer position he watched as one man returned to the fire, whilst the other remained at the tree.

The one that remained quickly returned to questioning the woman, repeating over and over and at the same time beating her with his stick; ‘Where is the Baron’s treasure? Where is it buried?’

But the woman was no longer responding either to his torments or the beating. Her body had fallen limp; her head slumped to her chest.

Bardolph edged a little closer, choosing carefully his cover at every move. He considered it time for action and moved to the rear of the tree. The trunk was wide and the rope that bound the woman’s hands passed from wrist to wrist. With his dagger he sliced through the rope.

To the front of the tree the man was taken by surprise when the woman slumped and toppled towards him, but he reacted quickly and sidestepped the fall. As she hit the ground his immediate reaction was to return her to the tree. His assumption being that the rope that bound her wrists had come apart, and he cursed his comrade for not tying the rope properly in the first place.

As the man leant forward Bardolph struck with a fallen branch. It broke over the man’s head and he collapsed to the ground.

The crack of the branch alerted the second man who knelt kindling the fire. He looked around to see two bodies lying on the ground next to the tree. ‘What’s the hell’s happening over there?’ he called as he rose and sped across the clearing.

As he bent down and reached out to touch the shoulder of his fellow comrade Bardolph struck again. A second branch shattered across the man’s head and he too collapsed to the ground.

After this Bardolph moved quickly and dragged the unconscious woman out from beneath the bodies of the two collapsed men. In one quick movement he slung her over his shoulder and set off at a run. Within seconds he was gone, moving swiftly through the forest.

Back at the thicket Bardolph laid the woman down upon a grassy mound so that she should sit more upright. He looked to Ralph. ‘Quickly, get me a flagon of water,’ he called.

Ralph moved to his pony and returned with a leather flagon. Bardolph tore cloth from the woman’s dress and poured water upon it. He then set about washing away the blood from her face and breasts. When he was done he placed the rag to her forehead and poured out more water. Slowly the woman came round and opened her eyes. Immediately on seeing Bardolph she began to tremble and tried to speak, but nothing more than a feeble whisper passed her lips.

Bardolph untied the loose ends of rope from about her wrists. ‘Relax dear lady, you are in safe hands,’ he told her and held the flagon to her lips. ‘Come, drink. Drink deeply. This will help wash away the pain.’

The woman sipped a few mouthfuls, enough to wet her lips then looked nervously about the thicket. Her vision was becoming less blurred. A man and a boy knelt by her side and beyond three animals champed the grasses. However she remained confused. These were different men, not the two that had brought her to the forest.

‘Those two men?’ she uttered. ‘Where are they? I must hide. They must not find me here.’

Bardolph tried to reassure the woman. ‘Relax fair lady, the men you speak of will no longer harm you,’ he told her. ‘You are in safe hands. Now drink a little more water. You have taken a beating and these wounds need washing and dressing.’

Bardolph offered more water, which the woman took and drank more readily. When she was finished he removed the rag from about her forehead, soaked it once more and placed it gently upon her breasts. She gasped a sharp intake of breath as the cold water came in contact with her lacerated skin, but as the initial sting eased, she took the rag and began to wash away the blood for herself.

‘Fair lady, pray tell me your name?’ asked Bardolph once the woman had gained enough strength to respond to gentle questioning.

‘Madeline,’ she replied. ‘My name is Madeline.’

Bardolph on hearing the name Madeline gave a little knowing smile. It was what he expected and everything now made sense. The men at the trial would have heard of the involvement of the handmaiden’s mother and somehow managed to get to her before the Baron’s men. He put his next question to her. He was pretty sure he already knew the answer, but he asked it anyway.

‘And where do you work?’ he enquired.

‘I work in the town of Lodelowe, at the Craven Arms,’ she said, ‘the tavern within the walls of Lodelowe.’

Noticeably she had called the tavern the ‘Craven Arms’ and not the ‘De Clancey Arms’, but this did not matter, this was the confirmation Bardolph needed. This woman was indeed the mother of the handmaiden and the one being sought by the Baron’s men. However her reply still puzzled him. He had not heard the words ‘Craven Arms’ mentioned in connection with Lodelowe. As far as he was aware there was only one tavern in the town and this was the ‘De Clancey Arms’. However he recalled something Captain Osbald had said; something about the Baron’s name not going down too well with the people at the tavern. Could it be that the de Clancey family failed to support King Richard in his crusade of the Holy Land? Could the family be classed as cowards in the name of the people?

‘Pray tell me Madeline, why the Craven Arms?’ he asked. ‘Surely you mean the De Clancey Arms? For this is the only tavern within the walls of Lodelowe.’

Madeline shook her head. ‘Pray forgive me good Sire, I meant no offence,’ she said. ‘The tavern does indeed hold the arms of the de Clancey’s above the door. But to all those that does’t drink within its walls, these arms are considered to be those of the fainthearted, since no de Clancey did’st support the good King Richard in his crusade against the infidels.’

Bardolph understood. This was not the only Craven Arms or Craven family encountered on his many journeys. It was a natural reaction of the people to cast disdain upon those that refused to fight alongside the good King Richard in the Holy Land. However, he too considered King Richard to be a bad king. Richard had ruled this land for almost ten years and in all that time spent only six months upon its soil. But Bardolph had always kept his council. Even now, some thirty-five years after the death of King Richard it was foolhardy to speak openly of such matters.

After a short pause Bardolph put another question to Madeline. One more thing still puzzled him and it concerned the two men in the forest. ‘The two men in the forest, who are they? Where do they come from?’

The mention of the men filled Madeline with apprehension. She looked anxiously about the thicket. ‘They’re not here are they?’ she asked. ‘Those men! They’re not here?’

Bardolph shook his head. ‘Those men will no longer harm you Madeline,’ he assured her. ‘You are in safe hands now.’ He then put his question to her again. ‘Those men, who are they?’

She looked nervously around before answering. ‘Sire, I do not know!’ she said. ‘I had not seen them before last night. They visited the tavern last evening and we drank together. Then today they came upon me whilst I was at the market. Today is my day off and I was shopping for fresh food. They put a dagger to my back and said I was to go with them. They brought me here to the forest. This is all I know. I swear this to be the truth.’

Bardolph understood. Things were becoming a little clearer now. He had seen the two men at the trial. They were stood to the back. They would have heard the handmaiden’s talk about her mother. Having met her the night before they would know of her identity, and it was probably a chance meeting in the market. The abduction would have been spontaneous, and they would have left the town way before the alarm was raised.

‘This treasure the men were seeking,’ he asked. ‘You know nothing of what they were taking about, is this not the truth?’

Madeline nodded her head. ‘You are correct Sire,’ she replied. ‘The question the men kept asking was unknown to me. I know nothing of the Baron’s treasure. You must believe me Sire!’

Bardolph took Madeline’s hand and squeezed. He wanted to tell her about the arrival of her daughter Gwyneth to Lodelowe, but chose not to disclose this information. News of her daughter’s conviction and execution he would leave to others, and at a time when she was stronger.

‘Yes Madeline, I does’t believe you,’ he said, ‘but my problem now is what must be done with you? I cannot leave you here in the forest, and I cannot permit you to return to the tavern, for both venues can no longer offer refuge. I must get you to a safe place of shelter, for methinks it will not only be the men in the forest that wish you harm, but also the Baron’s men. So you are certainly not safe to return to Lodelowe.’

Bardolph was at a loss. What must he do? A safe haven was needed. But where could he find such a place? The trouble was; he was a stranger to these parts. Salopsbury came to mind. This was Madeline’s birthplace and she would be safer there, at least safe from the Baron’s men. He could pay someone to take her there, but whom could he trust? Who could he ask to undertake such an enormous risk? And besides; Madeline was not fit to travel. Not yet anyway. She was in need of rest and time for her wounds to heal.

With a look of anguish Bardolph turned to Ralph. ‘Ralph, what can I do?’ he asked. ‘I cannot leave Madeline here, and neither can she return to Lodelowe. I must get her to Salopsbury, but who will’st do this bidding? Is there anyone here I can trust?’

Ralph was quick to respond. ‘My father,’ he said without giving the matter any more thought. ‘My father will do it.’

Bardolph furrowed his brow. ‘Your father!’ he said, ‘The blacksmith at Onneyditch?’

Ralph nodded his head. ‘My father is loyal to the King. You are his servant and he will do your bidding,’ he said. ‘He will do anything for you and the King. He also distrusts the Baron’s craven family. He will do your bidding; of this I am certain. He will shelter this woman and make her well again, for he has knowledge of medicine. And I will take her to Salopsbury once she is strong again. This I will do personally.’

Bardolph was filled with admiration for Ralph. These were words that could easily have been spoken by someone much older and wiser than a lad of ten. Ralph was indeed much mature for his age.

Bardolph pondered hard and long. Did he really want to get someone else involved; especially when it spelt danger? After much thought Bardolph sighed and shook his head. ‘Ralph, it seems fate hath once more taken a hand to discourage me from my journey south,’ he said. ‘Perhaps it is God’s will that we must suffer each other’s company for a little while longer. I will’st do as you suggest and consult with your father. For I see the stables at Onneyditch to be the refuge Madeline needs.’

With the sun setting and about one hour of daylight remaining, Bardolph set off from the thicket and to take the road north to Onneyditch. With him travelled Madeline and Ralph. They moved swiftly and in line with Madeline seated to the fore of Bardolph. Behind them rode Ralph upon his pony, and to the rear there trailed the donkey.

Bardolph took the lead in order to keep an alert eye on the road ahead. If they were to be met they would take cover. From now on danger lurked at every turn and no chances could be taken. And whilst they rode Bardolph considered his own future. His immediate priority was to find a safe haven for Madeline, but once this task was done his duties towards her must end.

This night he would stay at the Golden Lion Inn at Onneyditch, but come sunrise he would be away. The King’s birds were his priority and he could tarry here no longer.

Deep in the forest two men stirred, each holding their blood-caked heads. With water from leather flagons they bathed away the blood and dressed their head-wounds. As they mounted their horses, one man spoke.

‘We must ride to Salopsbury and do so through the night despite what dangers this may hold,’ he said, ‘for the Earl must be made aware of all that has happened. News must reach Salopsbury ahead of the herald. Informants within Lodelowe tell me that the rider leaves at sunrise on the morrow and with good speed should reach Salopsbury before sunset. We must beat him to it and arrive whilst the sun is still high.’

As the two men rode from the clearing, the topcoat of one of the riders opened to reveal the pale-blue uniform with the three yellow snarling lion heads of Salopsbury. He quickly closed the topcoat. It was dangerous to display these colours this far south of Salopsbury.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

One hour’s ride north of Lodelowe stood the village of Onneyditch. However one hour was all the daylight that remained as the party set out from the thicket of trees. Bardolph took the lead. Drooped before him in the saddle sat Madeline. He held her by the waist whilst she bounced up and down with head bowed. Behind followed Ralph and pony, and to the rear trailed a donkey laden with sacks and cages.

Darkness was falling as the small party approached the high, humped-back bridge that straddled the River Onney. Bardolph saw a need for caution and moved slowly into Onneyditch. As luck would have it the streets were empty. The bell at Wistanstow Abbey had not long sounded, tolling eight times. This was the signal for workers in the fields to return to their homes.

Despite this late hour however, much caution remained. Bardolph was well aware of the risks involved with bringing Madeline to Onneyditch. The land from Wistanstow to Lodelowe was very much under the control of the Baron, and his spies were everywhere. But Bardolph recalled his previous visit to Onneyditch just two nights earlier. Dusk was falling and lanterns burned in the windows, but more significantly the streets were empty. On this occasion he could perceive nothing different. As he crossed the high, humped-back bridge that linked the two halves of the hamlet, the Golden Lion Inn greeted him with a welcoming glow from its downstairs windows.

Bardolph led the way, following the north bank of the river then turning down the narrow alleyway that ran alongside the inn. To the rear of the old black and white timber-framed building he dismounted and handed the reins to Ralph. With Ralph seated upon his pony and steadying his white horse, Bardolph helped Madeline down from the saddle. All movement was painful, but Bardolph bided his time and let her alight at her own pace. He could see no need to rush now that they were at the inn.

The stables and smithy stood to the rear of the inn. The doors were open and the forge inside glowed brightly in the gathering gloom. Through the open doors the sound of hammering upon an anvil could be heard.

Bardolph turned to Ralph. ‘Ralph, lead the animals to the stalls,’ he told him. ‘Then give them fresh hay and water. I will’st speak to your father alone.’ Ralph’s father was a big man, well over six feet tall, with thickset neck and powerful muscles. Yet inwardly he remained a gentle giant. He hated to see suffering of any kind and had many cures for animal sicknesses. He would pick herbs from the forest and collect bark from trees to make up his special remedies, and people for miles around would bring their sick animals to him.

Bardolph had met with John Smith on two occasions, the first being on the evening of his arrival to Onneyditch, the second on his departure the following morning when he collected his animals. So the two men knew of each other, if only on business terms. However local gossip had since reached the blacksmith. Hearsay told of Bardolph’s close proximity to the King. This man from Wessex was a Royal Falconer, a position considered to be one of great esteem. Also and probably more importantly, another incident had occurred. A Baron’s soldier had arrived with a proclamation ordering that his son Ralph return with them to Lodelowe. The soldier had said that Ralph was being commandeered by Bardolph to tend the King’s birds whilst he was away on the Baron’s business.

So this much was known, but as Bardolph approached the anvil there also things the blacksmith did not know, things such as the recent trial of Gwyneth the handmaiden, or the search for her mother.

Bardolph approached the anvil with caution, for he knew little of Ralph’s father other than what Ralph had told him. Somehow, by whatever means at his disposal, he needed to gain John’s allegiance. But with a sizeable reward upon Madeline’s head, and most of the population of Lodelowe out looking for her, he knew this not to be an easy task. Somehow he had to talk John into sheltering a fugitive from justice, and to find somewhere safe for her to rest until she was fit enough to travel.

Bardolph held the stumbling Madeline steady in his arms as they walked side by side towards the anvil. She moved painfully and at a stoop, with head bowed and holding the two halves of her tattered dress together before her breasts. The birching in the woods had sapped her strength and she was very weak. At the hands of her captors the beating had been indiscriminate, catching her face as well as her breasts, and thin trickles of blood still oozed from the deepest welts. There was a further injury too. A boot to the thigh had caused severe bruising and she walked with a limp.

John looked up as Bardolph and Madeline approached the anvil. Immediately on recognition he laid down his hammer and touched his forelock in servitude. He recognised Ralph too in the background so he guessed the reason for this visit. His son had returned and the King’s Falconer with him. Bardolph stopped before the anvil with Madeline supported on his arm.

‘A goodly evening,’ he said. ‘Pray does’t tell me, have you time to talk? For I see you have a hot shoe upon the anvil.’

John nodded his head. ‘A goodly evening to you too Sire,’ he said. ‘The shoe is not important. It can be reheated. There is no hurry. I have time to talk.’

Bardolph had long worked out a strategy. He would affirm John’s loyalty to the King before any mention of Madeline. ‘John, where does’t your loyalties lie?’ he asked. ‘Does’t thou support the King of England.’

John looked bemused. It was a question not to be asked lightly, not this close to the Welsh border anyway. But he answered honestly and truthfully. He nodded his head. ‘Aye Sire, I does’t support the King of England,’ he said. ‘It is where my allegiance lies. In me he will find a true and loyal servant.’

Bardolph knew it to be wrong, but saw the use of the King’s name as the best way forward. His authority needed to exceed that of the Baron.

‘Then John, there is something I want you to do for the King,’ he said. ‘Something most important and does’t require your solemn oath that nothing that is said between us shall pass beyond this forge.’

John looked further bemused. But he was an honest man and would never break a trust upon oath. ‘Sire, you have my solemn oath. Nothing that is spoken will pass beyond these four walls. I swear before God and as a true and loyal servant of the King that this be so.’ And with this he brought the hammer down upon the anvil.

Bardolph nodded in recognition of the oath sealed by the strike of a hammer on the anvil.

John was a good man and would not go back on his word, and he knew this in his heart. He raised Madeline’s hand to show about whom he was about to speak. The time had come for an explanation.

‘Then good servant of the King,’ he began. ‘I must tell you that this lady is a fugitive from justice. The Baron hath put a reward upon her head, and as I speak his men are out scouring the countryside for her. I’m looking for a place to hide her, a place where she can remain until she is recovered fully from her wounds. I therefore ask of you good servant of the King, pray do see it within your heart to find shelter for this good lady until she is well again. And when this is done I want her to be taken north to Salopsbury where I know she will be safe, for it is the place of her birth. Your lad Ralph has said that he will do this for me, and I will pay in advance for this service; but until the time is right, Madeline needs to be well hidden and her presence remain unknown to all those outside these stable walls.’

John considered what was being asked of him and all the implications thus entailed, for these were dangerous proposals and he knew the Baron to be a ruthless man. After giving the matter much thought, he nodded his head. He would do Bardolph bidding. He disliked the Baron anyway, as did most of the residents of Onneyditch, and for this reason alone he would do it. The de Clancey family had failed to support the good King Richard in his crusade to free the Holy Lands from the infidels, and even though some forty-three years had since passed, bitter memories of the family’s refusal to fight still lingered.

John nodded his head. ‘Good Sire, this lady’s secret remains safe with me,’ he said. ‘There is only my son and I that does’t reside here at these stables. It is our home since my good wife did pass away at childbirth. The lady that you bring to me will be safe here, and no one shall get to hear of her presence. And when the time comes I personally will take her to Salopsbury. It is not a task I would beset upon a boy. So these deeds will be done. Of this I do swear my solemn oath to both you and the King.’

Once more he brought his hammer down hard upon the anvil.

Bardolph stretched his free arm across the anvil and took John by the hand. ‘Then John, I thank you greatly for the loyalty and trust you put upon both me and the King,’ he said. Then indicating to Madeline supported on his other arm, he added; ‘this, good Sire is Madeline. She is a fugitive from justice and right now is in need of hot water and bandages, for she hath taken a severe beating and is in much need of care and rest.’

Madeline raised her head as Bardolph spoke, and for the first time John saw the full extent of her injuries. He was appalled by the injuries to her face. He stepped around the anvil to take a closer look. Parting her torn dress slowly and delicately so as not to cause unnecessary suffering; he inspected the full extent of her injuries. He shook his head slowly from side to side. He was horrified at what had been done. However he did not ask of the people that had perpetrated this evil act, he merely assumed it to be the Baron’s men.

John shook a fist in anger. ‘This is no way to treat a lady!’ he said. Then turning to Bardolph he added; ‘Pray leave Madeline with me good Sire. She will be safe here. I will tend to her injuries. I have clean linen and will apply a poultice to soothe away the pain.’

Bardolph handed Madeline over to John by releasing her arm. John picked her up in his strong arms and carried her across the floor to rest upon a sheaf of hay. He turned to Bardolph. ‘The hour is getting late good Sire,’ he said. ‘You best go to the inn and find yourself a bed for the night. And pray good Sire, fear not, for Madeline will be safe with me. I will make her a bed above the stables where she can rest from prying eyes.’

It was never Bardolph’s intention to leave Madeline, not so soon anyway, but on seeing that she was now in capable hands he decided to take up John’s offer. He bowed gracefully. ‘Then John, good servant of the King,’ he said. ‘I bid you a goodly night, for I will do as thou does’t suggest and retire to the comfort of the inn. I leave Madeline in your care, and Ralph with my birds and animals. For I know you both capable of serving the King’s needs, and for this I must thank you greatly.’

Leaving Madeline lying on the hay and with John kneeling over her, Bardolph collected up his saddlebag, placed it over an arm and set off for the inn. It was dark by now, and after a bowl of pottage an early night was called for.

He already had plans for the morrow. He would rise before dawn and make his way to Wistanstow. This would be a good place to hunt having been told of rabbits on the coppice above the abbey. A brace would suffice to feed his birds. This was all that was needed. He had tarried far too long in Lodelowe and the time had come to move on.

Chapter Thirty

John Smith took Madeline up in his strong arms and carried her to the loft above the stables. As he did so he called down to his son. ‘Ralph, put hot water on the forge then bring it to me when it is boiled.’

Once in loft he laid Madeline down on a bed of straw then set about pulling away the tattered remnants of her dress. ‘It is best I remove these torn and blood-stained clothes,’ he told her. ‘I will’st prepare a poultice to soothe away the pain. Soon you will be well again. My poultices never fail to work, albeit on a horse’s fetlock bruised from a fall.’

Madeline did not protest since nakedness meant nothing to her; as a whore by trade lying naked on a bed in the presence of a man held no embarrassment. ‘Pray do whatever thou think’est best,’ she told the blacksmith. ‘For I does’t know that I have been left in the charge of a good and honest man.’

Slowly and with great care John removed Madeline’s tattered clothes. To be truthful it was John, not Madeline, who felt uncomfortable with the act. But one look at her injuries reminded the blacksmith of the harm that had been done. This sweet lady, now entrusted into his care by a servant of the King, needed healing, and it was well within his power to do so.

Kneeling alongside the bed of straw, John examined the full extent of Madeline’s injuries. He traced the tips of his fingers lightly across her welts; everywhere wept with blood. There were other injuries too. One side her body was blue from bruising. John shook his head in disbelief. ‘What kind of man would do this to a woman?’ he uttered. ‘If God ever gives me a chance to come upon this person, then I will tear his throat apart with my bare hands.’

Madeline held out a hand and gripped John by the wrist. Their hands moved to hold and comfort each other. Madeline squeezed John’s hand and she said; ‘John, you are a good man. Good and God fearing. But pray anger not for my aggressors. If it is God’s will then the almighty will punish them.’

John nodded his head. He was a big man with powerful muscles and bulging chest, but beneath laid the mind of a gentle giant. ‘You are right good lady,’ he said. ‘Anger is the mark of the devil, and it was unjust of me to utter such words. My task is to make you whole again, not condemn those that perpetrated this evil deed. It is a poultice that is needed here, and for this your dress must go. But fear not good lady, for whence you are well again, I will re-clothe you. I keep dresses of my late wife. She was of the same size and the dresses have been well stored.’

Madeline felt deeply touched by John’s caring words. She recalled something he said at the anvil and she gripped John’s hand tightly. ‘Did you not say you had lost your good wife at childbirth?’

John nodded his head. ‘Aye, nigh on ten years now, at the birth of Ralph,’ he said with much sadness. ‘Alas I have brought him up alone and he has never known a mother.’

John paused briefly as memories of his wife flooded back to him. ‘But what about you my sweet Madeline?’ he continued. ‘Have you no man of your own?’

Tears welled up in Madeline’s eyes. How could she explain to such a sweet and God-fearing man that she was nothing more than a common whore, a lowlife who plied her trade at a tavern in Lodelowe? She shook her head and explained the best she could. But it was not within her heart to reveal her true profession. Not yet anyway. She squeezed John’s hand tightly. ‘I lost my husband too John,’ she replied. ‘He died of the plague that struck my village some six years back. I have a daughter, but I have not seen her these last five years. She will be sixteen now and works in the kitchens at Salopsbury Castle. As for me, I have no man to look after me. I earn my keep at the tavern.’

John returned a loving smile. ‘Then Madeline we have much in common,’ he said and returned the squeeze to her hand.

A hint of a loving smile appeared on Madeline lips. She was about to speak again when John stopped her. ‘We waste time with this idle talk,’ he told her. ‘This dress must go and a poultice applied. And it must be done quickly, before any badness seeps in.’

Their hands parted and John set to work. Slowly and carefully he removed what remained of the dress. For a while Madeline lay naked upon the bed with John holding her hand for comfort. Nothing was spoken and Madeline closed her eyes. They were waiting for Ralph. But the wait was not long. Soon the boy arrived with a kettle of boiling water to break the tenderness of the moment.

John took the kettle. ‘Have you stabled the Falconer’s horse and donkey for the night?’

Ralph nodded his head. ‘Yes father, they are comfortable and will rest well this night,’ he confirmed.

John nodded his own head in response. ‘Then pray go now Ralph and tend to the Falconer’s birds,’ he said. ‘Remember you are in the service of the King and those birds must remain in good health. I too have much work to do this night. This sweet lady is to be made well again. I must mix a poultice and treat her wounds. She hath endured much this day and it will be several days more before she is fit to walk again.’

As Ralph descended from the loft, John set about mixing his poultice in a stone jar. The base consisted mainly of oats and boiling water, but the further crushing of herbs and barks turned what was no more than a meal fit for a horse into something that would cure Madeline’s injuries. With a rag soaked in hot water then cooled to a bearable temperature, John washed away the blood from Madeline’s body, and when he was done he applied his special mixture of oats and herbs.

The hot poultice stung and brought tears to Madeline’s eyes, but she remained calm throughout, for she knew in her heart that the cure be good. When the application was done, John placed a sheet of linen soaked in warm water across her breasts and pressed firmly down onto the poultice. John’s attention now turned to Madeline’s bruised thigh. A second poultice with a different mixture of herbs was applied and held in place by a linen bandage wound about the leg.

When he was done John took Madeline’s hand. ‘There my good lady,’ he said. ‘The deed is done. Pray now lie still until such times as the poultice cools. By the morrow the soreness will have gone and you will be fit to move more freely. Of this I have no doubt.’

Madeline squeezed John’s hand. ‘John, you are a good and God fearing man,’ she told him. ‘Whence I am whole again I can only pay you for your kindness, for I have but a little money saved. But what I have is all yours.’

John squeezed Madeline’s hand in return. He did not want money. The things he had done, he had done with the goodness of his heart. ‘My dear sweet Madeline,’ he told her. ‘I does’t not want your money. I do this from my heart and for the oath I have sworn to the King. You are a good woman and I would do what I have just done to anyone beaten this badly.’

For a while nothing was said. Their eyes met and a smile passed between them.

‘Now Madeline, my dear sweet Madeline,’ continued John. ‘Pray close your eyes and rest. For sleep is needed for my poultice to do its work.’

Madeline squeezed John’s hand. The hour was late and apart from one solitary lantern that burned nearby, the loft lay in darkness. She closed her eyes but found sleep impossible. Since the death of her late husband she had not felt this way about any man. Was this love she felt in her heart, or simply the pain of her wounds? She had no way of telling.

With thoughts of being carried in the strong arms of a gentle giant, she finally found rest. As she did so she gripped tightly the hand of the man that sat beside her.

End of part 4

Copyright© 2012 by Nosbert. All rights reserved.