Posts Tagged ‘historic fiction’

Sealed with Blood, Chapter 4: Before the King

The South Coast

‘It was not me,’ said Christa looking accusingly at Stephen.

‘I didn’t say it was,’ said Stephen with a shallow smile.

‘But you thought it and if you are honest you still do,’ she said crossly. ‘This is my family now as much as it is yours.’

‘Their horses might be worn, ours are fresh, we might outrun them,’ Stephen responded.

At that moment a great cry went up from the men on the hill. The wind blew most of the sound away but enough reached the small group on the lower road like a muffled echo. The horsemen on the hill now set off descending the hill at speed on a trajectory which would cut off the travellers. In response to this danger, the brothers and Christa also moved off, but with no idea of where they were fleeing to other than wherever the track led. The countryside was very open, affording little opportunity to hide and their pursuers descending from higher ground had the great advantages of good visibility and a downslope. Their only option was to try and outpace the gang and hope some misfortune befell their pursuers.

It was a frightening ride for the three of them because the track was not always good, with long oval shaped water-filled holes caused by carts. Where it was wet the chalk surface could also be slippery under the horses feet, the last thing that they wanted to contend with was a lame horse.

Steadily the men gained on them. Glancing behind the brothers could see the inevitable coming; the effort to outrun the pursuers was proving to be futile. As the gap narrowed, a red and yellow banner was raised within the pack. A large man on a huge horse now came to the front of the chasing group, his horse thundering behind them.

‘Halt! Halt!’ The man screamed as if his lungs were about to burst.

Knowing the flight was hopeless, Stephen called on the others to do as they were being commanded, and stop. The large man drew level and bellowed:

‘You are in the protective custody of Sire Robert FitzWalter.’ He then halted and dismounted almost in one motion. Suddenly they were surrounded by horsemen cheering.

The brothers too dismounted. Stephen was immediately engulfed in a bear hug by Robert, his feet momentarily leaving the ground. There was much embracing and shouting at the joining of the two groups.

‘Stephen, you had better run faster from your enemies than you do from your friends or you won’t last long.’

I knew it was you all along Robert, that’s the only reason you managed to catch us,’ Stephen replied. ‘Even then it took you long enough.’

‘If only I could believe that,’ said Robert. ‘I just don’t.’

‘Perhaps you are right not to,’ said Stephen.

‘I got that guarantee of safety you negotiated for me. Sent from the King himself it was, sealed at the end of May; not that it reached me for a month.’

‘Actually, it was me that negotiated that,’ said Simon.

‘Well one or both of you, it is not much use is it? A letter of safety from the King scribbled with ink on sheep skin,’ said FitzWalter. ‘The skin didn’t save the sheep but somehow it’s supposed to save me. Ha!’ Robert laughed gruffly at his own humour.

‘There was probably no ink on the skin when the sheep was slaughtered,’ suggested Stephen.

‘Would the writing have saved the sheep?’ Robert asked ‘I doubt it. I decided I’d prefer the guarantee of having these men here, rather than relying on the word of that evil man.’ He paused and added, ‘I take it you are heading to Slindon. Can we stay the night?’

‘Of course, you are more than welcome,’ said Stephen. ‘My brother Simon has doubtless arranged ample provisions. Haven’t you Simon?’

Simon was already wondering how the food could be made to stretch amongst so many men, there would be an inevitable shortage.

‘My brother is always willing to share a whitebait or two,’ said Simon, ‘and if the food runs out there is plenty of fine wine in the cellar, left by the old Archbishop. I did check it was all right.’

‘Whitebait! I was hoping for a hog roast,’ declared FitzWalter. ‘Charging downhill on horseback is exhilarating but it leaves me sore hungry. If I knew you had no food I’d have let you get away.’

By now Christa, still seated on her mount had moved closer. She fixed her eyes on Stephen.

‘See, I told you it wasn’t me,’ she said resentfully, ‘but I’m not going to get an apology am I?’

‘You are missing the mood of the reunion, my lady. I promise I will never doubt you again,’ said Stephen with a bow.

Christa looked less than reassured by this, but nevertheless said, ‘Thank you, Archbishop.’

With the additional incentive of company as well as small fish or big pig, the combined party moved on, reaching the palace at Slindon by late afternoon. It was Stephen’s grand residence but he had never been there before, it felt very unreal to him. It was a very rowdy night of limited food and excessive wine, which went on later than anyone intended. Nobody wanted to go to bed and shorten the celebration of being back on English soil.

The next morning they rode on to the nearby port of Bosham where the Juliana was moored awaiting their arrival. Simon and Christa were to continue by land to the absolution at Winchester Cathedral. Stephen was to make the short sea journey from Bosham to Portchester by himself. The captain of the ship came ashore and having bowed, greeted him warmly with the words,

‘My Lord Archbishop, just don’t jump off this time.’

Stephen shouted farewell to his escort of protective custody. There was a long hug with Robert FitzWalter, which made Stephen wonder how much pressure his ribs could take before actually fracturing. This was followed by advice from FitzWalter about not trusting the King. Finally Stephen said goodbye to his brother and Christa.

‘Take good care.’ said Stephen to his brother as they bounced off one and other’s chests.

‘You too,’ replied his brother. ‘It’s mild today so you shouldn’t be sea sick.’

With that Stephen boarded the ship, which cast off and began picking its way through the narrow channels around Bosham out to the open sea and the short voyage to Portchester. With the agreement of the papacy, he, just like Robert FitzWalter had a letter of safe conduct from the unpredictable King John. For a while he watched his former escort of protective custody pick their way up the hill road towards Winchester. Every so often they disappeared behind trees and they were always getting smaller, he earnestly wished he was with them.

By himself for the first time Stephen felt nervous and out of control of the situation. He didn’t know what might happen next. His anxiety was in marked contrast to the beautiful sea, hills and islands, this really was England at its best in summer. Attractive as the south coast was he thought of his wife and child in far off Lincolnshire, a very different topography. In Lincolnshire there was plenty of water as well but it was trapped inland. Elowise and Stephen were safe in an ever moving watery fortress, Stephen thought of it as the biggest moat in the world, impossible to penetrate. He on the other hand was purposely heading for a turbulent current, about to be sucked into the wide open hands of the King.

The ship approached the very narrow entrance to Portsmouth Harbour and accelerated rapidly with the in-rushing tide. The Juliana bobbed up and down and danced from side to side before it was thrown into the large expanse of the harbour. The vessel having been swallowed by the harbour mouth now slowed almost to a sudden stop. The ship slid towards John’s residence of Portchester Castle which now loomed in front of them. It was a former Roman fort built on the shoreline with a square curtain wall constructed with flint, limestone, red brick and mortar . Along the wall were a series of round squat towers, it was very well defended.

High within the opposite corner of the square wall, rose an impressive Norman Keep. The square tower stood darkly against the background of the long green ridge of Portsdown Hill, covered with yet more sheep. The flock grazed oblivious of the possibility that one day they might be killed, in order to provide skin for letters of safety guaranteeing life. Stephen was about to put his trust in ink and sheepskin. His brother Simon was wisely not taking this risk. Stephen at once wished his brother was with him but simultaneously was glad that he wasn’t. Once on dry land, he would be completely in John’s power. His mind now told him that exile was not such a bad thing. Why had he struggled so hard to end it? He should have stayed a martyr in Pontigny, a far better option than a hero with your life on a plate. Too late now!

Stephen thought of many historical instances where people had been invited to peace talks and then treacherously murdered by their host. He hoped he was not going to fall victim to such a trick. There was little he could do to stop himself being added to the list of trusting unfortunates. If John intended harm, then harm would surely befall him.

The ship docked and the moment came, Stephen stepped ashore onto a grassy green bank. It was soft and slippery beneath his feet, but his feet held firm.

To his left he saw a party of perhaps thirty people on foot hurriedly approaching along the perimeter of the castle walls passing tower after tower. He had not seen John for many years, but the person leading the party was clearly the King. He was dressed very plainly in a light brown embroidered tunic gathered at the waist with a leather belt. This dress was in sharp contrast to a short fat man behind, gorgeously dressed in thin cream flowing robes with sparkling diamonds and rubies sown into the fabric. He wore a very broad hat with long tassels hanging down at the back. This was Pandulph the papal representative negotiating the lifting of the interdict and handing the country over to the Pope. Behind Pandulph was John’s henchman Faulkes de Beaute in a rich colourful tunic, and then a crowd of others, some known to Stephen, some not.

John raised his hand for the crowd to stop and then motioning to the Italian Pandulph, the two of them advanced towards the Archbishop who was still on the spot where he had disembarked. Suddenly the King threw himself face down on the grass, wailing and beating the ground with his fists. Stephen was prepared to deal with anger, hatred or expressions of regret but this was unexpected. Unusually for Stephen, he didn’t know what to do, so he did nothing. He waited for the King to stop and rise to his feet, but John continued to pound the ground remorselessly with no sign of ever letting up. This humble penitent man was not the John that Stephen had heard about, perhaps his faults had been exaggerated. Stephen could not let this continue any longer, he stepped forward to John and crouched down before him.

The King lifted his face and looked agonisingly at Stephen.

‘My dear Father Stephen, I have longed for this day. Many have sought to keep us apart by false report and rumour, but now I am full of joy at our reconciliation. I have done wrong, pray for me dear father that God will forgive me.’

‘I always pray for my dear lord the king’ said Stephen. ‘Now rise up my dear Lord.’

Stephen now helped John to his feet. The papal representative looked on with his head held forward, grinning with satisfaction in a fixed smile. John now grasped Stephen by the arms.

‘By the love that you must give us, dear father, we wish that you will grant peace to our kingdom. You owe us your favour to rebuke our enemies and bless our loyal friends. Dear Father Stephen let us together put the past behind us. Let us be united in God’s service. Correct us if ever we should need it. Let us together create peace and harmony in our kingdom.’

Stephen was aware his heartbeat had rapidly increased. As his chest strained with the pounding sensation he felt his knees weaken.

‘I promise my dear Lord that I will always work for God’s kingdom and peace and justice in England.’

John now released Stephen’s arms and smiled briefly, but then seized the Archbishop in a hug and once again began to wail penitently. The king’s words were said with great feeling and with such sincerity that his eyes became red. He now broke his grip on Stephen.

‘Our dear father, you are our guest. We must welcome you properly, the Queen awaits inside with our children. Please accompany us in. The king motioned as if to move away but suddenly moved nearer to Stephen dropped his voice and spoke,

‘We will be the closest of friends.’

John’s forehead now touched the end of Stephen’s nose and as he spoke his last words, his warm breath moved past Stephen’s cheeks, ‘Dear Father Thomas.’

John smartly turned without another glance and jauntily walked back the way he had come. Stephen exchanged a greeting in Italian with the beaming Pandulph and then followed the king. The hatred in John’s pronouncing of the name, “Thomas” was unmistakable. As Stephen walked behind John and past the trailing crowd who were still facing his ship, Stephen tried to fathom what the king’s performance meant. Most of it, he was sure, was intended to impress the lingering papal official Pandulph. The King’s reference to Thomas was however a malicious threat. The message was clear: fall out with me and you’ll end up dead like Beckett. The King was well known for playing with the mind, twisting people first one way and then the other.

Stephen told himself that he would only be staying in Portchester Castle for one night but he reasoned it was going to be a very long night as the King’s guest. John walked ahead not speaking, although Stephen thought he heard him whistling cheerfully. He followed his sovereign as they rounded the corner tower and walked on to the gateway set in the middle of the west wall. The gateway was indented so that an attacker at the gate would be almost surrounded by three walls. Similarly Stephen felt almost surrounded as he approached the gate and entered inside. Enclosed within the castle was a modest stone church to the far right. Facing him were wooden buildings straight ahead with a range of activities including carpentry and cobbling taking place inside and around them. The structures seemed to be a favourite resting ground for squawking seagulls, while others of their kind whirled around sitting on the wind with no seeming purpose or care.

The party headed for the keep which consisted of perhaps five or six floors of accommodation. To enter the keep they passed by a wooden bridge over a small curving moat which guarded the inner quarter of the high tower. As nervous as Stephen was he couldn’t help but laugh at the rather inadequate moat compared to the vast expanses of water that were protecting his family in faraway Lincolnshire. He was surprised at his own amusement given that he was certain something was going to happen overnight. He was sure that it could not be good but would be something bad. I might not ever come out of here alive he thought. If I only had the power, to drift like a bird carried away on the wind. No door had shut behind him but the following throng pressed through the gateway of the castle like a cork fitting the neck of a jar.

He was trapped.

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Sealed with Blood, Chapter 3: The Return

South of England, 1213AD.

Wives can occasionally be difficult and ex-wives can prove even more so. John had married his cousin but they had no children, which was particularly awkward for a king. Divorce was not allowed, but a solution called annulment, could travel back in time and the marriage would evaporate as rapidly as morning dew.

Kings could be set free and popes would become richer, just about all involved would rejoice! Strictly speaking there was not even an unhappy ex-wife. By the use of the magic papal seal, she had to accept that contrary to her long held mistaken belief, she had never been married at all. The annulled woman was however, undoubtedly an ex-queen, and of all wives and ex-wives, that category of female can turn out to be a particular irritant.

John knew he could father children, for he retained a number of mistresses who had produced offspring. Released by the Pope, with an eye on his dynastic succession, he married a young teenage girl who set to it and gave him five children. Happily, the new young wife and the production of the desired children did not prevent John from accumulating mistresses. Now the helpless Matilda was at his mercy, with the accompanying benefit, that he could at least be revenged on one of his enemies.

He bitterly regretted that he had already sacrificed so much for that unappreciative young woman. He consoled himself that she would soon prefer him to her fool of a husband, Geoffrey de Mandeville. It would be easy to be rid of De Mandeville, he could be accused of plotting rebellion with her treacherous father Robert FitzWalter.

Once in London, he began to contemplate his encounter with Matilda, it would be very different from their previous meeting. She would be forced to accept that her family’s survival depended entirely on her rendering absolute obedience to him. He would make her throw herself at his feet and grovel for his good will. He would insist on her demonstrating her subservience by saying whatever he instructed her to say and doing whatever he told her to do. He played with these delights in his mind and imagined many variations. He would punish her but she would have to smile throughout his demands. She would soon learn what fear was. Holding her very life in his hand was something to relish and he found the prospect immensely satisfying. Intense pleasures in life can sometimes be fleeting and he was unnecessarily interrupted by Faulkes, who arrived to tell him of the acquisition of mercenaries and some difficulties with hostages. The third news item which Faulkes supplied was:

‘Mandeville’s wife is dead.’

John glared at him in disbelief at this most unwelcome news. ‘Is this true?’ he demanded.

‘It is certainly true my Lord, it was the pestilence and she is dead and buried too.’

John rose to his feet and angrily commanded, ‘Get out!’

Despite Faulkes reassurance that it was the truth, he suspected it was a ruse and he was being thrown of the scent of his prey. He would see her face for himself even if her supposed body had to be dug up. However, after Faulkes that unfortunate bringer of bad tidings had withdrawn, John gradually reconciled himself to the truth: she had succumbed to a disease. As furious as he was with her, he didn’t want to risk being infected by her corpse and end up spending eternity with her. He was certain she had done this deliberately, just to injure him.

John needed to vent his anger with her. He rushed to Castle Baynard, the precious home of Robert FitzWalter. It stood lofty and magnificent but deserted by its owners. The family had fled, reluctant to trouble the king for that special hospitality which only John provided for his guests.

The King ranted, raved, cursed and cursed again; he hit things, he threw things, he kicked things and kicked them again. The name FitzWalter was never far from his lips. His unrequited pursuit of Matilda had been for nothing, but it had cost him so much in driving one of his most powerful barons into open revolt. Matilda that once beautiful young woman had her wish fulfilled; she never did lay eyes on John again. For his part, his wishes remained unfulfilled; he never got to lay his hands on her. Informed that she lay in a grave at Dunmow, he didn’t bother going to see the mournful mound of soil. It remained undisturbed.

John however was very disturbed as he stood in the abandoned side room at Castle Baynard, where FitzWalter had viciously hurled him into a tapestry. Provocatively, it still hung on the wall as if innocent of all wrongdoing. Thoughtless as tapestries tend to be, it had no consciousness that it was about to be exterminated. If only that stupid girl hadn’t resisted him.

‘You bitch! You bitch!’ he shouted, but shouting at the air only made him feel worse. John was used to being able to do to people whatever he wanted, this abusing the air seemed uniquely unsatisfying. He had got nothing from her and she had occasioned him all this damage.

‘You bitch!’ He repeated again.

The family had escaped but they couldn’t take their home with them. The castle stood as solid as ever and John could seize it for himself or give it away to any one of his grateful henchmen. However, that left a possible consolation for FitzWalter, he might imagine that one day he would recover his beloved home. This baron had to suffer, he needed to experience a huge amount of distress. John had the room all dismantled, not one stone was left on top of another. He stayed to relish the destruction, watching it with great satisfaction. The tapestry, burning with flashes of different coloured flames was like incense to his nostrils. It all looked, sounded and smelt different. Such therapy worked well and he felt a great weight had been lifted from his mind; the indignity of being manhandled by FitzRobert and thrown into the wall had never happened.

With the room dismantled, he ordered the whole castle torn down, together with its outside walls. He rode off with the sounds of the enterprise already begun; music to his ears. For weeks the air rang with a cacophony of sound: the thud of hammers, the fall of stones and the clatter of levers. If ever stones were apt to tell a tale, these ones couldn’t, most were separated, dispersed and incorporated into other buildings. What remained was little more than piles of rubble and a few walls no higher than head height. John never had to gaze on that humiliating Castle Baynard again. Castle Be-Gone he thought to himself and he chuckled and laughed at his own wit as he rode away. How different it felt from last time. FitzWalter, the father of that bitch, should he ever return, would see his entire castle simply gone.

With his anger taken out on the recalcitrant castle of his most hated baron, John turned to the future. He sent his envoys to Rome to accept the previously offered peace terms and to let Archbishop Stephen return. Now however he knew he was in a weaker bargaining position, the papacy would sense this and demand more concessions which he would find hard to resist. It was nevertheless a gamble he’d have to take. He was in this invidious position because of the fallout from his pursuit of Matilda. He had to have a settlement to overt both rebellion from his barons and possible invasion by the French. It meant that the dispute which had taken years, now took just days to be remedied. Stephen and all his bishops could return, John would compensate the church for money seized and his barons would have less reason for trying to kill him.

***

If the news of John caving in to pressure he was under, gave Stephen cause to celebrate, that emotion was soon replaced by high anger. More news followed two days later that John was to give the land of England to the Pope. England was now to belong neither to king or people but to the Pope in Rome. A Papal Legate would reside in England, who would be the ultimate authority in the country. The Legate would, according to Pope Innocent III, promote the king’s advantage and honour. The Pope, who had previously been totally opposed to John and on the verge of ordering his deposition via a French invasion, now stood by his man. In an instant the Pope was totally opposed to all rebellion against his illustrious son, John.

It was not the homecoming that Stephen had worked and prayed for but it was the longed-for return. As his ship took to sea Stephen was now in a situation where his authority was comprehensively undermined. It seemed that John had completely outwitted him by spectacularly surrendering to the Pope. It was a precarious situation to be sailing into. On board, Stephen turned once more to the consideration of spies.

‘I don’t think there are spies aboard the ship, it is too small. It would be too obvious.’

‘I think they’ll be waiting for us at Dover,’ Simon replied knowingly.

Stephen leant over the side planks of the ship, ‘The wind is dropping.’

‘It’s swinging round to the north,’ said Simon.

‘So how are we going to avoid these spies in Dover,’ Stephen asked.

‘I’ve made plans,’ said Simon tightening his lips when he had finished.

‘And they would be what? Stephen enquired.

‘I’m not telling you, the fewer people know the better,’ said Simon.

‘That rule is not meant to exclude me,’ Stephen said indignantly.

‘Look it’s all taken care of. You never trust me do you? I’m going below; it’s going to rain.’

With that his brother briskly left him and descended below deck. Stephen remained above contemplating what conditions and challenges might await him in England.

The wind gradually swung round to the north and the waves began to progressively rise. The size of waves depends on how far they had travelled and now appearing from the north, they rose higher and higher. These waves had travelled down the long coast of Norway, down the North Sea and now they were being compressed within the narrowing English Channel. They were not as dangerous as some seas, at least they rolled at the ship in a regular fashion and you could tackle them at an angle. Soon they were so huge that the ship was sailing up the waves. Despite the vigour of the sea the ship was still able to be steered by a single man.

There was a lull in the onslaught of the waves, a sign that things were calming. Then, an even bigger wave loomed before them. The ship rose up the wave; the wave moved past, leaving the ship in mid-air. The vessel then dropped like a stone, smack into the trough that had appeared beneath it. After this happened a few times a wine barrel broke from its restraints in the hold and began to slide around menacingly. A loose barrel could easily kill a man but it had to be tackled, because moving around it could cause the ship’s timbers to shiver, taking in water and the ship would be in peril of sinking. Their end would be certain if the ship sprang a leak, miles from the safety of the shore. Light rain began to fall adding to the discomfort on deck. Below, several men tackled the miscreant wine barrel, bringing it back under control and safely securing it, even though it was not in its original place.

Stephen went below deck just as the rogue barrel had finally been tamed and he lay down on a narrow bunk. Simon however, could not remain lying down without feeling terribly sick, and certainly the barrel sliding around hadn’t helped, so he went back up on deck.

His first sight was of two of the crew vomiting over the side of the vessel. He looked around and saw the steersman was in place, which was very reassuring. He stayed on deck despite the cold and the seawater trickling down his arms and legs. There were a few more falls and smacks before the seas began to calm. Slowly they edged towards Dover and its protective harbour.

Approaching their destination, Stephen came back up on deck and once again set his eyes on his native land. Foul as the weather was, they could make out a crowd of about thirty gathering on the quay to greet their Archbishop. As far as the people were concerned Stephen was returning in triumph. Little did the citizens realise that such was John’s unpredictability, Stephen’s life was now in more danger than ever before. Stephen was pleased to see the small welcoming party; if not for the weather there would certainly have been more of them. Tomorrow there undoubtedly would be.

The two days in port were very busy and almost everyone connected in any way with Canterbury Cathedral had hastened down to Dover to see their Archbishop. There were others pressing forward as well, members of baronial families, clerks and townsmen. An abundance of messengers brought letters for which there was no time to give a written answer. Amongst the impatient throng were some who seemed to have no urgent business and might potentially be spies. Not all those whose purpose couldn’t be ascertained could be spies but a few of them probably were. If so, were they just looking or seeking an opportunity to act and rid the realm of the hated Archbishop?

It had also been busy around the ship. After a day unloading the cargo, and then a day for making repairs and rest, the ship was reloaded and made ready to set sail again. It would hug the south coast bound for Portchester where the castle keep dominates the vast expanse of Portsmouth Harbour; there Stephen was to meet his King. The King and Archbishop were then to travel to Winchester together and in the long, high cathedral Stephen would formally absolve John. The quarrel with Rome would be ended; the silent church bells would sound again. Many children had never heard church bells ring, the volume would be a surprise them.

On the third day they again embarked on the Juliana, bound for the crucial rendezvous. Just as the final rope was cast off from the quay the two brothers leapt back onto the shore. Stephen almost fell over but regained his balance with the help of a startled woman. Looking behind them they could see a number of people on the ship gazing back at them in wonder. This was not too surprising as their unusual behaviour was certainly unexpected. As they hurried through the crowd which parted in front of them, they heard a loud splash followed by a jeer from the onlookers. Someone had jumped from the ship into the water, providing even more drama for the surprised audience. Pushing past some men who tried to speak to them, the brothers ran to where a man was waiting with three saddled horses. Mounting their steeds, they were soon heading west along the coastal road. Somewhere far behind them a very wet man was endeavouring to follow in cold pursuit.

Simon had at least advised his brother of most of the details of his plan to travel by road, so none of this had come as a surprise to Stephen. They rode at a good speed to put distance between themselves and Dover. Once this was achieved, they slowed to a more modest pace. Stephen began to puzzle over the strange site of the cloaked figure riding ahead. Due to their rushed exit from the port he realised they had not spoken and of more concern, he had never seen the rider’s face. This perturbed him and he shouted ‘Whoa,’ pulling up to a sharp halt. With a little delay the figure ahead of them also pulled up and turned sideways to the track but failed to come back to them.

‘We haven’t got time to stop,’ said Simon agitatedly.

Stephen ignored his protest. ‘Who exactly is that person?’ Stephen said pointing to the distant figure.

‘Well that inquisitiveness is hardly a reason to stop is it?’ Simon retorted.

‘Let me put it another way,’ said Stephen glaring at him. ‘Why does our guide ride lop sided, covered by a cloak? Or,’ Stephen continued without waiting for an answer and with rising exasperation and volume, ‘Why does our guide look like a woman? Or further still: Is that not a woman riding side saddle?’

‘She is a woman,’ Simon confirmed. ‘I don’t think we’ve really got time for introductions but if this is your priority…’

He raised himself in the saddle and without a word, beckoned her to approach them. The woman in question trotted her horse towards them. The only thing that Stephen could see was that she had a mass of red hair and a freckled face with a nose slightly turned up.

‘Stephen this is my wife, Christa.’

‘Your wife,’ Stephen repeated with a waspish pronunciation of wife. ‘I am the head of the best network of informers, but I don’t even know my brother has got married. That’s not possible, I would have heard of it.’

‘I think brother you are being less than chivalrous. I have just introduced you to Christa, my wife, and you’ve failed to acknowledge her at all. Even for an Archbishop that is exceptionally poor manners. ’

Stephen looked at his brother for a moment and then quickly turned to Christa. ‘Forgive me my lady. I am pleased to meet you and pleased, if somewhat surprised to welcome you to our family.’

Christa smiled and Stephen noticed her face was reddened, probably from the sun.

‘I’ve heard so much about you Archbishop and I can’t wait to meet Elowise and little Stephen,’ she replied.

‘That will need to wait for a while,’ Stephen replied. ‘They should be safe in Lincolnshire by now.’

He nodded his head at her and once more he turned to his brother.

‘So I remain curious as to how come I didn’t know.’

‘The fact is brother, you may be the head of spies but I am the neck of the spies and the neck turns the head,’ his brother explained.

‘I wasn’t seeking a lecture on anatomical functioning, Simon. How come I didn’t know?’

‘That was easy. I simply told everyone that the Archbishop didn’t want my association with her to be known. You were very insistent that it all had to be kept under the blanket. So they did as you decreed. It didn’t leak out at all, very admirable. It’s good to know you can trust other people.’

Stephen muttered something under his breath. Then he turned to Christa and apologised to her a second time, ‘I’m sorry my lady’.

‘We really must be going,’ said Simon. ‘We’re taking a tremendous risk like this.’

‘No. Not such haste. I want to know who I’m travelling with,’ Stephen said, adopting a rigid posture on his horse and rattling off questions thick and fast. ‘Who is she? What family is she from? Is it a family we know?’

‘Yes we know them. We can trust her,’ said Simon attempting to deflect the enquiry.

‘The name?’ Stephen said impatiently. ‘The name?’

‘Her name is Christa Grey.’

Such was Stephen’s bodily reaction to her name that his horse started to move a few steps.

‘Grey, what do you mean Grey? Not the Greys? Of, all the families in England. Are there any other Greys? You can’t be talking about Chancellor Grey, can you? Oh no, you are, aren’t you?’

It was understandable that Stephen was aghast at this revelation. King John had his bishop John de Grey elected archbishop of Canterbury. The Pope had deposed Grey and consecrated Stephen instead. This was how the interdict had started. Of course, the Greys hated the Langtons, they had lost the richest and most powerful church prize to their rivals. Worse still John Grey’s nephew Walter de Grey was now John’s Chancellor, naturally Walter was firmly on John’s side. It was incomprehensible that he would allow a female relative of his to marry a Langton.

‘Yes, she is from Chancellor Grey’s family,’ said Simon. ‘It was a brilliant bit of diplomacy and reconciliation on my part.’ He patted his chest to emphasise his achievement.

‘Yes, absolutely brilliant, we gallop away from a pretty harmless spy only to be accompanied by a woman who will tell her family what we are doing and they in turn will tell the king. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant,’ said Stephen crossly.

‘I won’t do that,’ said Christa. ‘It just isn’t like that anyway.’

‘That’s all right then, in fact almost perfect,’ replied Stephen clipping his words. He turned again to his brother.

‘I’m surprised you didn’t go the whole way and marry one of the king’s bastard girls. How on earth did you get Walter de Grey to agree anyway? He’d surely prefer to dine on rat, than have you in the family.’

‘”Dine on a rat”. That’s good! I’ll use that one. In the end it wasn’t that difficult to persuade him, she’s only a half-sister and he’s an entirely rational man.’

‘How?’ Stephen persisted, looking over his shoulder back down the road they had travelled.

‘We simply told him Christa was pregnant. Faced with me or having to support her and a child from his own money bag he soon became very supportive of the arrangement.’

‘You’re pregnant?’ Stephen said turning to Christa.

‘Not entirely,’ she replied beginning to look away.

‘We thought she might be, but happily she’s not. A false alarm,’ said Simon almost cheerfully.

‘Very false, I think and I expect Grey thinks so to. Deceived and blackmailed then.’ Stephen declared, again looked anxiously back down the track.

‘That is far too harsh,’ said Simon, ‘I prefer to call it diplomacy at its best. I pointed out to him that none of us could ever know what might happen and that the connection might prove to be to his advantage one day.’

‘We’ve wasted a lot of time, said Stephen turning his face away from his brother as if he hadn’t spoken. We are going to have to regain time. You Christa are going to have to put your leg over that horse and ride it.’

I’ve always ridden side-saddle and the saddle will be all wrong. I can’t ride like a man,’ she protested.

‘I regret that I’m not willing to be caught and killed so you can ride side-saddle. If you’re coming with us, you’ll have to learn to ride properly. Otherwise, regretfully, I’ll leave you both behind and go on alone.’

Christa looked unhappily at Simon.

‘He’s right you’ll have to do it,’ said Simon. ‘You can’t hold us up.’

‘It’s lucky I’m not pregnant,’ said Christa in a last futile protest. She dismounted then mounted again swinging her leg over the saddle. She was angry with both the brothers, possibly the more so with Simon.

‘It’s very uncomfortable, it hurts,’ she said.

‘Good let’s go, said Stephen without a trace of sympathy. ‘Let’s hope the comfort will improve the nearer we get to our destination.’

Riding down the road they kept glancing behind for horsemen but there were none. The evening was closing in when they reached the farmstead where they were to spend the night.

The next day they rose early and set off westwards passing Pevensey Bay where William the Conqueror had landed in 1066, to successfully claim the throne of England. After a further hard ride they reached another settlement where a prearranged fresh set of horses were awaiting them. Christa’s comfort was improved by obtaining an ordinary saddle which was just as well as by now the poor woman had great difficulty in even walking. They were much more relaxed as they set off again heading west with the sea to their left and a long ridge of the chalk to their right. The grassy hill bare of trees, other than thorn bushes, was covered with hundreds of white sheep grazing in the sunshine. It was a scene of great tranquillity and beauty.

Stephen had by now reconciled himself to Christa’s presence, reassured by the fact that she had hardly ever spent time with her half-brother the Chancellor. Christa was happier now she was without the side saddle torturing the inside of her thighs and Simon was pleased the change to fresh horses had gone well. He also felt that Stephen had taken the news of his new dubious familial relationship with John’s court, better than he had expected. Their destination for the night was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace, situated en route at Slindon in West Sussex. The future was uncertain but for the first time it felt really good to be back in England.

‘Up to the right,’ Stephen called suddenly.

They all looked to the brow of the hill where a party of armed horsemen were appearing, growing in number as they came into sight. The smaller party of three stopped and in response the horsemen on the hill quickly halted. For a brief moment the two groups were still and peering intently to identify each other. Stephen looked at Simon anxiously.

‘I don’t know who they are,’ said Simon. ‘No one I’ve been in contact with.’

‘No one I would expect either,’ said Stephen ‘but they seem to be expecting us.’

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