Guy had never been one for churches. He was a soldier after all, a man of action, not of contemplation and prayer – and besides, too much thinking gave him a headache. No, skulking about in shadowed naves and silent copy rooms was no way for a man to spend his life. It would mean spending too much time on one’s knees, for a start. And, Guy considered, thinking of the cloistered life of most men of the cloth, a great deal less by way of diversion.
It was after midnight, and Guy was alone. A pair of priests had wandered in some time ago, mumbling some droning Te Deum and renewing the candles that burned by the altar before they shuffled away. Quite possibly that had been for his benefit; Guy did not know or particularly care. He had been in this place since sundown, and he was tired and hungry and his back was starting to ache from all this piousness. It would, Guy had long since decided, be a good thing when all of this was over.
The young man was halfway convinced that the last time he had spent so many hours in God’s house had been the day of his own baptism: he had no memory of that event himself, but he’d been told it had been lengthy, and that he had startled the priest with the strength of his squalling. The day of King Richard’s coronation had been a day of churches and priests as well, but at least then there had been the colour and pageantry of the court to distract him and all the wonders of London to look forward to once the rites were done. Right now Guy had nothing to occupy his mind but his own thoughts, and a mouldering chapel in a hamlet outside of Rouen was hardly a match for Bankside on a fine day. The whores of Bankside were legendary, and though he’d been only a boy on that long ago visit and too young for the tawdry pleasures on offer, his father had taken no great care to see his son sheltered from the sights. Sir Edmund of Gisburne had had other concerns than the moral welfare of his scapegrace son.
With a sigh, Guy shifted uncomfortably against the unforgiving chill of the cold stone floor and shook his head, trying to dismiss thoughts of Bankside and its doxies and his father’s
(bitch slut knows what’s good for her, eh lads?)
dealings with them. It seemed improper, somehow. On the altar before him, a plain cross stood in the light of a pair of tallow candles. Even the air smelled holy and judgemental. This was not a place for impure thoughts.
Or then again, perhaps it was. Wasn’t that the point of this vigil business, after all? To purify oneself, to come to terms with one’s demons and pass them by in the night? Guy frowned, then scowled at the cross and its attendant candles and hoisted himself to his feet. Bad enough he had to spend the night in some draughty chapel, but he was damned if he’d do all of it on his knees.
There had been an easier way to do this. Men were knighted on the field all the time, dealt the dubbing blow by their liege lords for some feat of valour or another – or even for doing nothing much at all, as far as Guy could tell. He had expected that it would be that way for him, that he would save Sir Geoffrey from an offside blow – the man always did his drop his shield when he thrust – or storm a gatehouse or some such, and the old man would hand him his title. He’d worked hard enough for it, after all: seven years as a page in the Earl of Gloucester’s household, and another seven playing squire to old Sir Geoffrey, one of the Earl’s many cousins, and three of those years going from one French battlefield to another to scrap over fishing ponds and grazing lands for lords who didn’t much care either way. Countless hours scouring at his lord’s chain mail, countless more oiling and sharpening the man’s sword, tending the man’s horses, even cleaning his tack; months of toil in the yards being buffeted senseless by hard faced men with wooden swords, and more falls to the quintain than he could remember … oh yes, he had worked. And after all of that, old Sir Geoffrey had been overtaken by a sudden surge of piety and had insisted that his squire receive the Church’s blessing on his knighthood, and so Guy found himself here, in an ill fitting white shift and a painfully inadequate red cloak, watching the candles burn down and waiting for the dawn.
Well. He had spent sleepless nights before, and in less civilised conditions than these. The last time he had seen in the dawn, he had spent the night crouching under a hedge while the rain came down, watching a village burn and listening to the men around him taking their pleasure of the women they had caught. There had been no warm wenches for him, though. He had told himself that was because he preferred his bedmates more willing and less crawling with vermin, but the truth was that the grunting and weeping and harsh laughter had reminded him of his father,
(brat! i’ll teach you to mock me!)
and he could not touch a woman after that.
In any case, he had lasted out the night at his post, and none the worse for wear once one got past the mud and soot and chill and the ravenous hunger that had seen him devour his ration of flat bread and stew and go looking for more. He would last out this night too, and in better sorts. He was clean and dry, for one thing. He had come to this vigil freshly bathed and scented, his blond hair catching gold in the candles’ gleam and a single silver signet ring – his own sign, a couchant wolf, purchased with coin he had set carefully aside – glittering on one elegant, long-fingered hand. In spite of the humble and rather plain vestments he wore, young Guy looked every inch the nobleman. He took a certain satisfaction from that. It was not, of course, that he was a man vain of his appearance, but he could hardly have come before God looking like something that had been dragged backwards out of a ditch.
So a vigil it was, with a vow and a blessing to follow, and then he would be a knight. The young man went over the oath he would swear on the morrow, repeating the words silently in his head for the dozenth time since his long night had started. To serve God and the king, to defend the weak, to champion the helpless … and was it something about widows and orphans? Guy snorted in disgust and gave a dismissive flick of his hand. What did he care for widows and orphans? Still, if it would bring him his spurs, he would swear it. The alternative did not bear thinking about. To refuse, to be sent crawling back to his father’s
(tossed you out, did he, boy? i should do the same. worthless cur. worthless as the bitch that whelped you)
fiefdom in disgrace and be judged by Sir Edmund’s cold, accusing gaze … ah, Guy would rather have chewed off his own leg than face that. No, a knighthood would give him a place in the world that did not depend on his father’s approval; it would give him status, power, means to make himself free. A titled knight could seek employ in any lord’s household, or hire out his service to a cause, or even make his fortune in the tourneys that ran up and down the country. A knight, Guy knew, was worth
Or perhaps that was not true. Perhaps there were those so unworthy that no title could make them other than what they were. Perhaps there were sins from which a soul could not be shriven, shames that cut too deep to mend. That thought, that Guy had been trying to avoid all night, rose unbidden and would not be driven down. Instead, it coiled itself about inside his head, letting his mind worrying at it the way that a man’s tongue might worry at a loose tooth, perversely fascinated by the pain and imperfection. Guy was no fool; he knew
(worthless, ungrateful brat)
what he was. His father, God rot him, had made sure of that. He came to his vigil tainted, and no blessing of Church or sanction of state would change that.
No one else knew, of course. Edmund of Gisburne had made sure of that – for his own sake, not for Guy’s. For the one thing, Edmund was not a man who could have born to be known as a cuckold: it had been his honour he was defending by raising his wife’s bastard as his own, not his misbegotten son’s. For the other … Guy shuddered inwardly and drew himself away
(take it like a man, Guy)
from that. He did not want to think about the other.
Drawing a deep breath, the young man muttered a low curse under his breath and set to pacing. It didn’t matter. No one knew. Besides, any man of training could become a knight, who was free and of age and who fulfilled the required conditions of birth. Two from three were not the worst odds in the world. Guy grunted, shooting a sour look at the altar and its silent, prayerful cross. Perhaps he lacked legitimacy, but that didn’t mean he was not a noble son of Normandy – his true father could have been a prince of the realm, for all he knew. His mother may have been a faithless slut who had lied to him and to her husband both, but she had been a well-born slut: she had her standards. She would not have dallied with some unwashed kitchen boy. And in any case, Edmund had acknowledged him, and that alone served to gentle his condition. The Church would just have to be satisfied with that.
And the other, Guy? What will the Church think of the other? Guy flinched. In his mind, Edmund’s voice was as clear as if the man was standing at his shoulder, and not festering in his long slow death in his manor house in England, with his twisted arm and sagging face and hard, cold anger. The voice in Guy’s head was unmistakably his, the tone harsh and mocking as always. I took the Cross, boy. I’ve been blessed at the Holy Sepulchre. There’s no stain on my soul. But you … you’ve been stained since birth, and none of my doing. What’s one more sin, to that?
“Not my sin,” Guy whispered in the dark. God’s Blood, this was all he needed – now not only was he hearing voices, he was talking back to them. His teeth set in a snarl all the same, biting off each word. “Not. My. Sin.”
You carry it. Hers and mine. God sees what you are, boy. Bastard born, catamite … how can you ever be anything noble? Worthless
(take it boy, quiet if you know what’s good for you)
“No. You came to … you forced …” Guy snapped his jaw shut so hard he nearly bit his own tongue. He would not admit this thing here, he would not. His hands ached. He looked at them in dull surprise. He had not even known that he was clenching them.
You wanted it. Don’t pretend you didn’t. In Guy’s head, the hated voice laughed. Wanted your father to love you.
And there it was. Truth and lie both tangled up together, like love and hate were tangled, like they had been for all of Guy’s life until he wasn’t sure he knew one from the other. Wasn’t sure if he had ever known. Guy felt his heart kick and, horribly, tears prickling behind his eyes. He had cried then too, with his face pressed into the pillow and his father sweating and grunting over him in the dark. He swallowed the pain down, made his face hard. “Not like that. I wanted … not that.”
We don’t always get what we want, boy. Look at me. I wanted a fine son … and I got you. Tainted, worthless bastard. Should have drowned you at birth, like a kitten. And now you think you’re worthy of a knighthood. God will smite you for aspiring to this. You’ll see.
Pain came with that, like a whiplash out of nowhere, but anger came with it. For a moment Guy froze, lips skinned back from his teeth and eyes blank and bitter in the fading candlelight, and then he lurched forward. His long legs covered the distance to the chapel’s small alter in three strides; he stared hard at the plain gilt cross. There was no singing of saints, no howling of demons. With a heartfelt curse, Guy reached out and laid flat of one bastard-born, tainted hand on the face of the cross.
Nothing happened. No stench of sulphur, no lightening from the heavens. It was only an ordinary cross on an ordinary altar in an ordinary village church. It did not hate him. It did not, so far as Guy could tell, think anything much of him at all.
Two years ago, when Guy had been nineteen, Sir Edmund of Gisburne had suffered an apoplexy that had left the right side of his body twisted and useless and robbed him of speech and dignity. Guy remembered the last time he had seen the man, propped up in his chair with one eye glaring brightly and the other drooping and drool running down his chin. He had not felt pity then, and had been ashamed at the lack. Love and hate, duty and honour. It should not have been so hard to tell which was which. Now Guy wished the old man dead with all his heart, and knelt in sincere prayer before the chapel’s modest altar.
“Holy Father, in your eyes be all my sins forgiven, now and in days to come.”
It would be dawn soon, and he would be ready when they came for him. His soul might not be pure, but the Church preached forgiveness. A man could only try.