The masons had finished for the day and the dust had just about settled. The golden stone was shadowed now as Raedwolf looked out over the fields in the evening light. A last few fitful rays lit a fire in his curls and stroked his heavy tunic, gilding brown threads and enriching the everyday garment. He was tired. It had been a long day, not unusually long but full of petty details and pressing business that had given him no time for himself; he valued this breathing space on the new battlements watching the river road. Nothing moved. Even the clouds and the trees were still. Soon he would be unable to see the road and would have to go down to the solar and report to his sister. Report nothing, again. But just for the moment he rested his right arm on the wall and watched.
“Anything?” Aelfware’s voice startled him out of his reverie.
“Nothing, as usual.” He sighed, possibly for the negative news he delivered or possibly for the interruption. Raedwolf cared for his older sister and he knew she was anxious for the return of her lord.
“When do you think...” Aelfware bit her lip. Raedwolf knew what she had been going to ask. She asked it almost every day and every day he had no answer. How could they know when her husband would return?
“He’ll come when he comes,” he said gently, his green eyes filled with compassion.
It both pleased and amazed him that she had fallen in love with the Norman knight who had seen her when he passed their home in Chobham on a foray into the countryside with his king. Giles de Coudrai had carried the Saxon beauty off on his horse that very day. He had then, to everyone’s surprise, married her. Aelfware, asked what she would have of her lord as a morning gift to mark their wedding and her bedding, had requested her younger brother, to be brought up in Giles’s household and Giles, besotted and willing, had agreed.
“And meanwhile, you’ll take care of me. I know,” she said, but her voice, whilst confident, was wistful and her brother wished he could see across the river, through the woods, even across the downs and the channel.
“I’ll see you safe, sister, and the little ones, too. And I’ll deliver the castle in all its new splendour on my lord’s return.” He smiled and she smiled back at him.
Now the Saxon youth was all grown up, mature and very much in command. Sir Giles was off fighting in the Holy Land, Aelfware was the mother of three children, and Raedwolf was castellan in Giles’s absence, his position as brother-in-law overcoming his status as a lowly Saxon. The job was no sinecure. Giles had originally built a wooden motte and bailey at Winterton Cowley and the little family plus their retainers had been snug enough. But just before he took the cross Giles had decided to build one of the new stone castles; a small one to be sure, but one that would keep his wife and his children safe and would last, he told Raedwolf, for ever, to the glory of the de Coudrai name.
“It’s going well,” Aelfware said, brushing a pale hand along the Cotswold stone of a parapet. Raedwolf nodded.
A whole troop of workmen, masons, stone cutters, and general dogsbodies, a mix of Saxons and landless Norman soldiers, had been brought to Giles’s land to erect the little fortress Giles envisaged. And now it was Raedwolf’s job to keep their noses to the grindstone, and their hands from around each others’ throats. Definitely no sinecure. Add to that his normal tasks of overseeing the castle garrison and making sure they stayed fighting fit and alert. Add also the job of major domo, checking the serfs and the craftsmen who filled the halls of Winterton Cowley with all manner of tasks in service of Lord Giles and Lady Aelfware. There were complications too, like his nephews, Henry (named for the last king, Henry Rufus, rather than the new Henry, lately come to the throne), Giles the younger and his niece, Adela. They were forever under everyone’s feet and Raedwolf privately thought it would be a good thing when his brother-in-law returned to instil some sharp-tongued discipline into his brood. There was the Lady Ysabel, too.
“Ysabel says it reminds her of Normandy,” said Aelfware, glimpsing his thoughts as she had done ever since he was a child. “She says she can be happy here. Raedwolf, could you not...”
“No.” His reply was blunt and brief. He knew what Aelfware and Ysabel wanted. He also knew Giles would never countenance his younger sister’s marriage to a Saxon and that that kept him safe. For he also knew he would never marry. If he’d stayed in Chobham perhaps he would have done, for the family’s sake, but here he was his own master, after his allegiance to Giles, and need please nobody. There were brothers still at home to carry on the family’s Saxon pride. Giles did not need him to marry, indeed would probably prefer his undivided attention. That suited Raedwolf, suited him very well indeed.
He turned away from his sister and gave one last glance at the road. Something glinted and a faint sound of hooves reached them; a rider was approaching. Raedwolf’s sudden intake of breath told Aelfware what he saw. She clapped her hands and a slight laugh escaped her lips as she leaned out to look.
“Aelfware, it cannot be him. Whoever it is travels alone and my lord would not be alone on the road.”
“But it must be a knight. See, he has armour and a noble horse.” The traveller was closer now. “He must at least have news for us.”
Raedwolf sighed again. His sister was always the optimist. The traveller could be anyone, friend or foe or simply someone whose route took them past Winterton Cowley, someone who would no doubt seek hospitality for the night but would remain a stranger despite the sharing of bread and lodging.
“I’ll go and tell Ysabel. She’s telling bedtime tales to the children. This will be a tale for her. Do you go down and greet him, whoever he is. And mind you bring any news to me straight away.” She whisked away as she spoke, breathless with excitement, bubbling with the need to share her hopes with Ysabel. A last sigh and a last glance at the traveller who was almost at the slight rise up to the castle gate, and Raedwolf left the battlements to do his duty as castellan and temporary host.
Guillaume had travelled in circles all day. Cowley, Cowley Underwold, Temple Cowley (full of Templars and the sort of place he’d rather avoid, thank you) and now, as a last chance, Winterton Cowley. Why could the man not have given him more detailed directions? Why, for that matter, had he been too arrogant to assume he’d need them? Still, here was a small, newish stone structure, out in the middle of nowhere, and night was falling. He hoped it was inhabited. Any host would do, though de Coudrai’s kith and kin wouldn’t come amiss. If not, he’d have to camp among the stones and make his excuses to the masons in the morning. The place was obviously a work in progress.
There was a man at the gate, or rather, the gap in the wall that would be a gate one day. Inhabited then, and thank the Lord (and the lord) for that. The sun was almost gone and the welcome committee of one was a mere silhouette against the stonework. Tall, slim, curly haired. Other details would have to wait. Guillaume dismounted and stopped, near enough to speak but not to alarm.
“I’m looking for the de Coudrai family. Is this their castle?”
“Who’s asking?” A pleasant voice, guarded but not hostile.
“Guillaume le Beau, a French knight, at your service. I’m a colleague-in-arms of Sir Giles and he sent me ahead of him.” He reached into a fold of his tunic and held out a token, one that should guarantee his acceptance. The guardian, or whatever he was, took it and looked hard, able, Guillaume hoped, to make out the crest and the cramped writing on the piece of leather by the remaining light.
“You’re welcome, Sir Knight. Do you have news of Sir Giles, then? We are growing anxious.” The voice did indeed sound anxious, almost caring.
“He was well when I left him. He had business to discuss with some of the other crusaders who returned with us. He’s back on French soil, but he’s still on the south coast.” He didn’t elaborate, assuming the south of France might as well be the wilds of Cathay to a native of these islands.
“And you were coming here anyway?” Doubt warred with amusement.
“Not exactly. I was heading for London, hoping to find employment there. I’m a landless knight and the Normans, especially the richer courtiers, sometimes offer posts with their garrisons. Giles knew that and thought I could take a message to his lady.”
“Then be welcome, Guillaume le Beau. Come inside and I will bring the lady to you. She will be pleased to have word from her lord.” The man turned, trusting enough, Guillaume thought, but there was a sword held loosely in his right hand and the entrance to the keep was sloping and twisted, so Guillaume would be at a disadvantage in a fight. A good thing, he reflected, that his intentions were honourable.
They reached the courtyard and the man called sharply for torches. A couple of boys ran out from somewhere dark and a sudden flare, followed by another and another brought the cobbled ground to life. A whisper to one of the lads and he ran, back into the darkness but not for long. He reappeared again, triumphantly leading a giant. The giant was armed with a sword and shield but no mail. He planted himself in front of Guillaume and was told to make sure the visitor did not go anywhere. The visitor, having no wish to go anywhere, stood at ease, still holding his horse’s reins, and prepared to wait.
A clatter of light footsteps down stone stairs and a lady stood there in the torchlight. The curly-haired man was a step behind, saying ruefully, “Be careful. We know nothing of him yet.”
“Lady Aelfware?” Surely her red-gold curls and her rich clothing identified her as the one Giles had described in such minute detail? “I come from your husband and he bade me give you first of all his undying love and then this letter.” He held it out and she snatched it as if it were a branch in a flood. Her companion seemed to relax a little.
“I must go inside. Raedwolf, you can read it to me. Bring the messenger, too. We should make sure he is comfortable after his journey.” There was a flurry as the boys were tasked with taking the horse and the giant was told to return to his place. As he handed over the reins Guillaume raised an eyebrow in the shadow of the horse. So Curlylocks could read. Not a mere serf then, despite the Saxon accent. Then there was an awkwardness as Raedwolf surveyed their knightly guest.
Guillaume unbuckled his sword belt and handed it to the man. He didn’t blame him for the distrust, in fact admired him for it; he had a precious charge to care for. They followed the woman into the shadows, up the stairs and into warmth and light.
The solar was a pleasant room, with lanthorns all along the walls in niches made for the purpose. The straw covering the floor was clean and soft, and its pale gold reflected the glow. A fire in the hearth sent its smoke curling up a wide chimney while its radiance bathed the room in friendliness. The lady who had greeted him was not the only occupant; another, younger woman sat by a truckle bed where three wide-eyed children were definitely not about to fall asleep.
Raedwolf placed the sword belt on a high shelf and turned, his hand still resting on his own weapon, but his eyes appraising Guillaume and clearly liking what they saw.
The knight was tall and solid. He had a cap of shining black hair above an unlined face, light-skinned beneath a dusting of tan that was probably due to his sojourn in the east. Blue eyes completed the picture. Le Beau indeed. Raedwolf was somewhat reassured by the letter but was still concerned for his charges. He fired off a quiverful of questions about Giles, and about others who had gone off with their lord, crusading, and the knight fielded every one.
Aelfware grew impatient and Ysabel was fidgeting. The children were simply watching, drinking in the novelty of the scene. They had seen few strangers apart from the stone workers who were always gone by dusk and rarely interacted with any of the household.
The lady handed the letter to Raedwolf. “Rae, read this and put us out of our misery. We can wait no longer for word.” She smiled at Ysabel and the youngsters, and sat beside them, smoothing her skirts, to listen.
Raedwolf unfolded the parchment. He knew Giles’s writing. Giles had taught him his letters, in part to please Aelfware and in greater part to prepare him as his second-in-command. Giles himself had learnt in Normandy at his uncle’s manor, a young, keen, landless knight, eager to join the conquest of England and gain a monarch’s approval and favour. He had gained Winterton Cowley and a Saxon wife; he seemed happy with both in almost equal measure. The castellan read slowly. The writing was at times hard to decipher despite its familiarity and in any case Aelfware would want to savour the words.
My dearest lady, I trust this finds you well. I am just returned from Jerusalem and am in the best of health. But I must remain in France a little longer, to aid some of my friends who find their properties fallen into disarray in their absence. I promised my help but soon I will come back to you and our children. I know you are in good hands and I will not find any disarray in my own family or holdings. But I wish you will persuade my castellan, your brother, to take the bearer of this message, Guillaume de Vienne, into the household. He needs employment and I need a courier. I trust him as I trust you and Raedwolf and I know we can always use and house another fighting man. Till I see you again, my lady, may the Lord bless you and the children and keep you safe for me.
It was signed Giles of Cowley in a flourished scrawl, showing more pride in the new home and castle than the old Norman name. Raedwolf looked across at Aelfware and handed her the parchment. The children crowded round her to look, Henry trying to make out a few words with his new-found skill at reading. His uncle spent a little time tutoring him whenever he could and Father Simon at the village church helped, too. The letter would be read and re-read and touched with love and longing.
He turned to the knight. “Guillaume of where?” He spoke musingly, not accusing but wondering at the discrepancy.
The dark-haired knight laughed easily. “Guillaume de Vienne. That’s where I’m from. But I go by Guillaume le Beau. And no, I’m not so vain.” He smiled at the Saxon’s obvious surprise. “I grew up with another Guillaume and when we were children I was the younger, merely, and he the elder. But he fell in with thieves who slit his nose and from then, well, I became le Beau and he was le Nez. Giles knows that too, but he sets great store by heritage and place of birth, I think.”
“Perhaps, but now he signs himself Giles of Cowley. It may be that this place has usurped Coudrai in his heart. I am inclined to believe you, Sir Knight, and to offer you a place here as he suggests. The Lord knows I could do with help with the garrison. I have enough to do with the building site. But what should we call you?” The sword was hanging by his side now, and his face was open and welcoming.
“Just Beau will do. It’s what I usually answer to. I think of myself as le Beau, or sometimes as le Beau de Die. And yes, that’s yet another place in France but I think the story will keep for the morrow.”
“Then I’m Raedwolf of Chobham, my lady Aelfware’s brother, and castellan of this place. In Sir Giles’s place I bid you welcome, Beau, and you can call me Rae, as the family do.” He held out his hand and they grasped each other in a firm handshake of acceptance. Behind them the women and children were chattering but then Ysabel got up and stepped towards them.
“We should offer Beau something to eat and drink.” Her words were gentle but still a rebuke and Raedwolf shouted down the stairs for a servant. Beornwynne, the serf who had accompanied Aelfware from her childhood home and still served both her mistress and her master’s sister came hurrying up, panting a little as she heaved her not inconsiderable bulk into the solar. Raedwolf and Ysabel ordered a supper, interrupting and contradicting each other until Beornwynne simply said that supper would be served at once, and retreated, muttering.
A little serving girl brought a tray with bread, cheese, apples and a slab of butter. Beornwynne, behind her, carried a flagon of ale. Ysabel cleared the table of sewing stuff and children’s playthings and soon Beau was sitting comfortably, making inroads into the food.
“You’re Saxons, then, you and my lady,” he said, eyeing Rae speculatively. “I thought so, from your voices and your names, but I thought Saxons were downtrodden here, and were opposed to their new masters? Giles sang his lady’s praises but did not tell me she was no Norman.”
“Some are downtrodden; some consider themselves so.” Rae took a cup of ale and sat astride a stool opposite Beau. “Sir Giles has been nothing but kindness to us and of course his children are half Saxon. We are loyal to him. You see how my sister loves her lord. As to Normans in general, my loyalties are less fixed. I respect the king’s power and treat each Norman I meet as I find him.” He looked hard at Beau as he spoke.
“Don’t look at me that way. I’m no Norman. My homeland is far further south and we don’t all love the Norsemen.” He gave them the old name and Rae grinned. “They’re Vikings still, however they see themselves. Greedy and arrogant. But by looking to England they have left the rest of us alone. I believe, however, they are having problems with the natives?”
Rae nodded. “There are those who would overthrow them, which is unrealistic, and those who would harass them, which is a nuisance and maybe a danger. There are many who hate those like Aelfware who have thrown in their lot with the conquerors. There is a genuine need for fighting men here, and I shall be glad when the gates are finished.”
Beau finished his apple before replying. “You can count on me for my own fighting skills and for helping to train the men and keep them at their peak,” he said. “I may not be a Norseman but Giles de Coudrai saved my life in the Holy Land and I would gladly serve his lady and his household.” He spoke, Rae realised, with a slight accent, not quite the pure Norman he was used to from Giles and Giles’s friends. The accent, he assumed, of Vienne, or perhaps of the mysterious Die. Whatever the man’s origins, he would be glad of his help.
The women were yawning and Rae ushered Beau down to the main hall of the keep. It was full of men, soldiers, serfs and craftsmen. The castle was almost a village in itself, and had no room for the stone workers, who found lodging in the village. But there was a little room for another bedroll, beside his own, and the two of them settled down to sleep, each looking forward to working together the next day. It occurred to Rae, just before he slept, that he had left Beau’s sword in the solar, but he could retrieve it before they broke their fast in the morning and there were unlikely to be any alarums or invasions in the night.
Beau sat at the long table in the hall, a half eaten slice of bread and honey in front of him, and inspected his sword.
“It doesn’t seem to have suffered for a night apart from me,” he said. “I should use a practice sword in the training sessions, anyway. Do you have a spare one? Then this beauty could maybe stay in the solar for safety.”
“It’s valuable? I mean,” Rae went on, “I know every knight values his sword but has it special value above that?” It looked like a normal enough sword, and the sheath was not particularly flamboyant.
“It’s valuable to me. Ismidon blessed it before I set out for Jerusalem.”
“Ismidon?” Rae was clearly confused and no doubt the man’s fame had not spread this far.
“Ismidon de Sassenages. He’s a priest. He’s probably going to be bishop of Die and almost certainly a saint some day. I think his blessing kept me alive over there and probably helped me keep Giles alive, too.”
“Where’s Die? I thought you said you were from Vienne?” Rae was sounding bewildered. “And I thought you said Giles saved you, not the other way round.”
“The diocese of Die is argued about. Some say it belongs to Vienne and some say Arles. But Ismidon doesn’t care about worldly divisions. Hearing him preach sent me off to the crusades and whilst I might have seen things there that didn’t seem sent by God, I saw plenty that was holy, too. That’s why I like to think of myself as Beau de Die. Giles and I saved each other’s lives, a score of times, but he’s one up on me at the moment. Even if he wasn’t, I’d help protect his lady and his land.”
Rae nodded and gestured towards the bread. “Eat up, Beau de Die. Protecting his lady and his land means training some of his rabble to fight. Sir Giles took his best men overseas with him and I’m struggling with the rump of his garrison. Eat up, and then come and earn your bread,” he said. Clearly, Beau thought, the Saxon knew little about the crusades but would value a man for his experience in fighting a real war.
Beau got up and buckled on his sword. He grabbed the bread and ate it as he moved, careless of the honey dripping down his chin. They walked quietly but companionably to the main courtyard where the noise of chisels and hammers on stone was deafening and the shouts of the masons added to the din. They went out through the twisted entryway under the arch where the gate would soon hang, and made for the practice ground. At the edge of the flattened field there was a pile of swords, blunt ones by the looks of things, and Beau picked up one after another, hefting them in his right hand until he found one whose weight suited him. Rae just grabbed the first that came to hand and laughed at Beau’s raised eyebrow.
“I’d be better than them even using the wrong hand and a child’s play sword,” was all he said, as they joined a group of men standing at ease on the field.
After a short time, Beau was inclined to agree with Rae’s assessment. But there was an earnestness among the men that pleased him.
“I think I can make something of them if you give me a free hand,” he said bluntly. “Just how much have they trained under you, anyway?”
“Not as much as I’d like. I have the building to oversee and a household to run. Three jobs in one. And that isn’t an excuse, it’s the truth. I’ll be only too pleased to hand this lot over to you, Sir Beau.” He grinned and waved at the field. “It’s all yours, and so are the men. Mind, I’ll inspect them once a week and will expect an improvement now they have a full time instructor.” His eyes sparkled and he turned to the men. “You lot,” he said loudly, and they stood respectfully quiet. “This man who has been practising with us this morning is Sir Beau de Die. He’s a friend of Sir Giles. He thinks he can make something of you. Will you welcome him and prove him right?” There was a chorus of agreement. The men wanted to train, there was no doubt of that, and they knew they needed instruction. Rae held out a hand to Beau. “Give me your blessed sword. I’ll take it up to my sister and put it into her care.” Beau handed over the precious weapon and watched as Rae left the training field, almost running to take up his other tasks. Giles had left him an impossible job but he was not complaining, Beau thought, just trying to be in three places at once and not always succeeding. Well, he could help, and he would.
He addressed the men, telling them where he thought their weaknesses lay and how he intended to improve their skills. By the end of the morning they were hot, sweating and panting, dirty from numerous tumbles and bruised from each other’s swords, but they were hanging on Beau’s every word and he knew he had the makings of a good troop. He dismissed them to wash and eat and do whatever other work they did. No man in the castle would have just one role, though most would find their lot easier to bear than Rae.
He walked back into the courtyard and rinsed his face and arms in a horse trough. The masons were sitting in whatever shade they could find, eating and drinking to fortify themselves for the afternoon. The fighting men had dispersed; he spotted one or two over by the stables and another entering the kitchens. He had no idea when the main meal of the day would be served and sauntered over to the kitchens to inquire. A busy cook waved him towards the main hall.
“We serve all day, good sir. While we have the builders needing our services and while people are doing more than one job, everyone takes sustenance when they can. Help yourself. And take these while you’re at it.” A tray of loaves was dumped unceremoniously into the hands he had stretched out instinctively when the tray seemed headed for him. The smell of warm bread was delicious and he bore the prize to the hall, hoping he would be able to garner a loaf for himself when he got there.
Rae watched his new captain of the garrison deliver a tray of bread to a table and laughed. Not in a malicious way and certainly not poking fun at the man. But a serving role was so incongruous for the knight, and yet he seemed happy to turn his hand to anything needed. He made sure he got his share of the new bread, and a slice of cheese, too, and came to join Rae at the top table. Beau had clearly plunged his head into the water trough and drops still glistened on the black hair, making it shine like silk. He was, thought Rae, an extremely handsome man, and then he brushed the thought aside as if it was an annoying insect. This was Giles’s friend, and he did not deserve to be ogled, however much Rae might admire his looks.
“How are they doing?”
“The loaves? Going like wildfire, and I’m not surprised. Your baker is good.”
“Not the loaves, though I agree about the baker. The soldiers or the would-be soldiers I left in your tender care.”
“Half -baked, unlike the loaves, but I’ll sort them out. Have them in good fettle by the time Giles gets back. He can’t have expected you to train them seriously with all your other responsibilities.”
“Probably not, but there was no-one else. And they’d fight fiercely enough to protect Aelfware and the children. Though I suspect they’d be happier handling staves and scythes than swords.”
“Perhaps I’d be better giving them some practice with staves,” said Beau, thoughtfully. “After all, we want a defence force, not an army.”
“I considered that, but I’m not experienced with a quarterstaff myself. If you can teach them the basics I’ll join them for the lessons.”
“And risk a bump on your head that will put you out of action for a day or longer? I think not, but I’ll tutor you privately if you wish.”
Rae smiled. "That would suit me well," he said, and was about to make arrangements about times and places but the master mason was at his shoulder.
"We need your advice," the man said gruffly. "There's a question of the height of a window opening and only you can decide. It was all settled then we had to change the lintel and the sill and everything was thrown awry again. Is now a good time?"
"Give me a few moments. I need to eat, same as all of you." Rae stuffed a crust of bread in his mouth almost as soon as he had spoken, hoping the mason would at least see that he had interrupted a meal, even though the conversation he had halted was even more important.
"I'm not so sure." Hidden laughter bubbled through Beau's words. "You could probably exist on air while you sorted every problem in the castle." The mason glared at him, sensing sarcasm but not sure whether it was directed at him or at Raedwolf.
"We need a decision this afternoon," he warned the castellan, then turned and headed back out to his workmen.
Beau grinned and offered Rae a slice of cheese he had just carved with his knife. "Eat, man, while you can. They'd have you run ragged for their convenience, I think."
"Perhaps, but Giles left everything to me to organise," Rae said. "I want him to return to a castle he will be proud of." He took the cheese from the tip of Beau's knife and munched it with pleasure,
"He'll be pleased. The place looks wonderful; he told me it was a mere building site. Have some more cheese and tell me when I'm to knock you around with a stave." Beau cut another slice and seemed to be waiting for an answer but Yffi was there beside them, asking a question about Tonnerre's feed. It was Beau's turn to be interrupted and Rae couldn't help smiling as he watched his new friend deal courteously with the stableman.
"You can knock me around any time you can find me," he said at last, when Yffi had left them. Beau raised a single eyebrow and started to speak but one of the castle children, one of the youngsters always underfoot but useful for taking messages, was suddenly there, weaving into the space between them and tugging on Rae's tunic in an effort to be heard.
"What is it, Sebbi?" Rae made sure he knew all their names and treated them as equals, talking quite seriously to the children who would one day be adults and part of his staff.
"Offa sent me to ask..." and Sebbi launched into a long and involved question about something trivial but immediate so that Rae had to concentrate and give a considered opinion. Some trees had been felled outside the castle and were now on a cart at the gate. Offa was awaiting instructions about where they were to be offloaded, which of course depended on whether they were fuel or the material for carpentry. If the latter, they would need to be seasoned somewhere and Rae would have to find a space.
"Tell Offa I'll be with him shortly," he said, and Sebbi scampered off.
"I need an answer too, you know," said Beau. "Perhaps if I tugged your tunic or came with an armful of staves you'd have time for me." He smiled, apparently amused rather than offended, but Rae felt faintly guilty. His time was never his own, but Beau was offering to do something for him.
"I'd welcome a chance to profit from private tuition from you," he said. "You can see how we'd be interrupted, though."
"Maybe in the early evening, after the masons have left? And maybe on the battlements where you aren't in the thick of things? I'd be glad to teach you."
And Rae would be glad to learn; glad, too, to have time alone with someone who was giving something to him, rather than demanding his attention. He promised to hold Beau to his offer and went to see to the demands of the busy castle. He whistled as he went, more relaxed than he had been for weeks. It was good to know that at least one of his tasks was delegated and in apparently competent hands. Beau would certainly earn his keep. And there would be the evenings to look forward to.
Over the next week or two they developed a routine. They slept side by side among the men in the hall, broke their fast together and then parted company for Beau to drill his men while Rae saw to the needs of masons and bakers and ostlers and the like. After the main meal, which they took in the early evening with Aelfware and the rest of the family as well as the castle’s workforce, they would take their staves up to the battlements. Rae was learning fast and after a practice bout they would stay looking over the countryside in peaceful silence, contemplating their surroundings without comment. Sometimes Beau simply contemplated the Saxon, surreptitiously, of course.
The giant turned out to be Mathieu, a Norman smith, who acted as a gate guard when he wasn’t busy in his forge. Beau asked him for another sword, something workmanlike to carry at all times. He would, he thought, leave his crusader sword in Aelfware’s solar but he would prefer more than a practice blade about his person in this ungated community.
“Fuss, fuss, fuss.” Mathieu grunted his displeasure. “Most take what they’re given and are glad of it.”
“But if I need to defend myself or the castle I need to do it to the best of my ability and that means a sword suited to my strength and reach. You know Sir Giles would agree.”
“Ah, but Sir Giles is a crusader.”
“And so am I, Mathieu, so am I.” Mathieu glared but said no more and the next day Beau had as good a weapon as he could have wished for. He cajoled one of the ostlers, a man in his fighting group, into giving him some offcuts of leather, and fashioned a sheath and belt. Rae seemed surprised when he saw the new accoutrement.
“You could have taken your holy sword back, you know. I never meant you to feel disarmed.”
“And I didn’t. Those training swords can do a lot of damage, but I admit I feel happier with something sharper by my side. And no, before you ask, I don’t expect trouble, I’m just more comfortable prepared for it if it ever came.”
“But you don’t need two swords.”
Beau shrugged. “If I ever leave here I’ll leave one behind,” he said. “Meanwhile, I have a spare, should anything happen to this.” He indicated the new weapon by his side.
“Mathieu’s work is good. Your sword will serve you well.”
“I hope so.” He resumed his watch on the road, the one he had approached along those few weeks ago. It was, as usual, empty. He was unsure why he’d wanted a second sword. Many crusaders had more than one, but he had always sworn by the blade blessed by Ismidon. Now, he felt compelled to have two weapons though he could not for the life of him have said why. Rae had one of Mathieu’s making, too, a serviceable blade in a sheath made by Aelfware, or perhaps Ysabel, heavy canvas with stitchery of leaves interspersed with crosses.
“Who taught you swordplay?” He thought he knew the answer but wanted to hear more about Rae’s past.
“Sir Giles, of course. Once he’d promised my sister he’d see to my upbringing, well, the man never does things by halves. He taught me to read and write, taught me to fight and taught me to figure, too, well enough to be his seneschal. I owe him everything I am, and even if I didn’t, I’d look after his holdings as if they were my own, for Aelfware’s sake.”
“Your sister and your nephews and niece,” said Beau, thoughtfully. “What about Ysabel? Do you see her as family too?”
“I do, but only as a link through Aelfware.”
“But I think she’d have more than that. I’ve seen her look at you.”
“And her brother would never agree. Though it doesn’t worry me; I have no yearning for Ysabel. What about you?”
“I think a southern Frenchman would be about as welcome as a Saxon,” said Beau. “These Normans are proud.”
“Ysabel hated the old house, the wooden one in the motte-and-bailey. She said it was beneath the dignity of the de Coudrais. She is happier, I think, with this new stone.”
Beau's raised eyebrow expressed surprise. “The Normandy manoirs are just that, manor houses; fortified, yes, but half timbered and small. Ysabel must have dreams of grandeur. Perhaps Giles will find a courtier for her when he returns.”
“Perhaps. I will be glad of anyone he finds if they make her forget me.” So Rae resented the attention paid him by a haughty Norman maid who knew quite well she could never be anything more than his brother-in-law’s sister. Beau sympathised and they exchanged a speaking look. They were silent again until an owl swooped low over the parapets, calling to its mate, and then they went down to the solar for an hour or so of conversation and civilisation before bedtime, and Aelfware and the little ones made up for Ysabel’s annoyance factor.
Rae was annoyed with himself. He saw Beau every day and by now the novelty of the man’s presence should have worn off. They were friends, colleagues, partners of a kind, and he should not be wanting more. He probably should not want more under any circumstances but when he looked at the broad shoulders and the handsome face he had to turn away until his arousal was less obvious, and he took to wearing one of his longer tunics as a matter of course. He was rarely so taken with a face and figure. There was a young man among the masons who gave him a pleasurable jolt when he saw him crouched over a block of stone, another at Cowley Underwold at the mill who’d given him some satisfaction at one time, and yet another among the monks at Temple Cowley, a pleasing youngster who might yet join the Knights Templar. But they were just good to look at. They did not invade his dreams or incite such intense physical reactions.
He knew he was more interested in men than in women and hoped, vaguely, for some kind of love, some day, whilst not really expecting any such thing. But his lord’s friend... He should not be thinking of him this way even though the man was more his own age than Giles's. And he should quell the disproportionate joy he felt in his company.
It was a joy that surged on the battlements in the evenings, and that dizzied him when they spent a few snatched moments practising with their wooden staves in the courtyard, cheered on by stone cutters and any others who passed. It was a joy that settled in his heart when they played games with the children, a joy that lulled him to sleep listening to Beau’s breathing, and a joy that took him bounding to the kitchens for a breakfast snack and the first drink of the day.
He hoped no-one had noticed but he feared Aelfware had. She gave him commiserating looks and tried hard not to interrupt any activity where he had Beau to himself, such as the stave practice or a midday meal. Ysabel was unlikely to notice anything that did not concern her immediately.
The children saw them as friends and Henry asked shyly,” You like Sir Beau, do you not, uncle?” And when Rae nodded and smiled, Henry said to Giles, his brother, “See, Uncle Rae is pleased with our new captain and we can trust him to help care for us until Father comes home.”
Beau seemed oblivious and they were the best of friends. But Rae couldn’t help wanting more.
It was past harvest time and the granaries were nicely full. The nights were drawing in and their evenings on the battlements were curtailed. Sometimes on warmer nights they had stayed beyond dark but the air was cooler now, with an autumn nip; the solar with its warm hearth beckoned. All the same, Beau was reluctant to join the womenfolk and children. He enjoyed Rae’s quiet companionship after the day’s toil and did not long to share his friend with chattering little ones, games of childish chance and the sighing talk of Aelfware and Ysabel who both seemed to find anything to do with the crusades akin to a fairy tale.
“I suppose they’ll want more reminiscences of Jerusalem,” he said.
“I should think you’ve run out of those by now.” Rae grinned, his teeth shining in the moonlight. Despite his height and strength, he looked almost fae in the growing dark, curls drifting around a face that was sculpted as if by one of the stone carvers. Although, thought Beau, the carver had slipped. There was an uneven cheekbone, product of a childish accident with a pony, so Rae had told him. It didn’t spoil the man’s good looks, but it added a slight strangeness, contributing to the other-worldly aspect. Beau wanted, as he always did, to touch, to smooth the damaged cheek and the unruly hair. As always, he restrained himself. He would not make overtures to his friend’s brother-in-law. Not without some kind of invitation, anyway, and that had not so far been forthcoming.
“There are plenty, but not for the ladies. They want romance: glory and friendship; battles won and lost in splendour. They would not thank me for plague and rats, cockroaches in the stew, dying and blood. War has to be sanitised for them, I think.”
“They’re tough enough and used enough to blood when it comes to childbirth and caring for children. Why do you think they couldn’t cope with darker tales?”
“Ysabel changes the subject if I so much as mention injuries, though tragic death sees her sighing and wiping her eyes. Aelfware looks at the children and although I think she would admit Henry to be old enough to hear the truth of the world, the others are young and Adela in particular is hardly of an age to understand the less savoury aspects of crusading.”
“There are less savoury things in nursery tales, too, and in the bible stories the priest tells. I think maybe you and Aelfware should try not to coddle the little ones. Though I must say I could do without the cockroaches.”
“They add to the meat content.”
“Then I’d opt for roots and barley.”
“Even harder to get in Jerusalem.” They both laughed and Beau spent the next few minutes sharing some of the exploits and tales he considered unsuitable for ladies’ ears, but he stuck to the more amusing or salacious stories.
Rae turned to go down to the solar and Beau followed him, wondering whether his friend would even understand the depths to which men could sink in war. Jerusalem had been no shining city of valour and deeds of chivalry. Beau shuddered as he remembered it and shook his head to clear it and bring to the fore some tales appropriate for gentle listeners. He still included Rae in the term. The castellan had no experience of real warfare and Beau did not want to be the one to tell him about the whole reality. He wondered whether all soldiers kept their experiences to themselves. Probably. He would find some story of goodness to tell. There were some of those, too, although he was fast going through his small store.
But when he entered the solar after Rae, there was no thought of telling stories round the fire. Aelfware was talking to Rae, her words rapid and strained. Ysabel was hushing the children, trying to persuade Adela to sleep, and the boys to play with some wooden blocks, offcuts from the carpenters’ work in the great hall.
“Beornwynne told me,” said Aelfware. “She had it from Hild, whose man works in the storerooms. There are gaps in the stores for sure.”
“How does he know? Most of the men who help stack the sacks and containers can’t count well. They are strong and work hard but they don’t tally the grain that comes in.”
“They may not count beyond ten but they know when a cupboard or a niche is full and when it suddenly has more room than it should by their rough reckoning.”
“Trouble?” Beau walked over to the fire and held out his hands to the blaze. It was unlike Aelfware to concern herself with servants’ tales. Beornwynne must have told her something serious.
“Missing sacks of grain,” said Rae, sounding depressed. “I shall have to check tomorrow, of course, but it does sound as if there has been some pilfering.”
“Why would someone steal grain?” Ysabel looked up from her seat among the children. “The kitchens provide enough and more than enough for all. No-one goes hungry here, and there would be no-one to sell it to. The bakers have sufficient from the stores and the village have full granaries, too. I walked down there today with Adela and the barns were bursting with the harvest.”
“Rebels.” Rae didn’t elaborate but Beau knew he meant the Saxons who did not accept their Norman overlords. There were said to be some in the area though the gossip he’d overheard among the men was vague and almost just a matter for the teasing of younger trainees.
“I’ve heard rumours,” he said slowly, and added, at Rae’s keen look, “and as well as checking the stores you could do worse than question Offa and Cearl. They were telling Yffi, this morning, that his stave work would not be good enough to see off the rebels in the woods south of here. I thought they were simply telling tall tales to encourage him to practise, but maybe there’s something behind their jests.”
Beornwynne came in with a tray of supper things and they settled to eat and relax but the talk was all of the castle and the village. No-one wanted to hear about Jerusalem tonight, and it was agreed that Ysabel and the children should cease their walks to the village for the time being.
On their way to the hall Rae paused in the courtyard. “I’ll be glad when the gate is finally hung,” he said. The gate had been almost finished once and turned out to have been mismeasured. The carpenters were working to resize it and coat the cut edges against the weather. It was a massive thing, hard to manoeuvre, and Rae thought it would make the castle a great deal more secure. At the moment they had battlements, a few men skilled with bows, and the small group Beau was training with swords and staffs. It wasn’t that he expected trouble but it was as well to be prepared. Giles had been away a long time and the castle might be considered easy pickings by rebels who thought it less than well defended.
“A locked gate only keeps an honest man out,” said Beau. “The others wait till it’s open and make their way in, or perhaps climb the walls. What do you think?”
“The pilfering, you mean? I’ve no doubt that’s taking place under our noses. It would be all too easy for strangers to join the building workers. Jean has a problem keeping men; there’s always another job over the hill, better paid and with easier women. No, I’m not worried about the grain loss itself, except in so far as it lets them see how we go on here. And thumb their noses at us. We have grain enough and to spare and I’m sure anyone in real need would simply come and ask. The thieves have to be either rebels themselves or in contact with them. And a rebel attack would be at least be halted a while by a strong gate.” He had talked to Jean, the Norman master builder, only the previous day and knew full well about the constant turnover of workers. It would be beyond himself and Jean to keep track of them all, and he wasn’t sure it would be wise to try. They prided themselves on a friendly working atmosphere with light supervision and a heavy delivery of trust.
“But how would they get the sacks out?” Beau frowned.
“They wouldn’t need to. They could take small bags inside their toolbags. The amounts would soon add up. Have added up, in fact, to the point where someone has noticed. I just hope he hasn’t spread the word too widely. I don’t want people eyeing each other with suspicion and I certainly don’t want the thieves trying to put one of my men out of action.”
“Yes, Offa. He’s a good worker and an honest soul. But I hope he has only shared his worries with Hild. I’ll speak to him in the morning and make sure.”
“He’s turning into a competent soldier too. He could give a good account of himself if necessary.”
“But in his own workplace, in the storerooms, he’d never expect it to be necessary. That would put him at a disadvantage, I think.”
They had reached the doors of the hall and Rae was instantly aware of Beau’s hand on his shoulder. It was meant, he assumed, as reassurance and he appreciated it. It was good to have a friend, someone he could rely on. The Normans, he often suspected, looked down on him a little, even as they respected Giles’s choice of castellan and would not disobey instructions, and the Saxons could so easily be in league with the rebels. Beau was a foreigner and unconnected with either faction. And he was charming, handsome, and interesting, whispered Rae’s mind, determined to betray him. But he simply placed a hand lightly on the one Beau had on his shoulder and then went first through the doorway. They found a space for their bedrolls, their usual spot quite near the door.
Rae didn’t fall asleep straight away. He kept thinking about possible trouble and how to circumvent it. He kept listening to the snores and snuffles of the men, twenty or thirty servants and craftsmen who had no wife and no need to seek more private quarters. Not that many of the married couples had anything approaching a house, but Giles had tried to give them at least a curtained alcove and Rae made sure that tradition was continued. Mathieu was not on guard duty tonight. It was Offa’s turn, and Hild would be sleeping with Beornwynne, probably on a bed in the solar where they could serve the lady if needed. Mathieu, as befitted a big man, had a big snore, and a way of rolling and turning noisily in his sleep. Rae felt calmed by his presence but irritated by the disturbance. He lay looking at Beau, who had fallen asleep almost as soon as he had wrapped himself in his bedding. Crusaders, he supposed, had to learn to sleep anywhere. Beau’s face was shadowed but visible in the moonlight that shone through the window spaces. Soon they would need to board them at night to keep from freezing; for now, Rae was glad to be able to watch his friend. And if he sometimes wished he could do more than watch, well, nobody needed to know.
Beau watched Rae chat to Jean again in the morning. Then the castellan walked around the workmen, stopping by a young stone carver who was biting his lip in concentration but not actually doing anything with the tool in his hand.
“What’s the matter, Luc?” Beau heard him ask. The boy looked up and sighed.
“I can’t get the face right, sir,” he said. “It’s a gargoyle for the chapel eaves and see? The face doesn’t look like a gargoyle at all.”
“That’s because you’re trying to make it perfect.”
“Well, of course I am. It’s for the Lord’s house, after all.”
“Ah, yes, but gargoyles always look human. And human faces are never perfect. They all have their own slight imbalances, some more than others. Take mine, with my damaged cheek. You could give that to a gargoyle and he would take on some personality. Not that I want to be immortalised in stone, you understand, but you get the idea?” Luc nodded, a little doubtfully, and Rae saw Beau watching them. “Look at Sir Beau, if you think my face is too imperfect for the chapel. Our knight has an almost perfect face - but only almost. Look at his eyebrows.”
“One’s a little higher than the other,” said Luc, slowly. And then he turned to his work and a few chips of stone later a human face looked at them from the gargoyle. The boy was ecstatic and Rae laughed.
“Now you know what to do,” he said. “Look carefully at your fellow men and see what little individual elements you can add to your carving. You’ll find your stone faces live. And that will be to the glory of the Lord, you know. Father Simon would say so, I’m sure.” Luc nodded vigorously, having sat through many a sermon in the village church. Rae clapped him on the shoulder and moved away.
“You’re quite the artist,” said Beau. “Or at least you see through an artist’s eyes.”
Rae’s smile was full of regret. “I used to love drawing as a child, and carving, or whittling as I suppose it was at that age. But my sister and her husband soon brought me to realise it could never be more than a pleasant hobby. It would not do for the station I was expected to fill.”
“I suppose Giles would not want a stone worker or carpenter for a brother-in-law,” said Beau. He spoke calmly but inwardly he suddenly wanted to give Rae chisels, honey-coloured stone, charcoal and pale parchment and let him practise art to his heart’s content. Instead, the artist in Rae would have to be satisfied with helping the youngsters on the site and perhaps passing on some skills to Aelfware’s children. Or maybe his own? That idea hurt more than it should and Beau went quickly to the training field. That morning the men he partnered wondered at his aggression but he assured them an enemy would not wait while they caught their breath or readjusted their stance. They would need to fight as if they meant it.
Rae spent time with the workmen then gestured for Jean’s attention. He told the master builder of his suspicions as to how the grain was leaving the castle.
“Hmmm. I’ve a good few Saxons working for me,” said Jean, slowly, “but I have no way of knowing their allegiances. You could inspect their toolkits, I suppose, but...”
“...but it would alert the wrongdoers instantly and might drive the rest to seek work elsewhere.”
“Yes. The knights over at Temple Cowley are building and there’s plenty of work there. We can’t afford to lose men this close to winter. You need your gate, to begin with, and you need better stables, too. We can get them up before the worst of the weather but not if we’re short-handed.”
“Well, do your best. Keep your eyes and ears open for anything odd, and let me know.”
“Of course. And if you find anything, deal with it quietly; I don’t want a mutiny on my hands.” Jean sounded serious but he smiled to soften his words. He knew Rae would manage the matter as well as possible.
Rae smiled back and went in search of Offa. The man would have had a few hours sleep since his overnight guard duties and should be at work in the stores. He would not have attended the drill with Beau today. Sure enough, he found him storing apples in big open baskets, not too many to each, so that any bad ones could be quickly spotted and thrown out before affecting the rest.
“Offa,” he said, and was glad that the man turned with a smile. It was good to be welcome among some of the castle staff. Offa, of course, was a Saxon like he was, and was pleasingly lacking in any jealousy of Rae’s high position. “Hild passed on what you said, to Beornwynne, and she told her lady, who told me.”
“About the missing grain? I would have come to you but I wanted to know more, first, like whether there were any other gaps in the stores and who might be responsible.”
“Not your job, Offa. Don’t risk upsetting any of the men. Especially, don’t try to spy on them. And don’t noise your suspicions abroad.”
“Sounds as if you think it’s serious, then.”
“Oh yes, it’s serious all right. But not because of a small amount of grain missing. I think it points to rebels, you see, and I need to know more, but not at your expense.”
“I’ll stay quiet. But if I accidentally hear anything I’ll tell Hild. That way it should get to you again, like this, without anyone realising it was me who told.”
“That sounds sensible. Are there any other gaps?”
Offa told him about a missing ham, that he’d previously thought was just an instance of greed, and showed him the grain stores. Then Rae went round all the work stations in the castle, bakery, dairy, kitchen, smithy, stables, candle maker, hoping it would be enough to divert attention from his inspection of the stores.
By the time he’d finished he was hungry, and the men were on their way back from their weapons drill. He knew he would find Beau in the hall and indeed, Beau was already sitting with a hunk of fresh bread and some sliced ham. Rae told him about the missing ham and Beau scowled. Grain seemed more amorphous, somehow, not yet turned into flour, let alone bread. But a ham... He had a taste for ham and the ones cured here were something special. He confirmed that he’d had a word with Cearl. Offa, of course, had missed training to sleep after a night on duty. Cearl had said that yes, the rumours of rebels to the south were growing and no, he didn’t know the source. It was just that there were whispers, and some of the men had been invited to join an uprising. None of them ever knew the men who asked, nor did they see them again if they refused the invitation. Or so they said. It was all very nebulous and every path he pursued drifted away like smoke.
“Cearl might or might not know more,” he said, “but he certainly wasn’t telling, though maybe he’d say more to a fellow Saxon.”
“But they say south?”
“South of here, yes, but whether due south or south east or south west, I wasn’t able to gather. Remember I don’t know the region well but in any case he didn’t name any places.”
“Perhaps I should try tracking them, if I could only spot even one of them leaving with something incriminating.” He told Beau about his conversation with Jean. “I think they have to be taking things just before they leave in the evening. Earlier in the day there are too many people in the store rooms. Though some might be sympathetic to their cause. It’s a headache, Beau.”
“I’d track a ham as far as the south coast if I could but get on its trail,” Beau told him, and Rae grinned.
“I think I might hide myself in the stores later,” he said.
“How? Disguised as a side of beef?”
“Or buried in a basket of apples. Seriously, I’m not sure. What do you think?”
“There’s a dark alcove with tallow candles if I remember rightly,” said Beau, who had insisted on a tour of the whole castle, needing to know what he was asked to defend. “If you can stand the smell of all that tallow in one place it might be ideal. I can’t think they’ll be stealing candles.”
“No, they’ll no doubt have their own rushlights, or they’ll wake at dawn and sleep at dusk, or maybe in winter use fires. They won’t be settled in one place with a need for lanthorns or candlesticks.”
“Then you could settle yourself there and maybe see if anyone comes. But we have no way of knowing if they try it every day. At any rate, I could loiter around in the courtyard, pretend to look at some of the carvings and so on, and when you come out we could follow whoever it was. I assume you don’t want to apprehend him?”
“No. We need to follow the rat back to his lair. But I won’t necessarily see who it is, just that the theft occurs. I’ll be all tangled up in tallow and wicks, remember.”
“Then I memorise everyone who comes out of the stores and when you emerge we follow the last one.”
“Sounds simple but I expect it will prove both tedious and difficult.”
“Anything to catch someone who would take our ham.” Beau sounded determined and Rae knew that beneath the casual remark he had found a true partner, someone he could rely on.
They decided to leave it a day or two so as not to draw any attention to Rae’s inspection tour, if anyone was watching him. Beau made a habit of spending the end of the day in the courtyard instead of going up to the battlements. If anyone thought he had fallen out with the castellan, let them. Or let them think Rae was just too busy to socialise in the early evenings. That would leave Beau at a loose end. The Normans were not particularly friendly and most of the Saxons spoke less French than he could wish. They could all make themselves understood and there were words that were starting to make their way from one language into the other, but not enough to make casual conversation particularly easy. The Norman words for food were becoming the usual words - beef, pork, mutton and so on were replacing the Saxon cows, pigs and sheep once the creatures were slaughtered, but Beau, however much he liked his food, had no desire to converse about it interminably. Rae, of course, spoke French, having learnt it from an early age from Giles, and from Father Simon who had helped tutor him. Beau was getting to grips with the Saxon tongue, enough to teach the men and to interrogate them too, but it was hard work and he preferred not to spend his leisure time doing it. Besides, the French the Normans spoke was different again to his own Langue d’Oc and altogether he had enough to do following the conversation in the solar and among the Normans like Mathieu and Jean. If he couldn’t chat to Rae, who was patient and spoke clearly and slowly, he would prefer not to chat at all.
So he found that if he wanted to spend time in the courtyard he would have to have a rational occupation. He could hardly admire the same carvings day after day. He took to helping with the arrows, showing the fletchers a French way of doing things and taking some satisfaction in the growing pile of arrows that he had readied; he had helped fletch arrows as a child in Vienne and found the work soothing. He need not work - he was in some sense a guest, after all - but Giles had effectively appointed him captain of the men-at-arms and he supposed that included the archers. He had no great knowledge of archery but it would be good to be familiar with their weapons. He sat by the well, able to see most of the courtyard, and well within sight of the storeroom entrance.
One afternoon he became aware of a shadow and looked up to find Rae watching him intently.
“You look almost at home.”
“I feel it.” He told Rae about his childhood labours and gestured to the arrows he’d finished. “You have French arrows for your quivers now,” he said.
“You are taking a great deal of interest in Winterton Cowley,” said Rae. “What will you do when Giles comes back? You mentioned something about seeking work in London.”
“I meant to, but when Giles heard my intent he sent me here with his message and I think, and hope, he means me to stay. What about you? Will there be enough work for both of us when he returns to take over the tasks of stewardship?”
“More than enough. He leaves a great deal to me when he’s here; I’ll be glad if you stay. But I think you already know that.” Rae’s face was slightly flushed, though he could have been exerting himself in the autumn sun. Beau’s heart leapt at the way his friend phrased his wishes and a tiny seed of hope started to grow, despite the lateness of the season.
“Did you want me?” He deliberately kept his question vague.
Rae’s blush deepened but he answered quite casually. “They’re training one of this year’s foals. I thought you might like to come and watch.”
Beau followed him happily to the stables and the smaller yard that led off them. It was a familiar place to him. Every day he saw to his horse, Tonnerre, and most days he and Rae rode at least around the outer walls or perhaps down to the village. There were grooms and ostlers, of course, but he liked to keep an eye on Tonnerre himself. The great black war horse was growing fat, living a life of ease in the castle, he reflected, but he couldn’t spare the time to ride further afield. One of the stable lads exercised Rae’s Star, but so far Beau had not quite trusted anyone to ride Tonnerre and the horse did not make friends easily, though he now accepted the occasional carrot from Henry and his younger brother Giles. The boys, and the stable lads who mucked out Tonnerre’s stall and kept him fed and watered were much too small to ride the beast and Beau did not know the other men as well, though Yffi was one of his trainees. Yffi, however, was also small.
Yffi was currently in the yard, leading a young and fairly skittish colt in big circles. He had an apple in his hand but every time the colt got close enough to try to snatch, he ran a few steps, letting the long leading rein distance him from the horse. The colt was expressing great interest in the ways of men, and showed no objection to the collar and rein; this would help when someone tried to saddle him.
Rae and Beau stood watching, amused at the colt’s obvious desire for the apple.
“Reminds me of you with the ham,” said Rae, grinning, green eyes alight with teasing. Beau grinned back and without thinking put an arm round Rae’s shoulders. It was the sort of gesture he might have made with any of his army colleagues but he’d never tried such intimacy with Rae and he almost gasped at his own effrontery. But Rae seemed to lean back into the hold and didn’t look worried. He was blushing again, though.
They watched for a while then Rae shook himself and declared he had work still to do. He didn’t look at Beau, just shrugged the encircling arm off gracefully and headed back to the main courtyard. Beau waited a minute or two, dreadfully conscious of his empty arm, then followed. There were arrows to fletch and the sun was going down.
The next afternoon, after making sure he was seen all over the castle, Rae told a number of people he was going down to the village and indeed headed for the gate but doubled back once there was a crowd of workmen to hide his movements and slipped into the stores. He secreted himself in the candle store, wrinkling his nose at the smell and giving thanks that Aelfware insisted on beeswax for the household lights. There were beeswax tapers here, too, and he took a pair from the shelf, holding them to his nose in relief. The faintly honeyed scent crowded out the rank tallow and made standing in the deep shadows of the alcove bearable. His efforts were in vain, however, and he emerged into the dusk to find Beau packing away his arrows, quite aware that no-one had gone in or out of the stores for some time, and that the last of the workmen had left for the night.
Three days of standing among the candles; three days of frustration. Then success. He could hear the clink of tools as men threw them into their bags and the shouts of the foremen of each team. The shadows at the door told him it was the end of work for the day and he thought he had had yet another empty wait. But a deeper shadow slipped in and he was immediately tense, sure this was what he had hoped to see. Or, not hoped, exactly, because who could hope to see theft? But needed. He needed to see and track this thief who was threatening the security of his little kingdom.
The man rummaged in the grain store and Rae heard the soft sound of grain pouring, presumably into a bag. Nobody from the castle would be legitimately fetching grain at this time of day, or indeed at all, unless there was an expedition to the mill at Cowley Underwold. The castle did not as yet have its own mill. This was the thief without a doubt. When he left, Rae waited before following, hoping Beau had indeed memorised every face that passed out of the door.
He had, and it was one of the young carpenters, Osuald, Rae thought. He was one of Jean's workers, a local man but not one of the castle servants. They were ready to follow him at once, but let the man pack his bags in a leisurely fashion. They chatted while they waited.
“We follow on foot?” Beau gave a longing glance at the stables. Tonnerre and Star would love to be involved in a chase but he knew this would be a secretive tracking, not a military charge and Rae had already told him they would not draw attention to themselves with horses.
“On foot,” Rae agreed, and they moved a little nearer the entrance. Osuald left, swinging his toolbag without an apparent care in the world, and the pair followed, waiting in the gateway’s shadow until they were sure he was heading past the village and then following casually, as if just out for a walk, or perhaps to visit someone outside the walls. They let him get a fair way ahead of them, trusting to his lack of awareness of their scrutiny to lead him to leave a trail. He entered a little wood just beyond the church and they followed quietly. They could hear him ahead of them, whistling, and smiled at each other as they pursued. They had no intention of doing more today than finding his destination. It could be that he was staying with some tenant farmer, and if so they might have to think again, but they hoped he would lead them to the rumoured rebel camp.
They walked quietly, trying not to step on dry sticks, thankful that the trees had not yet shed their leaves into rustling piles, not talking, communicating with gestures only. Rae was reminded of childhood games playing at hunting in the woods near Chobham, before he’d ever been caught up into this Norman world. Then the prey burst out into the open and they had to decide whether or not to risk being seen. They waited. At last they saw him enter a small copse and together they ran stooped, loping like hunting dogs across the fields, staying near the hedgerows and hoping they had not been spotted. Osuald would have no reason, Rae thought, to suspect he was being followed and so would not look back. Anything he heard would surely be put down to animals and birds. There were rooks and starlings chattering their evening news to each of their respective colonies and the noise would surely drown the sound of two men’s passage.
They were safe, they thought, as Osuald left the copse and headed down a slope towards the river. The stream that passed Winterton Cowley fed into this, the Thames, that led eventually to London and the sea. It was not broad here, not yet, but it was a river, nonetheless. Osuald was, Rae thought, unlikely to cross it. There were no bridges near here, or decent fords, and a ferry would be a stage too far for a day’s work, even if he was indeed spying on the castle and taking its stores. Sure enough, he turned and walked parallel to the bank. They stayed just outside the copse, hoping that the dusk would hide them against the trees, and watched. Then they followed, still up near the trees, which thinned into a straggling hedge. They could see the river, and they could see Osuald. Then suddenly they could see more: men and dogs and even a line of horses, almost hidden in the reed beds that lined the bank at this point. There were rough tents, and at least one cooking fire. Definitely a camp, and Rae could hear the sounds of Saxon conversation carried on the slight breeze that would have the added advantage of hiding anything they said from the men below. Rebels? He couldn’t think of any other reason for a Saxon camp by the river. Osuald was being hailed by one of the men, and Rae could hear his replies clearly.
“I’ve got more grain. They’re well supplied and they won’t miss it. I have more information too. I need to see Ordway or Pleoh.” There was a pause and a growl then, “All right, I’ll wait, but they’ll be pleased with what I’ve learnt. It’s paying off, all this carpentering of mine.”
Rae looked at Beau and mouthed, ‘Back,’ and as quietly as they had come they slipped under the shadow of the trees and took themselves towards the larger wood and finally the castle.
They were tired but it was a satisfied tiredness. They had a location and names, and a feeling of being half way towards knowing their enemy. Beau thought Rae would have made a good scout in the crusader army. The man could move as silently as a ghost and he was alert, intelligent, focussed. He didn’t often approve, in military terms, of the people he thought of as civilians. It was something else in Rae’s favour - not that it was needed. Beau knew himself well enough to know he was already entranced by the young Saxon castellan.
They didn’t talk till they were almost at the village, but when they crossed a stile in one of the home fields Beau dared to hold out a hand to Rae who took it, smiling, as he jumped lightly down. He hadn’t needed or asked for help and it was clear the hand had been held out as an excuse to touch. It had not been rejected. Beau was walking on air despite his weariness as they passed the church and took the slope up to the castle entrance. In the twisted entry he put his hand on Rae’s back and was again pleased to note his friend did not draw away. But any further touches were forestalled as Mathieu loomed at the inner archway, relaxing when he saw who was there.
“I didn’t know you were outside the walls,” he said.
“That’s as it should be,” Rae told him. “We’ve been spying on one of the workmen. We had reason to believe he was up to no good and we followed him home.”
“And home, “Beau told Mathieu, “turns out to be a Saxon camp on the river. Your swords might get some use yet.”
Mathieu was interested in their doings and they told him about the stolen grain.
“Saxons.” He spat. “Begging your pardon, Raedwolf. I know you’re loyal to Sir Giles, and to Aelfware, but you must admit your countrymen...”
“...can be rebellious and dangerous,” Rae finished for him. “But not all of them, Mathieu. I’m not the only good Saxon inside these walls. And those rebels are only acting on their own beliefs. Still, they’re endangering your lord’s lady and the children, so we’ll see them off, eh?” Mathieu nodded. He would be a good man to have with them if it came to a fight, and they would have to think hard about who else to involve. Beau wondered how Rae would choose. Even Offa, who seemed loyal and had reported the thefts, might just be acting in self preservation. He thought the men in his little troop were disposed to protect Winterton Cowley but he couldn’t be absolutely sure. Beornwynne, he thought, would know. Her loyalty was totally to Aelfware. They could ask her who to trust.
Meanwhile, they needed food and drink after their long walk, and Beornwynne would bring that to the solar if they asked. So they did, and the pastries she brought were well washed down with ale, while they told Aelfware and Ysabel about their afternoon’s work.
Beornwynne had definite ideas about which of the Saxons could be relied on to help rout the rebels. They ended with a small force of themselves, Offa, Cearl, Cearl’s brother Eadwin and a young archer called Irminric who assured them he could shoot from horseback. Rae wanted to include Yffi, whose loyalty Beornwynne assured them was solid, but Beau thought the lad too slight and not yet adequately trained for a venture that might go awry.
“He hasn’t grown into his full stature and strength yet, and he’s clumsy at times. I think he doesn’t always know the reach of his arm. I know he’s good with the horses; we can perhaps trust him to help us ready them, or maybe to follow with a spare mount. Although all of us are a great deal heavier than he is so he’ll probably have to lead a horse rather than ride it.”
Rae shrugged acquiescence and set about deciding which Normans to involve. Mathieu was an obvious choice. Warren, the master baker, was another, if they rode out at a time of day when he could be spared. Jean was a good man but was his own master, with no long-term allegiance to Winterton Cowley. Likewise, Luc, whilst showing far greater breadth of shoulder then Yffi, who was the same age, was Jean’s employee first. He discarded any idea of involving those two. Ansell, he thought, their master brewer and a trained fighting man, solid and dependable, Gaiallard, head of the archers, Maugre, the tall slim stablemaster with a shining cap of brown hair, and Josclyn, a dark fellow with a brooding look who was surprisingly merry despite his countenance, and was a carpenter permanently employed by Giles, though at the moment he worked with Jean’s men.
That made a round dozen fighting men if they rode out after the baking for the day was finished. It would have to be enough. Rae spoke privately to each of the men and impressed on them the need for secrecy.
“For we don’t want to alert them to our knowledge or plans,” he said, and all of them agreed, assuring him of their silence and their readiness. He left Maugre to speak with Yffi and warned him to keep the lad out of the main force. “He could perhaps lead two horses,” he said, and Maugre thought that would be possible. He could mount all of them, he promised, except Mathieu, who was too heavy for anything but a charger like Tonnerre. The giant would have to walk.
Aelfware and Ysabel were of course privy to the plans, and Aelfware alternated between admiring their resolution, and fearing for her brother, though she was careful to say nothing in front of the children. They could hardly be trusted not to blurt out the secret to the wrong ears. Ysabel was all admiration and looked forward to welcoming them home as heroes. She offered to sew favours but Rae pointed out that it was no sporting joust. They intended to fall on the rebels as dusk fell, expecting them to be at their cook fires. They would hope at the least to chase them away from the area with injuries to tend and a loss of belongings to deal with. It might be possible to kill or maim the leaders and disband the little group altogether. Beau had estimated at least a dozen men in the camp but surprise would be on the castle party’s side.
"They'll almost certainly be planning an attack soon." Rae was thoughtful. "If they know from Osuald that the gate is nearly ready they'll want to gain easy entrance while they can. That's probably the news he took to the leaders. I'd like to rout them before they come against us here."
"But we can't be sure we'll get them all," said Beau. "If any escape and regroup they might still try to assault the castle, even if only to create chaos and misery."
"So we wait a little. Perhaps until the gate is actually ready to hang. They'd need some days to reorganise and by then we'd have more ability to keep them out."
So it was agreed. The gate would be ready in a few days and Rae very much wanted to take the offensive against the rebels first. Judging the right moment was going to be a gamble.
“And yet,” he said to Beau, hovering as the Frenchman added yet more arrows to his pile, “I don’t like planning to kill or injure men who have done nothing to deserve it so far. And why you are still fletching when we have finished our spying game is a mystery to me.”
“Kill or be killed. They must be rebels; no reason to camp there, send Osuald spying, take our grain, unless they have some malicious intent. If you hang back, your sister, or your niece and nephews could be the ones injured or even dead. As to the arrows, I like doing it, and we need arrows.” He threw another onto the pile and stood, stretching.
“I suppose you’re right. I know you’re right. And we will go ahead with our plans. But I still don’t enjoy it.”
“I would think less of you if you did. Should we ask Father Simon to absolve us before we go, do you think?”
“No.” Rae shook his curls vigorously. “It would be hard to keep that a secret from any who saw us go to the church on a weekday. We’d have to give the others the same chance and it would be a procession of penitents advertising itself to the world.” He grinned as he imagined it, like a religious festival parade.
“Then I’ll take my blessed sword,” was all Beau said in reply, and Rae hoped its alleged holiness might cast its blessing over him as well.
Beau needed the peace that fletching in the afternoon sun brought him. His whole body was taut with desire. The small touches he had managed to bestow on Rae so far had not been nearly enough. They had made him hungry for more, especially since Rae had shown no signs of rejecting his advances. There was nowhere, and no time, to follow them up. At night in the hall he feigned sleep and was aware of Rae watching him. He didn’t dare even exchange glances with him. They had nowhere else to go and must sleep among the men, and it would not do to bring attention to their mutual attraction.
Sometimes there were the unmistakable sounds of sex in the night, too immediate to be from the alcoves where the married folk slept, so Beau knew there were others who preferred their own gender or perhaps had no choice, but Raedwolf was in charge of these people, from his sister down to the lads who ran the odd message, and he needed to remain on some kind of pedestal, different from the common men under his command, and an affair conducted in public would not help. It would make him somehow more human and less of a leader. There were grunts and sighs from the bedrolls that came, Beau was sure, from men who pleasured themselves, too, but again, he and Rae should remain above all that, should try to make themselves men to look up to, to see as captain and castellan, not ordinary beings like the other men with desires that some might think base.
Not that he thought of his desires as at all base. He was in love by now, as well as in lust, fascinated by his Saxon friend and valuing his company. But he knew men, and soldiers, and he wanted nothing to harm his love’s reputation. So he fletched arrows and dreamed.
Rae joined him on the bench near the well. He had, Beau knew, spent the day rushing from one minor problem to another and was probably glad of a chance to sit. They sat in a companionable silence for a while. Beau wondered whether he dare say anything or if to put their relationship, or their potential relationship, into words, would make things worse. He thought it unlikely that Rae would reject him, even if he rejected any consummation of their feelings because of his position. He was feeling fairly sure his affections were returned and that, as much as the sunshine, was soothing. He glanced at Rae and saw that the man was as taut as a pulled bowstring. Too much to do, or something else?” Would talking help, he wondered. But how to start?
“I like being here,” he said at last. “I’m grateful to Giles for sending me. Your small castle has become home, and I shall be proud to help defend it.” Best to start with generalities and on a positive note. Rae murmured some kind of agreement so Beau went on. “I’ll be glad to defend those I have come to care for.”
Rae’s sharp movement expressed surprise. “Aelfware?” he said. “Ysabel? I didn’t think you would... but I expect you mean you care for them as Giles’s family. And the children, of course.”
“I wasn’t really thinking of the women and children when I spoke.”
“No. Rae, you must know...” Rae’s eyes were wide, sunlight sparkling in the green depths. But what he must know and what he did know were moot points. Yffi came rushing to them, almost falling over his feet in his rush, his small face a picture of despair.
“They’re gone...we thought...but now...and I didn’t know...and Maugre says... but you are going to be so angry...and we couldn’t help it, truly, though that’s not an excuse, I know...” He stuttered to a halt, seemingly unaware that so far he had made little sense to Rae, and none at all to Beau, who was struggling to understand the disjointed Saxon phrases.
“Start again. Slowly,” Rae said, and stood, putting a calming hand on the boy’s shoulder. Beau watched him, half worried for whatever Yffi had to say and half admiring Rae’s ability to talk to the men and make them feel safe and valued with a word, a look.
Yffi took a deep breath and began again. “We’ve been exercising most of the horses, turn and turn about, all day. One or two of the carpenters have been watching; the gate’s finished and they’re just waiting till the smith puts the last knobs or whatever they call them in place. Luc even helped us by riding Star. I know he’s a good rider and I thought... but never mind that. He came home and rubbed Star down before stabling her. I said he should get Wind next, you know, the lady’s second mare, the one that’s dam to that colt we’re training. But he said... he said...” The lad was trying not to cry but Rae’s hand seemed to steady him and he sniffed instead. “Wind’s gone, and so’s the colt. We were all out so anyone could have taken them. They could even have passed you and you wouldn’t have thought anything of it, just that someone was exercising the horses. But Maugre thinks it wasn’t just horse rustling, he thinks...”
“...that Osuald or one of his friends has taken them.” Rae’s eyes were far from sparkling now. The green was hard, dull but dangerous. “Don’t blame yourselves too much. We’ve been arrogant and lazy, all of us, myself more than anyone. I knew the danger and I did nothing to step up security. I didn’t think they’d dare so much. But we’ll get them back, Yffi. We’ll get them back.” Beau saw the castellan, Giles’s brother-in-law, take over from the friend and possible lover. He admired the way Rae took responsibility without complaint and looked forward to revenge instead of regretting what had happened. Just something else to endear the Saxon to the French soldier.
Maugre was in the courtyard now, his usually calm face creased with worry. But behind him was Wilfrid, one of the stablemen Beornwynne wasn’t sure of. Maugre looked concerned but Beau knew Rae and the Norman would not speak in front of someone whose loyalty was less than certain.
“Yffi and Wilfrid, go back and see to the other horses. Maugre, go to the hall. I’ll talk to you in a moment. I need to speak to Mathieu first. He might have seen something at the gateway. Beau, you know who else might help.” Rae looked hard at Beau, sure of him, sure he would know who to bring to the hall, without telling, without calling out their purpose to the whole castle.
Beau went immediately to fetch the others, and then to collect his French sword. He could tell Aelfware or Ysabel, whoever was in the solar, what was going on, just by taking his sword from the shelf.
Soon he entered the hall, glad to find the rest there already. Not Yffi, of course; Maugre would brief him when they collected their mounts. He hoped the exercising hadn’t been too enthusiastic today; they might need speed and would certainly be in need of stamina and discipline.
Rae quickly told the assembled group what had happened. "We've lost your lady's horse," he said, "and her foal. The rebels must be laughing in their camp and thumbing their noses at us. It's time we put a stop to their activities."
"There's a further problem." Maugre's voice was urgent. "Wind was to be one of the spare mounts. Should we just give Yffi one horse to lead or shall we choose another?"
"Someone else could walk with me." Mathieu sounded almost pleased. Beau listened to the Normans, glad this was a conversation he could follow easily.
"Maugre, you should join Mathieu," said Rae, in a voice that halted discussion. "It will be good to have two scouts on foot, and if we get Wind back you know her best and can bring her and the foal home." Beau admired the rapid planning and leadership skills Rae showed. The Saxon would have made a good crusader knight, he thought.
"I was going to ride Flèche," Maugre objected, but Rae shook his head decisively.
"Let Yffi lead Flèche as well as Moonlight," he said. "Now, all of you grab something to eat and pick up your weapons. Make sure you wear something protective too; those heavy leather vests we talked about and a helmet if you have one. We'll meet in the stables."
"What about the stable lads?" Again it was Maugre who raised a question but Beau thought the man was genuinely concerned that the plan should go well, rather than being awkward or uncomfortable with Rae's authority.
"Dismiss them all as soon as you can," said Rae. "It's not long till meal time, anyway. Keep Yffi back and help him get everything ready. Take him something to eat. Whoever reaches the stables first can help you with the horses." He looked round at the men who were nodding at his words, some already turning on their heels to follow his orders. "We'll be ready to leave before dusk," he said at last, and dismissed them with a wave of his hand.
Beau joined Rae as they took some bread and sweet pears from a side table. As soon as Beau had summoned him, Warren had realised something serious was afoot and had brought a tray of supplies with him. Mathieu was munching on a hunk of cheese and smiled at them.
“We’ll get them back,” he said. “And we’ll get back our honour, too. Sir Giles won’t come home to rebels on his doorstep. Maybe we should have routed them before this.”
“Maybe,” said Rae, “but the main thing is what we do now. It was my decision to be cautious just as it’s mine now to go after them. I know you’ll all be with me.” And as he looked at Beau, his green eyes said eloquently that Beau would, he knew, be closest of all.
They rode out through the gate in single file, the horses curious about this extra outing, swords and bows muffled against the saddles by rags wrapped round to still their clanking. Mathieu and Maugre went ahead, running then walking, then running again, but not too fast, conserving their strength for later when it might make all the difference to getting home alive. Rae had found a couple of chain mail tunics and had given one to Maugre. The other was too small for Mathieu and they had decided Yffi should have it. He would be vulnerable away from the rest of the group. Rae led the riders and Beau brought up the rear. They didn’t need to say anything; each knew what the other would want and what they needed. Beau approved the military bearing of the men and the professional way they had outfitted themselves and their arms. All had at least heavy leather jerkins, plain helmets and wooden shields. As they passed the church Father Simon came out and made the sign of the cross when he saw them. Rae halted and held up a hand to stop the others.
“Bless us, Father,” he said, and it was a command rather than a request. The priest seemed to hesitate then squared his shoulders and raised a hand that trembled only slightly. He pronounced a benediction and Rae bowed his head in acknowledgement and thanks. Then they moved on, one of the horses whinnying in excitement until its rider hushed it with a word and a firm touch between its ears.
They could not go through the wood as quickly or directly as Rae and Beau had done on foot. Mathieu and Maugre went first, the smith and the tall ostler shoving branches aside and making some sort of path that the horses could follow. The riders had to watch out for low-hanging limbs and trails of ivy that could grab and strangle. But at last they were on the other side and across the fields. They skirted the little copse and then Rae halted them again. From now they would try to be as quiet and stealthy as possible, would ride by the hedges, parallel with the river but not too near. The men on foot would go first, and let the others know if there were guards outside the camp. The horses, Rae had insisted, were for strength, not speed, or not until the job was done. Ten men on horseback would be awe-inspiring too, he hoped. They had counted four horses on their first reconnoitre and now there would be Wind to make five. The colt would not count. He’d been taken for his potential, not his current prowess, and because he probably followed his dam when Osuald took her.
And so they came to the Thames, and saw the rebel Saxons, who tended their cooking pots, all unaware of the justice bearing down on them.
The horse lines were away from the river bank, still sheltered from plain view by a couple of willows but clearly not on marshy ground. The tents were beyond, in a circle almost at the water's edge, only their very tops visible above scattered reed beds, and if it hadn't been for the horses and the smoke curling up from the large cooking fire in the centre the camp might have remained hidden. There had been no attempt at camouflage and the Saxons probably didn't expect visitors.
Dinner time, just as they'd hoped. The Saxons would be relaxed, off guard, though there would probably be sentries. A sensible leader would leave someone with the horses but there was only a scrawny boy who was looking towards the fire and no doubt wanting his meal. One or two of the horses could probably be seen from the tents but the new ones had been found a place further down the line, nearer the open ground that lay between the river and the trees of the copse.
Rae watched anxiously from those trees, cautioning the others to stay behind him and keep their mounts quiet, as the two Normans on foot approached the Saxons' horses.
Wind whinnied when she sensed Maugre’s presence, and the colt nickered a happy greeting to someone he recognised. The boy turned but Mathieu caught him under the chin with his sword hilt and he went down without a sound. Rae noticed that even Mathieu didn't seem eager to kill a Saxon child. Maugre crept closer, took out his knife, and cut the rope attaching Wind to the horse line. It would reduce the number of horses available to the rebels if nothing else, and Rae gave a slight sigh of satisfaction when he saw Wind, followed by the colt, head away from the river. Maugre had just reached the next horse when the grey stallion nearest the tents neighed loudly and someone in the camp shouted a warning. Cutting furiously, the ostler managed to free one more horse, but it stood bewildered, not understanding or perhaps not wanting liberty. Men came pouring from the centre of the camp but it was long strides away, with tent ropes to trip the unwary, and patches of marshy ground bordering the main narrow path, giving Mathieu time to protect Maugre as he sheathed his knife and drew his sword.
Rae almost forgot to breathe as the Saxons came forward from their fire, some clear and menacing, some half-hidden by the reeds. They milled about, perhaps thinking they had only sneak thieves to deal with and that was a costly mistake for them. Mathieu stabbed the first man to reach him and then Maugre was cutting with his sword, joining battle on his own behalf. It was time for the rest of them to make their presence known.
He glanced at Beau, not seeking counsel, just wanting to look at his friend. Beau must know this kind of fighting so well, must feel at home, must be able to distinguish friend from foe without thinking, be able to kill cleanly and without emotion. Rae could do none of that yet, but he must try to live up to the Frenchman's expectations. If he shuddered to kill the rebels, how much more would he shudder when they attacked his home?
Rae raised his hand in the agreed signal and they charged. The effect of that charge was worthwhile; the shock on the Saxon faces was something Rae would never forget and he was sure it contributed to the outcome. But for ever afterwards the resulting melée would remain a jumble in his mind. They hadn't thought of what the marshy terrain might mean for the horses and how the huge creatures would flounder where men could walk without problem. After a very few moments most of them were forced to dismount. He remembered slapping Star's rump and praying she would head away from the fight. He heard screams, saw blood and watched violent movement. He drove a sword through one man’s belly when that man threatened Offa, sliced another’s wrist when he raised a dagger to Eadwin, and dodged one of Irminric’s arrows as it sped towards its legitimate prey. The archer remained on horseback and stayed on the outskirts of the battle, firing whenever he could see a target clearly. Gaiallard too, stayed mounted and together the bowmen sought Saxons to shoot.
Then Rae skewered a rebel who was about to use his sword to disembowel Beau. Beau was wearing his own chain mail tunic but the attacker knew enough to position his sword to slide upwards, underneath the tunic's hem. Rae averted the main threat but the man still managed to catch Beau’s left arm with his sword point and Rae saw blood drip from the wound. A flesh wound, he thought, hoped, and not one that would prevent Beau from defending himself. And indeed, Beau was laying about him with his sword. Rae could only do likewise and started to strike with muttered phrases, ‘For Beau,’ or ‘For Adela,’ and ‘For Winterton Cowley.’
The fighting was intense and despite the small size of both groups there didn’t seem to be any end to it. The man whose wrist he’d damaged grasped a sword with his other hand and charged them, blood flowing from his cut and reddening his clothes. The Saxons were not wearing anything that might protect them; they had discarded heavy clothing for their evening meal. The rebel with the belly wound was crawling to the tents, and the man who’d threatened Beau was pressing forward again, oblivious in his battle fervour of the gore streaming from his shoulder. Beau continued to set about himself with his sword, creating fear and injury equally.
Rae realised he had used, ‘For Beau,’ more often than any other battle cry and hoped the others hadn’t heard him. And yet, it was the truth. He fought for Giles and the family, yes, but above all he fought for his home and everything that was important to him. That not only included Beau; Beau headed the list.
There were horses neighing with fright, those still attached to the Saxon lines and some of those the Normans had left on harder ground. The noise seemed out of all proportion to the numbers involved and there was a good chance any of the combatants might be stamped into the marsh by flailing hooves.
Suddenly Osuald was in front of him, a wicked looking knife dangerously near, and Rae lunged with his sword. Osuald fell with a grunt and a look of sheer surprise. He lay very still and Rae realised he had made his first kill. The belly wound might kill too, probably would, but the death would not be in front of his eyes, not so immediate.
He was peripherally aware that as well as the fighting there was some kind of packing going on, some desperate figures hauling sacks to the horse lines, loading the animals, untying their ropes. These were the ones who might regroup and attack the castle. Rae, determined to stop them, moved back from the fighting. To his relief, Star was on the edge of the battleground. He would have wished her out of harm's way but was glad to find her so near. He mounted quickly, intending to try to cut off the men who were leaving. He wanted to shout to someone to help but had to deal with a figure that came out of nowhere brandishing a torch that might spook the mare. He whispered to her and used his stirrups to bring her up into an almost upright stance, hind legs braced and forelegs ready to crush the attacker, who backed away swiftly, tossing his torch over his shoulder in his hurry to evade the crashing hooves. Fortunately they were on the main path to the tents and Star's footing remained firm. The rebel was not so lucky. The torch guttered for a moment and then the tent where it had landed caught light and there were screams, and a sudden brilliance showed them all a scene of devastation.
The torch bearer seemed to realise what he had inadvertently done and turned away from the fighting to help whoever was in or behind the tent but got one of Irminric’s arrows in his neck for his pains. Another arrow, this time from Gaiallard’s bow, caught one of the men fleeing with the horses and baggage, and his companion hesitated just too long. Gaiallard nicked him too, not enough to kill, but enough to disable his sword arm.
For some reason there didn’t seem to be anyone still fighting and it took Rae a while to realise that was because all the rebels were down, dead or injured. His men were looking to him to make some kind of assessment of the situation and he found it hard to think. He let himself focus on Beau's arm, concern for the wound rising now that they were otherwise safe. It was still bleeding sluggishly. The more it bled, the less chance of infection; so he’d been taught. So he would have to believe, because this was Beau and Beau mattered more than he had ever thought possible. Then he heard Beau’s voice, taking over for him, giving him space to collect his words.
“You fought well. We would have been proud of you in the Holy Land. Consider yourselves soldiers, whether you were before or not.” The praise was clearly gratifying to the Normans, who had all stayed behind when Giles and their fellows had gone off to fight, and had risked being thought less worthy, though by whom, Rae wasn’t sure. Then he knew what to do. Some translation was needed; Beau was speaking only in the French tongue. No doubt his hard-learned Saxon was slow to come to mind under the circumstances.
"Sir Beau is commending you,” he told the Saxon members of his little army. “He says you’d make crusaders, any one of you, and he’s proud. You too, Yffi,” he added, to the youth who came up leading Moonlight and Flèche. “You were an excellent helper. Another year and another few inches and you’ll be a seasoned soldier like the rest.” He smiled at the boy’s proud face.
They roped the injured together and tossed the dead into the fire that had now spread to turn three tents into a conflagration. Maugre and Yffi managed to round up all the castle horses then untied the rest, working out how to get them home. Maugre would ride the grey stallion, and lead another. That left Wind, whose reins he gave to Irminric to lead, assuming the colt would follow, a small pony that Yffi gladly mounted, and a massive beast, more carthorse than anything, that condescended to bear Mathieu. The giant in turn held the rope that tied the injured prisoners. So they could all, apart from the rebels, ride home. They found no bridles, reins or saddles; they must have been in the burning tents. Maugre shrugged and rode bareback. So did Mathieu, and Yffi and the castellan was thankful for the skills and resourcefulness of his men.
Rae was astonished to discover they had only scratches and bruises between them. Even Beau’s wound was drying now and Mathieu bound it with one of the rags they’d used to muffle their weapons back in the copse, something that seemed an age ago. Their fighting skills had kept them safe during the battle, despite the marshy ground, and that first mounted charge had been decisive. The Saxons were good at skulking in the reed beds, he thought, but lacked a soldier of Beau’s calibre to train them, and the castle archers, of course, had been a godsend. He was glad Giles had not left them undefended when he went to war.
They headed back, less disciplined than on the way out, Mathieu straggling at the pace of his captives, and Yffi galloping ahead in a youthful display of high spirits. There was no need to dampen any noise and they chatted as they rode though there were few smiles. Killing was a heavy business.
Beau had fallen into battle mode as soon as the fighting started. He had been pleasantly surprised by the level of skill shown by the others, and was proud to think he had taught some of them their prowess with swords and their ability to dodge attack. They had been fighting on horseback at the start, too, and although all the men had been riding since childhood, his training had not included that and it was sometimes hard to switch a strategy to one more suited to a rider’s needs. He had been almost glad when they had had to dismount. He was especially proud of Rae. His own part in training Rae had been confined to work with staves, which they had not taken with them, but he knew he had helped build the confidence that had made Rae’s leadership good today, helped dismiss thoughts of guilt or horror at bloodshed. And Rae had saved his life; he had no doubt of that at all. A sword had been arcing up towards his belly and Rae had stuck his own sword through the man’s shoulder, effectively disabling him and leaving the sword tumbling to the ground instead of into Beau’s guts.
He hardly noticed the minor damage to his arm, delivered weakly, just before the sword fell. He was more concerned to protect his companions, especially Rae. And Rae needed more than physical protection. His leadership could not be seen to falter, and when they returned, as Beau had no doubt they would, Rae should bear the responsibility for the victory.
They fought, and everything passed in the way battles always did: each sword thrust happened in slow motion and yet the whole fight was over so fast it was hard to say how and when the victory had been assured. Or the loss, in the rebels’ case. Those still standing were a sorry group, unable to resist capture and the ignominy of being led like so many horses back to Winterton Cowley.
His arm hurt now, but it was a superficial wound and he only hoped the rags they’d used to stop the blood were clean. He held Tonnerre’s reins loosely, favouring his uninjured arm, and talked to drown out his pain. It would subside into mere soreness soon enough.
They reached the gate and Beau knew they could depend on Mathieu and Offa to put the prisoners in the little cells near it, cells Giles had insisted on having, Rae had told him, in case of malefactors. Someone could doctor their wounds if they would let a castle man near them, or they could be left with warm water and clean rags to tend to each other. They could live or die; Beau didn’t much care either way.
He did wonder if they’d caught or killed the leaders. Rae would probably want to interrogate the prisoners but that could wait. They must let Aelfware know they were safe and then see to the horses. The courtyard was strangely empty and he realised all the builders had left for the night. The huge gate, virtually ready to hang, took up an inordinate amount of space on the cobbles, and beyond that there was a sense of waiting, of stillness.
Then a couple of lads came running out, reminding him of his first night here. There were shouts and questions and men poured out of the shadows. If any of them supported the rebels, even in their inmost thoughts, they would not say so. The Normans would guard the cells, and the population of the castle would celebrate a victory. Tomorrow. Tonight they were all tired; tired to the bone. And his arm hurt.
Rae must have gone straight to the solar because he came out of the doorway that led to the private staircase, smiling and giving Beau a small wave. Star was waiting patiently by the well, and he did not remount but grabbed her reins, leading her towards the arch to the stable yard. Beau dismounted and followed.
The Saxons and Maugre soon saw to the horses. The rest of the Normans were seeing to the prisoners. At last the final horse was rubbed down, watered and stabled. Rae had worked as hard as any of the others and Beau approved. A commander should join the labours of his men. Then Rae thanked them all and bade them a very definite goodnight. He was standing silhouetted against the tackroom, his curls reddish in the light of the lanthorn that hung there, every inch a leader. Beau smiled to himself and turned to follow the others but there was a whisper behind him.
“Beau.” Beau turned back, pulled by the low voice that begged, insisted. Rae’s face was in shadow but his whole body shrieked tension.
“Beau, after that, I need...” Beau knew exactly what he needed. Fighting and death often led to extreme arousal, to desire impossible to ignore. And here they were, outside the main hall, outside the immediate view of the men. Oh yes, he knew what they both needed.
He didn’t speak, just wrapped his arms around Rae, who nestled into the embrace as if coming home at last.
The feel of Beau’s arms around him felt right. He wriggled a little until he could feel the hardness he expected against his thigh and heard a slight indrawing of breath. They looked at each other and the kiss was as sweet as it was inevitable. Beau was devouring him, and he in turn was drawing Beau into himself so that they were one. Then Beau’s hands, even his left, hampered as it was by his injury and bandages, were everywhere at once, caressing, smoothing, removing ridiculously unnecessary clothing and bringing skin to skin, cock to cock, need to need.
They were standing in the doorway and somehow one of them - or both? - managed to get them, stumbling, to the corridor where a bale or two of hay waited. The stuff was prickling against his bare legs but the bale made a perfect bed. Someone was moaning softly and he thought it might be him but didn’t care. Vaguely, he was aware that Beau seemed to know what he was doing, which was probably a good job. Crusaders clearly learnt more than fighting skills; castellans had perhaps less training in these matters. But he learnt quickly and soon they were pleasuring each other fiercely.
The friction of their movements was almost too much; he was afraid he would climax before giving sufficient to his partner, but Beau was urging him on.
“That’s it, my love. Come for me. Show me how much you enjoy this.” Beau was breathing fast, his hard cock rubbing against Rae’s, his hands grasping Rae’s arse, his lips not far from Rae’s mouth. They were both slippery now, the beginnings of their combined urges leaking out onto their skin, the sweat of battle, riding and stabling still cooling on their tired but desperate bodies.
With a small cry, Rae came, pouring his seed onto Beau’s belly, nuzzling his shoulder in some kind of attempt to merge with his partner. Beau gave a slight, triumphant laugh, and followed him into orgasm.
Beau was the first to recover some semblance of equilibrium. He stood, adjusting his clothing, thinking he had never seen anything as glorious as this. Rae lay on the hay bale, tunic creased somewhere round his shoulders, leggings around his knees, body covered in the stickiness of their lovemaking. His face held a satisfied expression like a cat that had just made free with the contents of the dairy. The flicker of the lanthorn, lower now, and guttering, still cast red glints into the brown hair. The green eyes were closed and the lashes spread across flushed cheeks.
Then the eyes opened and there was a question in them. Beau kissed it away, firmly. No questions between them; they were one. There were more sexual adventures they needed to seek together but tonight had started them on the journey. Rae was his. And of course, he was Rae’s; it was not as if anything else could even have been considered.
“Come, love,” he said, using the endearment deliberately. “You need sleep, and we need to show ourselves in the hall. But we can find a space like this again, and soon.” The slow smile that lit up Rae’s face was his reward.
They didn’t talk, but when they were dressed they doused the lanthorn and bolted the stable door. Then they walked hand in hand through the dark courtyard to the hall. Most people were asleep. The kitchens were dark and Beau thought they would have to go hungry till tomorrow. But one hunger, at least, was sated for now.
The gate was massive. It was arched and in two pieces; it opened in a vertical line from the peak of the arch. It had carvings of the de Coudrai crest and of animals that were associated with Winterton Cowley: a fox, a hare and a badger. The other panels had stylised flowers, marigolds perhaps. Each panel had a heavy metal boss, intended to emphasise the design and to deflect any attack on the gate. The bosses were in fact huge nails which passed through to the inside and were then split and flattened to keep them in place. In the right hand side of the gate there was a small door, just man height and width, which would enable one person to slip in and out without opening the full thing. In the passageway that led to the gate there were huge rings in the walls and the sides of the gate had long bars with hooks at the end which would hold the gate back to the rings, open and welcoming during days when no danger threatened.
“It just shouldn’t be Mathieu who needs to slip in and out,” Beau told Rae, who grinned. Mathieu would have been the first to agree.
The whole structure was finally finished and ready to hang, after more than half a year of making and a month of readjustment. Although the event had been planned for a couple of days later Rae was anxious to have the castle well guarded; there might be other rebels seeking vengeance for their friends. So he had consulted Jean as soon as the builders arrived and declared a day of ceremony and celebration. Father Simon had come hurrying up from the village to bless the work and Aelfware and Ysabel were dressed in their finest clothes. Aelfware grasped her two boys by the hand and Ysabel held Adela’s little hand in hers. Rae was also finely dressed, representing Giles on this auspicious day when the castle would be secure at last. The chapel was not quite ready and there were some minor alterations to make in some of the workplaces, things that had become obvious only once the rooms were in use, but if Giles were to return now, he would find his castle effectively ready for him.
“I wish he was here.” Aelfware sounded wistful.
“You’ll just have to remember every detail so that you can describe it all to him when he gets back.”
“No, when. Don’t worry so much, sister. Giles will be back. And he’ll be pleased with his new gate.” Rae was pleased with it, too, and had said so to Jean, who had nodded and smiled his appreciation for the praise.
Beau was standing with the Normans, builders and castle staff mingled together, and Rae could not help but glance that way. The previous night in the hall had been one of the hardest he remembered. Despite his tiredness he had wanted to push aside the bedrolls and fling his arms round his lover. He had wanted to whisper his joy and his hopes. He had wanted to experience again that oneness that had changed him for ever. He wanted, perhaps even more, to share the easy banter that made Beau his perfect companion. Instead he had lain alone and still, aware of Beau’s even breathing on one side and Mathieu’s snores on the other. He had spared a thought for Offa, still awake and guarding the gate, but most of his concern had been for Beau and for what they had shared. It had been no easier when they rose for the day. They were constantly surrounded by other people and there were so many calls on his time: the hanging of the gate, the interrogation of the prisoners, and still all the other things he always had to see to in this busy place. Even the fighting was fading in the face of all the things he had to do.
Father Simon was speaking in Latin. Rae didn’t think there was a special prayer for the raising of gates and the priest had probably written the service himself. It sounded sufficiently important and ceremonial. Like most of the listeners, Rae barely understood a word. The speech or prayer went on and on. Mathieu and Jean were co-ordinating teams of men who would raise the gate and drop the hinges into the metal slots awaiting them in the walls. They looked strained, waiting for the signal to lift. The gate was already raised to a vertical position and the men were supporting its weight; Rae hoped they could all take the pressure.
The priest finished with a loud, ‘Amen,’ and everyone echoed him. Then a cheer went up as the gate was lifted and the hinges met their fates smoothly.
Rae risked another look at Beau, to find the Frenchman looking back at him, a smile on his face. The castle was safe, and so were they.
Beau would have liked to hug Rae. Instead, he went out of the gate as agreed, waited till it was closed and then came back through the small portal. He had been chosen, as both a friend and a stranger to Normans and Saxons alike, to be the first to use the door and bring the gate into use. It was a tiny ceremony, planned by Aelfware, and when it was done there was more cheering and then Warren and the Saxon cook, Cynwise, shepherded their people into the kitchen and bakery and emerged bearing quantities of food that they laid on impromptu trestles in the courtyard, made from some of the carpenters’ planks.
Nobody wanted to go inside the great hall in the middle of the day for a meal, and Rae had declared that the feast must take place during the day while the stonemasons and carpenters could enjoy it with the castle people. Besides, there would scarcely be room for them all in the hall. It was built to accommodate the normal population with a few visitors. The construction workers almost doubled the numbers who would eat.
Ansell had commandeered the services of a few strong lads who brought a barrel of ale to the courtyard. Soon most people had a drink and a trencher of bread, topped with an appetising stew of beef and barley. There was an air of celebration and happiness. Beau grabbed his own cup and trencher and looked for a place to sit. Rae was walking around, checking that all was well, that everyone was enjoying themselves but he saw Beau and gestured to a trestle that had been set over by the wall with stools for Aelfware and Ysabel.
“Find some seats and join us there,” he suggested. Easier said than done, thought Beau but he put his meal on the table and found a couple of stools at the other side of the yard, left there by carpenters doing intricate carving if the shavings around were anything to go by. Most people were sitting on benches, cobbled together like the tables from planks and logs or stones. Beau carried his finds across to Aelfware’s table, managing well despite his injured arm, and found Rae waiting for him. They joined the women and watched as the children dashed to and fro, eating as little as they could get away with and playing some kind of complicated tag game with the other youngsters of the castle.
“It’s just as well it’s a sunny day,” said Aelfware, relaxing against the wall. “If we’d all had to crowd into the hall it wouldn’t have been such a merry occasion.”
“To say nothing of standing out in rain or cold wind waiting through Father Simon’s long-winded prayers,” said Rae. The priest had launched into another interminable blessing before he and the others seated at the longest table had raised their food to their mouths. “But we’ve had a few weeks of dry weather now and most years October is a calm month. I was pretty sure we’d have a fair day for the feast if we could get the gate hung before November.”
“Sounds like a butcher’s plan,” said Beau. “A well hung gate for the feast.” It was a weak jest but Rae smiled and Beau let his gaze linger on the castellan’s face.
“I talked to the prisoners this morning,” Rae told the women. “Beau talked to the men who went with us yesterday and told them again how proud and grateful we were. I tried to find out more about our enemies.”
Beau’s own task had taken less than an hour, although he had had to repeat his words for Mathieu and Gaiallard who were keeping guard while Rae interrogated the injured rebels. Maugre had translated for the Saxons but Beau doubted if much translation had been needed. He’d been unable to keep the huge smile from his face and had patted each man hard on the back, making it clear he approved of each and every one. One or two had asked after his arm but he had dismissed the topic. He was well enough and it was better if a leader showed as little weakness as possible. Rae was the real leader, of course, but he was regarded, he knew, as captain by Saxons and Normans alike.
“Did you learn anything?” he asked now. He had not had a chance to talk to Rae at length before the gate hanging.
“One of the leaders is among them. Ordway, his name is. He called me all sorts of names, Norman-lover being the kindest of them. He hates the Normans, and he hates all of us now. His brother Pleoh, he was the one with the torch.” Beau nodded, remembering the man who had come against Star with fire and had ended up instead firing his own tents and dying with an arrow through his neck. “He’s threatened us with revenge,” Rae continued. “I don’t know who he still has but he sounded certain. He ranted and raved that gates would not keep the rebels out and that before mid December we’d learn the folly of our Norman ways.”
“But you’ll hang him?” Ysabel sounded excited by the idea and Beau recalled the favours she’d offered to sew. A lady who liked violence at second hand, he thought. He hoped it never came nearer. Earlier this morning she had gasped over his wound and had insisted on rewrapping it in clean linen, something he appreciated but which amused him too.
“I don’t have the authority,” said Rae. “I’m not the lord of this place, only his seneschal. And I’m not a Norman. I think it would be better to keep him and his friends in custody until Giles returns.”
“But it’s almost November,” Beau pointed out. “If Giles doesn’t come home soon we’ll have the prisoners growing fat on our bounty over the winter.” There would be few sailors willing to bring the crusaders home in the months either side of Christmas.
“Then they will have to grow fat,” said Rae. “I can’t afford to alienate more Saxons from myself or from my sister.”
“You think our castle people would dislike you for it?” Beau could see the problem but the servants and the craftsmen would surely see the necessity for harsh measures.
“They might. Remember what Beornwynne said: we can’t trust all of them completely. A hanging would sway them. The attack on the camp wouldn’t because they didn’t see it, just heard of our victory and drank a cup of ale in thanksgiving. But if we hanged Saxons here, in the courtyard...”
“...they would see it all too close and personally.” Aelfware understood at once. Beau did too.
At first when Adela staggered towards them Rae thought it was part of the game. The little girl was pale, but she often was. She had her mother’s strawberry-blonde hair and colouring, not the more gingery cast the boys had inherited from their father. Then he saw the terror in her eyes and knew it wasn’t brought about by any childish chasing or pretence. He was out of his seat in a moment, catching the child as she fell, calling for the women to help. Aelfware was beside him, chafing her daughter’s hands and gasping questions that no-one could answer. Then Henry was with them, telling them about an apple and a woman laughing.
“She gave it to her, Maman. It looked so red and glossy I wished she’d given it to me. But when Adela bit into it...” He stopped, eyes wide and frightened.
Little Giles came up behind him and took up the tale. “She said it was bitter, Maman, and then she started to choke. She dropped the apple and she ran and ran and she came to you and we followed her.”
Beau wrested Adela from Rae’s grasp and held her on his knees. He prised open her mouth and stuck his fingers down her throat. She bucked and twisted in his arms then as he relaxed his hold a little, presumably feeling the pain in his arm, she started to vomit. A thin stream of bile, with a few chunks of apple spewed onto the cobbles and Beau kicked away one of the castle dogs that came sniffing. A further trickle stained his bandages - more work for Ysabel but a small price for the child’s safety. A few moments later he passed the still retching girl to her mother.
“She should be all right now,” he said. “Give her milk to drink, and maybe some dry bread. I’ve seen this kind of thing at work before and it only kills if you don’t get it all out in time. The harsher poisons act faster; she couldn’t have run to us.”
“What would it be?” Aelfware would want to know what she was fighting, and where else it might turn up.
“Probably something they put down in the stores to get rid of the rats. Don’t fret about it. She’s brought most of it up.” They all looked at Henry who was clutching an apple in one hand. It had about three bites out of it, equivalent to the pieces Adela had vomited onto the ground. The boy had had the sense to bring it with them, and more sense, not to indulge in the innocent-looking treat.
“Who was it?” Rae felt strangely calm. “Who gave her the apple, Henry? And who laughed?”
“I’m not sure, uncle. A woman from the kitchens. Not Cynwise. I know her. And not Hild. A woman with grey hair and a withered arm. She gave Adela the apple and said it was a Saxon one. Maman, apples can’t be Saxon or Norman can they?”
Aelfware just stared but Rae answered him. “It seems today they can, nephew. They most certainly can. Aelfware, take Adela to the solar. Ysabel, go with her. Boys, go and take care of your mother.” If he’d mentioned their own safety they’d have baulked but giving the care of the women made them rush to accompany them and Rae heaved a sigh of relief. Then he set off across the court to find the woman Henry had described. Beau went with him.
There was no one with grey hair in the kitchens or anywhere near. He thought they’d have to wait, ask Beornwynne for a name and perhaps for a motive though it was clear that whoever it was had ties with the men he had cooped up in the cells.
“Tell Mathieu the situation, see that the prisoners are well guarded then to come to the solar,” he told Beau, knowing that here at least was someone he could rely on. He looked around at the happy people eating and drinking in the fine October day and wished he was just a common man, without the cares of a castle on his shoulders. Then he followed his sister and her children up the stairs.
Adele was sitting up on the truckle bed, paler than ever, but very much alive. Aelfware was crying and smiling at the same time and Ysabel had engaged the boys in a game of fivestones, using prettily carved chunks of wood rather than the usual pebbles. They all looked up as he entered and it occurred to him that he had told them to come up here but left them without recourse to servants or help. He went to the window overlooking the courtyard. It was a fine day and the shutters had been left open. He could see Beornwynne talking to Father Simon and had no compunction about rescuing her. His shout attracted her attention straight away and many people stared, wondering what was going on. But he smiled and waved and simply beckoned to his sister’s serving-woman.
“Your lady has need of you,” he called, and true to form, Beornwynne left her conversation mid-sentence and came rushing to the stairs. The poor woman had to go down almost as soon as she’d come up. Aelfware sent her for milk and bread without any explanation and Rae promised to tell her what it was all about when she returned. She was soon back, Beau hard on her heels, and between them they carried the required bread and milk and a selection of other foods Beau had grabbed from their table.
Soon, Beornwynne was in possession of all the facts. The kitchen staff had been in contact with the prisoners, she said, had taken them food and could well have got news. And she knew who had given Adela the apple.
“Quoenburg,” she said. “She’s the only one with a withered arm. And my lady, she’s the mother of that Osuald. The carpenter who didn’t return to work today.”
Quoenburg was unlikely to try to leave the castle during the feast. In fact, they agreed, she probably had no idea she’d been identified. She was also unlikely to try to poison anyone else, though Rae sent Beornwynne to warn the Saxon members of their little band and to tell Mathieu to warn the Normans. They could only hope nobody else had a poisoned apple today. They would arrest the woman later, when the courtyard was empty and there was less chance of a sympathiser coming to her aid.
“I’m sorry for her,” said Aelfware. “Losing a child must be a desperate pain. Babies, yes. We know they don’t always thrive. But for a grown healthy child to die before the parent is a sorrowful thing.”
“But how could she know what happened at the camp? How would she know yet that?” Ysabel was frowning and curious, even though half her attention was on replacing Beau’s soiled bandage.
“The kitchen servants have taken food to the prisoners,” Beau told her. “Either she went herself or someone brought back the news, and when he didn’t report for work she’d know it was true.”
“But to poison a child...”
“...in revenge for her own child,” he said, knowing that men and women could do worse things to children than that, hoping again that Ysabel and Aelfware never had to experience first hand the terrors of war or siege. That was enough reason for their foray against the rebels.
The feast was still in full swing in the courtyard but the family were disinclined to join the merrymaking even if they thought the poisoner unlikely to strike again. Even the boys were subdued, and Henry was showing Giles tricks with the fivestones but neither looked as enthusiastic as usual.
There was nothing more the men could do. There was food and drink in plenty, thanks to Beornwynne, and everyone just needed to recover from the shock. Adela seemed least affected of them all, and was tucking into a slice of bread with apparent gusto. It was probably time to leave the women and children to themselves. Beau wished, not for the first time, that this castle had been built with a bigger solar, one that could accommodate guests on different levels, but perhaps Giles would add guest accommodation one day. And most of their guests would be soldiers like himself who were used to the crowded halls.
Beau put his hand on the door and found Rae close behind him. They set off downstairs but half way Rae put a hand on Beau’s shoulder to halt him. There was a door on a half-landing, one Beau had never noticed or had ignored. Now Rae opened it and dragged him inside. There was a small room, a garderobe of sorts, but bigger, filled with things that belonged to Giles, old clothes, hunting attire, hunting gear, and a few other odds and ends. Rae pushed Beau into the middle and closed the door. There was light from the slit on the outer wall where an iron bar could act as a seat and let the room be used as a privy. It had never been used as such yet. When Giles had left, the family had still been living in a makeshift fashion in an old wooden building, the stone walls had been just a shell, and Giles had told Beau in long and loving detail about the castle he had planned. The solar had a garderobe just off the main room, but he hadn’t mentioned the extra one and Beau was surprised to be shown it now.
The reason for the sudden detour became immediately clear as Rae fell to his knees and raised Beau’s tunic. He evidently had other things on his mind than a tour of the castle’s hidden facilities. Beau felt inclined to help but Rae brushed his hands away and removed his lower clothing with a minimum of fuss. Then his beautiful mouth closed around a quickly hardening cock and Beau was lost in pleasure. Rae obviously knew what he was doing; no novice this. Beau barely had time to note the fact when hard but delicate tongue strokes made him incapable of further thought. He twined his hands in Rae’s hair, hoping to anchor himself somehow, and failing as his mind soared and his body seemed to fall into a sea of luxury.
“Rae.” He heard himself speak and wondered at the huskiness of his voice. “Rae, that’s...” He cast about for the words he wanted but couldn’t find them. He was aware of having emptied himself into his lover’s throat, but could not think how to express his joy. Rae, he rather thought, was laughing at him. He tried again. “You’ve done this before.” It sounded accusing and he didn’t mean it that way but Rae just laughed again.
“There might have been a miller,” he said, and then got up to take Beau in his arms.
“And did your miller teach you that it’s good to reciprocate?” He slipped out of the embrace and knelt himself. It was the work of moments to bring Rae to a similarly delicious conclusion and then he stood again, licking his lips to savour every drop. Then they were embracing again, and kissing, tasting each other and themselves, letting their tongues say what was so hard to put into words. If he’d known about the miller he might have gone further in the stables. And yet it was good to explore each other slowly.
“I had to have you. Once I knew they were safe and that all was under control, I needed you.” Rae was explaining rather than apologising and Beau knew all too well how it felt to need sexual release when danger was past. But with Rae he wanted more than that.
“I hope it won’t take a crisis to bring us together every time,” he said. “If so, I hope we’re due to live interesting lives.”
“We could create crises.” Rae was laughing at him. “We could find rebels to hunt or if we ran out of those there might be boar.”
“The boar might injure us worse than the rebels did. But I’d like to know you in peace as well as in the aftermath of death.” He thought of Rae’s enthusiasm the previous night.
“I’d spend every night with you if I could,” said Rae, suddenly serious and insistent. “But we both know how hard it is to find time and space. This afternoon I didn’t care. I had to...” He stopped speaking as footsteps passed on the stairs. Beornwynne, probably, going back up to see to her mistress’s needs. The footsteps faded and they heard the door to the solar closing. “I had to have you again,” Rae went on. “I needed to know we were… connected...that it wasn’t just after the battle...”
Beau enfolded him even tighter in his arms. “Not just after the battle, Rae, never just that,” he said. “And not just after averting a death, either.”
“And not just,” said a voice muffled against his shoulder - his left shoulder, and his arm was hurting again but he didn’t care - “because you’re beautiful, like the miller. Because you’re my friend.”
As they adjusted their clothing and got ready to leave the tiny sanctuary, Beau reflected that some day he would have to have a look at this miller, either to see him off as a threat, or to thank him for teaching Rae how to please another man.
When they got back down to the courtyard they found the party on the point of breaking up. Father Simon was taking his leave, and Jean was chasing a few of his men to get some work done while daylight lasted. A few people inquired after Aelfware but it seemed no-one had seen the little drama, so nearly a tragedy, and it was easy to make vague references to tiredness and the needs of the children.
Rae joined Maugre and some of the Normans. For the moment he felt more at ease with them than his own people. Though perhaps the Normans were his people now. At any rate, he knew Beau would be more comfortable chatting with Maugre and Ansell and he brought two cups of ale from the almost empty barrel, setting them down on one end of the trestle and taking a seat on the plank bench. They talked about the battle and the aftermath. Ansell was all for hanging the prisoners but Maugre, who worked with a greater number of the Saxons, agreed with Rae.
“We can’t afford to upset them more while the lord isn’t at home,” he said, and Ansell nodded, grudgingly. They seemed inclined to accept both Rae and Beau as honorary Normans though Rae wasn’t at all sure the same courtesy would be extended to Offa and the others who had fought by their side. It was a tricky business, ruling a divided people like this.
They waited, drinking and talking, till the courtyard cleared before going to the kitchen in search of Quoenburg. They asked Cynwise to find her but the woman must have got wind of something when the men appeared at the door. She slipped past them and ran for the gate, speedy despite her years, but was brought up short when she realised it was closed. They had celebrated the hanging but it was too soon for most of those resident in the castle to take in the idea that they were truly safely enclosed. For Quoenburg safety lay outside, not in, but the small portal was shut, too, and she was wrestling with the heavy latch when Maugre grabbed her, none too gently.
“Where are you going, mother?” he asked, emphasising the name and speaking roughly. She collapsed then, crying a string of disjointed misery with ‘Osuald’ every other word. They didn’t need to ask her to confess; she told them what she’d done and seemed proud that she’d tried to avenge her son.
“Let the lady know what it is to lose a child,” she told them, eyes glaring and tears streaming down her face. When Rae told her Adela lived the tears came faster. They threw her into the cells beside the other rebels. She could wait for Giles’s justice and it was unlikely to be merciful.
It was almost dark, and Rae felt able to touch Beau as they crossed the courtyard again. Only a slight shove of the shoulder, something that could look like an accidental jostling to an observer, but something that gave him a feeling of peace and belonging. They entered the hall tired and more than ready to sleep although it was still early. It had been a busy day.
The next weeks passed in an idyllic autumn glow. There were no further attacks or threats, nothing went missing and nobody heard even a rumour of rebels in the district. The weather continued fine and the last fruit was brought in, the last cattle slaughtered and salted for the winter to avoid too many mouths to feed in the byres. A few would be kept for milk. The sheep were brought in to the folds near the walls, their numbers depleted too, and the pigs were beginning to fatten up for Christmas on kitchen scraps instead of the foraging they had been used to in the woods. There were nuts in the village hedgerows and the boys went gathering, watched carefully by Ysabel, while Aelfware began to teach Adela to sew and spin.
Beau, his arm quite recovered and his sexual desires thoroughly aroused, knew quite well that it was almost impossible to have Rae to himself amidst all this ordinary gathering and storing. The castellan needed to be everywhere at once and at night was so tired he fell asleep even when Mathieu snored particularly loudly. But Beau wanted his lover. Now that he knew the feelings and urges were mutual it seemed harder than ever to stand back and be just the foreign guest, to smile and make polite conversation, to do without those kisses and caresses. And as he had said, he wanted to make love to Rae when they weren’t just done with death and destruction, wanted to hold him in his arms on a peaceful night and fall asleep after an ordinary day. But it seemed it simply wasn’t going to happen. Maybe when winter deepened and there was less to do, and there were more hours of darkness to cover their activities. Maybe then...
Not that he was wishing his life away, or praying for the onset of bad weather, but he couldn’t help feeling a little surge of hope when they awoke one morning to thick fog. The chapel was finally finished and there was none of the usual noise of craftsmen at work. Jean had ushered his men away the previous evening, promising to return when Giles was home, to check everything was to the lord’s satisfaction and learn of any minor changes or additions needed. To all intents and purposes, the castle stood ready for its lord. There were rooms to build, floors to lay, adornments to add, but the basic structure was already inhabited and secure. And now there was a chapel; soon it would be blessed by a priest who was to come from Oxford and would stay to care for the souls of those who lived within the walls. Beau hoped the new priest would not clash with Father Simon, but it was more likely the two would enjoy each other’s company. The fog, however, made it certain the priest would not come today.
People stayed indoors when possible. The ostlers mended tack, the cooks and brewers cooked and brewed, and the archers found quivers to mend. Mathieu was hard at work in the smithy, and the ringing of his hammer sometimes drowned out the imprecations of the prisoners near the gate. Offa was on guard duty and he sheltered in the passageway, just visible from the courtyard, but not about to get damp and miserable. The day wore on and by mid-afternoon a watery sun drove the fog away and shone faintly on cobbles that glistened with moisture.
Beau wasn’t anxious to be damp or miserable himself. He had been taking an apple core to Tonnerre, a small dainty for such a big beast but one that was much appreciated. Now he was heading for the hall, hoping to find Rae or warmth or preferably both. So he was in the courtyard when there was a banging on the gate, and a Norman voice calling for admittance. He stepped into the gate passage, ready to help Offa deal with the visitor, whatever they wanted, and was surprised when the man who stepped through the portal was someone he recognised.
“Berengar! What brings you here? What news?” But before the knight could reply, Rae was striding from the hall, having heard the small commotion.
Beau turned to him. “Raedwolf,” he said, formal in his introductions, “this is Berengar de Rouen, another of my companions from the crusades. We must hope he brings good tidings.” But as the two men met and Offa brought Berengar’s horse in, calling for Yffi to come and see to it, Beau felt his heart sink. The news might be good or bad in a general sense but he had a feeling it was going to presage difficulties for himself and Rae.
They took Berengar to Aelfware and let him deliver his message to the lady himself.
“Your lord sends you greetings,” he began, and Rae felt relief course through him. Giles was alive, then. If anything had happened to him, it would be hard to hold the castle till Henry was old enough to take control. For that matter, the king might intervene. He supposed he could go back to Chobham. Aelfware, too, though it would be more likely the king would give her to another of his knights. He shook himself mentally and listened to the Norman.
“He is delayed at his uncle’s home in Normandy,” Berengar went on, ignoring Aelfware’s frown at the idea that Coudrai could prove a greater attraction than Winterton Cowley. “He sustained an injury to his knee. He and the rest of our group were set upon by a band of outlaws in the woods just outside Paris. We gave good account of ourselves and left them dead, but Giles had a cut that got infected. We got him to Coudrai, or rather I did, because the others left for their own manors at various points along the way. He’s with his uncle now, and the local healer thinks the wound is doing well.”
“You said they all left. But what about his men from here?” Rae was frowning, too.
“I told you Renard died on crusade,” Beau broke in. And yes, Rae had delivered the news in person to Renard’s wife.
“What about Tybalt and Lewis?” He thought Beau would have told him if anything had happened to them, too.
“He let Tybalt go to his family near Le Havre, just to see them, telling him to join him at Coudrai later. His knee wasn’t paining him so much at that stage or else he was being brave about it.” Rae could well believe the latter. “Lewis - well, he died at the hands of the outlaws. We defeated them but not without a loss of our own.” So there would be another death to report to another grieving widow, and he would be the one to bear the news. He hoped she hadn’t seen the arrival of the messenger, or if she had, that she hadn’t hoped. He hadn’t known Lewis well, but thought his wife was Acha, a little mousy Saxon girl who worked in the dairy. Well, there would still be a place for her.
“So he can’t travel yet?” Aelfware was trying to make sense of what she’d heard, get some idea of how events would progress. At least her husband was alive and would return to her eventually.
“He thinks he can but he’ll need help. Tybalt sent word that his father is dying. He’ll stay in Normandy till spring. I can manage Giles’s horse as well as my own on the ferry and on overnight stops but the man himself will need assistance. He begged me to ask you to come for him.” Berengar looked at Beau as he spoke and Rae’s heart sank.
Aelfware was clearly brimming with hope. She looked eagerly at Beau. “You’ll go, won’t you? You’ll help bring my lord back to me?”
Beau bowed, a courtly gesture he rarely made. “I’ll bring him home, lady,” he said, and it was both an agreement and a promise. Then he turned to Berengar. “When do we leave?” Rae knew it was inevitable but his heart sank even further.
“Not immediately.” Berengar had no idea how much his reply raised Rae’s spirits. “The weather was foul today and although the mists have burnt off I think we’ll find they’re back tomorrow. There’ll be a boat waiting for us at Dover whenever we get there. Walter’s one of Giles’s uncle’s men and he’s sworn to get me here and us back again. He won’t risk the westerly routes at this time of year, though, so we’ll have to travel to Dover from here and to Coudrai from Calais, then back again with Giles. Our extra journeying will give time for his leg to heal more before he sets out.”
“So we’ll wait for a fine spell.” Beau didn’t sound over-anxious to leave and Rae determined to consult the shepherd who tended the castle flocks. Shepherds were known to be good weather forecasters. There might be a few days left to them.
Then what? Their relationship was very new, precariously balanced in some ways. He hoped, but he wasn’t sure how much his hopes were grounded in reality. Quick sex in the aftermath of disasters didn’t form a basis for anything lasting, and Rae wanted this to last, more than he’d ever wanted anything in his life.
Beau was amused when Rae headed for the village to consult the shepherd. It was fairly obvious that the weather was likely to remain murky and unfit for travel for a few days. Until a wind got up and blew this fog away they would be confined to the castle and its immediate outskirts. No sense getting lost on the way to Dover and turning a comparatively short ride into a very long one. Perhaps Rae wanted to find some reassurance for his sister. She was anxious for them to set off. He wasn’t so keen to leave but knew his duty to Giles. Giles was not his lord but was both a friend and in some ways a saviour. And the sooner he was gone the sooner he would be back to take up this very pleasing affair. As soon as he thought that he castigated himself. This was no affair, at least, not to him. He wanted permanence, and hoped he could persuade Rae to feel the same way.
The shepherd thought the weather would be unlikely to change before the week's end at least. Rae brought the news to the solar where Aelfware and Ysabel were sewing and Adela was trying to set her first stitches while the boys tried to interest Berengar in a game of Fox and Geese. Giles had had Josclyn make them a board before he ever left on crusade. Beau was just watching, having already told the children he was no player. Berengar had scowled at him and looked glad to be rescued by Rae’s return.
Aelfware’s face fell at the weather news but Berengar shrugged. “Even if we reached the coast, Walter would not set off if he could not see Calais,” he said. “And for all we know, the whole of the south could be under these clouds. Far better to wait and have a better chance of successful travel.”
“How dangerous is it? Sailing between here and France, I mean. I came in midsummer and it seemed easy enough.” That was Ysabel, longing to hear of dangers and tales of bravery but doubtful, because of her own limited experiences.
“This side of Christmas, it’s usually safe enough,” said Berengar. “By January the storms are sweeping up the channel and most sailors think it imprudent to set out. Even now, the longer crossings are risky. The channel is no river and the men who sail her regularly know her well.”
Ysabel was already fluttering her eyelashes at their visitor. Beau tried not to laugh. Rae would be pleased enough to lose the maiden’s attentions and her fickleness was hardly surprising given her youth and her knowledge of her brother’s likely intentions. Berengar was a Norman knight, not from such a proud family as Giles, perhaps, but probably worthy of Giles’s sister. It could be a good match and he wished them well of it. He knew Berengar as a true companion, steadfast and trustworthy, a good fellow to have with you in a fight. Whether he would make a good husband he did not know, but Ysabel looked as if she would like to find out.
So, they had a day or two before he had to leave. Time enough to put a plan into action, one he had been perfecting for a week or two now. He excused himself and headed for the stables, where he kept his pack in Tonnerre’s stall. There were things to prepare.
That night they took Berengar to the hall with them and made room for his bedroll next to theirs. Rae gave him the space between Mathieu and himself. The giant might snore but he also gave off waves of heat that would be welcome. They had put oiled cloth across the windows but the hall could be chill. Rae would have liked to have dragged Beau to the stables but felt obliged to stay and see to the comfort of the Norman who had come to take his friend away.
The following day was foggier than ever and this time there was no afternoon reprieve. No-one went in or out of the door in the gate, no-one rode out with the horses, and the place was unusually quiet, sound muffled by the greyness. They could just hear the few sheep that would overwinter calling mournfully from the field beyond the drill ground, and the faint thunk of the bellwether’s bell. The milch cows left in the byres lowed. People talked in hushed voices or not at all. The family stayed in the solar, and Beau and Berengar stayed with them.
Rae couldn’t think how to detach Beau from the little domestic group but while he was wondering there was a knock at the door and a child brought a message from Offa from the gate. Rae went down at once, and was pleased that Beau followed him.
Offa had been talking to the prisoners, it seemed. He had overheard them, initially, and had gone closer. They had taunted him as a ‘Norman-lover’ and then had laughed about their friends, who, they said, were only a few miles away, and would no doubt come to rescue them. It could be bravado but Offa thought Rae should know.
“They’ve taken their time, then,” Beau said when Rae gave him an exact account. “If there was a rescue on the horizon I think we’ve have heard of it before now.” Rae wasn’t so sure. The shepherd, Harold, had muttered something about riders to the north, and it was possible a group of rebels had only just heard about Winterton Cowley’s doings and were on their way to investigate. Still, there was nothing he could do for the present, except be aware.
“I wish I didn’t need to leave,” said Beau.
“I wish it too,” said Rae, “but I have all the rest of our little army. And the castle is a great deal more secure now. I think you need not fear for us.”
“Berengar and I could give valuable help.”
“And end up depriving Aelfware of her husband until the spring? What if one of you was injured, or worse? And don’t tell me it wouldn’t happen. That rebel nearly had you by the river.”
“And if it hadn’t been for you he would have had more than my arm. I know. But still, I wish we could stay.”
“So do I.” He muttered it but thought Beau had heard. And hoped he realised he wasn’t thinking of the situation with the rebels.
They turned away from the gate and he was still wondering what or where to suggest. This was to all intents and purposes his castle and he had nowhere in it to call his own. And Beau was leaving. Then Beau took his arm gently.
“Come with me.” The words were softly spoken but Rae could hear a command in them. So Beau had plans. He wondered where they were going, even more so when they reached the steps that led to the chapel. The door was closed but not locked and Beau guided him in, a hand on the small of his back. Then he turned to bar the door on the inside, putting a plank across under the handle. There shouldn’t have been a plank, Rae thought. The chapel was finished and ready for the Oxford priest. And then in the dim light from the tall window arches he saw and did not quite believe. This had taken planning indeed.
The chapel was a clean space, with a carved wooden altar at the east end, and stone niches that formed seats for the family or the infirm down the sides. There was an air of waiting, of an expectant emptiness that was taking a breath before something momentous. There was a wooden rail, plainer than the altar, dividing the nave from the area around it, something that would keep the priest separate from the common man or woman and would provide a line where communicants would approach the mystery of the host. The whole chapel was small and simple, just a rectangle with the basics of worship.
In front of the rail, someone had laid a blanket - a horse blanket by the look of it - and beside it Rae could see a pile of objects, a small glass bottle, a flask of wine, two horn beakers. He thought there was a cloth of some kind, and nearby he saw a lanthorn and a tinderbox.
He let Beau coax him down onto the blanket, let him kiss him, let him begin to undress him. Then he had to murmur, “Sacrilege?” He felt he owed it to the emptiness but wasn’t surprised when Beau kissed him again then shook his head violently.
“It isn’t consecrated yet; it’s a blank slate, not holy ground. And there’s nothing blasphemous about our feelings.” He poured wine into the cups and they drank solemnly. Then Beau continued his task of removing Rae’s clothing.
Even through the blanket the floor was cold and Rae shivered, partly from the chill and partly from the anticipation of what was to happen.
He didn’t argue, didn’t want to argue. Beau wanted him, wanted him enough to plan this, to find a place they could be alone before he left for France, wanted him not just as a way to relax after battle but as a person to relate to and return to. That made it all so much more intimate than their previous encounters. There was only one reason for this; desire for him as a person, not just as a willing body.
He helped remove his own clothes, impatient, which made Beau laugh softly. Then he turned his attention to Beau's garments. He wanted the closeness of skin on skin, needed to see Beau with a flaring need that was unexpected and desperate.
Beau, obviously delighted to see his lover unclothed, and proudly naked himself, crouched over him in the gloom of the little church. For a moment he imagined Beau with wings, his beautiful face that of an angel though the jutting erection at his groin suggested a more earthly being. It was a fanciful idea and he dismissed it at once but felt uplifted and blessed by their joining.
The small bottle contained scented oil and Beau prepared him carefully, not asking if he was willing, assuming that as a given, but making sure he was comfortable and ready. In turn, Rae concentrated on relaxing, not sure he could do this, could open himself to Beau, but painfully anxious to accommodate his desires. The desires were more than evident and Beau's cock looked huge in the gloom and in the immediacy of the situation. But his fingers were soothing and clever, bringing him to an edge of need he hadn't imagined could exist.
“You’re tight. I think your miller didn’t take you this far.”
“No, never. I never wanted to... but now...”
"Now you do?"
"Yes. I want you." Rae followed his words with a kiss that was intended for Beau's lips but managed to hit his chin. He got an enthusiastic kiss in return, full on his mouth, then Beau's tongue slipped inside, exploring, the sweet invasion mirroring on a small scale the greater one that he knew was about to happen.
“I don’t want to hurt you.” Beau sounded concerned but Rae felt only a need for haste. He wanted to belong to this man and wanted it now.
“Don’t stop. Do anything. I can stand a moment’s pain. Just don’t stop.”
He didn’t. As he was penetrated Rae felt speared by joy. There was pain and there was glory; a burning pressure ignited a hot glow of happiness and fulfilment. He knew he shouted something but didn’t know what. Beau was kissing his shoulder, biting the skin gently, perhaps bruising and marking him as he continued to thrust. They were lying on their sides, Beau behind him, closer than he’d ever thought anyone could get, their bodies merging, creating a marriage of body and soul.
Rae reached for his cock, knowing he was near the edge of climax, needing that extra touch, but Beau sensed the movement and batted his hand away, taking charge.
"Mine," he said, his voice a throaty whisper. And yes, each belonged to the other. Rae's cock was engulfed in Beau’s fist and he was half aware of the calluses of a soldier’s sword hand as it moved in time with the thrusts into his body. The roughness was somehow reassuring. This was his crusader friend, not some dream conjured by the fog and the stones.
"Yours," he agreed, and then added, "and you're mine." Beau said nothing in return but redoubled his grip and his thrusts.
They came at the same time, yelling each other’s names in cries that echoed round the stone space, then lying sated and at peace.
How long they lay there Rae wasn’t sure but after a while he felt kisses on the nape of his neck and fingers threading through his hair. This wasn’t a soldier’s quick fuck. They were, he thought, he hoped, lovers in every sense.
“Next time...” Beau was whispering but the words were magnified in the chapel’s waiting air. “Next time I need you to do the same to me, for me.”
Rae reached behind him and clasped one of Beau’s hands. “Next time,” he promised, and felt so much happiness well up in him at those two words that he thought he might take wing and fly to the heavens except that Beau was holding him, grounding him, and they were together. "There will be next time and a time after that and..." He was promising himself as well as his lover, and was glad when Beau replied.
"Many next times. When I get back from Normandy. And while I'm away I'll think of you." Rae had known his feelings were reciprocated but it was good to have confirmation in words. He relaxed into Beau's embrace and wished they could stay there for ever, that Normandy was a mythical place that need never enter into their plans.
"I'll try to find a place," he said, thinking wildly of alcoves with tallow candles, the straw bales in the stables, or niches in the armoury. "Somewhere to welcome you back." They embraced even more tightly and lay wrapped in a dream of the future, at once vague in its details but definite in its intent.
It had to end, of course. Where his skin touched Beau he was hot, burning, but where he touched the floor he was cold. He needed to dress, to return to the solar, whether he wanted to or not, and now that their physical passion was temporarily quenched he needed to move.
"Aelfware will be wondering where I am," he said, trying to find a reason for action and not quite succeeding. "I ought to dress." Their clothes were in an untidy heap on the floor, as intermingled as their bodies had just been. He raised himself on one arm, signalling some kind of intention to return to normality. Beau reached for the lanthorn and tinderbox but Rae put a hand on his arm.
“No lights. Someone might see. They’d think the place haunted.”
“What by? This chapel has known no spirits yet.”
“By anything they fancied. They’re a superstitious lot at heart.” Rae thought he knew his men. He scrabbled in the pile and hoped he'd found the right tunic.
“And if they heard us call out?” They had not been in the least bit quiet in their lovemaking.
“Sounds carry strangely in fog. But a light would alert them. And those who aren’t fanciful might suspect intruders and go to find me...”
“...and find you absent, and put two and two together. Or one and one.”
“And then they’d try the door.”
“Which is barred.”
“Which would add to the surprise or the suspicion.”
“You don’t have much of a private life, Rae.”
“Not until Giles gets home, no. So I must let you go with a smile on my face.”
“And by bringing Giles home I can improve our chance to be together.” Beau smiled at him and was still smiling when Rae removed the plank and left.
The weather cleared the next day and Aelfware would have had them set out at once but Berengar counselled caution. He went up onto the battlements and came back shaking his head.
“The wind’s from the north, Lady Aelfware, and there is mist still to the south. The coast might still be under it and part of our journey would be. I’d rather wait for a clear day.”
“It’s November,” Beau reminded him. “We might not get a truly clear day, but I admit I don’t want to travel in fog.” He didn’t want to travel at all but the sooner he went the sooner he would be back.
“If it’s clear in the morning, we should go,” Berengar agreed, and Aelfware had to be content with that.
They packed their saddle bags and Beau smiled to himself as he folded the horse blanket. His plan had worked well. By the time they returned the chapel would be in use for its true purpose, but he hoped to find somewhere else private. Perhaps he could prevail on Giles to build guest quarters with a room assigned to Rae as castellan. He could hint at Rae needing a private space and if Giles took it as a hint that Rae might marry, so be it. When no marriage materialised it would be too late to take the privacy from him again, or he could simply offer to share the space and hope it seemed they were just friends. Though he didn’t think Giles would disapprove of their love; like Beau, he had seen enough horror in war to value affection wherever it arose. The new priest might dislike their relationship; he thought the current pope was opposed to men lying with men but Rome was a long way away.
There was no chance of any privacy that evening. Aelfware kept them busy with messages for Giles, checking and rechecking that she’d said everything needful until Beau wanted to scream with boredom. Then the children joined in with pleas to bring back French toys, and Ysabel had to send formal greetings to her uncle and aunt.
“Though they were glad enough to be rid of my presence,” she said. “As soon as Giles sent word suggesting I should join him here they were all but packing for me.”
“But you’re glad you came,” said Aelfware, fondly. She liked having another woman to talk to, one of her own station.
“Yes, very glad,” said Ysabel, and her eyes lingered on Berengar with a hopeful expression.
They ate in the solar, a plain supper washed down with a flask of French wine Berengar had brought with him. Rae was quiet and Beau tried to tell him wordlessly that he would miss him and that all would be well, but too often their eyes failed to meet. Then Berengar suggested an early night and he and Rae set off for the hall. Beau lingered a moment; he said he was collecting his holy sword but instead he left it on its shelf above the children’s bed. Then he too went down the stairs and across the courtyard. In many castles the hall was below the solar and he wasn’t sure why Giles had arranged things differently but perhaps he had wanted a little peace for his wife and children. At any rate, the two buildings were close, but the ground floor of the building with the solar had only the armoury, and the hall had no upper storey. Perhaps the armoury could be rehoused, he mused, as he headed for his bed, or a staircase from the hall could lead to extended sleeping space. Perhaps.
Rae watched them set out, smiling at both and pretending they were both just friends. Tonnerre and Berengar’s horse, Belle, clattered over the cobbles, excited to be off so early, and the men waved as they left. Mathieu and Offa held the halves of the great gate back, acting as a kind of guard of honour, and then closed them almost as soon as the pair were through, so Rae went to the battlements and watched till they were out of sight.
By mid morning it rained, and he reflected that they would be uncomfortable, but unlikely to lose their way. He tried to go about his usual tasks but kept pausing to wonder how far they’d got and then later, whether they’d found a bed for the night. They had the directions to friends of Giles, and they would be expecting them, as Berengar had stopped there on his way north. At last he gave up trying to concentrate on castle affairs and went up to talk to Aelfware. Conversation might keep his mind off Beau.
Ysabel had gone into the small room behind the main solar, intending to ready it for her occupation again once Giles returned. She had moved into Aelfware’s room while her brother was away but now she would take the inner room, and the children could share it with her. They were out, playing somewhere, despite the rain, so Aelfware was alone.
“Rae,” she said, “I didn’t expect you yet. But I suppose there isn’t a great deal to do on a day like this?” When he shook his head, she went on, “I have something for you. Beau asked me to give you this when he’d gone.” She went to the shelf and lifted down the sword, carefully, knowing its holy status. The sheath looked huge in her small hands and the belt hung to the floor.
Rae took it, frowning in surprise. “He has taken his second sword? Well, I suppose he isn’t going to war. But this can as well lie waiting on the shelf.”
“No. He told me to give it to you. He said to tell you it was a morning gift and that you were to care for it well. He made me memorise the words, Rae. He’s French and I don’t imagine he knows the significance of the phrase and I didn’t have time to explain.” Aelfware looked puzzled but Rae understood at once and stood holding the sword, his face lighting up in joy. He didn’t need to say anything; his sister grasped the situation immediately.
“Oh. I see. I’m happy for you, Rae.” She paused, as if to give him a chance to deny the implications but he grinned at her, knowing his face was flushed and his eyes were dancing.
“The only trouble is,” he said, “I’ve nowhere to keep it.”
Aelfware understood at once and looked stricken. “You have nowhere of your own. We’ve been selfish. We shouldn’t have assumed you’d be happy to share the hall with all the rest of the men. You’re closer family than that. I wonder...”
He tried to interrupt, to tell her he didn’t find her selfish and was mostly satisfied with his life, but she waved a hand to hush him and sat down at the table, deep in thought.
“I know,” she said at last. “Ysabel and the children are moving into the inner room. Beornwynne can go with them - there’s plenty of space - and you can have Beornwynne’s room.”
“Beornwynne’s room?” Rae was bewildered. “I thought she slept in your chamber or if Giles was here she’d go to the kitchens with the other unmarried women.” Though he had sometimes wondered how she appeared so rapidly when Aelfware needed her and how she always seemed to hear her shouts.
“It’s behind the armoury. It’s very small, just a kind of office, really, and Giles was going to use it for a counting house, but I persuaded him to build a bigger counting house beside the chapel and so the room was free and we let Beornwynne use it.”
“But I can’t turn her out of her room.” He knew there was a door at the back of the armoury but had thought it led merely to a storage area and had had no cause to investigate. The main room was far from full.
“But I can, and I will. It was only ever a temporary arrangement, and I shall say we need her here on our floor. She might prefer it anyway. It will promote her to family status in the eyes of her friends, like Hild. So, you have a room of your own. You can move in straight away, before they ever get back from France, then Giles won’t think of another use for it.” She smiled with relief at having solved the problem.
Rae smiled back at his sister. He had a room of his own. He had Beau’s sword, the precious sword blessed by Ismidon. He had his morning gift that told him he belonged to the giver. He wondered if it was blasphemous to think the chapel had blessed their union. He thought he could wait now, if not patiently, at least gladly and with hope for the future.
Of course, it wasn’t all patience and gladness and hope. The weather worsened, the days were short and dark, and winter was always a season of frustration, of being constrained indoors, of having a less varied diet, of missing the colours and sounds of the rest of the year. Christmas came and went without any sign of the absentees and Rae and Aelfware celebrated the twelve days without real enthusiasm, only putting on smiling faces for the children. The priest from Oxford, a young man called Father Mark, was with them, installed in his tiny room just off the chapel and preaching on Sundays as well as celebrating mass most days, sometimes to a crowd and sometimes alone. When Rae looked around the chapel he couldn’t help but think of the use he and Beau had put it to and that made him sigh, wishing he had his lover back again. If they weren’t home by Christmas it was hopeless to look for them before the spring. Only an emergency would get the sailors to put a boat out into the channel in January. The weather was always bad and could turn worse before you were far from land. So they waited, but it was a slow, hopeless waiting that knew it could not be satisfied yet.
Rebels did come to attack but they were few and stupidly arrogant. Mathieu heard them one morning battering on the gates and shouting, asking for the release of the captives and suggesting the Normans come out and fight. Gaiallard and his archers picked them off from the battlements and soon there weren’t any left alive to take prisoner. It was barely a fight. Rae praised Gaiallard and promised to tell Giles the full story then went with Mathieu to check on the village. They could see smoke and found the rebels had set fire to a barn, an act of vandalism which only hurt their fellow Saxons. Nobody was injured and the harvest had been good so there was unlikely to be suffering. Rae reflected that the rebels were badly trained and poorly organised. He thought the Normans need not fear for their kingdom. He had seized the holy sword when he thought intruders might break through the door in the gate, but swordfighting hadn’t been needed. Perhaps the sword had cast its benison over them. He would tell Beau and let him decide whether Ismidon’s blessing had stretched to an unknown Saxon on a foreign shore.
Then on a morning in early March when there was a slight greening on the hawthorn trees near the church and a couple of magpies were squabbling over twigs by the drill ground, Yffi, who had been exercising Wind, and was now of a size to ride her properly, came hurrying home. Men could be heard coming across the fields from the river. They were riding slowly and it was a small group. Probably not Saxons and probably not a threat.
Rae got the sword from his room, in case, and belted it on, but he also took hope out of the place in his heart where he’d locked it at Christmastide. He took the stairs to the battlements two at a time and looked down at the road where it wound from the woods towards Winterton Cowley. When they reached the outskirts of the village that lay nearer the castle it became clear that the travellers were Normans; four of them, three on war horses and one, evidently a servant, on a pony that almost staggered under the weight of baggage strapped to his saddle. They were lightly armoured against the perils of the road, and one bore the de Coudrai crest on his tunic.
Giles de Coudrai looked hale and hearty, whatever the state of his knee. Berengar de Rouen looked jaunty and pleased with the success of his mission. And Beau: Beau de Die looked tired but happy and was looking towards the gate with longing. Rae leapt down even faster than he’d come up, and shouted for Aelfware. They scrambled downstairs, ran helter-skelter through the courtyard, heedless of their dignity, shouting for the children and for Ysabel as they went but not caring whether they were heard. These first moments of homecoming were for them; others could celebrate later.
Together brother and sister rushed out of the small gate and hurried, almost ran, to meet their men.