A. L. Kucherenko
Writer of Historical Fiction and Other Works
Genevieve Elysia de Foucarmont stood on the timbered ramparts of Tutbury’s High Tower. A muffled horn keened in the misty valley below; burning leaves peppered the air, a chilly wind billowed her mantle. She shivered as much from the cold as from fear. Her heart pounded in time with her thoughts: He’s back! He's back! He's back! He's back!
The Alabaster Rook (Working Title)
October 1069, rebellion has spread throughout England. Vikings from Denmark patrol the coasts. The people of Northumbria have risen and massacred thousands of Norman soldiers. Saxons and Welsh are raiding on the western border. The Norman bastard, King William of England, under siege, sees treason everywhere. Alaric d'Evreux, a Norman born in England, with known Saxon sympathies and his wife, Genevieve de Foucarmont, the niece of William's back-stabbing enemy, the Kingmaker, are likely suspects.
By Image on web site of Ulrich Harsh. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/32/BayeuxTapestryScene18b.jpg
Elise, as she was known only to intimates, scanned the terrain below her prison: a placid English landscape stretched to the horizon; the village; plowed fields; Needwood Forest, an unbroken sea of primeval tree-tops now shedding crimson and golden leaves; and the gaseous beige marshes beside the silver River Dove. From her vantage point she watched the dark line of her husband’s army snaking across the faded green land as it neared the river ford just north of the castle. Within a few hours his troops would camp beside the village below, and he would ride through the timbered gates.
Two and a half years ago, Elise had married Alaric d’Évreux, the infamous Black Wolf, sight unseen. Without a formal introduction, she would not recognize him today. Searching her mind she vaguely remembered traveling from Boulogne with her beloved, now deceased Aunt Hortense. Flayed afresh by suspicion, anger and sorrow, Elise refused to look down at the place where servants had found Hortense’s body. Instead, she kept her gaze on the troops approaching the ford.
Again she stirred the fragments of her memory. There had been no greeting or welcome, no pre-wedding meeting, no shared meal or cup of wine. She recalled only a dark, dark night, a makeshift altar, a face she could not see through her veil, her husband’s curt, deep voice as he spoke the vows, and Margaret’s smirk when the priest exhorted Elise to accept her obedience and punishments.
Elise knew so little then, she thought, watching the troops. She knew so little now.
Villagers came in from the fields, their hoes, hay forks, scythes and axes balanced on their shoulders. Some had left their workrooms or gardens to glimpse their lord. A few warmed themselves around open fires dancing beneath steaming vats. A man leaned on his digging bar. A thatcher, high up on his ladder, paused to watch the procession; while a woman held back a barking dog by the loose skin of its back. A few men doffed their caps as Alaric the Black Wolf passed. All lowered their gazes and bowed their heads briefly, but most watched him warily. No one waved or cheered. Even the children seemed subdued as Alaric rode through the village.
He understood their caution. They were Saxons, subject to a Norman lord. He knew well the capricious nature of a lord who controlled every aspect of his people's lives—and deaths—just as he knew the capricious nature of his cousin the king.
[ . . . ]
In pairs, Alaric and his knights crossed the narrow drawbridge, creating a thunderous clamor as they galloped toward the open gates. He coolly assessed the sentries posted at the wooden gatehouses flanking the bridge. A loud crack drew his eyes to the flag whipping and snapping in the wind: a snarling black wolf against a wine-red background. Its frayed edges displeased him.
"Jesu!" Roderick said, as they rode into the inner bailey. "It stinks!"
"Worse than London’s ‘blood-alley!’” Alaric said, slowing his horse to a walk.
Soldiers and servants crowded about to greet him and made room as the column continued deeper into the courtyard. Inside the stockade, along the South wall, strips of hardened meat and fish strung with twine, dangled in rows of drying racks, all clicking and clacking like wooden spoons in the wind. Alaric’s original logged hut had been commandeered by the kitchen staff, who paused in their work to watch him. He saw rows of baking ovens, smoke houses, and cooking pits with bubbling cauldrons. Beside the roasting carcasses, spit turners paused to watch, some dodging trussed poultry swinging wildly in the wind near their heads. A scullery maid splashed a pail of slop into the street before turning to wave cautiously. The kitchen garden spread west beyond the well to the tallow vats, where the women stopped dipping to look.
The tents, lean-to’s and stilted structures he’d left behind had been replaced by wattle and dab longhouses. These leaned crookedly into each other, forming uneven buildings woven together by thick thatching. Between the buildings, down long, dark corridors, ran well-trodden streets barely wide enough for one wagon to traverse. Filled with garbage and dung, marked by a rivulet trickling down the center, the streets threaded through and around buildings once white-washed, now splattered by mustard-colored mud.
The stables had been moved, as had the armory and smiths. Buildings seemed to bulge against the timbered curtains enclosing the bailey, and Tutbury Castle now looked as dense as parts of London. And smelled as bad.
Beyond the main road, Alaric spotted the large, freshly plastered and white-washed Lodge built in his absence. The only free-standing structure on the flat, it sparkled despite the overcast sky.
Behind the Lodge the tower, looming dark and ominous, dwarfed the compound. Pairs of soldiers looked out over the valley. Anyone posted there would have seen his troops approach from miles away. His gaze pounced on the solitary figure watching from the ramparts. She wore a black hooded mantle that rippled in the wind, revealing a splash of red as it flared.
My colors, he thought, angry that she would claim them for her own. His stomach clenched, remembering it all again: Eashing, his family, Eustace. My curse. My vengeance.