Genevieve Elysia de Fontenay walked toward the newly built causeway leading from Tutbury Hall to the stables. The countess, known as Elise only to her family and most intimate friends, knew that Father Osmund de Clères watched her. She did not like him, this Norman priest, with his bright, richly colored robes, his stiff back and sharp, imperious nose.
She scanned the early morning sky for clouds, and moved quickly across the crowded bailey, scattering a thick swarm of flies as she passed the kitchens, ignoring the smoke, the stench of rotting meat and the children plucking feathers. On the causeway, she wove between servants pushing handcarts, fishers with their baskets, and then skirted a wagon loaded with first-cut rushes.
Summer in Englelond seemed a bit warmer than her home in Normandy, but occasional bursts of rain cooled the days. She lifted her skirts, avoiding the dung and puddles, and hopped over ruts, eager to reach the stables. Although she would rather spend the day in the Needwood Forest edging the village, this day, she would not.
Elise stopped then turned to wait for Father Osmund.
"You ride today?"
"May I join you?"
“I’m going down to the marshes,” she said.
His expression darkened. "Oh? Is there a reason?"
She measured him, wondering what he wanted to know, and why. Since her marriage, she had become accustomed to explaining herself to her husband’s vassals, John and Gilbert, and to Margaret, her husband’s mistress. But she disliked Osmund’s assumption that she must explain herself to him as well. Father Osmund irritated her. She found him as repulsive as a dead and putrefying eel.
"Perhaps you should ask John,” she said as her husband’s seneschal limped toward them.
“My lady, Father,” John said, greeting them both.
“Father Osmund would like to survey the marshes with us,” Elise said.
John’s eyes crinkled in good-natured humor as he looked the priest over. “Excellent! The tannery needs a good blessing!”
Elise nearly laughed seeing the fastidious priest’s expression as he realized the stench of urine, feces and rotting skins would linger in his clothing the rest of the week.
“It is unseemly,” Osmund said to John, “for Lady Stafford to venture to such a place.”
Elise studied John de Vaux, a young Norman new to authority, and wondered how he would fare under this priest’s officious expectations. She watched John nod at a couple of soldiers, push his light brown hair longer than the traditional Norman cut from his forehead, then settle his brown eyes back on the priest.
“Lady Stafford will accompany me. You may attend her if you wish.” Turning to Elise, he said, “Your horse is waiting. Make haste.”
Elise turned and walked toward the stables, resisting the urge to smile. John had pleased her, though she would not tell him.
She met Jeoffroi, her frequent escort, at the stables. The elderly knight ordered the groom to help her mount, but before she could do so, Margaret arrived.
“I have forbidden her to ride the white,” Margaret said to the groom. “You know that, you dolt!”
The groom paled and ducked, for Margaret often delivered quick, hard blows. “And so do you, Jeoffroi d’Ardain!”
Margaret turned to Elise.“Dare you disobey my orders?”
Without malice, Elise studied her husband’s mistress, the beautiful, petite Margaret d’Hesdins. Younger than she, with long blond hair, iris-blue eyes, a buxom figure and pink cheeks. Since returning from the queen’s coronation, Margaret had used every opportunity to regain her preeminent position as chatelaine, a privilege and honor given to her by Elise’s husband but temporarily suspended while Elise attended the queen at court.
At Elise’s silence, Margaret narrowed her eyes.“Lady Stafford, let me remind you that—“
“I ordered the white,” John said, just then reaching them. “Help Lady Stafford mount,” he told the groom, taking Margaret’s arm and ushering her into the stables.
Alaric d’Évreux put two fingers in his mouth and whistled to his squire.
“Don’t be a fool, Alaric,” Roderick warned.
Alaric shook Roderick’s hand from his arm then trudged toward Gawain who rode quickly up to Alaric waiting on the knoll across the river from Huntingdon, a large town a five-days march east of Tutbury.
“They’ve just started the killing,” Gawain said, still mounted. “They’re taking the females, and are about to fire the huts.”
“How many soldiers?”
“A hundred, maybe more.”
Alaric shielded his eyes from the midday sun, as he looked down at the town he had marched through years ago. It had belonged to King Edward, then to Harold Godwinson, the usurper king defeated by William. He could hear the screams, soldiers shouting, the rumbling carts and a cacophony of horns issuing instructions as mounted soldiers raced through the streets.
“My lance,” he said to his squire, who had brought his stallion forward.
Roderick, Alaric’s second-in-command, grabbed the reins of Alaric’s horse, preventing him from mounting. “It’s Dreux,” he said.
“I recognize his pennons.” Alaric adjusted the straps of his helmet. “It doesn’t matter who it is. By William’s order, no village is to be taken without first giving inhabitants a chance to kneel. And Normans do not sell Saxons into slavery.”
“You cannot go alone. He’s on a killing rampage. He’ll kill you.”
“We cannot go in force. One rider is not a sufficient threat.”
“God’s teeth!” Roderick cursed, releasing Alaric’s reins.
Alaric pushed Roderick away and mounted. He wheeled his horse, stopped and rose in his stirrups. “Etienne,” he called out.
When his man joined him he said, “Have the men mount up and get them on the knoll, in attack position. Hold them there until you receive further orders.”
“You can’t stop them,” Roderick said. “I won’t let you go down there alone.”
“Then mount up. Guard your tongue, and keep your sword sheathed. No matter what happens, Roddy.”
Alaric’s squire handed him a lance, bearing his pennon: a red streamer with a black wolf, which he toggled beside his boot pressing it against his horse. He nudged his mount forward, not waiting for Roderick; rode down the knoll slowly and onto the road leading to the bridge. He heard Roderick, and several others, coming up behind him. He spurred his horse, riding swiftly toward the village.
“Who comes forth?” shouted a guard from among the group of Dreux’s men blocking the main gate.
“Alaric d’Évreux, bearing news from King William.”
“God’s Peace, Blackwolf. Advance!”
As he, Roderick and four others entered the town, Alaric saw several companies of knights riding through the streets harassing the residents, while soldiers on foot seemed to be entering every building, pulling the residents out into the streets and separating them into groups. Others looted huts, loaded goods on wagons, or lighted torches to set the structures ablaze.
Alaric knew this town well. It had a mint, a market, many burgesses, the merchants who leased the land to others, men who paid taxes.
He and his men rode slowly down High Street, then into the market square where women shrieked, children and babies cried, and dogs barked, as mounted knights herded them into a circle. He rode slowly passed the line of women being roped together, passed the woman being flogged, and onward to the soldiers gathered at the edge of the commons, adjacent to the market stalls.
The village men and boys, as young as six, he guessed, all knelt while soldiers held lances to their chests. Behind them, a sword man went down the row slicing off one head after another.
“Stop!” Alaric shouted. “Stop!” The executioner paused.
Dreux Marchand de Ville turned to see Alaric walking his horse slowly toward him. He tilted his head, as if acknowledging the oddity of seeing Alaric in this place.
Alaric watched as Dreux looked him over, then behind him, at Roderick and the others, then scan back down the High Street to the knoll where Alaric’s armed and mounted men waited. He saw Dreux’s eyes meet his, and the small smile that drew his lips into a nasty grin.
Dreux took off his helmet, revealing his hair cut in the Norman style, shaved at the base of his skull to accommodate the helmet. His fingers fanned through the flattened, sweaty mass.
The gesture so familiar to Alaric, brought back memories. He and Dreux had fostered together with Duke William when they were boys. The moment they met, they hated each other. Equally matched in height, weight, strength and ferocity, their trainers pitted them against one another, pushed them to compete in all manner of warfare, made them fight hand-to-hand, and protect each other while skirmishing along Normandy’s borders.
By the time both reached fourteen summers, they had become friends. Their friendship grew, honed by the intensity of youth, by dancing with death, by shared adventures, shared cups and shared women.
Together, they had become men. Alaric’s black hair, grey eyes, and swarthy looks contrasted against Dreux’s Nordic stature: blond, nearly white hair, light blue eyes. Both were tall and strong, quick and ruthless. Both had swaggering arrogance, and deep hearts.
Their peers had called them brothers, for indeed, they had become brothers, the night before Alaric returned to Englelond at the age of nineteen. Now, as Alaric studied Dreux, he rubbed his palm over his pommel and felt the scar marking the place they had clasped their cut hands together, to blend their blood: brothers by choice. An eternal bond.
“You have no business here, Stafford.” Dreux said to Alaric, his eyes glinting in hatred.
“The king has business here.”
Alaric looked over the men standing beside Dreux. He had fought, drunk, wenched or wrestled with most of them. He nodded at Ilo Gourney, Dreux’s second-in-command. Loyal, constant, quiet, Ilo’s bright orange hair seemed aflame in the sunlight as he sat on his mount and watched.
“This village is to remain undamaged,” Alaric said.
“You are not in command here,” Dreux said.“Continue,” he ordered his men.
“Halt!” Alaric said.
Dreux’s men looked baffled. King William had given Alaric and Dreux command of his western and eastern forces, respectively. The king charged them to obtain submissions of local magnates. As co-commanders they both served King William to secure the land, and often they had worked together, led each other’s men as necessary, especially when they first took York eighteen months ago.
In confusion, some soldiers lowered their weapons, other’s raised theirs, ready to strike. The executioner hesitated.
“Seize him!” Dreux ordered his men.
“At your peril, my lord.” Very slowly, Alaric lowered his lance and pointed it at Dreux’s chest.
Building the Castle at Hastings. By Unknown weaver, English (active c. 1080) (Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATapestry_by_unknown_weaver_-_The_Bayeux_Tapestry_(detail)_-_WGA24172.jpg
A. L. Kucherenko
Writer of Historical Fiction and Other Works
Castling (Working Title)
Genevieve Elysia de Fontenay, adapts to her imprisonment at Tutbury Castle, despite the intrusion of an overly attentive priest. Alaric d'Évreux, the Black Wolf, attempts to counter the unnecessary violence of the Norman occupation. While Alaric's military sagacity and Genevieve's strategic lands attract the interest of powerful forces, both struggle against increasingly restricted lives.