The horsemen smelled woodsmoke and saw small fires flickering between the trees as they neared the village. On the plateau above, silhouetted against the pale lavender sky, they saw the castle walls. Startled horns wailed an alarm, one long deep moan that snaked through the primeval forest and two short echoing blasts.
The sound of muted horns filtered beneath the laughter and conversations in the Hall. Everyone in the room stiffened, as they heard Alaric’s guards running to the walls surrounding the compound. Alaric rose calmly from his bench and stepped toward the fire pit. He crouched down, rolled the thick log and shoved it half an arm's length into the pit. He donned his mantle and slipped from the dark Hall, blinking into the still-bright dusk, and flinching from the icy wind spiking his face.
His boots crunched over the frozen snow as he wove through open fires dotting the bailey, the courtyard enclosed by timbered defense walls. He joined his guards at the gate tower and saw the flickering torches in the distance. After giving orders to his captain, he descended from the parapets to wait near the steps of the Hall.
Heavy clouds poured through the Golden Valley and swirled over the low-hung thatched roofs huddled together as if shivering from the cold. The riders galloped down the village road, dogs barked, chickens squawked; but the villagers, having abandoned their bonfires, cloistered and quaked behind shuttered doors. The horses thundered across the wooden bridge spanning Dulas Brook, then climbed a narrow spiral road, and halted before the large wooden gates flanked by guard towers.
A torch on a long pole waved before them, a fiery flag. “Who breaches God’s peace?” a guard demanded.
“William Malet, Seigneur de Graville with an urgent message for Alaric d’Évreux, castellan of Ewyas.” His horse pranced sideways, its head thrown back as if about to rear.
A small door within the broad gate dragged open. The five riders ducked their heads and rode single file into the compound. Guards led them through the bailey. Archers with loaded weapons stood on the parapets and tracked their progress past small open fires surrounded by wary, alert castle denizens, past the kitchens, the garrisons, the smithy, and armory. Amid jangling harnesses and booted thumps on the ground, Malet and his men dismounted near the Hall. Alaric grinned a welcome to his friend. As they clasped arms in greeting, grooms led the horses to the stables and squires took Malet’s four guards to a small hut.
Now enveloped in the dark, the two men ran to the Hall, huffing a trail of steamy moisture into the silent cold about them. The thick-timbered doors opened wide, their weight scraping on iron pintles. Alaric and Malet entered the whitewashed Hall, brightened by a dozen torches. The room smelled of pine smoke, cinnamon and a trace of the last meal. The doors closed behind them with a slow grating clank, and the iron latch fell into place.
Alaric found everyone standing near the fire pit turned toward them, suspended like a group of statues. “You know everyone here, William.”
“Indeed,” Malet said, nodding at Alaric’s parents, Simeon the Brave and Julienne the Fair. Beside them, Alaric’s brother, Rannulf, a muscle pulsing in his cheek, rested his hand on the shoulder of his frightened wife, Leota. Father Pierre and Lady Margaret stood behind Alaric's four trusted companions who stood fully alert, ready to defend if needed.
Vapor rose from Malet’s damp, green cloak; lingering fog seemed to swirl about his thickly wrapped legs. Dirt and sweat confirmed his difficult journey. Malet threw back his hood, revealing short hair, more gray than black. Immediately his cheeks and ears reddened against the warmth of the room.
“Come,” Alaric said. He strode toward the fire pit, pulled his mantle from his shoulders and tossed it onto a bench, where it slithered to the floor.
Malet followed, pulled off his thick gloves and threw them onto the table, scattering the dice.
Alaric reached for a large ewer. "Before you speak of London, drink this. It will warm your soul. The Benedictines, your . . . favorites blessed it. "
William Malet, tall, thin and haggard from his hard ride, chuckled. He gulped the potent concoction: sweet wine seasoned with apples and rare cloves, then wiped his lips with a single knuckle.
He gave the cup back to Alaric with a nod of thanks, and spoke, his voice cracking at first.
"Edward is dead. Harold is king, and William claims the throne."
Across the Narrow Sea, in a small, impoverished hamlet at the edge of Boulogne, Genevieve Elysia de Fontenay, her sister Marie and their Aunt Hortense listened in silent apprehension. Yesterday, they had retreated to the solar where, behind a thick wooden door and a sturdy metal latch, they spent a restless night jumping at the sounds of rampage in the Great Hall below.
This morning, the solar, long a sanctuary from the dark, brooding castle was luminous. They sat beside three tall, narrow slit-windows, and carded wool, spun thread and embroidered. But the gentle spring light did nothing to take the chill from their spines when hearing the bellowing voices below, or now when startled by the thundering ferocity of someone pounding against their latched door with enough force to bow the thick boards.
“Lady Foucarmont,” a gruff, demanding male yelled, beating on the door. “You are summoned to the Great Hall. Immediately.”
Hortense leaped to her feet, poised for battle while Marie gasped and reached out for her sister. Genevieve, known as Elise by her friends and family, set her embroidery aside, stood and calmly shook out the skirt of her red tunic, richly embroidered with silver thread.
"Our . . . guardian merely wants to demonstrate his authority," Elise said to Marie with a thin smile.
Hortense unlatched the door and opened it boldly, filling the doorway with her ample body. "God's peace, Sir!" she said. “Mind your manners, you’re not in a bordel,” she chided the hearth knight.
"God’s blessings,” Elise said to him as she stepped out into the damp, chilled gallery. She ignored his flustered greeting and turned instead to her handmaiden beside him, shaking, a bruise on her cheek. With lowered eyes, the girl lifted a blue, ermine-lined cloak, which Elise accepted, while inwardly seething that her servant had been struck. Sweeping the mantle around her shoulders, she watched the soldier depart quickly, signaling his anxiety or the urgency of her summons.
Elise had the distinct impression that she entered a den of lions. Five lions to be exact.
She knew all but one of the men in this room. They had decided the final land and rights to be exchanged upon her marriage. Elise had been summoned to sign the agreement. A necessary formality. The witnesses, silent and poised as if to attack, watched her enter the room, then circled her as she approached the signing table.
Upon meeting Dreux Marchand de Ville, the man who represented both King William of Englelond and her betrothed, Alaric d’Évreux, she stared. His striking Nordic appearance—white-blond hair, pale blue eyes, full lips and sculptured features—astonished her. She snapped her gaze away, feeling a flush rise on her cheeks.
"Countess de Foucarmont?" Dreux asked, incredulously.
Drawn by the surprise in his voice, she looked at Dreux again. His lips twitched in amusement. Disconcerted, she frowned.
"I am . . . I am honored,” he said, “to represent King William and pleased to serve as proxy for my friend.” Dreux knew that Alaric expected a hideous wife. He wondered where the rumors had begun, and looked forward to seeing the look on Alaric’s face when he met her.
"Thank you, my lord," she said uncertainly, confused by Dreux’s smile.
At the signing table, she looked at the stack of parchments arranged before her. Regaining her composure, and aware of the import of this moment, she refused the offered seat. The abbot handed her a sharpened and slit reed and pointed out where she was to sign. With pen in hand, she gazed at the space awaiting her signature, knowing this was her only chance to protect her future. She set the pen aside.
"I would like to read the agreement."
"There is no need to do so," her guardian said angrily. “All is in order."
With a tap of his thick finger on the document, the abbot again pointed out the place for her signature.
She smiled at the witnesses. "I invite you to have another cup of wine, or to take a stroll if you so choose." She gestured toward the side table. "I will take but a moment." She raised the documents, turned them toward the candles to see better and began to read.
No one moved. The men all watched her, their backs stiffened by disbelief, then by fury.
A. L. Kucherenko
Writer of Historical Fiction and Other Works
Knight's Pawn (Working Title)
Alaric d’Évreux, a Norman born in England, joins William of Normandy against the wishes of his family, who are oath-bound to Harold of Wessex. Unbeknownst to her, Genevieve Elysia de Fontenay, a Norman countess, is bartered in marriage, the forfeit paid by her uncle for murdering Alaric's family.
Saxons facing mounted Normans. Bayeux Tapestry. See: https://lostdelights.wordpress.com/2012/08/29/kite-shields-in-the-bayeux-tapestry/