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Goodrich, Herefordshire, September 1102
Henry Mappestone was drunk. He had finished off two jugs of wine, reaching the point where he no longer bothered with a goblet. It was easier to upend the jug, and if some spilt, so be it: his sister Joan had made astute investments, so he had plenty of money to spend.
When Henry thought about his sister and her husband, his flushed face broke into a sneer. He hated them both. Goodrich Castle and its lands were his – he had inherited them when his older brothers died. But it was Joan and Olivier who had made them profitable. It was good to be wealthy after many lean years, but Henry resented the way that Joan pursed her lips when he – the lord of the manor – enjoyed his wine or hit a labourer. In fact, he was of a mind to throw her and Olivier out altogether.
But then he would be obliged to run the estate himself, and, unlike Olivier, Henry could not read – he would have to hire a clerk to keep the accounts and the man would surely cheat him. Henry scowled. No, Joan and Olivier would have to stay, as much as it infuriated him.
It was late, and most people were in bed. It was harvest, so servants and masters alike were exhausted from gathering crops. Everyone was forced to lend a hand, even Henry. He was tired, too, but he did not feel like sleeping. He seldom did; Joan said it was because his innards were pickled. But there were times when he thought the only way to survive until dawn was to drink.
He lurched unsteadily across the hall, treading on fingers and toes as he waded through weary bodies on straw pallets. But no one dared complain. It had only been an hour or so since Henry had punched Torva – Goodrich’s steward – and no one else wanted to attract his attention. Henry wished he had not hit Torva so hard, because he was sure that he had broken his own hand in doing so.
Henry reached the door, then staggered across the bailey towards the stables. Animals would be better company than peasants with their resentful, fear-filled glances, and, like most Normans, Henry liked horses. He especially liked the spirited palfrey called Dun. He reeled inside the stable, trying to see in the moonlight. He slapped Dun on the rump, then cursed at the searing pain in his knuckles. He leant against the wall, cradling his hand to his chest.
He shouted for the groom, Jervil, who slept in the loft. When he appeared, Henry tried to kick him, but Jervil melted into the darkness. Henry was incensed. How dare he slink away when summoned by his master! But then there was a shadow beside him. Jervil knew his place.
‘Get me some wine,’ Henry snapped, easing into Dun’s stall. The horse had seemed lame earlier, and he wanted to check it.
But the shadow did not reply, and Henry suddenly felt something hot near his liver. He was suddenly gripped by a deep, searing ache, and he slid down the wall and into the straw. When he reached for his stomach, his hand met a protruding dagger. He raised his hand to where silver moonlight slanted in through the door; it dripped black with blood. He felt light-headed, and then people he knew started to walk in front of him in a silent procession.
First was his wife, who had died the previous year, her face now no more than a blur; she carried their two little sons, who had died of fever that spring. His brothers were there, too – the two older ones, with the younger Geoffrey behind them. Henry did not remember being told that Geoffrey was dead, but perhaps he had died on Crusade. Joan followed Geoffrey, and Henry saw that she was laughing at him, mocking him. Had she thrust the weapon into him, or was it someone else? Henry did not know, but the knowledge that he was dying enraged him. He screamed at the ghosts and shadows, cursing them until his last breath.
Normandy, Spring 1103
The Duchess was dying, and no one could help her. She lay in the great bed in the Duke’s chamber, eyes closed and deathly pale, under the heap of furs. The people who watched her last moments did so in silence. The priests had finished their prayers, and all attention was on the breath that hissed softly past her bloodless lips.
At her side was the Duke of Normandy, his face a mask of anguish as he clutched her cold, white fingers. The Duke had fallen in love with Sibylla de Conversano the first time he had seen her, and it was cruel that she should be snatched from him after only two years of marriage. She had recently given him a son, and her physicians said that it was complications from the birth that had led to her decline.
Behind the Duke was his mistress, Agnes Giffard. Unfortunately for Agnes, Sibylla was extremely popular, and few had condoned the Duke breaking his wedding vows while his wife was confined by her pregnancy. Agnes met the hostile glares with an unrepentant pout. Perhaps the Duke would marry her once he was free of Sibylla; then these sanctimonious pigs would pay for slighting her. She rested her hand on her son’s shoulder. Poor Walter was a skinny, unprepossessing youth, cursed with his dead father’s dull wits. He beamed at her, so she pinched him, to remind him that he should not grin at deathbeds – not when people were watching.
At the back of the chamber, politely keeping their distance, were the well-wishers. These included Lord Baderon, who, with estates in both Normandy and England, owed allegiance to the Duke as well as to his brother, King Henry of England. Baderon was deeply worried: the gentle, kind Sibylla was far better than her husband at keeping peace and dispensing justice. What would happen to his estates when she was gone?
The Duchess sighed, and one of the priests began to pray again. A tear rolled down the Duke’s cheek, and a physician stepped forward to lay a comforting hand on his shoulder. Sibylla was dead.
Goodrich Castle, Spring 1103
The grave was already hard to find. Snow and rain had flattened the mound of earth, and the cross was listing so heavily that it was all but lost among the weeds. Sir Geoffrey Mappestone would not have been sure that he had the right place, were it not for the other tombs nearby. His mother’s was there, mottled with lichen, next to his father’s, which was grander and newer. And nearby were his brothers – Walter and Stephen. His sister Enide should have been there, too, but she had been lost in the River Wye and her body never found, although Geoffrey and Joan had erected a cross anyway.
He bent to straighten Henry’s cross, fighting with the nettles that enmeshed it. When it was more or less upright, he stood back, noting that none of his family’s graves were very well tended. His father had been a foul-tempered tyrant, unloved by his children or tenants; his mother had been equally formidable, and even fifteen years in the ground had not mellowed the memories of those who had known her. Their six children had been cast in their mould, although Geoffrey hoped that two decades away from their influence had left him a better man, while a happy marriage and encroaching middle age had softened his sister Joan.
‘A sorry sight,’ said the parish priest, Father Adrian, coming to stand next to Geoffrey. ‘All of them, except your father, dead well before three score years and ten.’
‘Aye,’ agreed Geoffrey’s old comrade-in-arms, Will Helbye. ‘It was a war-like family. Only you and Joan are left.’
Geoffrey sighed. He did not need reminding that all his kin had met violent ends. He turned to the priest. ‘What happened to Henry? I know he was found with a knife in him. If he was killed by some vengeful neighbour or servant, I should know. I do not want the same to happen to Joan.’
‘Or to you,’ mused Father Adrian. ‘You have been soldiering these last twenty years, but now that you have inherited Goodrich and its villages, farms and woods, you will be obliged to spend time here.’
Geoffrey said nothing, but doubted that he would stay long. He had assumed Goodrich would be dull, full of occupants obsessed with cattle and crops, but it had transpired to be rather turbulent, thanks to the two powerful nobles in the region. Lord Baderon owned manors to the west, which he was giving to those of his knights who took Welsh brides; this, he claimed, would build alliances between Wales and England and thus prevent a Celtic invasion. Meanwhile, fitzNorman, who, as Constable of the Forest, ruled the tracts of woodland to the south and east, believed Baderon’s marriages potentially united the Welsh at England’s expense. The two disliked each other, and Goodrich was caught in the middle.
‘Henry was stabbed while you and I were fighting the King’s war,’ said Helbye. ‘You were not here, and could not have prevented it happening.’
Geoffrey nodded absently – the King’s war, and the part he had been forced to play in it, still rankled. He had returned from the Holy Land when his father was dying, but had been prevented from returning there when the King had demanded he help put down a rebellion. It had taken several months, during which Geoffrey’s liege lord, Prince Tancred, became so angry his repeated summonses were ignored that he had dismissed Geoffrey from his service. The King had offered a post, but Geoffrey disliked the monarch’s sly ways and had refused it, instead spending three months travelling around England until he found himself again at Goodrich.
‘I would like to visit the Holy Land,’ said Father Adrian wistfully. Then he coolly regarded Geoffrey’s surcoat with its faded Crusader’s cross. ‘However, I would go as a pilgrim, not as a knight who slaughters everyone he meets.’
‘The Crusaders who liberated Jerusalem – who carry the honoured title of Jerosolimitani – are assured a place in Heaven,’ objected Helbye, stung. He was a veteran of countless battles at Geoffrey’s side, and was proud of his role in wresting the Holy Land from its previous occupants. ‘Our mission was a holy one, blessed by God.’
‘It was an excuse for bloodshed and looting,’ countered Father Adrian. Geoffrey had witnessed enough incidents to make him question the sanctity of the Crusade, too, but he said nothing.
‘You cannot have a Crusade without bloodshed and looting,’ said Helbye, bemused by the priest’s attitude. ‘What would be the point?’
Father Adrian grimaced, declining to argue against such rigidly held convictions. Instead, he addressed Geoffrey. ‘Will you return to the Holy Land? If so, you should abandon your armour and go as a penitent, to atone for the crimes you committed on your first visit.’
Geoffrey was unable to keep the bitterness from his voice. ‘I doubt I will ever return. The King has seen to that.’
Helbye was sympathetic. ‘Write to Tancred again. His anger will not last forever. I wish I could go, too, but my fighting days are over.’
‘His should be, too,’ said Father Adrian, as though Geoffrey were not there. ‘He is not yet four and thirty, but has dedicated his life to killing. It is time he stopped spilling blood and concentrated on his soul. He does not have long to do it, if his siblings are anything to go by.’
‘Which takes us back to Henry,’ prompted Geoffrey.
‘It happened last September,’ said Father Adrian, relenting with a sigh. ‘It was a terrible harvest – you have seen for yourself that the granaries are almost empty, and it is not yet Easter. The disaster was a combination of bad weather and the war with Robert de Belleme. Folk were afraid to reap their crops – or Belleme set the fields alight.’
‘It was a great day for England when the King exiled Belleme,’ declared Helbye. ‘I am proud of the role we played in getting rid of him.’
Father Adrian nodded before continuing. ‘Like every able-bodied man, Henry had been helping with the threshing. He was tired – as were we all – but instead of going to bed, he turned to wine.’
‘My wife says he did that a lot,’ added Helbye. ‘Henry always liked wine, but he became greedy for it last year.’
‘Why?’ asked Geoffrey. ‘Was he grieving for his children?’
Father Adrian released a startled laugh. ‘He had no affection for them, or for his wife! They were too much like him – selfish, greedy and violent. He intended to start a new family with another woman.’
‘Did he have anyone in mind?’ asked Geoffrey, wondering what lady would be fool enough to consider marrying a man with Henry’s unsavoury reputation.
Adrian nodded. ‘He wanted Isabel, Lord fitzNorman’s youngest daughter.’
Geoffrey was astonished. ‘Surely she was too ambitious a prize? The Constable of the Forest controls a vast region. There must have been better marriages than Henry of Goodrich.’
‘The Constable is a powerful man,’ agreed Father Adrian. ‘The forest’s boundaries stretch from the River Severn to Monmouth, and from Chepstow to Rosse.’
‘I know its size,’ said Geoffrey, wondering why the priest chose to explain facts that he had known since boyhood. ‘But why would Henry think he stood a chance of winning Isabel?’
‘Oh, that is easy,’ said Father Adrian carelessly. ‘She was carrying his child.’
Goodrich Castle guarded the ford of the River Wye on the Gloucester-to-Monmouth road. Like most castles erected following the Conquest in 1066, it comprised a tower-topped motte and an earthwork-enclosed bailey. In Goodrich’s case, the earthworks included a dry moat around its east, south and west sides, while the north made use of the steep, natural slope that ran down to the river.
The stone tower was the strongest part of the castle, with only one way inside: wooden steps from the bailey to the first floor. In the event of an attack, the stairs could be hauled inside, making access more difficult for invaders. The tower had four floors. The lowest was a vaulted chamber used for storage, the first comprised the hall, and the top two contained bedchambers and offices. The roof was battlemented, allowing archers and lookouts to be stationed there.
In Geoffrey’s youth, the tower had been a grim place. Its walls were thick and cold, and his father had not believed in fires unless the weather was particularly foul. Consequently, it had been dank, dismal and uninviting, even on warm days. Wet dogs, stinking floor coverings and spilt food made it reek, and Geoffrey recalled inventing excuses to avoid being in it.
But Joan had changed things. Braziers lit even the most distant corners of the hall, and there was always a fire in the hearth. Its floor was swept after every meal, tapestries adorned the walls and the furniture was comfortable. It seemed a totally different place.
That evening Geoffrey watched her as she sewed in the lamplight. She was tall and strong, with an unsmiling face and flecks of grey in her thick brown hair. She ruled Goodrich with firm efficiency, and Geoffrey was happy to let her continue, although he knew that he should take some responsibility for the lands that were now his. Sitting next to her, strumming on a harp, was her husband, Sir Olivier d’Alencon. He was resplendent in a blue tunic with elegantly embroidered hems and cuffs, and his black hair was neatly trimmed. He was far smaller than Joan, and it never failed to amaze Geoffrey that his burly, gruff sister should lavish her affections on such a puny specimen. It astonished him even more that the feelings were reciprocated.