What wife, what maiden, did not yearn for you in your absence or burn in your presence?
Héloïse to Abelard
Corfe Castle, Dorset, England, October 1208
The stranger cursed in a foreign tongue as Adela, the queen’s hairbraider, collided with him. Her fingers encountered silk woven with metallic thread and beneath that, a hard body tempered by combat. She stumbled back with a muttered apology, but the man reached out swiftly, willingly, to steady her.
The unwelcome support beneath her elbows betokened trouble. Servants were not supposed to use the passageway between the gloriet and the great hall of the castle, but Queen Isabella disliked being kept waiting and this way was free of rats (unless you counted the human ones).
The stranger said something more, amusement in his voice. He shook Adela gently, expecting an answer. She knew now she would have to look up at him. Intelligent eyes, darkly lashed and as green as peridot, were staring down at her. His chin, newly shaved and barbered, smelled of Spanish soap and the damp tips of his dark hair clung at jaw level. A few years older than her, Adela estimated, before she lowered her gaze virtuously, relieved that he did not seem to know the unspoken rules of Corfe, that women like her could be thrust against the wall and ravished.
He spoke again, this time in clear Norman French and the breath that reached her face was clean and fresh. ‘You must be careful, girl. If I had been in armour, you could have been badly bruised.’ When she nodded gravely, he loosened his hold on her and gestured that she should be on her way.
Adela curtsied, her swift tilt of thanks both modest and grateful. However, even though it was unsafe to linger, she succumbed to temptation, turned and watched him as he strode towards the great hall. For an instant, she dared to imagine the sinful excitement of a liaison with such a man, after all she was not peasant get, she was a gentlewoman’s daughter. Alas, best to stuff that reckless dream back in its sack. She would lose her position in the queen’s household. But it was then that the stranger turned his head and smiled—a smile of appreciation that dusted Adela from her coif to her sandalled toes—a smile without the usual leer that she could expect from any man at Corfe. Was it possible to fall in love in an instant?
Like a lover’s flower tucked between her breasts, the memory of the stranger’s admiration kept her company all that morning, and later, listening to the babble of the maids-of-honour as she gathered the queen’s hair into a jewelled mesh for her highness to look her finest at the banquet, she discovered who he was: Richart, grandson of the Vicomte of Mirascon.
Mirascon? The name conjured up a city of fable, illuminated with gold and azure in some costly book. However, one of the queen’s ladies knew better: Pah, it was a small fiefdom in the heart of southern France, and this foolhardy fellow was come to seek an alliance. Well, Adela wished that Heaven might lend the foreign lord wise counsel and eloquence. Men said that any dealing with King John Plantagenet was like sharing a repast with the Devil.
Mercifully, King John and his retinue had been elsewhere during most of her time in the queen’s service; however, for two weeks here at Corfe the two royal households were joined and all England knew it was not only the deer that the king liked to hunt. Perhaps it had been an error to become the queen’s hairbraider, except it would have been an insult to refuse her highness’s command and, anyway, Adela was no green virgin. She was the same age as the queen, twenty years old and not afraid to say no, but it meant diligently keeping out of the royal pathway, especially as Queen Isabella was six months with child and already there had been speculation in the king’s eyes as his gaze slid over her attendants. It was common chatter that King John was at his most vicious when he had been drinking, and today he would be feasting his new guest.
The wine flowed generously in the great hall. From her humble place at the women’s table, Adela could not take her gaze from the stranger from Mirascon. As the guest of honour, he was seated on the king’s right hand. The candlelight revealed no hint of silver in his hair and his face was tanned from the southern sun—youthful compared to the ravaged countenance of his host. His clothes seemed exotic, too, brighter than those of the English barons. The folds of a mantle of vivid blue silk, purfiled by a band of gold stitching, draped the upper part of his sanguine tunic and a cross set with precious stones hung upon his breast against an embroidered panel that glinted with golden thread.
He was eating moderately and drinking very little compared with his hosts. Most wise, Adela approved silently. Although he conversed easily and seemed to be making Queen Isabella laugh a great deal, she guessed by the stiff set of his shoulders that this noble lord was feeling his way like a blind man. Several times she saw him exchange glances with another man in his party, who was sitting further along the table, and then, to her own great joy, there came a moment when the king and his barons were distracted by the antics of Derwent, the king’s dwarf. Free to explore the faces of those who sat below the salt, the noble lord snared her watching him like a dazzled creature and sent her a slow smile that brought a blush to her cheeks and made her bite her lower lip and cast her gaze modestly downwards. Her pleasure was brief. When she dared once more to look towards the dais, King John was observing her like an archer who already had his arrow on the string.
‘Eyeing one of our wenches?’
Richart took a swig of wine, aware King John was trying to goad him and that his queen, Isabella d’Angoulême, seated on the other side of the king, would hear his answer. To reply ‘yes’ and staunch the older man’s jealousy would insult his beautiful young hostess after she had been at such pains to amuse him, but if he answered ‘no’, the king might accuse him of disparaging English women. The last thing he desired was to be the prize in this royal marriage spat. ‘Your pardon, my lord?’ he asked with deliberate vagueness.
‘Do you want that wench?’ Clearly, he had aroused the older man’s need to piss his scent and bare his lecherous fangs. Beyond her husband, Isabella sucked in her cheeks and directed a disgusted stare into the smoky air.
‘In truth, all her grace’s women are pleasingly fair,’ Richart answered, trying to keep his tone congenial, and divert John’s leering attention, ‘but to be frank, lord king and my most gracious lady, I am far more interested in discussing our respective interests in France.’
‘Ah, the purpose of your visit,’ murmured John, his gaze still down the hall. A crook of his royal finger and the cupbearer hastened to replenish their wine. ‘Tomorrow will suffice.’
‘As Your Highness pleases.’ Richart raised his mazer in salutation. ‘To tomorrow!’
Per Crist! He was sorry he had made this royal cur salivate, but maybe the maidservant would welcome the chance to climb the royal bed-steps? Maybe she already had. If she was an innocent, though, he regretted bringing her to the king’s attention. For the rest of the banquet, he took care not to seek her out again.
All that mattered was the alliance on the morrow.
The feasting endured for several hours after noon and many times the king called upon his cupbearer to refill his mazer. Afterwards, when the menservants had stacked the trestles and benches against the walls, there was dancing for those who could stand without staggering, but King John soon left the hall, perhaps for the garderobe. Maybe he was feeling his age. His countenance had been hard to read as he watched his young queen dancing blithely with their guest.
Adela watched, too, feeling the sharp pinch of envy, and wishing with all her heart that she could be the one enjoying the southerner’s palm meeting hers, the clasp of fingers. Her highness was certainly basking in his attention as the dance ended. She even permitted this newcomer to take her hands and carry them to his lips, although he glanced to the empty dais before he did so. Even when he returned her to her ladies, they still stood close, speaking not the French of the north but a more lilting tongue, until with a shiver of her bared shoulders, the queen turned her head.
Fixing on Adela, she rapped out an order. ‘You, girl, fetch me my grained mantle! The one trimmed with miniver!’ Then she tucked her arm possessively through the southern lord’s. He looked surprised, drew breath to speak and then seemed to think better of it.
‘Well, go!’ the queen repeated, with a glare and a head waggle of disbelief.
No royal command could be disobeyed. Adela hastened out, smiling to herself that the queen could be jealous. She climbed the stairs with Richart of Mirascon very much in mind. Might he send for her? Daydreaming, she found the queen’s mantle, but as she was leaving her grace’s bedchamber, she came face to face with the drunken king.
‘At last!’ King John rasped, his hand rubbing his groin through his tunic. ‘You’re an elusive creature, my pretty doe.’
‘I am no bondwoman, Your Highness,’ she protested angrily as she edged away.
‘You are a servant, so serve me!’ He grabbed the mantle from her and flung it aside.
Adela struggled fiercely as he forced her back against the wall, but when he let go of her wrists to loosen the belt that held his braies, she seized her chance and fled back through the queen’s chambers. Cursing foully, the king pursued her.
God be merciful! If she could reach the servants’ stairwell, she might elude him. To her dismay, her escape was clogged by a manservant carrying up the night ale. In panic, she sped back, darted into the darkened room that served the queen’s maidens as a bedchamber and crouched between an oak chest and the heavy curtain that divided off an inner room. The royal feet stumbled past the door, halted and then the latch lifted.
She hardly dared to breathe as the king lurched in. Fortunately, he did not thrust open the shutters and let the ebbing daylight through, but he did pause within fumbling distance, so close she recognised the intense scent he used and the smell of spilt wine on his tunic. His foul breath reached her and she nearly retched, remembering how he had just tried to force his tongue into her mouth. It was needful to pray harder. Blessed St Wita, intercede for me. Almighty God, of your great mercy … The wooden rings on the curtain rail jostled as he flung the heavy weaving aside. Aside, but not far enough. Explored, released, the end folds brushed Adela’s shoulder as they fell once more into place.
She heard him step back, mumbling, ‘N-not here? Ha, I do not know w-where you are hiding, you contrary whore, but … but, by God’s teeth, I’ll have you before the day is out.’
Have her? She would rather be hanged than let this drunken old lecher force himself between her thighs. Although becoming the queen’s servant had fulfilled her ambition, this was too high a price.
King John’s unsteady footsteps retreated. Voices beyond the door told her that he was questioning the manservant and she winced at the fierce slap of flesh upon flesh and the yelp of human pain. For a further hundred heartbeats, she crouched, waiting. Then, taking infinite care not to rattle the curtain rings, she tiptoed stealthily across the sweet rushes. Gently easing the latch up, she paused on the threshold. The air was still, so quiet that she could hear the music of the vieles and chalumeles in the great hall, and the cheerful whistling of the masons finishing work below the ramparts. Only when she finally heard the rattle of the lower door to the great hall, did she let out a deep sigh of relief. Life had righted itself.
Resting back against the wall, she crossed her breast in thanks and beseeched a blessing for the serving man who had not given her away. Would the queen forgive her for her disobedience? All she wanted to do now was to take refuge in the castle kitchen, anywhere that he would not find her. No doubt, the other servants would tell her it was madness to have refused the king. ‘Ah, the next pretty hatchling for the royal cock,’ the king’s dwarf had crudely cackled at her the day the queen’s retinue had arrived at Corfe. But she had been determined to prove the prankster wrong. Now she could see no way out of this dilemma.
King John was known throughout Christendom for his cruelty. Few doubted that he had murdered his young nephew, Arthur of Brittany, and everyone at Corfe knew that over a score of the lad’s Breton knights had been starved to death in the castle dungeons. Even the king’s former friend, William Briouze, had fled to Ireland with his family earlier in the year because he and his lady had provoked the king’s displeasure and feared for their lives.
I am not his bondwoman! Adela repeated silently to herself like a catechism as she forced herself along the passageway. The childhood memory of a neighbour’s daughter thrown to the ground by a pack of youths from another village was sharper than ever. One of the youths had stuffed a cloth in the girl’s mouth to muffle her screams, and then they began to fall upon her, one by one, with their tunics thrust up and their braies down. Even at eight years old, Adela had known this was no game and she had run to inform her father, the village priest, and he had charged into the boys’ midst, fists flying, and armed with righteous anger like St Michael come to Earth.
‘God smite you, you lily-livered weaklings!’ he’d roared at them. ‘No man, be he prince or peasant, should ever take a woman against her will.’
Adela had never forgotten her father’s brave words. However, would a king listen?
At the top of the familiar spiral, she paused, listening for the warning slither of the king’s wool mantle further down or the hiss of breath. The darkness was silent. John must have returned to the hall by the other stairs, yet it still took courage to venture down the twisting steps. The wall cressets were not lit and only a scant wafer of light halfway down relieved the danger.
Reaching the last landing unscathed, she gave a soft sigh of relief, but before her senses could alert her, two hands gripped her shoulders painfully from behind.
‘Ha! Snared you!’
‘By the saints, cousin, you must see this!’ Tibaut burst into the guest chamber in a rare haste.
‘Unless I am to witness King John being carried out in a coffin, spare me!’ Richart growled. He had only just managed to make his excuses to the queen and quit the great hall and now he needed to finish his dispatch to his grandsire. The royal steward had informed him that a cog at the local port of Wareham would be sailing for Bordeaux on the morning tide. A cursed pity that he could not take ship himself with the alliance made, for he was out of all humour.
‘But it is the king! Out of my way, man!’ Tibaut pushed aside Richart’s clerk and began unclipping the shutter of the narrow window light. ‘Quickly!’
‘This had better be worth my while,’ Richart grumbled and strode across to the embrasure. ‘So?’ Leaning a sleeved arm across the deep sill, he slid an impatient gaze down over the scaffolding in the upper bailey. Then he saw her—a slender maidservant, delicate-featured—rushing up the stone steps to the ramparts. Braids as fair as corn were escaping from her linen cap and she had her brown skirts fisted in each hand. It was the same wench, and struggling up the steps behind her—his long shadow staggering malevolently across the wall like a monster from Hell, tottered a dark-haired man—John Plantagenet, King of England, Lord of Ireland and Duke of Aquitaine.
‘Cunning slut, eh?’ Tibaut chuckled, edging in so they could both see. ‘Ratcheting him up all through the feast, I reckon. Had her eye on you as well.’
For a fleeting moment, the young woman leaned against the crenellated wall as though her side ached and dashed a frantic glance behind her.
‘That’s not cunning, Tib, it’s fear!’
She sped towards the door of the half-roofed annex and desperately shook the ring handle.
‘It’s locked,’ muttered Tibaut. ‘I tried coming in there earlier.’
‘She has nowhere left to run.’ Richart was calculating whether he could somehow forestall John. It would take a miracle. The king was already fumbling to free his prick.
‘Whoa, cousin!’ Tibaut sensed his urge to intervene. ‘Would you jeopardise our purpose here?’
‘I am not a fool, Tib.’ He shook off his cousin’s hand.
The trapped girl swung round, her panicked gaze darting from side to side as the king closed in.
Tibaut whistled. ‘He’s going to have her.’
Richart could not answer. He was too transfixed by the futile courage of the girl. Her palms were up, trying to keep the king at arm’s length and now she gave the royal drunkard a fierce shove that sent him sprawling, but as John stumbled to his feet and came at her again, she did the unthinkable. She sprang up onto one of the crenels. For a moment, she teetered upon the steep wall, her body so fragile, so small against the soaring keep, and then she jumped.
Adela sprang off the wall, grabbing the rope left dangling by the masons, and found herself plummeting at a dizzying speed. A half-laden wooden platform of stones, linked to the rope via a pulley, banged her shoulder fiercely as it hurtled upwards from the ground. She screamed as her body smacked against the buttress at the foot of the keep and then, lungs bursting, she found herself sprawled on her back.
The rope fled from her hands. High above her, the king yelled and the platform tipped. A mason’s stone slammed into the ground, just missing her leg, and with a shriek, she jerked her feet back as another fell. The platform was coming down. She flung her body sideways and before she could stop herself, she was rolling down the steep, freshly dug escarpment. She came to a halt in a heap of soft earth not yet cleared from the lower bailey. Over her head hung the empty pincers of another hoist. A mercy she had not smashed into the huge wooden wheels or the pile of nearby stones.
Struggling onto her elbows, she twisted round. Not more than twenty paces from her heels the scatter of labourers working on the new defences were staring at her like slack-jawed Bethlehem shepherds encountering the angel. A rumble of guffaws broke forth only to hush as they realised that up on the battlements it was the king roaring at them to snare her.
God ha’ mercy! Shoulder throbbing with pain, Adela stumbled to her feet. Already she could hear the shouting in the upper bailey. She took a pace forward and braced herself to be set upon; the workmen stood inert. There was a gap in this uneven horseshoe of witnesses. She recognised one of them.
‘Are ’e daft?’ he growled. ‘Run!’
Gasping, she obeyed, sidestepping the marble chippings, the hoes and barrows, amazed that her bruised body could still function, and then she scrambled across the open grass, expecting a crossbolt to pierce her back. She slid round a cart loaded with soil and leaned against it, gulping in great breaths of air. Why had God left that rope for her to seize? To die a worse death? Ducking the queue of wagons offloading Purbeck stone, she reached the shadow of the lower wooden gatehouse.
‘Hey, Adela,’ called one of the guards. ‘What’s going on up there at the keep?’
‘I dunno, Gil. Evening, Tom.’ Her bruised side ached. It was an effort to flash a smile and walk across the drawbridge as though everything was normal.
‘What in …’
She looked round. They had noticed the soil still freckling her kirtle.
‘F-Fell over a spade, Gil. Can … not stop. Her grace is poorly and … bade me seek herbs before sundown.’
Gil grinned, nudging his companion. ‘Ha, a spade, was it? Give you a better tumble later. Adela? Adela?’
Her scream would haunt his sleep tonight.
With a muttered prayer for the poor girl’s soul, Richart turned away from the embrasure, away from seeing ‘Jean-Sans-Terre’, the King of England, like some madman, spitting his fury over the battlements and knocking his hapless attendants aside as they hastened forth to appease his anger. There was little point in joining the hubbub. Planting a fist in the face of the man that Mirascon needed as an ally would have done no good for either of them.
‘So much for the majesty of princes,’ he exclaimed, and seeing the uncomprehending faces of his chaplain and clerk, he added, ‘A poor wench has just killed herself rather than be ravished by King John. By Heaven, I hope to God one of you will tell me if I ever come to such a pass. Leave that!’ He gestured to his clerk to set aside the writing board. The girl’s death had blown his thoughts asunder. The image of that lithe body broken-necked at the foot of the wall like a pathetic little bird stayed in his mind. ‘Per Crist! I only smiled at the wench. If I had known that …’
‘My son, you could not have prevented this.’ Père Arbert, his chaplain, rested a hand upon his shoulder, and Tibaut, perceiving how moved he was, poured him some wine.
‘Stow this, cousin, for the sake of our people,’ he advised, passing across the drink. ‘If the king orders her body to be strung up, best hide your anger. In the sodden state his highness was in, the wench might have killed him.’
Richart’s hand halted in lifting the cup to his lips. ‘Christ ha’ mercy, Tib!’ he muttered in disbelief as the noisy baying of the hounds reached them. ‘Must this king hunt to assuage his anger? Is that how they calm him?’
‘Aye, maybe. Remember my lord of Toulouse advised us to bring hunting dogs as a gift.’
Richart curled his lip in distaste. He sat down on the bed and took a mouthful of wine. ‘Faugh, even this tastes like a sewer.’ He looked up at his kinsman across the rim. ‘Oh, rest easy, man, I’ll not imperil tomorrow even if breathing the same air as that whoreson makes me puke. Here!’ Setting the vessel aside, he unhooked the keys at his belt and tossed them over. ‘There’s a purse of English coin in my coffer. Take it! Find out who is to bury the girl and see the business is done with prayers and decency. Be subtle about it. Go along with him, Father, I pray you.’ The elderly chaplain was looking troubled and Tibaut was wearing his argumentative expression.
‘They’ll put her in unhallowed ground, cousin. She took her own life. I can’t see that we …’ Seeing Richart’s determined face, Tibaut shrugged and reluctantly unlocked their travelling chest. ‘Faugh, there’s enough here to bury an army,’ he muttered, weighing the drawstring bag in his hand.
Richart waved a dismissive hand. ‘Bring back what you don’t need and tell the priest that the girl’s death was an accident. She fell. Tell him I will bear witness.’
‘Your pardon, my son.’ Père Arbert intervened. ‘Your compassion does you credit, but what you ask may not be possible. I spoke yesterday with the king’s confessor and he told me His Holiness the Pope has placed an interdict on this entire kingdom. Save for the baptism of newborn babes and absolution to the dying, the clergy here are forbidden to perform any services.’
‘What!’ Richart shook his head in disbelief. ‘Jesu, what a godless country! The sooner we leave this damnable realm, the better. Nevertheless, both of you, go, see what you can do. And, Tib, one last thing!’
‘My lord cousin?’
‘Discover who she was.’
The marshy land of Middlebere Heath might save her. It had claypits and wallows. Yet how in Heaven could she outrun the pack across the fields? As she halted alongside the hedgerow, her side aching, Adela heard the rumble of wheels—the Saturday wagon returning light to Wareham. Once round the next bend, the carter would whip up his horses for home. Struggling through a hedge of blackthorn, she sprang across the ditch onto the track. The cart passed her at an amble. She chased it, grabbed the back rail, and tumbled in among the empty bouncing pipes and firkins.
The hairy carter had already stung his beasts into a gallop before he realised he had company. ‘No free ride for ’e!’ he snarled, twisting round from the driver’s board, but then with a leer, he added, ‘Yer can spread your legs for me. That’ll get you to Wareham.’
‘For the love of God,’ cried Adela, struggling upright. ‘Can you not take me to the town bridge like an honest man?’ He shook his head, though at least he did not rein the horses in. ‘You miserable ale-swilling pig of a whoreson,’ she shouted. Despite the hurtling pace, she managed to get onto her knees and grab the side. She must keep him talking, strike a bargain, anything so long as the cart kept moving. ‘Haven’t you got a wife to make you happy?’
‘Not with legs like yars, cunny.’ He started to slow the horses.
It was the empty firkin that kept rolling into her thigh that brought inspiration. And with all her strength she smashed it down upon his head.
Richart recognised the female perfume before he turned his head. The queen had decided to join him on the ramparts. He was standing at the very place where the servant had jumped, but her body had been taken away. Would her ghost haunt these ramparts?
Isabella was smiling. Was the dead girl no more worth to her than a fallen leaf easily forgotten? ‘See, my lord,’ she said, her gaze proudly sweeping the splendour of the Purbeck hills. ‘Is this not a view to be envied?’
If pressed, Richart could acknowledge the magnificent hauteur of Corfe with its lofty walls, but he could hear the baying of the royal hunting pack, and below him the castle’s bailey was silent, lifeless. The masons and labourers were gone now and the half-finished towers were like jagged teeth in a jaw of grass. Only a lone, hungry buzzard soared above the mangled ground.
‘My lord? Richart?’ Isabella murmured in Occitan, the tongue of his homeland, and on her lips his name was a caress—breathy with the first syllable, warm with the second. ‘You do not join the hunt?’
It was necessary that he should turn and carry her hand to his lips. ‘No, madame.’
‘Nor do you share your presence with us.’
‘Your pardon, my lady.’
With a pretty pout, the queen exchanged glances with the two handmaidens attending her. ‘Do our English minstrels not please you, then?’ she asked lightly.
‘Perhaps I miss Mirascon, madame.’
Too much time wasted. The journey south from Westminster to find the king had taken his party almost a week and now he was expected to tarry and flatter.
Isabella’s lips were glistening as though she had moistened them, and although the tail of her veil was modestly wrapping her throat, she now tucked it closer into her bodice, as if drawing his attention to the curves of her young breasts.
He did not feel like flirting. ‘May I offer my condolences? I believe Your Highness may have lost one of your household in unfortunate circumstances.’ He gestured to the distant ground below the wall.
‘Oh, you mean that wretched hairbraider. The king himself caught her thieving in my chambers. A pity, because she was very skilled at dressing my hair. I daresay I shall miss her.’
Staring down at Isabella, he tried to fathom how she could be so brittle. Not that he cared. Maybe she knowingly swallowed her lecherous husband’s lies.
‘Your servant died.’ He made it a statement.
‘Oh no, my lord, the cunning vixen grabbed one of the hoist ropes. She did not die.’
Not die? In utter amazement, Richart stared down at the wooden pallet that lay tumbled against the foot of the steep wall. But then, like a fist in the gut, a second truth winded him. Swinging his gaze from her highness’s complaisant face, he stared in horror at the hounds streaking round the steep green contour of the cleared hillside across the valley. The stark beauty of Purbeck offered scant woodland to shelter a hind let alone a woman.
‘Jesu mercy,’ he whispered in disbelief. ‘It’s the girl they are hunting?’
‘No, a liar and a thief,’ corrected the young queen archly. ‘Now, if you please, accompany me to the great hall. The king is asking for you.’
We hope you enjoyed this sample of Troubadour by Isolde Martyn, available in print and e-book from 1st April 2017.
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