Authors: Griff Hosker
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Military, #War, #Historical Fiction
Published by Sword Books Ltd 2015
Copyright © Griff Hosker First Edition
The author has asserted their moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
All Rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, copied, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the copyright holder, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
Cover by Design for Writers
We barely had time to tend to our wounds when the King sent for me. He had only raised the siege the previous day and already the energetic monarch was busy planning his next moves. I was with Edward, a knight who now served me. Harold, my squire, was also there, repairing my armour which had been damaged by Richard, a traitorous knight who had left my service and tried to kill me. When you served King Henry you had little time to reflect on life. I had almost been killed and now I was summoned to serve him once more. The King's messenger stood anxiously watching as I left instructions for my conroi.
"I do not know when we will have to be ready to move, Edward. Let us assume it is to be soon. Have the weapons sharpened and the horses groomed. It would be better to be prepared."
"My lord, the King awaits you!"
I glared at the servant who quailed before my stare. I had served Emperors. He backed away from me. I needed to give my instructions to Edward.
"What of Sir Richard, my lord? Do you wish me to send Dick to find his trail?"
"We will deal with that snake in due course." I doubted that even Dick, one of the archers we had found in the forests of England, would find one knight amongst the hundreds who had fled before the King. "Oh, and make sure the saddles and bridles are in working order. They have a smith here. It would be as well to use him." I turned to the messenger, smiling. "And now we can leave."
I was led to the large hall in this fortress of Caen. King Henry had arrived just in time. The forces of Count Fulk of Anjou had been about to pour over the walls when the King had reached us. The castle was mow filled with knights such as myself. Each of us had fulfilled our obligations and brought a conroi to fight for our lord. I wondered why I alone had been summoned.
When I reached the hall there was just King Henry and his illegitimate son, Richard of Caen, Earl of Gloucester. The King gave me a thin smile as I entered. "You were right about de Mamers. His son confessed to all." I looked at the King expectantly. I had killed his father and brought Geoffrey de Mamers to Normandy so that he could be questioned. "Oh he is still alive. He is to be a guest of ours for a while. He may be a useful trade; if not then we will drop him into the sea." King Henry had not achieved what he had by being merciful. His brother still languished in the Tower. "My son here has told me of your skill in battle. Many of my knights are fine warriors but they cannot think. You, apparently can do both."
"I was trained by the best knights in Constantinople."
"Hmn. Now I asked you, when I arrived, to protect my daughter, the Empress. You must have thought me a foolish, doting father for she would be safe within these walls." I said nothing for any answer could have resulted in a punishment. "The fact is that she is to return to her husband, the Emperor. He is at the castle of Regensburg on the Rhine. When she leaves here then you and your men will escort her safely back to her husband, to her home in Germany."
My heart soared at the thought of being with that lovely creature but, at the same time, I was afraid of the responsibility. I had travelled from Genoa to Caen and knew how dangerous travel could be. She was not just the daughter of a King; she was the wife of an Emperor! "My liege, what of her own escort? Surely locals would be better suited to such a task."
"Are you refusing a request from your King?"
"No, your majesty. I am not certain that I am up to the task."
He relaxed a little. "That is for me to decide. My son here assures me that you are. Your problem will be finding a route which does not bring my daughter into danger from my enemies." He drank some of the wine he had been nursing. "It is not just Count Fulk who regards me as an enemy. Charles, the Count of Flanders is an implacable foe, too, and Louis of France would love to have a hostage whom he could use to wrest lands from me." This was getting better and better. I not only had to escort her I had to do so while negotiating a maze!
"The Empress has two knights assigned to her by the Emperor and they each have five men at arms. With your men she should be well protected." The Earl of Gloucester was trying to be helpful but this also made things worse.
"When we are on the road, who makes the decisions?"
King Henry looked up. "Why you do, of course! They are just bodyguards after all!"
I sighed; this was not going to be easy. "And when will we be leaving?"
"Not for some days. We have a treaty to negotiate with Count Fulk and I do not wish to give him the chance to kidnap her and use her as a means to manipulate me. Get to know her. She is young and you are her age. She is most dear to me. I have lost my son and heir and until my wife gives birth then she is the only one to whom I can leave England."
I began to see politics at work here. This was the woman who shared the throne of the Emperor. If she was Henry's heiress then she would be able to inherit England, Normandy and part of Wales. I could almost feel the weight on my shoulders already. "And when I have safely delivered her, do I return here?"
"No, when our business with Fulk is concluded I will release my knights. You may return to Norton. You will have fulfilled your obligations." He looked up at Robert. "And now we had better make arrangements to meet with Fulk and discuss terms."
I was dismissed. Poor Robert gave me an apologetic shrug as I departed. Edward and Harold, my squire, awaited me. I knew that they must have been aware of my moods lately. They saw my black look and remained silent. After I had quaffed a beaker of wine I snapped, "We are to escort the Empress back to the Emperor." It was not them I was angry with it was the situation. How could a handful of men escort an Empress through such danger?
"After the negotiations with Fulk. The good news is that we get to go home after that. We return to England."
Edward shook his head, "That is not good news my lord. I was a hired warrior for many years. You become richer in such wars. We never mind peace but we like to do some fighting first. There is profit in fighting; especially if you are good. We received no ransom from the de Mamers boy and the knights we slew were outside the walls. We need profit from this journey."
I had not thought of that. "Is that the way life works?" They nodded. "And the manors, at home?"
"I am sorry to disillusion you Baron, but Norton and Stockton are poor manors both. They do not produce wheat. You can eke out a living but you cannot live well. If your father had not brought so much gold from Constantinople then you would not have had the coin to pay your masons. I know not how much remains but when that runs out you will have to find another way to subsidise your manors."
"And we will not have the opportunity to do so whilst escorting the Empress."
He shook his head, "No and it will cost us money to do so."
"Cost us? How?"
"We will have to buy food, lodgings and stables to wherever she is going and then back to the coast. Then we will have to pay for a ship to sail home. I hope you have coin with you sir or else we have to sell something."
This was becoming more depressing with every utterance. "Now I see why Richard left me." I shook my head. "Perhaps you made a mistake in joining me, Edward."
He laughed, "Do not worry sir. My men and I have been through hard times before. When we get home we can make more money."
"By raiding. De Brus has been cut off. The King will let you raid his lands whenever you choose."
"But they are poor lands."
"Not the ones south of the river at Guisborough. And then there are the Scots. They are poor warriors but they have cattle and we can always sell those."
He thought to cheer me up but he was making me feel worse. Was I to be a cattle thief? I was a knight. My father had enjoyed a reputation for honour. He would never have been a cattle thief. What would the last of my father's retainers think of me? I shuddered to think of them looking down on me.
A messenger came to the door. "Baron Norton, the Empress wishes see you. If you would follow me."
He left, expecting me to follow him. This too was becoming tiresome. I did not leave Constantinople to be ordered around like a servant. As much as I wanted to be with the Empress I had the responsibility of her safety in my mind. As I walked the corridors I thought of just abandoning everything and returning to the east. I owed nothing to Norton save that my father's body lay there. There were Crusader kingdoms now and English knights were much sought after. I could take my conroi and enjoy a pampered existence in a warm land with fine food and wine. The thought made me smile so that, as I entered the antechamber of the Empress, I was smiling.
"I am pleased that someone is happy, Baron Norton."
I bowed for I was in the company of an Empress. "I am sorry, Empress Matilda, I was thinking of my life in the east when I was growing up."
She laughed and I looked up to see a beautiful young woman. "Do not apologise for being happy. It is a welcome change in this gloomy castle with such serious faced men." She pointed to a chair, "Sit!" I felt like a hound but I obeyed anyway. She waved an imperious hand at the hovering servants, "Leave us. I will summon you if I need you."
And then we were alone. I wondered why she had sent the others away. She stood and went to the door. After glancing along the corridor she returned to her seat. I watched her as she moved. She was a slight woman; I almost thought of her as a girl for she looked so thin and waif like. In those days she wore her hair long, hanging down her back. I soon came to realise that the style of her hair reflected her moods. When it was tied back and piled upon her head, as she wore it when with the Emperor, then she was like her hair, tight and unhappy. The hair hanging down was a sign that she felt free and more comfortable.
"You are to be my escort back to my husband in Germany. My father told me."
Something in her voice warned me that this was not going to be straight forward. "He told me it would be Regensburg, Empress, but it matters not to me where in Germany for I do not know the land or the people."
She laughed again. I learned that when she laughed she was showing the real Matilda. I discovered that it was a mark of the trust she had in me. "I asked for you, Alfraed of Norton, as my escort and guard. Did you know that?"
I was genuinely shocked. "No, I did not. May I ask why?" I added, "It is an honour, of course…"
Laughing she stood and went to the table to pour two goblets of wine. "Your honesty is one reason. My half brother told me that he had never known you lie and that there was neither a dishonest nor a dishonourable bone in your body."
"I like your brother."
She handed me my goblet, "So do I. He is the one I trust the most in this castle and in my homeland." She raised her goblet, "I hope that I can trust you too."
I toasted her back, "I swear that I will not let you down and I will guard you with my life."
"That is the other thing I heard of you. That you are wonderfully old fashioned. Oaths mean something to you."
I knew what she meant for as I had discovered, there were many who broke oaths as easily as bread. "It was the way I was brought up. My father had been a Housecarl of Harold Godwinson." I was beginning to relax, "But you have your own German guards. Why do you need me and my men?"
She leaned forward, "Your name is Alfraed, is it not?" I nodded. "I shall call you Alfraed. The two Teutons who came with me, I do not trust those men. When I know you better I shall explain why but I asked for a knight, Norman or English to protect me because I fear for my life. My brother said your blade was as quick as any and you have the finest archers and men at arms in England. He thinks highly of you." She looked suddenly sad and vulnerable. "It is lonely in my palace. I have a fine castle and beautiful home but I am alone."
"Do you not have women to serve you?" Even as I said it I felt guilty for poor Adela and Faren had none at home.
"I have but they are not Norman. I live amongst Germans and they are like their language, they are harsh. I miss the poetry of Normandy." She ran her finger around the edge of her goblet. "My brother said that it was not only your blade which was quick. You have wit too."
I smiled, "That is kind of him to say so."
"He was not flattering you. He meant it. He said that you and your men were all worthy warriors. That is why I asked for you."
There was a knock at the door. A servant put his head around. "Empress, it is Lothar and Konrad. They are coming here."
Her face fell. "My Teutonic bodyguards." She sighed. "I suppose we will have to meet with them but," she took my hand, "I am now content knowing that you have sworn to protect me."
Her touch sent tingles along my arm and I found myself smiling. It was not the best expression to have upon my face when the two Teutons walked in. Lothar and Konrad were not tall knights but they were broad. They both wore the full length mail shirt which came below their knees. It contrasted with the fine tunic I wore for we were inside a castle and there was little likelihood of fighting. They had their long swords strapped to their baldrics. Both had the moustache and beards favoured by the knights from further east. One had a scar which ran from below his eye and which seemed to melt into the moustache. It gave a strange permanent half smile which was ironical as Konrad did not have any humour in his body. They both gave me a contemptuous look as I stood.