Excerpt, Book 3: The Fool’s Mate, Chapter One 

October 1069, Tutbury, Staffordshire

Armored hearth knights ushered Elise through the cacophonous great room where servants scattered like chickens fleeing a ferocious hound. She skirted a manservant atop a ladder removing dead garlands mounted since Lammas Day. Another cleared cobwebs from the smoke vent. Boys rolled back decayed rushes, and maidservants beat the wolf banner, raising a cloud of dust. The frenzy warned her. As did the rats dashing toward her feet.

“Make way for Lady Stafford,” a guard ordered, using her married name. 

The English appellation rankled. Although her name, Genevieve Elysia de Fontenay, had fallen to oblivion beneath her husband’s prominence—she had not. Elise’s informal name embodied her inner sovereignty, shared only with those she trusted, like her beloved aunt, murdered last year. No one else knew her secret. A small victory, she thought, entering the torch-lit antechamber where her jailers waited. 

Marguerite, her husband’s mistress; Johan, his seneschal; and Gilbert, his castellan, all wore stiff jaws and deep frowns suggesting dire news. Elise glanced at the courier’s pouch, spilling scrolls across the table.

Johan de Vaux hobbled sideways, blocking her view. Unabashed, she watched his gaze skim the fresh scab running down her face from temple to jaw and at her other bruises. An abbot once claimed: disfigurements, the mark of God’s judgment, exhort the strong and the good to remain so. Maimed, she hoped to frighten away the strong, the weak, and the evil. 

“Is all well in William’s kingdom?” she asked.

“Have you reason to think otherwise, Lady Stafford?” Johan asked suspiciously.

“Your summons.” She met his eyes, daring him to deny the gossip. After the great battle at Hastings three years ago, after the Normans swept English nobles from their land, took their titles, and imposed heavy taxes, William’s conquest teetered on the precipice of doom.

“Tell her,” Marguerite said to Johan.

“Be still or leave!”

“There is no time for subtlety!” Marguerite’s voice shook, and her pale blue eyes brimmed near tears.

Seeing Marguerite’s fear, Elise spoke calmly, “Please continue, Johan.”

“Your husband sends you to High Tower.” 

“Is this a permanent move?” she asked.

“I cannot say at this time.”

“Cannot or will not?” 

“A permanent change,” Marguerite said, “would make tending you less of a burden.”

“We do not know his lordship’s intention,” Johan said. “It is premature to speculate.”

“When is this move to occur?”

“Today,” Johan said. “Lord Stafford and his troops arrive tomorrow.” 

No! Elise inhaled carefully, hoping they could not perceive the sudden pounding in her chest. Once Johan would have told her more. Gone were his easy-going manner and their unspoken alliance. Gone were the minor freedoms won over the years—all lost when she slipped away from her guards and out of the castle. 

“I require attendants to move Serilda,” she said.

“Her back will soon heal,” Marguerite said. “She will resume working in the kitchens as she began.”

Ignoring Marguerite, Elise raised a questioning eyebrow to Johan. 

“After your aunt passed to our Maker,” he said, crossing himself, “I released Serilda from servitude to become your companion. But after recent events, she clearly does not have the breeding to serve a woman of your stature as handmaiden, much less as your companion.” 

“The girl remains with her ladyship,” Gilbert fitz Gilbert said.

“Rescuing your quean again, Lord Constable?” Marguerite asked. “Serilda’s position is not your decision. I decide where hearth servants work.”

Johan turned on Gilbert. “Serilda—”

“Accompanies the Countess and remains her companion,” Gilbert said with calm finality.

Elise met Gilbert’s cool greenish eyes, which concealed their shared accord. She inspected his face: one side an unremarkable visage, the other gnarled, disfigured by lightning, now further bruised from Johan’s fists.

“Tell him, Johan,” Marguerite said, glaring at Gilbert. She grabbed Johan’s arm, “Monkman cannot—”

“Leave us!” Johan shouted, wrenching his arm free. “Or I’ll lock you in the Tower, too.”

“You would not dare!”

“Guards!” Johan called. The door opened. “See our chatelaine safely to her quarters.”

Marguerite’s eyes blazed. She opened her mouth as if to speak, then lifted her chin and left the chamber. 

Johan ran a hand through his light brown hair and exhaled. He turned to Elise. “Serilda will remain your companion. For now. Marguerite has assigned women to help you pack. They will assist you with Serilda.”

“Have you further behests?” Elise asked Johan. 

“I do,” Johan said. “I ask you again, my lady: Why did you leave the castle in disguise and go to the woods? Who was the dead crone in the witch’s den?”

Elise had refused to answer his question the other day, seeing that his fury at Gilbert deafened him to any explanation. She decided he’d cooled enough to listen. “Her name is . . . was Frigga. She was Serilda’s grandmother and no more a witch than Gilbert is a warlock.”

Gilbert recoiled and crossed himself.

“Frigga taught me to make the poultices for your face, Gilbert, the curatives that saved you, Johan, from the deadly pestilence, and the salves that will heal Serilda.” She explained that Frigga suffered from an incurable ailment. When Gilbert’s soldiers began removing woodland dwellers, she feared they would harm her. 

“Serilda and I intended to bring her to the castle to die in peace. I disguised myself as a village boy because we had no guard to escort us.” She did not tell them how often she’d worn boy’s clothing to conceal her identity while helping Frigga treat woodlanders’ ailments.

“Why did my captain strike you?” Gilbert asked. “Why did he whip Serilda?”

“I stopped him from raping Serilda by reminding him that the king’s punishment for rape is castration. He flogged Serilda because she tried to prevent his men from spiking her grandmother’s corpse to a tree.”

Johan and Gilbert exchanged glances. “Who sliced your face?” Johan asked.

Ignoring the question, she said, “Frigga was once a nun. Please give her a proper burial.”

“No.” Johan stepped aggressively toward her. “Are rebels gathering in the woods? Do you and your uncle conspire to take William’s crown?”

“Lord Seneschal,” she said slowly, “I counsel you to refrain from making unfounded accusations.” She turned away and left without awaiting his dismissal.

Elise dispatched Marguerite’s spies—the servants allotted to her—to clean the rooms she had once occupied in the Tower. Alone in her chamber, she worked quickly, packing several chests with herbs, tonics, medicaments. And her secrets. She asked for the wall loom and brazier, and oversaw Serilda’s delicate move, grateful for Gilbert’s intervention. 

At dusk, as she had the night of her wedding, Elise mentally counted the steps up the motte forming the earthwork base of Tutbury’s High Tower: forty-five, forty-six. Switching to Greek, she counted the Tower’s exterior steps up to the main door, and without pause, she entered her new prison. 

The next day, Elise stood on the ramparts. Burning leaves peppered the misty air as she watched a dark line of troops snaking toward the castle. She drew her billowing mantle against a chilly wind and looked at the terrain below her prison. A placid English landscape stretched a dull green to the horizon. Beyond the village at the castle’s base, the fields ran no more than a short walk toward the dense woodland and stopped at the road edging a narrow valley. An unbroken sea of treetops bore varied shades of crimson and golden leaves, and beside the castle’s steep face, marshes ran to the river. 

A trumpet blared. Another answered. Red and black standards whipped in the wind as troops filtered into the valley and began making camp near the forest. Her heart beat in time with her thoughts: He’s back! He’s back! He’s back. 

At her betrothal, his proxy explained her husband’s epitaph. His quick beard gives him the look of a lean, hungry wolf. She’d had a brooch bearing the image of a black wolf made for him, a marriage gift she’d kept and worn as a pendant beneath her clothes. She now clutched it, seeking the wolf’s protection.

From the moment she saw his angry mark incising the betrothal documents, she knew the stranger about to become her husband had not wanted this marriage. Among the nobility, marriage was an alliance, balancing titles, lands, and wealth and assuring military support. In her case, it joined land in Normandie and Englelond. Relinquishing her hopes for something special, she’d accepted that her marriage would require nothing beyond mere courtesy. 

Even that her husband had denied her.

Defying custom, he’d not greeted, met, nor spoken to her before they wed nearly three years ago. That dark night, before a crude altar planted in a muddy field, she’d looked through her veil and seen his figure silhouetted against the bonfire. Afterward, from afar, she’d caught a glimpse of his face briefly lighted by flickering firelight, and not at all during the consummation bedding, a formality, quickly accomplished in total darkness. 

She would not recognize him today. 

The gatekeeper’s muffled horn keened. Elise felt a quickening, a shiver of anticipation rising up from the people in the walled courtyard below. The Legend of the Black Wolf, sung throughout the land, stirred his people to admiration and pride. And despite her experience of this man, the legend stirred her, too.

Imagining how the castle would seem through his eyes, she realized that she stood on the same spot he had occupied when she arrived to marry him. Seeing him standing on the parapets, she’d wondered then what he thought. She wondered the same now.

#

The last time Alaric the Black Wolf, the Norman of Ewyas, lord of Staffordshire, and Le Seigneur de Tutbierrie had crossed this Roman ford, he’d left behind a barren scarp jutting up from the valley floor. Before crossing back, he halted his mount and looked at the timbered walls edging the crest, dark and formidable against a gray sky. He made a mental note to have a watchtower built overlooking the crossing.

On the opposite bank, Roderick d’Ivry, Alaric’s second-in-command, shouted at the troops fording the river. Leading his warhorse, Alaric lifted his shield and urged his gray gelding forward, inhaling sharply as cold water sluiced into his boots. After joining Roderick, he looked back at the straggling baggage carts and foot soldiers. 

“It will take most of the day for the last of them to arrive,” Alaric said. “Have the captains situate the others and ride with me to the castle.”

“Gladly! Think Johan and Monkman have grown beards and fat bellies?”

“We shall see,” Alaric grinned, eager to see them, too. 

As Roderick whistled signals to the captains, Alaric handed the reins of his black destrier to his squire. “Bring up my packhorses,” he said, ready to shed the chainmail he’d slept in for days.

With Roderick, he rode past the standard-bearers to the front of the mounted column: three-dozen hand-picked knights. His gaze traveled over a group of villeins watching from among the tall reeds and scanned the marshy plain to the fish traps and nets stretched across new ponds beside the river.

“Keep the men moving,” he told Roderick, reining in at the mill. He recognized the structure sitting on short timber stilts. Seven years ago, when he was nineteen, he had returned to Englelond after training in Normandie. On the ship, an Ostian monk had told Alaric about Roman mills. In youthful ignorance, he’d designed one hoping to have a small estate one day.

Seeing the mill now, Alaric felt a powerful urge to put his palms on the grinding stone, to feel the slow, steady rotation. Like the legendary lone warrior wandering from battle to battle, he longed to grasp the wheels of his destiny. He wanted to turn his journey homeward, to find the rolling hills, the marl, the deep, thick woodlands, and broad valleys that whispered his name.

He shook his head to break the spell. He was a warrior, not a poet. Annoyed with himself, he spurred his horse and caught up with Roderick, aware that his longing—banished from his mind—echoed in his heart.

Approaching the castle, Alaric looked at the seat of his feudum located on the edge of the Danelaw, territory controlled by former Danish raiders now settlers. King William’s frontier. The wasteland. As Master of Tutbury, and Tenant-in-Chief of Staffordshire, Alaric had all the responsibilities of a great lord: taxes, arms . . . loyalty. 

Much had changed during his absence. Sheep now grazed in the fields, horses and oxen worked the land. Instead of a handful of dilapidated structures, two dozen cottages now staggered along the main street near the rise. Villagers came in from the fields, their hoes, hay forks, scythes, and axes balanced on their shoulders. Some had left their sheds or gardens to glimpse their lord. A few warmed themselves around open fires, which danced beneath steaming vats. A man leaned on his digging bar. A thatcher, on his ladder, paused to watch the procession, while a woman held back a barking dog by the loose skin of its back. A few men doffed their caps as Alaric passed. All lowered their gazes and bowed their heads briefly, but most watched him warily. Even the children seemed subdued as he rode through the village. 

He understood their caution. They were English, subject to a Norman lord. He knew well the capricious nature of a lord who controlled every aspect of his people’s lives—and deaths—for he had experienced the volatile nature of his own cousin, the king.

Had he made the right decision? The question reared its ugly head again. Once he’d known the answer. 

Three years ago, he’d been a Norman mercenary, retained by Harold of Wessex to protect the border from Welsh raiders. When Harold became king, Alaric had left his family and the land of his birth to join Duke William of Normandy, who seized the English throne. At the time, Alaric believed that only William could unify the warring earls and protect the land from invaders. Alaric now had more land and wealth than he could imagine. But he’d paid a steep price for his decision. His dream of a tranquil homeland had disintegrated into chaos.

Whoops and whistles distracted his thoughts as his knights spotted the alehouse. He smiled, hoping Johan had stocked Norman wine, which he’d not tasted since last Christmas. Roderick’s grin told Alaric that he, too, looked forward to wine and an eager woman—or two.

At an easy canter, they passed the cemetery next to the land set aside for a church. They rode through the lower gates and up the curving Castle Road. The monastic cell, which had not existed when he left, contained a longhouse and a kitchen garden next to the refectory. Alaric could not remember how many monks lived here now. When he’d left, only a single Mercian scribed for Johan.

Alaric looked down at the defensive ring-ditch separating the castle from the road. Begun before he’d left, he guessed it thirty feet deep, ninety feet across, and difficult for attackers to breach. 

 Approaching the main gate, he saw little room to maneuver siege engines. Without the drawbridge installed in his absence, an enemy could not storm the gates. But Alaric, a seasoned and skilled commander, measured the castle’s defenses and found them wanting.

He and his knights crossed the narrow bridge in pairs, creating a thunderous clamor as they galloped toward the open gates. Alaric coolly assessed the sentries posted at the wooden gatehouses flanking the bridge. A loud crack drew his eyes to the flag snapping in the wind: a snarling black wolf against a wine-red background. Its frayed edges displeased him.

“Jesu!” Roderick said as they rode into the inner bailey. “It stinks!”

“Worse than London’s ‘Blood-Alley!’” Alaric slowed his horse to a walk. 

Soldiers and servants crowded about to greet him and made room as the column continued deeper into the courtyard. Inside the main gates along the South wall, strips of hardened fish dangled in rows of drying racks. Alaric’s original longhouse had been given over to the kitchen staff, who paused in their work to watch him. Before the hut were rows of baking ovens and smokehouses and cooking pits with bubbling cauldrons. As carcasses roasted, spit turners paused to gape. Some ducked as trussed poultry hung from the thatched canopy swung wildly in the wind near their heads. A scullery maid splashed a pail of slop into the passageway before turning to look. The kitchen garden spread west beyond the well to the tallow vats, where the women stopped dipping to stare. 

The tents and stilted structures he’d left behind had been replaced by longhouses and cottages. These leaned crookedly into each other, forming uneven buildings woven together by thick thatching. Well-trodden streets barely the width of a single wagon ran down long dark corridors. Filled with garbage and dung, marked by slop trickling down the center, the lanes threaded through and around buildings once white-washed, now splattered by mustard-colored mud. 

The stables had been moved, as had the armory and smiths. Buildings bulged against the timbered curtain walls enclosing the inner bailey, and Tutbury Castle now looked as dense as parts of London.

Alaric spotted the large, freshly plastered and white-washed hall built after he’d left. The only free-standing structure on the flat, it sparkled despite the overcast sky. Beyond the hall, the timbered tower—dark and imposing—rose into the sky, dwarfing the compound. From the battlement, pairs of soldiers looked out over the valley. Anyone posted there would have seen his troops approaching from miles away. His gaze pounced on the solitary figure standing on the parapet. She wore a black hooded mantle that rippled in the wind, revealing a splash of red as it flared. 

My colors, he thought, angry that she would claim them for her own. His stomach clenched, remembering it all again: Eashing, his family, Eustace. My curse. My vengeance.